Wild BC Sea Kayak: Solitude & Swell

In June 2017 I found myself on the west coast of Vancouver Island with ten free days, no sea kayaking companions and a rare opportunity to explore – alone – a new coastline. Packing my kit, I reflected that this would be my first solo multi-day sea kayak trip. After nearly thirty paddling years, I was startled to realise that I was set for a brand new sea kayaking experience. I was excited, and curious to discover how I would respond to the challenges ahead.

Later that day, my first hour in Tofino was spent packing in the rain. The west coast climate had rolled out a welcoming grey carpet for me, its famous dramatic landscapes lost in the coastal mist. Suddenly ready, I had no further excuses to linger ashore; launching into Clayoquot Sound, I turned my bow north and headed off into the late afternoon gloom.

A stiff southeast wind blew me along at a pace; with poor visibility and no local knowledge, I turned from the open ocean and shaped a course up the east sides of Vargas and Flores Islands, landing after 30km at a tiny gravel beach beside a waterfall. In the now-heavy rain I hastily pitched my tarp and tent, ate dinner and dived into bed. Cocooned in nylon layers, I lay listening to the dripping forest and contemplated the week ahead. I felt unusually anxious; the sudden dislocation from ‘civilisation’ into a wild new environment and the lack of a paddling friend with whom to share the experience combined to create a slight sense of unease. Sleep only came gradually.

Next morning, a steady drizzle followed me west to Hot Springs Cove. Here ended the protection of Clayoquot Sound, its waters merging with the Pacific Ocean where a lively sea state greeted my arrival. Turning north, I paddled past rocky islets among steep reflected waves towards Hesquiat Harbour. I had formed a vague plan for the days ahead, nothing more than a decision to head northwest for four days – as conditions permitted – then to retrace my paddle strokes back to Tofino. Further detail at this stage seemed superfluous.

Solo paddling was not the only novel element of the trip; in addition to the unfamiliar coastline, I was in a loaned Rockpool Taran – a rudder-steered fast sea kayak with race design origins. Notwithstanding a few short trips in my home waters, this was also a new experience. Dancing through outer coast waves, I felt unaccustomed to my boat’s character and uncertain of its responses. The small anxieties of the first day resurfaced; I had clearly not left them all in Clayoquot Sound.

My first real challenge came as I headed around the Hesquiat Peninsula. Conditions gradually grew as exposure to the southwest swell increased; the passage past Estevan lighthouse and around Perez Rocks demanded an offshore route to avoid a heavy groundswell that broke over the outlying reefs. Feeling committed, and alert to the movement of the ocean beneath me, I remained in the relative security of deeper water. An atmospheric mist hung over the headland’s surf zones to my right, although I struggled to appreciate its stark beauty.

I shaped a course north towards the entrance of Nootka Sound as the steady south wind blew me onwards. Ashore on Escalante Island I hurriedly set up camp, shivering as the rain fell from a leaden sky. In my sleeping bag as my body gradually warmed, I felt satisfaction at the successful completion of a 60km paddling day in taxing conditions, relief at my safe arrival ashore, and a slight loneliness. Unused to solitude afloat, I missed a companion with whom to discuss options and share plans. This solo paddling game felt simpler, but harder in a way.

Launching the next day, I paddled through the reefs beyond the west side of Escalante and gazed across the sound to the west coast of Nootka Island. The sight was uninspiring; still wreathed in clouds, the distant coastline looked forbidding in the sizeable southwest swell. I considered my choices, knowing there was only one good decision: turning north, I surfed downwind into Nootka Sound, as the ocean’s energy gradually dissipated.

I hoped to reach the north side of Nootka Island on this day. Although the exposed west coast was closed to me, I could transit the east and north coasts via two long sounds, escaping into Esperanza Inlet through a narrow connecting fiord hemmed in by dramatic mountains. Today the Taran proved its worth; clocking up the miles as the south wind blew me onwards, I marvelled at my boat speed: a combination of fast hull, wing blades and honest effort. With no paddling buddies I was free to keep my pace, take breaks if needed and to set goals without negotiation. Time and miles slid by; as evening arrived I reached the open ocean again, washing up on beautiful Catala Island at the entrance to Esperanza Inlet. Finally the sun broke through the gloom. As a rain squall enveloped the coastal mountains to the east, the Pacific North West horizon appeared from beneath its canopy of cloud. After ten hours and 70km, my satisfaction at achieving the day’s goals was powerful. Moreover, with twenty four more hours available to head north, I was excited at the prospect of my next day afloat.

I awoke to sunny blue skies as a light northwest wind rustled the storm-straggled trees surrounding my camp. Weighing the options, I could explore the local area or push on to the Mission Group islands, an idyllic archipelago a further 40km northwest of Catala. I wrestled briefly with the choice; instinct for the challenging option was tempered by concerns at further extending my distance from Tofino, miles that I would have to retrace. Again, I missed company and conversation; still, I felt happy enough to discuss the matter with myself!

Afloat on a northwest bearing, I paddled out through kelp-bound reefs sheltering rafted sea otters, the swell increasing as I took the offshore route around Tatchu Point. The North Pacific Ocean’s energy asked challenging questions as I slalomed towards the entrance to Clear Passage. Dodging reef breaks, I found calmer water inside a long line of rocky islets that protected my journey towards the entrance to Kyuquot Sound. Rounding the final exposed section at Rugged Point, I arrived in an oasis of serene water, a white-shell beach beckoning me to shore.

I basked in the sunshine on a huge driftwood log, my bare skin warmed and drying in the midday heat. I had arrived in a more peaceful world; at last, I relished my solitude. With no filter to my experience, I could absorb my surroundings fully in this remote corner of Vancouver Island’s west coast wilderness. Dozing, I felt inclined to spend the rest of the day in my tranquil idyll. However, the temptation to press on to the Mission group proved too great; two hours later I stepped ashore on the narrow isthmus at the south tip of Spring Island. The mid-afternoon sun burned in the sky, high wispy clouds dressed the peaks of the interior mountain range, while the magnificent Brooks Peninsula dominated my view to the north west. I could not conceive a more inspiring place to be alone, amid wolf tracks, driftwood architecture, chattering ravens and the gentle surge of ocean on rocky shoreline. I wandered, enchanted, along the forest trails of this magical island, alone but perfectly content.

The next day marked the beginning of my return to Tofino. At 7am a fresh offshore breeze blew out of Kyuquot, forcing a high-tempo start to the day as I worked hard to regain Clear Passage and its route south towards Nootka. A sailboat crossed my path, leading me between offshore reefs and the coastline. As my ‘guide’ cleared the last of the sheltering rocks it began to pitch and toss, dancing with the ocean’s energy. I followed, shaping a course back to Catala Island, via a lunch break beach shared with a foraging bear. Late afternoon brought me to the Nuchatlitz Islands, where I set up camp under threatening skies in the lee of an islet, protected from a westerly wind that blew into the late evening. I faced a key decision; I could commit to Nootka Island’s outer coast, or retrace my route through the protected inlets of the inside passage. Since leaving Tofino five days earlier, my VHF radio had failed to find any weather channels and I had long since lost confidence in my now-historical wind forecast. Cycling through the channels, I suddenly found a forecast for the next two days; light winds with a new low pressure system on the distant horizon. At the very moment I needed quality information, fortune had delivered.

Up and packing in the pre-dawn gloom, I was afloat and heading for Ferrer Point before 5am. I was keen to arrive at Nootka’s northwest corner, to review my options and commit to a plan. At 6am I looked down the west coast, rising and falling on the ever-present swell as a light outflow wind blew across my decks. Twenty miles of exposure to Nootka Sound, or a long, long day of inlet paddling? I cleared the reef breaks, pointed my bow southeast and settled down to a steady rhythm of paddle strokes. Headlands slid by, the wind remained light and at last I gained the sheltering kelp beds of Bajo Point. Nookta’s magnificent west coast, backlit by the rising sun, was my claimed prize for this commitment of effort and will. Pressing on, the final hours to San Rafael Point brought increasingly joyful encounters with diving sea otters, dancing sunlight and surging swell. I felt the tensions of the day leaving my muscles, replaced by the quiet satisfaction of a well-executed good decision. Nootka’s outer coast was a worthy reward for the challenge of facing my uncertainties.

I crossed to Escalante, where I landed on the protected north-facing beach, some 60km from my Nuchatlitz departure. Settled into a driftwood den, I set up camp and gazed out on a spectacular vista of ocean, reefs, snow-capped peaks and forests. I strolled the length of the beach, awestruck by the impossibly beautiful view, delighted to be alone. The rewards of this solo trip were magnified by my lack of company; although I missed a companion with whom to share my experiences, I recognised that the anxieties and commitment of this solitary wilderness week were providing a remarkable gift. I felt my surroundings intensely, studied broken shells and driftwood twigs with great clarity, and lost my thoughts in the sun’s gradual descent into the ocean. I dozed serenely as the campfire flames crackled outside my tent and a distant wolf howled at the rising moon.

I left Escalante in a peaceful mood the next morning, having dawdled through my boat packing chores. With only the Hesquiat Peninsula between me and Clayoquot Sound, I felt relaxed at the prospect of one more day of open ocean paddling.  Heading south, I noted a gradual increase in sea state as I threaded through the last protecting reefs. Two hours in, the swell rose to a greater height as Perez Rocks approached. In windless conditions, the glassy faces grew ever larger, forcing me further offshore as reef breaks boomed unnervingly to my left. Despite shaping a course into deeper water, the ocean valleys became more profound, their faces steeper, their peaks more intimidating. The paddling was technically simple, yet I felt anxiety replacing confidence as the commitment of the passage around Hesquiat increased. Estevan Point became visible away to my left and still I headed into the deep waters of the Pacific to escape the growing waves. Finally able to head southeast, the distant peaks beyond Clayoquot Sound played hide and seek as glassy green mountains slid under my hull.

I estimated another two hours to reach protected waters; however, a new problem had emerged. I started to experience a physical disorientation in this huge, windless swell; my sense of equilibrium began to desert me. After decades of confidently balancing my kayak in the ocean, I gradually became uncertain of my capacity to remain upright. There seemed no obvious solution to this problem; my only strategy was to drive the boat forwards, focusing on the occasional glimpses of land. In between, I fought back the feelings of panic. In my first paddling year, I had read John Dowd’s inspirational sea kayaking manual and had learned of sea kayakers gradually becoming ‘overwhelmed by conditions’. I had never properly grasped that concept, having never experienced it. Today, I finally truly understood Dowd’s words… although this new-found wisdom was no solace in my predicament.

After a perceived eternity, the sheltering waters of Hesquiat Harbour drew closer – one final guarding reef break and I was inside still waters. I limped over to the beach, staggered from my kayak and lay on the sand, my racing emotions gradually calming in the warm sunshine. I was startled and confused, never having expected such a problem. My sense of security and confidence was, for the moment, badly shaken.

I cautiously paddled the remaining miles to Hot Springs Cove, nervously negotiating the reflected waves at its entrance before gliding into the calm waters of a glorious Flores Island bay. Ashore, with the option of a protected route to Tofino, I reflected on the outer coast elements I had embraced during my week of solitude and swell in the Pacific North West. I wasn’t sure of the lesson the ocean had delivered, but clearly recognised its educational value. In all my sea kayaking adventures, in beautiful and remote corners of the world, I had never felt such a loss of balance in my boat. It was a tough experience to process, but valuable and intense, accentuated by my solitude afloat.

In such a situation my radio, PLB and flares offered only an illusory veneer of safety; my wellbeing had depended upon finding immediate solutions to the physical and psychological challenges that I had faced. I had overcome them, but without confidence and with what felt like an uncomfortably thin margin. I appreciated the luxury of quiet reflection on my deserted beach; I knew, in this moment, that I would benefit from my week alone on the west coast for a long time to come. A speculative trip up a new coastline had become a special and significant encounter with my own instinctive responses.

Next day, I paid an early morning visit to the hot springs. As salt and sweat washed away under the steaming falls, I felt the tensions of the week dissipate. Calmer and more relaxed, I followed the west coast of Flores Island until I could see Vargas Island, my destination for the day and a rendezvous with Kate. Landing, I gazed at my final crossing – savouring my final minutes of solitude. The gifts of this week were becoming clearer to me; my relationship with time, often so fraught, had become my friend; I was able to observe its passage, or lose my sense of it, without effort or anxiety. The noisy clutter of my mind had gradually diminished, replaced by a quiet observation of my thoughts and emotions. My ability to sit and simply be, often such a challenge, had returned on Catala, Spring, Nootka, on Escalante and on Flores. I felt calm.

My real challenge lay ahead; Tofino would mark my return from this physical and psychological space. My emotional equilibrium could remain with me; or – faced with the demands of everyday life – gradually diminish. I reminded myself that I had glimpsed serenity in this elemental world of ocean, beach and forest; I knew where to find it again, and could perhaps learn to take it with me. I launched once more and headed home.

I am grateful to those who made possible my trip on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island. A huge thank you to the organisers of the Pacific Paddlesport Symposium for my invite to their excellent gathering; to the wonderful PPS coaches and participants; to JF Marleau and SKILS for my warm Ucluelet welcome; to Mike Webb for his amazing Rockpool Taran; and to Kate, for everything. X

 

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Cross-Scotland Canoe Part 2: Kinlochleven to Perth

After four gruelling days of paddling and portaging across the Scottish highlands from Mallaig to Fort William, Matt and I took a day’s rest, recovered the car via a train ride over the Harry Potter viaduct and reflected on our experiences. Despite completing the crossing in good time, some lessons had clearly been learned. Most notably, the weight of our packs had severely affected our travels during the portage phases of the journey. The trip up to the watershed from Loch Nevis had been a tough experience, heightened by the need to cover every kilometre three times. The answer was obvious: carry less kit!

We considered every item of equipment and stripped away all unused and unnecessary items. It was a sobering experience to see the excess material pile up before our eyes, as we lightened our packs for the next planned section of the trip: the classic cross-Scotland route from Kinlochleven to Perth via Rannoch Moor. We were determined to move more freely on this next adventure, especially given the brutal reputation of the high ground across which we would travel.

Weather and time constraints caused us to skip the coastal section from Fort William; we therefore drove to Kinlochleven, from where our journey would begin again. With the canoe balanced on its trolley and our packs inside the boat, we began the steep ascent up the forest track that leads to the Blackwater Reservoir. After an hour of intense effort we had gained almost 300 metres of altitude and were rewarded with a panoramic view over Kinlochleven. The cool cloudy weather was ideal for travel, our progress towards the reservoir now hastened by the smooth concrete surface of the track, over which the canoe trolley sped. The contrast with Loch Nevis was spectacular.

Arriving at the dam wall by late morning, we were reassured to see a good water level in the reservoir. A moderate westerly wind blew over the lake surface and we hustled to complete the transition to paddle power. With the sail hoisted, we flew east towards the head of lake, fifteen kilometres despatched in a couple of relatively effortless hours. The shoreline closed in towards the head of the lake as we slalomed through a maze of islands in search of the tiny river that feeds the Blackwater Reservoir at its upstream end. Finally beaching the canoe, we stepped ashore into a gloriously wild and remote place. At three hundred metres altitude, with the Mamore mountains to the north and the peaks of Glencoe to the south, our escape lay across almost eight kilometres of moorland to Rannoch Station.

It felt that the real challenge was about to begin; Rannoch Moor has a severe reputation among expedition canoeists for its distance, terrain underfoot and exposure. We scouted the first section and concluded that the Blackwater river was deep enough to permit lining-up. We hauled across a few meanders, dragged up the frequent rocky steps and paddled wherever possible. Our portage packs remained in the canoe for much of the time and as the hours passed, we made steady uphill progress towards Lochan a’ Chlaidheimh, where we would cross the watershed and commence the descent to Rannoch Station. The visibility remained clear, with spectacular views across the high, remote moorland. The train track became visible to the north and suddenly we were within sight of the lochan. From the route’s high point, we marvelled at the relative ease with which we had covered the ground. Conditions had been great; enough water in the river, relatively dry underfoot and good visibility. We also felt the benefit of lighter portage packs, which permitted us to to move all our equipment without resorting to multiple journeys.

We continued towards Rannoch Station, benefiting from a small stream that just floated our canoe downhill. As numerous boulder chokes forced us back onto the moor, we set up a husky tow and plodded steadily towards the now-visible collection of buildings that form Britain’s most remote railway station. At last, early evening saw us at our destination, a little less than nine hours after departing Kinlochleven. We were tired, hungry, muddy – and delighted. We had crossed Rannoch Moor in fine style and could now look forward to the long system of lochs and rivers that descend to Perth and the east coast. After a civilised dinner in the empty station visitor centre, we turned in for the night, as the sun disappeared over the silent moor.

By 7am were were en route once more, navigating Loch Laidon, the Garbh Ghaoir river and Loch Eigheach until the dam wall at the head of the Gaur forced us ashore. Tarmac and trolley combined perfectly as we hummed downstream to the more navigable sections of the Gaur, and eventually the head of Loch Rannoch. Under clear blue skies and with a strengthening westerly wind, we hoisted sail once more and began an exciting downwind sail, surfing white horses as we ate up the distance to Kinloch Rannoch. Powering along at almost 10 km/h, we covered 18 km of open water in style. Over a café americano, we plotted our options and concluded that Pitlochry might lie within reach that day. Afloat again, we followed the upper river Tummel down to Dunalastair Loch, the narrow rocky forested hillsides funnelling our helpful breeze ever stronger. Portaging once more, we trolleyed down to Tummel Bridge and our final large loch crossing, 15 kilometres of Loch Tummel. Again, we enjoyed fantastic sailing conditions and by early evening found ourselves ashore once more on the minor road past the white water Tummel below the Clunie dam. A final flat water paddle took us to Pitlochry, where we arrived thirteen hours after our departure from Rannoch Station. With 58km of loch, river and portage under our hull, we were elated with our progress and wasted no time checking into the Pitlochry Backpackers. This excellent establishment was the perfect end to an amazing day of memorable open canoeing.

A late morning departure from Pitlochry the next day saw us swiftly down the lower river Tummel, slaloming between anglers to the river Tay confluence. With a water release from the Clunie dam, our speed through the class I-II rapids was swift and easy. Onto the fast-flowing Tay, we continued to enjoy a series of simple rapids down to our early afternoon lunch break in Dunkeld.

The afternoon bought harder work and a renewed sense of tiredness, as the lower reaches of the Tay eased to a seemingly-endless series of gentle meanders. To our outrage a headwind materialised, forcing us to dig deep yet again. At last the rocky barrier of Campsie Linn appeared, the signal of the start to a few kilometres of class II+ rapids, down through Stanley Weir and on towards Perth. Shipping water in a couple of the larger wave trains, we whooped our way downstream, enjoying the final challenge of this grand cross-Scotland adventure. At last, after several more kilometres of flat water, the town of Perth appeared. Our arrival at the tidal limit marked the end of the journey, 140 kilometres after leaving Kinlochleven. As the early evening rain fell from the sky, we trudged wearily but happily towards our campsite, relieved that soon we would be spared any further paddling or portaging. 250 km after leaving Mallaig eight days earlier, it was time to go home.

Cross-Scotland Canoe Part 1: Mallaig to Fort William

Struggling under my portage pack’s tiresome weight, I climbed the final twenty metres to the top of the dam wall at the west end of Loch Quoich, deep in Scotland’s northwest highland wilderness. After two days of lining, dragging and carrying, we could finally look forward to covering the next fifteen kilometres by sail and paddle power. I reached the crest, excited to see the landscape unfold – and gazed in horror at the sight that greeted me. The view to the east revealed no expanse of water upon which to float; rather, a hellish valley of sand and mud that stretched for kilometres, an appalling portage and a serious blow to our prospects. I looked back at Matt, whose position did not yet afford him the advantage of my perspective.

‘How’s the view?’ he shouted. ‘Is the loch still there?’
I said nothing and waited him for to make his own discovery.

Several months earlier we had planned an adventurous canoe journey in Scotland. Our ideas grew and developed, finally settling on a grand traverse of the Scottish highlands from Mallaig in the west to Perth in the east, via some of the wild north’s most dramatic and remote landscapes. Our planned route covered 250 kilometres of sea lochs, freshwater lochs, river systems – and portages. We took our inspiration from Andy Hall’s and Ray Goodwin’s 1991 crossing via this route, hoping to complete the distance in similar style.

On the first of July we paddled out of Mallaig harbour, at the end of ‘the road to the isles’ on Scotland’s north west coast. With Skye’s dramatic mountain skyline behind us, we entered the huge expanse of Loch Nevis and paddled the flooding tide towards Camusrory. To the north the mountains of Knoydart were shrouded in mist and, as the west wind strengthened, a steady rain began to fall. It felt a suitably committing start to our adventure.

We arrived at the head of Loch Nevis at local high water, to maximise the paddleable distance up the river Carnach and to delay the moment when we would step from our canoe. From here, we began to transport ourselves and our equipment across the watershed into the river Garry system to the east. We knew this would involve a portage of ten kilometres and a height gain of 250 metres; we were uncertain, however, of the demands that the terrain ahead would place upon us. We were soon to find out.

Two kilometres of lining upstream ended with an increased river gradient, its rocky bed forcing us onto the marshy valley floor. It was quickly apparent that the terrain and our equipment weight would prevent uphill travel in one push; we were forced to carry portage packs to a suitable cache, before retracing our steps to rejoin the canoe and reunite it with our equipment. The whole process could then begin again. The wind and rain intensified, as a frontal system laid its soggy isobars across the bleak Knoydart mountains. Drenched to our base layers, the only way to remain warm was to maintain a constant physical activity. This at least was no problem, notwithstanding our protesting bodies.

By early evening we arrived at a distinct bend in the river Carnach, next to the swollen stream beneath a towering rocky crag. As the wind whipped through the narrow valley, we hustled to prepare food and set up camp, racing the onset of hypothermia. Our spirits had been lifted by a chance late afternoon encounter with a couple of Knoydart locals, whose enthusiasm at our crazy adventure had given us a much-needed boost as our energy levels had threatened to flag. But right now, we needed sleep. Shivering in my sleeping bag, after nine hours of constant effort, I hoped for good progress the next day.

We woke to an improvement in conditions; the rain had eased, leaving low grey clouds clinging to the streaming hillsides. Squelching up the faint track above our campsite, we soon reached a boggy plateau enclosed by surrounding mountains. Ditching our packs at the next sharp bend in the river, we returned for the canoe, buoyed by the prospect of a new day ahead and the excitement of moving through unfamiliar terrain. Since leaving Loch Nevis we had encountered few walkers, the remoteness of our situation more evident as we climbed towards the watershed.

The route became more challenging as we climbed towards the tiny Lochan nam Breac, hidden beneath Sgurr na Ciche’s towering northern flanks. Lining the canoe was more difficult as the steepening stream bed became choked with boulders; the portage trail, slick with mud and running water, hid treacherous holes beneath its long grass. We dragged and carried the boat onwards.

Finally we crested the high point of our crossing and began the descent to Loch Quoich, still hidden behind its final grassy barrier. As the sun made a brief appearance, we ate a much-needed lunch and felt our sprits rise as we contemplated an evening arrival in the river Garry system. Only one more hour and we could look forward to paddling and sailing in relatively effortless comfort…

…and so, as Matt arrived at the viewpoint and gazed across the waterless desert where Loch Quoich had once existed, a horrified silence descended on us. Absorbing our new reality, we dejectedly deployed the canoe trolley and trundled slowly along the rough track that parallels the loch on its north side. After a couple of kilometres of painfully slow progress, a ribbon of water appeared to offer escape onto the main loch. We lowered the boat down a steep grassy slope to within ten metres of the water’s edge. At last, we could continue our journey in less grim circumstances; our flagging spirits rose once more.

Scouting the put-in, I stepped closer to the water’s edge, leaving the shingle shoreline and walking out onto a sand bank. After three steps, I plunged through the thin surface layer and found myself thigh-deep in oozing, clinging mud. Matt raced across and dragged me free, as Loch Quioch threatened to claim my wellies. Attempts to skim the canoe across the treacherous surface failed; only twenty feet from the water, we were entirely unable to transport ourselves across this final hurdle. A sense of despondency now gripped us; the prospect of hauling our kit up and out of this mess was too appalling to consider. We scouted further along the shoreline and found a potential put-in where the steeper rocky shoreline permitted a more secure launch. A new concern, however, now raised its head; we were uncertain that there was sufficient water in the connecting channel to allow to an escape from this trap. Envisioning benightment on an ocean of mud, and after yet another hour of exhausted portaging, we anxiously launched and finally dragged, shoved and waded our way into open water. Feeling like arctic explorers finally escaping the grip of enveloping sea ice, we at last felt deep water under the hull. We set sail and paddled the remaining fifteen kilometres to the end the loch. Camped against the dam wall two hours later, we celebrated our escape from Loch Quioch.

Day three, in comparison, was a breeze – despite the headwind that kept us honest all the way to the Great Glen. With little water in the upper river Garry, we lined, hauled and waded downstream. Progress with our loaded canoe was quicker than overland portages and we appreciated the absorbing tasks of choosing lines, leapfrogging and rope management. After a couple of hours the river volume increased, with a series of rapids down to Loch Garry. Some we ran, a couple we lined – and one, despite my confidence, we should have walked. Swamped and sinking, we wallowed to the river bank as our trolley wheels threatened to float free from the boat. Emptying out, we continued on our way, revelling in the the river’s speed as we finally enjoyed a free ride downstream. An upwind paddle the length of Loch Garry preceded a trolley portage down to the Great Glen, where the inviting welcome of the Invergarry Hotel proved irresistible. A couple of pints and a gourmet burger later, we wobbled down to the Loch Oich shoreline, from where we sailed the NE breeze down to Laggan Locks at the entrance to Loch Lochy. This campsite on the banks of the Caledonian Canal felt a far cry from the wild grandeur of Knoydart. But with a Fort William finish line now in our sights, we enjoyed the relaxed surroundings – confident that success was now in our grasp.

Waking on day four to calm sunny conditions, we launched into the mirror-like waters of Loch Lochy and paddled purposefully down the centre of this dramatic cleft in the Scottish highlands, as a light breeze gradually filled in behind us. Six hours after our launch we tethered our canoe to the egress pontoon at Neptune’s Staircase, lay down on the dock and fell asleep. Our crossing of the Knoydart mountains, our grand canoe adventure from Mallaig to Fort William, was complete.

Sea kayak crossings: St Kilda archipelago

In 2011 I spent two weeks exploring the Outer Hebridean islands of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula with my mate Barry. Our dreams of a sea kayak crossing to the St Kilda archipelago were dashed by a combination of poor weather, injury and the sands of time. We left for home after a great paddling adventure, keenly aware that our hopes of such an exposed sea kayak crossing would depend upon organisation, commitment – and plenty of luck.

Three years later, a fresh opportunity arrived and we returned to the outer Hebrides with renewed optimism. Alone in the north Atlantic at 58 degrees north and 40 miles NW of Uist, the St Kilda archipelago is an isolated and exposed place in the world. It represents an exceptional challenge to kayak to this most remote UK island group. The rewards, however, are immense: rising steeply from the sea, these cliff-bound islands have an end-of-the-world aura, exerting a powerful magnetism on would-be visitors. With a two-millennia history of human habitation, only broken in 1930 with the evacuation of the last islanders, there remains an impressive number of black houses and cleits, remnants of another world. The archipelago is Europe’s most important sea bird breeding-ground with the world’s largest gannet colony, the UK’s largest colony of fulmars and over a quarter of a million puffins. The sheer cliff-bound islands are also a sea kayaker’s paradise, the attraction enhanced by their inaccessibility. I had dreamed for many years of kayaking to the islands; now, only 36 miles of open water and a favourable forecast lay between us and our destination.

The Crossing

With bad weather on the horizon, we spent several days exploring the island group in the far south of the outer Hebrides, from Barra Sound to Berneray. A worthy destination in its own right, this wonderful archipelago offered us magical encounters with towering sea cliffs, a rich cultural history, immense sea caves and thousands of nesting puffins, guillemots and razorbills. We returned to South Uist as wind and rain set in, and awaited our elusive weather window.

In mixed conditions and a westerly airstream, we continued our explorations with a few days of paddling around the Sound of Harris and Taransay. Battling back to North Uist against a fresh SW breeze, and with half our available time now gone, it felt that the chance to cross to St Kilda was slipping through our fingers. We relocated to the North Uist Outdoor Centre, to relax and regroup. Upon arrival, a fresh forecast offered a tantalising opportunity: two days of light SE winds, a new low pressure system and then settled weather once again. It seemed that we could possibly cross to St Kilda, ride out a couple of bad weather days and then paddle home again in more favourable conditions. We agreed to the plan and hastened to complete our preparations.

That evening we camped at Scolpaig, under cloudless skies as a light westerly wind rippled the surface of the bay. On the horizon, the peaks of Hirta and Boreray beckoned enticingly, appearing far closer than their true distance of 36 miles. We slept soundly, content that the forecast was ideal for our crossing. The following day, a persistent sea breeze kept us ashore as we waited for the perfectly calm conditions that we sought for the crossing. At last – at 7pm – we launched our kayaks and headed WNW towards the still-visible distant islands. The last of the breeze died away as the first two hours took us out past the barren rocky islands of Heskeir, riding a gentle swell upon which our boats rose and fell. Surrounded by silence, with no sign of any other craft, we felt alone in the world on this empty expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

During mid-summer at these latitudes nightfall is a protracted affair, with a dim glow to the south and a constant sense that the sun’s absence is only short-lived. As our kayaks cut through the glassy ocean, the light and ambience created a magical atmosphere that heightened our sense of wonder, as the St Kilda archipelago grew in size on the horizon. Hours passed, our unbroken paddling rhythm became meditative; we lost ourselves in the experience. Stac Levenish appeared to our left and we shaped a course across the flooding tide, crossing the final two miles to Village Bay on Hirta – the only reliable landing in the entire archipelago. Beaching our kayaks at 4.15am as the arrival of dawn began to light our surroundings, we sat quietly on the grassy slopes and soaked up the intense sensations of our successful crossing. Never had an ocean passage felt so magical.

The Islands

After a few hours sleep we watched as the small groups of boat-based visitors prepared for departure. The imminent arrival of a new low pressure system was clearly triggering a fresh evacuation of the island; we would soon be among the the last remaining inhabitants of the archipelago. Seizing the chance to enjoy the remaining settled conditions, we relaunched for an afternoon of exploration around the main island group of Hirta and Soay. Departing Village Bay through a narrow rocky cleft, we were delivered into a magical sea kayaking nirvana: huge sea cliffs rose above, a gentle swell provided a constant rock garden challenge, innumerable sea birds wheeled overhead and the unfolding coastal scenery revealed ever more spectacular perspectives. At the north end of Hirta we passed under an enormous sea stack as the remarkable sight of Boreray’s huge rocky mass came into view. Humbled by our surroundings, we quietly paddled back to Village Bay, completing our circumnavigation of the main island.

The following two days brought the anticipated low pressure system, its saturated air wreathing the islands in mist and drizzle. Remaining ashore, we hiked the island to explore the remnants of habitations that were home for the St Kildan islanders. Flocks of Soay sheep continue to roam the island, while Great Skua soar the upper slopes, swooping menacingly at our arrival. At almost 500 metres altitude, the views from the summit of Hirta are exceptional, with lower-lying Soay extending into the Atlantic to the west and Boreray’s Jurassic appearance to the north east. With the outer Hebridean islands lost below the eastern horizon, the sense of isolation on this remote and dramatic rocky outcrop was palpable. We returned to the shelter of Village Bay and waited on the forecast improvement in conditions.

Sailing Home

During our third day on the island an impressive square-rigged ship arrived in Village Bay. The ‘Lady of Avenel’ was paying a brief visit to the archipelago with its clients; its skipper, Stefan, was keen to meet the owners of the sea kayaks that he found at the top of Hirta’s slipway. Sharing our experiences of the crossing, Stefan inquired after our ‘Plan B’, should conditions be unfavourable for a return crossing. Suddenly, we found ourselves the recipients of an invitation to stowaway on his 100ft converted Russian trawler, for a free ride back to the Sound of Harris. Stefan’s offer triggered mixed emotions in us; having arrived at St Kilda under our own power, it felt almost necessary for us to return home via the same propulsion. We thanked Stefan for his offered help, and retired to consider our options.

Rising the next day at 4am, we hiked back to the summit of Hirta and gazed out at the expanse of ocean to the east. Weighing up our options, the temptation of a tall ship experience proved too great; we scampered back to the bay, contacted Stefan and soon found ourselves aboard the wonderful vessel that would be our home for the next twelve hours. Threading between the cliffs of Boreray before finally setting sail for Harris, we marvelled at our good fortune and settled down to an unexpected voyage of luxury. At 10pm we finally jumped ship in the Sound of Harris, bade farewell to our sailing buddies, and paddled through the darkness back to North Uist. Our St Kilda adventure, a remarkable experience filled with challenge and unexpected opportunity, was over.

Swim around Anglesey: Part 4

The Swim Day 4: Llanddwyn Island to Rhoscolyn

Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: light S winds in the morning, becoming SW 4-5 in the afternoon

The start of our fourth – and hopefully final – day was bright and clear and as we hiked out across the sand towards Llanddwyn Island (cut off from the rest of Anglesey only on top of the biggest tides), John and Matt talked confidently of our early arrival in Rhoscolyn. While happy to go along with the upbeat atmosphere, I privately felt that the day might produce a few extra challenges along the way. Although we were ready to swim by 0800, it was clear to me that the final 18km, in the weakest tidal streams of the entire Anglesey coastline, might be hard won. If had known what was in store for us later in the day, I might not even have got in the water.

We had tried to ignore the issue of our damaged necks as we climbed back into our wetsuits but as we set off across the mouth of Malltraeth Bay towards Pen y Parc, I was dismayed to discover that my neck was now painful with every stroke. I was sure that John was suffering more than me, but there was nothing for it but to get the job done. Matt was our only support kayaker on this morning and it felt somehow fitting that just the three of us, having started together 75 hours earlier, were setting out together to complete our circumnavigation of Anglesey. The weather was cooperating, with a light southerly breeze barely raising a few small ripples in Caernarfon Bay. With only Matt to support us we were careful to choose the same targets, regularly checked our distances from each other and focused on making the distance as efficiently as possible.

We completed the 3km crossing of Malltraeth Bay in an hour of steady effort, past the green lateral mark and on towards the still-distant outline of Rhoscolyn. For a while we enjoyed a weak favourable tide over the half-tide rocks of Carreg-Trai, past Church Bay and north west along the coast to Ynys Meibion. We reached this halfway point after three hours of swimming, less than 10km of distance now separating us from the finish line. Passing the Ty Croes race track, we shaped a course between the island and the Anglesey shore, where we encountered a weak tidal stream across our course as the inshore eddy stream of Cymyran Bay spilled out to the south. Forced to swim away from the land, it was clear to me that, tired as I was, John’s shoulder injury and exhaustion was taking a greater toll on him. Our speed over the ground dipped to around 2km/h.

I paused to discuss the situation with Matt. He shared my concerns about John and we agreed a plan for the end of the morning swim session. Abandoning the direct route to Rhoscolyn, we began to shape a course towards Rhosneigr, the white outlines of the beachfront houses now clearly visible. This choice added 2km to our overall distance, but allowed us to swim much closer to the shore. I was worried that our weakened condition would prevent us reaching Rhoscolyn in one push and knew that we needed to get to the beach, to regroup and consider our options. We were also now close to local high water and were concerned that the ebbing tide would hinder our progress across Cymyran Bay. As we toiled the final kilometres towards the town, it felt for the first time that the swim plan for our Anglesey circumnavigation was beginning to unravel. Exhaustion was setting in for both of us.

Matt paddled alongside John, shared the new route plan and encouraged him to rediscover the good swim technique that had carried him so far around the island. His speed increased again as we gradually passed Cable Bay and Broad Beach to our right. After five hours of constant swimming, we eventually washed up on the shore about 1km south of Rhosneigr. Exiting the water, I realised that our condition had worsened during the morning. Tired beyond speech, cold and hungry without appetite, we hid from the increasing wind inside our group shelter and tried to ignore the nagging pain from our lacerated necks. John appeared to be dozing, while I unzipped my suit in an attempt to relieve the pressure on the damaged areas of my body.

As Matt prepared to run into town to obtain more food, I heard the sound of Barry’s voice. He had launched from Rhoscolyn and paddled the 6km to our beach in search of us. His cheerful grin appeared through a gap in the shelter, the smile fading as he surveyed our condition. I could see that he recognised what we felt, but would not admit; our exhaustion was beginning to take its toll, the chances of our reaching Rhoscolyn this day diminishing as we shivered in the worsening weather.

Barry’s suggestion that he return to his vehicle to collect us from this beach seemed to galvanise us into action. We stood up, threw off the group shelter and announced our intention to swim on. I asked Barry to stay with us, feeling that safety concerns now demanded a support kayaker for each swimmer. As we waded into the water John, in a moment of good sense, grabbed me and questioned the wisdom of our decision. Shaking in the cold wind, as the waves began to roll in to Rhosneigr Bay, it seemed risky to continue – but then the entire swim around Anglesey had never been a sensible idea! We almost quit, and then reached a compromise. We would swim a kilometre along the shore to the next bay, review our progress and either continue or stop.

We plunged into the waves and struck out for the rocky reef that guards the south entrance to Rhosneigr, John dealing with the cold by launching into a high-tempo routine. I ploughed on after him, trying to warm up. We swam to the reef and across to the next cluster of rocks, where we agreed to go on, to the rocky island at the north west end of Rhosneigr Bay. As we crossed the bay, the increasing south west wind produced noticeably steeper waves and I realised that the ebbing tide was creating wind against tide conditions, lifting us further offshore. We swam in an arc towards the island, hoping to escape this unhelpful tidal stream. The beach seemed quite distant away to our right and I began to feel very committed. The safety margin that had depended for the entire journey upon our ability to maintain a steady swim speed of around 3km/h was now seriously compromised. I looked back to see John 100m behind me, Matt shadowing him, and realised that our speed through the water had slowed to a crawl. I put on a faster burst to reach the sheltering water next to the rocks and discussed our options with Barry. We agreed that, depending on John’s condition, we might swim downwind, hand railing the islands until we reached the beach. There we would stop for the day and would return the next morning to complete the final 3km. I was torn; I wanted to stop, but viewed it as some kind of failure. My need to continue was greater and I hoped that John felt the same way.

As he arrived, it was as if he had overheard our conversation, announcing his intention to stay in the water ‘until it’s finished’. He refused point blank to quit for the day, insisted he was able to swim on and convinced us to continue. Looking across to Rhoscolyn, I could understand his desire. We could now make out individual houses on the headland and the familiar outline of the islands appeared close enough to touch. My one certainty was that I simply could not face the prospect of returning the next day to climb back into our wetsuits for a fifth time. We had to finish the job now.

We swam downwind to the inshore end of the island, to bring us a little closer to the land and to slightly reduce the risk of our final open crossing. We felt we needed to be reasonably close to shore in case we simply ran out of energy before reaching Rhoscolyn. We were also unsure of the exact tidal streams in the north end of Cymyran Bay and at our low swimming speed were keen to avoid any issues with an outgoing current. Targeting the headland just east of Borth Wen, we headed back into the waves and focused on ticking off the final 3km. We had ceased measuring our progress in terms of hours and minutes, but could see that we were making steady speed across the bay. Silver Bay became clearly visible to my right, and I finally became convinced that we would soon cross the finish line.

John struggled on, his injured shoulder now badly affecting his stroke. Exhausted as I felt, I was keenly aware of his plight and was impressed at his ability to grind out these last minutes in the water. He simply didn’t lift his head, and although I was a little faster than him at this point, he seemed to swim as if he would never stop. John later told me that as we left the island, he recognised that the remaining distance to Rhoscolyn was just about the length of the lake at Llanberis where he had spent so many training sessions. Not only did he know that he could complete that distance, he actually imagined himself passing familiar waypoints in the lake. Elephant Rock, Halfway Station, The Boat House, The Lagoons; he visualised each goal as he ate up the distance to our final landing.

Remembering his speed on the first day, and my struggle to maintain the pace, I knew that I had been waiting for the tables to be turned. But I felt no satisfaction – just respect for his battle against injury. So instead, as Matt urged John to ever greater efforts, I swam happily towards Borth Wen, Barry kayaking alongside me. I took time to savour the moment as the entrance to the bay came within reach and remembered how anxious and uncertain I had been as we swam out of the same bay four days earlier. Success tasted very sweet right now. Richard’s advice came back to me and I laughed as I swam through the waves: ‘I’m a dolphin!’

Suddenly everything came into focus – I was swimming along the low cliffs east of Borth Wen, avoiding breaking waves over submerged rocks. The island guarding the entrance to the bay approached on our left and the old lifeboat slip seemed close enough to touch. Turning towards the beach, the wind began to blow me home – I could float on my back and still complete the swim! I wanted to wait a minute for John, to arrive together, so I drifted along, mindful of the important reasons that had driven him to take on this challenge. I was aware of how this moment might affect him and wanted to leave some space for him to take in the knowledge that he had set a huge challenge, been true to his word and had seen it through to completion. He soon arrived next to me, too tired to speak much and we swam the final hundred metres together to the beach. Matt dashed ahead to film the arrival, while Barry stayed alongside us to enjoy the celebrations. We staggered out onto a cold, windswept beach, a few hardy holiday makers huddled behind bits of striped fabric. We later learned that we were a couple of hours too late for our supporters, who had concluded that our day had ended at Rhosneigr and had headed home. Just the four of us, we congratulated each other with disbelief, exchanged hugs, then grabbed our clothes bags and headed for the car park. It was 1700. After 8 hours in the water, nine hours and 20km after leaving Llanddwyn, we were home.

The need to remove our wetsuits was overwhelming and as the air reached our bodies, the now-infected holes in our necks seemed to catch fire, bringing a burning pain as the salt water began to dry in the exposed cracks in our skin. As a dampener to the celebrations, it was pretty effective. John in particular appeared to be in real distress, shaking silently in the shelter of the toilet block, speechless and near-dead on his feet. We bundled into Barry’s van, and headed back towards Newborough to collect my vehicle. We had done it. It was all over.

After the Swim:
We drove back to Newborough, where Matt and I switched to my van for the short journey back to Felinheli. John had been silent throughout the 30-minute drive and Barry was keen to take him home as quickly as possible. We later discovered that the pain of John’s damaged neck had been almost unbearable for him. This had combined with his exhaustion and shoulder injury to produce a deeply uncomfortable experience for him. A shower, barrier cream, clean clothes and cup of tea helped a little, although by the time Matt and I reached the house John was already heading for bed. We spent the rest of the evening checking on him periodically, a task we dubbed ‘John Watch’.

For my part, I was sure I was no less fatigued than John, although I had the big advantage of a less injured body. I was also later to discover that the damaged areas of my neck were far less infected than John’s. As a result, elation and relief quickly overcame my weariness, a hot shower reinvigorated me and, in the tradition of all disciplined athletes, Matt and I commenced our celebrations with a takeaway Chinese meal, washed down with a steady supply of alcohol. Post-exercise recovery could wait a few more hours.

Medical Issues:
The following day John and I took stock of our condition and wasted no time in visiting both the hospital and our GPs, for advice and diagnosis. Not only were our necks clearly in need of professional attention, four days’ immersion in sea water had given us painful mouth ulcers that my post-swim celebrations had done nothing to improve. Combined with a variety of sores and blisters on various parts of our bodies and, in John’s case, a clearly damaged shoulder joint, we were in a pretty sorry state. The GP immediately diagnosed the infections and we were sent away clutching handfuls of antibiotics, painkillers and lotions.

As our necks began the healing process, the resulting limited mobility was an occasionally amusing inconvenience. For a few days we were a serious liability on the roads, entirely unable to look over our shoulders at junctions. After a week, with a new layer of healthy pink skin on my neck, a pain-free mouth and an infection-free body, I felt almost completely recovered. I was quickly back to work where I noticed a lingering slight fatigue that persisted for a couple of weeks after the swim. In John’s case, his sense of weariness seemed deeper than mine, no doubt a consequence of his additional injuries.

What has remained however, is an even deeper sense of satisfaction at the successful completion of our challenge. Looking back at the achievement of our goals, the efforts required each day and the challenges we faced, I am struck by how uncertain and adventurous the whole project really was. Without a serious swimming background, neither John nor I fully comprehended the implications of attempting to swim for over 26 hours across four days, to a series of tidal deadlines, with limited sleep and rest (especially during the first two days) and in open sea conditions. How naive of us to set off so optimistically from Rhoscolyn, aiming for a slick and trouble-free 120km circumnavigation of Anglesey! As Barry pointed out to me, there was nothing stylish about our final two hours in the water on the last day, but in another sense we had styled it, meeting all our goals, covering impressive distances each day and, when it really mattered, grinding it out to the finish line. It really was a journey into the unknown, towards an uncertain outcome, and we were delighted at how well it had all come out.

The Weather Gods:
Of course, we needed to benefit from a generous helping of good fortune. When we first planned the swim, we knew we had to select a specific set of dates, months in advance. We chose the end of August, to give us the whole summer for open water swim training. Work commitments also meant that I could not set aside an entire free week until this time. We were under no illusions that the weather would dictate the feasibility of the project, with windy conditions no doubt scuppering any hopes of circumnavigating the island. We are both confident rough water swimmers, but also appreciated that the reduced swim speed and increased energy cost would end any chance of transiting the island in a fast time. Moreover, Anglesey’s exposed coastline can produce extremely rough conditions – especially on spring tides – with sea states that no swimmer or kayaker would venture into. On the other hand, we could also get a perfect high pressure weather system for the entire duration of the swim. In any event, such matters lay outside our control – so we cracked on with the training and tried not to worry about it.

As it happened, we did not get the hoped-for high pressure and flat seas. On the eve of our swim, a strong NW wind was creating a challenging sea state throughout the entire coastline of our planned first day. Thankfully, there was a forecast lull in conditions, the wind dying away overnight before filling in as a SW wind later in the following day. Thus, we enjoyed light winds all the way from Rhoscolyn to Cemlyn and the SW wind, when it did arrive, only assisted our progress along the north coast evening. Despite this, conditions in the tide races of Anglesey’s west coast gave us quite enough of a challenge.

On the second day, we were even more fortunate. Tide times demanded an early start, which coincided with a period of light winds on the east coast of Anglesey. For the first half of our crossing from Point Lynas to Penmon we had calm conditions, followed by a relatively light SW wind for the last two hours of the swim. A couple of hours after we had reached Penmon, however, it was blowing over 20 knots, a wind strength that would have eliminated any chance of the direct, open crossing of the east coast. Thankfully, we were finished for the day and on our way home by the time the wind arrived.

On day three, the light NW wind barely raised a ripple in the Menai Strait and even the last 6km to Llanddwyn Island took us through only slight seas. In all, perfect conditions for the swim session. On the final day, the weather once again cooperated for the first few hours, before – as if feeling the need to deliver one final challenge – building from the SW to produce difficult steep waves from Rhosneigr to Rhoscolyn. It felt like a fitting end to the journey. Had the precise timing of the weather patterns we experienced been only slightly different, or had the tidal timings demanded different swim times, we would not have completed the swim in four days, if at all. We felt fortunate indeed.

Tidal Factors:
The waters around the Anglesey coastline are notable for the speed and scale of their tidal movements. The tide rises and falls twice each day, as it does throughout the UK. What sets this island apart from most other locations, however, is the river-like effect on this vast volume of water as it flows around its headlands, cliffs, bays and beaches. This tidal movement would be the key to our success in swimming around Anglesey in four day but would also, we knew, add challenges and difficulties to overcome.

The rising (or flooding) tide in this part of the Irish Sea flows in a northerly direction from the St.Georges Channel into the huge basin of Liverpool Bay. Anglesey sits as an obstruction to this flow, constricting and accelerating the water around its coastline and creating areas of powerful tidal races off its major headlands. We would have to swim through all these areas during the 4-day challenge and would be exposed to the full power of the Irish Sea for much of our planned swim route. Good timing and a careful consideration of weather conditions would be essential for safety and for the overall success of the project.

We had also chosen a period when the twice-monthly pattern of larger tidal movements would be at its peak. These ‘spring tides’ would create a tidal stream of flow of up to 6 knots (11 km/h) off the major headlands, but would also markedly increase the likelihood of encountering rough water. It was therefore even more important to have relatively settled weather conditions for the swim.

It was clear to us to us that a 120km 4-day swim in non-tidal waters was out of the question; neither John nor I had the capacity to swim 30km per day for four consecutive days. Even maintaining our best cruising speed of 3km/h, this would demand swim durations of minimum 10 hours per day, with the likelihood of increased overall distances adding to the total swim time. We could not hope to achieve this kind of speed and endurance. Moreover, our plan to cross the major bays directly, reducing overall distance to 120km, demanded swim distances of up to 11 nautical miles (20km) – the success of such crossings would be dependent upon making best use of the tidal movements each day. Good planning was essential.

We therefore planned to make best use of the flooding (rising) tide, swimming around the island from Rhoscolyn to Beaumaris (days 1-2 and the start of day 3). From Beaumaris (on day 3), the ebbing (dropping) tide would carry us down the Menai Strait to Llanddwyn Island. The final section of coastline, from Llanddwyn to Rhoscolyn is exposed to the weakest tidal streams, with only limited assistance on a flooding tide.

With good timings, and a commitment to constant effort during our swim sessions, we substantially achieved our goals in terms of tidal assistance.

Swim around Anglesey: Part 3

The Swim Day 3: Penmon Point to Llanddwyn Island 

Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: light NW winds throughout the day 

The 6.30am alarm call arrived all too soon, en route to a 9am arrival at Penmon. After eight hours sleep, I was relieved that the feeling of illness had left me and that my positive mantra had taken effect. I woke in good spirits, ready to roll. John looked good too and was psyched to get in the water. Greer had rejoined us for kayak support and we had arranged to meet John Willacy at Penmon. John W, fresh from a 72-day sea kayak odyssey around the UK, is ‘Mr. Menai Strait’, years of training having produced an encyclopaedic knowledge of the shifting tides of this complex channel. If we needed guidance on this day, John was ‘the man’.

We were swimming again by 9.15am, the flood tide carrying us swiftly into the Straits as we left Puffin Island behind. John & John immediately formed a partnership, with JW expertly guiding JJ through the swirling currents of the approach to Beaumaris. I took too wide a line at the start, imagining I knew better, and spent a good thirty minutes working hard to catch ‘The Johns’ as they powered south west. I also felt a little pressured to make good time during the early part of this day. The tidal movements in the Straits are fascinating, with the flood tide pouring in through both entrances at roughly the same time. Towards the end of the rising tide, the meeting point migrates around the NE end of the Straits between Bangor and Penmon. Start at the wrong time, swim at the wrong speed and we could waste precious energy ‘pushing tide’ – or worse, get the wrong side of the ‘hump’ as the ebb began and be unable to continue. We had precise target locations for each of our first three hours, and were determined to meet them. So I swam on after John and trusted that we’d got our sums right.

In the end, it all went swimmingly – we worked hard for an hour to reach Beaumaris and suddenly we were zooming past Gallows Point on the flood’s last gasp. Another hour of honest effort in slack water took us to Bangor Pier, and a third 60-minute shift saw us swimming into the tiny bay just north of Menai Bridge as the ebb built in speed through the pillars of Telford’s famous suspension bridge. It had taken us 3 hours of steady swimming to cover 15km.

There was a small reception committee waiting for us – a physio friend of John’s from the hospital (whose lunch I ate), and a team of nurses from the local hospital waving a Welsh flag from the bridge. We felt quite the celebrities. After half an hour of faffing around, it was time to get back in and cover some more ground. John and I had been looking forward to this section – our regular training ground, the exciting white water of the Swellies and our ‘home crowd’ on the wall outside the local pub as we swam past Felinheli. Matt filmed us through the most exciting sections of white water, then we settled down for the long haul to the end of the Straits.

We had timed the tides to perfection and carried a strong ebb stream south west past Felinheli and on towards Caernarfon. Our mate Wayne suddenly appeared in a power boat, cruising around as we made our way past the National Water Sports Centre. Barry also unexpectedly arrived to join the team of support kayakers and we began to take on the appearance of a flotilla. In fact, we had expected John W to bid farewell as we passed Menai Bridge, but he seemed settled in for the duration, pacing John J as we headed on toward the end of the Straits at Abermenai Point. The various waypoints came and went, John assuring us that his shoulder was holding up without too much pain.

It was clear, however, that fatigue was setting in for both of us as our total swim time for the day passed five and a half hours. We swam past Foryd Bay south of Caernarfon, our last realistic stopping point before the final slog to Llannddwyn Island. If we fell short of our target now, we faced either an awkward hike to the road across the extensive sand dunes of Anglesey’s south coast, or an equally tedious swim into the beach at Newborough. As we swam out through the entrance to the Menai Strait and rejoined the open sea, we were struck by the sudden and noticeable increase in water temperature – not exactly a hot tub, but welcome nonetheless. We abandoned the plan to land in the narrows, John declaring his intention to keep swimming for the day’s finish line without a break. I suspected that his shoulder was in fact causing him pain, his technique beginning to falter a little as each stroke was begun with less arm extension. JW stuck faithfully with him however, clearly unwilling to abandon his responsibility, and shaped a course to make best use of the now-weak tide as we swam across the waves of Newborough Bay towards the old lighthouses of Llanddwyn’s rocky SW tip. 6km after leaving the Menai Strait, at 1645 and after seven hours total swim time, we waded ashore together.

The light winds, sunshine and welcoming faces were a blessing and we changed into our ‘land clothes’ on the warm sand with a contented feeling of achievement. We had covered a total distance of 36km, swimming the entire length of the Menai Strait – and more – in one day. Fantastic!

Removing our wetsuits, however, forced us to confront the worrying reality of our worsening injuries. In addition to John’s shoulder, both our necks were now inflamed masses of angry broken skin, despite all our attempts to protect them from further damage. Exposure to the air brought an intense discomfort and as we rinsed the angry red burns in fresh water, we gritted our teeth with the pain. The prospect of another day inside our wetsuits was an uncomfortable thought.

Nevertheless, our spirits were lifted by the clearly visible outline of the islands of Rhoscolyn, 18km away the the north west. We had now completed over 100km of the Anglesey coastline and felt absolutely certain that we would succeed in our challenge. The support kayakers headed home, Greer dashing back to Scotland after a sterling effort in keeping us company for over 80km of our journey. Barry gave me a lift back to Penmon to collect my van and when I remembered it was his birthday, I phoned the rest of the team to arrange a pub meal in Menai Bridge.

We arrived to find John embroiled in a fractious debate with the waitress over the exact specification of his ordered burger and chips. In my weakened condition, his demands made no sense at all to me and when his ‘food of champions’ finally arrived it seemed to bear no resemblance to his stated requirements. He ate it without complaint. Everything was becoming a little surreal to me, the combined effects of three days intense work and immersion beginning to play games with my mind. We headed home for more food, treatment for our injuries and rest. I finally fell into a deep sleep, convinced we had the final prize in our grasp.

Swim around Anglesey: Part 2

The Swim Day 2: Point Lynas to Penmon Point

Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: calm morning conditions, becoming SW, increasing to Force 4-5 in the afternoon 

The 5am alarm woke me from a too-brief sleep. Slumped over a mug of hot chocolate in the kitchen, as the toaster fired a barrage of bagels onto my plate, I simply could not believe that we were going to swim again today. The few hours rest had scarcely refreshed me. I felt exhausted and anxious about my capacity to complete the challenge we had set for ourselves this day. Our late night planning had produced the decision to make the committing move of swimming offshore directly to our next target of Puffin Sound, at the north east entrance to the Menai Strait. I wondered if I really could do it.

The east coast of Anglesey, from Point Lynas to Puffin Sound, is 11 nautical miles (20km) as the crow flies – or as the seal swims. However, the coastline falls away to the south in a great scoop past Moelfre, before heading east again past Red Wharf Bay and Table Head. The inshore route would add another 5km to our swim and, worse, markedly reduce the tidal assistance we could expect if we stayed offshore. This ‘safe’ option guaranteed to double our swim time for the east coast to around nine hours. We didn’t fancy this at all.

By taking the ‘outside’ route, however, we had to commit to a 20km open water swim that would take us over three nautical miles offshore at the halfway point. There would be nowhere to stop en route and we would simply have to maintain a good pace to carry the tide all the way to our destination. The forecast tempted us with a weather window of light winds in the morning and a possibly flat sea state that would assist our speed. We had debated it, considered the options and had finally committed to the hopefully winning move of taking the offshore route.

Now, driving up the east coast of the island back to Point Lynas, I was fearful of getting in the water. Our view to the right revealed the expanse of open water we planned to cross, an intimidating sight at this early hour. John seemed tired, but also appeared determined and pretty upbeat. I felt he had taken confidence from the success of the first day. On arriving at Porth Eilan, I fell asleep again. John woke me and instructed me to put my wetsuit on, which was dripping in the bucket where I had dumped it the previous night. My low mood was compounded by the temporary loss of my ear plugs, a vital piece of kit for my water- sensitive ear drums. Realising Matt had last had them in his possession, I stomped off along the footpath to the previous night’s rocky landing, muttering darkly about my ‘support’. It was inexcusable and unappreciative behaviour, but an accurate reflection of my state of mind and sense of fatigue immediately prior to the start of our second day. Thankfully, Matt found them in his pocket, saving my – and his – morning.

Our support kayakers had changed for this day. Chris was replaced by Sid, whose cheerful encouragement would be much needed in the hours ahead. Greer, after a marathon first day, gave up the rear seat of the double to Marcus, whose non-stop verbal entertainment would keep Matt awake throughout the swim session. Again, we were privileged to have another high quality team to assist us.

John and I scrambled down the rocks on the west side of Porth Eilan, ready to take the plunge at the exact spot that we had exited the water ten hours earlier. Without delay John dived in and began swimming across the bay towards the small tide race that had formed off Point Lynas at the start of the flood. It was 0715, fifteen minutes later than our intended start time and we needed to get on with it. I dived in after him and instantly all my reluctance was washed away by the cold water. It was transforming, the grim prospect of the day ahead was replaced by an exciting reality. As we bounced through the waves of Point Lynas I felt inspired to swim as far as I possibly could. John was looking steady, briefly swept into the eddy under the headland but soon directed back on track by Sid.

During the first day I had received a message of encouragement from my friend Richard. He knew I was feeling anxious about the days ahead and sent me some important technique advice: ‘keep telling yourself, “I’m a dolphin”’ said the text. I remembered his words as we plunged through the waves and into the calmer waters of the east coast.

We had planned to swim east, well away from the coastline as the flood tide began to take us south. A few kilometres down the coast, the stone tower on the rocky island of Ynys Dulas made a useful reference point and a waypoint for our first big decision of the day. We aimed to reach a point about a kilometre due east of the island and then either commit to the open crossing or to begin heading south for the inshore waters near Moelfre.

We flew down to our target, my turn to lead the way, and it was an easy decision to continue with Plan A. Conditions were good, we were moving well and were well placed in the tide to make best use of the flood towards Puffin Sound. We went for it.

The first three hours of the swim passed without incident. With no nearby landmarks and a relatively calm sea, only the distant North Wales mountains caught the eye, with the occasional distant smudge of Puffin Island to spur us on. I fell into a trance-like state, complete immersion in the water broken only by a turn of the head to catch a breath every few strokes. I seemed to disappear into a near-meditative state, the hours passing without any real sense of their duration. When Sid or Marcus called the breaks, I was surprised to find it was time already to take food and drink. The only distraction during this spell was our ‘swim-by’ of an anchored tanker, waiting for the tide into Liverpool. I wondered what its crew thought as we passed within a hundred metres of their ship.

After three hours, our serene aquatic journey became a bumpy road once more. It was now after 1015 and the SW wind had begun to fill in. As we crossed the outer limit of Red Wharf Bay a choppy sea kicked up, disturbing our rhythm and slowing the pace a little. The tide also began to weaken and it became clear that the final kilometres to Puffin Sound would be hard won. Both John and I were also weakening; the effects of our huge first day, lack of sleep and loss of energy resources were beginning to take their toll. We had to dig deep and make the best possible speed however, as we were now racing the arrival of slack water. As the island crawled by and the lighthouse at Penmon Point gradually became more distinct, we were spurred on by the fear of still being offshore when the ebb began. The prospect of being swept back towards Red Wharf Bay was too awful to consider.

As Penmon drew near, the green buoy of the Ten Foot Bank passed on our starboard side. We still had a gentle flood stream towards Puffin Island, but now had to swim across the current towards Anglesey itself. Our final destination, the beach next to the lighthouse, seemed to be permanently beyond our reach and it was hard to predict just how long it would take to finish the swim. I suddenly stopped swimming and floated upright in the water – though I had not told my body to do this. I set off again, puzzled, and within a minute I stopped again. Frustrated, I ploughed on and for a third time my body stopped swimming. What was happening to me? I wasn’t sure, but thought that my subconscious mind was maybe acting as some kind of protective mechanism for the body. Well I wasn’t having that, and anyway this wasn’t getting me to the beach in any kind of style.

Seeking a solution, I came up with the classic goal setting ploy – noticing that the huge limestone headland Great Orme far away to my left was beginning to disappear behind the much nearer Puffin Island, I told myself to watch for the moment when the Orme was lost from view and ordered my body to keep on swimming. Every eighth stroke I checked my progress as I took a breath on my left. The Orme disappeared! I quickly chose a new goal to my left and watched for the moment when my selected headland reappeared. It worked, I kept swimming, and eventually arrived within the final 200 metres of the beach.

John was now a couple of hundred metres behind, Sid alongside him. I needed desperately to reach the beach and put on a final burst to finally feel limestone pebbles under my feet. I crawled out the water, shivering uncontrollably, and collapsed on the rocks as Marcus began to bury me under a mountain of fleeces, down jackets and waterproofs.

John soon arrived, equally incapacitated, and wandered around in a daze until Sid helped him into warm clothing. We had reached Penmon at 1145, fifteen minutes before high water slack. After four and a half hours in the water, we were just in time.

Sat on the beach with Sid and Marcus, the first day’s post-swim euphoria returned with even greater intensity. We had completed our 20km open crossing, the longest and most committing section of the entire Anglesey coastline, further offshore than at any other point in the journey. We had nailed the east coast, a potential nine-hour slog slashed in half. We had swum it in style, had struggled for the last hour, but had completed the crossing in close to our target time. We had now ticked off 65km of our 120km journey and were over half way home. Best of all, we did not have to swim again today and could look forward to an evening of rest and recovery in preparation for the final two or three days. We needed the break: after four hours sleep on the eve of the challenge, we had swum for eleven and a half hours in three sessions, with only five hours sleep between day one and day two – all within a total elapsed time of only thirty hours. No wonder we were wrecked.

Our paramedic friend Sam suddenly appeared on the beach. It was time to go home and he was here to drive us back to our vehicles at Point Lynas – and not, thankfully, to provide his professional services. While John and Matt waited with the kayaks, Sam and I sorted the shuttle before all heading home to recover. I knew this would be no easy task and had begun to grow concerned about a problem that was affecting both John and me. During our first swim session, the thinner swimming wetsuits had begun to chafe at the backs of our necks, the constant rubbing of neoprene against bare skin, leaving an inflamed, painful area. Despite switching to more familiar warmer wetsuits, and despite protecting the area with creams, oils and rash vests, the damage had intensified during the second day. Not especially uncomfortable during the swim, our necks became extremely tender once we stripped out of our wetsuits and had deteriorated visibly. They looked a mess and felt worse.

Of equal concern was a nagging pain in John’s left shoulder. A slight training injury sustained earlier in the year had become aggravated towards the end of the the east coast crossing and had begun to give John discomfort. Thankfully, we had access to the best sports massage and physiotherapy services in North Wales, the cavalry arriving in the form of Andy and Zac (Snowdonia Sports Medicine). Together they massaged us into better shape and applied rolls of ‘magic tape’ to John’s shoulder, fixing it in a stable position and – hopefully – setting him up for a successful third day.

We also ate industrial quantities of food and poured gallons of rehydrating fluids into our bodies. I felt that we had not adequately refuelled at the end of our first day and could clearly feel the hollow sensation of calorie depletion. I was determined to put the fuel back in my body and settled down to an evening of binge eating.

We also needed to plan our next day carefully. We had arrived at the entrance to the Menai Straits and its complex tidal streams – while we had the chance to capitalise on these swift currents, it was equally possible to make a complete mess of it and lose hours through poor timing and route choice. We had studied the tidal stream atlas for the Menai Strait carefully, calculating our likely swim speed and timings for key waypoints through the entire length of the Straits. We had also elected to put ourselves under pressure – again – by aiming to swim the full 36km from Penmon to Llanddwyn Island, at the start of the south west coast of Anglesey and 6km beyond the entrance to the Straits. We felt it necessary to try for this target, as it would be impossible to swim out of the SW end of the Straits unless we had a favourable ebbing tide. If we did not achieve this goal on day three, we would have to wait until the afternoon of the fourth day for the next daylight ebb tide, scuppering our plans to complete the circumnavigation in our best possible time. We discussed John’s shoulder injury and agreed that it would be acceptable, if necessary, to take an extra day to reach Rhoscolyn. We selected decision points at which we would review his condition.

I also had a serious word with myself about my psychological frame of mind. I had found the start of the first two days very difficult, the prospect of the journey ahead rather overwhelming to me. It was a stress-inducing experience and I was determined to change my attributions for the better, especially after an anxiety-filled night that had sapped my energy before the second day. I resolved to wake up in a positive frame of mind, to bring new energy to the group and to look forward to the day ahead. I knew it would all be good once I was in the water, so I only had pull myself together for the first two hours. And anyway, it was our backyard – familiar waters, fast tides and a swim past our home village. Bring it on!