Monday, 23 July 2007

People

Days 65 to 78
Mon 09 to Sun 22 Jul

John Driver from West Kirby introduced an obvious but overlooked concept to me. He reckoned that any expedition - be it paddling or otherwise - has three big make-or-break factors that can be controlled:
  1. Your gear
  2. Your food
  3. The people
People will add to and argue with this list but i reckon he's got it pretty close. It's easy to write up days as lists of mileages, ports and interesting rock formations but completely miss the support and fun individuals bring to the trip. Nowhere has made this more obvious to me than in North Wales.

Right now I'm in Formby just north of Liverpool. In the past two weeks I've been helped more than ever by complete strangers.

In Newport there were lifeguards Johnny (on the way to becoming one of the grand master wizards of lifeguarding) and Ffion (on the way to becoming an underage alcoholic apparently) who fed me hundreds of cups of tea.

Newquay saw Kerry [a man] and co. from Cardigan Watersports look after me. While in Aberystwyth Maureese of Seabrin B&B gave me a place to shelter from the rain and explained why the Welsh don't get on with the English before waving me off in the rain the next day.

Aberdovey Outward Bound provided Alice (who gives me cups of tea and let me sleep on her sofa), Fiona (who went round the UK in 2005 and has lots of stories) as well as lots of other very attractive female staff!

One I reached Anglesey things got even better. Despite having man flu and a swim (was a numpty launching off rocky beach at the end of the day) in Holyhead I not only met Nigel Dennis (a living sea kayaking legend and a nice guy to boot), Phil Clegg as well as Axel (cheerful Dutch five-star coach who gave me an ├╝ber map case) before drinking several pints of Guinness.

Next up was Gareth Jones who drove for one and a half hours from Llangollen to meet me at Red Wharf Bay. He put me up for the night and paddled with me pas Great Ormes Head. It was great not having to talk to myself - saved the singing voice!

Even better that night, Dave, Gareth's brother, invited me to stop with his family in Prestayn. There I found an industrial-sized barbecue and an awesome hot tub - definitely the way to end a paddling day. Considering that Gareth and Dave had only ever heard from me from a forum (www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk) it was a hugely warm welcome.

I leave Wales that day crossing to West Kirby. The plan had been to stay with Barry Shaw but sadly he was off in Anglesey. Instead he arranged for me to stay with John Driver (an experienced expedition paddler and a great cook) and family. John takes me out for a Friday night beer with friend Rose. He's a great host, even though his 15-year-old daughter was out at one of her first parties!

So I reckon John was right: you can go anywhere in the world but it's the people that really make a difference. This is even more important to me paddling alone with no team mate or support to share stories and down times with.

Thank you to everybody who's helped or shown interest so far - it's a great thing and it really makes a big difference to the trip.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Birthdays and The Bitches

Days 57 to 64
Sun 01 to Sun 08 Jul

A new day and a new month brings no better change in the weather. Mum, dad and 18-year-old David have come down for a holiday and seeing no advantage in staying in Dale I leave with them to a rather nice holiday cottage in Newport (the one in Pembrokeshire - there's so many of them).

The new plan is to paddle south back to Dale using the cliffs as shelter from the force five to seven (occasionally eight to nine) SW winds. However, even this doesn't work as heavy swell makes cliff-hugging impossible and aside from a brief surf on Newport beach paddling is stopped.

Instead I watch Wimbledon (when it's on between rain and wind) and remember that tennis is a poor spectator sport for me! Monday 02 July brings mum's birthday (I won't say which one) and on Tuesday my long-suffering (and ginger) girlfriend Rhiannon drivers down from Yorkshire for three days' visit.

Thursday 05 July is my 25th birthday and by now I really want to start moving again. We head through wind and rain to Newport beach to find very little surf but force six winds. Dull surfing in a bad taste shirt from Oxfam (thanks David) before heading to Newport Surf Lifesaving Club for a cup of tea where the 10-year-old kids sing me happy birthday in Welsh! Thanks all!

Rhi leaves early on Friday for the north, but winds increase to force nine at times grounding me again.

Saturday changes everything, however, with lower SW winds and blazing sunshine. We move to Solva and I paddle down to the Stack Rocks via Broadhaven and back to Solva (a lovely natural harbour, however it does dry a long way out - thank god for Kari-Tek's trolley). This is equal mileage to the Dale-Solva run and negates the need for a vehicle shuttle.

Sunday brings an early 07:00 wake-up and I'm on the water just after 08:00. Still sunny with lower winds and less chop. I reach Ramsey Sound just before 10:00 and enter The Bitches tidal gate and race. Named after two rocks in the mid channel this tidal race can cause real trouble and is great to play in. Even in its first half hour or northerly flow it pushes me to 14 km/h as I watch ganets circle.

I quickly pass Whitesands Bay (last here in 2003 surfing with the uni kayak club) and rounds St. David's Head. Turning north east I can see the lighthouse on Strumble Head flashing in the middle distance.

A quick stop at Porthgain (the Sloop Inn is apparently top notch) and I'm off again as heavy rain begins to fall, cutting visibility. I fly across the bay and as I reach Strumble Head the sun reappears lifting my spirits hugely.

Things slow down here as I lose the tide and hug the cliffs to avoid the flow. Here I see two seals and a porpoise as well as passing Carregwastad Point. This is the site of the last invasion of the UK mainland when the French landed 1200 men in 1797. They weren't up to much though - the Point doesn't really make an ideal landing site and when they saw a group of local women in red shawls and tall black hats (local dress) they mistook them for British Redcoat soldiers and promptly surrendered - D'oh!

Dodging the ferry Stena Europe as it left for Ireland I arrive in Fishguard after seven hours' paddling and 48 kilometres. After a bit of faff I find Celtic Dive Centre where Mark lets me store the boat and kindly puts me up for free in the bunkhouse.

I'm tired and sore after eight days off the water but I sorely hope that this is the last really long patch of bad weather I see - it's slowed me down so badly and I can't afford many more stoppages!

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Ban all Labrador Owners from Beaches!

Days 51 to 56
Mon 25 to Sat 30 Jun

A controversial start to this blog and I apologise for generalising, but for reasons that will be made clear below I feel it is necessary for the above step to be taken in order to aid Britain's cultural development.

Monday morning brought gusts up to force eight and I quickly realised I wasn't going anywhere.

Wheeled the boat up Tenby's south beach (aching arms) and paddled around the old fort cum zoo cum luxury house cum abandoned shell that is St Catherine's Island into Tenby Harbour.

With the boat stored I head to find a bed for the night. Not really a problem here with its hundreds of B&Bs and hotels. As I go back to the hardbour to sort kit I see a caravan covered in Real Radio 105-106FM stickers and a big aerial by its side.

Closer inspectiojn shows that this is the Doug & Ang Real Radio Breakfast Show Pembroke tour. A quick interview ensues pretending that it's tomorrow morning and I marvel at how artificially cheerful these people are - must be the drugs. Still, I'd like to think that I was more lively than the Pembrokeshire County Council rep!

The next morning brings a slight break in the winds so I set off for Dale, near Milford Haven. This soon slows down though as I slam into headwinds and crawl at 3km/h into the lovely sands of Freshwater East. A quick scout around finds me in the Longhouse bar/caravan park where jack of all trades Luke cooks me a gorgeous (and half price) steak whilst pouring pints and clearing up!

Intending to round St. Govan's Head before the Castlemartin firing ranges open I leave the beach at 07:00. However yet again winds slow me and I put in at isolated Broadhaven beach to await the afternoon turn of tide. From the cliff tops you can watch the infantry practise war games and hear the constant snap of their firing.

Two attempts at a breakout both fail to get me above 3km/h and conditions deteriorate, resigning me to a night on the beach here. As I cook my dinner and dry my kit over the boat I hear the house of "Come here... Heel!" being repeated over and over. Looking up I see a 50-something gent chasing a large golden labrador across the beach.

Fido, as I shall name the poor gormless beast, bounds up to me and deciding my boat warrants closer inspection starts sniffing. He obviously liked what he saw as he obligingly cocked his leg and expelled a generous amount of urine all over my dry trousers and cag.

Now I don't fault the dog - it's in his nature to irrigate things in such a manner. It's the owner - he just shrugged and walked away - who really p***ed me off. He is a prime example of a man whose pet is the intelligent one in the relationship. Please don't tell me all labrador owners are like this.

My mood remained dour until a girl in a group 10 metres away loudly announced that she had 'the world's sandiest f****.' Charming young lady - I laughed.

Thursday starts with a lovely morning (although I didn't need to see the old man swimming naked) and I leave early to avoid the ranges and a worsening forecast. Rounding St. Govan's Head it's bouncier than I expected but the speed is up to 6km/h.

Swell continues to build as the tide races in and by 08:30 it's around nine feet. Then a range boat tears by to announce the opening of the ranges. Spotting me he hoves to and informs me that the ranges open in 30 minutes. He tells me I'll be picked up and driven out.

Ten minutes later (and after a hectic scramble) I'm in a 30ft patrol boat doing 64km/h [current speed record] through what feels like the very large swell of Linney Head. The two-man crew makes me a cuppa (not easy in the swell) and drives me to the entrace of Dale Bay. It turns out the coxswain's sister was one of the oldest CF sufferers in the UK.

In Dale I'm hosted by West Wales Windsurfing staff Jane, Laura, John and Sam. Winds continue to build and the rain comes down so I retreat to the very nice Broadside B&B before dinner in the Griffin Inn. Here, local vicar Dennis is hosting an open mic sea shanty evening. It was certainly strange to watch a vicar play guitar, drink Magners and sing Yellow Submarine! Fun, but strange.

The next two days pass in similar fashion - high winds and increasing swell block the route via Jack Sound to the north. To break the boredom I take windsurfing lessons (great fun, I fall in lots and seem unable to make the board go where I want it to) and take the boat out to practise rescues. Mostly I drink tea.

Dale is a lovely little village but I'm now getting bored and frustrated only being able to stare out over Milford Haven and its huge gas/oil refineries with their large tankers coming in and out.

I'm worried about how slow the first 1/3 of the trip has been. It needs to speed up. Still, at least everywhere seems to be so windy and wet. By the look of the news I should have just stayed to paddle in Worcester.

Fingers crossed this forecast changes soon.