Sian Sykes: Riding the waves of Wales

The story of how one paddleboarder took to the ocean and travelled a country by coastline.

Paddleboarder Sian Sykes

Photo: Chris Davies/Eastwood Media

Paddleboarder and RNLI supporter Sian Sykes

Last year, RNLI supporter Sian Sykes left Connah’s Quay with a dry bag, a paddleboard and an oar to complete the 870-mile route around the rugged Welsh coast – a 2-month journey she would travel solo.

She completed the challenge with an affirmed appreciation for our oceans. And an even deeper respect for the lifeboat volunteers who protect them.

Herne Bay and beyond

‘I first got a taste for stand-up paddleboarding – SUP – 6 years ago,’ explains Sian. ‘It gives you a chance to reconnect with nature, build your fitness and explore the sea from a bird’s eye view.

‘I’ve always lived and worked by the coast but, over the years, I’ve watched it deteriorate with plastic. It’s heartbreaking. So I wanted to complete a challenge: SUP the entirety of Wales and raise awareness about plastic pollution.

‘It was also an opportunity to give back to the charities that help preserve our waters which, of course, includes the RNLI. They do such amazing work and the crews are volunteers – what they do is absolutely fantastic.’

Drone shot of Sian Sykes in Wales

Photo: Chris Davies/Eastwood Media

Planning is everything

Over the 60-day duration of her physical challenge, Sian carried in her 25kg dry bag: two types of flares, a smartphone, an old mobile with a long battery life, battery packs, two VHFs, a spare paddle, maps, a spot tracker, spare fins and a helmet. And under her feet? A 15kg paddleboard.

‘I trained incredibly hard, mentally and physically, for this challenge,’ Sian stresses. ‘Conditions can change easily, so you have to be prepared. I researched all the routes, spoke to experts, checked my maps, talked to the RNLI, understood how all of my equipment worked in different conditions and practised what to do in an emergency.

‘I never wanted the RNLI to have to come out to me. It’s volunteers’ valuable free time that they give up.’

On 7 May 2018, Sian reached the finish line of her SUP adventure – having experienced all the elements, hail, rain, strong winds and bright sunshine along the way.

Chris Cousens, RNLI Community Safety Partner for Wales and West says: ‘The planning, experience, skills and equipment Sian used explains how she got all the way round Wales without incident – that’s an important story to tell.’

Hidden treasures

The rewards for thorough planning are reaped from hidden treasures along the coast – and, for Sian, she was met with magic at every turn of the Welsh coastline. ‘One afternoon, I was boarding across a tidal race in a spring tide. The sun was setting and five porpoises were leaping out of the water towards me. That was really special,’ she smiles.

‘I’ll never forget paddling under a full moon and rocking up on a beach to camp for the night. I was under the stars with the coast all to myself. It was absolutely magical.’

Sian Sykes with her camping and paddleboarding equipment

Photo: Chris Davies/Eastwood Media

Sian had the right kit and knew how to use it

Guardians of the sea

‘When I reached Fishguard Lifeboat Station, a volunteer offered me a place to stay. Later, when I reached Penarth, the lifeboat crew were waiting for me with massive smiles. There were so many acts of kindness – they were my guardians of the sea.’

‘Every time I entered a new patch of coast, I met a new RNLI lifeboat crew,’ Sian says. ‘I was introduced from one patch to the other in a wonderful handover – every lifeboat station had my contact details so I could check in with them, and the Coastguard, every morning.

Explore the waves of Wales

‘Wales has such stunning and rugged coastline with wonderful marine and bird life,’ explains Sian. ‘I would really recommend surfing at Rothylly. It’s an iconic place to surf, and you have Worms’ Head overlooking Pembrokeshire – it’s absolutely beautiful.

‘Every region has a completely different coastal area and there’s something different in all of it – you just have to see it for yourself.’

Paddleboarder Sian Sykes picking up litter

Photo: Chris Davies/Eastwood Media

Sian Sykes picking up discarded plastic from the water

Make a personal pledge

Along Sian’s SUP journey, she collected discarded plastic from the water – the most common being single-use plastic water bottles. She explains: ‘If we screw up the oceans [with plastic], people won’t fish, they won’t paddleboard and they won’t enjoy the water. We can all help to stop that happening, together, by making just one small change.’

You can play your part, by doing something differently – such as choosing to use a reusable water bottle instead of buying a throw-away plastic one. Sian says: ‘That will make such a massive difference.’

Staying safe

Stand-up paddleboarding is great fun. And by getting out on a paddle board frequently, you can improve your overall fitness and increase your core strength. As with any watersport, there are a few things to watch out for. Get paddleboarding safety tips.