For some time I have considered circumnavigating Anglesey in an open canoe. I couldn’t find any record of this being done before. Maybe there was a reason for that? But in June 2015 all the stars were in alignment. A high pressure weather system was in charge. Katrina and I both had 3 days off work, no plans, and a friend who could look after our dogs, Tyke and Gonzo. Game on!
Our plan was to drive to Cemlyn Bay on the North Coast, spend the night, and then canoe around the Island in our 17 foot Old Town Penobscot – using the three disciplines of paddling, sailing and paddle sailing. Our chosen rig was the Solway Dory 35 sq ft expedition sail with leeboard and rudder also from Solway Dory. We would not use outriggers, but to minimise the risk of swamping we would use the spray deck that Katrina had made.
The three hour journey from Halifax landed us at Cemlyn Bayat midnight. A restless sleep in the van led to a 5.30am start to give time to rig and load the boat in enough time to get through some of the major tideraces before the tide turned foul. I knew that if we got this initial stage wrong the whole trip would be in jeopardy.
We left Cemlyn at 7am. Light North Westerly’s were forecast and we decided to paddle. We knew this would help going through the tide races at the Skerries and those around the South Stack. Almost immediately as we left the bay I could see the waves breaking in line from the headland out towards the Skerries. The tide pushed us along and we had our first bit of fun in some large breaking waves in the tide race. We paddled though and my hat went off to Katrina who kept her cool; she was exposed in the front of the boat going up the waves and dropping off the other side with a crash. We paddled through several tide races before we headed though calm waters to South Stack. I reminisced about my climbing days when adventures were found on the cliffs and not the water!
The sun was shining and it was hot work paddling. We knew that if we didn’t get to the Penrhyn Mawar before the tide changed we would be forced back. Sweating, and thinking we had made it in time, we got to the race just as the tide changed. We tried to paddle through but it was too much and we were forced back. We managed to get further out and caught an eddy behind a rock and this gave us just enough to power through. By now we were beyond the race but paddling hard and not moving forwards. If anything we were being pulled back into the race. We were tired and stuck! With the race just behind us getting bigger and bigger things were looking grim. Just at this point we had some luck… the wind picked up “Kat, get that bloody sail up!!”“I can’t hear you!!” “SAIL … UP!!!”
I paddled like a locomotive whilst Katrina hoisted the sail. It was filled by the wind. Not much, but enough! What an experience. We just got through by the skin of our teeth. This confirmed that the most important part of this trip was timing. Five minutes later and we would have had to turn around.
As we continued on our way the adrenaline left us and we were blessed to see a pod of dolphins swimming the other way. One jumped clear of the water, about 100 meters away. What a sight!
We continued with a steady sail to Trearddur Bay where the tide changed and put an end to meaningful progress. We stopped around 1pm in glorious sunshine and met some great sea kayakers who had spent the morning playing on moving water. Around 4pm we set off again to catch the outgoing tide. Our aim was to get to the mouth of the Menai Straits. The wind was about force 3 and we had a great sail until the last 2 miles where the tide changed and we sailed close in to keep out of the strongest flow and hopefully catch some eddies.
While I cooked tea, Katrina checked the maps and tide charts to see how we were doing. We had a choice. We could either keep going into the night to get the tide through the Swellies, or we could camp here for the night and catch the next tide at 10am.The latter would have meant getting to Gallows Point and having to wait most of the day before continuing our journey, putting our whole trip back by12 hours or so.
There were two factors which led to us making the decision to keep going into the night to get through:
We had recced the Swellies just a few weeks earlier as part of the OCA Canoefest. I had been on a two day coastal workshop with Jules Bernard and Katrina had been out in a group led by Ray Goodwin.
We have paddled on the Thames in full flow through the night in a wobbly K2 as part of the DW race.
So, after a quick meal of pasta, we set off at 9pm against a slightly foul tide to take us up to the Swellies. We paddled slowly past Caernarfon Castle with the Sun setting to our left. It was a calm, beautiful evening. Thankfully,after an hour or so the tide turned to our favour.
We were tired and kept looking for the Menai Bridges…“It can’t be much further now” we kept saying. It was like being on the DW Tideway, knackered, constantly looking for the London Eye. Eventually the first bridge came into sight. What a relief. We paddled under the first bridge quite easily. But the second one … that was something else! We could see big boils and whirlpools all around us. The water was moving very fast. We were picked up by a boil and swung around. “We’re ok, keep paddling.” The noise of the water seemed very loud in the still of the night as we went through the main rapid and under the bridge. We kept our cool, and got a push from the tide to Gallows Point. This is where we stopped. I fell in mud pulling the boat above the shoreline while Katrina put the tent up beside the road. It was 2.30am when we settled into our cosy sleeping bags. We had been on the go for 21 hours!
Our alarms went off at 7am.We quickly packed and caught the out going tide past Puffin Island – without a puffin in sight! We paddle sailed to avoid tacking and made good progress. Along the way the Red Arrows saluted our progress with a fly past! We headed for Moelfre where we would have to wait for the tide to change again. My navigation was found wanting and we missed the beach, but we found somewhere to stop just around the corner that involved dragging the boat up seaweed covered rocks.
After food and a few hours rest (Katrina caught forty winks) we set off with the tide. The wind had picked up and was blowing force 4 but we decided to paddle to start with as sailing it would have meant tacking. We met further tide races. The biggest ones we’d come across on the whole journey. They were great fun. We were relaxed and “Yeeehaaa”d as we stormed through the 6ft waves. At one point we were broadsided and took in some water but the spray deck saved the day!
The wind died down but we continued and after a short break we sailed and paddled in the sunset to finish at Cemlyn Bay around 10pm. It was a superb trip. The weather was perfect. The scenery and wildlife were spectacular.
For discussion see our Song-of-the-Paddle blog.