What a fantastic trip a day of firsts and extremes, but I got round in one piece with no major dramas. The plan was to paddle solo around the Isle of Wight in about 13-14 hours, using the tide stream as assistance and not stopping too much. The weather forecast running up to the day was changing on an almost hourly basis, but on the day before was OK, with only a little ground swell and a 7-10 knot wind (lightest in the morning, when I would be in the worst area). I drove down to Milford On Sea and parked up next to Keyhaven Marshes ready for the early morning start.
Woke up early on Friday morning to the sound of the van being buffeted by the wind, got up and ran up on to Hurst Spit to check out the sea condition and although it was a lot rougher than the day before didn’t look too bad, a fair amount of white horses, but the ‘Trap’ looked OK. So decided to head off and make a decision when I got to Freshwater, where I could potentially turn back if I needed to.
Radio-ed the Southern Coastguard with the time of leaving and got going, a little later than planned due to sleeping in a little, at 05:25 and headed out through Keyhaven Marshes. Followed the deep-water channel through the Marshes, to the opening to the Solent, then followed the shingle bank round to Hurst Castle and started out across the channel towards the Needles.
The narrow gap between Hurst Spit and the IOW is separated by a tide race known as ‘The Trap’, the guidebook described it as ‘Treacherous’ in a strong southwesterly. The wind got up a bit and crossing the trap I had 1-2 foot waves and messy water, a bit ‘shaky’ at first but after a while I got into a rhythm and crossed to Totland Bay reaching the Needles on-schedule at 07:00.
There was only a small wave breaking through the gap in the Needles as so I rock-hopped through to meet the Channel coast and headed east towards Freshwater Bay. The Channel coast was significantly rougher, with 2 foot of ground swell and a stronger southwesterly, causing the tops to break off the waves and 2 foot rollers to crash in to the cliffs of Scratchells Bay. However this eased off by the time I got to Freshwater and the landing on the beach was relatively easy, timing the run in during a lull in the waves. Had a welcome hot tea and scotch egg break at Freshwater and sent a text to my wife, Sarah to check-in.
Now came what I knew to be probably the hardest technical section, I had been advised that there were ledges at Compton and Atherfield Bay that with ground swell produce decent surf for 10-15 km. Soon after leaving Freshwater the surf picked up, with 2-3 foot waves rolling into the bays, for the majority of the 20km to St. Catherines Point. I stayed out in the channel to avoid the worst of it, still picking up ground swell and a following wind requiring a regular bracing. All was good though as I was able to maintain a pretty good pace and the tide was pulling me along a little. No photos on this section though as taking one hand off the paddles just wasn’t an option and staying upright was the major priority!
After a long 2.5 hours finally made it to St Catherine’s. I remembered the guide had said that you can sneak round the inside to avoid the worst of the rough sea of the race, however that wasn’t an option today. There were large waves, well overhead, rolling in to the shore and breaking on boulders , with a short time interval between them and extending for as far as I could sea, the only way was to head out to sea into the worst of it, but at least I was facing the waves. I turned and paddled hard into the waves, climbing up one after another, breaking through the top and crashing back down to meet the next, to climb up and over the 5-6 foot walls of water. I don’t mean to be too dramatic, but it was the biggest stuff I’d been in in any boat, let alone a a solo sea kayak trip! When I was away from the breaking waves I turned east again and paddled and surfed the following sea, focusing solely on survival for the next 30 minutes. As I left St Catherine’s behind me the waves started to get smaller and I was very happy to see civilization of St Lawrence and Ventnor and my next landing point and check-in with Sarah coming up.
I was pretty much on schedule still, possibly 30 minutes to an hour behind, but doing OK. I set out across Shanklin and Sandown bay towards Bembridge, expecting to find a nice sheltered crossing, but still had short-period swell and a cross-wind meaning I was struggling to get an effective forward stroke and lots of bracing slowing me down. I finally rounded the corner towards Bembridge, to meet another little patch of messy tide race at Culver Down. When I was over the worst of it I tried to take a photo or two with degrees of success, as I still couldn’t take my hand off the paddle for long! It was around here that I managed to strain my wrist, with a series of heavy impact low braces and probably a bit of tiredness. As the water calmed running towards Bembridge, I felt the jabbing pain in my wrist from the probably strain, this was a disappointment, knowing I was only just over half-way! Another welcome rest break at Bembridge and the wrist felt better and the wind had died off, for a while.
Leaving Bembridge behind I picked up the southwesterly again, this time in my face, although at least the swell was pretty much gone. With my painful wrist I made the decision to stay in close to the shore and get as much shelter from the wind, although this would mean I would loose any assistance from the tide. The Solent coast took a lot longer than expected, however another thing I had been warned about – water traffic – wasn’t a problem staying in close to shore. Time continued to slip slightly, as I wasn’t quite able to push on as much as I predicted and I got more tired, however I was feeling relatively good and the weather was being kind.
By the time I got to Ryde, I was about 1.5 hours (10km) behind schedule, which was OK, the Solent was still running eastwards, however the wind was getting stronger in my face and this and my painful wrist was slowing me more.
Passed the port of Fishbourne without drama and reached the mouth of the Medina at Cowes at 17:50 – the time I thought I’d have been arriving back at Hurst! From here I had 1 hour of ebb tide left to do the 20km back to Hurst – oh well, I pushed on as best I could, hugging the shore reduce the impact of the turning flood tide, reaching Yarmouth just after sunset at 21.50. After a little fight with a night fisherman’s line I headed on round the coast, as far as I could against the growing flood tide of the Solent towards the point where I could cross the Trap back to Hurst.
I headed towards Fort Albert, by moonlight, then headed out across the channel. I met the messy sea of the Trap pretty quickly, but compared to the others I’d been through earlier that day it was pretty tame and I was able to maintain a good stroke rate. From Fort Albert it was 2 km to the entrance to the Keyhaven Marshes and so I should have across and in the shelter in 20 minutes – 1 hour later I was still crossing and loosing moonlight rapidly! Obviously my angle of attack was too shallow and the tide stream was pushing me back into the Solent. Eventually I got some shelter from Hurst Spit and was amongst the moored yachts in the lea of the wind. By this time the moon had completely disappeared and I was running on night vision, but the sea was thankfully pretty flat and the wind had died off. Once in the Marshes, it was difficult to identify the right channel and after a few wrong moves followed the line of moored boats through the marshes towards Milford and the van.
So after a long, somewhat stressful (in places), exhilarating and soulful solo paddle round the island, just shy of 18 hours later I very gratefully reached dry land to be received by a cup of hot tea and help loading the boast by Wendy and Chris (Sarah’s parents). Really glad I accomplished this mega-paddle without the need of any help or major dramas – and as I said at the start – even though it was tough, I don’t feel it was half as rough as what my son Alex and all the other Crohn’s sufferers have to go through on a regular basis.