Sarah goes sea kayaking: North Stack, Anglesey

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These days I am a kayaking widower. Long evenings by myself here, muttering to no one about empty homes, while Sarah and her yellow boat are off on their adventures. Here’s one that includes kayaking bravely around some coastal cliffs I get dizzy just standing on!

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It’s been a busy time for me and my kayak. No sooner have I washed my muddy boat from the trip to the Marshlands, I am out again mid-week in New Brighton Marina with Mark Mason, a local coach who runs Venture 7. I am then off to Anglesey for my regular two days with James Stevenson of Adventure Elements.

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I’ve booked these days for a Monday and Tuesday in early March, it feels special to treat myself to coaching on two weekdays. Me and James meet at Waitrose in Menai Bridge (Editor’s note: A leading sea kayakers rendezvous location) and discuss plans for our two days – first day will be mostly technique, and then a trip on the second day.

We begin day one launching at the slipway in the Menai Straits. It’s a calm day with little wind, and some sun, it feels quite spring-like. Ideal for plenty of technical exercises.

We turn left from the slipway and spend the morning in the lagoons and shallow water doing the exercises James has planned.

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My new on deck mesh bag is admired. It’s from Leviathan International in Stromness. This handy mesh bag is ideal for stashing things on deck – whether that’s a water bottle, a pair of pogies (special mitts that have a velcro opening so can be worn around hands AND paddle), or a snack.

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We return to the slipway at lunchtime.

And then we turn right from the slipway and go up to the Menai Suspension Bridge.

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We spend time here in between the bridge supports, and going in and out of moving water. Little do I know that I will be in for some more of this tomorrow!

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Exercises done, we cross to the other bank, ready to make a journey up the Menai Straits.

Passing the marker for the Menai Rock.

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And on to the Britannia Bridge.

On our way back we meet another paddler.

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James stops for ‘kayaking conversation’… with John Willacy.

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John Willacy is doing his kayaking practice alone, he’s a kayaker who holds various records, not least for the solo circumnavigation of Anglesey in 9 hours and 24 minutes – his website is Performance Sea Kayak. John has also circumnavigated Britain in 72 days. (The record is by Joe Leach in 67 days).

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We head back now, having had a good day on the water.

The next day we meet up at Holyhead and go to the ‘Sea Kayaking UK’ factory. This is where my boat was made.

And I am here today because I am finally ‘ready for my own paddle’, and have decided to buy a Celtic Paddle, also made in this factory, where the Nigel Dennis sea kayaks are made.

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It’s a fascinating place (if you like sea kayaks). Oh, and I also met Nigel Dennis himself whilst I’m here, so that’s like meeting more kayaking cognoscenti in fact.

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I have done the tidal planning for our trip today. We are starting at Soldiers Point, just outside Holyhead harbour, and making our way to North Stack, and will see how the water is, possibly going round the headland towards South Stack. North Stack and South Stack – or ‘The Stacks’ as they are referred to – are two small islands off the North West corner of Anglesey. The sea here is renowned for its wildness and making a trip here needs to be done with careful planning of the tides and weather. South Stack – you may recall – was where I first noticed sea kayaks when me and Ronnie were walking on the cliffs in 2013. We were visiting the lighthouse on South Stack and a group of colourful kayaks glided below us. And that was my inspiration to pursue it myself – although not ’til a few years after then.

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This is the first tide planning map for the area. For those of you who are interested, the direction of Flood and Ebb tides are shown and the direction with arrows, and the times when the flood and ebb begins, given as time relative to High Water (HW) at Liverpool. These times are important to kayakers, especially around headlands. We use the tide to help us with the direction we are paddling, or to assist us on a return trip. The blue symbols indicate ‘Possible Rough Water’. This tidal planning is done for every trip we make – and we get our tidal information from tide timetables and ‘the book’ (as we call it), which is ‘Welsh Sea Kayaking’ by Jim Krawiecki and Andy Biggs, an essential guide for all kayakers. In addition the weather forecast is also consulted and considered.

Here we are arriving at the parking place for Soldiers Point, the breakwater is visible – it’s the longest breakwater in the UK, at 2.7km long.

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There is a path down to the launching point. I am using my Nigel Dennis trolley (a delightful small set of wheels which fits on the end of the boat enabling me to push or pull it, the strap is just visible on the photo below).

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And we are at the stoney beach at Soldiers Point.

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Ready to follow the coast to North Stack. Here is my new paddle.

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We see the Irish ferries along here all day, they create quite a large wash.

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We make our way along the cliffs.

And we do make it to North Stack, where we pause at the red arrow on the map below. The tide is now in the second hour of the flood (incoming tide) and is coming through the gap between the island of North Stack and the cliffs. It is in fact a very similar set up to the moving water under the bridge supports we’d practiced yesterday. Except that it is a much faster moving tide, and it has a lot of swell, and it is windy. So, similar, but not the same!

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From the calculations we made about the water here we took into consideration the tide – it is flooding, so it is against us – that’s fine as we want it with us for the return trip. We also know from our calculations whether we have a ‘springs’ or a ‘neaps’ tide. Springs tides have more water in them than neaps tides (connected to the phases of the moon), and this also affects the speed of the water. From the information given in ‘the book’ and shown on the first map, we could expect the tide to be moving at 5 knots during a springs tide (and it would be less for a neaps tide). We are moving from a neaps tide towards a springs tide, but there is still a lot of water in the gap between North Stack and the cliff, moving pretty fast – probably not 5 knots, but certainly around 3 knots (my estimate) and with the wind on top, it’s pretty ‘dynamic’!

We also have a fair amount of swell in the water, and because we are in a small area with cliffs both sides there’s a lot going on in the water. So we spend some time here going in and out of the flow. No photos are taken, as my hands are very securely on my paddle and my brain is in full concentration mode. It’s quite thrilling! And challenging.

From the eddy at the base of the cliffs James very expertly guides me into the flow, the incoming tide, and I allow the water to ‘grab’ the boat, and then use my blade to turn the boat so that the flow takes the boat into the waves and then turn again to shelter in the eddy under North Stack. We do this exercise a number of times and James has a few different variations on a theme, which basically involve dynamic water and my boat! It’s slightly overwhelming at times, and although challenged, I feel thrilled by the experience.

The tide is flowing fast and we aren’t able to make it through the gap to the other side of North Stack, to Gogarth Bay and the cliffs there, but there will be another day for that.

After our ‘high octane’ morning, as James describes it, we paddle back to a bay for our lunch.

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After lunch we have some reminders of the technical work we did and then return to Soldiers Point. The tide is behind us, so the going is fairly easy. But the wind has picked up considerably, as we expected, and there is quite a large swell, so good conditions for me to be in while getting used to choppier water.

Boats are packed up and a drizzle has arrived. It’s time for me to go home.

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Rains all the way from North Wales to Liverpool!

Thanks James for a great two days.

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Sarah has coaching with James Stevenson of Adventure Elements.

Sarah stays at various AirBnB accommodations for her trips to Anglesey, and stayed in Penmaenmawr with Joy and Neil this time – details here.

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