Ken Fowler at the Needles
  • 20th February 2017
  • Blog
  • by Pete Green
  • 0

“The number one aim of the trip is come back alive,” Ken Fowler tells me over a pint, while describing his plan to sail a 13′ dinghy, single-handed for the 900 miles from Land’s End to John O Groats. This is what he’s promised his wife he will do but you can sympathise with her concerns, considering that the route has only been completed by one man before, and that this 51 year old Air Traffic Controller from Bournemouth only took up sailing 6 years ago.

A man sailing a dinghy

After his father died from prostate cancer 27 years ago, the 5th of 6 siblings lost to the disease, Ken set his sights on several quirky and challenging fundraisers but this one is by far the most ambitious in terms of physicality and feasibility. His target is to raise £50,000, and to complete the route along the west coast in no more than 34 days – absolutely the most time he can take off work – and half the time taken by Ron Pattenden in his 14′ International Laser. He’s clearly a man who likes a challenge, although the true scale of the task only dawned on him during the preparations: “When I researched the trip I realised that over 4,000 people have been to the top of Everest, 3,500 have swum the English channel, 150 have been in space, but only 1 person has ever sailed a single-handed dinghy from Lands End to John O Groats.” It’s a daunting prospect, by anyone’s standards.

Sailing a dinghy in open water with the sun setting behind.

The 13′ RS Aero is Ken’s vessel of choice, a relatively new kid on the block but one that is eminently suitable for the task. Weighing a meagre 30 kgs, about half that of the Laser, it’s an excellent choice for beaching and carrying: an absolutely essential factor given the unpredictable, remote and exposed spots that he could be pulling into for the night. In 2015 Ken sailed his International Laser around the Isle of Wight in 12 hours, and really felt the toll it took on his body. The RS Aero is faster than the Laser, but a far more comfortable dinghy with a wider cockpit and better seating position. Plus, reports from experienced RS Aero sailors are that they are surprisingly robust for their weight, and with the 5, 7 and 9 m sails, Ken can easily respond to the prevailing conditions.

His support team are two great friends, Ian and Jane Pike, who will be driving Ken’s family campervan ‘Snowy’, a 22-year old VW, in tandem with their own; chasing after him through coast roads and providing accommodation, food, dry clothes, spares and safety cover. Their flexibility is crucial to the challenge and no doubt their moral support will be very welcome during what will be an incredibly gruelling month. Daily planning will be on the hoof, with radio contact and satellite tracking to help keep tabs on his progress. Ian and Jane will prepare hearty breakfasts and suppers but once on the water Ken is likely to survive on energy bars alone; really the only practical solution when single-handed dinghy sailing. “I learnt a lot on the Isle of Wight trip. I was surprised at how little I wanted to eat, sandwiches were a non-starter but the energy bars were all demolished.”

“I’ve always loved travelling across maps under my own steam, whether it be bike, boat or walking” he tells me, with eyes gleaming. “The adventure is the journey,” and he hasn’t even contemplated how he’ll feel if he succeeds. Raising money for Cancer Research Ken’s already cycled across America and was runner-up in the Yachts and Yachting Achievement Award for his Isle of Wight circumnavigation, second to Guo Chuan (the Chinese solo yachtsman recently lost at sea during a single-handed Pacific crossing), so Ken clearly has the drive and aptitude for the more arduous end of the fundraising challenge wedge.

With favourable conditions he could sail 70 miles a day, but recognises the need to pace himself if he’s to get through without injury, general fatigue or major damage to the dinghy. He leapt at the chance to train during Storm Doris last year, logging gusts of 36 kts which fired him through the water at an exhilarating pace and gave him a chance to handle the Aero in severe weather. But, utterly unsustainable for endurance sailing and so he has been primarily working on getting the balance right between speed and stamina. He anticipates sailing in up to Force 4, provided the sea state is forgiving and will aim to cover 50 miles a day. Sit-ups, running, cycling and year round sailing have built up his overall strength, but the most valuable preparation has been the research – into the route, boat type and sailing style he’ll need to adopt. Contact with other single-handed sailors like Jeremy Warren (Wayfarer around the UK, Ted Sargent (Laser around Ireland and other experienced RS Aero sailors has been invaluable. Being an Air Traffic Controller helps Ken balance the risk he’s taking: “Safety is my job and I take it very seriously. But equally, life’s for living. This is about trying to do something without endangering others.” He knows how vital prior preparation is and foremost in his mind is that he doesn’t want to endanger other people by requiring rescue.

What frightens him most? He couldn’t settle on just one thing… big seas; catastrophic rigging failure on the open, exposed legs; getting the forecast or the tides wrong; and Cape Wrath or “my Cape Fear” as Ken says. Those remote and glowering cliffs that form the north-west tip of the UK weigh heavily on his mind. “There’s nowhere to land for a long, long time. When I commit for that day, I’ve got to make it.”

Everyone at Halcyon Yachts wishes Ken the very best of luck. We will be keenly following his adventures and hope that he raises his target of £50,000.

Ken starts the journey on 7th May 2017, weather permitting. He is raising money for Cancer Research and the Oakhaven Hospice. You can follow Ken on Facebook or Twitter or visit his Website for more information. To make a donation (and please do) then click Here.

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