Rockhopping the South Hams Coast
Mark Rainsley - 2005
Welcome to the world of rockhopping, slotting neatly into the gap between playboating and sea kayaking. Rockhopping is saltwater paddling in the ‘No Man’s Land’ between sea and shore; short trips and playing the sea, calm or wild. Spectacular coastlines, blue skies, rock gardens, swells, surf, tides and tidal rapids - all combining to create the perfect rockhopping experience.
This month we head to South Devon. ‘South Hams’ is the district’s name, meaning ‘Sheltered Place’. However, most of the coast here is anything but sheltered! We fibbed a bit with the title, it’s actually just outside Dartmoor National Park. However, the rugged wildness of the coast here - mostly within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - is best understood and described as, Dartmoor hitting the sea.
The fifty miles of coast between Torbay and Plymouth (the Cornish border) is the South Devon Heritage Coast, labelled and protected as such with good reason. Much of the coast is craggy and gnarled, making for a rockhopper’s playground. Exposed headlands focus the tide’s flows giving memorable tide races to ride; Start Point and Prawle Point being the most powerful. Five rivers flow down to the coast from the tors of Dartmoor, creating natural harbours at Dartmouth, Salcombe, and Kingsbridge, among others. To top it all, South Hams has one of the mildest climates in Britain! The rockhopping potential is huge. Many small beaches break up the exposed cliffs and allow short trips to be made, but taken on as a whole the coast can offer serious exposed long trips. And when the weather is a bit grim, the sheltered harbours offer sheltered rockhopping at their mouths. Let it not go unsaid, that the region also has one of the best surf beaches on the South Coast at Bigbury Bay. Unconvinced? Suck it and see for yourself…next time you come down to the River Dart and find it too dry (or high?) for your group, consider a short drive down to the coast for some rockhopping splendour.
Salcombe Harbour to Hope Cove
Trip duration: 2-4 hours.
Character: Kayaks longer than 3 metres are recommended if you leave Salcombe Harbour. Various possibilities from completely sheltered to exposed. High cliffs. Some tidal flow. Cliffs, caves, rock gardens and surf zones.
You have a choice here. If weather conditions are good, on offer is a moderately challenging 10 kilometre trip with some amazing scenery and many rockhopping possibilities. If the wind is howling or the seas are big, there is a short safer option; you can follow this trip as far as Bolt Head and then turn back into Salcombe…you are sheltered from the Southwest winds and swell but still enjoy a fun trip. If you are going to make the full voyage, it is best started off within two hours after high water at Salcombe, to speed you on your way.
Salcombe is pretty busy through the year and the roads down to the beach are irritatingly narrow! There is a large convenient car park at the beach, ideal for launching. To the north (left) of the beach are the remains of Salcombe Castle, easily explored by kayak. Then head south along the edge of the harbour, passing South Sands beach and reaching the steeper shores known as ‘Stink Cove’ (!). A kilometre on you round the corner into Starehouse Bay and here, things get impressive. The spiky slopes above are known as ‘Sharp Tor’, no prizes for guessing why. The rocks and platforms at the base of the cliffs are known as the ‘Rags’ and make for a great playground. In a swell, a group can be occupied for an hour just here. Last time we visited, with perfect timing you could surf up a narrow inlet, spin 180 degrees, and paddle a short-lived steep Grade 4+ rapid as the saltwater poured out again. Oddly, we wussed out…
Salcombe Harbour ends at Bolt Head, you won’t miss it! You round the corner and suddenly you are facing the full ocean. Tides are not too powerful, but be careful that it doesn’t draw you out of the harbour if you weren’t planning on this. In bad weather, you will wish to do no more than enjoy an exhilarating sneak behind the two Mew Stone rocks before heading back into the harbour, but if the weather is right, splendid…you can see seven kilometres of enticing cliffscape stretching away to the west (right).
On a calm day, you will locate many spots between Bolt Head and Bolt Tail (where the trip ends) where it is possible to pull your kayak up high and dry. In swell though, there is only one opportunity to escape or rest, at Soar Mill Cove…and this isn’t guaranteed, waves can break across the entrance onto shallow rocks. Ouch. On 13th December 1938, the freighter ‘Cantabria’ ran aground in Steeple Cove in fog, and twenty-four Spanish sailors failed to appreciate how steep the cliffs are hereabouts. They made a misguided attempt to clamber to safety. They were rescued alive off the rocks by the lifeboat eventually, but it was a near miss. Today, remnants of the Calabria can still be seen among the rocks at low tide in Steeple Cove – this inlet is perhaps the most impressive part of the trip, well worth exploring.
When you round the headland of Bolt Tail, you enter sheltered Hope Cove and the trip is over. If you haven’t had enough of the area however, you could do worse than walk the shuttle back along the cliffs…
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Down to the sea on a dry Dartmoor weekend, we had paddled the stretch of coast around Prawle Point in calm seas without incident. We were particularly impressed by the remnants of smashed ships, which presumably lacked the manoeuvrability of our Rockhopping kayaks. Lots of energy was expended checking out the nooks and crannies of this coast and we were much more tired than the distance ‘as the crow flies’ might suggest. Our target was Salcombe harbour, an obvious finish point. We hadn’t planned on a longer trip, and were travelling somewhat light.
However, someone had the bright idea of pushing on further to Hope Cove…the best of South Devon’s coast in one long rock-hop mission! The obvious thing to do would have been to stop for a break – and hey, maybe food and drink – in Salcombe. But that didn’t cross our minds. We altered course and aimed straight for high Bolt Head
The instant we rounded the Bolt Head, the trip completely changed character. We hit a large smooth swell which we’d somehow failed to notice up to this point. Our boats rose and fell rhythmically as the silent waves swept underneath, before smashing loudly into the cliffs, seconds later. Not enough seconds in fact, we moved further out and abandoned any rockhopping notions. Sorry, we’re just not brave enough! We were glad of the skegs as our aim now was simply to make a beeline to safety. The tiredness which we’d suppressed previously also surfaced and we all grumped at one another. Most definitely, time for a break.
“Soar Mill Cove. It’s only small, but we can have a rest there and rethink plans.”
But where was it? Ordnance Survey said it had to be there. The Cove finally became visible when we were right up close. It was tiny, but looked ideal. Our desperately needed rest was within sight. At that moment, a random swell glided into view. It didn’t want to be a swell, so it reared up into a wave. It kept rearing up, until it was a towering monster of a blue wall. We kid you not, it was like something out of ‘Big Wednesday’. It broke explosively across the whole cove mouth. Soar Mill Cove simply vanished from view.
“Where did THAT appear from? Um…perhaps we could keep going and wait longer for a rest.”
“Strangely, I agree.”
It was only another four kilometres to reach the calm water (and ice cream) of Hope Cove, but it dragged like a lifetime. A great day out was had, but because we missed a few basic ingredients – rest, food, maybe even a bit of planning ahead – it nearly ended in tears. Hindsight, it’s a wonderful thing. Oops.
Hallsands to Salcombe
Trip duration: 4-5 hours (less with spring tides)
Character: Not suitable for kayaks shorter than 3 metres. Sections of exposed coast, but plenty of landing zones. Large tidal races. Cliffs, caves, rock gardens, arches and surf zones. Discreet overnight camping possible.
This is a 14 kilometre+ full scale sea kayak trip if treated as an A to B exercise, but this approach doesn’t necessarily do it service. Take your rockhopping kayak and get in close to enjoy the endless succession of reefs, inlets, and tiny beaches. Paddling all this at once whilst exploring would be a long day out, consider a quiet overnight camp or break down the trip by making a ‘rough launch’, carrying down to the water near the Prawle Point car park. For the full trip, launch from the Hallsands end of the trip just after high tide, the ebb current will be with you all the way. Another option is to launch further north at Torcross, where a Sherman tank commemorates the 749 American soldiers who died in 1944 when a secret landing practice for D-Day was intercepted by German attack boats.
You first follow the pebbly beach south towards Start Point, with its lighthouse high above the water. The Point is surrounded by a galaxy of distinctive stones which make a great arena for rockhopping. In addition, the tide race which is generated where the water squeezes around the corner can offer a bit of entertainment. Take care out there…
The coast stretching to Prawle Point (Devon’s southernmost spot) is wildly varied. There are cliffs, but there are also many spots where the coast dips low. Raised former beaches can be spotted just above the high water mark and many wavecut ledges stretch into the sea forming reefs…surf landings, anyone? Not really recommended in a glassfibre craft! There are about half a dozen miniature sandy beaches which may be accessible at different points in the tide. Lannacombe Beach is only one served by roads. Another thing which will grab your attention along this coast is wrecks…more than once you will spot rusting remains high on the reefs.
You won’t miss Prawle Point…the distinctive rock arch can recognised from miles around. If the tide is high it is possible to thread your way through it, an intimidating buzz in a really awesome spot. Don’t make a mess of this, the Coastwatch Station above are watching! The coast from here to the shelter of Salcombe harbour is higher, more open to the Atlantic waves and contains many caves ground out by the force of the swells. This exposure only lasts a few kilometres until you are in the lee of Bolt Head. Note that landing at Salcombe proper will leave you with a big shuttle drive…consider parking on the east side of the harbour near East Portlemouth. Feeling hardcore? Keep going right on, and knock off the trip above as well. Hallsands to Hope Cove in one go makes for a real challenge, but boredom will never set in…the variety of coastal landforms will keep your interest, and the endless technical interest of rocks, reefs and races will keep you alert.
‘Tidal Stream Atlas of the South Devon Coast’ by Mike Fennessy
South Devon Coast: Chart Pack 22: Stanfords Charts
South Devon, Brixham to Newton Ferrers: 1:25000 Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure Map
Thanks to Julian Patrick of BLUEsky (check out the new RH340 rockhopping kayak at /www.playthesea.co.uk)
Mark Rainsley - 2005