thailand

To paddle around an island

For some time I’ve suffered from an affliction that arrives in the form of a shoulder-mounted gremlin, who maintains silence until I arrive on a tranquil island for some much-needed downtime. Then it pipes up with a word that can’t be ignored…

“Circumnavigation”

God damn. It always sounds so romantic and intrepid, the concept of rounding an island on the sea, but nature also has her way of ensuring that we continue to do silly things by painting upcoming pain-fests as baths of honey.

In reality, these sweet, ever-huggy thoughts don’t last forever. Not when the ocean is gently bopping you on the head and your poor weedy arms are trying to pump out 25,000 paddle strokes in 12 hours.

Emms and I are enjoying an extended honeymoon in Thailand, as you might have read earlier. We’ve spent our first weeks on Koh Phangan, the middle island in a chain of three in the Gulf of Siam, which also includes Koh Samui and Koh Tao. It wasn’t long before I wondered whether some kind of adventure might interfere with our bliss, and slowly a plan developed to paddle round each of the islands.

The decision was made partly because of the distances. Long ago, in 2014, some friends and I paddled around Martinique in the Caribbean. It took around 10 days and was intended to be the first of a series of twenty-five mini-journeys that might go some way towards padding the gaps in between my longer 1000-mile+ trips. Each one, I proposed, would be on a Stand Up Paddleboard, at least 100 miles in distance, and in a different country from the previous paddles.

In order of circumference, Koh Samui is 75km around, Koh Phangan 50km, and Koh Tao 25km. Which comes pretty darn close to 100 miles in total.

We have ourselves a little challenge. As Koh Phangan is the current base this is where we’ll start. The maths are easy. My average speed on an inflatable SUP hovers around 3.5miles per hour, including the odd water and photo break. The sun rises at 6:15am and sets at 5:55, so with Twilight I’d have twelve hours to cover a touch over 30 miles. Normal speed + a couple of meal stops and this felt more than doable. 

Morning view

Morning view

When you’re away only between sleeps then preparation is minimal. We’ve already got our boards here, inflatable 12 foot Pathfinders by Lakeshore. Mine’s called Mud, after its maiden voyage on the Mississippi. And then I gave myself a £20 budget for the whole day, which is hearty living in these parts.

I was excited, I really was. It had been a while since my last adventure, largely because that waterbike trip along Norway’s rugged coastline had properly kicked my ass, but as we pulled ourselves out of bed at 5:30am I didn’t even hold the slightest envy knowing that Em would be right back in the bed as soon as I paddled off. 

Morning thunderstorms were 50% likely but this is normal during late monsoon season, and the grey-blue surface was mirror-calm as I headed north along the coast, Emms and the co-working hub’s two dogs – Jay and Bruce, bounded alongside briefly until their beach ran out.

Pace was fast, it felt great to be on the move. After half an hour I was into new territory, far beyond my previous recreational paddles. This newness is forever a motivation and for the entire morning I’d be treated to a convex coastline, each headland acting as a carrot before the next one would slowly reveal itself. I was being pulled around the island two or three kilometres at a time, with the rest entirely secret – a reward I had to work for.

The headland carrot

The headland carrot

The night before I’d made a map for Em with distance markers around the island and my estimated time of arrival at each spot. She anticipated renting a moped (for a massive £7 per day) and coming out to find me, but the eastern half of the island is only accessible by boat or 4x4, so I didn’t expect to see her before lunch.

I hit my first mark, which always feels good. 3 hours after starting I’d covered 18km and it was time for a breakfast. A wide open beach seemed to offer plenty of cafes and I paddled in under the curious gaze of holiday-makers, confused by this man who had apparently come in off the sea. “Passport?!” asked one bearded tourist, jokingly. I grinned, shrugged with a wink, and ordered eggs and coffee. 

After ten the wind picked up but, at least for the backside stretch of the island, it was mostly to my tail. This is rare in SUP, where as a rider you’re doing a half-decent impression of a sail. In years-worth of adventure and expeditions I can recall perhaps ten days of solid tailwind. 

We whizzed along, Mud and I, swell and wind encouraging us both south. Headlands were often mounds of strewn, house-size rocks, toppled into the ocean over the centuries then smoothed over by salt water and nature’s encouragement. The swell to my back would bounce off the rocks and return to whence they came, offering a confused, mogulled landscape as a reminder that this wasn’t all simple.

Why nam Beach

Why nam Beach

Over halfway I popped into a small, isolated cove and landed on a beach where the early seeds of a party were developing. It’s easy to forget that most foreigners come here to howl at the moon and spread their well-earned cash widely over a considerable amount of cheap cocktails and Asian beer. This was a party I’d been invited to, and dropping in was worth the endless, wide-eyed, “You paddled around the island to get here?”

This is what I love about water travel. When you make it a habit, the world is your oyster. The secret coves and offshore islands become a playground, while the rest of the world still looks out to sea and wonders what it might be like, one day, if they ever headed out there. The truth is, for a few hundred dollars and a recognition for modern-day inflatable technology, this freedom can now be carried around the world, and then becoming a sea creature is just an easy, daily decision. I said my hello’s, waved goodbye and left the soon-to-be-drunk in their spot of paradise. 

At Mile 20, my two-thirds marker, my enjoyment of the day changed. The wind and tide had switched and I only realised as I rounded the boulders of Haad Riin, the southern-most point of the island. From here, home was north west, then north, and immediately the wind howled in my face somewhat inexplicably, because it had never blown in this direction before. My pace halved, the next two miles was akin to crawling through mud, uphill.

Image by  @EmKarembo

Image by @EmKarembo

By the time I caught sight of Emms and her camera, I was a mess. We collapsed into a raised bar roughly shaped out of driftwood to become a pirate ship. Flags fluttered in the increasing wind and I stared along the coast, no longer a mysterious cascade of headlands — just the ten mile infinity beach that left nothing to the imagination. When you can see your upcoming challenge laid out from the beginning, the incentive to explore with effort is greatly decreased.

A mound of chicken and a bit of prodding from my masseuse wife was just, just enough to get me on my feet again. This was it, the final stretch, and I wasn’t looking forward to these final four hours into wind. 

The wall. Marathon runners will be familiar with it. Endurance adventures offer them up at least once a usual day. Beyond the new perspectives and exercise, the thrill of optimism-paid-off and a gentle notch-in-the-self-confidence-belt, the value of a self-set adventure is in hardening the mind more than the muscles. More is gained from the battle than freewheeling.

Two hours later I could still look back and see that damned pirate restaurant. But the distance ahead had been reeled in, inching slowly and painfully towards the island’s main port of Thong Sala. This, with the ever in-and-out of local ferries, kept me focused. Mother Nature can try to splash, drown, blow and exhaust, but the most likely danger on any venture is man. And man at the control of a big metal craft that doesn’t expect or care for a lone paddler down below — this is a dangerous creature.

This safety is up to me. The boats stay their course, they have their channel. I just need to pick my moment. The safest route would have been under the beach-side struts of the pier but the tide was out and my fin dragged on the sea-bed 100m away from shore.

Once past the port I was on the home straight. 6 kilometres left, around an hour and a half into the wind. Problem is, the sun was already licking the horizon and twenty minutes of twilight was the cushion before darkness.

I was beat. Lifting the paddle for each stroke was now an effort and the easiest thing to do would be to go to land, deflate the board and jump in a taxi. Perhaps finish off the rest of the distance tomorrow. I want to do this yet I don’t want to, and my solution is always to carry on until the giving-up solution is not the obvious one. I started with the intention of paddling around an island and just because I’m tired, hungry and out-of-energy, and just because my enjoyment of the scenario has greatly decreased, I must hold onto the original intention because I once knew going all the way round would be good for me. 

So, going to land packing up is the easiest thing to do until the easiest thing to do would be to carry on regardless and arrive back where I started, without having to deflate the board tonight, then inflate it once again tomorrow (or in four days when I’m ready for a paddle again).

My hands were screaming, and I finally found a reason to begrudge the temperature of the water. The sea is 28 degrees here, and while this is lovely for a quick sun-escaping dip I actually missed being able to cool-down my hands and feet, long-numb from gripping paddle and board. Cold water is an elixir for claw-finger. After my Mississippi paddle in 2011, three months of paddling left me with slightly curled fingers for two months afterwards. It would have been longer were it not for the chill of the lower river.

PB240087.jpg

For the last hour I was in pitch darkness. The wind has slowed and I was alert to the danger of incoming fishing boats. What I didn’t expect was an enormous whooshing of water to my right, an out-rushing of air and the circular retreating wave from a smooth, rounded back. At first I thought, ‘how the hell did I paddle so close to that rock without noticing?’ but then I realised that I’d paddled this bay before and there had been no rock before. In the ever-so-pale combined light of the stars, the final refractions of sunlight from far below the horizon and the luminescence of coastal road lights over a kilometre away, I wasn’t able to make an exact identification, but I’m around 90% sure that a Whale Shark just surfaced five metres away from me, and then disappeared forever.

Twenty minutes later the end of my paddle was out of sight, and this meant that I only saw the turtle when it was beside me. It shat itself and mightily kicked downwards, throwing up a shower of sea water and leaving my little heart panting like Freddie Kruger had just jumped out.

PB240095.jpg

Finally a familiar noise, “Woooo whoooop.” Em! Immediately post-wedding we’d venture to the Lower Mississippi and she’d picked up the paddler’s call. There she was, Jay the dog a faithful Boy Friday on her board, and suddenly we were paddling alongside the Srithanu channel navigation tower, a three metre high lighthouse that takes us three minutes to paddle to from our beach.

From the beach where I started this morning. From the start of this little journey. And the end. 

Twelve hours and forty seven minutes after setting out, Mud’s nose touched the sand again. Koh Phangan had been circumnavigated.

With a couple of hundred Baht to spare, the day’s budget of £20 had been spent. But this included Em’s moped hire and a good lunch for both of us, and welcome-home treats in the shape of a pizza, three large Leo beers and a Magnum each. I managed a few slices, slid the Magnum down, sipped about a quarter of one beer, then passed out.


Thanks for reading, if you enjoyed this article please do leave a comment, a like, an applause, and even better — share with one person who you think would appreciate it.

My website is stocked with over 13 years of adventures, blogs, projects, photos and films. I share these in the hope that others will experience similar feelings to those that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy.

And here are my homes on Facebook and Instagram, for daily tidbits, stories, ideas and habits.

The Thailand Project: lifestyle mapping for nomads-at-heart

We’re spending two months in Thailand over the first half of British winter. But this isn’t a holiday, it’s a first step towards re-engineering our lifestyle, work-lives and expectations of married life.

Emms and I married 9 weeks ago, and now I’m faced with answering the question I’ve been posed for years; “what happens when you get married, have kids and settle down?”

Do I carry on adventuring? Do I swap the nomadic life for an office? Or would our family life look very different from the average?

Firstly, to answer the silent question: no, Em is not pregnant. But we are talking about the possible pitter patter of tiny feet (or BabyCorns) in a couple of years, and are very open about how that will (likely) change life as we know it.

These last three years I’ve been face-to-face with the settling-down demons — added responsibility, increased cost of living, ambition-killing-comfort, limited scope for creativity forced by limits on time and money— and I haven’t coped so well. I wrote more deeply about this, here.

The need for change rarely comes from a comfortable place, and I see the past three years as a guiding stick for a re-map of what the next stage of life could look like. There are dreams to chase and swamps to avoid, so let’s start with the bits to cut-out and learn from:

  1. Cold winters: we live on a boat and the last winter in the UK lasted for five months. We weren’t there for the whole winter, but the other 5 weeks were spent above the Arctic circle on a Norwegian island. That was awesome, but no sun and a feast of general darkness is no way to live.

  2. Working space: I need my own space to work in, and this needs to change frequently. For two years Em and I have both freelanced from home. And when home is a 45ft widebeam houseboat and the only viable office is in one room, distraction is high and creativity is cramped.

  3. Prohibitive cost of living: I earn well but in recent years I’ve put a considerable share of my earnings into community work and this has coincided with paying London rent/prices, which feel so unnecessary when life has felt more enjoyable in previous less costly scenarios/ places. Not saving much for a rainy day, future tiny humans and new investments/ projects/ expeditions just to have the same roof overhead feels like standing still.

  4. Lazy belly: Living in a city, even if it is on a boat, doesn’t excite me anymore. Even worse, motivation to get out and ride, paddle and move is limited when the nearest considerable green space is at least half an hour away. Spending life sitting down is deeply unhealthy. I’m not image conscious, but I’d like to look in the mirror and be happy with what I see physically (this isn’t the same as looking internally — I’m pretty content with the person I am). This is a health thing, not stigma or self-loathing!


A realistic blueprint for home, work and family in the future:

  1. What I choose as a lifestyle must also satisfy the needs of Emms. Marriage is not just for September.

  2. Freedom: many of my biggest pain points since buying a home in the UK in 2016 have revolved around a lack of room for manoeuvre, in the expectations I have of those around me/ they have of me and in an inability to pursue exciting work without being held back. After living freely and nomadically for a decade, I didn’t know how to stay in one place and still maintain the momentum that had formerly been powered by shifting location and focus.

  3. UK: The majority of our work, friends, family are in the UK, so being there during Spring, Summer and Autumn feels right and makes a lot of sense. Our main project, The YesBus, is a fulfilling priority and in 2019, at least, we’d like to live nearby rather than endure the current two hour journey each week.

  4. Winter sun: While there are more pleasant climates available, choosing to be damp, cold, Vitamin D deficient and frankly miserable for 4 months is bloody stupid. The only catch is that Em loves Christmas.

  5. Water: I love it. And more specifically, being in and on it — especially when it’s not cold. What I’ve learned from the past couple of years is that even living on the water and being able to waterbike and paddle daily isn’t enough. Proximity to water that doesn’t want to kill me — ie.warm, swimmable, accessible, soothing water— is the only medicine I crave.

  6. Movement in nature: Whatever the season, wherever we choose to live, it must be within nature. An enjoyable, peaceful environment to exercise in daily and maintain physical and mental health.

  7. Work: A healthy balance between personal and community work. One should not override or suppress the other. My best days of work are not necessarily location-dependent but when I feel unstoppable, ideas pour out like water and possibilities and potential are endless. Positive response from new partners, my team and community are fulfilling. Successful events and creations are icing on the cake. But I need to be free in decisions and actions: this means not having to chase the company admin and tax — someone else should cover this — I’m much better at shining a light on others than sitting in a dark room doing dark work. I get more joy from having a silly idea, chasing and making it a reality, then sharing the lessons.

  8. Family: I can’t see my kid(s) in the standard English education system. I’d love them to become independent, problem-solving, light-at-heart / strong-in-mind characters, with an empathetic global view. I’d also love them to have more of a social childhood than I did — which means finding community for them as well as weening them on intrepid behaviour.


Paddle boarding in to our new home, with everything we’re travelling with in bags on the back of the boards —  see the film of this microadventure

Paddle boarding in to our new home, with everything we’re travelling with in bags on the back of the boards — see the film of this microadventure

So, to start the process of redefining and redesigning our lives, we’re spending the next few weeks on the Thai island of Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Siam. We’re here to reset and re-energise, to look after ourselves and each other, and to start researching some of the unanswered questions that stand between now and the blueprint above.

Questions like…

Is it cost-effective monetarily and emotionally to spend a proportion of the year in a tropical climate?

Is it practical to be here? What compromises need to be made compared to living at home in the UK? What are the pain points and are there easy solutions?

Ok, so the photos are great, but what are the real benefits of living in an Instagram-friendly place/climate?

Can we find potential partnerships out here to work with SayYesMore?

What is it really about water that makes me tick? And how can I use this longing/ passion to help others?

At a time when our mental health could use some nurturing, is just a few weeks on an island sufficient medicine? And if not (in part or full), can the lessons this new perspective teaches us transfer back to life in the UK, or somewhere else?

I write this on Day 12. We’ve based ourself at a just metres from the sea, at a co-working space called BeacHub in Koh Phangan. Fast internet and a community of other freelancers creates a positive working environment, and our paddleboards are happy to be spending at least an hour a day out on the waves. There’s colour in our skin and a satisfaction at the end of each day. A couple of fresh adventures are brewing and so far, the experiment is working.

In a month or so, as our final days in Thailand draw nearer, I’ll re-visit this blog and see how many questions have been answered.

At our new base,  BeacHub  in Koh Phangan, Thailand

At our new base, BeacHub in Koh Phangan, Thailand


Thanks for reading, if you enjoyed this article please do leave a comment, a like, an applause, and even better — share with one person who you think would appreciate it.

My website is stocked with over 13 years of adventures, blogs, projects, photos and films. I share these in the hope that others will experience similar feelings to those that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy.

And here are my homes on Facebook and Instagram, for daily tidbits, stories, ideas and habits.

A reflection on burnout

My new wife and I have been making a temporary nest on a Thai island for the past week and a half. It is now mid November and rather than battle the driving rain and less-than-tolerable temperatures back home in London, we’ve started out our married life the way we plan to continue it; warm and free.

Since Emms and I started to (pretend to) act like adults after fusing our lives in early 2016 I haven’t always coped well. The previous decade I’d been largely nomadic, foot-loosely loping around the world with a laptop and any cafe/ co-working space/ boat/ sofa or beach as an office. Commitments, responsibilities and expenses were low.

But then the combination of a bad back, a flourishing homegrown community project and a girl who made me want to stay home led to exactly that…a home. Along with the comfort, a place to store some stuff and the gorgeous familiarity of living with my favourite person, this also meant rent, a more work/income-focused mindset, paperwork. And crucially, the loss of creative spark that I’d always taken for granted when living on the move.

burnout 2.jpeg

A place to call home felt incredible, as did finding another human who I never got tired of. The compromise, certainly at the start, was worth it. Soon though, as SayYesMore and the YesTribe started to grow the add-ons piled up. Monitoring endless social media and email accounts. Starting a company so an official bank account could account for the budget of our annual festival. Slowly forming a team, and coping with the two-way dependency and responsibility of other humans. Suddenly, in less than 18 months, life felt very different indeed. And as all this change hadn’t been planned my inner compass started to lose track.

I lost my mojo, my creativity, my energy and, occasionally, my love for life. The only way SayYesMore has kept going these last 18 months was because of a handful of people who kept the momentum going, and at home Emms took over the day-to-day running of the team, online spaces and admin. Her official title: “the cog turner.” Pretty sexy. SayYesMore doesn’t bring any income in though, and Emms had assumed what was essentially a ten-month full-time job without an income, and the only way to make this work was if I worked more to cover our expenses, at the same time spending a few hours a day on SayYesMore.

All of this probably sounds terrifically boring, and while there was an underlying sense that the structure we were building was worth the effort, it started to take a toll. Somewhere along the way I’d lost the energy to exercise and the space to get creative, and while my speaking career was on the up the really juicy bits of my previous Adventure-life were non-existent.

I longed for the freedom to get up in the morning and conjure up a little social project, to work on a new book, nurture a brand new adventure or to simply fly with the wind and land somewhere unknown for a period of time. Despite the great work being done through SayYesMore I began to resent the whole thing. This idea that had blossomed because I wanted to share what I’d learned about living without limits had cost me my own freedom. And stepping back — or out — didn’t feel like a satisfactory option - the sunk cost, faith and commitment from everyone on our team prevented me walking away. Meanwhile there were plenty of little wins but behind-the-scenes, the place that so few people see or think about — I was drowning and only my closest friends could tell. Perhaps there was something in there, a real glimmer of hope or shard of light that was more important than the way I was feeling.

But for a while I was stuck in the mud, professionally more unhappy than I’d felt in a long, long time. Which was, so claustrophobic, unfit and stereotypically unhappy that I had to gruffly laugh at my own paradox. When I realised that my happiest moments were up on stage, energised for an hour at a time because it was stories from the past that excited me, the need for change was looming fast.

Hello mojo

My absent mojo has said hi again these last two months. Our wedding in September was magical, as was a first adventuremoon in the States. The SayYesMore growing pains have proved to be worth it, as the community were selected by Facebook for their first Community Leadership Programme, one of only 100 plucked from thousands of applicants. This annual programme and a healthy dose of funding takes huge pressure off the next year, and the recognition we’ve received as a team has lit a fire in my belly again.

It feels so good to be excited about community work again

The belief that maybe I can be a strong leader rather than a flailing one has led to an interest in learning rather than winging it, and once again I’m excited about the community aspects of my work. Our SayYesMore team have bonded so strongly in recent weeks, freeing me up to pursue more personal projects again, and our fourth annual Yestival in mid October was a blinding success. How grateful we all were for the endless sunshine that blessed the weekend (as opposed to Hurricane Brian that muddied and flew the tents in 2017), and the wave of positivity and thanks that has followed Yestival 2018 has literally shed further light on how worthwhile this movement is.

Yestival jubilation

Yestival jubilation

I’m so lucky to work with my friends, almost all of them folks that I didn’t know before the YesTribe started, and for the first time absolutely everything is clicking. There aren’t any obvious impending departures, struggles or weak links. We’re a family, a mini community in the image of the wider one that we just happen to run. What a strong foundation upon which to build our next chapter.

It might seems like a no-brainer to spend a couple of months on a Thai island over Winter; this is so much more than a holiday, a honeymoon or a blissful escape. It’s a celebration of new beginning.

For the first time in a long time I’m finding time to work forwardly, rather than catching up. We’ve found a lovely little co-working space in Koh Phangan to base out of and I write this with the sea a few metres away, and the coastal breeze supplementing the very necessary fans dotted around this open-plan, wall-less office. Coffee is on tap, I’m writing (this morning I wrote my first blog on Medium for over a year) and creating and bashing old to-do lists on the head. And it’s so, so fun to feel productive in this work again.

Our sunglasses enjoy their view here

Our sunglasses enjoy their view here

Creativity is fuelled by hope and possibility. This is a recipe, I’d imagine, for the years ahead.


Thanks for reading, if you enjoyed it please do leave a comment, a like, an applause, and even better - share with one person who you think would appreciate it.

My website is stocked with over 13 years of adventures, blogs, projects, photos and films. I share these in the hope that others will experience similar feelings to those that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy.

And here are my homes on Facebook and Instagram, for daily tidbits, stories, ideas and habits.