He’s the adventure sports addict from Blairgowrie who doesn’t let being blind stop him from undertaking extreme challenges. Gayle Ritchie meets Dean Dunbar as he paddleboards across a loch.
As waves taller than buses crashed down on Dean Dunbar’s paddleboard, he struggled to stay afloat.
He was smack bang in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, and Mother Nature wasn’t being kind.
Dean was on a mission to paddleboard to St Kilda from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides – a gruelling and dangerous 70km crossing that involved guts, grit and guile.
It was a feat that had never been attempted before on a SUP (stand-up paddleboard), never mind by a blind paddleboarder.
When he reached the archipelago – the most remote part of the British Isles – Dean was ecstatic, if a little exhausted.
“The paddle was awesome, treacherous and hairy at times and I did wonder if it was an adventure too far!” he admits when I meet him, his wife, and the couple’s dog on the banks of Clunie Loch in Perthshire.
“I didn’t spend as much time standing on the board as I’d hoped, with waves and swell of 10 to 12 feet at times. It was an amazing feeling when I actually made it to St Kilda – a mind-blowing experience like one I’d never had before.”
Dean was registered partially-sighted aged nine after struggling to see writing on the blackboard at school. His sight continued to deteriorate until he was registered blind aged 27 in 1996.
It was a huge blow to the former fitness instructor, of course, but he was determined not to let it beat him.
Dean’s love of extreme sports was born in 1998 after doing a charity tandem skydive to raise money for a blind school he was working at in Exeter. It was the first adrenaline sport he had tried and he was instantly hooked.
“The buzz from the skydive got me kick-started,” recalls the 49-year-old, who celebrates the 20th anniversary of his career in adventuring this year.
“The feeling was so intense that it became my mission to seek out more extreme sports to get that adrenaline rush again and again. I became an adrenaline junkie looking for my next hit.”
Despite his determination, Dean encountered resistance from adventure sports companies when he tried to get involved. He was knocked back “nine times out of ten” after they made garbled excuses about how their insurance wouldn’t cover him or that it was against their health and safety policy.
This was what spurred Dean to set up Extreme Dreams in 2002, a website that charted his adventures and name-checked the few companies that did support him.
Over the decades, he has conquered more than 100 different activities including canyoning, bungee jumping, wing walking, zorbing, sandboarding and a host of multi-sport adventure races. Oh, and he’s set more than 25 world firsts in everything from open-water swimming to stand-up paddleboarding.
A highlight in 2011 included swimming the Corryvreckan Gulf – a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba in Argyll and Bute, just yards from the world’s largest whirlpool – becoming the first blind person to do so.
In 2012, he became the first person ever to swim the entire length of Loch Etchachan in the Cairngorms, the UK’s highest loch.
Dean also set several world firsts including becoming the first registered blind person to bungee jump from a helicopter, and the first to be thrown by the Dangerous Sports Club’s Human Catapult.
It was only in 2014 that Dean, looking for his next “hit”, bought a paddleboard and started planning a trip to St Kilda – a place he had been obsessed with after his father gave him a book about the island when he was a young boy.
Guided by his friend Patrick Winterton, who was kayaking, the pair set off in July last year.
The trip was a massive success, with Dean becoming the first person to SUP the crossing.
“It was tough – two days of paddling with a night spent on a rock!” he recalls.
“The waves were up to 14ft and rather than standing, I had to get down and kneel on my knees to avoid being swept off the board.
“When we landed on Haskier, a tiny island, it was dark. Bed for the night was an almost vertical patch of grass wedged between two rocks. If I’d lost my footing, I would’ve slipped down off the cliff. Not good, and pretty scary.”
While he is registered blind, Dean still has some sight and relies on peripheral vision because his central vision has gone.
“Some days are better than others but my sight is deteriorating,” he reflects.
“I have blurred and blind spots, flashing lights and debris floating around in my eyes constantly.
“When I paddle on a loch, I see three layers. The bottom layer, the water I’m paddling on, is white. The middle layer, the land that surrounds the water, is dark. The top layer, the sky – in Scotland – tends to be grey.
“When people guide me on a stand-up paddleboard, we go by the ‘clock-face’, so it’s one o’clock to go a little bit right, 11 o’clock to go slightly left, and 12 o’clock is bang on course.
“On the St Kilda trip, Patrick paddled around blowing a very loud whistle to keep me on track. I probably only saw him 10 minutes out of every hour. One blast meant go right, two blasts was go left, a short stream of blasts was to tell me I was bang on course, and one long blast meant F-off and leave me alone!”
Unlike many activities, SUP is one that Dean can enjoy on his own. Once he’s been shown a loch’s layout, he can memorise it and then do it alone from then on.
“I don’t often get to be independent while in the great outdoors, so this is a real treat,” he says.
“And apart from falling off my board, the risks are minimal.”
Dean’s wife Rhona is more than happy to accompany her derring-do husband on his adventures and she herself is a major outdoors fan. She’s already been for a swim in Clunie Loch (in just a swimsuit; no wetsuit required for this lady) when I meet the couple, and after giving me some basic paddleboarding instructions (I’ve done it before so I kind of know what I’m doing), she zips off into the distance with Dean and me trailing behind her.
The couple’s dog, Collie-cross Stumpy, is equally enthusiastic, and despite being deaf, she deftly balances on Dean’s board as he cuts through the water.
This is just a bit of fun for the couple – some light training in calm, familiar conditions and a break from challenging competitions they take part in globally.
Rhona, a GP, has partnered Dean on many of his activities, whether helping him on safety boats, transporting him to places, or being on his team.
“Rhona is an absolute star,” beams Dean as I paddle alongside him.
“She’s the love of my life, and she never complains when I’m away on my adventures, and is always extremely supportive.
“I know she’s been worried about me, but she has never stopped me doing anything.”
Trust between the couple is hugely important, as is good communication.
“We had to develop our communication skills as they weren’t good enough in the early days,” says Dean.
“We were the first people to hydrospeed (like whitewater rafting but on a board instead of a raft) the River Tay and I very nearly came a cropper. At one stage, Rhona noticed a submerged tree and shouted at me to turn, turn, turn, but didn’t think to mention which direction.
“By the time I shouted back at her to ask which direction, it was too late, and I went under and nearly drowned.
“Since then, we’ve had no issues. I look for the yellow, or whatever bright colour she’s wearing, and other guides often wear bright yellow socks so I can easily pick them out!
“With lochs I know well, like Clunie and Tummel, I’m able to go by certain markers in the water. But I don’t see the island in Clunie until I’m 50m away.”
With sports like mountain biking, Dean needs to cycle behind the guide (or Rhona), watching the back wheel.
If he’s canyoning or cliff jumping, he needs a guide to walk him to the edge, tell him which way to look and when to leap forward so he can mentally and physically engage.
With Dean’s sight deteriorating, accidents are unavoidable, whether falling off bikes and smashing his knees or paddling into rocks or other hazards. But he reckons it’s worth the risk.
“I won’t let being blind beat me,” he says.
“If I get a bit bashed up along the way, it’s a small price to pay for the buzz I get.”
In September, Dean plans to take on the SUP 11 City Tour, a 220km non-stop paddleboarding challenge in the Netherlands with a cut-off time of 35 hours.
Dean gives inspirational talks at venues across the globe and can be booked at dean-talks.com
For more information on his adventures, see www.extremedreams.co.uk