By Richard Harpham
Britain’s south coast offers so many incredible places for sea kayaking whatever the conditions from sheltered water to extraordinary geological features through to fast and testing tide races. The Jurassic Coast is a UNESCO World Heritage site nestled on English side of the Channel. It is simply stunning and a paddlers paradise with incredible scenery and some challenging places to kayak. Locations are awarded the UNESCO World Heritage status for a reason, they have a sprinkle of magic, a connection to our heritage and something so special that for visitors it represents an opportunity of a lifetime. The Jurassic coastline stretches 95 miles from Orcombe Point in East Devon to Studland cliffs in Dorset. If you are in the area then there are also other great sea kayaking trips on offer, including circumnavigating the Isle of Wight and threading the Needles or exploring Poole Harbour. The Jurassic Coast and nearby locations features some truly iconic locations for sea kayaking, which I want to inspire you and to add to your bucket list and to pay a visit.
Circumnavigating the Isle of Wight
My original introduction to sea kayaking came with a project to complete five challenges for charity called The Big 5 Kayak Challenge. The challenge included 1,000 miles of sea kayaking from Vancouver to Alaska on the Inside Passage; a 32 NM (nautical miles) from Lands End to the Scilly Isles and circumnavigating the Isle of Wight. Despite paddling for what seems like a century, I didn’t even own a sea kayak, something of a late developer you might think!
The diversity of coastline around the Isle of Wight is extraordinary from winding estuaries near Cowes and mud flats to dodging hovercrafts near Ryde. The southern side also offers more changes in scenery with chalky cliffs, shallow reefs, sandy beaches at Ventnor and the exposed St Catherine’s Point before eventually approaching Freshwater Bay and Needles. It is famous for sailing with Cowes Festival and the ‘Round the Island Race’ but is equally brilliant for smaller craft like kayaks.
Our trip back in 2009 was defining in so many ways, leaving Southampton Boat Show and paddling past the massive refinery at Fawley and then crossing to the island. We were so tentative hurrying through the busy waters crammed with dinghies and yachts. We passed the shallow sand bar where locals hold the annual cricket match at low tide and on towards the pier at Ryde with darkness now in place. Our plans were not the best laid kind and we ended up dodging hovercrafts in the dark on the mud flats and getting hit in the face by jumping fish. This was of course marginally better than getting hit by a hovercaft! We eventually scrounged somewhere to rest, not before one of the team had discovered the anti gravity slippery jetty scoring high marks for a big wipeout. He was of course treated to roars of laughter with limited sympathy.
On the South side of the island we got a little bit of surf and also managed a cheeky ice cream break, like all good tourists. We were certainly in calorie credit! By the time we reached Freshwater Bay we were tired and planned to pitch our tents with a perfect 10 wild campsite. Reality broke and we ended up pitching our tents next to a public toilet on some grass but did manage some liquid refreshment from the local bar. The highlight of the trip was the Needles, covered below.
After threading the Needles, Bamboo Clothing’s Dave Gordon confessed to an ‘armchair moment’ where he would have given anything in the world to be back in his armchair at home. The last stretch back round the final quarter was torture as a yacht cruised in front of us cooking bacon for breakfast, Despite our long faces and desperate looks they motored on, out of sight but not out of our minds!
Although they are located just to the east of the Jurassic Coast, The Needles are another beautiful destination for sea kayakers to tick off their list. Threading the Needles by kayak and surfing in the races provides a great photo opportunity. I returned here the following year to film a piece with Mike Bushell of BBC 1, for a short feature and have been back a few times since. By now it has become habit rather than paying for the local ferry.
A shorter paddle from the sheltered harbour of Keyhaven can make the Needles a very accessible day paddle. Be aware there can be a fair amount of marine traffic with commercial craft and a huge sailing community based on the south coast. You could make your Needles visit even more challenging by paddling around to Freshwater Bay and portaging over the island to meet the estuary at Yarmouth.
My late gran spent a large proportion of her life living in Bournemouth and latterly Mudeford, so any dutiful visit usually meant a roof rack adorned with a kayak. Mudeford, Bournemouth and Poole Harbour are all worth your paddling time.
Mudeford is a mecca for windsurfing and paddle boarding enthusiasts with a shallow tidal lagoon. Some of the most expensive real estate in the UK is situated just across the entrance from Mudeford Quay. Further up the estuary is Christchurch Quay and the River Stour. The flow out can be interesting on the spring tide when coupled with wind and waves in the inlet. It provides confused and refracting waves and chop making a bumpy ride. I have literally been drenched as a double height wave has landed on my head, right in front of the tourists on the quay. Keep cool Rich! On the outside of the sand bar you can often find lovely two-foot green waves heading towards the quay, which make for good kayak or ski surfing.
Poole Harbour was made famous by Lord Baden Powell and Brownsea Island, where he hosted his first experimental camp in 1907 that led to the formation of Scouts in 1908. Now owned by the National Trust it guards the entrance to Poole Harbour and has some restricted access. A great place to launch for a day trip taking in Old Harry and Poole is from the estuary at Wareham on the River Frome. You will need to check out the tide times to ensure the appropriate conveyor belt of moving flow.
The lagoon is sheltered but can be cluttered with sailing dinghies and other boats. On one trip with relative beginners, we poked her noses out into Studland Bay only to find some particularly lumpy swell in a Force 4 where upon I was promptly informed that their comfort zone had stretched to breaking point. We turned carefully and beat a retreat. To leave the harbour you will need to dodge the chain ferry patrolling the entrance.
Old Harry Rocks
Old Harry Rocks are chalk white stacks (pillars) protruding from the seabed lying east of Studland Bay on the Isle of Purbeck. They are continually hammered by the elements and have been slowly eroded. They make great paddling with stony beaches, small tide races and plenty of nooks and crannies to investigate. Apparently Harry’s wife crumbled and fell into the sea some time ago leaving Harry and a few of his mates.
Old Harry sits in between Poole Harbour and Swannage, which make for convenient launch sites and if you are launching from Studland Beach then check out the coolest beach café ever called Joe’s Café, which is a pimped up beach hut that offers a mean evening paella feast from time to time.
Lulworth Cove is a huge natural harbour formed by the erosion of clay and green sands, leaving a more resilient limestone layer to form the outer perimeter. Wave diffraction hollowed out the huge circular shape and it is a sheltered place to launch kayaks to visit the nearby Durdle Door. You will need to get permission for this and there is a fair carry down from the National Trust Car Park. Once on the water the carry is soon forgotten.
The harbour is like a massive sink hole open to the sea. Be warned though as it can be rough outside its calm waters, so poke your nose out into the wind and assess conditions. There is a small reef on the right hand side of the bay where you can practice surfing your boat. One of my buddies had a small washing machine experience there by not watching the following wave – luckily a quick roll later and he avoided a swim. If you are in the area without a kayak then there is a local provider who does have sit-on-tops.
Durdle Door sits just down the coast from Lulworth Cove and is a stunning coastal arch. There are also plenty of caves and inlets to explore on the way there. Unlike the majority of sea kayaking, which is away from the general public, this location almost guarantees pictures, waving and the occasional cheer from the masses visiting this picture postcard destination. We even got the opportunity to appear in a Bollywood film last time, when we were there with the heroine wading in the sea and rejecting the amorous advances of a suitor. Not sure if they wanted sea kayaks in the shot but they got them!
Heading down the coast you are overlooked by imposing chalky cliffs and a few rocky outcrops. There is a small archway further down the bay, which can be fun in rough conditions. Our last trip provided more fun and sights than referenced in any tourist guidebook. We rounded a rocky outcrop to find a group of women and two lads skinny dipping. Our innocent approach by stealth kayak added to the excitement as they stampeded bare bottomed up the beach to the safety of their towels.
Portland Bill and Chesil Beach
Portland Bill juts out into the English Channel and is truly imposing and exposed. I have surveyed storm force conditions from land, scary seas with thunderous crashing waves beating the battle worn rocks. I have yet to experience this section in my sea kayak but as you so often hear it is good to have something to come back for. Once you round the Bill you reach Chesil Beach which is 18 miles long and over 15 metres high and essentially once of the biggest pebble mountains you will ever see!
Be warned the Portland Race off the Bill can reach 10 knots on the spring tides and even the smaller inside race can be 3.5 to 5 knots.
I truly hope that you have felt interest and inspired to go and visit this remarkable stretch of coastline for yourself. Paddle Safe.
You can read more about routes, tidal conditions and ideas for your trips in ‘South West Sea Kayaking’ by Mark Rainsley. Pesda Press. ISBN 978-1-906095-28-4.
Richard is a human powered adventurer and paddler http://www.richadventure.com who has completed over 7,600 miles of adventures by kayak, canoe, ski and bike. He runs http://www.canoetrail.co.uk with his wife and co founded http://www.inspiredlife.org which inspires young people and communities. He is a motivational speaker drawing on his stories from adventure, in corporate life and managing the Ghana ski team at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Richard’s adventures test equipment in the harshest conditions and he is proud to be supported by: Paramo Clothing, Valley Sea Kayaks, North Shore Kayaks, Up North Adventures, http://www.bambooclothing.co.uk , Leatherman tools, Scott Skis, Mountain Fuels, Canadian Affair (airlines), Aquabound Paddles, Reed Chillcheater, Surly Fat Bikes, USE Exposure Lights, Garmin GPS systems.