Chapter 14 – South Coast of England
Before I left someone suggested that after a while the coastline would all look rather similar – a bit boring. I have been fascinated by the variety of landscape around our shores – we live on a collection of very beautiful islands.
I awoke to more rain! A F4 to 5 south-westerly helped to blow me to Margate and North Foreland where I caught the tide around the corner to Ramsgate. I was into the wind now and struggled across Sandwich Bay stopping for lunch on the shingle beach which gave some shelter in the grim weather. I could see seas breaking on Goodwin Sands and a fleet of yachts racing in the Straits despite the atrocious weather. I was close now to South Foreland and one of the most recognisable features of the coastline of the U.K., the white cliffs of Dover and the gateway to the south coast. The weather had not improved, the tide was due to turn and I decided that to risk crossing the entrance to the world’s busiest ferry port in such conditions was not a good idea. The frequency of the ferries crossing the Straits of Dover is astonishing and the seaway is like a major crossroads with shipping travelling at speed in all directions. St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe provided an ideal refuge and I recruited the help of two young boogie boarders to help me carry my kayak above the high water mark. As I got myself sorted a couple of local paddlers headed down the beach with playboats for a surf. They stopped for a chat and Shaun in particular seemed fascinated by my adventure. They had recently purchased sea kayaks and were intending on doing some expeditioning. I urged him to pursue his dream of doing a long trip and I have a feeling he will. I camped beside a curious wooden building designed and built by the local school of architecture under the auspices of the Prince’s Trust. Like an upturned boat it is beautifully crafted and provided an ideal shelter from the cool wind for my tent and I sat on the front veranda in the dark typing my diary and eating my dinner watching the brightly lit ferries, like floating palaces ply across the Channel.
I received a text from Fiona Whitehead – she had finished her circumnavigation of the mainland of the U.K. and Ireland the previous day. We had been keeping in regular contact via text and I was delighted for her. Only a team of three men had completed the same journey before so she was the first
Despite rain in the night, the day dawned clear and bright and the wind had gone. Feeling smug, I knew it had been a good move stopping when I did and I enjoyed clear views of the French coast as I had my breakfast. The Straits were already busy with traffic and when I rang the Coastguard I asked about special procedures for crossing the double entrance to the Port of Dover. I did not want to have to give it the mile and a half wide berth to pass uninterrupted – I reasoned I would be much safer passing close in to the harbour walls. I was instructed to call up Dover Port Control on Channel 74 VHF as I approached. It was fascinating listening to the radio traffic – as busy as any airport and when I heard them mention a canoeist approaching from the east I called up and requested permission to cross the harbour entrance. I was advised that they would send a launch out to escort me and a short while later I was sat on the wash of the Harbour Patrol vessel as we entered the huge harbour beneath the white cliffs crowned by DoverCastle. We had to wait momentarily for the SeaCat to enter before I left via the western entrance and I thanked the Port Radio Operator for his assistance. That had been very straightforward but it had relied upon me knowing the correct procedure and being willing to use my radio. By being professional myself, I had got the right response from the Port Authority and the Radio Operator wished me a safe voyage.
The tide was flowing hard along the western wall of the harbour and I had to sprint to make any headway. The stone wall was lined with fishermen that prevented me from keeping close in out of the flow. At last I regained and worked my way past the manmade shoreline to Folkstone. Major works were being undertaken along the beach towards the rather exclusive resort of Sandgate. A couple of women in their thirties were just getting settled for a spot of sunbathing and one of them pointed at me and laughed to her friend before whipping off her top to reveal a pair of rather large breasts – I had to look away rather bashfully and I think they enjoyed the effect it had on me and giggled. I should have come out with some sort of wisecrack but as usual I was too slow in thinking up something suitable. It was certainly not something you see everyday whilst circumnavigating in a kayak but it took my mind off the paddling for a while!
The vast shingle spit of Dungeness stretched to the south with the spectre of the nuclear power station at its tip. I followed the curve of steep shingle past Hythe until my progress was halted by the red flags flying above the Range Officer’s hut guarding the adjacent military firing range. Live firing was not due to finish for another four hours and I was reluctant to wait that long. The Range Officer seemed unable to tell me how far offshore I needed to paddle to be out of harm’s way but he said there buoys I could follow. So I headed out to sea but not long after I had passed the first buoy the Range Safety boat which I had unknowingly passed close inshore came over to escort me and I sat on the stern wash doing about ten knots for several miles as the skipper very kindly made sure that I did not stray into the firing line. Even at this speed it seemed to take an age to reach the beach in St Mary’s Bay where I stopped for lunch and relaxed for a while – there was another firing range on the other side of the spit that was also due to finish at 4.30pm so there was no hurry. Despite the bright sunshine the cool breeze soon had me chilled to the point of shivering even though I was surrounded by people sunbathing. I felt rather conspicuous in my long sleeved cag and like some strange marine creature whose habits were governed by the mysterious interaction of wind and tide I soon returned to my native habitat and continued my journey south to the point. The forty five degree slope of shingle, some fifty feet high at low water, was lined with dozens of fishermen whose long beachcaster rods had flung their gear far out into the small surf. I had to stay well out as their lines, like the silken threads from a money spider were almost invisible to the naked eye. There was an audible electric hum coming from the power station and again I encountered huge swirling boils where warm sea water was being forced to the surface from the unprotected outlets. Again fishermen and gulls flocked around the outlets and I wondered just what the long term effect this is having on the environment.
Free to pass by the now closed firing range I headed into Rye Bay where the brightly coloured sails of a large number of kite rigs attached to three wheeled buggies danced in the wind. A couple of fairly handy kite surfers were tearing up and down the shallow surf reminding me that I had been battling a stiff breeze all day. No wonder I was tired and I headed into the entrance to Rye Harbour, the scene of one of the most tragic events in the history of the R.N.L.I.
It was just after 5am on November the 15th 1928 when the crew of the Rye Harbour lifeboat The Mary Stanford responded to the maroon calling them to duty. They were being sent to help the stricken Latvian ship The Alice of Riga struggling in heavy seas off Dungeness. The ironic twist to what happened next is that before the lifeboat actually launched a message was received from another vessel that had been standing by the Latvian ship stating that the crew had been rescued and there was no requirement for further assistance. Conditions were terrible in Rye Bay and it took three attempts to launch the lifeboat which had to be hauled manually over the shingle and across the sand to the sea which at low tide was several hundred metres away. For some reason the recall message by means of flares was not seen by the crew who would have been preoccupied with rowing the lifeboat out through the raging surf and trying to set sail. Lifeboats did not have motors in those days. They spent several hours on the pointless mission and conditions deteriorate further with day break. No-one is sure exactly what happened but for some reason the lifeboat attempted to return to Rye Harbour instead of seeking shelter at Folkstone which was the normal practice in such conditions. The lifeboat capsized just a few hundred metres from shore and all seventeen crew whose average age was just 29, drowned in the surf. The impact on the tiny fishing community was of course immense with no family left untouched by the tragedy. Such was the scale of the disaster that support from the community at large and from lifeboat services around the world was overwhelming and in less than a week over £20,000 had been collected for the dependants fund. Of course questions were asked about the suitability of the boat, equipment and procedures but the fact is that the young men of the Rye Harbour lifeboat gave their lives to help complete strangers and even now, with the finest boats and equipment available, the RNLI crews around the British Isles face similar risks but will put to sea in any weather to save a life.
When I arrived in the harbour entrance it was low tide and whilst I managed to work my way up the mile long cut to the harbour the sticky glutinous grey mud looked very uninviting and I turned around and went back to the beach. There was nothing for it but a long carry and I spent the next half hour lugging kit and hauling the boat across sand and shingle to where it could lie out of reach of the grabbing waves. I had to walk the mile to the harbour to fetch fresh water but enjoyed the evening stroll taking in the information boards that described how the coastline had advanced over a mile since Napoleonic times leaving the Martello tower stranded inland. The wide expanse of WinchelseaBeach was now a nature reserve and a party of birdwatchers went into raptures as a short-eared owl glided silently over their heads.
It was dark by the time I had dinner on the go but the full moon and an almost cloud free night sky meant there was sufficient light to see by. I rang Linda who was concerned that the BBC website had described Fiona Whitehead as being the first person the make a solo circumnavigation of the U.K. and Ireland. She had received calls from various members of my support team all concerned at this inaccurate reporting. I knew for a fact that this would not have been of Fiona’s doing. She had never intended her expedition to be a ‘solo’ attempt and had enjoyed the company of paddlers like Tom whom I had met on the west coast of Scotland. I rang Fiona to let her know about the issue and she groaned saying that the media had once again got it wrong. She made the point quite rightly that what she had achieved and what I was trying to achieve wasn’t enough for the media – they wanted to hype it up in some way and accuracy was not a big concern. I had become increasingly disillusioned with their attitude but also knew that they were serving a purpose and I would need to continue to use them to help promote my causes.
It rained again in the night; it was such a common occurrence now that it hardly seems worth mentioning. The arable farmers had been unable to bring in their harvests and were seeking compensation or advance payments of their subsidies. What about the thousands of tourism-related businesses that will have suffered similar drops in revenue I wondered? Listening to the Olympics, the ‘Paula-bashing’ on the Radio seemed to have finally died down now they have a new heroine to worship. Good on you Kelly Holmes – Gold Medal in the 800m! Unfortunately she rather stole the limelight from Ian Wyne who achieved a fantastic bronze in the men’s K1 500m kayak sprint. It had been a highly successful Games for our GB canoeing team and they just did not get the credit or exposure they deserved.
My expedition was becoming the trial of endurance that I feared it might and I woke to the sound of rough seas and a strong south westerly rattling the fly sheet. I dithered about waiting for the tide to come in as I didn’t fancy the prospect of another long carry. Even so I was underway shortly after 9am beginning with a fairly dramatic seal launch down the shingle, timing it nicely to avoid the beach dump. The wind was bang on the nose and progress was again painfully slow although the spontaneous cheer and applause from a group of friends sheltering in the lee of a groyne gave me heart and I battled on. I had to make a decision at Cliffend where the shingle bank gave way to steep crumbling cliffs and a red sign warned of no egress from the beach (presently covered by the tide) for 3 miles. I figured I could make it that far and continued to batter into the steep breaking waves sometimes being forced backwards at an alarming rate. Eventually though 3 hours after leaving Rye and covering just 10 miles I gave in to the wind and landed in a heap through the dumping surf on the steep shingle beach at the eastern end of Hastings sea front. It was time to ask for a bit of help and I had spotted the Hastings Motor Boat and Yacht Club premises at the back of the car park. Their secure compound looked like an ideal place to stow my kayak and pitch the tent. With my best bedraggled sailor look I approached John Noakes, the Club Commodore and he could not have been more obliging. He let me have a key to use the toilet and shower and I used the opportunity to recharge my VHF Radio, mobile phone and iSun battery pack (we hadn’t had a lot of sun recently to get the solar panel working).
I headed into town through the melee of bank holiday visitors to get some cash and make some small purchases. Never has a Kentucky Fried Chicken tasted so good I can tell you! Hastings is an ‘in-your-face’ seaside resort but at the same time is steeped in history – remember 1066? It had a once thriving fishing industry based on herring, mackerel and cod. The tall black tar net shops of Rock-a-Nore are unique to Hastings and the western end of the Stade is lined with fishing boats and their caterpillar tractors used to launch and recover the craft from the beach. With no harbour to speak of, just a bit of a breakwater, it is a dangerous game getting the heavy boats in and out of the water and the traditionally built yawls have specially designed sterns to prevent the boats from becoming swamped in the surf. An excellent Fishermen’s Museum can be found in an old Church and I spent an absorbing couple of hours going through the exhibits. I worked into the late evening catching up on my diary plugging my laptop into an outside socket on the club’s veranda. Sheltering from the heavy showers under the small porch, it was quite atmospheric with the waves crashing on the shingle, the swells lit by the full moon and the rhythmic slap of halyards against masts as the wind refused to die down.
I woke to sunshine but had the wind abated? The straight answer was no but I rang the Coastguard to confirm the forecast. It was still giving a SW 4 to 5 with up to a 6 on exposed headlands. I think Beachy Head falls into that category and after much indecision I decided to remain where I was and make a serious effort to catch up with my diary. The forecast was much better for the next day and I would like to thank the members of the Hastings Motor Boat and Yacht Club once again for their hospitality.
I finally had a good forecast for the next few days. I needed to be at the RNLI College in Poole by 2pm on Friday. It was now Tuesday so I needed to get a move on! Away by 8am, several fishing boats from the Stade were already at sea having left their caterpillar tractors waiting patiently on the beach for their return. The wind could be described as light and variable and there was just the hint of an autumnal chill in the air. Passing the eclectic mix of architecture that makes up the Hastings sea front I knew that I would have fond memories of my short stay there.
Following the suburban shoreline west to Pevensey Bay I passed some very desirable beachfront houses with balconies overlooking the broad bay. Clearly an affluent area, each property was unique and the quality of life for the inhabitants had to be rather good with the ocean as a playground. As I approached Eastbourne a massive development of apartment blocks surrounded the harbour at Langney. It was like the developers had been given a blank canvas and thinking that they had the perfect design had just built more and more of the same. I hate the idea of someone deciding for me how I should live but I guess they sell for good money.
Eastbourne is far more orderly than Hastings. Rank upon rank of groynes march along the beach; regiments of beach huts, smartly painted in uniform colours stand to attention and behind them rows of identical Edwardian apartments and Victorian hotels add a touch of class to the procession.
It was a perfect day for going around Beachy Head. The bright sun and blue sky accentuated the virgin white cliffs that form an almost unbroken line from Eastbourne to Seaford. The red and white lighthouse that stands at the base of the chalk cliff fits one’s perfect image of a lighthouse and demanded a photo stop. I met Caroline Lewsey out on the water. She was messing about in a playboat in the small surf dumping on the shingle beneath the cliffs. It is unusual to see a female out alone on the water and I stopped for a chat. She seemed to quite like the idea of paddling around the country and I told her about Fiona Whitehead’s achievement. I think she might be inspired to do something herself one day.
The only break in the cliffs is where the CuckmereRiver flows from the South Downs into the sea south of Alfriston. The valley and surrounding Downs was the venue for an Ace Race adventure race I took part in last year and it is a very beautiful area.
The cliffs from there to Brighton have been heavily sculpted by man to reduce erosion and as a result have entirely lost their character. The more secluded shingle beaches were the haunt of nudists – mostly men – and I kept well offshore. The huge walls of Brighton Marina reflected the wash from numerous pleasure boats, some very fast and very expensive, and this combined with the chop produced from the stiffening westerly breeze to produce a horrible little bounce that slowed me right down. Brighton is very much ‘a city by the sea’ and there is nowhere else quite like it. It’s the sort of place that would be good for partying with a bunch of friends but not much else.
I was starting to tire now but I was determined to reach Worthing before calling it a day. The entrance to the River Adur looked like it had promising camping potential but I kept on going, past the kite surfers on Shoreham Beach to finally arrive at Worthing after a twelve hour day to find that due to the spring low tide, I had a three hundred metre carry to get my kayak above the high water mark. I found a spot under a covered walkway that meant I would not need to pitch my tent and like a homeless person, I set up my temporary home. Of course I had managed to find the location where the local youths hang out to drink and abuse each other but thankfully they left before too long and I did manage to get some sleep.
It was the first day of September and a perfect day’s paddling started rather un-promisingly with a repeat three hundred metre carry to the water. Thank goodness for the small cart Nigel Dennis had given me. As I stood looking at a barrier of sharp stones preventing me from wheeling the kayak all the way to the sea’s edge, debating whether I should risk my increasingly dodgy back by lifting the kayak on my own, an attractive young woman walking her dog obviously saw my look of helplessness and offered to give me a hand. My immediate macho instinct was to decline her offer but I managed to quell this and replied that I would love her to give me a hand. She explained that her partner was into watersports and she was used to lugging his gear up and down the beach.
The tide was flooding up the English Channel and I fought my way through the thong weed that clogged up the shallows, preferring that to the 2 knot tide offshore. Mile after mile of beach-front properties continued after the River Arun all the way to Bognor Regis. Whilst the town of Bognor and Butlins Holiday Camp are perhaps best avoided, the beach either side is lovely and I admired with envy some imaginatively designed and I dare say extremely expensive beach front houses.
I had arranged to meet Fiona Whitehead at 1pm at Selsey Lifeboat Station. It was already midday and I was beginning to think I was going to be late when right on cue the tide swung in my favour and I found myself racing towards Selsey Bill at quite a rate of knots. I don’t quite understand the way the tide operates in this area as the tide was still rising as it turned 180 degrees and began to flow west back down the Channel. I can only imagine it is the effect of the huge SolentBasin but I certainly wasn’t complaining. Fiona and her parents were waiting as I arrived, right on time. Fiona looked tanned and relaxed after the completion of her expedition. She had purchased a bag full of goodies that she knew I would enjoy including fresh orange juice and fruit. It was good to meet her parents and pick their brains on the double crossing of the Solent and the best place to stop on the southern coast of the Isle of Wight.
Keen to make the most of the tide I left them after an hour and rode the tide race around Selsey Bill. As I turned the corner the Solent the undulating coastline of the Isle of Wight lay before me. Angling across the tide that was flooding into the eastern entrance to the Solent I saw the Nab Lighthouse that Fiona’s father John had accurately described as a ferry that doesn’t move. Using that and some Cardinal buoys as my transits I was able to scoot across the tide towards Bembridge.
I received a text from Linda saying she was feeling a bit ‘wobbly’ having returned home to an empty house. A combination of missing me, much to do before the new school year began and building work going on next door was enough to tip her over the edge. I felt increasingly guilty as I tried to reassure her on the phone but was unable to do anything practical to help. I had been away too long and I knew I would have some serious making-up to do when I finally did get to spend some time at home. I felt even guiltier because, with the improvement in the weather and the fabulous scenery, I was beginning to really enjoy my paddling again after the grind of the last few weeks.
The tide carried me swiftly across to the east coast of the Isle of Wight and by sheer fluke I managed to slot between the fast ferries, coasters, fishing boats and yachts that criss-crossed this busy seaway. A glider hung over Culver Cliff using the updraft to sit motionless high above the deep blue sea. I started eyeing up the long beachfront resorts of Sandown and Shanklin but they did not seem suitable for camping so I rounded Dunnose and found a perfect little beach in Monks Bay at Bonchurch, a peaceful and attractive village favoured by artists and writers for centuries. I tactfully waited until dusk before hammering my tent pegs into the stony ground and settling down for a long sleep – I had no need to rush in the morning having made good progress the last couple of days that ensured that I was well within range of making Poole for Friday. I rang my brother Mark to wish him “Happy Birthday” and said good night to Linda who was off for a night out in St Ives. Huh – so much for missing me!
With a short day in prospect I could afford to relax the following morning and wait for the flood tide to slacken before setting off. I sat on the beach in the hot sun and typed my diary feeling like I was on holiday. By 11.30am I could think of no more excuses to delay my departure and floated out to sea to get a signal on my mobile so I could ring the Coastguard. My phone started buzzing as text messages started coming in and by the time I had rung those people needing to speak to me I had already drifted past Bonchurch. The tide had already turned close inshore although my tidal atlas stated it should be running east for at least another hour.
A lady started waving at me from the sea wall that protects the fragile cliffs from Bonchurch to Ventnor. It was Sally Peake, who had been trying to find me yesterday evening to offer me board and lodging. I knew Sally and her husband Steve through canoeing and it was lovely to see her. She said some very kind things about my expedition and my writing and we chatted about the paddling opportunities on and around the Isle of Wight (of which there are lots). Ventnor with its new haven or harbour is a gorgeous place, facing the sun all day I can imagine it is a very nice place to live and as a resort it remains unspoilt by the cancer of amusement arcades.
The shoreline to St Catherine’s Point is surprisingly wild and remote with lots of small stony beaches that have camping potential but I would recommend not having a leaky ThermaRest like mine. The landslips and solifluction beneath the escarpment that towers above the shore do not seem to have deterred the builders of some huge houses, secreted amongst the woodland, giving the island an air of exclusivity; a hideaway for the rich and famous.
Sally had cycled to the lighthouse at St Catherine’s Point to wave me past and I paused briefly to wave back before following the chaotic jumble of cliffs of ChaleBay. The further you go from the public access points the fewer clothes seem to be worn by the sun worshippers. Or is it themselves that they worship? I had no desire to see that amount of naked flesh and stayed out in the tide which carried me to a stretch of the beach devoid of even the most reticent nudists and had my lunch in the burning sun. It really was a scorcher, the hottest day of summer so far and the heat haze reduced visibility to just a few miles making the next headland seem much further than it really was. After lunch I cruised with the tide past the burnt orange clay cliffs of ComptonBay to the point where their composition changed abruptly to chalk and rose majestically in a series of smooth undulations towards The Needles. I conducted a radio interview for Wave FM whilst sat half a mile offshore wavelets gently lapping the hull of the kayak as I drifted with the tide. Finally the unmistakeable lighthouse at the tip of The Needles came into view and I paused to admire the familiar but still spectacular chalk stacks and the tall, Persil-white cliffs that have been sculpted by Nature’s finest artist. The wafer thin bands of shingle inlaid in the chalk describe the bedding planes that rose and fell with the cliff line above, until curving with a graceful sweep down into the milky, pale blue sea that eddied around the series of sharp of rock pinnacles that punctuate the western tip of the Isle of Wight, ending with an exclamation mark of a lighthouse that warned of the barely hidden reefs at its base. Sat in the eddy to take some photographs I enjoyed looking not only at the remarkable scenery but also at the beautiful boats that passed heading north east up the Solent, west to Poole Harbour, south west out into the English Channel or south east towards St Catherine’sPoint. This nautical crossroads is a great place to see some of the finest craft you will see in UK waters and is why it is so favoured by marine photographers like Ingrid Abery who shot the promotional pictures for my expedition at this same location. Just as I prepared to head out into the tidal stream pouring out of the western Solent I saw a massive yacht bearing down on me. The Bear of Britain is a full-on race machine and the crew of a dozen or so very fit guys were being choreographed by a fellow in a large RIB that followed their every move. It was amazing to see; precision team work borne out of repetition that made each manoeuvre look so fluid and flawless. But the coach clearly wasn’t satisfied and made them go about and do it again.
I headed northwest to Hengistbury Head that forms the spit that protects Christchurch Harbour. I vaguely remember visiting the headland as a child and was intrigued to see it again after all these years. I had lived in Bournemouth for a while as a young child after leaving my birth place in Singapore at the age of two. My memories of the area are clouded by the fog of time but it perhaps explains while I felt very comfortable on this southern shore of England, as if I had ‘come home’. Cornwall was very much my adopted home now but I would never have been so presumptious as to consider myself Cornish and if I am ‘from’ anywhere I guess it is this area since it was here that I spent the majority of my earliest years of childhood.
Collecting some water from a standpipe that services the smart shanty town of beach huts on the spit I found an ideal campsite (or so I thought) in an area of sand dunes beneath the headland. As the sun set over the tower blocks of Bournemouth to the west, the still warm air became alive with the most voracious mosquitoes I have ever encountered. In the short time it took me to do my washing up, pack away my stove and ring Linda from the breakwater – the only place I could get a signal – the message had clearly been passed that there was new meat on the menu and I was being eaten alive! I dived into the sanctuary of my tent and stayed there until day break.
Another gorgeously lazy morning – I had to be at Sandbanks at the entrance to Poole Harbour by 11am and it was only an hour and a half’s paddle away along Bournemouth seafront. I took a stroll up onto the heathland of Hengistbury Head, admiring the views across the serene waters of Christchurch Harbour, catching sight of a bejewelled kingfisher darting across Quarry Pool and swatting away the odd mosquito that had not yet drunk its fill of my blood. I had spent very little ime on land and was somewhat surprised to see that the color of the bracken on the heath was changing from a lush green to a rusty brown. It occurred to me that summer was almost over and that I had begun my journey in early spring, paddled right through summer and now autumn was rapidly approaching.
Bournemouth was unrecognisable to me, more like the Cote D’Azur in places than your typical bucket and spade seaside resort. It is clearly an affluent place and the long beach ends at Sandbanks which apparently is the most expensive bit of real estate in the UK. I had arranged to meet Alex Wade, a freelance reporter who was intending to do an article about my expedition for the Independent on Sunday newspaper. Alex and I had been trying to get together for several months but he is a busy man, writing and selling the rights to Premiership football in the Far East. A former lawyer, his own life story is worthy of a book and it was good to finally meet him. He asked lots of pertinent questions and I found myself rabbiting on – I just hope he could make sense of it all for his article. He had a quick go in the C-Trek and like the accomplished sportsman that he is, he paddled it well and I could see that he quite liked the idea of kayaking across the ocean.
Right on time the IRB from Poole appeared off the beach to escort me up to the RNLICollege. We turned a few heads as I sat on their wash an appropriate distance behind and felt rather important to be given such a privilege. PooleHarbour was incredibly busy with all manner of craft heading out to sea and I don’t think I have ever seen so many boats on the water in one place before. Everywhere you looked there was the glare of white hulls and a forest of masts. The harbourside was packed with wannabe boaties admiring the gin palaces ‘parked’ at their moorings beneath their penthouse apartments. As we passed the complex of factories belonging to the powerboat manufacturer Sunseeker, several members of staff who were putting the final touches to some of the most awesome power boats on the planet gave me a spontaneous cheer and a clap which was nice of them.
The Dorset Police Marine Division RIB cruised past, the two police officers on board looking cool in their shades and polo shirts looking more like actors from Hawaii 5o than police officers (I’m only jealous!)
Finally we ducked under the bridge and arrived at the RNLI College, a spectacular set of buildings designed by Poynton Bradbury costing £18 million and built on the site of an old chemical plant. Waiting on the pontoon were some of the RNLI management including Robin Martin, Jayne George and my liaison; Dave Nichol who had been a huge help in making the expedition happen. It was an honour to be greeted in such fashion. After the inevitable photos I stowed my kayak and booked into the accommodation which had to be seen to be believed. The view of the estuary and marina are fabulous and the facilities are of the highest quality. Dave showed me around the College including the £8 million pound Survival Centre which has a state of the art wave pool designed to accurately simulate conditions at sea so that crews can practice capsize drills and other skills and techniques in realistic conditions. The Survival Centre also houses a simulator that mimics the bridge of a Severn Class lifeboat with a virtual reality screen upon which various scenarios can be played out to allow the crews to practice their responses to each situation. The rest of the College is equally well appointed and the cynics amongst you may wonder whether this all represents value for money having been paid for entirely from voluntary contributions to the charity. The fact is that the College will very quickly become the worldwide centre of excellence for sea survival and rescue training and will generate its own income by training crews from other lifeboat services around the world as well as by providing specialist training for domestic and foreign organisations such as the Fire Service. The RNLI are justifiably proud of their new home and the architects deserve recognition for achieving that difficult balance of beauty and functionality.
I rang Brian Hextor, skipper of the safety boat that, all being well will be following me across the Channel from Portland Bill to Alderney. Having confirmed that they were still available from Monday 6th September for the crossing, we arranged to speak again to confirm timings and the weather forecast.
As I was about to ring Linda to see if she was coming up – she had hoped to but was expecting a delivery at school and didn’t know if she could make it. Just as I dialled her number I spotted our car down in the car park and when I arrived in the foyer Linda was sat with Dave with a broad smile on her face. What a treat it was to see her and I was grateful that she had made the three and a half hour drive from Cornwall to see me. At least this time she would be able to enjoy a bit of luxury and would be spared from cooking dinner! We joined the wannbee boaties on the quayside in Poole for a stroll and then dinner and a few beers at the College. It was so much better than the beach and being bitten by mosquitoes!
Again it was hard to say “Goodbye” to Linda but needs must and I joined the convoy of pleasure boats heading down through Poole Harbour to the sea. I sat on the wash of a small cabin cruiser until it broke the 10knot speed limit and left me floundering in its wake. I ploughed my own furrow, letting the much more powerful vessels manoeuvre around me until I reached the open sea when I hugged the sandy shore and let the petrol heads roar off to nowhere in particular. Across the bay to Old Harry, the chalk pinnacle at the tip of the headland that separates Studland Bay from Swanage Bay, I lost count of the number of power boats costing over £100k that overtook me. But they couldn’t weave in and out of the stacks and natural arches of the headland like I could or study in detail the pockmarked cliffs where limpets had eroded into the white mineral rock or pass within feet of the young cormorants sat drying their wings in the midday sun. A kayak is the only craft that allows you with a little bit of training to explore every nook and cranny of our coastline and is without doubt the most affordable ocean-going vessel afloat.
I stayed offshore from Swanage and soon rounded Durlston Head, following the sheer cliffs that where riven with cracks and gullies providing varied challenges for groups of climbers enjoying the warm sunshine and dry rock. I stopped for lunch on a pebble beach away from the crowd of boats that had moored off a favoured sandy beach. It was hot enough to melt a Mars bar as I sat admiring the World Heritage Jurassic coastline of Dorset that faded into the haze to the west. In stark contrast with the densely populated coastline from Swanage east, this coastline is largely free from development until you reach Weymouth.
I passed over the Kimmeridge Ledges, a series of wave cut platforms that extend several hundred metres out to sea which can produce some excellent surf during the winter. I stopped briefly to collect some fresh water in Lulworth Cove which just about retains its character despite being overwhelmed by visitors from land and sea during the sunnier days of July and August. I hoped to find a quiet beach upon which to camp and found just such a spot just around the corner from Lulworth Cove. As the sun set the high clouds over Portland Bill were transformed into waves of burning gold. Hardly a breath of wind stirred the surface of the bay and I couldn’t help wondering if I had missed my chance – was this the night I should have crossed the Channel to Alderney?
I listened with the rest of the nation in disgust as our football millionaires showed once again just how overpaid they are by losing a two goal advantage over Austria in the first World Cup qualifier for 2006. A few gusts of wind during the night shook my tent which was poorly erected in the soft sand. Was this the start of the easterly that I feared would set in for the coming week?
As I sat eating a bit of breakfast I watched a pigeon flying towards the high chalk cliff above me. Suddenly a peregrine falcon dropped like a stone and intercepted the speeding pigeon narrowly missing the bird which swerved just in time. Another falcon stooped down on the bird but again it avoided death by millimetres. The two falcons, a male and female repeatedly attacked the pigeon which finally made it safely into a crevice in the cliff. The peregrines shrieked with anger at their failure which spooked another pigeon into taking flight. This foolish bird flew directly towards me and a third falcon swooped down from high on the cliff and took the defenceless bird just feet above my head. It was all over in just a few dramatic seconds, and the family of falcons had their breakfast too!
I was witness to a very different kind of display a short while later. An English guy and his attractive blonde female friend with a foreign accent walked down the steep path onto the beach. It was still early and the sun was lighting the chalk cliffs with a glorious golden glow. After a brief chat they walked off down the beach whereupon the girl stripped down to her bright red bikini and started posing in a very provocative fashion whilst he snapped away with his camera. They seemed very serious about it all and kept checking the photos to see if they had what they wanted. She then took off her bikini top and did some more posing. Of course I refused to watch this despicable exploitation of womanhood and continued getting ready to depart but did keep glancing over to check on her welfare and to make sure she wasn’t getting cold.
With a cheery wave I left them to their art and headed west towards Weymouth Harbour, where John Sargent, Divisional Liaison Officer and Press Officer for the Weymouth lifeboat had arranged for me to be met by the inshore lifeboat (ILB) at 11am. Passing the famous limestone archway of Durdle Door and other fabulous cliff scenery I used the fresh north easterly breeze to push me across the bay towards the forts and breakwaters that make up Weymouth and Portland harbours. I listened on Channel 16 as a dive boat off the eastern entrance to PortlandHarbour reported a female diver with chest pains. They were already administering oxygen but the Coastguard had no hesitation in deploying the Coastguard helicopter “WhiskyBravo” which is based at Portland. In minutes the helicopter was above the dive boat and the pilot was giving the skipper instructions to proceed into the wind at full speed. The winch man was lowered onto the dive boat and the helicopter circled once before lifting the winch man and casualty together and even before they were on board the helicopter was routing towards Poole flying low and fast towards the nearest ‘Pot’ or Re-compression Chamber. It was an extremely impressive response and reassuring to me as a PADI Rescue Diver to know that the procedures I have been trained in do work in reality. I am told the female diver made a full recovery.
I heard the Weymouth ILB book on air with the Coastguard and moments later it appeared in the harbour entrance. We met four members of Weymouth Corps of Canoe Lifeguards as I was escorted into the harbor. Back in the late seventies and early eighties I was a member of Pentewan Beach Rescue Unit under the leadership of Brian Sheen. We participated in competitions and I knew the Weymouth crew to be one of the first and one of the best Canoe Lifeguard Units in the country. It was interesting to see that the same design of kayak, already nearly twenty years old was still being used there having been no better design to replace it. It was an honour to have such an escort into Weymouth and I am grateful for their time. Arriving at the lifeboat house, I met with John Sargent who took some photos. I was allowed to store the kayak in the boathouse and I was made to feel very welcome. Accommodation was arranged for me at the Sea Cadet Training Centre “The Duke of York” just a few minutes walk from the lifeboat station. I am extremely grateful to Deputy Superintendent LT CDR (SCC) RA Moody RNR for allowing me to stay.
During the afternoon I sorted myself out and hanging out at the lifeboat station, witnessed my first ‘live’ shout; a missing diver, separated from her dive buddy off Durdle Door. I heard the initial report come in over Channel 16. The Coastguard operator did not hesitate and within seconds John’s pager was bleeping. As the DLA it is his decision whether to launch the lifeboat. The Coastguard had requested both the ILB and the All-Weather Lifeboat and of course John authorised it and sent the pager message to the crew and fired two maroons; the loud explosions warning boat users to keep clear of the harbour entrance to allow the lifeboats to depart unhindered. Within a minute, members of the crew were turning up, breathless and perspiring having run through Weymouth’s streets that were busy with visitors enjoying the hot sunshine. Nice weather if you are holiday, but not if you have to get into a heavy duty dry suit. Getting a quick briefing from John as to the nature of the job as they kitted up, the three crew of the ILB were ready within a minute and a member of the shore crew operated the winch easing the Atlantic 75 on its cradle down the ramp into the water.
Within five minutes of the first radio message being passed by the dive boat the ILB was up and planing, the crew receiving their instructions and a situation report from the Coastguard. Of course it takes a little longer for the six person crew of the all-weather lifeboat to get underway but even so within seven minutes, the huge Severn Class lifeboat was manoeuvring away from the pontoon and requesting permission to break the speed limit in the harbour as its powerful twin 1200hp Caterpillar engines roared and the boat surged forwards. It was a truly impressive response time and no fluke. These are dedicated professionals whose relaxed and seemingly laid back attitude to life is borne out of the confidence they have in the training and equipment they receive and the procedures that have been put in place by the RNLI.
The ‘missing’ diver had separated from her buddy but instead of searching for a minute and then surfacing as is the correct procedure, she had latched onto another buddy pair and they all surfaced safely before the lifeboats arrived. The all-weather lifeboat was stood down and returned to base; the ILB was sent to another job and didn’t return for an hour. Later in the afternoon I went to visit HM Coastguard in their modern control room cleverly concealed within the framework of the old Coastguard building on the harbour side. Whilst I was there they received another report from a dive boat, this time off Grove Point off Portland, stating that they had two missing divers. The dive boat skipper had become concerned with the lack of movement of the pair’s surface marker buoy (SMB). When he pulled it in there was no-one on the end! The tide was ebbing producing a powerful south westerly drift down the east side of the Bill and there was a great danger that the divers could end up in the notorious Portland Race. Again there was no hesitation; both the helicopter and the lifeboats were requested and within a couple of minutes “Whisky Bravo” was in the air and ‘on scene’. The loud bangs from the maroons could be heard even in the sound-proofed control room and a few minutes later I watched through the window as both the lifeboats made their way. Portland Coastguard Cliff Rescue Team was requested – again more volunteers. It was fascinating to be seeing another ‘live’ incident, but this time from the perspective of the Coastguard. They have state-of-the-art touch screen terminals that control their radio and telephone communications as well as incredibly complex-looking incident management and logging programmes to keep on top of. The five officers on duty work as a team but overall responsibility lies with Ros, the Duty Watch Manager and the controlled anxiety on her face was evident. This was potentially a very serious incident and tragically divers have been lost forever in such circumstances in the past. A number of dive boats in the area responded to the call but of course they need to be managed as well and this takes up valuable ‘air’ time. Ros needed essential information regarding the planned profile of the dive and descriptions of equipment that the divers had with them. She used a separate search planning computer terminal that gave her information on the speed and direction of the tide so that she could work out her search parameters. Of course the missing divers were not the only ones in the water and several red herrings were spotted by the helicopter circling above. The stress levels within the control room visibly increased as the minutes ticked by. These people were living the incident just as much as those rescuers out on the water. Finally the message that everyone had been anxiously waiting to hear – the divers had been found – they had surfaced two miles from where they had first descended and I dare say they will have some explaining to do as to why they had become separated from their SMB and why they had not surfaced as soon as they had realised that this had happened. As a police officer I was well used to the stress reactions that such incidents cause within one’s body – a tightening of the stomach muscles, a shortness of breath, an increase in skin and body temperature and subsequent perspiration. There are more subtle affects too – the body releases fatty acids into the bloodstream, ready for the anticipated ‘fight’. It is these that do the damage, because unless you use up this fuel in some way, it can clog up your arteries and cause circulatory problems. For the Coastguard officers in the control room it is not possible for them to go for a run after an incident like this but that is exactly what their bodies need them to do. The long term health issues surrounding control room staff for all the emergency services is a serious concern. In the meantime we should be grateful for the dedication and professionalism that they display day after day with little or no recognition – they are the unsung heroes of our emergency services.
I spent a very pleasant evening on and around the harbour side in Weymouth, another fabulous sunset set the sky alight and I witnessed Nature’s alchemy of turning water turned to gold. Just as I was settling down for an evening of diary updating and photo editing two more explosions told me that the lifeboat was being despatched on its third shout of the day – remember these people are volunteers and value their Sunday evenings just as much as you do! I ran down to the lifeboat house as quickly as I could – a distance of a quarter of a mile, but of course I was the last to get there and the all-weather lifeboat was ready to cast off. A yachtsman was having a fit just off the harbour entrance. It was thought he was diabetic and the departure of the lifeboat was delayed momentarily whilst the Coxswain established whether a doctor would be going to sea with them. No doctor was available and they proceeded to render what assistance they could. It transpired that once the casualty had been administered with insulin by his companion he recovered and was happy to remain afloat. Was it a waste of time for the lifeboat crew? They did not see it that way and although they were eager to get back to their loved ones, I did not hear one crew member grumble about having had his or her Sunday disrupted by the requirement to do their duty.
This was the day I had hoped to depart for Alderney but the north easterly wind had strengthened during the night and the forecast was for it to be pushing F6 even 7 or gale 8 during the night. I spoke to Brian, skipper of the safety boat and he reassured me that they would still be available for later in the week.
I spent the day sorting out the food contained in the two storage boxes that had been delivered and stored for me at the lifeboat station. I also talked through the crossing with Andy Sargent, Coxswain of the lifeboat and Steve Holmes, who knows the Channel Islands well having been First Mate on a passenger carrying fast catamaran that serviced the islands. He has done some kayaking in the past and now runs CoastalSeaSchool based in Weymouth. Based on their advice I sat and formulated a plan, familiarising myself with the complex tidal movements around the islands. I don’t always use charts for navigation when sea kayaking as a lot of the information is irrelevant for a craft with just a few inches of draught but for the maize of reefs and islands that make up the Channel Islands I would suggest that charts are essential even for a sea kayaker. I would be on completely new territory having never been to the islands before and even the names of many of the coastal features are in a foreign language. Alderney lies just 8.5 miles off the French coast and the islands have only been ‘British’ since the 13th century. The French call them Les Iles Anglos-Normandes and the islands, whist British are not part of the UK, nor the EU. It was evident that if I was unable to get to the islands due to bad weather I would still be able to ‘claim’ the first circumnavigation of all the inhabited islands of the UK and Ireland but the British Isles would still remain up for grabs.
Just as I was having my dinner up at the Sea Cadet Training Centre I heard the now familiar sound of two maroons. I left my soup and raced to the grassy slopes of Nothe Fort to photograph the lifeboat as it raced out to sea.
The next day it was still too windy for a Channel crossing, but perfect for a quiet day updating my diary and editing photos. Andy Sargent, coxswain of the lifeboat invited me to go out with them on exercise that evening. Even better than that I got to helm £2 million pounds worth of Severn Class lifeboat! We went out to Portland Bill so that I could have a look at the tide race. The tide was by no means running at full speed and the twenty knots of wind was in roughly the same direction as the tide but even so there was a fair bit of broken water on top of the moderate swell. Conditions were certainly outside the parameters that I would consider attempting the Channel crossing in. It was good to see it for myself and I felt happier about my decision to stay at Weymouth.
Helming the lifeboat, even in this moderate sea was not easy with the boat rolling significantly. I can only imagine what it must be like in a rough sea. I was steering from the flying bridge, up in the fresh sea breeze. When I went below into the wheelhouse the still humid air, the rolling of the lifeboat and the glare from the bank of instruments made me feel instantly queasy. Apparently this is very common and most lifeboat crew suffer a degree of sea sickness but it is their ability to carry on functioning despite feeling queasy that determines their suitability for the job. Having spent less than an hour at sea I hold them all in even higher esteem than before. They may have a beautiful boat but it is still a difficult and dangerous place to be out at sea in a storm.
Upon our return the boat was washed down and then the crew sat in the boathouse and had a ‘de-brief’ over a beer – donated by the grateful owner of the yacht they had towed in the previous night after it had become becalmed off the Bill. The healthy banter started and it was apparent that Andy had a good team here, more like a family with everyone totally committed to saving lives.
The next day was decision day. ‘Fortune favours the brave’. ‘Better safe than sorry’. These phrases had been going around and around in my head for the previous forty eight hours. The weather forecast was marginal and outside the criteria I had set six months previously when planning this section of the journey. I had spoken with Kevin Mansell who is the leading authority on sea kayaking in the Channel Islands and had in the past completed the crossing I was contemplating, albeit in a group. Based on the forecast, Kevin’s advice was to go for it and he’d suggested doing a day time crossing. I had the safety boat on standby but when I listened to the shipping forecast at 0530hrs that morning already having walked down to the pier to see the conditions off Weymouth for myself it was clear the wind had not dropped sufficiently. I was easily able to make up my mind that the daytime crossing was not feasible. It was still blowing an easterly F5 and the bay was full of white horses. At 0830hrs Andy Sargent, Coxswain of the Weymouth lifeboat who had been absolutely brilliant in helping me to rationalise my thought processes, checked with the lifeboat station at Braye on Alderney. They confirmed they had easterly F5 as well. Andy also gave one of the fishing boats working off Portland Bill a call and they confirmed that they had easterly F5 and their boat was “rolling like a b******d!” It was kind of reassuring, and I felt good that I had made the right decision in respect of a daylight crossing.
One of the lifeboat crew is a marine engineer for a local company and he was about to take an Orkney Day Angler out for a sea trial. They had just completed some work on the outboard engine and he was going to take her over to PortlandHarbour to test it. It was an ideal chance to observe the conditions out at sea for myself. As soon as we left the shelter of Weymouth Harbour the 19 foot boat was slamming into the steep oncoming waves which were a solid 2metres in height at times. Their short wavelength meant that it would have been every hard work paddling into it in my kayak. I was even more certain of my decision not to go.
The next question was whether the wind would drop sufficiently and for long enough to make the night crossing possible. I rang Brian Hexter, who confirmed that he was still able to provide safety cover for the night crossing that night. I knew it was ‘make or break’ time: the forecast was for the weather to deteriorate and this would be my only chance. I checked the internet, visiting all the weather sites I knew. They were all giving pretty much the same forecast; that the wind would ease this evening and during the night veer from the east to south east then south west and then back to south and pick up again. At no time would it drop below 10 knots and for the most part it would be 15-20 knots. Of course anything with south in it would essentially be a headwind. It was marginal, right on the limit of what was acceptable and I knew it. I still needed more accurate timings on when the wind would drop and for how long; bearing in mind it takes several hours for the sea to calm down and the swell to reduce. I would be paddling in the dark which is in itself not a problem but could prove uncomfortable in a rough sea when it is impossible to judge the oncoming waves. I rang the Met Office and paid my £17 and spoke to a forecaster. He was able to give me much more detail on when the wind was due to drop and veer to the south. It seemed the wind would only drop below 15k nots for a couple of hours before increasing to over 20 knots from the south by 10 am which is when I was expecting to be approaching Aledrney from the north. Not good! I also questioned him about the weather for the next few days and into next week. He confirmed we were in for a blow and some heavy rain as some tropical air from Hurricane Frances tracked across the Atlantic and was due to meet up with a plume of thunder storms pushing up from the Bay of Biscay. He suggested that we might experience more settled weather again by the end of next week but confidence on that was very low. Armed with this information I rang Kevin Mansell again in Jersey. He checked the forecast on the internet whilst we spoke and he agreed that the wind had not dropped as he had hoped. His main concern was that I might get across to Alderney, but with 25 to 30 knots of wind forecast for Saturday and Sunday there was a good chance I would get stuck on Alderney for at least two days before being able to start my circumnavigation of the islands. He also didn’t like the sound of the thunder storms as he had seen a couple get struck by lightning and killed whilst paddling close to him. It is an extremely rare event but it does happen. Kevin’s advice was to not come over and I took this on board and thanked him for his time and counsel.
I knew that ultimately the decision was mine and mine alone to make. To be absolutely honest I had been having negative thoughts about the Channel crossing and the circumnavigation of the islands for some time and I didn’t really know why. My butt had been really aching during the past few weeks, despite replacing the foam padding on my seat. I thought I must have bruised my butt cheek bones and they had really begun to scream in protest. They were the only part of my body that was complaining – the rest of me was in good shape. And now I have been out of the boat for three days I am sure that even my bum will be fine. The thought of spending 15 hours in the boat without a break is not an attractive one, however and I was sure that it wasn’t this that was making me feel negative. It was just a bit of pain and I was well used to shutting that out if I needed to. Was it that I just wanted to get home – had I been away for long enough? Again no – I have given everyone a finish date of the 26th September so even if I didn’t make it out to the Channel Islands I would not be able to finish and get home any sooner. So why had I been feeling negative about it? I just didn’t know – but maybe it was that in the back of my mind I knew that I had pushed my luck several times already on the journey and that this could be one time too many. It might also have been that when I was up around the Northern Isles and really pushing my limits of endurance and ability I had felt removed with no-one was looking over my shoulder. I was able to take risks and if I made a mistake I had time enough to make amends. Now that I was so close to the finish, with so many people, including the media and the RNLI paying close attention to my actions I felt that I needed to be even more conservative than normal about what risks I should take. I needed to be seen to be setting an example.
I always knew that the getting out to and around the Channel Islands and back, would be the most difficult part of the journey. Stuart Fisher, editor of Canoeist magazine, an experienced sea kayaker and someone known for speaking frankly said all along that he thought it was too much to hope to do in one season. Well it looked like Stuart had been right. By midday I had made my mind up, the night crossing was off and I would not be going to the Channel Islands. Even if I did manage to get across, I feared that I could get stuck over there and not make it back before the arrival of the autumnal weather systems that would likely mean I would not complete the circle. Closing the circle had always been my primary goal and being so close to achieving that goal I did not want to prejudice that success by trying to bag the Channel Islands as well. I am still certain it was the right decision but I am also still gutted. I had really wanted to visit the islands as part of the journey because they are very beautiful with a fascinating history and presented a fascinating navigational challenge.
Whilst they may not be part of the UK (or even part of the EU), the Channel Islands are most definitely British. I would still have completed the first solo circumnavigation of the UK and Ireland and the first ever to circumnavigate of all the inhabited islands of the UK and Ireland but I knew that I was leaving the first circumnavigation of the British Isles for someone else to claim. I also knew that it would take someone with a lot of skill, endurance and a boat load of luck to achieve it.
That evening I walked down to the water’s edge at 8.30 pm, the time that I would have been setting off on the long crossing. There wind had dropped as predicted. There were still a few white horses but I couldn’t help but question all over again whether I had made the right decision. I knew I would be even more gutted if, when I check the sea conditions in the morning, it was flat calm. I rang Linda and she told me that thunderstorms had already arrived in West Cornwall, with lightning causing momentary power cuts. Lightning storms scare the heck out me when I am on the water and I knew I was safer ashore that night.
I stayed awake to listen to the late night shipping forecast to see what I would have been out in. The forecast for Portland was still easterly 4 or 5 and I was able to go to sleep reasonably happy with my decision not to attempt the crossing. I was woken up by a piercingly bright white flash and a loud crack of thunder just a few seconds later. The thunderstorms had arrived. Lightning arched several more times and I was so thankful that I was not out at sea in my kayak, holding my carbon fibre paddle – a perfect conductor!
Radio Jersey had asked for a live interview just after 7am. I listened to the shipping forecast again at 0535 hrs the wind was due to drop to a 3 or 4 and veer southerly or south westerly. I took a walk down to Nothe Fort where I had a view of the harbour and its approaches. The sea had calmed down substantially from yesterday and the wind was indeed from the south. It would have been on my nose for the last bit to Alderney but I did wonder how rough it was out at sea. I left the Sea Cadet Training Centre leaving a note for Deputy Superintendent Roger Moody, thanking him for allowing me to stay. I went down to the lifeboat station and met Andy and Trevor who were once again extremely helpful and gave me a hand to carry my fully laden down the steps to the water. They escorted me out of the harbour in the boarding boat taking some photos. The sea was calm in the harbour entrance but as soon as I headed out towards breakwater off Portland the south westerly wind was strong enough to produce a choppy sea. My phone was red hot; the media were having a field day at my expense and each interviewer seemed to want to focus on the negatives:
“So why aren’t you coming to the islands?”
“Because of the weather”.
“So you will have failed in your attempt to circumnavigate the British Isles?”
“Yes, but I will still have paddled around the entire coastline of the UK and Ireland”. “You must be devastated?” “Well, I am disappointed but I can do nothing about the weather”
The exception was the reporter from Radio Solent who was kind enough to congratulate me on what I had achieved and asked some intelligent questions about the expedition. As I ran with the tide down the east side of Portland Bill I tried to not become upset by the media’s attitude. I certainly wasn’t surprised – they seem to revel in building people up only to knock them down at the first opportunity. When I finally reached the Bill after my sixth interview the south westerly wind was in opposition to the ebbing tide and the confused water left me in absolutely no doubt. It was roughly the same time that I would have been closing on Alderney and conditions were likely to be much worse over there. Whatever the media or anyone else said I knew I had made the right decision for me.
Thankfully as I turned and headed up the west side of the Bill the signal dropped out on my cell phone and I was able to start enjoying being afloat once more. The Isle of Portland, source of the famous Portland Limestone used by Sir Christopher Wren in the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral, is not really an island at all but is linked to the mainland by a massive shingle bar. Chesil Beach runs for 28 km, northwest into Lyme Bay and the increasingly lumpy sea was right on my beam as I followed the steep shingle bank for three hours. The heavy, dark grey, moisture laden sky obscured everything but sea and shingle and every so often dumped some of its moisture in the form of a torrential downpour. Thankfully the thunder and lightning stayed away. It was an uncomfortable paddle, my back not enjoying the tilted angle of the kayak as I paddled broadside to the oncoming waves. I had hoped to reach Lyme Regis by 4pm but it was already that by the time I paddled into the shelter of the harbour at WestBay. Linda’s parents, Janet and Clive had travelled down from Exeter to see me. This expedition would not have been possible without their help and support. They have spent alternate weeks at our house in Cornwall, helping Linda to look after Handel, doing loads of jobs around the house, including gardening and painting and doing their best to keep Linda sane. It was wonderful to see them and I just hope they realised how much I appreciated their love and support.
There was nowhere to camp in West Bay so I headed off again, passing the aptly named Golden Cap, a high headland of ashen grey clays topped with a cap of golden red sandstone. I decided to call it a day at Charmouth having spotted a suitable patch of grass to pitch the tent on. As I landed they heavens opened and I went through the laborious ritual of unloading the kayak and carrying it and all my kit up the pebble beach in the pouring rain. Just as I was beginning to be thankful that my journey was nearly over a lady ran across the car park, braving the downpour to congratulate me on what I was doing. She had heard me on Radio Cornwall that morning and wanted to take a photo. She was extremely generous in her praise and I felt much better for it. It’s always nice to have your ego titivated at the end of a hard day!
The following day was a record day for mileage. After a largely sleepless night with wind and rain hammering on the flysheet I awoke to some very welcome sunshine but the accompanying Force 6 westerly headwind was not what I wanted. Unable to stay where I was without upsetting the Beach Superintendent (very grand title!) I felt obliged to move on. It was just a couple of miles to the Cob, the famous harbour at Lyme Regis so I decided to test the conditions by paddling to Lyme before making up my mind what I would do.
The short paddle was enough to convince me that to paddle any further would be silly. There was little possibility of shelter until I reached Exmouth and I would be unlikely to make it there today in these conditions. I had been in contact with Andrew Cane, the press officer for the Lyme Regis Lifeboat Station. He was waiting for me when I arrived in the harbour entrance.
“You’re bloody mad!” was his verdict on the conditions. That was enough to convince me to stop at Lyme Regis and arrangements were made for me to leave the kayak in the lifeboat shed until the weather improved. So I had a new record for the least mileage paddled in one day – 2 miles!
It would have been easy to become frustrated by my lack of progress but I was philosophical about it. It would give me the opportunity to work on my book and start my acclimatisation back to a ‘normal’ life on terra firma. Fortunately I did not have to spend the time under canvas as Linda’s parents live in Exeter and Clive kindly agreed to come and get me. What was even better was that Linda was staying with her parents for the weekend. The forecast was for gales for the next two days but I was determined underway again as soon as it is sensible to do so.
By Wednesday 15th September I was able to get away again at last. It seemed to be a glorious sunny morning in East Devon as Clive dropped me back to Lyme Regis where I found my kayak as I had left it in the lifeboat shed with a good dusting of wind blown sand over it. High tide in the harbour made launching simple and I was underway by 9am. As soon as I turned right out of the entrance to The Cobb and headed west I noticed the fresh breeze which had an autumnal feel to it, cool enough to chill the back of my hands. The chalk coastline west to the mouth of the River Axe and Seaton is unusual, with a series of landslips that had transported fairly large trees right down to the high water mark where they had met a salty demise leaving the shoreline strewn with their bleached skeletons. The ebb tide at Axmouth produced a powerful jet of water that drove out through the small swell producing some haystacks of white water and standing waves that would have been fun in a playboat. Just for fun I rode over two waves and got some air under my heavy kayak as I launched off the top of the waves.
Clive was waiting on the beach with a few encouraging words. He was so supportive. I was now in ‘Grizzly’ country. Its okay, East Devon hadn’t been overrun by big furry animals. I refer to the notorious Grizzly off-road running race that starts on the seafront at Seaton in March each year and takes runners on an agonising tour of the steep hills, valleys and cliff path towards Branscombe and includes several sections of deep mud, several stream crossings and miles of pebble beach. It is recognised as one of the toughest foot races in England and attracts several thousand runners each year. I had completed several Grizzlies – you have to have a sense of humour to enjoy the event as the ‘Grizzly’ spirit is one of not taking life or competition too seriously and enjoying the dramatic views of this stunning sea scape. That said the field usually includes some top distance runners, who use the event as a bench mark for the start of the summer road racing season.
The view of Beer Head and Branscombe Head from is pretty good from a kayak too and I was able to admire the last of the chalk cliffs despite the stiff headwind. The dark red brown sandstone of an ancient desert began to emerge as I followed the line of shingle beach towards Sidmouth, which looked impeccable in the bright sunshine. The red cliffs rise majestically to the summit of Peak Hill which has a crown of dark green conifers and some intricately carved sea stacks at its base.
I used the shelter the high cliffs provided from the cool breeze to stop and have some lunch and I watched as a lone sea kayaker paddled by on the calm sea. I met Miles on his return route and we stopped for a chat. It is always nice to meet fellow sea kayakers out on the water. I was in familiar territory now as I used to regularly paddle this stretch of coastline when I lived in Exeter. Then I used to yearn for the rugged Cornish coast and rather dismissed the more subtle beauty of East Devon. We often miss what is right under our noses. As I passed beautiful Budleigh Salterton and the mouth of the River Otter I radioed Portland Coastguard. I was approaching the firing range at Straight Point and I could see the red flags fluttering in the breeze and the sound of small arms fire. Permission was granted for me to pass by and the range officer gave me a friendly wave from his control tower.
The tide was now flooding into the Exe Estuary and I stopped briefly to say hello to Tim Mock, the coxswain of the Exmouth lifeboat. Tim had been kind enough to walk down the beach to greet me and wish me a safe journey. I had decided to push on a little further as it was still early and so I headed across the mouth of the river Exe to the sand spit and town of Dawlish Warren. I then followed the groynes and high sea wall the attempts to keep the sea from engulfing the only railway line to the far south west. Winter storms regularly breach these sea defenses and cause the line to be closed – sometimes for several days at a time. With rising sea levels and more frequent severe storms I wonder how long it will be before a more inland route will need to be found. Arriving in Teignmouth I was met by Dominic Miles, my life-long friend and designer of my website. He had insisted that I stay at his house in Newton Abbot. I hadn’t seen his wonderful wife Liz or his two gorgeous daughters Matilda and Megan since the day I left Falmouth and it was lovely to catch up on their news. I hope Dom realises what a huge influence he has had on my life. His enthusiasm for life and his confidence in me has been a source of encouragement for me to take on many new challenges including this expedition. Our website was the vehicle for making things happen. Once potential sponsors viewed the excellent website Dom had created they knew I was serious and were fairly quick to come on board. I had always envisaged Expeditionkayak as becoming a community website for anyone wishing to promote their kayak expedition and I am happy to say that it continues to grow and may one day turn into another book in itself.
Dom dropped me at Newton Abbot Quay just before 8am. It was a perfectly still morning and the sun was burning through the misty haze. A high spring tide meant that the river was full and silent swirls meandered past the reed beds as the water slowly receded seawards. As I glided under the high tension pylons that span the river estuary the eerie electric hum combined with the roar of the rush hour traffic on the A380 flyover. The noise seemed so out of context with the wild beauty of the river. Again the autumn morning chill was apparent but the temperature rose with the sun as I paddled gently towards the sea. Sat off Coombe Cellars I did a pre-recorded radio interview for the BBC World Service and it felt rather strange talking about the wilds of the west coast of Scotland surrounded by the rather more gentle landscape of South Devon.
I accelerated with the tide as it swept me under Shaldon Bridge and out the mouth of the River Teign before turning right and heading south towards Hope’s Nose and Torbay. As soon as I left the shelter of the river and paddled into the open sea, the breeze that had plagued me the previous day returned with a vengeance. I was protected to some extent by the cliffs around Babbacombe but once I rounded Hope’s Nose I realised that it was blowing a solid F5 to 6. I headed across to Brixham straight into the wind and it took me an hour and a half to cross the three miles to the shelter of the large harbour. I had arranged to meet Ken James, DLA and Press Officer for the Torbay Lifeboat. I checked in with Brixham Coastguard; they gave F6 to 7 off Berry Head, my next obstacle. Ken spoke to the coxswain of the lifeboat Dave Hurford who was out fishing in StartBay. He said that the conditions were poor and recommended I stat put. I was reluctant to go against his advice but was becoming increasingly frustrated at the stop/start nature of the last part of my journey. I decided to stay put and was given permission by Ken to stay in the Brixham lifeboat house.
Brixham was where William of Orange landed on the 5th November 1688. He left Hellevoetsluis in the Netherlands with 3,000 men and 200 cannon, intending to land on the north east coast of England. His help had been requested by Admiral Edward Russell to help him save England from being forced into Catholicism under the unpopular James II. Due to storms, William’s armada was forced south and avoiding Portsmouth where it was believed James’ army was waiting, he landed at Brixham, assisted ashore by local fisherman Peter Varwell. There he issued a declaration that “The liberties of England and the Protestant religion I will maintain”. It took 50 days for his army to march to Whitehall, largely unopposed. His wife, James’ daughter joined him from the Netherlands and on 11th April 1689 they were crowned joint sovereigns; William III and Mary II and since then British monarchs have not been allowed to follow the Catholic faith. A statue of William of Orange stands on the harbourside but sadly it is a target for the hordes of seagulls flying overhead as well as Brixham’s late night revellers.
Brixham is also famous as a fishing port and for its trawlers and is known as ‘the Mother of Trawling’. There was fishing from the port of Brixham from as early as the 1760’s. Up until the First World War most local trawlers were sailing vessels and some fine examples still exist including Vigilance a 78foot gaff-rigged ketch and the last sailing trawler built at the Brixham shipyard of J.W. and A.Upham in 1926. She was moored on the deep water berth in the marina along with Regard a smaller ketch and I was able to take some photographs and chat to the owner of Regard. It is said that in its heyday, nine out of ten Brixham man went to sea and one Brixham family the Lovells, can boast seven successive generations of fishermen from the eighteenth century to the present day. The arrival of the railway to Brixham in the 1860’s led to the most prosperous period in the town’s history and in 1910 there were 233 first class smacks (a smack is a sailing vessel used for fishing) registered at Brixham. The trawlers varied in size depending on where their fishing grounds were. Some would head up into the North Sea and fishermen would base themselves at ports like Lowestoft through the winter. Indeed some moved there permanently and exported their ship building skills as well. Large ketches like Vigilance were known as ‘Mumble Bees’ and would fish off Brixham in the winter, then in March would head down the English Channel to Mounts Bay and the Seven Stones, around Land’s End and into the Bristol Channel working the Tenby grounds off The Mumbles, landing their catches at Tenby before returning to Brixham. Of course fishing by sail without the assistance of modern navigational and safety equipment was hazardous and many boats were lost.
Brixham has had its fair share of tragedy, the most notable being the Great Gale on the 10th January 1866. Many ships were sheltering in Torbay from a series of south westerly gales. During the day wind speeds increased with snowstorms. In the evening the wind veered suddenly to the north east and reached hurricane force making Torbay a death trap. The breakwater at Brixham was only a third of the length back then than it is now and the harbour was vulnerable to north easterly gales. By midnight ships were being dashed against the New Pier. Others were driven ashore between Brixham and Paignton, especially at Broadsands and many local people took great risks to try and affect rescues. Of the forty six ships involved, twenty six were a total loss and 100 people died. As a result a lifeboat was stationed at Brixham, paid for by the citizens of the city of Exeter.
The crews of the Torbay lifeboat have been involved in many rescues saving hundreds of lives. One exceptional display of seamanship occurred on 6th December 1976 in storm force winds, six miles off Start Point. The MV Lyrma was in difficulty and the crew were safely rescued by RNLB Edward Bridges, a wooden Arun Class lifeboat and as a result, the Acting Coxswain Keith Bower was awarded the RNLI’s Gold Medal and all the crew received Bronze medals. During her 20 year service (1975- 1994) RNLB Edward Bridges responded to 459 calls and saved 387 lives: a remarkable record. Torbay is now home to an all-weather Severn Class and an inshore D-Class lifeboat and that summer they were playing hosts to the BBC film crew shooting the a series of ‘Danger on the Beach’, which would be screened the next year. As is often the case when the TV cameras are around they were having a relatively quiet summer by their standards with just 76 shouts so far that year.
I was invited to dinner with Ken James and his family and I was grateful for their hospitality. Ken is an experienced yachtsman and I bombarded him with questions about all things nautical over a pint at the Berry Head Hotel, a very enjoyable evening, thank you Ken!
The forecast was not looking promising for the next day and I feared my progress would be halted once again more by strong south westerly winds.
When the Coxswain of the lifeboat tells you, “It’s evil out there!” it is probably best to listen and take note. Dave Hurford left Brixham in his trawler first the next morning but came back in after only a couple of hours and recommended I stayed put for yet another day. My stop/start progress down the English Channel coast was becoming embarrassing but there was nothing I could do about it. It was just a reminder that summer was at an end and we were rapidly approaching the Autumn Equinox. This is still a formidable bit of coastline even though I had paddled it numerous times. I did not want to fall into the trap of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. I knew that Start Point to Bolt Tail can be an evil bit of coast in a strong south westerly blow and I decided I might as well just sit tight until I could be sure of negotiating it safely.
I awoke to the sound of the wind screaming through the rigging of the yachts in the marina and the RNLI flag fluttered frantically. The shipping forecast did not sound too favourable:
“Lyme Regis to Lands End including Isles of Scilly 24 hour forecast:
Wind: southwest 5 to 7 veering west 5 or 6 this morning, then decreasing 4 or 5 overnight.
Weather: rain soon clearing this morning, then scattered showers.
Visibility: moderate soon becoming good.
Sea State: rough, becoming moderate in east.
Outlook for the following 24 hours:
Wind: west 4 or 5 backing southwest 5 or 6.
Weather: mostly fair.
Visibility: mainly good. Seastate : locally slight or moderate in east, otherwise rough”.
It was a day of two halves. I left Brixham at about 9.30am, Ken James was kind enough to come down and see me off. I also did a short interview with the BBC ‘Danger on the Beach’ film crew. The Coastguard gave the wind as F4 gusting F6 off Berry Head and as soon as I left the shelter of the harbor I could feel the gusts snatching at my paddles. My inertia had started to get to me and I was keen to ‘go wild’ again whilst I still had the chance. I would soon be land-lubbered and leading a life of domesticity so I wanted to enjoy the freedom that wild camping gives for as long as I could. I had assessed the conditions as best as I could from the shelter of Brixham Harbour and the wind seemed to have eased to some degree so I decided I would attempt to make it to Start Bay and once there assess the conditions again before tackling Start Point. I could always turn back if the wind proved too much.
The bulk of Berry Head (what’s left of it after the quarrying) protected me from the wind but as soon as I turned the corner it was full in my face and my progress slowed to a grinding slog. At least the scenery was spectacular despite the driving mist and rain. The South Hams has a wonderful coastline and I had been very much looking forward to this section of my journey. Lonely headlands and quiet bays separate busy Torbay from affluent Dartmouth. I had to fight all the way to the mouth of the river Dart, arriving at about midday. I watched several heavily reefed yachts motor-sail out to sea. One skipper took a look at the conditions and promptly turned his yacht around and went back in. I didn’t blame him, the weather was grim and the sea lumpy and horrible. I ate my lunch sat in the driving rain on Slapton Sands, where the American Forces practiced for the successful Normandy Landings of June 1944.
Start Point beckoned and my mind was made up when the first blue sky for 48 hours appeared from the west. It heralded a subtle shift in the wind direction from southwest to west and by the time I was off the dinosaur ridge of this major headland a watery sun was doing its best to transform the day. I rang the Coastguard to advise them I was heading onto towards Salcombe before bouncing through the tide race, nipping inside the rocks to avoid the worst of it. The wind had certainly eased but I still had to pull hard to make progress and for the first time in a long time my arms and shoulders began to scream in protest. The relative inactivity of the last couple of weeks had meant that my muscles had lost their ability to respond to whatever demands I placed on them. My back was only just holding together and my bum continued to ache if I sat in the kayak for longer than a couple of hours without a break.
A drop in sea level (or a rise in the land) has left a distinct wave cut platform several feet above the high water mark. The sea is now doing its best to erode this, leaving some curiously shaped mushroom rocks and intricate maize of gullies that provide excellent snorkelling. The coastline from Start Point to Bolt Tail is deliciously craggy and split in two by the Salcombe estuary. I found an excellent campsite on the beach opposite North Sands. I quite like the idea that my humble tent shared the same view as the millionaire properties that are scattered around the steep hillsides of the river mouth. As I started to cook dinner a stunt plane performed some spectacular loops and spins, skimming the tree tops as it thundered past. The pilot was clearly displaying to someone, not just doing it for the buzz, so I took a walk after dinner and located a huge house with a marquee in the grounds. A wedding or some sort of celebration was in full swing and when I returned to my tent the whole of Salcombe was lit up with the crackle and thunder of a ten minute long fireworks display. That was some party!
The western shore of the Salcombe estuary bathed in bright morning sunshine whilst my beach remained in the shade. I worked as quickly and efficiently as I could to break camp but my back was not feeling good. The hard effort into the wind had been putting a lot of strain on my body and as usual it was my back that was giving way first. To make matters worse, the brand new ThermaRest that Linda had given me had developed a leak and once again I had found myself lying unprotected on the floor of the tent. I guess it was my fault – there were a few brambles under the groundsheet of the tent and the prickles must have punctured the sleeping mat.
The shelter of the estuary belied the wind that I knew from the shipping forecast was waiting for me once I was out at sea. The crew of the inshore lifeboat were out playing (sorry – training!) in the breaking waves on Salcombe Bar as I crossed the river and then hugged tight to the cliffs headed west to Bolt Head. I was certainly windy and a surprisingly short, steep, choppy swell crashed against the rocks and bounced back producing a horrible mess of peaks and troughs from all directions that slowed my boat speed to about a knot. At least the stunning coastline gave me something to look at as I tried to forget about what the jerking motion of the kayak was doing to my lower spine. I had tried to do some stretching before I got on the water but it is pretty ineffective and very painful when your body hasn’t warmed up.
I ground out the three miles to Bolt Tail when suddenly I was released from the mogul field of clapotis and my speed tripled as I took the more organised swell beam on, passing Hope Cove and the wide beach of Thurlestone. I stayed well offshore aiming for the back of Burgh Island in Bigbury Bay and the mouth of the River Erme where I stopped for lunch.
I was able to do some more stretching on the hard sand and my back felt much better for it. Cloud had increased through the morning and there was now a large bank of dark cloud threatening from the south west. The incessant wind was once more in my face as I followed the rugged shoreline to the mouth of the River Yealm and Wembury. Could I make it into Plymouth Sound before the next weather front arrived? I kept going, passing a group of sea kayakers paddling in the opposite direction and although I paddled across to say hello they virtually ignored me and kept going – I think they might have been doing some sort of skills or leadership assessment because one chap was towing two others and they all had very serious faces.
To my left, some twelve miles offshore, the Eddystone Lighthouse peaked above the horizon. Inside of the Mew Stone I finally entered Plymouth Sound, a fascinating area of water so steeped in history with loads to look at. I had been able to see my home county of Cornwall and the familiar conical summit of Rame Head for a while now and I decided that whilst I would not be able to make it past Rame Head I could at least camp on the Cornish side of the Sound. I headed in, passing seawards of Drake’s Island, so named to commemorate Sir Francis Drake’s first circumnavigation of the world. Now there’s a trip in kayak just begging to be done! I found a perfect spot near the Cremyll Ferry on the edge of the Mount Edgecumbe Country Park; a level piece of grass with a fantastic view of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Devonport, King William Yard and Devil’s Point. What’s more it was just around the corner from the Edgecumbe Arms – ideal!
Stuart Elford, whose company PDQ Comms Ltd have been doing a great job of handling my PR and one of the main sponsors of the expedition, rang and he joined me with his girlfriend Patricia for dinner at the Edgecumbe Arms. We talked about future plans non-stop for the entire meal but Patricia was polite enough to say she didn’t mind, bless her!
A morning forecast of south westerly F5 to 6 and driving rain was enough to convince me to stay put for the day. I took the chance to visit the National Marine Aquarium and do the tourist thing along Plymouth Hoe. I had been there many times before but not taken the time or trouble to actually stop and look at the many interesting features along this historic waterfront.
The National Marine Aquarium is not just the UK’s biggest, Europe’s deepest and Britain’s best aquarium, it is also brilliantly put together in a way that describes the life cycle of our watery planet from the bubbling brook to the deepest ocean. You have to spend some time reading the displays and that’s not easy when the place is full of screaming babies but I found it rewarding and the sea life absolutely amazing. Of course all the children wanted to do was ‘find Nemo’ but even the most easily distracted of the little darlings was dumbstruck when they saw the huge pelagic fish in the ‘Atlantic Reef’ tank and the sharks in the ‘Mediterranean’ tank and perhaps my favorite, the loggerhead turtle in the ‘Coral Sea’ tank. The Marine Conservation Society work closely with the National Marine Aquarium and it is thanks to these people that our oceans may, just may, have a chance.
“North westerly F4 or 5, occasionally F6 around exposed headlands”
That was good enough for me! Having posed for some photographs for the Cornish Guardian newspaper I left Cremyll Point just after 9am the next morning and followed the wooded shoreline of the Mount Edgecumbe Country Park out into Plymouth Sound. Past the grand looking flats in the converted fort near Picklecombe Point and across Cawsand Bay with the pretty village of Kingsand nestling in the bosom of the green hills of South East Cornwall, it was a pleasant start to the penultimate leg of my long journey. I aimed to reach Fowey by the end of the day where I would stay on board my Mum’s small yacht moored on the river at Golant until it was time for me to finish my adventure with the final paddle back to Falmouth. As soon as I emerged from the shelter of Plymouth Sound and rounded Penlee Point the wind buffeted me and I knew I had a tough day ahead. I got the impression it wasn’t quite as relentless as the last few days however and between the gusts I was able to make reasonable progress. Beneath the tiny stone built chapel on Rame Head I bounced over the choppy swell to begin the long drag across WhitsandBay heading inshore towards the shanty town of beach huts and wooden chalets that are scattered along the steep-to shore.
I could see the red buoys in the bay that mark the whereabouts of the Scylla. HMS Scylla was the last Leander class frigate to be built at Devonport Royal Dockyard in Plymouth in 1968. She served in the Royal Navy before being de-commissioned and eventually purchased by the National Marine Aquarium and deliberately sunk in dramatic fashion that summer in Whitsand Bay in 21 metres of water to become the UK’s first manmade reef with the aim of providing a home for thousands of sea creatures and thus producing one of the UK’s premier dive locations. There is a live webcam link back to the Aquarium and scientists were conducting research on the 113 metre-long structure to monitor how quickly and successfully it was colonised.
I played ‘chicken’ with the surf to take my mind off the headwind that did its best to stop me in my tracks. I dug in, determined to make headway – my back feeling strong having benefitted from a day’s rest. I took the first opportunity to get out for a stretch at the delightfully named Portwrinkle, where a low semi-circular harbour wall was just enough to provide shelter from the choppy swell. I could see in the far west the high headland of Dodman Point. The very sight of it sent butterflies dancing in my stomach. Dodman Point was the last major headland between me and the finish at Falmouth.
Admiring some fine cliff-top houses, I passed Downderry and Seaton and pushed on to Looe where I stopped for a late lunch and endured the stares of tourists, most of whom were interested enough to stop and stare and photograph my every move but reluctant to speak to me despite my encouraging smiles and opening “Hi there’s”. I felt like a foreigner in my own country.
I headed out to the very last island on my circuit of all the inhabited islands of the UK and Ireland. Looe Island or St George’s Island is perhaps not the most dramatic but is still unique with a collection of buildings protected by trees on the eastern side and a more barren, bracken covered west facing shore. It has a fascinating history; according to local legend Joseph of Arimathea brought the baby Jesus here and the recent discovery on the island of a fragment of an amphora, an earthenware storage vessel from the Eastern Mediterranean, suggests that it was indeed visited by travellers from the Holy Land, perhaps Phoenician tin traders. It might have been a centre for the tin trade in pre-Roman Britain but by medieval times it was a Christian settlement and housed a priory and chapel and was owned by Glastonbury Abbey until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 when it became the property of the crown. From the 13th to the 16th centuries it was known as St Michael’s Island but in 1584 it became St Georges Island and was privately owned. Like many of the coves along this coast it became a popular haunt for smugglers attempting to avoid the Revenue Cutters out of Plymouth and Falmouth.
In the 20th century the island was owned by two sisters, Babs and Evelyn Atkins, who wrote two books: We Bought and Island and Tales from our Cornish Island that beautifully describe their motivation to buy and then live on the island. Evelyn died in 1997 aged 87 and I later found out that Babs passed away in 2004, at the age of 86. She bequeathed the island to the Cornish Wildlife Trust so that the island would be preserved as a nature reserve in perpetuity.
Any human inhabitants have shared the island with grey seals, kestrels and other visiting raptors and a plethora of song and sea birds. As I passed I saw a kindergarten of young cormorants bobbing their heads on the rocks just offshore. Other than cormorants I was surprised and concerned at how few sea birds and sea mammals I had seen along the south coast of England. Was it the time of year – were they searching for food further offshore? Or had they been forced elsewhere due to over-fishing and a resultant lack of food? I had seen a small group of Gannets as I paddled into Plymouth Sound but otherwise I hadn’t seen any of these magnificent birds since Flamborough Head. I had seen very few razorbills and guillemots – just a handful of solitary juveniles since leaving the Northern Isles. I hadn’t seen any Kittiwakes for some time and just one colony of fulmars at North Foreland. I saw one lonely grey seal near Teignmouth and a couple near Prawle Point, and now one young seal here on Looe Island, that was four seals since way up on the East coast. I had not seen any dolphins or porpoises, although I was told a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins was seen off Teignmouth this summer but that was a rare sighting. That was all a bit worrying to me; was the English Channel being so heavily fished that it is unable to sustain marine wildlife? Is the scale of coastal development such that there are no areas of wilderness left?
Cormorants are the one species that seems to be thriving. There are cormorants everywhere; on the coast and increasingly inland on fresh water; so many in fact that the Environment Agency is issuing licences to allow for them to be culled in areas where fish stocks are threatened.
Once outside of Looe Island I was back into the strong north westerly breeze and I fought to regain the shelter of the cliffs that protect one of Cornwall’s gems; the tiny fishing harbour of Polperro. This most picturesque of villages competes with Mousehole for the title of ‘the consummate Cornish fishing village’. I glided into the muddy harbour to take some photos and was hailed by a couple who had been following my progress on Radio Cornwall.
I felt energized and I was really enjoying being back on such a familiar coastline. The candy cane red and white day mark on Gribben Head appeared. It is the abiding image of my childhood and my memories of area from Polkerris to Menabilly will remain with me forever as a special place of discovery and adventure. Past the rugged and remote Lantivet Bay and Pencarrow Head where ravens croaked and kestrels hovered above the dying bracken, I was reminded that often the most beautiful places are those closest to home. Certainly Lantic Bay and its precious collection of sandy beaches is as beautiful as any I have seen on the south coast and was a favourite destination for me during my early adventures in a kayak. I will confess that one or two of my’ training sessions when I was preparing for the Junior World Championships ended up with me sunbathing on one of those beaches, making the most of the early spring sunshine and mild Cornish climate. Between 1981 and 1983 I spent much of my time training on the River Fowey and I grew to know all of its creeks intimately as I would seek shelter from the wind that funnels down the main river valley. I would often venture out onto the open sea in my skinny ICF K1, not very sensible and I wouldn’t or probably couldn’t do it now. My favourite training session was to paddle down to the river mouth and sprint down the swells that jack up in the narrow entrance or jump on the wash of the pilot boat or a large fishing boat. I don’t suppose it did me any harm and certainly gave me the ability to paddle a tippy racing kayak in rough water which proved useful in lots of races.
So paddling into Fowey Harbour was a kind of home-coming, quite an emotional experience. It may have lost a little of its soul and is now pandering to the needs of the wealthy ‘yachties’ but it has certainly smartened up and looked fantastic in the late afternoon sunshine. I knew that Mum was waiting for me on her little yacht at Golant so I continued up river to Mixtow where Treble O’ Two lay on her mooring, swinging in the gentle breeze. Mum was stood on the bow ready with her camera and she snapped away as I approached. It was lovely to see her looking so well and she gave me the sort of reception you might expect, having not seen her son since April.
But she was sensitive to my mood and gave me the space I needed to get my head around the fact that my journey was almost at an end. As darkness fell on the river there was not a breath of wind. I sat listening to the silence but there were strange noises all around. The ‘plop’ of a mullet, the squawk of an egret, the melodic whistles from a small flock of curlew and a chorus of hoots and screeches from competing owls. If ever there was a night to convince me of the merits of living afloat this was it. I resolved that one day I would live on a yacht.
By mid morning the next day the weather had turned grim which prevented Mum and I going for a sail but determined to do something with her prodigal son, Mum braved the elements and we took a leisurely paddle up tree-lined Penpol creek opposite Golant where we sat and floated at the tidal limit to have our lunch. On the way back we first saw a kingfisher and then a rare sight; an osprey. We were able to drift within thirty metres of this magnificent bird which was most likely stopping off to refuel on Fowey River mullet before continuing its journey south to Africa. It was a very special moment for Mum and me to share together.
Thursday 23rd September was a strange day; waiting around, keeping a low profile and trying to adjust to being around people. Mum and I motored down to Fowey so that I could do some admin. I was rather frustrated at being incommunicado on the river with no phone signal at what was a fairly important time as the expedition drawed towards its conclusion. I was conscious that other people were doing a lot of my work on my behalf to organise a bit of a reception; especially Linda who had enough to do running her school without having to do stuff for me as well.
I was also trying to get my head around what it had all meant and what I should do now and in the future. I had been away nearly six months and still had not found the answers that perhaps I was looking for. I knew that this expedition was likely to change everything – how I looked upon the world, what I wanted to do with my life. I had gone through some not-so-crazy scenarios in my head; becoming a full-time expeditioner, a motivational speaker, a kayak instructor, a designer and builder of kayaks, even a professional sailboat skipper. But I also knew that I had committed to returning to work as a police officer and once I was back in that groove (rut) I would face the same stressors that nearly caused me to have an emotional breakdown in the in the lead up to my departure. I hadn’t said as much to Linda or anyone else for that matter but I was determined that I was going to make a permanent change in career; I just didn’t know what it was going to be.
After another pleasant night aboard Treble O’ Two I rowed across the river and walked up the steep hillside to get a phone signal so that I could do another interview for BBC Radio Cornwall. Then I packed the kayak and headed down to Fowey to the lifeboat station where I met Dave Nicoll and Tamsin Thomas from the RNLI and Stu Elford from PDQ Comms. Stu had invited the media to a pre-finish filming/interview opportunity but despite promises of attendance from several media organisations only a reporter from Pirate FM turned up. Apparently there had been a stabbing in Bude so they had all gone to that instead. No news like bad news. I felt really sorry for Stu who was clearly upset at the lack of interest but I tried to reassure him that it was not his fault and that perhaps I was just not that interesting. Apparently the collection of listeners of BBC Radio Cornwall who took the trouble to come down especially to see me didn’t think so. One lady in particular, who had been following my progress all summer was especially kind and thanked me for what I was doing.
By 1pm I was finally underway again, leaving Fowey basking in Autumn sunshine I headed over to Gribben Head. All sorts of emotions were going through me as I paddled past the land of my childhood daydreams. The northerly breeze sent a small chop bouncing out to sea from the calm waters of St Austell Bay where I had first developed the idea to paddle around Britain. I was feeling really fit and scooted across to Black Head in no time, passing Mevagissey and Chapel Point. It had become customary for me to stop at Gorran Haven for a pasty whenever I paddled this section of coast and although I was a little late for lunch it was well worth waiting for.
And so to Dodman Point, the south western flank of St Austell Bay and the last major headland on my journey. The tide had only just turned and it was like a mill pond, the smooth sea matching my mellow mood. A formidable place at times, I have seen it in all conditions but this time I passed close beneath the huge slabs of broken rock and into Gerran’s Bay, paddling close inshore to enjoy the fine scenery of the Roseland Peninsula.