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 Will you be wanting a helicopter?

Or: A sausage too far.

Cheltenham Canoe Club Anglesey trip, 2004.

Every year, since well before Pete can remember, he's been taking a group of paddlers from Cheltenham up to Anglesey for a spot of camping, beer and perhaps some sea paddles. This year a smaller group than usual (Alex, Chris S, Chris C, Pete, Duncan & Steve, with Paul S & Jean along for the ride) headed off towards Wales early on Friday 20th August.

As we passed Oswestry the inevitable happened -- it rained in Wales. Not only did it rain, it rained quite a lot. The hills were strewn with rushes of white and the rivers along the roads were running brown. We quickly remembered that we had boats tied to the roofs of our cars, and decided to make the best of the situation. The Llugwy follows the A5 for most of its path, so was an ideal break in our journey. We weren't sure about access, it being the summer and the law being an ass, but the sight of helmets floating along the back of a field and a quick word with the folks at Plas-y-Brenin cleared up our worries.

We put on at Jim's bridge where Chris S demonstrated a perfect roll after a less than perfect bit of playing. A few minutes of grade II and we came to Cobden's falls, a nice little III/IV set of drops over slanting slabs, with a messy hole on the right to be avoided. Pete, Duncan and Chris got half way down without any trouble, and sat comfortably in the eddy above the main drop. Alex followed full of doubt which showed as he made the wrong eddy and forgot how to brace before swimming quickly to the side. Some chuckling from across the river persuaded him back into his boat, but a shameful attempt at ferrying over to the main eddy led him to run the falls ahead of the group, which he did with some style until reaching the end and swimming once again. Everyone else made perfect lines, Chris ran it again, and we carried on downstream. The rest of the river was fun grade II with flat bits, with a very long portage around the death-on-a-stick that is Pont Cyfyng falls. Forestry Falls provided a bit of excitement, mainly through the looks of fear on the faces of beginners in a group we caught up with as they waited for their chance to swim. We all did fine, and eventually got out at the Ugly House where, as expected, it rained a little more.

Not having had enough for the one day, we got into the cars in our kit and drove up to Anglesey, hoping for a quick sea trip to round off the day. We studied the maps and settled for an easy looking bimble around Puffin Island at the top of the Menai Straights. As we pulled into the car park our minds were changed as we saw how rough the sea was with waves, wind and currents washing water every which way. Discretion proved the better part of valour, and we made our way to the campsite for some tent raising, fish & chips, beer and sleep.

Saturday dawned bright and early (Alex slept in), and we rose to a sunny day with eggs, bacon and, possibly, a sausage more than we needed. We headed up to Trearddur Bay, packed our boats, and set off Northwards round the coast. The plan was to wander in and out of caves and coves, looking all the while for seals and birdies. A couple of tidal races would entertain, South Stacks lighthouse would look imposing perched above us on its slab of stone, we'd linger around a fire for a spot of lunch, then nip past North Stacks at slack tide before landing besides Holyhead's breakwater.

We launched into slightly choppy seas, a two or three foot swell perhaps, with the wind against us, the sun beating down and, most importantly, the tide rushing up behind us, driving us on our way at a modest walking pace. Soon we came to Penrhyn Mawr, a tidal race formed as the Irish Sea pushes its way past Anglesey and into Liverpool Bay. A big water run, filled with surging waves and stoppers, with no bank support and a prize for swimming that might get you as far as Iceland. Some took the easy route, avoiding the worst of it, but having to paddle against a mile long eddy, some more souls fed themselves into the Mawr. Unsated it spat them out after a little playful munching. Steve narrowly avoided a swim after bracing on thin air while cresting a wave, and Chris S found even his sea kayak facing the heavens while foam piles tossed boats around like corks. Legend has it that on its more mighty days these races loop 15 foot boats, and I can easily believe that.

The brave trio survived and ferried back to join the group under the cliffs where we rested in a cove. The slowly swelling sea proved a bit much for Chris C, who started to regret his extra sausage at breakfast, but he didn't let a little seasickness sink his day and we pressed on and soon passed South Stacks where we admired for a moment the wire bridge above us. We carried on along the coast, stopping here and there to investigate caves and wave to climbers strapped to the cliffs high above us. Chris's stomach decided it couldn't hold out any longer and emptied into the ocean. We landed at Parliament cave for a late lunch, collected enough driftwood for a fire, and cooked sausages over it while we lazed in the sun. We wasted a little more time throwing stones at bottles, then launched and explored a few nearby caves, including a most impressive cave which boomed and roared from its depths as the waters sloshed in and out.

As we moved onwards we briefly spotted a bull seal, but he wasn't in a friendly mood, and disappeared before we came to North Stacks. As we rounded the corner we heard another roar, this time from the sea, and saw the tell tale white water rounding the rocks. We were too late for slack water, the tide had turned, our route was blocked unless we could surf and struggle ourselves upstream. Given how close we were to our get out, we decided to chance it. Some had the strength but others, already tired, were washed back. Chris C was caught by a crashing breaker as the stopper surged and was forced to swim. Pete and Chris S executed a perfect H rescue in the stream, quickly getting Chris C back into his boat before the torrent rushed all three onto the rocks.

Everyone was now safely tucked into an eddy, except for Steve who had managed to crest the race and reach the gyre which let him drift quickly down the coast away from the group. As the group was too weak to paddle against the tide we decided to use our escape route, but one of us was now hundreds of yards away. Initial attempts to get his attention with a whistle didn't work, so Chris S battled his way up the rising current and fetched him back for a slog with the rest of us towards South Stacks where we knew that steps led out of the sea to safety. A thankfully uneventful mile and half of paddling got us there, although the sea state was growing -- aggravated by the passing of a high speed ferry -- making it hard going, and making Chris C feel less and less well.

Landing at the lighthouse was easier said than done, the egress point being a set of rough steps hewn from the sheer sides of the island. A three foot swell required a bit of timing and good luck to get boats beached and out before being washed back in. With a few people off Pete headed up to the RSPB post to ask permission to land (access to the island usually costs three pounds), adding to our case by mentioning the medical emergency of Chris's seasickness. Taking him a little too seriously, the warden reached for her walkie-talkie and asked if we'd be needing a helicopter to evacuate him. Pete quickly refused.

Everyone was now safely off the water, if a little exhausted, but the adventure wasn't quite over. Boats had to be carried 100 feet up the island, over the bridge we'd admired earlier, then up four hundred and nine winding steps to the car park. The sea kayak provided extra fun for Duncan and Chris as they leant out over the edge to maneuver the boat around the switchbacks on the staircase. As we changed at the top of the path the warden checked we were ok, and asked that we didn't make a habit of getting out at the lighthouse. Puffed out from the climb, we were all too ready to agree with her.

Pete and Chris thumbed a lift from a friendly local, collected the cars from the get out we didn't get to, and we made our way back to our tents for a welcome shower, BBQ and a few cans of beer before a well deserved sleep.

Sunday was -- with no regrets -- less interesting, a shorter paddle was planned and the weather was much better, with flatter seas and a calmer wind. Things were due to worsen, though, so we didn't dally too much. We put on at Llanbadrig/Cemaes Bay and got off at Bull Bay. Along the way Chris S, Pete and Steve detoured to Middle Mouse where they met a friendlier seal while Alex, Duncan and Chris C explored calmer bays and ruins. We regrouped and headed into Hell's Mouth, an oddly peaceful place when we were there, then rounded the point into Porth Wen Bay where we landed to explore an abandoned brickworks. Once a hive of industry, now a mix of collapsing kilns, chimneys and rusting boilers. A rowing crew from Bull Bay dropped by for a little rest as we munched our chocolate, needless to say certain members of our group didn't pass the chance to chat up the ladies in the boats.

We carried on up the coast, left in the rowers' wakes, trying to squeeze our boats through the narrowest of channels as the swell rose and fell. Apart, that is, from Chris S who didn't want to scratch the fine sea kayak lent to him by Outdoor Active for the weekend.

Along the last stretch before Bull Bay we were rewarded with a sighting of some porpoise, five or seven depending on who you ask, leaping gracefully between our boats as they drew breath. The peace was shattered by a motorboat out in a hurry and the wildlife soon disappeared. We gradually rounded the final point into Bull Bay and pulled our boats out of the water, glad that today we hadn't needed an escape route, and that there would only be a short walk to our cars and a good night's sleep back in Cheltenham.

Any story with a helicopter in must have a moral to it and this is no exception. Our paddle past the Stacks was one the club doesn't do often and was planned from written notes including the times that the tide is slack around North Stacks (which we missed by about 15 minutes). Our timings during the day were fine, except that we'd misread the slack times, so were doomed to turn around if all went to plan. Having realised our mistake, though, we had with us the skills, equipment and calm heads that let us safely rescue swimmers in hard conditions, have ready escape routes (including another easier get out an extra half-mile of paddling away), and have enough kit with our boats that we could have sat out the tides comfortably if we'd had to. It's these skills we learn in the pool, or on courses, that make demanding trips possible, enjoyable and safe. Also we drank beer.

 ^Back to Top^ | ©Alex Gough Mon Mar 14 2005 ...more than you might imagine.