In 2010, together with three other women, Belinda Kirk rowed 2,500 miles around the UK unsupported, gaining a Guinness world record. Here, she talks about her latest adventure: connecting other explorers
How did you start out in the adventure industry?
When I was 18 I went on a Frontier expedition – kind of like Operation Raleigh – that offers gap years. It was quite unusual at the time as the industry was tiny compared to now. My parents thought it was a bad idea and wanted me to go straight to university but I desperately wanted to go to Africa. I ended up spending three months studying Colobus monkeys in Tanzania. At the end, most of the people on the project went back to their jobs or to university but I didn’t want to go home so I spent the year before university travelling round Africa on my own. That trip changed my life and ever since, I’ve been addicted to adventure. I ended up doing lots of my own expeditions. I started working for people as an assistant. You end up paying for the first expedition, and maybe the second and third one, then you’ll end up doing one for free, and eventually get paid to go which means you can do more of them. I’ve worked on a lot of youth expeditions – with the British Schools Exploration Society, and as trite as it sounds, I love the fact I can make a difference. I’m still in touch with some of the kids I took away to Alaska, the Amazon, many of who are now grown-ups with kids of their own. For a lot of them it’s changed their outlook on life.
What was best moment during those 51 days rowing around the UK?
With any expedition there are big highs and big lows, and you just hope there’ll be more highs. But there are magical moments – ones you just won’t experience if you don’t go on the adventure in the first place. When we were rowing round the UK we saw hundreds of dolphins swimming round our boat at sunrise. Killer whales came close to the boat off the coast of Scotland and we saw more whales off the Isle of Man. Puffins sailed up so close to our boat that we could have reached out and touched them; we saw basking sharks. The wildlife was stunning – I was absolutely amazed at the sheer amount of wildlife off the British coast. We didn’t have a motor and we were so close to the water so I think all the animals wondered what we were.
What was worst?
The hardest thing was lack of sleep. You get sleep deprivation which is actually a form of torture. We were having two- and three-hour shifts. You sleep for two-and-a-half hours at any one time. It’s utterly exhausting. At one point we nearly got killed by a big Russian tanker that almost ran us over. It was dark and we could see them but they couldn’t see us. After 20 minutes of telling the coastguard to instruct them to turn, we were shouting down the radio. Finally, they started to turn and we could hear panic in the captain’s voice thinking he was going to kill four women.
Is money the biggest obstacle to expeditioning?
Of course money is an obstacle, but there are two answers: either knuckle down, do overtime, save up, write to potential sponsors and forego that brand new car. Or you have an adventure for less money. You don’t have to spend tens of thousands of pounds to have a significant adventure. Sure, to go to the South Pole you’re looking at £60,000. To row round Britain it’s more like six or seven thousand. One of things that made it more accessible was that it was in my grasp – it wasn’t an absolute fortune. But you can also have an adventure for a few hundred quid. Stay in your own country. Grab a bivy bag and head off into the Scottish Highlands.
You started Explorers Connect as a way to make adventures more accessible…
Yes, it’s about making expeditions and adventure inclusive instead of exclusive. The expedition world has been exclusive in the past and the cost and aspiration seemed out of reach for so many people. But the two challenges are money and getting your head around actually going out and doing it. I’ve met so many people who say they’d love to do this but they’re not sure how. Start small. The important thing is starting. If you start somewhere you’ll never know where you end up.
So the site has evolved into serving the expedition industry, professionals and adventure-seekers; those looking for it and those who provide it. Through the site you’ll hear about opportunities to get involved at any level, whether you’re experienced or inexperienced. We have people looking for team-mates, unique expeditions you can join, tips and resources and opportunities for professionals: everything from expedition medics to expedition managers. One poster was looking for two rowers to join them in an expedition across the Pacific. Another was looking for someone to join him driving from London to China.
Is there a lot of pressure to come up with an adventure that’s unique – a ‘first’ – in order to get sponsorship?
There is pressure, and it is difficult. People ask whether there are any firsts left, but I wonder whether it is still a valid question. People go on expeditions for their own reasons – to explore, to achieve a world-first, or for scientific reasons. It’s very difficult to find a place that hasn’t been visited by humans. With satellite technology, almost nowhere is undiscovered except the deep sea and space – they’re the last frontiers left. But going on an adventure can be about personal development and educating people about other places. It’s about so many other things, not just achieving a first. I’ve done expeditions all my life and the row round Britain was the only Guinness record I’ve ever gone for. Everything else I’ve done because I love it.
What is your next adventure?
I make adventure films as well, so I’m going to be sailing across the Atlantic on the final leg of the Clipper round-the-world yacht race, filming it for the BBC. Aside from that, Explorers Connect is currently my biggest adventure at the moment. Next year, I’m looking into something in the Namib desert, or possibly a diving expedition, but none of those is confirmed at the moment.
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