I had only owned my kayak just over a month and already found myself needing more excitement from it. I had tested my abilities in a variety of storm forces, swells and temperatures within the relative safety of bays so I felt ready to sit down and finalise my micro-expedition.
A few weeks earlier, a commute along Guernsey’s waterfront had sparked this little excursion. As the traffic crawled towards town, you could see Herm Island peering out beyond the racing white horses of Little Russell’s tidal rip, and it looked decidedly close. I doubted it was possible to cross that particular stretch of water, especially in my little sit-on-top Bic Ouassou which was built more for stability than speed. Still, I thought it best to prove this as fact before writing the idea off entirely.
I decided to break my mini kayak adventure down into manageable chunks and explore its feasibility. Weather, sea, land, traffic, fitness and kit. I knew each of these was important but it really all came down to one thing: timing.
Tides concerned me. Guernsey has some of the highest tidal ranges in Europe – over 10 metres on a spring tide which in turn creates a current running at over 5mph in the Little Russell. With just a two-hour window per day for three consecutive days in October I would be at the mercy of the weather. Next month had faster currents, colder temperatures and winter would mean the whole thing would have to be postponed until next year.
The next obvious piece of research were large and frequent ferries. Fortunately, as my venture had come about so late in the year, morning ferries had reduced their crossings. Google Earth gave all I needed geographically, and I calculated the closest launch point to the closest landing point, just over two miles apart. I noted down some GPS way-points, launch, landing and a half-way marker for a more accurate bearing en-route to combat drift. Studying a sea-level perspective view from Herm back to Guernsey, I wondered if I was being a little eccentric, but perhaps not.
Kit was a simple matter of ‘things that might be useful’. A compass should the GPS get a dousing; my wallet in case I needed a ferry ride back from Herm; my mobile phone to let someone know if I was drifting out to France; a torch and 12-hour glow stick (you never know); and a waterproof jacket. With all that stuffed into a tiny wet bag I could wear my wetsuit half on, a thermal or two for comfortable rowing, with booties and gloves to finish off the ensemble. It was the end of October after all.
Waiting for the window
With my training already done, but bearing in mind my tendency to turn green after a couple hours in the swell, all that remained was to watch the weather patterns leading up to my launch dates.
The first two days in my three-day window were out of the question as hostile winds battered the shore from every direction, but on the third day as I stepped out of the car, I could see the conditions were perfect. Down I clambered to the water’s edge for a fairly immediate launch – bar some snaps for prosperity. I decided to drop in earlier than planned so I’d have more time in the slack tide for the fatigued return journey.
I can’t say I was all that comfortable edging out into the tidal flow from Bordeaux harbour. Fortunately I had a visible halfway mark – a large shipping buoy that gave me a two-point bearing with Herm in the distance. Aiming some degrees off my intended route and paddling hard, I countered the relatively swift waters and kept myself on track surprisingly well.
Having the swirling 2mph current try to pull me from my clutches at the buoy’s ladder, I paddled quickly the other side of the flow and to the refuge of Herm. Somehow the island seemed to be losing clarity the closer I got. Forty-five minutes later I pulled on to the beach, the familiar yet haunting Guernsey fog horn now giving its consistent blasts.
The fog descends
I sat to contemplate my options: did I wait it out and miss slack tide in the hope of the fog dissipating? Did I paddle along the Herm coast to the harbour and wait for the next ferry to drop me back in Guernsey? With my old Garmin GPS swinging from my neck I launched out into open waters once more, nothing but a straight line on a small LCD screen to follow having no earthly visuals to guide me.
Being out on the sea with nothing but 360 degrees of fog for company gave me a taste of what these extreme rowers and kayakers get up to on the open ocean. And I can’t say I fancied the idea. Through strained eyes I could make out the halfway buoy finally emerging out of the mists, and the calm waters at this usually fast-flowing point were a welcome treat. Had I had currents to contend with now, any pause to check position would have me swiftly off route and decidedly disorientated.
Gaining confidence in the white-out was short-lived. I could hear the distinct chug of a fishing boat cruising past. How small or close it really was I’ll never know: the fog just never unveiled it. Before long, I could see land and minutes later I was dragging my little 20kg kayak back up to the car. Not a bad two- hour adventure I thought. In retrospect I would have liked a buddy with me. Solo kayaking in unknown territory can be more than a little unnerving, especially if, like me you have never really been that comfortable out in the big blue. It doesn’t stop me from continuing to sample its delights though.