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

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

The Westhinder Challenge

By Dimitri Vandepoele


We are always looking for a good challenge, preferably one that takes us offshore. If you look at the Belgian part of the North Sea, there are no islands that you can paddle to (with the exception of the North Sea crossing to the UK). We have to do it with our buoys, navigation marks and towers. Yes, there are towers located in the Southern part of the North Sea. Two of them are drawing our attention. The first, and closest one, is the Oostdyck radar tower. When visibility is extremely well, it can be seen from the beach without
binoculars. The radar sends all shipping movements to the Traffic Centre for monitoring. This tower is located some 21 kilometres offshore.

What cannot be seen from ashore is the second tower located at the Westhinder sandbank. This one lies just behind the international shipping lane, one of the busiest in the world. The Westhinder beacon warns ships for the danger of the sandbank beneath. It also monitors the force of the wind and direction, which is important for the weather forecasts for this area. This tower is located some 32 kilometres offshore.

The GPS Route

To take on this challenge you’re not only need a good physical condition and stamina, you also have to know more than basic navigation. There is always a strong tidal stream that pushes you constantly off track, the stream is never in you favour. Taking a break, even a short one, relentlessly pushes you off track. Also the strength of the tidal stream changes every hour, so you have to keep a good eye to your bearings. During the most of the challenge, you will not have any reference to paddle to. When you reach the first tower, you still
have to cross the international shipping lane, which is one of the busiest in the world. Keep in mind that those very large ocean ships probably want see you, or change their course or speed for a sea kayaker. When you crossed the shipping lane and finally reach the Westhinder beacon, then you just completed the first half of the challenge. The second half, and the most important one, is to get yourself and your team back to shore safely. If you’re tired, you can’t just quit. There is no support boat to help you. There is only you and your team.

I’m proud to say that were able to put together a small international team to take on this challenge. Two very experienced and well trained Spanish sea kayakers were eager to take on this challenge. They travelled all from Spain to Belgium, we spend some days paddling together, before heading out. On Saturday 7 July 2017 we started from the Oostduinkerke beach, at 07:40 am (local time). As an extra difficulty we chose to navigate on compass, with a sea chart. We carried also a GPS, just for registration and safety precautions, not
for navigation. We stated our intentions to the Coast Guard by radio before the start. We paddled at a high pace, in order to compensate a bit lesser for the sideways tidal stream. In the video you can see the buoys that we have passed, the way we have taken on this challenge. It took us seven hours to reach the Westhinder beacon.

When we got there we established radio contact with the Coast Guard again, to tell them our position and that we were still in good shape to commence the way back to shore. It was 14:30 pm (local time) and we were at the farthest offshore point, being 32 kilometres. When arriving there, perhaps euphoric, we just did half the challenge. The second part, also the hardest, was to get back with the team.

It’s also a psychological battle because you have absolutely nothing to look to, there are no references, and you cannot see the land for hours. The visibility was limited to ten kilometres, which is normal for us. You have to trust your navigation skills, simple as that. Even when tired, we still kept the same high pace to counter the current. We arrived back at Oostduinkerke beach at 20:55 pm (local time).

In the video you can see our GPS track log. The GPS was not turned off during our short breaks. It registered all of our movements during the challenge.
To all other sea kayakers out there who are looking for a tough challenge, this could be what you are looking for. Be well prepared for this one, both physically, mentally and be sure of you navigation skills.
I got extremely lucky to do this one with such experienced sea kayakers! Big thanks to Carlos GARCIA and Santi DOMINGUEZ for joining! It was an honour to be part of this team, and to beat this challenge together!

The Team

Dimitri Vandepoele

NORTHSEAKAYAK
www.youtube.com/northseakayak
July 2017

Crossing Bass Strait April 2011

By Geoff Murray


In April of 2011 a group of six paddlers from the Tasmanian Sea Canoe Club set out on a crossing of Bass Strait.

Four of the group flew across to Melbourne on the 5th and caught a bus to Port Welshpool, our departure point. Greg Simson and I travelled across to Melbourne on a Toll Transport ship with our cars loaded with 6 kayaks and a heap of equipment. We drove down to meet with the others at Port Welshpool and prepared for departure the next morning. A good mate of mine, Mick McRobb, drove down with his wife and son to pick our cars up and took them back to Bairnsdale for safe keeping.

The next morning we woke up at sparrow fart i.e 4 am and got ourselves ready for the big trip. It was a 300 metre carry to the beach from the Caravan park we were staying at but it seemed to get longer and longer with each carry. By the time we had 6 kayaks at the water’s edge we were knackered! We were on the water by 6 am. We had to start early because of the tide times and 6 am put us on the water not too long after high tide so we received a helping hand out of the channel as we paddled down to Wilson’s Promontory. Conditions on the first day’s paddle were beautifully smooth and peaceful for the most part although there were some reasonable swells rolling in that occasionally broke. The conditions were a bit choppier as we neared Refuge Cove, a beautifully sheltered cove on the southeastern corner of Wilson’s Promontory, 46 kms from Port Welshpool.

The First Day

The next day the weather wasn’t suitable for the crossing to Hogan Island but on the 9th April we arose early again and were on the water well before sunrise.
We enjoyed a stunning sunrise that morning.

Leaving Refuge Cove

We had all read about how you paddle towards the horizon for an hour and a half before sighting Hogan Island but in our case it was a hazy morning with patches of sea fog and we didn’t actually spot Hogan Island until after the 4 hour mark. Naturally by this time Wilson’s Prom had disappeared so the only land we could see was 2 distant islands to the west of us. Genuine isolation. 360 degrees of nothing…. It was also unsettling to hear the fog horns of ships invisible in the fog ahead of us.

Conditions on the water were good with a low swell and little wind. We were able to sail for a bit of the way and after 55kms and 10 hours and 2 minutes we landed on Hogan Island.
Doing these long crossings in Bass Strait presents its own challenges due to the relatively strong tidal flows within the Strait. It isn’t a case of pointing yourself towards your destination and just paddling. You need to set a heading, sometimes well away from your destination, to allow for the tidal flow pushing you around. In the case of the crossing to Hogan Island, I calculated that we needed to aim for a point 12km north of the actual island and the current did the rest for us. I had access to some extremely detailed tidal current information for Bass Strait and this made it very easy to calculate the correct headings for the crossings.
I also had access to the net for weather forecasts but our most reliable source of weather information was from a fellow in Israel called Karel Vissal. Karel supplies forecasts for most of the major kayak expeditions worldwide and his forecasts were absolutely superb. He would send me emails morning and night with occasional updates in between. So we had very good information
To look after ourselves on the big crossings, we had a 5 minute rest stop every hour to have a bite to eat and a drink and 10 minutes rest for lunch. It was remarkable how quickly the hours seemed to fly past.

Everybody raves about the Kent Group of islands but Hogan Island has a real charm as well. It is a hilly island about 3 kms long with no trees, lush green grass, an old hut, thousands of penguins and rats and about 20 cattle but it was a wonderful place to visit. Scenic, wild but at the same time it had a friendly feel to it.

Hogan Island

The following day we explored the island in a drizzly mist and enjoyed the squawk and squabble of the penguins that night, along with the rustle of the rats. It was a new experience for me to see a little humped shape running along under the tent floor as a rat passed through! Fortunately they were Australian Swamp rats so at least they were natives 🙂
The next day was sunny but blustery so we just lounged about or explored. 3 days after landing on Hogan we set out again, this time our destination was the Kent Group 46kms away.
Once again we had a pleasant although tiring crossing and after 7 hrs….. we landed on Erith Island. We weren’t able to sail at all and even enjoyed a head wind for some of the way.

Entering Murray Pass on the Kent Group

The Kent Group of islands consists of Dover, Erith and Deal Islands and it really is a wonderful place to be. The water is a beautiful turquoise colour, the scenery is magnificent and you can feel the isolation in the middle of Bass Strait.

Winter Cove, Deal Island
Looking across to Deal Island from Erith Island, Kent Group

The group spent the next 4 days camped on Erith Island, exploring, relaxing, paddling over to visit Deal Island and just enjoying the ambience of the islands. Eventually it looked like we had a suitable weather window to make the biggest crossing to Flinders Island so on the 5th day we moved camp around to Winter Cove on Deal Island. This is the closest point to Flinders Island and it is where most groups crossing Bass Strait leave from.
The forecast was for winds of 15 to 20 knots easing late morning. Once we left the shelter of Deal Island we had seas of up to 2 and a half metres with a few breaking waves but the wind was on our rear quarter and with storm sails set we moved along very well.
My Rockpool GT really came alive in these conditions. Even loaded with almost 60kgs of supplies it was a real blast paddling through the bump and bounce. Mine was the only true skeg boat amongst the group and once again it dispelled the theory held in some parts of the world that “you have to have a rudder”.

Bump and bounce on the way to Flinders Island

As forecast, the winds eased late morning and just kept on easing to almost calm 🙁 Slowly, we draw alongside Craggy Island 37kms from Deal then after another 25kms kms we set foot on Flinders island. Everybody in the group had a real buzz at having completed the biggest crossing of 62kms in 9 hrs 20 mins.
The campsite at Killiecrankie where we landed was run by two lovely ladies that could not have been more helpful. We were to soon learn that this sort of friendliness is not unusual, rather it is the norm. Wherever we went on Flinders Island, people were friendly and helpful and it is a major part of the charm of this area.
We spent the next several days slowly working our way down the Flinders Island west coast, stopping when the weather was unsuitable, moving on when it was better. We visited some of the island offshore of Flinders including the notorious Mt Chappell Island, home of the biggest tiger snakes in the world. I was fortunate enough to see a tiger snake on the island, the only person in the group to see one 🙂 I had hoped to see one of the monsters but this one was only about a metre long.

Mt Chappell Island, home to the world’s biggest Tiger snakes 🙂

We crossed Franklin Sound down to Cape Barren Island, then Clarke Island, landing in Spike Bay, an amazing place with huge granite boulders scattered all around the bay. After a relaxing day drying gear and lounging around we crossed the notorious Banks Strait in perfect conditions. It is amazing the way you come across really strong tidal flows just like a river running through the Strait. I can only imagine how nasty it would be in bad conditions. At one stage I was battling a tidal current, moving at 2 kph by my gps, 100 metres further along I was rocketing along at 10 kph!
Four hours after leaving Spike Bay, we landed on Tasmanian soil at Little Musselroe Bay.

A successful crossing!

We had paddled a total of 430 kms. The total trip took 22 days, with 10 days on the water. We began with 30 days food and fuel on board, my own kayak had a load of 60 kgs including 18 litres of water. I lost almost 5 kgs during the paddle.

All in all, a trip worth doing 🙂

Geoff Murray

All images copyright Geoff Murray

The North Sea Crossing –July 2015

By Dimitri Vandepoele


Foreword:

I have dreamed. I have prepared. I have trained hard. I have crossed the Southern part of the North Sea by sea kayak on 30 and 31 July 2015. Manpowered and alone, no support whatsoever and no support or pilot vessel. I have paddled during day and night time. I’ve been exhausted, excited and happy at the same time. This is my story.

I had this dream to do the North Sea crossing for years and now the weather conditions were perfect. So I planned, made calculations to counter the tide and prepared myself mentally.

The crossing!

On Thursday 30 July I’ve said my goodbyes to my family. Right before starting I sended a message to both the Belgian and the British Coast Guard to inform them of my plans and estimated route. At 21:30 hours sharp I sat in my sea kayak and paddled to open sea. I waved a last time when passing the pier to my family. I had luck, after sunset I had still some light because it was full moon. The downside was the current, full moon means spring tide! Just till the Trapegeer buoy I had the tidal stream in my favor. After that point, and that was fully calculated in advance, I had to paddle 6 hours against a strong tide.

At 04:48 hours I arrived at the DY1 buoy. It was slack at that point, tidal current should change direction soon. I had radio contact one last time with Marc, the friendly radio operator from the Belgian Coast Guard (Ostend Radio) to give him my current position and state. He was in close contact with Sylvie (my wife and support team) to keep her informed. After that point I was on my own until I was in reach with the British Coast Guard.

I paddled on, with the current in my favor this time, to the buoys Ruytingen SW and Ruytingen NW. In the meantime the sun was rising what made the crossing of the international fairway a bit easier. According to the Coast Guard almost 500 sea ships are passing through that lane every single day. I had to keep watch in order to stay as far away from those big ship as possible. Doubt that they would even spot me!

So I this section I paddled as hard as I could having a strong tidal current on the right side. I managed to get over the shipping lane, along the buoys Sandettie WSW to the South Falls without troubles. I only spotted 4 big sea ships but I’ve passed them at a longer distance. After that I changed my course and diverged from my planned route to a secondary planned route. Did that in order to counter the very strong tidal current that was pushing very hard on my right side. So I went to the E Goodwin light ship. At the light ship I established radio contact, this time with the Dover Coast Guard. They we’re already fully aware of my intentions and also keeping my wife informed of my position and state. I was treated very friendly by the crew on the radio (as was my wife).

The E Goodwin ship is an unmanned lightship that brings seaman the very treacherous Goodwin sand banks to their attention. Dangerous for almost every other vessel but ideal conditions for a seasoned kayaker. With almost no wind at all there were wave between 0,5 and 1 meter height! In that area I’ve seen numerous seals. Wonderful!! The sand banks we’re the last piece of the crossing. After that I’ve sat sail to Ramsgate harbor. The tidal current was now pushing on my left side so I had to compensate a lot in order to reach the harbor.

I reached the slipway in the harbor of Ramsgate at 15:06 hours (Belgian time). I was so far ahead on my estimated planning that my support team had not arrived yet. Luckily I was prepared for that, I had dry clothes and plenty of food and drinks with me. After a few hours my lovely wife and kids arrived, it was a happy reunion!! We took the ferry back to the mainland.

I wish to thank my wife Sylvie for her constant support in the chasing of my biggest dream, the North Sea crossing as well in all my other so called foolish plans regarding sea kayaking! I want to say thanks to Marc, the radio operator from the Belgian Coast Guard – Ostend Radio for looking an eye out for me just until the DY1 buoy! The same count for the friendly crew from the Dover Coast Guard! To those people; your help is very much appreciated both by me as by my wife!

We hope with this crossing to put Belgian sea kayaking on the map! A big thanks to my other Northseakayak-members for their continuous support!

Technical data:

The full crossing was correctly registered by GPS.
• Total distance: 106,7 km
• Total time: 17uur36min
• Average speed: 6,1 km/h
• Maximum registered speed: 13,5 km/h
• Used sea kayak: P&H Custom Sea Kayaks – Scorpio Lv (polyethylene)
• Used paddle: Vertical Elements Explorer Aircore Pro full carbon
• Full safety gear including two VHF radio, a Personal Locator Beacon, flares,…..
You can watch the video here;

Dimitri Vandepoele
www.youtube.com/northseakayak

‘Wet Knees at 5:30?’ — Holyhead to Dublin 2011

By John Willacy


My arms had been making circles for 11 hours now, the tide had long since turned and the speed was dropping. Should I work against the flow, straight line to the headland, or take a chance and head to the cliffs, aiming to scratch my way up the eddies? Looking across I could see all the clapotis and chaos below the cliffs. The clock was ticking; time was tight. Some days I just wish someone else would make the decisions for me…

It had been a long year and I was just about running on fumes. The season had started early with a return crossing of the North Channel, followed soon after with yet another lap of Anglesey. Throw in a couple of races to keep me on my toes until the big one; a 19+ hour circumnavigation of the Isle of Mull in June. Add another race or two for good measure and it was starting to feel like a ‘long year’. Trouble was there was still more to go, an old itch to scratch – the Irish Sea Crossing.

The Irish Sea crossing has been completed a number of times but it is still a serious challenge, the Holyhead – Dublin route is probably the Blue Riband of the UK sea kayak crossings; fifty plus nautical miles of open water, fast tidal flows and busy shipping lanes.

My first real open crossing had been on this route. At the time I had been inspired when I read of Jim Savege’s solo crossing. It had been a challenge for me just to complete such a distance solo; I can still remember the nerves on the day before I set out. It was a bit of a rough and ready attempt; along the lines of –‘keep the letter ‘E’ lined up on the compass and paddle until you hit something solid’.

Since then I had got a few more miles under my belt and the thought occurred now and then that I should give it another. When Justine Curgenven and Nick Cunliffe set a stonking 11hr 45 min time in 2009 it caught my attention. That was an impressive time, the benchmark to aim for. I like a challenge and this looked like a good one – from the start this would be an attempt on the record, no messing. If all went well I reckoned I could sneak under the time by a few minutes, if it didn’t I wouldn’t! It would also be two seasons before I got the chance to find out…

Race Day

September 2011 was earmarked for an attempt but I’d been kicking my heels for weeks now. I was looking for a couple of days of stable, calm weather; gentle easterly winds would be a nice bonus! A few times it looked tantalisingly close but each time the weather window was too tight. I had planned my training in order to be fit for early September and it had been a bit of a struggle to keep the peak for nearly a month now. If I didn’t go soon then that would be it until next year.

But eventually the day came around, the desired easterly wind had not made an appearance and the preferred neap tides would have to be 9.8m springs instead! Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers.

So after the usual sleepless night I found myself slipping and sliding across the boulders at Soldier’s Point. It was dark and there was the usual faff as I packed my boat. Whilst packing I watched a ferry appear and head into Holyhead Harbour; quite a relief – I really didn’t want to play chicken with that beast in the dark. I wouldn’t win that one.

I had checked and double checked all my kit, as had the ‘Team Manager’ but somehow we had both overlooked my omission of a paddle leash. Oh well, someone was going to go home without shoe laces! Later it crossed my mind that the rather overpriced leash I usually use was no great improvement on my last minute shoe lace special. After all a bit of string is, well, just that I suppose.

‘Team Manager’ was along to help out and I had somehow forgotten to mention that she had drawn the short straw. Someone was needed to stand in the knee deep water to help me get into the boat with dry feet! At 5:30 in the morning there wasn’t a crowd of volunteers.

Finally I got everything into the Taran; food, water, my lardy ass and nicely dry feet! A quick goodbye, a sequence of button pushing and then I headed out of the small bay. It was dark, there was no moon and I could see no stars either.

The plan initially was to try not to collide with North Stack and then once I could see the South Stack lighthouse I should be able to turn onto a bearing of 274 degrees and set a pace to last 11 hours or so. I aimed to use the ebb to give me a sling shot off the Stacks; this would also carry me nicely south of the ferry route. Later the flood should carry me back northwards. At some stage this would mean I would drift back across the ferry route, not too keen on that one; but then we would cross that bridge when we came to it.

The Stacks

There was only a gentle breeze as I headed out, but I could feel the distinct swell. There was no light at all; over to my left I could only just make out the silhouette of the North Stack cliffs. I had no horizon and could not make out the sea at all. Ahead the North Stack race sounded a little intimidating, I was still trying to see how far away it was when the boat started riding up and over the waves. That’ll be it then! The Taran rode through nice and smoothly with no great drama. Hopefully the South Stack waves would be straightforward too; if the plan was right I should only skirt those.

The tiderace started to smooth out now and I could see the South Stack light. On with the head torch to check the heading – 274(ish) – ‘that’ll do!’ The South Stack race presented no problem and as things settled down I glanced over my shoulder to watch the strobes from the lighthouse scan along the sheer cliffs – mesmerising. I felt a little lonely as I realised I could see no sign of light from Holyhead, surprising.

50 miles to go

Hopefully the fun and games were over and I could settle into a rhythm now. Away from the coast the swell was surprisingly chunky, but without any wind it was still oily calm on top. Though the sun hadn’t risen yet the light was starting to improve. Ahead I could make out a series of lights; they seemed to be staying on a constant bearing. Either I was going to run him down or I had made a serious mistake and was heading for the beach at Treaddur Bay. Eventually the lights moved across my heading and disappeared into the gloom.

A further hour of paddling before the sun rose and as the light improved it became obvious why it had been so dark – visibility was probably only about a mile. As the day grew brighter the view turned a rather milky grey; it crossed my mind that it was like looking out of a rather dirty milk bottle, with the milk still in it. I guessed the sun was coming up, though I never did see it!

The Shopkeeper

Soon I heard the throb of a low revving diesel engine but the engine sound didn’t seem to give much help in locating the source, always a little disconcerting.

Where is it? Have I missed it? Is it behind me? It’s always surprising how a few thousand tons of floating steel can appear like Mr Ben’s shopkeeper in a sneaky mood.

Ah, there he is and he’s heading this way (the boat not the shopkeeper) – great. Just when I’m thinking that it’s about time to dig the VHF out he alters course and crosses ahead. Just taking a look, I suppose. After all a muppet in a shiny pink canoe is not something you expect to see 5 miles off the Stacks in the early morn.

Routine

I settled into a well practiced routine now – 55 minutes on and 5 minutes off (or so) with a drink on the 30 minute mark, aiming for 500ml of fluid per hour. The Coastguard had requested a position update every hour too. With the routine the 4 minutes off soon passes by and it’s a bit tight to get all the admin done. But the off-time needs to be kept to a minimum; if you take 5 minute breaks and add them all up for a 12 hr crossing it totals nearly an hour of non-paddling. That’s not a great drama on a straightforward crossing but when you are aiming to sneak under a tight record time all those lost minutes become significant.

And so that was it for the next few hours, 55 minutes on 5 minutes off, paddling in a grubby milk bottle.

Hmmm…

Lunchtime arrived and I was trying something new this time. Summit to Sea had provided me with some self-heating meals to try out.

‘Just how hot do these things get?’ I was a little concerned that it might melt down through the spraydeck and out through the hull -‘Alien’ style! I could see the headlines: ‘Sea kayaker dies in freak-offshore-self-heating-food-immolation!’ But all worked as advertised and the warm food was a very welcome change. While I was working through my Chilli lunch a seal popped up by the boat; I was a little surprised as the GPS showed I was 25 nmi out now – the seal seemed rather bemused too.

As the day progressed the sound of a ferry drifted over from the north, but the murk hid its exact location. My only company was to be found with the Fulmars; sometimes a group of 30 or so but most of the time just a lone visitor.

As the Fulmars circled I was becoming distracted by the drift figures. The plan anticipated for a maximum drift of around 3 nmi south of the desired track. It was disconcerting to watch the figures steadily increase beyond this until they showed nearly twice the figure. This was much greater than I had allowed for, there was not a lot I could do about it at the moment. If the calculations were correct it should all pan out as I drifted the same distance back North – yeah right!

The swell was still quite chunky but the wind was only a variable breeze leaving the smooth surface I had experienced for much of the morning. I watched the furrows left in the water by the wing tips of the Fulmars as they continued to circle gracefully, so smooth.

The odd rain shower came and went as I tried to maintain my rhythm. The tide was running north now, though it didn’t seem to be flowing as quickly as I wanted. Hopefully I would gain back my lost 3 miles…

I didn’t.

Now where did that come from?

The hours had slipped by as I relentlessly ticked off the miles. Eat, drink, radio – the routine marked each passing hour. My mind drifted and the pace wandered accordingly. Even so it looked as if an 11 hour crossing may be on. That would be good, but then there is always a sting in the tail – always.

Things were still surprisingly comfortable; usually aches and pains start to appear by now but overall everything felt reasonably good. The heart rate had decided not to play ball all day though, staying sulkingly low whatever I tried; perhaps things didn’t hurt so much because I wasn’t pulling hard enough? The figures would rise after each break but then drop after 20 minutes or so, not the best sign. About this time that the mental processes start to slow down too, thinking becomes a little woolly and you lose your edge – time to pay attention.

As I stopped on the 8 hour mark I realised that the tide was going to slack. There was still about 15 miles to go and the chart showed that I was only just level with Howth (I should have been 3 miles north); with 3 hours to go I really didn’t need an ebb tide now. During the 4 minute downtime the wind picked up to a Force 3-4 and moved to the north. The swell also moved through 180 degrees in the same time, no warning – it just happened. I was surprised how quickly things changed; a south running ebb and a northerly wind were not what I needed now – flipping great!

Time to get angry

Conditions were quite lumpy now with the odd wave breaking over the boat, not the best for maintaining boat speed. On the up-side, things didn’t seem to be getting much worse.

It was time to sort things out.

No more of that fancy, by the book, tidal drift stuff now! It was time for Plan B – GPS straight track to Howth. It looked like a 3 hour ferry-glide home; as long as the GPS showed an ETA within the record time then this should do. Of course I would have to allow for the steadily increasing tidal flow too; as this picked up, more of my effort would be diverted to holding my line north-south and less taking me towards my destination. A quick calculation and I realised that my mind was working too slowly to think this one through in any detail! Oh well, just have to paddle harder then to make sure.

As I closed on the north end of Dublin Bay the rain was heavy, the wind was getting quite fresh and the murk had turned into a mist, though the visibility had lifted to a couple of miles. There was some sort of ship leaving the bay, I couldn’t really make out the size through the gloom but as it seemed to be sticking to the Inshore Traffic Zone I reckoned it was probably a bit bigger than me. Of course, the closing heading wasn’t changing (does it ever?) and I had the feeling that I couldn’t get comfortably ahead of it but it was also going to be a pretty close crossing behind – I couldn’t afford to lose any more time now by waiting.

It was quite close; as it glided by the rumble of the diesels turned into the hiss of the water along the hull. I could see no other traffic close by and looking across to the south of the bay I was relieved to see the ferries were well clear on their approach into Dublin.

I was nearing the headland south of Howth now, but the increasing flow was slowing me down and it would only grow worse as I got closer. Did I go straight line to the headland against the flow? Or across to the cliffs with an aim to scratch my way up through the eddies? Decisions, decisions! Of course too many years flogging up and down rivers meant I would always head for the eddies. I headed into a good stretch of clapotis as I closed on the cliffs to find the eddies were smaller than hoped for!

I was close into the rocks now, bouncing my way up through the eddies trying to avoid the worst of the waves. A burst to get through the faster water at the headland and then I rounded the corner and into the flat calm of Balscadden Bay. Bliss!

Ahead lay the beach; it looked like a nice place on first impressions. Head down and pull hard now. Then 3 minutes to the beach and an invisible angler casts a line across my deck, it wraps around me.

‘Oh come on!’ 11 hours of hard work for it to end like this; I’m stopping for nobody now.

’ Up yours ugly!’ I think as I hear shouts of abuse.

But finally, the welcome hiss as the Taran slides up the beach – stop the clock!

The GPS showed 55.8 nautical miles covered with an overall average of 4.9 knots, 11 hours and 19 minutes and 59 seconds had elapsed since Soldier’s Point. It was a record, not by a huge margin but enough for now.

Getting Home

I’d never been to Howth before and had only recce’d the beach on Google Earth! The limitations of this method of planning became obvious as I unloaded the boat and tried to carry it up the steep steps. Narrow walls and a fenced gate made life difficult at the top of the steps but eventually I got through and stood soggily on the side of the road to change.

Just as I was setting out to the B&B with the boat on my shoulder, Keith drove by. Keith McGuirk is an Irish Team wild water racer and had kindly offered to drive me to the ferry the next day (but only after the Rugby had finished!) In the meantime he’d had driven down to watch me paddle in to the beach, unfortunately he was standing on the end of the pier and missed the dynamic finish!

The next day the kind people at Irish Ferries helped me dodge the jobsworths to carry my boat onto the ferry and take the easy way home. I returned to find my rest day was earmarked to replace the bathroom shower which had passed away as I was mid-crossing.
The glamour of it all…

John Willacy
October 2011

Irish Sea Crossing 2007

By John Willacy


It was now more than two hours since I had rounded the harbour wall at Dun Laoghaire, the GPS showed I was now nine miles off-shore. As I ventured further from the sanctuary of Dun Laoghaire the conditions had grown steadily worse. Ahead of me lay 40 miles of open water to Holyhead, which still lurked beyond the horizon. It was coming close to decision time; do I continue and hope for the forecast improving conditions or turn back and face the disappointment of the slog back to the harbour?

Crossing the Irish Sea had been on my “to do” list for quite some time, but it had just not made it onto the “been done” list. Then I heard that Geoff, Ely and a team of Royal Air Force Adventure Training Instructors were planning to cross from Rosslaire to St. Davids. This looked like the catalyst I needed; so of course I phoned Geoff and invited myself onto the trip – as you do.

Nautical charts winged their way around the country, as we compared timings, tidal drift, compass bearings etc. We seemed to have come up with similar plans, so if all else failed at least I wouldn’t be alone when I got lost! We hoped for good weather as we pencilled the dates in for a week in August.

August soon arrived and Geoff headed home to West Wales to act as on-site weather girl. The remainder of the team was scattered around the country and waited for the nod from ‘Ulrika’ before travelling down. If we got the go from the grey-haired weather girl we would all hot foot it to Fishguard, jump on the boat and then paddle back the next day. We had agreed we would need ideal conditions to take the large group across, but Ulrika had bad news – strong winds and rough seas. Things didn’t look good.

As the week progressed with an uncooperative weather forecast, time grew short. Our last chance revolved around the Thursday afternoon ferry to Rosslaire. Early Thursday morning the buoy at Aberporth showed a 1.8m swell passing every 4 secs. Didn’t sound like the calm we were waiting for. Conditions were improving but not quickly enough, so the decision was reluctantly taken to cancel.

As I looked around, the floor scattered with paddling kit, I felt disappointed – after all the anticipation and preparation it just wasn’t going to happen. The Irish Sea would have to wait for yet another day.

But as I looked around at my kit, an idea formed. Everything was ready to go; the boat was on the car, my kit packed and food prepared. I didn’t have enough time for the southern crossing but what about Dun Laoghaire – Holyhead? All I needed was a new compass bearing (out of Dun Laoghaire and turn right), a new chart, a quick jaunt across on the HSS ferry and bob’s your uncle! Oh, and of course the weather. The forecast showed improving conditions for the next day. I had nothing to lose, it was either paddle or go back to work. “Sod it! If no-one else wants to go I’ll do it on my own”. The downside was an extra 10 nm or so added to length of the Rosslaire crossing, but then what’s a couple of more hours after 12 or so anyway?

The rest of the morning was hectic; a quick planning session, a very long winded and rather surreal phone call to an overseas call centre in order to book the ferry (“Sir, can you explain just what a kayak is?”) Meanwhile, the Team Manager (Pascale) booked accommodation in Dun Laoghaire (“Make sure they have somewhere to store a kayak overnight!”) Pascale was not overly impressed by the whole escapade. Geoff had made the decision not to go (he was usually correct) and now she thought that the new plan was too rushed. Personally, I think it was more to do with the fact that it was my turn to do the washing-up. This had to be one of the better excuses I had come up with!

I had elected to paddle from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead rather than the reverse for a number of reasons. I had not sampled the delights of Dun Laoghaire before and didn’t fancy wandering around town with my boat on my shoulder after a 14 hr paddle. Likewise I was unfamiliar with the harbour and other landing areas. At least if I paddled towards Holyhead I should be able to find the beach without too much of a problem!

After Pascale and I had manhandled my boat through the entrance into Holyhead ferry terminal, I found myself standing in the check-in queue with an 18 ft Inuk under my arm. It drew a few curious looks. The Stena staff were very accommodating as they helped me manoeuvre the boat tentatively through customs.

As the HSS Stena Explorer rounded the Holyhead Breakwater the waves slammed into the hull with rather alarming booming noises. As we passed a buoy I watched the swell, counting under my breath, it was rising and falling 6 ft or so every 1-2-3-4 seconds, just as Geoff had reported. Oops. Not the calm and dreamy seas I was hoping for.

As the ferry got up to speed I was expecting a fast, smooth ride; it wasn’t. As we travelled further out the conditions grew worse. People staggered about like Friday night laddettes as the ferry rolled uncomfortably. The view from the window was depressing. These weren’t the conditions I was hoping for. I couldn’t really see myself paddling back across that lot! As the ferry progressed westwards the seas worsened and I grew more depressed. After all the anticipation and frantic activity it looked as if I would be returning by ferry after a spending a night in Dun Laoghaire with an Inuk. I just hoped it wouldn’t snore.

The ferry arrived in Dun Laoghaire to be met by foot and mouth disinfectant procedures, a blast from the past. After more help from the Stena staff and a rather bemused policeman, I found myself dodging the rush hour traffic in Dun Laoghaire town centre complete with boat, paddles and a large bag of kit. Arriving during rush hour was not the best planning…

I staggered up the road to the B & B and rang the door bell. I was faced with a cheerful lady whose opening line “You’ll be bringing the boat in as well then?” took me a little by surprise. “Err, it’s a little large” I replied. “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll manage.” When I had asked Pascale to mention storage for the boat I had hoped for a garden or driveway, not for it to spend the night in a room of its own!

Early the next morning I tried to slide the Inuk out of the hallway with the minimum of fuss, hoping not to wake the household or remove too much wallpaper with the rudder! I headed down to the slipway I had recced the previous night. After a slight problem trying to squeeze too many cakes into too small a boat, I left the harbour ten minutes behind time. A quick call to Dublin Coastguard and I was on my way at last.

As I left the harbour I was accompanied by a small yacht; they told me that they were heading for Holyhead too. However as I left the harbour and settled on my heading they promptly turned left. Hmm, this didn’t seem right. I stopped to check and recheck my plan, I couldn’t see any obvious mistake, but they were definitely on a different heading. With one more look at my chart I resumed my course, a little uncertainly but hoping for the best.

Conditions outside the harbour soon became choppy with a following sea. As the waves repeatedly broke over my spraydeck, I realised it wasn’t going to be practical to paddle so far without being able to change my water bottles or reach my food. I would paddle for an hour and review.

The first hour went by. Conditions had started to get a little lively now as I dodged between squalls. I decided to continue for another hour, but it looked as if I would be taking the ferry home after all.

As I reached 10 nm out from Dun Laoghaire I was still unsure if I should continue or turn back. I had to make the decision now. It didn’t look good so I kicked the rudder over and rather deflated I started to turn back towards Ireland. But as the boat started to turn I noticed a gap in the clouds and blue sky ahead. I realised the squalls had eased, perhaps the forecast was correct? Time for a food stop as I watched things develop, conditions were definitely improving. I couldn’t be bothered paddling all the way back to catch the ferry, so onwards towards Holyhead, hoping for the promised blue skies and calm seas.

The conditions did ease and I started to get into a rhythm, paddling steadily with a break every hour or so for food and every half hour for water. On the hour I also updated the Coastguard with my present position. I was finally starting to relax.

As I looked behind I could see the ferries leaving Dun Laoghaire right on schedule. The plan was for the tide to carry me south, clear of the ferries track. It was a relief as I saw that they would pass a comfortable distance to the north.

I was steadily ticking off the miles now and there was more blue sky up ahead. For six hours I paddled towards a featureless horizon. It was a welcome sight when I could finally make out Holyhead Mountain; I was heading in roughly the correct direction. I mused on just where the yacht was heading to.

The next few hours passed with a steady routine of radio calls, stops for food and water and a few thousand paddle strokes.

As I cleared the half way point I could hear the sound of a helicopter. Peering to the north I could make out a Royal Air Force Sea King close to the Ulysses ferry. I have a passing acquaintance with the RAF Search & Rescue Sea Kings, so I decided to call up the crew on the VHF to say hello. The crew replied, saying they were holding station whilst the winchman worked on the ferry so they could spare a few minutes for a visit. As I passed my position I could sea the Sea King turn towards me and a few minutes later it appeared, noisily overhead. After a few photos and a little radio banter the winchman was ready and they headed back to the Ulysses to collect him. I was tiring a little now and it was quite a boost to have some friendly company. Reinvigorated, I continued my progress to Holyhead.

The weather was much improved now and the conditions had settled down nicely, calm seas with just a gentle swell. The rough conditions earlier had dictated that I wear a cag, so now I was getting too warm. It would have been nice to remove it but I really didn’t fancy the idea of a capsize 30 miles out with a half removed cag wrapped around my head – I would just have to suffer a little longer.

A few miles short of South Stack I realised I was on collision course with a small tanker. Time for a bit of burn. But after a few minutes we still seemed to be steadily closing. A bit more of a burn. Still no change – was he doing this deliberately? It dawned on me that the ship was slowly changing heading in order to head south as he rounded Anglesey. As I paddled and the skipper changed heading it was enough to keep us on a collision course. So I stopped paddling thinking he would pass in front, too simple, I now watched the ship settle onto a constant heading, straight towards me. This guy was taking the p*** now I thought. So time foranother burn. Things were getting nervously close now, but eventually I realised it would pass behind. Phew!

I was nearing South Stack, the low sun illuminating the Gogarth cliffs with a warm glow. The wind had dropped, the sun was out and things were looking good. I was tiring by now but rather enjoying myself all the same. My hourly stops were taking longer and longer as I tired. It’s surprising how much “admin” you can find to do in a boat when you don’t want to start paddling again.

But I had taken my eye off the ball a little. As I drew close to South Stack I found myself fighting the tide. Not the way I had things planned. The irony wasn’t lost on me either, I had planned the trip from West to East, thinking I would be able to rely on my Anglesey experience to make things easier as I neared the end of a long day. In my dreams! As time steadily ticked away I was getting more frustrated but not much closer to the beach.

I was working hard and not seeming to make much headway towards South Stack. The obvious remedy was to go with the flow and get out at Soldier Point. Unfortunately Pascale had arranged to meet me at Porth Dafarch. If I turned downtide to Soldier Point I knew lack of mobile signal would mean I couldn’t contact her. I couldn’t face being marooned on the back of the Holyhead Breakwater; I would have to slog my way to Porth Dafarch.
Eventually I passed South Stack and worked my way up the eddies towards Penrhyn Mawr where things eased off a little.

As dusk fell I headed towards a convenient campfire illuminating the Porth Dafarch beach. Sure enough Pascale was there to meet me, a very welcome sight – even if she had forgotten to bring my dry clothes. We stumbled slowly up the beach through the darkness towards the car as I tried to reintroduce my legs to the concept of walking.

And that was how my day trip from Dun Laoghaire ended. I landed at Porth Dafarch 13 hrs and 45 mins after I left the slipway at Dun Laoghaire. The GPS showed a distance covered of 54.7 nautical miles. It had been a long day but strangely rewarding, I could now add an Irish Sea crossing to my ‘been done’ list. But as is the way with these things it all felt a little bit of anti-climax as we drove home to unpack a car full of soggy kit.

So, what next?
Well, it was still my turn for the washing up apparently…

Accompanying Irish Sea Crossing video here.

John Willacy
2007

Manx Miles – Anglesey to Isle of Man Crossing

By John Willacy


According to the family photo album I had last visited the Isle of Man in 1978; I had always wanted to return to see a little more of the island, it just took a little longer than expected. Of course life had moved on in the intervening years, I wouldn’t be using the ferry to get across this time…

Unsurprisingly I can remember little of my previous visit. One thing had always stuck in my mind though: just how clear the water was when looking over the edge of the Douglas prom – I could see the bottom! This was unheard of in Morecambe Bay, unless the tide was out.

I also remember a rollercoaster return ride as the ferry battered its way through a stormy Irish Sea. This time I was hoping for better weather for the crossing.

After reading Jim Krawiecki’s blog about the crossing he and Sean Jesson made from St. Bees I was inspired to put the long overdue plan into motion. The years were slipping by and it was time to catch up with a few things, the Isle of Man crossing had to be one of them.

After a good winters training I was itching to give it a go. Likewise the new prototype Rockpool Taran sea kayak needed to earn its spurs on a decent crossing. The two were made for each other!

The spring brought unusually lazy high pressure systems and prolonged calm weather; unfortunately I still needed a few more miles under my belt. Hopefully the weather could hold out just a little longer.

And then this was it! Things felt right and Friday looked like the day. The plan involved a paddle from Anglesey to the Isle of Man with a return on the ferry back to Liverpool the following day, taking the soft option.

For the most part the tides would be pretty much running across my track as I headed north, so I didn’t expect much help nor hindrance. The plan involved running on a heading pretty close to north throughout; the tide should take me just over 4nm off to the west initially and then bring me back onto track for the finish – hopefully. The aim was to arrive around local slack water to make the last stage a little less stressful. The forecast was for gentle southwest winds blowing around 10-12 mph or so, a little breezier nearer to the Isle of Man so that should help a little too.

Taking the crossings of previous paddlers into account, my original aim was to reach Castletown in less than 10 hrs, perhaps 9:30. After a few calculations it looked like even this could be bettered. The distance was pretty much 40 nm straight line but with an easterly drift of 4 nm or so this would lengthen the total to around 41 nm. It seemed surprising that a drift of 4 nm would only add around 1 nm but Pythagoras confirmed it – though I was still a tad sceptical, what did he know about sea kayaking? So taking the distance of 41 nm, I would need to average 4.4 kts to better the 9:30 hrs mark – possible. In fact an average of 4.6 kts would just beat the 9 hr mark; I felt I could achieve this as a moving average but as an overall average with stops, tides and weather thrown in? Not sure. Either way it was a good mark to aim for.

And so I found myself standing on the gravel beach at Cemlyn Bay peering out into the haze. There was 40 nm of water between me and my destination and I was already twenty minutes late as usual!

The boat was on the water’s edge, loaded and ready to go. There was the usual last minute indecision over just what to wear – my cag clashed with the orange deck terribly! As I changed into my paddling kit it was getting warm, the high level cloud looked like it was clearing and the sun was trying to poke through. Nice one – dress for sunshine!

The GPS was ready to roll, drink and food at hand and coast guard had been informed. As the boat scraped free of the gravel I started my watches and we were off!

Before I had left the bay the sun went in, it wouldn’t reappear for the next 20 miles or so – bugger!

The plan wasn’t exactly rocket science; paddle north out of Cemlyn Bay and just keep going north until I hit something large and immovable. Hopefully it would be the Isle of Man and not the south of Scotland.

I had expected the faster tides around Anglesey to exaggerate my drift initially, anticipating that things should settle down as I moved further out from the island. But as I paddled out I found it rather disconcerting to see how quickly I was drifting westwards, the Skerries seemed to be getting very close! Have faith and keep going…

The forecast south westerly breeze was more of a westerly this close to the island and the splash off my paddle was going straight into my ear with every stroke, charming. It’s the little things that can get on your nerves! Hopefully the direction would change to the forecast more southerly as I cleared the island.

Soon I settled into a good rhythm as Wylfa power station slipped sullenly into the haze behind me. The routine was fifty-five minutes on, five minutes off with a radio call to the Coastguard every couple of hours – just so they would know where to start looking…

The miles were slipping behind nicely and things felt good, though the drift westwards was a little more than that planned. My spraydeck also seemed to have sprung a leak, not much I could do about that I suppose, but why now? A wet bum all the way to the Isle of Man, hmm… nice.

I was about 9 nm out when a small freighter appeared ahead, she changed heading a couple of times to see just what I was doing this far off shore but then went on her way. It was heartening to see the GPS showing an average of 4.8 kts.

At about 15 nm out Anglesey finally disappeared behind me and I was on my own. There was nothing to see but water and the gloomy haze. The pace was still holding up with the average displayed as 4.75 kts giving a projected finish time of 8 hrs 44 mins, good stuff.

This is a busy stretch of water for vessels heading for Liverpool so I was keeping a slightly nervous lookout. As a rather insignificant orange (not my choice) dot I was not going to win any game of chicken out here. Even so, the Seatruck ferry managed to appear in the style of Mr Ben’s shopkeeper and gave me a bit of a scare. How can you miss something that large? But I had; a quick change of pace was needed. Again she changed heading to check me out, always a little unsettling as you don’t really know if they have seen you or are just head down while they check their Facebook page!

Some days things just feel good and luckily this was one of them. The boat was ticking along nicely, the pace was good and I felt like there was more in the tank. Those dark winter nights in the Swellies had been worth it after all. It was still a little worrying to watch the drift readout on the GPS, had I made a serious mistake with the plan? Was I really heading for Dublin instead?

By the half way mark I still could not see any sign of land; I had also drifted just short of 5 miles westwards, a little more than I expected. Have faith…

Things were also getting a little choppy, the breeze had not strengthened too much but the longer fetch meant things were building up a little. I was not paddling in much of a rhythm now as I constantly altered my pace to match the following sea. On the upside the sun was finally out and things were still going rather nicely all said and done (other than my wet bum).

It was well after the half way mark when my westward drift finally stopped. It stubbornly remained like that for a couple of miles but then finally reversed and I was drifting east at last – phew! But it all seemed a little late in the day now to get me back on track. Was it time to tweak the compass heading? Doubts sprang into my mind but I needed to believe in the compass as well as the plan (and to hope for the best). As I contemplated compasses and headings I passed a trawler which broke the feeling of loneliness for a while. The tide was now a little more in my favour, a quick look at the figures and it looked as if a sub 8:30 was possible; hmm… time to pull hard.

It was over 6 hrs now since leaving the beach at Cemlyn Bay and I was starting to tire a little, but the 8:30 carrot hung enticingly ahead. The sea was building and I was starting to catch a few surfs, but between the waves it was difficult to paddle with any sort of rhythm. My bum was still wet.

But there it was at last, after a few false alarms I could finally make out mountains through the haze. Soon the coastline was visible, not far to go now. But of course it’s always the last few miles that take the longest. I got a little confused as I tried to make out which was Castletown and the speed started to drop off as I closed on Langness Point. I seemed to have found an eddy and it was taking forever to get into the bay.

Sod it! There’s a gap in the rocks over there, I’ll walk to Castletown for tea. And so I scraped up a narrow rocky beach at Scarlett Point – the watch showed a time of 8 hrs 21 mins since I left Anglesey and the GPS showed a distance of 41.37 nm covered. The overall average speed was 4.96 kts – not bad for a first attempt. It had been a long day but I was pleased with the pace and the way the Taran had handled.

Now off to Castletown for something warm to eat – on foot!

The following morning I pottered gently up the coast to Douglas, taking in the cliffs and coves on the way. I headed for a sunny landing on Douglas prom. After rather precariously carrying the boat up the steps I sat in the sunshine as my kit dried on the wall looking like some sort of water borne tramp.

Peering over the edge, the water was still as clear as I remembered all those years ago.

The ferry terminal staff were a touch surprised when I carried the boat into the building, then I suppose you would be. But soon a plan was hatched and the boat was carried down the ramp and onto the ferry. The conditions were near perfect as we left Douglas; I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. They weren’t so nice when we entered the Mersey though, a strong headwind kicking up the chop. I was glad I hadn’t had to paddle through that lot, though I couldn’t understand why there so many people braving the chill wind to stand in the water on Crosby beach.

Soon it was time to carry the boat up another ramp only to find myself stood rather incongruously amongst a group of tourists looking up at the Liver Birds. Most had cameras over their shoulders, I had an 18ft orange sea kayak – each to their own I suppose. Oops, I had overlooked the fact that the ferry landed in city centre Liverpool.

Pascale was going to love me for this one as she tried to navigate her way through the city centre one way system. Recalculating! Recalculating! Recalculating…

John Willacy
May 2010