Like paddling through your own wildlife documentary... by Zoe Robinson

Stoke-on-Trent is not the most obvious place to live and to take up a new activity based entirely on the sea.  But, after many years of different sports, sea kayaking is now what I ‘do’, and I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay.  Sea kayaking can involve a lot of time moving slowly, through a salty landscape giving plenty of time to think, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about why I sea kayak.  Each weekend I drive to Anglesey in North Wales.  It has done terrible things to my carbon footprint which sits uncomfortably with me.  So why do I sea kayak?   Here are some of the top things it has given me.

Number 1.  It is like living in your very own wildlife documentary.  I used to spend a lot of time hillwalking.  I’ve done much less of this recently, spending much more of my time at sea level.  When I recently returned to the hills (an amazing trip in itself, with my first solo Munros (Scottish hills over 3000 feet), my first Munros by train, and my first solo wild camp), one of the things that struck me is how ‘dead’ the hills seemed compared to the sea.   Just getting the train back along the coast, I saw more wildlife than I had in three days living and walking in the hills.  Almost every sea paddle I have ever done I have seen seals, sometimes surfing a wave alongside me, following the sea kayak in the water, and even playing with the toggle at the end of the boat.  And yet, people I work with say they have never seen seals in ‘real life’.  I have been followed by a whale, paddled alongside a swimming mink, seen basking sharks, sun fish, turtles, dolphins and porpoises from my boat, watched skuas in aerial combat with gannets just metres from my boat, watched an otter swim past with a huge lobster in its mouth, and been camped by my sea kayak when a sea eagle has tried to attack a Canadian Goose, just ten metres from where I sat.  Sea kayaking seems to let you be ‘in’ the environment, in a way which nothing else I have ever done does.

Number 2.  It allows you to escape modern civilisation.  A sea kayak allows you to carry several weeks’ worth of food, meaning you can stay out camping for a long time without too much reliance on civilisation.  In fact that is what attracted me to it in the first place.  I have always loved backpacking, but there is only so much food that a 5’3 girl can carry along with all camping gear, in a 75 litre rucksack.  A sea kayak has carrying capacities of around 150 litres - that means a lot of days’ food, a bit more comfort and a lot more red wine than can be carried on your back.  I love ‘trips’ - packing my boat with everything I need for a few days to a few weeks, just living out of my boat, camping somewhere different every night, and that feeling of really travelling through an every changing landscape. 

Number 3.  It has made me realise we live on island.  Sounds stupid I know, but I had just never really thought about the UK in this way.   Now when I look at a map, I first see the coastline, not the land.  The UK is an amazing sea kayaking country.  Our islands stretch from the Channel Islands, significantly closer to France than the rest of mainland UK, to the Shetland Islands, with more affinity to Norway than the rest of the UK.  We have coastline that sea kayakers from all around the world come to paddle, and they come regularly, many making several visits a years to some of our most famous coastal paddling regions, such as the coastline of Anglesey.  So, with this world-renowned coast only two and a half hours drive from Stoke-on-Trent, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a stupid thing to take up sea kayaking living in a land-locked county, when I have now met many passionate sea kayakers who live in land-locked countries!

Number 4.  It has an amazing international community.  I have always been struck by the different “worlds” out there, whether that is the golfing world, the sailing world, the diving world or any other activity, each seems to have its own community.  The sea kayaking community is a small one, but it is a close knit and very international one.  One thing that seems quite distinctive about the sea kayaking ‘world’ are the regular symposia held in interesting coastal locations - generally weekend long gatherings of sea kayakers - days on the water, and evenings in the bar.  These symposia often attract people from all over the world, and in particular, people who operate their own sea kayaking companies in other parts of the world will attend symposia in different countries.  I now know that if I post on Facebook for recommendations of a sea kayaking outfitter in a part of the word I am travelling to for work, I’ll inevitably get some recommendations for people who frequent the same paddling spots in Wales that I do on a regular basis, and a  connection is already made.  Sea kayakers the world over also seem very keen to show visitors their ‘patch’.

Number 5.  It provides great access. The sea has much better access laws than England and Wales.  As a river paddler in England and Wales there is terrible and very restricted legal access to rivers.  In contrast the sea around the UK, and land below the mean high water mark, is owned by the Crown, this means we have the right of access to these areas, which gives us a lot more paddling area than those restricting themselves to freshwater paddling.  A sea kayak can also get you places along the coastline where almost nothing else can, allowing you to get into all those nooks and crannies that other boats can’t get into.  In some parts of the country, this can include huge caves, and arches, and subterranean passages that go through entire headlands.

Number 6.  You’re always learning.  The sea always has something new to teach you.  Sea kayaking requires you to be able to understand tides, and what the combined effects of wind, tide, swell and land will be on the state of the sea, and whether you want to be there.  Anglesey provides such exceptional paddling, because of the tide races - areas where the tide is accelerated around headlands or shallows, creating conditions at particular states of tide, wind and swell that can either be great fun, or areas that you really need to avoid.  Understanding and predicting this is a key aspect of paddling, and for me, I’d be honest and say that it is still throwing up surprises that I can learn from.  I’ve made sure I’ve had a lot of coaching, and I’ve spent a lot of time paddling with people more experienced than myself, in order to gain this understanding, and be able to take other people out to learn from and enjoy this environment.  If you want to start sea kayaking, make sure you take the time to learn from experienced people.

So, in summary.  Sea kayaking has a reputation as being a boring ‘beardy’ sport.  But I love the diversity of sea kayaking, it can be anything to anyone.  It can be a calm paddle along some beautiful coastline, an extension to a day at the beach.  It can be a paddle specifically to see wildlife, such as a known area for seals.  It can be a weekend’s wild camping expedition with friends, with a fire on the beach eating fresh fish caught from the kayak. It can be surfing at high speed down waves in a tide race far from land waves towering above your head, or surfing waves at a beach.  It can be a months-long expedition carrying all of your food and camping equipment, taking you around entire islands or even countries, journeying to a new place every day.  It can be an open crossing, over 12 hours paddling from the UK to Ireland for example.  It can be anything else you want it to be.  It can be as calm as you want or as adrenaline-fuelled as you want.  But behind it all lies a need for an understanding of the sea and the ability to judge what conditions the sea will give you.  I have seen amazing things, paddled beautiful areas, I have laughed, I have been in awe at my surroundings, and I have been scared. It is a sport, but at the heart of it is the element, the sea.  And it is the sea which is the master, and the sea that will control what you do on any day.  We must learn about the sea, try to predict how tide, wind, and the shape of the coastline and sea bed, will affect the sea at any particular time, and then how it will affect us and our boats.  

Sea kayaking, like any sport, is good for fitness but it also provides me with much more than this, providing much more connection with the natural world than anything else I’ve ever done.

I’m looking forward to exploring many other parts of the world by sea, and those same spots I return to every week, where the coastline and sea state is always slightly different, and there is always something new to see.  

And as for that carbon footprint, well there is a very good train connection from Crewe to Anglesey, and although there isn’t yet a carriage for transporting sea kayaks, by storing or borrowing a boat on Anglesey, and getting someone to pick you up, then it’s almost possible to live in Stoke and sea kayak without that environmental guilt!