Despite coming from a sailing family, despite having lived by the sea in Jersey, I neither knew nor cared why the sea came in and out. Happy times were going out fishing fishing after school with my Dad when I was fourteen or so. We idled many happy hours out putting to and fro a mile or so out from Gorey harbour putting lines for mackerel, a plastic bucket filling with beautiful fish, the radio on so Dad could listen to the news. My school uniform got covered with fish scales and a tide mark of salt. Sometimes we had the sail up, sometimes just the engine. My dog Freddy came along for the ride.
I have two distinct memories of Dad “doing navigation”. Both times he only went down below with the charts and the slide rule because something had gone wrong. We’d drifted and had no idea where we were. He would look out helplessly and say “Bother!” which was about the strongest swear word he used. Freddy and I were sent to the bows to watch and listen. Freddy would bark for rocks before I could even see them. One terrible time it was the Minquiers reef 10 miles south of Jersey. They looked like sharks teeth waiting for us. That at least gave him something to take a bearing off. “Don’t tell your Mum” he advised. The next time there was thick fog. We were becalmed in a still pool of blue evening sun looking at a thick white curtain of fog. The limpid colour of the sea and the shape of the waves suggested we were no longer in deep water. Freddy and I were sent forward and Freddy started barking. I could hear something totally unexpected: big surf on a beach and a church bell ringing. Could it be Grouville, the beach next to Gorey Harbour? There was no church there. Dad had seconds to act to keep us off the beach. For once the engine fired first time and he got us into harbour safe. Good old Dad. It was Cartaret in France. Only 12 miles out. Dad had a host of French pals. They arrived now, said it could happen to anyone and took us out for tea. This time he must have told my Mum. So that is what convinced me I would never “do” navigation. It looked stressful and error prone even for my hero Dad.
Quite soon after starting to sea kayak, I realised I was going to learn about navigation and it wasn’t going to involve a chart table bigger than the front deck of my sea kayak. The main reason for learning is that when you navigate you stop being a passenger. Plus it’s interesting. It’s a fantastic treat to learn new tricks when you’re well past school leaving age. So the moon does all this tidal stuff. Can you believe it? The gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun makes the water in the oceans bulge which causes a continuous progression of high and low tide. And the moon, our moon, has the biggest part in it because it’s closer to us.
The next stage of my journey is the Severn Estuary. It needs intricate planning and that’s what I’ve been working on. Charts, Maps, Tidal Atlas print outs (thank you Leo Goolden), Kayak Guides and Sailing Pilots create their own tides on my kitchen table. Local knowledge of the Severn Estuary is not a given among N Wales paddlers.
The first part of teasing out a plan for any trip is the tide table and that, of course, correlates with the moon chart. We want to know what stage the moon is at, whether it is close to full or new moon. Then the gravitational pull of the moon is added to by the sun and we’ll get “Spring” tides with bigger flow or current. If we want a quieter ride we could be looking for “Neaps” when there’s altogether less movement. We’re not looking for when high tide is so much as when the “flow” will start to go with us on any given day. This matters to sea kayakers because we haven’t got engines powerful enough to overcome the tidal flow. We can do around 3 knots, 3 nautical miles an hour. So if the flow is going to get up to 8 knots, which it does in some places round the UK, then we can’t possibly paddle against it. We want to be using it to speed us along.
For this trip we’d like a Spring tide, and calm winds. Tuesday 7th May is the day we’re looking at. There’s a Spring tide, big enough but not too big, high water around 10.00am so we could jump on and go down with the flow as the tide turns. We could skim through before the mud is exposed by the receding water. That’s the idea. The wind is perfect this weekend. Beaufort scale 1/2 on Sunday as the wind direction starts to turn. But not so perfect by Tuesday when we’re good to go. Each time I check the forecast it’s different. I feel like I’m stuck at the departure gate. Would it still be a circumnavigation if I came back to this stage in the Autumn when the big Springs will be with us again flow? Can I carry on from below the Estuary?
People are crucial. When I started Kate Duffus gave me some wise advise: “Only paddle with people you trust.” I’m very lucky to have Sue Couling me. I couldn’t do this without her. Sue is an Advanced Water Sea Kayak Coach, a Performance Coach, a Sea Kayak Leader & Coach Award Provider. What that means is she’s pretty damn good and quite a rare bird. She has a special talent for recognising how each individual is learning. I feel very lucky that she’s putting some time in for me. She gives me self belief.
Once we’re on the water we have no slide rules, no mugs of tea on the chart table and no dogs or children to send to the bows to sniff out the rocks. Mind you Sue does have dogs: Izzy and Scout. Sue’s dogs know she’s coming at least a mile off shore and set up a delightful whooping and yipping to see her home. Maybe we could take Izzy and Scout to sit on the bows and keep a watch out, their ears riffling in the breeze.
So this last week, while I haven’t been paddling, I’ve been restlessly trip planning. The Severn Estuary is a big one even for paddlers who’ve had Anglesey as their learning ground. From Sharpness to Portishead is a “potentially treacherous stretch of water, not to be trifled with on account of powerful tides, numerous shoals and shallow reaches.” The rise and fall at Avonmouth can exceed 13 metres on Springs so the flow can run at 8 to 10 knots, second only to the Bay of Fundy. Add to that garbage, few places to get out, big garbage like gas canisters and parts of shipping that flows up and down the channel unimpeded. Oh yes. Mud too. Really, a lot of mud.
We’re watching the wind. Fingers crossed for it to settle down because if it don’t we won’t. If it happens it’s going to be Ah May Zing!
If the wind doesn’t allow us to paddle I might walk along the Severn Way from Sharpness to Bristol. According to the leaflet “the Severn has also been a crossing route for walkers, riders and cattle over the centuries. In the past, there were routes across the river, known mainly to local people, which could be safely navigated on horseback or by wading between the treacherous shifting sandbars and gravel beds. There are stories of the Romans fording the river, as well as tales of cattle being herded over the river at low tide, to shorten their journey to market.” Really? Well there’s another hazard to watch out for: herds of cows.
Thank you to Driftwood Designs for allowing me to use Lizzie’s beautiful designs in this post. Lizzie says of her work ” I grew up on, in and next to the sea on the Welsh Coast near Aberystwyth and my work is inspired by the beautiful imagery of this part of the world and by the language and culture in which I have been raised”.