The Scilly Crossing

The only book I have read this year is the excellent South West Sea kayaking Guide by Mark Rainsley. Most bits I have eyeballed about a dozen times but the section on the 28 mile crossing between the islands and the mainland has been thumbed to near disintegration. It’s the number one big paddle in SW England, and been my number one kayaking ambition for years, and here we were,  ready to launch from another dream  beach on Great Ganilly, one of the Eastern Isles,  with conditions about as perfect as they could be. In fact the coastguard reported to Austen that conditions were ‘benign’- don’t suppose they say that too often around here.

Departure beach on Great Ganilly

The mood around the camp was a bit contemplative the previous evening.Bit of a contrast to the Turk’s Head. Austen loaded all the navigation into his GPS, I took on the major responsibility of rehoming a herring gull chick that had bumbled into our camp, and Keith began to think it was all a ghastly mistake.

However Keith lended our motley trio a degree of credibility because he was paddling a conventional,and sea worthy, Valley Aquanaut sea kayak, even though it was the colour of a urinal. Austen and I were in our trusty sit-on-tops which might raise a few eyebrows when we get air-lifted out some time the following week off the coast of Portugal. At least my Wilderness Tarpon 160i was high-vis ( ripe mango shading to tequila sunrise at the back) whereas Austen’s Perception was the colour of stagnant pond. Incidentally, what on earth does the ‘i’ stand for on my Tarpon 160i……it’s a blooming kayak,  not a hot hatch.

Keith prior to departure, looking cool,but probably not feeling it.

So accompanied by the eery bawling of seals all around we threaded our way out through the remaining few rocky islets into the clean blue sea. It was yet another clear blue sky day and I was a little bit irritated that we could just about see the coast of Cornwall as the faintest line on the horizon. I rather wanted to be out in the middle of the sea with no land visible at all, just for a bit of a chuckle.

Assisted by a light following wind we stopped for a break after six miles in two hours. I was thrilled to see a couple of storm petrels winging past. They are a bit of an unlikely bird to be so at home in the open ocean as they are ridiculously small and flimsy. These sort of wildlife encounters are what I really enjoy about  offshore trips-you feel you could encounter some really extraordinary sea creature at any moment. And ten miles out from Scillies, that is PRECISELY what happened.

 I caught sight of a huge wallowing mass floating at the surface beyond Austen to the south, and when it rose up again on the next swell it had large circular shape sticking out of it. Going on the size I assumed it could only be the fin of a basking shark so we paddled over for a look. As we approached and got a clearer look my rational mind fused….. the creature’s back had great ridges down it and the circular shape was a monstrous head…a Stegosaurus, surely. With his feet firmly in the real world Austen announced it was a turtle, and in a blur of excitement I bore down on the beast like a destroyer towards a U-boat. What a completely idiotic thing to do. Quite understandably it dived and was gone. I shoved my camera underwater as it swam beneath my kayak. Pretty rubbish photo but you can just about see what it is.

Leatherback Turtle

We reckon its carapace was about four foot wide and it was six or seven foot long-totally and utterly unbelievable-what a thrill. And why didn’t I just sit tight and admire it from a distance.

Apparently Leatherbacks feast on jellyfish and they date back to prehistory, having seen the dinosaurs come and go. Having existed for such a long time it might have been wise to evolve a way of eating something a bit more substantial, even if it was something akin to ice-cream to make the jelly a bit more interesting. Ideally a Mcflurry. But I suppose you can’t knock them…they’re still about. Needless to say human interference at their nesting grounds is the greatest threat. Not a great surprise.

The sea both in Scilly and today was absolutely heaving with small blue jellyfish so lots for this extraordinary reptile to gnosh on.

We hung around to see if it surfaced but it didn’t. So on we went and were fast heading towards the shipping lanes. A container ship which had been only  a tiny white dot on the horizon half an hour previously thud-thudded past just behind us.

Nice hat, Aus
The Ice Runner's not far behind you, Keith

We stopped  for a break fourteen miles out so we were about half way. The Scillies were gone and the Cornish coast was still a long way off, so it wasn’t bad as a wilderness experience. I dropped a set of mackerel feathers to the bottom but failed to catch-pity.

Yours truly pointing in the wrong direction-thats Cornwall and the Lands End theme park behind

There was a steady trickle of shearwaters,gannets and a handful more storm petrels, and the briefest glimpse of a porpoise before we had to give way to a ship which was on a collision course in the north going shipping lane:

closer than it looks...wide angle lens (honest!)

Longships lighthouse was in sight against the back drop of the coast. We were making very good speed as the tide was essentially in our favour although trying to push us a bit north. Keith was in charge of Austen’s ‘rolling road’ GPS so could keep us exactly on our planned course. Only one teeny problem…..there was quite a swell running and we hoped this wouldn’t cause any problems closer to the shore. Also I knew from experience that the tide can fairly fizz on the shore side of the Longships reef.

We passed the lighthouse exactly eight hours after leaving Scilly.

Longships Reef......nearly there

There was a line of smoother water the other side of the reef which gradually deteriorated into  increasingly confused  water, compounded by the bounceback of the swells off the cliffs. We were rapidly being sucked to the south and a shiver ran through me as I glanced at my GPS speedometer and it was registering 0.00mph (i.e. no speed at all, not ooomph). Austen meantime had hooked a pollack, yes of course using his husky jerk, and was rapidly being slurped towards the rocky Armed Knight. We really didn’t want to be the wrong side of this  island as it would be impossible to paddle back against the tide ( but at least it now qualified as a fishing trip).

We paddled like stink for the  base of the cliff  where the tide race was less, even though it was very lumpy. One last BIG hurdle…a gap to paddle through at Dr. Syntax’s Head where the tide was really surging. I went first, paddling flat out, and only really got through thanks to surfing on a timely swell. Austen and Keith followed:

Not so benign now, folks
Austen defeats the tide at Dr Syntax's Head (must be a good yarn behind that crazy name)

We only had to paddle the less churny water of the Gamper, dodge the big boucing swells off the headland and then home in on the harbour wall at Sennen cove. Rounding the corner the inner harbour was the picture of tranquility. Keith’s hands resembled those of a platypus:

Is that a Worther's original you have there, Keith

Our legs were dysfunctional after nine hours in the seat, and a distance of 28 miles. Austen is proud to have also broken his bladder retention record, an extraordinary feat indeed. I pestered some friendly tourists for a group pic:

Phew made it.......what's next?

And so all that remained was to pig out on sausage and chips and then taxi it back to Penzance to pick up our cars and then back to Sennen to load up the kayaks and then Penzance again to meet The Scillonian and our chums and say farewell and clear off home. Top trip. Top of the Tops, in fact.