Swim around Anglesey: Part 1

In early 2012, late one evening in our local pub, I agreed with my mate John Jackson that we would attempt to swim around the island of Anglesey. We had no business making this plan; our open water adventures had been limited to explorations of various bays and headlands of the island, never swimming for more than an hour’s duration. We were not trained swimmers with a competitive background, but simply enjoyed occasional open water swimming adventures. We certainly had no reason to assume that we could swim for 120km through the tidal waters of the Irish Sea!

Nevertheless, we committed to the plan, gave ourselves half a year to prepare – in which we swam endless laps of Llanberis’ Llyn Padarn – and found reasons to pursue our project. John and I each selected a charity for which we would seek to raise funds: McMillans Cancer Support and Sands Stillbirth & Neonatal Death charity. We also aimed to raise funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute – just in case we needed a rescue! These commitments, and the public awareness they brought, kept us in training when distractions tried to dictate otherwise.


By late summer we felt as ready as we could be; thankfully, as our chosen departure date of 31 August was fast approaching. We had agreed to a set of principles that we would follow during the swim:

  • Each swim session would start / end on dry land
  • Each session would start at the exact place the previous session ended
  • We would be accompanied by safety kayakers, with no power craft assistance
  • We would accept support – navigation, food, water – from kayakers
  • We would not make physical contact with kayaks while in the water
  • We would wear wetsuits, for cold protection and flotation

We benefited from the support of numerous safety kayakers: Chris Wright, Greer Mackenzie, Eila Wilkinson, Nigel Dennis, Sid Sinfield, Marcus Demuth, John Willacy, Barry Shaw.

A special acknowledgement goes to Matt Giblin, who accompanied us for our entire 4-day journey – as a support kayaker, driver, film maker and constant source of good humour. Matt, you’re the hero of this tale…

The Swim Day 1: Rhoscolyn to Point Lynas

Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: light N wind in the morning with clear skies; moderate SW wind in the afternoon, rain and poor visibility 

We woke at 3.30am to find that Matt had arrived in the night and was now snoring on the sofa. Breakfast was a hurried affair as we focused on making our arrival at Rhoscolyn by 5am. Following a speedy drive up the A55, we busied ourselves with preparations in the pre-dawn gloom. Weather conditions felt calm. There was a slight delay preparing kayaks and camera gear, but we were in the water by 0540, within ten minutes of our target departure time. We swam through the narrow north entrance of the bay, into Rhoscolyn Sound and turned north west for Rhoscolyn Head. Dawn was breaking as we headed for the rocky islets off Rhoscolyn Head, with light in the sky to the east as Trearddur Bay opened up on our right hand side.

John led the way, about fifty metres ahead of me with Chris alongside him, as we began the first offshore leg towards the tide race at Penrhyn Mawr. Matt and Greer – in the double sea kayak – patrolled between us, filming and taking photos. John had clearly been impatient to get started, the months of training and anticipation now being channelled into a hard swimming pace. I knew we could swim at around 3km/h for long periods, but this felt faster and I found myself breathing hard with the exertion. Thankfully, Chris’ red paddling jacket was a bright target each time I sighted and I seemed to be maintaining my position behind John.

In the early gloom, navigation was not so easy and on a couple of occasions Matt and Greer signalled me to turn a little more west to avoid the slacker water inside the bay. We passed close to Maen Piscar, a little rocky half-tide spike that sits on the direct route between the headlands. As it loomed up in the grey dawn light, I realised I was directly up-tide of the obstruction and had to swim hard left to avoid surfing over its shallow reefs. Narrowly avoiding an ‘upstream pin’ for the team to deal with, I swam on – cursing my usual early morning lethargy. Still, it was good to see the flood tide already assisting our progress north west.

One hour into the swim, the kayak team stopped us for our first food & drink break. A swig of water, a munch on an energy bar and we were off again, Chris informing us that Penrhyn Mawr lay about ten minutes ahead. Once again, John powered away and I focused on keeping with him as we swam towards our first major headland. Chris stopped us after a short while to announce that we were directly upstream of the outer tide race and that, with a light north breeze after the previous day’s heavy winds, the approaching race looked choppy but manageable. Good job, we thought – there was no escaping it now! We agreed to stay closer together, as Chris shaped a course into the waves while Matt tried to film us as we swam through the occasionally breaking crests. Penrhyn Mawr ticked off, it was now 0645, 1 hour 15 minutes into the swim.

The next 45 minutes was a blur of wave trains, green water, frequent missed breaths and three-dimensional churning in a weightless environment. Afterwards, I recalled sighting the bay at Abraham’s Bosom, the cliffs of South Stack, its lighthouse as we passed about 500m offshore, and Chris’ red jacket – bouncing through the waves, always about fifty metres ahead of me. I didn’t remember much else, other than the constant effort of maintaining an effective stroke, and by the time Chris stopped us about 500m west of North Stack (2 hours elapsed swim time), I was feeling pretty sea sick. It was a struggle to down any water or food. As we set off again I focused on spotting the distant outline of Holyhead Breakwater to my right, now lit up by the early morning sun, to give me a reference point and to stave off the feelings of nausea.

Carmel Head, our next target at the north side of Holyhead Bay, was clearly visible with the Skerries islands also in view to the north west. This marked our first big open water crossing, a direct line 10km across the bay with the flood tide now taking us rapidly away from Holy Island. We were confident that our early arrival at North Stack would allow us to cross the Holyhead-Dublin ferry route before any morning traffic; even so, it was a relief to see the Irish ferry clear the breakwater ten minutes after we had passed the danger zone. Although the sea state had settled we now felt very committed, as our next realistic landing point would be Carmel Head itself – a remote sight from our sea-level perspective.

Three hours into the swim we stopped again for a feed and a review. Matt and Greer had done a good job of preventing me veering inshore and John and I were delighted at our excellent progress. My seasickness had abated, we were at well into our crossing of Holyhead Bay and, despite Chris’ concern that we were a little too far inshore, we felt well on track to reach the north coast of Anglesey in our first session. My remaining issue was that my body temperature was starting to dip, the combined effect of the thinner neoprene ‘swimming suits’ that we wore and the expenditure of energy from 3 hours’ hard work. At this point, Chris did an excellent job of maintaining momentum, cajoling us to get our heads down and swim for Carmel Head without any further delay.

We cracked on, as West Mouse came into view and became our next target. For a while we enjoyed sighting Carmel Head and The Skerries on alternate breaths as we swam through the Sound. We knew that this would be a critical decision point and my sea kayaking knowledge of the area told me that shaping an accurate course towards our next target would be vital. A large eddy forms on the north coast, east of Carmel Head on the flooding tide; swimming into this zone could prematurely end our first session. With this in mind, we passed just offshore of West Mouse to make best use of the now-decreasing flood tide.

Shortly after this waypoint, we passed the 4-hour mark and stopped to make a decision. It was clear that our original target of Cemaes Bay was out of reach; we would not have enough time to swim the remaining distance before the ebb tide began. It was vital that we were off the water before HW slack. We were also now in unfamiliar territory: the maximum training swim for John or me had been four hours; the remaining distance would be a new experience for us. We agreed to shape a course for Cemlyn Bay, a few kilometres away and close enough for us to feel confident of reaching our target. The only other realistic option was to swim due south for a kilometre to reach the nearest point of land. This would take us into the west-flowing eddy however, and possibly take us back to Carmel Head before we could make landfall.

I had been feeling cold for about an hour, had missed a proper feed due to my earlier nausea and knew that I had expended far more energy during the last four hours than in any previous training swim. The solution was obvious and urgent: knuckle down, focus on good technique and get to shore in the least time possible. We aimed for the enormous outline of the Wylfa nuclear power station for about twenty minutes, then headed further south for the now-visible low lying rocks of Cemlyn Bay. The green navigational mark of Harry Furlong’s buoy was a useful position line as we neared shore.

It was apparent that John had begun to suffer during the final period of the swim session; I started to pull away from him and was a couple of hundred metres ahead as we closed the coastline. Chris paddled alongside him, and as Greer and Matt reached shore to film the arrival, I made a beeline for their beached kayak.

I staggered ashore on the shingle beach about 100m west of Cemlyn Rocks at 1025, 4 hours and 45 minutes after entering the water at Rhoscolyn. For the final half hour I had been aware of my increasing cold and tiredness, but was nevertheless startled to discover the extent of my condition once I reached the beach. Standing was difficult, my sense of balance had almost entirely gone, I was shaking uncontrollably and was struggling to speak in proper sentences. Greer rushed to clothe me in my down jacket and waterproofs, while Matt filmed the scene with obvious satisfaction.

I sat on the beach, hands shaking so much that I couldn’t keep the hot tea in its mug, and watched with detached interest as John’s arrival also revealed his obvious distress. He appeared colder than me, had to be helped from the water by Chris, and could barely speak. Somewhere in the last 30km of water we had lost a great deal of energy – energy we would need to find again before the next swim session, later in the day.

As our warming bodies slowly returned to life a bunch of friends and well wishers arrived, including Megan who showed up with an enormous saucepan full of high-carb pasta in a spicy sauce. I’ve never been so pleased to see her!

Out of our wetsuits and wrapped in warm clothing, eating food and drinking tea, I was surprised by how quickly we seemed to recover from the previous five hours of hard work. There was none of the muscular exhaustion I would expect from a comparable run, and as we ate I felt energy returning to my body. We had work to do, however, and as we prepared to make the journey back to Rhoscolyn by road, I noticed an underlying fatigue. It was hard to focus on tasks and decisions and as the afternoon wore on, I began to feel a little unwell, rather cold and very anxious about the evening swim session. By the time we had arranged vehicles on the north coast, there was only about 90 minutes remaining before we had to immerse ourselves once more in the Irish Sea. I lay in the back of John’s van trying to sleep, cursing the energy lost during the previous day and the mere four hours’ sleep that had preceded our first big swim.

Thankfully, the arrival of Nigel and Eila – our support kayakers for the evening session – brought Eila’s beaming smile and Nigel’s wry amusement at our idiotic adventure. Bailing out was not an option, and the grim task of climbing back into wetsuits was further lightened by Matt’s banter. We took fewer chances with the cold water, switching to our warmer surfing wetsuits.

The weather had deteriorated during the afternoon, the SW Force 3 bringing poor visibility and rain. We waded back into the water from the same spot we had arrived at seven hours earlier and began to swim. Our plan was to use the flood tide to swim the rest of the north coast to Point Lynas, a distance of about 15km and – we estimated – a swim time of about two and a half hours. We began at 1840, about one hour after LW slack on the north coast. Once again John set off like a train, as if the efforts of the morning had never occurred. I chased after him, quickly warming up and forgetting my fatigue for a while. Nigel and Eila did a great job of flanking us, ensuring we stayed on a good course past Wylfa Head and towards Middle Mouse. Pausing on the 1-hour mark just past Llanlleiana Head, we reviewed our position, agreed that we were making fine progress and hoped to reach Point Lynas before darkness arrived.

The pace had been pretty fast since leaving the beach and I suggested to John that we swim alongside each other for the remainder of the evening swim. His reply, that he had been ‘stopping and waiting’ for me, was of course much appreciated and helped me to rediscover my enthusiasm for the challenge! As Nigel paddled off, laughing, I decided to remember the moment and save it for later in the trip.

We swam on along the north coast past Cemaes Bay, Bull Bay, and Amlwch. We were much closer to the shore on this leg than during the morning swim from Rhoscolyn and I found it satisfying to tick off familiar landmarks as the flood tide swept us east along the coast. As we neared Anglesey’s north east corner, Nigel and Eila began to shape a course to bring us to the entrance of Porth Eilan, the small bay just under the headland of Point Lynas. They gauged it perfectly and, as darkness fell, we made landfall at 2050 – 2 hours 10 minutes after getting in the water.

Although extremely tired, we felt an elation and euphoria at having reached this point. Seven hours of constant swimming, across two sessions, had brought us to our hoped-for finish point for day one, 45km from Rhoscolyn. We had rounded five major headlands, completed the first big open water crossing, dealt with the biggest tide races and had got the project off to a flying start.

Set against this, it was now after 9pm, we had a vehicle to collect before driving home, food to eat and recovery was needed for the next day. The journey home took us back to Cemlyn then finally across the island to my home in Felinheli. By the time we were lying in our beds it was midnight, over twenty hours since the day had started. Our alarms were set for 5am, as we needed to be back in the water for the start of the next flood tide. I immediately fell asleep, the excitement of our first day’s success already replaced by the anxiety of tomorrow’s challenges.

Advertisements

Chile white water adventures

For a few years I’ve had the privilege of coaching at the Simposio de Kayak Pacifico del Sur, near Valdivia in Chile. It’s a great event with fantastic organisers – and best of all, they invite us to stay and explore this amazing South American country!

In 2015 I spent a couple of weeks in the Pucon area of Chile’s aptly-named Rios Region, white water kayaking with Kate, Roger and Christian. Late November is a fantastic time to be there, with moderate-high river levels, warm temperatures and no crowds.

We kicked off the adventure with a visit to Puesco Fest, a celebration of Mapuche culture, local music and white water paddling at an idyllic venue close to the Argentinian border. After our weekend of partying we moved on to Pucon, where we paddled a few of the local classics. A road trip also took us further afield in this region blessed with white water gems.

Rio Trancura

As an occasional white water paddler, this combination of rivers created a perfect week of exciting Chilean challenge – highlights included the pool-drop rapids of the Trancura, the high volume tiderace-style waves of the San Pedro, the express-train speed of the Fuy and – jewel in the crown – the steep boulder garden canyons of the Maichin.

As a sea kayak coach in the tide races of Anglesey North Wales, I often use psychological strategies to assist my clients in more challenging conditions. Progressive practice, goal setting, focusing attention, positive self-talk – all help in situations where anxiety can affect performance. In Chile, the boot was on the other foot! I frequently found myself displaying the responses that I sometimes see in my clients…

It is said that we coach best what we most need to know – well, I really needed to know a few coping strategies during my white water week in Chile. Most useful was ‘Yes or No’ – the information on graded river sections was broad-brush and vague, so rather than rely on guidebook numbers, I simply inspected the rapids where necessary and made my own decisions.

This was particularly useful at ‘Last Laugh’ on the Upper Trancura, which our local paddling buddy ran with style. I was tempted but could see that the rapid was a step up from anything I’d taken on that week and was running at a high level. The line looked feasible for me, but a cross-seam move early in the sequence looked very missable (for me!). I didn’t fancy the consequences, and so I walked. I found it very useful to apply the distinction between ‘technical challenge’ and ‘consequence’, two rather different elements that sometimes get treated as one, with unhelpful results.

On the Rio Maichin we enjoyed low-volume technical class IV paddling in a wonderful gorge setting. As the gradient increased we inspected the crux rapid of the run, a bouldery line with a twisting drop halfway down the steep section. Checking out the options, I accepted that I wanted to run the rapid, knew I was able – but found my anxiety levels increasing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I needed to apply a couple of coping strategies – first, a careful inspection of the line to identify visual markers that would help me with the key section. I took a broad-external focus to the easier water above and below, trusting that my boating skills would suffice. Where it mattered, I zoomed in to a narrow-external focus to check the exact speed / direction of the water, spotting rock / wave markers to aid my positioning in the rapid.

I also ‘chunked’ the rapid, targeting a river-left eddy that I could confidently make, just above the hard section. This allowed me to simplify the task, rather than dealing with the entire run as one long challenge. A bit of goal-setting, if you like.

I also used some positive self-talk (broad-internal), attuned to my physical responses, relaxed my muscles and reduced my breathing rate (narrow-internal), followed my usual routine before leaving the top eddy – and focused on the moment. I got the line, needed to roll after the steep drop, but made the bottom eddy – and felt great!

The locals styled it and made it look easy – but that’s the point of mental training. The level of challenge was higher for me, so the steps I took to prepare were suited to me in the moment.

Our time on the Chilean rivers was fantastic – I love the rewards that white water kayaking brings. I paddled in excellent company and thank Kate, Roger and Christian for the time we spent together.

Rio Trancura

Ben May and ‘little John’ of Kayak Chile were our excellent outfitters in Pucon and were fantastic, hospitable hosts, full of useful information and great fun to spend time around. If you’re planning a trip to this part of Chile, look no further for advice, boat rental, shuttles and much more.

My biggest thanks go to Pueblitos Expediciones of Valdivia, organisers of the Simposio de Kayak Pacifico Sur – without whose invitation and friendship I would never have returned to Chile for such wonderful adventures. Muchas gracias mi hermanos!

Wild BC sea kayak: Bella Bella to Port Hardy

In July 2015 Kate and I explored the remote British Columbia coastline north of Vancouver Island, between Bella Bella and Port Hardy. It was a fantastic trip, as the images show. We covered 160 miles in 8 days, including three 30-mile days, back to back, to make the most of the conditions. Despite a forecast for strong winds we enjoyed sunshine and light following winds for much of the trip, all in an almost entirely-unpopulated wild corner of the Pacific North West.

Highlights?
Paddling the outer coast, including a trip down the west side of Calvert Island. Camping with wolves on Goose Island. Dodging waves as we escaped Wolf Cove. Solitary campsites among huge driftwood logs. Forested ocean shores. Paddling through classic BC coastal fog to Vancouver Island.

Sometimes, a paddling trip is just that – a chance for renewal, to breathe fresh air, sleep under starlit skies, to ride wind and tide towards our destination. All cliches for a great reason…

Wild BC sea kayak: Okisollo

Our BC tide race tour now took us to Quadra Island, home to Surge Narrows and Okisollo tidal rapids. From our camp next to Surge’s playful eddy lines, we paddled north to Okisollo, a 2-hour trip to reach the fabled venue.

This was a more complex wave than Skook, demanding a ferry out to access the steep section, with a bowl to surf, a shoulder to fall off – and the occasional wave face collapse. On a small spring tide, the power of the feature was less violent than Skook, though still a challenge to surf well.

I watched as Kate shredded the wave, paddling with an elegance befitting this west coast surf girl.

With more surfable time during the tidal phase, I relaxed into the Okisollo experience more than at Skook. Time on the wave face felt smoother, less tense, with more fluent transitions between moves. Rides began to flow, with more precision and less energy lost to fighting the wave.

I noticed that the balance between contact and pressure inside the boat was more suited to the clean waves at Oki. Too much tension creates a loss of fine tuning, with gross movements from edge to edge, rather than a smooth adjustment of hull shape. My Oki moves felt more fluid than the more edgy, hesitant weight shifts I made at Skook.

I also felt more ‘ahead’ of events at Okisollo. Looking at the two clips, I lead with my head more on the latter day. At each venue I rotate my upper body fully into the desired move – an ingrained foundation skill for me – but my head position is better at Oki. At Skook I was often bow-watching, rather than focusing on where I would be in a few seconds’ time.

My sense of – and response to – position on the wave is also better at Okisollo. In the trough or high on the face – each time my posture and weight shifts are suitable and well-timed. At Skook, I sometimes found myself down in the trough of the wave without arc or momentum to climb back up the face – behind the curve, late to the party.

Finally, my stroke linking and blade placement is cleaner and better-timed at Oki. I felt far more blade pressure at Skook, combined with occasionally-messy blade entries.

Why?
I was more relaxed at Oki. My fourth day on BC tide races, I was more in tune with the at first-unfamiliar kayak and paddle (excellent kit! Thank you Kate / JF for the Sterling / Saltwood set-up!)

I was also more up to speed with these fast glassy BC tide race waves. Much of my UK tide race paddling is at exposed headlands, where eddy lines are messy and waves break unpredictably. It’s a different challenge. I felt, at Okisollo, that I was ahead of the game at last.

I also took a more pro-active, dynamic approach at Oki. I decided my desired boat position and took action. At Skook I was a little uncertain, wary of the wave and tended to respond – rather than shape events. As a result, my surfing at Skook was less fluent.

I know this because I took time to reflect, watch the footage and compare. I’m stoked (as they say in these parts) to get back to Skook and step up! Remember, we can all be our own best coach. Watch, focus, do, reflect, plan, set goals, go paddle, repeat…


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/138688782″>Nick Okisollo</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/kayakessentials”>Kayak Essentials</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Wild BC sea kayak: Skookumchuck

Last summer I took a trip to the famous British Columbia tide races. Traveling with Kate, we visited three classic venues: Skookumchuck, Surge Narrows and Okisollo.

Driving north from Vancouver, we took the Sunshine Coast ferry and drove to Egmont, camping close to Sechelt inlet, home of the famous surfable standing wave known simply as ‘Skook’.

A new venue for me, I was keen to get afloat and curious to witness the large spring tides coinciding with our visit, guessing that the exceptional conditions would simply create more exciting surfing. Kate advised me that a 10-knot tide was ideal for long boats, while our sessions would encounter 16-knot speeds. It all sounded great, to this naive Brit visitor at least.

We paddled a few km to a spur of rock, the submerged ledge of which creates the Skook surf wave. Arriving at LW slack, we enjoyed mellow surfing as the wave gradually developed. Within 30 minutes we were blessed with a 20-metre wide face of ever-steepening green water, becoming more dynamic with the passing minutes.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 21.10.34

In a borrowed Sterling Reflection my only view was the deepening trough upstream of the wave face, dominated by a huge green slab of water pouring over the rock ledge. I was looking into a pit several feet lower than the eddy from which I had recently exited.

Anxiety won the day and I returned to the eddy – just in time to see the wave close out as the crest collapsed into the trough, creating a powerful recirculation. Lucky timing! It was easy to imagine its potential effect on me and my boat. Returning to shore, I settled down for an afternoon of sunbathing.

As the peak hours approached and passed, I felt little desire to launch into the mayhem of the top wave, a turbulent washing machine promising only carnage. I also had no wish to challenge the appalling conditions extending a kilometre downstream of Skook, on the biggest tide of the year. Possible? Certainly, and surely paddled by some. But not me, not today.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 21.29.05

The closest experience I could compare was high-volume Alpine white water paddling, with added whirlpools. It looked nasty, a likely swim – and a certain horror show if unseated. I cracked open a beer, gazed at the sky, and chilled out until the final hour of the flood tide arrived.

I waited impatiently for the white wall of foam to relent as the wave began to reveal occasional breaks, the recirculating crest reaching less far into the trough. As the wave turned green I jumped afloat, crossed onto the wave and enjoyed a minute of fabulous surfing – before the crest dumped on me again. Buried in the trough, I felt a mix of frustration at the end of a fantastic ride, anxiety at Skook’s watery grip, and delight at experiencing a classic BC tide race adventure – immersed in a turbulent void in the ocean, in a suddenly-inappropriate vessel.

Digging myself out the trough like a car from a ditch, I spun back into the eddy and launched into the wave as it greened out again. The next 45 minutes were bliss, enhanced by Mike and Kate’s excellent company. Lapping the service eddy, we exhausted the final minutes of the huge spring flood, revelling in the wonderful energy of the wave.

Oh, and the next day? We did it all again…

 

Alpine white water adventures

I may spend much of my time in sea boats these days, but I do enjoy my white water kayaking. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, I was a frequent visitor to the wonderful paddling environment of the Dauphiné region of the French Alps, for work and play.

It’s a fantastic white water playground, with a huge range of friendly rivers of different characters and a Mediterranean ambience. In 2009 I returned to the area with two mates, Chris Wright and John Jackson. Between us we had about 30 weeks guiding experience in the area – and on this occasion it was a rare chance to paddle together on our own terms.

www.kayakessentials.co.uk

On our arrival in early June, we discovered that the rapidly warming temperatures had begun to release the snow pack of the Ecrins mountains, creating high water levels on the rivers of the region. From a central base in Vallouise, we set out to explore the conditions and chanced across a dream paddling week – cloudless sunshine days and high water levels that just allowed us to tackle all the classics of the Durance Basin and beyond. Fantastic!

Sea kayakers interested in developing rough water skills could do far worse than to spend some time white water kayaking – it’s an excellent way to gain a range of boat handling skills, mental strategies and reactions that transfer very well to the sea environment. The French Alps are the place to go – warm days, reliable water and inspiring mountain scenery. Did I mention the red wine and local cuisine?

Sea kayak crossings: downwind to Dublin

In May 2009 I grabbed the chance to sea kayak across the Irish Sea from Holyhead to Dublin. It was a fantastic experience and I wrote a brief article about the crossing for the Canoe Wales magazine, ‘Ceufad’. Here it is, along with the very few photos that came back from the day.

Downwind to Dublin… surfing waves 25 miles offshore…
Nick Cunliffe & Justine Curgenven

It’s hard to sea kayak the waters of Anglesey without occasionally gazing west towards the Irish coastline, hidden over the horizon. At 50-plus miles, the Irish Sea crossing is an excellent challenge for paddlers seeking the experience of open water and commitment. I got my first taste in 1998 when, with Dave Naylor, we took a Valley Aleut 2 from Porth Dafarch to Dun Laoghaire. Our light-wind, perfect-visibility trip was enlivened only by Dave’s bout of seasickness ten miles off Dublin Bay, as his pasta-based energy meal proved livelier than expected. I never imagined that I would again be tempted by the monotony of that particular crossing.

My attitude changed a few years ago when Barry Shaw and Harry Whelan, abandoning the cautious approach so favoured in the past, set off from Trearddur Bay in a strong easterly, surfing their NDK Explorers downwind to Dublin in 14½ hours. Barry was also seasick during their crossing and I realised that this was possibly the only common experience that our respective trips shared. I was impressed with their achievement and envious of the adventure – I also wanted a piece of that kind of commitment.

DSC04268

And so, May 2009 brought a spell of easterly winds and a window of opportunity. With a few work-free days looming, I couldn’t get the thought of the crossing out my head. I considered paddling alone but on the eve of the trip, uncertain of my form and fitness, I visited Barry and Justine Curgenven to discuss my plans. Sensing the hesitation, Justine called my bluff with a cheerful, “Well if you decide to go, I’ll come with you!”

A quick check of the forecast – easterly 4-5 – and the decision was made: “Let’s do it!”

A few hours of kit preparation and restless sleep later, we paddled out of Soldier’s Point under Holyhead breakwater at 4.10am. A stiff easterly breeze blew us down to North Stack, through the tide race and west towards Ireland as the first glimmer of light began to appear behind us. By the time the sun touched the horizon, we were surfing waves that grew steadily in size as we abandoned the lee of the Welsh coastline. Three hours into the trip, we were delighted to see our GPS ground track showing a distance of 18nm from our departure point. Holyhead Mountain, occasionally appearing behind wave crests, looked small and distant over my right shoulder. No turning back now! The Nordkapp LV was surging down the face of every wave, thankfully keeping me in touch with Justine’s seemingly rocket-powered Explorer. Barry had warned me of her speedy downwind skills and I began to realise that the major challenge of the day was simply to keep up!

DSC04269

www.kayakessentials.co.uk

An hour or so later, at around 8.30am, we passed through LW slack and looked forward to six hours of north-going tide. Our course, a few degrees north of west, was roughly calculated to balance the effects of the opposing tidal streams, so simplifying the navigation and reducing the overall distance paddled. We were well south of the ferry tracks and had seen only one vessel cross our course. As the day wore on, we turned a little further north to shape a higher course for Dublin Bay. Save for the occasional gannet, fulmar and shearwater, we seemed entirely alone.

Ten hours into the trip the Wicklow hills loomed large on the horizon. Crossing the Kish Bank as the last of the flooding tide lifted us north, we continued to work hard in an attempt to close the Irish coastline before the ebb kicked in. The wind was now only force four and the reduced sea state, combined with our fatigue, made it harder to surf waves. The GPS, however, was indicating a ground speed of 4.5kts, a morale-boosting reminder of our progress. Although the trip had gone smoothly, the conditions had provided a few added challenges. It was rarely possible to paddle close enough to chat, rafting up required caution and a five-minute break was all it took to feel the first effects of wind chill. Worst of all, my early attempt at a pee stop, experimenting with Barry’s favoured “squeeze-release” technique, produced mixed results as a wave landed more water inside the cockpit than I could ever have achieved by other means.

www.kayakessentials.co.uk

www.kayakessentials.co.uk

Still, the Irish coastline was growing clearer and we dug deep knowing our discomfort would soon be at an end. Also, early in the trip we had realised that the following sea was giving us an impressive speed. Mid-crossing, we had calculated that a sub-12 hour crossing was on the cards and agreed to keep up the tempo. Now it seemed our efforts were about to pay off. As Dalkey Sound drew closer, we began to experience the first of the ebb tide, but a short ferry glide behind the island and we were officially “inside” Dublin Bay. Within minutes of a perfect arrival time; now how’s that for planning! A few hundred metres later, a steep stone jetty partially protected by a low sea wall offered a landing. On wobbly legs, I slithered around ankle-deep on a weed-covered slab while Justine surfed ashore and hopped gracefully out. We hugged each other and checked the time: 3.55pm, 11 hours and 45 minutes after leaving the beach at Soldier’s Point. The GPS showed a distance of just under 56 nautical miles.

DSC04290

Before setting off we had figured that 14 hours was a decent target for a fast crossing; it’s tough to do better than that in a double or a racing sea kayak in flat conditions and we were uncertain what impact the following sea would have over such a long distance. I had suspected that tiredness would eventually negate any assistance from the conditions, but proved myself wrong. We were delighted with our time, clearly a result of grabbing any surfable waves that came our way. We hadn’t heard of a sub-12 hour crossing before and although we didn’t set off with that in mind, it was exciting to hit the beach well under the time limit.

Within five minutes of our arrival, Justine’s friends Des and Sonja arrived at Coliemore Harbour to take care of us, having tracked our progress online via some electronic wizardry hidden in Justine’s deckbag. With great efficiency they loaded our kit and drove us to their home in Dun Laoghaire. Mugs of scalding tea, warm dry clothes and a comfy sofa were a welcome contrast from the hard work of the day as we lounged around in a haze of tiredness and contentment. Justine seemed remarkably unaffected by her efforts, while my soft office hands had shed most of their skin somewhere en route and my right wrist creaked alarmingly. Still, it felt a small price to pay for my long-anticipated adventure and I had just enough finger strength to grip a few celebratory pints of Guinness in Des’s local later that evening.

Will I ever do it again? No chance – unless, of course, Harry and Barry go across in a westerly gale…

DSC04297

Many thanks to:

Des and Sonja – for their fantastic hospitality in Dun Laoghaire. Des Keaney runs Deep Blue Sea Kayaking in Dublin Bay and offers trips to the west coast of Ireland each season.

Stena Line – who provided complimentary travel back to Holyhead for two tired paddlers and their equipment. Thank you Eila!

Valley Sea Kayaks – for Nick’s Nordkapp LV.

Justine’s list of sponsors would require another article! For more about her kayaking adventures, check out the blog on her Cackle TV website: www.cackletv.com

Note:

Since 2009 there have been several other crossings of the Irish Sea via this route – notably, a solo crossing by John Willacy in 2011 in 11hrs 19mins. The following summer, in July 2012, Brian Fanning and Mick O’Meara paddled from Ireland to Anglesey in 10hrs 22mins, the current fastest time. These and other details can be found at John’s Performance Sea Kayak website.