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Kate Culverwell and Anna Blackwell will be the first to complete a female tandem kayak journey along their planned route – starting in London and navigating through locks, canals and rivers before completing 2,400km of the Danube and finishing at the Black Sea.

Kayaking the Continent for Pancreatic Cancer Action

Kate Culverwell and Anna Blackwell discuss their impending voyage across the European continent for Pancreatic Cancer Action
(L-R) Kate Culverwell and Anna Blackwell

"For every weak-willed boy there are two outstanding women ready to take up the slack."

Toby Hambly

 

Adventurers astound me. It’s the urge to climb this mountain or cross that river, that instinctive human compulsion to chase down the horizon because we simply have to know what’s on the other side. Without that impulse I imagine humanity would never have progressed past our cave-dwelling stage. To my shame, I’m actively terrified by travelling. When I got back from my Interrail trip I felt like Sir Francis Drake despite having spent most of my time in one particularly comfortable city in Holland with a friend who spoke fluent Dutch (and whose mother lived there).

Kate and Anna are steadily approaching their target of £50,000 for Pancreatic Cancer Action UK and raising awareness through their website and media campaign.

 

Even the day before I met with the wonderful Kate Culverwell and Anna Blackwell I’d got on a bus on the wrong way down the A420. I fell asleep and woke up in Swindon feeling like I’d been kidnapped. Kate and Anna were generous enough to give a sympathetic chuckle at my pathetic mishap as we sat down, on International Women’s Day no less, to discuss their impending voyage across the European continent. They will be the first to complete a female tandem kayak journey along their planned route – starting in London and navigating through locks, canals and rivers before completing 2,400km of the Danube and finishing at the Black Sea.

Chatting to Kate and Anna one could be forgiven for thinking they’d been friends for years – there was a comfortable flow to how they each chipped in and a certain synergy to their personalities. Not so, however, and here we approach the first of many serendipities in their story. Having decided to kayak across Europe, Kate went looking for a comrade despite “everyone thinking I was mad”. Using the online network for intrepid travellers, Explorers Connect, she amassed over 80 responses from women around the world. Prospective partners from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand were all interested in this record-setting route but after three months the perfect fit still eluded her. “Then Anna sent me an email in October and it just so happened that we both lived in Oxford and she was five years above me at school.” This proves, perhaps, that if six degrees of separation exist between any two people on earth, a tie to Oxford can reduce that significantly. Also in this vein, I was pointed in Kate and Anna’s direction by my sister, Jess, who went to their same school and worked at its rowing club as a coach with Kate. Jess turned down Kate’s adventure claiming a lack of fitness, something Kate respectfully described as “bull”.

Despite their proximity at school (Anna even points out that they played in an orchestra together) their paths never properly crossed. This leads me to the second happenstance that jumped out at me – how good a team they make. They are similar in many ways whilst also possessing separate skills that I quickly realised would be crucial to making a trip like this succeed. Both are eloquent, mature, talented and driven. They also both radiated genuine humility not only in the face of their mammoth upcoming expedition but in describing the achievements that got them to this point.

What Anna brings to the table is experience. Her first big adventure (not including Interrailing which apparently doesn’t count, further dampening my delusions of Magellanesque grandeur) was a three-week trek in Costa Rica with a group of 12 others. Describing the finale of that first foray into the world of serious travel, Anna told me, “Everyone else was crying tears of relief that they’d finished this horrendous ordeal, and I was sitting there genuinely crying because I was so disappointed that it was over and the next day I wasn’t going to be putting my boots and rucksack back on and trekking off into the jungle.” There she resolved to do something “big” each year – all the while maintaining her fantastically well-written blog. Her humility-cum-lunacy shone through when describing a portion of her five-week 485km solo trek through the wilderness of northern Sweden in 2016. “I had about ten days where I constantly had wet socks and feet because I had holes in my boots. Also my tent collapsed about four days into it, at 4am, on my birthday – I was woken up with wet tent material clinging to my face and was actually forced awake because I was struggling to breathe. I thought, ‘This is not ideal.’” True to form, this comment was followed by a self-effacing laugh, evoking that relativistic notion of ‘worse things happen at sea’. “Most normal people might have thought, ‘No, I can’t do this.’ But I just said to myself, ‘No, let’s go.’” Maybe, she conceded, “I’m just a complete weirdo.”

Kate’s skillset is much more based around the physical challenge, having progressed through the ranks of Headington School’s impressive rowing programme to become vice-captain. I asked if their rigorous training had perhaps been a little harder on Anna than Kate who admitted, “This has been pretty light compared to what we were doing [at Headington] but it’s still been tough because I took a year out.” Anna, of course, is no slouch, but told me that she’d “never had to train so specifically. Previously it’s just been about getting general fitness up and also leg strength – but this is the first trip where I don’t really need my legs that much which is weird.”

In Kate we also find the impetus behind this trip and the reason it is in aid of Pancreatic Cancer Action. Kate lost her father David to the disease in 2015 and hearing her recount her experience around this time was moving. She was neck-deep in a list of extra-curricular activities that would make the average student faint. “I was doing A-levels, applying for Oxford, I was doing eight music groups, I was rowing six days a week, I was vice-captain, I was also a music prefect and I was doing three music exams,” she said before quickly adding, “Oh and a solo at Balliol College – a Bach violin concerto.” She rattled this off so quickly I had to ask her to repeat it. All of this, she suspected, prevented or at least delayed the full onset of grief. “My dad had been ill since I was about 14 so it was a long process,” she said, as though this was something of an advantage, as I sat opposite her utterly stunned, struggling to compute how I would have dealt with mourning the loss of a parent at such a formative age, regardless of the brevity of the illness. After school and away in Canada, having come out with “decent” grades (read: astonishing) and passed “all the things” (read: smashed it), the tide of grief caught up with her, and here she had the truly impressive strength of character to think, as she put it, “What am I going to do? There’s two ways of going about it – either you let yourself sink or you can say, ‘OK, this has happened to me, what can I do?’”

What they aim to do is of course raise money, but beyond that raise awareness of the pervasiveness and potency of a disease that receives disproportionately little funding compared to other ‘headline’ cancers like those of the lung, liver or breast. On these matters, Kate’s demeanour changed slightly. She naturally comes across as someone accustomed to doing a million things at once – the kind of person prepared to go from a rowing boat to a university interview to a violin recital in a few hours. Her mannerisms were recognisably those of a genuinely humble but incredibly busy young woman. Her shirt collar half poked out from under her jumper, slightly folded back on itself. Her hair would repeatedly fall and partially obscure her face in a way that reminded me of other prolific women I’ve met and worked for. Seemingly unaware that this would keep happening, she’d flick it back up with her unassuming laugh and infectious smile. However, on matters of funding, awareness and early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, her tone was more obstinate. Her hair was left unflicked, her shoulders slightly squared.

The facts are as follows. In the words of Nic Dakin MP, the Chair of the All Parliamentary Group on Pancreatic Cancer, from its 2017 report entitled ‘The Need for Speed’, “Pancreatic cancer stubbornly maintains the lowest five-year survival of the 20 most common cancers … Moreover 10-year survival still stands at 1%. These appalling statistics stem at least in part from the fact that pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage, when treatment is no longer an option.” This is the sad reality of a disease that many believe is symptomless. Kate tells me resolutely that this is untrue – the fact is that unlike a lump in one’s breast, the symptoms of pancreatic cancer can be common or vague leading patients and doctors to miss vital opportunities. On that factor, the 2017 report calls for increased GP support to improve the diagnostic pathways of sufferers and achieve earlier diagnoses. It also recommends that Public Health England “roll out the Be Clear on Cancer abdominal symptoms campaign nationally”. At the time of writing this has not happened though the regional pilot finished on 31 March 2017.

Everything in the report reflects excellent work done by researchers and politicians to counter the logistical, pecuniary and scientific challenges of pancreatic cancer. It does however seem to consistently recommend that pre-existing initiatives be implemented or that targets be met, which is unfortunately the kind of language that doesn’t provide comfort to people affected by the disease such as Kate. People like Kate and Anna don’t allow for inertia such as this; they resolve to act, to see what is within their power to do and set about doing it.

They are steadily approaching their target of £50,000 for Pancreatic Cancer Action UK and raising awareness through their website and media campaign. They will be paddling for 4,000km through 13 countries which, lest we forget, involves kayaking across the Channel. With the aid of a safety boat to deal with the trifling detail that the Channel is the world’s busiest shipping lane, they will complete on their first day what others undertake as a fundraising challenge in its own right. They will navigate through countless locks, meshing together canals and rivers before kayaking almost the entire length of the Danube. Not content with this ludicrous endeavour, Anna and Kate will also be contributing to research by FreshWater Watch. Realising that perhaps none before them will have spent so much time on Europe’s rivers and canals, they went in search of a project. Having chosen FreshWater Watch, Anna discovered that they are based “literally two minutes from Kate’s front door”. The project gives regular citizens the means to take water samples and test them using a simple kit. They then upload the results through an app to be plotted alongside other data on a map. With the sheer scale and continuity of their journey on Europe’s waterways, FreshWater Watch are overjoyed at Anna and Kate’s upcoming contribution, “collecting water samples in places we’ve never studied before”. Their work will help scientists study the effects of urban areas on water purity and should make them named collaborators on a future scientific paper, “which is pretty cool” Anna said calmly.

You can support Kate and Anna by donating to their Virgin Giving page, or by joining the ranks of local sponsors Elsevier and Mamma Mia Pizzeria. More simply however, we can spread the word around. We can all take steps to educate ourselves and others about this under-researched and under-funded disease. We can also take great pride in two of Oxfordshire’s finest young women setting out on such a formidable adventure without conceit, vanity, or ego, for two incredible causes. Too often in life we become myopic. Years go by as we complain about our work-life balance, not pausing to remember that we have both work and a life to balance. I don’t think I’ll ever find the wanderlust that Anna embodies and I can only hope to possess the strength of will that both women manifest. I think I would have been the Neanderthal left behind in the cave. Luckily for all of us however, for every weak-willed boy there are two outstanding women ready to take up the slack. Good luck and God speed.

 

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