Bardsey is an island. It draws the eye focused by two stony lines that the Lleyn Peninsular casts down, pointing into winds made in the Atlantic; a fore finger extracted from the clenched right hand of North Wales. Open to all the maritime elements, Bardsey; as many islands, sits surrounded by brine, however the sea here is special, moving like no other, fast and rough, a powerful and truly mysterious force. It is a place of superlatives. Not fitting into the realms of an everyday vocabulary, its beauty and magic cannot be described except to say they are mythic; a living legend. Recognition of the island and its energy is a history of its own, of particular interest to this story is the fact that it was deemed worthy of pilgrimage. Indeed in Medieval times, three journeys to Bardsey had the same spiritual currency as one to the Vatican. This is easily understood when you consider how the approach was open to bandits and crossing the treacherous sea in a coracle was akin to swallowing a bottle of acetaminophen in one sitting; while the outcome is never truly known it is unlikely to do you any good. The faith of these monks however was more fanatical than a Buddhist bus driver. Anyone who has torn around the outside of a blind and precipitous bend in Asia will attest that some people may be prepared to set off on a journey into the Irish Sea in a vessel of a mere six foot diameter made of skin stretched taught over a willow frame. Whether they are whims of faith or madness is another matter.
There are some who do not have a healthy respect for the sea. The likelihood is that they have never been entertained by one of its savage moods. My respect was and still maybe is somewhat unhealthy, being like that of a child who found their parent’s secret stash of alcohol. The immature binge that led to abstention was a college trip to a group of islands off the north coast of Anglesey. The Skerries; or Scaries as I came to know them were then still home to members of Trinity House. Lighthouse men are renowned for being solitary characters, seeking out wild places, windswept, rocky areas; in fact all the locations where ships only want to be in good conditions. The Skerries is no exception, lying as it does off a corner of land where the currents accelerate to warp speeds and groups of oversized boulders peak out of the water creating images of sharp teeth and magnetic fields.
The trip in question was undertaken in fog and was led. To say I was frightened is a huge understatement; I do not remember feeling a fear like it neither before nor since. Let me try and explain. In all of us there is a need to control, to be in charge, certainly where our own destiny is at stake. My urges towards these requirements are beyond the freakish and somewhat fanatical. There I was with visibility of less than thirty feet, paddling doggedly to retain a view of my colleagues while the water rushed, slurped and lashed at my boat. The icing on this proverbial cake was the fog horn with its incessant bleating informing that there was a wolf nearby but with no hint as to where exactly it was. The noise droned in my ears for years; a direction-less monotone giving no clues, except to the severity of the conditions and place. In retrospect I think I was scarred. It is funny how scarred and scared differ so little on paper. I certainly did not venture on such journeys for ten years.
Fear is a strange thing, you try and court it and increase the amount you can accept. You know that your life is enriched by stretching these limits. Time is often ruled by sporadic periods where progressions of lifting levels take you to places you know you should not be. Indeed my work is often based on introducing this concept to children and students and encouraging them to take plunges that they can then relate to and transfer to other areas of their life. A new solution is offered for situations that they traditionally run and hide from. The problem with teaching is that to be effective you ought to practice what you preach. So feeling impelled to push the envelope again I found myself needing to deal with my fear. At the time my river paddling had reached a point where there was willingness in the right company to do things well outside of my technique and ability levels. Sea kayaking on the other hand was limited to surfing beach breaks, keeping within 100 yards of the shore, the Menai Straits (more like a giant river than the sea) and the occasional foray to Puffin island; a short hop from the East Coast of Anglesey. My students looking for a venture to both raise charitable funds and give themselves something over which to ruffle their collective plumage had decided on paddling around Anglesey. The choice firmly out of my hands; and theirs after they told the BBC news service, left me no option but to train hard and fast and acquire the necessary skills. One being to either suppress or at the very least learn to conceal my irrational “brinophobia”.
The trap set the pilgrimage had begun. This was to be an introverted odyssey, the route was to be as much about reaching inside and finding what caused fear as the physical ground (or sea) covered. It was to be a succession of journeys, each scaffolding from the other, starting with Anglesey and not yet known to me ending with Bardsey.
Anglesey is another good story and involved four days of excessive winds, seeking shelter from big rough seas and a near altercation with one of Stenna Ferries’ rather huge catamarans. A high point for me was the news coverage of heroic footage as I dealt with a capsized student. It also included some very elated people who did not achieve what they set out to and still raised a large sum of cash along with their self esteem. In fact it perfectly encapsulated outdoor education at its best, real consequences and real learning. It also sowed a little seed which the sun later reached and nurtured to bloom.
April arrived with a glow in the sky and the big spring tides that the season harbors. It coincided with a friend returning from the Scottish winter season and my having a life situation that encourages the need for a little soul searching and a lot of physical disquiet. A phone call from Stu on a Friday evening lured me to the climbing wall from my self induced and pitiful lonely weekend plans; my one condition was that he was to contemplate helping me to finish what I had started with the students. Neither of us had been in kayaks for some six months, however the forecast was favorable and the tides huge; an important factor when thinking of kayaking 100 miles in a weekend. Filled with bravado we fueled and celebrated our decision in the pub. Consequently, the following morning was filled with the frantic activity of organization perpetuated by a lack of it. Also, it was sabotaged by the thick head of dreamer’s libation. Dry bags were packed, a mad trolley dash around the supermarket and we eventually met at ten thirty hoping that the Conway Centre sea kayaks were in good repair. Thankfully they were and we put on the water of Traeth Llugwy at twelve thirty; somewhat later than hoped for and our only feasible put in point to maximize the aid of the tides. I was extremely glad of all the thorough tide planning work I had done for the journey prior to setting off with the students. It was funny as they really had no clue of the magnitude of what they were doing until driving round the island the week before they departed. We had visited Point Lynus; timed to perfection at mid tide, and I had entertained the acute joy of listening to their silence as they heard the roar of the overfall from half a mile and then watched their eyes grow as the full chaos of the water came into view. Following that episode they were far more attentive to planning and understanding how tides work and their effects on a journey.
Stu and I had been jetted up the to the North East tip of the island on a conveyer belt of crystal water. Here the current “hangs a sharp left” and is accelerated over some shallower ground so that it rears up aggressively, angry that it cannot maintain a straight course. Thankfully, it was still early in the tide and the mean streak was fairly suppressed. Once around the corner we were able to take full advantage of the flow by staying away from the shore. The pace was brisk. So brisk that a short stop at Cemlyn Bay hardly affected the time it took to reach the next corner of Carmel Head and we had whisked past the Skerries without so much as a thought for them. Every time we approached an overfall I succumbed to the expected yet irrational reaction. It started with a tight, dry throat, followed by an increased and erratic heartbeat, a desire to be sick, a stooping posture and a sweat of arctic temperature. The anticipation of Carmel Head seemed to be that much worse than Point Lynus, where paddling without mishap through the confused water had seen a flicker of smugness creep in. Carmel Head however led into an open crossing of six terrifying miles, straight across shipping lanes and in the path of the Catamaran. This was to be topped off by the rounding of the most imposing of the overfalls, North Stack. Ultimately, it meant I was going to maintain my catatonic state for up to two hours. The mere thought of it perpetuated the state for far longer and thoughts strayed to tragedy which I dutifully wrestled with and banished only to find them replaced by more. What ifs held more sway than current happenings, which turned out to be totally uneventful and extremely beautiful. The tide approached the end of the ebb as we approached North Stack and the resultant waves and chaos were far less manic than expected. The ebb became flood at Penrhyn Mawr the last of the potential big water treats for the day. Again we slipped through unnoticed but this time at a cost as the two hours it then took to reach Rhoscolyn battling the tide became purgatory. We reached the beach with the prospect of an enforced rest to make the most of the tides and so followed a meal stop, a walk to the pub and a beach bed for three hours. At the pub we made the same error of judgment as the previous night while discussing the Pandora’s box of emotions that had been experienced and all of them in just seven hours.
Using the tide we put back on again at four a.m. An open crossing at night is an eerie and special sensation, compasses and in this case distant street lamps are used for navigation. Sleep deprivation and the drizzle that greeted us as we left our bivvi bags had led to a sense of humor failure on Stu’s part. Fatigued, desperate and needy of a success induced determination on mine. Our mission really hung in the balance. Did I have sufficient drive to finish it alone? We agreed to paddle back into the Menai Straits and back to the Conway Centre anyway.
Nine o-clock. We reached the dock, ate and rested. I did not want to leave Stu as I made my way up to a toilet, my cramped body needing to remember what it was like outside of a kayak cockpit. Nothing mattered, my body complained at each small move and the continual damp threatened hemorrhoids. Could I do it? Would Stu come with me? Was I willing to cross Red Wharf Bay alone? Would I be able to find the energy and stamina for another six hours? I had lots of questions with no energy to answer them. People who talked to me seemed to have dropped off Salvador Dali’s paintbrush. I made my way back to the dock, not sure of what I was supposed to do. The rest had been good for Stu, a regained purpose dimly shone and mild belief that it was possible began to grow in us both. We set off for Beaumaris a coffee stop and watching point for a town’s Sunday awakening, all hangovers and church bells. Our day had started six hours earlier and had hardly been punctuated with a relief from the constant paddle stroking. We watched through the eyes of strangers; foreign anthropologists bemused by the behavior patterns displayed.
Back in the boats the final hours were gut wrenching, the wind seemed always to be in our faces and for sections we fought the tide along with our tiredness, knowing that we could not stay awake forever. Twenty seven hours after setting off we arrived at our starting point, too tired and too sore to be elated.
The week that followed I could hardly move, my wrists were swollen, my back stiff, all I could do was think. I thought of that trip to the Skerries so many years ago. I thought of the consuming fear sea paddling and in particular open crossings and overfalls had held. I thought of our achievement, of my pride in myself and I thought about the fact that it had not been so difficult. Sure it had been physical and had left my unfit body in tatters, but the things that I had really feared had caused no real problems. It was time to strike while the iron was hot. The Pilgrimage was well under way.
Sea trips started to fall thick and fast. Several forays to South Stack followed, one involving a lone venture on to the overfalls; a series of glassy green waves that a river paddler would die for. My students were also open to being taken out to the Beacon at Rhoscolyn or Puffin Island. The next step in the Pilgrimage however, saw three of us leaving Porth Dinllaen on a Saturday afternoon, the idea being for a mellow if windy weekend with a camp before heading back to the center. Force five from behind can be intimidating to the inexperienced or a hoot for the comfortable. The confidence was obviously growing as we whooped and hollered our way along the North Lleyn.
At Trefor having watched the birds wheeling and diving around the huge sea cliffs of Craig Aderyn, the skies produced an offering that I for one did not appreciate. The rain poured and my mind was set; there was to be no camping, we were homeward bound. An exciting landing for fish and chips at Dinas Dinlle did not use up sufficient time for the tide to change favorably for the Straits. It had been a battle of quartering winds and boring scenery for the last six miles and now we were standing in the rain eating soggy chips just wanting to be home in front of a fire. This was not to prepare us for the battle to come. On the shore the waves were in excess of three feet and confused, with the wind acting against the tide on the Caernarfon Bar; an area of shallow sand banks, the resulting maelstrom was rather more extreme. Fun or frightening I could not work out? Finally, a wave broke on the back of my boat, the front end dipped impressively as the kayak rocketed forward. The capsize was inevitable and cost me both a map and a contact lens. It did however give me a huge amount more as the roll that prevented either a horrendous rescue scenario or a very long and cold swim was put into practice and well executed. The adrenaline rush was exquisite and made up for the hard work of battling against the tide at the mouth of the Straits. We just made last orders at a pub in Port Dinorwic three wet and clumsily dressed misfits in a room full of dresses and polished shoes. The remaining paddle strokes across the Straits in the dark was a giggling blur of hide and seek with nothing to veil ourselves except the black of night.
At last the time was right and the Skerries were to be revisited. We chose a sunny day with sufficient wind to maintain interest. The tides meant that we would not only both launch and land at the same spot, in this case Cemlyn Bay but would also be forced to while away some time on the island. Approaching an island like the Skerries is exciting, the tide speeds past and you have to predict where you need to sit on the current to be carried to your destination. Going beyond would obviously entail a lot of work against the tide. We escaped the throngs of “birding” binoculars watching the Arctic Terns and then shot out, covering the four miles in little time. An overfall on the South West tip of the island created some excitement as a heaving sea peaked and troughed, puffins bobbed haphazardly and made their awkward, splashing take offs to escape us. A short narrow slot saw the entry into a mirror calm bay full of seals. We beached the boats and scrambled onto the island.
Everywhere Terns darted and swirled making patterns reminiscent of a thousand cheerleaders’ batons. We basked above the puffins their clown-like coloring matching their behavior. Two men worked on the lighthouse, while two others lived in it, watching and studying the Tern colony, a lonely existence collecting their provisions every other week and meeting only the odd paddler and fisherman. I was at last becoming familiar with this environment and understood those that chose to live in it.
The time was now right. Bardsey is the great kayak journey of North Wales. Ask anyone experienced on the sea and they will admit that every journey to this island has been eventful. Stuart was again to be the accomplice and this time the instigator of a dream I already owned. I worked out the tides and route and we drove to Porth Oer translation Cold Port; nothing like it’s English name Whistling Sands. Stuart was confident that this was to be an easy jaunt, he had not been talking to as many people as I had. I was pleasantly nervous, full of anticipation. The speed of the water was very quick and close inland headed our way (south). It was not a case of the odd overfall but one continuous one. The day was thankfully calm, in fact very hot and again we had chosen big tides.
I should confess now that I blew the tidal predictions having forgotten to add an hour for British Summertime. However, anyone who has been here will know that I am not the first, to make such a mistake and I am still to see a comprehensive model or diagram that explains the water in a way that I understand. I would certainly like to see this place on a windy winter’s day. The result was that on entering the Bardsey Sound, instead of being catapulted southwards around the island as expected, a large body of water flowed back in a North Westerly direction projecting us a further mile and a half out to sea and almost back where we had come from. Considering how hard we had been paddling this would suggest that the tide was moving in excess of eight knots. This area is known as the tripods and is a giant shallowing, we were consequently treated to a succession of overfalls. It took us a full half hour to work out what had been happening and then a further half an hour to move sufficiently close to the shore to hit the water flowing south again. This time the stream was moving as predicted and we caught a ride to the island. The upshot of this was an hour and a half of paddling in a circle with a detour of at least six miles. I still do not fully understand the phenomena that caused this. What I do know was that this was the culmination of my pilgrimage, as sat out amongst the overfalls I did not go into a trance like state. There were no palpitations, no cold sweats. As our boats were swept out to sea we logically and calmly tried to account for what was happening and discussed the way we would deal with it.
Reaching the island was accompanied by a wave of euphoria. This inaccessible gem was ours for the afternoon. We could bask among the seals, walk up to the viewpoint, float in the turquoise water or just sit and eat in this idyllic, remote and unpopulated place. The Skerries had been exorcised and I now knew the joys available to the sea kayaker.