I have always loved the sea. Growing up in the North West of Ireland, I had a childhood filled with trips to the beach or, when the weather was bad, walks around 'Rogie' in Bundoran, Co. Donegal.
Of the cities I have lived in through my life, all have been beside the sea, with one exception. I have lived in Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Barcelona, Dublin and Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, as you know, is nowhere near the sea and that is probably one of the reasons why, after only 6 months of a 3 year visa, I had to return home. Return to the sea.
Love at First Sight
My first experience of sea kayaking was an article in a Sunday newspaper, late 2012. The article was an interview with a guy who had kayaked around Ireland. He made it sound easy, a jaunt around the island. My interest was piqued.
I then bought Paddle: A long way around Ireland by Jasper Winn - and realised there was a lot more to it. In fact, it is an epic 1000 mile journey around some of the most challenging coastline in the world; a coastline that decimated the Spanish Armada.
A trip around Ireland is one thing, but imagine kayaking from California to Hawaii. Ed Gilette did exactly that, on his own. Granted he was eating toothpaste and was a bit 'eccentric' when he got there, but he got there, and even though I had never been in a sea kayak at that stage, I was hooked.
I had to give it a go. So I found a company based in Dublin called Deep Blue Sea Kayaking. After roping two Dutch friends into joining me, I was all set, in March 2013.
It was a cold morning, but after a hearty, if not healthy breakfast in the Idlewilde cafe in Dalkey, we went down to Bulloch harbour.
First day out
Going down to the harbour, woolly hat in hand, I didn't really know what to expect. Sonja, our instructor, handed myself and my two lowland companions wetsuits and paddling jackets.
Imagine you are holding a beachball to your chest with your paddle, twist your whole body to paddle. Sonja Ewen, Kayak instructor
After an introduction about how to paddle, we were given our kayaks. The first kayak I got to sit in was a Wilderness Systems 145. Over the next few months, I came to think of that kayak as a large, super stable boat, but not that first day.
There is no feeling like being on the water in a kayak. It's not like any other craft. You can feel every movement of the water under you. That first day out I was convinced that every ripple was going to put me in the water.
According to Gordon Brown's Sea Kayak: A Manual for Intermediate and Advanced Sea Kayakers , a kayak is at its most stable when it is upside down with you in it. I wish I hadn't read that.
It was a beautiful crisp spring morning and after a pleasant paddle in calm still waters, we landed on Dalkey Island. It wasn't a long trip, but I felt I had found something I truly loved doing. That's a rare thing.
After a few months of instruction, I thought it might be a good time to learn how to roll. Although, after talking to some more experienced paddlers, I have since learned that having a really good brace is much more important.
So it was off to Bulloch for the first of three one on one sessions. The first session was really frustrating, but in the second session I managed to roll up. I was cold, it was so windy I couldn't hear Des even though he ws only six inches away, but I felt great.
I didn't get a chance to rest on my laurels though. 'Do it again!', Des in ear, and I did. And again and again and again. After every rolling session I had so much water in my sinuses that putting my head down anytime that evening, resulted in a waterfall down my face. Still I could roll.
The Summer of 2013 was probably the best on record in Ireland, so I got loads of practice. There were a couple of spills, but every time I gained a little more confidence. So much so that in November myself and one of my Dutch friends got the chance to paddle under the Golden Gate bridge.
We caught the ferry early one morning over to Sausalito. We rented a couple of kayaks, a Valley Nordkapp and a Necky Looksha, from Sea Trek Kayak & SUP. I have to admit, I'm not a fan of rudders on kayaks, especially the foot pegs that move.
A large part of kayaking happens below deck. You are supposed to push with the foot on the side that you are paddling. This helps to get more power into the stroke. This became important later on.
We developed a paddle plan with the Leo from Sea Trek Kayak & SUP and set off. It was quite easy going on the way down to the bridge on the ebb tide. We made good time and before we knew it, we were at the bridge. It was a little bit choppy, but nothing that we hadn't seen before.
Just after the bridge, there is a little beach. We pulled in there and took a couple of photos. Then we decided to head back. I had read about dumping surf before, but now I got to experience it first hand. Basically as soon as we got the kayaks in water deep enough to float, a wave would break over us, pushing us back on to the beach.
We solved this problem by me getting out of my kayak, wading out into San Franciso bay and pulling my friends kayak beyond the break. I then went back on the beach, waited for a small wave in the set and paddled as fast as I could.
Once off the beach, we pulled out into the channel and set about going back under the bridge. When we were directly under the bridge, we realised something was wrong. We were paddling, but going nowhere. The ebb current had really picked up. This is where I really missed having fixed foot pegs.
We both paddled as fast as we could and slowly ferried across the current to the in-shore eddy current. This current was running along the coast and flowing contra to the ebb. We got around the headland and into the shelter of Horseshoe Bay. A bit out of breath, but just glad the worst of it was over. Little did we know.
If you get into trouble call me, here's my number. The coast guard stations are here and here. Oh and by the way, I need you to sign these release forms. Leo Siecienski Sea Trek Kayak & SUP
Heading back to Sausalito, we saw another group of kayakers. They were gathered around a spit of land that jutted out of the coast into the sea. As we approached, I noticed they were wearing helmets. I thought to myself, generally you only need helmets rock hopping or when there is fast flowing water like a tidal race.
A tidal race is area where water flowing due to the tide speeds up because it is forced through a narrow channel or around a headland. Sometimes the shape of the sea floor can cause a tidal race. The speed of the water can reach that of a very fast river.
This is just what was sitting between us and our destination. I knew that if we waited it would only get faster as the ebb current was not yet at peak flow. We had three options: go back to Horseshoe bay and call to be picked up; wait two hours for the tide to ease; paddle on through it.
We went with door number 3. There was about 15 minutes of frantic paddling (I missed the foot pegs) and we made the 50 or so yards around the headland and back into calmer waters. The rest of the paddle back was straight forward, and after changing out of our wetsuits, we headed back to the ferry. It was a brilliant day.
Current state of play
I have since bought my own kayak, a Valley Etain. I absolutely love it. I am going out paddling as often as possible with the East Coast Sea Kayaking Club. Hopefully, I'll be able to do a few expedition type trips over the summer.
I'm so glad I took the plunge and went out kayaking on that cold March morning. I have found something that I love doing. I know I'm not very good yet, but I enjoy it enough to keep at it until I am good at it. More than anything else though, I am back by the sea.