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Crossing from St Bees to the Isle of Man by Tim Haines

Crossing from St Bees to the Isle of Man.

TL/DR: Tim paddled from St Bees to the IoM and then got the ferry back, without any major dramas.

I have been obsessively monitoring the Windy app for a couple of months in the hope of identifying a suitable weather window for the St Bees – Isle of Mann crossing. On Wednesday I had sufficient confidence to book Friday off work and make plans.

I arrived in St Bees at around 10pm on Thursday and snuggled down in my sleeping bag beside my kayak well before midnight, having prepped the boat. I’m blessed by the ability to sleep deeply in almost any situation, but a recurring nightmare woke me repeatedly: Giant rats, the size of rottweilers, were gnawing holes in my boat, and I couldn’t scare them away. Clearly my sub-conscious was experiencing some epic pre-trip nerves.

I was on the water and paddling by 0415. Tidal planning was simple: neap tides meant that I could expect a maximum of 0.5kn tide to push me gently north for the duration of the crossing.

There’s not a great deal to say about the crossing itself. Paddling by the coast is far more interesting, because that is where the scenery, most of the wildlife and the interesting tidal effects are. Kayak crossings between islands are definitely a form of ‘Type Two Fun’. I am confident, however, that I’m not alone in looking at a map of an Island, and instinctively questioning whether it would be possible to kayak to it, or around it.

Being naturally predisposed to ‘faffing about’, particularly when there is work to be done, I had set myself a rigid schedule: fifty-five minutes paddling followed by a five minute break, in which I would do my ‘paddle-admin’: Stretch my legs, eat, drink, check my position and compass bearing and, if necessary, go to the loo and apply sun cream. In this way, the hours and the miles slid by. The good thing about paddling alone is that there is no one to pass comment on your singing voice, or to comment on the inanity of your one-sided conversations with the guillemots.

I have previously experienced a strange and debilitating terror when alone at sea, out of sight of land. I cannot properly explain it, and I acknowledge that it is irrational. Somehow the uncluttered horizon, and the unknown depths of the water below combine to give a sensation that the physical act of floating on the surface of a vast expanse of translucent liquid is ridiculously implausible. This induces in me a fleeting panic and I had anticipated this happening again, but for whatever reason, it did not. My feelings about this are – in retrospect – somewhat ambivalent, as it is perhaps good for the soul to perennially be subject to a visceral reminder of one’s own utter insignificance as a Very Small Thing existing precariously on the surface of a Very Big Planet.

Back in the real world, the weather was ideal: overcast, with good visibility and low wind. The water got a bit lumpy off Maughold Head, but it was still pleasant paddling. The excellent guidebook “Northern England & IOM – Fifty Great Sea Kayak Voyages” recommends landing North of the headland at Port e Vullen, but I had a ferry to catch the following day from Douglas (further south on the east coast) so I veered south, wanting to get past the headland when conditions were still reasonable (the next day’s forecast was OK, but not great). The sensible place to put in would be Port Mooar, but I decided to land at Baldromma Beg – a boulder strewn inlet between Maughold and Mooar.

Getting out of the boat on a boulder-strewn beach after a long crossing was not easy, and, had there been any witnesses, I would not have won any points for style. After a bit of lunch and a text message to let my wife know that I had arrived safely, I got back in the boat and paddled south. Conditions had changed significantly – swell bouncing off the cliffs, combined with some wind-over-tide, made for a confused sea, and some engaging paddling.

I stopped for the night in Laxey, a coastal village with a lovely harbour, a fine pub (The Shore) and a great Italian Restaurant (The Mona Lisa). A kindly fellow from Laxey sailing club offered me use of the showers in the sailing club premises and said I was welcome to sleep in his boat shed if I wanted. I was tempted by both, but hadn’t brought a change of clothes or a towel, and the evening looked fine, so I slept, unwashed, on the harbourside next to my boat.

The following morning I set off for Douglas. The weather was a bit claggy, with a building southerly wind blowing in occasional showers against me. Conditions were much like the previous afternoon, but within a couple of hours I was safely in the harbour, putting the boat on a trolley to walk the short distance over to the ferry terminal. In some ways I was sorry the adventure was over so soon, but I was pleasantly tired with that satiated feeling which follows a good adventure.

I highly recommend going to the Isle of Mann. It’s two hours by ferry from Liverpool, the coastline is stunningly beautiful with some really exciting paddling to be had, and lots of cultural interest too. I’d definitely be up for a return trip.

Finally, it’s always worth reflecting on what didn’t go so well, and what I would have done differently. I think there are probably three things:

  1. Take better care of my hands. By the end of the trip, both palms and every finger was blistered, despite a lot of regular paddling beforehand. In future, I will either wear gloves or pre-tape my hands.
  2. Stick to the plan, and land at the safest place possible. My decision to land on a bouldery beach because it looked nice and ‘because I could’ was, in retrospect, stupid.
  3. Before I attempt a landing after a long crossing again, I would take a five minute ‘admin break’ before committing to the landing. This would give an opportunity to make sure that both me and my boat are in the best possible state for rapid movement, and also give a while to observe how the surf is behaving on the shoreline.

Pre-dawn calm.

Guillemots (?) take flight.

Looking back from Baldromma Beg (yellow kayak visible among the boulders if you look carefully!)

2 thoughts on “Crossing from St Bees to the Isle of Man by Tim Haines”

  1. A vivid and honest account Tim. Well done! A solo crossing not something I’d do … but then I’m a scaredy cat haha. Also, as you say, coastlines are more interesting, Neptune’s profound depths and limitless expanses more alarming, especially in an elongated box of fibreglass or plastic that tips over at the sniff of an awkward, white-capped wavelet… Great stuff!

  2. Very well done Tim. Challenge completed and your honesty in the learning points will help yourself and others have safer journeys in the future. Very inspiring.