Preseli Challenge – Irish Sea Crossing Record Attempt (1998)
Sean Morley, Jim Morrissey, Ian Wilson (words by Sean)
Four hours gone. I was deep in a tunnel of nausea. The only light was from a distant western horizon. My arms felt so weak I just wanted to stop. I wanted to throw up but I knew if I did I would be in serious trouble. I was somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea. Ahead of me were two good mates who were relying on me to keep going.
How had I got into this mess? I had heard of the Preseli Challenge through my good friend and sea kayak ghuru Rob Feloy, designer of the Inuk sea kayak; ‘a high performance sea kayak’ built by Kirton Kayaks. I rang Nick and Sophie Hurst at Preseli to find out more. Basically the challenge was to break the record for the fastest unsupported crossing of the Irish Sea in single kayaks which stood at 12 hours 45 minutes set by Graham Dore and Alan Chapman from Poole. There was mention of a trophy and £100 of kit for the fastest team each year. The start / finish points were Whitesands Bay, Pembrokeshire and Rosslare Harbour, County Wexford; a straight-line distance of 45 miles complicated by fierce tides in the St. George’s Channel.
The trick was to combine a neap tide with settled weather. I decided to rely on the luck of the Irish so I asked Jim Morrisey to join me on the crossing. A typical Celt living in Galway, Jim is a true gentleman, laid back, full of charm but as tough as they come. He had beaten me in the West Cornwall Sea Kayak Race earlier in the year having also produced an excellent performance in the Devizes to Westminster K1 race. I knew he would be ready for it.
Another guy who is always ‘up for it’ is Ian Wilson. A fellow police officer and kindred spirit, Ian lives life ‘to the max’. Having come a close second in the Western Isles Challenge he was ready for more.
Having discussed plots and tidal streams, waypoints and reciprocals with anyone prepared to listen I did the homework to work out potential start times. I only had one weekend available. It happened to be a neap tide and being the first weekend in August there was a possibility of good weather. I based our predicted paddling speed of 4.5 knots on that maintained by Rob, John and myself on our crossings to and from the Isles of Scilly the previous year which formed the crux of my 413 mile paddle around the South West peninsular. The next problem was where to start from. Because the crossing would take almost a complete tidal cycle to complete it made little difference in that respect. It appeared to be slightly quicker starting from Rosslare but that would mean approaching St. David’s Head and the notorious Bitches Tidal Rapid with tired arms. I decided to postpone a decision on that issue until I had seen a weather forecast.
Having convinced Nick that I had some idea of what I was doing he was very supportive providing us with a campsite and shower facilities at the Preseli Venture base near the village of Mathry. He has an excellent set up with plans for an impressive Dutch Barn next to the existing cottage. The location is perfect for anyone wishing to experience the magic of Pembrokeshire. I arrived with my partner Linda on Thursday afternoon. Linda proved to be the real star of the trip. Nothing was too much trouble – even cooking up a bucket load of pasta in the pouring rain. I collected Jim from the ferry port at Fishguard that evening. On the crossing from Ireland he’d had a sneak preview of what was in store. “Lumpy but definitely paddle-able” was his verdict. Ian arrived late into the night after a nightmare journey from Harlow. Our plan was to do a day trip around Ramsey Island the next day to check kit and settle nerves with a view to making the crossing on the Saturday. It all now relied on the weather.
We met with Barry Scot of H.M. Coastguard the next morning. I think he was impressed with the amount of preparation we had put into the record attempt. He offered to inform the ferry companies and Rosslare radio of our plans. We received a weather fax for Saturday 1st August predicting North Westerly force 4/5 veering Northerly 2/3 by midday. Far from ideal, it would be a close call. We had decided on paddling from Wales to Ireland; this had more to do with the cost of the ferry than any cunning navigational strategy.
We were all keen to get wet. Linda played in the three foot surf at Whitesands on her racing ski whilst us lads went rock-hopping. The tide was slack so the Bitches was flat but once we had rounded the southern tip of Ramsey Island we were into a different world of clapotis, caverns and cathedral-like stacks. A solid swell made going for the marginal gaps risky and exciting. It was the perfect warm up. Ian and Jim looked at home in their Inuks. I was beginning to wish I had spent more time training and less time studying charts. We immediately bonded as a team with just the right amount of healthy competition that was going to be essential if we were to break the record.
That evening it threw it down frustrating Linda’s attempts to create a culinary masterpiece under a makeshift awning. But the wind had eased and our confidence grew, assisted by the inevitable pint at the Farmer’s Arms at Mathry.
It was essential that we left on time from Whitesands the next day to ensure my tidal calculations held true. The alarm was set for 0515hrs. As soon as I awoke I knew that the wind had increased. Despite this there was a professional air about the team as we set about final kit checks. Arriving at Whitesands we were met by Jim’s girlfriend Sarah and her Mum. Goodness knows what time they had got up to have driven down from the Welsh borders to see us off. Jim was able to offload a bit of surplus kit and flutter his Irish flag as we hastily took some departing photos. At 0625hrs I rang Nick at Preseli and the Coastguard and then we were off…
All three of us got drenched by the two foot surf running onto the beach. It awoke us to the fact that this was not going to be a picnic. Conditions were far from perfect as the wind was a solid NW 4/5 as promised. The strong ebbing tide was set south, wanting to take us into the jaws of the Bitches. As soon as we came out of the lee of St. David’s Head we were into a steep chop that made the kayaks shudder as we struggled to maintain any forward momentum. Every other wave came crashing over our heads; it was exciting stuff! We were fresh and committed and enjoying the thrashing, charging into the waves as a threesome. However, our boat speed was down and our speed over the ground even worse. As a result we were being swept much further south than I had anticipated. We passed close to North Bishop – too close. We kept heading up, compensating for the leeway: 305 became 310, then 315. After an hour we stopped briefly to discuss the situation. There was little doubt that if these conditions persisted we would not make it. Our hopes were pinned on the improving forecast. We agreed to continue for another hour and reassess. I felt that once we were away from land the sea would organize itself into a more predictable swell. I was wrong.
After two hours we rafted up intending to discuss our options: carry on or turn back. We were more intent on getting fuel on board. Typical marathon paddlers! Without a word Jim broke away, heading west, heading for home. I guessed we were carrying on! I was impressed not only by Ian and Jim’s commitment to the challenge but also their willingness to put their faith in me. I just hoped that my navigation was up to it. We were putting a lot of trust in the weather forecast but I reckoned that we were fit enough to paddle our way out of trouble if required.
It was after rafting up that things got unpleasant. The seas remained confused and despite the excellent design of the Inuk we were being tossed around by the three foot chop. I started to feel sea sick. It crept insidiously through my soul. I tried to deny its existence but it was there, denying me strength, seeping away my desire to go on. Within an hour I was in a mess. I knew I was slowing the other two down although they did well to make sure I was not left behind. Checking the compass became a chore. I became reliant on the others to steer a true course. I knew if I was actually sick I would lose vital fluids and thus would descend a spiral to disaster. Apart from the odd regurgitation I kept everything on board and Jim and Ian reminded me to drink plenty when we occasionally stopped for a rest.
For three hours I felt horrible. But I knew that turning back was no longer an option. I would feel even worse with a following sea and we had been pushed too far south to have any hope of making it back into Whitesands. The sky had started off pretty much overcast but now there was a definite lightening of the western horizon. The clearer weather took forever to reach us but after five hours conditions definitely started to improve. The sea mellowed and the sun came out. The wind eased and veered as promised. I am sure we all made a silent prayer of ‘Thanks’. Mine was to the ‘Gods’ at the Met Office.
Visibility throughout the trip was quite remarkable. After four hours we could still see the hills above St. David’s behind us. We saw loads of Gannet and Petrels and several Puffin. At some stage we saw what appeared to be a small whale but you will have to forgive me as my recollection of the middle part of the crossing is blurred partly by the sea sickness and partly by having to work bloody hard to keep up with Ian and Jim. We were immensely cheered to see an Irish Ferry and successfully passed our position to them using the hand-held VHF radio. We had two GPS units but neither seemed to function correctly – or was it our brains that had ceased to function? I am not sure.
Having only been out of sight of the Welsh mainland for about an hour the hazy form of Irish mountain tops took shape in front of us. When Jim first pointed to what he believed to be Tuskar Rock I was not convinced. It was a lot further north than it should have been but we knew we had been pushed a long way south. After a while I knew it could not be anything else. At last we had a visual point of reference. I was determined not to head directly for the Rock even though it lay only five nautical miles south east of Greenore Point and the Irish coast. The tide was by now starting to flood into the basin of the Irish Sea from the Atlantic and I wanted to use this to accelerate us north towards our destination. In retrospect I think I had probably underestimated the degree to which the tide around St. David’s Head had carried us south and overestimated the assistance we would receive as we approached Rosslare. I was conscious of the Coastal Pilot’s warnings of over-falls on The Baillies and off Greenore Point. As it was the sea remained tranquil and stubbornly refused to carry us north.
By now I was feeling much better, the sickness dissipating with the realization that we were without doubt going to make it across. The big question now was: How fast were we? We had always been confident of breaking the record because of the inherent speed of the Inuk kayaks we were using. Conditions for the first half of the crossing had been undeniably slow. We now had to make up for lost time. It was warm; I was down to a short sleeved thermal. We pushed the pace, all three of us perfectly matched. The low lying hinterland of Rosslare became dwarfed by the distant mountains. Slowly but surely the definition of the coastline sharpened as we made excellent progress to our goal. The fact that we had been paddling pretty much non-stop for ten hours seemed to have been forgotten as we bashed on past Tuskar Rock, now clear and proud just a mile or so to the north. We passed a group of fishing boats, inspired by their look of surprise as we appeared from nowhere.
I had estimated our crossing time at 10 hours 20 minutes. We were obviously going to be slower that that. Could we make it in less than 11 hours? We pushed as hard as we could, the Inuks really doing their stuff, cleaving through the glassy swells, our wing paddles flinging spray skywards as we devoured mile after mile towards our goal.
As we rounded Greenore Point we entered very shallow water pock-marked with boulders. There was a significant eddy that forced us to hug the shore. We were so tantalizingly close to breaking 11 hours. But it was not to be. As we approached the beach at Rosslare we became aware of a group of people on the beach with balloons and streamers. We had not expected a reception committee. It was Jim’s family, come down to welcome us to Ireland. It was fantastic to see them. We hit the beach at 1731 hrs; a crossing time of 11 hours 6 minutes.
We were delighted of course. But we had little time for celebration. The Lynx ferry that was to take Ian and I back to Fishguard (Wales), which was due to depart in less than an hour, steamed in behind us as we hurriedly sorted our kit for the journey home. We had to ring Nick, get our tickets and somehow get our boats on the ferry. It was a bit of a panic to say the least. After an epic half hour which included a nightmare obstacle course through the terminal building with two loaded sea kayaks we said our farewells to Jim and his family. The trip back to Fishguard was awesome in two respects; firstly the speed of the Lynx catamaran – I wondered if has anyone tried to surf its wake? Secondly, I found it difficult to comprehend that we had just paddled across the same stretch of water. It looked a long, long way. A sense of achievement overcame the exhaustion I felt.
I would like to pay tribute to Ian; only those fortunate to know him well will appreciate how remarkable it is that he can paddle at all, let alone set records in such style, and to Jim; who I am privileged to have paddled with to his homeland.
The Inuk sea kayak is a remarkable craft. Its classic looks belie its speed through the water. It takes everything in its stride and aims to please. Our thanks go to Kirton Kayaks and Rob Feloy for the loan of the boats and various bits of kit.
The record is there to be broken. I am sure Nick will accept any well organised attempts at the Preseli Challenge. Under ten and a half hours is definitely achievable given the right conditions and a fast team in fast boats.
My next challenge would be the ‘Roof of Britain Kayak Expedition’, a circumnavigation of Northern Scotland in June 1999 building up to an attempt to be the first to circumnavigate all the inhabited islands of the British Isles sometime in the future.