Freesteel Blog » Intro-Mediate Anglesey


Intro-Mediate Anglesey Kayak — June 2008

Following a fellow caver’s conversion to sea kayaking, Becka booked us on an “Intro-mediate” weekend in Anglesey at the place where he gets his advanced tuition on leave from Dublin.

This course was aimed at people like us who could already paddle kayaks, but didn’t know what they were doing due to using the wrong equipment and being self-taught. It’s no fun going back to square one. The other couple on the weekend, Paul and Mel, had paddled around Anglesey on a two-person inflatable kayak for a couple of years, and were roughly the same level as us. The ratio was one instructor, Phil, to four paddlers.

We finally dived the elusive Kimya, a wrecked edible oil tanker. The viz was terrible, but the lobster in the last hatch was gigantic.

Sit-on-top style kayaks — the hard plastic or the inflatable kind — are a foolproof way into the sport because they totally factor out the issue of capsizing. Thus they provide the opportunity to paddle for miles across the wide blue yonder without fear of tipping over and being stranded up to your neck in water beside a small boat which you have no chance of getting back into. They are the equivalent of learning your peddling skills on a tricycle.

As the weather was looking good on Friday, we left Liverpool at noon on a third attempt at re-locating the Kimya. This time with an accurate GPS to navigate to the wreck, which is about 100 metres long and 9 metres tall in 10 metres of water, I was finally able to drag an anchor onto it.

The underwater visibility was atrocious — as you would expect for a shallow sandy bay with a sea swell running — but Becka and I kept together enough to go all the way around the wreckage while trailing the anchor. Becka had the only working torch. Without it I couldn’t go into any of the holes.

On the return, due to the high tide, we took a shortcut up a river into Aberffraw. The way in was completely invisible behind a rocky outcrop. We would have turned back without finding it had I not decided to go ahead and land on the beach anyway to check the map.

A very minor portage across mud in Aberffraw

It was still sunny, but getting rather late in the day. Becka ran off to fetch the car. We packed up and headed for the Nigel Dennis Residental B&B Kayak Course in Holyhead. The house was on a corner overlooking the harbour with a lovely bedroom, shower, drying room, kitchen with food in the fridge, and no hassle. Make your own breakfast and pack lunch with what you find there. We weren’t in the mood for going out, and watched a VHS version of “This Is The Sea”, which appears to be the video for sea kayakers these days.

The video features exciting sea kayaking segments from all over the world, set to music, and it finally ends at Penrhyn Mawr, Wales, a famous headland not 6km away from where we were staying. I think there’s a shortage of sea kayaking movies right now. I don’t know if James Bond has featured one in any of his films. It doesn’t get the TV coverage that diving does, which is probably why diving is a whole lot more popular, in spite of it being a less productive sport. Even jet-skiing is more popular, and that really is a waste of time.

The popularity of diving and even of jet-skiing was on my mind on Day 1 (Saturday) because we headed out of Treardurr Bay with Phil, our instructor, and couldn’t move for dive boats and other motorized craft.

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Day 1 was a tour along the familiar north coast of Treardurr Bay in these unfamiliar boats.

Things were not too bad once we paddled away from the noise. The only other place we encountered the crowds was near Porth Dafarch where the dive boats were queing up to dive on the wreck of the Missouri. I think I bored people by going on about how we could dive it from our kayaks.

We pulled over in one corner of the sea for Phil to teach us what a high brace was. I think it means your arm is above the paddle when you push it down — don’t forget to rotate the paddle before you pull it back up or you’ll pull yourself into the water. The low brace is where your arm is below the paddle and you’re probably too far over by then. May work for whitewater canoeing, but Phil didn’t teach us this because fancy paddle strokes are not useful out on a rough sea. You’re supposed to develop a lightning fast reaction to save yourself with a quick paddle slap high brace to keep yourself upright. You’re not supposed to let go of the paddle and put your hand out, as I do in the video below.

I capsized trying to practice it. Luckily I was in my drysuit, so I didn’t get cold. At the end of the day, before leaving the water, we learnt the capsize and recovery drills and the others got very cold.

To recover another kayaker from the water you need first to empty out their cockpit, which is very quick to do due to the bulkhead directly behind the seat. Then you help them climb into their boat by rafting it up to yours.

We insisted that Phil teach us how to roll. “You won’t be able to do that in one day,” he said. “It took me three years to learn to roll.”

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One small corner of the Nigel Dennis kayak factory. These are where the seats and cockpit hatches of various colours are made on their mold stations. Everything is hand-made without a computer being used for any part of the design process. Even for the rotated plastic molds where some magic manufacturing process is used to impress the shape into aluminium.

He gave us a detailed set of instructions. Becka went for it and successfully rolled on her own at her first attempt. This was a total fluke, as she was unable to do it again for the next two days. I put on my diving mask and discovered to my surprise that I could roll pretty compentently. This must be a consequence of learning to do it in a pool in Bristol about 16 years ago when I was in the University Canoe Club. I was never any good at canoeing and always had a desperately hard time on rivers.

On seeing us, Paul was determined to do it as well. But he wasn’t lucky or experienced. Phil stood in the shallows and turned him and his boat over and over again until his eyes went red from the sea water and he looked like he had enough. But he kept on going. Mel then took a few dunkings before we headed back to base.

Paul gave us a tour of the Nigel Dennis kayak factory where the entire process — starting from sheets of fibreglass and barrels of resin — is done by hand in a windowless breezeblock warehouse that makes working down the mine seem attractive. Like most manufacturing workshops, there were titty pictures on the walls rather than huge inspirational photographic murals of kayakers on the sea showing how this high performance adventure equipment was intended to be used. Still, at least the work has not yet been exported to China. It’ll probably happen one day soon with a grant from the Government and a tax benefit.


View of Holyhead Harbour from Holy Mountain with a ferry arriving from Ireland.

In the evening Becka went for a long walk over Holy Mountain while I snoozed in bed. Then we ate bread and cheese and looked for a pub in town that wasn’t too noisy and didn’t have crap beer, and failed. Paul and Mel went to a posh pub down in Rhoscolyn with the money they saved by sleeping in their car.

On Sunday Phil said we could do the Stacks.

What, you mean both South Stack and North Stack?


He planned the least efficient car shuffling plan possible: We take the van with the kayaks and my car to the starting point at Porth Dafarch. We leave the kayaks there and get changed. He drives the van and I drive the car back to Holyhead. He gets in the car and we drive back to Porth Dafarch. If everything works out and we get round the Stacks and back to Holyhead, we get changed there and drive back to Porth Dafarch to fetch the car.

We glided through the usual mayhem of divers, power boats, coasteers and other weekend nonsense and quickly reached Penrhyn Mawr which would be the point of no return once the tide started to flood. Apparently there’s no current there on the ebb, in spite of what it says in my dive guide book for the area. Dive guides and kayak guides complement one another because the former are most interested in slack, and the latter seek out fast currents — for kayakers with enough competence.


Day 2. A climber perched on the pre-cambrian shale on the approach to South Stack

The next bay beyond is called Abraham’s Bosum. The cross-swell and the reflection of the waves made the south side very tricky. We suffered one capsize along that part of the coast. The north side was far more calm. The next section led up to South Stack and allowed us to thread between the rocks. Phil told us not to worry about scraping the boats. I had my hands so full with the paddling that I took very few pictures. On the final approach was a bird protection zone where we needed to steer clear of the guano-coated cliffs and rafts of guillemots, razorbills and the odd puffin floating on the water. Paul checked through the gap to the north side of South Stack and decided that we’d better turn back because of the wind.

I’d expected this to happen. A couple of hours later would have been fine because the wind died down. You never can tell.

We had lunch back on a beach in Abraham’s Bosum. There’s an access path there, which counts as an escape route in a place where I had hitherto believed there was none. I wonder if this will be useful to me one day.

Paul made us move on to get Penrhyn Mawr before the current picked up too much against us. The tide was low, exposing The Fangs a hundred metres south of Tide Rip Rock. Becka, Paul and me had fun paddling upstream between these rocks and surfing on the standing waves. Both Becka and Paul capsized at different times, but I was too lame to notice, and Phil had to paddle out to rescue them. These places are great for playing around in because you get swept towards calmer waters when you lose control, unlike with surf which often takes you towards kayak-eating rocks.

On the home stretch Paul was doing rolls without any assistance, which was kind of amazing. I put it down to the teacher. My rolling was okay, though I really can’t handle getting water up my nose. If I try to avoid it by breathing out while I go under, I severely strain my eardrums.

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Approaching South Stack from the south side (the left side in the right hand picture). The island has a suspension bridge and light-house. It was too windy on the north side when Phil checked it out, although it was calm in the evenings when this photo was taken.

I drove Phil back to Holyhead to fetch the van and the trailer, thus completing a fifth journey across Holy Island. We all came away from the weekend wanting more. Unfortunately, you can’t hire sea kayaks without having lots of official qualifications. And you can only get these qualifications if you have a lot of practice. And you can only get practice if you have access to a sea kayak. So you need to buy one, which is inconvenient because they are large and expensive and difficult to transport, when there are many sitting available near the places where they can be used.

We’ll pick a good day to do the Stacks ourselves on our own plastic tubs and finally visit Parliament House Cave.

Because it was only five o’clock, I had thought we had time for a dive on the wreck of the Asimund, which is in the shelter of Holyhead harbour. But I didn’t have the energy, so we simply scoped out the beach where we will access it from.

Instead, we dropped by Bangor to see Becka’s parents who were on a tour of North Wales, and went for a regulation Sunday night curry dinner in a deserted restaurant.

“Didn’t we have a lovely time the day we went to Bangor!” “But she wasn’t in!” (From a Radio 4 trailer for Humph Sunday)

Later that evening, after failing to find a campsite, and considering driving back to Liverpool, we parked on the beach at Llangoed, crammed all our wet kayaking and diving kit into the front seats, and slept in the back of the car till 8am. By 9am we were on the water and heading north towards Puffin Island. The guillemots and razorbills were packed into the cliffs like sardines and making a racket. I made a quick 10 minute dive halfway along to check things out. There was a heavy plankton bloom in action right down to the sea floor at 15 metres. I could feel the globules of algae flow between my fingers like barley soup. The lobsters looked green.

Back on the surface some guys who were rod and line fishing from a boat at the northern tip of an island fed their catch to a begging seal. No wonder they are famously tame here.

As we rounded the tip of Puffin Island it was as if the season had changed from autumn to summer. The southeast side of the island was grassier and sunny with no wind. There were eider-ducks and seal pups on the rocks. We couldn’t see why the birds don’t laze about over here and fly over the island to their feeding grounds on the other side. It can’t be far.

We hurried back to the car at 11am. It was still high tide, which was a relief. The last time we came in we had to cross hundreds of metres of seaweed strewn boulders to get back, so we knew what we were missing.

Surfing the net extensively for several hours, I have discovered a network of kayaking blogs of people circulating around Penrhyn Mawr, Anglesey, the Sea Kayak Symposium and the rest of the world as evidenced on pages such as Perfect day on the water, Having a ball at the races, Puffin Island Seals, Anglesey Summertime (mentions a Phil), Holyhead to Great Orme’s Head, Survived: Anglesey sea kayak symposium, Anglesey picture report (also mentions a Phil), Anglesey, the Anglesey Experience.

Makes an interesting set of perspectives in these parts of the world. If only people geo-located their blog postings, then all points of view would be drawn together and form a mesh of characters and digital history wherever you were.

But geo-locating is not very practical. What’s far easier is to link to wikipedia entries of geo-located entities, such as Middle Mouse and Porth Dafarch — and fill in the missing ones, North Stack and Parliament House Cave, and these are then geolocated and identified in a maintainable manner. These wikipedia tag locations can then back-link to all the blog postings that reference them to draw together the stories about a place and its sedimentary-like core sample of communities.

The feature of wikipedia place name matching and mark-up could be included into standard travel blog software as a component part of the spell-checker. That’s my prediction for the next stage in web development by 2010. It’ll happen quietly because there’s no money to be made, so the press won’t be interested.


Julian Todd 2008-06-14