Words: Elaine Farquharson
Pics: Elaine Farquharson & Sonya Brotherton
“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”
When we were born, we were full of awe and wonder; every day was a sense of exploration. Our senses were flooded with new experiences and beauty. We were more in touch with the mysteries of the universe and the wonder of nature. Then we joined the rat race; we grew up.
For me, adventure paddling opens my eyes to the beauty of the world again. When I paddle, I get to take off the blinkers of adulthood and explore like a child who is full of curiosity and feel delighted by the surprises I see along my journey. I have paddled all over the world, past towering icebergs, cruising with humpback whales, camping with bears and braving huge stormy seas. It has been a fantastic experience, and I hope you all will develop the skills to be able to live your adventures.
Exploring does require specific skills, knowledge and experience as the sea can be a cruel mistress, and she requires healthy respect. Firstly when you are open water paddling, you will be exposed to the elements so you must ensure you have a strong leash, watertight board and carry appropriate safety kit to the conditions of the day. Include as a team a first aid kit, in more extreme conditions a spare paddle, emergency shelter and enough hydration and food for the energy expenditure of the trip plus emergency rations.
When touring a wet suit is helpful; however, it can be too warm or cold, so its best to wear quick-drying layers and have a windproof outer layer. Water evaporation from a wet suit can cool your core quickly. It would be best if you always had a waist PFD. In an emergency, a flair and white light. Plus some form of communication either VHF or tracker, or at the bare minimum a mobile phone. It would help if you also had a trip plan for weather, tide and navigation. Share with someone on land, and you need to check in with them for safety.
One of the most fabulous sections to sea paddle in the UK is the world heritage Jurassic Coast. It is a living coast, continually changing and unwrapping its wonders like a present revealing the fossils of the past. It’s a genuinely remarkable geological spectacle with folding striations and rock formations. Towering cliffs, sea stacks, arches, and even it’s saltwater lagoon with the finest example of long shore drift in the world. It’s an adventure paddlers paradise, but also not for the faint-hearted as the features can be incredibly challenging and require paddling skills in swell, surf, wind and even tidal races which become much more exaggerated in extreme sea states.
Circumnavigation of Isle of Portland
Launch: Cove House Inn
Exit: Portland Castle
Trip time: 2.5 hours
You launch at a very steep shore with a sever pebbly drop-off. The waters here are so clear, and as you paddle past the cliffs of Blacknor South, you can see white boulders in the water with huge starfish and crabs. As you get to the Bill, you will see in the distance the tidal race. We want to sneak past Old Pulpit Rock into the eddy of the southern land point. We can rest and hydrate here briefly so long as we have planned it well, so it isn’t recirculating. As we continue, we can see the remains of quarrying and on to a beautiful little cove called Church Hope Cove. A lovely place to stop before passing past the boulder garden called the Cuttings and round past the Verne and formidable prison to the Portland breakwater. As you paddle through here, you are not allowed to enter into Portland Port itself so keep out from the area and paddle through Portland Harbour home of the National Sailing Academy and on to Portland Castle which was part of Henry Tudor’s defences to finish your trip.
In onshore winds, Chesil Beach creates powerful tow backs with a punishing shore break. It’s treacherous in stormy conditions, so it’s best to choose a day when the swell has been at its calmest, and the wind is gentle less than 10 knots.
The tides rip around here with two main flows that interfere creating strong currents, tidal races and eddy’s that recirculate at the Bill. The flow can be as strong as 10 knots here with races making standing waves that become huge in strong winds and swell. You cannot go round this isle without intelligent trip planning. Choosing neaps as it helps to reduce the effect on tidal flow. Use tidal flow atlas to plan when the tides are moving at their slowest and make sure the swell and wind are at their gentlest. Sneak around close to the shore and know what the eddy around the Bill is doing as you could get caught out. Again you will see this on a tidal flow atlas. Avoid the race unless you know what you are doing and have extreme competence in advanced water handling, i.e. keep that area for the pros.
Studland to Old Harry Rocks
Launch: Knoll Beach Studland
Exit: Knoll Beach Studland
Trip time: 2.5 hours
Launch at Knoll Beach where there is a National Trust visitor centre of Studland to stay sheltered up the shoreline. There is a little extra wildlife along this part of the coast as you will also paddle past a nudist beach. As you continue Old Harry stands ahead of you in all its white towering glory.
It’s a fantastic place to explore; however, in the wrong conditions, its’ tidal race at the end is to be respected as it can create large standing waves and disturbed water particularly in swell and wind. The best time to go is on neaps, in calm conditions and at slack water. Rounding the headland then will give you a gentler experience of the race, and the flow will create gentle eddys and simple white water features, which is a great place to play if you have the skills of break-in and out of flow, ferry gliding and can S-turn across the water. It’s a rock hoppers paradise and can be a fun place to practice your moving water skills, however, you need to know when the right time is to go, and if you’re going to play on the rock features, then you should wear a helmet. Get the times wrong to play here, however, and the race becomes a larger feature to handle altogether and when the sea state is building it is not a nice place to be. So take care check the flow, weather and swell for the day.
Lulworth to Durdle Door
Launch: Lulworth Cove, get there early to park
Exit: Lulworth Cove
Trip time: 2.5 hours
The paddle is an exposed open water trip past the crown jewels of the Jurassic Coast. Here are the finest examples of rock striation in the world and the caves, tunnels and arches are a paddlers paradise. The cove itself is very sheltered from the conditions and swell outside. Just paddling here is a safer option to be able to learn upwind and downwind skills. Heading out through the mouth of the cove, a small surf wave can form on the west side, which always catches people out on the way home. Once you head round towards the Door, it is a real spectacle with beautiful watercolours. You can explore the mini cove called Stair hole, rock hop through the boulders, explore Man of War Bay, journey through Bat Cave and of course paddle through the tower arch of Durdle Door itself.
Tides move here relatively slowly along this coast so it won’t cause you too much trouble, it is a very exposed section, though. The swell and wind is the tricky thing here which will catch you out as you expose yourself to the gusts with not much chance of landing. The swell can also be a lot larger, being exposed and will reflect back from the cliffs to cause clapotis. On a gentle day, the water is super fun but if possible plan the trip up in a headwind so you can enjoy the downwind on the way back.
Chesil Beach and the Fleet
Launch: Ferry bridge
Exit: Turn around Langton Herring
Trip time: 2.5 hours
It’s more interesting to see Chesil Beach from the lagoon side. You start your trip with the challenge of the flow through Ferry Bridge. It has the features of a class 1 rapid with eddy lines and boils as you paddle past the bridge stanchions. The easiest way to travel is to paddle wide from Portland Harbour and set your line to follow the tongue of the flow however if you are confident moving over eddy lines you can break-in at the boatyard. As you travel up here, you will pass green fields and meadows to the right, and the large bank of Chesil Beach to the left where you can pick up the most fantastic shells washed onto the shoreline. You need to take care of live firing at the Marine Barracks, you can check for this online. Also as you head west the water levels become shallower, and there is a mixture of sand and mud, so you must get the timings right otherwise you ground out and its also important not to disturb the Fleet bed as it is a site of SSSI.
As you set off from Ferry Bridge, you want to travel up with the tide to arrive at Langton Herring at slack water high tide. As it turns, you can enjoy the flow going with you back. The wind in here acts more like a lake as you are protected from the sea swell still if the wind is blowing up or down the fleet it can throw up some fun bumps in the right conditions if you’re into your down winding.
If you want to be able to enjoy touring and push the limits into expedition paddling make sure you are physically fit, build your confidence in exposed open water conditions. Also, plan your trip by understanding the tactics of coastal paddling and ensure you have the technical skills to be out on moving water. You will need skills riding bumps, paddling over chop and messy water. Messy water is not just waves its also holes, crowns and pinnacles caused by clapotis. You need to be able to land and launch in waves. You will need white water skills and to understand eddy’s and moving in and out of flow, rips and currents.
I hope you enjoyed the read and it has made you think of some of the beautiful places and skills we have when we paddle on the sea. To gain more experience, please consider open water coaching and if you’re unsure a qualified guide can help you to explore these more exposed places safely. Most importantly, folks stay safe and have fun; it’s a playground of wonder out there.