Apprehended by the UK Border Force

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Speeding Frigate

The sea beyond Plymouth Sound is always busy with ships of the Royal Navy. During my kayak trips to the Eddystone Lighthouse eagle-eyed observers ,  or maybe the radar operators, no doubt spot me and wonder what on earth I am doing anything up to ten miles offshore. I often wonder myself.

Frigates have sped past at high speed but always at a respectful distance.

During my most recent jaunt out to the Eddystone reef, on a superb smooth-sea day, I watched a small navy cutter emerge from the sound many miles in front of me and head towards me, passing half a mile to my left. A gun on the front, ‘ BORDER FORCE’ written in large black letters on the hull and the name ‘VIGILANT’ beside a large painted Union Jack on the superstructure. I had plenty of time to study it carefully and could see people moving around in the bridge.

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Border Force Customs Cutter

I felt a bit self-conscious as I just knew I was being scrutinised. Steady paddling and no picking of nose. And I didn’t stare, I looked straight ahead and peered out of the side of my eyes.

The bass throb of the engines started to fade as it went past, but then suddenly dropped to an idle. I cranked my neck around and although it doesn’t twist as far as it used to I could see the ship turn in a broad semicircle behind me. It then powered up again and started to draw level with me on the right-hand side.

I felt eyes all over me and then the engines again fell quiet. After a bit of a pause in the action a black RIB slowly emerged from the rear of the cutter, and then gripped the ‘bone in its teeth’ as it sped directly towards me. As it slowed and came alongside I stopped paddling and smiled an acknowledgement to the three officers, all wearing protective helmets.

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The RIB is deployed

They very politely asked me a few questions regarding what I was doing and took down a few details (in their notebooks, not on i-pads). They pointed out that they had to be very alert for immigrants, and that I was the first kayak they had ever stopped.

They then sped back to their mothership and went on their way towards the south.

This was actually the most exciting encounter during an otherwise fairly uneventful wildlife watching trip to the Eddystone, during which I saw only a couple of Storm Petrels, a handful of terns and a moderate number of Manx Shearwaters.IMG_6174

Not so Lone

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Krysia and Becky

I can’t think of anything I enjoy more than paddling for dozens, hundreds or thousands of miles in complete silence, letting myself get completely absorbed into the surrounding watery world and fine tuning my ears so I can hear the nautical equivalent of a pin dropping. Such as the ‘puff’ of a distant porpoise on the open sea or the rattling song of a Lesser Whitethroat coming from deep within a riverside bush.

Or maybe I can. If you can do all of the above but accompanied by like-minded paddling chums, family members or (and) old friends then it’s a win/win situation all round. OK the silence thing goes out the window but you can have too much of that. And the chances of seeing ultra-spooky creatures like otters and foxes and deer decreases, but this is offset by the excitement emanating from your fellow paddlers.

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To see roe Deer like this, you’ve really got to be quiet

Extra pairs of eyes increase the chance of wildlife encounters. I always forget that. For every sensational creature I have spotted when by myself, I must have missed two more of the same which were (sniggering) behind me or off to the side.

For example, Paul spotted a seal hauled out on the mud of the Fowey estuary way up near St. Winnow where I would never bother looking for a seal as it’s a long way from the sea. It would have lurched into the water before I had noticed it, but because eagle-eyed Paul spotted it early, I grabbed a pic which showed it was a Harbour Seal with its characteristic ‘friendly’ face and V-shaped nostrils.

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Fowey Harbour Seal

The only Harbour Seal I have ever seen in Cornwall, all the rest have been Grey Seals.

Paul certainly seems to have an affinity for seals:

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Paul plus friend, a Grey Seal pup

Now the weather is a bit warmer I am very keen to ask along fellow adventurers to my favourite paddling haunts. Unless you are a bit weird like me (and a couple of hardcore friends) its potentially pretty miserable when it’s cold. But pick the right day, load the picnic up with cakes and buns, stop off for lots of cups of tea, and EVERYBODY has a great time. There’s some great locations for that well-earned break.

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Picnic at Penquite Quay

Kayaking seems to be a good way to enjoy guilt-free ad-lib chocolate consumption, on the assumption that you burn off the calories by paddling. I’m not sure whether you do, as I think that paddling at moderate speed uses up about the same amount of energy as a moderate walk, judging by how warm you get. But don’t worry about it too much.

Birds carry on doing what they are doing no matter how loud you are (within reason). While padding up the Fowey River at extreme low tide I was watching a Herring Gull flicking over the kelp looking for crabs. It found a really big one and flicked it into the air by grabbing it by a leg. There was then a prolonged stand-off between bird and crustacean, with the crab waving its pincers threateningly in the air and the gull dodging about like a Matador trying to nip at an exposed limb. On this occasion it was victory to the crab…..the gull flew off defeated and deflated.

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Herring Gull vs Crab part 1
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Herring Gull vs crab part 2

And I never tire of watching the little families of Shelducks that are reared in the wooded upper reaches of the many sheltered inlets around the southwest. Its good to know they can find somewhere undisturbed to do so.

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Shelduck family

I tend to take the scenery for granted while straining my eyes for wildlife.

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Up the Fowey River
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St. Winnow Church

The upper Tamar Estuary is my favourite sheltered paddle. An excellent jaunt for experienced and novice paddlers alike. An easy five miles following the tidal river twisting and turning between steep banks clad in natural oakwood, past historic Morwellham Quay, beneath Morwell crags, and finishing beneath the weir which marks the tidal limit at Gunnislake. A good place to stop for a picnic, although I don’t think you’re supposed to.

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Tamar Lunch break

The river water is lovely and clear up here, and Kingfishers and Dippers zip past. The only criticism of the water below Morwellham is that it is estuarine and muddy, so that photographs do not look quite so perfect.

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My last trip up the Tamar was a few days ago, involving a real medley of Sit-on-top kayaks. I paddled my Gumotex Safari inflatable kayak, Becky was in my ageing Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro, Krysia darted along in my Cobra Expedition and Kevin was in his new Tarpon 100. Top entertainment.

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Beneath Morwell Crags

Although the sheltered inlets provide the ultimate in kayaking relaxation therapy, it’s important to get out onto the open sea when conditions allow, not only to give you eyeballs a change of scenery , but to catch some fish! The mackerel are now here and kayaking has got to be the best way to hook one.

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Dave with his first mackerel of the season

A venture from near Bude down the coast to Boscastle was not quite as easy as we had been anticipating because the swell was rather more lumpy than forecast.There was no chance of venturing into the caves but it was quite exhilarating paddling close to the rocks with the waves slurping in and out, and particularly exciting at the tip of the headland of Cambeak which amplified the size of the swell.

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Rounding Cambeak

A recent trip to Mevagissey was rather less hairy because the sea there is exceptionally sheltered and frequently completely flat. It is east-facing so protected from the prevailing wind and swell. It’s always fun doing a circuit of the outer and inner harbour, and it’s always very pleasing to have the freedom and space that is provided by kayaking instead of barging your way through overcrowded narrow streets and queuing at the burger bar or ice cream shop, and generally loafing around like most of the visitors seem to do. I’m one of those people that starts weaving about to take evasive action when an oncoming pedestrian is  twenty yards away, and still bumps into them. I’m thinking I don’t really ‘do’ crowds.

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Mevagissey Inner Harbour

Oystercatchers nest all round the southwest coast and they are particularly noisy at this time of year when they have fluffy youngsters about. They peep an alarm call very loudly when you approach and will even fly out over your head in an effort to see you off. Always fun to see.

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Oystercatcher on full volume

On this particular trip we saw a couple of Turnstones which were as usual very tame and looking quite smart in their summer plumage.

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Turnstone

There is some great ‘rock-hopping’ to have and gaps to be explored between Mevagissey and Pentewan.

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Mevagissey ‘rock-hopping’

One of the most evocative sounds of  the coast is the shrill and piercing call of a Peregrine Falcon which makes the hair on your neck stand up (but not as much as the hair on the neck of passing pigeons, if they hair instead of feathers).  A pair were milling about in a steep sided cove and looked like they had just enjoyed lunch  (pigeon probably). Always a thrill to see the world’s fastest creature.

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Peregrine Falcon

When the company is good and the weather is warm everybody loves kayaking.

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Gorgeous Gerrans Bay

With a weather forecast exceptional for early April I couldn’t resist a beefy offshore paddle across the relatively quiet waters of the south coast of Cornwall east of Falmouth.

I set off from the beautiful sandy beach at Carne in the heart of Gerrans Bay. It has parking close to the beach, a slipway….and it is free! There are only a few parking spaces however, which tend to rapidly fill with dog walkers, so you’ve got to get there early.

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Carne Beach in Gerrans Bay

Gerrans Bay is possibly the best site in Cornwall (and probably the whole of SW England) for wintering sea ducks and Divers, and there were still plenty on show today. Great Northern Divers do not seem to hurry north to their breeding grounds in the Spring, and of the fifteen to twenty I saw today only a couple were in their smart summer plumage. Some were still in their winter outfits, most in transitional moult.

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Great Northern Diver still in winter plumage
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Great Northern Diver moulting to summer plumage

Several uttered their querulous contact call which for some reason always sends a shiver up my spine. It is a true sound of the wilderness,

At Nare Head I swung south and dug in for a ten mile open sea stretch to a giant bulk carrier ship anchored in Falmouth Bay. It provided a good target and kept me over a mile offshore so I might see a dolphin.

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Bulk Carrier in Falmouth Bay ten miles away

More Divers and lots of small groups of Guillemots which were also in a variety of plumages. Some were pretty tame.

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Guillemots

It was more or less windless so I heard the puff of a porpoise clearly. I surfaced quite close and popped up a couple more times as it went on its way. It was probably the biggest porpoise I have ever seen  and I looked hard at it because I thought it might be something different. Definitely a porpoise-like triangular fin but it just seemed very stout with quite a broad back, and was moving with unusual purpoise for a porpoise (!). Mmmm.

I crossed the mouth of Carrick Roads and approached the mighty ship which was closer to the Helford River than I had thought.

The guy with the hard hard wandering around on the deck returned my greeting with an uncertain wave as he seemed a bit surprised to see me out there.

I slungshot around the Cape Veni and again dodged the many craft entering and exiting Falmouth, and headed for the beach at  Porthbeor  for lunch. I had it entirely to myself.

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Around the Bulk Carrier ‘Cape Veni’

Then it was offshore again to cross the mouth of Gerrans Bay, and a loop around Gull Rock. A few Gannets smacked into the water in front of me, sending a plume of spray up always higher than you would think.

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Gannet and Gull Rock

Back past Nare head again for the final leg. Nare head always cricks your neck because it is a particularly spectacular promontory that demands close scrutinisation.

I was thrilled to hear the musical call of a Chough which was prodding about with typical restlessness on the cliff, before floating off around the corner. Fab.

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Cornish Chough

I exited the water after an eight hour 22 mile trip. Had a chat with a few more dog walkers (and there dogs), and off for a McDonalds drive thru. Large Chicken Legend Meal (mayo, large Coke), followed by Strawberry Sundae. The perfect day

Choice of Kayak.My Top Ten

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Paddleyak Swift and Cobra Expedition Sit-on-top Kayaks (and a couple of Loons)

This is my guide to the top ten kayaks I have owned or paddled which are suitable for flatwater touring, coastal cruising and wildlife watching.

They are listed in reverse order with number one being the kayak that I consider to be the best for the job.

10. SIPRE MILLENIUM SEA KAYAK

I thought I should include a conventional Sit-in sea kayak just to show that I am not completely biased towards Sit-on-tops. I bought this particular craft when I dibbled with a bit of competition sea kayaking. It was suitably quick and I thought it might also be good for notching up a few miles  of coastal touring.

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Sipre Millenium Kayak

I paddled round Baggy and Morte points in North Devon on a perfect calm day, enjoyed the thrill of scorching along but really didn’t enjoy the gnawing concern of what would happen if I tipped out. I know how to eskimo roll but was fully aware that the majority of competent paddlers (and incompetent ones like me) probably wouldn’t be able to perform a roll ‘in anger’.

You would be struggling to find a faster boat than this, but if you want a worry-free paddle, would like to sit on something more forgiving than a solid fibreglass seat, and paddle something a bit more stable and relaxing, then this is not for you.

It looked great on the roofrack. It spent a lot of time there.

I sold it.

9. GUMOTEX SEAWAVE INFLATABLE DOUBLE KAYAK

Oh come on, you’ve got to be kidding. You cannot include an inflatable in a review of serious kayaks. Well, yes I can, because quality inflatables are remarkably waterworthy.

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Gumotex Seawave Inflatable Kayak. It makes you grin.

The trouble with hardshell double kayaks is that they tend to be horrifically heavy. Getting them on the roof could result in any number of strains ,tears and ruptures to many areas of your musculoskeletal system.

This kayak lives in a bag the size of a large rucksack and once inflated is so comfortable that come coffee break and lunchtime you will want to stay lounging and stretching out in the boat instead of trying to find somewhere comfortable to sit on a patch of slithery kelp between those barnacle-encrusted rocks.

Inflatables have the reputation of being blown around by the wind lilo-style. This is massively reduced by the tracking fin which acts like a skeg and locks it on to the surface very effectively.

For me the Seawave is just a bit too long and takes a long time  to inflate, and is prone to bending in the middle when there is a bit of chop. I don’t use the optional top deck stiffening poles.

It’s also a pity it doesn’t have drainage (scupper) holes like its smaller stablemate the Safari, so that water flicked in by the paddles gradually accumulates and needs to be scooped out every so often.

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Gumotex Seawave in camping mode

But it is superb for a super-comfortable and relaxed paddle for two, or a major camping expedition for one. I used mine for a four day camping trip down the River Severn.

8.PADDLEYAK SWIFT.

 

South Africans know about seaworthy craft as their patch of sea can get a bit lively.

The Paddleyak Swift comes from Cape Town and is a fantastic and stylish sit-on-top sea kayak (technically a hybrid as it’s got a coaming for a spray deck, but you really don’t need it). It is only 23 inches wide and so unusually fast for a SOT.

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Paddleyak Swift

I paddled mine for many years and completed my longest sea paddle of 36 miles (along the length of Chesil Bank and back) in this craft. It’s drawback is that there is no comfortable seat, little back support and the hatches are very small.

But you will struggle to find a better looking kayak. When I rolled up on the beach heads used to turn. Or was that because of my groans as my numb backside came back to life?

It’s just a bit basic compared to the more ‘comfort aware’ range of kayaks now available.

7 OCEAN KAYAK SCUPPER PRO

This was one of the first plastic Sit-on-tops. And what a design. 26 inches wide so narrower than many of its style , and at 14ft long  impressively fast. A huge hatch at the front (which inevitably leaks a bit), and a tankwell behind the seat.

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Ocean Kayak Scupper Pro

The only real drawback is the low seating position which means you have a wet ride and are permanently sitting in a puddle of water. This of course is a common SOT problem but most others have  either the seat raised a bit or have channels to drain away the water.

I managed to hole my Scupper Pro while paddling down a river and a rock punctured the hull adjacent to the central tankwell scupper hole at the back. Although it was repaired I lost a bit of confidence with it.

6 WILDERNESS TARPON 160

I think the Tarpon 160 was designed for Americans who spend a lot of time at McDonalds. It is a battleship of a kayak. I bought it when I was in the heart of my kayak-fishing phase with a view to landing some mighty fish. It did indeed see some action with several Tope up to 60lbs.

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Tope in Tarpon

It is very robustly built and has a  comfortable seat and excellent adjustable backrest. My 160 was 16ft long so I could pack in huge quantities of camping gear (plus other people’s surplus they couldn’t fit in their own kayaks). It is 28″ wide which is about standard for this type of kayak.

Tarpon’s are justifiably popular but have one major drawback (apart from the leaky front hatch which I think is now resolved). They are horrifically heavy. I’m still not sure how I used to ‘clean and jerk’ mine onto the roof of my MPV without dislocating my entire body.

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Wilderness Tarpon 160

I think it weighed 32 kgs but I never dared check in case it was more than that.

As I do a lot of solo kayaking a boat that I can get onto the roof by myself without needing a stay in hospital is absolutely essential.

And surely having a similar craft which is 25% lighter can only be an advantage.

But it served me well during several multiday camping trips including a five-day expedition to the Scilly Isles rounded off by the thirty mile open-sea crossing back to Cornwall.

I sold it for something lighter.

5 RTM DISCO

This is my kind of boat. I really love it. It is narrow (26″) and sleek and longish (14ft). Best of all it is light….23kgs.

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RTM Disco Kayak

I have used one quite a lot in Spain and paddled in excess of 30 miles per day.  I think I am probably about as tall as it would accept as my feet are squashed against the bulkhead of the footwell, and I am 6ft 1in. Similarly a heavier paddler might have balance issues as this is quite a narrow delicate craft, certainly when compared to the Tarpon which could accommodate a small elephant.

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RTM Disco kayak

But it looks great, like a conventional sea kayak, and goes satisfactorily fast.

It has a good watertight tupperware-style front hatch, and attachment points for a comfortable seat.

4. OCEAN KAYAK MALIBU 2

My first SOT Kayak. 16 years ago. My eyes were opened. It was exactly what I had been dreaming of for years. What a fantastic boat. Although little more than a flat slab of plastic with a couple of shallow recesses for seats.

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Ocean Kayak Malibu 2

But absolutely worry-free and in fact great fun for swimming off, fishing from and generally larking about with the family. Thank goodness I didn’t buy that Sit-in sea kayak which I so nearly did, and would only have used a fraction as often as the Malibu 2.

It is quite wide and quite slow but extraordinarily light compared to the newer double SOTs.

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You can only do that on a sit-on-top

It introduced large numbers of friends and family to the delights of kayaking.

Fun,fun and more fun.

It was eventually scrapped when the keel wore completely through due to excessive dragging.

3. GUMOTEX SAFARI INFLATABLE KAYAK

I have owned a Safari for nearly two years and still cannot quite believe it. It is my kayak of choice for trips up to ten miles long (quite often more) and it seems to defy the laws of science and aquatics, because it goes almost as fast as anything else. It really shouldn’t.

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Gumotex Safari

I think that it is because it is so sensationally comfortable, and jamming your backside against the huge inflatable seat, and your feet against the squashy inflatable footrest, means that you can perfect your paddling action including pumping of the legs and so maximise your paddling efficiency. You are poised like a coiled spring.

I was very doubtful when I bought. it but thought it would hasten my return to the water following a knee replacement. It did, as it weighs only 12kgs.

But since then I have clocked up over 2,000 miles in it, including a 32 mile open coast paddle around Land’s End from Penzance to Longships Lighthouse and back, which is a grade ‘C’ sea kayak trip (the most severe).

It seems to keep up with chums in normal recreational SOT kayaks and is a lot easier to sling around on land. Lots of room for gear in the tankwell behind and, probably its best feature, has scupper holes between the side and floor inflation chambers that make it self-draining. I didn’t realise what a benefit this was until I saw how much water accumulated in the non self-draining Seawave.

Its tracking fin means it doesn’t get blown around.

At only ten foot long and 28″ wide it still amazes me with its speed through the water.

My only criticism is that it gets slowed down rather more than a more substantial craft when heading in to wind and chop but this is hardly surprising.

It is so idiotically comfy and so light and easy to use that I would dare to suggest that over the course of an entire days paddling you would end up notching up the same distance in a Gumotex Safari as you would in any other kayak because you take a fraction of the time to get on and off the water and don’t need to have breaks to stretch your legs onshore because it is a lot more comfortable in the boat (and you don’t get stiff, and can move around).

It might be a bit tippy if you are over 80-90kgs.

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Gumotex Safari….more comfortable than a bed

2. COBRA EXPEDITION

I spent a long time looking for a kayak like this.  Essentially an expedition sea kayak with SOT credentials. And it was plastic so good and rock-proof.

Narrow (less than 23″ wide) and surprisingly light (less than 23kgs). 18ft long.

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Cobra Expedition fully laden for camping

But very difficult to get hold of one in the UK because of lack of demand. Kayakers wanting a performance sea kayak went for a Sit-in, paddlers wanting a recreational Sit-on-top , frequently for fishing, went for a wider more stable variety….very sensibly.

But not me. I was looking for a narrow craft that would REALLY do the mileage, but by this time I was a definite SOT convert. I just can’t see the point of having to worry about safety associated with falling out of your boat when you have absolutely no worry at all when paddling a SOT. And can stretch your legs. And sit with your legs dangling over the edge having a cup of tea ten miles from the shore. All those pages devoted to rescue techniques in the sea kayaking books can be torn out and replaced with a few words……..’you just climb back on’.

I will accept that it just might not be that easy to climb back on if the conditions were bad enough to tip you out in the first place, but its going to be easier than getting back into a swamped  sit-in sea kayak.

(And also I will accept that SOTs encourage completely inexperienced kayakers to take to the water with all the associated risks).

Back to the Cobra Expedition. It’s not quite as comfortable as some SOTs and comes only with a backrest. I glued on a load of camping mat to the seat area which probably makes it a bit more unstable. Stability is definitely an issue with the Expedition but something you will get used to.

To make it as steady as possible the seat is set low. This leads to a wet ride in anything more than six inches of chop because water comes over the low freeboard. So expect to get a wet backside in anything other than completely flat conditions.

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Cobra Expedition

The rudder is handy but it has an appallingly big turning circle. However this is not really a problem as tight turns are not really required when sea kayaking. The beauty of having a rudder is that you can concentrate on keeping  up a steady paddling rhythm and finely tweek or adjust your direction using the foot pedals.

Only one major complaint with this kayak . The hatches leak. They are good size hatches with covers locked down by eight plastic rotating toggles. But if you get waves over the deck, and this does happen a lot with this craft which is fast and low-profile, water gets through. Embarassingly I havn’t found out quite how yet. I completely taped over the cover of the small day hatch behind the sea, and water still got in!

The quantity that enters always seems more than it actually is, but it is a bit of a concern given my penchant for offshore paddling.

However overall a fantastic kayak.

I put its Expedition credentials to the test when I spent two months paddling around the west of Scotland in 2014 (including around St Kilda). Surely as good as any  Sit-in sea kayak.

1. OCEAN KAYAK PROWLER 13 or 15

The original, and in my opinion still the best.

It’s pretty remarkable that Ocean Kayak’s initial design for one of the first recreational SOTs has yet to be bettered.

It’s perfect for beginners and experienced kayakers alike.

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Prowler 13 in epic conditions at Scilly

At 28″ wide and 13 (or 15)ft long it is moderately fast. It is super stable. It is well laid out. You can clip in a comfortable seat. It has got a big storage space behind the seat. It is a pleasure to paddle. It is lightish (approx 24kgs).

I am talking about the original uncluttered Prowler 13. This is all you need for touring or wildlife watching. All manner of newer versions are aimed at fishing and the plethora of gadgets increase the weight considerably. Light is good as it ultimately means you go paddling more often.

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Prowler 13…good at everything

I would recommend the Prowler 13 to anyone as a first SOT , and often do. It’s length means it has better tracking than a shorter kayak and so is more suitable for longer trips. Also length means it has better ‘glide’, so carries on moving through the water for longer and in the right direction if you stop to scratch your nose.

And more length means more suitability for packing in the gear for camping trips.

My first single SOT was a Prowler 15 and I seriously regret selling it.

SUMMARY

So that is it….my overview of the best kayaks for distance cruising and wildlife watching, based on nearly 17,000 miles paddled.

You will notice I drone on a lot about weight. Weight is much more important than you might realise. And plastic (rotomoulded) kayaks seem to be getting heavier because they come with more and more features which are largely unnecessary if you are not fishing. All you need for fishing anyway is a couple of rodholders.

The heavier a kayak is the less likely you are to take it out in marginal conditions (such as a cold wet day in winter) because it is just too much effort. You are more likely to stay at home and eat cakes and watch the telly.

That is why I love my Gumotex Safari inflatable because I can chuck it in the back of the car and be on the water within a minute of arriving at the river/lake/sea. This is an extreme example but the principle applies to all of them.

Unquestionably the best multipurpose craft which you will be guaranteed to enjoy is a Sit-on-top which is over 12ft long (so it tracks and glides well on extended trips) and about 28″ wide which provides the best compromise between speed and stability. Like the good old Prowler 13.

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RTM Disco and Ocean Kayak Prowler 13

The Total Tamar

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Cormorant drying out

From Gunnislake weir it’s a twenty mile paddle down the entire length of the tidal reaches of the River Tamar. If you finish at Devil’s Point where it opens out into Plymouth Sound it’s more like nineteen but you really have to take a slingshot around Drake’s island to provide a satisfactory turning point for the trip.

It was such a nice sunny end-of-March day that I set out to paddle the whole length and back again, but because of the tide times I would have to start at Calstock and go downstream first and finish with the section upstream afterwards. The very high Spring tides would be a big help and power me along, especially in the middle section. Even so, a BIG day out and a good way to get fit for the Summer. Or collapse.

Definitely a job for my long and sleek Cobra Expedition SOT kayak.

I slipped beneath the never-ceases-to-amaze-me Calstock viaduct through the early morning mist before sunrise. Chilly enough to make me thankful I had remembered to bring gloves. Singing Blackbirds and Chiffchaffs injected a Spring boost into my cold musculature.IMG_0143

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Early morning Calstock

The water was absolutely glassy as I cruised along absolutely silently past sleeping Cotehele Quay.

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Cotehele Quay

The river then widens significantly for the long straight past Halton Quay prior to the huge loop starting at Pentillie and finishing at Weir quay.IMG_0159

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Pentillie

Incidentally, there are good slipways to put in at Calstock and Cotehele although these are very muddy and tricky at low tide, and an excellent all-stage-of-the-tide gravel slipway at Weir Quay.

The next four miles to the Tamar Bridge is a bit uninteresting and potentially unpleasant if the wind is blowing. After Cargreen on the Cornwall side the River Tavy joins from the left and the branch line train clatters over the metal bridge at its neck.

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Tamar Bridge

I was very pleased that as I approached the vast Tamar Bridge the wind was still non existent, and the outgoing tide whipped me along.

The moderate easterly wind which had so far lain dormant inland started to make itself felt as Devonport dockyard came into view. I always feel a bit small and vulnerable here as there is a lot of boat activity with navy boats shuttling about all over the place, and the Marine Police always watching, and no doubt wondering what on earth I am doing out in the middle of the wide river, all by myself, battling through the chop.

Four submarines and a couple of frigates on the left, a supply ship on the right, and then you have to time your passage correctly to dodge between the three Torpoint chain ferries. Not quite as straighhtforward as it seems as their movements seem a bit random, although I’m sure they aren’t.

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Torpoint Ferry

Round the corner towards Devil’s point I hugged the Devon shore and although kept out of the wind found myself paddling against a stiff eddy current flowing upstream. I diverted into Mayflower marina for a breather and a cup of coffee. A seal popped up beside me and as I fumbled for my camera it disappeared and was gone.

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King Billy (overlooking Devil’s Point)

As I emerged into Plymouth sound the wind really started to bite, but I was determined to get to Drake’s island as it provides such a good target and also the carrot of a sandy beach to stretch the legs. Although I’m pretty sure you are not allowed to land on Drake’s island I think there is some rule to say it’s OK if you are below the high water mark. This might be a load of tosh but I don’t want to find out because I am going to stop there anyway.

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Lunch Break Drake’s Island

As I hauled up on the beach and levered myself out of the seat , a pair of Sandwich terns floated past with their grating call….Spring is here.

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Sandwich Tern

I loafed about for the best part of an hour waiting for the tide to turn, very conscious of the marine police control tower half a mile away in Plymouth, watching me like the eye of Sauron in the Dark Tower.

As usual I set off too early and spent the next hour paddling against the last gasp of the ebbing tide, which as usual didn’t turn till way after it was supposed to. I think it is down to inertia; even though the tide is rising it takes a while to reverse the current in a large body of moving water.

I successfully dodged two of the Torpoint ferries but fell foul of the police boats when I ventured too close to the submarines. The officers were very polite and I diverted a bit further out.

The huge lake upstream of the bridge was a bit of a haul with wave chop coming over the deck but at least the tide was kicking in. I was surprised to see five Shoveler ducks flying over.

As the twists and turns of the river arrived the wind eased off. I was thrilled to see a pair of Barnacle Geese swimming beside the mud of the Devon bank at Halton Quay.  If this was a single bird it would probably have been an ‘escape’, but the fact that it was a pair makes wild birds seem more likely. If so, the first I have seen since I saw skeins migrating in across the Outer Hebrides (being harried by Golden Eagles!) decades ago.

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Barnacle Geese (and Shelduck)

Only other birds of interest were five Common Sandpipers and a single Green Sandpiper on the corner just below Calstock.

Arriving back at Calstock with thirty-one miles under my belt, it was a bit of a struggle to set off for another five miles upstream. But the sun was out and pleasantly warm, and the water smooth.

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Morwellham

Half a pizza at Morwellham Quay fuelled me for the final push to Gunnislake weir. The riverside tree that I had noticed had been gnawed by a Beaver last time I was here had fallen down. No other signs of any chewed trees, but I’m sure it was a beaver as you can see the teeth marks quite clearly.IMG_0279

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Tree chewed by Beaver
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Gunnislake Weir

I didn’t hang around at the weir as I was just about spent, and cruised back to Calstock on completely smooth water and a current that was just starting to ebb.

Three Kingfishers in the upper section.

Forty-one miles paddled. Total trip time twelve hours.IMG_0282

Biggest milage yet.

Another Extraordinary Whale Tale

Yet another trip down to South Devon to try to see the Humpback Whale that has been hanging around in Start Bay.

The first day bought a howling southwesterly wind so kayaking was off. It was also very cold. Hezzer and I  had superb views of a handful of Sandwich Terns working their way along the beach and frequently diving in for sandeels, as well as a couple of subadult Pomarine skuas harrying the gulls further offshore.

On the cetacean front we managed to see a small number of porpoises despite the choppy conditions, and the whale finally appeared in the late afternoon and worked its way past to the south, keeping well offshore and not giving anything more than a glimpse of its body, and just a hint of tail flukes.If it hadn’t been for the blows we would probably have never seen it.

The second day promised lighter winds and sunny skies, so I was very disappointed to be greeted by a hefty swell creating a nasty shore ‘dump’ whipped up by strong overnight winds,which once again ruled out any kayaking. Hopefully it would drop later in the day. Gannets and porpoises provided the only viewing through the morning, and then Hezzer got news via twitter that the whale was tangled by fishing nets over towards Blackpool sands. Oh no.

Through binoculars we could see a couple of fishing boats close together of Blackpool a couple of miles away, and then saw the whale blow close to them. And then it blew again in exactly the same place so it looked like it was stuck.

We drove round to Blackpool Sands as the RNLI inshore rescue boat was arriving to transfer members of the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) out to the scene. I thought that I might just be some use as an extra pair of hands so I inflated Puffing Pig, my Gumotex Safari kayak, and waited on the shore for a suitable gap in the waves to get out onto the sea. The growing crowd would have smirked if I had been caught by a hefty wave breaking violently onto the shingle. There was the briefest lull in the swell and I was away.Just.

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Paddling out

The RNLI crew sped over to warn me to keep away from the whale and although I hinted that I might have been able to help but they didn’t seem convinced (they were absolutely correct as it turned out).

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Thumbs up from the RNLI

I was soon out near the attendant fishing boat ‘Maverick’ and the whale kept surfacing and trying to dive away. Surface conditions were more lumpy than I was expecting and combined with the underlying swell I realised I wasn’t going to be of any use to anyone, or any whale.

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Lumpy sea conditions, and whale

So I paddled quickly back to the shore and glanced over my shoulder as I heard the whale blowing, rather desperately it seemed, behind me. I just got out onto the shingle before a mighty set of waves arrived, which would have minced me.

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Blowing Humpback
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It’s behind you (me)

Watching from the shore numerous rescuers were ferried out to the fishing boat with various gear for cutting the lobster pot rope wrapped around the whale’s body and tail.

The Salcombe offshore lifeboat arrived to support.

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Salcombe lifeboat arrives

The hundred plus onlookers held their breath as the operation reached a critical point. Six crew members on the fishing boat hauled on the rope to bring the whale alongside, while a diver from the BDMLR leaned precariously over the edge of the boat to cut the whale free.

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The critical cut

Success.The whale was suddenly released and it swam away, surfacing several times nearby as though nothing had happened. It headed back towards its favourite feeding ground towards Slapton.

The action happened too far offshore to hear any whoops of joy from the rescuers, but I’m sure there were  some. They certainly, and deservedly, seemed elated when they got back to the shore.4I2A9475

What a fantastic job they did. Carefully weighing up the situation, getting the right people and right equipment out to the whale (which wasn’t easy because they had to swim off the shore to the inshore lifeboat due to the heavy swell), and then the climax of the operation which looked to be a risky procedure for the diver hanging over the edge of the boat, inches above the whale.

Everyone on the beach was thrilled. Even the dogs seemed happy.

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Smiling dog

Incidentally, you can see why many observers think the whale has a calf. There are a lot of porpoises about (although they would be about twenty times smaller than a newborn Humpback!)

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Harbour Porpoise in the thick of it

All of todays photos taken by Henry Kirkwood. Thanks Hezzer.

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Hezzer and his mighty lens

Costa del Bonxie

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Puerto Banus

We spent four days on the Costa del Sol,  based halfway between Estepona and Puerto Banus. From the beach the extraordinary Rock of Gibraltar is usually visible thirty miles away to the southwest sticking out like a sole molar from the gappy gum of Andalucia.

The weather forecast for the first couple of days was exceptional for mid March, even for Spain. Sunny, hot, and most importantly for a kayaker, hardly a breath of wind. Perfect for the paddle to Gibraltar.

I was using a RTM Disco kayak, a really excellent sit-on-top that is quite narrow (26″) so licks along and is effectively a mini sea kayak. It cuts through the water a bit better than the slightly fatter sit-on-tops, and with no ‘hull-slap’.

It was completely dark when I set off at 6.30 (Spanish time). I stopped for breakfast on the beach at Estepona soon after sunrise and ladled on the factor 50 suncream. And then ladled on a load more.

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Sunrise Spanish-style

The sea was so calm and flat and benign that I decided to cut directly across the bay to Gibraltar 23 miles away, which would take me several miles offshore so hopefully meet up with a sea creature or two.

I was nearly too far out to see a small school of Common dolphins between me and the coast. I adjusted course slightly to intercept and then paddled along beside them for about a mile, only just able to keep up as their cruising speed is four to five mph.

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Common Dolphins and Gibraltar

It was a school of about a dozen , with a couple of small calves sticking very close to their mother’s side the whole time, and breathing when they did. The water was oily calm and with the slab of Gibraltar as a backdrop it was quite an experience. Eventually they swung offshore and I resumed my course.

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Mother and calf Common Dolphin

The kayak-fishermen off the headlands were not particularly friendly, saying, in perfect English, that they did not speak English. I think they considered me a threat to their fishing even though I quite clearly had no rods.

I had my passport tucked away in a drybag just in case I was stopped by one of the many customs/police boats zipping about.

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Lunch break

As I crossed from Spanish water into Gibraltar a dark shape at the surface several hundred metres away caught my eye. I initially thought it was inanimate and nearly didn’t bother with it until it flopped half-heartedly. It turned out to be a fin belonging to a really big Sunfish, by far the biggest I have ever seen.

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First glimpse of thumping great Sunfish

Sunfish are the biggest bony fish in the world (so excluding sharks and rays, which are cartilaginous), and it wasn’t quite a record breaker, but must have been four foot across. I sneaked up on it silently and managed a few underwater pics as it very slowly and reluctantly sunk into the depths. They really are the most bizarre design.

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Ocean Sunfish

After 31 miles and ten hours paddling I rolled up at Catalan beach , Gibraltar.Feeling fairly pooped, and a bit burnt where the copious quantities of suncream didn’t reach.

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Arrival at Catalan beach

Back along the coast near Estepona, the next day was equally sunny and still ,so I headed offshore. I was a bit surprised to come across half a dozen Great Skuas (aka Bonxies)which really do not seem to be suited to the calm waters and busy, built-up coast of Southern Spain. They are surely more suited to a windblasted patch of bogland above a wavetorn Scottish coast.

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Bonxie on the Costa

Some were cruising about with that alarming sense of purpose, and enormous potential power. Some were resting on the water.

I saw half a dozen more the next day, and wonder whether they actually winter here as they seemed quite at home and not just passing through (although I’m not sure quite how they would look different if they WERE just passing through). Maybe, like us, they were on holiday.

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Bonxie and the Sierras

I really like Bonxies and they might just be my favourite seabird. I’m not sure why as their plumage is sludge brown and they always look a bit scruffy. But they are never boring and to see them accelerate in to intercept a tern or a kittiwake or a gannet to make it disgorge is breathtaking.

The birding was complemented by a dozen or so Balearic Shearwaters zipping past, and a couple of Adouin’s gulls to dilute the monopoly of the hefty Yellow-legged Gulls (that are the size of a Greater Black-back).

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Adouin’s Gull

The final day  in Spain was absolutely awful: rain, wind and cold. Couldn’t have been more British. Time to head home.

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Gannet