It would have been the first Thursday in June 2013, when the idea was born. Sitting in the PBSBAC’s June meeting, having listened to the stories of the successful trip to Alderney after the Turbot and Bass. I turned to Lofty and said “I reckon I could paddle that”. The look I received back was one of bewilderment.
It took a couple of months of casual research. I had been to Alderney many times on charter boats as a paying customer and later on, as crew. I was aware of the ferocity and violence of the seas around the area. Daunting thought number one. I started to investigate if anyone else had ever attempted the trip. At that time, I was not aware that anyone had. I then had to look at the issues of making such an attempt.
The next item was to look at other like minded individuals who would be prepared to take part. I contacted Chris and ran the idea past him. After a night to sleep on it, he contacted me and said yes.
We started by trying to source the right boats. We were never going to do it on a standard plastic “barge” so we looked at alternatives. The loan of a boat from Simon Everett was a huge help but after a short time I realised that the seating position was all wrong for me. A call was also put in to a local kayak dealer called Ian Smith. Ian deals in Epic boats. I had never even clapped eyes on one but Ian was also keen to help. Due to personal issues though, Ian dropped off the radar for a few months and the initial contact was forgotten. Chris looked at other boats and we were lent different boats to try. Richie loaned us his boat to try and it proved to be very comfy, fast and light; we settled on those.
It was at this time that I contacted Mark at Alderney Angling. I had met Mark several times whilst on the island and thought that Mark would be able to help with sponsorship. Mark was very keen to help and more so because of the charities in question. Within an hour of putting the phone down, Mark had rang me back to ask if he could actually do the trip with us !! Now there were three.
We put an order in for the boats and waited ………………………………………… and waited. Enough, we had to try something different. Time was against us and we needed to get time in the buckets. It was at this time that Ian made contact again. We were incredibly keen to try the Epic boats, so a day was booked. The day happened to be blowy. I can remember sitting in the V8 for the first time and thinking “this is alright – not too bad at all”. Chris, James, Richie, Ian and myself paddled down the run. We could see the waves as we rounded the quay. Chris put the brakes on, Richie, Ian and James took off and had fun in the surf. I tried to have fun in the surf but swimming repeatedly was the order of the day. From that moment on, I knew that my paddling skills were nowhere near what would be required.
We managed to talk Ian into joining the group. With Ian’s experience and knowledge, we knew he would be the key to a successful trip. Ian began to train us and train us hard. We began to paddle in all weathers and conditions. I had managed to divert some funds and purchased an Epic V6. The boat was a dream. The reason why I purchased that particular boat is another story, but my choice had been made and it proved to be the right one. In the interim, Chris had made contact with Dr Mike Stroud O.B.E. Mike was happy to endorse the event but again, upon reflection, he wanted in too – now we had five.
Christmas had come and gone. We began to look at the finer details of the trip, factors such as navigation. I contacted Richie, who is a good trip planner and sought his advice. I booked onto a day skipper course and began to soak it up. In the meantime, the training was coming on. Due to constraints of time, work and personal commitments, we could not all train at the same time and place. I spent a lot of time with Ian developing my forward paddling technique, which was, at that time awful.
Due to Chris’s paddling experience, extensive knowledge and diverse skills he was training Mike, primarily on the solent in very rough conditions. Chris, due to his work patterns, was also doing the majority of the fund raising on this side. By this time, Mike had purchased a V6 too after having a few goes in mine. A lot of the training culminated in a circumnavigation of the IOW. We never set out to break any records, it was all about doing the distance. The 60 odd miles around the island, we knew would be short of what was required, but if we could do 60…
Over in Alderney, Mark was really pulling out the stops. The whole community was behind this event. The channel islands media were promoting the event. Charitable fund raising events were incredibly successful such as the Braye Ball. The training that Mark was having to do, was difficult in that the boat he was using was completely different. He was using a Hobie Outback. Also, the training was having a huge impact on his business due to the time away; now that’s dedication.
The planning of the actual trip became more intense. We knew we would have to do the trip on a neap tide due to the extreme tidal flows. We would ideally need to do the trip in the summer and also when we were all available. As you can imagine, the windows of opportunity were diminishing. There were 5 windows available to us so we began to plan around these.
Chris’s V6 had arrived by now and he was falling in love with it. We began to up the training intensity. The distances increased as did the pace. We would think nothing of a 30 miler as a “normal” training day. We used the time to look at rescue techniques, honing paddling skills and establishing what kit we would need.
The first 2 windows came and went. The weather was the key point. Rain would not be an issue. The wind would be, however, and it was too strong. The third window was looking perfect but it was not to be, due to “logistical issues”. The “logistical issue” was resolved thanks to Glenn at Valkyrie Charters. This left only two windows and Mike would not be able to make the last one due to work commitments. In reality, the window at the end of July was the only viable one so we had to pray it would be perfect – and it was !!
The week leading up to the attempt was chaotic. We had all been in constant contact and were studying the weather in earnest. The passage planning spreadsheets were done, ammended and redone to suit the timings. These were then sent to all of us for comment including the safety boats. Phone calls were made to check kit and provisions. How much food? What type are you taking? Who was picking up who? Where are you parking? etc etc.
I don’t think any of us slept very well the night before judging by the last minute texts. Mark had left Alderney earlier that morning on board Alderney Warrior. This was an additional safety boat which would also be helping with the navigational track – making sure we are where we think we should be.
It really dawned on us that this was happening when we saw the AIS of Valkyrie 7 start up and begin it’s run from Langstone to Swanage. One last check on the weather websites and dash outside to load the kit into Ian’s car. The journey down to Swanage was surreal. Apprehension was the order of the day. We were all nervous and yet incredibly excited. We dropped the kit and parked the cars. Mark had asked Zak (skipper of Valkyrie 7) to come alongside the pier to load the kit and I took the opportunity to run through the passage plan with him. Our boats were laid out next to each other on the beach ready for the off. We dressed into our paddling kit. This generally comprised of a rash vest and paddling pants. We assembled in the café next to the beach for a light bite to eat. We sat munching toasties and watched and waited as the clock ticked down to the departure time of 16:21.
We walked to the boats. It was baking hot. A quick dip up to the waist was in order just to cool down. We donned our PFD’s grabbed our paddles and launched into the bay. We rounded the pier and headed toward the Peveril race. It was nearing the end of the ebbing tide and was remarkably calm. Behind us, we could hear the low rumble of Valkyries engines as she manouevred into position and out to our left was the Warrior. A quick look at the watch, a check to ensure evryone was set for the course to steer of 180 degrees to the waypoint and we were off.
The planned route was to head to a waypoint at 49, 49, 0000 / 00, 02, 0000 then take the ebbing tide straight into Braye – simple !!!
We had envisaged a pace close to 3 knots to allow for a rest break of five minutes every hour and a longer break of fifteen minutes every three hours. The whole crossing was due to take approximately 21 hours. I say approximately as it was incredibly difficult to allow for correct deviation due to the wind. The wind was picking up slightly from the west, this was a little more than was forecast so would have an impact from the off and would require some minor course changes.
The other noticeable factor was that we were actually attaining a constant 4 knots across the tide.
There was some excited chatter but I guess we were all thinking about the “what ifs” that were ahead. My biggest concern was the approach to the island itself but that was something that we couldn’t worry about until the time came. Time began to fly by and the stops appeared to be closer than an hour, but they weren’t. The westerly wind had picked up. In the first 3 hours, we had travelled ten miles out and had drifted six miles east. It looked like we were not that far south of the IOW. This was a couple of miles further east than we would have liked but it would not be hard to overcome. It would just require a small increase in the course to steer bearing to eliminate this deviation.
Time ticked by and we were making good progress. Matt, on board Warrior, was plotting our course every half an hour and we were constantly talking through the course alterations. It transpired as time went on, that we would have to alter our course by almost ten degrees so that we could allow for the full seven nautical mile effect of the next tide and all this due to the westerly wind in the first three hours.
The sea state was perfect. A wave height of about a foot, which was enough to break the wetted surface of the boats and make for an easier paddle.
Our second fifteen minute stop, after six hours, saw us begin to prepare for darkness. This is critical as we wanted to ensure we were visible to each other and the safety boats. We switched on our compasses, deck lights, head torches and any additional clothing that was required. This was where the first incident happened but thanks to some on the hoof improvisation, disaster was averted. As darkness fell, the sea became incredibly calm. It was like a sheet black of glass with hardly a ripple. Looking ahead, we could begin to see the lights of France and behind, the lights of home.
Above us, the space station hurtled past and we watched as it disappeared over our heads. As darkness increased, the water surrounding us became impossible to see. What I mean by this is that the small pool of light created by the deck light was not enough to light the water ahead. We couldn’t use a head torch because of our night vision. I found that if a wave were to come toward me, I would not be able to react in time due to not being able to see it until the last second which means a dunking. This was endured for a further two and a half hours. At the next major stop, it was decided that we would need one of the safety boats to go ahead of us with its deck lights on. On the next fifteen minute rest, Zak had made some rocket fuel coffee and we took it in turns to go alongside and grab a cup. This was a god send and we paddled back alongside to give the cups back. The caffeine hit worked wonders and we made off again into the blackness.
During the next few hours, we had to make some course changes. One major course change was to avoid an eight boat train passing 4 miles ahead of us in the dark. Zak was fantastic in that he was radioing the vessels and telling them what we were up to and they were altering course to allow for us. It takes a while for those huge ships to move out of our way.
As time ceaselessly marched on, we were kept constantly updated by the safety boats as to our position and progress. We were making good time and were on the planned track. By the early hours, we were all feeling it. We had been paddling nearly twelve hours at a pretty constant four knots. To the west, dawns early light was starting to show. The beautiful new moon was a burnished orange on the horizon and to the left, the pale indigo glow of a promised fine day was stirring. We were brought back to earth with a bump in that as daylight increased, so did the wind and that wind was against a strong flooding tide. We had to alter course again as we were making very good time. It was looking like we would get in some two hours earlier than anticipated. This course had us almost beam on to the waves. The waves were not huge, some two to two and a half feet but we were all dog tired and that compounds the situation.
At this point we were still some thirty miles away from Braye but twenty two miles from the waypoint. Psychologically, this was very hard on us. Even though we were constantly paddling, the target waypoint didn’t seem to get any closer due to the effect of the tide but when the tide turned, we appeared to be closing on it at a faster rate than we were paddling – strange.
The wind was again increasing. It seemed to bottom out at a force three with the occasional white tops. This made me think back to what Mark Stocker had told me some months ago when he said that “you would not want to do it in a three” and he was dead right, it was getting snotty. Due to our tiredness and the wind, we had to re plan so that we intersected our planned down tide leg some two miles nearer Braye. There was a sea mist and as time moved on, we could see no more than a few miles. Zak passed the message on that we would not be able to stop for the next planned break but would have to keep going for the next two hours. the reason for this was that we were about to cross the next shipping lane and it was a bit busy. We could not stop in the middle as that would be a tad fool hardy. That caused a few groans !!
I heard Mark call out and we looked around to see the french coast. It was, in fact, the cap de hague or the cape as it is known. We were now so close. The trouble was that we could still not see Alderney. It is quite low anyway and was therefore, difficult to make out but we knew it was out there – somewhere.
Yes, the lighthouse. We could see it. Elation surged through us but we could not afford to get complacent. The worst bit was yet to come in that the tide was pushing hard and we could still miss. The word was passed along, we really would have to push hard. Generally, there was nothing left in most people’s tanks so it would be hard. I personally didn’t come all this way to fail, so I put the hammer down. Zak came over to me and informed me that I was doing four and a half knots across an ebbing tide which was travelling at over five knots. I was struggling to line up the transit points so was having to paddle like crazy to try to keep them lined up. It was also good to hear that we were only seven hundred feet off of the planned line in – result after all that distance.
I was joined by Ian and we were told to turn downwind and head for the beach. This was the best bit as the waves were big. They were between four and six feet so the only way in was to surf in. The boats wallowed in the troughs and were then picked up on the next wave. Paddling like mad, we were down the wave and flying. Looking round, the other guys had cut in earlier but were all going to make it. Ian and I had to do some unplanned rock threading but thanks to polarised glasses, big waves and some luck we made it.
At that point, we all formed up and headed through the relatively calm water of the breakwater. Boats and ribs from the harbour, came out to greet us. People were shouting and cheering, we had made it. Landing on the beach was difficult in that the legs wouldn’t work. We climbed out of the boats and staggered like drunk people. Nearly 78 miles and 19 hours of paddling and we had achieved what we had set out to do all those months ago.