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Kayakist reunited with boat 45 years after calamity at sea

By Chris Hunter

It’s been 45 years since Geoff Hunter waved goodbye to his treasured kayak as it drifted off into the waters of the Solway Firth, five miles off the Cumbrian coast.

To be precise, he didn’t wave goodbye - he needed both hands to cling onto a buoy and save himself from drowning - but it was a sad farewell for the then 24-year-old buildings surveyor nonetheless.

Geoff Hunter, reunited with Nimrod
Geoff Hunter, reunited with Nimrod

He’d built the boat from scratch using the “Angmagssalik” design devised by his old woodwork teacher, based on a sealskin Eskimo hunting kayak.

He dubbed it Nimrod - the hunter of biblical legend, and a nickname given to his grandad Isaac Walker Hunter at school - then he set out in May 1970 from Maidstone on an attempt to become the first kayakist to circumnavigate Britain.

And now, in the middle of the Solway, Nimrod was gone - together seemingly with all hopes of completing the 2000 mile voyage, perhaps even with his hopes of survival.

Arguably the whole venture had been slightly misguided from the start.

"I had done a lot of kayak racing and slalom kayaking," recalled Geoff, "but I decided I wanted to do an expedition. I decided I wouldn’t do any training for it but I would train on the way. I hadn’t done any long trips before."

But when he reached Sheppey after the first day’s paddling, reality struck.

"Soon after leaving, I was very depressed - I just thought 'oh Jesus, what have I done?' But I couldn’t go back because I would have been very embarrassed, so I decided I would try to do at least two weeks, and then I met people in those two weeks that were very encouraging."

Two weeks soon past, and as Geoff carried on he got used to the rigours of long haul kayaking - handling his nimble craft at sea and camping or blagging beds on shore.

Geoff Hunter in 1970
Geoff Hunter in 1970

Press attention grew and as the Coastguard learnt of his mission they began to help him on his way. And all was well...

Until, after paddling down the west coast of Scotland, he reached Kippford, on the Scottish side of the Solway.

"It was about 15 miles across the Solway Firth, so I wanted to get good water," said Geoff.

"I was probably held up for maybe five days by bad weather, then I thought right, the water had got better - it was lumpy but it was smooth, with rolling waves. I started out but as the boat was rolling it started to fill up with water - my spray deck wasn’t great.

"I was probably about halfway across - I tried to bail out with my hat but it was still filling up, and as it did it was just getting more and more difficult to manage.

"All of a sudden the paddle broke in half."

Dumped by a wave, Geoff momentarily found himself upside down in the middle of the sea, before managing to roll himself back up - no easy task with half a paddle and a boat full of water.

Geoff pictured in Kippford, Scotland, before his ill-fated attempt to cross the Solway Firth
Geoff pictured in Kippford, Scotland, before his ill-fated attempt to cross the Solway Firth

Practically immobile by now, his saviour came in the shape of a buoy a few hundred metres away, which he swam to, Nimrod in tow. The top of the buoy was about six foot out of the water with smooth slimy sides, but he managed to swing the kayak’s painter - the rope used to tie it up - around a hook at the top, and climb up out of the cold water.

But it proved impossible to haul the boat full of water up after him.

“I had probably been up there for about three hours, and the buoy was swinging this way and then the other way, and the painter was quote tight on my knee, so eventually with the force of a boat full of water and the buoy swinging about, it broke.

"I just sat and watched my boat drift off down the Solway Firth. I thought 'do I go for the boat or do I watch it drift away?' But I was pretty dry up there."

So he stayed put, hoping for a rescue which never came.

Back on shore the coastguard had dispatched two helicopters and an inland rescue team, but the search had been drawn off course by some duck shooters, who had been signalling to each other with flares elsewhere in the Solway.

"I was on that buoy for 14 hours,” he recalls with a sombre tone. "I was up there a long, long time."

Geoff had to resign himself to spending the night on what was practically a four foot platform on top of an upturned metal bucket, rolling about in the waves.

"I was very uncomfortable," he said, "but there’s a loop on the top of this buoy which they used to lift it out the water with a crane, so I had one arm hooked through this loop. I had my hand through that and I tied what was left of the painter around my waist, so if I did fall I wouldn’t fall right off. I spent half an hour on one side and half an hour on the other - just waiting for the dawn."

The papers would have made grim reading if Geoff hadn't made it to shore
The papers would have made grim reading if Geoff hadn't made it to shore

Proper sleep was impossible, and having watched the lights of far off Workington swimming round in the blackness all night, he resolved to swim for the Cumbrian coast in the morning. But dawn brought an unexpected problem.

"In the morning it was ever so misty," recalled Geoff with a sigh. The coast had disappeared from view, but he knew what time the tide should be running.

"I thought I need to swim with the tide running in, because if I swim with the tide going out it would take me off to Ireland.

"I hadn’t eaten in 14 hours and I thought if I don’t go now I won’t have the energy to do it, so when the tide turned I just slipped off the buoy and started swimming."

Luckily the mist had begun to clear by then, and after swimming four miles he was picked up by a dinghy.

"By that time I was quite hypothermic, so I was talking as if I was drunk, which I wasn’t!"

A relieved Geoff back on shore
A relieved Geoff back on shore

He went on to recover, borrowed another similar kayak, and completed the voyage - arriving home on Saturday November 7 to a hero’s welcome, greeted by the Mayor of Maidstone. And if his speech was a touch slurred again this time, he couldn’t blame hypothermia.

"I’m afraid I was drunk. They stitched me up," he said. "Ian Bourn, the guy that had lent me the boat, he came up and said 'we’ll paddle up the Medway together'.

"There was three of us. When we started he stopped and got out this towel across his arm, and a tray, like a waiter, and we had three glasses of sherry just as it was getting light.

"We went so slow we missed the tide and had to get a lift, so we had a bottle of brandy in the car, and then we had a reception in Maidstone canoe club, so we had another little drink. "I’m afraid it went from bad to worse to be honest."

The last leg back into Maidstone
The last leg back into Maidstone

Nevertheless, he had succeeded in his goal, and become the first man to circumnavigate the country by kayak - or to be precise, two kayaks.

Nimrod’s tale however, was far from over.

Left to roll in the waters of fate, the kayak could have been lost forever. But as luck would have it, the boat came ashore three days later, washed up on a slag heap near Workington.

Badly damaged it ended up being taken home to Maidstone before being donated to the Maritime Museum in Exeter, where it stayed for several years before being shipped up to the Eyemouth, South East Scotland.

When Geoff went to see Nimrod two years ago, he found it still in need of repair, and in May this year Nimrod was taken back to Maidstone so he could do the job himself.

Geoff with sons Harry (left) Jonathan (centre) and Tim (right), after Nimrod's successful second trip
Geoff with sons Harry (left) Jonathan (centre) and Tim (right), after Nimrod's successful second trip

And last month - armed with a better spray-deck and the company of his three sons, Jonathan, Tim and Harry - Geoff and Nimrod proved themselves seaworthy once more on a trip down the Medway from Maidstone to Gillingham.

"It’s been 45 years since I was in it so it’s a long time and I’ve not paddled it since then," said Geoff. "It was lovely."

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