Friday, 27 January 2012

I'm not superstitious - more from Rich as guest blogger

Friday the 13th – A trip to the Skerries

Paddling to the Skerries is seen as a bit of a rite of passage for sea kayakers and can be a fairly serious trip in the best of conditions. Deciding to paddle there on Friday the 13th may not seem like the best idea for a lot of people (I’m not superstitious though). 4 black cats crossed my path on the way there (I’m not superstitious).

I arranged to meet Roger, Simon and Kevin in Porth Swtan for 09.30 to get on the water for 10:00. Kevin couldn’t make it so it ended up just being three of us. Once we got the kit and boats down onto the beach and loaded up, we headed up along the coast towards Carmel Head on the still flooding tide. We were making very good time so engaged in a bit of rock hopping as well as some cave exploration. There are a number of big caves with a few stacks and arches on this stretch of coastline worth exploring.

The tide was running fairly quickly, and with a light wind blowing against it the water was fairly choppy.

Once at Carmel Head we sneaked into the small inlet and landed on the beach. We climbed up onto the headland to have a cup of coffee and a snack, and took our time to observe the conditions as well as the rescue taking place off the coast of North Stack.

We all confirmed our course to steer (courtesy of Roger’s vector) and began paddling. The tide had slowed considerably in the 30 minutes or so we’d spent at Carmel Head but was far from slack. I always find paddling on a bearing slightly unnerving, having to put all your trust into a calculation especially when you can see your ultimate target but aren’t paddling towards it! I had this same mistrust of sorts when I was learning to fly light aircraft, but experience has taught me that the calculations are usually correct and that you have to trust them fully.

We were aiming to land on the island exactly at slack water, and after consulting the charts and all the planning documentation, it was time to head back down to our boats and begin crossing.

Our crossing time was 40 minutes (which, incidentally, was exactly the same as my planning) and we ended up being slightly to the south of the island (much better than to the north given the state of the tide) and therefore had to paddle for the last 5 minutes or so directly towards the island. The tide was becoming slack exactly as we got into the sound in between Ynys Arw and the main island (again exactly as planned). There doesn’t seem to be an easy egress point on this side of the island, so we got out just to the north of the lighthouse.

We spent about 20 minutes on the island, refuelling, taking photos and watching the seals (around 15 of them). It is a magical and somewhat eerie place, where we enjoyed fantastic panoramic views of the north-west of Anglesey and the Isle of Man.

But, it is important not to enjoy the island too much as the tides here are some of the strongest around the UK, so we had to get on with crossing back to Anglesey. We went round the northern tip of the island given how calm the conditions were and cut back through in between the main island and Ynys Berchen.

On our return leg, we just pointed our kayaks towards West Mouse to start with, then as we approached half way across, directly at Porth Swtan. Me and Roger stayed offshore here to make the most of the tide, whereas Simon headed closer to the shore and engaged in some more rock hopping. The crossing from The Skerries back to Porth Swtan took about an hour and when we arrived back at the beach, Kevin was there to greet our huge grins. He was disappointed that he hadn’t been able to come out with us, but we promised to take him there very soon!

I’ve read several accounts of trips to The Skerries and it is not a trip to underestimate. It is an open crossing exposed to the prevailing south-westerlies we so frequently get here on Anglesey, and as I have already mentioned some very strong tides (5 knot spring rate)! Our conditions were favourable to say the least – light northerly, easterly and southerly winds accompanied by very little swell. We did paddle over there just off spring tides so the flow was strong but sound planning and efficient management of time on the day served us well.

I’m very happy to have got this big trip done as it has been on my wish list for quite some time. Simon and Roger had been to the Skerries before, but only Roger had been there by kayak so a big day for all of us. I’m still working on Simon to start using an Anglesey Stick – maybe him having to work hard to keep up with me and Roger may persuade him one day to convert!

Monday, 23 January 2012

No one told me it was fancy dress - another entry from Rich

 New Year’s Eve, 2011 – an open invite from John Willacy arrived a few days before to take part in a social paddle (no racing allowed) as a finale to the year’s Menai Challenge. An early (0900 at Gallows) start to arrange the shuttle, and once everyone had arrived (20 paddlers in total!) we headed off to Foel leaving some cars behind. I had the pleasure of the company of Jim Krawiecki and John Bunyan in the car and we started chatting about various things, especially about the fancy dress.

JB had brought along a monkey mask, and on arriving at Foel discovered that Pete Baars had brought along his infamous chicken suit, John Willacy had a penguin suit, and a few others had made token fancy dress efforts in the form of silly hats and masks.

Once on the water (it’s amazing how long this process takes the more people there are involved in the event!) we made our way first towards Y Felinheli and once alongside the village, we all rafted up so that JW could pass around a dry bag full of chocolates! A very welcome surprise and because of the tide, we still managed in excess of 5km/h even as an unpowered raft.

We broke off once we rounded the corner and discussions began (started by Aled Williams, of course) about who was interested in doing the ‘advanced’ loop (an extra loop of the bridges). About 6 or 7 volunteered to take part including me, and once the group was formed, we left the rest of the paddlers to enter the Swellies. My pace grew considerably, reaching a maximum of 17.7km/h in the tide between the bridges.

A reasonably tricky break out under the suspension bridge was good fun and now it was time to paddle against the tide back towards the Britannia Bridge. This isn’t as difficult as it seems at first; a number of eddies form in this part of the strait and it is possible to make fairly good progress towards the Britannia eddy hopping.

There are a couple of difficult spots where one has to break into the main flow and attempt to ferry glide into another eddy; my speed on the day rarely got above 4km/h doing this, however these ferry glides are infrequent (thankfully) and the most difficult of which on the day’s tide was between Ynys Gored Goch (the island with the house on) and a large eddy just short of the bridge. Once round the pillar, we got back on the tide and rode it towards the suspension bridge again.

Once past the suspension bridge, we quickly caught up with the rest of the group where we settled back into a ‘bimble’ pace passing the town of Menai Bridge, Bangor Pier, the Gazelle and on to the last stretch to Gallows. An interesting patch of following sea between the pier and Beaumaris provided some entertainment in the form of surfing practice to arrive at Gallows 2 hours and 20 minutes after departing Foel.

The process of getting 20 kayaks loaded up and people packed into cars was another sight to behold, before departing for a stop-over at the Anglesey Arms for a drink for more chatting and socialising. I think enough of us hassled JW to force him to organise the Menai Challenge again for 2012, as it has been very popular. A quick trip back to Foel after farewells to collect the remainder of the cars ended the day. With 19.6km paddled, I headed home to begin preparing for the evening’s festivities.

Photos courtesy of John Willacy and Jimski

Friday, 20 January 2012

The 4* Sea Kayak Leader Award - a guest blog from Rich

The 4* Sea Kayak Leader Award, Anglesey, North Wales

Having done my 4* training about 6 months earlier, and with winter fast approaching, I decided to get on and book my assessment. Having had an excellent 2 days on the training course with Nigel Dennis, I booked with SKUK again to do my assessment. The weather for the weekend of the course wasn’t in the least bit seasonal for November, with northerly winds and sunny weather on the cards.

I turned up at the boathouse on Newry Beach on the Saturday morning with my kit and boat (an old roto-moulded P&H Capella). The course was going to be assessed by Nigel Dennis, Phil Clegg and Eila Wilkinson. I was the first to arrive followed quickly by Simon, my work colleague. The rest of the group (8 of us in total) consisted of a Spaniard, 3 Germans and 2 Swiss paddlers, who had all travelled to the UK to undertake the course. After a few introductions, wasting no time at all, we went straight into our navigation exam, planning a route in the North East of England (not our route for the day, I must add!). After battling through it for the best part of two hours, we headed off to Borthwen, Rhoscolyn to do some paddling.

Conditions in the bay were completely calm but looking beyond the old lifeboat station I could see that there were some lumpy conditions just off the beacon. The rest of the morning, after the classroom based exam was spent circling the cluster of islands the beacon sits on going through a series of scenarios, as well as giving people an opportunity to lead a short coaching session on a particular skill. Given the conditions, most of them involved surfing whether intended or not!

When it was my turn I gave a short lesson on breaking in and out of the flow running in between 2 of the islands. With these lessons completed, we headed over to Porth y Cwrwgl for a spot of lunch in the sunshine. Porth y Cwrwgl makes for a great stop-off point with its sheltered bay and sandy beach. After everyone had eaten and just before going back on the water, we spent a few minutes ‘repairing’ Phil’s boat (i.e. covering most of the hull with Denso tape) and discussing strategies for problem solving.

Once back on the water, we headed back towards the beacon where the swell had grown considerably. It was time to look at rescues and towing, which we did in small groups. I was grouped with Simon and one of the Swiss guys. We set about each having a go at rescuing a fellow paddler and getting them back in their boat as well as a bit of towing which we did for about an hour.

We also looked at a few other problem solving exercises but before long we had a real-life problem on our hands. Our Swiss guy, after spending time in the water, had developed quite a bad case of sea-sickness and after I’d rafted up with him and alerted Phil of the problem, he vomited all over my deck (which didn’t do my stomach any favours, as you can imagine!). Me and Simon then set about getting him out of there and back ashore so I set up towing a raft (of Simon and the ill paddler) back across behind the beacon and towards the safety of the bay. Just before we were about to do the final bit of the crossing though, Phil wanted to see me and Simon demonstrate our rough water roll, so whilst he looked after the ill paddler we broke off the tow and raft, did a roll each and then got back into the raft and towed back to the shore.

Once back in the calm waters in Borthwen bay, we then looked at a few self-rescues before getting out. It was pretty much dark by the time we got all the kit and boats loaded up and we headed back to the boathouse. We had a short debrief before departing to watch the fireworks (November the 5th)…

The next morning, we were back in Holyhead where the weather was much more favourable. The northerly wind had more or less disappeared and the swell had died down considerably overnight. However, these conditions don’t lend themselves to assessing someone for their 4* award, so a decision was made to head to Trearddur Bay to see if we could find any exciting water.

We were split into two groups, and today was also the day where we had students to look after, so we had a number of willing volunteers from Snowdonia, Amlwch and a couple of other canoe clubs join us. The idea is that the students are at around the 3* Sea standard, but there was a big variety in the group’s experience and skill level which had to be accommodated. I was in Nigel’s group for the day, and from Trearddur Bay we headed north, during which we did a bit of rock-hopping and some on-the-water navigation exercises.

It quickly dawned on me that we were heading towards (and therefore probably into) the overfalls and tide-race at Penrhyn Mawr. We sneaked through the race and headed up towards South Stack, stopping for lunch just north-east of Porth y Gwyddel in Abraham’s Bosom. After lunch, we headed back south towards Penrhyn Mawr, this time using the race working one-to-one with a student, teaching them the basic skills for paddling in a tide race.

I was lucky in some respects that my student was a pretty competent paddler, and was himself looking at undertaking the 4* assessment in the near future. I spent some time working with him on breaking in and out of the flow, as well as some surfing and rough water handling skills. We spent about an hour and a half in the race looking at various things, covering the remainder of the syllabus. We then headed back towards Trearddur Bay as the sun was starting to set, just getting off the water in time to witness a dramatic sunset.

We waited for the other group to return before heading back to Holyhead Sailing Club for debriefing. We all had a quick drink before it was time for us to hear the results of what we were here for – pass, defer or fail… I was happy to learn from Nigel that I’d passed the award and could now call myself a 4* Sea Kayak Leader. Simon also passed so we headed home very happy.

I was told before the award by a couple of people that I shouldn’t use my Anglesey Stick and that I should try and get a fibreglass boat (not my old plastic one) before trying to go for the assessment. I ignored both these pieces of advice, and feel glad that I did. I haven’t paddled on the sea with a European-style paddle for over 3 years and was reluctant to undertake an important assessment with a paddle I wasn’t used to. The same goes for the boat; I’d paddled the P&H Capella for a number of years and didn’t think switching boats for the assessment was a particularly good idea. It all goes to show that when going for assessment, don’t try and change what you’ve been doing dramatically, stick to what you know and as long as you’re ready and at the standard to pass the award, you will, with whatever type of paddle and boat you are used to.

There are a number of articles on the web about how Greenland-style paddles are no good for surf, rough water and towing, but I hope that this article can go some way to changing these misplaced perceptions. I’ve always found it easier to tow with a Greenland paddle, I use my paddle for any sea trip I go on, which frequently involve rough water and surf and I have never had a problem with its performance. The other benefit is that if you do fall in, a roll is much easier with the Greenland paddle in my opinion, so I’m a lot more confident in my ability to right myself if I do end up capsizing for any reason.

Thanks to all the folk that helped me gain the experience and skill required to pass this challenging assessment. You know who you are!