Whilst paddling at the Bitches tidal rapid in Pembrokeshire in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning (hence, the rather grey and grainy images), I recalled that I wrote a magazine article about the place, around a decade ago. I dug it out and here it is, with a few tweaks to bring it up to date…the target audience was white water playboaters, but the Bitches is also a stunning playground for sea kayakers. My visit on Sunday was in a PH Delphin, towing a WW playboat; I used both on the rapid!
The far western tip of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is among our nation’s most beautiful places. Half a mile out to sea across churning Ramsey Sound is the RSPB reserve of Ramsey Island. Lovely as this all is, it’s an unlikely place to find a world class playspot. But in 1991, a handful of international kayaking stars converged here for the first ever Kayak Rodeo World Championships. They paddled out across the Sound to the line of jagged volcanic rocks called The Bitches and Whelps. As the tide flooded in, the rocks slowly submerged and formed shapely waves and stoppers. This was why they’d travelled so far. This is the Bitches.
This article is intended to explain what is involved in enjoying a paddle to the Bitches tidal rapid safely and productively, so it is by necessity rather information-heavy. However, bear in mind that the Bitches is truly a qualitative rather than quantitative experience. In plain speak, the Bitches are far more than the sum of their parts. No dry listing of tide times, distances and directions can do justice to the sublimity of this place. Make the crossing out to the Bitches morning tide in dawn half-light and share the eddies with snoring seals. Watch the sun rise over the Pembrokeshire hills. This is as near as British paddling can get to offering a religious epiphany.
Head to South Wales. Somewhere after Swansea, the M4 peters out into the middle of a field. An endless succession of tediously slow roads follows, and after what feels like several weeks you reach St Davids. Follow signs through this cathedral town for St Justinian’s. A mile past town the land abruptly runs out and thats it, Wales has finished.
Although there are other options for a longer paddle to the Bitches, the most popular launch point is here, down the long flight of steps beside the Lifeboat Station at St Justinian’s. There is roadside parking, and also a paying car park. A few hundred metres up the road is a campsite overlooking the Sound. Does any campsite have a better view?
Now for the Science Bit, pay attention. The Bitches is a tidal rapid, formed by the startling power of the rising tide…yes, the sea moves about, at speeds of up to 10 mph. For playboaters and river paddlers, the crossing can be quite a culture shock and poses a very real hazard, one which has sadly claimed a playboater’s life. Ramsey Sound is not just a wider river and some understanding of what is going on is necessary. The currents are constantly shifting and the degree of exposure and commitment is considerable. Read up on tides. Check the forecasts and in particular look out for strong winds, swell or fog. Best of all, speak to other paddlers and try to hitch along with a veteran, if it is your first crossing.
There will always be some form of tidal rapids at the Bitches, but really you need tide heights in excess of 6 metres for the playspots to work. Heights over seven metres are something special! These biggest tides occur at ‘Springs’, found just after full moons and new moons. In case you didn’t know, tides repeat themselves every twelve hours and thirty minutes, so the energetic can enjoy a dawn visit and an evening visit on the same day.
You need to launch beside the Lifeboat Station at three hours before High Water at Milford Sound. Add an hour during BST. Turn south (erm, left) and follow the coast up the Sound. After twenty minutes, you’ll reach the narrowest part, alongside the strongest flow. Keep heading along the cliffs, eddy hopping from time to time to keep moving upstream. You will actually pass upstream past the Bitches rocks, but dont be tempted to cross yet. Only when you finally reach the top of the Sound and the current lets you go no further, do you peel out and ferry glide for your life across to the Bitches! Ten minutes of frantic flailing will see you drop down past the rocks, but a large eddy collects paddlers and feeds them upstream. Now, it’s just a case of crossing the channels from rock to rock towards the island. Your main target is the largest rock, which makes a great landing spot for recovery and orientation. You made it!
There are numerous churning waves and stoppers, but only two spots offer stable playing, the Top Wave and the Bitches Hole. In accessing these playspots, you won’t fail to notice the surging eddylines which form whirlpools guaranteed to startle newcomers! We have seen swimmers being sucked under on the eddyline and re-surfacing half a minute later and over fifty metres downstream. It is highly recommended that paddlers playing on the Bitches have a solid roll, and keep a close eye on one another.
Unfortunately, a real hazard and a major pest is tourist-filled jet boats; these tend to turn up on the evening tides and scream up and down the rapids with scant regard to paddler safety. Don’t play chicken, they’re bigger than you.
The playspots work for several hours until the tide has filled up the Sound sufficiently to kill them off.
The Top Wave
This forms just past the highest rock, a narrow but sublime steep glassy face. To catch it from the eddy, you’ll need arms like tree trunks and a long boat. Normally, paddlers carry up across the tall rock (take good footwear, this is agonisingly serrated) and launch upstream of the wave. Take care! With even a small groundswell, this is difficult and dangerous. Ferry glide out and drop slowly into the trough formed by the wave. Sweet. Deep in the trough, all you see is clear water sliding down towards you, with seaweed waving on the ocean floor…really! The wave is smooth and glassy; front surf, carve, spin and blunt until your arms drop off.
Washing off the wave is a bit of a grind. Directly behind is a surging hole which deals out a brief beating every time. Recovering (and rolling?), head back to the eddy below the biggest rock. If you can’t face carrying your boat up yet again, there is good news; a second wave usefully forms a little way downstream, good for blunting.
The Bitches Hole
This stopper can be found several eddies nearer to the island, tucked under imposing cliffs. It is deep and friendly in calm conditions, even sea kayaks do pop-outs here! A central Vee makes getting out easy. The stopper can be a bit mardy in swelly conditions, though. A slight swell will see the stopper repeatedly shifting from stopper to surfable wave and back, quite good fun really. A bit more swell will see the hole repeatedly changing from gnarly big deep hole to gnarly big shallow hole and back, not much fun at all!
You need to save energy for the crossing home, because there is an unfortunate catch. The route is (obviously) to ferry glide back across the Sound, during which you will drop downstream until you are level with, or below St Justinian’s. However, barring your route is a (usually submerged) pyramidal spire known as Horse Rock. This is recognisable as a wave train and violent swirling eddylines. Strong paddlers who haven’t left it too late in the tide will be able to ferry glide a safe distance above this. However, if you find yourself drifting towards Horse Rock, try to hold back and drop past it on the outside. You can then cross below and eddy hop back up the coast to St Justinian. If your group can’t make it, dont panic; you can follow the tide for another mile or two and land on Whitesands Bay. Paddlers often pass right through the centre of the currents at Horse Rock without incident, but it’s best to play safe; a swim here in the deep circulating currents could be disastrous.
If you’ve paddled on the morning tide, you’ll probably arrive back in St Davids before the shops are open and before partners and friends are out of bed. Your priority now, is to catch up on your sleep enough to be ready for the evening tide…but will you be able to resist cramming in a surf session at Whitesands Bay as well?
www.easytide.co.uk - look up Milford Haven tides.
www.tyf.com - local outdoor centre
www.bbc.co.uk/wales/southwest/sites/surfing/ – local surf/ swell report
www.canoewales.com - includes a guide and useful map