Saturday 1st September 2012: We arrived at Dean Farm at 9AM to meet up with the 11 strong group and our 2 instructors, Rob and Darren. Having only minor sea kayaking experience in the still waters of South-East Asia I was quite pleased that the group had a mix of experienced and newcomers to the sport. Rob gave us a brief lecture on what we could expect from the weekend and then we jumped into cars and vans for the short journey down to Lee Bay. Once there, we received some tips on how to best pack our kit into the kayaks. The plan was to wild camp on a beach so the kit included tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, clothing and the obligatory bottles of alcohol. The boats were carried down to the water before the kit was put into the kayaks.
I was given one of the more slender faster boats, fittingly called Explorer. It was quite an art getting everything split up and wrapped water tight into the small dinner plate sized dry hatches. Once everybody was set we headed out onto the water where we familiarised ourselves with our kayaks and Rob parted with a few useful handling tips. When everybody was ready we headed out into open water ready to explore the North Devon coastline. We headed down the coastline towards the town of Ilfracombe. It was great seeing the coastline from another aspect other than from up above or from a beach. My last foray into sea kayaking was in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and although the water was a lot calmer there, I'd have to say this was no less spectacular with rugged weather-beaten rock formations rising out of the sea and an abundance of birdlife to be seen.
The sea was getting noticeable rougher as the wind started to pick up and I began to find that my boat seemed to have a penchant for swinging left making it very difficult to keep a straight course. I was soon aware that I was getting a little bit left behind and as I tried to correct my course a large wave was on me and the next moment I was upside down underwater! For those of you that have unintentionally capsized before, there is a split second of panic before you pull the splash deck cord. As I came up with my boat flipped over I was surprised to note the sea was not as cold as I expected, maybe it was the adrenaline but I think it might have been a different story in February. Luckily Rob was on hand to assist me back into the boat in what turned in to a comical sequence of events trying to rescue a few bottles of water and a gas canister that had somehow eluded the dry hatch. Fortunately a bottle of red wine was still lodged between the seat and the bottom of the boat, although the same could not be said for the small bottle of whiskey which was now destined to wash up on ashore somewhere as a little surprise.
Back in the boat as we headed back towards the group, Rob explained that I might need to address the weight balance in my boat as this might have been one of the reasons for the boat being difficult to handle. Despite being a bottle of whiskey down I was glad it happened as it all adds to the learning experience even if it did mean a bit of ribbing from Jim and the guys! We headed into Ilfracombe at Arganite Bay and aimed for a small beach, Matt was the second person to capsize en route in which suggested that it was definitely a bloke thing! We pulled the kayaks up the beach and got out of wet things, had a bit to eat, whilst Rob and Darren went to assess the conditions. It ended up being a slightly longer stay as expected due to the tide and the conditions, Rob and Darren had some difficult decisions to make. It seemed that the conditions were now too rough to continue with our intended plan along that section of coast; the other issue was that our beach would not be there for much longer meaning we had to get off the beach with kayaks on the water.
Eventually, the plan was to kayak across the sea lagoon to another beach where there was access to a road via a rock tunnel. Once everyone was safely across the kayaks were taken one by one through the impressive Victorian tunnels which were carved out of the rock in the 1820s. With the kayaks on dry land, there was then the issue of transport which was sitting 4 miles away in Lee, so four of us went on a brisk walk along the coastal path back down to Lee to retrieve them. It was past 6pm when we returned and after all the kit was packed on the trailers it was looking less likely that we'd be able to wild camp. People were also starting to get hungry and tired so The decision was made to spend the night in a camping park just outside Ilfracombe, not the wild camping adventure we'd hoped for but it did allow some people hot showers!
Sunday 2nd September 2012 We started the day at Watermouth in light drizzle but fortunately more serene sea conditions; I also opted to swap my boat for a slightly wider model in the hope that I wouldn't be taking many dips in the sea! Without the kit in the boats, the kayaks were easier to handle. We explored a selection of sea caves and bays, marvelling at the beauty of this section of coastline. After a couple of hours exploring we rode the surf into Coombe Martin and watching while Belinda managed capsizes her trying out a narrow sea passage.
After lunch it was time to return in the direction we came, it took quite a bit of effort to battle the current and the wind until we got back within shelter of the cliffs. On the way back we stopped at the beautiful beach we were supposed to wild camp at, here we attempted a 'running' launch into out kayaks from the beach. I'm sure some people succeeded but I predictably ended up in the sea a couple of times! Back at the end point there was still time to try out a few balance techniques which involved standing up in your kayak and then sitting back down.
Rob performed this perfectly, unfortunately, my attempted was fairly short lived and I was tasting the drink again. And so that was it, the trip was over, despite the lack of wild camping it had been a great weekend with great company and 2 great instructors in Rob and Darren. In the end, we are at the mercy of the weather in this country and they made the right call in ensuring our safety came first. I look forward to going back next year to explore more of the amazing coastline and capsize a few more times!
Photography Belinda Kirk and Andy Webb (www.dreamabstract.com)