Adventure triathlete Fiona Quinn shares how she conquered her fear of water to journey from Land’s End to John O’Groats by unconventional means, meeting dolphins, seals, jellyfish and her own true grit along the way

Resting up on a grassy bank in John O’Groats, my bike beside me, I stared out to the endless blue of the North Sea. It was autumn 2017 and I had just completed an epic, 1,200-mile bike ride up the west coast of Britain from Land’s End. In spring of that year, I’d spent 57 days walking the well-trodden route solo, enduring trench food and acute tendonitis along the way. As I looked over the windswept coast, I began to wonder. Could I repeat the challenge by sea and become the first women ever to complete a ‘length of Britain’ triathlon?

Aged 31, I had developed a taste for adventure – doing long walks, bike rides and triathlons. Taking the well-known Land’s End to John O’Groats challenge by foot and then by bicycle, I loved exploring the coastal landscape via human-powered transport. The slower pace and physical effort of it all had left me with a tangible sense of knowing just how the land lies. I wondered whether I could repeat this sensation on the sea, observing the coastline change as my journey unfolded.


But water and getting wet presented a whole different set of considerations and there was one major problem. I’m scared of the sea. I nearly drowned in a swimming pool when I was much younger and was nervous of being out of my depth. Given this, there was no way I could swim the length of Britain as Sean Conway did back in 2013 over a period of four and a half months. Was there a way to avoid the getting wet part and instead use a stand-up paddleboard to ply from Land’s End up to John O’Groats? As long as I didn’t fall off my board, then maybe it would be possible to paddle the 800-mile journey and get a dolphin’s eye view of the British and Irish coastlines as I went.

After five months of planning, I set out on my challenge on Saturday 21 April 2018, the hottest April day in 70 years. While I’d practised paddling inland a number of times on still lakes and gentle rivers, I’d paddled on the sea just three times so I didn’t scare myself out of going. Due to my inexperience of the ocean, I’d bought a 32ft sailing yacht as my support boat, manned by a volunteer crew to keep me safe – both funded through a personal loan. I’d also managed to get kit sponsors to provide me with a paddleboard and some specialist clothing, which helped to keep costs down where possible and provided me with extra moral support when things got tough.

During those first few days on the water I felt physically sick from fear as I climbed on to my board and pushed away from the support boat to start paddling. But as my route took me up the north coast of Cornwall, and we got better at picking calm weather days, I began to get used to being a mile or so off the coast. It was as I paddled across to Lundy Island that I had my first encounter with dolphins. The day was sunny, not a breath of wind, and the sea was like glass shimmering beneath me. The dolphins swam just feet away from my board, getting a good look at me. They seemed so friendly and gentle, and were an instant distraction from how worried I felt about being on the sea. As the adventure continued, every day we experienced good weather, especially those days we had dolphins with us, my fear quietened a little more.


As the miles flowed beneath me, the big crossing of the expedition came into view. I was to paddle 40 miles from St David’s Head on the southwestern tip of Wales to Rosslare on the southeastern tip of Ireland, becoming the first woman to paddleboard across the Irish Sea. The vastness of this stretch of water and not being able to see land didn’t bother me as I had my support crew right by my side. It was the choppy sea conditions that made me nervous and the day before I left St David’s Head the sea was what I call ‘peaky’ – short, sharp, choppy waves coming side on to my board in rapid succession. Even when I was kneeling my heart raced as I constantly braced, trying to stop the chop from throwing me off my board into the freezing water. That feeling of being at the mercy of the sea and the thought of being in the ice-cold water made me well up with fear.

A more experienced paddle-boarder would have been fine in those conditions, but it was too much for me and I called an early end to the paddle that day, crying as I sat on the back of the boat, overwhelmed with fear. Luckily, just as the forecast predicted, the next day the sea had ironed out for me and I could once again relax on glassy waters to tackle the 12 hours of paddling I had ahead of me to reach the Irish coast.

This route enabled me to take advantage of the more abundant harbours and protection from Atlantic weather that the east coast of Ireland offered. It also gave me a different view as the high cliffs and scarce coves of England and Wales were replaced with the lush green rolling hills of Ireland that sat atop never-ending sandy beaches. Travelling north meant wildlife encounters of the jellied kind became more frequent too, with swarms of Moon jellyfish and the odd Lion’s Mane swimming through, just to keep me on my toes.

Once into the Western Isles of Scotland, I kept an eye out for the notorious Corryvreckan whirlpool between the islands of Jura and Scarba, the third largest in the world. Thought to be able to pull a person 262m down to the sea floor, I didn’t fancy an impromptu free diving session or experiencing the extreme levels of ‘peakiness’ the whirlpool was likely to create and attempted to stay well clear. A miscalculation with tides took me closer than I would have liked, but by this point I was determined to get to the end.


After a break to recoup over dinner in a friendly pub, perched in a remote village, we pushed on. These Scottish isles were particularly intriguing as I weaved my way from one vista to the next. Local seals, otters and seabirds came to say hello as I paddled through the beautiful scenery. Around every corner, rugged hills grew out of the landscape as we approached the Grampian range of mountains, Ben Nevis towering at its heart.

I paddled on across Scotland through the Caledonian Canal to the final east coast stretch up to the finish. Eighty-one days after leaving Land’s End – 35 of them spent paddling – I’d reached John O’Groats and the grassy bank where my journey was first conceived. Having experienced sea conditions that left me in tears and others that left me in awe, I was looking forward to spending time on solid land. To stand still and find myself in the same place 10 minutes later, rather than constantly drifting with the tide.

I also realised that I like exploring on the water, when the conditions are calm. Having started out in an environment that felt totally alien to me, I now have an appreciation of what the ocean can be like on good days, when inquisitive dolphins come to say hello and the ocean blends seamlessly with the sky. The fear is definitely still there and it takes a good nudge to get me to go out on the sea, always with other people by my side. I know there’s a lot it has to offer, if I dare to risk getting my feet wet.

Read more about Fiona’s Land’s End to John O’Groats conquest in her new book, Ignore the Fear (£10.99, Lemon Publishing), available online from