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September 24, 2021 10 min read
Based in Edinburgh, South African born Jacob Mellish recently completed an epic adventure: paddle boarding from Edinburgh all the way to England. Jacob is no stranger to spending time in the ocean, considered one of Scotland’s top surfers. His time spent in the water has made him all too aware of the challenges we face if we are to clean up our coastline. This was the basis for The Paddle Against Pollution, a challenge that aims to raise awareness for Surfers Against Sewage, and how we must act in order to make our waters a safer environment for all. We caught up with Jacob recently to chat about his experience.
What made you undertake the challenge and what’s your vision for the future of our coastline?
I'm starting to share surfing with a lot more people, especially children, and the thought of teaching them in polluted water doesn't sit that well with me. The fact that swimming in our water can make you sick is truly shocking! It’s a major issue that flies under the radar because of how unused the water is in Scotland for the most part. It shouldn’t be this way. So that’s what has made me undertake the paddle, to raise awareness and use my voice in a positive way to hopefully incite change. As for my vision, I’d like to see clean water that’s safe to swim in…that’s it.
Would you say there’s a certain area where the water is particularly heavily polluted?
The closer you are to bigger cities, the more pollution you're going to find. One of the really interesting parts of the paddle was actually just noticing the different currents that create different pockets for clear water quality, and areas of dirty water. What I noticed was that the most polluted area surrounding Edinburgh was from Pease Bay to Bellhaven. There's something within that route that causes the really dirty water to get trapped in that space. Then, as you approach St Abbs, the water becomes really clear again.
St Abbs is beautiful and known for its rich ecosystem isn’t it? Well worth a trip for anyone keen on wildlife spotting!
Definitely! The marine reserve that surrounds the area breathes life for so many land and marine species. I recently found out that the farmlands that surround St Abbs observe the reserve and use sustainable practices that won’t cause harm to it, for example, by using non-toxic pesticides. Whatever they are doing there, it makes such a huge difference to the water quality and is amazing to see.
In Scotland, the stormy weather we are accustomed to causes toxic pesticides to run off farmland and into our waterways and ocean, adding to the level of pollution caused by outflow pipes or waste that is dumped. It’s a real problem, people knowingly mess with the environment in the name of business.
I heard your first paddle boarding experience was memorable, can you tell us about it?
That it was! So, this is going back six or seven years. I was working on yachts at the time and we had just anchored in the Bahamas, which is renowned for having this beautiful, pristine water that’s completely still. We docked at the marina during the night and awoke the next morning excited to explore my new surroundings.
I ran up to the deck to take in the view, and in the distance I was met with the most perfect wave. It almost stood alone in this tranquil environment, and I think to this day about how I’ve never seen another like it. There was nobody in the vicinity, no trace of surfers, and I just freaked out because I didn’t have my board and I needed to ride this wave! Luckily, one of the guys on the boat had a Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP), but this was before they were popular so the technology was really bad. It had no core infrastructure and seemed more like a lilo. It didn’t matter, I pumped that thing up as full as it would go and paddled all the way out to this wave. I spent all day out there trying to ride on that flimsy board. It’s a surfer’s dream of finding a wave that is untouched. That was why I fell in love with this concept of paddle boarding, it was all I had in that moment and created a treasured memory for me.
What was it like prepping for the paddle?
The funny thing is, I don't usually paddleboard. Although it’s great for fitness, I find being on the board for long periods of time a little mundane. So, for the most part, my training involved heading out on the paddleboard whenever there were waves and just riding the waves on the board. This got me excited to be on the board and have fun with it. I’d stay out for two or three hours surfing waves, but never long distance, which is probably a little surprising to hear for most people considering the challenge I was about to undertake.
One part of my training that translated really well to the actual paddle was learning how to paddle out past the break on a larger board whilst waves are crashing down and pushing you back. This was essential knowledge to learn, especially when you end up paddling straight into a storm like I did!
Yeah, I saw you got some challenging weather. Tell us about it?
To say the least. For context, it’s important to know we had a media crew coming along to document the paddle, consisting of seven people that took annual leave from their jobs. So, I had to make the call for the start date based on the forecast and the possibility of a good weather gap – which appeared one Wednesday. As soon as I’d told everyone to take the allotted time off I rechecked the charts and it had changed to a spontaneous storm, which ended up being the largest of the summer.
The first day I was really lucky leaving Portobello to go across to Sea Cliff. There was a perfect back wind and I covered a lot of ground in a short period of time, having the time of my life riding swells all the way. The very next day, the storm arrived and brought with it high winds and huge swells that were hitting me side on, it was like that for two days straight. The wind was so strong that I only paddled on one side of the board, and the moment I paddled on the other, the board just turned straight towards the land. On the stormy days, I’d only paddle for three or four hours because it was so mentally and physically challenging. Especially in the knowledge that I’d been so blessed on my first day with the conditions carrying me the entire way, and now I was just getting beaten up. I still feel like my fingers are sore even though it was three weeks ago - it definitely took a toll physically on me.
So what was the actual planned route?
On day one, I went from Portobello to Sea Cliff. I had the crew waiting for me at Gullane which is where we stopped for lunch. It took about six/seven hours to cross the bay and was roughly 30 KM. As I said, that day I was having the time of my life, going down wind and literally just surfing the whole way. I arrived at Sea Cliff right as the storm moved in and I only managed a few hours’ sleep that night as my tent got battered by the elements.
The next day my goal was to reach Dunbar Harbour, which isn’t far but the storm made it the most challenging day, pretty scary in fact. Huge swells mixed with lots of outer reefs breaking is not a good match for the paddleboard. If I’d fallen there my leash could easily have snapped on a reef, causing me to lose my board far out at sea, so it was pretty sketchy. In those moments you realise it’s just as much a mental task as it is a physical one. You realise this relationship of fear pulling you back from your ability to just be present and get the job done. One stroke at a time you gain more confidence, then this beautiful thing begins to happen where you start to dance and play with the swell, you see every little bump and instead of resisting it, you start using it to benefit you. It was a great mental lesson, and I felt such a connection to the weather as a result. It was an externalization of my mental state. When the weather was stormy, I’d also feel that turbulent presence in my mind, but as soon as it became clear with smaller swells, I felt a total mindset shift to a presence of calm.
After the storm days was it pretty much just cruising from there on?
The day after the storm was okay, still battling the swell a little bit, but the final day the conditions were perfect, with not one wave. The water was so nice and glassy, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. This was an area of little human contact passing the headlands at St Abbs. As I’ve said earlier, it was really interesting seeing the impact this had on nature - there was so much thriving life. Around a mile down I came across a huge pipe discharging straight into the water. The rock colour was bleached and there were no signs of wildlife. It was shocking, seeing first-hand the correlation between pollution and the impact on our ecosystem. It was a wakeup call that inspired me to do my own research on the subject, to find out how we as individuals can help prevent this.
That’s one of the amazing things the paddle is doing. Not only is it raising money for Surfers Against Sewage, but it’s also shining a spotlight on our local area.
Exactly my feelings, it’s about educating us all, myself included, on how we can collectively contribute to cleaning up our coastlines. You can’t achieve this without understanding what’s going on, and there’s no point accusing and pointing fingers until you have a grasp of the full picture.
Is there a particular highlight of the trip?
There is. It occurred right at the beginning of the paddle, maybe a couple miles offshore from Portobello. I paddled right into a group of puffins who were just chilling in the water. I had no idea that there were puffins so close to Edinburgh, and that put me in a really great headspace. They stuck with me for quite a while and would fly overhead. It almost felt like they were looking out for me. A truly unique experience. I found that at multiple stages of the paddle, animals would take an interest in you.
That sounds really cool. Can you tell us about any other wildlife encounters?
Coming around past North Berwick was also amazing. There's a different flow of currents that are separate to those that go towards Portobello. The water is pristine and as it got clearer, I witnessed this universe of jellyfish underneath me. I've never seen so many jellyfish in my life. There were many moments where these encounters would happen and I’d reach for my drybag to grab my phone, but in that instance, I just soaked it in as I didn’t want to kill the moment. I was also frequently approached by curious seals (including a cute pup) who would follow me for a couple minutes. One of the most spectacular sights was Bass Rock just off North Berwick. It’s home to a booming population of sea birds including puffins. It’s such a spectacle, and I count myself lucky to have witnessed it. If you’re comfortable on your SUP board I’d recommend paddling out to take a look, it’s just off the coast.
Did you fall off at any point?
Funny story for this. On day one I was so stoked because I hadn’t fallen, despite many wobbles. As I was coming around to Gullane, the whole crew was there filming, with even a drone overhead. I started riding a wave and with all cameras on me, I completely bailed. The crew caught it on film much to my dismay, so I’m sure the footage will surface somewhere. That was the first, but I must have fallen about ten times in total on the trip, each time scrambling to try and get back on the board, making sure my dry bag was still attached. On the storm days, falling seemed so inevitable that I left everything on land and only went out with the paddle and board.
Besides the storm, did any other challenges arise?
Critical to the success of the trip was my paddle, and this became the focus of quite a few problems. My initial paddle snapped as I was approaching Gullane on day one and fell into the water. Luckily, the crew had a spare, so I was able to finish day one strong with my second paddle. The largest paddle related issue however arose on the second day. I’d secured my paddle to the board overnight, and like the scene from Cast Away, my trusty paddle got carried out to sea by the rising tide. I then had to go back to the snapped paddle. Luckily, I shared the paddle woes on my socials and the guys at Ocean Vertical (they run paddleboard and coasteering adventures for anyone interested) came to the rescue and supplied me with a third paddle that saw me through to the end of the trip…big shout out to those guys!
If somebody wanted to get involved and help raise awareness, what advice would you give to them?
It comes down to activism. Sign petitions, go to rallies, share information online. That way, we can hopefully incite change that will restrict or stop the damage at the highest level. However, in terms of your day-to-day habits, then think about what you’re spending your money on and if it’s contributing to something positive or negative. Look at what brands you are supporting and if they are contributing to unethical practices that harm the environment then try to avoid them.
Great advice Jacob! Finally, back to paddle boarding, will you paddle again or are you back to full time surfing?
I’d love to, but not on the board I used for the Paddle Against Pollution, which is going to a new owner. It was just so big. I’m not even sure it’s road legal to put it on my roof as it’s 14 feet long and hangs over both edges. When I get the right equipment I’ll paddle board again – one that’s easily transportable and can be pumped up with the core infrastructure. Then again, there are so many surf related toys that I would like to add to the collection. I’d have ten surfboards if I could, one for every condition. I’m sure I’ll get back on the water with a paddleboard one day.
A massive thank you to Jacob for sharing his experience with us. To keep up to date with all of Jacob’s future adventures, head over to his Instagramhere.
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