The Anglesey Masters

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  • By Chris Thorne
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The Anglesey Masters

Some text worth highlighting taken from Performance Sea Kayaking web site.....

The Anglesey Masters Challenge is a tough sea-kayaking challenge, involving a series of advanced challenge routes set around the coastline of the Isle of Anglesey.

These routes will test the most accomplished and experienced of sea paddlers. They require self-reliance and expert knowledge of tidal planning, navigation, open water conditions and rough water paddling. We display the details of those who have chosen to paddle them, we do not condone or recommend that others should do likewise.

 

Menai Ultimate

The shop had just received a new Starboard Allstar and I felt like getting acquainted, so with a day out of the shop and a reasonable weather forecast the decision was taken to have a crack at the The Menai Ultimate. The route involves an out and back run on the Menai Strait starting and finishing at Fort Belan with the half way turn point being the Penmon lighthouse. My intention was to arrive at the turn point as close to slack water as possible. The first 20k flew by without much worry, Beaumaris to Penmon became tougher as the tidal assistance slowly faded away and the westerly wind started to get more noticeable. The final stretch from the shelter of the mainland to the lighthouse involved paddling against the wind and through breaking waves to make the turn. The realisation of getting this far and then not being able make the turn would be pretty frustrating. With the bell ringing out from the lighthouse, crashing waves and a stiff wind it was not a place to hang around. On the return leg I had initially hoped to stay in the main channel to try a maximise on the tide but the wind meant I needed to turn and head for the shoreline. It wasn't until I was past Bangor pier and back in the relative shelter of the Strait that I felt like I could relax a bit. Paddling though the Swellies on the ebb tide felt easy and once past Felinheli thoughts of finishing didn't seem far away. The last 10k was a drag as the cross westerly wind started having more effect on me again. After passing Caernarfon and with the end in sight I ended up in a unhelpful eddy which meant again I had to re-adjust my line to get back in the main flow. Reaching the finish line and stopping the watch was a great feeling. 6 hours 43 minutes of paddling the most I'd ever done in one push.

 

I hadn't really given much thought about the Anglesey Masters to this point but having ticked off the longest route my attention was drawn to the other courses. The shorter routes like the Rhoscolyn beacon, Malltraeth Madness and Dulas Dash seemed easily achievable with a good weather forecast but the Stacks, The Mice and The Skerries certainly left me feeling more daunted. Other than supported paddle boarders going one way through places like Penrhyn Mawr, the Stacks and Carmel head I was unaware of anyone on a SUP trying to do loops through these notorious areas. 

 

Malltreath Madness

This route involved a surprising variety of conditions, more than I had anticipated. Leaving Newborough beach there was a slight onshore breeze which at Llanddwyn was creating quite a lot of chop in and around the rocky headland. The crossing to the mouth of the estuary was an awkward cross chop paddle so once in the calm of the estuary with a light tail breeze and helpful flow things felt easy. Somewhere close to the mouth of the estuary I managed to find some water shallow enough to catch the fin which resulted in an unplanned dip. To the turn point at the road bridge and back to the mouth of the estuary went without a hitch. Coming back out of the estuary I choose a different line that kept me in deeper water. The wind was still blowing enough to make lumpy chop which I needed to paddle at right angles to in order to get back to Llanddwyn. Once again this section of the route seemed to drag on as I tried my best not to fall in. Once I passed Llanddwyn the finish line was in sight and the conditions felt like they were easing down. I hit the beach and stopped the watch at 2.39. What next?

 

Dulas Dash

This is the shortest route on the list, a simple out and back from Moelfre with a turn around Ynys Dulas. The out leg went well with a nice gentle tail wind. At the turn point I was greeted by the seal colony. The return leg was a different proposition, the helpful breeze I had enjoyed on my outward leg now felt more like a strong offshore. I was aware that behind me for quite a long way was not much except open sea. Taking a direct line back would have involved a lot of tiring cross wind paddling so I decided to turn and head into the wind making slower progress but eventually getting onto something a bit more comfortable. I soon passed through the small channel that splits Ynys Moelfre from the mainland then the short stretch passed the lifeboat station and I'd made it. Slightly more exciting than I had expected but a time of 1.17 none the less.

 

It was probably about this time that I decided it would be good achievement to tick all these routes off. My concerns were still there for the Stacks and Penryn Mawr as well at the Mice route which was along a stretch of coastline I had never paddled before. I still had the Rhoscolyn Beacon route to tick off before I really had to step up to the mark so it felt like big decisions could be delayed for another time.

 

The Beacon

The decision to paddle the Rhoscolyn beacon route was a last minute one which meant I had to put up with marginal conditions. Paddling out to the turn point I had concerns about the flow around the beacon as it was somewhere I'd not paddled before. My plan and timings fell into place and by the time I was at the beacon it was a relatively straightforward uneventful turn. The cross chop coming back into Trearddur Bay made for an awkward final few kilometres. It was nice to finally turn and run directly towards the beach riding a few bumps on to the sand. Another time on the board, by no means a fast one but a course closer to finishing, 1 hour 54.

 

We were now going into November so with shorter days, wintery weather and cold water there was a natural break in the proceedings. The break gave me time to consider the routes so far and what lay ahead. To this stage my biggest learning points were dealing with the wind on the Dulas Dash and the realisation that even on a "relatively simple" course like the Dulas Dash there is potential for things to get out of hand quickly and seriously. I'd spent quite a bit of time on previous courses padding across the wind which I wasn't keen on. With some serious routes still to do I put together a list of sea and weather conditions I wanted before committing to any of the remaining courses. I planned both the Stacks and the Mice courses breaking each one down into legs. The planning process was a great way to come to terms with each route. Not only did the plans give me the information about the line to paddle and the time to set off, I also found by planning each route in stages I could get my head around the scale of things and put a little perspective on the challenges. As I went through the planning process the courses started to feel more and more achievable, that said the crossing from Carmel Head to West Mouse was one I didn't want to get wrong. I drew lots of lines on maps before deciding on my tactics. By the time the days had started to get noticeably longer I was on weather watch again looking for suitable opportunities and waiting for the green light to flash on.

 

The Stacks

During the lead in to the Stacks I was feeling good, I had planned out my route and didn't consider the distance to be problem. Setting off only when my list of conditions had been met seemed to rule out lots of the greyness. I had broken the route down into smaller manageable sections with obvious checkpoints. Penryn Mawr, South Stack, North Stack, South Stack, Penryn Mawr, Rhoscolyn, Trearddur Bay, Porthdafarch. On 21 Feb 18 the weather forecast came good and the tide times slotted in nicely, the green light came on. Starting from Porthdafarch I decided to get as far as Penryn Mawr before fully committing. As I approached the famous tide race with its rolling waves I realised the decision to commit had already been taken. I'd like to claim that I surfed my way through the main race like a pro but the reality was I squeaked through one of the side shoots and avoided the main event altogether. I had hoped to hit North Stack at slack water but I was up on my timings which meant I had to work hard to make the turn around North Stack and get back into the relative shelter of Gogarth Bay. Once back under the famous cliffs of Gogarth I made good progress back to South Stack. At South Stack I sneaked through a narrow channel under the lighthouse steps. I was now looking back at Penryn Mawr and in the distance Rhoscolyn. To this point things had felt easy but I was about to hit a bit of a wall as I battled my way back through Penrhyn Mawr. After a few minutes of paddling against flow things started picking up again and I was on route to Rhoscolyn. It felt good being being almost 3k offshore and seeing what was left to do knowing that the spicy bits had been done. The rest of the route went without incident. The last leg from Trearddur bay to Porthdafacrch flew by and I landed with a big sense of achievement in a time of 4 hours 13 minutes.

 

The Mice

With the Stacks course behind me and only two routes left to go it felt like the job was nearly done. The Mice course was the one I felt most apprehensive about, not only because of it's technicalities in terms of length and tidal factors but also from my perspective, the unknown. I'd heard comments from hardy sea kayakers about the amount of "epics" encountered on the Anglesey north coast. This section of coastline was new to me, I'd seen bits of it from the land but I'd never paddled any of it.  My first view of East Mouse was as I was paddling towards it during my attempt. Using the same approach as I had for the Stacks seemed to ease my mind. I'd worked out the route section by section knowing where I should be at what time. I'd worked out where to begin my transit across to West Mouse and the angle I needed to paddle to make sure I made it around the rock. I had a cut off time for Middle Mouse and East Mouse to make sure I didn't end up paddling against tide. My list of weather and sea criteria was once again waiting to be ticked off. On 24th March 2018 things looked good and once again it was time to go. Paddling out from Carmel Head as the tide was flooding in towards the East was pretty exciting. I kept on my planned line and without much hassle I was soon the right side of West mouse. Turning and paddling with the current felt great, the average speed started increasing and before long I was at Middle Mouse and on schedule. I stayed wide of the large eddy behind Middle Mouse then started the slog towards East Mouse. Mentally this felt like the longest section of the route mainly because I couldn't really make out the turn point until I was almost on top of it. East Mouse is quite a low lying rock tucked in pretty close to the mainland, not that obvious compared to West Mouse and Middle Mouse. Once around East Mouse I was staring down a long home straight. The ebbing tide was slowly building and with it the realisation and satisfaction that the finish wasn't far away. All in all the plan worked well, I was aiming to complete the course as close to 4.5 hours as I could so stopping the watch at 4 hours and 13 minutes felt like a job well done.

 

The end was in sight, all that was left was the relatively short loop around The Skerries. I was looking forward to this course, being a classic day trip for a sea kayaker it was one I had heard lots about, not least an account of a group of experienced sea kayakers getting a rough ride coming back through the tide race at Harry Furlough's rocks. Although the finishing line was close there was still potential for things to go wrong. The route still required proper planning and consideration as the potential for ending up along way offshore and needing to be rescued was a possibility. I drove across to the NW corner of Anglesey unsure if the wind was going to be to strong. Once at Cemlyn I went for a short warm up paddle in the shelter of the lagoon. The wind was noticeable but within my comfort level. The plan was to reach the Skerries at slack water after paddling out on the end of the ebb stream. I set my line well North of the Skerries expecting to be drawn round by the tide but I soon realised the light southerly breeze was strong enough to cancel out the effect of the fading tide, as a result my out leg seemed generously wide. Reaching the Skerries was great, I was welcomed by the resident seal colony and a host of sea birds. Looking back I could see North Stack and Holyhead. The Carmel headland seem to be no distance away and made for a good point to aim for. The initial part of the return leg was probably the roughest bit of the trip as I was paddling close to The Platters. Every now and again large waves rose up from the chop before quickly dumping their energy, I made sure my course stayed well clear. As I got closer to Carmel Head I deliberately stayed out wide in the hope of picking up the start of the flooding tide. Before long I was looking at a flat Harry Furloughs and beyond that it was the simple paddle up to the beach in Cemlyn. During the last part of the route I made a conscious effort to speed up in the hope of not being the slowest paddler on the list again. Unfortunately I missed out by only 5 minutes but my disappointment didn't live long. I'd finally finished the Masters list, the second person to complete the series and the first person to do it on a paddle board.

 

Reflections

I found the Anglesey Masters a great way to push myself and to lean more about paddle boarding on the sea. I was aware of the complexities and the serious nature of the routes and as a result I did a few extra things to reduce my exposure to a more justifiable level.

 

Completing the routes in the sequence I did allowed me to build skills, fitness and confidence on the shorter, less demanding routes. The Beacon course overlaps nicely with the Stacks and The Mice course shares water with the Skerries, both facts which helped me with area familiarity.

 

During all the courses I was paddling solo. This meant I needed to be fully committed and satisfied with each route before setting off, without planning the chance of completing any of the courses would be pretty slim and the probability of getting into difficulty very high. Good planning and awareness was key to success. For back-up I choose to carry additional equipment which I could use if things started getting out of hand. During all the courses my progress was being monitored using a SPOT tracker, I also carried food and drink plus a mobile telephone as standard kit. I had spoken to the coast guard in Hoyhead letting them know where I was and my planned route. On the Stacks, the Mice and the Skerries I also carried a VHF radio and flare. I had details of my route stuck to the deck of the board to help me keep track of where I should be at certain times. I wore a buoyancy aid and neoprene clothing which at times made me hot but wearing anything less seemed to make me feel unnecessarily exposed.

 

My primary aim was to complete the courses and push my limits without getting into any difficulty, something which I'm pleased to say I achieved. I'd quite happily do all the routes again with the challenge to get faster times. I feel that my times on The Menai Ultimate, Malltraeth Madness, The Dulas Dash and The Beacon could all be faster if I choose calmer conditions.

 

The experience also helped me focus on my next challenge The UK Endurance SUP Series. I also hope that it raised a bit of interest in SUP and demonstrated that in the right conditions and with the right approach it's possible to complete some pretty serious SUP journeys. 

  

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