Saturday 18 November 2017

August 2017 - Isle of Man

Living in Lancaster, the signs pointing the way to Heysham with their ferry symbol, seem to disappear into the background. To enjoy adventures with amazing wildlife and crystal clear waters, it was the blue M6 sign that you wanted, the gateway to the West Coast of Scotland or North Wales.
Once again though, Jim Krowieke's paddling guide to the North of England provided inspiration. He'd been so right about the waters around Barrow and he made this sound even better.

So it was Dick and I found ourselves heading the wrong way for an adventure on roads I normally associate with going to Asda or Screwfix. Flashes in the sky which we initially thought to be the death throws of Heysham nuclear power station,  turned out to be an incredible thunder storm. It might be an interesting crossing. 

We parked in the car park next to the ferry port and carried our boats the short distance to the terminal building.

A note on logistics. The car park is very close to the terminal but is very expensive. The cheap ferry is also in the middle of the night so we parked the van for Dick's wife to collect at a more reasonable time in the morning. The process was then repeated on the return.  This allowed us to travel as foot passengers with our kayak 'hand luggage', going free. It's worth mailing the Steam packet company with your intentions as they're very helpful. A trolley would make portaging the boats easier, but these obviously take up valuable space or look very unaesthetic on the rear deck.

Having checked in we began chatting to a fellow passenger and began learning of the inexorable link between our destination and motorcycling. We also learnt that we had timed our visit with the build up to the Classic TT, with practice starting in a few days time.

Doing things on the cheap, often requires a little more effort and it was now time for us to pay our dues. While the distance from the car park to the terminal had been a relatively easy carry, from the terminal to the ferry felt like miles and the narrow walkway to the side of the car ramp awkward, even one boat at a time. We slotted our kayaks in the shadow of an arctic trailer and went to find our seats which were to be our beds for the remainder of the night.

Dawn saw us carrying our boats once again, but this time even further from the ferry port to Douglas's outer harbour. At least with this portage we could stop for coffee part way through.

Shopping completed, we loaded our boats and Dick radioed the exceptionally polite harbour control to ask permission to leave, you don't want to be mixing it up with the ferries or larger ships.

With permission granted and just a short weather window before stronger winds, we headed north across Douglas bay past the Tower of Refuge, built by the founder of the RNLI,  who came to live on the island.

Once across the bay we were paddling beneath stunning cliffs. While they make for superb scenery, landing is nigh on impossible and we were looking for any breach in them to make camp.

Just before Laxey we were escorted to our home for the next couple of nights by a few locals, swimming effortlessly around and under us, snorting with derision at our cumbersome craft. Ever present seals and the birdlife on the island make this a very special place.

With high winds forecast it was time to be a tourist for the day and we paddled the short distance to Laxey to visit its famous water wheel and enjoy a pint of locally brewed beer. On returning to our boats in the harbour, we were once again carrying, the dock drying at low tide.

While sheltered from the main force of the south westerlies, a gap in the hills made paddling against the funnelled wind a surprising struggle and we were relieved to make it back to our camp and one of the finest beach BBQs I've had.

The morning brought calmer weather and we decided to see how far we could get in the brief weather window.  We set off from our beach and headed South, retracing our steps.

Carried by the tide we were soon south of Douglas and marvelling at the Victorian engineering of the Marine Drive, a road that hugged the cliff edge. Unfortunately sections have not faired well and some of the bridges can now be found crumpled at the bottom of the cliffs they once proudly stood at the top of.

We'd spied a couple of potential spots on Google Earth that seemed to offer good camping for the night and the second we came to turned out to be a beautifully secluded bay.

With stormy weather on it's way once more, we decided to see how far southwest could push, very aware that we had to get ourselves back for our ferry.  We knew the day would hold at least a couple of tidal races and we planned our day to try and arrive as close to slack water as possible at key points. Rounding the northern tip of Langness my ability to be rather slow on the uptake soon proved to be an issue. I really need to stop thinking, "Oh that's a big wave, I wonder where that came from" and instead need to think, "BRACE!!". As they say though, experience is something you gain just after you need it. Still the inverted sight of big, black, jaggedy rocks racing towards me sharpened my instinct to roll and I was quickly following Dick into calmer waters.

I'm sure the next stretch of coast was beautiful, but all the way I was thinking, the Northern point was meant to be the warm up, it's the southern point that has the proper race.  As it was though, it proved to be pleasantly exciting rather than intimidating and with whoops of joy we passed the most southerly point on the Manx mainland and glided round into Castletown bay.

We wanted to visit Castletown and pulled up on the shingle beach next to the road and enjoyed fantastic coffee and great fish and chips. The welcoming and helpful nature of the Manx also saw us with full gas cylinders and petrol bottles.

On returning to our boats though we were met with hundreds of metres of sea weed covered limestone. The boats had just been restocked too and were far from light. Leap frogging one boat at a time, we would go back for the second boat to find on returning the tide even further out.  The never ending tasks of Greek myths came to mind, but either we speeded up or more likely, the time's recession decreased and we were water borne once more.

We wanted to push on, to camp near Port St Mary, but we found ourselves in a much more populas region and having been spoiled the last few nights, we were once again looking for an idyllic campsite. It just wasn't going to happen though and leaving further fantastic coastline to be explored, we turned our boats and started paddling back the way we had come. Keeping close to the shore we kept surveying the coast for a potential campsite and finally found a spot between the sea and a golf course. It wasn't in the same league as previous nights, but at least we could wander into town and the belled buoy in the bay gave the feeling of remoteness as I drifted to sleep.

Mannanan had dropped his cloke the following morning and rather than risk rounding Langness in limited visibility, we employed a classic viking trick and portaged the narrow isthmus.  Setting off into the fog was an eerie experience, not helped by knowing that none of the planes at the airport next to us, with all their high tech navigational aids, were grounded by the conditions. As we paddled the visibility increased and as ever when paddling with Dick when we could finally see where we were going, we were headed straight towards our destination. 

It felt like returning home when we pulled into the bay in which we had camped a couple of nights previously and we soon had the tents pitched with the very same stones of our previous visit holding down the guy points.

We were now a couple of nights closer to a big spring tide and both of us had a few sleepless hours as the water seemed to get ever closer, reaching a high point just over a boat length from our tents.

Though our trip had been planned by high winds, we had had nothing but blue skies and the following morning dawned the same. We had hoped to keep close to the shore on our way back to Douglas, enjoying the fantastic rock gardening but a healthy swell, reflecting from the cliffs, kept us further out to sea.

I feel that I can cope well with wild places, but needing to camp close to Douglas for our ferry the following day had me feeling quite stressed. I needn't have worried though, as once again the laid back attitude of the islanders found us with our tents pitched on what must be one of the most prime pieces of real estate in the town.

I'm not a biker and if flicking TV channels I came across bike racing, I would keep flicking. Standing just metres away though from the classic bikes doing their laps is an utterly visceral experience. All your senses are bombarded, you feel the sound as well as hearing it and the smell of the two stroke engines is one I'll never forget. If these were modern super bikes I would have been awe struck, but some of these bikes were older than me and their skinny tyres made their speed utterly ludicrous to me.

Our experience in carrying the boats from the ferry to the harbour me us determined to find an alternative landing spot. Closer reading of Jim's book yielded a better landing spot, a stone's throw away from the ferry and more importantly a quiet place to dry and sort gear as well as reflect on the trip.

A final meal, courtesy of a biker's caf, saw us replete before our ferry arrived to return us to the UK.  The Steam Packet staff were exceptionally helpful and there was no messing with funny walkways, the traffic being held while we used the main ramp.

Huge thanks to Em and Sharon for looking after the boys and saving us a fortune in parking charges by picking up and dropping off the van. Thanks to to the Steam Packet staff who made loading and unloading of the boats as simple as possible. Finally massive thanks to the people we met on the island for making us feel so welcome, we'll definitely be back.