This is a tale about my kayaking trip. Spoiler: I’m not very good at it and we capsized six times.
I’d been to the Outdoors Show in London and met the Go Canoeing people. My previous boating experience was an hour canoeing in a very small school swimming pool as a Guide and crewing Martyn’s grandmother’s yacht, which involved pulling a rope when he told me to and ducking so as not to get hit by the boom. But I’d met the canoeing people, it was on my mind, so I booked a trip and gave it a go.
Caving and watersports don’t have many obvious similarities but generally, the kit is pretty similar. I wore my fleece undersuit (heavy-duty onesie, dating back to before the days of onesies and now really quite snug-fitting indeed), my neoprene socks with my waterproof sandals for a little extra grip, my neoprene gloves and I was loaned a bib wetsuit, a waterproof jacket, a buoyancy aid (which I shall henceforth call a lifevest, even though I now know the difference between the two) and a helmet. It was April, it was a grey day, I fell in the sea six times. I didn’t get cold.
There were six of us. Three “lads” from London, a father and twelve-year-old daughter and me, sharing three double sit on top kayaks, the sort that you can’t possibly get trapped in if you capsize. I was paired up with Max from London and we carried our kayak down to the shoreline. I don’t know if you know this about me. I shared a caving club with a handful of much taller, older boys as a student. This has left me with an incurable condition called “I have to prove I’m as tough as everyone else” so I carried as many kayaks as I possibly could and swore that I wasn’t going to let Max know if I got too tired to row.
We set out from Middle Beach at Studland, heading across the glass-like bay towards Old Harry Rocks. This was nice, this was easy, gliding along, getting to see the Jurassic Coast from a different angle. There had recently been some quite violent storms and there had been some changes to the cliffs – mudslides, rockfalls, fallen trees etc. A huge piece of cliff just in front of the kayak school had collapsed, leaving the place surrounded by wire fences and with its kayaks needing to find a new home. We listened for birds, I identified my good friends the oystercatchers, much to Dan, our guide’s surprise. Oystercatchers are to Iceland what pigeons are to England.
After a beautiful sail, we arrived at Old Harry Rocks, a piece of textbook coastal geology – stacks, stumps, caves, arches etc. We were going to kayak right through the middle of the arch, which was fine, except that it was too shallow. Max volunteered to be the one who waded through pushing our kayak through the gravel, although once I was off the rocks, I was carried away and had to reverse back to pick him up.
Oh, it was a different story here! The sea was rough round here, out of the shelter of Studland Bay. Well, not rough by proper tall ship standards, but very rough by the standards of someone in a kayak who’d suddenly realised she doesn’t really like the water. Waves crashed over my feet. We bounced and rolled along, fighting our way through the waves, trying not to get swept onto any of the cliffs or needles along the coast.
We came to a sea cave. Dan said we should go and see it. It goes against all my instincts to go in sea caves. As far as all my training and all my self-preservation is concerned, sea caves are really dangerous. Dan pointed out the snowy white boulders on the beach hidden inside and said “Last season, those boulders were on the ceiling”. These are boulders the size of my car, I feel the need to point out. Hardly pebbles.
But as we’d survived the waves, we survived the cave. And then it happened. Our kayak tipped over and we were dumped unceremoniously into the sea. It tastes of fish and filth and it’s cold – so cold that you can’t do anything except cling to the upside down kayak and gasp in shock. Cold and startled and inexperienced, we couldn’t get the heavy kayak back up the right way and Dan had to come and help us, then help us crawl back on. We were glad to be back on the boat, surprisingly warm after our dunk and most importantly, laughing. Dan said it was the most perfect capsize and recovering he’d ever seen and he wished he’d filmed. But it didn’t last long. We’d barely been back aboard for ten seconds when we went over again.
Four more times we went over. The cold was no longer a shock. At one point I felt the bottom under my feet, which was a surprise, because I’d assumed the sea was fathoms deep. I took to rescuing water bottles and tubs of snacks and paddles before Dan helped me climb back into the boat. I soon got the hang of it – keep low while Max gets in and then you can sit up and put the boat to rights again. Dan kept asking if we were ok, if I was cold (not if Max was cold, never) – which I wasn’t. I got warmer with every dunk. But I also got really frustrated. Not a single one of the others had capsized even once and yet we could barely move a yard without going over. It turns out I wasn’t helping. Every time a wave hit us, I would instinctively cower away from it in fear and my weight leaning over in the same direction as the wave was pushing was helping tip us over. I tried to keep calm and happy and pretend that this didn’t bother me but by the sixth time in ten minutes that I’d gone in, I just lost my temper and demanded to be got out of here immediately. So Dan pulled the three kayaks together and we criss-crossed arms and held onto paddles and gunwales and formed a big raft with more stability and Dan towed us all back to Old Harry.
I think Dan was worried that we might be soaking wet and freezing cold. He pulled all the kayaks up onto the shingle around the base of the rocks and put us all in a big orange survival tent with some “healthy snacks” – jelly sweets – and we sat in there and giggled and munched and warmed up and wanted to sing. Outside, Dan made suspicious noises on the shingle. We wondered whether he was launching his kayak and leaving without us but all he was doing was making a huge production out of coiling his towing line and attempting to fix whatever was wrong with our kayak and making us capsize all the time.
When we’d eaten all the sweets, he let us out again. He’d dragged the kayaks onto the other side of the little beach to make it easier to launch into the lovely, lovely, smooth Studland Bay and we sailed beautifully back to Middle Beach. My legs had been aching from the effort of pressing them against the kayak in the hope of not capsizing and now, having been paddling for quite a while, my wrists were starting to ache. I was quite pleased to be sitting in the rear seat where Max had no idea if I occasionally let up on the paddling for a moment to give my arms a rest. We chatted about scavenging and takeaways and how chickens are almost unkillable and then Dan let slip that, despite being a kayaking instructor, he gets seasick in kayaks. I’m so glad I didn’t know that earlier. I didn’t need that kind of anxiety on top of trying to cope with the waves.
I thought I wasn’t a convert at all to watersports. I had enjoyed being considered a calm, sensible model example of how to capsize and recover, I enjoyed the smooth bits in the bay, I enjoyed not being frozen but I was still deeply distrustful of the sea. I’m a rock person, not a water person. And yet in October, I did my Level One sailing certificate and this weekend I’m doing my Level Two. Still not that keen on the sea, though.