Saturday 31 December 2016

30th December 2016 - South stacked it

Al's account:

It all looked so good on paper the night before. 

Forecast: F3 gusting F4. 

Tidal planning: Last of the flood should take us from Porth Darfach, past Penrhyn Mawr after its most lively. Quick trip round South Stack lighthouse at slack water. Start of the ebb to aid our return to the beach.

So it was we set off at early doors and arrived at a slightly breezier than expected beach. Using the designated water sports drop off area, we unloaded the boats conveniently next to the sand, before parking the vans a little way up the hill.

There were a few more white caps than I expected looking out from the bay, but I put this down to the spring tide still running swiftly. It was still a little while before we set off and by the time we were out of the bay it would all have calmed down.

Al's account cont...

Spirits were high as we launched and headed away from the beach. I love the sensation as the first waves break over your bow, the salty spray lashing your face. Approaching more open water, the swell was definitely bigger than I was expecting and in places waves were breaking in more confused patches of sea. "It's the last of the flood," I told myself, "it'll calm down soon." Anyway, the roller coaster of the swell was exhilarating, I was enjoying myself!

Rounding a small headland, Penrhyn Mawr became visible for the first time. It was still at least 500m away but there was no doubting the line of white water extending from the headland. If it looked that big from here, how big would it be there? It didn't take me long to decide I didn't want to find out, even if the strength of the tide was decreasing.  Dick and James looked like they were enjoying themselves, so it was reluctantly that I shouted across, telling them I wanted to bail. It was a relief to find that they felt the same way and so swinging my bow around I didn't feel too bad.

Now this was a different experience, the swell was now hitting on my rear quarter, giving a much more discomforting ride. While I was confirming with Dick that we'd made the right decision, he noticed that James's track was not in line with ours but in an Easterly direction, parallel with the swell and not in the direction of landfall and our beach. As we paddled to join him, James went over. My worry was short lived though as he soon rolled back up and we were once again on our way, heading for our cove.

The Irish Sea at the end of December isn't known as being one of the World's balmier seas.  I hadn't brought my pogies and my hands were definitely feeling it. Despite his body being cocooned in a drysuit, James though had had his head in, I couldn't imagine the ice cream headache he must now be feeling, the cold being completely energy sapping. It wasn't surprising, therefore, that shortly afterwards he was in again.  Despite valiantly attempting to roll again, he wet exited and we set about getting him back into his boat and the water pumped out.

Glancing up during these manoeuvres, we suddenly realised we were drifting quickly and not towards a nice soft landing, fingers of rock sticking out between the breaking waves (you can see the drift towards the fort on the GPS track on the map above). We quickly arranged a tow and I set off paddling, away from the cliffs while Dick and James, rafted together, finished pumping and putting on spraydecks.

Paddle, paddle, tug. Paddle, paddle, paddle, tug. Paddle, tug. There never seemed to be a constant rhythm to the tugs on the line as I was surfed away from the other two and the anticipation of the jarring that I knew would come didn't make the paddling easy. Little by little though, our cove eased closer. Entering into the bay I was concerned the others would be surfed into me. James and Dick though managed to prevent this happening and even managed to shout me a warning as the larger waves reared up behind. At one point a shout of "Big wave!" had me thinking, "How big!?", but the waves were losing their energy now.

Just a few more strokes brought the bow of my boat up onto the golden sand and before I knew it, James was dragging my boat further up the beach so I could step out onto dry land.  Almost immediately the "what ifs?" started going through my mind, but here we all were, back on terra firma, a bit more experience under our belts.

Dick's account.

Like Al, I was looking forward to a trip in some slightly rougher water to develop my paddling skills. A journey through the overfalls Penrhyn Mawr as it calmed down, followed by a circumnavigation of South Stack was an exciting plan.  The sight of the whitecaps outside the cove as we arrived at the drop off point, however, had me thinking that maybe it might be a bit more of an adventure than I had planned but Al and James seemed confident so, hey, lets give it a go.

Once out of the bay the swell and occasional breaking waves necessitated more than the occasional support stroke as we headed towards the headland that hid Penrhyn Mawr from our view.  Once around this, the sight of the white, boiling mass of water that was the tide race made me question my skill level and the thought of one of us capsizing in it filled me with dread as to how we would effect a rescue. The weather conditions were not those we had seen in the video we had watched a week earlier of a team playing in the waves in sunshine and smooth seas, laughing as they sat in a back eddy and recovered a paddler who had come out of their boat.  This looked way more serious but ... Al and James were paddling purposefully towards it so if they were OK so should I be.  Then Al (to my great relief) suggested that perhaps this was not our day and we turn back.  I readily agreed and turned the boat to head back.

As described above things developed after this, as paddling into the wind and waves on the way out was (comparatively) easier than wind and waves on the rear quarter.  When James went over the first time and I watched him fight to stabilise the roll I realised the amount of effort it had taken to do it and the effect of the cold, despite the drysuit must have been debilitating.  Once he was in the water the seriousness of our situation hit home.  We had to sort this ourselves and quickly.  The suddenly noticed drift towards the rocks prompted a quick discussion about whether we did a rock garden landing but the remoteness of the headland and high cliffs would have meant no exit.  Al towing while I held James up was the only answer.  And as it was it worked.  We arrived (eventually after a monumental effort by Al towing) back at the beach.  Metres from the shore I cast James adrift to land and as he pushed off I realised that my paddles were stowed under the deck lines.  In the next wave, over I went and in the final five metres ended up exiting the boat and wading to the shore!

So what did we learn from this experience?

  1. If things look a bit rough out at sea while standing on the beach, they will be a lot bigger when you get out there
  2. Share concerns earlier rather than later.  Just because people look confident doesn't mean they are.
  3. A group of 3 is the minimum for a safe party of our experience.  I'm not sure what we would have done if there had been just the two of us and one of us had experienced a similar situation.
  4. Tow lines are the length they are for a reason!  (The towing boat could be one side of the wave and the towed boat the other).
  5. Have your paddles in hand before you split up a raft!
Was it a fun trip?  Maybe, maybe not, but it certainly gave us something to talk about when we got back home!

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