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.

Anglesey Circumnavigation 2006

By John Willacy

“Well, I don’t think I’ll be doing that again”, and this time I meant what I said…

Back in the autumn of 2005, I completed the circumnavigation of Anglesey by sea kayak in a time of 11:30. It was a long day and I remember saying, as we walked back up the beach, that I would not be doing that again in a hurry. I also remember thinking on the journey home, that there was 30-40 minutes to come off the time. It was a figure that was to stick in the back of my mind for the following year.

That’s why, on a September morning, the four of us found ourselves standing, rather bleary eyed, on Borthwen beach before sunrise. For once I was early and so we stood around chatting and wondering when the sun would rise and where the water was.

After my 2005 attempt I was disappointed to hear some doubting comments, from a few, I thought peevish, local ‘experts’ over the validity of my time. This year there would be no doubt. I had decided to have two witnesses for this effort; two trustworthy, reliable, reasonably well known and beyond reproach individuals. Unfortunately they wouldn’t get out of bed so early and so I had to make do with Mike Webb and Aled Williams from Rockpool Kayaks.

Mike was proudly showing off his new video camera with its all singing and dancing low-light setting. Unfortunately the designer had neglected to illuminate the buttons. We never got to see how it fared in the dark as Mike could not see enough to switch it on!

Soon it was time to leave. The timing team set off for their vantage point and I paddled out of the bay, passing a just-waking yacht on my way. The clock was duly started and I was underway, the rays of first light just rising over the headland.

To find those forty minutes I had tweaked my previous plan a little. This time I was setting off a little earlier, though I had to be careful. If I left too early I would get ahead of the tide and would lose more than I gained.

As I headed across Penrhos Bay I could see the smoke from the Aluminium works stack. Disappointingly it showed an easterly breeze was blowing, a nice headwind for the trip along the north coast. Oh well.

Penrhyn Mawr slipped past smoothly and soon I was drawing level with South Stack. Before I rounded the corner I glanced over my shoulder to see the Lleyn and Snowdonia silhouetted spectacularly against the sunrise. The South Stack tide race was still slumbering with barely a ripple. This was a little disconcerting as I expected a few waves to be forming here, hmm… too early? As I progressed across Gogarth towards North Stack, the early morning light brought out some beautiful colours on Holyhead Mountain.

Image Mike Webb

Even though I had checked the ferry sailing times from Holyhead, I was a touch nervous as I crossed Holyhead Bay. The assistance from the tide was still less than I had hoped for; I was now down on time and was getting a little worried. I would look a real muppet if we had to call it all off because I had got my timings wrong, it wouldn’t be the first-time!

As I neared the Skerries I was relieved to see the tide race from the Platters starting to form. The tide was running at last. The headwind made things a little lumpy as I progressed along the north coast, ticking off the landmarks as I went. First the solitary West Mouse then peaceful Cemlyn Bay nature reserve, the hulk of Wylfa Head power station followed soon after by the familiar Middle Mouse. Onwards past the old Porth Wen brickworks hiding in the bay, then sleepy Bull Bay and soon the runt of the litter – East Mouse watching over the old port of Amlwch.

I was making progress as I neared Point Lynas, though I was still a little down on the plan.

Rounding Lynas, I could make out Puffin Island as a depressingly small smudge on the horizon, skulking below Penmaen Mawr. A yacht had followed me along the north coast, now as I stopped for a bite to eat; it glided past with a cheery good morning from the crew. Realising this could be useful; I put my food away, a quick last sip of water and then off after the yacht. A little faster than I would have liked but it would make a good pace setter on my way towards the Menai Straits.

Moelfre came and went, as slowly, Puffin grew on the horizon. As I tried to keep up with the yacht the breeze dropped and the sun rose into the sky, it was starting to get rather warm. I couldn’t afford to lose the boost of chasing the yacht though and so I sweated my way towards Puffin Sound and the Menai Straits.

The early start was now paying dividends; I had made good progress down the east coast and was nudging ahead of time. Last year the tide was high enough to paddle inshore of the warning sign by the lighthouse, not this time though. The tide was running nicely through the sound as I turned the corner into the Menai Straits.

Image Mike Webb

Beneath a clear blue sky I had a beautiful view of the Snowdonia Mountains as I headed towards Bangor. Beaumaris was awake now; the tourist boats were heading off to visit the seals at Puffin, kids were fishing for crabs from the pier and I had to tentatively sneak through a colourful dinghy race in full flow near Gallows Point.

I had planned to meet Pascale at Menai Bridge for a breather, not long to go now. But as I passed Bangor Pier I suddenly ran out of steam, the last few kilometres to the slipway seemed to last forever. Even so I arrived with time in hand.

The slipway was a hectic place, with power boats and jet skis seemingly everywhere. I could see no sign of Pascale and was just about to continue when she appeared. Car parking problems apparently, more like snoozing in the sunshine if you ask me! Mike and Aled also made a welcome appearance and so we all sat in the sunshine chatting and eating cakes (of course) whilst I tried to prolong my stay on terra-firma. A yacht skipper came over to say hello. He was on the yacht I passed as I sneaked out of Borthwen in the early morning gloom. He set off a few minutes later and was also going around Anglesey, but in the opposite direction.

All too soon the cakes were finished, the clock was still ticking, so back into the boat and off again. The Swellies flew by in the sunshine, the GPS showed over 12kts as I passed below the lions of Britannia Bridge. Perfect weather as I passed Nelson and the Marquis on my way to Port Dinorwic. Soon I sighted historic Caernarfon, the spectacular castle contrasting with the Morrisons supermarket on the waters edge.

I always find the stretch between Caernarfon and Abermenai a little bleak, today was no different. As I neared Abermenai the clouds rolled in and I found myself paddling into a headwind again as a chilly squall blew through.

Leaving the Straits I headed across the bar towards Llanddwyn Island. Llanddwyn grew steadily in front of me until I passed the tip of the picturesque island. Still up on time, the GPS showed a predicted finish time of well under 10:30. But I knew this was not to be, as I rounded the end of the island I was expecting the tide to be against me. It was.

The early start which had helped me make up so much time during the day was always to have a sting in the tail, here it was. The last leg was to be against the flow, just when energy levels were at their lowest and those parts that I never knew I had were beginning to ache!

As I headed north the conditions eased a little as I finally pointed the boat towards the finish line. But as my speed dropped the finish time grew later and later, at one point it was worse than last year’s time. After working so hard through the day this just didn’t seem fair!

It was time to stop messing around and get a little angry. Taking a gamble, I turned towards the coast. I hoped all those years of slogging my way up and down rivers would pay off as I aimed to use the eddies to save time.

As I ran out of eddy, things were still tight, there was nothing left to do but bite the bullet, pull hard and head straight for the finish. With an hour to go it was time to put on a ‘burn’! Well it should have been. My shoulders really weren’t interested. It was much later before they finally decided to join in!

The last few miles passed in a haze as I fought the GPS for the time of 10:45 I craved for, I wasn’t going to let that little box beat me now! About this time last year my shoulder painfully gave up the ghost short of the finish. Not this time though. Mike’s video camera would show a little red dot growing larger and larger until I crossed the line as a perfect example of how not to paddle a boat fast. Not much in the way of technique I had to admit. Leaning back, head down, the boat bobbing madly and blades throwing more water than a washing machine with the door open, I didn’t care – I’d had enough!


As I crossed the line my watch showed 10:45.

Relieved it was all over, I paddled over to speak to the rest of the team, Aled confirmed the time as 10:45:40. Forty five minutes up on last year, not bad.

And so back to the beach where, as I unpacked the boat, the Rockpool chaps kindly produced a bottle of bubbly. Unfortunately I’d polished off the traditional post-paddle cakes earlier!

So that was it, this time just over 120 km in a time of 10:45:40. Of course I said “Never again!” – again, as I hobbled up the beach. This time I really did mean it.

But then, I’m sure there is 15-20 minutes, maybe more, to come off that time, on a good day…

A big ‘thank-you’ to Pascale, Aled and Mike for all their help.

All Images Courtesy of Mike Webb

John Willacy

Oct 2006

Anglesey Circumnavigation 2005

By John Willacy

This was the one that set them all off for me,  my first record – the genesis of Performance Sea Kayaking. Both my paddling and writing styles have moved on since then, but the desire to find a challenge hasn’t…

To me the fast circumnavigation of Anglesey by sea kayak seemed an obvious challenge. It was an achievable though testing goal that would involve a good deal of planning and preparation along with a little bit of brawn. My appetite had been wetted by Terry Storry’s tales of paddlers cutting short record breaking attempts in order to appease the better half, and more latterly, from reading reports from Justine Curgenven, Fiona Whitehead and Barry Shaw of their successful attempts.

My aim was to set a new record for the time taken. With a bit of luck I believed that a sub-12 hour time was possible and if things went well a time around 11 hours and 30 mins would be nice. I believed Barry Shaw had the previous best with 13 hours 36 mins so I hoped to shave a little off this if things went to plan!

The planning was crucial; to circumnavigate the whole island in this sort of time needed some sneaky tidal planning and would leave a couple of crux points where arriving too late (or even too early in some cases) would result in a time and energy wasting slog against the tide. Even so it was inevitable I would paddle against the flow in places, it was just a case of picking the best places!

To achieve a fast time I would need good weather and good tides. I had learnt previously that conditions had to be spot on or it would all just be a waste of time. Trying to get the right weather and sea conditions, combined with a large spring tide and time off work was surprisingly difficult. There where not many days in the year that would meet all the criteria; this attempt would be the last chance for 2005 and probably for the next 6 months.

Unfortunately, with days to go the weather forecast was not good; 20 mph+ winds would make it all pointless. So instead I packed the car and headed north to take part in Pete Roscoe’s excellent SeaQuest race. Returning after the race, the forecast showed a one day window of reasonable (though not ideal) weather had appeared, sandwiched between two windy days. So, at the last minute it was all on again. An added complication was my ‘independent timekeeper’ backing out as the early start became clear. My long suffering girlfriend Pascale would have to be roped in to press the button instead.

And so I found myself, before daylight, getting ready on the beach. Pascale arrived, after staying in duvet land for a little longer, to help me carry the boat down and see me off. As per normal I had taken too long packing my kit and, as per normal, I was late starting. Finally, it was just a case of pointing in the right direction and starting the watches. I was taking no chances on the timing and so there were more watches involved than you would find in a Geneva Jewellers.

I had left the beach 20 mins late, but knowing how I work I had allowed a 30 min buffer just in case. Now though that was effectively gone, not ideal. My long list of waypoints and timings lay accusingly in front of me. The schedule was tight and there were a few crux points that I had to make or I could have problems.

I paddled rather sleepily out of the bay, into an annoying and chilly 10 knot north-westerly headwind. It was overcast and the sea was still disappointingly choppy from the previous day, not quite the oily calm conditions I had been dreaming of! Nothing much to get excited about normally but today I didn’t want to commit myself to 12 hours in the boat if the conditions would make it all pointless.

As I neared Penrhyn Mawr I still had doubts that the conditions where good enough to make a fast time feasible. The headland was my ‘cut-off’ point, having turned there on a previous attempt. But before I knew it I bounced through the early forming tide-race, I was committed now.

Keeping a good distance off-shore to use the tide, I had a great view of South Stack Lighthouse. It sat there looking a little aloof in the early morning light, bracing itself for the daily sightseers that would besiege it later in the morning. I had opted to wear a lightweight top rather than a heavy cag, and was hoping to sneak through the South Stack tide race without getting too wet. Unfortunately, the tide race had different ideas and the final wave dumped on me, leaving me sodden. Best part of 11 hours to go and already I had salt water in my shorts – nice! At least the headwind was now a steady breeze on the beam which made things easier.

As I left the impressive cliffs of Gogarth Bay behind me the first crux point loomed. I had to cross Holyhead Bay between the Irish ferries sailing to and fro from Holyhead. Crossing Holyhead Bay in a sea kayak is always a slightly nerve-wracking venture. The ferries do not take prisoners and have left numerous sea paddlers with a few extra grey hairs over the years! First, I checked to see that there was nothing sneaking over the horizon from the west and whilst keeping a good eye on the Holyhead Breakwater I aimed for Langdon Ridge. I heaved a sigh of relief as the shipping lane fell behind. Pleasingly, I had been slightly ahead of time as I passed the Breakwater.

Next, I headed for Carmel Gap which separates the Skerries from Anglesey; here the tide would pick up and so I should soon be flying along the North Coast. But as I closed on the Skerries I realised my drink bottle had become detached and was lost somewhere in the bilges! Try as I might I couldn’t retrieve it, I would have to land – bugger! The tide was picking up now and I had made my decision too late for the western end of the Skerries and so I had to pick up the pace a little to make the easterly end. After a rather comical landing on the rocks I retrieved the wayward bottle; I also took the opportunity to change my clothes. I was starting to feel the chill and needed to dry out a little.

The tide was flowing impressively past the Skerries now and soon I was making nearly 10 kts, I had quite a bit of time to make up now. As I passed West Mouse, the brooding hulk of Wylfa nuclear power station loomed, sited, rather incongruously, next to the nature reserve at Cemlyn Bay. Though the wind had eased a little, I was having a little trouble getting the boat to run smoothly through the confused combination of swell, chop and tide race. The large spring tide seemed to have brought too much energy to the North Coast; the sea seemed to be in a boisterous mood!

Beyond Cemaes Bay, the last of the summers Guillemots rose from Middle Mouse, they flew out to circle me twice before returning to the Mouse. The tide was easing a little now as I passed the brickworks at Porth Wen, the venue for many a sea kayaker’s overnight bivvi stop. Further along the coast came East Mouse and then the narrow port of Amlwch, along with the unsightly discharge pipe from the Parys Mountain mine workings.

Rounding Point Lynas, with its low-slung, early 19th century lighthouse, I stayed a little offshore to avoid the eddy behind the headland. The unplanned stop at the Skerries meant I was now 15 mins down, I had some work to do on this next leg! Beyond the point paddling became much easier as the conditions improved. There was none of the chop of the north coast and I was sheltered from the wind here. Looking into the distance I could just make out my next destination, Puffin Island, just a depressingly faint smudge on the horizon. The east coast was going to be a long slog, I would be 2-3 miles off the coast for most of it, and so there would not be a great deal to look at. As I progressed the wind eased and the sun appeared to make life more pleasant. Off Red Wharf Bay I paddled alongside a LNG tanker, flying the French flag, at anchor. A quick ‘Bonjour’ and then onwards to Puffin and into the Menai Straits.

Nearing Puffin Sound I could here the familiar sound of the fog bell on the Trywn Du lighthouse; soon I would enter the Straits and head west. The Menai Straits would be the real crux of the whole affair. The complicated tidal flows here would see me paddling both with and against the tides for a time. Obviously, I wanted to minimise the ‘against’ bit and maximise the ‘with’ bit! I had tried to make up a little time along the east coast leg but to no avail. I arrived at Puffin Sound still 15 mins down.

There was enough water for me to ignore the ‘No Passage Landward’ warning on Trwyn Du light as I sneaked around the corner into the Straits; no time to visit the seals today. As I rounded the corner the clear weather gave me a spectacular view of the Snowdonia mountains in the distance, just topped with clouds.

My late arrival in the Straits meant the flow was against me and stronger than I had hoped for; this was not good. But a little sneaky use of the coastline soon had me over the slack water bubble and then I gained the help of the west going ebb. Soon I was passing the historic castle and impressive sea front of Beaumaris. A stiffening breeze was blowing up the Straits into my face making things a little choppy as I neared Bangor Pier. From here it was only a few minutes to Menai Bridge, where the slipway was to be the venue for a scheduled and much anticipated lunch-stop. After so long in the boat it was bliss to stretch my legs and change into some dry clothes. Pascale met me on the slipway with some food and a very welcome hot flask. I was in no hurry to get back into the boat but all too soon it was time to head off towards Caernarfon.

The tide was running well now as I paddled under Thomas Telford’s impressive suspension bridge and into The Swellies. I couldn’t resist a quick surf of the Cardinal wave, but onwards…the clock was still ticking. As I paddled beneath Stephenson’s Brittania Bridge, leaving the shelter of The Swellies, I was again 15 mins down.

Into the headwind past the old slate port of Port Dinorwic and then the chop started to pick up again as I neared Plas Menai, but at least the sun was out again. Caernarfon castle showed itself from behind the town and then I was heading for Abermenai Point.

Through the narrows of the point and then I picked my way through Caernarfon Bar as the sky cleared and the wind finally dropped off. I put the Snowdonia mountains behind me now as I turned towards Llanddwyn Island. The tide gave me more help here than I expected and by the time I reached Llanddwyn I had made up a good chunk of time. The air was really clear now and Llanddwyn looked spectacular framed against the blue sky. As I rounded the island I was preparing myself for the long slog up the west coast. The best I could hope for now was slack water but much of the time I would be working against a gentle tide. Decision time: to stay in close to the coast, to minimise the effects of the tide, or just straight line towards Rhoscolyn Beacon? A few calculations didn’t really prove a significant benefit either way. So it was down to gut feelings – straight line then. As per Puffin earlier in the day, the Beacon appeared as a grey lump on the horizon.

I new that the time I had gained as I left the Straits would slowly ‘ebb’ (sorry!) away as I slogged my way north. With no help from the tide the GPS was constantly revising its ETA figure now, unfortunately not in my favour! It would be close, very close to make the 11hour 30 mins mark I was aiming for. It was time to pick up the pace.

I mentally ticked off the landmarks as I made my way; Aberffraw first, then the island church of St Cwyfan’s, the sound of cars drifting over from the motor circuit at Ty Croes, followed by the white painted Rhosneigr and the airfield at RAF Valley.

Eventually the finish loomed into sight, my shoulder was painful, my bum was numb and I was knackered! As I crossed the line a frantic session of button pressing ensued. The slowest time on the watches showed a time of 11 hours 30 mins (and 15 secs) – uncanny. The GPS had recorded a distance of 66 nm / 122 km – I had done it! It had been a long day.

Of course there where no crowds or bands, only Pascale and myself on the beach. Then it was time for the anti-climax of loading the boat onto the car and heading home.

Of course on the beach I said I would never do it again, ever.

But then, looking back, I think time was lost on the stops and the weather wasn’t ideal and if I had…

Well, perhaps 40 mins should come off that time on a good day…

John Willacy
Jan 2006

Juggling the Paps – The Anatomy of a Record

By John Willacy

‘Strong tidal streams with eddies, races and overfalls can occur in certain areas of this chart and can be dangerous to small vessels. Streams setting through the Gulf of Corryvreckan are very dangerous.’ – Admiralty Chart


Not far above, glides a cold, grey October sky. There is a brittle wind from the northeast and things are a little tense. Around the corner lies the Corryvreckan. I’m not sure what to expect, there’s not much swell today, but you never just know. The tide timings can vary, and the wind makes a difference from day to day – it’s not a place to take for granted. However, all goes well today, the plan is good and I’ve arrived at the correct time. There are a few boils and a bit of white here and there, but nothing that can’t be avoided. Game on.

On paper I’m here to paddle a record attempt around Scarba. It’s not too far around, 10 miles or so, less of a record really and more of a time-trial. A little more of a challenge than your average TT though, as the route passes through the Corryvreckan and the smaller tide race of the Grey Dogs. The small, lumpy isle of Scarba is separated from the north end of the island of Jura by the narrow stretch of confused water, known as the Corryvreckan.

And that’s the real reason I’m here, to take a recce run through the Corryvreckan.

There’s a plan afoot you see – to return here in a few months time to make a record attempt around the larger island of Jura.


The island of Jura lies in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. It is a long, narrow island – 26 miles long and 6 miles wide. It’s a peaceful, though quite remote place; it takes a two-ferry trip to get there. On the island, there is only one road, which runs about 2/3rd the length of the east coast before turning into a track. If you want to see the other side of the island you have to walk, across country. As the population totals around 200 people, I guess there’s no real need for a motorway.

Jura has a pleasant hotel, a world famous distillery and three steep, rocky hills known as the Paps of Jura – the venue for a classic fell race, and plenty of nice views. Oh, and George Orwell once lived here too.

From the point of view of the performance sea paddler Jura ticks boxes on the list of a challenging circumnavigation – fast tides, exposed and remote paddling and a couple of crux-points – the Corryvreckan at one end and the fast-flowing Sound of Islay at the other. Once again, good planning is the key to achieving a good time.

At just over 60 miles around, it fits nicely into the one-day record category. Another one of God’s island designs with the fast-paddler in mind.


So how do we go about it then?

Well the whole record-attempt malarkey can be succinctly summed up in a few lines I guess:

Turn up with a good plan, good training and good weather.

Paddle hard, have a break, head home.



But of course there’s a little more in the detail.

We start with a mini-plan, a sort of feasibility study really. No great detail here, just a quick look to see how far it is and to work out roughly how long it will take. Now is a time to see if the whole thing is even on in the first place.

Normal training goes on year round, to keep a certain level of fitness. So once the mini-plan is in place, and we have an idea of how long the day will be, the training programme can be tweaked to match the estimated time required in the boat on the day.

This is also a time to take a quick look at the tides and daylight hours, to see what time of year the whole affair is likely to happen. In turn this gives an idea of how long there is left to prepare. A quick count-back tells how many miles need to be added in each training block to the current training distance.

Long term the weather may be watched, a little research done, looking for patterns, trends and local anomalies. This may also affect the time of year that everything takes place.

Now off to get the miles in…


Meanwhile there is no hurry with the detailed plan. For me I start to firm-up the details long before, but I’m not too keen on sitting down and doing it in one go. Instead, I prefer to work it over a time, with gaps between. This way the plan evolves; returning periodically helps it to steadily form a picture in my head.

The first planning stage is to look for the crux-point(s). These are areas that have to be paddled through at specific times in order to gain passage at all, or to ensure that minimal time is lost. We are also looking to time things to minimise any dodginess in the area. If there is more than one crux-point on the route then it is a case of prioritising the most significant.

Now to find likely start-points to match. A good start-point will be close to the main crux-point, so you can judge your arrival time better and arrive with a fresh set of arms and brain. It will also be positioned so little is lost on the way due to foul tidal flows and has convenient access to the water (preferably with toilet facilities for that last minute, pre-10 hr paddle event!)

A long list of juicy start-points can quickly reduce to a short list of sort-of-if-I-really-have-to locations as the plan develops.

In this case the chosen Jura start-point did have toilets, however it was also 36 miles away from the Corryvreckan. To make the 20 min tidal window after 36 miles of paddling was going to be rather exacting. The lack of road access meant closer options would mean a paddle in (and out) to the start, with an overnight stay on the beach. A lot of faff before a record – so the distant start-point was chosen as the lesser evil.


Now comes the slog part of the planning.

From the start-point (or working backwards from the crux-point) we work out the distance covered for each one hour leg – estimated paddling speed plus tidal assistance. Repeat this for each one-hour leg of the route. If it works, move the start-time one hour later and repeat the process to see if it is faster or slower (and if it still makes the crux timings of course). Repeat these iterations until either the time-taken increases too much or the crux isn’t met.

Now repeat for the hours the other side of the original start-time.

There’s more:

Now continue working out the time taken for each of the remaining one hour legs around the rest of the island; once again looking for the optimum time. Often a good looking plan comes to a screeching halt (literally) when you run out of flow – it’s back to the drawing board, to start out with a new start-time or position. Bum.

Still with me? Yawn. Once you have the optimum start-time for that start-point, it’s now time to repeat the whole process for paddling in the opposite direction. Oh yes.

And then… it’s time to repeat the whole thing yet again, this time for any alternate start-points. Always looking for the fastest plan.

Eventually a trend for an optimum start-time and position forms – mind numb, now is time to put your feet up and take a break. Thankfully the plan can take a bit of back-seat for a while and its back to the paddling.

For the Jura record, the various iterations covered 24 sides of notes.

A week or two later the plan is revisited and reviewed with fresh eyes. The double checking often finds mistakes unfortunately, though better found here than half-way around on the day. As the plan becomes familiar it starts to form a picture mentally too. It’s surprising how such a plan formed many miles away from an unknown area, can all seem familiar when the paddling finally arrives.

If all is well it’s time to look at the tidal flows in more detail next and lay out all the GPS waypoints, trying to follow the fastest flow for the fastest route. Paddling on the day will closely follow the GPS route laid down at this stage.

Once the waypoints are finalised the planning sheet can be completed too. This laminated sheet sits on the spraydeck with bearings and distances for each leg. It also has arrival timings for each waypoint. On the day the aim is to paddle to these timings, arriving within a few minutes of each one hopefully. If not then either the paddling or the plan needs a re-tweak on the fly.


While all this has been going on, the training continues of course.

Time in the boat is important; mileages are patiently increased on the long-paddles. Training sessions predominately revolve around interval work or sub-hour continuous paddles though; too many long-miles can lead to fatigue rather than fitness gain.

There’s also a technical component of course. Skills need sharpening – self-rescues, nav, pacing, moving-water, windy paddling and so on.

Along the way I like to use Progress Records, if they fit in the calendar. These are shorter attempts that are useful to check fitness and to allow a real-life opportunity for familiarisation with the long-distance paddling routine and kit. They also give a fitness benefit if timed correctly, and if the main goal for the year doesn’t happen then at least you can walk away from the season with something. If a progress record doesn’t fit in, then a long, local time-trial steps in to fill the familiarisation gap.


It’s all for nought however if you don’t make the start line on time. So, as is the way for any trip, the hum-drum stuff has to be considered too – ferry crossings, accommodation, holiday time and such, all have to be organised. Without all of this the attempt doesn’t happen anyway.


The day finally arrives though. Shoulders have been worked, ferries have been sailed, maps have been learnt and the plan has been viewed, and re-viewed until it dribbles out of your ears.
Now is time to get on with the job.


We arrive and the forecast predicts a weather window later, though only of 2 days max. There’s no point setting out if you don’t have good weather, you are going to waste your time and a lot of effort. The Corryvreckan is not an easy place to take a look at; it doesn’t need much weather to make it an unpleasant spot to be either. So with a 36 mile lead-in I want the odds on my side as much as possible.

Good weather and no-swell is the order of the day, I don’t want to be caught out at the top turn. So we hang around for a day or two, waiting for the weather. A few last-minute easy paddles and a little exploring fill the time and take the mind off things.

I’d previously decided that a paddle-in and camp on the beach in the north, wasn’t for the best. So a night in the van sleeping on the water’s edge is the score instead. The beach faces east, half-way up the island. During the night we both awake to the sound of surf dumping on the beach. Coming from the Atlantic-west it must be big to make it through the gaps at the end of the island and all the way up to here! There isn’t much sleep. Eventually a chill, sunny morning breaks though, to reveal the boisterous surf is actually only a few inches high!


Closely followed by Nerves…

As realisation dawns, the day is on.

And so, down to the start-point at Craighouse. Perfect calm weather. Clocks started and away.

All goes well initially, it’s time to get into a nice rhythm, to not start out too fast. Turning into the Sound of Islay I can see the flow is building nicely. It’s a calm, clear day – just a slight haze in the distance, the faster water is easy to follow. Half-way down the sound I’m up on time, making a pleasing 9 knots, chasing the flow. It’s better than being down, but I still don’t want to get to the Corryvreckan too early and have to sit around getting cold – that’s effort wasted too.

Out of the sound, well up on time now, barren moorland and the grey lumps of the Paps rest over to the right-hand side. Ahead and to the north, Mull lies in the hazy distance. The smaller isle of Colonsay lies across to the west, a few miles out.

Clearing the shelter of the sound brings a gentle swell from the north and west, a chill north breeze forms too. It’s not strong but it adds a little to the level of effort required and starts to cool my arms. Progressing north the swell increases, just enough to spoil the paddling rhythm. And as the sun rises higher over the hills, the breeze strengthens too, it starts to get a little cold.

Four hours in and the wheels drop off. It’s not unexpected, but I was hoping to last a little longer. At the same time I decide I have to add a cag due to the chill, always a nervous moment pulling it over my head while alone on the water. It’s tighter than the last time I did this too… aah fatboy.

Tidal data for this stretch was vague, and as I head towards the Corryvreckan I’d guessed on some assistance from an eddy towards the north. However its help arrives much further up the coast than I anticipated. Time is lost. While this is a little frustrating, the earlier gains through the speedy Sound of Islay cancel out the loss nicely and I close nervously on the Corryvreckan only a few minutes down. Good.

The tide is not yet running through in the direction I need which is not so good, however it’s only a gentle flow against. There’s spikey water in the narrows, though the swell creeping around the edge of Scarba happily doesn’t make much of an impression. There’s a definite sense of relief as I make it through. Once through and into the Sound of Jura the conditions are completely different, flat calm and no breeze. The sun feels warm again.

Heading south now, I have to sneak in close to hunt for an eddy, the flow in the larger sound is vague and doesn’t appear to have turned yet. But this helps in a way, I find a good eddy and am soon making decent progress south.

Fatigue is setting in now, it has been 8 hours on the go. The admin routine starts to fall apart, as I find any excuse to stop paddling. Dipping self-indulgently into the emergency food it’s time to man-up and get on with the job. A few confused calculations tempt me with a possible sub-10 hour finish. This concentrates the mind now and retrieves hidden reserves – pull hard fatboy.

The tide has turned all along the Jura coastline now and the speed is steadily picking up. I’m pushing hard, the sub-10 goal keeps things focussed.
There’s a minor moment of worry in the later stages, as I take a lazy line off a headland and find myself wallowing in a large eddy, watching the speed drop. Mental calculations sluggishly return a seemingly disastrous post 10-hour finish. Follow the flow fatboy. I can see the finish-line ahead and slightly right but counter-intuitively head out to find the faster water. The speed rises pleasingly once again, the 10-hour goal is back on-line.

Now it’s a final-throes push to the line. Nothing left, the clock stops at 9hrs, 55 mins and 40 secs as I cross the line. I’m pleased to make it under the 10 hours, while the magic box shows 61 miles.

I glide slowly back in, looking over, once again, to the silhouette of the Paps in the distance. At the scruffy beach I’m grateful to stand up once again, while I disentangle from boat and equipment.

Kit is sorted, the boat loaded and hotel food consumed. The sun goes down.
Job done – the plan worked.

John Willacy
Feb 2018
(Previously published in Ceufad)

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More Manx Miles – Isle of Man Circumnav 2010

By John Willacy

Well, nobody can accuse me of not knowing how to show a girl a good time! It was a grey Sunday morning, blowing a hoolie and we were staring out through sleepy eyes at a tide race. We had arrived on the Isle of Man with a couple of fast boats on the roof and an aim to improve on Freya Hoffmeister’s record for the circumnavigation of the island; but things didn’t look too good…

Once we had settled in the first priority was to phone the Weather Forecaster at Ronaldsway Airport. I explained what I was aiming to do and how long I would need. What would he suggest? The reply was quick and confident, “Go on Monday, it will be the only chance you get!” Hmmm, this was a bit soon, no chance of a few days rest? “If you don’t go Monday you’ll have the whole week to rest – the forecast is for 25-30mph winds for the remainder of the week.” Good point, well presented…

And so we found ourselves walking along the coastline on Sunday staring out at the conditions, taking note of the tidal flows through Calf Sound and around Langness – it was quite lumpy out there. In particular the large breaking rollers making their way up the tide race at Langness made me feel a little uneasy, compounded by the way they seemed to stretch out all the way to the horizon. There was no way around this one. At best they looked like providing a rather lumpy ride, at worst it may be prudent to book a dental appointment in nearby Castletown to replace a few fillings! Was this wind over tide or was it always like this? I really wish I knew.

But in best wild water racing tradition a sneak route was spotted down the inside – game on. A quick cross at the top of the race, down the shoulders, dodge the small race forming at right angles further down, stay out of the eddy, then back into the flow and Bob’s related somewhere.

After Langness, Calf Sound seemed a bit of a disappointment – paddle through, get wet. A bit splashy but no real drama.

With the trip being brought forward, the remainder of the day became a blur of last minute planning, packing, faff and indecision! Every half hour I looked rather skeptically out of the window at the trees bowing in the wind. Monday would be calm, so the man said…

Ah yes, the planning… this one had been quite tricky. Other than a very brief trip earlier in the year I had not paddled the Isle of Man before. I knew very little of the tides. This left an uncomfortable number of gaps in my knowledge that needed filling, hence wandering around windy cliff tops earlier in the day. In order to improve on Freya’s record of 14 hours and 6 minutes it was important to find a good start point and tide phase. Keirron Tastagh from Adventurous Experiences had furnished me with some useful local knowledge, but our conversations had been all too brief. His warning that the Yachting Pilot was sometimes a little vague for a sea kayaker still stuck in my mind.

All too soon the day had arrived and we were carrying the boat down the beach at the intriguingly named The Cronk. I was 15 minutes late, as usual, but things looked good out there. The forecast for light and variable winds was matched by the flat and calm conditions, a complete contrast to the previous day – nice one Mr. Ronaldsway!

And so with a blur of stop watch buttons and a quick wave goodbye the paddle started; ahead lay 115km of the Manx coastline. After nearly a year of paddling prototype boats this was to be the first serious outing for the production version of the new Rockpool Taran – it would be interesting to see what lay ahead.

As I settled into my rhythm I came across numerous seals bottling in the early dawn just off the sandy coastline. I attempted to glide silently past using my best technique, but more often than not their hearing was better than my paddling!

As I neared Point of Ayre the conditions were still calm but I was now working into a gentle headwind; over to the side I could clearly see the hills of both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Nearby I watched a couple of porpoises working the eddy line and on the other side I looked over to the impressive lighthouses amid the copious and curious amounts of shingle. Rounding the point the GPS touched 9 kts and it was pleasing to see that I was a few minutes up on time. Now I could also see the Lake District mountains, what a view!

Heading south the breeze was picking up along with a slight swell, but things were still going smoothly as I aimed for Maughold Head. Crossing Ramsey Bay my left leg started to go numb, not good at such an early stage. The padding on the seat was a little too tight it seemed and would have to go. The swell suddenly seemed to increase as I made a few tentative alterations with my knife, a tricky procedure afloat when your bum is still fixed firmly in said seat. Soon there was a little more room and the reassurance of pins and needles as the blood returned into my leg.

At Maughold Head the picturesque lighthouse perched precariously on the cliffs, making for an impressive sight – it was pleasing to make out a small figure stood on the top of the cliffs waving to me. I assumed it was Pascale and not just some early morning eccentric who enjoyed waving out to sea from the cliff tops! I was a few minutes down now but it was no real problem, my tidal plan was a little vague here anyway.

As I rounded Maughold Head I expected the tide to pick up a steadily – it didn’t. Keirron was right.

Things were slowing down and quite markedly so. Heading south the speed was depressingly low and a few calculations showed that at this rate I would be lucky to finish before the Fish & Chip shop closed, never mind improving on the record! Over the next 60 minute leg I lost 30 minutes! It was tiring and demoralising as I scratched my way along the cliffs near Clay Head, looking for any agreeable flow.

More time was lost and as I closed on Douglas Head I was nearly an hour down! But then things began to pick up as the tide finally joined me. The gentle swell was bouncing off the cliffs, no real problem but just enough to interfere with a smooth stroke. Even so the speed was nudging nicely upwards now as I cruised down the coast towards Langness. Holding 6kts or so I was steadily clawing some time back.

Twenty-four hours earlier the tide race at Langness had looked foreboding, but as much as I looked I couldn’t see the expected whitecaps. I moved over to the right early in order to get ready for the sneak route. But as I neared the entry the conditions looked a lot friendlier than expected – straight down the middle then. As soon as I hit the tide race the Taran came alive; it just glided through the waves so smoothly. Like a thoroughbred it just wanted to be given more rein. As I passed Scarlett Point I had regained more of the lost time, I was now only 20 minutes down.

Dodging the eddy beyond the point it was 7 kts all the way towards Spanish Point. Or it should have been; a combination of daydreaming and fatigue actually meant I was heading to the Calf of Man until I
belatedly realised. I cursed my lack of concentration as I swung inwards towards my true destination, but looking at the flow I realised that staying out had done me little harm.

Sneaking below the cliffs I paddled to a pre-planned stop in a narrow and rocky gully, to find Pascale perched atop a sunny rock. Laid out there awaiting me was food, drink and dry clothes, a very welcome sight. My breaks always take too long, so in this case we set an alarm to sound every 5 minutes. It did and it didn’t make any difference! The break took just as long as always but at least I knew how quickly time was going by.

It was a slippery scramble to relaunch, and then out through Calf Sound. It was disappointingly relaxed through the main channel as I crossed the eddies searching for the remains of the north bound flow. There was now a stiff head wind and with little help from the tide it was going to be a slog. The lunch stop had put me further behind the plan, but that was to be expected. The next stage would be a bit of a grind up towards Niarbyl and then onto the tantalising hope of tidal assistance beyond Contrary Head.

The eddy behind the reef at Niarbyl gave a false hope of a bit of flow but it was dashed as I worked against the tide at the headland. It was all getting to be a bit of tedious by now, there were a few more hours to go and the figures still didn’t look too impressive for the record.

Contrary Head looked like an intriguing piece of coastline, well worth a return visit to potter around someday. But all I wanted now was a bit of flow to help me along, the name promised as such but the expected tide didn’t materialise as I rounded the headland.

Now I could see the impressive view of Peel Castle, perhaps there was tide there? I could see a small figure below the ramparts waving madly; it made me chuckle as I thought of the people standing near Pascale – watching this mad woman once again waving furiously out towards a seemingly empty sea.

As I passed Peel the tide was finally moving in my favour again. The finish line wasn’t quite in sight but I was definitely homeward bound. The featureless coastline didn’t make for easy navigation – now was the time to trust in the GPS. It was interesting to see how time seemingly contracted and dilated throughout the day; my final burn started with just under an hour to go – usually something that only lasts a matter of minutes!

And then as I pushed beyond the line it was all over. I looked across to the slipway, waiting for it to line up with the chimney of the house beyond – that was it, I had finished. The time showed as 12 hours 38 minutes and 3 seconds; the GPS showed a distance of 62.6 nm (115.9 km) and it had been a long day.

It had been a long day and not all of it had gone to plan. But I had learned a lot on the way around and though I was a little disappointed with my performance I was pleased that the final time was only 8 minutes down on the plan. Not too bad I suppose.

Of course with a few changes there is time to come off that. Don’t be shy now…

John Willacy
Aug 2010