Sea Paddling trips around the English coast


ennui \on-WEE; ON-wee\, noun: A feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction; dullness and languor of spirits, arising from lack of interest; boredom.
Mark Rainsley - 2005


I realise I am awake. I haven’t been asleep for hours, yet this is the first time I’m conscious. The slapslapslap of the flysheet tells all. Eyes tight, I extend a hand from my bag and fumble for my Nokia. I press out an ingrained key sequence. Eventually I summon will to squint at the display.
Same old same old. I draw my hood over my head, and zone out for a few more hours.

I am about to completely miss Ramsey Sound. My head is down, but I am being sucked inexorably to seaward of Ramsey Island. Several hours into a three week journey, already I’m embarrassed by my own incompetence. A flurry of long strokes and finally I clear the tip of the island…on the correct side. Now allied with the flood tide, I surge down towards the broken bottle silhouette of the Bitches rocks. I spy paddlers ferrying across to play the Bitches tidal race. I envy them, but not for the top wave; they have company and camaraderie. My friends are on a ferry to Norway. Tonight I’ll camp and dine alone. The boat accelerates amongst the swirls of Horse Rock, and only slows when it reaches Whitesands Bay. I am not alone. A solitary porpoise and I share the last rays.

Afternoon; I force myself to get up and boil some noodles. As the rain rattles the walls, I take stock. The interior of my space capsule is littered with chocolate and sweet wrappers, newspapers, Lucozade bottles, crushed clothes. My sleeping bag is dank from sweat and condensation. I have no mirror, but guess I am no oil painting. I retrieve the radio from under a pile of charts, and tune through a forest of static. Soporific dance music, or cricket.

I have cut in too close around the point at Newquay, and collided with a back eddy. The sudden violence of the breaking waves is daunting. I accelerate to a sprint but my kayak is static. I veer inshore and off, trying to surf my way out. Dry and warm minutes ago, I’m now drenched to my armpits and wiping salt from my eyes. I find purchase against the current and judge I am making headway, but the harbour wall refuses to fall back. Seagulls tear the air apart with their cries and I’m cursing wildly to no one in particular. I gain an audience. In unison on either side, curved dorsal fins pierce the surface, rising to expose slick grey backs. Within touch of both paddle blades, I have a dolphin escort. I curse harder, in awed disbelief.

I emerge before dawn, unable to ignore my bladder. Steadying myself in the porch, I aim into the bushes. Only with my business finished do I realise that the rain has moved on. I am the only person witnessing these sparkling stars. The orange glow to the south denotes garish Blackpool, but I am transfixed by the view north, ten miles across Morecambe Bay to Barrow. Deciphering the urban glare, I can make out the immense derricks and submarine units of the dockyards. The wind feels less defined. Could this be it? I can be on the water in under an hour. I am already stuffing away my down jacket before I take a reality check. The wind will soon return in force. Either way; huge seas bar the crossing, whipped up by a backlog of storms. It is not going to happen this time, just like all the other times. Am I making good decisions? Am I fabricating lame apologies? This is worse than anything by far. With no one to bounce ideas off, I relive this quandary a hundred times daily.

Bardsey Sound has been oversold. My ‘Irish Sea Pilot’ brimmed with calamity tales about the quirks of local wind and tide, but I am gliding along a shimmering expanse of blue perfection. Rounding the Lleyn Peninsula, I accumulate flow and pace. Today it comes easy, all effort absorbed by the unheralded beauty of this coast. The day’s allotted paddling hours are up, but today I need no motivation targets. The boat courses on with ease whilst quarried mountains loom over the sea, hemmed by quiet villages with names I’ll never grasp. Later I plot the next leg over pasta and pesto. I am startled to see that forty miles have eased by; how could this have been so pleasurable?

I have joined the Lancashire Library Service. Killing a morning at the keyboard, I trawl through any and every weather website. I alight upon any minor disparities between forecasts, as if this will somehow wish the wind away. I check the paddling message boards and post updates of my non-progress. I read my posting of a week ago, ludicrously announcing that by now I’d be in Scotland. Later I walk along the sea front, transfixed by the kite surfers. The tent is safe, hidden at the back corner of a golf course. I have ‘text’; a local paddler has heard of my enforced stay in Fleetwood and offers food and shelter. I am stunned by such consideration from a stranger, but embarrassed to take it up. Perhaps this isn’t the sole reason. I am dimly aware that I am relishing the ennui.

Hilbre Island is a low sandstone bluff, marking the point where the River Dee meets the Irish Sea. Wales ends here in this disorientating landscape, where sand overcomes sea for much of the day. Observed coolly by languorous seals, I launch an hour before sunset. I paddle north for an hour, hard. A half submerged wreck initially seems vast, but perspective proves to be distorted here. Miles from dry land, I wade and drag for a time. The swell gains definition; deep water. I alter course to cross the Mersey estuary. I knew the light would fade, but I am counting on the full moon. This is ascending behind Liverpool docks, too slowly. My headtorch fails even to illuminate my compass. I am lost. I pick out some lights and take my chances. Feeling my way blind, I stumble into a tidal race. The waves feel huge in the pitch dark. Terrified but exhilarated, I emerge right beside the Mersey Channel where a giant tug is passing. Its spotlights pick out the kayaker, a tiny intruder in the big boy’s playground. An hour later, I make landfall – on sand, by lucky chance - and discover that I am directly outside the Liverpool Coastguard Station. The night watch are concerned and sceptica. After they’ve examined my equipment and heard my story, smiles break out. I am welcomed inside as a guest, albeit a late one.

In the early hours of the sixth morning, I finish another book. By now I am tuned to the movements of the tent; something is different. I emerge and I look to Barrow once more. No doubt this time, the wind has eased. The sea is grey-brown mush, but has calmed appreciably. This is it. I engage myself with hurried packing, refusing to permit myself space to revisit my decision. I am outside the surf break and already making ground towards Barrow through the peaks and troughs. The panorama of Morecambe Bay expands around me. I can see Lake District peaks and even my old university, white buildings against a Pennine backdrop. With inconvenient timing, a ferry emerges down the Lune Channel, and then two more large ships; I have to sit tight as they pass, bracing into the waves. Something is wrong; the swell is smashing right up their bows. Once they they’ve passed, I regain pace and enter the channel. Right away I am hitting very big water. Waves are surging and breaking around me. My nerves force a physical reaction; I retch. I try to rationalise my circumstances before fear predominates. My incredibly stupid, obvious error is that I am trying to cross as tide flows from the bay against the wind and swell. The tide is exaggerating and steepening the waves. Turning back will not be easy, but continuing could be catastrophic. Haste and impatience have brought me here. I am engulfed by a world of foam. My mind wanders to another place, not so far way. I have now a solution, and it is simple. I draw my hood over my head, and zone out for a few more hours.

(For more images from Mark's trip in the summer of 2005, see this discussion from the Community Forum.)

The links below lead to discussions on our Community Forum

Channel Islands

Chesil Beach

Cornwall - with pics

Farne Islands

Flat Holm & Steep Holm

Jersey - 2006 Symposium

Kimmeridge to Weymouth

Lundy with a guide to Lundy - download a Word Doc with the Guide here. See also here. Some planning advice here

Portland Bill

Scilly - discussions here, here, here, here and here

Surfing - SW England - places to surf.

Local Centres & Kayak Hire

Weather & tides

"Easy Reference Sheets" - Western England & Wales - Eastern England - Summary sheets with paddling speed calculators, wind speed chart, CG contact & MSI Broadcast Times, Marine VHF channels etc

Inland Waterways - details and guides to canals and other inland waters. Click the "Go Boating" link for extra details. See also this link.

Information and tidal data for the Dorset Coast

Lundy Island - the "official" website for Lundy - lots of information, including details of accomodation.

Photography - The Geograph project aims to collect geographically representative photographs and information for every square kilometre of Great Britain and Ireland - there are some useful coastal shots.

Bothies - the Mountain Bothies Association maintains a variety of bothies throught the UK. The UKBothies forum provides a mass of useful information.

British Canoeing website.

British Canoeing Sea Kayaking site.

Bing Maps will help you find places mentioned.

Military Exercise Areas - the Lulworth Ranges - details. Ministry of Defense contacts for some of the military exercise areas are to be found in this discussion and this one. See also the Ministry of Defence webpages for contacts.

Planning your first multi-day trip? Mark Rainsley's article "a Special Kind of Freedom" is essential reading.

Broken links? Please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with details.


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.

Further info

‘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


See this article on the basics of rockhopping, and also this one on the Jurassic Park Coast.

Thanks to Julian Patrick of BLUEsky (check out the new RH340 rockhopping kayak at /www.playthesea.co.uk)

Mark Rainsley - 2005


A Special Kind of Freedom
Multi-day trips by sea kayak

Mark Rainsley - 2008 - first published in Canoe Kayak UK

of the ocean
moves me to emotion
From ‘Seaing the Sea’ by John Hegley

A few months back, I was asked by Canoe Kayak UK magazine to pen an article on how to plan and carry out a multi-day trip, for their special sea kayaking supplement. I’m not a coach these days and I don’t tend to write technique/nutsnbolts stuff too often, but I enjoyed putting this together and I hope it makes some sense, at least.

It’s primarily aimed at paddlers who ‘follow the herd’ and only go on trips with their club or commercial centres; if it persuades one such paddler to think independently and carry out their own adventures, it’ll have been worth writing.

You now own a sea kayak. You’ve paddled along the coast on day trips and you’re learning about navigation, tides and weather. As each trip ends, you’ve wondered what it might be like to paddle on a little bit further. You’ve gazed at the sinuously upturned bow of your kayak and realised that this is a craft that wants to travel, to explore, to seek out new lands and *ahem!* to boldly go where no man has gone before. The BCU Sea Touring Committee describe sea kayaking as, ‘A special kind of freedom’ and that perfectly sums up what you are yearning for; rugged coasts, wild camps and the sense of journeying, fettered only by tide and weather. It’s time to make a multi-day trip.

Now that you have the urge, what do you do with it? Tagging along with an experienced group or local club is a reassuring option for a first trip. So is paying out to join a trip run by an established outdoor centre or coach. These options will relieve you of the burden of planning and decision-making, and may helpfully allow you to borrow or sample some of the gear needed. Sooner or later you’ll want to do your own thing and make your own voyages of discovery; independence and freedom are what sea kayaking is all about. This article will hopefully get you started.

Disclaimer: although he’s been around a bit, this author has no formal coaching qualifications. Judge his advice for yourself in the following article and allow for the possibility that he has no idea at all what he’s talking about.

The group

Although this is a no-brainer for most paddlers – you’ll want to paddle with your usual friends, or partner, or club – you should certainly give some thought to group dynamics. A trip is much more likely to be a success if everyone involved wants the same thing from it and has the same aspirations. Hence, an honest discussion beforehand is time well spent. How far do you all wish to paddle? What kind of conditions are you happy with? Are you all content to paddle at the speed of the slowest? Unfortunately, an uneasy group compromise is a recipe for both social disaster (everyone falling out) and literal disaster (involving rescue services!). Also, be honest in assessing whether each paddler will be a positive and helpful team member or a PITA (it’s an acronym).

The size of the group will influence the outcome of your trip. Regard three paddlers as a safe minimum (if you have the skills and experience to paddle with less, you’ll already know). Large groups are great fun around camp and make for a sociable trip. On and off the water however, they are slow and difficult to keep co-ordinated. As a rule of thumb, assume that every additional paddler beyond three will markedly reduce what you’ll achieve during your trip, and that beyond eight paddlers, the group will become increasingly unworkable. It’s no coincidence that most major sea kayak expeditions have been carried out by solo paddlers. The challenge is to find a happy middle ground between such single-minded misanthropy and a dysfunctional mob. Another factor to consider is the environmental impact of your group size. Larger groups are less likely to encounter wildlife close up and will not be suited to sensitive, delicate camping locations.

Does your group require a ‘leader’? This is a hot topic but basically, the answer is probably ‘yes’ and if you’re reading this article seriously, then it’s probably you. The degree of formality or informality in this arrangement is for you to establish with your paddling peers.

Planning the route

Sea kayakers the world over dream of visiting our shores! Yes, the best place to do your first multi-day trip is the UK, and arguably it’s best for every trip afterwards! The undisputed highlights are the west coast and islands of Scotland, but no part of our coast is without merit*. To help you choose where, there are worse starting points than a road atlas.

The kind of multi-day trip you wish to make will influence your choice of area. Sections of coast facing the open ocean will be exposed to swell and surf. Open water crossings of more than 3-4 miles should be avoided unless you already know better. Clusters of islands or sea lochs offer plenty of route choice and flexibility, if the weather changes. Large islands offer great opportunities for circumnavigation trips returning to your start point, but tie you to paddling in one direction. Similarly, a simple ‘A to B’ coastal trip can be tricky to achieve as you are dependent on the weather suiting your direction of travel for the duration.

Pore over OS maps to get a detailed idea of what you will encounter. Prominent headlands and narrow straits may indicate tide races. Long sections of cliff will mean no landing zones. Long straight beaches are more likely to be ‘closed out’ by surf than bays and inlets. Pebble beaches shelve more steeply than sandy ones, creating dumping waves. Large settlements will make discreet camping tricky. Large areas of tidal shallows and mud flats should be avoided like the plague!

Nautical charts look the part, but rarely contain much information of direct use to kayakers. Pilot books (www.imray.com), tidal atlases and sea kayak guidebooks (www.pesdapress.com) will give specific tidal information and Easytide is a simple and free way of gauging the tidal strength in an area; look at the ‘springs’ tidal range.

How far can you go? Plan conservatively, especially with a large group. Assume 3 miles an hour as a maximum pace for a group with loaded boats, not factoring in exploring caves, rockhopping and chocolate stops. Covering 10-15 miles each day is a good target. If you can all go much further and faster, you’ll already know.

How long for? It makes sense to first practice with a single overnight camp on local waters, but five days to a week gives time for a satisfying multi-day trip. If you enjoy that, anything is then possible, as long as you can resupply with food every week or three; Paul Caffyn spent a year circumnavigating Australia! Oddly, long trips can feel easier logistically than short trips. You often lug the same amount of gear along on a weekend trip as you would on a longer trip, and it can be a few days into a trip before camping and packing arrangements become a faff-free routine.

When to go? If you are able to be flexible, wait for a long-range forecast of high pressure, settled weather and light winds. Depending upon your group’s competence with rough water, you may also wish to plan your trip a few days either side of ‘neap’ tides – when the tide flows most slowly.

With an idea of the journey that you want to make, consider how flexible your plan is. If the wind strengthens or surf builds, what are your options? Do you have a sheltered alternative route? Are there spots where you could be stuck ashore? Is there road access where you can abandon your trip? Can you get back to the car? Do you have a back-up plan if you arrive and decide that your original route isn’t a good idea?

* Excluding Chesil Beach.

On the water

It isn’t the purpose of this article to instruct paddlers how to actually paddle, but consideration needs to be given to how your multi-day trip will look out on the water.

Actually, what happens on the water is predominantly determined by what you do before you launch. Prior planning based on good judgement is everything, because once you’ve launched, your options are massively reduced.
Before launching your group should always…

• Most importantly, check the weather forecast, carefully consider its implications and if in any doubt, change your plans. Force 4 winds will impede progress and whip up waves, Force 5 may cause serious problems. Avoid anything stronger unless you are sure you know better. The direction of the wind is also important. Offshore winds are dangerous, meaning temptingly smooth seas beside your launch spot, but rougher water the further out you are blown. Winds blowing in your direction of travel sound appealing, but are actually the trickiest to control a kayak’s direction in. Any forecast of poor visibility (i.e. fog) should also cause concern.

• Look carefully at the local conditions and sea state. If it doesn’t look good, then it isn’t. Any surf breaking ashore needs consideration; are you competent to get out through it? What effect will this swell have on headlands, cliffs and tide races along your route? What will it make landing like? Note that groundswell can often be several times taller offshore than the beach break.

• Check the tide flows and plan to launch at a time that will allow you to utilise (or avoid) their power. Avoid ‘wind against tide’, where the tide is flowing in one direction and the wind is blowing against it; this generates steep, choppy or even breaking waves.

• Plan out your intended route, factoring in the weather, tide, landing zones, escape routes and suchlike. Check that map, compass, tidal notes and watch (and GPS?) are easily accessible.

• Check over the safety and communication gear that you will of course be carrying. Items such as distress flares, towlines, pumps, mobile phone, VHF, etc should be safely secured but easily available to hand.

• Contact the Coastguard via mobile phone or VHF radio (Channel 16). Tell them your plans and call them afterwards when you are safely ashore. Incidentally, they won’t take action if you do not call again; it is good practice to have a third party (friend/relative at home?) who will call them if they don’t hear from you.

• Ensure that all of the above is communicated amongst and understood by all of the group.

If the steps above have been faithfully adhered to before launching, the odds of a problem developing out on the water will be vastly reduced. All of this leaves you free to do what you came to do, which is to enjoy and explore our fantastic coastal environment. Navigating should not be a huge problem if you planned properly beforehand. It makes sense for everyone to have a map and compass and know where they are going, why hog the navigation?

Group dynamics on the water need consideration; a group spread all over the place each doing their own thing is not a group, and obviously problems may arise. A group leader who has issued clear instructions and expectations is one solution to keeping everyone on track, but it’s equally desirable for everyone in the group to act responsibly. Coaching types use the acronym CLAP to outline effective leadership, but the principles that it embodies should be understood and followed by all paddlers in a group…

• Communication. Let people know what’s going on, stay in touch with them.

• Line of sight. You should always be in a position to monitor what your fellow paddlers are up to. This can’t be achieved over the horizon!

• Avoidance is the best form of prevention. In other words, best not do anything that’ll require undoing.

• Position of most usefulness. Always be looking out for, and jostling to achieve, the spot within the group where you are best able to keep track of what is happening and most prepared to respond accordingly.


Coming ashore and setting up camp after a day on the water is wonderful. With the tents up and a (hopefully) delicious meal served, the day’s adventures can be reviewed over a beer. Everyone has their own personal approach to camping, but a few pointers follow.

Firstly, your camping gear all has to fit in the boat. Packing used to be a form of purgatory but modern sea kayaks have big hatches making it easy to pack and retrieve your gear. That said, it can be a day or two before you figure out the best system for slotting it all in. Good dry bags are cheap and easy to get (e.g. www.ewetsuits.co.uk). We tend to bag up gear together based on categories like…

• Kitchen (food, stove, fuel, matches, plates and cutlery)

• Bathroom (toiletries, loo paper)

• Wardrobe (dry clothes)

• Bedroom (tent, Thermarests, sleeping bags)

…but then again, we are very dull people.

Other gear? You’ll need fresh water, which can be carried in expensive Ortlieb waterbags or big supermarket bottles. This can be replenished from taps, or (less appealingly) from purified stream water. A large drybag/rucksack is indispensible when you are shifting your gear from kayak to camp spot. A trolley may be useful if you have to move the boat any distance. A LW radio is indispensible for getting the forecast and a good book will keep you sane if the weather forces you to be stormbound for a day or two. In Scotland, a midge hood is an unfortunate necessity.

Where to camp? The spot you select is your call, but try to be discreet and steer away from people’s houses and gardens. In Scotland there are few legal strictures on responsible groups, but in England and Wales the law is hazier; hence it’s often appropriate to keep the number of tents to a minimum, arriving late and leaving early. In some locations, there are of course ‘proper’ campsites near the water.

Which tent? Tents come in all shapes and sizes, but something with decent porch space is ideal for cooking in wet weather. A freestanding tent will allow you to camp on the beach, but note that sand gets everywhere!

What’s cooking? We cook on a Trangia stove with a gas attachment; stable, simple, safe. What you eat for dinner is down to you, but the amount of space available in a sea kayak means that Vesta Dried Curry is never forgivable. Think carefully before you start a fire; is it necessary and appropriate? If you convince yourself that the answer to both questions is yes, then light it on the beach in the inter-tidal zone and remove all trace afterwards.

Where’s the loo? Do your business well away from camp, between the high and low tide mark. Burn paper and bury everything. Some paddlers carry out all waste in tubes. Alternatively, wait for or walk to a public toilet.

Ray Mears/Bear Grylls-style survival isn’t for everyone. There is no reason at all why you can’t indulge in ‘credit card’ sea kayaking, where you stroll to a pub for lunch in the evening, and perhaps sleep the occasional night in a seaside Bed and Breakfast. Such luxuries are rarely far away in the UK, and sea kayaking is a broad church!

End note

Skimming back over this article, it looks as exciting as a telephone directory. Tedious lists of ‘don'ts’ and equipment inventories. Yawn. Please don’t lose sight of the wood for the trees, though. This dull but necessary information is a stepping stone to help you reach the real goal. You’ll know you’ve achieved it, when you first watch the sun melt into the sea from your tent, or when you realise that you’ve crossed the mornings’ horizon, or when you become reconciled to the weather and tide dictating your days. That’s when you’ll know that you enjoy a special kind of freedom.

Further Reading and Information

www.ukseakayakguidebook.co.uk – contains masses of useful information and advice; look at the ‘Almanac’ and ‘Community’ sections.
Sea Kayaker Magazine's Handbook of Safety & Rescue by Doug Alderson and Michael Pardy – an outstanding guide to planning and executing trips safely and effectively.
BCU Coaching Handbook, ed. Franco Ferrero – don’t be scared off by the dull title; it contains a great overview of leading and organising sea trips.
Sea Kayaker Deep Trouble by Matt Broze and George Gronseth – true horror stories about US sea kayak trips descending into melt-down. Learn from their mistakes.

Mark Rainsley - 2008