Anna and Kate had never met each other before they decided to paddle a tandem kayak from England to Romania. But that’s exactly what they did…
The Next Challenge Grant
Kate & Anna’s trip was supported by The Next Challenge Grant, an annual bursary for aspiring adventurers.
It’s funded by me – Tim Moss – several other adventurers and crowdfunded public donations.
Since 2015 it has supported 50 different expeditions with awards from £50 to £800.
Kayaking the Continent
by Anna Blackwell
I’m not sure there are many people in the world who can say they’ve tandem kayaked across a continent with a stranger they met online, but somehow that is what Kate and I ended up doing last year.
Flash-back to October 2017: I had just come across an advert posted on Explorers Connect. A girl called Kate was searching for someone to join her on a world first kayaking expedition. For some reason, as soon I saw the advert I was hooked. 24 hours later, we were committed to taking on this journey together.
During the three months that Kate’s advert had been up, she’d received responses from over 80 women worldwide. After getting in touch with her, we quickly discovered that we had attended the same school in Oxford, where Kate had been five years below me. More bizarrely, we both still lived in Oxford, a few miles apart. Mere minutes into our first conversation on the phone and we were getting on like a house on fire. It was a done deal: Kate and I were going to kayak across Europe together.
We then had only six months to get everything in order, from the route and logistics, to training, and sourcing funding and sponsorship. Our relentless determination to make the trip happen paid off and on 21st April we were ready to go.
We started our expedition from Westminster Bridge in London, on a beautiful and sunny Saturday. The weather tempted a small crowd of family, friends and passers-by to come and wave us off, their presence making that morning one of the most memorable moments of our lives. Ahead of us lay five months of paddling, during which time we would kayak through eleven countries and five capital cities across Europe, before finally reaching the Black Sea in Romania.
Before we could even contemplate reaching the Black Sea, however, there was one section of sea we had to complete: that of the Kent coast and English Channel. After surviving some full-on conditions around Kent, including gale-force winds, big waves and poor visibility, we reached Folkestone. Here, we waited for a week for the gale-force winds to die down before attempting our Channel crossing. Our patience was rewarded. On the morning we paddled out of Folkestone harbour, there was barely a whisper of wind, the sea was completely still, and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. With such good conditions, it took us just over five hours to kayak over to France.
In France, we navigated a myriad of industrial canals and smaller rivers, meandering our way through Belgium and back into France, eventually reaching Strasbourg. These first few months proved quite an eventful introduction to our continental paddling. Of the 250+ locks we encountered across our journey, 175 of them were in France and Belgium. That brought an array of challenges.
For the first twenty or so, we had to portage the locks, which means putting our kayak and equipment onto a set of wheels and pushing it all round to the other side of the lock. This could be anywhere up to a few kilometres at a time, depending on the size of the lock and whether there were any points between the bank and river. We ran into particularly bad luck with the purpose-built wheels we were using for this… Three sets collapsed on us and a further set were stolen, each time forcing a delay as we replaced them.
It therefore came as a great relief when we were given permission to go through the locks, significantly speeding up our progress. That burden lifted, it was no time at all before we had left behind the industrial canals, replacing them with beautiful and serene waterways, popular with holidaymakers.
Our final few weeks in France were blissful: on a daily basis we were shown incredible amounts of generosity by people on boats and yachts, from drinks or a shower, to dinners and three-course lunches, even afternoon tea and cake one day!
Reaching Germany, our experiences with locks took a turn. In France, the locks we had been paddling through were up to 5m deep. On rivers like the Main and Danube, the locks were generally 200m long and up to 25m deep… Paddling into such cavernous spaces is a truly terrifying experience.
The hospitality continued throughout the expedition. Regardless of what country we were in, we were sought out by people who were determined to support us in whatever way they could. In Germany, Austria and Hungary, this often took the form of yacht club presidents hosting us and permitting us to camp on their well-maintained grounds; in Serbia it meant cooked breakfast and rakija (homebrewed spirit) before 10am; in Romania, it was chilled ciders on the banks of the Danube. Our fairly unique form of transport opened us up to a whole host of wonderful locals who we may well have not met had we been travelling more conventionally.
By the time we reached the Black Sea, Kate and I were simply not ready to finish. We had grown to love this life of paddling all day, meeting delightful people, and camping on the river bank each night, often surrounded by beautiful scenery.
That’s not to say it had been easy getting there: as well as the repeated frustration of the wheels breaking on us, Kate and I had both been ill a few times, most likely from accidentally drinking contaminated water. A few weeks from the end, we were continually battered by strong headwinds, halving our daily distance. We had spent seemingly never-ending nights huddled in our tents, terrified of storms raging around us, listening to the crack of the electricity in the air and feeling the ground shake beneath us with each roll of thunder.
There was one thing that kept us going, whatever was thrown in our path, and that was our friendship. Despite only meeting six months before we left, Kate and I quickly forged an incredible closeness that meant we made it through the whole expedition without a single falling-out or argument. Somehow, even in the moments when all we wanted to do was cry in despair, we ended up having uncontrollable giggle fits.
This expedition would not have been possible without the countless people who supported us, from those we met in Europe, to our families and their endless patience with our mad plan, and the generous individuals who support grants such as the Next Challenge Grant. So to all: thank you. We would not have been able to do it without you.
To find out more about Kayaking the Continent and Anna’s other adventures, visit her website: www.annablackwell.co.uk
The Next Challenge Grant
Kate & Anna received a £200 award from The Next Challenge Grant.
The money came from me, other adventurers and members of the public.
Do you have an adventure idea that you need help with?