By Simon Everett
The 26 miles of water between Lands End and the Scilly Isles is one of the most treacherous stretches of water anywhere in the world. Five tides converge here and the water becomes confused at the best of times, with the different currents pulling in various directions. Add a bit of wind and you have an eclectic mix, which creates turbulent waters like you cannot imagine. Even on relatively calm days the waves created by the uneven bottom and rushing water can be ten feet or more in height.
With the power from an internal combustion engine behind you it is a fairly easy crossing to make, if you pick your weather. Paddling a kayak across though, that is a different matter, with only your own efforts to get you there. Now, consider the same scenario but instead of using modern, composite expedition kayaks you factor in using folding, skin-on-frame kayaks which are held together with Velcro seams and a zip fastener, but that is what our intrepid duo decided to do.
The plan was hatched with just a year for Rob and Raif to train for the ordeal and to drum up a decent amount of sponsorship for their chosen charities of the NSPCC and the RNLI. On the day of departure the weather was perfect. There was just a slight breeze from the Northwest, about a force 3, to give some movement to the water without churning it into a maelstrom. The safety escort was provided by Powercat, one of their 17’6” catamarans powered by a pair of Yamaha 40s. These boats originate from Bryher boatyard on the islands and are perfectly suited for the conditions.
The fun started when we came to launch the boats at Sennen Cove, just round the corner from Lands End and the site for the most westerly lifeboat station on the south coast. The Lifeboat ramp points straight to Florida, with nothing in between. The Atlantic swells that crash onto the rocks here can sometimes be 80-feet high. The slipway for the fishing boats leads onto the sandy beach and a tractor is employed to push them out and haul them back up. It is a precarious life in a precarious spot, but it is the most convenient launch for a paddle trip to Scilly.
At 06.00, whilst the two paddlers prepared their kayaks for the crossing, we backed the Powercat down and the trailer immediately sank up to its axles in the soft sand at the waters edge. We managed to push the boat off easily enough, but the Land Rover struggled to try and move even the empty trailer. With tyres spinning on the granite slipway, it couldn’t and the clutch began to smell. In the end we had to manhandle the trailer and then winch it up to the car park in stages, using the trailer’s boat winch to take it up the slope a few yards at a time. We learned a valuable lesson, don’t try and launch a small boat at Sennen Cove, but we were at last afloat and on our way by 06.40.
As we left the shelter of the breakwater a regular groundswell was crashing onto the rocks of the reef, which helps to take the sting out of Atlantic seas and protects the little fishing village. The kayaks bobbed about in the waves while the Powercat just gently moved up and down to the rhythm of the sea. These really are incredible boats that make the journey from Scilly to Penzance or Falmouth on a regular basis in anything up to force 5 and on the odd occasion beyond that, but not as comfortably as we were making progress and we were only at tick over, not even on the plane so as to keep station with the pair in their kayaks.
As we got clear of Lands End the full effect of the meeting of the tides between the Longships Lighthouse and the last point of land before America started to make their presence felt. The lighthouse stands proudly upon its rocky outcrop, a phallic symbol warning shipping to stay well clear of the dangers that lurk hereabouts. The kayaks were making good progress but the pull of the tide sucked them in towards the fang like rocks.
One minute they were about half mile off the lighthouse, then the next they were paddling for all they were worth to prevent themselves being sucked into the white water foaming around the base of the reef. The tide rip could be clearly seen on the surface of the water and at one point Raf was less than 50 yards off the rocks. It was a close call but they cleared the lighthouse and the reef by 07.00.
Once out of the effect of the Longships things began to settle down a bit. The big, sloppy swells and peaky waves caused by a mixture of the converging tides and reflected waves off the rocks, gave way to a more regular pattern of swells from the west. After paddling for an hour they stopped for a short rest, rafting up to take on liquid and energy, they had covered exactly four miles even through the strong pull of the tide and had past the worst.
An average of four knots was pretty good, even at the start of the trip. With energy levels restored and rehydrated the lads picked up their paddles and returned to the relentless onslaught of paddle stroke after paddle stroke, lifting and falling with the waves and occasionally having to brace against a sharper than usual wave face.
As they got further offshore, so the swells decreased and we had a wonderful crossing. They stopped each hour for a break to replenish their tired bodies. At the half way stage, at around 09.40 and with 12.2 miles covered, they had to pump out their kayaks. The seams on these craft are not totally watertight and the odd wave over the deck had caused water to accumulate in the hulls. They rafted up and pumped out several gallons from each kayak. This made things very much more comfortable as their feet and backsides were no longer being washed by the water on the inside of the hull.
At the next stop we were joined by a pod of Common Dolphins, not the more usual Bottlenose variety. They came right alongside the boat and the kayaks, rolling on their sides and looking at us with their great big, bright eyes. They stayed with us for about 10 minutes, swimming to within touching distance of the boats and playing around us before becoming bored and moving off together to go and hunt some squid for lunch.
The two lads in their kayaks continued their onward plod, still making a respectable 3.75 knots, a little slower now that the distance they had already covered began to sap at their glycogen reserves. By 10.40 they had covered 16.4 miles making an overall average of 4.1 mph and the low lying Scilly Isles were in sight on the horizon! By 14.00 they had reached the eastern isles and could truly say they had made the trip to Scilly under their own steam. Now it was just a case of carrying on to the beach at St, Mary’s through the inner sound and the hot shower and comfortable beds that were awaiting them. The boat had done the trip having burned hardly any fuel whatever, the Powercat with twin Yamaha 40s had used about 15 litres of fuel in total, that’s all.
The entire trip was made in just less than eight hours and the boys covered a total distance of 29.8 miles. In the process they found out much about themselves, their inner strength and raised their confidence and over £4,000 for their chosen charities. The lifeboat at Sennen Cove and St. Mary’s on Scilly and the NSPCC. They are already planning their next escapade, which involves icebergs. As regards the return trip, well that was made on the deck of the Scillonian.
The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea With 92% of our total income coming from generous donations and legacies, we depend on our dedicated volunteers and supporters to save lives at sea. Your support means our lifeboat crews can reunite the 22 people they rescue each day with their families. So however you choose to get involved, you can feel good knowing you’re making a difference. http://rnli.org