On 14th August at 5am, Jeff, Mick, Ant, Giles and Neil set off for Portsmouth to board the “Victoria of Wight” ferry to Fishbourne.
For anyone who hasn’t done the crossing it’s a reasonably priced drive on, drive off ferry that takes roughly 30mins once it leaves port. There’s a cafe & toilets as you wait to board and once on board you can leave your vehicles and walk around with plenty of seating areas inside and out, and a couple more cafes for refreshments.
Once disembarked and after a short drive across the island, we arrived at our base for the next two nights… a fantastic Houseboat named “Gentoo” moored in Bembridge harbour.
On the drive in Neil broke the news to Giles that whilst there was plenty of room on board for us all, his sleeping arrangements would be in a tent tied to the bars on deck.
The tide was low as we walked down the gangplank and along the jetty towards Gentoo clutching our bags and provisions. We had a quick tour around to get our bearings, followed by a swift coffee and a bite to eat to refuel.
Neil and Giles paddle boards were already inflated on arrival, and as the rest of the team went to set up their gear Neil & Giles pitched the tent.
With the semaphore flags draped all over the ship blowing in the wind, it resembled a scene from Everest which was quite ironic really as we soon learnt that the tent itself has actually been used at camp 4 on the mountain. For Giles in particular this simply added to the sense of adventure.
As we paddled down through the harbour it was clear that the tide was almost at full ebb. Many of the boats away from the deepest channels were stranded on the silt or mud banks. The outward flow was minimal though did quicken as we rounded the final corner and out into the sea. There was a digger on the south side of the bank reaching into the water with it’s long arm and bucket clawing at the estuary bed and working hard to maintain a safe passage at low tide for the vessels that use the harbour.
It was a bright day, with white clouds, patchy sunshine and a light breeze as we headed out onto the sea and northwards into the stretch of water that separates the Isle of Wight from the English mainland.
We initially thought that Neil was being overly cautious as he suggested we paddle relatively close to the shoreline but as we rounded the first headland into Priory Bay he announced “keep your eyes peeled, somewhere here we lost around 20 china plates to the sea as we were loading the boat one evening after holding a dinner party in the sea“. He does do some crazy stuff I recall thinking and it put a wry smile on our faces as we scanned the seabed for the next 1/4 mile or so though it also gave us a chance to check out what was under the water.
Whilst the beaches are sandy, you really don’t have to go too far out to see rocks and boulders punctuated with large beds of seaweed in the clear waters below. We paddled up past Priory Bay and onto Seagrove Bay covering around 3.5km before stepping out on the beach for our first break and a chance to explore.
After a short break we were back out on the water and this time heading out into the deeper waters and around St Helens Fort. This is the smallest of a chain of forts built in the Solent in response to an invasion scare from Napoleon III and the French back in the mid 1800’s. There were some massive tankers, and cargo ships moored in a line further out to sea.
The breeze seemed to get stronger the further out we went and was making the surface quite choppy though not unbearably so. With the wind in our faces and the lack of shelter from any headland this stretch took much longer and by the time we reached the calmer water surrounding the RNLI launch site on Bembridge beach we’d clocked up circa 8km.
The cloud was rapidly disappearing and the sun was beating down as we once again headed northward and back into the mouth of the harbour. With the coolness of the breeze coming up off the waves you have to be careful not to get lulled into a false sense of security. Caps, hats and shades were worn but the exposed parts of our skin i.e. face arms and legs really copped the sunburn as some of us found out later. “Sunscreen… don’t forget the sunscreen” was the tune swimming round in my head, still… every day’s a school day and no real harm was done though a valuable lesson was learnt in terms of being prepared for changes in the weather.
By the time we got back to Gentoo, we’d covered roughly 12km. It was time for a chill and a chance to all get to know each other a bit better over a couple of cool ones. We were stretched out on the deck towards the bow relaxing in bean bags made from the original canvas sails.
The time past quickly as we sat and chatted. There were some great life stories shared, some attached to amusing and harmless past misdemeanours with one or two potential nicknames emerging in the group. “Vegan” “Twobeers” & “Streaky” were just some that spring to mind with the latter sticking for at least the remainder of the weekend… but who knows, maybe longer.
The plan for the evening was for us to eat at the harbour club though Neil announced we’d also been invited to a “boat home owners” party on the quayside at the other side of the harbour. We were going to paddle board to the party, leave our boards, head off to eat, re-join the party afterwards and when it finished, paddle board back. Things went a little belly up when we suddenly received a call saying that the chef had walked out at the harbour club. The tides were also against us and made a late paddle back impossible.
We ploughed on regardless, made a last minute booking in a lovely little restaurant up in the town, and set off to the party on our SUP’s. When we reached the other side of the harbour we were greeted by some of the residents piping us aboard whilst firing water pistols and super soakers at us, it was hilarious. “Jeremy” one of the local characters was dressed like Jack Sparrow, and a number of others were in costume too. The locals really made us feel welcome, pouring jugs of Fuggle Dee-Dum (a chestnut, tawny red premium ale born and brewed on the island at Goddards brewery). After an hour or so we made our apologies and returned to Gentoo on the boards so we’d have them with us for an early start next morning.
As we left our party hosts asked us to return promising a band was going to be playing. An hour or two later that’s exactly what we did and what a great evening it was. The lead singer in the band had some pedigree and turned out to be Frank Aiello who had performed in a band called Bedlam with one of the greatest drummers of all time, Cozy Powell. The Bembridge Boat people really do rock 🙂
The sunrise across the harbour next morning was stunning, and it looked like a fabulous day ahead. We’d planned for an early start, out on the dropping tide, heading southwards around the foreland then west to Sandown for a full English breakfast in a Café there by late morning.
We’d checked the weather the previous night and knew that the wind was due to get up as the day went on. Setting off at around 8am the journey to Sandown was expected to take about 2.5hours or so. The strong south-westerly that had been forecast, wasn’t due to arrive until early afternoon. This should have worked perfectly with a light headwind on the outbound paddle and a stronger wind in our backs for the majority of the return leg, once we’d eaten… at least THAT was the plan!
Dropping down through the harbour on the outgoing tide was easy, though the early morning stillness had already been replaced by a strong breeze that was blowing us along. At the harbour mouth we swung a sharp right and paddled over a sand bar and some wooden groyne posts sticking up out the water.
The wind was now coming diagonally off the land towards us and the sea was getting choppy. We hugged the shoreline most of the way down towards the RNLI launch site in an attempt to shelter from the wind but the tide was dropping rapidly and the underwater obstructions were becoming much more difficult to navigate. Every single one of us at one point caught our fins on rocks or in the thick weed that covered them.
Forced into deeper water by the ruggedness of the coastline, and the shallow rocky outcrops the conditions were clearly starting to worsen. The light chop had morphed into a disjointed 1-2ft swell which is not ideal for paddle boards. After a couple fell victim to the conditions and took early baths two or three of us chose to drop on our knees and paddle maintaining a lower centre of gravity and providing much more stability.
As we turned the corner at Bembridge foreland the wind was directly in our faces. It was a good force 4 by now and the progress had started to slow. One rocky outcrop split the group with most choosing the inland side (which eventually led to a dead end) and Ant choosing the rougher seaward side of the rocks where he had no alternative but to paddle on his knees. Those that took the dead end picked up their boards and clambered back to the seaward side where Ant was, and on the way they spoke to a couple of Fisherman who looked like they were wrapped up for a wet afternoon.
“How far to Sandown?” Neil enquired… “In these conditions, a good couple of hours if you’re lucky” advised one of the fishermen and he went on to say, “it’s a double headland after this next bay but once you’re round that you’re practically there”.
We all beached for a well earned rest at Whitecliff bay, in search of a Cafe. Sadly the two we found were both closed, in fact one of them on that bay looked like it’s no longer used at all. After a team huddle during which we discussed our options we decided to give the double headland a go, but the decision was if we press on, we press on together, and if any one of us can’t make it, we all turn back together.
Neil led the way, and the initial part wasn’t too bad but as soon as we got past the shelter of the cliffs it was as though someone had thrown an anchor on the back of our boards. The combination of the waves and the wind in our faces literally stopped us in our tracks. What we did find though was that if one particularly paddling method and direction wasn’t working, you could try other ways, which had varying degrees of success. The different styles and techniques did start to split the group but after 20-30mins of trying and getting nowhere we called time and all decided to head back to Bembridge.
The wind by now was close to a force 5 to 7, but with it in our backs we weren’t too bothered. The rough conditions still made for slow progress and it wasn’t until we turned the corner again to head northwards that the sea became calm enough to stand. By the time we got back to the sandbank at the entry to the harbour we really knew we’d had a workout. 5 to 6 hours in those kind of conditions felt like we’d run a marathon but it was well worth it. “Train hard, fight easy” were the words of wisdom Neil shared.
Late afternoon / early evening we were scheduled to head out mackerel fishing but the skipper rang and cancelled. It was too rough to take us out!! Instead we had a fish supper, and a chilled out evening reflecting on what a great weekend we’d had.
Mission accomplished on the Isle of Wight. it really was a great training session. Not sure we’ll be out in much more challenging conditions though what we will need to build up now is a little more stamina if we are to achieve the upper end of circa 20-30km per day for 10 consecutive days.
Cheers all… bring on the next one!