open country

While we grew up one of the activities we enjoyed with little care and knowledge was canoeing in Brodick Bay. Mum and Dad bought an open canoe for two people.

There was always more sun when we were children, the sea was always bluer and the fragility of life unknown to us – for a short time anyway. But then the phone rang at home early one morning; Uncle Howard had died.

I was a child. My cousins, who lived in Oxford but joined us on the Isle of Arran every summer, were also children. Their dad was gone.

He went canoeing on the Thames, as he often did, with friends, early before work. Invigorated by his sport, he had decided to stay on the water for a while on his own.

Sadly, he took a hypo and drowned. My mother drove down to Oxford and found herself picking up the pieces of a family shattered by grief. I heard her talking to my father when she returned home. She said the girls were wailing. I felt sick because of their pain.

Recently, I was excited to join my friend Sam to listen to a speaker at the Borders Book Festival.

She had a spare ticket and I managed to be first to secure it. Mark Beaumont would be regaling the audience about two of his adventures on canoes. One story would remind me of our family tragedy all those years ago.

Mark’s stature and manner gives away his ability to survive on arduous journeys; powerhouse is the expression, both physically and mentally. His talk would focus on his canoeing expeditions to the North Pole and across the Atlantic.

His renown began when he cycled around the world in 82 days, covering 100 miles a day with only one day off a fortnight. Television coverage of his exploits allowed him to join further expeditions.

So he was invited to join another Scot, John Wishart, on his polar paddle.

Initially, he was reticent about being asked to film the ocean travel because it lacked the cultural and social interaction of visiting different places.

Regardless, he joined the crew on a triple-scull ice canoe, a boat designed to act like a sleigh if it gets caught on ice sheets. They were going where even Inuit fishermen do not go.

They started from Resolute Bay in the Qikiqtaaluk Region, Nunavut, Canada.

Mark was shocked by what he described as “the barrenness of the landscape – huge cliffs with tonnes of basal debris”.

He describes the journey simply, but his words left a perfect picture. Their sailing regime consisted of two hours on and two hours off. They sailed day and night.

They saw five polar bears and a walrus. The only time the sun set was on the last day and this was only for 10 minutes.

This heralded a drop in temperature; signs of this were the clingfilm-type ice that was forming on the surface of the water.

He said: “No-one has slept for a day-and-a-half, but the weather is great.

“The new thin ice cuts like glass so it has to be broken first. When we reached the pole we had a long sleep of 5-6 hours.

“When we awoke we had drifted a mile from our finishing point.”

His next ocean crossing was an attempt at breaking the world record across the Atlantic which was sitting at 30 days.

Starting from the southern tip of Morocco, they paddled even during the pitch dark nights, thrown about in an abyss.

Often, the only sign of life the men experienced was a passing storm petrel.

On the morning of the 28th day the boat pitched violently, rolled to one side, capsized and did not right itself. The men were in the ocean with only shorts on. Mark’s feet were trapped.

After their arduous effort and Mark freeing himself they still had to dive under the boat to get some emergency provisions.

This process took six hours.

Thankfully, a Taiwanese cargo ship sailed 14 hours off course to rescue them, in response to the emergency beacon.

The cargo ship crew were extremely proud of their role as rescuers.