Whether it’s kayaking across the harshest seas or attending a masonic meeting, for Pete Bray life is all about helping other people. Caitlin Davies joins him for a paddle off the Liverpool coast
Record-breaking British adventurer Pete Bray has completed seven major expeditions, survived a sinking boat and two hurricanes, and has a medal for bravery. Now the climber, marathon runner, cross-country skier and microlight pilot is embarking on a new journey: Freemasonry.
Born in Plymouth in 1956, Pete counted polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton among his childhood heroes: ‘He taught me that if you plan, you succeed, and you live to fight another day.’ Pete learnt this the hard way when, at the age of eleven, he got his first kayak. Not content with splashing around in the sea, he set off from Torpoint in Cornwall wearing a World War I life jacket with virtually no knowledge about currents and tides.
After reaching Cawsand, Pete decided on the way back to have a look at HMS Ark Royal in the Plymouth docks, at which point the Ministry of Defence (MOD) intervened. ‘They explained the tides and they picked me up and took me home. I got grounded by my dad for a week, but it was all very exciting.’
Perhaps it was this early brush with the MOD that led to Pete joining the army; he worked for twenty-four years as a soldier, including fifteen years in the SAS.
‘I loved to race while I was in the regiment,’ he explains, ‘and in 1984 I entered a seven-day race between Sweden and Finland. It was the first time I’d been in a racing kayak. Imagine ice skating for the first time; that’s what it was like: you get in, you tip straight out. When I arrived for the race they asked where my support team was and I replied, “You’re looking at him’.”
‘After saving the lives of his crew when they were struck by Hurricane Alex, Pete was awarded a medal by the Royal Humane Society.’
Rising to challenges
In 1996, Pete kayaked around Great Britain with Steve McDonald, a partially sighted friend, then in 2000 he set off to cross the Atlantic alone. But ‘the valve had been put in wrongly and so the boat sank’. He survived for thirty-seven hours in freezing waters before being picked up. It took him months to learn to walk again after suffering from cold-water injuries, but the next year Pete became the first person to kayak solo across the North Atlantic from west to east.
This seventy-six-day expedition was documented in Pete’s book Kayak Across the Atlantic, and for ten years he held the world record for the longest open-water crossing undertaken by a kayaker. ‘I hate to fail,’ says the fifty-eight-year-old. ‘If something is in the way, it’s just a hurdle to overcome.’
Pete is clearly a determined man and has had to face many other hurdles along the way. In 2004 he was part of a four-man team attempting the fastest row crossing from Newfoundland to the Isles of Scilly. After thirty-nine days at sea, the boat was struck by Hurricane Alex and split in two. Having saved the lives of his crew, Pete was awarded a bronze medal by the Royal Humane Society in 2005. The same year, Pete and three others spent thirteen days kayaking around South Georgia, setting the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the island.
Then in 2009, drama hit again during a solo row from Newfoundland to the Isles of Scilly. After forty-two days he needed rescuing; faced with winds of one hundred and twenty-five miles per hour and twenty-foot waves, he was in the path of Hurricane Bill.
For his next challenge, Pete has two ideas: a ‘paddle around Wales’ and ‘motorbiking to the twenty-eight capitals of the European Union with disabled soldiers’.
And if all that isn’t enough to keep him busy, last year he branched out into previously uncharted waters, joining Phoenix Lodge, No. 3236, in Cheshire.
Pete, who is the director of a security consultancy, Primarius, explains his decision: ‘My business partner Harry Glover asked if I wanted to join his lodge, and one of the attractions was the fundraising aspect of Freemasonry. Being a mason is all about looking after people, which I like, so it seemed logical to join.’
Paddling for pounds
Pete is also planning a sponsored kayak crossing of the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska, just south of the Arctic Circle. He will be raising money for the Teddies for Loving Care Appeal, which gives teddy bears to children in hospitals, and the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB), which relieves childhood poverty and supports education.
Ray Collings has been fundraising manager at the RMTGB for seven years and has worked with masons who have climbed Kilimanjaro, run marathons or completed the National Three Peaks Challenge. But when Pete rang and told him his plan to kayak across the Bering Strait, ‘I thought he was joking,’ laughs Ray. ‘Then when I realised what he has done in the past, I saw it was almost normal for him. He’s always supported children’s charities and was keen to do something for a masonic charity. A lot of people do sponsored events, but there has never been anything as adventurous as this in my memory.’
The RMTGB gives its fundraisers advice, provides the paperwork and processes the donations, and Ray meets many of them at the end of their trip.
This summer, for example, masons from Middlesex and Hertfordshire are cycling from Gibraltar to Southampton. ‘I’ll meet them at the finish,’ he says, ‘but I’m not sure if the Trust would allow me to meet Pete when he finishes! It’s a bit extreme for me to fly to Alaska.’
Pete, meanwhile, says he wouldn’t describe becoming a mason as an adventure: ‘It’s more of a learning curve. It’s about improvement and bettering yourself. An adventure is about getting from A to B and succeeding; becoming a Freemason is more of a lifelong journey.’
Pete Bray’s top five kayaking tips
1. Pick a boat for where you want to kayak (in rivers or the sea). There’s a wide range available and you need the right one.
2. Make sure you have the correct paddle; they come in all different shapes, sizes and lengths.
3. Choose a boat you like the colour of; you’re going to have to really want to be with it. My favourite colours are blues and reds.
4. Learn from a professional, like myself.
5. Enjoy it and do it for the right reasons. People say I should be sitting in an armchair but even now I’m still paddling! If you get off your backside, you can do something.
‘I hate to fail. If something is in the way, it’s just a hurdle to overcome.’ Pete Bray