Note: Dog lovers are best advised to skip this post…
I’ve just returned from a very enjoyable and very exhausting jaunt around the Isle of Wight, 85 miles in just over 60 hours. I had a few days spare (school half term, and no water in the rivers) and the forecast looked good. My boat is out of town, but I hopped into a Capella 167 that I have on loan from PH Kayaks and will give back soon, honest!
Overall, a very interesting trip; the sun shone a fair bit and it never quite got cold enough to wear my pogies, the seas were largely empty (even the Solent!), the most challenging bits (and then some!) were the open crossings to and from the Island, and the lack of strong tides (it’s neaps) meant that I had to work quite hard … frankly, I need the exercise so this wasn’t a bad thing.
Wednesday night – I launched from Swanage at 8.30 pm to cross to the Needles. I’ve done this 18 mile open crossing by night before, but this was very different. For starters, the tide was against me for several hours (duh) so it took a full five hours. Secondly, it was dark. Really dark. So dark in the last three hours, that I couldn’t see my boat in front of me, let alone anything else. The air was dense with damp mist, so if I turned my head torch on, I could only see dancing drips of moisture before my face and immediately felt nauseous. With the light off I felt pretty weird too, often hallucinating that my boat was sliding sideways or floating on air. There was no sign of any shore lights and I couldn’t tell sea from sky; no horizon (or anything) to orientate myself by, other than a very very faint smudge of light that I (thankfully correctly) assumed to be the Needles Lighthouse and paddled towards.
When I reached the lighthouse (I heard the foghorn from a couple of miles off), it was an astounding sight; the different coloured segments lit up the fog like something out of the movie Close Encounters. I told Solent Coastguard on my VHF that I’d arrived, but they insisted that I called them again when I was ashore; easier said than done as it took me quite a while to find the beach!
I crashed out at 2.30 am and had a really lousy night of sleep; the foghorn going off a mile away didn’t help, nor did the waves breaking a few metres away on the beach; you can feel pebble beaches moving beneath you when this happens.
Thursday – The sea was like a millpond. I had an uneventful slog up the Solent along the full length of the island and landed just around the corner from Bembridge, six hours later. I cheekily camped in the garden of someone’s beach hut and slept in a remarkably wet tent as the rain drummed down.
Friday – the tides meant that I had to launch at 8 am, oh joy. On the bright side, I witnessed a spectacular sunrise over the ranks of massive ships anchored to the east of Wight (awaiting their turn to dock at Southampton, presumably). Somehow I got to St Catherine’s Point lighthouse in under 2.5 hours, although the usually impressive tide race was non-existent at neap tides. The SE coast of the island was a bit more of a slog with slacker tides, and I landed at Freshwater Bay after 5.5 hours on the water.
I had planned to rest before continuing past the Needles to Alum Bay, but peculiar things then happened.
A family approached me and asked if I’d go rescue their spaniel which had apparently fallen off the cliffs to the west of the bay. The woman handed me a leash and said, “Call him, he’ll swim out to you.” I looked dubiously at the surf breaking over the rocks and rather assumed that their dog was very dead, or at least dead enough not to warrant me risking my neck. Plus, I’m a cat person. But their young daughter was in tears, so I manfully agreed to see what I could do.
I paddled along the cliffs and was surprised to discover Fido (or whatever the bloody stupid mutt was called) alive and well in the next small cove, hemmed in by cliffs. There was 30 metres of rocky surf between me and the beach, and of course he declined the offer I made to swim out to me. Hence, I made a slightly crunchy surf landing in the bay (um, I hope PH Kayaks aren’t reading) and grabbed Fido and put him on his leash. Next challenge was how to get out through the surf with said mutt. I decided to chance it without my spraydeck and with Fido sitting on my lap in the cockpit. He wasn’t convinced at all, and it took several attempts to stuff his hairy backside down in my lap whilst the shorebreak washed me all over the place. Finally we were off and moving, approaching the surf. I took a good run-up at the biggest breaking wave (just over head height) and hit it perfectly. However, the stupid blasted hound chose this moment to abandon ship, leaping clear as the wave broke over us. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that I had his leash around my wrist …
I rolled back up (my first ever sea kayak roll in anger) and swore profusely at my canine albatross. For the rest of the paddle out back through the surf, I simply dragged Fido along in the water by his leash, coming with me whether he liked it or not. Eventually he got the idea that it was either hop on board or drown/choke in my wake, and he clambered onto the deck dejectedly. He wouldn’t deign to get his paws wet in my now-swamped cockpit however, and insisted on perching across with a pair of paws on each side of the cockpit rim. This was the least convenient position to allow me to paddle the boat (or indeed see where I was going), but somehow I managed to paddle well enough to return Fido’s shivering remains to his family. It’s probably a good thing that this all happened out of their view in the next cove, or they would have called the RSPCA.
That was me for the day (I was as cold and wet as the ungrateful mutt) so I camped at Freshwater.
Saturday – that was this morning, and it was another 8 am launch. There was a surprising amount of surf dumping on the beach at Freshwater Bay, so I had to wait 10 minutes until I found a lull in which to launch. Having launched I realised that I’d jammed my skeg with pebbles (dammit!) but decided not to land and repeat the whole palaver. The sea was lively and there was a pretty fresh W/NW wind so (as suspected) I had to abandon any hope of making the 20+ mile crossing back to Swanage. I called my wife and arranged to meet her instead on the mainland at Mudeford, a 12 mile paddle, 8 miles across open water from the Needles.
The tide quickly got me to the Needles, and I gave these rocks a pretty wide berth – waves were breaking hard between the chalk stacks! The next puzzle was how to turn NW towards Mudeford, as various unpleasant things were going on in my path; the sea was breaking over the wide area of shallows nearby, plus there were a few lively tide races kicked up by the wind against tide. After five minutes of deliberation (in which the option of bailing was strongly considered), I decided to head about 2 miles further west offshore of the Needles to clear the worst of the mush before turning north to begin my crossing. This worked pretty well, the only problem then was to thrash into the headwind all the way to the beach. I arrived late and utterly exhausted; to add insult to injury, My wife pointed at the blue skies and mirror-smooth sea beside the beach (the wind was offshore of course …) and enquired why I was so late and so worn out!
Oh well, that was it for my trip. This paddle was brought to you in association with Gala Apples and Nurofen.