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2 June 2024

Sheer cliffs, snow-capped mountains, dense rainforests and treacherous glacial currents keep the senses on full alert as Members Cayle Royce and Neil Heritage kayak the 2,000km along the Canadian and Pacific North West coastline.

They often spend their days paddling with killer whales and seals for close company, 100kg of kit crammed into their finely-balanced kayaks, while wolves and grizzly bears roam the nearby forests and shores, making setting up camp each night a dangerous business.

The Inside Passage expedition, which was established to raise funds and awareness for military charities, took 89 eventful days to complete last year, but it was four years in its meticulous planning. Team captain Cayle and Blesma Trustee Neil, were joined by four other veterans and two civilians for a gruelling training regime around the UK's challenging waters as well as a trial expedition in Sweden.

"We all got an immense amount from it on a personal level, but we also did it to keep wounded veterans in the national and international consciousness," says Cayle.

"You don't have to row oceans or kayak for thousands of miles to push yourself, but you can take on challenges that seem out of reach. We all strongly believe that you are not defined by your disabilities and, although there's going to be limitations and frustrations, you can still be proactive and enjoy life to the full. Particularly when you surround yourself with like-minded people."


During Neil's 11-year service he deployed to Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Iraq. He lost both his legs above the knee in 2004 following a suicide bomb attack while he was serving as part of a bomb disposal team in Iraq. In 2020, he became the first double above-knee amputee to climb The Matterhorn.

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After kayaking for 7-12 hours each day, the team had to scout campsites, hack through dense vegetation, and set up camp while staying alert for bears and wolves.
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Cayle Royce, the expeditions skipper, served in the military for 10 years before losing both legs above the knee and part of his left hand in Afghanistan in 2012.

 "The message we want to send out is that people with a disability can do things and we hope this inspires them. It may take a bit more thought and planning, but you can achieve goals you didn't think were possible," he says.

The first of many challenges for the team was to adapt the sleek kayaks so that Cayle and Neil could steer without traditional fitted footplates. The next was to train the other members of the team – who had no kayaking experience – for the huge and dangerous undertaking.

"We trained extensively and prepared for the very worst because the weather can be notoriously bad along that coast," says Cayle, a double amputee and former Light Dragoon Lance Corporal, who has rowed across the Atlantic Ocean twice. "The trip had its challenging moments, but we had prepared very well and were cautious."

Cayle, who served in the military for 10 years, lost both his legs above the knee as well as part of his left hand when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan in 2012. He skippered the first all-disabled British crew to row across the Atlantic Ocean and, as skipper on this expedition, was responsible for creating the route and handling the logistics.

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"It was this daily grind up and down the beaches - pack, unpack, repeat - that was by far the toughest part of the expedition,"

"To be that close to whales, bears and wolves in such wild surroundings was an incredible experience for all of us, and it was a joy to be with such a strong team. We all got an immense amount from it on a personal level, but we also did it to keep wounded veterans in the national and international consciousness."

The expedition – from Washington State in the USA to Skagway in Alaska – was devised after a planned trip along the length of the River Amazon had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team's target then went from a tropical cauldron to freezing tidal waters that are fed by 200 inches of rain a year and torrents of glacial run-off.

"The route was definitely challenging as the coastline is immensely tidal and you are essentially weaving through a massive archipelago," says Cayle. "Due to the maze of islands and the enormous 30ft tidal range there were certain sections where the water would squeeze between these islands and hit up to 18 knots. You simply cannot paddle fully-laden boats against eddies, whirlpools and rapids when your maximum paddling speed is around three knots. We had to get tides and times bang on every single day to avoid danger.

"One of the toughest days was an open water crossing of a seven-mile mouth of an inlet," recalls Cayle. "It had been raining for a couple of days and the temperature had dropped to around freezing. There was a strong wind blowing and freezing waters rushing down from glacier-capped mountains.

"By this point, our dry suits had taken some serious punishment so we were getting cold and wet – it got to the point where we were unable to feel our hands and faces, which made it difficult to handle the boats in rough conditions. If anyone had gone in the water then they would have been in serious trouble!

"We found a little rock of an island in the middle of the inlet and headed for it as the swell was rising and we were becoming hypothermic. We managed to reach it, got into the lee of the island for a bit of shelter, layered on some more gear, and necked what we had in our Thermoses before making the rest of the crossing.

"But for the most part the paddling was good and we enjoyed the scenery and the encounters with wildlife. Icebergs floated past and Orca swam nearby. At one point, a massive bull swam in front of us and its dorsal fin must have been six feet out of the water. It was phenomenal!

"Giant sea lions would check us out, and if they weren't too keen on us they would bark and thrash around us, usually when we least expected it. When it wasn't you they were harassing it was very entertaining to watch your mates do whatever they could to keep their boats upright whilst preparing to do battle with the 11ft-long, 2,500-pound beasts.

"There were eagles everywhere and we lost count of the number of humpback whales; whichever way you turned there were dramatic views – snow and glacier-capped mountains that dropped into the sea with sheer cliffs for miles and nowhere to land."

The team had to scout suitable sites to make camp for overnight stops, often hacking through dense vegetation and moving timber and rocks to create their own campsites well above the high tide line. Their neighbours were wolves and bears, so strict protocols – such as triple-bagging food, ensuring no debris was discarded and storing it all safely well away from the tents – were needed to ensure they weren't attracted, and to leave no imprint on the pristine landscape.

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The expedition team had to navigate sheer cliffs, dense rainforests, and treacherous glacial currents during their 89-day journey.

"If anything, the paddling was the easiest part. It was getting all the gear up from the water's edge and making camp that was the stretch after we'd been paddling for anything from seven to 12 hours each day," adds Cayle. "Every time we landed at a potential camp, we had to do a recce to see if it was suitable before then unpacking all the gear from the kayaks and shuttling it above the wood line followed by all the boats. The "beaches" were mainly just sharp barnacle and weed covered boulders which added some excitement to the experience. Our longest carry was just shy of 2km from the water's edge to the wood line. Only once this was completed could we clear the area to set up camp, which would take another few hours.

"Neil and I use prosthetics, so it was very difficult to safely carry the boats and gear over this terrain without damaging them. The boys did a brilliant job of helping us.

"And there was rarely any flat ground to pitch a tent so you could end up sleeping at 45° angles a lot of the time. Every night we basically had some food and a bit of banter, checked the tides, route and weather for the next day and then conked out before repeating the process in reverse order the following morning. It was this daily grind up and down the beaches - pack, unpack, repeat - that was by far the toughest part of the expedition in my opinion."

After three months of living like this, the expedition reached its conclusion, some 2,000km from where it all began, with the team raising £140,000 for charity.

"We feel lucky to have seen some incredible wildlife and scenery, and to have experienced this together," says Neil. "The expedition took three months to complete but we've been together for years as a team through all the training and planning, so we have developed some really good friendships.

"We will never forget the experience on a personal level, but we want this to have a lasting impact for people with disabilities. We want to spread the word that you can take on all sorts of challenges, and we hope the expedition will help and inspire other people."

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