The Cote de Granit Rose is that stretch of the Brittany coastline, which is much loved by visiting British yachtsmen, and land based tourists. Although the inhabitants have French passports they are regard themselves first and foremost as Bretons. The coastline is deeply indented as a number of ria’s penetrate the countryside of Cote D’Armor and these inlets provide shelter during the periods of unsettled weather which can sweep across the region. Along the coast a number of small bays and harbours are virtually enclosed by the large granite monoliths, which are widely spread providing a unique and dramatic seascape. Against this background there is some superb sea kayaking.
It was an early April morning that we met at Ile Grande, the early season meant that car parking was not a problem. Our destination for the day was the Triagoz lighthouse, about six miles to the northwest. The tides in this area can run with a speed that can catch people unawares and to approach Triagoz meant crossing the tidal streams so we had chosen a neap tide to minimisz the effect of the flow.
As we paddled out from Ile Grande, along one of the many channels, which run in between the surrounding reefs it, became apparent that there was a swell approaching from the west. As the swell began to feel the shallower water they steepened rapidly before crashing forwards in a surge wall of white, the unleashing of such power emphasized the need to steer clear of the reefs.
Triagoz lighthouse was built in 1864 and its light, 30 metres above the sea, is visible from 14 miles away. On this day the early season mist, which hung over the water meant that the light wasn’t visible from 5 miles away and so, we headed out on a compass bearing towards an unseen destination. After about 1.5 miles the Bar-ar-Gall west cardinal mark slipped by to our left and we entered deeper water. The mean depth changing from under 20 metres to over 60 metres with a result that the swell settled into a more regular rhythm. This was a swell, which had travelled from the open ocean, and there was a feeling of real power as we rose and sank a couple of metres at a time.
Eventually the lighthouse started to emerge from the haze and its face glowed gold reflecting the local rock from which it had been constructed. The defensive ring of reefs was fringed white as the Atlantic swell was halted in its progress east. We had hoped to land and to briefly explore the area surrounding the light, no more internal visits though, this light became automatic in 1984. Unfortunately the ever-present swell prevented this happening. We could have landed but this was not an emergency or a sea kayaking assessment, no need to risk the kayaks so we remained in deep water, savouring the atmosphere and taking photographs before turning east towards a known landing spot.
Les Sept Iles were six miles to the east but we had some tidal assistance for this section of the journey. Barely visible in the distance we were being drawn towards them both by the tide and by reputation. Located 3 miles north of the Breton coast they are a superb paddling destination in their own right. Numerous vedettes travel backwards and forwards between the islands and the mainland but it is only possible to land on one of the islands, Ile aux Moines, the others are all part of the nature reserve.
The bird life in the area is truly spectacular. On Ile Rouzic there are thousands of pairs of gannets, the most southerly colony on the eastern side of the Atlantic. For the majority of the boat travelling tourists though the most exciting observation would be of a Puffin, which breed here in small numbers. I would doubt if hardly any would become excited at the passage of a Manx Shearwater, which also breed in the area. As we approached the archipelago a few of these birds passed close by and to me they embodied all that is interesting in a bird. Complete mastery of their environment with a freedom of spirit to roam widely across the ocean. As they glided past on stiffened wings there was the occasional tilting of the head as if in disbelief as to the type of craft they could see on the water. The most common bird was the gannet, numerous individuals flying past on their regular commute from Ile Rouzic to the more distant fishing grounds. Their numbers increasing dramatically during the last few hundred of metres, even if it was thick fog it would have been apparent that we were about to make a landfall.
As we approached the reef it appeared as if there was a line of mist across the rocks at the western end of the reef. It quickly became apparent that this fog was in fact spray being unleashed from the exploding swells. Clearly as we bore down on the islands it was going to be necessary to exercise a degree of caution to ensure that we weren’t swept into a maelstrom of exploding waves. Le Cerf was the first landfall that we made, more of a large rock than a small island, we skirted north avoiding a number of dramatic reef breaks until we entered the calmer waters inside the reef. We knew that there was a seal colony and were not disappointed when a number of inquisitive individuals swam out to accompany us on our exploration of the reef.
We landed on the northern side of Ile aux Moines for lunch, basking in the early April sun and savouring some of the delights of the Breton cuisine with a number of local paddlers. Clearly a huge amount of military building had been undertaken in the past but for me the most dramatic man made feature was the lighthouse. Its construction was started in 1854 and its powerful light is a key feature when approaching this coast.
We circumnavigated the two largest islands, Ile aux Moines and Ile Bono, encountering a number of the nesting birds, which have made these islands such an important ornithological site. Time was pressing though and it was time to cross the channel towards the mainland. On spring tides the streams run through the channel at speeds of up to 4 knots and with an adverse wind a significant sea can be generated. Fortune smiled on us that afternoon and the ferry glide towards the perched granite boulders of the shoreline was carried out in flat calm seas. We skirted the outside of Ploumanac’h, possibly the most picturesque harbour on the north coast of Brittany, and passed close to Tregastel, so popular with tourists during the summer months.
We threaded our way through the reefs back to Ile Grande, from where we had departed six hours and 20 nautical miles earlier. Some of the French paddlers concluded their day with a number of celebratory rolls but I was more interested in remaining dry. As we changed in the car park the full implications of the day’s paddle began to sink in. We had visited two of the major lighthouses of northern Brittany and seen a diverse range of wildlife in a dramatic natural environment.
I always think that there is something special about urban kayaking and over the years I have been fortunate to dip my paddles in the waters of some of the worlds great cities.My first was probably Venice in 1972 when I paddled an early version of a Gaybo sea kayak. I have been struggling to remember the model but it’s name escapes me. In those days kayaks in the waters of Venice were an infrequent sight, so I generated a fair bit of interest.
Since then I have enjoyed the urban landscapes of cities such London, Paris, New York, Valletta and Seattle to name a few. Along the way I have paddled through towns and cities which may not necessarily have the same worldwide appeal but have their own unique charm. This includes such fascinating destinations as Leicester, Wolverhampton, Milton Keynes, to name just three. What is great about paddling through towns such as these you gain a totally different perspective of the urban environment.
This week we were fortunate to be able to paddle around the historic Dutch city of Utrecht. In terms of population it is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands so there was no doubt that we would be experiencing urban kayaking! There was plenty to see including football stadiums, prisons, old fortifications and possibly the most interesting from a sea kayakers point of view part of the University.
Christophorus Henricus Diedericus Buys Ballot attended Utrecht University before going on to become a Professor in Mathematics and Physics. He is best known though for his achievements in meteorology, with Buys Ballots Law named after him. It states that if a person in the northern hemisphere stands with their back to the wind the low pressure is to their left and high pressure to the right. Pretty much essential knowledge for anybody who wants to work as a sea kayak leader or guide.
Who says that Urban Kayaking has to be boring? There is a whole world out there waiting to be discovered and perfect when the wind is too strong to be on the open sea.
Whilst continue to look through my old slide collection I came across a number of photographs, which help to illustrate what informative and entertaining events the Jersey Sea Kayak Symposiums have been over the years. In addition they have attracted a number of paddlers who are well known throughout the sea kayaking world.
The next Jersey Sea Kayak Symposium will be held in May 2019, it should have been May 2018 but the organisers of the Scottish Symposium asked if they could use the slot and we readily agreed.
The 2019 Jersey Sea Kayak Symposium will be the 13th time that the event has been held over a period of 27 years and it all came about after Bill Small and Pete Scott had attended the Anglesey Symposium in 1991 and decided that Jersey Canoe Club could do something similar.
Whilst searching through my kayaking literature I came across my copy of “Life” magazine, which was published on 22nd July 1957. It recounts the story of Hans Lindemann, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean, from east to west, in a kayak in 1956. I had managed to find a copy a few years ago through the wonders of eBay. A seller in Miami just happened to be selling something which I had been trying to find for years.
Hans Lindemann left Las Palmas in the Canary Islands on the 20th October 1956, in his folding kayak, Tangaroa, eventually making landfall 72 days later on St Martin, in the Caribbean.
During the crossing there were numerous incidents, a chance meeting with a cargo ship half way across the Atlantic, capsizing and clinging to the upturned hull throughout the night, another capsize in daylight, hitting a shark with his paddle etc all while his body was fueled with tins of condensed milk and beer.
It really is one of the most significant sea kayaking trips of all time, if you haven’t managed to find a copy of Life Magazine then search out a copy of “Alone at Sea” which describes the crossing in far more detail. At the end of the book though I was left wondering “why on earth would you do it?”
I had heard about Engelandvaarders, a number of years ago. Mainly men but some women who escaped from the German occupied Netherlands to Britain. Many took the dangerous overland routes but a smaller number risked their lives crossing the North Sea in a variety of small craft. Earlier this year I heard that an Engelandvaarders Museum had been opened in 2015, so whilst on a visit to my daughter in Amsterdam it was planned that we should go to Noordwijk, to visit the museum.
The section that most interested me, the most, was the story of those men who attempted to paddle across the North Sea in canoes. As far as is known 38 men attempted the journey to the English coast in folding canoes (kayaks). Unfortunately only 8 people made it to the English coast, and of these only 3 survived the Second World War.
The stories of some of the escapees are remarkable, Rudi van Daalen Wetters and Jaap vanHamel, were at sea for 5 days and nights before they were picked up by an Australian ship. When rescued they were unable to stand. On the 20th June 1941, Robbie Cohen and Koen de Longh left the beach in Katwijk and 50 hours later landed on the beach in England. Both amazing feats of survival. Sadly many of the others were not successful.
In 2011 Dutch marines Chiel van Bakel and Ben Stoel and English paddlers Alec Greenwell, Ed Cooper, Harry Franks and Olly Hicks recreated the crossing completed by the brothers, Han and Willem Peteri on the 19th September 1941, although I would assume that their navigation equipment was slightly more sophisticated than a school atlas and a watch. The Peteri brothers took two days to cross from Katwijk to Sizewell in Suffolk.
As paddlers we are possibly in a reasonable position to understand the fears and concerns of those young men as they slipped quietly away from the Dutch coast, under the cover of darkness. Their future far from certain but prepared to chance their lives on the hostile waters of the North Sea, rather than remain in their occupied homeland.
If you are in the area then I would recommend a visit to this small but fascinating museum.
The 1st December marks the start of British Canoeing Winter Challenge. It last 3 months and the aim is to encourage members of canoe and kayak clubs to get out on the water during the darker, colder days of winter.
Last year Jersey Canoe Club came top, in terms of miles covered, just about fending off a determined challenge by Portsmouth Canoe Club. In the 3 months the members of the Jersey club paddled a total of 4,108 miles, with 4 members paddling over the 300 miles. The highest individual total was 520 miles, which is quite amazing considering that there is no inland water in Jersey, so they were all completed on the sea.
Today’s forecast was less than perfect for the first day of the Challenge as 5 slightly enthusiastic kayakers headed out from Belcroute. The initial mile was fast and easy as the northerly force 5 sped us on our way towards Noirmont point, which was the gateway to more sheltered waters, under the cliffs of Portelet. Some large black clouds gave a suggestion of rain or sleet but surprisingly we stayed dry. At times even feeling the warmth of the low angled winter sun.
Nicky pulled out in St Brelade’s whilst the rest of us carried onto Corbiere, with its freshly painted lighthouse. The tide had started to rise quite quickly meaning we had missed the opportunity to land in some of the small bays, so we headed back to Beauport for lunch. Without doubt one of the most beautiful bays on the Island, but on the 1st December we had the beach to ourselves.
After lunch we headed east across St Brelade’s Bay as the clouds built in size. For most of the paddle we were reasonably protected from the wind but from Noirmont to Belcroute there was no respite. The wind was blowing at about 30 knots straight into our faces, which resulted in some demanding paddling conditions. When we landed our total mileage for the day was 60 miles, which despite the weather was a pretty reasonable start towards British Canoeings Winter Challenge .
It is probably true to say that we wouldn’t have normally gone for such a long paddle in the prevailing conditions but the fact that we did stay out there and put the miles in is evidence of the success of the Winter Challenge, which is to get more paddlers out on the water during the cold, dark days of December, January and February.
In March 1981 we were heading back to Jersey on the car ferry from Weymouth, with quite a warm feeling inside. I was in the team which had just won the initial Home International Surf Kayaking Championships at Fistral Beach Newquay and as a result we felt that we were up for anything, so in the naivety youth of youth we hatched a plan to paddle from Jersey back to England. A Channel crossing but at the western end of the waterway, as opposed to the narrower and busier Dover Straits. Over the next couple of months the reality of the paddle began to sink in but we pressed on with the planning. In the end we decided to split the paddle in Alderney.
So early one Sunday morning in June 1981 five us loaded our sea kayaks on the beach at L’Etacq on the north west of Jersey and headed out, on our way to Alderney 33 nautical miles north, due to the speed of the tidal streams around Alderney our window of opportunity was quite small. So there was no time to hang about or to pop into Sark, as we passed by. In addition we were under added pressure as we had to catch a flight home in the afternoon.
6 hours after leaving L’Etacq we beached at Braye Harbour having made good use of the favourable tidal streams. We quickly stored the kayaks, rushed to the airport and in a matter of 15 minutes retraced our route back to Jersey, although with considerably less effort.
The following Friday night we flew back to Alderney, retrieved the kayaks and rechecked our navigation for the following morning. We aimed to leave at 06.00 so it was an early phone call to the Jersey Met Office for a current weather forecast. It couldn’t have been better, virtually no wind, sunshine and the slight risk of a fog patch. How wrong this turned out to be.
As we paddled out of Braye Harbour we disappeared into the fog and in the belief that it was a small fog bank headed north. Little did we realize that this fog stretched all the way to the south coast of England, 58 nautical miles away, if we known we might well have turned straight around and headed back to Alderney.
We kept to our bearing but in the pre-GPS days there was no way of confirming our actual position we just had to have confidence in our compasses. At times the visibility was less than 50 metres, although the fog couldn’t have been that thick vertically, as the sun was shining.
We decided to stop for lunch at 13.00 and as the top of the hour approached our thoughts turned to food. Suddenly at about 12.58 there was disconcerting rumbling sound to our right. Almost simultaneously John and myself shouted paddle as we had seen the bow wave. We were directly in the path of an enormous cargo ship, which was steaming west clearly unaware of our presence. As we sprinted forward we just cleared the ship. At this point fear kicked in.
We decided that staying alive was preferable to stopping for food so we carried on north with an extra sense of urgency to our strokes. Amazingly at about 20.00 we popped out of the fog just underneath the old Borstal on Portland. I would like to claim credit for some seriously accurate navigation but I think that it was more by luck than judgement that we arrived at our destination with such precision.
We landed on the beach at Weymouth just before 21.00 which gave us an average speed of nearly 4 knots for the previous 15 hours and we just missed the overnight ferry back home to Jersey. So it was an evening exploring the night life of Weymouth (very limited) before heading south on the British Rail ferry the following morning.
It was an immensely satisfying paddle but whenever anybody asked since for advice I have always recommended that they don’t repeat our journey. Its not the distance but the risk of being exposed to the shipping something that it is impossible to imagine unless you have sat in the middle of the Channel. 36 years on I can still remember the feeling as if it was yesterday when that bow wave appeared out of the fog!
Although I have taken photographs of sea kayaking since the 1970’s I have none of the Channel crossing, I was just to concerned about the paddling to stop and take any.
Numerous books have been written either about Gino Watkins or concerning his exploits in the 1920’s and early 1930’s prior to his untimely death in the waters of eastern Greenland, an area which very few modern paddlers complete with the equipment of the 21st Century venture into. How much more demanding must have these travels been when undertaken in the equipment of the day?
Watkins is credited with being the first English man to be able to roll his kayak. A skill which he thought was essential to master if the aim was to supplement the food supplies with locally caught species. It was this desire to live off the land which probably cost Watkins his life, although no body was ever found his kayak was recovered and is preserved today at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
The book, which is probably easiest to acquire today, is simply called “Gino Watkins” by J M Scott. It seems that most second hand bookshops, which are searched, will reveal a copy of this book.
A less common title is “Northern Lights” by Spencer Chapman. It was the official record of the expedition in the 1930’s, which was trying to find an air route from Europe to North America. I had been looking for a copy for several years when, in the mid 1990’s, I came across a copy at a bookseller in London. The fact that it was store in a locked glass cabinet should have been enough of a signal that this was a book, which was out of my price range, but curiosity got the better of me and I needed to see exactly what it was like. Once I had regained my composure after seeing the price, it cost more than some of the cars I have bought in the past, I was able to savour the delights within. It was a joy to behold and as I opened the covers it only got better. The author Spencer Chapman had signed it, but more importantly it contained the original cutting from The London Times announcing the death of Watkins. This was before the contents of the book were reached. I knew that this was an important volume but one that I was unable to justify buying without discussing at home. Marriages have probably fallen apart for a lesser sum!
I reluctantly placed the book back in the hands of the shop assistant and left with his card in my hand and hope in my heart. After discussion at home it was decided that there could be no better Christmas present for the paddling bibliophile than this particular volume, “Northern Lights”. It was with some relief that I was able to order the book over the telephone a few days later. Today it occupies pride of place on my paddling bookshelf.
A strong, cold northerly wind meant that it was cold as we changed in the car park close to the German Tower at Corbiere. This was our selected venue for our Wednesday coasteering as we knew that once we dropped down the cliffs we would be sheltered from the strongest wind.
Our initial plan was to swim and scramble out to the Jument Rock, the obvious rock, which is painted white as a navigation mark. To get there involved a couple of short swims, with the opportunity to play in some of the narrow constrictions, which were funneling the swell.
I must have paddled past the white rock, almost a thousand times in the last 48 years that I have kayaked in the area but today was the first time that I have climbed to the top of this unique landmark. This was quickly followed by another first as we swam into some narrow caves, which I had never explored prior to today.
Despite the strong northerly wind and low temperatures our Wednesday coasteering session was thoroughly enjoyable. What was particularly memorable was the fact that we were able to visit a couple of locations that I hadn’t been to before. I have lived within a couple of miles of Jument rock for over 40 years and for the last 15 years have lived within a mile of the rock but had never found a reason or the time to go there, before today .
Sometimes we travel thousands of miles in search of adventure, often costing hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. The reality is that there might be plenty of adventure and places to discover much closer to home. Many years ago we coined the phrase “adventure in your own backyard”, to describe the sea kayaking trips we were undertaking in the Channel Islands. In the last 18 months we have explored Jersey’s coast by kayak or swimming, several times each week, realizing that within a few miles of where we live there are so many special places.
Whilst looking through some of my old slides I came across this one, which represents an interesting time in the evolution of modern kayak equipment, in particular dry suits.
It was taken in November 1982 on the beach at Greve de Lecq in Jersey. It was an unusually cold day, note the snow on the front of the kayak. I am the one in the paddling equipment, if you weren’t sure.
Wind surfing was becoming popular and a number of the participants were wearing this new clothing, a dry suit, prior to this evolution the dry suits were very basic items of equipment. We were fortunate enough to be lent a dry suit to try out.
One of the main concerns, which was doing the round of the paddling community was that in the event of a capsize, if the dry suit hadn’t been vented properly it was likely that the feet would fill with air and the kayaker would be suspended upside down. My role, no pun intended, in this exercise was to paddle offshore, do a couple of rolls before capsizing and hopefully swimming ashore with my head above water.
As I am writing this 35 years later it is clear that being suspended upside down with your feet full of air was an urban myth. So based on this rather unscientific experiment we ordered 6 dry suits and 7 months later flew out to Spitsbergen for a 2 month trip. As far as I am aware we were one of the first sea kayaking trips to use the modern dry suit, an item of equipment, which today is virtually essential for any self respecting sea kayaker.