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Kayaking my way to the grave in Pembrokeshire

Monday 24 September 2012

The first time I went sea kayaking, it was against my will. A guy I was seeing had called up to the house, declared "We're going kayaking! Come on!" and I'd followed him out of the door. The thing is, we were supposed to go early in the evening. Instead, we arrived at Strandhill beach just as the sun was setting, and the last of the surfers were coming out of the water.

I was unsure. Was it that safe to go into the water when it was, you know, dark? It didn't seem wise to me. And Strandhill... one of the top surfing beaches in the world... was that the right water to get me started on?

It turns out my fabulous instincts were correct. It wasn't easy to kayak in the pitch black, as the waves battered me every which way. I stayed in the water for about 7 minutes before I called it quits. I couldn't even bring myself to get warm in the pub - I remained on the rocks, convinced I was about to witness the sea take a man.

All of that aside, I was dying to give it a go properly. With an instructor, the right gear, and a little thing called sunlight.

Which led me to Pembrokeshire, and the Preseli venture centre, as part of my trip to Wales.

We arrived at lunch time and were soon on our way to a beach I can't remember the name of, with a guide I can remember the name of - Jon.

Jon was lovely, and a fantastic guide. He was encouraging without channelling that infuriating PE teacher/holiday rep vibe. I knew he wouldn't mollycoddle us, but he definitely wouldn't push us into doing anything we didn't want to.

When we arrived at the beach, kitted out in wet suits, fleeces, waterproofs and amazing wetsuit booties, we looked out to sea. It was fairly choppy. Picture white waves crashing onto rocks with surprising force. The bay was relatively calm, and we asked Jon where exactly we were going.

"We're going out to explore all the little bays, but it's fine, we'll stay close to the shore. If we hug the rocks, the water won't be too rough."


But away we went. And, as the waves started to tower above me and I ploughed straight through and over them, I realised that I LOVED it. I felt like some kind of hardcore ocean explorer, bashing my way around the sea.

I looked to my friend Dee and, through the spray, I saw that she was smiling. Great! She was enjoying it too.

Jon called out "Seal! Seal!" and I followed his gaze to see a beautiful little seal, bobbing in the waves and beginning to swim out to us. I resisted making an Arrested Development joke, as Dee wasn't within ear shot and I didn't want to concern or confuse Jon with talk of a Loose Seal.

This is where things started to get choppier still. As I powered through, commando style, I kept hearing Jon ask Dee if she was OK, and saying that we could turn back at any time.

Suddenly, the smile on her face didn't seem like the grin of someone having a brilliant time. It was the well mannered face of a girl gritting her fucking teeth through it all.

But onwards we continued. We arrived at a little beach, as Jon had seen a seal pup there a few days before, but alas, he had moved on. This is a good thing - it means that he was healthy enough to find his way in the big bad sea. Or, you know, a buzzard had got him.

"Are you feeling brave?" Jon called out to me.

"Um... why?"

"I've got something for you to try!"

We had arrived at a spectacularly dramatic spot, where waves crashed through a gap in two jutting rocks. 'Rock Hopping' is the act of paddling through them, either fighting the wave or riding it back. It looked pant wettingly scary, but for some unknown reason I really wanted to do it.

That little gap in between the huge rocks was our target

I'm not a particularly brave or adventurous person, I should point out. But I had this sudden rush of adrenaline and, let's be honest, an urge to show off a little. So I watched him to it and agreed to give it a try.

Dee bobbed around on the water, holding back the vomit but keeping a stoic grin on her face.

Jon went first, and I stayed close to him, paddling like a lunatic. A big wave came for me at one point, but while it knocked me around a bit, I stayed upright. Then it was my turn to lead as we headed back.

Jon kept an eye on the waves, and told me when to start paddling. I went for it. But I think I took a little too long, because soon a wave like the one in The Perfect Storm was chasing me. As I spun towards the rock, I tilted to the left. I seemed to stay at around 45 degrees for just a second, before I was pushed over entirely.

As I didn't catch this on camera, I have taken a few liberties with Photoshop to illustrate the events...

Everything is fine...

Ooh... bit of a tilt?



It took me a while to realise what had happened. The waves were powering under the water, creating a brilliant white light of bubbles. Maybe a second later I realised that I was underwater, in my kayak, and trapped.

Now, of course, back at the centre we had run through what to do if you capsize. But unfortunately, during this drill, I had accidentally called my kayak seat a bum hole and was in hysterics for minutes afterwards. So I wasn't concentrating as best I could.

Plus, I don't think you can be all that rational when you're stuck underwater. I'm sure most other people have the common sense to run on automatic, but I didn't. Instead of trying to find the release for my splash vest, which was keeping me in the boat, I flapped and flailed wildly in the hope that somehow this would get me out.

And hurrah! It did. Once again, flapping around got me out of a scrape. In your face, practicality!

My life jacket did its job, and hurled me to the surface at top speed. As this was happening, I had no idea if I was going up or down. As I would have flipped underwater (from facing the seabed to the sky) I didn't know which way I was going.

Suddenly, I saw light and heard the sound of the waves crashing. I flailed and fumbled some more as the waves tried to take me, slamming me up against the rocks.

My super amazing instincts kicked in again. Instead of staying with my kayak, which floats, I tried to SCALE THE ROCK. Because my bare handed climbing skills are so stellar.

"Get back to the boat! The boat!"

I heard Jon cry, probably watching me with exasperation.

I slid down the rocks and plonked back into the water, where Jon pulled me to a safer spot and helped me to heave my ass back into the kayak.

While I was getting pounded by the waves, gripping onto my upturned boat, I called out


I thought this was pure hilarious, but it turns out neither Dee nor Jon had seen Castaway.

I looked for Dee. Surely she would be terrified to see me in such a predicament. But no, she had the same grin fixed onto her face, so help her God.

Jon was giving the kind of whoops and cheers that only adventurous folk can give. He asked after my hands, to suss out my "barnacle rash" and said that I could have that souvenir for free. My hands seemed to be fine - a few tiny scratches, but nothing serious. You know when a toddler falls down, and everyone pretends that it didn't happen to avoid tears? That's what was happening.

It was a few minutes later that I realised my hand was covered in blood, leaking from a hefty gash in my finger. I was desperate to show Dee, but I didn't think her sea-sickness would appreciate it.

Pretty soon, we were heading back to the harbour. What a sorry case we were. One girl with numb legs and a poorly tummy, the other soaking wet and bleeding.

Sea kayaking champions of the world don't have too much to worry about.

So there you have it. The sea is a cruel mistress, but she didn't take me that day.

All in all, I had an absolute ball. I loved it.

Dee, on the other hand? As we lay in bed later that night, going over the adventures of the day, she said

"That was the worst experience of my entire life"

I think we'll keep her on dry land from now on.

Preseli Venture,
Parcynole Fach,
Mathry, Haverfordwest,
SA62 5HN, UK

+44 (0)1348 837709

See more about their sea kayaking here.

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