Archive for May 2008
We just took a short excursion to the muddy Bristol Channel. Liz G, Heather and myself launched from Clevedon Pier for a bit of island-hopping. It was a pretty impromptu trip, with Liz only joining at the 11th hour after some music festival that she was attending got rained out.
Anyway, a dozen or so miles down the Channel and some way offshore is Flat Holm, actually part of ‘Wales’. Strong tidal flows helped us through the distance. We stayed in bunks at the the pictured farmhouse.
Flat Holm has 4000 pairs of black-backed gulls, and they dominate the place, nesting everywhere and filling the air with their abrasive screeches. I just bought myself an expensive ‘image-stabilised’ lens for my birthday, and on the evidence of the pic below (taken at full 300mm zoom whilst panning fast across the sky) it seems to work.
There was also a group from a local canoe club visiting; here a Warden briefs them/us on the island.
The second day dawned – well not so as you’d notice, for there was dense pea-soup fog (you’ll have to take my word for it, all the photos below were taken after it cleared). The fog was rather disconcerting, as we planned to cross to Steep Holm island across the tidal flow and across the main shipping lane of the Bristol Channel. Heather conjured up a rough guesstibearing off the top of her head, and remarkably it proved perfect, landing us on Steep Holm, and at exactly the right spot. Even though the island is fronted by sheer cliffs, we didn’t see it until it was 100m away. Thankfully we didn’t encounter any supertankers out in the fog …
Steep Holm is also dominated by arsey gulls. I laughed when Heather carried a split paddle to encourage them to keep their distance, but the laughter wore off when I was repeatedly pebble-dashed by precisely aimed gull shit.
By the time we left Steep Holm, the fog had burned off, allowing us the privilege of seeing where we were going as we rode the tide back up to Clevedon. All good.
The following article was published in ‘Paddles‘ magazine a few months back, for their ‘Sea Kayaker’s Trident’ column. The column is used as a ‘sounding off’ point for sea paddlers. The article is in part adapted from text in South West Sea Kayaking.
Three of us on the very edge of Britain. The Romans knew this spot as Bellerium, the seat of storms. We call it Land’s End. With their jointed buttresses and pinnacles, the cliffs resemble fortresses. It’s late evening and the sun is an amorphous mass of molten metal as it merges into the Atlantic, punctuated only by the lonely lighthouses of Wolf Rock and Longships. The granite around and above us is set ablaze by the golden light, with quartz, feldspar and mica sparkling brilliantly.
We agree that this might just be among our best sea kayaking experiences ever, but even so it’s hard to relax. Out here on the tip of Cornwall, complex and erratic tides swirl together as the English Channel and the Celtic Sea vie for dominance. The tide races whipped up at the foot of each headland are lively enough, even without the sets of rollers rumbling in from Brazil. They surge rhythmically underneath us with deceptive mildness before exploding with deep booms up 60m walls. We work our way from bay to bay, straining our necks to gauge what awaits around each corner. Eventually, we reach our destination and drag our kayaks onto sand as the last light fades away.
Earlier on, we paddled past Tater Du lighthouse, an unprepossessing edifice perched on a black greenstone outcrop which is brightened by yellow xanthoria lichen. Close by, traces of the MV Union Star can still be seen amongst the rocks. On 19th December 1981, this coaster suffered engine failure and was blown towards shore by a hurricane. As the urgency of the situation became clear to the Coastguard at Falmouth, the Penlee lifeboat was requested to launch. The crew emptied out of pubs in the tiny community of Mousehole and reported for duty. Before the Solomon Browne slid down its ramp into towering waves, Coxswain Trevelyan Richards refused to allow the son of one crew member to board, saying “No more than one from any family on a night like this”.
The Solomon Brown found the Union Star on the point of striking the coast. In an astonishing feat of seamanship, Richards managed to bring the Solomon Browne alongside the Union Star through rocks and 16m breakers, the lifeboat actually being flung onto the larger ship’s deck at one point. Four survivors were somehow picked up. However, when the lifeboat returned for the remaining crew, radio contact with Falmouth abruptly ceased. What happened is unclear, but gradually the unthinkable truth became apparent; all eight lifeboatmen of the Solomon Browne had been lost to the storm, as well as all eight crew of the Union Star.
Today, the Penlee lifeboat station stands closed and shuttered; no lifeboat has since launched down the ramp. The current Penlee lifeboat is berthed close by in Newlyn harbour. The eight lifeboatmen of the Solomon Browne were all unpaid volunteers. They didn’t have to risk their own lives and their families’ futures by going to the aid of the crew of the Union Star, but they did. All were posthumously honoured with RNLI medals. Outside the lifeboat station, a memorial records the inconceivable sacrifice made by the community of Mousehole. The plaque listing the men’s names is headed, ‘SERVICE NOT SELF’.
As we change into dry clothes on a Cornish beach, we are pleased that our trip has been a success. Self-satisfied though we are, none of us are vain enough to assume that our passage through this wild and unforgiving environment has been a foregone conclusion. Only by the grace of Triton and Poseidon have we arrived safely at our destination. On a different day, our luck, skills or judgement might have failed us, and still it might, the next day or perhaps the next. When this occasion comes, we will be glad and honoured to know that assistance is coming from the men and women volunteers of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
The RNLI save lives at sea. Support them. www.rnli.org.uk
Well, the plan was good. Heather, John G and myself trekked to the North Sea coast and across the border into Scotland. The plan was to spend the week paddling south from the Firth of Forth, into England’s Northumberland coast.
It wasn’t going to happen – it was clear from the start that the weather wasn’t going to play ball, with fierce onshore winds forecast for days ahead. But we did squeeze in one rather wonderful paddle.
Bass Rock is a great hooning lump of volcanic rock marking the outer approaches to Edinburgh. It gleams white from miles away, rather oddly. The white is – quite astonishingly – gannets. Britain’s largest sea bird lives here, covering every inch of space with population estimates ranging up to 150000. Yes, 150000.
We loaded up and worked our way out through sizeable swells, negotiating a few foaming reefs and keeping a nervous eye on the distance between us and the shore. We weren’t planning on actually visiting the rock, but as we got nearer, we noticed that its mass actually gave shelter from the wind and swell. We were able to sneak right up behind Bass Rock using this ‘blind spot’. Even from 2 kilometres away, we noticed that the rock has its own distinct whiff!
The air was thick with gannets; with a 90 cm wingspan, each one fills a lot of sky. We also saw cormorants, guillemots, puffins and razorbills.
Heading back to shore, we picked ourselves a beach to camp on (I have no idea even now what it was called) and watched the wind and swell keep rising. We spent two nights in this bay, hoping against all logic that the weather forecasts might ameliorate. Well, there are worse places to be stuck and despite the gusts, the sun was always shining.
Behind our tents was an overgrown complex of ruins that seems in its time to have been a rather imposing manor house.
Just a kilometre away was Tantallon Castle, a sprawling great ruin with some fairly hair-raising battlements (in Force 6-7 winds, anyway).
Eventually we called it quits and retrieved the cars.
Dorset is quite a long journey home, especially if your wife makes you spend three hours in bloody Ikea en route.
Bass Rock. Must go there again some time.
Just returned from a brief foray north of the border …
Heather has been out paddling regularly with Maria, a work colleague who is totally new to the sport. Maria is joining Heather on a trip out to St Kilda this summer, so is undergoing a sea kayaking crash course to be ready in time, courtesy of Heather and also Poole Harbour CC. ‘Boot Camp’ takes place on Monday evenings …
Myself, this summer I’m passing over St Kilda to focus on something I’ve been meaning to do for some years, but keep getting sidetracked from; an attempt to paddle the whole West Coast of Scotland. Watch this space.
My blogging has been pretty infrequent lately; simply because my internet connection hasn’t been sorted for the new house. Normal service will be resumed as soon as … who knows.
How’s the book going? Pete at Pesda Press has worked on some splendid promotional bumf for the book …
Full size version here. Download, print out and use at your leisure.
Some months ago I bought a ‘decent’ camera. Too late for the book, though! To my shame, so far I haven’t so much as glanced at the manual and have no idea what all the (dauntingly numerous) buttons do. This weekend was a chance to try and figure out how the darned thing works. We headed head out and around my local haunt, the Isle of Purbeck.
Basically, I failed. Among other stupidities, I have discovered since coming home that I’ve been taking every single photo at ISO 1600 (the sensitivity setting you select for pitch darkness) and that the Very Big Switch on the back of the camera does something completely different to what I thought it was doing. Oh well … better read that bloody manual, I guess.
Among other things, Heather and I sought out Purbeck’s auk population in an attempt to;
A] Get sunburned.
B] See if I could manage to take non-fuzzy photos with a 450mm zoom whilst rolling on a swell in a dark cave (the answer was “No”).
Although guillemots were there in abundance crowding the cliffs, we found just a solitary young puffin occupying their usual ledge; the remainder of this small colony were spotted out at sea fishing, one of them with a mouth full of fish.
Postscript: This evening I did a short MTB ride up the hill behind my house, Swyre Head. This hill overlooks the coast from the Isle of Wight to Portland Bill and tonight the air was exceptionally clear, with barely a ruffle to be seen out on the sea. I pedalled past deer, fox cubs, pheasant, partridge, hares, horses and a couple of donkeys. During the week I had a job interview in Penrith (up north where the Eskimos live) but for various reasons, decided not to attend it. I have worried all week over whether this was the right decision. I’m not worrying now.
This will be a brief post as I’ve just moved house (stressorama) and don’t have much of an internet connection yet in the new place, but …
A large part of Dorset just fell off.
The media is making out that this is a big deal, but actually there are major landslips thereabouts every decade or so. The picture above gives you the idea how dynamic the coast around Lyme Regis and Charmouth is.
The 1839 landslip relocated several kilometres of coast, some of which surfaced out to sea as a short-lived reef forming a natural harbour …
Why have I not been out paddling, on such a fine Bank Holiday weekend? The answer lies with the woman pictured above, Claire. She’s a work colleague who is scarily fit, spending her free time running marathons and Adventure Racing. She persuaded me to make up a team with her for the Purbeck Adventure Race, which took place this weekend literally right outside my front door. The event comprises of a two hour hill run, followed by a three hour offroad bike ride. Claire was out to achieve her Personal Best; I was out to achieve Personal Survival.
Well, I survived, although I suspect that Claire didn’t break sweat. 30+ miles and 4000 foot of ascent was actually a lot more fun than it sounds, it was all a peculiarly enjoyable experience. Anyway, I suppose I’d better say something about my book. It was reviewed on Amazon – just like a real book!
As a man who lives in Cornwall and has been in and around its seas in various craft, and who has just realised a long yearning for exploring the coast by kayak by purchasing both a single and a tandem in which to begin the adventure, I was really looking forward to receiving this book. I couldn’t have been any more impressed. Mark Rainsley’s book somehow manages to describe a passage of the entire coast from the Needles to the River Severn (including the Isles of Scilly and Lundy) in some 50 stages in a surprising amount of detail. The information is practical and interesting and is very well organised, covering historical, ecological, and nautical angles. There are maps for each stage/route and a bounty of colour photos. My only worry is that it may help spawn a plethora of kayakers to swarm the presently un-crowded waters around the South West. Other than that it’s a great achievement.
Many thanks to whoever wrote that – I owe you a beer or three!