A while ago, in late July, I sullied my sea kayaking record. It feels like I am an advanced driver who has been caught speeding and received points on my licence. When kayaking along the Pembrokeshire coast I was caught by a huge breaking wave, was capsized, exited my kayak and ended up swimming. This is the first time this has happened to me (when not playing) in 25 years of sea kayaking. In my defence regarding not rolling my kayak and having to swim, my paddle was broken during the incident, hence not rolling upright. However, I have no defence regarding being caught by the wave in the first place. I hold my hands up and admit to being inattentive and being too relaxed.
My good friend Phil and I had completed an enjoyable and challenging circumnavigation of Ramsey Island off the Pembrokeshire coast. This was the first time that I had paddled this route despite having regularly visiting the infamous Bitches tide race in Ramsey Sound to surf the waves there. The seas off the west coast of the island were lively to say the least and this with a fiercely running tide, made paddling conditions pretty exciting. I'm an experienced sea kayaker and I can hold my own in variable conditions but even then on this occasion, I was surprised by some unexpected bouncy waters, steep standing waves and some fierce tidal eddies which, at one point, spun me 180 degrees! Needless to say, Phil and I whooped and hollered our approval at being tested in this way.
Our history of enjoying shared adventures goes back over thirty years. It has become something of an 'in-joke' amongst our friends that when we get together, there'll be high adventure of some sort. It's not that we egg each other on in a macho fashion to achieve the impossible, we simply embody a strong spirit for adventure. When we come together we somehow match our aspirations for a day of enjoyment and excitement in the outdoors. We are well matched skills wise and probably more importantly, we are well matched judgement wise too. We each have the innate ability to anticipate the likelihood of success or risky failure when looking at the activity we are planning to undertake. What we end up doing is taking ourselves to the edge of the adventure and flirting with misadventure.
One story to recount is the time we set out to kayak to the Shiant Isles just off the Isle of Lewis across the Minch from the Isle of Skye. At the time I lived on the Black Isle near Inverness and Phil lived in Kendal. This meant that by the time we had met each other and travelled to Skye, we were running behind time. We packed our kayaks in a hurry and hastily launched into a lumpy sea in the hope that the last of the tide would set us up nicely for the long crossing to the Shiants. It wasn’t until we were well into the Minch that we realised we weren’t making any worthwhile forward progress. The far hills of Harris steadfastly held their position on our port beams. Additionally the sea state was deteriorating and we were threatened with the prospect of arriving at the far off islands in the dark. We decided to turn tail and head for the nearby Fladda Chuain islets five miles off the Sky coastline. Eventually after a total of eight hours hard paddling we pulled ourselves ashore, staggering and slipping up the slippery boulder beach of the main island. We made camp and turned our attention to making a restorative pot of tea. “Have you got the water?” I shouted across to Phil who was pegging out his tent. “No, I thought you had it” he responded. We looked at each other aghast. Here we were, two seasoned adventurers without any drinking water on a small waterless island in the Minch! We berated ourselves but couldn’t help laughing at our predicament because thankfully, before leaving the Black Isle, we had purchased six bottles of Black Isle Brewery beer. We wouldn’t die of thirst. Our journey continued the next day and ended safely though we never did make it out to the Shiants. We ended up paddling along the Skye coastline instead.
Finding myself swimming in a restless Pembrokeshire sea and knowing that Phil was in the water too was a salutatory reminder of the fine edge I sometimes traverse between enjoying high adventure or encountering misadventure. All worked out well. We self-rescued and we were on our way again, somewhat chagrined but none the worse for the incident. However, since then I have gone on to replay the event in my mind, berating myself for my inattention. Truthfully, I was a little shaken too.
I am predominantly a solo kayaker and there have been a number of times during long journeys where I have found myself coping with tricky situations. Every time I have coped well and come through unscathed, largely because I am an able kayaker well used to facing uncertain situations. Nevertheless with each of these moments, things could have taken a different course and I would have found myself possibly dealing with far more than I would have liked.
For example, during my 2015 sea kayak journey around Scotland, along the east coast of Harris, I found myself caught out by a huge ‘boomer’. This is where a usually submerged rock is suddenly uncovered by a receding wave and then covered again with the booming wash of a replacement wave, often accompanied with spectacular bursting white water. I had just rounded a small headland and hadn’t seen this particular spot, so when I suddenly found myself seemingly in mid air above a rapidly exposed barnacled and weedy rock, I knew what I was in for. With instinct more than anything else, I threw my weight to my right and readied my paddle to support me on the wave which inevitably cracked ominously at head height and broke onto me, sweeping me down and towards the exposed rock. Supported by my paddle and leaning onto the raging surf, I tensed myself for the inevitable dreadful crunch when my kayak would be crashed hull first onto the ragged rock. I was resigned to a severely damaged boat and possible injury to myself. Instead with incomprehensible relief, I realised that instead of the crunching crash, I was simply surfed over the rock and into a patch of lively and disturbed water where it seemed that once spent, the waves gathered to recompose themselves. I had survived and so had my kayak.
The consequences of crashing into the rock can only be imagined. I was in a remote and unpopulated section of the Harris coast where my predicament would have gone unnoticed and rescue would have been a long time in coming. There were no beaches to haul myself onto and the rocky cliffs were being pounded by hungry waves fed by a force wind. I would have found myself in a tricky situation - there is no doubt about that. If my kayak had been damaged and was unseaworthy and I was in the water unable to self-rescue, I would have had to deploy my emergency personal locator beacon and call for assistance on my VHF radio. The Leverburgh Lifeboat (which I had just visited) would have taken an hour to reach me.
Of course none of this happened and I went on to complete my 1850 mile solo journey without ever having to use my emergency equipment. This isn’t to say I didn’t face further moments of peril. When thinking about my mishap on the Pembrokeshire coast in late July, I reminded myself that I had coped with potentially more severe situations without trouble. The event with Phil had occurred because I had switched off and relaxed. Normally, when I’m paddling on my own, I’m far more wary and observant. However, the potential for misadventure is always there. This is because I’m naturally drawn to extending myself, to exploring the unknown and to testing my ability. During my 520 mile Three Peaks by Kayak journey this year, I noticed how willing I was to put to sea in conditions I would have avoided in 2015. This is a result of my increased confidence in my ability and a strengthened fortitude to face more challenging situations. I’m not over confident or braggartly blasé, but rather more self assured. As I grow into my sea kayaking, my wisdom, my judgement and my ability match pace. It’s only natural for me to continue to extend myself.
Reflecting on this, I accepted that eventually I would find myself overstepping the mark and calling upon every level of skill I possess to resolve a tricky predicament. I accept that this is the nature of my adventuring and in fact of my personal growth too. It is often my mistakes and mishaps which provide powerful learning. Rather than continue to give myself a hard time about breaking my non-capsize record, I instead have chosen to look at this Pembrokeshire event as a rich source of helpful information. For a start - even when relaxed, maintain a level of alertness. There are many small but important steps I would take differently based on the learning I have drawn from this one event and as a result, I’m confident that an occurrence of this nature will not happen again.
My accrued wisdom however, informs me that there will undoubtedly be another time some where in the future where I slip on the tightrope between adventure and misadventure. I’m confident though that when this happens, like this time in Pembroke, I’ll be well equipped in mind, in skill and safety kit to deal with it. This is what adventure is about. As Phil and I say to each other every time we embark on a shared journey into the outdoors - “An adventure is an experience with an unknown outcome.”