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Ocean Elements 2018

Intrepid Race to Scotland sailor finally makes it to John O'Groats

by Sarah Desjonqueres 6 Jun 2017 18:24 BST 6 June 2017

Having left the calmer waters of England and Wales behind him, Ken Fowler (51) sailed on to the Scottish coastline.

From the utterly sublime to the terrifyingly ridiculous, Ken has now had first hand experience of a truly wild Scotland. Nearing the end of his enormous challenge to Race to Scotland from Land's End to John O'Groats in a tiny sailing dinghy and with the clock ticking, Mallaig and Skye were calling.

With 700 sailing miles already under his belt, confidence was high and opting for the smallest sail, Ken launched in some fairly windy conditons. Not 50 minutes into the day's sail and it was clear that this was a bad decision. Not far off Portuairk, the sight of a 45ft yacht struggling in the conditions struck a shard of fear through our sailor.

With 5 hours, at least, of hard sailing ahead and worsening conditions it soon became clear that a capsize could spell not only the end of the challenge but perhaps even the end of the sailor himself.

In survivial mode, Ken sailed the tightest course possible, unable to compete with the 8-10 foot waves playing with him like a toy. Depowered to the extreme, battling torrential rain and flying downwind at 9knots on the smallest sail, arriving in Mallaig was an indescribable relief and ended a day that Ken describes as a 'big learner for what Scotland can throw at you'.

The contrast, therefore, with the glorious Mediterranean cruise from Mallaig to Kyle of Lochalsh enjoyed by Ken the following day, seems almost impossible. Flanked by seals and dolphins for much of the route, showered in sunshine and followed by the SS Waverley and its deck full of waving crowds, the sail along the Skye coastline seemed like a stunning walk in the park in comparison with the lethal dice with death the day before. Even the whirlpools seemed to skim beneath the hull of the boat unnoticed, Scotland it seems had been tamed once more.

With the wildcat weather still purring gently, our sailor glided serenely beneath the magnificent Skye bridge and on to destination Big Sands, aided on land by Andy Sugden, a man of infinite local knowledge who had given up some time to help Ken navigate the increasingly barren coastline.

After being stalked for 2 hours by a large Serko tug, following him since he left, it finally made radio contact - a request/order that the little dinghy perhaps move a little closer to land to avoid submarine manoeuvres taking place just beneath him. "Easy Decsion" said Ken "Never a dull day at Race to Scotland!"

Onward and upward, our sailor enjoyed a sea bird spectacular along truly stunning coastlines for the next 2 days leading him up to Big Sands and over to what Ken described as 'the most beautiful beach in the world, ever', Achmelvich. Arriving he said 'He had never launched, Big Sands and landed, Achmelvich, from two so incredible beaches in his life". His journey however was now becoming more and more remote, with 4 hour stretches between radio contact and no way for the support team to make it close enough to the coastline to hail him. The physical side of this odyssey was also beginning to take its toll, with cramps and aches forcing Ken to choose slower, less direct points of sail in a desperate bid to sit in a comfortable position. Now, having to stand up and stretch to avoid cramps at any opportune moment, the days were beginning to feel longer and longer.

Having passed the rock stack and sheer faces of Handa Island and screamed into Kinlochbervie on the crest of a massive thunderstorm he described as 'eerie yet awesome' and after all of his recent experiences, Ken felt mentally prepared to face his biggest fear of rounding the legendary Cape Wrath. Nothing could have prepared him however for the sense of isolation which overcame him. With his knees completely shot and and incredibly painful, with sores, cramps and exhaustion setting in, he became overwhelmed with emotion, intensified by the absolute remoteness of this stretch of the voyage. Never, he said, had he 'felt quite so isolated out on the water' and he spent many hours contemplating those he had lost. As he rounded the most north westerly point in Britain, he quietly remembered his mother in law, Ina, who passed away 2 years to the day. He says it was these moments, all alone out at sea that 'the hidden parts of you bubble to the surface and expose your bare core'.

Rounding the cape was not just an emotional roller coaster, accompanying the light winds were some huge rolling waves and Ken had to keep his eyes peeled in order to avoid a breaking wave from eating him alive, with no radio contact for hours, he talked that evening of the experience being simply 'frightening'. Gybing round the lighthouse to avoid more overfalls and concentrating at full capacity just to keep the boat balanced, he made Balankeil before nightfall, just short of the full distance he wanted to achieve that day. But Scotland still had more to throw at our sailor. Desperate to take a chunk out of the final 50 miles, he left the next morning in appalling conditions, sailing in 'hideous winds, hideous tides and rainstorms that felt more like waterfalls from the sky, like a total grey out and which made an oil tanker disappear from view in a second'. He arrived round the headland totally shattered that afternoon, deciding to pull in to Talmine for the night in order to rest and to consider the pending weather forecast of violent winds and torrential rain.

It is at this point, June 6th 2017, that Ken's unbelievable odyssey has ended. As the whole of Britain is clinging on for dear life with tree ripping gale force winds, our sailor took the decision this morning to make it out alive and chose the only option available to him, to finish the challenge with a little road trail to John O'Groats.

In full Race to Scotland kit, Yoda was rigged one last time and John O'Groats met with our intrepid hero for the first time. In wild, wet and windy weather Ken was welcomed in by MSP Gail Ross, the Rose Rock Gin team, a couple of brave hearted local councillors and of course his faithful and hard working support team Ian and Jane Pike, who have travelled with him every inch of the way.

Talking from John O'Groats this morning Ken says he feels "really, really happy to have made it" he says "it was always a race and I feel so fortunate to have survived the adventure. The hardest thing was the solitude and thinking about people who are no longer with us, but compared with the struggles people with cancer face on a daily basis, my efforts pale into insignificance".

His Garmin tracker has recorded a distance travelled of 871 miles of the official 876 miles from Land's End to John O'Groats and he has raised over £25K for Oakhaven Hospice and Cancer Research. Ken, we all salute you - your extraordinary tenacity and bravery, your drive to get up every morning and put your life on the line for others and your total commitment to getting the job done is truly remarkable. A real adventurer.

You can still donate via his website, www.racetoscotland.co.uk and the Facebook page is full of blogs and photos if you would like any further information. The Race to Scotland team have been overwhelmed by the love and support they have received up and down the country during the last 4 weeks and would like to thank everyone who has got involved in this truly inspiring journey including Michael and Helen on the Isle of Man, Steve in Portpatrick, Crawford in Newquay, Kevin Green and Giles Fletcher - now we just need to decide on his next nutty adventure. Perhaps joining in the Vendee Globe in your RS Aero, Ken?

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