Interview: Annabel Taylor-Ross Photos: Jon White
In September 2017, Jon White gave the inaugural New Beginnings talk to the sixth form at Blundell’s School. He used his experience of overcoming adversity to motivate the students as they began a new school year. Annabel Taylor-Ross recalls this first meeting with Jon, his journey to becoming an international paddler, and his partnership with Epic Kayaks and Vaikobi.
I vividly remember being struck by how candid and pragmatic you were when you told the students about the impact of the bomb, the immediate aftermath of receiving life-saving first-aid on the scene, of the carnage. The pupils were transfixed and fascinated by the detail of the casualty evacuation and your subsequent path to recovery and surviving the trauma of three amputations. I was struck by how easily you opened up to the students and answered their questions, putting them at ease. Does it get easier with time to talk about Helmand and the incident?
Talking about my experiences is important to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly I hope others can gain insight and learn from my experience without going through the pain I went through. Secondly, I think it helps me deal with the trauma; every time I tell the story, I recall the memories, and I think I adjust them slightly each time before I ‘file them away’. As a result, I have almost recreated the memories into something I am quite comfortable with, hence why I can speak candidly.
I also remember you literally jumped from the wheelchair you were using onto the tailgate of your Landrover, hauling the chair in after you, launching yourself over the back seats into the front and putting your legs on so you could drive home, all the time talking to me about mutual military mates and comparing our very different experiences of Afghanistan. I’ve never seen your amputations stop you from achieving your goals – has it always been that way?
Of course, they slow me down, but I’ve realised there is no point in deliberating about whether to try something that needs to be done. The quicker it’s done, the better. So I learnt to have a go at things, and that has transferred into my kayaking too.
A few months later, you turned up on the yard, talking to Jim about kayaks, with a friend who was buying a surfski. I know after your first DW, you said never again – what made you get into a kayak again?
When you and I met, I had been through a really tough couple of years. I was back in a wheelchair due to needing revision surgeries to my amputations. It ended up being 17 surgeries over 21/2 years. In amongst that, my marriage collapsed, and I had struggled to work. So when I turned up fit and healthy on the yard, a year into my psychology degree and with work reappearing, I knew it was the time for a challenge again. I got a new kayaking arm made, I sold the sofa in my flat and put my kayak ergo in its place, and I bought a Kirton Teknik second hand. It was the only boat on eBay in my price range. I did my research and realised it would be a challenge to paddle, but I just decided to go for it. Jim introduced me to Francis, who made my first footrest for it. When I told Jim what boat it was, he looked at me with incredulity and said, “I can’t paddle that boat.” Thankfully now he says I look very comfortable in it!
So at what point did you first get into a ski – and was it, love, at first wave?
Having done DW, I started entering the Hasler marathons. Jim grabbed me at the Tamar race and said that I was doing well, but I would enjoy the surfski more. So we hatched a plan that I would do Epic Bay in 2019, and If I could do two laps, then I would do the Icon. Time was tight, though. Jim and I met in the yard to set up a V5 and some suitable prosthetics. He was a bit nervous as I told him to get his angle grinder out and cut feet and shin tubes. Then the Thursday evening before the race, Jim and I went to Exmouth with Dave, who would be my escort paddler. We worked out how to launch me, how to recover me and whether I could steer. Back then, recovering me onto my ski involved rope lines and paddling with a paddle float in my cockpit. Thankfully it has all got a bit simpler now – essentially, I do it the same way as everyone else, just a bit more slowly and with someone steadying my boat if conditions are rough.
So you paddled a race two days after your first ski?
I completed my two laps just before Scooby Lark raced past for his third lap, and they closed the course. My prosthetic arm was uncomfortable that day, so I decided to leave it at the two laps as that was all Jim had asked for. That race didn’t secure the love of the sport but made me realise it was achievable.
And so to the Icon. This ski race, organised by Mark Ressel of Icon Sports, is called the Icon Classic for a good reason – it is a monster of a race from Woolacombe to Combe Martin round the rarely benign Mort Point. I seem to remember it being eventful – remind me?
It started at the race brief. Res standing up and telling us conditions looked testing, and any novices should go and see him, and he would give them their money back. Well, I looked at Dave and Jim and asked how novice is novice. This was going to be my fifth time in a surfski, and I felt very novice! Jim told me I would be fine. They started me with the SUPs at Lee Bay, so I didn’t have to navigate Mort Point. However, the rest of the course was challenging enough for me. Waves seemed to be coming in all directions, and my set-up was still very experimental back then. The knees I had kept collapsing, so I was getting washed forward in the bucket, and at one point, my feet were washed off the footrest and out of the boat. I swore a lot. Somehow I didn’t swim. Dave, my escort paddler at the final headland, had a swim and was struggling to remount. He was behind me, and it was all I could do to keep myself upright; I couldn’t assist him. I waited around until I saw the safety rib come to help him, then I decided my best move was to crack on as I could see the clearer waters ahead, so I finished the race alone. When Jim met me at the beach and helped out the boat, I told him I was a bit out of my depth. He said to keep that quiet as I had done it!
And so began your surfski career – how’s it gone since that auspicious beginning?