I was expecting a tame and relaxing week on the club’s sea kayaking trip to the Scilly Isles – an idyllic setting about 30 miles west of the Cornish coast. But what transpired was a memorable adventure with an occasional splash of terror.
Nine club members signed up for the trip – Andy and Liz Maxted, Sharron Bartlett, Toby Bellinger, Mark Steel, Penny Newton, Ceri Harris, Dierdre Hanson and myself. Our base was a pristine campsite on St Martin’s, the most northern of five inhabited islands in the archipelago. The MCC pitch was easy to spot as there was usually a colourful display of wet paddling gear hanging from the adjoining hedge that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Tate Modern. The tents ranged in size from castle (Andy and Liz) to coffin (Dierdre) and were set up in a sociable formation. It would have all been so perfect but for the explosive snoring that came from a nearby stranger’s tent every night. By midweek I was close to setting light to it.
The first group paddle was on Sunday morning. It was delayed somewhat by the fact that the low tide had exposed about half a mile of sandy beach that we all had to haul our boats across chain gang-style. All except Mark that is, as he had brought a trolley. It later got punctured, was fixed, and then fell apart completely – which proves that careful planning isn’t always worth the effort!
Once on the water we split into two groups, with some heading to the sheltered southern end of our neighbouring island, Tresco (Andy, Liz, Dierdre, Penny and Ceri), while the others went to the more exposed northern tip (Mark, Sharron, Toby and me). The northerners paddled out to the infamous Men-a-vaur – three towering rock stacks with slots between them that can be surfed through if conditions allow. However it looked like an angry, frothing monster, so we paddled on. We did have the excitement of seeing a puffin though!
We continued over the top of Tresco to a spot where the sea squeezes between its west coast and the next island, Bryher, creating a bumpy patch with occasional big waves. At one point Sharron’s boat was almost vertical as it climbed up a particularly steep roller.
Sharron approaching the wave that sent her boat near vertical, with Mark on the right
We decided to stop for lunch on Tresco so we dragged our kayaks up a beach before walking north to a pub. Coincidentally we found the other half of the group already there and were able to join them around a nice big table. Perfect!
After lunch we split up again and the other group visited some uninhabited islands to the north – including St Helen’s, where they saw the remains of an isolation hospital known as ‘the pest house’, where sailors with the plague used to be quarantined. Meanwhile my group headed for the bottom of Bryher. Sensibly Toby had tied our beached kayaks to the quay because the tide was coming in and we returned to find the tethered boats floating about safely. However we were embarrassed to discover some of our gear had slipped off the kayaks and the locals had been busy fishing it out of the sea!
We headed over to a bay frequented by seals and a handful of the curious creatures popped their heads up to say hello.
Audrey gets photo-bombed by a seal
The reefy coast there hid some other surprises too – as Mark discovered when a wave suddenly kicked up over a hidden rock and dumped a huge chunk of water on top of him, pushing him into a tail squirt!
Back at St Martin’s everyone left their boats on the steeper western side of the island to avoid another morning slog across the sand. It’s perfectly fine to leave boats and kit unattended in the Scillies as the place is crime-free (and virtually car-free too). Citizenship is emphasised at school and there are honesty box stalls everywhere!
Monday was spent visiting a tiny island called Samson that is no longer inhabited and has been overtaken by fern and nesting seagulls. It features South Pacific-style white sandy beaches and two hills that offer spectacular viewpoints of the archipelago.
L-R: Andy, Penny, Ceri, Dierdre, Sharron and Toby, on the island of Samson
On the way back we stopped off to visit our seal friends again and the extra distance didn’t go down well with Dierdre’s dodgy back. Toby offered to tow her the last half mile and excitedly whipped out his new all-singing-all-dancing tow line/contact tow/throw bag. However he found it difficult to keep the line taut as Dierdre kept accelerating because she “didn’t want to hold him up”. Bless.
On Tuesday Andy, Liz, Toby, Penny, Ceri and Mark set off to kayak around the uninhabited Eastern Isles while the rest of us explored St Martin’s by foot. It was a glorious, sunny day with light winds and calm water, which made the sea seem more transparent than ever. On calm days you could follow long strands of flowing seaweed with your eyes deep into the water. The Scillies are littered with patches of a paddle-sucking seaweed called Himanthalia Elongata, which is more commonly known as Thongweed or Sea Spaghetti. Liz came up with a much nicer name for it though – Mermaid’s Hair.
Sharron and Andy trudge their way through Mermaid’s Hair seaweed at Bryher
Landing is forbidden on all of the protected far Eastern Isles except for Great Ganilly – so that simplified the decision about where to stop for lunch! The best island of all was Menawethan where more than a dozen seals could be seen basking in the afternoon sun. True to form, the curious cuties couldn’t help but mosey over for a nosey. They slipped into the water en mass and quickly surrounded the boats. A photo-fest followed during which Penny managed to get some underwater footage on her Go Pro. Some of the seals swam behind their new kayaking friends for ages as they continued their tour. Then it was back to St Martin’s in time for happy hour at a beachside hotel, where those of us who chose to go walking needed a stiff drink to soften our seal envy.
Wednesday. Oh. My. God. The sea whipped my arse good and proper that day. The group plan was for a circumnavigation of St Martin’s with a bit of rock hopping. After lunch Toby and I decided to pop over to Men-a-vaur again to see if it was still a raging monster.
Toby approaching Men-a-vaur
Men-a-vaur comprises three rock towers with two narrow, gorge-like gaps between them. The main gap starts as a spacious mouth that, at low tide, narrows down to a slot just wide enough to slip a kayak through. If the tide is low enough a bolder is exposed at the foot of the narrow exit, so it is important to time your departure with a wave so you don’t get wedged sideways between the bolder and the rock face. Of course it happened to be low tide when we were there and the bolder was fully visible after each wave gushed through. There was a bit of a swell running but nothing too dramatic so we decided to give it a go.
Toby went in first but as he neared the bolder the wave he was on seemed to instantly disappear and he suddenly dropped vertically into the slot between the bolder and the rock face. Meanwhile I was shot skywards on top of the wave that had inhaled behind Toby and sucked all the water from beneath him. While I was desperately trying to back-paddle, more water gushed through and Toby managed to escape.
Then it was my turn. Not only was I also dropped vertically onto the boulder but I somehow managed to get my paddle wedged in the gap above my head crucifixion-style. Mercifully the next wave released me and Toby and I smugly sauntered back to the other side of Men-a-vaur through the easy second gap on the sheltered side. Mission accomplished.
Aerial view of Men-a-vaur
As we rounded the Atlantic-facing edge we noticed there was a third, shorter corridor between Men-a-vaur and a tall slice of rock on the exposed far side. The gap had bulges and kinks in it but we could see there was an exit. It looked harmless and we felt so relaxed about it that we didn’t even bother to look behind us before we entered.
The sea punished us smartly for that mistake.
Toby went first and we were already committed before I noticed the first wave of big set coming up behind us. I shouted “WAVE!!!!!!!!!” and Toby started sprinting like a Longridge paddler, skilfully whooshing his way through the curvy course. Meanwhile I was sent sideways up a bulge in the right-hand wall and then found myself swimming in what felt like a washing machine on slow cycle. The waves kept pulling me back and forth inside the kink and I was making no forward progress at all. I discovered that it is quite energy sapping to try and swim against waves at the same time as steering an upside down boat away from the sides of a gorge. I was out of sight of Toby and feeling completely at the mercy of the sea as waves continued to crash though. It felt much longer at the time, but it was probably only a matter of seconds before it occurred to me to just hug the boat and kick hard in time with the surf. I finally started to edge my way forward and could see Toby waiting outside with his fancy throw/tow line already held aloft. He threw it and a bunch of rope plopped out of the bag and landed just in front of him! I was so relieved to be free that I found myself chuckling at the deflated look on his face.
After helping me back in my boat, Toby passed on some words of wisdom that had once been given to him. He said: “What you have to remember about the sea is that it is bigger than you, stronger than you, faster than you, smarter than you… and out to get you.”
That evening footie fan Ceri invited everyone to join him for dinner at the local pub because the Wales v Portugal UEFA semi-final was being projected onto a big screen there. Wales were whopped but we were all having such a great holiday nobody cared.
There is only one pub on St Martin’s and it became our go-to place of an evening. We rarely operated as a single group during the day so the pub was a perfect spot to catch up on each other’s news over a beer. As each day passed our knowledge about the Scillies grew. Ceri was a mine of information about the wildlife and flora thanks to a little book he had on the subject and Liz became our own personal tour guide after exploring many of the islands on foot and chatting to islanders along the way. She even met the semi-famous only policeman in the Scilly Isles. He has written a book about what it’s like to work in an area where there is no crime and it’s about to be made into a TV series. So when Penny accidentally nicked my paddling trousers from the campsite washing line, I decided not to spoil everything by pressing charges.
L-R: Penny and Liz aboard the Scillonian ferry, which took us and our kayaks to the Scillies
There is plenty to do in the Scillies apart from sea kayaking. St Martin’s offers great MTB-ing and walking and the empty beaches are to die for.
A beach on the north coast of St Martin’s
Mark with a rented mountain bike
Thursday. Holy moly! And I thought yesterday was scary!!! Four of us ventured out for a paddle – Andy, Sharron, Toby and me. We started with a circumnavigation of Samson, then headed up the rocky west coast of Bryher, which is a battering ram for the Atlantic Ocean as it rolls in from America. We stopped for lunch at the weirdly sheltered Popplestone Bay, which is an oasis of calm along the rugged coastline. It’s so sheltered that visitors traditionally pile up stacks of stones here, which stand tall around the bay like meerkats guarding against the wind.
Stone piles at Popplestone Bay, Bryher
At the top of Bryher a tide race runs around the headland. Waves move faster and more fiercely as the tide squeezes past the cliffs that jut out at Shipman Head. We ventured over for a look, hoping to be able to make it safely around the top of Bryher to the sheltered eastern side. The names of the places we passed on the way were ominous to say the least – Black Carn, Hell Bay, Bad Place Hill…
Just before the tide race we paused in the clapotis for a brief “shall we, shan’t we?” conversation. The water looked wild and confused up ahead but Andy’s confidence reassured us and off we went.
As we rounded the headland the sea was exploding violently against it, shooting white, booming waves up the cliff face. I dared not look. It seemed like we were passing a watchful lion that was trying to decide whether or not it could be bothered to eat us.
Shipman Head, Bryher
We paddled on, losing sight of each other intermittently as the swell rose up and down around us. I had started to sing Nellie the Elephant to steady my nerves but was interrupted by Sharron’s rendition of a popular Gospel song. I can completely understand why if she had suddenly found religion! As we angled towards the east coast of Bryher things got really exciting. The waves were now directly behind us and settled into a smooth rhythm as they whipped the full force of the ocean towards the gap between Bryher and Tresco. There was calm water in the distance but the swell where we were was now about 4m high and moving fast. It was like being on a self-drive rollercoaster. We could see the tops of each other’s hats as we swooped up and down in our own parallel worlds. The swell was intimidating but felt stable – so this part of the ride was more thrilling than terrifying. (Although have you noticed how scary stuff often seems more fun in retrospect?!)
Finally we were spat out of the tide race into sheltered water and my heart returned to its normal pace. I looked around and could feel from the stretch of my wind-chapped lips that I was wearing the same wide grin as everyone else. After a coffee at Bryher’s Fraggle Rock pub, we headed back home glowing with that special ‘we got away with it’ feeling.
L-R: Toby, Sharron and Andy after they survived Shipman Head
Friday was foot day. The group split up to explore the wonders that lay inland, with some heading over to Bryher and Tresco on island-hopping boat taxis. Andy and Liz visited the sub-tropical Tresco Abbey Garden where exotic plants from more than 80 countries manage to survive outdoors thanks to the Scillies’ extraordinary climate.
Suddenly Saturday arrived and it was all over. But just when there seemed no more opportunity for drama, Liz managed to end up in hospital! She cut a deep slice in her hand while helping to man-handle the campsite luggage trailer. Luckily the Scillies only has a population of about 2000, so there wasn’t a long queue at A&E! One big bandage later, there was still plenty of time to catch the ferry home.
We all left the Scillies with salt stains on our gear, tan lines on our skin and wonderful, indelible memories in our minds. A million thanks to club chairman Andy and his wife Liz for organising this awesome trip.