Fit for purpose – Isle of Wight Circumnav

by James Doherty

I like the first push of the paddle, the tug as the land lets go. A lot of good things have started this way.

This 3 hours distance challenge is a last training kick for a circumnavigation of the IOW during big springs in two weeks time.

Snuggled up to Hurst spit for the tide push, the first grey light over the fort. Whirlpools arguing the boat from side to side in the Needles channel.

Detour to pass astern of the Yarmouth ferry and straight for Cowes, best tide nearer the Island.

The sun rises fast under a finger of dark cloud and the grey light is suddenly warm. Going well, 11 kph showing.

Cowes, and the tide drops away, feels like paddling through porridge, uncomfortable reality.

Wooton Creek, and an idea hatches. Quick check of the tide streams, weather, and a message to the shore. Change of plan. ‘I’m going all the way round.’

I picked the IOW for the first big effort because I know the ground, good memories. Have to be careful not to let nostalgia soften the awareness, the sea is dispassionate, I visit on her terms.

Hands off the wheel to check the gps, a swig of water, check the bearing, go.

There’s so much excitement and ambition stuffed into this kayak it’s a wonder there’s any room for the chocolate.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen this is your captain speaking. It will feel nice to start with and get progressively worse. There is no cabin service or toilets, get your own food and keep it down. There is a strong likelihood of engine failure but either way you’ll be trashed by the time we land.

The F1 has a funny view from the cockpit, fat and short. She goes well though, sweet and easy in the chop. I haven’t got used to feeling the water through the skin. I mean I know you can hit it with a hammer and all that, but the opaque depths feel awfully, close.

I haven’t trained enough and there’s a nag of doubt tickling the adrenaline. It’s quite a pleasant stimulant. The whole thing is bonkers anyway, so do it.

Bremridge has taken an age. Close in to avoid adverse, slog. Then the compass swings to SW and I’m singing manically, it’s one advantage of this lark, alone out here with space to shout.

Tide race ahead off Ventnor somewhere, I’m looking to pick up tide assistance but that goes with the threat of conditions. I’ve forgotten how much being alone heightens the intensity, the vulnerability. The butt clenching is going anaerobic. Relax.

The speed is delicious, and stays that way round St Catherines, I could kiss these races, the time is coming back into line.

Compass NW. The sun picks up the Western tip, the white cliffs shining, so close, the last burn. But those cliffs and bloody Freshwater bay never get closer. I regroup and jam more food in.

Sorting out nutrition was an annoying side issue. Storage on deck and all the fuss. And the price of specialist exercise foods! Don’t get me started. Common sense wrapped in gold plated packaging.

Clare and I lay in the bath one morning and designed Super Gloop. Bananas, oats, dates, peanut butter, honey and a pinch of salt. Blended to a paste and eaten out of a plastic tub with a spatula. Or fingers. One source, quick to eat, delicious, effective. If you’re ok with baby food.

The paddling is sublime, the wind backs to the South and the little F1 eats it. She weighs 13 kg and comes with a whole load of quirky stuff. Her resistance curves lose the plot at 5 mph, but 4.5 mph is fine for my engine. My son and I built one each at Shipshape Boatworks in Bristol. Brilliant week. Ant Mace is a skilled craftsman and teacher.

There’s mixed feelings about sea socks, I’ve decided that if things get messy it is good precaution. Feels odd, bit slippery but cosy, a half born kayaker. I don’t aim to complete the process on route.

Flagging a bit, time to reach for the stimulants. Grumpy old man stuff is quite good, like, why didn’t I do this 30 years earlier ffs? I mean, it won’t be long before the kids are wiping away the tea that’s spilling out of your mouth while surreptitiously checking their watches. The annoyance trickles in and the body likes the hit. I want 9 hours for this.

Getting into shape has been a rats nest. Problem number one was convincing a damaged back to sit in a kayak for more than 20 mins. Problem number two was that in my head I was still the trained 22 year old who strutted round WW races. A subsequent good life with a lack of kayaking made that complete bollocks.

Performance Sea Kayak and JW have been brilliant and essential to the climb out of sloth. No hierarchy, just eclectic, helpful, quality. Cambridgeshire sea kayaking would have been dull and pointless without them.

The South West segment toils on. Same view after an hour. Feels like I’m paddling in a vacuum.

The last time I went round was in 1978 in a home made Grp boat. Bin bags for kit and a dodgy dump landing at St Catherines to sit out the weather. It’s different now, four gizmos to keep charged, endless backup gear, and very good online advice. But out here it feels just the same, a silly boat on a huge sea.

I’m keeping a careful eye on dead leg potential. Last year I pulled into Lymington quay, quite stylish I thought, mid summer and a lively audience at the pub. Stood up and my right leg wasn’t there. Getting vertical again in the shallows was the full Charlie Chaplin and the drinkers got their money’s worth. The leg was still wobbly the next day so I made a foam seat, 4” thick with good lower support. No backband. It’s not great for hip rotation but it helps. There’s good sciatica and piriformis exercises online btw.

20k to the Needles and I’m hitting the wall. Very sudden. Nausea and giddy. Right hand shoulder and lower ligaments join in. I open the gloop box and scoop out four fingers worth, smear it into an unwilling mouth. Hand shaking. Wash it down. Here it is, the pain.

This boat isn’t going anywhere without paddle strokes so I lie against the rear coaming and dip away at 3 kph. The tide is still helping.

The Greenland paddle works, a friend. I only swapped from euro last year. It’s a long trip and anything that stops the big ends busting is fine by me. I bought the WRC from Paul at Anglesey Stick, dreamy vertical straight grain, light, the best.

Satchels Bay ahead, at last. I look up at tiny lives looking down at a tiny kayak from the old battery on the cliff.

The Needles lighthouse, looking less like Lego now, close, deceptive swells curling round her dirty skirts. Feels dangerous. Feels exciting. Through the gap and straight for Milford on Sea but the tide is still ebbing through the Needles channel. Half ferry glide, would have been better to sneak into Alum Bay and cross the narrows, but I’ve had it. Have to stop every 5 to find a bit more go.

Through the main current and progress improves. It’s been an long hour from the Needles. The bright lines of coloured beach huts sing a siren song. The psychology works, homing instinct kicks, upright again and finding form.

Beach. No dead leg. Stand up. ‘Hello Clare!’ And fall over.


Cape Falcon F1 from Shipshape Boatworks Bristol

Sea sock from Reed Chillcheater

WRC paddle blank from Anglesey Stick.

Bath, double ended, provided by Clare K.