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Sea Kayaking Around the Isle of Wight

Well about 85 miles of paddling later and we had made it. From a rough idea some 6 weeks before we had a well organised expedition in place and on the water. There was a pretty big sense of achievement from the whole team, for each of us representing something special and different. Throughout the past 6 weeks I have had a sense of something much bigger, the Isle of Wight was the baby of the bunch, just playing really. Also for me personally the paddling is only to be a small part of the whole effort. We want to use the 5 separate paddling exploits as a means to raise awareness for something bigger, funds for the Muscular Help Foundation and a donation to the Willow Foundation with some much needed fundraising and 2 great causes which need publicity and public awareness.

Well about 85 miles of paddling later and we had made it. From a rough idea some 6 weeks before we had a well organised expedition in place and on the water. There was a pretty big sense of achievement from the whole team, for each of us representing something special and different. Throughout the past 6 weeks I have had a sense of something much bigger, the Isle of Wight was the baby of the bunch, just playing really. Also for me personally the paddling is only to be a small part of the whole effort. We want to use the 5 separate paddling exploits as a means to raise awareness for something bigger, funds for the Muscular Help Foundation and a donation to the Willow Foundation with some much needed fundraising and 2 great causes which need publicity and public awareness. 

Dave, Aisling and Rich flying down Southampton Water

So back to the paddling, the days leading up to the trip for me, as one of the joint organisers/leaders was about ticking off the must do tasks on a day by day basis. Boats, check, food, check, press release and so on. The day before I arranged to meet Michael McGraith, The founder of Muscle Dreams, (a Muscular Dystrophy Charity) at Hanbury Manor golf course to talk through final plans. All was going well with plenty of enthusiasm until I got back to my home in Bedford and realise that I had left my wallet at the golf course, not ideal preparation for the following days start.

We loaded four of the sea kayaks onto the team van ready for the off. The kayaks had assembled from the 4 corners of Great Britain and Ireland literally. Hopefully our paddling under human power will at least provide some carbon credits to make up for the fuel burn! Aisling, the joint leader had picked up a slightly battered Prijon Seayak from Dublin when we went to the Ireland Canoe Polo championships some 3 weeks previously. Stephen Carter had collected his boat from Scotland on loan from his friend who runs Powerplay paddles.com. Katie, his mum drew the short straw with the driving duty for that one and no doubt cant wait for him to pass his test. The remaining boats were organised via White Water Consultancy in Wales and had been collected a fortnight before.

So kit and half the team in one place we set off to Lymmington to stay at a friend’s house before heading to the Southampton Boatshow the following day. So in leaving late and heading via Hanbury Manor golf course, some 80 mile detour to rendevous with my lost wallet, we arrived at the South Coast at almost 3am. Ouch! Not what we had planned. The remainder of the team were arriving by planes (not quite), Trains (one of them) and automobiles the following day. A few hours of sleep later and we were into final prep mode, cameras charged, yes, (although one of the waterproof ones we left the battery in the charger…Ooops), foam blocks for kit, yes and after some final miscellaneous tasks we were off to the Boatshow.

Mike Enser , Show Director sorted out vehicle passes, show passes as we kept in constant contact with the rest of the team. Aisling was in court that morning in Birmingham (on the right side of the judge!) and trying to get away to catch the 1.02 train, nerves were jangling. Dave Mac, a teacher was trying to escape to then pick up Rob Bates (Viking Kayak Club Chairman) and Geoff Tilford (racing snake in a boat) and get them to the church on time, so to speak. David (the non kayaker and former pole vaulter) Gordon was making this own way to the site.

What transpired was testament to our ability to herd cats! By about 3.30 the whole team had arrived at Southampton Water and were with some excitement ready to roll.  So a bit more background, Southampton Boatshow is one of the boating industry’s must see events. Rammed with gin palaces to racing boats to the who’s who of sailing including our Olympic heroes from Beijing 2008. The excitement and good moods were completed by the most brilliant September sunshine, the gods were smiling on us. Whilst we negotiated the tricky task of ramming the rest of our kit into our sea kayaks (something that can only get better with practise) we were visited by the show announcer. With a voice sounding like a hybrid between the speaking clock and a poet laureate it was quite exciting to relay our story and then hear it over the show PA system 15 minutes later.  We resisted the urge to make up any random facts such as “I was in fact responsible for saving that injured Dolphin from Shark attack…” or my great great grandfather was in fact Lord Nelson…!”. 

Enough chat, we launched the boats onto the small inner basin and were greeted by Rob Jenner and the support boat so kindly provided by Solent RIB Charter. It is worth mentioning that without their support for the project it would have reduced the enjoyment considerably for us, we were able to get on with the business of paddling. So we left to a mini fan fare, not really sure that anyone missed us at all! We paddled quickly across Southampton Water from the show across the shipping lane and then down the far bank. Every so often a large ferry cat or container ship would pass in the channel and we would experience bigger waves and swell. Spirits were high, all the talk was now cheap and it was all about the main event.

We paddled quickly past Hythe and onto Fawley, the massive oil refinery on the banks of Southampton Water just before you hit the Solent. All the way down we were encouraged by Rob Jenner, the support boat pilot who patrolled near the group like a hen looking after its ‘chooks’. So final briefing from me and our first big challenge, paddle South across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, crossing the main channel. Our plan was to bisect the shipping lane at 90 degrees to ensure the shortest possible crossing. The easterly current also helped to aid our passage clockwise around the island. 

The group stayed pretty close together although there were a few moments where the tail end Charlie’s had to pick up the pace and the early runners pull up on the reins. The chop in the middle of the channel near the shipping lane marker was probably as big as it got all weekend. Fairly quickly we reached Bramble Bank, a large sand bank famous for impromptu cricket matches at low tide, we ploughed on and Rob went around. As the sun began to set we had reached the island and started tracking East towards Wootton Creek and then onto Ryde. Like many great trips and adventures our plans were somewhat fluid. Paddle to a suitable place between Wootton Creek and Ryde and pitch tents for the night. Job Done.

Things started to get more complicated when Dave (I want a bed for the night) Gordon piped up that this good friend lived 10 minutes from Ryde and would pick us up and his friend’s brother owned a restaurant in Ryde (it was good grub but he couldn’t remember much on account of too much alcohol last time he visited). We pressed on, and just after Wootton Creek said goodbye to Rob and the support boat. The sunset and weather was simply amazing, another day in paradise. We had been spoilt with Rob and the boat, Gavin from Projected Vision doing some filming and also Steve’s mum Katie being our support crew (this proved invaluable later on our trip). In high spirits we approached Ryde Pier and wondered in the darkness on a route under the pier stanchions. Our deliberations were interrupted by one of the hydrofoil/fast cat boats leaving the pier and sending a 3 ft wave in our direction.

To some amusement we all stayed upright but got drenched, yeah thanks Capt. Birdseye..Nice one! We pressed on and by this stage realising that the lights of the promenade where almost 1 km away with a large mud flat separating us and terra firma. The prospect of struggling through mud was not that appealing so we decided to paddle on. Equipped with our personal lighting we edged along the shallows of the mud flat. It was slightly surreal and a little scary wondering where we might land. The map offered a prospect of paddling on for a few miles round the outline of the mudflat, In reality what this meant was dodging the hovercraft and had recently left Ryde scooting across the mud and then the shallows and off to the mainland. We were not sure when it would return and at what time and we were not keen to hang around to find out. Also by this stage it seemed that there was no obvious end to the paddling that evening. We were guided and drawn by the cardinal markers in the channel but it seemed as if we were miles of off the shore at this point, pitch black and limited idea of when we might get in.

At this point I should confess to 2-3 shrieks as fish jumped from the shallows hitting me on the back and face, after all not many people enjoy a slap round the face with a wet fish. We pressed on anxious to find sanctuary and a way in. We identified from the chart by torchlight that we had found a spit of sand that sticks out, beached and crossed this into a lagoon and we felt our spirits lift, maybe we were getting closer after all. A couple of false alarms later and we located Sea View sailing club at the North East side of the island. We beached and climbed out of our boats onto dry land. Well I say that but in fact Dave climbed out, slipped on the wet algae and ended up face first. A number of youngsters sat on the quay witnessed his mishap in the darkness and burst into laughter. Their roars of laughter were terminated quickly as Dave offered to insert his paddle somewhere unpleasant.

Dave (I know everybody) Gordon made a phonecall and 15 minutes later we were heading to his friends house for a warm bed and shower. Happy Days. Memories of that night were pretty thin but waking up the next morning to bacon and eggs was a welcome and unexpected treat. We packed out kit back into the waiting transportation and headed back to Sea View to be greeted by a very hospital commodore who watched us repack our kit and head for the top of the slipway. The resident jetty made for a long seal launch runway with mixed success depending on weight, gravity, the boat and technique. And we were off on our travels and adventures again. The weather was again glorious spirits were high and we pressed on around the to the far East end of the island. On the way we found an old fort located at sentry duty to Southampton Water, bimbled round there before passing the lifeboat station. We were again greeted with a thousand welcomes and discovered Steve’s mum Katy was holding court. We pressed on anxious to maximise the tides. We hadn’t started till 11am that day to catch the tide rather than paddle slack water or worse still against the tide.

Aisling launching at Sea View Yacht Club

We rounded the East end of the island and immediately saw the change in scenery and terrain with the white cliffs and high crags. The water was crystal clear and shallow with the tide out with shallow rock pools just below the surface. Getting the wrong line meant friction and slow boats, mini reefs made a few waves to play with albeit a 1 – 1 ½ feet in height. The group split slightly as Student Steve and Rob (aka the King of Phaff) took the direct line resulting in them almost being out of shouting range. When we eventually caught up there were a few harsh words and some team learning took place!!. We pressed on and started to come to bigger bays particularly off Sandown and Shanklin where the Wight Air Extreme Sports festival was taking place. We took Route 66 straight across the bay, an estimated couple of miles out. Again I felt a slight apprehension that the Thundercats and powerboats might stray out as far as us. Surely 7 brightly coloured kayaks were visible, weren’t they. We never had to find out…thankfully. We did however enjoy the Red Arrows formation flyby.

We were making reasonable time although the group definitely had different natural pace amongst its paddlers. Clearly Geoff, a former GB squad member was earning his title of Racing Snake or Paddling Machine. We headed round to Ventnor and had decided this would make a natural lunch stop. As we came round the bay and found Ventnor beach we discovered 3 foot swell breaking onto a fairly steep beach. With a bit of timing and holding station we all managed a fairly decent and dramatic surf onto the beach for the benefit of the crowd. By this stage we were all pretty hungry and also feeling a bit tired. Food from Katy, our resident support crew was awesome. We ate and took in some rays on the beach, enjoying the challenge, the moment and all the challenge was proving to be.

Soon the timekeepers called last orders on the beach and we remounted our kayaks keen to get on. The King of Phaff began to run through his triplicate checklists and final preparations, for the umpteenth time and left the beach as we were almost out of site (slight exaggeration for drama but he was certainly last man standing). We were heading for St Catherines Point, the lighthouse on the South Side of the island and purportedly the most choppy element of the expedition with opposing currents, steep cliffs and a fairly exposed headland making for larger wave action. In fact is was relatively calm at the headland itself although a slight side wind made paddling awkward lifting and pushing our boats in the swell off course. Once round the point it was then a tidal assisted push up the red cliffed coast towards Freshwater Bay. By this stage Rob (KoP) had played his joker straight after lunch declaring he needed to stop to water the flowers and plants. We were mid bay and despite my suggestion to reduce his waterline by peeing in the boat he was insistent that a stop was the only answer. Half an hour of unbudgeted time later we were off with those words ringing in my ears “Would be great to paddle in the moonlight again…”

We kept moving passing line after line of sea fishermen hoping to strike it lucky. We pulled over once more to stretch our aching pins and took a quick breather. The sun began to set and we witnessed a stunning sunset but at the same time tried to pick up the pace towards Freshwater Bay, the end of day 2. Sunset turned to dusk and through to darkness only this time there was no ambient light or moon. It was pitch black punctuated only by the beacon of light from Freshwater in the distance. About his point one of the more observant in the group observed that despite our strong paddle strokes those lights in the distance were in fact still lights in the distance. A strange mix of determination and controlled panic descended on the group as we turned perpendicular to our previous course to pull hard toward the nearest show. As we got closer the darkness revealed the sound of breaking waves. Not good and worse still we couldn’t see each other. We turned on our deck lights only to discover that Dave Mac couldn’t find his. My contingency to break a glow stick and attach it to him was hampered by greater swell and breaking waves close by to our right hand side. After some difficulty we were back with the improved situation of 7 lit paddlers.

That last 20-30 minutes was pretty hairy primarily as it was hard to gauge distance and hazards in the dark but soon we were safe inside the natural harbour that is Freshwater Bay. We had paddled in towards the shore to reduce the tidal flow against us or a large eddy from the bay but things had got a bit more scary with the waves. Landing was a welcome relief and again the hostess with the mostess greated us with hot food, a place to store our kit at the Sandpiper Hotel. Lifting and dragging our heavily laden sea kayaks was uber hard work (especially Geoff’s with 2 kitchen sinks) After food and kit storage and some hot showers we were back down in the bar laughing and joking about the days adventures. A few beers later and with some action stories under the belt we headed off for a small green strip of grass to pitch our tents for the real deal. And zzzzzzzz. We awoke to a slightly misty start which soon cleared as more glorious sunshine buzzed through. However in the shade the cold air of the morning still managed a little nip.

I was personally experiencing some discomfort as on Day 1 of the heatwave I had decided to paddle with just my buoyancy aid which has caused massive salt water abrasions and some pain. We all enjoyed the morning stretch round to Needles with large white cliffs looming on our left. The weather and the crisp morning but for a great atmosphere reduced only by the wave action from reflecting waves from the cliffs meeting incoming waves and making things pretty unpleasant. Dave described this shortly afterwards as one of his armchair moments where you would swap absolutely anything to swap for the comfort of an armchair. And suddenly we were there in touching distance of the Needles lighthouse located at the end of the famous jagged sawtooth rocky cliffs at the end of the island.

There was a definite sense of elation as we paddled in and out of the Needles and round the lighthouse. The South side of the island had significant swell and waves close to breaking but once in the shelter on the North it was like a proverbial mill-pond. We played for a while did some pictures and then headed up the North side of the island towards Yarmouth. The change from challenging paddling conditions to a mill-pond could not have been more startling. We cracked on and passed a number of yachts on ‘teasing duty’, cooking bacon sandwiches which wafted in the wind but sadly none were forthcoming. By this stage Dave Macca was regretting bringing his mini ‘Toothpick’ length paddles and was struggling. Needless to say I did the decent thing and swapped with him only to give myself chronic arm strain the week after. We ploughed on and made it past another breakwater fort, this one stationed on the entrance to Southampton Water.

Next Stop…The Rowing themed café on the Isle of Wight just before Yarmouth. We piled in to the café in our salt covered kayaking kit looking like extras from the mutiny on the bounty. Perhaps hoping for gold we were welcomed and fed like Kings (and Queen for Aisling’s benefit) . The food was delicious and we were hungry so that feeling was amplified. Whilst enjoying the local delicacies we were met by Miles, the chairman of the Muscular Help Foundation who was fantastic for boosting morale. Fed and watered we jumped back into our kayaks to negotiate the crossing back to the mainland. We had decided to cross the Solent just before Yarmouth and to the South West of the Ferries which run from Yarmouth back to Lymmington. Sunday mornings on the Solent was a hive of activity with all manner of sailing and powered craft enjoying themselves. We crossed at the mercy of the Sunday morning sailing fleets, power boats and bigger craft. Although there weren’t any close shaves it always feels slightly nerve racking when a powerboat or boat under sail is bearing down on you.

We crossed the channel following protocol of 90 degrees to the main passage, e.g. straight across and no dallying, the tides did work in our favour and the drift took us closer towards the boatshow. Once the crossing was made we felt it was plain sailing or kayaking back up the port side of the channel towards Calshot spit and activity centre (one of 4 velodromes in the country. Huge watersports training centre with climbing walls and all things sporty). We passed Beaulieu River, dodged a few more boats and then we were paddling through the shallows along the side of Calshot spit. Rob Jenner and Katie in the support boat were forced to hold station slightly further out in the deep water but it was great to have them back watching over us. Calshot hangers, home to the activity centre and formerly a sea plane base was within reach. By this stage fairly weary we beached our boats and wandered in for some coffees and food.
Soutampton Water, homeward bound

A few moments in the sun did wonders for refuelling our tanks. Before long we were back in the kayaks keen to make the most of the tidal assistance. We turned left and started the final few miles back to the heroes welcome and the Southampton Boatshow. We paddled past the huge moored tankers tied up at Fawley refinery and then the boatshow was in site. The final excitement of reaching the destination spurred on tired muscles. A large freighter was slowly making its way down Southampton water under pilot control. We figured plenty of time for nipping back to the show in front of the pilot and freighter combo. A series of sirens and stern announcements from the pilot left us in no doubt he had right of way!!! Some welcome! We held station and waited (a long time) till be passed and then skipped back into the pontoons to a mini reception. It was like a surreal version of Frogger, the arcade game dodging boats and things. Once the 2 dogs and 5 people cheering, whipped into a frenzy by Kate had stopped, it all sunk in. We had done it. Mission Accomplished.   We got the obligatory team shots and then it was game on, pack the kit and escape before the hoards and traffic leaving the show.

None of us could believe how lucky we had been with the weather. Paddling round the Needles had been a fantastic experience. Leg2, the Thames…Bring it on!

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