One of the pleasures of my week is listening to Paddling Adventures Radio, a podcast from Canada. Essentially Sean Rowley and Derek Specht chat about a range of topics related to all aspects of paddle sport. This evenings opening article on people wearing buoyancy aids (PFD’s) got me thinking.
My first buoyancy aid, which I had for Christmas at the end of the 1960’s, was filled with kapok, a vegetable material, which was used in life saving devices in the Second World War. I feel certain that it must have been one of the last buoyancy aids to contain kapok. Towards the end of the 1970’s, most paddlers in the UK were wearing life jackets, which met the specifications of BS 3595. They were designed to support an unconscious person in the water, if the inherent solid buoyancy had been topped up with air.
The only disadvantage, being that they were cumbersome and seriously uncomfortable. As a consequence many paddlers used to carry them under the rear deck elastics as opposed to wearing them on the person. As shown by the photograph of Nicky taken off the Ecrehous, in the summer of 1979. How that contrasts with the photograph taken last summer, off the west coast of Greenland, where everybody is properly equipped.
I can’t remember the last time I paddled to the Ecrehous, with my buoyancy aid under the deck elastics. It must be at least 20 years ago. Putting on a buoyancy aid is now an automatic reaction. The last time I remember consciously not putting on my PFD was on a seriously hot, flat calm day in Baja, when I judged that I was more at risk from heat exhaustion than from an unexpected capsize.
There is no doubt that equipment has improved dramatically over the last 50 years that I have been kayaking and the current buoyancy aids are far more comfortable to wear than their predecessors. So the best advice is to wear it.
Another point to consider is the explosion in paddle sports in recent years, it is rare to be alone on the water nowadays. Mid week in January, on a rainy windy day doesn’t guarantee isolation in 2018.
Regularly whilst out paddling we come across paddlers, particularly on sit on tops, and it is amazing how many of those paddlers aren’t wearing buoyancy aids. What is particularly scary is when you see 3 people, normally 2 adults and a child on a double sit on top, and none of them wearing buoyancy aids.
There are 2 potential responses, paddle over and have a friendly word, I have done this a few times as people on SOT’s have been approaching tide races, but my advice has always been ignored. The other response is to hope that by wearing the appropriate equipment you will be a positive role model and raise people’s awareness of the need to wear buoyancy aids.
On Thursday morning we received a telephone call from Gordon Brown with the very sad news of the passing of Duncan Winning. Duncan was an immensely influential figure in the world of sea kayaking but more importantly he was an incredibly generous individual and thoroughly decent person.
I first met Duncan in May 1992, when he attended the first Jersey Sea Kayaking Symposium, and was one of only two people from off the island who attended every one. Always willing to give his time and energy to ensuring that the event was a success.
Douglas Wilcox has written eloquently about Duncan and some of their shared experiences on his blog and I would recommend that you read his post.
There is very little that I could add except to mention two things, firstly Duncan did achieve some form of local fame in 1999, when he was able to paddle through the centre of his home town of Largs, due to flooding. Secondly in 1998 at the Jersey Symposium he built a junior sea kayak from wood, the Jersey Junior, over the course of 3 days. A beautiful kayak, which is still treasured by my family.
I last saw Duncan in January when Nicky and myself called in to see Duncan and went out for lunch at the local restaurant. Although he was quite at times the passion that he had for kayaking still shone through with that glint in his eye.
After lunch we sat looking across to Cumbrae, talking about the great times we had on the island in the 1990’s at the Scottish Sea Kayak Symposiums. Duncan said that he wouldn’t be able to attend the event this year but we did make tentative arrangements to call in and see whilst traveling to the event from Jersey, sadly that is not to be.
I feel fortunate to have known Duncan Winning for over 25 years, spending many happy days on the water with him both in Jersey and Scotland. He will be sadly missed, not just by his family but by the wider kayaking community.
A few years ago one of our nephews and a niece weren’t sure what to do at Christmas so we invited them to join us in Jersey. On Christmas Eve we have been to the Corbiere Phare for lunch for years. The views from the restaurant across to Corbiere Lighthouse are truly spectacular although they are virtually a daily view for us. For people used to living in London and Barcelona, they are something quite out of the ordinary.
Perhaps inspired by the view or the exciting talk of potential activities in Jersey, we were off to St Brelade’s straight after the meal to go and jump off the pier. We did wear wet suits, that afternoon, to participate in this traditional Jersey activity.
Christmas Day has, for over 40 years, been marked by the Jersey Canoe Club, with an 11.00 o’clock swim in the sea, wet suits not allowed. Toby and Katie joined the throng of members who jumped in the sea at St Catherine’s on Christmas morning. Boxing Day has for years seen the Club members meet at Ouaisne, for a short paddle, a couple of hours at the most before retiring for festive drinks.
After the excitement of the previous 2 days Toby was encouraged to join us for a paddle and in reality he did pretty well. It just so happened that the Club had a close relationship with the Tower Hamlets Canoe Club, based at Shadwell Basin, in the east of London, and quite conveniently Toby lived just up the road. The rest as they say is history.
Since that day kayaking has been a large part of Toby’s life, he has paddled all over the UK, has been to Greenland with us and this summer is returning to lead his own group in Disko Bay. The really great news though is that last Friday it was announced that he has received a Winston Churchill Fellowship for his project “Moderate Becoming Good Later.”
Over the years Toby has faced his own personal challenges, which he has met with a positive approach to life. This summer he embarks on the challenge to kayak in all the Shipping Forecast areas, which are on the forecast read out on the BBC Radio 4. For many people in Britain the Shipping Forecast forms part of our lives, even if we are not out on the high seas. Despite all of the advances in how we can access up to date and accurate weather information the BBC still broadcast 4 times a day the Shipping Forecast.
How many of us have lay in our tents, as the fabric flapped and the rain beat down, whilst we turned the dial to LW, in the hope of a positive Forecast allowing us the opportunity to paddle in the morning?
Toby has launched his blog “Moderate Becoming Good Later“, I am sure most of you are aware of why he selected that title but if not then tune into Radio 4 and all will be revealed.
What had been flat calm water, with not a ripple in sight, the night before was a bit different when we woke up. After 10 days of constant north easterly or easterly winds we woke to a light north westerly breeze. Not enough to put us off the paddle to Dangriga, just an inconvenience.
The tent was dropped and the rest of the equipment packed away, just after 06.00. There were some big clouds around, which normally introduce significant increases in wind speed when they pass by overhead. We monitored their direction of travel and decided that they were probably going to miss us.
At 06.50 we pushed away from the shore and settled into a steady rhythm, despite the headwind, according to the GPS, our speed over the ground was in the region of 3.5 knots, which we were pretty pleased with. Within 15 minutes though the speed had dropped to 2.5 knots and frequently less and it was to remain like that for the next 3 hours.
Although we were on spring tides, the tidal range on the day was only 0.7 feet, not that great. We actually felt that the movement of water was probably an ocean current, driven by the frequent north easterly trade winds. Whatever the cause it was a bit of inconvenience for us, as we had an 8 mile crossing to complete. As soon as we stopped paddling the track on the GPS showed that we were being pushed south at nearly 1.5 knots, rather frustrating when we were heading north.
In addition we had to continually keep an eye on the weather, there were some large cells around but all missed us by quite some distance, so at least that was something we didn’t need to worry unnecessarily about.
Gradually the buildings in Dangriga started to take shape, the sports hall to the south of the town , was the first which was clearly identified. The radio towers were perfect for leading the way back to the town.
After 3 hours 15 minutes the bows of the kayaks ran up onto the beach in front of the Islands Expedition building in Dangriga. The conclusion of some really enjoyable sea kayaking through an eco system we have rarely been exposed to. This was not wilderness kayaking, it requires planning and the willingness to camp in specific locations but for those paddlers who are interested in bird life and snorkelling Belize is a destination well worth considering.
We needed to be back in Dangriga on Sunday morning, with the shortest crossing being approximately 8 nautical miles. It appears that there used to be a number of campgrounds in the area but these have closed as the luxury resorts have spread. These closures can prove to be a challenge as the closest Caye with any form of formal camping is probably Hangman’s Caye, which is in the northern part of the Blue Ground Range. Paddling from there into Dangriga would add quite a bit to the crossing. We were going to need to indulge in some discreet camping, not something we were certain was going to be that easy.
So when we left Billy Hawk Caye, we had no idea where we going to spend the night. We savoured our last paddle north, though the Blue Ground Range before crossing to Ragged Caye and then further north. As luck would have it we came across a delightful sandy beach, with shade provided by some trees, on an island with nobody else there.
As the day had progressed the north easterly wind picked up, proving to be quite lively at times. We passed a couple of hours reading and writing log books before the attraction of the water became to much to ignore. Launching, we paddled around a couple of islands as well as heading out to Man of War Caye, a bird reserve.
The dominant species is the Magnificent Frigate Bird, with significant numbers soaring overhead as well as those perched in the trees. We were also hoping to see the Brown Bobbies, and were fortunate enough to see a couple as we sat there admiring the avian spectacle.
All birded out, we returned to commence our discreet camping. Whilst cooking the evening meal we spent sometime chatting about paddlesports and camping with a person on a SUP who just happened to be passing by. He was the only other person we spoke to all day.
After yet another memorable sunset and rapid onset of darkness we quickly put up the tent, fairly confident that we were going to have an undisturbed night. There are so many patches of shallow water, posing significant navigational hazards there is almost no boat traffic after dark, so nobody was going to turn up and surprise us. It was an early night as we needed to be up by 05.30 the following morning ready for our crossing to Dangriga.
One item of equipment which had proved to be completely surplus on this trip, apart from my fleece, was our lightweight sleeping bags. Not once had they come out of their dry bag. I did unpack the silk liner every night but so far it hadn’t seen any use. In the middle of the night though, I did need to climb into the silk bag, not because of a drop in temperature but due to the fact that the wind had changed direction and was blowing into the tent. The first 10 days we had been in Belize the wind had been a constant north easterly, the direction we needed for the Sunday morning crossing, but by midnight, we definitely had a north westerly, a head wind. The next 12 hours could prove interesting.
After the almost cosmopolitan atmosphere of South Water Caye we crossed to Billy Hawk Caye, for two nights in the Blue Ground Range. We started by heading across to Twin Caye, firstly to reduce the length of the crossing and secondly in the hope of seeing a manatee. We succeeded with the first but sadly failed with the second objective, although we did encounter a range of interesting birds.
From the north of Twin Caye we used the north easterly trade winds to assist our journey to the Blue Ground Range. We could see a couple of islands in the distance but knew that there were far more, the coasts merging into what seemed like a single mangrove wall. The narrow creeks between only emerging at the last minute.
All of the islands have some form of development on, some with very expensive properties and what looks like full time staff. Landing places are not easy to find so it is necessary to plan ahead.
We were heading for Billy Hawk Caye, which is owned by the Sabah family and where we knew it is possible to camp. The island is identified by the fact that it has a building with a thatched roof towards its northern end, or you could just put the co-ordinates in your GPS. The best place to land is the sandy beach on the west of the island.
There is plenty of room for tents or if you want to spoil yourself there are other accommodation options, which can be booked online. It is also possible to purchase meals, we chose to cook our own meals but pay for the beer. A cold Belikin is always welcome after a hot day on the water.
It is such a relaxing place to stay we decided to remain a second night, which gave us more time to explore the Blue Ground Range. There are numerous small islands, mostly with buildings on, one small island is currently for sale for about $450,000. Apparently the owner is “motivated to sell” so you might be able to get a lower price.
The eastern side of the island group is the most interesting from a paddling perspective, following numerous narrow inlets and just enjoying the tranquility. We ended up close to the southern end of the small archipelago, at Bread and Butter Caye, what a lovely spot. It is also possible to stay here but for us the real pleasure was tying the kayaks alongside the dock and taking advantage of the small quayside bar. It really was a delightful place to pass an hour or so.
We returned to Billy Hawk Caye for the evening and possibly the best demonstration of bioluminescence I think I have ever seen. The sun rapidly dropped behind the coastal mountains and almost immediately on the east of the island the sea came alive. Streaks of bioluminescence moved towards the island, as I felt driven by the wind, whilst fish darting past, left bright green trails in the water. A real memorable end to our last day on Billy Hawk Caye.
We knew that the following morning we would be heading north to place ourselves in an appropriate position for the crossing back to Dangriga the next day.
Our destination for the day was South Water Caye, a relatively straightforward 5 nautical miles to the south, which is easy to find. It is possible to see it and I think most kayakers would find it by following the reef.
We were still interested in manatees though, so once again we crossed to Tobacco Range and like the day before our search was fruitless. Following the mangrove tour we crossed directly to Twin Caye. Although the Admiralty Chart of the area doesn’t show it, there is a navigable channel running north south through the Caye. In my limited experience it looked like perfect manatee territory but they clearly had other ideas and were elsewhere. We were rewarded with some great views of White Ibis though, a bird I am not certain I have seen before.
From Twin Caye we headed east towards South Water Caye, one of the most developed cayes in the area. There is a campsite on the island, which is being developed by Rich from New Jersey. Look for the green “Bamboo” sign and you have arrived.
There are 3 resorts on the Island so there is always the excuse to go in search of the bar at “Happy Hour”, there is also the possibility of finding food, but we decided to be self sufficient.
We went snorkelling to the south of South Water Caye and there is good snorkelling on the east side but it is not always easy to access the water. There were a number of private signs on the land and part of the beach was roped off with private signs. Not being able to walk along a section of beach because it is private is completely alien to somebody from the UK.
The one thing that was a pleasant surprise was the almost total lack of biting insects. We had travelled prepared with insect repellent, long sleeved shirts and trousers and they all stayed firmly in the dry bags. Shorts and t shirts are essential, the fleece has not been required so far, and neither is my lightweight sleeping bag. The silk liner is more than adequate. There is so much to learn about kayaking in the tropics!
There is something fascinating about paddling though mangroves. They are such a special environment but one which is under increasing threat as the desire to build ever more tourist resorts spreads into the areas where they are likely to be found.
We were really fortunate to be able to be able to experience some relatively large areas of mangroves, in Belize, paddling gently through the protected channels and just savouring the moment.
We were spending the night on Tobacco Caye but were eager to get some paddling in so crossed over to Tobacco Range. It is always a pleasure to be accompanied by Frigate Birds and Pelicans whilst paddling and we were not disappointed today. What was surprising was just how unconcerned they were as we paddled past. Perched on the larger branches of the mangroves we were often within a couple of metres of a number of birds.
The main reason for visiting Tobacco Range was the hope of seeing manatees. The Belize population might number up to 1,500 individuals and we had been shown an area where sightings are a distinct possibility. There was even a sign which indicated that we were in the right area but unfortunately on this day there was no sign of these fascinating creatures.
From there we returned to Tobacco Caye, our home for the night. Contrary to the information camping waspretty much impossible, at that time, so we had to pay to stay in the resort, a cost which we hadn’t really taken into consideration before we left the UK.
Staying at the resort did mean that we were able to sort out our kit in relative comfort and we ready to leave at a reasonable time the next morning.
One of the difficulties of a trip like this, for a north European, is what to leave behind. It goes against everything we have learnt to not take a fleece but I have taken the plunge and left mine behind. The next few days will indicate whether it was the correct decision or not.
The 35 mile journey out, from Dangriga to Glovers Reef, off the coast off Belize, was relatively quick but we didn’t see our destination until quite late. I suppose it is a geographical fact of life that coral reefs are not that tall. We were on a three day trip with Island Expeditions.
There is something quite special about turquoise seas, coral reefs and a reasonably constant breeze. It would be easy to spout one superlative after another but in reality they wouldn’t do Glovers Reef justice. Suffice to say it is one of the most special places I have been.
This is not a place to come for high end sea kayaking, it is a place to relax and savour, whilst paddling a few hundred metres, I think we probably snorkelled further on our first day than we paddled. It was time to experience the wildlife and if time allows throw in a bit of gentle stand up paddle boarding.
This is “glamping” in the tropics. The tents come with double beds, 17.30 is happy hour and the food is memorable. It is glamping with activities.
The staff were knowledgeable and friendly, “B” one of our guides had 17 years of experience leading groups. It was noticeable that Roger, one of the other guides had a range of safety equipment on his PFD (buoyancy aid), this is in complete contrast to some places I have experienced in the past.
There was a range of single and double kayaks and it was possible to have feathered paddles if you wanted them. The buoyancy aids were Kokatak and the SUP paddles were from Werner. It was clear that the company wasn’t cutting financial corners by purchasing cheap kit.
You often hear the expression “Island Time” but on Glovers Reef there is no option. Island Time it is. Some great snorkelling although we did see the impact of man’s activity on the eco-system. Lion fish have clearly been released somewhere, and the animal population is exploding.
One thing we had the opportunity to do was to go kayak sailing, something I had never tried before. We were in pretty stable doubles, although there was still a capsize. I did regret not taking my GPS as it would have been pretty interesting to see what speeds we reached on the way in.
The final morning was an option of further kayaking and snorkelling, SUP or just some simple hammock surfing. Nicky and myself went out on the SUP’s heading down on the wind into the channel between the two islands. We did paddle over a small reef shark and although they are supposed to be perfectly harmless the sight of a shark under your board certainly focuses the mind.
All to soon it was time to head back and wait for the boat to come in which was taking most people back to the mainland but which was going to drop us off at Tobacco Caye and the start of our self guided paddle.
Glover’s Reef is a truly special place, it is somewhere to visit and relax, enjoy the easy kayaking and the other activities. It is not somewhere to go if you are seeking the full on sea kayaking experience.
Dangriga is a town, which, I suspect few people will have heard of. With a population of just over 10,000 it is the 7th largest town in the Central American country of Belize. A country where I imagine the majority of visitors arrive in the daily flights which, land in Belize City from a number of North American hubs.
There are no direct flights from Europe so it is just a matter of selecting your preferred airline and using their hub. We used British Airways and American Airlines through Miami. We had heard some horror stories about entering the United States via Miami, but at immigration we queued for less than 2 minutes. It was the quickest and smoothest entry into the country I have experienced. Compare this to just over 3 hours to clear immigration at Dallas, when flying home from Baja.
Entry into Belize is pretty straightforward but make sure that any hiking boots you have or camping equipment are free of soil. In addition it isn’t really worth buying any dried food beforehand as you will be held up at quarantine. We had a bought a couple of freeze dried evening meals with us, fortunately they didn’t contain any meat , otherwise they would have been confiscated.
The cheapest option for travel to Dangriga, from Belize City is by bus but the simplest option is to fly down using one of the 2 airlines. We flew on Maya Island Air but there is also Tropic Air. The flight lasts 15 minutes and the aircraft only having 11 seats you are pretty much guaranteed a window seat.
In Dangriga we stayed at the Chaleanor Hotel, it was fairly central and had pretty much everything you needed. Clean rooms, friendly staff, air conditioned in some rooms and coffee. We had a fairly large room at the front of the hotel so it was perfect for sorting out kit and packing for the trip.
There are a number of supermarkets in the town meaning that it is easy to purchase any food that you will need for your kayaking trip. Wandering around the town was quite a relaxed affair, I can’t remember visiting a country where everybody seemed so polite and friendly.
So we are packed and ready to go, tomorrow morning we head out for 8 days kayaking on the second largest coral reef in the world. So as the bitter cold approaches Britain and the rest of Western Europe I can’t help thinking I am in quite a fortunate position.