Articles - Interview With Record Breaking Sea Kayaker John Willacy

Performance Sea Kayaker John Willacy
Performance Sea Kayaker John Willacy
Canoe & Kayak UK Editorial - Posted on 30 Aug 2012
For many, as well as the joy and sense of freedom afforded by taking to sea in a kayak, the appeal is in rising to a challenge, paddling further faster competing head-to-head and perhaps even breaking records. John Willacy is an experienced sea kayaker with a racing background and many a record under his belt, who, in 2010 set up a website to showcase and record the aspirations and achievements of people taking up many different types of sea kayak challenge. Performance sea kayaking isn’t just taking off, it’s been around for a long time and is clearly here to stay, only now, thanks to the Performance Sea Kayak website, you can hear about events, attempts and records set all in one place. Canoe & Kayak UK caught up with John to find out more…

For the sake of people reading who might not be aware of what Performance Sea Kayaks is, please Sea Kayaker John Willacy going for it in the Menai Straits, Angleseycould you sum up what it’s all about?
Performance Sea Kayak is a website that summarises details of various records and challenges undertaken by sea kayakers based around the UK. It aims to show what paddlers get up to and what is feasible out there; hopefully it may inspire others to try a few challenges of their own. There are all sorts on there, from the list of UK Circumnavigators to the man who paddled to the Isle of Man with his dog.

Can anybody undertake a challenge on Performance Sea Kayaking?

Performance Sea Kayak records challenges already completed by sea paddlers (it also lists some that are in the planning stages); it doesn’t set specific challenges as such. There are no real rules to what you can and can’t do, that’s up to the imagination of the individual. If you want to see how you compare to a record already on the site then great, go for it! If you have a new idea for a record then do it, record it and let us know. We’ll try to squeeze it into the site somewhere. However there are specific guidelines to how a challenge should be undertaken, if you want it recorded. These refer of course to safety but they also aim to standardise methods so the records can be compared realistically - like for like. There are pages that relate to timing methods, validation and the use of sails for example.

It’s clear now, with just a cursory browse of the Performance Sea Kayaking website how it serves as a source of inspiration to others to undertake personal challenges and try to better records. What initially inspired you to start Performance Sea Kayaking? Was it sensing that there was a lot of this type of thing going on, which needed somewhere it could all be recorded and showcased in one place, or was it sensing a lack of it and wanting to spur people on?
It really came about when I was planning a crossing to the Isle of Man. I thought that while I was at it I might as well see how I would compare to the current record. Everybody knew of the record but when I tried to find details it was all became rather vague – ‘such and such did it in x hours’, but then when you asked ‘such and such’ it turned out they didn’t do it all, and so it went on.  About the same time I had completed a couple of attempts on the Anglesey Sea Kayak Circumnavigation record and I was starting to hear from people who wanted to know if I had details of other records around the country – there was a lot of hearsay and rumour but it was hard to nail down real details. So I decided it would be good if you could find all this stuff in one place, on a website and hey presto! Performance Sea Kayak was born – the rest is history as they say.

Performance Sea Kayak is a great advert for all types of sea kayak challenge, all with their own distinct but compelling reasons to undertake them. These various reasons will attract different sorts of personalities: the ‘tidy’ nature of circumnavigations, the gruelling but rewarding nature of long crossings, the adventurousness of multi-day trips, competitiveness of racing and the athletic discipline of time trials. At heart, which are you?
I like a challenge; I like to train, plan and prepare for that challenge and then see how it all works out on the day. I have a racing background and I do still like to have a bit of a dust-up now and then. But the time-trial is always an interesting one too; it is hard to pace and motivate, to push yourself to the limit when you paddle on your own. Then there are the long crossings that add that rewarding element of self reliance – paddling solo 20 miles off-shore knowing everything is down to you and only you, whatever comes along. To just complete a crossing and look back at the map is rewarding. But I do have a special place for the circumnavigation; to sneak around one of the UK ‘Islands’ in one go is the ultimate puzzle. There are so many options for start location and tidal phase; the planning is such a learning process with many unknowns. It’s a good feeling when it all it works out, but you can always improve... Not too excited about the ‘the adventurousness of multi-day trips’ though. I’m a bit soft like that, I like to paddle hard but then go home to a warm shower and soft bed!

What are the things that Performance Sea Kayak is recording right now that excites you the most in terms of what others are doing? We won’t hold you to naming just one, though!
For 2012 the UK Circumnavigation seems to be the ‘in thing’, there’s something like 20 paddlers making an attempt this year! I really like to watch how people prepare for these things. They all have different approaches and I find that intriguing, I like to see how these alternatives then work in practice on the day. But when all's said and done I just like to watch people set their own challenge and go for it, their own little ‘Everest’ whatever that may be. It doesn’t really matter what it is or whatever the ‘level’. It’s more just about the individual finding and stretching their limits.

Tell us a bit specifically about the Menai Challenge?
The Menai Challenge is a self-timed time trial in the Menai Straits, a tidal stretch of water between the Isle of Anglesey and the North Wales mainland. There are two courses - a straight through A to B course and a more advanced course that takes a lap of the fast moving Swellies. Once a paddler has completed a time they can then submit it to be posted on the website for all to see. Sponsored prizes at the end of the year (on a raffle basis – you don’t have to be the quickest!) The idea was to get a little competitive spirit going (with hopefully a few grudge matches along the way!) and to introduce people to the idea of pushing boat and body that little bit harder, while at the same time making people think about the moving water and the fastest lines. (It appears that this topic has become a subject of regular beertime debate locally). I like the excuses, tall-tales and banter it brings too!

Tell us more about your own sea kayaking history. What attracted you to paddling? Was (is) it a platform to push and challenge yourself, or was (is) it an end in itself?
Neither really. I was happily tootling along in the racing world but unfortunately I was also in the Royal Air Force. They decided that it would be a good idea to send me to Anglesey and as I then found myself living on an island I figured I might as well learn a little more about this sea kayaking lark. It’s been interesting to combine both ends of the spectrum.

Of all the elements of undertaking a challenge – careful planning, training and then actually attempting it, which is the most enjoyable?
The planning and training are the main parts; the actual paddling is more or less an afterthought. If the first two have gone well the paddling is almost a formality. The most rewarding part is when all the previous work comes together and you get it right on the day – that is a good feeling.

In the case of, say, breaking the record for the fastest circumnavigation of Anglesey, how much of an event is it before you break that record? Do you train and build up to a specific start time, in which you set out thinking ‘this is the one,’ or is it a case of repeating it until one time conditions and your state of mind come together and allow you to break that record?
It’s all about getting it right on the day – if things aren’t right then you don’t go. The training cycle might well be as long as two years for some events, with plenty of milestones along the way. So by the time you set out on the day you should know pretty well how you are going to do. It’s pleasantly surprising how accurate you can be – for the 10-11hrs say you should be able to judge your finish time to within 15-20 mins really – unless it all goes to **** of course...

Obviously it is standard practice and highly advisable for sea kayakers (well, all kayakers) to stay fit. With the boundaries being pushed now, at what stage does this become an athletic discipline?
It already is I think, but it depends really on how you define this. After all it’s as hard or as easy as you make it – everyone has their own standards and every day is different. It’s about the individual, the personal challenge and what you want from it – you can set your own rules in this game.

Clearly there is a difference between this style of paddling and the more purely recreational style of paddling in which you set out on a sunny day with some lunch in the day hatch and meander up down a scenic stretch of coast at a leisurely pace. Would you ever be caught relaxing in the sunshine eating packed lunch? Or would the impulse to set the stopwatch going and leaving your fellow picnicers far behind be too strong?
I’m definitely up for a bimble now and then; I’ll very happily eat my lunch (I wouldn’t mind being sponsored by Mr Kipling if he’s reading this by chance) on a sunny beach with some good friends. There’s a time and place for everything, it’s definitely not all about always going hard. It’s just about going hard when you need to.

The nature of many of these sea kayaking challenges means that you may sometimes find yourself paddling solo? What, if anything, do you think this adds to the experience?
Well you tend to get a better level of conversation and slightly less faff!  It is rewarding to do something solo. I like to know that if it goes well it is down to what I did, but likewise if it all goes to ******** then it is entirely my fault; it is me who needs to raise my game for next time – no one else. There is no hiding behind anybody else - no excuses – I like that.

Nobody could accuse Performance Sea Kayakof not taking safety seriously; you have very detailed downloadable safety guidelines. As we all know, though, the environment we use for sea kayaking dictates a certain level of risk, regardless of how well managed it is, which is only increased by adding solo paddling into the equation. How do you weigh up this risk against completing personal challenge. How far does the fact that you are overcoming risk enhance the senses of achievement when you do?
I’m not a risk taker. I train and prepare hard for what I do, I will push my limits in training but that is to make sure I know exactly where they are. So when I set out on a ‘sea kayak challenge’ I know what the risks are and where my limits lie, then I paddle within them. I will know when I am pushing those limits and it should only be calculated reasoning that takes me to that level. Everybody’s limits are different; you need to find your own (and to be able to take the hint when you are pushing your luck).
The Performance Sea Kayak pages do have a section on safety. But rather than it be prescriptive about safety measures to be taken it is aimed more to make people think about how demanding the sea environment can be, with the point being that sea paddlers should go and prepare themselves fully before attempting any paddle.

Would you say that the UK’s rich and varied coastline is a contributing factor to the success of Performance Sea Kayak, in that it allows for so many different types of challenge – at many different levels of ability, to be undertaken?
Most definitely! The Isle of Anglesey, Isle of Man, Isle of Mull and Isle of Wight were purpose made for one-day challenges. The various routes within the Irish Sea seem to have been designed incrementally for such things too; I reckon God was a secret Performance Sea Kayaker in his spare time.

Are there any challenges that you’ve attempted, or would like to attempt, but that have until now eluded you? What is your sea kayaking Everest?
I don’t think I have an Everest really. I don’t have any great ultimate paddling ambitions, other than to enjoy it and still to be here in a few years. There is always something ahead, I may not know exactly when it will happen, I just know it will - it’s inevitable really. There’s always something in the offing, it’s really just an ongoing process I suppose. I’m always looking for the next thing or for ways to improve on previous ones – there’ll always be something to do.

A quickfire round to finish. What is your preference out of…

Rough seas and placid ocean?


Post-paddle beer and cream tea?
Pie ‘n’ chips or cake.

Any off-the water hobbies?
Fell Running and the Performance Sea Kayak website. Emptying the dishwasher seems to play a large part too but I don’t think that really is a hobby, whatever she tells me.

Any other types of kayaking/ canoeing for you?

Yes. But especially C1 slammer on a good wave.

Favourite sea kayaking anecdote?

I’m not very good at the anecdote thing, there would either be too much swearing for you to print or it would be scary stuff that would upset my Mum.

And finally, when is it all going to end? How far into the future do you think people will be able to push the boundaries of speed, endurance and elusion of the elements? Will there come a point when every record on Performance Sea Kayak is set, and it’s time for everybody to hang up their paddles, or will we continue to find new ways to challenge ourselves?
It won’t end and neither should it, look how far things have gone in the last 30 years. Some people will always want to push the boundaries and will always be able to push the boundaries. A record can always be beaten. When you hold a record you don’t own it, you are just babysitting it for the next guy.

Performance Sea Kayak can be found at

Video by Active4Seasons from John's recent circumnavigation of the UK by Sea Kayak

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