Paddled along the Purbeck coast last night between 9 pm and midnight, in brilliant moonlight. The cliffs were lit up extraordinarily brightly, allowing us to experience a very familiar place in a totally unfamiliar way. Away from the full moon in the shadows and caves, phosphorescence sparkled.
All I took was this photo on the way home, sorry.
I try to find time to paddle around the Isle of Wight every year; it’s a great adventure, especially if compressed into one weekend. The variety of challenges and experiences is amazing; in 100km, you have to tackle very strong tides, cliffed out areas, large tide races, busy shipping and (at this time of year) quite a lot of night paddling.
I’d had last weekend pencilled in for quite a while, on account of the strong tides predicted. As the weekend finally drew near, it became clear that there was actually going to be great weather…yippee! Four of us launched from Keyhaven at 11 pm on Friday night. 41 hours later, we arrived back at Keyhaven, having spent about 13.5 hours paddling, of which about 8 were at night. We didn’t suffer last year’s Arctic weather or soul-destroying headwinds; it was all rather pleasant and civilised, in fact.
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.
A few photos from a great weekend with friends on local waters. We paddled around the Isle of Purbeck from Wareham to Ringstead with two nights out camping under the full moon.
Our weekend consisted of a two day paddle in the vicinity of the Isles of Portland and Purbeck. Even though this is our usual stomping ground, you can always create a new adventure, with a bit of imagination …
On Saturday a couple of us paddled near Old Harry, but in the evening seven of us converged at Chesil Cove for a 14 mile evening/night paddle around Portland Bill. It just happened to be a peasoup fog and the Coastguard didn’t sound wildly enthusiastic about our plans when I called them on the VHF. Anyway, we paddled south in odd conditions – enveloped by fog but occasionally able to spot the cliffs above us, glowing in the evening rays.
In due course we reached the southernmost tip of Dorset, Portland Bill. Portland Bill is characterised by some really powerful tidal flows (up to 10 knots!) but as planned, we arrived at slack(ish) water. After being deafened by the foghorn at the lighthouse, we paddled north to Portland Harbour, as it grew progressively darker. The final part of the trip was a 5 mile open crossing of Weymouth Bay (on a rough bearing) to Ringstead Bay. Visibility was almost zero – we were reduced to figuring out where people were and who was who by the dayglo colour of their glowsticks. No stars or lights to guide us! Following a glowing stick of pink through the dark and the fog was an odd experience. We also enjoyed the indescribable phenomena of phosphorescence, sparkling in the water around our paddles and bows.
Although it occasionally felt like we were paddling aimlessly all over the place, just before midnight we somehow hit land within 20 metres of our intended camping spot – not bad, huh? Tents went up and we enjoyed wine and beer well past our bedtimes.
On Sunday morning we weren’t as quick off the mark as we should have been, so we scaled our paddling plans back to a 12 mile paddle along to Kimmeridge and then back to Lulworth Cove, rather than slogging all the way to Swanage. All good, and the fog had moved on.
Are there any cliffs anywhere else, remotely like those at the Gadcliff?
No photos of the fog, naturally…
(thanks to Graham Bland for the GPS track)
In 1997 I first paddled around the south west, and on subsequent occasions I have picked up the mantle of that trip and continued around the UK coast in stages; I hope to have completed the UK for my 40th birthday! Anyway, in 2005 I paddled the Irish Sea coast of Wales and England. I’d hoped to get well into Scotland, but outrageous weather brought my trip to a rude halt, a days’ paddle short of the border. I spent five particularly frustrating days, just waiting to cross Morecambe Bay. Here’s some pretentious dross I penned back then, reflecting upon that journey …
\on-WEE; ON-wee\, noun: A feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction; dullness and languor of spirits, arising from lack of interest; boredom.
I realise I am awake. I haven’t been asleep for hours, yet this is the first time I’m conscious. The slapslapslap of the flysheet tells all. Eyes tight, I extend a hand from my bag and fumble for my Nokia. I press out an ingrained key sequence. Eventually I summon will to squint at the display.
IRISH SEA WEST OR NORTHWEST 6 TO GALE 8 DECREASING 4 OR 5, BACKING SOUTH OR SOUTHWEST 5 OR 6 LATER. RAIN OR SHOWERS.
Same old same old. I draw my hood over my head, and zone out for a few more hours.
I am about to completely miss Ramsey Sound. My head is down, but I am being sucked inexorably to seaward of Ramsey Island. Several hours into a three week journey, already I’m embarrassed by my own incompetence. A flurry of long strokes and finally I clear the tip of the island…on the correct side. Now allied with the flood tide, I surge down towards the broken bottle silhouette of the Bitches rocks. I spy paddlers ferrying across to play the Bitches tidal race. I envy them, but not for the top wave; they have company and camaraderie. My friends are on a ferry to Norway. Tonight I’ll camp and dine alone. The boat accelerates amongst the swirls of Horse Rock, and only slows when it reaches Whitesands Bay. I am not alone. A solitary porpoise and I share the last rays.
Afternoon; I force myself to get up and boil some noodles. As the rain rattles the walls, I take stock. The interior of my space capsule is littered with chocolate and sweet wrappers, newspapers, Lucozade bottles, crushed clothes. My sleeping bag is dank from sweat and condensation. I have no mirror, but guess I am no oil painting. I retrieve the radio from under a pile of charts, and tune through a forest of static. Soporific dance music, or cricket.
I have cut in too close around the point at Newquay, and collided with a back eddy. The sudden violence of the breaking waves is daunting. I accelerate to a sprint but my kayak is static. I veer inshore and off, trying to surf my way out. Dry and warm minutes ago, I’m now drenched to my armpits and wiping salt from my eyes. I find purchase against the current and judge I am making headway, but the harbour wall refuses to fall back. Seagulls tear the air apart with their cries and I’m cursing wildly to no one in particular. I gain an audience. In unison on either side, curved dorsal fins pierce the surface, rising to expose slick grey backs. Within touch of both paddle blades, I have a dolphin escort. I curse harder, in awed disbelief.
I emerge before dawn, unable to ignore my bladder. Steadying myself in the porch, I aim into the bushes. Only with my business finished do I realise that the rain has moved on. I am the only person witnessing these sparkling stars. The orange glow to the south denotes garish Blackpool, but I am transfixed by the view north, ten miles across Morecambe Bay to Barrow. Deciphering the urban glare, I can make out the immense derricks and submarine units of the dockyards. The wind feels less defined. Could this be it? I can be on the water in under an hour. I am already stuffing away my down jacket before I take a reality check. The wind will soon return in force. Either way; huge seas bar the crossing, whipped up by a backlog of storms. It is not going to happen this time, just like all the other times. Am I making good decisions? Am I fabricating lame apologies? This is worse than anything by far. With no one to bounce ideas off, I relive this quandary a hundred times daily.
Bardsey Sound has been oversold. My ‘Irish Sea Pilot’ brimmed with calamity tales about the quirks of local wind and tide, but I am gliding along a shimmering expanse of blue perfection. Rounding the Lleyn Peninsula, I accumulate flow and pace. Today it comes easy, all effort absorbed by the unheralded beauty of this coast. The day’s allotted paddling hours are up, but today I need no motivation targets. The boat courses on with ease whilst quarried mountains loom over the sea, hemmed by quiet villages with names I’ll never grasp. Later I plot the next leg over pasta and pesto. I am startled to see that forty miles have eased by; how could this have been so pleasurable?
I have joined the Lancashire Library Service. Killing a morning at the keyboard, I trawl through any and every weather website. I alight upon any minor disparities between forecasts, as if this will somehow wish the wind away. I check the paddling message boards and post updates of my non-progress. I read my posting of a week ago, ludicrously announcing that by now I’d be in Scotland. Later I walk along the sea front, transfixed by the kite surfers. The tent is safe, hidden at the back corner of a golf course. I have ‘text’; a local paddler has heard of my enforced stay in Fleetwood and offers food and shelter. I am stunned by such consideration from a stranger, but embarrassed to take it up. Perhaps this isn’t the sole reason. I am dimly aware that I am relishing the ennui.
Hilbre Island is a low sandstone bluff, marking the point where the River Dee meets the Irish Sea. Wales ends here in this disorientating landscape, where sand overcomes sea for much of the day. Observed coolly by languorous seals, I launch an hour before sunset. I paddle north for an hour, hard. A half submerged wreck initially seems vast, but perspective proves to be distorted here. Miles from dry land, I wade and drag for a time. The swell gains definition; deep water. I alter course to cross the Mersey estuary. I knew the light would fade, but I am counting on the full moon. This is ascending behind Liverpool docks, too slowly. My headtorch fails even to illuminate my compass. I am lost. I pick out some lights and take my chances. Feeling my way blind, I stumble into a tidal race. The waves feel huge in the pitch dark. Terrified but exhilarated, I emerge right beside the Mersey Channel where a giant tug is passing. Its spotlights pick out the kayaker, a tiny intruder in the big boy’s playground. An hour later, I make landfall – on sand, by lucky chance – and discover that I am directly outside the Liverpool Coastguard Station. The night watch are concerned and sceptical. After they’ve examined my equipment and heard my story, smiles break out. I am welcomed inside as a guest, albeit a late one.
In the early hours of the sixth morning, I finish another book. By now I am tuned to the movements of the tent; something is different. I emerge and I look to Barrow once more. No doubt this time, the wind has eased. The sea is grey-brown mush, but has calmed appreciably. This is it. I engage myself with hurried packing, refusing to permit myself space to revisit my decision. I am outside the surf break and already making ground towards Barrow through the peaks and troughs. The panorama of Morecambe Bay expands around me. I can see Lake District peaks and even my old university, white buildings against a Pennine backdrop. With inconvenient timing, a ferry emerges down the Lune Channel, and then two more large ships; I have to sit tight as they pass, bracing into the waves. Something is wrong; the swell is smashing right up their bows. Once they they’ve passed, I regain pace and enter the channel. Right away I am hitting very big water. Waves are surging and breaking around me. My nerves force a physical reaction; I retch. I try to rationalise my circumstances before fear predominates. My incredibly stupid, obvious error is that I am trying to cross as tide flows from the bay against the wind and swell. The tide is exaggerating and steepening the waves. Turning back will not be easy, but continuing could be catastrophic. Haste and impatience have brought me here. I am engulfed by a world of foam. My mind wanders to another place, not so far way. I have now a solution, and it is simple. I draw my hood over my head, and zone out for a few more hours.