“Around the Sharp End”
The South West Peninsular Sea Kayak Challenge
To paddle a sea kayak around the coast of Devon and Cornwall in the fastest possible time. If weather conditions permit to include open-sea crossings to and from and circumnavigations of the Isles of Scilly and Lundy.
To raise money for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary Widows and Orphan’s Fund and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
DAY 1 Saturday 5th July 1997. (46 miles, 8 and a half hours paddling)
The start of my journey was at the end of a good few months of planning. The idea to paddle around the coastline of Devon and Cornwall became more than a pipe dream when I met Rob Feloy and got to paddle the Inuk sea kayak he had designed. I fell in love with the craft, a love affair that was positively encouraged by Rob. He invited me on a trip to South Brittany in May 1996. It was my first experience of real sea kayaking. The other two ‘salties’, John Tipping and Angus Passmore had Inuks too. Despite bad weather we managed to get out to the Iles de Glenan and so discussion naturally came around to plans for a crossing to the Isles of Scilly. Rob had been wanting to do the trip for a number of years but had never had the right conditions. I thought it would be good if I could combine it with a paddle around the whole coastline of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary-the Challenge was set.
It seemed a good idea to get sponsored to do the paddle and since the Widows and Orphan’s Fund was the Chief Constable’s nominated charity for 1997 it was the obvious choice. The R.N.L.I. were another natural choice since I would be asking friends and family unconnected to the police service to raise sponsorship on my behalf.
The first problem I had was that I did not own, nor could I afford to buy a sea kayak. Rob leant me the demo Inuk to do a few races in and it seemed almost as if I could not lose in it. The Inuk is so much faster than the average sea kayak and with a rudder on, its performance is truly remarkable both on flat water and in the roughest sea. The boat was clearly up to the challenge, the real question being, was I?
My preparation was far from ideal. I caught the usual summer virus with less than three weeks to go. I was using rest-days after nights as part of the time off I would need to do the Challenge and I finished nights feeling like death. I was not at all confident that my fitness was good enough. Of course it was far too late to back out and despite some very unseasonal weather in the weeks leading up to the start, the forecast for the first week of the Challenge was excellent.
Having done all my planning in reasonably good time and in some detail – I had sent the Coastguard a route plan with my intended start and finish times and had received an encouraging reply – by the time Saturday 5th July arrived I was just keen to get on with it. I had fully loaded the kayak earlier that week to make sure the thing still floated! Fortunately it did and despite the fact I could literally only just lift it off the ground by myself, once it was on the water and moving there was not that much difference in boat speed. I had all the safety kit I would need thanks to Rob and John’s generosity. They had also given me some guidance with working out tidal flows and plots for the open-sea crossings, but to be honest it all still remains a bit of a mystery to me.
Rob and John would be joining me for the paddle out to the Scillies. They would be using a double sea kayak ‘The Voyager’ which had also been designed by Rob. I arranged to ring Rob when I got down towards Land’s End. We would make a decision on whether we would do the crossing to the Scillies based on the three-day weather forecast. I was taking a handheld VHF and a mobile phone so I could stay in touch with the Coastguard and with my partner Linda who would be manning the phone at home.
I had decided to do the trip unsupported as this would allow me to be totally self-reliant. I would be able to stop when I got tired and not be forced to continue to some pre-arranged RV point. I had food for twelve days and intended to bivvy on whichever beach I found myself on at the end of each day. The prospect of this amount of freedom was exciting in itself. I had decided to start at Lyme Regis and do it that way round simply because it was closer to home and I could get an early start without another night away.
Linda’s parents came with us to see me off and when we arrived at the Cobb at 9.00am I could not believe my luck. The weather was absolutely gorgeous with hardly a cloud in the sky. The sea was as flat as a dab and there wasn’t a breath of wind. A reporter from the Western Morning News met us. Clearly the well-oiled machine of the Force Press Office had done its stuff. The Harbour Master was expecting us, wished me well and offered to radio Portland Coastguard once I had set off which saved me a job. Having posed for a few photos I left the Cobb at 9.34am, remembering to turn right! As I passed across the front of the impressive rampart of the Cobb’s outer sea wall I could see Linda and her parents waving encouragingly.
“LONG STROKES” bellowed across the water – Linda’s dad giving me a last bit of coaching as I glided away.
It soon became clear that my main concern that day was going to be over-heating and de-hydration. My Palm Extreme River Vest soon came off and I was grateful for the High Five hypotonic drink concentrate I had brought with me – I was going to need it. My progress was excellent for the first hour to Beer Head. My Wing paddles were scything through the glazed crystal water and the boat seemed to run effortlessly. From Beer Head I could see Teignmouth about twenty miles away. Visibility was perfect. I headed just south of Teignmouth and soon I was well off-shore. I saw my first Gannet of the trip about a mile off Budleigh Salterton. I was enjoying paddling this familiar stretch of coastline in perfect conditions.
A southerly breeze ruffled the sea off Exmouth and it soon strengthened creating wavelets that grew into an irritating chop that deliberately slapped me in the face every so often. I was beginning to wish I hadn’t cut the corner of the mouth of the Exe quite so much as progress became harder and harder as the boat bounced and lurched towards BabbacombeBay. I had to work hard to get into Babbacombe and it was a timely reminder not to get too over-confident whatever the conditions. Babbacombe is a posers paradise for the nouveau riche of Torquay; speed boats, jet skis, dive boats and four-wheel-drives all made me in my little kayak seem a bit out of place. A quick phone call to the Coastguard (I had left Portland’s area and had entered Brixham’s) and to Linda, a bite to eat and a slurp of juice and I was off again.
Around the stinking Hope’s Nose. With it’s floating sewage debris it is a clear demonstration of our lack of respect for the ocean. Across TorBay and right under the watchful eyes of Brixham Coastguard. Berry Head is spectacular and a favourite paddle of mine. The sea- bird life is unexpected for somewhere so close to the English Riviera. I gave the cliffs a wide berth so as to cause minimum disturbance. The tide had by this time turned against me and I was getting tired. Rounding Scabbacombe Head took ages but I finally saw the Mew Stone that signified the entrance to Dartmouth. The tide was doing all sorts in the mouth of the river. I dashed across without much of a glance at what has to be one of the loveliest ports in Britain. Indeed the DartRiver itself is rare in that it is virtually unspoilt from source to sea. I hope all the plastic rock bashers out there realize what a precious resource it is.
I had set Stoke Flemming as my target for the day. Blackpool Sands is misnamed. It is in fact a gorgeous golden sandy beach that was going to prove to be the perfect bed for my first night. I had arranged to meet a friend Ian Wilson here and sure enough no sooner had I unloaded the boat than Ian strolled down the beach to greet me. Ian is a policeman in Harlow and an all round action-man. I had raced against him a few times but I always had the advantage of the Inuk. He had asked to join me with a friend for a bit of the Challenge and I was delighted to see him. We arranged to leave at 8.00am the next morning and he went off to enjoy a pub meal. I wasn’t jealous because I had a pot load of pasta and the best view of StartBay you could wish for.
DAY 2 Sunday 6th July 1997. (57 miles, 10 and a half hours paddling)
Another glorious morning. Having slept reasonably well for my first night in the open I thought I’d sneak around the corner of the cliffs to do what you must. A peregrine falcon shrieked her indignation at the fact that I was using her gully as a loo. She then proceeded to fly around telling everyone what I was up to. My breakfast of porridge made with water was made edible by the sultanas I had added. Right on the dot Ian and his mate Pete turned up and we set off in perfect conditions across Start Bay. The lighthouse at Start Point was brilliant white in the early morning sunlight. The stretch of coast from Start to Prawle Point is really special. Clearly that is what a couple we caught lovemaking on a rocky ledge thought. Ian’s shouts were enough to put anyone off! There was a classic natural arch at Prawle Point that proved an irresistible challenge despite the fact that if I did hit rocks with my fully loaded kayak it could prove disastrous. Boys will play!
Pete left us to go into Salcombe. He was not as paddle-fit as Ian and I and had enjoyed the bit he had done. The pace quickened and the tide was really flowing now. Ian did well in his Baidarka against my Inuk and in no time at all we were passing Hope Cove and onto the beach at Bigbury-on-Sea. This is the venue for the Inuk Sea Kayak Race that Rob and I are holding on Saturday 27th September 1997. I would hope we will get a bit more of a sea running for that event – but not too big, please.
I was just under half-way to Looe, my target for the day and it was only 12.30pm. The temptation of a pasty and a piece of lemon cake from the beach cafe proved too much. I was conscious that the tide was at full flow in my favour so I didn’t want to waste too much time. I was just saying cheerio to Ian when Dave Grover, police diver and member of Bantham Surf Life Saving Club ran past in his skimpy red speedos looking every bit like one of the Baywatch crew. He had just swam across the bay from Bantham – hard core!
Ian shook me by the hand and at the same time heaved me seawards – he’s a damn good bloke and a kindred spirit. I certainly hope to paddle with him again. The next stretch to Stoke Point was fast, the pasty and cake settling nicely. All the way to the Great Mew Stone I was flying. I stopped on a little beach bar to rest my bum ignoring the M.O.D. signs warning of live firing. I reckoned if it was safe for the gulls and cormorants it was safe for me too. And then the bit I had not been looking forward to. Across Plymouth Sound against the tide to Rame Head. I had been expecting a bit of a battle but I was able to follow a curious eddy line that weaved its way into the lee of Penlee Point. Indeed there was so much to look at in the Sound; the usual armada of small boats, the impressive breakwater with its fortress, the historical skyline of Plymouth and Dartmoor looming to the North East, before I knew it I was rounding Rame. I had been able to see it’s distinctive outline from Bolt Tail. It had seemed so far away. I could’nt really believe I was there already.
Rounding Rame Head against the tide was tough going and once into WhitsandBay progress was slow. I could not really make out LooeIsland and spent a frustrating hour trying to decide where my destination was. I landed on a beach near Portwrinkle, aptly named because as soon as I got out of my boat I realized that dotted around the beach were large flabby men displaying everything they had (not)! One of them wandered over looking at me with a strange arrogance. I decided that perhaps I didn’t really need a rest after all.
I found the only boat wash of the whole trip past Downderry. Only trouble was I could paddle faster without it. I rode the wash as a matter of principle for about five hundred metres but then got bored and over took it. At last I came into Looe. I had never been to Looe before and did not really know what to expect. I had initially planned to go up the river a little way just to explore. I was very hot and very tired so instead I landed on the beach at East Looe and walked into town in search of water and a phone. It was 6.00pm and I had been paddling for 9 hours. As I walked along the quayside I saw that the tidal flow up the river was a good three knots. If I had decided to paddle up the river I would have really struggled to get back out to sea-good move! Looe is a happening little place with river launches and fishing boats all competing for attention. I had decided I needed a wide brimmed hat as the sun was beginning to really burn my neck despite the cream I was using and the high neck of my rash vest. I found just the job for £6 and it soon became one of my favourite possessions. I also succumbed to the all pervading smell of fish and chips and troughed-out on the sea wall enjoying the evening sun.
Having got my water for that night’s stop I paddled on towards Polperro. The rest had done me good and although I was still paddling against the tide I made good progress past Polperro and around Pencarrow Head. I finally decided to call it a day as the sun disappeared behind the cliffs. I slid into Lansallos Cove meeting my first seal, a big grey, just around the corner. Well, if it was a good enough home for him then it would be good enough for me for a night. As I grated up the beach I had a sudden shiver attack. A combination of a sudden drop in temperature and too much sun. As quickly as I could I got unloaded and put on my fleece lined salopettes. They had been a first prize at the inaugural Plymouth Sound Sea Kayak Race and I have never won a more useful prize – thank you Andy!
Whilst dinner bubbled away I had a shower in a waterfall nearby. Essence of Freisan I think, but it was still cleaner than I was! The sun was still warming the hill tops behind so I scrambled up what I thought was a path which wasn’t and slid all the way back down again. I gave up and pitched the tent. A cool breeze coming off the sea made me happy to get tucked up for the night.
DAY 3 Monday 7th July 1997. (50 miles,12 and a half hours paddling)
Destination the Lizard today. Again the distance seemed daunting. I grew up on the south coast of Cornwall and I knew how far it was to the Lizard from where I was now and it did not seem possible that I was going to paddle it in one day. I got underway by 7.45am. It was a journey of memories past Lantic Bay where I used to bring groups on YHA holidays. Past the mouth of the Fowey on which I did most of my training to get to the Junior Sprint World Champs. Past the mystical Polridmouth and Mennabily and the benign giant day mark on Gribben Head that always features in my childhood memories. Across St. Austell Bay the sea was glassy smooth. I cut straight from the Gribben towards Dobman Point and soon I was a long way out. But it was all right because my Mum would be watching from the Carlyon Bay Hotel where I knew she was working that morning.
Missing Chapel Point and Mevagissey I came into picture perfect Gorran Haven for a bum stop and to ring the Coastguard (I had left Brixham’s area and had entered Falmouth’s). I remembered a good cake shop that was still there and so were the cakes. An iced Chelsea and a custard doughnut later and I was off, fully charged! Past VaultBeach where I brought Adey, my mate from college and his girlfriend only to find the beach was naturist – when in Rome…!
Rounding Dobman Point was a big moment in the trip for me. It had dominated the western horizon for so long and it was good to get it behind me. I remember one sea trip I did as a kid in G.P. slaloms when it took nearly an hour to get around the headland against the wind. This time I cruised past in minutes and quickly bore down on Nare Head and the huge Gull Rock. There is an excellent slot in the cliff face of Nare Head and I recall on the same trip Nigel Braddon getting slammed into the slot head first by a freak swell. He snapped his paddles and had to C1 back to Portloe.
From Nare Head to St. Anthony’s was good hard graft churning out the miles west. As I came onto the beach below the lighthouse I disturbed a pair of Peregrines who hurled abuse at me, the ’emmet’ from the east. St. Anthony’s is the eastern gateway to Carrick Roads one of the biggest inland harbours in the world and certainly under-valued by successions of local and national government. I blasted across without so much as second glance at the beautiful HelfordRiver. That was the downside to this trip – not enough opportunity to explore. By the Manacles the tide had turned but there was no sea running at all. I kept in close but it was still hard going. Coverack looked lovely and Black Head remarkably similar to it’s namesake in St. Austell Bay, but more beautiful. As I came onto a beach at Beagles Point the water had become that unique turquoise that told me I was really down west.
I had hoped for an anti-clockwise current in behind the Lizard but I could not find it. I had planned on stopping for the night on Kennack Sands but the beach was still busy and I didn’t fancy it. I pulled into Cadgwith, a timeless, rare piece of old Cornwall. There was no possibility of sleeping on the beach- it was full of fishing boats. I rang the Coastguard to let them know how far I had got, filled my water bag and purchased a bar of chocolate – naughty! I paddled off towards the Lizard looking for a suitable spot to kip. There wasn’t anywhere and before I knew it I was underneath the most southerly lighthouse on mainland Britain. A quick photo and then up the eddies. Now it may seem daft to try to go around the Lizard against the tide but I am not famous for my common sense. Indeed I enjoyed the challenge despite the fact I had been paddling for over 10 hours. I met a couple of seals – I would have been disappointed not to. At one point I really had to turn on the power to get through an upstream gate. It was like a giant slalom course but the Inuk was more than a match for it.
I have seen postcards of Kynance Cove but never visited before. It is another magical place with huge cliffs, stacks and caves with golden sand and deep clear emerald waters. I found a little peice of beach linking the mainland to a rock island. If the tide did’nt cover it then it would be a perfect spot to stay the night. I wanted to catch the shipping forecast so I landed and enjoyed some tortilla chips with a spicy Mexican salsa dip that I had been saving for just such a moment. It was bliss but sadly my intended bed was gradually being eroded by the incoming tide and I was forced to carry on. Past Mullion and still nowhere seemed to fit the bill. I really had to dig in as the swell had increased now that I was west of the Lizard. Past Mullion with the tide ripping through the gap between the harbour and the island. I was shattered and not before time I found the perfect spot; Church Cove with its – church (well chapel actually)! I picked the middle of the beach and took up residence receiving curious looks from the evening strollers. I rang Linda using the mobile – as clear as a bell. I was already missing her a lot – it would be good to do this again with her, but perhaps not in quite such a hurry.
DAY 4 Tuesday 8th July 1997. (27 miles,6 hours paddling)
This was a day I had been looking forward to. To Land’s End. The name still conjures up a certain magical feeling of daring and romance, of myths and legends about wreckers and smugglers. The Penwith Peninsular is the essence of Cornwall for me.
I awoke to a thick sea mist that had soaked everything whilst I slept. It was only a short day today made shorter by last night’s efforts. I could relax and really enjoy it. To give my kit a chance to dry out I had a lazy breakfast and soon enough the sun burnt through. It promised to be another scorcher. I was so pleased with my new hat. Made me look quite dashing you know; a cross between Indiana Jones and Captain Pugwash! I rang the Coastguard on the mobile and then Rob. We decided on Sennen Cove as the RV point. The three-day forecast was looking good apart from fog patches. They were definitely coming down and if the crossing wasn’t on then they would paddle with me as far as St. Ives.
I got going for 9.30am – what a slacker! I was off the sea-fortresss of Porthleven by 10.30am. I was at Porthleven the day after it was besieged and battered by the worst storm in living memory. The remaining ground swell was still at least 15 feet on that most famous of reefs. I have never surfed Porthleven, although I remember watching Minnow Green and NeilPeak shred it and get my ultimate respect. I cherish the memories of my three years living in Cornwall surfing my wave-ski every day that there was surf and often twice if I could. Living in a tent at Gwithian through the summers, in my van or in digs through the winter, with my mad dog Skeg. Funny though, I’m more content now; good job, nice house, smart car and the perfect woman. I guess these are the sorts of thoughts that go through your mind when you’re alone at sea.
A rescue helicopter from RAF Culdrose was doing exercises in the bay. Now that is a job I wouldn’t have minded doing. Having spent at least half an hour doing precision hovers over the cliffs and sea the pilot must have decided he had had enough of that and went blatting up the coast banking steeply to follow the line of the land. About a mile from me it did a 180 degree turn and came hurtling towards me like a scene out of Airwolf. It could only have been ten metres above me and to the side when the pilot banked the aircraft such that I could literally see him grinning from ear to ear. He gave me a mock salute and I returned it with a salute any Traffic cop would have been proud of. I shouted with excitement as the machine thundered past just above my head. What a buzz! I was laughing to myself for miles after.
Mount’s Bay was beautiful. The only marks on the surface of the water were behind me as my wash fanned out to the side. I kept a lookout for dolphins-I always see dolphins in Mount’s Bay, but not this time. I tracked straight from Cudden Point across to Mousehole on the same course that we would have raced this year in the West Cornwall Sea Kayak Experience if conditions had allowed. Instead we had to do two laps from PenzanceHarbour to St. Michael’s Mount and back which was hard enough for everyone. I was beating the skis on the outward leg but couldn’t surf the easterly swell as fast as my mate (and Adonis of the Beach) Simon Lawrence.
The tide was sweeping through Mount’s Bay carrying me west and south past Mousehole and into Lamorna Cove for an ice cream. Sat on the Harbour wall I watched as the cove filled and emptied, busy with sports divers coming and going on their rubber boats with their fancy kit and peroxide girlfriends. I returned to my simple kayak. I was now entering the mystical zone of crystal waters and pink granite rock sculptures. I do not have the vocabulary to describe the beauty of this land. Someone once described Cornwall as an ugly picture in a beautiful frame – I do not entirely agree – you have to see it for yourself and believe me there is no better way than by sea kayak. I found hidden, forgotten coves untouched and naked. Even the famous Porthcurno beach was as beautiful as the postcards suggest as it bathed under the fiery opal sea burning under the midsummer sun.
I had the best seat in the house as I passed the Minack Theatre. A tide race was bubbling away off Gwennap Head but I was safe on the inside as I admired the cathedrals of rock and strained to see rock climbers like Lycra clad gargoyles dangling on gossamer threads of kermantle. Alongside me, the climbers were being watched by an audience of seals, perhaps envious of their agility on the rock. A case of the grass is greener….as one flashed underneath my kayak.
Rounding Gwennap the sea was starting to move, as the oceans mixed. I could not see Longships and I couldn’t really work out why. A thick haze that had lined the western horizon was starting to shift eerily. I realized that there was a fog bank running down the NorthCoast. No major cause for concern today but it did not look hopeful for tomorrows crossing to the Scillies. As I got within half a mile of Land’s End, the hotel a beacon in the gloom, suddenly Longships appeared defiantly out of the swirling fog and its horn sounded jubilantly. Within ten minutes and before I got there, the fog had gone, retreating out to sea, waiting for another day. Land’s End as a landscape feature remains unspoilt despite the best attempts of some notorious entrepreneurs. Indeed I would like to think that the drama and significance of the place is just as important now as it was when the first explorers left it to starboard on their journeys into the unknown.
Through a couple of upstream gates and I had turned the corner on my way North. Surely I wouldn’t be lucky enough to do the crossing tomorrow. I would be disappointed but then Rob has been trying for nearly twenty years and has never had it right. Into Sennen the crescent beach was still really busy – it was only 4.00pm. I stayed clear of the flags marking the bathing area and then surfed a two footer onto the sand. Time for a spot of sunbathing but first I had to make a spectacle of myself by dragging the boat up the beach as far as I could and unloading my belongings. Asking a wrinkled old man, who had obviously taken no notice whatsoever of the warnings about too much UV, to look after my stuff I went off down the beach to use the phone. On speaking to the Coastguard I mentioned my concerns about the fog for the crossing. I was concerned about us not hitting the Scillies. He was concerned about something hitting us! You have to cross two shipping lanes to get there and he reminded me that we were far too small to show on any radar. I rang Rob in a bit of a panic. Rob, calm as always, talked it through. As long as visibility was a couple of miles it would be okay. If it was too bad then we would just carry on up the NorthCoast and all I would have lost was about 4 hours that evening and a couple the following morning. They hoped to meet me at 10.00am.
I had a very pleasant afternoon frying in the sun, listening to music. My Sports Sony Walkman had survived the trip so far. As evening came the beach was still busy. I plodded up the sandy hill at the back of the beach intending to get sufficient height so that I could use my mobile. I met a slow worm on his way down for a dip. I guess he used a belly board. I had dinner watching the surf which had increased with the incoming tide. It crashed onto the beach just a few metres from where I sat above the high water mark. Back-lit by the setting sun it was a special moment. People stopped and just watched the natural light display, bathing in the tranquillity, going home richer for it.
I was just settling down for the night tucked up like a chrysalis in my Gore-Tex bivvy bag when a woman’s face appeared from nowhere. Would I like to join her for some roast lamb? Well I’ve never heard it called that before! She explained that her boyfriend who I had been chatting to earlier in the evening had sent her down to invite me to dinner. She must have known I would refuse because she had brought down a bottle of Stella Artois just in case. I could have hugged her! I supped it whilst completing my diary and the unaccustomed alcohol put me to sleep very quickly.
DAY 5 Wednesday 9th July 1997 (32 miles, 6 hours paddling)
I awoke a few times during the night, my subconscious mind needing to check for the fog. It remained clear and the stars were fantastic as was the crescent moon that rose slowly from an Atlantic horizon that still glowed at midnight.
I caught the Shipping Forecast just before 6.00am. Sounded good – the crossing could be on! I had a breakfast of chicken noodles. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I pottered about waiting for John and Rob to arrive and with perfect timing just as I had pulled my kayak up on the beach inside the tiny harbour Rob’s bus came bouncing around the corner. The Voyager double sea kayak looked huge, like an aircraft fuselage. It was great to see them and they were both in great spirits although I sensed Rob was a little tense. His natural selection as navigator/expedition leader putting an extra burden on his shoulders. I was just there to enjoy the ride! I rang the Coastguard to let them know our ETA for St. Martins, Isles of Scilly. I am not sure the woman on the other end of the phone realised we were doing the crossing in kayaks.
We left the harbour at 10.36am, and rapidly bore down on Longships the tide surging southwards, boiling on the outer reefs despite the lack of swell. 285 degrees from Longships and soon we had passed the point of no return. We had the helicopters and planes to reassure us that we were at least heading in roughly the right direction. Visibility was superb. No sign of fog. We had a following sea which was almost enough to get the Inuk planing on the odd one. Rob played with his GPS and told us we were doing six knots! We had to modify our course slightly due to our better than expected speed. We passed a bouy that was fighting to remain on the surface due to the fast flowing current. A timely reminder of speed of the tide and the necessity to get it right. The increasingly sloppy following sea made it difficult to steer a true course and we took it in turns to lead. John and Rob looked really strong as I sat on their stern wash. My right elbow which had started to ache the previous day became really quite sore as I was forced to make constant adjustments to my heading. Storm Petrels in groups of two or three fluttered past like large moths. Manx Shearwaters came to see what we were doing, Gannets continued to search for fish ignoring our passage beneath. Seven Stones Lightship was visible and audible to starboard. Its horn reminding us that the fog wasn’t far away.
It was very hot. The slight breeze was on our backs, the sweat was dripping off my nose, as I struggled to keep up with the lads, following them like a faithful puppy. Every so often I would find a wave and with a sudden burst of speed I could shoot past them but the effort required was taking its toll and I was needing a rest. Having crossed the first of the shipping lanes into the separation zone we had a breather. A chance to sit and contemplate the fact that the only thing separating us from a lot of ocean were a few rocky islands somewhere in the distance. A fishing boat gave us an encouraging ‘toot, toot’ and we set off again. We were just losing sight of the mainland which was remarkable since we had been paddling for nearly three hours when I thought I could see something on the horizon at 240 degrees. Sure enough, slowly but surely the smudged outline of the Scillies appeared. Looking over my shoulder I could still just see the mainland. The incredible visibility was something I had not expected. Bearing in mind the Isles of Scilly lie twenty eight miles off Land’s End and the true horizon when you are sat in a kayak is only about four miles, to see both at the same time was amazing.
My confidence soared although I never doubted Rob’s ability to get us there. The St. Martins day mark soon became distinguishable and we pointed just north of it. I was getting really tired now. My elbow was starting to lock up and John reminded me to rotate more to take the pressure off it. Ever so slowly now the islands started to fill the horizon. We decided to make our landfall on the northern side of St. Martins and now the race was on to get there, fast! We could see a strip of golden beach beckoning to us and my bottom yearned for the moment when I could stand on dry land. We finally entered the island system and Rob called me over to use the VHF to inform the Coastguard of our arrival. A husky woman’s voice acknowledged us. We passed the St. Martins day mark at 3.12pm. A crossing time of 4 hours 36 minutes. A record? Who knows? Who cares?
We landed on a deserted beach strewn with rock and weed and a fair collection of flotsam and jetsam. The fact that we had arrived in the Scillies, by kayak, started to sink in as we climbed the hill to find John’s favourite Tea Shop. The view was breathtaking. I knew I was going to like the Scillies – everyone told me I would. Places given that much hype rarely live up to your expectations but the Scillies did. The thousands of islands and rocky outcrops were laid out before me like a map. The turquoise water matched by a perfect sky. As we strolled along the lane we passed little cottages with gardens the like of which I have only seen in the tropical house at Kew. Huge succulents and wonderful flowers dominated by dark green palms all growing as if we were a thousand miles further south.
Sadly the tea shop had just closed and I felt guilty for having dithered about on the way over. We found a post office and I sent postcards to Dom and Liz and Mum. I got directions to the one public phone on the island and rang Linda. I was starting to feel guilty now. What had set out to be a test of endurance was turning out to be a bit of a holiday and poor Linda was stuck at school with a PTA meeting that evening. I tried not to sound too enthusiastic about it all and promised to bring her to the islands one day soon. We wandered back to where we had left the kayaks on the beach. There is virtually no crime on the Scillies – my kind of place. A fair breeze had set in and the lads decided to try out their sailing rig. I tried not to laugh as they put the thing up. Two paddle shaft masts and about 12 foot of sail on each, the schooner rig was remarkably effective and I got some great shots as they sailed past. I was much quicker without a sail but we were in no rush.
We were on Scillies time now – about a third slower than mainland time. We drifted over reefs through the myriad of channels as we rounded St. Martin’s and went on past Tresco. Our destination was Bryher. Rob has a friend there who he wanted to see. As we approached Bryher a beautiful day boat approached us and I sat on its wash chatting to the father and son crew. It turns out that the boat was built by Rob’s friend. It’s a Plymouth Pilot with a wooden mast and gaff rig. It blended in perfectly with the island sea-scape. It seemed to sail well too. Arriving on Bryher, Rob disappeared off to find his mate Barry. He came back without him – apparently he was out sailing. We got our kit sorted and then Barry showed up. Straight away you know he’s a sound guy. Quitely unassuming but clearly no fool. He runs a moderately successful boatyard which he subsidises with sailing instruction, a water taxi service, bed and breakfast accommodation as well as being one of the island’s fireman. I got the impression there wasn’t much occurring on the island that he didn’t have a hand in. He has built a large house that has a granite tor as a back garden and a view of the channel between Bryher and Tresco that is worth millions.
We arranged to meet up later and tottered off to find the campsite loaded up with kit. I needed two trips. The campsite is just up the hill from the Fraggle Rock Cafe which is a strange little place. Bizarrely there was a young rock group all set up under a small marquee in the garden and as I erected my tent and got the dinner on I enjoyed their warm up routine. Once fed we went back down to Barry’s place and enjoyed some home-made apple pie. Barry and his wife looked shattered – must be a hard life on the Scillies. I listened as the lads talked boats, soaking up the atmosphere of the place. We managed to persuade Barry to come for a beer at the Fraggle. The band were excellent and the place was happening. The beer at £2 a pint was flowing down nicely replacing the fluid I had lost during the days exertions-or so I told myself. Three pints later and the balmy evening was just starting to chill. There wasn’t much room inside the pub so we headed back to the campsite a merry threesome. The RoundIsland lighthouse we had paddled past earlier in the day was sweeping the night sky. John said you could see 7 lighthouses from the top of Watch Hill above the campsite. Well that had to be seen so we staggered up through the gorse using my failing mini-Maglite to shine the way. From the top we could see Bishop’s Rock, Seven Stones, St. Mary’s and of course RoundIsland. We could not see Longships or Wolf Rock. Apparently it is possible to see Godrevy if you are really lucky.
DAY 6 Thursday 10th July 1997. (23 miles, 6 hours paddling)
I awoke in time for the shipping forecast. North Easterly 3-4, good visibility. Ideal.
I took a walk up Watch Hill leaving Rob asleep. I had let him kip in my tent because theirs was so tiny and they are both well over six foot. The view was wonderful but I had forgotten to bring my diary so I strolled back down to collect it and walked up the hill on the other side. The peace and solitude of the place I will keep with me for a long time. I sat with the sun on my back on a cushion of heather looking west towards America.
The weather changed at about 10.30am. Without any announcement clouds came scuttling across the sky and an Easterly breeze whipped down the channel. Within ten minutes the day had changed dramatically. Rob had discovered that the forward hatch on the Voyager had not been glassed in and decided that it was better to be safe than sorry especially if the crossing back to the mainland was going to be into a head wind. Whilst he got covered in resin John and I went off to the post office/shop and purchased some milk and other treats.
It was midday by the time we got paddling. Again the effect of Scilly time. We set off round the back of Bryher and found a bit of swell off this most exposed of coasts. The depth plummets to 80 metres close off-shore. The rock sculptures were as beautiful as those on the Penwith Peninsular. The granite a slightly coarser, darker hue. The weather had really closed in and the strong south easterly wind made any open stretches hard work. The forecast had been almost completely wrong and I was getting increasingly worried about our chances of making it back to the mainland the next day. Not only would it be costly going back on the Scillonian but it would also be effectively the end of my Challenge. We passed Samson paddling south to St. Agnes. I was feeling strong but I could see Rob was not enjoying it that much. I wanted to do a circumnavigation of the inhabited islands. I’m not sure Rob understood why. They decided to land on St. Agnes and find a tea shop whilst I paddled round. That suited me and having rapidly scoffed my lunch before I got too cold I set off doing the island in a clockwise direction to gain maximum advantage from the lee shore. Around the north of Gugh it was pretty lumpy and I was grateful to turn south and run with the sea. I blasted down the back of the island scaring a seal as I surfed past. In 50 minutes I was back at the harbour to see John and Rob coming back to their boat. Rob wanted to see another friend who had a boat yard near Hughtown on St. Mary’s so again we split up and I headed off towards Peninnis Point on my continued circumnavigation. It was a real battle to get to the Point and as I struggled past the clapotis got scary. Hidden reefs were causing the swell to collapse unexpectedly and a couple of times I found myself bracing onto a wall of foam rushing shorewards. It was by far the most exciting bit of paddling so far and I was very conscious that a mistake would have been disastrous. I was confident of my ability to roll as long as I held onto my paddles. Rounding the northern corner of the island I got a couple of excellent surfs down St. Mary’s Road.
I soon met the lads coming the other way and we discussed where we were going to spend the night. We needed the maximum head start we could give ourselves if we were going to make it back against this wind. We opted for the Eastern Isles. As there would be no water on the islands I landed on St. Mary’s and ran up the hill to find somewhere to fill my bag. I found a development of smart studio flats overlooking St. Mary’s Road. Nice. I knocked on the door of one and a young boy answered. I must have looked like some sort of alien being from a watery planet in another universe. I asked his dad for some water and whilst I was waiting I chatted to the boy and his younger sister as if they got visitors like me all the time.
We crossed the channel to the Eastern Isles passing several seals bottling – sleeping upright with their heads just above the water. We found the perfect stop. A rocky beach we immediately named SealBay after the resident pair that came over to greet their new arrivals. We sat and had dinner protected from the wind watching the seals watching us, chatting about trips in the past and future. It was Rob’s birthday and that morning a fellow camper had given me the remains of his bottle of vodka because he couldn’t fit it in his trunk. We toasted Rob and then stuck a message in the empty bottle addressed to Barry. Rob planned to drop it into the sea a mile off-shore the next day. Rob listened to the shipping forecast which was marginal. We would just have to wait and see what the morning would bring.
DAY 7 Friday 11th July 1997. (64 miles, 13 hours paddling)
I didn’t sleep well, whether it was the flysheet rattling in the wind, or the uncertainty of tomorrow’s outcome I don’t know. I must have drifted off eventually because I was woken by my watch alarm at 4.15am. Silence. I couldn’t even hear the sea which should have been smashing itself to bits on the eastern shore of the island like it had been the previous night. I hurriedly got up. No wind, no waves, no fog, just a spooky calm. Visibility wasn’t brilliant but it was good enough. I am not a religious person but I thanked whoever was responsible.
After making porridge – with milk this morning, we were on the water just before 6.00am. We passed a gang of seals on the outer rocks at 6.04am. We did not expect to beat our outward time but it gives you something to go for. There was a slight south easterly breeze and a short undulating swell, just enough to lift the bow of the kayak and give you a false impression of speed. We kept sight of the Eastern Isles for 40 minutes but then we were on our own, no sign of anything. Our course was 100 degrees. It was much easier to hold a good track going into the swell. The sky started to clear and the first helicopter buzzed overhead. This was going to be a long hard slog but I felt strong after two relatively short days so I led the pace, the guys ever consistent, staying with me. Across the shipping lanes, we were passed astern by a yacht heading up the Bristol Channel. I still hadn’t had a decent wash to ride. The wash off the double sea kayak was probably quite good on flat water but at sea it was almost impossible to find. The best position was directly behind but my bow was very close to taking off their rudder if I tried that.
Three hours hard graft and still no sign of land. We passed through the last shipping lane before taking a rest. As we sat rafted up scoffing the last of John’s apricots discussing what distance we could see to our horizon I suddenly caught a glimpse of a tiny vertical line no longer than a centimetre on the horizon directly off our bow. Rob confirmed it, Longships bang on the nose! We congratulated Rob on his excellent navigation. He said it wasn’t difficult, especially with GPS, but I know without his and John’s experience it would have been many more years before I would have had the confidence to do the trip. Now we could see Longships and what was essentially the end for the lads, they turned up the pace and I was forced to sit on their stern. It took forever for Longships to grow in size. Even the Shearwaters and Petrels couldn’t take my mind off the fact that the longer we were out here the more the tide was turning against us. I remembered the tide trying to drown that bouy on the way out. Could we paddle against that sort of flow and hope to make any progress? The consequences of getting washed southwards and not being able to make it to the mainland didn’t bear thinking about. I guess we would have just kept paddling until the tide turned again and brought us back but that would mean a long, long paddle!
About a mile from Longships a solitary Puffin flew past heading due south to catch up with his buddies. We continued to close on the lighthouse but despite the fact we were paddling pretty much flat out it didn’t seem to be getting much closer. We knew our timings were tight and the tide would be getting stronger and stronger, but we had left half an hour early and our speed on the return crossing, although not as fast as on the outward leg, was still in excess of 5 knots. As we eventually got within a few hundred metres of the reef we could see that the tide had indeed turned against us. It was was creating a large eddy behind the main rock so we aimed for it and took a short rest being careful not to get too close – the westerly ground swell that had increased during the crossing was surging up the rock several metres and it would have been easy to get caught out. We couldn’t afford to stay too long; things were only going to get worse the longer we rested there. We struck out around the northern end of the reef, Sennen Cove visible now. It was a major ferry glide which would have been hard if we had been fresh, after 4 and a half hours of solid effort it was a bit much. Rob used his GPS to full advantage tracking their progress to ensure they paddled the shortest distance. I got swept down a little and had to really dig in to stay with them. My inexperience showing, not for the first time. We came through the Tribbens, the gap between Cowloe Reef and the mainland, the tide flowing like a river over the shallows.
And then it was all over. Into the sanctuary of the tiny harbour at 10.48am. A return crossing of 4 hours 44minutes. In my mind a greater achievement than the faster outward leg. The paddling had been harder and for over three and a half hours we had not been able to see land. I congratulated John and Rob on their excellent navigation and thanked them both numerous times. We were all really tired but very, very pleased with ourselves!
Having radioed the Coastguard I helped the lads up the slope with their boat – I thought mine was heavy! I went off to buy a pasty and a cream cake whilst the lads sorted out their gear. I bumped into one of the crew of the Sennen Lifeboat.
“You made it back then?” As if that was ever in doubt?
After a milkshake sat in the sun overlooking the beach it was time for goodbyes, John and Rob had a long drive ahead of them, I had an even longer paddle. I had planned to rest for a few hours at Sennen to allow the tide to turn in my favour but I reckoned that any progress I made would be a bonus so I decided to crack on. I think both of them would have liked to have done the trip all the way round. It reminded me of how fortunate I was. After several more thank you’s I left the harbour once again, this time going north.
It had turned into a beautiful day. A south westerly breeze, that had been forecasted, arrived and I could not have asked for more perfect conditions to do the next stretch. The NorthCoast at last! Without fear of ridicule I believe I can say that the paddle from Sennen Cove to St. Ives is one of the classic sea paddles. Very achievable in most kayaks in a day, it has everything; danger, drama, history, wildlife, solitude, what more do you want? I had expected a bit of tide against me around CapeCornwall but it was negligible. It was starting to get lumpy past Botallack. The daring and tenacity of the mine engineers apparent as waves crashed up against the engine houses built at the very foot of the granite cliffs.
The tide was much more noticeable around Pendeen. CapeCornwall had obviously been in a bit of an eddy. Having struggled to paddle up a tongue of fast flowing water I took a rest on a tiny beach below the lighthouse. Stupidly I had neglected to refill my water bottles at Sennen so I walked up to the lighthouse to see if I could scrounge some drinking water. By this time I was starting to look a bit of a mess. I had had a shower and a shave at the campsite on Bryher but this had only increased the rate at which my skin was falling off my face and arms due to sunburn. I wandered into the lighthouse where an old boy was conducting a guided tour of the pristine engine room. I couldn’t help laughing at the looks I got from the family of tourists who obviously thought I was an unattractive version of the ‘man from Atlantis’.
I continued on, the south westerly wind negating for the most part the effects of the opposing tide. The lack of suitable places to land even a small kayak make this a very committing stretch of coast, but the scenery with the towering granite cliffs and huge tors behind is so spectacular that I was sorry to reach Clodgy Point and Porthmeor Beach. A pit stop, bum rest and off again. Every mile now was a bonus. I had only planned on getting to St. Ives that day. If I could put a few miles in the bank it could pay off in the days to come.
The familiar sight of GodrevyIsland with its friendly lighthouse was so welcome. It’s image is imprinted on my soul. When I day dream about Cornwall (which I do regularly) it is that panoramic view of St. Ives Bay with Godrevy and Red River at one end and the Island of St. Ives and Hayle River Mouth at the other that is the image I see. By now the tide had turned in my favour, it was nearly 7.00pm and the miles were flowing steadily by. Past Portreath, home to the best pasties in the world – had the shop been open I would have been forced to stop. I was really tired now, I had been in the boat for twelve hours and if I didn’t stop soon then I would be in no fit state to paddle the next day. I had decided on Penhale Sands as my destination. It should be quiet with three miles of beach to choose from. Although I had friends at the Surf Club at Perranporth I did not have the energy or desire to socialise that evening. I just wanted to eat and sleep. Getting to Penhale was not easy, I was getting desperately tired but I had to get around St. Agnes Head. The Beacon dominates the landscape and I had never paddled around it. It was pretty imposing and the sea fairly lumpy. Although I was never going to capsize, stability strokes were really tiring.
Finally I came towards the beach choosing my landfall. A ski went past on my left, I was too tired to look to see who it was. I had not predicted the size of the surf. It was a good 4 feet and I was in no mood for it. The break was packed with surfers lined up expectantly. Clearly a bigger set was due. I waited and sure enough a solid 5 feet came through. This was going to be tricky. I had a fully laden kayak, a 10 litre bag of water loose in the bottom, my arms were ready to drop off and somehow I had to get in through this surf. There was no way I could go on, I was too tired, it was too late and in any case there was nowhere better for several miles. I went for it on one of the smaller waves. I suddenly remembered why Penhale was one of my favourite surf spots. The wave is so sucky and tends to bowl up creating excellent opportunities for aerials. I wasn’t looking for air on this occasion. I sprinted as if my life depended on it managing to stay ahead of the wave as it broke. The white water exploded on my back deck and suddenly I was upside down. I do not know how or why but I was. I had to roll! I could not even consider getting out. The problem was the water bag was now between my knees and lying on the upturned deck. I had to roll against it but my wings found no purchase on the tumbling froth. Back under I went. It had to be this time. I shifted my hands down the paddle shaft to give myself some extra leverage. It worked! I was upright and gasping for air. My bow was still pointing towards the beach so I just let the next wall of white water carry me shoreward. I suddenly realized that I had lost my hat. Idiot! I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid that I had forgotten to take it off before attempting to come in. Oh well! There was no chance of finding it now. The other fact I knew from surfing at Penhale was that the rip suction was tremendous and my hat would be long gone. Annoyed with myself for capsizing and for losing my hat my mood was not improved when I discovered how far I was going to have to drag the boat. The tide was still well out and I had to drag and carry the boat several hundred metres to get it above the High Water mark. By the time I had done all this it was late. I should have rung the Coastguard at 8.00pm it was now gone 8.30. I dug out the mobile from it’s dry bag and set off up the huge dune hill that backs onto the beach. Reception was okay and I got through. What was my destination tomorrow? “Bude”, I said. I had paddled 64 miles that day from the Isles of Scilly to past Perranporth. Could I do the same tomorrow? If I did manage it then I would be almost a day ahead of schedule. The prospect of finishing a day early was something I didn’t dare to think about before. It would mean I would have a day to recover before going back to work and that alone was sufficient motivation. The prospect of seeing Linda a day early was also something to keep me going!
After scoffing a bucket load of pasta I climbed the dune hill again getting a certain amount of pleasure in using my legs again. I rang Linda and gave her the news. It all depended on the weather and how fit I remained. I would be pushing myself to the very limit and it wasn’t going to take much more for my body to break down on me. I bedded down as the last surfer left the water and climbed the dune.
DAY 8 Saturday 12th July 1997. (64 miles, 12and a half hours paddling)
I awoke at 5.00am. I didn’t feel too bad considering I had been going a week now and had not slept much more than 6 hours during any night. I listened to the shipping forecast before carrying the boat the three hundred metres or so to the waters edge. Force 3 to 4 southerly was ideal. South westerly would have been better but I really couldn’t complain. I had to time it right to get out through the surf, which was still around four feet. As I pushed through the walls of soup the white water threatened to rip off my deck bag. Finally my opportunity came. I pulled hard, my sore hands protesting. After the first day my hands hadn’t been too bad. Any blisters that had developed had been kept clean by the salt water and had soon hardened off. Due to the extra mileage the day before my hands were sore that morning and they never really recovered from then on.
My shoulders too were very stiff and my technique was pitiful as I paddled past the few surfers who had made it for a dawn patrol. I saw a couple of Sandwich Terns as I neared the end of PerranBay. Indeed the sea-bird life around Penhale Point and HolywellBay was prolific. Guillemots and Razor Bills, Fulmars and Kittiwakes. As I passed the Bowgie Inn above Crantock more childhood memories came flooding back of wild nights as a sixth- former bopping the night away to the latest surf rock; INXS, U2, Simple Minds – still my favourites. Past FistralBeach the venue for the 1989 World Waveski Championships where I first surfed for England coming a lowly 31st. But I bought the World Champion Reece Duncan’s ski and his Brand X Paddles. From then on at least I couldn’t blame my kit.
From Towan Head I took a straight line to Park Head, the southerly wind on my starboard beam. By occasionally bearing away I kept my boat speed up and the miles started to be eaten up. The wind was a good Force 4 and the tops were getting blown off the waves. I was probably making six knots and bearing down rapidly on Trevose Head. I needed a break before I tackled the headland so I tucked into a small cove before Treyarnon. It was much cooler today and for the first time on the trip it actually rained a thin drizzle whilst I stood under the shelter of a rock eating yet another muesli bar. I had purchased 40 muesli bars for the trip. The girl at the checkout must have thought I was very odd! I can now report that by far the tastiest are Kelloggs Nutri-grain, although I didn’t fancy the strawberry. Second to them I favoured Tesco’s own brand roast nut chewy bars. I have to say I got sick to death of Jordan’s Frusili bars – far too sweet. The High Five Blackberry and Apple hypotonic drink not only lasted the trip but I could also get it down without retching which is more than I can say for any other brand I have used.
Refuelled I made good progress past Trevose and across the mouth of the Camel Estuary to Pentire Point. The short stretch of coast between Pentire Point and Rumps Point is well worth a visit and is a pleasant walk, run or paddle from Polzeath. There are sheer walls of rock 200 feet high which must make excellent climbing. I stopped for lunch at Port Isaac finding an excellent bun shop. Why do they always put iced buns in paper bags? Do they not realize the icing sticks? I had my photo taken sat on an anchor on the slipway. I got into conversation with a middle-aged German guy who said he used to paddle racing kayaks when he was younger. I told him I raced too but I’m not sure he understood. I rang Linda because I knew she was going out that evening. I was feeling exhausted and emotional. I was missing her much more than I had expected and to be honest I was getting to a point when I was going to be glad when the journey was over. With the deterioration in the weather I had to start considering whether I would get out to Lundy. I discussed this with her and I think we both knew that I could be pushing my luck if I chanced it. I told her I would base my decision on the shipping forecast that evening and that I would ring her parents to let them know what I was going to do.
I pushed on. I had stopped far longer in Port Isaac than I had anticipated and now I needed to make some time up. I could not have asked for a more favourable wind for the next stretch. I got blasted up to Tintagel Head. Old King Arthur knew a thing or two about property development. They say the most important things to consider when buying a property are position, position, position. Well he got that bit right. He might have benefitted from a better survey but maybe he didn’t want the neighbours to come across his land bridge visiting all the time! The huge buttress of rock the castle is built on will withstand many more gales yet I think. I couldn’t really see Boscastle it is so tucked away, which is a shame because I understand it is lovely. The next piece of coastline is rarely visited which is understandable because it is so inaccessible but is a shame because I think, in its own way it is spectacular. The cliffs are huge and reminded me of the naked geology of Morocco. The anti-clines and synclines are exposed for all to see. The bedding planes, some around 4 foot thick have been stripped by the ocean leaving them smooth and exposed like gigantic frozen waves. A monument to the power of plate tectonics. The reefs march out to see in orderly lines to do battle with the ocean swell. At a famous secret spot the result is a perfect left-hander that is the jealously guarded possession of a few locals.
I had considered Bude as my final destination for the day. I got there at 6.00pm. The surf was big and I really didn’t fancy another capsize. I had no choice. I was very tired, the weather was deteriorating all the time but I had to go on. It was very nearly the wrong decision.
I put on my personal stereo to try to take away the tiredness by allowing me to think about something else. For the next hour I had the bizarre experience of listening to a phone-in on Radio 5 Live all about cricket with Geoffrey Boycott, whilst I surfed the increasingly bigger swells up towards Hartland Point. It did the trick. I focussed on the often inane conversation and forgot about the fact that unless I could get in at Hartland Quay then I would have to paddle around Hartland Point in near darkness. There was literally nowhere else to get out. The swell had increased to well over six foot and if I had managed to get ashore without smashing up on the thousands of reefs along this formidable shore then the chances of me getting off again the next morning were very slim indeed. I pinned all my hopes on Hartland Quay. I had been there once and seemed to recall it was fairly sheltered. But that had been a long time ago. A rain squall that had been following me for ages finally looked as if it was going to envelop me in its greyness. It was now approaching 8.30pm and the light was failing fast.
Suddenly I was able to see the gap between the reefs that was the entrance to the Quay. I surfed my final swell just as the squall hit. But I was out of danger and “Yes!”, I could get out without breaking my boat. I was very pleased with myself but I knew it had been a close call. As quickly as I could I got the boat above the High Water mark on the flagstone slipway and then ran up the hill past the hotel to look for a phone. There wasn’t one so I used the VHF to call the Coastguard. I had missed the weather forecast but even so I knew that unless there was a dramatic improvement in the weather I was too tired to risk a crossing to Lundy the next day. I rang Linda’s parents to let them know the score. Clive, as usual, was reassuring and enthusiastic.
I found the ideal bed, a little breeze block shelter that had probably housed a winch or something once. It was just big enough for me to stretch out in. I spread my kit out to dry, wherever I made my camp ended up looking like a Chinese laundry. The rain squall had passed and a glorious sunset was developing. I had no idea that Hartland Quay was such a busy place. I guess with the hotel just up the hill the tourists were coming down for a last romantic look at the setting sun. Instead they got to see me and my paraphernalia strewn about the place. But no one seemed to mind, indeed a few were curious enough to ask how far I had come and where I was heading. Some were disbelieving, others had already made up their minds that I was clearly mad and best left alone. It was soon dark and despite the hard concrete bed I was soon asleep.
DAY 9 Sunday 13th July 1997. (50 miles, 9 hours of paddling)
Westerly 4 to 5, gusting 6 in Lundy, showers, moderate visibility, poor in the showers. Even if I had been fresh there is no way I would have gone out to Lundy on a forecast like that by myself. The decision was taken for me.
I radioed the Coastguard, I would be completing my challenge today, destination Porlock Weir, ETA 1600hrs.
I was underway by 6.30am. The swell was still large but the wind had yet to increase. I rounded Hartland Quay mindful of the off-lying reefs which caused the swell to collapse without warning. It would have been seriously dodgy to have attempted it the previous night and I thanked my Guardian Angel for looking after me once again. At first I had in mind to hug the coast in as far as Clovelly before heading across BidefordBay. However my impatience got the better of me and I decided to head direct to Baggy Point some thirteen miles away. In any case I didn’t want to get anywhere near Bideford Bar. There was certainly no danger of that now as I was soon several miles from any land. The Fulmars and Manx Shearwaters that had become my only friends accompanied me on my crossing. Again I had put on my personal stereo and listened to the morning’s debates to take my mind off the pain. I was hurting now. My hands were raw, I had several large blisters that refused to harden off. My shoulders, especially my deltoids were very tender. My back, where it had inevitably rubbed against the back strap, had large sores across it. At least the sunburn on my face and arms had had a chance to cool down the day before. But perhaps the biggest casualty was my will-power. I’d had enough now and I wanted to stop.
I refused to feel sorry for myself. I had been so impressed by the video diary of Richard Goss when he sailed around the world single-handed around the world. He too had refused to feel sorry for himself despite the weeks of total solitude, the sensory depravation that weeks at sea out of sight of land must cause, despite having to perform surgery on his own arm. Now that was courage and I found strength from those thoughts. Passing Saunton Sands and CroydeBay where I now do most of my surfing in my ‘Whip-it’ play boat I was soon bouncing about off Baggy Point. If it was this big here how big would it have been off Surf Point on Lundy? Satisfied I had made the right decision I surfed across MorteBay past Woolacombe to Morte Point. Now the swell was really big, by far the biggest of the trip so far and I managed to surf a wave for 50 metres or more. The sea fisherman must have thought I was raving mad as I careered past Bull Point, almost totally out of control. But I knew then that as far as swell went, that was it. There would be no more. It was now all up to me. What’s more I had no tide left either.
I grunted into Ilfracombe. I had been paddling for 5 and a half hours without a break. But I knew now I would finish. Even the notorious tide of the Bristol Channel which I would have to paddle against all the way to Porlock would not stop me finishing today. In bullish mood I rang Linda to advise her of my ETA for the finish. I told her 3.00pm. I would learn to regret that. Ilfracombe is the worst of the worst. The shrieking music of a fairground ride assaulted my ears. I queued with the brummies and scousers for a coke and a King Size Snickers. I couldn’t leave soon enough. By Combe Martin the tide had clearly turned and from then on I hugged the rocky shore, sneaking between the rocks, sliding unnoticed under the cliffs like the SBS (yeah right!). The lads and I had done the paddle from Combe Martin to Lynmouth before but even though I knew what to expect the grandeur of the cliffs took my breath away. They rise sheer for over 1000 metres. Tiny gullies allow luxuriant growth in the most unlikely of places. The cliffs are only broken at Heddon’s Mouth. A special place. A huge pebble from the shore gives the frogs in my pond at home something to sit on. Woody Bay is exclusive, the hotel perched way, way up is the only building that can be seen from sea level. The trees somehow defy gravity clinging to the near vertical slopes and the mist that seems a permanent feature of the upper slopes gives it the feel of a tropical rainforest. Only the masses of Guillemots and Razor Bills nesting on the cliffs reminded me that I was at sea.
I had suggested to Linda that she could bring her parents to Lynmouth for a walk and they would be able to see me paddle past at about 2.00pm. Well I wasn’t far wrong as I came around the corner twenty minutes late. I could see plenty of people on the sea front, but none were waving enthusiastically. No sign of Linda at all. Feeling a bit disappointed at the anti-climax I carried on towards Foreland Point. This huge promontory had dominated the view east for some time. For some reason I had got it into my head that Porlock Weir was just around the corner. Sure the Devon – Somerset border and the technical finish of the Challenge wasn’t far but my actual destination was still some 8 miles away. Those 8 miles were along perhaps the most unusual piece of coast of the whole trip. The massive hill that is Exmoor’s sea wall is covered in thick forest that tumbles in a tangled mess right down to the waters edge. It looked just like some tropical Treasure Island. At any moment I expected a spear throwing cannibal to emerge from the undergrowth to try to take me alive. Well I had lost several pounds during this journey and I think I would have been a bit of a disappointment to them.
The tide was still flowing hard against me and I was having to keep within a few feet of the shore. I nearly said bank because this area of the Bristol Channel does start to feel more and more like a river. Curtains of rain were sweeping down the hillside although none had reached me. I kept thinking I could see the end only to round another bend and find the coast stretch away without a break as far as I could see. Forever is a long word but it did seem like an interminable time before I made out a familiar figure high up on a rocky beach. I would recognise those legs anywhere! When the man she was stood by started waving his brolly – the rain had finally caught me up – then I knew it was them. I could not help but grin from ear to ear as Linda skipped down the beach towards me. She wore her little blue and white shorts – a sight for sore eyes I can tell you! I had done a recce to Porlock Weir and there was a tiny cutting through the high rock beach into a harbour of sorts but I was unsure whether there would be enough water to allow me to float in. There wasn’t. I passed the sticks marking the entrance to the harbour at 4.11pm.
Apart from a clench of the fist I made no other attempt at celebration. I was more concerned about how and where I was going to get out. The falling tide had exposed something I had not encountered before. Mud. Glorious Bristol Channel mud. So instead of a band playing and bottles of Champagne I had the pleasure of dragging and carrying my kayak up and across the mud and rock in the pouring rain. Poor Linda was soaked but nothing seems to dampen her spirits when she has set her mind on being happy. It was good to see her parents too and I was grateful of their support. I got changed as quickly as I could in the public lavatory and had just a few moments to reflect on what I had achieved. It was an inauspicious end to what had been by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life (and I’ve done a few crazy things). But it didn’t matter a bit. I had done it. I had paddled around the South West Peninsular and I knew that anyone who tried to repeat the Challenge would have a hard job matching the speed with which I got around. Not because I am some sort of superhuman – far from it. I had just been so incredibly lucky with the weather, I had the background in marathon racing and I had the best boat. The Inuk had done everything I had asked of it. So if you fancy the Challenge then go for it. In approximately 84 hours of paddling over 9 days I had completed 413 miles, an average speed of nearly 5 miles an hour. I saw 24 lighthouses and ate 36 muesli bars!
I must thank the following people without whose assistance the trip would not have been possible; Robin Feloy, designer extraordinaire, for the loan of the kayak and his guidance and support; John Tipping for his advice and enthusiasm; A & S Watersports for the loan of a pair of split paddles and their help and support; Kirton Kayaks, builders of the finest racing kayaks in the world for their support over many years and finally, Linda whose love, patience and sense of humour I cherish and could not live without.