Tuesday 15 November 2011

40 000 paddle strokes later...

Coaching at the Storm gathering, part of a four star course and a coastal navigation course were hardly the ideal preparation for yet another attempt at bettering Isla Wilkinson's fantastic 12hrs 24min time for circumnavigating Anglesey, but that's the way it turned out. I had just spent a day in a classroom teaching a coastal navigation course, when over the packing up, chatting to Howard Jeffs, I mentioned that the following day would be a good tide and weather window for another bash. I guess it's easy to be enthusiastic about someone else doing something crazy like that, and Howard was certainly encouraging. He even supplied me with a mountain of food for my ordeal.
Next morning I found myself driving over to Penmon at stupid o'clock, ready for a pre dawn start. It was dark, cold and the sea looked particularly uninviting, but I set off keen to try out an anticlockwise circumnavigation for the first time.
On a clockwise trip I usually stay well offshore in Red Wharf Bay but this time I hugged the shore to avoid as much adverse tide as possible. It was still hard work getting to Moelfre where I was sure of some tidal help all the way to Point Lynas.
I arrived at Point Lynas just as the ebb was starting its west going push. All the way along the North coast I was accelerating along as the tide gained strength. East, Middle and West Mouse islands came and went, usefull markers of my progress towards Carmel Head and the roller -coaster ride round the Stacks.
Crossing Holyhead Bay I scanned the horizon frequently for any sign of ferries about to run me over, ready with the VHF in case any appeared on a collision course. All the time I was heading as fast as I could paddle towards my mid-tide appointment with the Stacks. The wind was light but followed several days of very strong winds and the sea was not exactly a millpond. At North Stack my speed increased to a very satisfying ten knots, and the sea picked up into a series of green waves. These waves increased in size as I passed South Stack, always green, with a long wavelength and very pleasant to paddle over.
I stayed offshore in order to maximise tidal assistance all the way to Llanddwyn Island, by which time any help was negligible. By now I was starting to feel the effect of the early start and the miles covered.
My next hurdle was to find a way into Abermenai Point, past sandbanks exposed by the super low tide. At times the water was about 8" deep but I managed to keep moving, though pitifully slowly. Once in the straights I thought I'd get a big boost from the early flood, but alas, it was not to be. I guess the water had the same sandbanks to negotiate as I had and the three miles to Caernarfon felt like paddling in golden syrup.
Eventually the water started to move and gave me a shove in the right direction. My next problem was that I was running out of daylight. With Caernarfon still in front of me a fantastic pink and orange sunset lit up the sky over my left shoulder. As the sun dipped below the horizon, and the temperature dropped it occurred to me that it would be pitch black as I reached the Swellies. I was more than a little apprehensive as I approached. I could hear it roaring but as yet could see nothing. I was not even familiar with where the interesting bits were on the flood having spent far more time playing in the rough water on the ebb. I reckoned that I would be safe enough if I kept to the right. By now it was completely dark, and you can imagine my surprise when I passed another kayaker playing around the Platters area. I bet he was surprised to see me cruising on past.
All the way up the Straights I had been concentrating on the Swellies and now that the scary bit was done I felt like I had finished. The only problem was that there was another 7 miles to go. I was paddling very slowly and it seemed to take forever.
As I approached Beaumaris I became aware of the glimmer of bioluminescence in my bow wave. The phenomenon intensified as every splash of water emitted a green sparkle as millions of dinoflagelates disturbed by my paddle produced photons of light. I trailed my hand in the water and was rewarded with a firework display of glitter. For 5 or 10 minutes I was enthralled by the spectacle, my paddling was rejuvenated and for a short time I forgot the discomfort of more than 12 hours in the boat. As quickly as it started the show was over, I was plunged back into darkness with just a few green and red navigational marks for company.
This was the point that it all got a bit uncomfortable. Every time I lifted my right paddle blade above my head it felt like someone was sticking a knife into my shoulder. I tried many attempts at a lower stroke but it hurt just the same so I kept with my usual high action. The hours of pushing on the footrest had resulted in blisters across my lower back from my backrest and my hands were a bit of a mess. Discomfort made the last bit of the journey pure purgatory and I vowed to myself that this would be my last attempt.

To be continued.....