Archive for the ‘Sharks and Whales’ Category
Below is an article of mine published in ‘Canoe Kayak UK’ magazine a few months ago. Hope it’s of interest…
A paddler’s guide to Lands End
It’s autumn 2007, and I’ve just completed 49 separate chapters of a guidebook to the fantastic sea kayaking in South West England, totalling about 70000 words. This was a long job, yet I’m still not finished. The final chapter left to write is the chapter on Land’s End in Cornwall. I’ve kept on putting it off, always finding excuses. The problem is, finding words to do it justice. Eventually, I grab a couple of bottles of Doom Bar (splendid Cornish beer) from the fridge and sit in front of my computer. I prod the keyboard with one hand and swig with the other. I bash out ‘Chapter 27: Land’s End’ in a couple of frantic hours, and then sit back and make a few victorious air punches. Having skimmed over what I’ve written, I ponder for a few moments and then add a final few words;
‘the best sea paddle in the South West’.
Anyway…what I thought I might do in this here article, is try to justify that statement. To attempt this, I’m just going to throw a random and disjointed assortment of information, anecdotes and tall tales your way.
The clue is in the name
The clue is in the name, but for those who don’t know, Land’s End is the extreme west point of England, where Cornwall runs out. West of here, there are only the tiny Isles of Scilly (45 kilometres) and then the next landmass is Canada (3500 kilometres). Incidentally, the proper name for Land’s End is Pedn an Wlas. I have no idea how to pronounce that, but neither does anyone else; unfortunately there are no native Cornish speakers left.
Most folk think of Land’s End as the specific spot where lycra-clad cyclists get photographed beneath a whimsical ‘mileage to faraway places’ sign, before embarking on a masochism-fest pedal to John O’Groats in Scotland. They might not know that the cyclists have to cough up significant monies just to stand beneath that sign, and that it’s the focal point of a rather tacky and utterly mis-sited children’s theme park. Thankfully, this crappy dump goes unnoticed by those paddling below and thankfully, is the only blight on the much larger and utterly magnificent Land’s End peninsula.
The Land’s End peninsula points west between St Ives on the north coast, and Mount’s Bay on the south coast. Whilst every part of this peninsula merits at least an A+, the very best paddling of all is found within the few kilometres north and south of Land’s End itself. A paddle between Sennen Cove and Porthgwarra offers something approaching Sea Kayaking Nirvana. Smooth granite cliffs, jagged islets, beckoning tunnels, foaming reefs, translucent surf, sandy beaches, intimidating tide races, abundant wildlife and even a rusting shipwreck await exploration.
My first sighting of Land’s End was in 1997, when MC Hammer was cool, and Princess Di was alive (for another fortnight, anyway). I’d bought a sea kayak on a whim and paddled from Bournemouth, wearing a t-shirt and using a holed nylon spraydeck. When I eventually I reached Cornwall I was still alive, but still totally clueless. I wasn’t sure where I was finally headed, but liked the sound of Land’s End. Be careful what you pray for. Early one morning I launched and paddled past Penzance. I soon spotted an offshore buoy which I now know marks the Runnel Stone. This is where the cliffs turn north a few kilometres south of Land’s End, to directly face the open ocean. It’s also where two seas collide; the English Channel and the Celtic Sea. My day became a lot more interesting. My memory of the next hour is of gripping the paddle in tight-sphinctered terror as I battled through swells; where had these epic waves appeared from? The blindingly obvious answer is, ‘the Atlantic Ocean’…but don’t laugh; you had to be there (with my 1997 level of innocence and ignorance) to grasp why this was all a bit of a jolt.
The thing which sets the cliffs of Land’s End apart is the geology. Whether or not you usually get excited about granite, prepare to be astonished. This peculiar rock weathers into distinctive ill-fitting angular blocks, like Brobdingnagian cubes of plasticine squeezed crudely together. Only, lots more attractive than that sounds. What’s that, you want to know why it does this? Apologies, I haven’t a clue; ask an actual geologist (I did look on the internet, but there were too many long words). Anyway, the upshot of all this for paddlers, is some truly unique formations to explore and play. Perhaps the most distinctive are the two remarkable stacks located just south of Land’s End; The Armed Knight is a delicate serrated ridge which improbably defies the full force of the Atlantic, whilst Enys Dodnan is a monolithic island pierced by an awe-inspiring natural archway.
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 offshore lighthouses of Wolf Rock and Longships. With their jointed buttresses and pinnacles, the cliffs around Land’s End resemble soaring fortresses with castellated spires. The granite around and above us is set ablaze by the golden light, with quartz, feldspar and mica sparkling brilliantly.
Incidentally, if you think that I’m laying the adjectives on a bit thickly in this article…then I’m guessing that you haven’t paddled here yet.
Subject to considerable variation
“Is it just me, or are we paddling against the tide? I thought you were supposed to be checking this stuff beforehand?”
Atlantic swells hitting Land’s End get an unimpeded run-up, all the way from Brazil. A clue to just how big the waves get here can be found in the yellow lichen which marks the splash zone on the cliffs. Suffice to say, it’s a very long way above sea level indeed. Perhaps consider checking the weather and swell forecast before venturing forth on this serious trip?
Some things are harder to predict. Beardy nautical types use the boringly-reliable Admiralty Pilot books to predict tide flow times. These hefty tomes are a nerd’s dream, crammed with numbers and other data. Yet, amazingly, where Land’s End is concerned they simply give up. Their description is one short sentence long, and uses the word ‘probably’ twice, alongside the phrase ‘subject to considerable variation’. Hard as it may be to believe in this information-rich age, you’ll just have to take a punt on the tides and hope that your guesstimate is right. Pretty well everyone who paddles around Land’s End inadvertently finds themselves battling upstream at some point. The key to tackling this uncertainty is to expect and accept it; Land’s End is no place for control freaks!
We’re only five minutes’ paddle out of Sennen Cove, when Heather shouts, “Basking shark!” She gives a running commentary as we draw nearer. “It’s a small one…two metres long, to judge by the fins”. Soon, we too spot the unmistakable dorsal fin, followed closely by the tail fin, swishing the surface in sinuous curves as the shark hoovers up plankton just beneath the surface. We stop paddling, but the shark now approaches us. “Two metres” proves to be a comic misjudgement of scale; the shark is half as long again as our kayaks, and emphasises its awesome length and mass by repeatedly swimming beneath and brushing against their unnervingly fragile hulls. No one moves. Or breathes.
MV RMS Mulheim
According to the testimony of the Chief Officer of the MV RMS Mulheim, he was alone on the bridge on 22nd March 2003 when he accidentally caught his trouser leg on his chair, tripped and knocked himself out. He claims that when he recovered consciousness, all 4000 tonnes of ship and cargo were seconds away from making intimate contact with Land’s End. You couldn’t make any of this stuff up…probably. The Marine Accident Investigation discovered that the ship’s officers had plotted no course or chart positions for the ship’s voyage.
This shipwreck resides in Castle Zawn, just north of Land’s End. Despite a decade of battering by Atlantic swells, enough of the Mulheim is still intact to dwarf approaching paddlers. This isn’t an ideal place to land, on account of the bouldery beach and copious amounts of scrap metal thereabouts. In any case, paddling up close to (or even boarding) this rusting hulk is definitely in ‘Don’t try this at home’ territory. But all that said, it has been done…
I paddle gingerly into the high-sided cave known as Zawn Pyg, unsure what to expect inside. Thankfully, the water within turns out to be completely calm. I pass through to the far end, where this tunnel opens out to the sky again, at a perfect natural swimming pool. I turn around and paddle back. I encourage Claire, “It’s fine, go check it out!” No sooner has she entered the tunnel, than a sneaky rolling swell trundles beneath my kayak. It steepens and builds as it reaches the tunnel mouth, then explodes into a morass of foaming white which seemingly fills the entire cave. Oops.
There is no sign of Claire, and the dreadful realisation dawns on me that I should probably do something to help. The problem is, I have absolutely no idea what. Eventually and unexpectedly, she emerges from the zawn…inexplicably unflustered, unharmed and with an intact kayak. I have no idea how she survived the oceanic maelstrom which I’d just witnessed, but mutter something about having been just that very moment about to paddle in and ‘rescue’ her…
Paddlers who get excited about deep dark tunnels will be in their element (but should probably Google ‘Freud’). The granite geology of Land’s End means that there are numerous vertically–sided passageways like Zawn Pyg to explore. Land’s End itself is pierced by a passage, notable for the strong tide flow passing through. Further south, a truly epic tunnel (go search for it!) leads into the cliff for over a hundred metres before veering sharp right in darkness and stretching for another hundred…before re-emerging into daylight. Note however, that these caves will often be occupied by the local seal population. Be especially carefully around pupping time, between late August and September.
It’s five in the morning, and two of us are paddling in pre-dawn light through the tide races at Longships, surrounded by hundreds of swirling birds. “Wow, just look at them!” I shout, “Puffins! Guillemots! Gannets! Fulmars! Petrels! Razorbills! Incredible!” My friend looks back at me, bemused and possibly pityingly. “Seagulls. I see seagulls.”
The Longships are a 500 metre long chain of rocks, located a couple of kilometres directly offshore from Land’s End. This reef has often been compared to a passing ship, as the 43 metre high Longships Lighthouse gives the impression of a tall mast.
Land’s End is an exposed place to paddle in the first place; paddling that little bit further out to Longships increases this commitment significantly. You’ll need to ferry glide carefully through several successive tide races, each seemingly larger and steeper than the last…but it’s absolutely worth paying the rope out this far. On arrival, you’ll be checked out by the locals, the grey seals. These fellows laze on rocks, or float idly in the eddy pools whilst food floats past on the tide races…a natural sushi bar. On our last visit, we experimented with snorkels to roll over and watch the seals in the glassy-clear water. What we actually saw was a lot of seaweed, but our efforts clearly kept the residents amused.
Having written a guidebook about this stuff, I occasionally delude myself that I ‘know’ Land’s End. On this day however, I’m lucky enough to be paddling with a local, and it’s him giving me the tour. We’re in Nanjizal Bay. The word ‘grand’ barely seems adequate to describe Nanjizal, but that’s what I’m going with, as it’s now past midnight. To my south is the tunnel of Zawn Pyg, whilst the cliffs to my north are known as Diamond Horse Cove, because their quartz veins resemble diamonds. All of this stuff, I know. What I didn’t know until shown today, was that the sand spit in the centre of this granite amphitheatre forms clean peeling waves at certain states of the tide, waves which allow long rides before petering out safely into deep water; pretty convenient if you fancy surfing a fragile sea kayak. I retrieve my helmet from the back deck, wait for my turn behind Mike, and accelerate down a glassy and transparent wave face…
This article focuses on the Land’s End peninsula between Sennen Cove and Portgwarra, the part which includes Land’s End proper. The entire peninsula offers outstanding sea kayaking, however. The paddle along the south coast from Penzance to Porthgwarra takes in some stunningly attractive fishing villages, with the sandy bay of Porthcurno being a highlight. North of Land’s End, the paddle to St Ives past Cape Cornwall is a long and committing trip along surprisingly wild coasts. The granite gives way to dark and foreboding basalt, and the cliffs are topped with ghostly ruins of tin mines.
South West Sea Kayaking by Mark Rainsley – planning details and information, available from www.pesdapress.com.
West Cornwall & Land’s End Peninsula Guidebook (from ‘Friendly Guides’) by Neil Reid – great little guidebook, including excellent maps.
www.landsendweather.info – live weather reports and webcam showing sea conditions.
www.southwestseakayaking.co.uk – more photos and information, from the author.
Mrs R and our daughter enjoying a bit of fresh air high above the sea at St Alban’s Head, this weekend.
In other news and on the same day, a specimen of the world’s second largest living thing washed up nearby.
It has been reported this week that basking sharks have begun to arrive off our shores already, this being relatively early; good news, given that they arrived in inexplicably limited numbers last year. Basking sharks (cetorhinus maximus) are the second largest fish on earth (after the whale shark), growing to ten metres long and seven tonnes in weight, and are frankly a wonder to behold close up. I’ve been lucky enough to paddle with them all over the UK’s Atlantic coasts, from Land’s End right up to Shetland. Canoe Kayak UK magazine have just posted up some excellent advice on encountering basking sharks. All informed advice sensibly suggests that kayakers and other water users should keep a good distance from basking sharks, but as these photos (taken near Cape Cornwall) demonstrate, the sharks haven’t always read the advice themselves; they have a disconcerting habit of coming over to investigate kayaks, even rubbing their dorsals on the hull!
A few notes on basking sharks, culled from my book work…
Basking sharks are actually harmless filter-feeders with miniscule teeth, posing no threat to humans.
Until 2003, it was speculated that basking sharks hibernated in winter. It is now known that they actually ‘go deep’ for much of this time, tracking plankton blooms for thousands of miles, up to 900 metres below the surface. The sharks arrive in the south-west in spring, travelling up the English Channel as far as Dorset, and the Atlantic coast as far as the Northern Isles and Norway by August. They cruise along the surface in sinuous curves at 3-4 kph, occasionally in ‘gams’ of up to a hundred. Hotspots where they congregate include the far west of Cornwall, the Isle of Man and the Scottish islands of Canna, Coll and Tiree.
From shore or boat on a calm day, you will spot the snout raised out of the water, followed by the dorsal fin and tail, all startlingly far from one another. The skin appears dark and leathery, being protected by ‘dermal denticles’, small sharp scales which also reduce drag. The mouth is easily visible underwater due to its enormous size; a metre in diameter opened out, flanked by somewhat primal looking gill flaps. The gills sieve up to 2000 cubic metres of water per hour through comb-like interlocking ‘gill rakes’, extracting oxygen and food. This giant feeds entirely on plankton, especially 1-2 mm long crustaceans called copepods. Buoyancy comes from the shark’s huge bi-lobal liver, making up around a third of its weight.
Basking sharks are occasionally less sedate; they have been seen breaching full length from the water! This behaviour is thought to be connected with either ridding parasites such as lampreys, or courting a mate.
I realise that this photo of a Minke Whale won’t win any awards; I just thought I’d share the tale behind it. We were aboard the ferry, enjoying a smooth crossing of the Minch from the Western Isles to the Scottish mainland. We’d already seen numerous porpoises and dolphins, and were hoping to spot a whale. Heather said that she needed to go down below, to visit the loo. I noted that as soon as she went below, a whale would instantly appear, and she’d miss it. It did. She did.
The following article is written by Heather and was previously published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine…
…Shetland is the best Sea Kayaking destination in the UK
There! I’ve said it. I’ll even repeat it: Shetland is the best Sea Kayaking destination in the UK. Now, before you spit in horror and say something like, “Well she obviously hasn’t been to (insert your favourite spot here)” and flick past these pages in disgust, please just pause. What is it you like about sea kayaking? What makes you keep on loading that boat onto the car and going down to the sea? Make a quick list…let’s see how many of your boxes are ticked, as I give you some flavours of the five weeks I spent exploring the nooks and crannies of Shetland’s 900 mile coastline, earlier this year.
Arriving at the ferry port in Shetland’s capital Lerwick, we drove north-west to Braewick campsite through damp grey weather and bleak countryside. As we reached the western shores, the barren-ness was replaced by dramatic views of precipitous cliffs and steep cobbled beaches. Pitching our tent looking out to sea, our first paddle was obvious. We looked out to a cluster of tall sea stacks and spires called Da Drongs, battered by a westerly swell.
Parking the car beside Hillswick Seal and Otter Sanctuary, we watched a baby seal follow his yellow dungaree clad ‘mum’ around, begging for fish. On the water, we paddled past increasingly steep cliffs pocked with caves that invited further exploration, and then around the headland of Hillswick Ness into the Atlantic swell. A large lazy rolling swell, of the kind that on a windless day glides sleepily and glassily beneath you, its peaceful heaving only interrupted by reefs and cliffs…awakening waves of turquoise and white foam whose roars drone through your body before they collapse in a froth of fizzing bubbles.
We struck out to The Drongs themselves, sitting like spires from a Wild West canyon. Sea birds wheeled around; fulmars gliding stiff winged across wave tops and gannets plunging with sudden splashes. This was just day one.
Location, Location, Location
Maps of Britain very rarely show Shetland in its true position north of Orkney. Instead, it is generally stuck in a box somewhere east of Inverness. Shetland is actually 130 miles north of John O’Groats, the most northern extremity of the British Isles. It takes an overnight ferry journey from Aberdeen to get here, and the journey to Aberdeen is an undertaking in itself from most places south of the border.
Getting to Shetland certainly requires an investment of time, but once you’ve arrived, the entire multitude of paddling possibilities are within easy striking distance. It’s only an 80 mile drive (including two short ferry crossings) from Sumburgh Head in the south, to Hermaness at the north tip of Shetland. The location puts the islands right out there. Atlantic Ocean to the west. North Sea to the east and south. Head north and there is only some pack ice to stop you paddling across the North Pole and all the way to Siberia. Norway is closer than Edinburgh.
Swell can come from any or every direction. Tides, although not huge in range, in some places create substantial races and flows. Despite the very real exposure that this location implies, the fact that the Shetlands are a chain of islands means that there is generally a sheltered option to be found. A number of long inlets – ‘Voes’- also offer sheltered paddling.
The culture of the islands is one of a life lived intimately with the sea. For a Shetlander, commuting to work by ferry is often a way of life. As a kayaker, you will find yourself having endless conversations with people whose life has for generations revolved around the sea and who are genuinely interested in the antics of sea kayakers. The rich waters are full of life and have sustained 5000 years of continuous human occupation. We might think of these islands as being on the extremity of things, yet archaeological sites on a dramatic scale suggest otherwise! Mousa Broch is a perfectly preserved 2000 year old tower, one of at least 120 around the islands. These stand out as landmarks along the coast; navigational aids and great picnic spots.
Shetland belonged to Norway until 1469. The Nordic influence is still clearly felt in place names, family names and the local dialect. In recent times, North Sea oil has brought communal wealth via the Sullom Voe oil terminal; this has funded eight sports centres for a population of 22,000! There are numerous museums and interpretive centres where, we were welcomed by friendly and knowledgeable Shetlanders who were proud to share their heritage with us.
Let’s Rock and Roll
Shetland’s geology is of international importance and has European Geopark status. Some of the oldest rocks in Britain can be seen, 2500 million year old Lewisian Gneisses. The major faults which created mainland Scotland’s landscape continue here. This complex geology is reflected in the complex coastline. Erosion wears away softer rocks, slices up through fault lines and undermines even the hardest of rocks. The result is, steep cliffs riddled with caves, geos, inlets, hidden channels and mazes, guarded by stacks and arches.
The most dramatically eroded coastline is that of the isle of Papa Stour; every few hundred metres of paddling brings another cave into view! Some are tiny crevices studded with sea anemones. Others snake back endlessly to open into vast caverns and amphitheatres, dramatically booming with swell and ringing with the calls of seabirds. To the north-west of Papa Stour, Fogla Skerry and Lyra Skerry sit exposed to tide and swell, riddled with tunnels. Lyra Skerry has two passages intersecting at right angles. Sitting underneath an island at a crossroads between two streams of flowing water is an experience which will stay with me. These are phenomenal places to explore, yet there is always a tension between the wish to linger and the anxiety about building tide and wind…
Walk on the Wild Side
Shetland has the highest concentration of otters in the UK, and we met them regularly. The squeaky baby otters who swam around our boats were a standout moment! Seals, common and grey, are ubiquitous, although they tend to be shyer than those in other areas. Perhaps they are wary because they are the main prey of the local pods of killer whales. Twenty-one of the twenty-four species of British seabirds breed there; we met our favourite, puffins, on most of our paddling trips. They nest in burrows and whirr in and out with beaks full of small sand eels, or stroll pompously along the ledges, cawing for all the world as if they had just heard a particularly juicy and shocking piece of gossip. The sea cliffs at Noss and Hermaness are home to vast gannet colonies. These birds, with two metre wing spans, glided en masse in dizzying circles over our kayaks. Combined with neck-achingly high cliffs, deafening croaks and the stench of fish, this spectacle made me feel quite queasy.
Here Be Monsters
Paddling back over glassy seas from the Out Skerries to Whalsay one morning, we were surrounded by hundreds of porpoises. This area is well known for sightings of cetaceans, congregating to feed on fish funnelled up through the strait by the tide. Porpoises are known as neesiks (meaning sneezies) in Shetland, due to the snuffle sound they make as they break the water’s surface. After half an hour we became quite blasé about their numbers and presence. Suddenly, a much larger ‘porpoise’ emerged…but kept on surfacing. We were looking at a minke whale! I cannot describe the awe that I felt being within touching distance of this, one of the smaller members of the whale family but nevertheless at least seven metres long and rearing significantly higher than us.
So, have I worn you down and convinced you? Perhaps your favourite paddling spot can supply you with some of the experiences I’ve described. But can it provide all of the above? If so, let me know, I want to go there too.
The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland Sea Kayaking by Tom Smith and Chris Jex. Yet another winner from Pesda Press, this indispensible guidebook includes masses of tidal flow data alongside knowledge from local experts to help you get the best out of your trip.
Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas – Orkney and Shetland Islands. Your best bet for visualising what the tide flows are doing.
Clyde Cruising Club Sailing Directions and Anchorages: Shetland Islands by Arthur Houston/ Shetland Islands Pilot by Gordon Buchanan. These are the two options if you are looking for a nautical pilot book. In truth, neither book is of much use to paddlers; they simply list sheltered anchorages. If you have to buy one (to look the part), the CCC one looks prettier.
Shetland: Island Guide by Jill Slee Blackadder and Iain Sarjeant – published by photographer Colin Baxter, the pictures in this guidebook will inspire you before you even start on the text.
www.shetlopedia.com – as usual, the internet knows everything. This website is an amazing source of information about everything Shetland.
www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk – useful information and advice.
The most easterly point of Shetland is a group of rocky islands known as the ‘Out Skerries’ – ‘Out’ being derived from ‘East’. The crossing from the island of Whalsay is only a few miles, but traverses one of the UK’s cetacean hotspots; paddling through the swelly tide race on the way out, we saw several dolphins and porpoises. Our paddle back was in dead calm conditions; and we were surrounded by hundreds of porpoises. Just when we’d reached porpoise saturation point, we met two successive whales at very close range …
Although Shetland is famed for monumental coastal landscapes and epic cliffs, the Out Skerries are small in every respect. The land area is less than two square miles. Three islands shelter a remarkable natural harbour, with three inlets to the sea. This is the nearest part of Shetland to Norway, and the landscape and houses do indeed have a vaguely Scandinavian feel and look to them. The population is about seventy, seemingly mainly surviving from the communally owned fish farms. The Skerries have the smallest Secondary School in the UK. In a bit of economic insanity (presumably oil-subsidised), a massive ferry makes the three-hour round trip to the Out Skerries three or four times a day, charging almost nothing and usually half empty.
We felt particularly sorry for the island’s few teenagers, who spent the entire three or four days we were there continuously driving up and down the islands’ one mile of road. Nothing happens and there is absolutely nothing to do in the Out Skerries. We loved it.
…there we were, having a chocolate break, chatting about how amazing it was to see hundreds of porpoises continually surfacing around us…when 9000 kilos of Minke Whale surfaced, full length, directly in front of us. Which was nice.
Actually the fellow in the picture above was not the same whale; this is another fellow whom we met an hour or so later. At one point, our first whale suddenly surfaced directly alongside us (looming over us) at point blank range, within touching distance; but I was so shocked/ scared that I couldn’t even operate the camera!
Many more Shetland Isles pictures here.
This is the second (and final) part of an article by myself which was published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine, to promote the launch of the book …
Ten Great Reasons to sea kayak in South West England …
Ticking off all 26 of the South West’s lighthouses by paddling past them might sound like a bit like train-spotting, but once the addiction kicks in, resistance is futile! These tall beacons mark out the most exposed headlands and offshore rocks. They were all built by Trinity House, their construction often an audacious feat of engineering. Most famous is the red-and-white striped Needles light, perched at the end of a line of serrated chalk stacks off the Isle of Wight. Perhaps the most Historic is the Eddystone light, a lonely 16 kilometres offshore of Plymouth Sound and the site of the first ‘rock’ lighthouse in Britain. Five successive lighthouses have marked the Eddystone reef, indicating the struggle to build a structure that would endure against the wind and waves.
Needles lighthouse, Isle of Wight
Early paddlers will always meet fishermen out on the water, emptying pots and nets. You can try asking them for a lobster, but we haven’t had any luck yet! During the nineteenth century, fleets of trawlers hunted immense shoals of pilchards, with tons of fish caught in each net. The pilchards vanished and the fleets declined. Despite the economic hardships faced by fishermen today, the industry endures. It is heartening to see fleets of fishing boats coming and going from bustling harbours such as Brixham, Mevagissey, Newlyn and Padstow. Padstow is of course the haunt of TV chef Rick Stein, who has reinvigorated the seafood industry. We recommend fish and chips at his chippie, but if you can get (or afford) a table in his other restaurants, you’re doing better in life than we are.
Fisherman off St Mary’s Isles of Scilly
3. Tide Races
Following the British sea kayaking media, you could be forgiven for believing that our only tidal rapid is up in North Wales at Anglesey. The powerful tides of the South West give rise to some awesome tide races. Experienced paddlers will find numerous tidal playgrounds to challenge them, such as the 2km rollercoaster ride around Saint Catherine’s Point (Isle of Wight), the infamous swirling Portland Race and the heaving seas around Foreland Point near Lynmouth. Up in the Severn Estuary, an incredible 14.8m tide range (the World’s second largest) generates extensive churning rapids, terrifying even when viewed from the Severn Bridges high above!
Trevose Head tide race, Cornwall
Rias are drowned valleys extending inland from the sea, a characteristic feature of the South West. These saltwater English ‘lochs’ often have steeply wooded sides and side creeks branching off, appearing like a plant’s root tendrils on the map. The remains of old quays and wharfs are found at the upper limits. South Devon is famous for its numerous rias, ranging in size from the tiny yachting haven of the River Yealm to the extensive River Tamar, home to a large part of our Royal Navy! Rias make for great paddling trips in a sheltered transitional zone between river and ocean.
Truro River, Cornwall
Who can resist paddling out to an offshore island? The South West doesn’t boast a Hebridean galaxy of isles, but those we have are something special. Tucked up the Bristol Channel are fortified Steep Holm and Flat Holm, surrounded by raging tides and jealously guarded by thousands of angry gulls. The fabulous granite monolith rearing out of the horizon west of north Devon’s surf beaches is Lundy, Britain’s only statutory Marine Nature Reserve. On the English Channel coast, the circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight makes a great multi-day trip and the many islands of Poole Harbour reward exploration. The gems of the region however, are the truly unique Isles of Scilly, located 42 kilometres out from Land’s End in the warming Gulf Stream. A hundred isles and rocks are graced by amazing white sand beaches, shallow lagoons and a cornucopia of lush sub-tropical plants.
Steep Holm, Somerset
The South West’s coast can almost be described purely by shipwrecks. Every cliff or headland seems to have its own tragic past, and the wrecks keep coming! The Isles of Scilly’s Western Rocks witnessed Britain’s greatest naval tragedy in 1707, when an entire fleet ran into the reef. The rusting carcasses of vessels that came to grief in more recent times can still be viewed in many wild and exposed places, such as Prawle Point (south Devon), Hartland Point (north Devon) and Land’s End (Cornwall). The latter wreck is the Mulheim, wrecked through crew incompetence whilst sailing under a ‘Flag of Convenience’ and now slowly disintegrating in a zawn just south of Sennen Cove. Just during the research for South West Sea Kayaking, two more huge ships were wrecked; the Napoli ran aground off south Devon and made the national news when scavengers descended on its cargo of motorbikes and nappies. We paddled out to visit the Napoli, but not 50km offshore to the more recent wreck of the Ice Prince, which shed £1 million worth of timber along the English Channel’s shores.
Wreck of the Napoli, Devon
Swell can be encountered anywhere along the South West’s shores, but the untrammelled power of the north Atlantic is felt most forcefully along the ‘north shore’ of Cornwall and Devon. A small groundswell can add exciting challenge to a journey as you rockhop beneath the unending line of cliffs. Anything bigger will utterly transform your paddle, as you battle through enormous waves desperately searching for a safe haven to land. Due to unfortunate miscalculations of scale, at one point this author found himself petrified with terror amongst a 6-7 metre swell in Newquay Bay!
Fistral Beach, Cornwall
Wavecut ledges are found in many parts of the South West. These occur where persistent sea erosion or changing sea levels create raised rock platforms, incised by channels, passageways and jagged ridges just begging to be explored by kayak. South Devon has some amazing wave-cut ledges around Prawle Point, but the most impressive are found on the north coast along the Hartland Heritage Coast. Here, an unbroken 16km of serrated teeth defy the foaming waves, daring paddlers to come closer!
Hartland Heritage Coast, Devon
One utterly unique feature of the South West coast is the remains of Cornwalls’ centuries of tin mining. In a number of areas, disused chimneys and engine houses rise above the cliffs in a wasteland of spoils and tips. In places like Botallack, the mine buildings cling to the cliffs barely high enough to clear storm waves. Strangely, these industrial ruins do not jar. On the contrary, they are a hauntingly beautiful sight, blending into the fabric of the landscape as integral components. The remarkable environment of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape was granted World Heritage Site status in 2006, ranking it alongside such treasures as the Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China. If you are sceptical, we can only suggest that before forming a judgement, you view it from a kayak …
Levant Mine, Cornwall
10. Basking Sharks
These massive creatures are increasing in numbers and the odds of meeting them are high in Cornwall. They are the world’s second largest fish, growing to 10 metres in length (your kayak is around 5 metres…). They are harmless plankton feeders, ambling slowly on the surface to filter water through their enormous white mouths, which concertina outwards to twice the diameter of the shark’s body. They are a protected species, so keep your distance. However, they often approach kayaks to investigate. As a seven tonne behemoth slowly glides a few inches beneath your kayak, we guarantee that you will hold your breath for the duration.
Basking shark, Botallack, Cornwall
Q. What is over 30 foot long, has a mouth 6 foot wide, weighs 7 tons, hangs around in groups of up to 20, likes rubbing its snout on 17 foot sea kayaks and is capable of jumping clean out of the water?
A. The world’s second largest fish.