Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ourselves -v- The English Channel

Rough seas, sharks, container ships ploughing into us at 40 knots per hour....

These were just a sample of the types of things which went through my mind as I tried to sleep on Friday evening, knowing that first thing on Saturday morning we were going to be crossing the Channel. It's fair to say that none of us got very much sleep.

1 September, 8.30am, Dungeness. Bleak, windswept and dominated by a big nuclear powerstation. Not the nicest place to start a kayak, but this was different....this was our cross-Channel kayak, finally.

After a light breakfast, here we were, stood on the shingle beach and staring out at half a mile of mud flats before the Channel lapped at the shore. When I say "lapped" I mean it in the loosest sense. It was a bit lively but not as impossible as it had looked the night before. Launching the kayaks was like landing in a pool at the end of a flume, the water spraying all over you. We were wet through from the very start.

Stu has a light breakfast

We couldn't understand why we had been told to launch here, because it was low tide and we had to drag our kayaks down the shingle and then across the mud. Before we carried our kayaks down to the shore, we got a prawn fisherman (a successful prawn fisherman too...he had a big bucketful of them) to take some photos of us kitted up and ready to go.

All ready to go, just time for a quick pic

Heading for the water. You can see the waves at the top of the picture, above the wet mud flats

The shingle ends and the mud flats begin. But the kayaks were so heavy with kit that there was no choice but to drag them.

When we eventually got out of the waves and off-shore, we had to use the bilge pump I had bought at the last minute to remove puddles of water from our kayaks. Jon spotted a seal which was a good start to a day when we hoped to be paddling alongside dolphins, as had happened in previous crossings we had read about online.

I had lost my sunglasses and one of my water bottles in our attempts to get off the beach through the waves, and Stu's video camera case had got a little damp, but the device itself was unharmed.

We called Will at Full Throttle Boat Charters, who was going to provide the safety boat for us, and he told us to set off at 110 degrees and he'd be with us shortly. Unfortunately the cheap compasses we'd bought had different readings, so we were guessing.

We set off, the Channel sprawling in front of us. About fifteen minutes later we heard engines in the distance and turned to see two boats racing towards us. Full Throttle had caught up with us and, after a few introductions, told us the correct direction to go in.

Launched and ready to go, the size of our task looks like it has dawned on Jon as he realised how far we have to go...

And off we went. After about an hour we spotted a headland in France which we seemed to be heading towards, but the power station and the white cliffs of Dover were still very visible behind us. It didn't feel like we'd gone very far.

"Six miles" said Will when I asked him. This was a bit disappointing, I was sure we'd done eight. "No, hang on," he said. My spirits lifted momentarily. "My mistake, 4 and a half. No, four." My heart sank. I decided not to ask him anymore.

Stu was struggling with keeping his kayak straight, so we stopped to move some stuff about in his boat, putting some of the weight into one of the rear pods. We were starting to feel that we weren't going very quickly.

A massive car transporter passed in front of us, the wake waking me up a little, although it wasn't particularly strong. Conditions were good, and we ploughed onwards, stopping occasionally for water or a quick snack.

The three of us rafted up for some drink, still energised, but starting to worry that we hadn't got very far. Stu said he thought we'd gone a third of the way across at best. Will on the safety boat watched us floating about, sticking his thumb in the air to check we were ok. We paddled towards his RIB, and he told us we were almost half way, with about 13 miles to go. We suspected he was trying to motivate us and that this statement might not quite be true, but nonetheless we opted to believe him and this lifted us considerably.

Conditions changed a little as we went along, but not too dramatically and nothing we couldn't handle or hadn't experienced in The Solent or off Poole.

We started to make out the cliffs and features of the French coast, but knew from bitter experience that we were much further away than we might at first appeared. This helped us retain a sense of reality and concentrate on the job in hand. We got into the eastward shipping lane, a container ship passing in front of us quite some distance ahead.

It felt like we had plenty still in the locker, and our target became more visible and we could make out yachts along the coast. Again, we were cautious not to get too excited because we knew that distances are very decieving at sea.

Jon ploughed ahead of Stu and I, and then stopped next to the safety boat to wait for us to catch up. He held up his hand, as if to wave, but I realised he was saying "five miles" and suddenly we got a second wind. Five miles!!! We were going to do this, there was no danger of the light fading before we made it and this was all very achievable now.

Then as we neared the coast, progress seemed to slow. Jon gave me the victory sign but it was surely too early to stop. As it turned out, he meant there were two more miles. Stu and I rafted up, had a drink of water and a quick snack, the paddled on for the final push. Will told us that we were now pushing against three knots of tide and so our target, a tower on the top of a cliff, would be missed unless we crabbed to the west. We didn't seem to be getting anywhere now, and progress became very slow.

Jon gave me the bird, but by now I realised he meant one mile to go. One mile!!!

The tower and the cliffs came closer and I wondered where we were going to land. The decision was taken out of our hands, because the coastline was all rocky and the sea state was a little rough, and Will told us that if we were to land anywhere we might not manage to get back out. We got as close to the land as we could, and Will told us that we had completed the crossing.

Wow!! We'd just paddled to France. Amazing!

Success!! At the end of the paddle, shot from the support boat.

Will and his crew took some video footage and pictures of us, and we congratulated each other. We had done the crossing in six hours and ten minutes, which Will said was an excellent time, averaging 4-5 knots - much quicker than I had personally expected us to do it in (but then I'm usually fairly slow anyway!).

We were rightly very proud of what we'd achieved and, as we jumped out of our kayaks and onto the support boat, the achievement begun to dawn on us. Stu called Becky to tell her the news, and our wives were together back at a fete in Ashurst cheering.

Safely on the RIB, I took this photo of Jon/Stu waiting to be loaded on themselves.

Suddenly it got a bit tense, as Stu was clambering aboard, because one of Will's crew spotted a French coastguard ship nearby, motoring in our direction. Will started up the engine and said he was going to "potter" in the other direction. Which was just as well, because Jon had left his passport in the car in Dungeness. They continued to head towards us, as we moved into a crowd of fishing boats....not that we looked inconspicuous. But...the coastguard turned and moved off up the coast, so it worked.

Two of the kayaks were lashed to the RIB and the other put into the powerboat, and we headed off on an exhilerating hour-long ride back to Dungeness at almost 30 knots. We bounced up off the waves, which were now much larger than earlier, and landed with a really jarring crash back onto the sea each time we hit a larger swell. I'm sure that the pain we were feeling later that evening was as much to do with the journey home than the journey out! It was great fun though.

Jon on the RIB on the way home, leaning on one of the lashed-down kayaks

Stu on the RIB ride home

My kayak got a ride on the powerboat - you can see it sticking out the back.

The most telling part of the ride home, though, was how long it took and how far it seemed. It didn't seem possible that we'd just paddled all this way. It made the whole thing feel like an even bigger achievement, which was nice.

Will pulled up to the beach at Dungeness, and Jon jumped off into the shallows and we passed the kayaks into the water for him to pull ashore. Then Stu and I jumped off too and we pulled the kayaks up the beach. We waved goodbye to Will and he sped off back to base at Rye.

We'd been dropped a fair way from the lifeboat station where we'd parked, because the tide was out as it had been earlier. Stu walked off to get the car and, when he came back, we managed to haul the kayaks up to the road and get them onto the car. We all felt that a steak was called for and so headed off looking for a Beefeater or similar.

Tired, aching, but pretty pleased with ourselves, a nice steak and chips felt like a prize we deserved.

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