This past weekend was the vernal equinox, when spring supposedly begins. We took advantage of the big spring tidal range to paddle around the Isle of Wight, a journey of around 65 miles. I’ve paddled around Wight numerous times now, and it’s never a dull experience. Indeed, this weekend reminded me repeatedly that it is perfectly possible to have a full-blown challenging adventure practically within sight of your home, as the Island is, in my case. Added to the usual challenges of rounding Wight in a weekend, were the relatively short days, some bitterly cold temperatures, and the fact that we weren’t exactly in peak physical condition…
After the usual faff with gear, four of us launched after 9 pm on Friday evening to paddle from Keyhaven around the Needles to Freshwater. Heading out of the Solent through the narrow Needles Channel, we realised that a boat was closing on us from behind; in the dark we could see a green (starboard) light with a red (port) light to its right, meaning that the boat was heading right for us. As it grew nearer over the next half hour, we changed course several times to get clear of its path…but each time our pursuant appeared to then change course and follow us again. I concluded that it must be a small fishing boat, weaving slowly up the Channel; no real problem for us. Then we heard a series of loud ‘parps’ on his horn; he had spotted us and the message was clear; ‘get out of my way‘. This time, we paddled perpendicular to its course and finally managed to clear its path. This was a good job really, as our slowly moving fishing boat reared up out of the dark shortly after, and turned out to actually be an enormous freighter, going full pelt. How we laughed. Well, I did, anyway…
Anyway, we reached the Needles rocks at last, and rode the tide race between these tall stacks. Why do the most serious part of the whole trip at night? I’m not sure, but suffice to say, seeing the Needles lighthouse up close at night is an unforgettable experience. The full moon lit up the 500 foot chalk cliffs and illuminated our path as we glided along smooth water to Freshwater. The temperature plummeted towards midnight, with ice forming on our decks. The landing at Freshwater involved clawing your way ashore on steep pebbles and dumping surf; I got wet and consequently far too cold. Thankfully it wasn’t long before we were all in tents, coaxing life into our hands over stoves. The 19p Tescos noodles which I shared with Lizzie won’t win any culinary awards, but they did the job.
Saturday morning, we could have headed out early on the water, but our ice-caked tents dissuaded us. Instead, we walked to the Needles and did tourism, as the temperature climbed to something quite pleasant. However, our 2 pm launch was into a nasty cold headwind and choppy waves, meaning that we literally crawled along the south coast, wrapped in scarves, hats, buffs and woolly pogies. Things got better when we reached St Catherine’s Point towards sunset; the sea calmed and we bounced through the big tide races at the southern tip of Wight, riding the strong tides all the way up the east side of the island. The moon rose straight out of the sea, providing illumination once more for another long night paddle. We finally reached Bembridge at Noideawhen o’clock after covering about 27 miles and cheekily put our tents up in front of some rather nice beach huts, with the owner’s permission.
Sunday was unusual in that we got to paddle by daylight all day, although the bitterly cold headwind (yes, another one) whistling along the Solent meant that we didn’t limp back to our start at Keyhaven until the sun was on the horizon.
In one fleeting weekend, I shared countless memorable experiences with my friends. That, for me, is what it’s all about.