Gracie’s Paddles

I’m sitting in the Victoria Hotel in Bamburgh, the wind has picked up as predicted and clouds have rolled in. The grey backdrop a sharp contrast to the clear blue skies of the previous days. I’m on a short trip to Northumberland and Yorkshire with a couple of friends. We’ve decided to get to know a new bit of coast. Armed with the extensive guidebook to kayaking in Northern England, full of pictures of calm seas and sunshine and known by some as ‘Jim’s Book of Lies’. We have maps, charts, tide tables and online accounts of different sections of the coast and have left our bunkhouse, caravan park accommodation to drag our soaked selves down the road into nearby Bamburgh. My muddy shoes and salty whiff is at odds with the quilted horsey jackets and posh leather boots enjoying an out of season mini break. The hotel is advertising Christmas rates and the night before we’d seen Christmas pudding on the menu elsewhere. It seems strange as it’s the week before Easter. Later in the week we see lights clinging to a Christmas tree lashed to the porch of a pub in Scarborough. We wonder if we should tell them but think better of it, maybe Easter is different up here.   

Some vinyl on the windows to the street blocks the view out and offers the service of ‘drinking consultants’ with a made up crest of approval. Two oars from a rowing boat are hanging in the ceiling with the words ‘Gracie’s Paddles’ written beneath. I wonder why they are not it the much publicised Grace Darling Museum (along with the original boat) and then remembered that it is often hard to explain how things ended up in a pub. I have planned to spend the day working on some of the logistics of the shipping forecast trip. A few weeks before, I’d made the pilgrimage to Stanfords in Covent Garden, a treasure trove of maps and travel books. It was founded around the same time that Fitzroy was developing his storm warning systems and I think I remember reading that Edward Stanford printed Fitzroy’s intricate charts of Patagonia. The shop now forms the starting point for many a journey. I’ve settled in with a laptop, bundle of maps and a pair of brass dividers, regretting a lunchtime pint and trying to focus. The others have left me to it and gone for a tour of the castle.     

The previous afternoon, following a fantastic couple of days around the Farne Islands in the sunshine, I’d noticed a gently building swell, its slow, rhythmic lilt, rolling in as we crossed from one lump of rock to another. I tried to put the landing out of my mind for the moment but knew the tide was dropping and in a few hours our planned spot on the beach would be totally exposed. We had an offshore wind and knew the forecast was for it to build over the next day or so. I nonchalantly remarked to the others that the landing might be a bit surfy, little did I know what was actually in store! We’ve spent some time paddling around Longstone lighthouse, previous home of the Darling family and their famous daughter Grace. The debris scattered around the high walls of the base of the tower reminded us, as we watch the sun set over the water, that this could be a very different place. I tried to imagine the scene that night in 1838, when the 22 year old Grace took to a rowing boat with her lighthouse keeper dad, in raging seas after spotting survivors of a shipwreck clinging to the rocks. The story is lodged in a dusty corner of my memory and has morphed into a legend that the RNLI had been formed off the back of this heroic act. I find out later that the RNLI was actually founded much earlier in 1824, receiving its Royal Charter in 1860.  

The Lifeboats are a big thing up here. The exposed coastline, north sea swell, high cliffs and limited landing places, combine to make the area a committing place to be on the water. Captain Cook famously learnt his craft in Whitby, where our short foray onto the water takes us out to the North Cardinal marker at the outer extents of a large reef. The ominous clanging knoll of the bell fixed to it adds a sense of foreboding as it’s rocked around by the water. We decide against the four hour paddle to Robin Hood’s Bay and head back in with large swell behind us and the sea sloshing violently around the embracing arms of the harbour entrance. Whilst wondering around that morning we’d ended up in a bit of a daze and missed the chance to paddle in calm waters. It was like the olden days version of getting sucked into the vortex of a smartphone with scrolling feeds from Twitter and Facebook. One crooked street and curiosity shop after another. Even sitting on a bench overlooking a car park, next to Poundland, is nice, but that’s mainly due to the perfectly cooked scotch egg I’m eating. How do they make the yolk stay runny? 

As we neared the beach in Bamburgh, the picture post card view of a perfect sandy shore, the silhouette of the storybook castle, with the bright afternoon sun hovering above the snowy peaks of the Cheviot hills beyond emerged. It exudes tranquility and creates an incongruous setting for the wild surf that’s staring back at us. Each wave rearing up tall with the sun glinting though intermittent turquoise walls before they fall, smashing all their energy onto the slowly shelving beach. A huge mountain of water reared up in front of us as we felt our boats dropping into the trough. I looked behind and turned my boat, another large wave peaked and we only just made it over it’s sharpening point. ‘The sets are shifting’ I think in a Californian accent, recalling a scene from the film ‘Chasing Mavericks’ looking round again and seeing a ‘Boneyard’ section of rocks and wondering where the observatory is. I snap out of it and remember I am not a surfing legend and have a fully loaded boat. It’s big. Spray is blowing off the top of the waves, the tourists walking along the beach wrapped in scarves and hats, seemingly oblivious to the spectacle that was unfolding. The swell is coming in sets so we paddle to a safe vantage point at the back of the surf zone to observe it and see if there were any bits of the beach that could be landable. I had visions of our careering kayaks slamming into the beach spearing any passing labradors or stray children in their path.  We find a spot where the waves are slightly less vertical and wait. We discussed different landing places and had a few up our sleeves but decided that with the right timing, we’d give this a go. 

I grit my teeth and feel the back of my boat lifting, and lifting, and lifting, until I’m nearly standing vertically. I lean back as far as I can and keep my paddle firmly in the water. The power of it is immense.  As I’m shot violently towards the beach, a memory of similar surf in Jersey pops into my head, that ended badly with a snapped paddle just after I’d said I was going in, incase I did something stupid. I try to stay focussed and have an exhilarating ride before the wave breaks and sweeps the bow of my boat to the side, I’ve got my knee up, beach side and brace like hell into a long bongo slide. So-called as you’re literally bounced up and down on the wave like the motion of a posh school faux hippy banging some annoying drums, but much more fun. I land way down the beach and scrabble to get out of the boat. I’m signalling wildly to the others as I can see more clearly a calmer landing spot. I am not able to see that behind the breaking waves a deep water rescue is underway between the two kayaks still on the water. People on the beach think I’ve lost it. I watch with bated breath as the others come into land with perfect timing between the waves and wide eyed stares.  We compose ourselves on the beach before a long drag across the sand to the place we’ve left the car.  As we leave to head away, the surf has gone, replaced by a gentle wash. Perhaps we should have waited.   

A few days later, we set off again for what we think will be a gentle paddle to Lindisfarne for coffee. We launch at the causeway and leave the car of the mainland, not wanting to get stuck on the island. We hang around to watch the water level slowly rise and lap the edge of the causeway. In my mind I’m expecting some of the crashing surf that we can hear in the distance to suddenly form a raging play wave so that we can surf over the causeway. In reality, the water rises slowly, gradually rubbing out the thin line that connects the small island to the Northumberland coast. We waited around for too long which had a significant effect on the way the day panned out. A slog against the tide to the small harbour should have been followed by a run back with it behind us or alternatively we would continue around Lindisfarne to the North and come back that way. There was mention of some caves on the map which, with our old friend the North Sea swell and a north easterly wind joining us, we were clearly going to get nowhere near. We’d heard talk of secret surf waves off the point and wondered what it would be like. 

I recall some scenes from ‘Endless Winter’ the British surf film and know there are some fiercely guarded secrets in the North East. We nose out into massive swell. It’s crashing onto the beaches and there would clearly be no way to land, after paddling into it for a decent workout, we admit defeat and head back. Lining up some leading markers to steer us though a tricky tidal race that has formed on the low lying sands. We battled through it into the sharp contrast of shallow, flat, silky water rippling gently in the afternoon sun. The tide was going out quickly and we ended up having to drag our boats back for what seemed like and eternity. I start to get annoyed with it and am about to spill over with frustration when I stop and take in the beautiful surrounding and remember that there are much worse places to be. Swindon, perhaps. This thought helps for a while but I’ve certainly had enough when we finally reach the car. It has become type 2 fun by this point.    

Back in Yorkshire, walking along the cliff path from Robin Hood’s Bay an info sign by the sit of a shipwreck explains how a rope would have been fired out to sea attached to a rocket, aimed at stricken ships. Onto this line would have been strung a pair of canvas pants strapped to a life ring, suspended from a pulley to belay the rescuee safely to shore. I love the image that this conjures up of a portly sailor stuck in the rubber ring and canvas pants suspended over the raging sea, like Boris Johnson on a zip wire. It is, of course a reminder of how hard people try to help others in distress. There are paintings and models in the lifeboat museum in Whitby of the epic Fitzcarraldo-esque story of the lifeboat crew hauling the town’s lifeboat miles overland to rescue stranded sailors off the coast as the sea was too rough to launch in Whitby and the local lifeboat in Robin Hood’s Bay was not up to it. 

Later in the week, following advice from a local paddler in the Scarborough youth hostel, we set off for the only semi sheltered bit of coast at Filey Brig. We are told there are rocks beneath the sea in Scarborough and the sea looks decidedly messy and inhospitable as we drive past. It is a bank holiday in Britain so this is to be expected. A friendly volunteer sees us getting changed by the roadside and offers us a safety pack for kayakers from the RNLI. This happens to us twice more along the length of the coast which is reassuring, but also makes me wonder, as we lug boats packed with safety kit up the chalky pebbles, if we actually know what we're doing. I’m struck by the efforts people have gone to, and still do, to save the lives of strangers at sea. Launching into menacing conditions with unknown outcomes. The construction workers building the lighthouses, casting the first foundations into isolated, windswept rocks between tidal windows and storms. 

I wouldn’t class myself as a fair weather kayaker and definately enjoy the challenge of paddling in different conditions but know full well that the decision to launch onto the sea should never be taken lightly. Clearly, having spent a lot of time on the sea over the past few years, undergoing training in different conditions, various navigation courses and leading trips for our club, this is not a new revelation to me. Nevertheless an important reminder of how quickly things can change, of the bravery of others in treacherous conditions, the proud history of our Lifeboat crews and of the brooding power of the sea. The RNLI tagline ‘Respect the Water’ couldn’t be more true.