Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Channel Challenge - the movie!

Watch Jon's fantastic compilation of pictures and video from our Channel crossing!

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.

The call comes

Friday morning, 31 August. The weather for Saturday looked very promising apart from some strong wind forecast after lunch, so we spoke to Full Throttle, the safety boat company, who - after a couple of hours deliberation - said we were "go".

Our collective stomachs dropped. This was really very definately happening now. Action stations.

Stu booked a hotel in New Romney, not far from Dungeness. Jon organised to leave work early. I called my boss and said I was done for the day and headed into Southampton to buy a few bits and pieces.... a bilge pump for one, which I thought we ought to have.

I took a trip to Tescos aswell, to get some water, food etc and other bits we would need en-route.

I was buzzing and I'm sure Jon and Stu were too. I couldn't quite believe this was actually happening.

Stu picked me up at 3.15 and we headed over to Jon's to put all three kayaks on Stu's car roof. This proved problematic and we hadn't practiced in advance, but we got there in the end. Miche, Becky, Kate and the kids were there too to wave us off.

And we were off. We headed along the south coast, in a direct challenge to the authority of the Sat Nav, who got very annoyed about it. But there was no way we were going to head up the M25 at 5pm on a Friday night.

Photo: The kayaks and kit is loaded, the adventure begins!
Fired up and ready to go. Pretending to be excited and happy.
We got to our hotel in New Romsey - The Captain Howey Hotel - in really good time but it was getting dark. We were keen to head down to our launch point at Dungeness and so, once we announced ourselves to the hotel owner, we got back in the car. To say that Dungeness is bleak is an understatement. It's a big wide spit of land sticking out into The English Channel. It has some dwellings on it which, for the most part, can be best described as shacks, and a massive massive nuclear power station. We looked at the beach and the waves were crashing in onto the shingle. It didn't look like it would be possible to launch from here in those conditions, and we wondered why Will at Full Throttle Boat Charters had suggested it.

Slightly concerned, we headed back to our hotel via Co-op to pick up some extra supplies, then had dinner with a couple of mineral waters. In the restaurant we were in a state of stunned disbelief that, in 24 hours, we will probably have paddled across the Channel. We were asking ourselves how we ever let it get to this point....why did Stu and I say "yes" to Jon, and why did he lay down the gauntlet in the first place? It is fair to say we were nervous.

We headed off for an early night - I didn't fancy my chances of getting to sleep.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

News update - weather delays!

The countdown has begun, then finished, and is now in reverse!

The week of our kayak has arrived but currently the weather is making it impossible to kayak, with the safety boat company Full Throttle advising us the conditions are not yet right.

We are in daily contact with them and every day it gets moved back (quite rightly), so we are on tenterhooks constantly with a mix of excitement, anticipation and, of course, a healthy nervousness!

There is a high pressure rolling in over the weekend so we don't see this being strung out too much further, but once we get past Sunday then we become third priority for next week, because Full Throttle has a customer booked in already for next week, as well as someone still waiting who couldn't go last week!

So let's hope we get the paddle done over the course of this weekend, hopefully in nice sunny weather!

In other news, we've also been advised by Full Throttle to leave from Dungeoness rather than from Dover or Folkestone. There are pros and cons to this. The pros are that, given the spring tides at the moment, we are much less likely to get dragged into the ferry lanes between Dover and Calais (which may result in us being turned back or getting arrested), or end up in Belgium or Holland! This is because the tide is less racier at Dungeoness than it is further up the funnel towards Dover. The cons are that it is 3 or 4 miles further and, when you add the affects of the tides, quite possibly more than that, pushing us towards a 30 mile total distance. This is not a distance we have come close to before (21 is our max) and so it is a little daunting, but we laugh in the face of such minor issues, obviously...(!).

More updates as we have them.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Listen to our Radio Solent interview here!

Click below to listen to audio (accompanied by various snaps of us in action) of our Radio Solent interview on 23 August 2012, as part of The Julian Clegg Breakfast Show.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Our challenge features on BBC Radio Solent!

This morning Stu, Jon and I met at the BBC Radio Solent studios in Southampton City Centre where we were due to appear on Julian Clegg's Breakfast Show. We were excited and nervous in equal measure.

As part of the feature Stu had been asked to pick a year, place and a song which would be played at the end of our interview.

We met the producer in the reception of the BBC building, and then waited for about 15 minutes having been warned that, because of an exclusive scoop they had been given, our segment had been squeezed to a shorter length of time. This was a little disappointing but we remained really appreciative and grateful for the opportunity to promote our cause.

As it happened the exclusive was an interview with the chap who had flown Asil Nadir out of the country 20 years ago, and with Nadir due to be sentanced this morning having returned to the UK last year, this was a good scoop indeed.

We headed into the studio at 8.20 and met Julian who immediately put us at ease, sat down with a mic each and got ready to go.

He started by asking Stu about why we were doing the kayak, then spoken to us all in turn. We were delighted when he said that the interview would continue after the 8.30 news, and so we were getting longer than we had been led to believe when we arrived!

In the end I reckon we were on air for a total for 5-6 mintues, which is a long time in television/radio and so we were really pleased. It went really really well too, with none of us disgracing ourselves.

Julian read out our blog address and we had an unusually high number of hits in the hour after the interview.

On a day when the main conversation was around Prince Harry's naked antics in a Las Vegas hotel room, I think we did our cause justice on local radio, a station which regularly attracts over a quarter of a million listeners every week.

Thanks to Julian and his production team for this excellent opportunity. Photos below!

BTW Stu's choices were 2006 (year Ben was born), Legoland (Ben's choice!) and Fix Me by Coldplay.

Charlie, Stu and Jon in reception at BBC South

Jon in the waiting room waiting to go "on air"

Stu and Charlie in the waiting room waiting to go "on air"

Jon, Stu and Charlie chatting to Julian Clegg during a break in his breakfast show

Jon, Julian Clegg, Stu and Charlie in the studio at Radio Solent

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Amazing Old Harry...and a pretty special bacon sarnie too

We had the most amazing kayak today.

Starting early off Sandbanks beach (not a great start because the most expensive parking ticket EVER - at over £10!!) we set off along in front of the entrance to Poole Harbour on a misty and murky morning. Neither The Needles nor the much-closer Bournemouth were visible in the morning mist which made for a spooky view out to see.

Our plan was to explore Old Harry's Rocks, which we had heard were a fantastic place to kayak, and we also needed to go out into open water so as to get a feel for what we might experience in The Channel, in less than two weeks time.

We paddled first along past Studland along the half-moon bay with the rocks at its outermost point. We did get a little diverted, however. At one point we got a little close to the shore and caught a strong whiff of cooking bacon. It was more than we can bear, and we pulled alongside the shore to investigate. Indeed, there was a small cafe called Middle Beach and we landed the kayaks, pulled them up onto the beach (the tide was coming in) and strolled up to the establishment in question.

And we had probably the best bacon sarnies I think I've ever had. And a cuppa too. Remember before you judge that it was by this time only 7.45am, so it was breakfast time.

As the mist started to clear and Old Harry and the arched rock formations came into view, we set off again. Paddling under the arches and around the rock stacks, was just an incredible and surreal experience. The rock formations were pretty special and there is a video embedded below which Jon took with his new on-board camera, so you can see for yourself.

Old Harry himself was a bit like paddling around a Jenga. A matching stack (Harry's wife) fell done a while back, and at some point Harry will suffer the same fate. But for now, I'm really grateful that we are able to see it at such close quarters, something which the walkers on the top of the cliffs, viewing the National Trust-protected site from above, couldn't possibly get the same appreciation for. One of the great things about kayaking is undoubtedly the alternative view you get of the world, something you cannot get from the shoreline or a footpath.

After we'd finished exploring the caves too, we set off alongside the white cliffs and headed towards and beyong Swanage, before heading out to see. The swell was much more noticable in the open water, large but wide waves moving us up and down, and on occasions rendering us invisible to each other as the swell passed between us.

This was a complete contrast to the earlier calm conditions (as seen in the video) but it wasn't massively hard work. The difficult bit was keeping in a straight line, something I personally seem to struggle with.

We went back past Old Harry and towards the balloon at Bournemouth before heading back directly towards the beach at Sandbanks. The conditions had become slightly choppier and we were washed up onto the busy and crowded beach a little unceremoniously. After just over 20 miles we aches a little and carrying the kayaks back to the cars was a real effort. But we felt a little better after a bottle of water and a KitKat, followed a little later by a pint of cider in the pub.

What a day, what a kayak....and thanks to the early start it was still only 3.30pm. I can imagine we'll be revisiting Harry and his friends again before long. In the meantime it was our second 20 miles trip and probably the last long kayak we'll do before The Channel in less than two weeks time....

Ready to go! Sandbanks beach before 7am

Old Harry's Rocks in the distance, safely from a cafe with great bacon sarnies

One of the arches at Old Harry's Rocks

The amazing Old Harry himself

Jon takes a look break two miles off Swanage. Swanage later lost its blue flag as a result