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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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.

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.

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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.

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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…

 

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

Sea kayak crossings: an Aegean odyssey

In Autumn 2005 I spent two weeks sea kayaking with Rod Feldtmann of Sea Kayak Milos, a personal trip across the Aegean Sea from Athens to Turkey. This was my first sea kayaking adventure in the eastern Mediterranean and the experience was unforgettable. A couple of years later, I wrote an article for Ocean Paddler describing the trip. Here it is.

An Aegean Odyssey

The still-distant cliffs of Amorgos rose and fell behind dark grey swells as a 20-knot NE wind blew hard across our course. Fifty kilometres downwind lay the volcanic island of Santorini; upwind, nothing save a few scattered Greek islets, until the Turkish mainland. With forty kilometres under our kayaks already today, mostly upwind, we were tired. The sun fell in the sky behind us; perhaps another couple of hours before we lost the light.

Departing the sheltering mid-crossing islets of Antikaros, we paddled into the waves, blades snatching in the wind as our bows crashed from crest to trough. Pete began to diverge from the group, taking a more comfortable line through the heaving sea that obscured our target. Within a minute he was fifty metres from our group.

“Nick! Where the hell’s Pete off to?” yelled Rod over the wind. “You’ve been keeping an eye on him this week. Go get him back!”

I paddled to join Pete and looked back for the others. Already they were hidden among the swells. As I cajoled Pete to take a more downwind course, I considered the challenge of the crossing ahead. Eight days into our planned transit of the Aegean Sea, this combination of commitment and fatigue was creating an uncertain situation. With no land to leeward, we could ill afford any deterioration in the conditions. I longed for the next two hours to pass uneventfully, for the chance to regroup on Amorgos.

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This Greek adventure began with a speculative email to my friend Rod, who runs a sea kayak guiding business on the Greek Cycladic island of Milos. An ebullient go-getting Aussie with a “she’ll be right” attitude to all things sea kayaking, Rod had planned an ambitious 500km trans-Aegean kayaking route, linking 20-plus island crossings between mainland Greece and Turkey.

The Aegean Sea is a huge, deep basin of over 200,000 square kilometres, a watery gulf between Europe and Asia Minor. Scores of islands lie as scattered stepping stones between the two worlds. Reaching for the atlas, I traced an island-hopping odyssey from west to east; the urge to experience this journey was immediately irresistible. Rod’s invitation to join the trip demanded perhaps a half-second hesitation before I was clicking the “send” button and booking my easyJet flight to Athens.

Thus, on the last day of October 2005 I found myself watching a startling tonnage of ferry traffic negotiating the unfeasibly narrow entrance to Piraeus, Athens’ harbour and the busiest port in the eastern Mediterranean.

Rod’s arrival, in a beaten-up Peugeot 205 layered in a thick film of Milos dust and sporting no discernable rear suspension, suggested that his exuberant attitude also included automotive matters. I breathed a silent prayer for the condition of my sea kayak that Rod was providing for the trip.

A speedy rattle through the back streets of Piraeus brought us to a south-facing beach hemmed in by sprawling apartment blocks. Here, loitering among our fleet of sea kayaks at the water’s edge – and clearly ready to go – was the rest of the team.

Brief introductions during a speed-packing session offered snapshot impressions of my companions for the next two weeks: Pete and Justin, a couple of athletic-looking Aussies; Jon, a young UK sea kayaker; Peter, a dry-witted northerner of uncertain age; and, of course, Rod. Immersed to my armpits in the hatches of a borrowed sea boat, I was unable to gain any clearer picture of my new paddling mates before launching into the warm waters of the Saronic Gulf.

And off we set, the team maintaining a cracking pace across the huge bay south of Athens, on a beeline for the Olympic sailing harbour. A light headwind rippled the sea as we glided along the Attica peninsula, gradually escaping the vast urban sprawl of downtown Athens. Eager to complete the 60km of this mainland “warm up”, we paddled on into the evening in idyllic conditions, as the sun slid into the mirror-like waters of the Saronic Gulf. Our first camp, amid straggling bushes at the head of a dusty beach, gave us the satisfying prospect of the now-distant lights of Athens away to the northwest.

The next morning, still beautifully calm, saw us reach Attica’s south tip. Our departure from the mainland followed a visit to the 2500-year old cliff-top ruins of Poseidon’s Temple, an essential place of worship for early mariners and a fitting lunch stop for us before venturing on towards the still-distant Aegean islands. Offshore at last, a 16km crossing in calm waters to the seemingly-deserted island of Kea made a suitably peaceful end to our second day afloat.

Rod also enlivened the day with a demonstration of mid-paddle comfort breaks, flopping into the briny to thrill the fishes before scrambling aboard again, cowboy-style over the rear of his kayak. The rest of the team, clearly accustomed to colder waters, resorted to trusty “pee bottles” rather than take the big dip. Our concerns at the jagged edges of Justin’s hastily-improvised Evian bottle were forgotten once Jon revealed, some days later, that the mug from which he enjoyed his evening brew served a double purpose throughout the day. For some reason this revelation particularly unsettled the Aussies. Perhaps the sight of him dunking his Chocolate Bourbon into the scalding liquid was too much for them…

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The days slid by as we paddled south, deeper into the Cyclades chain.
Kea, Kythnos, Serifos, Sifnos, Antiparos – each day brought a new crossing and a new island experience. The balmy conditions of the early days gave way to unsettled, autumnal weather – an increasing NE breeze created choppy cross-wind seas between the islands with messy reflected waves greeting our arrival off each headland.

Team Australia suffered the first casualty on day four as we surfed downwind before an ugly squall that raced us to Kastro’s sheltering harbour on Serifos’ east coast. Justin, clearly new to such conditions, finally embraced the elements as a wave lurched unexpectedly under his boat. Swiftly rescued, he determinedly battled into calmer waters as we offered varyingly supportive observations and suggestions.

Camped that evening in distinctly un-Mediterranean temperatures, we discussed the likely challenges ahead and the ability of our team to meet them. Rod’s plan, while commendably ambitious, had allowed little scope for delay. A daily distance of around 35km – a reasonable target given the modest cruising speed of our Rainbow Laser kayaks – would require all fourteen available days to reach the Turkish mainland. It was also clear that Pete and Justin, despite world-class outrigger canoe skills, were pretty new to this game and, if not buckling under the strain, were certainly finding the conditions taxing. A lengthy debate produced a considered decision and a subtle plan for the days ahead: “keep going until it all goes pear-shaped”.

The discussions had also thrown up another fascinating revelation. Rod, our man in Greece, had arrived some years ago on the island of Milos as a gold-seeking geologist. Having failed to unearth the real stuff, he had stumbled across a far more precious gem in the shape of Petrinela, a beautiful islander who had caused him to forget his original quest. Thus, the sea kayak business had been an inventive project for his new island-based existence. Work and family commitments, however, had reduced the available time for our Aegean adventure to a minimum – Rod was clearly under the cosh and had a must-make ferry booked for Milos several days hence. As the wind blew across the restless sea, I began to sense the true commitment of this trip.

All sea kayak journeys develop their own unique character; this one was no exception. Committing paddling days, combining 16-20km crossings and long unbroken stretches of limestone cliffs, typically ended in the calmer waters of protected inlets, hiding peaceful fishing villages at their heads. Here lay the fleshpots of civilisation that weary sea kayakers craved: deserted beach bars, abandoned for the winter, provided grassy terraces upon which to pitch tents; village stores allowed daily restocking with fresh bread and local delicacies; taverna owners, hoping for a little late-season trade, supplied vast Greek salads and fresh-caught fish, washed down with the produce of the islands’ vineyards. Accustomed to sea kayak journeys in more isolated environments, I found myself questioning the virtues of wilderness paddling compared to the delights of this Aegean gastronomic odyssey.

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Seven days into the journey we reached the 8km sound between Paros and Naxos. This central region of the Cyclades group is notorious for the strength of the prevailing Meltemi wind; sure enough, our progress from Athens had been marked by a daily increase in breeze. Indeed, we had spent the morning battling a rising headwind as we paddled north up the east coast of Paros, snatching refuge wherever possible as we inched towards the final sheltering headland.  Hunkered down in the lee of Marpissa’s harbour wall, we gazed across a wasteland of tumbling wave crests towards Naxos’ distant shore as a 25-30kt crosswind turned the sea to foam.

For the first time since leaving Athens we risked losing momentum, this stormy crossing threatening to bar our progress east. I felt conflicting emotions; my desire to take on the wild conditions was tempered by concern for some of my fellow group members. My uncertainties were short-lived; with confidence enough for all of us, Rod announced our impending departure.
“This’ll be interesting”, I mused as we covered the final kilometre of protected water. House-sized waves surged past as we organised ourselves under the cliffs. Pairing up with Pete and Justin, Rod and I paddled out into the sound.
“If this goes wrong, it’ll go in the first kilometre”, I assured myself, gauging the effort required to make a rescue, set up a tow and regain the protection of Paros. I didn’t dare consider the implications of a mid-crossing incident.

Boom! I needn’t have worried, for only 300 metres into the sound a huge wave bore down on us, its foaming crest catching Pete square in the chest. He disappeared downwind, buried in a wall of water. Spinning to surf after him, I could hear Pete long before the wave released him.
“Yeah!” he roared, still upright, still stroking determinedly towards Naxos. I grinned in relief; maybe we would get away with this wildly exciting crossing. Two hours later, I was still grinning as we surfed down Paxos’ west coast in a solid 30kt tailwind, competing for rides on the bigger sets.

That evening, camped among sheltering bushes at the head of a beautiful crescent beach, we lazed around a driftwood fire, recalling our near misses and great waves. It seemed that nothing could prevent our onward progress towards Turkey. The next day, we figured, would be an easy paddle to Amorgos…

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And so, that next evening, we finally reached the sheltering inlet on the south tip of Amorgos as the last rays of light illuminated the water ahead.  Weary from a twelve-hour day battling headwinds through the Little Cyclades, we beached our kayaks with relief and pitched camp on windswept gravel at the head of the beach. Too tired to discuss plans, sleep came quickly that night.

Daybreak arrived with news from Rod that the wind had, if anything, gained strength during the night. The nylon fabric pressed against my face offered an equally accurate forecast. A breakfast meeting gave the chance to review our physical condition: all minor aches and pains were forgotten at the appalling sight of Pete’s weeping sores, his sides chafed bare under the waistband of his shorts. Eight days of Aegean exposure had not been kind to Pete’s delicate skin. These soggy craters vied for attention with his fantastically blistered hands that now attempted to provide first aid to the rest of his tattered body. As the horrified team gazed silently at this sorry spectacle, Peter found the words that eluded the rest of us:
“By ‘eck Pete, for a trained athlete you’re a f***ing mess!”

Improving conditions later that morning allowed us to reach the sheltering waters of Katapola, where we agreed to spend the remainder of the day. Tiredness forgotten, we played tourists among the bars and restaurants of this welcoming village. Save for three flotilla yachts tied up to the stone harbour wall, we appeared to be the only travellers in town. Rod obtained a forecast for the week ahead, with the happy news that we could expect calmer conditions as we paddled east. Fears that Amorgos would be the end of our Aegean adventure were dispelled and we looked forward to the next, most committing section of the journey with renewed confidence.

Twenty four hours later we had exchanged the comforts of village life for a barren, rocky beach at the north tip of Amorgos, surrounded by towering limestone peaks and equally mountainous stacks of driftwood. An exhilarating white water ride beneath overhanging sea cliffs, swept along on the decaying swell, had taken us to this distant edge of the Cyclades chain. 80km beyond lay the island of Kalymnos, part of the Dodecanese group and our final stepping stones to the Turkish mainland. Two rocky islets, Kinaros and Levitha, rose sheer from the ocean to provide the only landings in this eastern expanse of the Aegean. Climbing to the top of a nearby peak, Rod and I gazed at our objectives and muttered the same hope: “give us two calm days.”

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A restless night gave way to a 5am start, afloat before daylight and beyond the huge sea cliffs of Amorgos’ northern tip as the sun cleared the horizon. With a gentle swell beneath our boats, we absorbed the inspiring view before turning to our task: the 25km crossing to Kinaros. Poseidon was in an indulgent mood as we cruised effortlessly toward the calm waters of this isolated islet. We rafted beneath its cliff-bound southern shore and speculated on the likelihood of a landing place. A hidden inlet produced a remarkable surprise: a tiny shingle beach between guarding cliffs, a driftwood shack, chicken coop and an old couple, visibly startled at the arrival of this international paddling team.

One more 10km hop took us to the south east corner of Levitha, where we scratched around for a suitable camp site among bushy limestone terraces. A brief hike to the summit of this small island revealed an almost unbroken seascape, with no sign of Kalymnos on the hazy horizon, still 35km distant.

The next dawn found us at the eastern tip of Levitha as the first rays of light lit up the horizon ahead. Already a fresh northerly breeze blew across our course, creating waves that slapped noisily against our hulls. Aiming a few degrees upwind to compensate the likely drift, we began the crossing. With no visible land ahead we followed a careful course, ticking off rest breaks each hour. Mid-crossing, as the hills of Kalymnos began to appear ahead, the monotony was enlivened by a passing freighter that seemed determined to match our every course change. The irony was not lost on us as we sought to avoid a collision on this otherwise empty ocean. Finally, we watched our would-be pursuer pass 100m astern, with not a sign of life anywhere on deck.

Kalymnos continued to play cat and mouse among the clouds; distant hills gradually took detailed shape, white smudges became villages and inshore boat traffic began to cross our course. Eight weary hours after departing Levitha, we finally beached our kayaks and set off in search of the nearest celebratory drink. Nothing now could stop us reaching Turkey.

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Two days later, our final day afloat, such confidence was but a memory as Rod sat alongside the Greek naval vessel that had just intercepted our course. Departing the final stepping stone of Pserimos, our beeline route for the Turkish mainland – tantalisingly visible only 10km distant – had taken us past a Greek military outpost. The sight of a sentry racing from his observation post was alarming enough; before we could discuss a plan, the roar of diesel engines brought our challengers into view. No grasp of the language was necessary to understand the outcome of Rod’s discussion: shaken heads and arms pointed in the direction of Kos told their own story. Deflated, we turned our kayaks and headed back towards Greece.

Ashore in Kos town, it seemed that we had reached the end of the road. Turkey was a one-hour paddle across the Skandari strait; it might have been the dark side of the Moon so far as the Greek military was concerned. The game was up; or so I thought, not reckoning on the “never say die” Aussie spirit. Pete and Justin triumphantly returned from their meeting with the harbour police, clutching permission papers for the crossing. We raced around the harbour to the customs’ office, stamped our passports and charged back to the beach on a wave of euphoria. An hour later, we were disbelievingly sipping Turkish beer, our quest to cross the Aegean complete.

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That evening, we began our farewells. Pete and Justin remained in Kos, en route to Istanbul, while the rest of us boarded the overnight ferry back to Athens. It seemed strange to be cruising, in fifteen hours, what had taken the previous two weeks to paddle. As I reflected on our adventures afloat, I realised how little I had known of the Aegean before I began the trip. With no expectations upon arriving in Athens, my impressions of the islands, and the kayaking between them, had been hugely impressive. Rod’s imaginative plan and excellent leadership, combined with the fine company of my team members made the entire experience unforgettable. I will return to paddle the Aegean again one day.

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Nick Cunliffe spent two weeks crossing the Aegean Sea in November 2005 with Rod Feldtmann, Peter Roscoe, Jon Hunter, Peter Avery and Justin Gallager.

Rod is the owner of Sea Kayak Milos, specialising in sea kayaking holidays to this magnificent island in the Greek Cyclades.