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.
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.
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.
It is hard to imagine that when I was 26 years of age, in 1983, along with a few friends, we arranged a two month sea kayaking trip to Svalbard. The plan was to paddle the whole of the west coast of Spitsbergen, a distance of over 600 nautical miles, when the out and back mileage was taken into account.
This was in the days before Svalbard had hit the tourist radar. Very few people managed to visit this lonely northern archipelago, in the last 4 weeks we only saw one other person and was briefly for a few minutes when he landed his helicopter! We didn’t even see any boats or ships in the distance.
The costs were quite phenomenal for the time and without considerable support from family and friends we would never have raised the amount of money required to put on such a trip. We had to ship out our kayaks, equipment and all our food. The price of flights was astronomical, I have paid less this morning to book flights to northern Norway in July 2018 than my flights cost in 1983.
Without doubt though this was one of the defining periods in my life, we had to be totally self sufficient, there was no satellite phone, GPS etc but we did need really powerful rifles as protection against the polar bears, which inhabit the region. One of us had tuition in how to stitch wounds, although the thought of letting somebody near us with a needle filled us with dread.
These are a few of the pictures taken in this arctic outpost over 34 years ago. Apologies for the quality of some of the scans from my old slides.
These are some further images of kayaking in the 1990’s which, I have scanned in from some of the thousands slides I accumulated over about 35 years. These are a selection taken in the United States in the mid 1990’s. Sea kayaking on the west coast and canoeing in the north east. Some great memories.
It has been a weekend of kayaking contrasts, Saturday was very windy and sunny so we spent the morning paddling off the east coast. Heading south from St Catherine’s to Gorey where we stopped for coffee and cake. This is a section of the coast that we paddle most weeks during the summer months as it is the location for the Jersey Canoe Club Tuesday evening training sessions. In contrast we rarely paddle along this section of coast during the winter but it is a couple of miles steeped in history.
For over 40 years the Canoe Club has paddled every Sunday morning at a variety of locations around the Island. For the last 10 or 15 years the focus has been on using sea kayaks, hardly surprising as Jersey is a superb sea kayaking destination. Today was a throw back to the 1970’s and 80’s as we used smaller play boats, as we headed out from St Brelade’s. It was good to get out in the small kayaks as it gave us chance to hone our skills. So it really was a weekend of kayaking contrasts.
Following on from the post a couple of days ago here are a few photographs of Brittany lighthouses. There are endless opportunities for viewing them from your sea kayak, and here are a few more. They are mainly from the north coast of Brittany. I might be biased but I think the lighthouses on the north coast generally look more dramatic than those to the south.
Sadly they are now all unmanned but when we started to visit these offshore buildings a number were still manned and it was always a pleasure to take out the daily papers and some fresh milk. These small gestures often resulted in the offer of a hot drink and on a few occasions a guided tour of the lighthouse. Sadly these days are long gone.
Situated in the Baie de Morlaix, Ile Noire lighthouse was built in 1845, with the keepers house added in 1879. Paddling in this area is always enjoyable with numerous islands to explore.
La Croix. Built in 1867 it is situated just to the south west of Ile de Brehat. In common with some many lighthouses in this area the Germans blew the top of the light as they retreated. It is always a welcome sight when paddling around Brehat.
Cap Frehel is the largest headland on the north Brittany coast and on clear nights I can see this light from near my house on Jersey. It is open to visitors a certain times of the year. The headland is spectacular when viewed from below in a sea kayak or whilst walking along the cliffs.
Sept Iles lighthouse is situated on Ile aux Moines, part of a delightful archipelago to the north of Tregastel. This was one of the last lighthouses in France to be manned by keepers.
The Port Navalo light marks to entrance to the Gulf du Morbihan. This is one of the finest sea kayaking areas anywhere, a mixture of fast tidal streams and world class historic sites. The lighthouse was built in 1892.
There is something special about Breton lighthouses , particularly when viewed from a sea kayak. This is a selection of some that I have seen over the years. Not all of the photographs are of the best quality as some were scanned from slides. That said Breton lighthouses are amongst the most unique maritime buildings encountered anywhere and it is always a treat to visit them by sea kayak.
Le Heaux de Brehat. To the west of Ile de Brehat on the north coast of Brittany it was built in 1840, although the top was blown off by the Germans in August 1944. Located on an offshore reef, the sea kayak is an ideal way to access this light. It is close to the end of the Sillon de Talbert
Ile Louet is situated in the Baie e Morlaix, near Roscoff on the north coast of Brittany.
25 nautical miles west of Corbiere is the Roches Douvres. The light was finished being rebuilt in 1954 after it had been destroyed by the Germans 10 years before. We raised the Jersey flag but the following morning it was a serious crossing of 25 miles in dense fog. I have to admit that we felt pretty isolated the night we spent on the reef.
L’Ost Pic is located just to the south of Paimpol. Built in the 1890’s I have to admit that the last time I landed there I ended up swimming.
Phare du Paon is situated on the north coast of Ile de Brehat, this is ome of the finest sea kayaking you could find anywhere. It was originally built in 1860 but like so many lighthouses along this coast it was blown up by the Germans in1944. It was rebuilt in 1949.
Another lighthouse blown up by the Germans, this light, Le Grand Jardin, marks the approaches to St Malo. It was rebuilt in 1949.
I paddled out to the Ecrehous this morning, it was my 7th visit of the year so far but interestingly the 5th time I have been on a Wednesday. I have only visited once at a weekend and that was way back in January.
It would be interesting to conduct a scientific study and hopefully come up with some fascinating conclusions which indicate a correlation between the passage of areas of high pressure over the Channel Islands shipping area on the third day of the week. In reality though I think that the reason for the popularity of the Wednesday visits is due to the fact that a number of people in the Jersey Canoe Club had retired or are working significantly reduced working weeks. We have put Wednesday aside as our day of choice for day trips, hoping to go out somewhere every week.
Looking at the weather forecasts as soon as there is an indication that the winds might be reasonably light on the Wednesday our thoughts turn to offshore paddles. This week was no different, a quick WhatsApp on Tuesday and this morning saw 8 0f us paddling away from St Catherine’s towards the Ecrehous.
I have visited the reef numerous times over the years, the last time was just a few weeks ago but always jump at the chance to go again. It was a relatively smooth crossing and a great lunch spot but it was the return crossing which was particularly memorable. The encounter with the pod of bottle nosed dolphins was as good as I have ever seen, they remained with us for probably 20 minutes, at times approaching within a metre before suddenly changing course and diving.
What a great way to spend a Wednesday in November.