I swapped 18-hour days stuck at a desk to surf with seals in Wales

Dan Burn-Forti

An advertising project director decided to give up her 15-year career in the concrete jungle to move to the North Wales wilderness to reconnect with nature.
Sian Sykes was in her early 30s and a project director for advertising firm J. Walter Thompson (now Wunderman Thompson) when she decided to change her life. After some soul searching in her home region of Snowdonia, Wales, she found it harder to go back to the 18-hour days and her corporate life in the capital.

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“When I was back home in Wales, I sparkled and I felt really fulfilled,” explains Sykes. “I found it quite a hard transition going back into a concrete jungle and a fast-paced environment because I’d been used to big open spaces, the freedom to play and enjoy the great outdoors, which I was so passionate about when I was young.”
That’s why, in 2013, she slammed the breaks on her corporate career. “I just wanted to feel more fulfilled, and to have a better work-life balance and to reconnect with nature,” she says. “I had gone through the motions of chasing a very successful career – and suddenly I lost sight of what I was all about.”
Sykes began to take more time out from her London life and started to retrain for a career in the great outdoors, quickly achieving the highest National Mountain Leader qualification. “I’m qualified to lead expeditions all over the world,” she says.
She set up Psyched Paddleboarding, based on the island of Anglesey, in 2014, and started to provide standup paddleboarding experiences in different locations in the country. These can include leading groups of people along the beach of the Menai Strait, where they can see phosphorescent plankton in the water, and Snowdonia – which has been awarded dark sky status by the International Dark-Sky Association due to low levels of light pollution – to see shooting stars.

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It took the paddleboarder a couple of years to get the business off the ground, but now she is in growth mode. “My plan for the future is securing bigger premises [due to open by Spring 2021],” she says. “I absolutely love operating in Anglesey but I’m [also] taking people on expeditions.”
“I’m hoping to lead some trips abroad – we’ve got Ibiza in the pipeline, which is amazing because it’s an opportunity where people can see flying fish in crystal clear waters.”
This “giant leap of faith” was influenced by Sykes’ drive but also her trust in herself. “It was listening to this deep yearning inside me, this real gut-wrenching feeling of knowing [what I wanted to do],” she muses.
“To me, there was no such thing as failure. I worked at it because I was in charge of my own destiny,” she explains. “I could shape it and mould it to how I wanted it. For me, this was a whole lifestyle that I threw myself into – and I wanted to get it right.”

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Like many business owners, Sykes has faced challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. Typically, the business sees its busiest times between April and October, but lockdown meant that people were unable to travel.
“It was the first time in my life that things were out of my control, and for me, that was a huge learning experience. I was at the mercy of the government,” explains Sykes.
During lockdown she started to enjoy foraging and cooking again, and dedicated time to her other passion, the environment, and started to make her own cleaning products and toiletries.
“They are all natural and aren’t harmful for the environment,” she says. “It was really rewarding.”
Luckily, her business had a solid financial foundation and, while she worked a very short season, Sykes says that there was a huge surge in people wanting staycations. “Everyone wanted to support the Anglesey economy, and it was thriving.”
Ironically, she also catered for the people who had undergone lockdown in London, and who longed for the outdoors. “I got a real joy from taking out groups onto the water because there’s a lot of people from cities. All they had was this longing for being free and to connect with nature – basically, to try and forget about what was happening in the news. Going out on the water has been really good for boosting people’s well-being, and I feel really delighted to be a part of that.”
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