It’s more than a bit of an honour this, you know. Sarah asking me to write these introductions to her glorious sea kayaking articles. Particularly this one, summing up all of her learning and courageous adventuring over these last several years. Careful, detailed, technical bravery. Done in her own time and her own way. With great help, which she generously acknowledges. But this is a woman’s work and a woman’s story, brilliantly done and beautifully told.
Earlier this month then, I completed a mighty task. My ‘all areas’ circumnavigation of Anglesey’s coast…. every bay, cliff, estuary, cove and cave… all explored, by sea kayak.
I first got in a sea kayak in May 2016, in Anglesey, so this task, with much learning and diversions, has taken me since then – three and a half years.
This is how it’s been done.
The circumnavigation of Anglesey is not a new idea for sea kayakers – in fact many people have done this in one go. If you get the tidal planning right it can take around ten hours or so. The record is held by John Willacy who also maintains the Performance Sea Kayak website for ‘various sea kayaking achievements’ in UK and Ireland. And I am proud to say that I am now on a list on that website… although I didn’t set off to achieve that.
We want to create a permanent record of those who are out to push their own limits. Paddlers who are doing it for the personal challenge, to see what they are made of, or even just for a bit of a laugh. Hopefully we will sow seeds of inspiration for other paddlers who dream… Planning, preparing and training for these events is a journey in itself; fitness and technique is improved, new skills are gained and knowledge furthered. A paddler will learn as much about themselves as they will about the trip they aim to undertake…. the sense of achievement in just overcoming your challenge can remain with you for a long time. Don’t do it for anyone else, just do it for yourself.Performance Sea Kayak
So, what did I set off to achieve? Well, I started kayaking in May 2016, on a complete beginners course. Two days with Sea Kayaking Anglesey, Phil Clegg’s company, where I was coached in a group by Stuart Leslie.
Arriving home after that weekend Ronnie could see from the glint in my eye that I had enjoyed myself and suspected that a pointy boat would be turning up in my life fairly soon after that (which it duly did in November that year).
More weekends away followed – in Anglesey with coaches James Stevenson, Roger Chandler, Steve Miles, and also down in Cornwall.
It’s fair to say I found sea kayaking challenging, but so immensely enjoyable too. Challenging because I was learning a new skill, challenging because you’re out in a dangerous environment – the sea. Physically challenging too… but the challenges were outweighed by the pleasure it gave me, and although I experienced the frustrations of learning something new I kept going.
I spent a lot of time with James in particular during my first year paddling, having one to one coaching. I owe James a lot – he pushed me very gently into more challenging environments, patiently worked on skills with me, developed my confidence as an adult novice paddler – and my own anxieties were tested! (I can still feel the thrill of our first ‘high octane’ experience at North Stack!) It soon became clear that kayaking was something I was going to stick at, and me and James would joke about ‘challenges for over fifty novice female paddlers!’ It was also James who encouraged me to set targets – so going to Scotland was one of those targets, and in May 2017 I made the first of my Scottish kayaking trips, up to Mull. I also knew I wanted to go the Outer Hebrides, and subsequently have, twice. Closer to home, I knew I wanted to turn my early exploring into a full circumnavigation of Anglesey.
I had no desire to do the circumnavigation as a single trip (both James and Steve Miles feature on the PSK website list of achievements for that), but thought about planning a four or five day trip. I also wanted to learn more about marine biology and the environment I was in — questions like ‘how does seaweed reproduce’ and ‘where do jellyfish go in the winter’ niggled at me after my immersions in the sea environment.
By summer 2018 I’d been kayaking for two years, and had a reasonable level of competency, all my own kit and my own boat. I’d by now paddled a number of parts of the Anglesey coast – and I was ready to tick off some of the challenges I’d set myself. So in May 2018 I went off on my own to Barra in the Outer Hebrides and also The Summer Isles in north west Scotland… but still made regular kayaking excursions in Anglesey, at least once a month. And these trips became part of my usual routine.
That summer I paddled under the bridge of the South Stack lighthouse for the first time… the place where Ronnie and I had first observed a group of kayaks in the sea and I’d said to him, ‘I want to do that.’
In June 2018 Steve Miles and I paddled to The Skerries – a group of islets off the north west corner of Anglesey, and this was the first time I’d done planning using a vector and paddling on a bearing using a compass… I felt like my paddling skills had come on! The Skerries are home to lots of wildlife, and arctic terns nest there, so it’s a really special place to visit in the breeding season. I’d also discussed doing the Anglesey circumnavigation with Steve. He would be the leader and we had a small group interested in doing that come August.
Whilst with Steve that weekend we bumped into a friend of his called Geth Roberts in the car park at Borthwen. Geth, a kayaking coach, was running some biodiversity weekends (in a kayak) and Steve suggested this would be my sort to thing. It was, and a couple of weeks later I was out with Geth and starting to develop my marine biology knowledge.
I’d thought a lot about the circumnavigation – even over four or five days it was going to be quite a physical challenge… plus we’d planned to camp. Was I ready for all that? On the whole, I felt not. So on 26 July 2018 I sat in Abraham’s Bosom with Steve talking about that. Later, I wrote in my kayaking notebook – in brackets:
(I’ve had a rethink about the circumnavigation).
To myself I was feeling that I’d failed.
But a few weeks later I was out with Geth, fully immersed in some species hunting and marine biology days together… when it was actually Geth who reminded me that I’d already done quite a lot of the Anglesey circumnavigation and that I could simply ‘join up the gaps.’ That it wasn’t a failure to not do it as one trip… and doing it ‘my way’ was doing it in much more detail, observing the coast, not ‘simply’ slipping into the tidal streams. And so, that’s what I started doing. The detailed filling in of all the gaps.
From then on most of the gaps were done with Geth – sometimes as part of our regular Explorer days with others, but a lot of the time it was just the two of us paddling together on ‘gap filling’ days. We paddled the limestone coast from Penmon (we stopped short of Benllech and Geth told me I’d have a gap there), the Cymyran estuary, Fort Belan and Abermenai point, Trefadog… places that aren’t on the standard sea kayakers list of trips. We also did a rocky shores course (not in our kayaks) in Pembrokeshire and so our marine biology knowledge was increasing, and our conversations were often about our observations.
Some of the most enjoyable times were planning our days – finding places we could put in, whether the trip was a ‘there and back’ or if we needed to plan a shuttle (using two vehicles to start and end in different places). Sometimes we went places you don’t usually go, and sometimes we didn’t know how much water there would be (despite our expert tidal planning!)….
It was always hugely fun and Geth was a great kayaking companion on all our adventures, even when they turned out a bit different than we’d planned!
Our detailed local knowledge was increasing all the time, and by now Geth, who lives on Anglesey, started saying to people when he introduced me, ‘I thought I knew Anglesey until I met Sarah Horton!’
During 2019 I did ‘Delve Deeper,’ a six month distance learning marine biology course based at Newcastle University. For my kayaking goals I still had a fair amount of gaps, but ‘the map’ was looking pretty good.
In 2019 I went back on another solo trip to the Western Isles, but also did plenty of Anglesey paddling, continuing explorations with Geth…
One day we had a very memorable trip doing Holyhead harbour… (which Geth later admitted he hadn’t been looking forward to).
Another day one of our Explorers group, Howard, joined us on a trip from Dinas Dinlle to Llanddwyn island and back.
Then there were just three gaps to go…. in September Geth and I paddled the stretch of the Menai Straits from Beaumaris to Penmon which was pretty uninspiring, and a muddy get out… but another section ticked off. Two left.
On the highest tide of the year in late September I returned to try and complete the Red Wharf Bay section, from the disused quarry to Benllech, where Geth had said I’d have a gap. But it was Force 7 and so no paddling happened, as is sometimes the way with the best laid plans when kayaks, sea and wind are involved. My October and November paddling with a group of others didn’t include any of my gaps, so I returned at the beginning of December to spend two days with Geth – determined to finish the last two gaps.
Here we are finally arriving at the disused quarry across Red Wharf Bay which we’d reached from the other direction from Penmon. My elusive gap!
That done, the next day we entered a pretty uninviting sea on the west coast to finish the last gap and completed the circumnavigation. Which you can already read about in ‘It is done’.
So this has been a completion of a personal challenge, and it’s been immensely satisfying, and testing… I’ve learned tenacity and resilience, practical skills in planning trips, how to discover my sense of humour when I most need it, and simply learning to enjoy the day and whatever challenges turn up. It’s been great.
So – huge thanks to Geth Roberts for the idea of ‘gap filling’ and turning my perceived failure into a huge success and an immensely satisfying one. Thanks Geth. And thanks also to all my other paddling coaches and companions.
Finishing now, and across the water on a deceptively still day here is the outline of the Llŷn, our next ‘done by detail’ marine biology and sea kayaking challenge! Starting soon.
I can hardly wait.
Links to Sarah’s helpers in all this:
- Geth Roberts
- James Stevenson
- Phil Clegg
- Performance Sea Kayak
- Steve Miles
- My favourite AirBnB in Menai Bridge: here
See all of Sarah’s sea kayaking posts here at ‘Letters From Sarah.’