Richard Harpham and his Big 5 Kayak Challenge

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Because life is too short not to try, Richard Harpham decided one day that it was time to make things change and start fighting for the causes he has always believed in. Early retired from the corporate world, he co-founded the Big 5 Kayak Challenge a few years ago to pursue his dreams of kayaking across oceans and helping people who aren’t as lucky as we are, supporting charities such as the Muscular Help Foundation or the Marine Conservation Society.

Investing his whole life, time and soul to this amazing project, Richard is determined to make a difference in people’s minds showing them how they can contribute to help others and make the world a better place. Because if you don’t push your own limits, you will never know what is waiting for you, it’s time to start taking action and get involved in the causes that matter to you. Read more about this sports junkie and dream fighter…

What is the Big 5 Kayak Challenge all about?

The Big 5 kayak challenge 2009 was about a personal challenge and some adventure with 5 challenging sea kayak expeditions including Round the Isle of Wight, The length of the Thames, Crossing the English Channel and Lands End to the Isle of Wight. The final expedition was 1000 miles from Vancouver to Alaska.  More than anything it was a personal journey for each of us and doing something that we loved doing.  We were also keen to ensure that we supported some good causes whilst we were having fun on expedition. Our causes have included the Muscular Help Foundation, The River Access Campaign and the Marine Conservation Society.

The Big 5 Kayak Challenge 2010 was about setting our sights a little bigger. We aimed to raise more awareness for our causes and in particular promoted the work of the Marine Conservation Society on TV and in the media.  We have begun to also start monitoring the pollution and plastic that we find on the remote beaches during our expeditions.  The Big 5 kayak challenge 2010 has involved kayaking around Malta and Gozo, canoeing 700 miles of the Yukon River, Crossing the Pentland Firth and paddling around the Orkney Isles(unsupported), Scotland to Ireland (unsupported) and London to Marrakech by kayak and cycle.   The team have now completed over 4,600 miles of human power during the 10 expeditions in 2 years. Of course, that doesn’t seem enough so the plans are growing again for next year.

How did this whole adventure start?

I had started an online sports community with over 5,000 bits of content in our online community from adventurers and Olympians aiming to inspire others.  After 5 years of hard work we needed more funds to keep going and grow. Sadly the bank withdrew a loan and we went bust. I decided that it was my time to do some bigger adventures myself. I didn’t want to just write about others challenging themselves. The Big 5 kayak challenge was born overnight and literally 5 weeks later we found ourselves in Prijon sea kayaks kayaking around the Isle of Wight.

Which charities/foundations are you helping?

Please sponsor us: (read on and find out why…)

Muscular Help Foundation

The team have supported the Muscular Help Foundation for a couple of years. During the Big 5 Kayak challenge 2009, we raised funds for MHF and their Muscle Dreams raising over £8,000 for the charity.  The Muscular Help Foundation provides unique support to young people suffering from Muscular Dystrophy by providing Muscle Dreams. For many of them their muscular system is shutting down and for the worst cases then they won’t live much beyond twenty. The Muscle dreams provide an amazing experience for young people and their families. This year we have continued to support them with some additional fundraising.

Marine Conservation Society

The team agreed to become ambassadors for the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), aimed at protecting the marine environment and seas, currently less than  The recent Marine Conservation Bill is new and aims to create special Marine Conservation Zones where the usage of the area is protected from overfishing, industry, marine craft, pollution etc.  So far the MCS team have identified 73 areas such as the Farne Islands, Skomer Island, which they hope to be designated for protection. People can vote for areas they wish to see protected and also on the 73 sites already listed by visiting   Kayakers can make a real difference by voting on sites, proposing new sites and generally raising awareness.  Fundraising by doing a sponsored paddle is also another way people can show their support and make a real difference.

Comments on the Marine Conservation Society…

The team agreed to become ambassadors for the Marine Conservation Society, aimed at protecting our coastline, lobbying for better legislation and educating people about doing their bit.

“We saw the good, the bad and the ugly of the marine environment during our first set of big 5 kayak challenges so it seemed appropriate to get involved with this great charity.   We have been lucky enough to experience the most amazing wildlife including eagles, humpbacks, porpoises, dolphins, bears, orcas and many more.  We have witnessed the rubbish and pollution in our seas and on beaches, in large-eddy lines off Land’s End, which is a stark contrast to the protection provided to the environment in Glacier Bay, Alaska, a UNESCO world heritage site. To sit back and do nothing would be wrong and we believe the Marine Conservation Zones covered by the bill is a good start”

Rivers Access Campaign

Access to rivers is a concern for us all; even wading in a river that has no certainly or clarity of access could mean that you are committing trespass. The purpose of the Rivers Access Campaign is not only to raise awareness of the access issue on inland waterways in England but to bring about a change.  The campaign is being undertaken by the British Canoe Union (BCU) (Canoe England) on behalf of all members of the public.

Facts –

  • Only 2% of rivers in England and Wales have Public access
  • The public do not have access along 65, 000 km of rivers in England and Wales
  • Whoever owns the land along the river (the riparian owner) also owns the property rights to the river bed.  They don’t own the water itself, only the land it passes over.
  • If a river doesn’t have a public right of navigation and you haven’t got consent from the riparian owner, you’re committing trespass by paddling or even wading in it.
  • Nearly all the most beautiful inland rivers are not accessible to the public.

For more information then visit

Why such a passion for kayaking and canoeing?

There were two loves in my life in terms of sport, rugby and canoeing. After my rugby came to an end with another injury(dislocated knee) I decided to focus on my canoeing. What I love about it is the diversity of disciplines within the one sport. Currently, I have canoed and kayaked on all my Big 5 expeditions. But I also race in marathon kayaks, play canoe polo(like rugby on the water), surf kayak and run rivers.  More than anything my adventures have let me experience so many beautiful locations, wildlife including bears, wolves, whales, dolphins and every day without fail you get to experience a bit of magic.

Were you born a “sports junkie”?

I think so, I was born a “sports junkie and a water baby”.  But I was also lucky enough to get support and coaching from so many amazing people, helping me along the way. In scouts, at school, from the youth service and in the kayak club.  I now try and pay that back by coaching youngsters in my sport.

What’s the favourite location in the world that you visited?

I love Alaska for its people and amazing wilderness, the vistas are stunning and the people are truly pioneering and hospitable. It is a spiritual place where you can find real peace.

What are the ones you absolutely wish to see in the future?

Would love to do some stuff in South America. Have done some trekking there and the people have a real sparkle in their eye.

Is “Why not” your philosophy in life and do you push your own limits to make your ideas/dreams come true?

I try to live by a Can Do attitude. I have also realised more recently that part of the drive also comes from a fear of failure.

What is your favourite motto in life?

Argue your own limitations and sure enough, they are yours! Which my dad always told my brother and me.

Do you think you would ever go back to the corporate world as we know it?

I was lucky in my early career to be given huge responsibility in running companies and big government bids which was a great experience. Currently, I work a lot on projects in the voluntary sector and enjoy working with organisations where their passion and values are closely aligned to the work that they do and the decisions that they make. As we all know not all companies operate like this and often ethical values and social responsibility are not high on their agenda. If I did return to the corporate world it would only be if I could make a real difference in an organisation that shared my values.

Are there any bad points to your lifestyle choice? Which ones?

Mainly it is hand to mouth in terms of balancing adventure and work so sometimes I run out of money. Fortunately, with my qualifications and experience so far people keep giving me consultancy work to allow me to make ends meet.  Any financial problem has been short term so far (fingers crossed).

From a personal point of view, what is your best achievement so far?

I am really proud of what the Big 5 kayak challenge has achieved, 4,600 miles in 10 expeditions over a 2 year period. To have completed this with plenty of setbacks and issues along the way is great.  I also managed the Ghana Ski Team to the Winter Olympics 2010 and walking into the Olympic Stadium at the opening and closing ceremonies was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Which advices you would give to people who want to follow your path?

Make a start. Get some advice and grab your dream and sense of adventure by the horns. Once you start you don’t need to look back and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve with determination.

What are the people you wish you could meet around a coffee? (such as politicians, champions, singers…or just people you admire)

Tricky one that! So many people, Francois Pienaar and Nelson Mandella. Would be cool to spend time with musicians Bono, James Vincent McMorrow and legendary band The The.  Johnny Depp would be a good laugh to hang out with.  Hopefully, at some point, I can get some politicians round for a coffee to chat about how we are going to improve the state of our environment and coastline in a common-sense way.

What’s next on your list?

I had a lot of time on my bike on the recent London to Marrakech expedition to think of what next.  My plans are to sea kayak 15 iconic locations around Britain’s coast and to complete an environmental impact on the beaches for pollution and plastics. I am also planning to canoe 5 rivers in Britain and will return to Alaska to sea kayak, hike and raft the missing section between my  two previous expeditions. You will be able to read more on our website

Major Sponsors

Paramo clothing, Whitby Knives, Olympus Waterproof Cameras, Canadian Affair airlines, BOOST (Delivering a London 2012 Legacy in Bedfordshire), Bamboo clothing, Prijon kayaks, Typhoon, Buff Headwear, Avoncraft canoes and kayaks, Transition Cycles Bedford, Alpheus Environmental Ltd.

Kit Sponsors:

Leatherman, Be-Well Expedition Foods, Niteize Waterproof Torches, Alpheus Environmental, Esquif Canoes, Bending Branches paddles, Aquabound paddles, Sealskins, Sanyo Xacti Video Cams, Square Rock, Trangia stoves, Force 10 Vango Tents.

Thanks a lot again to Richard for taking the time to share his passion, dreams and projects with us.