Jeff Allen and Simon Osborne of Sea Kayaking Cornwall have been running trips to the Isles of Scilly for seven years, with the idea of crossing back to the mainland. It’s 54km, the tides are complex, and a mere force two or three headwind could turn the jaunt into a genuine slog.
The first few days are spent exploring the Scillies, cruising in to yellow sands over azure seas, in startlingly clear waters, the kelp forests team with marine marvels. The rocky islands are clogged with grey seals, perched like oversized overripe bananas, surveying us as we glide past, or spyhopping from the waters. On day three we do a big day to practice for the crossing, a complete circumnavigation of the islands, 47km, no landing, eating resting and – yes – peeing in the boat. At times the tide and weather will mean we are giving everything to barely stay still. Big seas take their toll on the nerves; never being able to leave the boat means cramps, rubs, blisters and chafing.
Four hours in and we are all enjoying ourselves, relishing the challenge, and feeling strong and positive. Then we have a food stop and I check the GPS. We’ve done 18km. “We’re going to need to step this up a bit guys” Jeff says in his typically understated fashion. From here on in it doesn’t feel like a holiday. The sun disappears and a cutting crosswind chills the fingers. No one is chatting or giggling anymore. One of the girls is struggling to keep pace, so Jeff puts her on a tow. He promptly disappears over the horizon dragging her behind him.
We finish in eight hours, and head straight for the pub. There is a favourable forecast to attempt the crossing on the Thursday morning, so we need to make a plan. Charts spill across the tables between plates of deep fried Pollack and pints of ‘Proper Job’ Cornish ale. There are so many variables to take into account, tidal diamonds, springs and neaps, crosswinds and pressure systems… cerebral fluid starts to leak out of my ears.
We wake on Wednesday to terrible news. Fog! Thick dense fog is forecast to roll in the following day. However, there is still a chance, if we head out on the ebbing tide that afternoon. We break camp; hastily prepare equipment for rough bivvies and an uncertain amount of time at sea. Just over an hour after launching from St Marys and we are on the uninhabited eastern isles, looking out over the open sea towards Lands End. The sea is flat calm, the visibility is fine, and the wind is just a whisper. We are on!
There is an odd sensation to leaving the comfort of pretty, sunshine-blessed islands, and aiming your kayak out into the open sea. The nerves were much alleviated by the unnatural calmness. We paddle strict hour on, five minutes break, hour on again, but the monotony is broken by the most extraordinary parade of wildlife I have ever seen. Firstly for several hours a single fulmar banks and circles around our boats, cruising with one wing tip coursing the waves. Then the dolphins and porpoise take over. A lone bottlenose coasts past, then a sizeable pod of commons leap and play about us. And then something I never thought I’d see in British waters. A leatherback turtle, the only species that can live in these temperate waters, a reptile that has outlasted the dinosaurs and makes a living munching down jellyfish. It’s a surreal moment, even more so when it swims straight into one of my colleague’s kayaks.
Six hours in and we are more and more glad of our hourly breaks. A paralyzing cramp in my right hamstring means I ache to stretch out, but first have to check the GPS and cram my face full of cake and pork pies. We’re making good time, but mustn’t get complacent. We are in the middle of a busy shipping lane, fog is forecast to roll in over the mainland and if we take too long the tide will swing around and be flowing against us faster than we can paddle! It’s then, as the light starts to fade that the wildlife encounters get really special. First a minke whale and her calf burst up in the middle of us, then a basking shark, more dolphins… it seems as if the sea is trying to distract us from our task. Then finally the lighthouse at Longships hoves into view.
We should be able to see land now, but the fog has totally obliterated it. Now concentration is fierce. We sound off number by number every few minutes so as not to lose anyone in the fog and night. We can hear the shore but not see it, so work purely off the compass. Sennen cove is the only place for a safe landing, and we have to avoid reefs and crashing waves in the dark, with the village lights diffuse in the gloop. It’s an edgy end to a perfect day, and we shake hands and hug on the beach, overjoyed at what we’ve achieved.
Over the next two days we ease our way back to Penzance, on one of the most dramatic paddles in the world. We paddle through natural cathedrals, arches and columns together with wind-carved statues. Skills are tested in amongst the crashing waves of our most iconic coastal cliffs. Basking sharks are everywhere, bold seals track our progress, and we wild camp on deserted coves. We catch our own supper, snagging Pollack, bream and mackerel on the hand line. I borrow a local’s spear gun, and freedive in amongst the kelp, adding a mullet to dinner.
For further information see http://www.seakayakingcornwall.com
8th annual Sea Kayaking Cornwall Symposium 2015
Main event: 10-11th Oct
Courses week: 12-16th Oct
Assessments: 17-18th Oct