Words: Jason Swain
Pics: Jason Swain, Ian Pacey
The day three mates paddled around The Needles, from Freshwater Bay to Totland Bay, on one of the hottest days on record, unexpectedly. What could go wrong? Jason Swain tells the story.
Date: Tuesday 20th June
Location: Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight
Time: 1100 hrs
Team: Charlie Cripwell, Ian Pacey, Jason Swain
Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co Inflatable Touring SUP (11’5 x 32 x 6) – Jason
Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co Classic SUP (9’11 x 31.5) – Charlie
Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co All-Round inflatable SUP (10’6 x 33 x 6)- Ian
Paddle round The Needles… just four little words. As a photographer and water-sports enthusiast it’s always been something I’ve wanted to do since moving to the island 23+ years ago. Before SUP had been invented (in the modern sense at least) I’d dreamed of paddling my longboard out there and maybe at a push taking one of those waterproof disposables along for the ride. But since the advent of stand up, and meeting Charlie from Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co, it had become a more realistic goal. It was now just a matter of waiting for the conditions to come together on the right day, and armed with a (very basic) waterproof case I could bring along a decent camera too.
So now all I needed was a day with no wind, favourable tides, and zero photography jobs booked in. But even with the means and the desire and that simple sounding checklist it’s still been a year of waiting for everything to come together.
Then just like that, almost by accident, the three of us were off on our way. Charlie and I had done a lot of flat water paddling together (and LOTS more SUP surfing) but Ian, a die-hard surfer, was a new convert to the wonders of paddling, although strictly on flat water – for now. I thought we were going for an hour jaunt along the cliffs at Freshwater Bay to take photos in the caves but Charlie had been thinking of the bigger picture. He had craftily got two photographers all kitted up and heading west, as well as taking along 3 x water bottles and 3 x protein flapjacks to keep us going because neither me nor Ian had the common sense to pack lunch!
Armed with way more gear than we had provisions, we paddle off. Charlie and Ian both had GoPros, I had my Canon 6D in a dicapac (cheap waterproof plastic ziplock thingy) and Ian also had his Canon 60d in a proper waterproof housing.
It’s a gentle start; the ebbing tide moves us quickly and easily along the coast. Paddling is almost optional as it draws us away from the bay heading west across smooth and crystal clear waters. Before long we get to the caves below Tennyson Monument. This is a place we had visited once before, and the furthest west we had SUPed, The caves provide a welcome shelter from the midday sun on the hottest June day for 40 years.
Inside the coolness of the largest cave we take on some water and I happily scoff the surprise oat flapjack that Charlie produces like a magician from his backpack. Just an hour and a bit into the journey, a lot of paddling (most of it) still ahead of me, and I’ve already eaten all my rations! Charlie and Ian go for a refreshing dip to cool off.
Heading from the respite of the cave back into the beating sun we push on towards the end of the chalk cliffs in the distance. We paddle for almost another hour before coming upon an eerily quiet and empty place. The cliffs towering above us, out of sight of Freshwater Bay, but still not far enough to glimpse The Needles, it felt like a no-mans land – a Jurassic Lost World. The waters are now deep and dark but still beautifully clear. The only sounds were those of the ‘guls and cormorants going about their business (mostly fishing I’m guessing). Although we did see a dead cormorant I wondered if we’d accidentally just paddled our way through a solemn ceremony of remembrance.
Keeping up a steady paddling rhythm as we approach the final corner and see those elusive Needles coming into view; our visions as intrepid explorers became slightly deflated by the sight of another paddle boarder gliding across the horizon (he took the easier, shorter trip from Alum Bay and was there in 20 minutes). This was soon to be followed by a pleasure boat full of tourists clicking away with their cameras and then a big yellow powerboat bouncing around. A couple of yachts, another pleasure boat, a few light aircraft and the rather large oil-spill response plane doing low-altitude practice runs directly overhead add to the cacophony. Our journey to what for a brief moment seemed like the end of the known world had actually become a trip to the busiest place on the Isle of Wight.
We paddle around in circles for a bit, enjoying the sights and being as touristy as everyone else – snapping every angle of the famous rocks – before tummy rumblings remind us that we’d better be getting back to dry land. Charlie’s idea had been to return to Freshwater Bay on the now flooding tide but the going is tougher than we hoped. A relatively light SE wind had kicked up, but heading straight into it with breeze against tide had created chop and progress was slow. After five mins, and only getting half way across Scratchells Bay, Charlie and I decide that it would be a long and tiring few hours like this, and perhaps we better go for plan B. We head into the shelter of the Solent on to Totland Bay, where we can hope to cadge a lift, or at least phone one of our better halves to come and rescue us.
We about turn and thread the Needles once again to head for home, this time in a new direction. The earlier hubbub is soon forgotten as in complete contrast to the choppy and bumpy surface of Scratchells Bay we glide gently back along the leeward coast and the glassy waters of Alum Bay, marveling at the glorious sights and colours. Huge boulders and equally impressive seaweeds at the base of the towering white cliffs, the biggest bass I’ve seen on the Island swimming directly below us, as well as a couple of fancy looking jellyfish. Mysterious windows in the cliff face, looking like they belonged in an abandoned mining town of the Wild West (Charlie told me they are part of a secret tunnel network connected to the Needles Old Battery, used as lookout posts in the war). This little piece of heaven lifts everyone’s spirits and after hugging the base of the cliffs we strike out across the Alum, passing crowds of tourists on the beach. Before long we escape again, arriving at the complete remoteness of another stretch between Alum and Totland Bay. It’s maybe the most beautiful part of the whole trip with sparkly turquoise water gently lapping into sheltered little sandy beaches protected by long fronds of elaborate seaweeds. Ian and Charlie decide it’s the perfect spot for another swim.
The temptation is to stay all afternoon, but the heat and lack of lunch force us onwards. Soon Totland Bay and the welcome sight of the old lifeboat station is on the horizon, followed by the even more welcome sight of one of our friends Stuart sitting on the beach. This is a stroke of luck and the promise of a lift back to Freshwater, and more importantly an immediate reunion with my sandwiches and flask of tea that were left in my car, is a great feeling.
So we’re back tired and happy. Later that afternoon we did the thing we all do these days: we shared a few pics on social media and generally basked in the glow you get when a few likes and comments pop up. However, over the next few days I noticed something else. This trip had really caught people’s imagination. I’ve had more people actually talk to me in the real world about this journey than anything else I’ve ever posted online. It seemed to have struck a chord with those who wanted to do the same thing and wondered if it was possible.
As well as the general sense of freedom of the sea you get from paddle boarding there is the added factor of The Needles and its lighthouse. It has a sort of magnetic fascination that people are drawn to. We live on this island and The Needles are the iconic landmark by which a lot of the world knows us; it’s a part of countless Isle of Wight logos, and is probably featured in more tourist brochures and newspaper articles than any other aspect of the island.
Almost everyone I’ve talked too since wants to paddle out there. And that raises some good questions, and a reminder of our responsibilities when glamourizing something like this. A good friend and member of the island RNLI expressed his unease at the idea of people being out there on boards without a safety boat, and shared some concerns about ‘the message’ such a trip might give off. To be fair, on reflection, we all share those concerns.
Despite being somewhat underprepared ourselves (mainly in the lunch department) it should be noted that it wasn’t as reckless as it might have seemed. Charlie is an active member of the Freshwater Bay lifeboat crew and had informed the station of his intentions, and had planned the trip utilizing the tide to get us both there and back. Both myself and Ian Pacey have swum the Solent and pretty much surf or swim every day (year round) so we all respect the sea and its dangers. We were pretty confident in our fitness and abilities to look after ourselves at sea. But even so it was still quite an effort and you wouldn’t want to try it on the wrong day or get the tides wrong. There is always the potential for things to go wrong and people need to be aware of the changing conditions at sea, and potential hazards including heatstroke / hypothermia, equipment failure and fatigue. The advice is to plan well, always let people know where you are going and have a back-up plan / help with simple measures like a waterproof phone or (better) a VHF radio. It’s wise to never undertake such a paddle alone, and make sure to always wear a leash to stay tethered to your board. After all, it’s your lifeline.
That paddle is one that will stay with the three of us for a very long time. Like a classic ‘coming of age’ movie, what could be better than three mates hitting the water and having the adventure of a lifetime on their own doorstep?
For more Jason Swain pics head to www.jasonswain.co.uk