The problem with sea kayaking is the sea

I will start this post by pointing out that sea kayaking today involves a lot of things that frighten me and as I wrote this, I felt more and more like one of these people who’s scared of too many things to ever leave the house.

Things I was scared of today, in no particular order:

  • the sea
  • cliffs
  • sea caves
  • waves
  • seaweed
  • the waterproof jacket & helmet strap touching my neck

If you grow up alongside a big watery playground like Poole Harbour, eventually it might occur to you that you should make some use of it and then you may find yourself doing your RYA Level 1 in a two-man dinghy you have no hope of handling by yourself (or even getting the thing into the water by yourself – Wayfarers are heavy!) and then your Level 2 and also going out for a half day sea kayaking trip. And then you decide that kayaking is easier and less scary than sailing and it’s something you can go and do on your own and you book a day to do your BCU 1 Star, which is the very most basic paddling qualification.

Except it seems it was me and a group booked onto the course and the group cancelled, leaving me as the only participant so the whole thing was cancelled. I was offered the fish, feast & forage afternoon during which the guide could assess me for my 1 Star but since the last time I went kayaking I fell out at least six times, I didn’t feel I was ready to be assessed and also, I really don’t like fish, feasting or foraging (forgot to add that to the list at the top) to the point where I couldn’t cope with it just to get that certificate. So I opted to re-do the half day trip in order to could practice for the 1 Star (I looked up the syllabus – go forward, backward, in a circle, stop, start, fall out and be helped back in. Spoiler: by the end of the half day, I could do all of that).

So at 9.30 on a Saturday morning I was standing in a kind of artificial garden created by putting a fence between two shipping containers, complete with astroturf and washing line hung with kayaking clothes, fighting to get into the largest wetsuit this particular company has. I know I’m bigger than I’d like to be but they do say they cater to extra big and extra small people and have equipment in all sizes and if I’m absolutely the biggest person they can provide for, then I would like to challenge that statement. Getting into the thing was enough trouble; I imagined having to be cut out of it afterwards. Between the wrestling and the layers (swimsuit, longjohn wetsuit, fleece jumper, waterproof jacket, neoprene socks, neoprene shoes), I was very warm indeed by the time we reached the kayaks despite the grey drizzly morning.

First job was to sit in the kayak and adjust the backrests, although it’s hard to imagine whether they’ll be comfortable when paddling if you’re testing them sitting on a beach. This was the point at which it really dawned on me that I was going out into the sea on a very thin rickety boat from which I had much experience falling, the first point at which I wanted to give up the whole thing. The second point was when we launched them. The tide and the wind had stirred up a lot of thick gloopy black seaweed – the water looked like it had suffered a horrendous oil spill up until nearly knee-deep from the beach and it wasn’t appetising to wade through that to launch the boats, which we then had to jump into without overbalancing them. I was clearly not cut out to be a kayaker. We haven’t even started and already I hate it.

We paddled across to the headland by South Beach first, without incident, and practised manoeuvring the kayaks. Paddle into a mini cave at the bottom of a crumbly cliff and then reverse out. Reverse into a mini cave and paddle out. Paddle with your eyes closed while the other person directs. Swap roles. Paddle through a narrow gap between two protruding rocks. Do the same with a different gap with your eyes closed. By the time we’d done that, we were experts in handling the kayaks and I was beginning to feel a bit more secure about being in it. But worse was to come.

We paddled straight across the bay towards Old Harry Rocks, a textbook example of coastal erosions – cracks that become caves that become arches that become stacks that become stumps. It’s the other end of a chalk ridge that used to join it to the Isle of Wight’s Needles – they are two ends of the same formation. During that crossing, I wore myself out trying to imitate the guide, both in technique and speed and either I or my copilot Nina was doing something a bit wrong because our kayak constantly pulled to the right. The guide had shown us how use the rear paddle as a rudder and that was a bit like doing a handbrake turn as I shoved us back round to the left over and over and over again. You also lose some speed doing it, which is why we spent the entire half day at the back of the group. But other than that, paddling straight across a nice flat bay is technically easy enough.

This was a few years ago, on a better day, at low tide. You don’t really appreciate how much sticks out until you’ve gone through it several different ways.

And then we reached Old Harry.

Kayak guides like to weave in and out of the various holes in the rocks. Which is fine, except that Studland Bay is protected from the waves and the winds by the headland that terminates in Old Harry. In other words, the sea beyond there is much rougher and it’s where I came to grief so many times last time and that meant that as soon as reached the “bouncy” water, I started to panic a bit, which the guide mostly ignored (for the best for all concerned, to be honest).

I didn’t realise there was so much to Old Harry. I thoroughly lost my bearings going through tunnels and arches and holes that you just can’t see from above. How much rock does Old Harry contain?! Which bit is Old Harry himself? Which is his wife? How many wives has he had? Which bits are actually attached to the mainland? Is this bit part of the headland or are we now on one side or the other? Going through the passages was a bit like going on a ride at a waterpark, bobbing up and down on a big clear green wave, shrieking, except that you can be thrown out of the boat and into the actual sea. Last time I was shocked to discover that the sea along there is shallow enough to stand up in but we were there at high tide and I’m petrified of the sea and I spent the entire time we “played” in the bouncy water squeaking and panting and swearing to myself and saying “it’s all good it’s all good it’s all good” which is a thing I hear myself saying when it’s not all good.

Just playing at Old Harry wasn’t enough. We were going to paddle along the coast, the unprotected rough bit of coast, keeping close to the crumbly cliffs which regularly collapse, so we didn’t get swept halfway to the Isle of Wight by the tide and I calmed down a little bit. The sea was indeed very bouncy but it hadn’t threatened to tip me out of my boat, which actually felt surprisingly stable – or maybe my weight at the back was what was making it stable. Or maybe my boat last time had been faulty – either that or my copilot.

First stop on that bit of wild water was a sea cave called Parson’s Barn. Sea cave! Second in danger only to full-on flooded caving-diving cave! Sea caves have crumbly roofs and they have waves that smash you against the wall. We reversed in so the guide could borrow my camera to take a photo of us – I’d taken it in its waterproof case, attached firmly to my buoyancy aid but it’s temperamental and he couldn’t get it to work. In the meantime, trying to pose in the cave, we’d run aground on a slab of rock in the middle, I’d hit the ceiling, the paddles had hit the walls and the waves were trying to throw us onto the patch of gravel that some people use as a miniature indoor beach. It flickered across my mind that the cave would be sheltered and therefore calmer than outside but there was I – and Enid Blyton – horribly wrong. And after the sea cave, instead of heading back to calmer waters, we carried on west, all the way to a particularly spiky Pinnacle, one of many pointed sea stacks along this stretch of coastline, most of them invisible from the land. Beyond it, the sea was just too rough for beginners like us and once we’d all touched the Pinnacle (with bare hands, not just with paddles and not just by crashing up against them in our little boats), we headed back.

Our kayak was still pulling to the right and by now I was stressed by being endlessly thrown around by this horrifying sea, I was getting tired and I couldn’t figure out why our kayak thought it was a defective shopping trolley. It was clearly All Nina’s Fault for Not Paddling Properly, since I was paying very close attention to whether I was actually moving the water with my paddle on both sides and it felt like I was. I was spending more time ruddering than paddling, it felt like Nina was as effective at paddling as the two teenagers in the other boats who seemed to miss the water as often as they hit it, I seemed to be doing 80% of the work and I wanted to be out of the rough water.

It was a very long way back to Middle Beach. I’d hoped we would land on the stony beach around Old Harry but we didn’t. Granted, that beach was mostly covered with knee-deep water right then but another group had landed there and had paddled around happily enough. But no, we were going to go all the way back to the shore from the Pinnacle in one go. The tide was on its way out so rather than force our way back across the bay, we hugged the crumbly cliffs and took the longer but easier way. Not easier for someone whose arms are about to drop off and who is constantly fighting their floating shopping trolley.

To be honest, by the time we hit the beach, I couldn’t even get out of the kayak. There were no footholds in convenient places – one was too close, especially for my right food, and the next was too far and whichever I tried to use, I slid down the seat so by the time we finished, my legs were aching horrendously and I wondered if the only way of dismounting was going to be to roll over and just fall into the black seaweedy gunk.

Did I enjoy it? Yes, in hindsight. Not so much at the time, what with the scary water and the aching and the prospect of having to do it all again to get the 1 Star but I spent my morning bouncing around on the high seas in a little plastic boat and I didn’t die or get wetter than necessary and I definitely earned the big cheese baguette I then had at the Bankes Arms at South Beach, not to mention the bath with blue muscle-ache bubblebath when I got home (it doesn’t do much apart from make bubbles but it smells like it’s doing you good – and no, it wasn’t Radox).