Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Paddling in Pembrokeshire

For anyone who doesn't find reading the gory details of 6 days of paddling on the ocean along a beautiful coastline to be one of your very favorite things to do, you can jump straight to the pictures by clicking here.

This year was one of those evenly divisible by 10 birthdays for me, so I decided to treat myself to a very nice trip.  Yes, it's true that deciding that one "deserves" something for one's birthday didn't end well for Smeagol, and to be perfectly honest, the connection to the birthday might be more than a little tenuous, but the bottom line is that I ended up going to Pembrokeshire, Wales in May.  John Carmody had originally described the trip as "Assuming the weather is cooperative, we'll paddle each day in as many different environments as possible with the focus being more on personal paddling skills and navigation with only a little bit of leadership stuff thrown in."  Sounded lovely. With us would be Nige Robinson, who is from Wales, and we would be staying at Nige's place, the Old Schoolhouse.

Anglesey/Holyhead seems to be the better known Wales paddling destination.  Pembrokeshire is the peninsula farther south, the one with Wales and Milford Haven showing on the map above.  In addition to excellent kayaking (including The Bitches, the Bishops and Clerks, lots of headlands, significant tidal streams, puffins(!)...), there's a superb coast path (Pembrokeshire Coast Path National Trail) that would make a wonderful trip in and of itself.  While reading about Pembrokeshire before the trip from both the kayaker's perspective and the coast walker's perspective, I found myself wanting both opportunities, and fortunately we did get a bit of coast walking in.

By the time the trip arrived, John had it on his calendar as a "5 star training."  That was somewhat disconcerting, but I was pretty sure that John and Nige intended to bring everyone home, so I decided not to worry about what the trip was being called.  At least not too much.

The other participants were Lorrie and Phil from the Boston area, Santi from Montreal/Baja, and Kim from California.  Santi and Kim would stay on after the training portion of the trip to do their 5 star assessment.  Most of the group arrived on a Wednesday evening, with the plan of paddling Thursday through the following Wednesday, conditions permitting.

I flew into Heathrow, took the bus to Reading, and then a train to Wales.  John and Nige picked Santi and me up at the train station in Haverfordwest.  On the way to Nige's house we quickly entered the Wales of narrow two lane roads, hedges, lovely old stone buildings, and ancient ruins scattered about.  We stopped by a couple of beaches that we would paddle by in the days to come.  Later that night we went to the grocery store, where I picked up my Ordinance Survey maps for the area.

Day 1 (Thursday)
Forecast:  Wind SW force 4 or 5, increasing to 6 - 7 later.  Sea state:  slight or moderate.  Weather:  rain, then showers.  Visibility:  medium or poor becoming good. 
Our first paddle was a classic "assess skills/get used to the environment" day.  I hadn't been paddling much yet this year (the ice had been late to go out in Minnesota), and hadn't been in any sort of conditions since fall.  John also took the opportunity to get us sorted out on what's going on at headlands where currents meet.  (That was a lesson that took numerous iterations to wrap my head around.) 

We launched from Abercastle, a protected harbor.  The tidal range was around 9 feet, and in the old harbors, boats went from floating at high water to resting on the ground at low water.  As we paddled out, we looked up to see the ivy covered ruins of an iron age fort sitting atop a cliff.  Nope, we weren't in Minnesota any more.

We probably didn't go more than a mile from the launch site all day, though we did keep moving.  The tidal stream was flowing left to right along the coast.  John alternated questions/discovery with teaching.  What was happening by the corner of this island where it got bumpy?  We paddled over to another island, farther out in the main tidal stream.  More bumps -- why?. What were the bubbles in the water telling us?  We paddled through an opening between island and mainland where the wind funneled through (40 knots, John guessed).  

Soon we were off to another little island and arch that Santi was to lead us through.  He checked it out first, then signaled for Lorrie to come through.  A big set hit Lorrie on the far side and surfed her onto the rocks.  She hung on and paddled out.  Before I headed through the slot, John pointed out a gap between the island and a rock, and told me my task would be to lead the group through that gap when we came back around the island if I thought it was safe.  When we finished our little circumnavigation, I attempted to have the group hold position above the gap while I scouted it.  One would have thought that one could turn one's back on three 4 star paddlers and a level 5 coach, but no, while I was scouting, someone who shall go nameless managed to capsize while faffing around with his hat.  (Not staged.)  One boat ended up on top of another boat.  I never even knew it happened until later.

I ended up deciding not to bring the group through the slot, which John said was the right answer.

We debriefed our little leadership assignments afterwards, and as is usually the case, communication was a common theme.  As was parking a group in a good spot, especially if you're going to leave them.  (One could easily say "duh!" here.) 

There was also plenty of time and space to simply enjoy the day and where we were, which proved true for the entire week.

Nige hadn't joined us for the paddle, but he picked us up at the end of the day and we stopped for a pint at the Sloop Inn in Porthgain.  I tried a Welsh tap beer ("Double Dragon") because of the dragons, but ended up opting for Guiness after that.

Day 2 (Friday)
Forecast:  Westerly or southwesterly force 5 - 7, increasing to gale 8 for a time.  Sea state:  moderate or rough.  Weather:  squally showers, rain later.
Thursday night we were given the assignment of planning 3 paddles, taking into account the forecast.  One would be an easy, protected paddle.  One would be a hard/no go route.  One would be an in between day.

The protected route and the "not going there in these conditions" route were easy.  The "just right" route took a while. Nige's incredulous response at one point was "It's force 7. What are you thinking?"

We ended up launching out of Fishguard Harbor and paddling east towards Dinas Head. That let us start in a protected spot and assess the conditions before committing to paddling on to Dinas Head.  We left the trailer on the west side of the headland, so we could either get off the water there or proceed around Dinas Head if the conditions permitted. 

All of our coastal paddles were planned around the tidal stream. Reference books would give the direction and the time the tidal stream would start in a specific area relative to high water at Milford Haven, as well as the maximum current.  So on this day we knew that the easterly stream started around 1:20 and there would be a back eddy in Fishguard Bay starting around 4:10.

Dinas Head
The first part of the paddle was a lovely downwind run, giving us a chance to poke our noses into caves and around rocks while trying to keep track of our position on our maps.  As we approached Dinas Head, Nige asked us "Are the conditions appropriate for this group to go around?"  (Compared to what we had paddled the prior day.)  We quickly learned that the answer was supposed to be a yes or no, not a rambling sharing of our thought processes.  The answer was yes.  And once again, conditions got bigger around the headland.  We found sheltered places to tuck into going around the headland that could be spotted on the map.  On the eastern side of Dinas Head, there was another counter current flowing out into the main tidal stream, again making things "interesting" when it collided with the main current.  Needless to say, that was where we stopped to work on rescues and towing and paddling with a boat full of water.

We eventually made our way to the little town of Cwm-Yr-Eglwys, where we landed and waited while Nige walked back to get the trailer.  We wandered over to the caravan where tea and coffee and treats were available.  As seemed to be the norm, food and beverages were served on real plates with real utensils and real china cups -- no plastic or paper.  Instead of pre-packaged snacks, there were whole cakes and bars that were sliced to order.  Even in Heathrow, I had noticed far less paper/plastic, and that difference from the "throw away" culture we have in the US was even more pronounced in Pembrokeshire.  

I had an organic ginger and honey ice cream cone. I was a happy camper.

Day 3 (Saturday)
Forecast:  Winds strong to severe gale. Sea state: rough to very rough to high.
The weather made Saturday a no go as far as paddling was concerned.  Lorrie, Phil, Kim, Santi and I went to St. Davids and did some shopping.  (Glow sticks for the 5 star candidates' night nav, denso tape, post cards and stamps.  That's what anyone would shop for, right?)  We went to the St. David's Cathedral.  We had lunch at The Bishops pub.  We asked at the bookstore if they had copies of the excellent "Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion Sea Canoeing Guide" that had been written by a local couple and which we were using to plan our trips.  (They did not, but I checked back by email later and they had gotten some in.)  We drove to Solva and took a hike on the coast path, coincidentally stopping to overlook the bay where we would paddle the next day.  I checked a nearby weather buoy later, and the wind was a steady 31 knots while we were standing on the cliff, gusting higher.  Not a bad day to be off the water.  We stopped at Brains for tea.  I ordered tea;  Phil and Lorrie ordered tea for 2, and Kim and Santi also ordered tea for 2.  The tea showed up as one large pot of tea, one smaller pot of tea, one pot of water, and an explanation of the number of tea bags per pot.  Thoroughly confused, we managed to sort it out enough for everyone to get their tea.  Nige patiently explained it all that night, and told us that the proper way to order would have been to ask for "tea for 5."  

Day 4 (Sunday)
Forecast:  Westerly winds force 5 - 7, occasionally gale 8.  Sea state:  moderate or rough.  Weather:  squally showers.  
Sunday was another day of not going far, but having plenty to be challenged with.  We launched out of Solva Harbor.  On each of the two days we were intentionally practicing rescues, Nige had one of 5 star aspirants file a float plan with the Coast Guard.  

Once we got out of the protected harbor, there was a lot of wind and a big swell from previous days of stormy weather.  We spent most of the day just outside of the mouth of harbor where the swells were coming in and breaking on and around a rocky islet.  The swells were big enough for a sea kayak to fit on the face with room to spare.  We stayed away from where they were breaking, but I had a hard time not keeping my eye on them.  (The next one might break!)  Nige had me paddle in a big circle with my eyes closed to practice relying on feeling instead of seeing. John had me paddle around the rocks looking at the rocks the whole time (not looking out to sea.)  It was still hard not to sneak peaks at the waves.

We found plenty of things to entertain ourselves with.  Naturally there were rescues, towing, and paddling in the waves.  There was a bit of a zipper effect at the down wave side of the islet, as swells broke around from either side.  We took turns paddling in and sitting there for a bit.
After lunch Nige came out of his boat, shoved his boat and paddle away, swam for shore and threw a (pretend) tantrum.  I was leading at the time and went in to sort him out. I got too close and he capsized me.  What is it about BCU coaches and their object lessons?  They seem to excel at that teaching method. But I have to agree with what John said afterwards: "You'll never make that mistake again."

I've long since given up estimating wave heights, but John and Nige said 8 - 10 feet.

Day 5 (Monday)
Forecast:  Westerly force 5 - 7, veering NW 5 - 6, decreasing to 3 - 4 in the east.  Sea state:  slight or moderate in the east.  Weather:  squally showers.
Today's paddle was launching from Whitesands, paddling up to St. David's Head, crossing over to Ramsey Island, surfing the Bitches, and returning to Whitesands.

One of the things I noticed was that even with a relatively experienced group and two very experienced leaders, John and Nige were always double checking the weather, planning for multiple options, and often bringing another skilled paddler along.  This morning John had driven over to Whitesands beach to check out the surf while we were having breakfast.  

St. David's Head
We launched from the beach, then headed to our right (northwest) to check out St. David's Head.  The tidal stream was flowing south and there was a back eddy in Whitesands Bay, so again there were colliding currents at the headland.  We played in the waves, then turned south to ride the tidal stream down to Ramsey. I believe that this was the day when one of the group got a bit seasick and we ducked behind a protected area on Ramsey to take a break.  

We paddled down the eastern shore of Ramsey and landed for lunch just north of the Bitches.  The "Bitches and Whelps" (full name) is a group of rocky outcroppings that form a line perpendicular to the tidal stream flow, forcing the current through the gaps between them.  As the flow increases in speed and volume, the standing waves
The Bitches in the background
build, just like on a river when it flows over and around rocks.  We played a bit in the waves after lunch, then paddled down to the end of Ramsey on the last of the south flowing stream.  We waited there for the north flowing stream to begin, floating around in slack water, happily watching seals pop up and stare at us and birds swoop along the cliffs.  All of sudden we started drifting north with the current.  I checked later, and the stream started within 5 minutes of when the reference books said it would.

By the time we got back to the Bitches, there still wasn't much current, so we took another break to let the stream build before getting back on to play.  The Bitches add a bit of excitement to standing waves on a river -- ocean swells (if present) get layered in on top of the moving water, so there's a pulsing effect on top of everything else.  I was able to get on the standing waves and surf for a while, but as the speed increased, eventually I could no longer hold my angle as I came out of the eddy, and would end up getting turned downstream.  John and Nige did comment that ours was the first group they'd taken to the Bitches where nobody swam.

Before long it was time to head back.  Nige asked what our heading should be.  I blithely pointed about 45 degrees between down stream and across, figuring that we had over a mile to make it across the sound to the mainland.  Nige's reply was "not if you want to make it home."  In addition to a 5 knot current, Horse Rock is a major hazard, located right in the middle of the sound, and generating eddies and whirlpools as the tidal stream rushes by.  It's on the Admiralty (nautical) charts, but not on the OS maps.

So we eddy hopped along to the end of the Bitches, then aimed slightly up current to go straight across, and then returned along the east side of the sound.  We turned into Whitesands Bay and the back eddy against us was noticeable, especially after having cruised effortlessly north with the tidal stream helping us out. 

Dinner that night was back at the Sloop Inn in Porthgain.  I picked up a post card of a big headland that looked like a very cool place to paddle.  Nige took
a look at it and said it was Strumble Head, and that we were planning on going there the next day if conditions permitted.  After dinner, John suggested that if anyone wanted to, we could take the coast path to the next town of Abereiddy, and he'd pick us up.  Kim and I took the opportunity to do that, and enjoyed a lovely walk along the cliffs.  We were even treated to a rainbow.

Day 6 (Tuesday)
Forecast:  NW wind backing west or southwest for a time, force 3 or 4, occasionally 5 at first.  Sea state:  slight or moderate, becoming slight. Weather: showers.
Here's what the kayaking guidebook has to say about Strumble Head: "Steep cliffs with few places to escape, an exposed headland with tidal overfalls and a lighthouse make this both a challenging and rewarding trip for an experienced group."  

We planned the trip from east to west, taking advantage of a west flowing stream that would start at 9:55.  We got a relatively early start, and en route to the put in, Nige pulled the trailer off to a place where he could see Strumble Head in the distance.  Even from a mile or so away, we could see the white water at the base of the cliffs, and we nixed the original plan.  Instead, we went to a plan B of launching from Abereiddy, paddling around St. David's Head, down Ramsey Sound, and turning the corner into St. Bride's Bay to land at Porth Clais.  

Apparently paddling around Strumble Head is one of those paddles where the stars have to align in order to be able make it a go. I talked to Nige afterwards, and he said that the conditions probably wouldn't have been any bigger than we had paddled in, but the problem was how long we would be in them, and the lack of outs if something went wrong.  And a seasick paddler or two can happen anytime.

It was a little bumpy as we paddled towards St. David's Head.  I was feeling the earliest vague bits of queasiness, but they subsided.  We had our usual fun ride around St. David's Head, and then stopped for lunch on a beach.  We had carefully planned the original trip around Strumble Head, but had to dig a bit for the information we needed for the new trip.  (Some of the examples I've seen of how to prep maps and charts are making a lot more sense now.)  At any rate, the crux move was turning the corner into St. Brides Bay before the west going stream started down there, so we had to be there by 3.  We made it easily, then paddled through and around some rocky islands and found the nearly hidden harbor of Porth Clais.  And then we had a chance for tea and cake while we were waiting for Nige to sort out the trailer.

Day 7 (Wednesday)
Forecast:  Rats.  Didn't write it down.  But it was a lovely day.
This was my last day in Wales (for this trip), as I had to catch the train that afternoon.  The plan was to go to Skomer, the puffin island. Kim and Santi decided to take a break that day, and I was given the assignment of planning when we had to leave to get me to the train station in time.  The current can reach 6 knots in Jack Sound, and 4 knots at the west side of Skomer Island.  I put together the currents crossing Jack Sound and at all the crux points and came up a plan that was (in retrospect) just a wee bit too conservative.  Phil and I walked over to where Nige was staying to discuss the plan.  I believe it started with "leave the house at 6:45 AM" and had us returning from the island around 3:30.  Nige looked at me and said "That's a lot of puffins."  (Did I mention that Nige is the master of understatement?)  He explained that the real crux move was to get around Gardenstone rock on the northwest corner of the island by 11.  We ended up leaving the house at a far more reasonable hour, and a local paddler named Ben joined us.

By staying well north of the sound that provided the constriction to the south flowing stream, the current wasn't anywhere close to 6 knots when we crossed to Skomer Island.  We paddled into the main puffin bay.  Puffin bay is not what it's called, but it was a bay and it was full of puffins.  There were hundreds of them floating on the water.  They'd launch and go zooming off like sturdy little Spitfires, then circle around and come back.  We spent a good amount of time just floating around watching them, and then headed on around the island with more puffins and razorbills putting in regular appearances on the shore, on the water, and in the air.  

The northwest corner had a dry way around and a wet way around.  Nige let me choose since it was my last day, so of course I picked the wet way.  

As we were paddling through rocks, Lorrie and Phil decided that perhaps helmets were in order.  (I had just started the day wearing mine, since I've never figured out a good way to carry it other than on my head.)  Somehow in the process of helmet retrieval, an untethered hatch cover got dropped and sank and a float bag lost its inflation valve, so we tied the float bag over the hatch.  Later on we had to get back into the hatch and tried Ben's lost hatch cover solution -- an inflatable beach ball.  That seemed to work quite well.

We worked our way around the island and got back to Little Sound, where the south flowing stream was still faster than we could paddle.  We played on a standing wave for a while, then as the current dropped a bit more, we were able to attain upstream around the corner, and again paddled high to cross back to the mainland well above Little Sound and Jack Sound.

We stopped for a cream tea after paddling, and I packed my gear for traveling.  Nige and the gang dropped me at the train station, and I started the journey home.

Lorrie and Phil stayed on to be guinea pigs for the 5 star assessment. (I haven't forgiven John for not knowing there would be an assessment until after I had booked a non-refundable plane ticket and committed to being back at work on Friday.)  They did a night nav (!!!) at the assessment, and they got out to the Bishops and Clerks.  I was very envious.  But much more importantly, Santi and Kim both did a splendid job and passed the assessment.  Well done, guys!

Great trip, beautiful country, wonderful paddling, terrific people.  Sigh.  Want to do it again.

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