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Dorset Sea Kayak Trip from Knoll Beach to Old Harry's Rocks
An exciting account of our kayak trip on the south coast this summer
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Blackwater Valley Canoe club, whom we've been members of since last year meets every Wednesday night throughout the year, give or take some weeks where we take a break. We also run a number of trips and other events throughout the course of the year which include a broad range of activities from flat water to whitewaters as the UK is something of a playground for water sports of all kinds. It's during the summer where whole weekends are organised for much bigger adventures, including going out on the sea.
In the past the club has run a trip around the coast of the Isle of Wight and one old favourite is to paddle out along Studland to Old Harry's Rocks, around the end and along the coast towards Swanage, sometimes the whole way and others just the main peninsula.
It was back in the winter, when I read about this and thought it sounded great. Now the thing is, Tina and I have never kayaked on the sea, it would be a first for us but we certainly wouldn't be alone.
Our club has some excellent instructors and volunteers, each and every one of them I trust implicitly. You always feel safe in their company. I've learnt so much from them over the past 12 months, as I've gone from barely being able to paddle in a straight line, not able to travel the distance my peers could to being way more confident and able to take on more challenges each and every time.
I was pleased to learn at the time of booking that Bob Hamilton would be our leader, a wiry, quiet, confident man with tonnes of patience and a wealth of experience, not to mention qualifications under his belt. Put it this way, if you met someone who had canoed around the coast of Greenland and in the shadow of icebergs, you would trust them wouldn't you? He never told us that but I asked him and that turned out have been one of his most memorable trips in the past.
So as the trip drew closer, on Wednesday night we all met at our usual Aldershot Lido evening session and gathered together the gear we needed. I decided that I wouldn't take my own boat for the trip but something different and since Tina wanted to use one of the sit-on-top boats, I decided that I'd go for one too. We loaded one on the roof of our car, Bob took the other on his van to go alongside his own sea kayak (which I did end up having a go on, more later!). We added to this some extra paddles, a lifejacket for Tina (I recently had bought a new one) and two helmets, since we would also be doing a Little Rock climbing! Well sort of.
I kept all of the gear in our garage for a couple of days and on Friday night we travelled down to stay with my parents in Wimborne just 40 minutes away from Studland, especially Knoll Beach, so we would be well rested before the trip.
The launch and the trip begins
We all met at 9:30 on the Saturday morning (Knoll Beach, National Trust car-park), allowing for some setup time and for Bob to walk us through the route we would be taking on the map. Tina and I loaded up our boats with drink bottles, which I found fitted perfectly in a little recess just in front of my legs, so I could get to it easily. Tina loaded the food in a compartment to the rear of her boat. The food stored in a tupperware box, wrapped in a drybag.
The next step was to carry each boat down from the car park to the launch point on the beach, squeezing between a couple of beach huts!
What a day! The weather was glorious, very warm, blue skies and just a little wind. Off we paddled.
At first we just played around in the bay, to get used to the movement of the sea, the waves gentle and very relaxing.
We tracked along the coast, avoiding a swimming area, staying left of the buoys and headed towards a group of moored motorboats, that we paddled through, navigating around each one. There was a lively atmosphere on the beach as we passed and we noticed a wedding was taking place, with music playing.
Tracking along the headland, you could see the rocks below the surface and kelp. I was just that moment thinking that it must be a great place for diving and sure enough (to my amusement) a snorkeller suddenly surfaced amongst our flotilla of 6 kayaks. The girl then dived back down and off she went. I hadn't thought of bumping into the odd diver, maybe a seal or two. Just imagine one of those surfacing beneath the keel of your boat!
As we turn, the wind picked up and felt the undercurrent going against us, mind over matter, push on. We had covered a fair distance by this point and our destination was edging ever closer. The important thing was to relax and enjoy the journey, the little moments you experience, the small details you observe.
We've walked along the headland before and one side is gentle, not as high but when you reach the main spot, the grandeur and enormity of the cliffs takes your breath away. Granted there are higher places but the gentle approach belies the sheer precipice of the other (South Western) side, which we would later experience from the water.
The gentle side is a mixture of woodlands that tumble down the cliff to the waters edge. The base of the cliffline lies a very narrow strip of rocky shoreline, that would be hard to negotiate on foot but maybe not impossible.
We then reached the point where the cliff ends and turns inwards to reveal a rocky beach, we'd reached Old Harry's Rocks. There were a few other people there, all of them having got there in similar ways to us. I had no idea this beach even existed, as it is somewhat concealed from mainland and clifftop.
Coming ashore between headland and Old Harry's rock, we got out of our boats and dragged them out of the water onto land. Wobbly legged, sea legs I guess! I "gracefully" hopped off my boat. It's here where we put on our helmets, to protect us from any stumbles or anything falling from above, hopefully not any of the crazy Instagrammers standing on the cliff top above us!!
Once we had stepped onto the beach, we had a walk around, clambering over the rocks. It's useful to point out here that we all wear some form of waterproof shoes, in my case a pair of light diving boots. Some footwear is better than others but the general idea is to protect your feet and give you some grip when getting in and out of boats without worrying about ruining a pair of trainers. Most kayaks have footrests inside that are designed to help you maintain not only a comfortable and stable sitting position, they also help you use your legs to connect with the boat and push with your feet. This enables you to paddled and at the same time, "pedal" this transfers energy into the hull of your boat..... I digress slightly here but you'll not find these footrests comfortable barefoot, trust me!
Behind the small beach we found a pool of water, leading to some porous rocks, which we clambered up onto, they were a glorious white and flat on top forming a ledge that had been eroded by a millenia of storms and tidal currents wrapping around the tip of the peninsula. We could see what was on the other side and just beneath us a narrow channel we could get through, albeit tight.
We reclaimed our boats, carrying them across the rocks into the pool and paddled through the narrow gap into the more lively water on the other side of the headland!
Now paddling through narrow gaps is indeed a challenge and it's things like this you can train for, as we do on Wednesdays at the pool. Obstacles can be negotiated if you know a reasonable set of paddling strokes. So we all made it through the gap. I admit the first time I did touch the side, the rock to my left but then I was through and greeted by some swell which wanted to push me back up against the rocks. A little bit more power from upper arms, got me out into the open water once more where you experience some very dynamic waters. It was exhiliarating.
Once we'd all gathered together again, we paddled in the direction of Swanage and picked out some more fun challenges. A towering rocky archway, capped with lesser black-backed gulls and cormorants spreading their wings to dry. This one had a strong current passing through it and eddies on the far side which required a little more oomph. I followed Tina through, with Dave in front of her and Dean took an alternative route with Richard around the outside of the rock.
We passed another tall rocky pinnacle, this time circling around it's outside passing another isolated shingle beach where a couple of men had gone ashore upon. Fellow kayakers who were resting up, possibly having come away from Swanage on a similar trip to us but the other way round.
We found a cave at one point, paddling closer to the towering cliff to take a closer look, noticing the hard ledge just beneath surface, this side, you couldn't see much under the boat, so much deeper than the Northern side where the waters aren't all that deep.
We were fascinated by the people high above our heads, standing on the clifftops looking down at us with their smartphones/regular cameras taking picures. Yes great view, lovely photos, maybe we've appeared on Instagram?! But people, please, please don't stand so close to that edge!
We turned back, taking a different route around the arch and back throught the gap behind the beach, which I aboslutely bossed this time. Did not touch the sides. Some good strokes, our instructors were happy and we all had massive smiles on our faces. It was time to park up, moor up or whatever and have some food!
The return was a very leisurely affair after all of that but the wind was offshore, we felt a bit of resistance. The swimming area had become busier than earlier with lots of different activities going on, a sharp contrast to when I first visited this beach one winter. It's a beautiful place for a walk out of season.
We had been on the water for 3 hours, a long time and we had such an amazing time. We got back to where we had started that morning and gathered on the beach.
But there was just one more thing!
I had completed the journey using a sit-on top rather than my rec kayak or an actual sea kayak. Dave wanted me to try Bob's, which I wish I had a photo of. So to describe it, it's hull is sleek, the cockpit moulded so it really does contain you and wraps around you. Inside you stretch your legs out but still have room to bend at your knees. Once you settle off it feels as though it will keel over but shift your centre of gravity, it corrects itself. Above all else it's quick, I took it along the beach a little way and I got used to it quicker than I suspected I would!
Was I nervous at any point?
I wasn't to be honest, I looked forward to it all along. To put fear into perspective, I measure everything against what I went through in 2008, the toughest year of my life ever, when I had my kidney transplant and ever since, I've taken a diffeerent measure on risk and that life is utterly precious. We need advnture in our lives, without which, life isn't enjoyed but more endured. If an opportunity for adventure presents itself, I grasp it with both hands.
Whilst I hope you enjoyed my journal of the trip, don't just go out on the water, make sure you know where you are going, that you're aware of the tidal behaviour of your location, where the currents are and any other notes on things to watch out for such as wrecks, hidden rocks etc. It's better to go as a group and you should never venture out on your own. Also check where swimming areas are, if there are other water-sports taking place in the vicinity as quite often beaches are divided or there may be a buoy system in operation, to keep everyone safe. We saw a few JetSkis out on the water but they were well out of our way. Kayakers generally stay close to coastlines anyway.
Personal safety is important. Lifejackets should always be worn, even if your kayak is inflatable, no it doesn't qualify as a safety device, what if it were the boat that developed a puncture? How would you rescue yourself then?
Helmets aren't always essential but if you are getting close and personal with rocks, which counts for whitewaters too, they'll protect your head more than just your hair and scalp!
What's your biggest adventure
I'd love to know about your big thrills in life! Any sea oddyseys?
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