Ian ‘Jaffa Cake’ White shares his experiences of planning a sea kayaking adventure
Lockdown gave me an opportunity to reflect on a trip Steffi, Tokey and I embarked upon in September 2019.
Tokey is a regular and welcome guest at our home in West Mersea, Essex. Mersea island is just off the coast, connected to the mainland by a causeway, known as the Strood, which often floods at spring tides, cutting us off from England.
Living 300 metres from the sea has its advantages, one being 24 hour access to the Blackwater Estuary which we explore regularly with our sea kayaks. During one of Tokey’s visits we started to discuss venturing further afield and multi-day trips to Devon, Cornwall and Dorset were mooted. Tokey suggested a paddle from Minehead to Ilfracombe which he had done before with Lucy Gill (an ex-member now living in Dorset) which takes in spectacular views of the highest sea cliffs in England. It is also in the Bristol Channel which has the second highest tidal range in the world (Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia has the highest) creating very fast currents.
It was decided that I would plan the trip as I have the most nautical experience, having started sailing at the age of ten and attaining most of the sailing qualifications on the way through life. The first purchase was ‘South West Sea Kayaking’ by Mark Rainsley (Mark is probably best known for starting ‘UK Rivers Guide’). This is a really good book. He breaks down the coastline into sections which he grades according to difficulty, which gave me an excellent selection from which to choose. Along with Mark’s guide, I bought the relevant charts(sea maps) and O/S maps of the areas under consideration. It is important to have both charts and maps as you need information from both. For example, the charts will give you speed and direction of flow of the currents at different states of the tide ,while the maps will give you the location of footpaths and contours should you need to make an emergency evacuation.
Between us we discussed the possible dates and the weekend of 14/15th September 2019 seemed to suit all and was also best in terms of tide times and heights. I planned three trips, all for the same weekend. If the weather was less than favourable to paddle plan A then we could do plan B or C.
On the buildup to the trip I bought lots more kit, like flares, a comfortable sleeping mat and to strengthen our knowledge, Steffi and I completed a two day Sea Kayak Leader Training course in August.
As the trip date drew nearer I was obsessed with checking the weather forecast and I continued to review and check our kit until I was satisfied that we were prepared.
Finally, the week arrived and on the Friday, Steffi and I drove to the camp site chosen by Tokey, which was half-way between the North and South coasts of Devon, as I was still weighing up which coast to paddle.
After pitching our tents we headed for the local pub, armed with charts, maps and a mass of tidal flow predictions and suggested get on/off times for the three paddle plans. Over a pint and dinner, we discussed the options in conjunction with weather forecasts. I try to get three forecasts which will give me a range of views from which to make an informed decision. Also, a forecast is not a guarantee as I experienced earlier this year when sea kayaking. The forecast 21 knots of wind blew up to 35 knots(that’s gale force 8). I found it impossible to make any headway and paddling a course just off the wind was very difficult. We survived, obviously.
The weekend forecasts were showing a breezy North-westerly wind which would have made the North Devon trip tricky, with large waves crashing onto the sheer cliffs. Plan B was to paddle from Hope Cove to Plymouth on the South Coast with an over-night stop on a beach. We would be protected from the wind by the cliffs and the wind was due to veer (go clockwise)to an Easterly.
Plan C was to paddle the Fowey estuary, which is very sheltered, should the wind be too strong for Plan A and B.
We chose Plan B.
After a reasonably comfortable night under canvas, we drove to the get off, parked Tokey’s car and then proceeded to Hope Cove. I remember this fishing village cum tourist magnet from my very young years when I spent a summer holiday there with my family. Essentially, it hasn’t changed.
A conveniently located car park was a few paces from the beach where we loaded the boats with all the kit. There was no rush as I had calculated that we needed to get on after 10.30 a.m. to catch the current going in the direction we were headed. We hugged the coast, rockhopping as we went and exploring around the landward side of rocky outcrops not knowing if there was a way through, often timing our paddling to coincide with the waves so that we didn’t run aground.
The arch in Thurlstone rock beckoned so we paddled through and then made our way to our lunch stop, Arymer cove. We want to check out Arymer cove because not only was it our lunch stop but was also to be our overnight camp site. Part of the plan was to investigate the Erme estuary. The upper part of the Erme is known to whitewater paddlers for its tight rocky gorge and a well deserved grade four label. The Erme we paddled into was nearly at low tide and was a narrow, shallow channel with sand banks on either side that met the verdant tree-lined shore. Families were swimming in the waist deep water while we worked our way upstream until we ran out of water, gawping at the beauty of this stunning estuary as we went.
The tide had turned as we paddled out of the estuary, back to Arymer cove where we set up camp for the night, or at least Steffi and I did. Tokey, on the other hand, spent an hour just off shore with his hook and fishing line hoping to get ‘catch of the day’ for dinner. Total catch-one piece of seaweed. Oh well!
A delicious five course meal with silver service and crockery…….was not what we had. I do remember Steffi putting together a tasty concoction which filled the inner Ian until breakfast. And so to bed.
Morning came and I peeked out of the tent’s half undone zip to see the moon wedged between two rocky outcrops. Probably the best photo I have ever taken.
Egg and bacon sandwiches with tomato ketchup was what I wanted but I seem to remember porridge- the food of kings. The previous night we had washed the pots in the sea and one pot had to be soaked overnight to soften the burnt residue. We shouldn’t have been surprised to find small shrimps swimming in the soaking pot. Porridge with shrimp anyone?
Tents down, boats packed. We’re off. If we had time I was hoping to paddle up the river Yealm and visit Noss Mayo and Newton Ferrers ,two beautiful villages tucked inland on the Yealm. We ran short of time and energy so we made a lunch stop in a small bay at the Yealm’s mouth. Just before lunch, I was paddling slightly ahead of Tokey and Steffi when I heard a splash and a large snort of air. It wasn’t Tokey taking a roll, but a seal which had come to check us out. Obviously not impressed, the seal disappeared into the deep not to be seen again.
Lunch over, we embarked on the final leg of our trip which would take us to Bovisand , a beach overlooked by Bovisand Fort which was built in the 1860’s to protect the naval fleet from pesky invaders. I remember feeling tired as we neared the beach which was full of families sun bathing in the glorious September heat. I took a couple of celebratory rolls and then ran my kayak into the yellow sand, marking the end of a fantastic two day adventure.
The guide book says the trip is 28km although we probably did another 5km visiting the Erme. The hardest part of the trip was transporting three sea kayaks up the steep path from the beach to Tokey’s car in 25 degree heat, while still wearing my drysuit. We are planning to do some more trips this year, Covid 19 permitting. Where will we go next?
Like whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking is great fun but you need to know what you are doing. The environment and dangers are different to whitewater, so if you want to stay safe, take some training and go with an experienced guide or coach. If you want to go unguided then choose a sheltered estuary as a start. If you want more advice you can contact me on [email protected]