I realise I am awake. I haven’t been asleep for hours, yet this
is the first time I’m conscious. The slapslapslap of the flysheet
tells all. Eyes tight, I extend a hand from my bag and fumble for my
Nokia. I press out an ingrained key sequence. Eventually I summon will
to squint at the display.
I am about to completely miss Ramsey Sound. My head is down, but I am being sucked inexorably to seaward of Ramsey Island. Several hours into a three week journey, already I’m embarrassed by my own incompetence. A flurry of long strokes and finally I clear the tip of the island…on the correct side. Now allied with the flood tide, I surge down towards the broken bottle silhouette of the Bitches rocks. I spy paddlers ferrying across to play the Bitches tidal race. I envy them, but not for the top wave; they have company and camaraderie. My friends are on a ferry to Norway. Tonight I’ll camp and dine alone. The boat accelerates amongst the swirls of Horse Rock, and only slows when it reaches Whitesands Bay. I am not alone. A solitary porpoise and I share the last rays.
Afternoon; I force myself to get up and boil some noodles. As the rain rattles the walls, I take stock. The interior of my space capsule is littered with chocolate and sweet wrappers, newspapers, Lucozade bottles, crushed clothes. My sleeping bag is dank from sweat and condensation. I have no mirror, but guess I am no oil painting. I retrieve the radio from under a pile of charts, and tune through a forest of static. Soporific dance music, or cricket.
I have cut in too close around the point at Newquay, and collided with a back eddy. The sudden violence of the breaking waves is daunting. I accelerate to a sprint but my kayak is static. I veer inshore and off, trying to surf my way out. Dry and warm minutes ago, I’m now drenched to my armpits and wiping salt from my eyes. I find purchase against the current and judge I am making headway, but the harbour wall refuses to fall back. Seagulls tear the air apart with their cries and I’m cursing wildly to no one in particular. I gain an audience. In unison on either side, curved dorsal fins pierce the surface, rising to expose slick grey backs. Within touch of both paddle blades, I have a dolphin escort. I curse harder, in awed disbelief.
I emerge before dawn, unable to ignore my bladder. Steadying myself in the porch, I aim into the bushes. Only with my business finished do I realise that the rain has moved on. I am the only person witnessing these sparkling stars. The orange glow to the south denotes garish Blackpool, but I am transfixed by the view north, ten miles across Morecambe Bay to Barrow. Deciphering the urban glare, I can make out the immense derricks and submarine units of the dockyards. The wind feels less defined. Could this be it? I can be on the water in under an hour. I am already stuffing away my down jacket before I take a reality check. The wind will soon return in force. Either way; huge seas bar the crossing, whipped up by a backlog of storms. It is not going to happen this time, just like all the other times. Am I making good decisions? Am I fabricating lame apologies? This is worse than anything by far. With no one to bounce ideas off, I relive this quandary a hundred times daily.
Bardsey Sound has been oversold. My ‘Irish Sea Pilot’ brimmed with calamity tales about the quirks of local wind and tide, but I am gliding along a shimmering expanse of blue perfection. Rounding the Lleyn Peninsula, I accumulate flow and pace. Today it comes easy, all effort absorbed by the unheralded beauty of this coast. The day’s allotted paddling hours are up, but today I need no motivation targets. The boat courses on with ease whilst quarried mountains loom over the sea, hemmed by quiet villages with names I’ll never grasp. Later I plot the next leg over pasta and pesto. I am startled to see that forty miles have eased by; how could this have been so pleasurable?
I have joined the Lancashire Library Service. Killing a morning at the keyboard, I trawl through any and every weather website. I alight upon any minor disparities between forecasts, as if this will somehow wish the wind away. I check the paddling message boards and post updates of my non-progress. I read my posting of a week ago, ludicrously announcing that by now I’d be in Scotland. Later I walk along the sea front, transfixed by the kite surfers. The tent is safe, hidden at the back corner of a golf course. I have ‘text’; a local paddler has heard of my enforced stay in Fleetwood and offers food and shelter. I am stunned by such consideration from a stranger, but embarrassed to take it up. Perhaps this isn’t the sole reason. I am dimly aware that I am relishing the ennui.
Hilbre Island is a low sandstone bluff, marking the point where the River Dee meets the Irish Sea. Wales ends here in this disorientating landscape, where sand overcomes sea for much of the day. Observed coolly by languorous seals, I launch an hour before sunset. I paddle north for an hour, hard. A half submerged wreck initially seems vast, but perspective proves to be distorted here. Miles from dry land, I wade and drag for a time. The swell gains definition; deep water. I alter course to cross the Mersey estuary. I knew the light would fade, but I am counting on the full moon. This is ascending behind Liverpool docks, too slowly. My headtorch fails even to illuminate my compass. I am lost. I pick out some lights and take my chances. Feeling my way blind, I stumble into a tidal race. The waves feel huge in the pitch dark. Terrified but exhilarated, I emerge right beside the Mersey Channel where a giant tug is passing. Its spotlights pick out the kayaker, a tiny intruder in the big boy’s playground. An hour later, I make landfall – on sand, by lucky chance - and discover that I am directly outside the Liverpool Coastguard Station. The night watch are concerned and sceptica. After they’ve examined my equipment and heard my story, smiles break out. I am welcomed inside as a guest, albeit a late one.
In the early hours of the sixth morning, I finish another book. By now I am tuned to the movements of the tent; something is different. I emerge and I look to Barrow once more. No doubt this time, the wind has eased. The sea is grey-brown mush, but has calmed appreciably. This is it. I engage myself with hurried packing, refusing to permit myself space to revisit my decision. I am outside the surf break and already making ground towards Barrow through the peaks and troughs. The panorama of Morecambe Bay expands around me. I can see Lake District peaks and even my old university, white buildings against a Pennine backdrop. With inconvenient timing, a ferry emerges down the Lune Channel, and then two more large ships; I have to sit tight as they pass, bracing into the waves. Something is wrong; the swell is smashing right up their bows. Once they they’ve passed, I regain pace and enter the channel. Right away I am hitting very big water. Waves are surging and breaking around me. My nerves force a physical reaction; I retch. I try to rationalise my circumstances before fear predominates. My incredibly stupid, obvious error is that I am trying to cross as tide flows from the bay against the wind and swell. The tide is exaggerating and steepening the waves. Turning back will not be easy, but continuing could be catastrophic. Haste and impatience have brought me here. I am engulfed by a world of foam. My mind wanders to another place, not so far way. I have now a solution, and it is simple. I draw my hood over my head, and zone out for a few more hours.
(For more images from Mark's trip in the summer of 2005, see this discussion from the Community Forum.)