Scillies Crossing 1993

Added by PSK


No write-up unfortunately. Just brief details and a few photos, which may make you ponder on the progress of paddling ‘technology’.

Paddlers:

John Chamberlin,  Ian Copestake, Steve Nelson and Tim Oldrini

Route:

Sennen Cove to The Scillies (Porth Cressa, via Menawethan Rock)

Date:

30th April 1993

Elapsed Time:

7 hrs 50 mins (to Menawethan Rock)

Boats:

P+H Iona (x2); P+H Baidarka (x2)

Ready to Go
JC and Ian
Journey’s End

Snippets

Random Thoughts:

Trying is better than talking, succeeding is better than trying.

A slow time is better than no time.

There are only two people that listen to your excuses, you and your Mum.

Three P’s to set a record:  Planning, Preparation, Pacing.

Good luck: Preparation meets Opportunity

The weather is what it is, not necessarily what you want it to be.

Cornerstones of good training:  Industry, Intensity, Quality, Repetition.

A missed session is gone for good.

If life is shit or time is short, go to Short Intervals.

Know your limits. And gently stretch them.

Three factors to win a race:  Make it to the start. Make it to the finish. Do the second one faster than anyone else.

Race Strategy:  ‘Go hard at the start, go harder in the middle, go hardest at the end.’ – Billy Blackman

Stick it in and pull hard.

Don’t paddle an ‘ordinary’ boat.

 

 

Skye Circumnavigation Attempt 2019

By Norbert Ziobr


The idea arose a few years back after talking to John.

Skye is a great distance to paddle around. It is about 125 nm and requires taking a straight line between the headlands.
From my experience I know that it is possible to cover this distance, but only with exceptionally good weather.

I decided to spend a little bit of time to get to know each of the headlands.
For the last six weeks I was paddling around every corner, with tide, against tide, covering a distance, working on my forward paddling and using HR monitor to push myself. My favourite place is Kyle Rhea, a small version of the Menai Straits.

After 4 weeks on Skye I was ready to go and I started to lose patience, waiting for the weather.

Ultimately the weather had improved, there was a little bit a swell and a southerly wind. Force 2 to 3 in the morning and 4 to 5 at midday and dropping to to F1 in the evening. Not perfect weather but not bad either.

My plan was very simple.
To paddle with an empty kayak, the only way the distance is possible.

I needed to carefully calculate how much water I was going to need in each stage. Because it was overcast I was assuming that I might need 0.5 litre water for 2 hours. My calculation was just right.

I can stretch 0.5 l to 3 h on a cold day but for longer distance that definitely goes to dehydration. Its all about temperature, sun etc.

After careful planning I decided to set up depots with water and camping equipment.

The first depot with water was in Staffin Bay. The second depot with water, food and camping equipment was set up in Kyleakin, just by Skye bridge.

I chose Ramasaig Bay as place to start, it was good idea to have all these headlands done when fresh. About 0550 in the morning I started paddling towards Neist Point (Nasty Point). I have to put in lots of effort to stay up right.

After Neist Point the sea state was improving, but it was still windy. Around Waternish point I was exactly on time, watching the ferry going from Uig to Tarbert.

Between 10.00 and 11.00 was a window for crossing Loch Snizort. During the side wind my Taran was weather cocking but finally I was just at the last moment of slack by Rubha Hunish.

Then the Southerly wind was supposed to drop in the afternoon but it didn’t.

Next I stopped in Staffin Bay, to pick up my water, I was drying up.

Most of the day was overcast and I was wearing a dry suit, but in afternoon I started to become hypothermic.

Due to the head wind and choppy waters from the beginning I started to feel tired and decided to finish this trip in Portree.

I landed in Portree and talked to the Harbor Master about leaving my kayak on the pontoon overnight.

It was great day out, and I will be back.

I know for a fact that some islands never give up on the first time.

Penrhyn Mawr Tiderace – A Guide

By Aled Williams


Summary

Penrhyn Mawr is arguably Anglesey’s best sea kayak play-spot. It is easily accessed, lying only a short distance off the coast of Anglesey. This is potentially a complex, weather and tide governed trip that includes kayaking in areas of strong tidal currents. Perfect for practicing rough water techniques and playing in waves, boils and eddies; however, in poor conditions this can quickly become a very confused and treacherous piece of water. Paddlers should be aware that they would be taking on the most powerful force of nature found on the Anglesey coastline, prepare themselves accordingly and adopt a defensive mind-set when playing in this location.

Heading Out

Launch from Porthdafarch beach at low water and paddle the 1.2 nm in a westerly direction to Penrhyn Mawr (keep land on your right!).

Pass Mackerel Rock after 0.4nm, be aware that this is a popular fishing location – avoid the flying lead weights by keeping out of casting distance, approx 200m.

Continue to Gull Island (0.7nm from beach), a small rocky islet 10m off the first major headland. This small rock will give you a good indication of conditions to come.

By now, you’ll probably feel the pull of the tide sweeping you towards Penrhyn Mawr which lies around the corner.

Choices

Now is decision time – the overfalls are 0.5 nm ahead, approx. 5 mins away. Paddlers experienced at Penrhyn Mawr may press on and commit to the Main Channel (left of the off-lying rock) and drop straight into the waves. More prudent paddlers will opt for a safer and gentler introduction by hugging the coastline and approach via the Inside Channels. The intermediate option would be to drop through the Small Channel and break-out immediate right into the large eddy behind the rocky islet. Beware of the short shallow reefs guarding the sides of this channel – they can be particularly tricky during a large swell.

Conditions

Best play conditions at Penrhyn Mawr happen between low water and mid-tide – at these heights, the streams and eddies are well defined, and refuge may be sought downstream/behind rocks. Between mid-tide and high tide, the streams become less defined, and the eddies ‘more boily’ – eventually, at high tide most of the rocks cover up.

Options

The area called the Inner Channels can be used for ferrygliding and general practice for moving water skills.

The Small Channel is surfable when in good condition – it has a safe and defined eddy on the shoreward side, the outer eddy can be a little confused. This Small Channel is approx. 20m wide and can be ferryglided quickly – a short wave train moves upstream against the flow of water. The waves here can be relatively steep when there’s swell. The Small Channel provides plenty of challenge when conditions are heavy or too intimidating in the Outside and Main Channel areas.

The best surfing conditions are often found in the Main Channel. This Main Channel flow is over 100m wide, and during ideal conditions the waves span the width of the channel. Again, waves travel upstream against the flow of water – a paddler would position themselves downstream and surf their way up to the head of the wave train, then drift back on the tide and repeat the process.

Staying out mid channel will test the endurance of any paddler, rest may be sought in the eddies to the side of the flow. The cleanest surf waves are found at the top of the wave train, closest to the approaching flow of water – it is advisable/desirable to stay in this top area to maintain short clean surfing runs.

Alternatively, if a paddler slips back too far down the flow and out of the best waves, the shoreward eddies can be used to regain lost ground.

The Fangs lie semi-submerged beyond the Main Channel, and mark the beginning of the Outside. Some sport may be had around these rocks, but be aware of swells when the rocks suck dry. There is an eddy behind the Fang rocks, even when they are submerged, although it feels a little exposed.

Surfing waves may be sought Outside, especially if the Main Channel is busy with paddlers – this area should be used with care, a swim here will take you out to sea!

Taking a Break

Rest and recuperation may be sought in The Cove – it lies to landward and behind/to the side of the Inside Channels and accessed through a narrow short passage through the cliff face. Inside this lies a pebbly beach – the perfect lunch spot and sun trap. Beware the entrance to the passage during strong flow, it is guarded by a particularly nasty boil which has to be crossed – this is probably the most technical manoeuvre of the day!

An alternative landing would be in Porth Rhyffudd, 300m east along the coast, although this lies upstream of the overfalls and would require the paddlers to fight the tide to gain its haven.

Chicken Chute

The Chicken Chute is often used by paddlers travelling from South Stack to Porthdafarch against the tide – it cuts off having to paddle against much of the tidal area downstream of the Inner Channels.

Heading Home

After a few hours play, a route back through the Inner Channels may be found against the remaining tide. Following the cliffs back to Porthdafarch would keep paddlers out of the opposing tidal flow.

The ebb stream misses Penrhyn Mawr completely as it deflects away at South Stack.

Article: Aled Williams

Photos:  John Willacy

Straits Sess Reminder

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WOT

The P&H Irish Sea Crossing, 23/24 July 1972 – (St. George’s Channel)

By John Chamberlin


A ‘First’ for Midland Canoe Club
At 18.00 hrs on Sunday, 23rd July, George Bazeley, lan Tatam and myself set off from Whitesands Bay (near St David’s in Pembrokeshire, South Wales) to canoe, without escort, to Southern Ireland. 17 hours later at 11 .00 hours on Monday 24th, we landed safely at Rosslare Harbour, County Wexford, feeling tired and uncomfortable, but otherwise fit and well.

The idea for the trip came in September last year when I was sitting (dare I say it with feet up?) at work looking at the ‘C-in-B map of Surfing Beaches’ on the office wall. So far as I know it had not been done before and enquiries revealed no evidence of this. The other wide crossing, Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead (west to east) had been done for the first time in 1969 by Derek Mayes, Dave Bland and Nick Gough (all of North Wales outdoor pursuit centres) in slalom kayaks and took 20 1/4 hours.

The idea for a trip of this nature is not sufficient in itself. One has then to find a few others keen or mad enough to go along. At the end of the article on the Bardsey Trip last year I wrote “Anyone interested in an Irish Sea crossing?”, just to lay the first brick as it were. The really solid foundations were established when George put his name down as ‘definitely interested.’
One or two others talked about it but dropped out after a fairly short time. lan was rather out of touch in Cornwall but I was really pleased when his answer came back in the affirmative.

With what looked likely to be the final three decided, the various aspects of planning the trip had to be sorted out. The fact that lan was in Cornwall left nearly all the planning to George and I. This arrangement suited us all but it meant that lan would have to do nearly all his physical training alone; not a pleasant or entirely safe prospect.

The planning could be really divided into various categories, ie;
1) Administrative – including masses of correspondence and numerous
telephone calls.
2) Physical training – deciding on targets and sorting out problems of food &
drink, etc.
3) Tidal – theoretical and empirical calculations, based on data available,
experience and advice.
4) Equipment – with its obvious considerations of weight, size and degree of
necessity.

I commenced in February by writing to British Rail at Fishguard stating our proposition and asking for their co-operation and general information about the ferry to Rosslare. Their first reply and those throughout the following months were extremely helpful as were the staff at Rosslare, Fishguard and on board the ferry.

Next I telephoned the Meteorological Office at Bracknell, for information on past weather in the St George’s Channel. The data they returned was very comprehensive and most helpful in planning and I reprint the accompanying letter, as I consider it very pertinent:

” Dear Sir,
CANOES ACROSS IRISH SEA
I am sending you copies of data from around the southern parts of the Irish Sea. As I remarked on the ‘phone these give only average conditions and any particular year or week can vary greatly from the mean. Also conditions can, and do, change very quickly in the SW. approaches and St George’s Channel – I would not consider it at all exceptional to go from calm to full gale within 6 hours.

Visibility is also a factor to be considered. Fog is most prevalent during the summer half year and over the open water it is not likely to be less frequent than it is at the coastal stations where you will see that fog may be expected to occur on up to 9 days per month. Most of the days of poor visibility and fog will occur with the less strong winds so that while the sea surfaces may be acceptable the risk of being run down by the ‘invisible’ ship will increase.

As a final point I would suggest that you do not assume that because your trip to Ireland by ferry did not encounter adverse weather that these conditions will persist for the return voyage. At least listen to the B.B.C. shipping forecasts and if possible up-date this forecast by a call to the nearest office of the Irish Met. Service.

Yours faithfully,
F. J. Ayres
for Marine Superintendent.”

We originally planned to do the trip from Ireland to Wales for a number of reasons. Not least important of these was that we did not know the Irish coast at all but were reasonably familiar with the Welsh coast.

The possible dates for the crossing were really decided by the club programme, and the weather information gave us an idea as to what we could hope for that week. From that angle the picture looked fairly good.

Various possible physiological problems were pointed out to us, i.e. Motion (sea) Sickness, Drowsiness and the possibilities of using drug stimulants, Tino-synovitis (general seizure of the tendons say in the wrist or arms), Dehydration, Boredom, and these were all followed up by letters to the M.OD. and visits to the doctor.

I wrote to the agent on Lundy Island for permission to camp, as we intended to do that trip while in Cornwall, but unfortunately gales put an end to the idea.

Telephone calls to Beechams and Mars secured us quantities of their respective products ‘Dynamo’ and Mars bars.

George worked out a plan of action for raising our levels of physical fitness and we set about doing this early in the year. An associated problem to this was how to make the decision, somewhere along the line, that we were definitely going to be fit enough to do the trip. Consequently at least one definite target was laid down; that of being able to complete two 10-hour paddling sessions/Trips on consecutive days, about one month before the date.

Local training was achieved by paddling upstream on the Trent for hours on end, i.e. 6- 8-hour sessions. This proved really effective because any stops meant backward drift and the inexorably soul destroying monotony of the smelly Trent (please excuse the trace of bitterness) was excellent practice for ‘switching off and turning oneself into an automatic paddling machine.

Throughout the first half of the year we visited North Wales about four times for weekends of sea canoeing. These had trips of increasing length with most weekends having over 30 miles of paddling and possibly one night trip.

Sea canoeing at night was a very necessary part of the training and our first excursion was under the guidance of Ken Rudram, round Great Ormes Head.

Another concern of George’s was comparing lan’s level of fitness to ours and we used the holiday in Cornwall to do this. Three excursions of differing lengths marked up another 30 miles each, in sea states from Force 3 to Force 9. George planned the round Anglesey trip for mid-June as both a training stint and an excellent trip in its own right. In preparation for that, George, Phillip Seares and I did a Menai Straits trip of 27 miles to test the tide timing, which proved very accurate.

The Anglesey attempt covered 57 miles in 15 hours of paddling, at least 10 of which were in adverse weather conditions. This trip was not a failure, even though we pressed the ‘Abort’ button, because we learnt such a lot from it. One important lesson was making the decision to land while still able to do so. Also it provided a trip of comparable duration without getting out of the boats and was attempted after a forecast whose portents would have ruled out the Irish Sea trip.

By the time we arrived in South Wales, George’s ‘log’ showed the following approximate achievements:-
George:- 9 trips 250 miles and 73 hours
John:- 7 trips 200 miles and 60 hours
lan:- 6 trips 120 miles and 35 hours, plus considerable surfing time.

Navigation had been described to us as “virtually impossible” which, let’s face it is enough to put anybody off. The plan adopted was on the basis of the quickest way to swim a river is at right-angles to the flow, realising of course that you end up further downstream on the other bank.

George and I purchased copies of the 1 :200,000 Chart No. 1410 of the Irish Sea and he borrowed Keith Cooper’s 1969 edition of ‘Reed’s Nautical Almanac’ while I purchased the 1972 edition.

Once this basic concept of ‘letting the tide drift us where-e’er it will’ had been agreed upon, George started to plot various courses in earnest. Briefly the approximate procedure adopted was as follows:-

1) Draw a straight line from Rosslare Harbour to Whitesands Bay. The
distance of this line (bearing 1290 mag.) was exactly 50 statute miles.
2) Pick a day and departure time and plot the expected tidal drift on this
bearing at the estimated paddling speed (3.5 m.p.h. in our case) using the reference points and tables on the chart.
3) Draw another straight line from the departure point to the place where the
corrected course crosses the other coast.
4) Using the angle between these two straight lines, correct the first line in the
opposite direction, i.e. if angle was 40 above line (1) the new line would be 1330 mag. This establishes the basic course to be paddled throughout the trip, unless ‘Plan B’ suggests a mid-course correction.

Allowances would then have to be made on the day for forecast wind. We assumed a drift of 1/8 wind speed, i.e. Force 4 wind behind us (11 -16 knots) would assist us by 11/2-2 m.p.h., Force 3 wind across us (7 -10 knots) would give 1 m.p.h. sideways drift, Force 2 headwind (4-6 knots) would slow us down by just under 1 m.p.h. As yet we have not had chance to verify this theory as the wind on the trip was almost negligible.

Plan A then was to paddle on one pre-determined bearing all the way.

It was decided, since we intended going overnight anyway, to use lighthouses for greatest range and accuracy of landfall. Therefore the timing of the trip was fixed so that at least one lighthouse would be seen on the way out and Tuskar Rock lighthouse would be sighted on the way in. Consequently the characteristics of all lights in the area were noted and marked on the charts carried.

Most of the equipment was already possessed by one or all of us but some still had to be purchased, or otherwise acquired.

The boats were all fairly heavy P. & H. ‘Swifts’ with good skegs. Each had substantial buoyancy, either TAB.s (by V.CP.) or ‘styrene foam.

There was an assortment of deck-lines/laggies, my boat having a rack on the rear deck. Each boat had toggles on bow and stern and carried a tow-line incorporating an 18″ elastic with a snap-clip.

Small red lights were fitted to boats/life-jackets, enabling us to see each other at night.These are very effective. Boats decks and paddle blades were painted white for similar reasons.

Clothing was with a view to it being cold at night, i.e. lan and George had full dry-suits whilst I had wet-suit trousers and a dry-suit anorak. All wore bright orange P. & H. anoraks over these and had Ottersports B.S.1. life-jackets. Head-gear was floppy and colourful. Each carried a sleeping bag with 500 gauge poly’ bag, about 6′ 6″ x 3′.

Each canoe had a ‘Mars’ hand-held red flare. George and I had an ‘Icarus’ rocket Maroon (big bang). My boat also carried one Icarus rocket ‘parachute red’ flare and an assortment of ‘Miniflares’ (5 red, 5 white, 1 green and 6 orange-smoke).
lan carried the SARBE (Search And Rescue Beacon Equipment) type 3, BE 310, on loan to us by courtesy of the manufacturer. This would only have been used in the event of severe danger to life (i.e. ploughed down by passing ship and boats wrecked, or worse, if George suddenly suggested doing the Atlantic!). This SARBE was affectionately called the ‘ABORT BUTTON’ and labelled accordingly before stowage. My heart stopped every time lan groped in the back of his boat feeling for the ‘ring’ on on the top of a bottle of Dynamo.

We carried 100 feet of 7mm polypropylene rope, as advised in ‘The Gospel according to St Byde’.

We had a number of dexamphetamine tablets to combat sleepiness, if and when it became a severe problem. These were prescribed by my local doctor, to whom lan and I will be eternally grateful.

Extra to this was a transistor radio to relieve possible boredom and up-date
shipping/weather forecasts; a camera for photography where possible (beautiful one of the sun-rise!) and a small tape-recorder on my life-jacket for keeping a ‘log’ of the trip (turned out quite amusing). We had one spare paddle; extremely good tracings of chart 1410 on each deck and used ‘Silva’ compasses.

Sunglasses were essential, also useful in a headwind, even at night.

In case anyone is wondering how we managed it whilst in the boats, we used poly-bags, approx’ 9″ x 3″. Damned difficult in a dry-suit but made especially easy for me by the zip in my wet-suit trousers (it’s a great idea Don, but make sure the bags are big enough!)

The Anglesey trip taught us a lot about the best compromise on food. Apart from two flasks of hot soup, one of coffee and a bottle of fresh water, our main intake was ‘Dynamo’ at about 4 fl. ozs per hour. Our main item of solid food was a substantial stock of ‘Mars’ hand-held bars, sucky sweets and mint cake. Rather than just to provide solid food, this lot had the combined function of both overcoming what had been described to us as ‘dietary boredom’ and along with the fresh water, getting rid of the lingering taste of the ‘Dynamo’.

We planned to stop 5 minutes on every hour for a small amount of nourishment, as on previous trips we have found a frequent, small intake is the best.

The week of 22nd-29th July was on the club calendar as a week’s holiday in St David’s, for surfing and sea-canoeing. Since prevailing winds for the St George’s Channel are westerly for this time of year, all our planning had been based on a west to east crossing.

lan’s 5 a.m. arrival was unfortunate for him, since I had to wake him at 10 a.m. for us to visit the harbour at Fishguard and make the necessary arrangements with B.R. and the Customs, etc. Whilst there we also obtained as much information as possible about the sea and coast off and around Rosslare harbour from the Mate of the ‘MV Container Enterprise’. After first seeming very sceptical, this very helpful advisor gradually seemed to become more and more interested in our venture and his confidence in us increased to such an extent that one of his parting comments was, “I think you stand a good
chance. Yes, I really think you’ll do it.”

He emphasised though, the problems of fog and re-iterated the dangers of being run down. The amusing but not entirely fictitious example he used was that of, ” … pilotless 300,000 ton, ‘L’ plated, Liberian tankers with uncertificated Captains careering down the middle and not knowing or even caring if they ran into anything”. Another thing he warned us about were the ‘man-eating’ seals off Southern Ireland.

He expressed more scepticism about the accuracy of our compasses and emphasised the necessity for warm drinks as a guard against exposure.

Whichever way we went we were told by the Customs to see them immediately we landed at both ends, be it by canoe or ferry. Imagine, with a Welsh accent, “I’ve never been aboard a canoe before!” This came from one officer as he pondered the problem. We visited the Coast Guard at St David’s, gave him all the gen. and filled in the form, C.G.66, “Yacht Passage’.

George had arrived on Saturday lunch-time and since things looked good for doing it on Sunday, we actually left the pub early after only 2 pints for a good nights sleep. I hardly slept a wink!

Clive took my alarm clock and agreed to listen to the 06.30 shipping forecast for us which was as follows:- (for Lundy, Fastnet and Irish Sea), ‘Variable to south-east 2, isolated coastal showers. Moderate visibility with fog patches.” Gloucester more or less confirmed this but added, ” … thunderstorms in evening and night’.

Once the count-down was started the advance party of Clive Cope, Tony Garside and Carol Waters was packed off to Rosslare on the 2 p.m. ferry, to establish a coastal support/rescue/publicity H.Q. over there.

This proved no mean task as the I.RA had blown up the telephone lines between Ireland and Wales, so most of their communications with Wales were via radio, thanks to the assistance of the keepers at Tuskar Rock lighthouse.

They also had problems trying to convince the local life-boat crew they weren’t three English nut-cases and that we really were on our way.

For us, Sunday was spent kitting out boats, up-dating forecasts, writing instructions (not wills!), sleeping and checking numerous pieces of equipment.

By 10 minutes to six we were on the beach waiting for the 17.55 shipping forecast which, when it came, finalised the ‘GO’ decision. A few minutes later we left the beach after farewells, photographs and a multitude of good wishes. With us were Curly, Roger, Neil Edwards, Keith and Dave McGuinness, who intended to paddle out for the first hour and then return to St David’s well before ‘closing time’.

The accompanying party left us at 19.10 hrs. We checked that our compasses were set on 3080 before George pressed the ‘COMMIT BUTTON’ and we paddled off with the sun slightly to the left of our heading.

Within 30 minutes we must have been over or passed Bais Bank and the sea ahead of us was perfectly calm, really glassy. It stayed like this as, for the next few hours we paddled into the setting sun, the reflections of which were dancing on the surface directly ahead of us, making us more aware of the necessity for sun-glasses. George took some photographs of this smooth sea at about 8 p.m.

At our 21 .00 hr stop we were about 30 minutes taking turns to get properly clothed for the night, either whilst sitting in the boats or by getting out and kneeling in the cockpit. The radio on my rear deck helped break the monotony of paddle splashes by providing music, prayers and hymns (one felt very close to ‘Big G’ out there!), news items and weather reports. There were reports of floods in Yorkshire, hailstorms and floods in Nottingham and more thunderstorms on the way. Since thunderstorms were also part of our forecast, it left us wondering what sort of a sea they would whip up in a short time. We saw one or two distant ships, before the sun set behind the clouds on the horizon, after which we commenced to use cloud formations as something to aim for, still paddling on the same bearing of course.

By 10 p.m. the sun had been down for some while and the moon was well up but we could not see South Bishop lighthouse. This was probably due to poor visibility on the Welsh coast.

Towards the end of the next hour one of us sighted the light flashing and we all took bearings on it. Adding these together and dividing by three (Ah-hem!?) produced the unwelcome conclusion that it was just about due South. This meant that we were going much slower than planned and/or were drifting too far to the North. We consulted the chart and then fed all relevant information into the computer in the rear of George’s boat and waited. 25 seconds later, the resulting output read, “Alter course 80 to the South, on
to a new bearing of 3000”. George then proceeded to lighten his load by accidentally losing a full bottle of ‘Dynamo’ over the side. After this, our first mid-course correction, we resumed paddling until we stopped again for normal refreshments plus a shared cup of coffee at half-past midnight. It was still a clear night with a good moon and the fourth ship to pass us was disappearing in a Southerly direction. We must have been close on 20 miles from Wales and the stop was also timed to coincide with the 00.30 shipping
forecast which was still favourable.

At 01 .30 we sighted what can only have been the B.R ferry ‘Caledonian Princess’ about 6 miles or so to the North, going towards Fishguard. I said to lan, “This time tomorrow night we’ll be on that!” but I wasn’t all that sure myself. The hazard of being run down by ships could be rationalised to some extent by observing the relative positions of their mast-head and navigation lights, making it fairly easy to judge direction.

Shortly after seeing the ferry we sighted a ship to the South whose nearness and course suggested a possible crossing of paths. With one eye to the front and one to the left we paddled until we had crossed its heading and then stopped for our 02.00 rest, supplementing normal refreshments with a flask of hot soup. The radio went off at this time and as we were repacking kit, lan said, “It’s stopped!” Sure enough, that now seemingly stationary vessel was broadside on, just a short distance away, possibly 200 yards. It was quite eerie, three of us bang in the middle of the Irish Sea, silence, and this huge illuminated shape sitting on the glassy sea.

“Is it unmanned, drifting with half-eaten meals on the cabin and galley tables?”

“No, it must be manned. Have they seen our red lights?”

Assuming the latter we decided to paddle off so as to give no undue cause for concern. We imagine them arguing; “Canoes! You’re drunk!” “I’m telling you I shaw three!” “What, out here?!” “I’ll never touch a drop of that shtuff again, hic!”.

Our schedule showed the time for our first possible sighting of Tuskar rock lighthouse as 02.20 but we were not too optimistic about this.

During the next hour I became more and more drowsy (hardly having slept since Friday night) until at the 03.00 stop, all other methods having failed to keep my eyes open, we agreed I should attack the Dexedrine bottle and I took one tablet. George then took the lead setting a good pace while lan stayed with me until the drug took effect When it did I felt much better, being wide awake and possibly slightly ‘high’ because I did not stop talking until the next stop at 04 .15.

By that time it had started to get light but it was very cloudy and visibility was poor, due to fog. (I imagine it was the first time that any of us had watched the moon rise and set, as it had gone down at about half-past midnight.)

During the latter hours of darkness, without the illumination of the moon and with the stars being hidden by clouds, we were having to paddle continually on the compass, as there was nothing on which to keep taking a sight. Throughout the trip there had been just a slight headwind, which was noticeable because of our swing round to the East every time we rafted up for a rest. I think you could imagine how disconcerting this was after each stop as in the blackness of night, we had to tum round and seemingly paddle back the way we had come! Also the wind could have been putting us a couple of hours
behind time.

Rafting-up has many advantages but it tended to cause slight sickness, stressing the point that boats should be as self-contained as possible.

At 05.30 it was fully light with a clearer sky but fog still caused poor visibility although the weather looked promising.

We had seen no ships for some time but our heads were turning like those of spectators at Wimbledon, in case any loomed up out of the mist. Tuskar had still not been sighted but at least we could stop staring at the compass and start aiming for clouds again. (By this I mean we looked at which cloud was on our bearing and then aimed for it, correcting this regularly.)

We had been really looking hard in hopes of sighting Tuskar light, since shortly after 2 a.m. and this had played havoc with our eyesight All three of us genuinely thought we saw flashing lights many times but had been sadly disappointed. Then, when it had been light for a short while, George exclaimed, “Look! Over there! It’s a submarine!” lan and I
stared at this and sure enough that’s what it was. Or was it? “No it’s not,” corrected George, “it’s a man in a fishing boat and he’s coming this way!”

Overjoyed at the thought seeing an actual human we stared even harder (?) in that direction. Can you guess what it was, or our feelings as out of the mist drifted a fullgrown sea-gull on a log?! I can understand how people feel in a desert.

The radio had resumed by this time and there was a fair assortment of music on. Close your eyes and try to imagine being in a canoe, 20 miles from land on a glassy sea, with Johnny Cash stamping out “I’ll Walk the Line”. Fantastic! You must try it sometime.

Then at 05.45, it happened for real, somebody (one of us I might just add!) shouted, “It’s there! Look, two flashes every 7 1/2 seconds!” We had sighted Tuskar light. We watched it for a few times then ………… nothing!

Cursing our enthusiasm and jubilation we realised it must be about ‘switch off’ time and we had forgotten to take a bearing. Which direction was it? It could have been any. We scanned the horizon, then lan said (not too loud, possibly in fear of blowing it out), “It’s there again!” and we all took bearings, 3300.

Within two minutes it had ‘gone out’ for good. We had been very lucky sighting it during the last five minutes of flashing, but it was there, we were bang on course. (If anyone is thinking, “3300, 3000 bang on course?”, remember by this time we were approaching the end of the ebb tide and due to the sine-wave of plotted tidal drift, we should have been to the South of it. The coming flood tide would then drift us back up, virtually past Tuskar, into Rosslare harbour) It was probably 10-15 miles away though, still a few
hours’ paddling.

Then behind us we noticed the beautiful sunrise, with the sun just clear of the horizon. It was a magnificent morning and the sea was still really calm. The feeling was marvellous; “Good to be alive” does not even start to describe it.

We paddled on with raised spirits but during the next hour it was quite noticeable that lan was becoming tired. At about 07.00 we sighted Tuskar Rock in the flesh, probably 6 miles away, a tiny tooth on the horizon.

The next hour saw lan’s drowsiness become extreme together with a feeling of sickness and he started to both sweat and shake. At 07.30 we stopped for him to take a tablet. We resumed with lan setting the pace and course, which we had altered to 2850 to compensate for increased flood rate, since we were at least 1 hour late.

During the next hour we altered course a couple of times, to avoid being swept past Tuskar, until we were paddling on due West.

We arrived at the rock just before 09.00 and received a really enthusiastic reception from the keepers. After initial greetings the first question was, “How’s der Dynamo lastin’ out?”. We wondered how they knew about that. Their invitation to breakfast we graciously declined but willingly accepted the offer of cups of tea, or, to quote (in a beautiful Irish accent), “Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll be makin’ a cup o’ tea and bring in’ it down t’yer.”

One of them directed us round to an inlet that was .. .. calm as a duck pond”. They were so well informed about us it was amazing. When he brought the tea the chief said, “Yer’ll be surprised what Oi know” and amongst other things said of George, “… he’s an aero-engineer, with four children …” (and then with remarkable emphasis added) ” … and he’s married!”. We were in stitches at this.

They told us about all the people waiting at Rosslare (not the mayor, he was reported to be drunk) and that they would radio Fishguard for us. We finished off a flask of hot oxtail soup and generally made ourselves more comfortable, while the keepers sampled this ‘mysterious Dynamo”. After much thought one looked down and said, “Really good stuff, that.”

Shortly after 9 o’clock, with many “Cheerio’s”, best wishes and thanks, we set off for the last stretch to the mainland. Since the Irish coast is so low there, only about 60 feet high, it had only come into view about an hour before we reached the lighthouse.

We were told it was at least an hour or so before ‘slack’ so we headed West again, expecting the last of the flood to take us up to Greenore Point and round into Rosslare harbour. As it happened this local ‘info’ was wrong because we detected little or no drift, so after a short while altered course straight for the point. Just after leaving the rock we saw the B.R. ferry again going out to sea. Noticing his apparent south-east heading we thought, ‘That’s a funny course to set for Fishguard’.

Then as she was broadside on to us and not all that far away, she gave a loud blast on the horn. And then another. We were tempted to think that it was for our benefit but thought, ‘No, it can’t be’. We watched it pass Tuskar, still wondering the reason.

Unfortunately the ebb started to flow before we reached the point and after paddling ‘upstream’ for about half an hour, it was nearly 11.00 by the time we rounded the headland into the entrance to Rosslare harbour.

Well, we’d done it! The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. After a few minutes we saw Clive and Garth running along the beach shouting inaudible welcomes and questions, to which we replied as energetically as we could. We carried on paddling along the coast, right up to the harbour wall. It was quite a struggle against the ebb stream but was still better than carrying the boats.

At 11.20 we stopped paddling and for the first time in just over 17 hours got out of the boats. Our back-sides instantly heaved sighs of relief and infinite gratitude. There were cameras clicking, hand-shakes, welcomes, questions, congratulations and numerous kinds of offers of help or hospitality. There is certainly nothing wrong with the Irish down in that part of the world (a conclusion we had already reached when we left Tuskar). One kindly couple, who owned the cafe where Carol, Clive and Garth had spent the night, gave us the use of their bath, fed us and then offered us the run of the premises
for the rest of the day.

In the afternoon we sent numerous post-cards, slept, made arrangements with B.R. about transport home, secured 10 copies of Monday’s edition of the Dublin ‘Evening Herald’ and went back to the cafe (it felt more like another home) to read about ourselves over tea.

We wandered out and watched the ferry dock from above the harbour and in the early evening, after more congratulations, hand-shakes and last farewells we made our way down. Collecting the boats, etc., we boarded the ‘Caledonian Princess’ via the car deck. Sinking into the seats we thought, ‘This is the sensible way to do it’. After a couple of pints in the bar we were invited on to the ‘bridge’ by the Captain who confirmed that they had altered course in the morning and the two ‘blasts’ were just for us. For 45 minutes we watched them navigate out of the then fog-draped harbour and commenced the
crossing to Fishguard. George was going to lend a hand but they seemed to be
managing fairly well by themselves.

On returning to our seats we then slept until just before 03.00 (Tuesday morning) when we docked at Fishguard. We shook hands with some still incredulous members of the crew, before disembarking through the gaping mouth of the ship.

There was a marvellous reception for us on the harbour, prepared by the rest of the club. It looked as if the whole campsite had come. We walked the red carpet (three rolls of crepe paper) and then opened the ‘champers’ while answering more questions and relating dozens of experiences. When the last drop was drained we piled into the cars and the convoy set off for camp, to sleep as long as possible.

From the trip we think we can lay four claims:-

1) The first crossing of the St George’s Channel (Southern entrance to the
Irish Sea) by single-seater kayak.
2) The first East to West crossing of the Irish Sea by canoe.
3) The fastest time for a canoe crossing (obviously ignoring the very narrow
top section), the actual time being 17 hours, almost to the minute.
4) The youngest person to canoe across the Irish sea (Ian Tatam, 22 years
2 1 /2 months)

Just a few other details and points that may be of interest: –

a) The stimulant drug was very effective but should only be used as a last resort, when not too far from the destination.
b) Plenty of sleep beforehand is essential.
c) Seats were uncomfortable at the base of the spine, scars as evidence.
d) Calmness of water was dull, but removed the risk of sea-sickness (almost!).
e) We were 8 hours out of sight of lighthouses and 10 hours out of sight of land. Confidence in the compass is essential!
f) Mist must have shrouded the lighthouses at either end.
g) We saw about 10 ships in all; the dock strikes could have had some effect on this.
h) Ready access to food and equipment is always a problem.
i) Towards the end, George and lan had to force themselves to eat and drink. They did not look forward to either.
j) The actual distance travelled was about 57 miles.
k) The tape-recorder idea worked well. It is quite humorous but could have doubled as a ‘black-box’ recorder in the event of the worst.
I) Tuskar said they were listening on our SARBE frequency all night; a very pleasant and reassuring surprise.
m) The trip raised £170 for the Derbyshire Society for Brain Damaged Children. The sponsoring was incidental and not planned.
n) We learnt later that we had been broadcast on coastal reports to shipping as a ‘Hazard to shipping’, that night.

This account was written with George’s help but I would like to print also some
comments of lan’s:-

“I had no real preparation for the trip, mental or otherwise. I did none of the organisation and had so much to do at home the weeks beforehand that I did not really think about it. Once a day and time had been fixed, I still did not worry in any way. I just saw the trip as a very long paddle, which I had to do before I could get down to my holiday.
Once under way I felt quite happy, enjoying the paddle, with the sun and a glassy sea. Even during the night I did not feel sleepy or worried, but was getting uncomfortable in my boat.
It was soon after dawn that I developed a headache and began to feel sick and faint; then I began to worry. I didn’t know what I could do and knowing we still had about 5 or 6 hours to go didn’t help. After my ‘fix’ I kept going (with encouragement from G. and J.) until it took effect, after which I went on quite happy (or high!).
As we approached the harbour I began to feel sorry that it was all over although I was ready to stop. Once we had landed I had a great feeling of achievement, especially as people started asking us about our trip and taking photo’s.
It is a trip I shall not forget and “I will canoe on the Irish Sea, some more – now.”
lan Tatam”

A lot of planning went into this trip in the form of navigational exercises, tidal
calculations, mental preparation and physical training, and we are firmly convinced that it was necessary. None of it was wasted! The catch -phrase for the week was that the trip was “… executed with the precision of an Apollo Mission”. Our ideal was that if the planning was done properly the actual crossing should be without problems. This turned out to be near enough the case for us although, as with every sea trip, we still learnt more from it.

What we would ask people to bear in mind is that we don’t live near the sea. We are Midland canoeists and as such are very proud of our achievement.

Below is a list of people who we would like to thank for over the past months having helped us in so many different ways towards the planning and actual completion of the crossing:-

Ken Rudram The Towers, Capel Curig
Derek Mayes Plas-y-Brenin, Capel Curig
Mr R. Bagley Beecham Products
Miss J. C. Watson Mars Ltd
Mr I. G. Grainger Lundy Island
Major J. H. Almonds 22 SAS Regiment, Hereford
Capt. Stephenson —–. ———- –“———-“——
Sgt Birch Supply Officer Stores, Poole
Mr D. Robertson R.A.E. Famborough
Sqn Ldr Small Rescue Co-ordinating Centre, Plymouth
Fit Lt Barnaby RAF. 30 MU, Connah’s Quay
Lt Colonel D. E. Worsley Army Personnel Research Est., West Byfleet
Dr D. B. Carruthers Long Eaton, Nottingham
Mr M. Morris B.R. Shipping, Fishguard
Mr F. J. Ayres Meteorological Office, Bracknell
Mr Eddy May MV Container ‘Enterprise’, c/o Fishguard
Sqn Ldr J. A. Cook Bumdept Electronics Ltd, Erith
Dave Patrick P. & H. Fibreglass Products
Harry Briggs Powers Sports depot, Derby
Mr G. Curtis Dictation Equipment Services, Long Eaton
The Keepers of Tuskar Rock Lighthouse
The Coast Guards of Anglesey, North Cornwall and South Wales
The members of the Midland Canoe Club, Derby
‘Big G.’

If anyone requires further information of any sort, we will be only too pleased to supply it.

Write to John C. at :

updated 9th August 2003

 

PSK details of St George’s Channel Crossings

Irish Sea Crossing – North Channel – 1986

By John Chamberlin


On Tuesday, 19th August, 1986, Robin Rhodes and I canoed across from Larne in Northern Ireland, to Portpatrick in Galloway, Scotland, in just over 61/2 hours.

Although we had planned the crossing from east to west and hoped to complete it while on holiday in Galloway with our families, the weather over the first week had been  unsuitable. With the wind against us again on Tuesday, 19th August, but a sea that looked acceptable from our viewpoint on Castle Bay caravan park, Robin casually suggested a crossing the other way. His off-the-cuff remark led to frenzied activity, and by 10.45 both families had piled into their cars.

Robin’s wouldn’t start!

‘Do you think this is a bad omen?’ I jibed, as two wives, four kids and me pushed his tired, reluctant Fiat across the grass, until it fired and heralded the dash to Stranraer. In our haste we did everything wrong at the Sealink terminal; wrong place, wrong lane, wrong direction, wrong ….! I left Sandra, my wife, negotiating with the counter clerk and came out of the loo as they’d agreed that kayaks were a, ‘sort of bike’. (Bikes went free!)

‘One way?’ queried the First Officer Ken Reid as he examined our tickets.

‘They’re the return,” I said, pointing to the boats.

We had run aboard – puffing with exertion as we yomped up the ramp, with everything and its hat in the boats – knowing we’d only seconds to spare before the drawbridge went up and we slipped our moorings. We then stood for half an hour, waving through the single nostril beneath the upturned nose of the Galloway Princess before it finally moved.

‘You’d better come with me then,’ said Number One, having been convinced of our ‘crazy’ intentions. So, clutching chart, parallel rules, notes, adhesive tape, A4 plastic sleeves and chart photocopies, we headed up to the Bridge. We had thought we would be fighting for table space in the restaurant, amongst the other passengers, so it was a pleasant surprise to be given free range of the Bridge facilities; chart table, extra and bigger charts of the area concerned, binoculars, and bigger (real!) parallel rules. I rapidly worked out a course departing from the top of Larne Lough at 15.00, and Robin did one for an hour later. We agreed a compromise (knowing it would probably be 15.30 by the
time we left the Lough) and spent the rest of the journey scanning the receding Scottish coastline, with the Navigator’s optics, for landmarks to be used later.

After about two hours our relationship with the senior crew was so good (the Radio Officer brought us the mid-day Shipping Forecast bang on time!) that we struck up a deal – we’d help them dock the ferry and they’d help us carry the boats off. As it turned out, we got out of the way and watched while they docked the ship. And they watched while we carried the boats off!

They continued watching down at the slipway, with amused and sceptical interest, as we got changed and loaded the kayaks, until an authoritative voice yelled a sharp reminder that there, ‘just happened to be a ferry to turn round!’. With hasty good wishes the smiling and helpful members of the crew scuttled back aboard. It was 14.15.

Bad omens two and three (they come in threes) were that Robin had forgotten his deck compass and I my Helly Hansen shirt.

By 15.10 we were paddling out of Larne Lough in the rain, but on a fairly flat sea, and once clear of Island Magee we adjusted the compass to 95(M) and focused our attention on the distant horizon.

At 16.10 we stopped for our first rest, grabbing a quick sandwich and drink – our first since breakfast. Taking time again to confirm our heading, we stopped next after the second hour’s paddling, at 17.17. Donning anoraks because of the cooling wind, that break was the longest we had, at eight minutes.

The forecast had been, ‘NW 3-4, backing W and decreasing 3 later. Scattered showers, good.’ Sea conditions were predicted as ‘moderate’, interpreted by HMCG at Ramsey (IoM) as, ‘….swells of 3 to 6 feet’. Literally, the range should have been from, ‘Large wavelets. Crests beginning to break. Foam of glassy appearance. Perhaps scattered white horses’, to, ‘Small waves, becoming larger; fairly frequent white horses’.

In fact that’s how it was for the first hour or so, but after that and without much noticeable increase in the wind, the sea state changed markedly. The wind certainly did not ‘back’, when it would have been behind us, or ‘decrease (to) 3’. With regular swells at 4 to 6 feet and many ‘white horses’, every few minutes sets of waves about 8 feet high began to cause us problems with stability and direction-holding (Robin suffering more with the former and me with the latter), or to quote Rob., ‘You were being slewed around all over
the place’. At one stage three of the aforementioned ‘white horses’ had trampled consecutively and energetically over Robin’s deck, giving rise briefly to concentration on stability rather than progress, until he remembered how far we had to go.

Since I had the compass, I was in front and taking fairly frequent checks on route status. My Icefloe is marginally faster than Robin’s Sea Hawk, and with the effort I was putting into holding then boat on course I gradually eased away from my trusty partner. I shouted back, ‘How’re you doin’ buddy?’

‘It’s not exactly what I had in mind!’ was the laconic reply.

The third break was at 18.15, for five minutes, during which Robin took the camera from me for the next hour. (For obvious reasons, in that period he only took two rather hasty photographs.)

Another of my yelled communications, ‘How are you managing in the waves?’, received the cautious response, ‘I’ve taken my surf boat out in less!’

We passed into the fifth hour and had a snatched two-minute break at 19.30. Yet again the conditions and resultant lack of stability permitted very little intake of food and drink. It was, literally, only two minutes before we pushed apart again, as the seas continued their attack. I subconsciously agreed with Robin, it wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind either.

The thoughts that occur when you set off on a trip like this are interesting, perhaps varied or even a little confused, but certainly personal. You know the distance, risks, commitment, your own capabilities; you want the crossing, and accept the challenge; but you don’t know what will happen. In our case, this matrimonially parentless sea had been ‘happening’ for about four hours now.

Although the Scottish coastline was now getting noticeably closer, the temperature was falling, the light beginning to fade and, with a possible increase in wind strength, the sea was not relenting.

This had a fairly obvious side-effect of detracting from the pleasure of the trip, with few occasions to sit back, relax and enjoy the changing scenes presented by such a crossing. The positives were moments surfing, but the natural direction for this was not ours, so it didn’t last long, and the beautiful sight of the larger swells leaving us behind, to our right, white haircuts flowing back over hunched broad shoulders, as they surged and growled on their way. (I hasten to add that ‘beautiful’ was not the adjective that sprang to mind, as one glanced left and rearwards, to see similar waves approaching.) Once or
twice I felt the strong urge to ‘….photograph one of you buggers’, but sitting vulnerably in the momentarily threatening green solitude of the troughs, the urge was relegated to a lesser priority. I am disappointed now, even self-critical, but my dining room chair is not going up and down, nor is it ten miles from land.

With the light disappearing quite steadily, when I hailed my companion for the scheduled break at 20.30, he declined, which really meant I had to also. By now I was beginning to notice the lack of real food intake, and the heat loss because of the missing Helly Hansen. Given the directional problems, it was a hard paddle.

We were targeted then, still on 95(M), for the ‘House of Knock’, a white building about a mile north of the Killantringan light, and as 21.00 approached I adjusted this to the whitepainted brickwork of the lighthouse itself. A huge stack of dish aerials on the horizon, about two miles inland and a mile north of Portpatrick, was by this time becoming a useful transit marker.

Along with the darkness came the switch-on of the lighthouse, enabling us to confirm the expected sequence of ‘FL (2) 15s’, and that we weren’t in fact closing on South Stack! Reassuring though that was, it was a bit too late to worry if we had got it wrong.

Soon after nine (and a little too early!) I shouted to Robin another change of heading, to aim at Ports Kale and Mora (Lairds and Sandeel Bays), the twin coves a mile north of the village. I thought we were actually closer in, a mistake, most probably exacerbated by the darkness.

Now aiming for the harbour and village lights directly, at about 21.20 it became apparent that we were overshooting our mark. Still about half a mile offshore, I was peering through the blackness trying to pick out the harbour entrance and in particular the green ‘leading lights’ which, when aligned, indicate the centre of the opening. Without my driving glasses, this task was made more difficult by the coloured lights all along the sea front – red, yellow, green, blue, red, yellow, green, etc.

Which bloody green one was mine? After five minutes or so’s concentration I realised we had overshot, and could dimly make out the surf crashing on the cliffs south of the village. The shore immediately north of the harbour is no less hazardous, with cliffs, stacks and old harbour or pier workings. We had to make the gap.

The thought of stopping for a break at 21.30 was dismissed as soon as it occurred.

By this time Robin, some fifty to a hundred yards seaward of me, had sussed out the same conclusion, so he simply acted accordingly when I yelled to head for the lights of the cliff-top hotel, north of the village.

This up-wind-and-sea ferry-glide lasted about ten minutes, until I was confident that I was focused on the correct pair of green lights. It was then simply a case of holding that transit whilst an adjusted ferry-glide took us into the harbour mouth and the first calm water for over five hours.

Those few minutes, actually approaching and entering the harbour, leaving dark hairy seas for those calmer waters dappled with the reflected incandescent colours of the waterfront, were for me quite worth all the effort and apprehension. But of course, by then, the risks had been left behind.

We took a quick flash photo’ of each other and then headed for the beach and our waiting families, near the slipway in the eastern corner of the bay. We beached at 21.45 and I stopped my stop-watch – 6 hours, 36 minutes, 7 seconds.

Robin pulled a bottle of French beer from his boat, cut his hand as he sprang the cap on a rock (although he didn’t notice the cut until the following day, and only then realised how it had been caused) and took a well-earned swig. Handing it to me, he watched in astonishment as I downed most of the remainder. Sorry Rob. I thought you had two.

Sandra took two quick photo’s of us (on both of which I am guzzling that beer!) and we hastily began to change before loading the cars.

The families hadn’t eaten either during their clifftop vigil, so all eight of us were ravenously hungry. The Old Mill, just out of the village, welcomed us at about 22.30, kids and all, and quickly rustled up the requested meals. It was while at the bar ordering the first pints that I looked at my hands – blistered, torn and bleeding – Robin all but heaved at the sight. His were unmarked, thanks mainly to a new pair of paddles.

Looking back on the trip the following day, we agreed the seas we had experienced for most of the crossing were consistent with winds of Force 5 to 6. Yet whilst the wind may have freshened a little, it didn’t get up that much. So the only unsuitable conclusion we could agree on was that the seas had come from nowhere. A few days later hurricane ‘Charlie’ was with us.

The mistakes we made were not too serious individually, especially had the sea remained calm as expected, but cumulatively they should be objectively criticised. The error in heading directly for Portpatrick too soon was partly the result of these, combined with, by that time, the probably understandable desire to head for home once the lights of the village had come clearly into view. My fault; even though it was difficult reading the compass in the dark. The lack of my thermal shirt seemed insignificant in the sunshine earlier on, but as soon as I stopped paddling, I began shaking with the cold. I don’t think
we would have wanted to go on much longer. After landing we must have emptied at least two gallons of water from Robin’s boat. That hadn’t helped his stability.

Two days later I had a useful chat with the local Coastguard, Bert Grieve. He was not without scepticism of our rationale; no support boat, no radio, …. I don’t know. What do you think? We certainly didn’t have as much chat with HMCG before-hand as we normally do. In our haste I put all my trust in Sandra to make the necessary calls, without giving her, in fairness, much information. In the event the trust was well-placed, because she made the correct communications both before the trip, and near its conclusion. But it was wrong.

In mitigation, the disappointment of planning similar crossings in ’82 and ’85 only to be thwarted by the weather, probably led to a less disciplined approach this time. There are lessons to be learned from that.

However, the cost of these errors of judgement became tragically more than academic when we learned that, very sadly, three days after our crossing, a 52-year old man was found drowned fifteen miles off South Stack, Anglesey. He had set off from Caernarfon for Dun Laoghaire, attempting a solo crossing (for charity), and after having, ‘….ignored warnings from North Wales Coastguards’, stated the Welsh Daily Post for Monday, 25 August.

Whilst the circumstances will have been different, and our sympathies nonetheless go to the gentleman’s family, the incident will serve as a signal reminder that our chosen activity carries its inherent risks. It was reported that the wind in which this well prepared and motivated seafarer met his death was Force 5, objectively this must have been about what we had. The sick irony for us was that the day following out trip was a scorcher, with a commensurately flat sea. Perhaps we had snapped too hastily at the carrot of the first apparently suitable day.

Nonetheless, I am pleased to have completed another crossing of that notorious sea, and grateful again for our good fortune.

Safe paddling: may the Force be with you, preferably 4 or less!

John Chamberlin
Updated 15th March 2005

PSK details of North Channel Crossings

The P&H Irish Sea Crossing – 14/15 June 1996

By John Chamberlin


‘Chance Favours The Prepared Mind’
(Louis Pasteur, 1822-95)
‘You Make Your Own Luck’
(John Chamberlin, b. 1946)

 

At 22.30 on Friday, 14 June, 1996, Tim Oldrini and myself left Soldiers’ Point, Holyhead, Anglesey and headed out past North Stack to assume a compass bearing of 280 magnetic. Sixteen and a quarter hours later, at 14.43 on the Saturday, we nosed our two, single-seat sea kayaks into the beach adjacent to the walled harbour at Dun Laoghaire, Ireland. We had completed 60 miles to cross the central Irish Sea in conditions which can only be described as ideal.

The trip was sponsored by ‘P&H Sea Kayaks’ of West Hallam, Derby, who had supplied the two boats used on the crossing. I had chosen a relative newcomer, the glass-fibre ‘Outlander’, whilst Tim was in the ‘Capella’, a polythene kayak brand new to their range for 1996. Both kayaks were designed by P&H’s Peter Orton.

Why do it?

A good question. I remember an A.S.K.C. (as was) article many years ago in which Duncan Winning asked what people saw in open crossings, but I guess until you’ve been out there (which I’m sure he has too), in darkness or daylight, and sensed the thrill of isolation, tinged with the buzz of individual commitment, then that will remain a question. I know I have sensed it before, and in fact said ‘never again!’

I am conscious of first voicing it to Tim as a potential partner, one summer evening in 1995, in the ‘Holly Bush’ at Makeney. (Don’t all good trips start in a pub?) He says I’ve been on about it for longer than that. Either way, I had a desire to complete a trip across the central section of the Irish Sea during the year when I was 50, which I reached in January ’96, partly because my father died at 50 and I wanted to mark the year for me.

However, when I examine the desire, it is difficult to pin it down to any one source, as another is my pathological fear of water. Confronting that is clearly part of the challenge. These days half the stands at the NEC/ICE show have a video of some canoeist going over a waterfall towards what appears to me to be certain death. I stand amazed at the apparent lack of fear with which they shoot ever-steeper falls, larger rapids and deeper gorges. I know I never could. Few fellow canoeists understand, but, fortunately for me, Tim does.

Next was the carrot of completing all three Irish Sea crossings; ‘unescorted’ and in single-seat kayaks. I had done the St George’s Channel in 1972 and the North Channel in ’86, so for me therefore, this latest crossing would achieve a personal objective, with the possible bonus of the ‘hat-trick’ being a ‘first’ in itself. I am not sure about that yet and it is of lesser import.

To Tim, I think it is safe to say, it was just another trip. Not one he would have personally chosen to do, but one he was happy to because I had. He knew how much this one meant to me, and I pay tribute here to the companionship, understanding and solid friendship he has shown from conception through to success. Thanks Tim.

Another question was why write it up? Who else is interested anyway? My view is that this is primarily our record, because when compared with other trips reported in the ISKA N/L, it certainly lacks ‘thrills’. However, rough water is not essential to a worthwhile sea excursion, and definitely not on crossings such as this. Whilst the Irish Sea may be ‘old hat’ now, perhaps there will still be many for whom it, and hopefully therefore this account, may hold an attraction; not just the facts, but the feelings too.

The Trip

When pondering the chart it was clear that the Aberdaron to Wicklow crossing was reckonably shorter, but the snag with that route being all the hassle at each end, getting the boats to and from ferry terminals, especially Holyhead. So Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire was chosen despite the extra distance.

Above all else, we wanted to ‘enjoy it’. This had been agreed early on, and had in fact influenced the ‘weather envelope’ decision. Being out on the open sea in the daylight, completely out of sight of land in good visibility, carries a buzz only the experience can replicate. Being out there at night carries another.

We left on a forecast of ‘variable 2-3′, which whilst not bad on the face of it, we did not wish to do 60 miles against even a Force 3. There is no way we could have anticipated the ideal conditions that obtained.

Arrival at Soldiers’ Point just before 10 o’clock on the Friday night, however, confirmed the suitability of the conditions; no wind, the sea flat calm, magic! Eight miles directly north of the beach, the Skerries light blinked lazily in the gathering summer darkness. Only two weeks from the longest day, we had dropped lucky with almost the minimum period of night ahead of us – my guess being five hours at the most.

10.30 p.m. on the dot but 20 minutes later than schedule, we slid the two craft off the shingly beach and checked the skegs were free. Out of the cove we turned and set a bearing of 280 mag., ten minutes later approaching North Stack.

The first minor but amusing panic was Tim thinking he’d not locked the car, and me that I’d forgotten my dextrose tablets, found safely lurking in the bottom of the Co-op carrier bag between my legs! – symptomatic of my need for a totally positive mind-set, like a tennis pro’s pre-service ritual.

A mile or two beyond North Stack, and by now west of South Stack, the usual overfalls were asleep to our passing, exactly as planned. This was in effect the final hour of the north-going flood and the next hour would begin to see it turn south; remaining so for the following six. This was good because, again by design, it meant this first and largest dip in our sinusoidal curve of tidal drift took us well south of the beeline ferry routes, until at least about half-past eight the following morning.

Less than an hour into the trip the reason for wanting that ‘dip’ south through the night became audible before it was visible to our searching eyes – one of the huge, 40-knot StenaLine HSS catamarans. The problem was, it was to port and therefore to the south of us, meaning consequently it had to come north and towards us to miss the Stacks and enter Holyhead Bay.

For the next ten minutes or so our eyes flitted between torch-illuminated deck
compasses and the ever more rapidly growing lights of the approaching ferry.

Gradually it became apparent that the galloping beast would continue to pass to the south of us, making me at least grateful for that first hour of northerly drift. There was no chance they would see us, neither on radar (we would merely be ‘flotsam’), nor through visually spotting our five lights. We had to avoid it, and on this occasion we did. Phew!

Breaking briefly for liquid and glucose intake at 23.30 we agreed that after the 00.30 shipping forecast stop we’d lengthen the period between breaks to 11/4 hours, so that as little time as possible was wasted. The next stop was important because, again by prior agreement, that would be our true point of no return. If the 00.30 forecast was outside our criteria, we’d turn back, even then.

‘Variable 3-4’. We seriously considered turning back. Not because Force 4 itself is a problem, but because ‘variable’ meant it could just as easily be westerly and in our faces, and we didn’t want to get that once in the middle. The coin came down heads. We carried on. And aren’t we glad we did!

The best way I can describe the sea conditions is through demonstration. Pour a glass of water and stand it to settle on a firm surface – that smooth. The photographs show unbelievable, mirror-like reflections of the kayaks on the sea, hour after hour. Looking at them a couple of weeks later one guy in our canoe club said, “This looks like serious flat water John.” It was, exceptional in the extreme.

Tim had very wisely written down the ferry times so we had some idea when to increase our vigilance, especially astern. Glancing behind us also enabled the confirmation of the onset of the southerly drift, the Skerries light very gradually slipping to starboard as South Stack came astern, before also passing to the north as the night wore on.

One such north-easterly glance revealed another set of lights worthy of closer
monitoring, and sure enough about 20 minutes later, at 02.00, a large, grey naval vessel bore silently down on us. So silently in fact, that if we hadn’t spotted it we may well have been run down, as the convergence of our paths was such that if Tim had not stopped paddling he would have hit it. As it was, the flashlit photograph I hoped would show him against the bulk of its 300′ port flank, merely shows him, with five of its lights just beyond. Dark grey doesn’t show up very well at night. Perhaps I should have let it pass between us, so I could have caught the ship silhouetted against the bulk of Tim’s port(ly)
flank!

We took this opportunity to have the first real snack, Tim tucking in to a tomato and chicken leg, the sea absolutely flat.

One puzzling phenomenon was that to the south it was pitch black. I felt I could touch it, the eeriness suggesting that if I stuck my left arm out my hand would disappear. To the north in contrast, it never became completely dark, not exactly Borealis, but Aurora nonetheless – the goddess of the dawn stayed with us through the night.

The cold was never really a problem to Tim, to use his own words he has “plenty of lard” to keep him warm. But I did feel it, so the salopants and fleece top didn’t come off all night.

Just before 04.00, in the emerging dawn, dolphins appeared ahead right – they, or some of their friends, staying with us for the rest of the trip. By 05.00 the sun cleared the horizon and we had dipped to the lowest point on the sinusoidal curve of tidal drift, about six miles south of the beeline course.

The still unbelievably flat sea, its surface dappled slightly by an imperceptible breeze, stretched in every direction for as far as we could see.

The two torches and three cycle lamps between us could now be switched off. Wales gone and well behind us, Ireland nowhere to be seen.

The next six hours, climbing back up that hill of drift, were probably going to be the longest. But it was also the stretch to enjoy, as the conditions attained quintessential perfection. Even the dappling disappeared to be replaced by diamond-ground smoothness. One careless paddle stroke and it would shatter like a windscreen. It felt like cheating. No complaints. No-one to complain to, Tim and I often a few hundred yards apart. This was my wildest dream, total relaxation, basking in the solitude, remoteness and scale, the inconsequentiality of our craft against the vastness of the sea. Not yet halfway there.

05.55, ‘Variable, becoming easterly, mainly 3 or 4; fair, good.’

No problem. What could be better? Nothing, and we recorded it at 06.34, eight hours out, with a couple of photo’s to mark what we then thought was ‘bang in the middle’. Conversations had lulled and the radio Tim had bought now seemed to get every station but the one we wanted.

Ships appeared in the distance but never close to, just tiny shapes, ‘Monopoly’ counters. Ferries didn’t appear at all, surprisingly, since we could see for miles. Dolphins again too, still never close, and frustratingly never long enough for a photo’. I began to get tired, so did Tim, unbeknown to me.

Two more hours. At 08.17 we made what we then thought was our first hazy sighting of land, and within the next two hours what we thought was a ‘buoy’ at Kish Bank, but equally way in the distance. Our spirits heightened by mental calculations of how soon the buoy would be reached, we paddled on, now with a reference point with which to observe also our accelerating northerly drift, midway through the flood.

As usual, misguided elation and a misread chart photo-copy combined to produce misinformation. There are buoys at Kish Bank, but the one we were interminably peering at and willing to get nearer was actually a lighthouse!

At the same time we slowly realised the north-easterly flowing flood tide in the area 10- 15 miles east of Dublin Bay and Bray Head was all but negating our forward speed. The realisation slowly dawned that this was the reason for our depressingly slow closing on the ‘buoy’ ahead.

Earlier optimism on our obviously good progress had indicated a possible ETA of mid-to-late lunchtime, but that dissipated along with our energy as we fought the glassy conveyor belt pushing us back towards Wales.

A StenaLine ferry appeared off the starboard bow, sliding by to the north on the still mirror-like sea, and the land gradually clarifying as I at last managed one snatched photo’ of a surfacing dolphin way off the port bow, Irish hills in the background.

Yet again I recalled Martin Meling’s comment, battling our way back across The Wash in 1985, ‘You’ve just got to keep plugging away at it!’ Plug away we did and, arm-achingly slowly, Kish Bank light grew to its full 22m, sunlit in red and white splendour. About half a mile short we passed through a strange area of glassy-smooth and perfectly formed standing waves, as the diminishing flood tide felt the sand beneath. Tim was first to tuck in behind the ten foot high black base, just after 12.00 noon, the sea beginning to show surface flurries from a now increasing easterly breeze.

Half an hour’s rest and refreshment enabled us to check out the navigational plan for the final leg into Dublin Bay. With the ebb tide now increasing, we agreed transits via North Kish and South Burford buoys (they really were this time!) and set off at 12.37, arriving at South Burford by 13.33.

The weather was glorious and the area full of normal nautical activity, but of course none of those who saw us had any idea where we’d come from, assuming most probably we were just local paddlers out for the day and enjoying the sunshine. By now also I was extremely tired, and this final two hours required all the energy I could possibly summon to maintain the opted course. Tim, who had admitted to some tiredness whilst battling for Kish Bank, was now bright again, encouraging me on.

Regular changes of transits, ending with two churches above Dun Laoghaire itself, slowly guided us in to a small, stony beach just east of the seaward wall of the town’s huge harbour and ferry terminal. The freshening easterly wind probably reached the forecast ‘4’, pushing us in as our energy reserves decreased, just as though someone was pushing us from behind, willing us on to ensure we made it.

I had no complaints, the waves were going in our direction and I took regular advantage of the surfing opportunities presented, finally following Tim in and easing my way through the rocks to land at 14.33, over 16 hours after setting out. We were both very pleased, and whilst obviously tired, in notably better condition than when we reached the Scillies in ’93.

After a few photo’s and getting changed, I rang HMCG who agreed to pass on news of our safe arrival to Holyhead. What happened after that is another story and definitely for a different time.

Two hours later we’d lugged the painfully heavy kayaks round and into the ferry terminal for a free ride back (the boats not us!) and once aboard we sat down for a couple of pints of Guinness. Why didn’t we stay? At least for that night; B&B, a meal and a few beers?

For a number of reasons it would have been better if we had, but it’s a question we’ve asked ourselves a number of times since and not answered satisfactorily. Ninety minutes later we were back in Holyhead.

The Kayaks

Clearly these were not tested in rough sea conditions, but they were never going to be on this trip. That has been done before and since. They were picked for stability and speed, and they performed with the excellence for which P&H sea kayaks have become long renowned. The Capella has firmly placed itself in the ranks of true sea kayaks, and because of this is now available in GRP also.

The Outlander is a different issue, to my mind a most underrated kayak, and
undeservedly so. It is superbly stable, very manoeuvrable, and yet easily holds its own on pace. For example, Tim is much younger, stronger and arguably fitter than me, and was in the faster boat, yet well into the night had commented how well I was keeping up with him, or to approximately recall his words, “You’re doin’ all right tonight dad!” I put that down to the boat.

Tim and I extend our thanks to Dave, Julian, Peter and the rest of the P&H team.

John Chamberlin

Irish Sea ’96, Postscript:
Life’s ‘ABCs’ of Success are; ‘Ability, Breaks, Courage’.

‘Ability’

From the very beginning, and especially early in 1996, our approach was to be as pragmatic as possible. No commitment was made to the trip. First we would establish our fitness levels to paddle the distance and for a period equivalent to the possible duration of the trip. Initial estimates and chats suggested a distance nearer 60 miles than 50, and a time-span of anything from 13 (my sheer optimism!) to 20 hours. We settled on about 17, as that was how long ’72 had taken over 50 miles, and, even though I was now twice as old, the kayaks would be faster.

Training began in March with a 16-mile paddle, doubling-up on an 8-mile circuit we have regularly used on the Erewash canal and the Trent. (NB I suppose realistically it started for me on January 7th, when I entered the Soar Valley CC 10-mile New Year ‘Resolution’ Race at Leicester. Looking back now, I suspect there was a mind-set issue involved there somewhere.)

Over the succeeding weeks the distance was jacked up through 21 and 25 miles, culminating in May in a 50-mile paddle in the Lake District, doing 5 lengths of lake Windermere. That excursion took about 15© hours and, as Tim said at the time, “If you can do 15 hours, you can do 17!”

Navigation needed refresher, so a session one evening in early June concluded with a plot of 280 mag. on chart 1411, ‘Irish Sea Western Part’. That gave an estimated paddling time of 17 hours, based on a 3-knot average, setting out an hour before High Water (Liverpool), night-time.

The aspect of sea kayak competence was taken as read. We had the ability.

‘Breaks’

We agreed a weather envelope of; no westerly component, up to Force 4 if an easterly component (NE, E or SE), but stable. The preferred conditions were a High centred over the Irish Sea or the north of the UK, and again ‘stable’ for at least 24 hours beyond the trip ETA, but we realised this was hoping a bit much. Very early on we had agreed the aim would be to enjoy the trip, not have ‘an epic’. Tim had said one day on the Trent whilst discussing it, “I don’t want to die doing it.” Neither did I.

Comparing diaries, the first probable slot was going to be the weekend of 14-16 June. We were prepared to go on a weekday, but for a variety of mainly work-related reasons, preferred not to if possible. However, we knew psychologically we were looking at June or July, so would be as flexible as necessary, because in all probability we would not get more than one chance.

On that basis I began accessing the MetFAX service (0336 400 473) from Monday 3 June, and by Tuesday 11 June things began to look promising for the following weekend.

The prognosis continued positively until Friday’s read, ‘S or SE 2-3’ for Saturday, and the Friday lunchtime Shipping Forecast gave ‘Variable 2-3’. The ‘one chance’ seemed on. I say ‘seemed’, because we had also agreed the final decision would be at the point of departure, although realistically there was no reason to drive all the way to Holyhead unless we thought we were going, and we thought we were. We got the break.

‘Courage’

In hindsight, which is always ’20:20′, this at first looks a little superficial (especially when you see the photographs!), but it should not. Despite all the other adventures George Bazeley undertook subsequently, some years afterwards he said that our 1972 crossing was ‘the most committing’ thing he had ever done. I think that was also true in my case, at least until ’93 and the Scillies trip. Although the distance was only about half, the differing ‘commitment’ there was simple. You could miss.

Fear and ‘courage’ mean different things to each and every one of us. To me, courage is discovering that frogs’ legs are edible. In Tim’s case though, I have no idea what, if anything, he may be frightened of. Possibly nothing, but I doubt that. Similarly I do not know what he regards as brave, although I know he has canoed on big water, rivers and sea, from Iceland to Corryvreckan. He will have his own recollections of his thoughts as we set off on this trip, but my guess is that to him that’s all it was, ‘a trip’.

For me though this was much different, it meant yet another commitment. It was to be a test, to see if I could actually ‘go’. One physical manifestation of the problem has often been the increasingly sleepless nights prior to any such trip. Despite ‘no commitment’ having been made, by Thursday we both knew it was ‘on’. On the Monday of that week I had slept little more than 2-3 hours. On the Tuesday, that improved with a reasonable night’s sleep, say 5 hours, but on Wednesday that was again not the case. On Thursday I had gone to the doctor’s (I should have done it sooner!) to seek some sleeping tablets,
and he gave me (for £5.50!) three 10mg ‘Stilnoct’, with instructions to take only one!

That same evening, 13 June, Tim and I were due to meet a guy from a local Diving Club to borrow their marine-frequency emergency radio. At that same meeting we agreed that, despite how good the weather might be, if I didn’t sleep that night, the trip was off! I was home again by 10.00 p.m., did as I was told and took one tablet, was asleep by about 10.30. And awake again by 2.00 a.m.! I lay there thinking; ‘well, that’s it then, the usual format now is for me to be awake until getting-up time and the trip’s off! After all this, do I want the decision to rest on me not getting a few hours’ sleep?’

I went downstairs and took a second tablet and, I believe, was asleep again by 02.30. Waking again at about 5 o’clock, I reckon I’d had about six hours’ sleep, but all of it deeper than normal. Good sleep. I believe that, from an entirely personal point of view, that second tablet was the deciding factor.

It would have been so easy to ring Tim on the Friday morning, offer profuse apologies but confirm that, despite ‘taking the tablet’, the trip was off. Of course I knew that at two minutes past two, and that if I left my bed to go down for a second pill, the likelihood was that we would leave Holyhead that night.

At 10.30 p.m., we canoed away from the beach at Soldiers’ Point.

JC

Updated

PSK details of Irish Sea (Holyhead/Dublin) Crossings