Expedition! That should have been the clue. When my brother John and I enrolled on this course at Plas y Brenin it was because Scotland, where we had been kayaking the year before was too far to travel in our available time and it was the only course which fitted in with our calendars.
We were both novices with only four idyllic days in upper Loch Torridon under our belts. Prior to this neither of us had been in any kind of kayak before, the experience had been so good that we were hooked.
With the exception of the "effective support strokes and be able to cope with moderate seas" we met most of the criteria for joining the course. One detail in the programme in particular proved the most controversial. "Fit enough to paddle 8-10 miles a day on the expedition" Although we are both in our 60's, neither of us thought this would be a problem.
The aim of the course was to "develop our sea kayaking handling skills and put them into an enjoyable journey along the beautiful North Wales coast line"
One other statement in the course notes was very reassuring, "The North Wales coastline offers an incredible variety of water, with shores facing in every direction. This allows us to make best use of the weather and sea conditions, and find a suitable venue." We therefore felt justified in booking our places.
The weather, Southerly winds force 4, Aberffraw.
After hauling our kayaks for a kilometre along the river Afon Ffraw - (novices take note, ensure you have a length of cord with you to avoid an arm wrenching experience) - we came upon the sea! A surf boarder's dream. "Surely" I thought, "we are not going into that?" We were! Sid, our instructor, said "just head out to beyond the breakers and turn left, heading for the headland! So we dutifully launched our boats into the breaking surf. All seemed to be going well until John, ahead of me, turned beam on to the waves and capsized. I had a grandstand view and shouted out. Dave, a "shadowing" instructor just behind me dashed to the rescue. In no time at all he had John's kayak upside down across his deck draining out the water. Then he too was dumped by the crashing surf. I had time to shout once more before I found myself in the same predicament. Hanging upside down for the first time in a kayak, I was surprised to find that I hadn't fallen out. On the contrary, I was held in. My hat was over my face, my sunglasses on my chin. I still held my paddle. I can hold my breath under water for ages so I was not too concerned. I just thought about what could be stopping me from coming out of the boat and finally remembered the spray skirt. Grabbing the loop at the front I pulled it forward and off and slipped into the water. I was by now in shallow seas and could walk in behind the boat as it was beached by the waves. I think most of us took a ducking.
Sid cancelled the planned trip from Aberffraw to the sheltered waters of the start of the Menai straits and we spent the next few hours attempting support strokes and turning in the surf. I never mastered the turn and always got dumped out when beam on to the waves. I lost count of how many times.
Due to the strength of the wind and our wetness we were getting cold despite wet suits and cagoules, so we started the long haul back to the van against the flow of the river. This time Sid lent me a length of tow rope. Although quite exhausting due to the current on the legs, it was much easier on the arms.
Back at Plas y Brenin Sid described how best to load a sea kayak and we practiced loading the boats with all of our camping gear so that we would not be doing it for the very first time on the beach the next day.
We launched into the relative calm of the Menai Straits alongside a little slipway near Barras which gave us some shelter from the wind while we loaded all our camping gear and food into the kayaks. We were in the water at 12 noon heading for the lighthouse at Trwyn Dinmor opposite to Puffin Island. Paddling against the tide with the wind at our backs was much more likeable. The trip through the straits was uneventful, each little "hazard" was negotiated successfully and we were able to enjoy the views and the wildlife. Resting for a while at Ynys Gaint, we were soon in the water chasing the ebb tide past Gallows Point and Beaumaris castle towards the lighthouse with its sonorous bell tolling out. The tide was so low here near an old wreck that we were forced to go carefully for risk of going aground on the sandbanks ourselves.
Around the point we came ashore for a quick bite of flapjack and were off again, destination Pentrellwyn where we were due to camp for the night. We had minor assistance from the tide and were sheltered from the wind by the rocky cliffs. By the time we arrived at the beach and hauled the boats above the high water mark it was 6pm and we had travelled 24 miles! The camp site was good, just a beach but there were loos and water, courtesy of the kindly attendant who left them open for the night for us. That evening the skies were wonderful.
Setting off to cross Red Wharf Bay, we were caught out by the ferocity of the offshore wind. I think we should have been hugging the coastline more closely to get shelter but I suppose it was early in the morning and perhaps a little complacency had set in. In the event due to inexperience and the poor design of the P&H Capella's skeg, John found himself heading out to sea and unable to turn back into the wind to get shore wards. The skeg on this years' Capellas is impossible to move from the position it was last put in without help from some one else. John's skeg was down and he could not get it up. He capsized. Sid and Adam rushed off and got him back in the boat. Then Adam towed John and Sid towed me into the safety of a sheltered sand bar on the West side of the bay.
From here we were soon off again, this time hugging the coast and negotiated the headlands of Moelfre and Point Lynas before finally ending up at our campsite in a ruin at Porth Wen. We had paddled 19 miles. It was a long haul for the boats,- the tide was very low, there are rocks covered in slippery seaweed and the high water mark seemed a mile up shore. That night we had a camp fire and drank in the beauty and tranquillity of the scene.
Sid learned from the weather report that winds were going to go to force 7 and we were going to attempt a more exposed coastline so he advised us to leave the course and go back to Plas y Brenin. We were not going to argue with this so, accordingly, we paddled back with Sid the 4 km to Bull Bay where we helped him load his boat onto transport to take him further around the coast so he could rejoin the party. We accompanied him there and then back at Bull Bay loaded our kayaks onto the roof rack of the vehicle and returned to base, where we had a hot shower and turned in all our borrowed stuff to stores.
The others paddled on for a further 18 miles before camping on a rocky beach at Porth Namarch the idea being to attempt "the stacks" the next day. In the event, they too were forced to abandon the final days paddle due to bad weather.
I have mixed feelings. We were obviously under qualified for this trip; nevertheless I am grateful to Sid and Adam for giving us the opportunity to participate as much as we did. It was a stretching experience and I have much more confidence in my abilities than I had before. However, the distances were far further than I expected we did in 3 days what I would have expected to do in 5. For an intermediate grade paddler who wanted to have an extended sea trip this course would be ideal.
The paddle was too short for me; which resulted in me constantly banging the spray deck with the loom. On this course no advice was given about paddle angle, consequently I spent 24 miles playing catch up with a short paddle set to 45 deg.
On day 3, I changed the paddle to 60 deg and no longer had any trouble staying with the rest. This gave me an opportunity to discuss paddle angle with the other paddlers, it was then that I realised that in Scotland I must have had a fixed paddle at 90 deg. A longer paddle would have made an enormous difference. Moral: have your own paddle.
I have already mentioned the skeg. This is potentially dangerous. Perhaps instead of just returning the boats to the shed at the end of the week, someone should put Vaseline on the slides, and this may make a difference. P&H should definitely be apprised of their non improvement. Last years boat design gave me no trouble.
Water bottles. Take your own. Of the issued ones, one leaked and in the other the water tasted foul. The stores had no more to issue and this could have led to a water shortage.
A bit about the instructors
They were both excellent seamen and their knowledge of the tides and winds were first class. I liked them as well which is a bonus. I have one criticism. I think they should have had one at the back at all times. Instead, both were always upfront. Maybe it was because Dave stayed behind with us, I don't know, but he wasn't an official instructor so I think one of the others, either Sid or Adam should have.
Jack and Ruth paddled a long, fast, two man boat and they both had years of experience. Ruth was an inspiration.
Andy paddled his own composite Romany and was a native of the island, young and strong, benefitting from sleeping in his bed at night. His wife did wonderful things like bringing in fresh water and hot coffee for everyone. However, I would have preferred him to be more a part of the team, as I found his coming and goings disturbing.
Doug paddled his own last years model Capella, shorter than the Plas y Brenin boats but in his hands ran straight and true. He was a very experienced white water and racing kayaker.
Alex a young man, transferred to another course after the surf day to be with a friend from university.
Sid paddled a composite P&H Quest while Adam had a composite Romany.
Dave used a Capella like ours borrowed from the stores. He seemingly handled it without any trouble.
Should have read: An attempt to circumnavigate Anglesey, (90 miles in 5 days) weather and paddlers permitting.
Did the course meet its aim?
In retrospect it was enjoyable but it sometimes didn't feel like it. It certainly did develop my sea kayak handling skills.
It has left me feeling very much alive and wanting to learn rolling skills and better skills in rough beam on seas.