When Nigel Dennis visited the NSW Sea Kayak Club at Rock’n’Roll 2007 he gave a blanket invite to visit him in Holyhead, Anglesey, for a bit of Welsh kayaking. Well, little did he know at the time that I took the invitation seriously and when the opportunity arose, I would decide to visit.
And that’s how it happened. During July, I found myself on a quick work trip to the UK with one free weekend. There was no question about how I’d spend that free time. The only issue for me was how to get to Holyhead from Cardiff. And low and behold, there is a direct train!
So on Friday afternoon, I trained it to Holyhead and got an unexpected tour of Wales on the way. On arrival, Nigel picked me up and explained that I was to join an advanced course over the weekend. Advanced? OK. That’s when the anxieties kicked in. I quickly explained that I had a dodgy roll, had never been in tidal races and didn’t really know how to ferry glide across fast moving water. He said, ‘Well if you can surf, you’ll be fine’. I didn’t feel fine. I didn’t feel like I could surf anymore — well, I never could, really. But I faked it and put on a brave face.
I stayed at a cute B&B, The Beach Hut, where, by chance, the other advanced course punters were staying. The next morning Nigel picked the three of us up. Oley was from the Jersey Isles now resident in New York and Dirk was the real thing, a New Yorker, that is. The fourth punter was a local, Pete.
The plan for the day was to head out before the weather turned sour and play in amongst the races at Penrhyn Mawr (aka The Fangs).
These races work on the flood tide. We were going to be playing in the race towards the end of the flood tide with a ESE wind blowing at about 10 knots. I’m not sure how fast the tide was racing but the height difference between low and high tide was five metres that day.
Nigel gave me a brand new Romany to paddle. It had a black deck with a while hull and yellow tape seam. Very classy. This is the boat that features regularly in the This is the Sea DVDs by Justine Curgenven. I would suggest it is the signature boat of the Nigel Dennis Kayaks range. It is a rudderless, chine-less fibreglass boat. It can come with a skeg, but my little number was skeg-less.
Anyway, being used to the Mirage 530, I was a little apprehensive about paddling a rudderless boat straight into demanding conditions. But I’m proud to say I adapted quickly. The boat was very responsive; tracked nicely and was easy to turn. It was great to paddle.
So, back to the adventure… As well as the advanced punters, we also had two guys along who were being assessed by Nigel for their BCU Five Star Instructor ticket. Little did they know, they had a lot of instructing ahead of them as it soon became clear that I needed a lot of rapid and urgent advice. The plan was to paddle around the outcrops off Pen where the current cuts between. Through the middle of the outcrop were standing waves, with eddies on the either side close in to the rocks. The aim was to go through the waves, peel off into the eddy, and then pick our way back around to do it again by ferry gliding across an adjacent race.
As we approached the standing waves, I was reminded of Mark Sundin’s advice on surfing (in NSW Sea Kayaker Issue 59):
Are you the chicken or the pig? Are you committed or not? If you are, then go like the pig. Give it all you’ve got.
And so I did. I went straight at that wave, determined to conquer it. Over I went (the wave, that is), and then over the next one. Woohoo! The instructor, Gaz, is shouting at me to peel off and get into the eddy. OK. OK. I got there and rested, waiting for the others. Everyone got through, all of us with big smiles.
The pod then rounded the rock into the race to go up and around. All but me seemed to glide across the race. The rest of the pod clearly knew how to ferry glide. Despite some quick instructions on how to cross, I just succeeded in getting caught in the race, spun around then sent downstream. Instructions were shouted…
‘Edge into the current. Point your nose upstream. Look at where you want to go!’
None of it worked. I was just going south, paddling uphill. Solution? Paddle like stick. And, of course, in the stress of the moment, my fine torso rotation went south, too. I became the most pathetic paddler, fighting the elements with only my arms!
So anyway, after some effort, I got across, caught up with the others and we went at the standing wave again. Oley was in front of me doing fine in the wave. The next second, it was my turn and I was in the cauldron, not really watching her, just looking out for myself. Until suddenly directly in front of me there was a standing kayak, and a standing wave. Oley was paddling one second, vertical the next, then upside down and broadside in front of me. She was coming at me like a like a surfing log. OMG.
For a split second I worried about her, ‘Is she drowning? Will she roll up?’
But then my survival needs kicked in and all I wanted to do was stay upright and get away from her. I peeled off right, somehow got around her and exited into the eddy. As I turned to see how Oley was going, a big shout went up and there she was, wet, up right and pumped. She had rolled up. The pod hooted in support. It was very exciting.
And so around we went again. Me battling the ferry glide and getting a bit shaky, everyone else appearing at ease and loving it all. My third go at the wave seemed to be going well. Through two big lumps of water and then, facing down the third lump… I don’t know what happened… something got me. I was upside down. Oh! But I didn’t think about rolling up. I just wet exited. Survival instinct? Or folly? To add to the drama, my skirt was really tight and it took a lot of time and effort to get it off. So, by the time I was out, Gaz was right there. Without much discussion, we did a T-rescue. It was seamless. I was back in the boat — never more relieved. The Welsh paddlers don’t like paddle leashes so this complicated the rescue. Gaz had to retrieve my paddle and then give me both his and mine to hold (while I was holding on like a koala to the front on his boat, he was emptying mine). It did add a degree of difficulty to the process. But the good news (for me, anyway) was that I was safely back in my boat. Pooped.
Given the impromptu rescue, we got carried south. We worked our way back to the eddy beside the rock and waited for the others to come through. At this point Nigel decided it was lunchtime. He then glided across the race and slipped into a slot in the cliff face to our lunch stop.
I had to negotiate the ferry glide for a third time. This time though, with two previous attempts and a better understanding of the movement of the water, I, too glided across. Pointing the boat into the current and looking across at where I wanted to go, the boat just glided there. I was so pleased. I ferry-glided straight across the race, got to the slot and paddled into a beautiful grotto for lunch. It was a well-deserved rest.
As for the rest of the day? Well, thankfully it was the kind of stuff that I was more familiar with. A cruise, rather than a bruise. We headed off, back across the race, which by now was a spent force on slack tide, and then meandered along the coastline towards South Stack Lighthouse.
On the way we did a bit of open water bumping around, then snuggled into the cliffs to play in the rock gardens and admire the sheer cliffs standing before us. There was a castle folly teetering on the edge above us. And then there were thousands of Guillemots and Razorbills nesting on the cliff faces, squabbling, squawking and flying on and off the ledges, between and around us. A complete cacophony.
We timed our paddle under the suspension bridge to avoid the rocks and sucking sea before paddling around the island on which the lighthouse stood. Majestic.
By now the tide had turned and it was time to ride it home. We headed back down the coast, passing by Penrhyn Mawr which was now flat and harmless — no longer an adventure ride, just a bunch of rocks off the end of a point. I couldn’t believe it was the same place that three hours earlier had left me numb with nerves.
What a day. I’ll never forget it.
But, there’s more…
The enigmatic Nigel, apart from being a boat builder, sea kayak instructor and renowned kayak expeditioner is also a volunteer coast guard patrol pilot. Yep, that’s right. He drives rescue boats in the Irish Sea on Sundays! So, lucky me got an invitation to go out with the ‘boys’ on a patrol exercise.
I was decked out in the emergency kit and given a tour on the boat before we took off for a morning of official hooning. We were on the largest self-righting lifeboat in the UK.
What can I say? It was a lot of fun. I couldn’t get enough. I got to see the coastline again, this time at speed. We smashed our way through sea and swell and then went in close to the cliffs to spot the crazy rock climbers.
And then before I knew it, the adventure was over. I was back on a train heading to London, thinking I must tell my kayaking buddies about my Anglesey adventure. And so I am.