Sunday, 15 June 2014

Kayaking Interlude: Jurassic Coast, Precambrian Islands & Brand New Boat

This post is just pics from a few days out in June/July: an interlude before the next real trip (the far NW and Western Isles in August). In preparation, we've bought ourselves the 'Rockhopper' in this photo. The last trip in this post was its maiden voyage.
On the first of these days out we woke up in Birmingham to clear, still weather. We rolled out of bed onto the M42 and made our way to Dorset's Jurassic Coast. By lunchtime, we were in Kimmeridge Bay and slathered with suntan lotion. 

After negotiating the breakers (this is a well-known surfers' beach) we turned West towards Portland Bill which dominated the horizon for much of the trip. Incoming surf and swell forced us a substantial distance from shore before we made our way under the fossil-rich overhanging cliffs towards Lulworth Cove. The swell made the first hour-or-so tough going, but gradually subsided to leave perfect conditions with long views towards Exmouth:
The next few km feature a huge variety of rock formations. Cave-pitted cliffs are broken by small chalk bays. We stopped for pie at a beautiful flinty cove between Worbarrow and Mupe.
This bay was like something from a tropical holiday brochure: 

The next section of coast is spectacular, with split rocks and broken cliffs. Llinos was getting impatient to run the surf between rock formations, but too much capsizing this early in the trip would have made me distinctly grumpy (righting and emptying this clumsy tandem kayak is ridiculously hard work).
Soon a long expanse of cliffs (sometimes used by the military to fire shells into the sea!) opens up. Here we saw a rarity: another kayaker!
Then the entrance to one of Dorset's main destinations, Lulworth Cove, appears. 
By this point dark cloud was arriving from the SW. 
It was still sunny when we paused at Lulworth, but by the time we headed West towards Durdle Door rain had set in. I didn't get the camera out at all during what was, geologically, the most interesting part of the trip. This meant our only photos of the famous Jurassic arch were on a rubbish phone through its misted cover.
Only on the way back did rain stop and sun reappear, lending colour to the stratified cliffs.

The most exciting and perturbing part of the trip was the return into the bay: the surf was now rolling in and dozens of surfers were waiting to catch the breakers. 
Negotiating this in an open kayak never felt secure but the boat has never moved faster: by the time we reached the shore it was 3/4 full with sea. The day finished (but for the 3hr drive home) with plate after plate of curry in a small village nearby. You can tell you're on the coast when the local Indian serves lobster...

The next trip was back to a familiar N Wales haunt:
Strangely, there'd been almost no sea life on the south coast: no birds but gulls and never a fin or flipper breaching the surface. This made the trip back to the glorious Gwylan islands, just off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, an entirely different - and even better - day out. We were joined for the first part of this trip by Gruffudd Eifion, story editor of Wales' favourite soap, Pobol y Cwm. 

This area is riddled with rock features including long, winding caves best accessed close to high tide (you'd kick yourself for visiting without a torch). The Gwylans would surely be a well-known destination but for their unpredictable currents: they're perched on the fringe of the infamous Bardsey 'swnt' which means that tidal races often cut across them. These are no problem if treated with care, but being dragged into the swnt would be a nasty end to a lovely day out. The complex currents here mean these races do the opposite of what might be expected: they are fastest at Aberdaron high water slack. Around high water is, however, still the best time to be at the islands because (equally counter-intuitively) that's when the most caves and arches are accessible. Here's Llinos negotiating the double arch on Gwylan Fawr...
...and the same spot from her perspective...
...and here's the view from near the entrance of a particularly deep cave, a seal considering following us in (this cavern is marked Ogof Morlo - Seal Cave - on the OS map):
Here she is gliding over clear water (full of sea gooseberries) into the mouth of another long cave:
It's difficult to decide which are the main attraction - caves and arches or puffins. On the north side of the islands, puffins constantly whizz by your ears. This is Llinos & Gruff with puffin traffic overhead and Bardsey behind:

By this time of year there are hundreds of them. Everywhere. 
They're a remarkably small strain of puffin, far littler than the ones on Handa.

They regularly pop up laden with sand eels before flying the feast to their island burrows:
There's often then some social activity round a hole...

...before they embark on the next forage:

They're remarkably confident in approaching kayaks (so inquisitive, in fact, that you have to be alert to keep paddles out of their way). But do try not to sneeze:

The shadows were already lengthening as we looked down the south coast of Llyn from the far side of Gwylan Fach...
...but with a couple of hours before sunset, we decided to head along the peninsula towards Porth Ysgo. This is a sandy bay set back into the cliffs on the right of this picture. It's a great snorkelling spot with rock gardens, fish and huge spider crabs to watch/catch. The coast is riddled with yet more sea caves. Perched precariously on a tiny nest in one were four plump chough chicks - these were surely on the verge of fledging:
The choughs weren't the only chicks. There were fledgling meadow pipits...
...and a pair of curlew with chick (shame I fumbled the camera):
As the shadows lengthened further, we turned back towards the islands. Gwylan Fawr is on the left, with Bardsey, distant, in the centre.
Soon the sky began to turn At-the-Gates red:

Here's one last puffin between us and the setting sun:
Our thoughts then turned to Scotland and its islands. We're planning - weather permitting - to pick one or two trips from amongst these: Ulva, Gometra, Little Colonsay and Staffa (all from Mull); a trip south from Stornaway inc. Harris & possibly North Uist; Priest Island, where Frank Fraser Darling once established an extravagantly isolated steading; a journey north west from Loch Torridon in amongst the islands and skerries of the Minch. The trip from Mull (the one that would require perfect weather) is calculated for some basking shark spotting. With water temperature reaching 18 degrees in July, this August promises a bumper crop of sharks, cetaceans and perhaps even sunfish. 

In preparation, we've bought a new toy: a Bluesky Rockhopper 340. This is for me to cover distances on multi-day solo trips (where I wouldn't want to lug around 33kg of tandem kayak) and for Llinos to do short rockhopping trips (unfortunately it doesn't have quite the support to keep her injured back comfortable). It was designed by Julian Patrick (the 'P' of P&H kayaks) especially for negotiating breaking waves and bumping off rocks (as described here). It's a little faster than the Prodigy and comfortable in bigger seas. Most importantly of all, we can now take a friend out to sea without me having to toil along in an inflatable. 

In order to see how the Rockhopper handled, we made time for one last pre-Scotland jaunt, to the Tudwals. At one point shortly after dawn Llinos was surrounded by dolphins. On any other day I would have had the camera out, but for the first hour or so of experimenting with the Rockhopper I'd cautiously stowed it somewhere waterproof. After several trips seeing porpoises, I'd forgotten how much bigger dolphins are. They surfaced just a couple of metres from Llinos' boat at the moment when direct sunlight first hit the water. They passed by in high arches, heads above the water at the start of each long sweep. A couple of minutes later, the sun behind a cloud, they disappeared. (Every single time I've seen dolphins has been just after dawn or just before dusk). Here's Llinos in the distance shortly after:
Fortunately, dawn today coincided with low tide. Unlike the Gwylans, the Tudwals are best when the majority of their rocky coastline is exposed. For a start, the caves and reefs of that coastline are full of very, very playful seals (nowhere to be seen when their basking rocks are submerged). The water was clear enough to watch them swim back and forth beneath the boats.
Rounding a corner on Tudwal Fawr, we found this wee beasty just a few feet away - we managed to skirt round carefully enough to avoid scaring it into the water. 
The Rockhopper allowed us deep into caves even on the exposed side of Tudwal Fach. To make sure we tested the boat as fully as possible we wedged it into the tiniest spaces, and paddled it against the backwash where waves hit cave walls.
The Prodigy is far more manoeuvrable with one in than two, so Llinos (being Llinos) was first into many of the narrowest, most entertaining caverns. Hundreds of kittiwakes, with fluffy, neck-striped chicks nest on the cliffs above these caves - a few are flying past the entrance in the shot above. We then disembarked on Tudwal Fawr to swap boats: here's Llinos showing off the new vessel with a backdrop of seal, Tudwal Fach and Snowdon:
It's a joy to paddle: a fantastically stable platform for taking photos or just drifting, reading and picnicking at sea; it tracks wonderfully with the skeg down, goes surprisingly fast, is so manoeuvrable it can be turned on the spot, and can be beaten against rocks with reckless abandon. As these photos show, the hull is so extravagantly flared that it rarely gets buried in waves.

In an effort to test it further, I finished this trip by going where the prodigy couldn't follow: the surfers' beaches of Porth Ceiriad and Porth Neigwl (Hell's Mouth). These are exposed to prevailing south westerlies and often offer a powerful roll. Some of the headlands that separate these large bays offered much lumpier conditions than the Tudwals - this was exhilarating, but hardly fierce enough to make for a kayak surfing day. Once I was at a more sheltered spot I left the boat on the beach and climbed the cliffs to perch on a ledge with a book of Damien Walford Davies' poetry:
I then travelled back via some tiny skerries in the middle of nowhere. These contained more seals than square metres of rock:
The most fun since leaving the Tudwals had been getting back into the sea through surf (practicing my seal entry): the Rockhopper ploughed on, straight and true, as I was hit in the face by breakers.

So the new boat is performing wonderfully, but yet to be tested to its limits. With a skilled paddler, it's supposed to be capable of this: (!!!!)
Very grateful to Julian Patrick for designing this unusual boat that happens to fit our eccentric requirements to a tee. (almost tempted to email him to see if we can book some coaching in unlocking its potential...)

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