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The Great Glen Canoe Trail by sea kayak – part one. Planning, packing and some tips from experience on weather, kit and confidence

May 2021

Part one: from planning to getting on the water

Dores Campsite – our reward at the end of Loch Ness!

Getting started: Resources, contacts and ideas

Top tips 1

During Lockdown 1.0 in Spring 2020, I wanted to set a goal, plan something to look forward to.  I love Scotland, amazing scenery, a superb place for all our outdoor activities.  Thinking kayaking, the Great Glen Canoe Trail, (GGCT) looked like a good challenge. (Have a look at: Blogs – where we’ve been and what we did – AC Canoe Adventures ( – making Plans.  In between last Spring and this, we have made a good few trips in the kayaks and it has certainly helped with my techniques, skills, experience and confidence.  I have a loooong way to go, but there is no doubt that trips round South, West and North Wales have provided some pretty fair challenges.

Last September (2020) we travelled to Scotland and on a non-paddling day we went for an explore around Fort William and started to consider the logistics of our trip.

The Great Glen Canoe (GGCT) trail is a wonderfully organised piece of Scottish hospitality which offers trailblazer campsites, showers, toilets, canoe storage racks, information points, special low pontoons and guides.  Don’t worry, it remains unspoilt. The whole thing, though, is really set up to travel from Fort William so it is worth having a plan for starting at Inverness.  We couldn’t find good places to leave the kayaks at Inverness for a Southerly trip, but it would be well worth talking to the lovely, helpful people in the Scottish Canals office. (Canal Office Inverness: 01463 725500).

There are also companies who provide guided trips.

Some key resources:

The GGCT bible is undoubtedly the one by Donald Macpherson published by Pesda Press: ‘The Great Glen Canoe Trail – A Complete Guide to Scotland’s First Formal Canoe Trail’.  I’m just going to call it ‘The Book’.  It is an excellent reference for not only completing the trail, but also for the background information that it contains.

UK Rivers Guidebook for forums and trip reports: Home – The UK Rivers Guidebook

Song of the Paddle Forum:    Scottish paddling places – Page 3 – Song of the Paddle Forum

Facebook: there are loads of pages but these have always proved helpful and sensible:

Women’s Paddling Community | Facebook

West Coast Paddlers | Facebook

Great Glen Canoe Trail | Facebook

It’s a long way!

Ordnance Survey maps : (We went for laminated 1:25000 and used them in a waterproof mapcase): OS Explorer 392, Ben Nevis; OS Explorer 400, Loch Lochy and Glen Roy; OS Explorer 416, Inverness, Loch Ness & Culloden.

So, with Lockdown 3.0 about to ease, the respective governments allowing us to travel, vaccinations half done, at last we felt the lightness of promised freedom and an opportunity to get away for a break.  I run my own coaching business, so the weeks leading up to our holiday were pretty frantic; I was determined that this was going to be a real rest, away from any distractions.

And, it nearly all didn’t happen due to a rather dodgy x-ray result. You know those ‘bumps’ that hurt but then you think ‘ah well, it’ll settle down’? It didn’t, but I almost had a meltdown when the GP rang to tell me I may have a fracture in my elbow (that had happened 3 weeks ago and I’d been using it diligently as the Doc had said). Can I paddle the Great Glen?  Will it make it worse?  I don’t think the poor lady quite understood how much was at stake…. Eventually I was told I could paddle as long as it didn’t hurt. Phew!

(Post script from 8 weeks on and it is OK!)

Preparing and packing

Top tips 2

I absolutely hate packing.  I’m not sure why, probably the indecision over what to take.  I either pack too much or not enough.  You’d have thought that after decades of going away for work, holidays, camping, and just about anything else, that I’d have it sussed by now.  But no.  I blame the unpredictable British weather, (though I’m the same even going abroad).  What I know though, is that I hate being cold.  If my feet are cold then the rest will chill fast, if I’m wet or hungry then I’ll quickly start to get irritable and then good decision-making suffers.  I’d be useless on these reality shows where they have to rough it with no sleep and no comforts at all, living on a diet of slop or jungle beasts.

I’m not a complete wimp though – multi-day trips in deep caves, diving, walking and trekking the high mountains means that I have experienced discomfort, cold, wet, altitude sickness and exhaustion.  In the old days (!) we’d call it character-building, but listening to a recent podcast (Professor Mike Tipton on ‘The Life Scientific), he suggests that occasional discomfort is good for us, our bodies learn to cope.

First, our lovely boats needed a check over. Christopher did some neat sealing jobs and put some stickers on (including the freebies from the Coastguard to label the boats with our names: NB biro wont stand up to even fresh water, so put the stickers on the inside where they can stay dry and also be seen). Meanwhile the chicken kept an eye on proceedings!

So, packing….I made a list and I broke down the sections of our trip. What I need for paddling, what we need for camping, what can stay in the van, safety equipment (VHF radios, phones, solar charger, first aid kits etc).

Eating! In good D of E style I even planned menus and ingredients.  Ever since caving days, we’ve had a rule: no pasta choice! (meaning no pre-packed commercial freeze-dried meals). Pasta is a great, lightweight and easy meal with plenty of carbs, but if you aren’t a pasta eater then it’s a bad idea.  We keep it for emergencies and as we weren’t walking we could carry more.  We planned for things like chilli (cold enough to keep the meat for a day), bacon sarnies, hot dogs and soup. Protein bars, snickers, apples and so on kept us going and the jet boil meant that brew stops were quick and easy.

Multi-use paddles, a tarp and a husband who is clever at design!

As this was my first ever kayak camping trip I pretty much made do with paddling clothes (which take up so much room!), a complete dry set of warm clothes using a layering system, so that I could mix and match according to the weather, a waterproof and ensuring I had warm cosy socks to change into!   Helmets are always a discussion topic and arguably I didn’t really need one on a trip like this, but a bump to the head at a crucial moment is not a good combination with falling into water. It could happen. Besides, as it happened it kept my head warm and dry!


Pretty much packed and ready to head off

Added to this had to be camping essentials (tent mats, sleeping bag stoves etc) and food.  At least some of this could be shared between the two boats and in the end the only things which stayed on top of the decks were the chairs (!), C-Tug, spare paddles, maps and drinks. We found room behind the seats for the throwlines and as the journey progressed, it all got much easier to re-pack

Weather, packing and trimming the boats

Top tips 3

In most respects we were fortunate with the weather. We only had one afternoon of rain and the low temperatures we’d seen in early Spring continued and meant that we were midge-free. (No small joy in Scotand!) What was less fortunate was the difference in weather from the forecast.  Combine this with my lack of local knowledge, some rather blind optimism and some sub-optimal decision-making on my part and we actually faced a truly great challenge!

The Great Glen has a prevailing South-Westerly wind which means that most people complete the trip from Banavie to Inverness thus making best use of the tail wind and opportunities to sail.  The forecast was for better weather at the end of our planned trip with light winds swinging from North-Easterlies at the very start to South or South-Westerlies. Given that all the blogs, guides, books and forums warn of the capricious nature of Loch Ness, we felt that travelling in the standard direction was probably the best way.  As it turned out, the Northerly wind trend didn’t change and the light breezes expected were, let’s say, closer to force 3 or 4.  I suspect that this is a facet of the way that the wind is funnelled down the glen, creating a relentless headwind.

Learning point number one: select your forecast wisely, make it easy to change to a plan B to work in the opposite direction and remember that wind speeds at town locations may well not reflect the winds out on the water.

A note on hull shapes: Paddling a laden boat feels quite different, and to start with it was just rather slow to manoeuvre: later in the trip I’d be glad of the stability!  I’m happy with the rather flat hull of the Scorpio as it is a nice all-rounder for the gentle touring that I want to do and she isn’t trying to tip me in every time I lose energy or concentration.  I dare say that a more v-shaped hull would have sliced through the water faster and more efficiently (especially in the conditions that we were to experience), but there is something to be said for comfort. I really noticed the difference in handling during  my first paddle after the Great Glen: sitting higher out of the water, she felt as wobbly as she had when I first started kayaking! (With a paddle round The Summer Isles, though, it didn’t take long to get back to  feeling more stable).

As a lifelong learner and a latecomer to kayaking, every new experience is hugely valuable and adds to my confidence.  With hindsight, we would probably have started in Inverness, but on a positive note, I now know that I can manage a laden kayak in seriously bouncy waters of Loch Lochy and Loch Ness.  I can also paddle into a headwind and that made for careful use of technique to avoid exhaustion.

Next time

In part two of the blog we get started on the water!

Kayaking round Milford Haven – August 2020

A happy trip around Milford Haven in our sea kayaks

Cave on Lindsway Bay

Getting away

So, like two ageing hippies we set out in the VW Camper, hair still in lockdown style, Fleetwood Mac good and loud from the speakers. (No beads and bangles though).  Two beautiful sea kayaks loaded onto the roof with much less hassle, back-ache and strap flapping now that we have a Kari-Tek Easy Load Roof Rack.  Yep, having heavy boats to transport makes you into roof-rack anoraks.  Sad but true.

Although Milford Haven doesn’t sound like an idyllic location, especially for those of us who remember the Sea Empress disaster in 1996, it is now a great spot for wildlife enthusiasts, water sports and even beaches (as long as you don’t want crowds or lots of space….)

We had a wonderful three days, made all the more poignant after months of limited travel.  Read on for notes on our kayaking, wildlife and where to find chips.

Where did we go?


We started (and finished) each trip at the beach north of Dale village (Pickleridge), which has the Pembrokeshire Coast Path running along its shore. The grid reference is SM 810068.   It was much quieter than Dale itself which is a centre for watersports: paddle-boards, windsurfers, dive boats, yachts and kayaks.  The beach at Pickleridge is a shingle beach with quite a carry over rocks and seaweed at low tide, so it’s worth planning to launch or return in the top couple of hours of the tide.

Pickleridge (Dale) at low tide

There is a great view across the harbour and at low tide you can see a wide variety of birds (and quite a few people with binoculars). Apart from them the beach was always quiet, even on these really warm August days.  Just what we love.

Tuesday 11th August – Watch House Point

About 3 miles
Monk Haven

Itching to get the boats out, we set out for a little paddle and reached Watch Point before we knew it. I am often surprised at how far we go in the kayaks in quite a short time; when we looked back to Watch Point from Pickleridge, it looked much further than it felt. (It’s 1.6 miles each way).  Hugging the coast, we felt quite a swell and I wasn’t keen to stay still too long.  Anyone else ever felt sea-sick in a kayak?  A little way along we reached Monk Haven with its startlingly red sandstone walls and castellated wall at its back that marks the boundary of the Trewarren estate.  The cove is so small and so neatly carved from the cliffs that the whole beach looks as if it were designed by the hand of man.  One of the things that we love about  being in the kayaks is that not only can you get to places that are otherwise hard to reach, but the perspective from a small boat is wholly different.  It wasn’t a hard paddle even in the breeze and returning against the ebbing tide, so it was a neat limber up for our next trip.

A note on geology

The rock formations along this stretch show dramatic folding and although there are superb red cliffs, some look more like limestone. Looking at the geological map of Pembroke, Milford Haven is clearly hewn from Devonian Old Red Sandstone which is 345 million years old. The fjord-like inlets and deep water channels of the port were formed in the ice age when rivers flowed under the ice sheet to form deep channels leaving a Ria or drowned river valley. (Here is a link that explains it much better!

Wildlife in Dale

On our return went into the shallows of the river that flows down from Mullock.  Curlews (and possibly whimbrels), Oyster catchers were in abundance, their haunting, ululating calls, filling the air like a film soundtrack.  There were, of course, lots of gulls. Now, telling them apart isn’t easy, much simpler just to lump them together as seagulls.  However, as my book says, the herring gulls is a ‘robust’ bird with a ‘familiar laughing display call’.  Yep, lots of those. We also saw Common gulls, (Larus canus and rather smaller than the Herring Gull according to my book) but I don’t think they are as common as the Herring Gulls!  There were also black-headed gulls and more interestingly (perhaps) I saw a few gannets – huge, elegant birds with notably pointed and slim wings. RSPB reports that they spend their lives at sea, but we are lucky to have breeding colonies in Pembrokeshire.  I’m not sure of the official term for a group of gannets but the RSPB book was happy to describe them as ‘squadrons’, which fits rather nicely. I mustn’t forget the cormorants and Shags:  we saw both, often in their classic wing-drying stance, but also perched on rocks.  The Shag is about 20cm smaller than the cormorant which also has pale cheeks and the young birds have ‘dirty white underparts’.  

In the shallows of the beach there were shoals of very fast-swimming fish.  Although we were on an ebbing tide with a following wind (8-9mph Northerly) we had a pleasant paddle.  The wind changed in places across the bay – noticeable in the fluorescent green race flags of the yacht club.


Later we had a gentle wander round the bay into Dale.  As a teenager I spent many happy evenings scrambling over rocks on the beach at Portishead, so scrambling around the waterline and peering into rockpools is a happy pastime.  Covid restrictions mean that an unplanned meal out isn’t possible, but we managed to get some excellent takeaway chips and a good pint of ‘Tenby Harbour’ to enjoy on the beach. A balmy evening, a quiet beach, food and drink and the prospect of more lovely paddles. What more could we want?

Wednesday 12th August – Round Milford Haven

11.5 miles

Loving our ‘Welsh Sea Kayaking: Fifty Great Sea Kayak Voyages’ book we picked number 40 which plots a journey around Milford Haven, starting at Dale. We were later than the suggested 2 hours after low water, nonetheless we had a superb trip and no long carries (always good news with Two Tonne Tess, the Scorpio).

Don’t Rock the Boat

The trip was 11.5 miles and my first real adventure in the boat.  We tootled round in just over 4 hours with a 15 minute stop at East Angle Bay, a few moments of rafting up to wait for tankers and a little interlude to look at two ocean rowing boats. Never having seen one close to I was curious.  These two were moored to the pontoon at Dale harbour – one in blue, the other red – and both emblazoned ‘Don’t Rock the Boat’. Equipped with multiple Marshall cameras it was clear that the three rowers were going to be under constant and full surveillance. The craft looked pristine, so we guessed that they were early in their journeys.  We later discovered that we had just missed Freddie Flintoff and the crew shooting for an ITV show in which celebrities take on a 500 mile rowing trip and some challenges at various points between Lands End and John O’Groats.

Crossing over to Angle

As we left the shelter of the bay we felt the swell in the channel and once again I was grateful for the stability of the Scorpio.  Looking out across towards Angle and Thorn Island I suddenly felt nervous – for the first time I felt I was heading out into open waters, away from hugging the coast. We had great visibility from here and could see the cardinal buoys and our destination coast clearly.  Watching to our left (looking East) we spotted a pilot boat and tanker. Milford Haven, although a less busy port these days, still has a lot of shipping.  According to the Gleeds website,( the UK is increasing its need for imported LNG as North Sea gas decreases. Milford Haven is one of the busiest LNG terminals in the world and in our day trip we saw 3 tankers coming or going.  It is also the route into Pembroke Dock for ferries crossing over to Rosslare.  Don’t think we’ll tangle with those unmanoueverable, water juggernauts. All this means that it is crucial to keep an eye on what is happening and to cross the shipping lane at 90 degrees and without hanging around.  Whilst we are used to crossing the road and judging speed of vehicles, it was a different matter for ships, so although the tanker looked a way off, we decided to raft up and wait.  We didn’t wait for very long…..

Waiting for the traffic

From Dale it is hard to see the definition of Thorn Island as the coast merges in the distance with Angle.  Once close we could see it wasn’t huge and paddled around the back, passing a few paddle boarders and a kayak who had come out from the nearby West Angle Bay.

East Angle Bay

From there we headed East around the Angle coast towards Chapel Bay and the lifeboat station.  Although we had the refinery ahead of us and the LNG jetties to the left, this was a lovely paddle on clear aquamarine waters.  Still near the top of the tide we were able to paddle south into East Angle Bay (lots of exposed mud and sand at low tide!), where we took a breather and a much needed leg stretch.  It would have been lovely to have an ice cream but no luck and we weren’t in pub mode (though the Point House Inn is on the list for another trip).

Stack Rock Fort

From there we headed back out towards the jetties and headed NW towards the fort on Stack rock.  Apparently there are sometimes seals there, but they were hiding from us.  It looked like an interesting place to land and explore, but there are notices forbidding it… The fort is privately owned and was first built to defend the Royal Dock (Pembroke Dock) in 1850-1852.  The first floor was used as a gun deck, the second housed 30 men.  It was decommissioned in 1929.

Stack rock Fort

From the fort we headed over to Great Castle Head (missing out the trip to Sandy Haven Pill) and then followed the coast back and across to Pickleridge.  This last stretch only had very light north-easterly winds but on an ebbing tide in 28 degrees at the end of our trip it felt like hard work.

Storms gathering

The storms forecast for the week started building in the evening and as we sat in the dimming light we were treated to an amazing spectacle of electricity building within a classically anvil-shaped cumulo nimbus cloud. It was like something from a sci-fi film.  Gradually increasing sheets of light would burst into the cloud and then crack into forks of lightning.

Cumulo Nimbus generating electricity

Thursday 13th August – Watwick

5.5 miles

After a hot and sunny day doing the Milford Haven tour, we decided on a shorter paddle for our last day.  (Note to self, I need to find a cushion of some sort for longer paddles in the Scorpio!) The weather forecast was for possible thunder storms later so we decided to do a short trip which allowed for a quick return.  As it turned out, the weather was lovely and we set out from the bay in millpond conditions.

More forts

We hugged the coast and paddled into Dale, round the many moored yachts.  Still, the beach was almost empty in the morning with little watersports activity either. Heading out to Dale point, under the fort we felt some swell again, maybe from large shipping’s wake through the channel.  The fort, built in around 1858, was part of a set of forts with West Blockhouse and Thorn Island which provided interlocking fire to protect the anchorage in Milford Haven.  It is now an active field studies centre.

Milford Haven’s hidden gem?

We continued in calm but slightly swelly waters, hugging the coast of Castlebeach bay and then on round to the amazing sight of the sands at Watwick.


Another lesson learned here – don’t take the spray deck off until you are out of the waves. I got rather wet……. Still, the beach was empty, so at least I could put some things to dry on the rocks. We could have been on some ridiculously expensive holiday, perfect sand, clear water, no people and sea that was warm enough for a swim without a wetsuit.

After such a lovely interlude, we didn’t go too far, just on out to West Blockhouse point from where we got a good view of St Ann’s head. Seven miles south-east of St Ann’s head are the reefs of Crow Rock and Toes which have claimed many ships. In 1714 there were two leading lights to guide shipping with the lighthouse replacing those in 1844. It was ‘demanned’ and automated in 1998 with the buildings around it now set up as holiday lets. (

A great place to paddle

We found Milford Haven much more aesthetic than we’d expected and were also very happy to find a quiet place. 2020 has seen hoards of ‘staycationers’ flocking to beaches and pictures of crowds on the south coast have been shocking. We’ve been looking for places to paddle where we can find space, shelter for less clement weather and somewhere to unwind. This ticked all the boxes.

What next?

Broad Haven and Little Haven were very busy and we couldn’t even get chips in the former. A trip to St Martin’s have to look at a launch site showed us a small bay, which was catching all the weather when we were there, but there are some good looking trips around the western side of the point – all for another day.

Playing in the Kayaks to Gain Confidence

Rolling practice
Working towards rolling

Confidence and finding great places to play

In this blog I’ll share a few things that are helping my confidence on the water. I’ve had my own battles with confidence, and the ‘struggle muscle’ that I seem to have developed is helping me not only to gain confidence on the water, but also to understand how I can best help the equestrians who I coach . Identifying and overcoming their fears, finding ways to achieve their goals and then seeing them smiling and loving what they do is great reward.

What motivates me to want to get out kayaking? I love being on the sea, the sharp smell of salt water, the slap of (small!) waves on the hull of the kayak, gliding through calm waters, the wildlife, grown-up ‘rockpooling’, the feeling of open space and sometimes just gently rocking on the swell. This is all getting so much better now that my focus isn’t on what might happen if I fall in.

‘Rockpooling’ – there were loads of common starfish and anemones in the pools at Oxwich

So, here I will tell you a bit about the lovely places we found to practice in our sea kayaks and start exploring more on the ideas about how we learn.

Getting going….

LocationGrid ReferenceComment
Mon and Brecon CanalSO 303109Mid/finish point
Cardiff BayST 183763Channel View Slip
Oxwich BaySS 500 864End of Oxwich Bay
Mumbles/Swansea BaySS 623887Car Park by Mumbles Sailing club
A bit of help to find our locations…

Lockdown meant no playing in the boats at all and once it eased we were limited to trips on the canal. Although frustrating, this gave us plenty of time to practice strokes and manoeuvres and to gain some kayaking fitness and stamina. There is nothing like paddling a sea kayak on a canal to test the straightness of your forward paddling, (or backward paddling for that matter!). Looking back on it, from a month down the line, this was time well-spent.

‘A bit of chop in Cardiff Bay this March!

Our first trips, once we could go more than 5 miles, were to Cardiff Bay which provides a great sheltered spot at the lower end of the Taff and sometimes more choppy waters out towards the barrage. Once the rules allowed and we felt that we could get to the coast without losing any chance of social distancing, we set out for The Gower and Swansea.


Cardiff Bay was a great place to play, quiet and calm. The car park by the slip is small but we have been at quiet times (not hot weekends!) The settled waters at the lower end of The Taff were a good place to start ‘playing’. Oxwich had provided us with a beautiful trip in late October, so we knew that this would also provide a good play space. At that time of year (with almost millpond conditions!) there was no charge to park. Now, in July 2020, of course we have to pay to park as Oxwich is a busy holiday beach. It’s a fee well spent for a super day out and the number of SUP hires, SoTs and kayak fishermen tell you that it certainly is a great spot for messing about on the water. (Post script: do not go in the height of holidays!!).

Heading out to Oxwich Point

It is a sheltered bay, but at low tide be prepared for a long carry to the water. Being shallow, the water seems to disappear very fast – put the boat down at the water’s edge to get zipped into a wetsuit and don a PFD and by the time you are ready to get in there is another carry into the water…

Weather and Tide

For sea trips we check the tide using Easytide ( and weather on the BBC weather app as we weren’t planning to go beyond Oxwich Point. The book, ‘Welsh Sea Kayaking: Fifty Great Sea Kayak Voyages’ is a wonderful addition to any paddler’s library as it includes background information on the area as well as points on such things as tidal streams.

The first day in Oxwich was sunny and warm but on an ebbing tide and with an offshore wind of 13mph. This was OK in my wonderfully stable Scorpio as we crossed over to Three Cliffs Bay but in a more tippy boat it would be a great test of balance and core strength to travel across the waves. Still, this is all learning for me and matching what I can do with any given weather and tide (in a safe place) is good to add into the experience log. One of the key learning moments is the difference in how things feel from the shelter of Cardiff Bay. It is also where I felt glad of the forward paddling and stamina training on the beautiful Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.

A further note on tides: our second trip to Oxwich saw us feeling more confident and paddling right out to Oxwich point. It was worth feeling the tide and noting how fast it can move you. It’s a great feeling to get somewhere with almost zero effort… as long as you are going where you are planning to go! Past diving experience and planning for slack water, or considering drift dives was a reminder of how crucial it is to get it right.

The value of positivity

As a coach myself, (but not in paddlesports!), I am always interested in how we learn and sea kayaking is a happy challenge for me. I know that I need to take small steps to build confidence so that when we are out on longer trips I’m not constantly worrying about what might go wrong.

Years ago, as I diver I used to practice positive visualisation to help my nerves before going down the shot-line. Now, I encourage it for equestrians nervous about taking on a jump or doing a dressage test. The effect of simply thinking about things going well is powerful and gives us a surprising ability to predict outcome. “I can’t roll my kayak” will almost certainly mean that you won’t. “My horse won’t jump that” pretty much inevitably leads to a refusal. Negative thoughts take over too easily, so the idea of a positive mental attitude is not just important, but essential for succeeding in what we do. This is why I’m working on getting the positive (‘I know I am OK doing this’) at the forefront of my mind. It is worth noting (as you will guess) that simply saying “I can” won’t guarantee success because we also need the technical and physical skill and experience to complete our task. Nonetheless, it makes a big difference and is essential to get started.

Leaving my comfort zone

I found some videos on You Tube which inspired me to have a go at some different things. So, here are some of the ‘games’ that I’m using: they are already helping to build confidence.

What I triedCan I do it yet?Was it fun?How much has it built confidence?
Capsizing and getting outYes first timeNO!Lots
Sitting on the back of the kayakYes, first timeYes++++
Getting back in and putting on the spraydeck Yes, first timeYes++++
Getting into the water by sliding off behind the cockpitYes first timeCold!++
Getting back in from deep waterYes, but it took at least 10 minutes!Funny to watch!Huge confidence boost
Round the worldYes, first time (but not on the Tiderace!!)Yes+++

There’s an interesting article on the UK Coaching site: ‘The Learning Zone: Be Comfortable with Feeling Uncomfortable’. ( . This short article underlines the importance of stepping out of our safe space and using the try/fail to not only learn, but also develop persistence, resilience and recall. As we learn to do something we create a neural pathway and it is this ‘rut’ which can help or hinder. Think about a simple task like brushing your teeth or signing your name – it’s almost automatic. If you want to do it differently (use your other hand for example), you have to think harder about what you do. Making a change like this challenges the brain to create a different pathway. Making this shift means that the learning that we then have is better embedded -deeper and longer-lasting. It isn’t about frightening ourselves, but finding something which is a step out of our comfort zone: difficult but achievable.

Going back to the capsizing or kayak games, I can see the progression:

Comfort zone – oh no! – out of reach – I’m confused – its too hard – I don’t know what to do

Then, getting out of the ‘learning pit’:

I’m going to give it a go – Let’s get help – involve other people – enter the learning zone – get out of the pit.

Enjoying our days out

Cardiff Bay

The learning, practicing and days out are fun in themselves, but both Cardiff Bay and Oxwich are lovely trips in the kayaks.

I’ve already written a bit about Cardiff Bay and The Taff, but last time we were there we thought we’d found a lost dive club. Rising up from the deep were bubbles. Nothing on the surface of the water to suggest what they might be and later we found more. And more.

Cardiff Bay is a freshwater lake and home to an array of wildlife which has a limited tolerance for changes in water quality, temperature and oxygen levels. Beneath the water are 28.8 km of self-sinking airlines and 6000 diffusers which blow air into the water and help to maintain the optimum oxygenation levels for the wildlife.


At low tide the remains of the ‘Solor’ are easily visible. (At high tide, the cluster of fishermen is a clue – or the arrow on the rocks…)

The Solor was a Norwegian Vessel which was torpedoed in 1945 by a U boat in the Irish Sea. She limped to Oxwich Bay where she was beached in order to unload her cargo of fuel oil and crated gliders bound for the Clyde. These days, only her middle section remains and acts as an artificial reef providing a home for many conger eels and a wide range of fish. (Next time I’m going to get out and have a snorkel round her I think…)

The Mumbles

Even in Summer we managed to park near the sailing club and had an easy launch from the slipway. It was a lovely paddle out towards Bracelet Bay then back round the Lifeboat stations. Seagulls were deafening – screeching from their nests lined up on the walls like shelves. There was a whole flock of turnstones on the slip of the old station. They are migrant birds (so these were either from Northern Europe or Canada) and have amber conservation status. I was surprised to see them as I would have expected to see them on the rocks, flipping stones to find food.


These ‘games’ have been quite a turning point for me and just knowing that I can get back into the boat in deep water is a real relief. We also practice with Chris getting out and back into his boat so I know that I can also help him if he is in the water.

Our next step is to do it in less than ideal conditions…….

Lockdown exercise…..

May and June 2020

Paddles on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal

Easing out of lockdown

Lockdown meant that we couldn’t get out in the kayaks.  I’m just glad we’d booked our rolling course at Plas y Brenin for the beginning of March – our other choice would never have happened as it was the weekend where we all saw life as we knew it pretty much stopped by Covid 19.

At the end of May Wales eased the rules on exercise, so after careful checking we were able to take our exercise in the kayaks as we are lucky enough to live within a stone’s throw of the lovely Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.

A beautiful place with a heritage from the industrial revolution

The Mon and Brec is like all the canals in our country: it has a great industrial history, a fall into decline, followed by loving restoration and now a new lease of life as a tourist and leisure destination.

It has 35 navigable miles, 6 locks, 167 bridges and notable tunnels and aqueducts.  These days, it runs from Pontymoile Basin to Brecon, where, in good times you can easily stop for a wander round near the theatre and have tea or ice cream. The Monmouthshire canal was opened in 1799 with a branch from Malpas to Crumlin; the original Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal went from Brecon to Gilwern in 1800 and was then extended to Pontymoile in 1812.  It is the Brecknock and Abergavenny stretch which is what we mostly see as the Mon and Brec canal.

Both canals played a crucial part in Welsh industrial history, serving the coal mines of the South Wales Valleys.  200 miles of tramroads connected to the canals which took coal, limestone and iron ore to be transported around Britain.  Some of the history can still be seen from the canal – limekilns are to be seen near Gilwern and the wharfs at various points including Llanfoist – and many other great historical sites can be seen within a short distance of the canal. Big Pit, in Blaenavon, was granted World Heritage status in 2000. (

The commercial use of the canals had pretty much finished by 1915 and throughout the 20th Century parts were completely lost to roads. In 1968 work started on restoring the stretch from Brecon to Pontymoile.

Happily for us, this is the part where we can take the boats.

Paddling a small part of the Mon and Brec.

Our route

We start at a small car park by Preacher’s Bridge (number 76) at grid reference SO315 072. It can be busy on normal sunny days as there’s only room for a few cars.

This trip is just under 4 beautiful miles with wooded stretches, open views across to the Skirrid and Sugarloaf and places with wildish edges which are home to yellow flags, reeds and wildlife. Our finish is at bridge 93, and then just a short walk home.

Bridge 76Small car park by Preacher’s BridgeHappy start!
Bridge 77Old Abergavenny Road On the way!
Bridge 78Mill Turn Bridge (then Mill Turn aqueduct) 
Llanover Winding HoleThere are big fish here! Watch out for fishermen
Bridge 79Lower Mount Pleasant Bridge 
Bridge 80Mount Pleasant Upper Bridge 
Bridge 81Llanover 
Bridge 82Llanover 
Bridge 83Beech Tree Bridge 
Bridge 84Ty Coch (Bernie’s) and the barge hazard I used to work nearby 🙂
Bridge 85Thimbles 
Ochram Brook AqueductGrade 2 listed and near the weirLovely open view
Bridge 86Ochram Turn Bridge Pretty and wide
Bridge 87Poplar Bridge 
Twyn Glas Wharf‘Robert’s Farm’ and wharfFlowery approach
Bridge 88Twyn GlasPretty cottage
Bridge 89Barn Bridge 
Bridge 90Morgan’s Bridge 
Bridge 91Wooden BridgePath to Llanellen
Bridge 92Heol Gerrig 
Bridge 93Llanellen Farm (Pant)Bridge Farm
Total distanceJust under 4 miles 


We’ve noticed a few different things about the canal this year. It seems that the lack of motor traffic and narrow boat holidays has allowed the water to be clearer and we have seen astonishing numbers of tadpoles and many fish – mostly rudd or roach I think. We’ve also become practised ‘midge-snorters’(!!): “Quick, stop smiling and move away form the veritable clouds of midges”. 

Rudd or roach?

The banded Demoiselles that we saw on The Wye last year are here in huge numbers – they were at their best at the end of May.  If you’d like to know more about these beautiful ephemera and their relatives, have a look at:  . There are also lots of delicate blue damselflies, (I’m guessing they are the ‘Common blue Damselfly’), but please don’t expect me to separate it from its very similar relations!


There are mallards and moorhens – the latter hiding in the reeds and remaining a bit shy.  Mostly, you’ll know they are they from their high pitched squawk, or from the splash as you pass – when they move swiftly deeper into the reed-bed. Mallards lay between March and July, so we are seeing ducklings of varying ages. They are quickly taken to water by Mum – within 10 hours of hatching- and will already be able to swim.  At 50-60 days old they will be fully fledged.

I’m only just learning to identify birds, so there are still a lot which come under the LBJ species (little brown job).  However, the birdsong along the canal is outstanding. We haven’t seen kingfishers this year, but we’ve seen a couple n the past. Maybe we are just too noisy? We hear Chiff Chaffs (and also see them dart from tree to tree), Robins, who sing so mellifluously, blackbirds and, where we have more open skies we’ve seen buzzards wheeling and on windy days, hovering and diving.  There are red kites round here too now – it’s such a joy to see this amazing bird with its distinctively chestnut back and forked tail. Their huge wingspan is a full foot more than the buzzard at around 70 inches. Yes, that is not far off the height of a man.

Kingfisher – thank you Somerset Girl @sGirl1966 on Twitter for this lovely photo


We’ve also enjoyed the flora of the canal banks.  When we started out in Mid-May the yellow flags were at their best, with Hemlock Water Dropwort just starting to bloom.  The water forget-me-nots and water speedwells came into their own in beautiful clusters a little later (late May, early June) and were abundant at Twyn Glas where the canal edges are wonderfully wild and wide. Ragged robin showed its delicate thread petals and waterweeds waft gently under the surface.

Yellow Flags at Twyn Isaf

At this time of year, the trees are in full leaf with a great range of greens, and the reflections in the canal are spectacular. In May we had seen a long dry spell and the waters had a thin film of seeds and leaves which collected as scum on the kayak hulls (and took a good scrub to remove). After night-time rain the waters were fabulously clear again and the surface of the water was renewed as a mirror of the sky, drifting clouds and shimmering trees.

Invasive species are a problem on canals and in August 2019 weevils were introduced further down the Mon and Brec to help control duckweed.  Lots was also cleared by local anglers.  Along the canal we see horsetails which grow vigorously, and the battle to keep canals clear is a constant one.  The “Check Clean Dry” campaign encourages us all to do just that after every trip to help prevent spread of unwanted species. (Have a look at ).

Maintaining the canal

The Canal and River Trust have a big job on their hands: all Winter we were aware of the work they did draining, repairing, bank-building and fortifying the canal infrastructure. In the past ten years or so we’ve seen huge amounts of work done on the tow paths to make them user-friendly for walkers and cyclists alike, and we see the dredging carried out to allow the passage of the holiday narrow boats.

We caught up with some of these works (caught on the video, where we had to squeeze past at times) and learned how they manage to preserve the fish stocks by moving them away, upstream of dredging works.


Although we have been frustrated at not being able to get out on the sea, we are using our canal time as an opportunity to focus on technique.  Goodness, when you’re on a canal you can really tell if you can paddle forward in a straight line!! I spent ages drifting right and only after 4 weeks do I feel happier about my direction.  Nonetheless, this ‘struggle muscle’ has taught me lots about things to look at if straight lines just aren’t happening:

Am I sitting straight? Am I holding the paddle centrally?  Where does each blade enter the water? Where does it exit? Are the footrests properly set? Are the hip pads sitting me comfortably? Am I holding the paddle shaft too tightly? And so on….

I’ve been able to try a variety of paddles: very old New Waves that weighed a ton, long Corryvreckans on a bent shaft, Werner Ikelos on a bent shaft and Werner Shunas on a straight shaft.  Clearly the most important thing was having matchy matchy kit, and blue blades have finally got me paddling more comfortably.  Of course, it might be the fact that they are the right size blade (Shuna), a straight shaft with a grip suitable for my arthritic hands and the right length at 210cm. But they are also very pretty.

We’ve tried out bow rudders, stern rudders, edging, low braces, draw strokes and backward paddling.  It’s be great to try things out on still water, in a safe place, but we’ve also built some fitness and stamina so when we finally get out to play on the sea, we’ll be raring to go.

…and if you would like more pictures, here is my slideshow on You Tube:

Making Plans……

Looking forward and keeping motivated

Making plans

Looking forwards, peeking backwards

As I write, we are entering our 4th week of the Corona virus lockdown.

I am an optimist and I believe that looking forwards is healthy and that looking back, whilst providing opportunities for reflection, for learning and for re-lived joy, can also lead us into thinking about the things we are missing. That in turn can spark little embers of sadness. Particularly at this time, I don’t want to go there.

So, let’s look at how we can meld the two together to make sure that when the chance arrives, we are not left thinking that we have missed our chances.

Using the past to make our futures

Don’t get me wrong, memory is a valuable thing and remembering what we have done and seen in the past informs our decisions for the future. So, for example, I know that one of the things that will bring me real joy and a sense of satisfaction is completing a challenging, multi-day trip in the kayaks. I know that I will be awed by amazing scenery, fascinated by local history and made to smile by spotting wildlife.

Scottish Wildlife – Nessie?

So, my first link from past to future:

Scotland. That place of amazing scenery, terrible midges and more rain that you could ever want. (Yes, even more than Wales I think). Specifically, the Great Glen – that huge rift which splits Scotland from coast to coast. That’s where I want to go.

I’ve had many, many memorable trips to Scotland, so I see it as a happy place – even in the most inclement weather. My husband proposed to me on the top of The Pap of Glencoe, so that has to be a top memory, but Scotland has also been the scene of some of my own, personal (sporting) achievements. Among many others are: we have walked amazing ridges (Aonach Eagach); caught a train after a two minute wait (and no timetable!!) from the most remote station I’ve ever visited; we ice-climbed on Buachaille Etive Mor, we’ve camped in Winter and celebrated Hogmanay at the Clachaig Inn. I’ve walked solo in the Arrochar Alps and spent happy childhood holidays in Mallaig, Oban, Fort William and the islands. Conversely we’ve had long walks in the Grey Corries and stayed in bothies, we’ve dealt with a broken ankle and spent time in A and E in the Belford hospital. We’ve had holidays where it has rained and blown a gale, putting paid to any number of plans – BUT – Scotland is still a happy place. So, memories tell me that we should go, make a plan A (and possibly B and C too!), because we will have a memorable time.

Rain will not deter us (midges might!)

My second link from past to future is:

I know I’m not in a position to paddle the length of the Great Glen now, but by the time we go, I will have made preparations that build my confidence, my skills and my knowledge, I will know where we start and finish and I’ll have researched places and history that will ensure that it is a memorable trip for the right reasons!

Feeling motivated….

The maps…..

I love maps. I can spend ages looking at them – especially the OS ones. They tell you so much and even provide pointers to history. Scotland’s OS maps are some of the best value (far more contour lines per page than any other), but also the worst value (all that sea around the islands). At this point, I could so easily digress to looking at the history of our beloved Ordnance Survey maps, but that is, perhaps, a thought for another stage in my Great Glen trip planning. It is said that we might enthuse others, but we can only motivate ourselves, so again, thinking back, I realise that garnering heady detail on the things which bring a country, its geography and its history to life will bring me the enthusiasm to research more. I love to have things in 3D – not always literally, but through understanding background and what make things and people what or who we see in the present.

Recognising our boundaries

I used to think I was quite happy being independent and likened that to being solo and to some extent that remains true – I’m not a real party animal. However, when I left the corporate world to work for myself I suddenly started to see what connections with other people can do for us. It isn’t always about asking for help, but it’s about sharing experience, seeing where perspectives coincide or diverge and to learn from others. I’m not sure if it’s a British thing, but sometimes we are shy about asking. Asking anything at all. The real truth is (as I have discovered through coaching people) is that most people enjoy sharing things about themselves, they love to tell you about their adventures, how they made them happen and what a great time you could have too. This is important. We learn to value other people and to get to see things differently. It helps us to draw our own boundaries and to recognise where we are in a greater scheme of things. There’s no judgement, it’s just placement.

Engaging and connecting

Like it or hate it, Facebook is full of opinions and if you can filter what you engage with, it’s a great place. Ask for recommendations or information and you will get plenty of replies. You’ll ‘meet’ new people (and here we are, in a new world where virtual meetings, virtual friends, virtual conversations are becoming more normal). So, I’m intending to share my planning for this trip with you and, not so much to get everyone going to the same place (please no!!), I’ll share links with the people and groups who have interacted with my questions and helped to encourage me to make this trip happen. The only thing I won’t be able to do is set a date. But let’s not allow that to get in the way.

Sea Kayak
Lovely new toy just waiting for some water


Here are some of the links that are enthusing me, keeping me going or just making me smile at present:

UK Kayakers and canoeists – a great FB group, well moderated and with a variety of members.

West Coast Paddlers – a private group but I found this when asking about the Great Glen trip and I had a lovely answer and pointer to a useful trip report.

World Backyard Rolling Championships – nothing at all to do with the trip, but inventive, creative and a bit of fun for Spring 2020. (2008 members in just 20 days, must tell you something!)

Womens Paddling Community – some great posts, lots of super photos and a cohesive community #shepaddles

Maps – website. One of my favourites. You can look at road view or OS view and you can measure distances point to point. Brilliant fun and far too many hours browsing this!

Paddling in the Chrimbo-Limbo

Perfect conditions on the Taff, Ely and Cardiff Bay between Christmas and New Year

Hoping for the best with the weather…

A misty start

Getting a pleasant paddle in during the Winter months is a challenge – especially if, like me, you aren’t yet that competent or confident in your paddling. I seem to live with the BBC weather app open on my phone- how windy will it be, how cold, how much rain? Sometimes you just have to take a chance…. This is what we did, first on 30th Dec 2019 and then to celebrate New Year’s Day 2020.

As we unloaded the kayaks on 30th December 2019 we stared into a murky distance, but by the time we were on the water we needed sunglasses to travel up the Taff.

New Year’s Day was lacking the sun, but unlike the racing yachts, we were delighted to have millpond conditions for our trip into the lagoon to start our New Year.

Setting out

Cardiff Rowing Centre

We started out both times from the very small car park by the Cardiff Rowing Centre and launched easily. (And with great excitement to try out the Christmas present – super new Werner paddles to replace my 30 year old New Wave dumb-bells). For our first trip we headed up the Taff to get a completely new view of Cardiff.

Sunshine on The Taff to see out 2019
Taff – our little trip

We wanted to see some of Cardiff’s great landmarks by Kayak – modern buildings and old ones too. Idling past the St David’s Centre we thought that a bit of shopping and taking in a film at Vue might be an idea; Kayak and Ride might be a plan?…

On reflection, spraydecks might not look that cool whilst shopping in central Cardiff.

Industry …

I was loving the novel view of the Castle and the grounds around it, Pontcanna fields and the rugby stadium, Bute Park and Sophia Gardens. We passed under the Millennium Footbridge between Bute Park and Sophia Gardens. If you are a cricket fan, you’ll know that Sophia Gardens is home to Glamorgan County Cricket Club and the Sport Wales National Centre. It was named after Sophia Crichton-Stuart, Marchioness of Bute (1809-1859). She wanted to provide open space in Cardiff for recreation in memory of her husband (the second Marchioness of Bute) who was an industrialist, heavily involved in coal and iron in South Wales and in the building of Cardiff Docks. (Wikipedia).

Being novice…..

New paddles!!!

So, being something of a kayaking novice, I’m never sure if I get tired because of poor technique, general fitness or the equipment and its setup. Up until now I had been using a heavy set of paddles with metal edges, large, thick blades set at 90 degrees with a straight shaft, (apparently great for canoe polo, though I don’t know why). Today, I’m out to test my Christmas present from the wonderful Christopher: Werner Corryvreckans. Well, what a difference. First, the drip rings! (OK, so you are all going, ‘whaat? these are a novelty??’. Well yes. But they are a great improvement). Next? The size and shape of the cranked shaft meant my hands were not rubbing and getting sore. And I reckon that it’ll help when I get disorientated when I’m trying to roll. Did I mention how light they are? That helps too. The blades are quite big but felt stable in the water and buoyant coming out, so they made the paddling itself much easier. All in all, I’m a very happy paddler!

Oh, did I say how light they are? Ah well, they are that good it’s worth saying twice.

Sunshine on the Taff

As we left Penarth and Grangetown we went under a number of bridges – roads and then rail, as Central Station is surprisingly close to the river. On up and we passed Brains Brewery and the shopping centre before seeing the Millennium Stadium come into view.

As a beer enthusiast, I’m going to take a slight diversion here, Brain’s website tells their story ( Their founder was a Bristolian and having trained as a brewer, managed to marry a girl whose father owned a brewery. Well done that man! The first pint of Brain’s was brewed in 1882 at the Old Brewery in Cardiff (previously Thomas’ Brewery.

I love seeing Cardiff from a new perspective – I hadn’t realised how much the central part is lined up along The Taff. You can see history developed too -the stone bridge carrying the A4161 has clear brick additions to either side to accommodate all our modern traffic.

We had to watch out for the Aquabus as it wake is noticeable (!) and it cannot pass through the central bridge arches – it all looks rather shallow in places. It’s OK, easy to identify the right route because there are clear red and white no entry signs on the prohibited arches.

The best bit about the aquabus is riding over the wake – just enough ripples for me!

Heading back down the Taff and into the Bay

Towards teh 4232
Towards the A4232 and the lagoon

After a while, paddling upstream became a bit tiring, so we headed back down to the bay and on New Year’s day continued the trip towards Cardiff. We started by heading straight out and under the A4232. (Watching out for the aquabus and water taxis of course). We were lucky with the weather – millpond (just my kind of white water!!)

Cormorant – a mystic symbol?

It was an easy trip across to the barrage where we slowed to look at the ornamental sails, the people walking round and taking in the sunshine and the cormorants diving or finding perches on buoys or solid structures to rest and dry their wings like some strange kind of washing, or a mystic symbol.

The Paddling Community

I am quite sure that this won’t be the first or last time that I write this, but we’ve met some lovely people through paddling (even in my very short experience). Not just friendly, but interesting too.

As we headed across to Mermaid Quay we spotted a moored yacht with a man shouting ‘stop! I’m coming with you’. He quickly released his kayak from the side of the yacht, went below board and came out ready for a kayak trip in Winter.

Off we went, two, now three on New Year’s Day.

Not much later we glided gently past the Cardiff Wetland Reserve, just between the St David’s Hotel (with its distinctive architecture) and beside the yachts at the mouth of the Taff. It is a great habitat for wildlife, created on former salt marshes.

From there, we went towards The Ely where we gained fellow kayaker number four – Roy Beal. He was piloting a very beautiful wooden kayak and I’m going to give him a mention because he does some interesting fund-raising and awareness raising projects. Have a look at his site:

We four had a little trip up the Ely towards the Cardiff International White Water Centre (Olympic fame!) and site of my first proper canoeing course (see my previous blogs about the very spinny little boats. I am endlessly grateful that Tess the Scorpio is better at going in straight lines). Periodically the pleasure craft would come past, pilot shouting ‘beware Tsunami, beware Tsunami’. He slowed down enough for us to just rock gently on the Ely though, and after a few minutes wondering how often the yachts left their moorings and whether it would be possible to go underneath the catamaran (decided ‘no’!), we turned and headed back tot he Taff and to our start point, Roy and the yachtsman heading back their own ways too.

Sea Kayaking – confidence and motivation

Gaining confidence in and on water has been a slow game for me, but the struggle-muscle, once developed, is always there

A bit of ‘chop’ in Cardiff Bay

It was a bit late in the year when we bought our sea kayaks, so it was something of a race to get out and play before Winter set in.


I have a love-hate relationship with bodies of water – on the one hand I am very nervous of it and not a natural swimmer.  On the other, I have always loved being by it; childhood memories of happy seaside holidays, rock-pooling and collecting ‘Eye-Spy’ points (anyone else remember those?).  30 years ago, in an effort to overcome this rather overwhelming fear of water, I took a Winter course with a canoe club.  It was all about rolling BATS and the first thing we had to do was dive in and swim two lengths of the pool. I can swim two lengths, (not stylishly), but not dive and it was something of a ‘swim of shame’. The kindly (I think not!) instructor selected me to sit in the BAT first and told me to capsize it.  Well – for all you water-babies out there you probably wonder what the fuss was about, but it was a move of terror for me.  To cut a long story short, I never really got into kayaking from that point. (I wonder why?) As a coach in my current life, many years later, this makes me absolutely cringe…..

Surely this ditch-and-retrieve things isn’t that hard?

A few years on I met the love of my life who was a keen sport diver.  He is a complete water-baby, and even now I’m not sure how he hides his gills.  It took me a whole Winter of weekly pool training to get my basic SAA qualifications and I remember my poor husband watching in frustration and splashing his fins on the pool surface while I tried vainly to duck dive and to swim a width under water.  I got there with a lot of support, confidence-building slowly – oh, so slowly – until I could successfully complete my ditch and retrieve in 5m of water. Only such a non-water-baby as me could have chosen a club that used the pool used by SBS for training. 

I now believe that the struggle muscle that got me through not only sport diving, but qualifying as dive supervisor, and later to technical and mixed gas diving was powerful in making the sport enjoyable for me.  It wasn’t something that was going to happen fast, but the small steps to confidence were lasting.

Diving – the freedom of 3 dimensions

I loved diving – not the boat trips (sea-sick), not the agony of warming up after Winter dives in a wetsuit, not the fast drift dives in murky water over rocky ledges, not the heaving about of hefty kit.  What I loved was the sea life, cute tompot blennies peering out of pipes under Swanage pier, the velvety sea slugs in the Mediterranean, shoals of manta off St Helena.  But some of the best were the seals. Those wonderful, curious, elegant swimmers that I first came face to face with on the Barrel of Butter up on Orkney.


And now? Now I want to go out in a sea kayak and see seals.  This is where my kayaking story really starts.

With a determination that a few waves aren’t going to deter me from getting out in a kayak, it was important to build my confidence; diminish the fear of capsizing; learn to be calm in this alien environment and go out and enjoy the coast. 

First steps were a course in basic flat-water skills at Cardiff International White Water in August 2019.  Next, get out there on the sea and have some fun. Now, starting out for 2020 I want to try and get confident enough to roll and avoid wet exits form the kayak….

So here we go.  While waiting for our plane to go skiing in January we booked our places at Plas Y Brenin in March this year.

We set out on a blustery wet Friday afternoon for North Wales and by the time we arrived at PYB we were ready for a relaxing beer in the bar.  Many moons ago, it was almost impossible to get a decent pint in Wales (lager or Brains only, and never on a Sunday) PYB’s bar has great beer and decent, filling food; so that was a good start to our weekend. It’s always handy to be drinking alongside another beer drinker, so Christopher wasn’t surprised that after he’d ordered a pint, I checked it to see if it was worth having, or whether I should choose differently.

Here we go!

The pool sessions were great, with excellent coaching. I suppose that some might see it as a fail that I wasn’t rolling in two days.  I see it as a great and steady foundation on which to continue slowly building confidence.  My big ‘aha’ was finding my orientation upside-down and under water.

Christopher got the hang of rolling …..
Assisted rolling – finally bringing my head out of the water last

It’s a shame that I can’t get to pool sessions with the local clubs, as I am sure that this would be a superb way to build my knowledge, experience and confidence.  Sadly, work either takes me away too much, or I am coaching equestrians in their spare evenings. Nonetheless, we live within easy distance of lots of water – rivers, lagoons, seaside.  So, keen to get out, we took the kayaks down to Cardiff for a paddle in The Bay.  It was rougher than it was on our New Year’s Day trip, and rather colder, so in spite of our best intentions to practice capsizes, wet exits, rolls…. we succumbed to the idea of hot soup and warm clothes…

Anyway, thinking back on my first trip in Two Tonne Tess (my rather weighty blue Scorpio), in September 19, when even a ripple sent me rushing back to the safety of dry land, it seems that the trips we’ve made have started, just slowly to build that -oh so precious, oh so important and ohhh so elusive – confidence.

I can’t wait for warmer weather and gentler breezes….

Christopher at Solva Autumn 2019

Gloucester and Sharpness Canal: Sharpness, Purton, Patch

A very damp but worthwhile trip

Kayaking on GLos and Sharpness Canal
A wet start to our trip as we set out from Purton

October 2019


The Gloucester and Sharpness Canal is an impressive canal, just over 16 miles long and once the deepest and broadest in the world. It opened in 1827 and at 86ft 6 in wide and 18ft deep it allowed ships of up to 600 tons to avoid the treacherous stretch of the River Severn between Sharpness and Gloucester. Even now, boats 64m long, 9.6 m wide, with a 3.5m draught and 32m headroom can pass through Sharpness and travel to Gloucester. There is, however, very little commercial traffic, so for three of us in our sea kayaks, on a wet October day, we had LOTS of space!

The journey

Points of interest (POI)Distance from start (miles)Distance from last POI (Miles)
Put in Purton
OS 162 SO692 042
Lagoons on left bank1 mile1 mile
Severn Railway Bridge Piers1.180.18
Sharpness Docks1.640.46
Purton to:
Water treatment works0.5 mile0.5 mile
Shepherd’s Patch Swing Bridge2.431.93

Getting started

It was one of those days when it was, oh so tempting to stay indoors. However, the great thing about making an arrangement with a new kayaking friend is that there is a determination to carry on. Oh, and of course there is always the knowledge that once dried off in the pub, the ‘Smug Factor’ will be 10/10.

Waves on the canal
Waves on the canal!!

So, we met in the little car park just by the church and by the more southerly of the two swing bridges at Purton. There is a little jetty there, parallel with the bank; it was a bit high, but we all got in without incident – the biggest challenge was getting in before the boats filled with rain.

Paddling on….

We headed under the bridges (about 1.5m headroom) and into the most astonishing headwind – 15mph. Doesn’t sound too much when you read it off the BBC weather forecast, but the waves would have done justice to the start of a sea trip. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected for a trip on the canal.

leaving Purton
Heading out under Purton’s swing bridge in the rain

Anyway, there was plenty to see. The canal runs very close (and parallel) to the river. A little way on to the right is a weir which is near to the Purton Hulks (ship’s graveyard). Here there are a number of barges and trows that were grounded to help support the bank. We didn’t get out to have a look this time, but it would be an easy move to go and explore from the bank. On the left bank of the canal, a little further on, we saw two sunken barges which were proving a perfect roost for a cormorant. Continuing the battle with wind, rain and waves we next spotted two bridge piers – the only remains of the original ‘Severn Bridge’. The large circular one (on the right bank, between the river and the canal) had formed the base of the swinging section and housed the steam engine which powered it. On the other, landward, side stands a stone arch – the original abutment to the swinging section.

Bridge piers of the old Severn (Railway) Bridge (pity about the raindrops…)

A bit of history

One of the great things about paddling on canals is that they all have great stories to tell of engineering, economy and trade.

In 1793 Industrialists of the Midlands obtained an act to construct a ship canal that would avoid the stretch of the Severn between Gloucester and Berkeley. Like many other big engineering projects to build canals it hit problems – landowners, finance, confidence in the lead engineers (this one was Robert Mylne), weather and so on. Eventually, in 1816, matters improved and agreement was made to build a slightly shorter canal, closer to the river; Thomas Telford acted as consulting engineer. Hope that Gloucester would become a rival to the great port of Bristol was revived.

The Severn Bridge was built in the 1870s by Hamilston’s Windsor Ironworks Company of Garston, Liverpool. It spanned the river between Sharpness and Lydney to transport coal from the Forest of Dean over to the docks at Sharpness. The bridge had 22 spans, one of which crossed the canal and was built as a swing bridge. The bridge was 1.3 km long and 21m above high water. It was never used to its expected capacity as coal mining hit problems and then in 1893 the bridge was taken over by Great Western Railway and Midland Railways with freight and passengers carried until 1960. A series of accidents in which barges hit the piers lead to the demolition of the bridge in 1967-70.

Sharpness Docks and back up to Shepherd’s Patch

It took us 40 minutes to travel from Purton to the docks at Sharpness, (against that stiff wind!) Sharpness docks are still active and access needs to be granted by the Canal and River Trust, so we stopped at the Swing bridges. We were pretty wet and on the way back to Purton Sam decided that testing his rolls should be on the cards.

Sam getting even wetter…..


…..And up the other side. brrr

We were lucky to get a break in the weather, so our paddle back up past Purton and to the Patch was calmer and provided some respite. We headed under the low swing bridge (only 0.6m headroom here) and took out at a low bank on the left (river side). Watch out for the gaps in the bank covered in weeds, I think we all found them accidentally. We traipsed soggily over the bridge to the Black Shed Café where we had very welcome hot drinks – luckily they must be used to wet visitors! Slimbridge wetlands are just nearby, sited between the canal and the river.

Weather window!!!


We saw lots of mute swans and some smaller migratory visitors. I’m not sure if they were Whooper or Bewicks but as they were littler and lacked the bump on the top of the beak, I’m hazarding a guess that they were some of our Winter visitors.   We saw cormorants, divers (but they were too far away to identify, grebes maybe?), possibly a kingfisher in the distance, a few mallards and moorhens.   On a recent trip Sam had seen a deer (!) and an otter. Oh, and a grass snake. So plenty to see and probably far more if we were quieter and more attentive!

Smug factor?

By the time we’d got back to Purton, changed and loaded the kayaks, it was definitely time to eat. A good meal at The White Hart in Little-on-Severn sealed the smug factor. Yes, it had been terrible weather at first but we even saw a glimpse of the sun and got no wetter on our return trip. Yes, I’d say it was a 10 out of 10.


OS maps Landranger SO 162

More practice in the Sea Kayaks – Mumbles and Swansea Bay

Swansea Bay from The Mumbles
Setting out into Swansea Bay from The Mumbles

Getting going

Forecasts for good weather in late September cannot be ignored. Autumn is well under way and Winter, long evenings and miserable weather will be around the corner.

Meanwhile, I’m determined to get as many paddling hours as I can to build my confidence on the water – every small, every barely noticeable incremental change is a positive for me, so I want to keep them coming.

The sun had brought out more crowds to Swansea than we’d have expected, so the traffic on the promenade was heavy and bayside restaurants were full. There are a number of car parks along the promenade and several possible launch points, but the public car park by The Mumbles Yacht Club Slip (Knab Rock Car Park, just before the pier), was convenient and didn’t demand a long carry as we were there not long after high water.

leaving the slipway
Leaving the Knab Rock park slipway

The water in the bay had enough of a swell (and small waves) which were quite enough for me – enough to be interesting but not alarming.

Practical learnings on tides…….

We were there on an ebb tide – this was no problem for us in The Bay, so we headed to have a look beyond the pier. Here we could see the white horses between the rock and the headland and I’m just not that brave. Yet. Knowing that the tide was moving quite fast we headed back (against around 4 knots, so I was glad it a short paddle back under the pier). Finding balance, using different strokes for different power and staying aware of the direction of any swell was all part of the day and was all added to my piecemeal learning.

Slopping around the bay

Swansea Bay
Swansea Bay enjoying the Autumn weather

It isn’t unusual for me to be cold so I often end up wearing too much. The great thing about being on the water is that you can just get wet, so 90 degrees with the boats and a swift dip with some roll practice. That’s better… So we had lovely bimble about, heading for seagulls, (which are clearly rubbish transit points 🙂 ), discussing past exploits and dives and the generally making the most of gentle seas and warm sun. We paddled about for a couple of hours and were still in time to have water up to the slipway. Don’t go at low water – the sea goes a long way away here – and it would b quite a walk over the sand with the boat. (Enough of that last week at Solva!)

Day at the seaside

Clearly it isn’t a proper day out without chips in paper and having used up a few calories paddling squares and triangles and doing half rolls, we clearly deserved lunch. We were just in time to catch Yallops before they closed. They were the best chips I’ve had for years, fresh, crisp and generous. I usually get bored eating chips and finish halfway through the serving. Not this time.

Useful links

It’s easy to check the tides:

We have a great book: ‘Welsh Sea Kayaking: Fifty Great Sea Kayak Voyages’ by Jim Krawiecki. There are great pictures and practical descriptions as well as clear information on tidal flows, races, tricky spots and exciting places (if that’s what you want).

OS Map 165

Sea Kayaks…..

Working towards a dream of seaing seals from a sea Kayak, but knowing I have a long way to go to become confident out there in the big wide sea

So, the grand idea is to go touring in sea kayaks. I dream of seeing seals from the sea, get to beautiful bays with empty sands or dramatic cliffs. I love seeing all wildlife, the wonderful fauna and flora of our country. I like the idea of hearing the gentle slip slap of (tiny!) waves on the hull of the boat, some physical effort in paddling so that I feel that I can justify a good pint and hearty meal later. There is just a small problem ….. I am afraid of water. I can cope with shallows, but once there is a body of water beneath me, it all feels rather nerve-wracking.

Sea Kayak off Solva
Christopher at Solva

Overcoming the fear

There is an argument made by psychologists that it is less about overcoming a fear and more about putting it in its right place; managing it, living with it, accepting it, but working to minimise its negative effects. Let’s face it, our gut instincts are there for good reason; a degree of ‘nervousness’ is important. That touch of adrenaline gives us an edge. We just don’t want the full-blown flight response.

In practice this means that we need to follow a process of building confidence through technical skill and experience. We need to reflect on our experiences and take the positives forward, but put right the things that didn’t go so well.

It cannot happen overnight and confidence can remain a fragile being. It’s important to nurture the good bits, celebrate every small success and always be mindful of how far we’ve come. Mitigate the risks (let’s avoid big tide races, bad weather, crashing swells), wear the right gear and get used to it, then go for a paddle. Test out the fearsome capsize in a safe place, don’t try too much too soon. For me then, it will be about knowing that a capsize will get me wet, but I’ve done several now and I’m still going back for more. I can get out of the boat and also back into it. This is the practical stuff, this is the bit about building the right neural pathways and muscle memory so we can react swiftly and correctly when we need to.

Getting started

The first question is one that is far too rarely explored. (And it is the same in so many sports and I have seen it often enough in my equestrian coaching). It is: ‘do you want to be doing this? or do you like the idea of doing it?’

Are you sure?
Do you REALLY want to do this?

Most sports get expensive pretty quickly, so this is a good first test. (Will I spend the money necessary?). The next is to commit. Some people are great at getting going – me, I need deadlines and fixed times so there was really only one answer – book a course. Wednesday evening equestrian sessions were quiet for the Summer holidays so I swapped them for an introduction to kayaking at Cardiff International White Water. The idea was to prove to myself either that there was no way that I was going to put up with unexpected and unceremonious dips into cold water, or, alternatively that it would all start to feel rather less terrifying. Christopher (who is a complete water baby) is convinced that a ducking in the sea is far less dangerous that coming off a horse whilst galloping over fixed timber at almost 20mph. Maybe, but I have spent the last (ahem) years practicing falling off horses and for me it’s just one of those things. It doesn’t play hugely on my mind every time I get on.

There’s the first learning, then. Develop a normality and a realistic perspective.

Three weeks into my course (still not drowned!) and we have learned the basics of going forwards in a straight line (‘haha’, laugh the little Mamba kayaks that only want to spin!), going sideways (I can do that one, it’s about getting the paddle in the right place, so it felt rather different from the same stroke in the canoe), stopping and getting out. All good and some fun exercises.

I think that a number of things have helped – in a kayak you need core strength and flexibility, which are also essential when riding a horse. Tick. A determination to get out on the sea and feel comfortable with it. Tick. Some experience on the water – certainly some of our experiences in the canoe have helped here – especially having paddled in moving water (and being spat out in rapids). Tick.

What next?

After far too many evenings trawling ebay, I gave up and finally found a P and H Scorpio nearby: a short trip to Up and Under in Cardiff where Elan was a mine of information. Walked out with Beautiful Blue.

up and under Cardiff, a gem of a shop
Picking up a new toy from up and under in Cardiff

On the premise that I now need practical experience and paddling hours to increase my confidence on the water, this is what we got up to next.

First, a great trip to Solva where the Beautiful Blue proved a lot less tippy than the very smart Tiderace that Christopher paddles – I wont be swapping! (OK OK, when I stop being a tippy paddler, it might feel better…)

Kayaks at Solva

We had fabulous weather and warm seas, so we found a sheltered bay and practiced all kinds of useful things: capsize drills, getting back in the boats (not as easy as it sounds!), forward paddling, and lots of other useful strokes. We also tried the start of rolling by putting the boats at 90 degrees so we could hold on and lie into the water then pull up.

We are lucky to have the flat water of the Monmouth and Brecon canal almost on our doorstep (1/4 mile!), so we have been putting in the hours getting used to the feel of the boats, seeing how they react, finding the edge and avoiding the narrow boats (not as scary as Steve Backshall and the Greenland Icebergs that we watched on TV this weekend).

Tippy and Blue
Getting the hours in

There is a lot to be said for exploring our actions – Marianne Davies of Dynamics coaching explains this far better than I can, but it comes down to practicing, pushing and understanding our (sporting) environment. You can read one of her excellent blogs here:

….and for our next trick

Next we will be going away with the Kayaks and take out next steps (paddle strokes) towards longer exploration around our amazing coast.