For the last few days I had watched as they readied their yachts. It was time again for the round Anglesey yacht race, where yachts raced around the Isle of Anglesey in a day. I sat in the sun watching and chatting to the crews stowing their bags on board. They were telling of past races and challenges what they had endured. I thought it sounded pretty cool to sail around Anglesey in one day. They laughed when I said when I would like paddleboard around the Isle, and laughed when I added that I would ideally like to do it inside of 24 hours. They said it couldn’t be done. I didn’t believe that. If they could do it in kayaks, then surely it could be done on a paddleboard. The challenge was set.
The Isle of Anglesey is separated from the Welsh coastline by a narrow body of water know as the Menai Straits. The strong currents that form in the Straits around rock out crops have earned the straits the title of one of the world’s most notorious stretches of water. The Straits filling and emptying from both ends Simultaneously making this a tricky stretch to pass through, your timing is crucial. As the tides fill the Straits they also push around the headlands of the Isle forming strong tidal flows. These tide races can be kms long. With water speeds up to 19 kph once again it is crucial to you to get your timing right or you would sitting on the beach waiting for the tide to change before you could proceed around the point and continue on with your journey.
I knew I had bitten off a lot, but I hadn’t said when I was going to do it. How on earth was I going to achieve this one. Some of the most challenging waters of the world. First thing first, was to get familiar with the tidal flows of the straits. That was easy if you love SUP paddling, then you go paddling. Paddling in tricky ever changing water flows builds a firm knowledge and paddle skills for that kind of water type and what better place to go paddling than in the Menai straits.
The next problem to overcome was endurance. This paddle was going to be around 120 to 135 kms depending on tide flows and the actually route taken etc. Right from the start of my paddling in 2012, I had always been one for distance. My first expedition was to journey the 354 km length of the River Severn. Since then I had in a single non stop journey covered 296 kms. Having a few other nonstop and multi day SUP paddles under my belt I felt that i was ready to tackle this paddle.
But paddle skills don’t mean you are going to exceed. You need to have a good knowledge of the sea conditions that may affect you. Also have an idea of tide planning, chart reading, the weather and the water conditions and how they would affect you on the water. So I took to going out and watching the waters in all weathers to see how they moved around different points. See where the flows started from and work out where I would need to enter them from.
Seeing the mighty swell faces smashing into the headlands was a bit daunting at times. For this stretch of the coast is not known for calm weather and seas. But I was still waiting for a board I was happy with and I still had so much to learn about the route around the Island. Besides the weather I was going to attempt to paddle Non Stop around Anglesey in wouldn’t be really bad, I would chose the conditions to make my paddle trip achievable.
I found a local board manufacturer in North Wales or he found me, and we put our heads together to design a long SUP board for the mission, the board was to be built with a good length to provide an excellent glide length, an upturned nose to allow it to climb over oncoming wave faces, wide enough to be stable and narrow enough to be fast, And so the OShea GTO was born.
Summer was here and the board arrived. I was keen to test the board, It was straight down to the Conwy harbour and estuary another local high flow speed current for a test paddle in the tidal eddies under the bridge. Then on to the Menai straits for a test. The board was everything we had hoped for. Now there was just one more thing to line up.
Personal paddle skills, tick. Board and equipment, tick. Weather window !! the whole aim of this trip was to round the Isle of Anglesey in one go. Not to go half way and stop, then carry on the next day. But to completely circumnavigate it in one go, not to stop, touch land but to stay on board for the whole trip.
I had planned various start points scenarios around the island. I worked out the pros and cons for each start location. These were needed so I had flexibility to fit the tide status, wind direction, when the weather windows appeared. Now I had everything in place it was a matter of waiting now.
The weather watching was a bit of a drag. You; just wanted to get out there and do it. But the target was the whole thing, not just a little bit. The first weather windows were too short. We had been advised by local sea kayaking schools to allow the sea to settle for 3 days then go. As this would greatly reduce the swell energy in the tidal races around the headlands of the island.
They came and went and summer was starting to push on, then in early June a chance, but I wasn’t able to get away from work. I was starting to think it wasn’t going to happen. But then out of the blue the weather settled, the advanced forecast was looking good, but I had a wedding in a different part of the country to be at. The weather window got to small on the forecast and it looked like it was off.
But then as I left to go to the wedding it lengthened, finally a weather window that fitted comfortably. 3 days settling meant that I could not start till Sunday. Tides for Sunday had a high tide late afternoon. So that was it. Friday drive 4 hrs to wedding, Saturday afternoon and evening attend the wedding, Sunday drive 5 hrs to Anglesey and start paddle.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got to Menai Bridge slipway, my chosen start point. The water was like glass, the skies were blue and the wind? There was no wind, it was around 25 degrees. The over night temperature was going to be around 15 so I chose to paddle through the night to avoid the heat of the day. I got my kit sorted, pumped up the board and within an hour I was off down the straits.
Paddling through the night was going to be trickiest of all the scenarios. I had studied the island and the surrounding waters during the day. So I knew what it all looked like. So that was cool. But now it was night all those rocks and sand bars would become lights of different colours. Now, that is a different game. So I had called on local knowledge. Pete, form Summit to Sea in Holyhead, where I get my paddling kit found a sea kayaking mate of his was available to come along with me for the night time stretch. Adam Harmer works in a local sea kayaking school and knew the waters and lights well, so was ideal for the trip.
I set off down the straits on the first part of a receding tide that is ideal. It is not a problem till later in the outgoing tide that the masses of eddies and overfalls start to play havoc with the water surface. With this behind me, I headed for Caernarfon bar and the southern end of the straits. The plan was to get as much water covered as possible, as quick as possible. If I could get near the Penrhyn Mawr area around the beginning of the next flood tide the proceeding tidal flow should carry me well around the island. I had to get well past Point Lynas before the tide changed again to reach the ultimate goal. To fail here would mean that you had to sit out of the outgoing tide. Waiting; for the next flood tide.
My early effort had paid off. I reached Penrhyn Mawr in good time and caught the flood tide, Adam had left Porth Dafarch a bit behind me, there was no way he was going to catch me in the tidal race from Penrhyn Mawr. I could hear him calling, and I would call back so we could keep a bearing on each other. But the tide race was going one way. Typically we would end up in the same place. From time to time I caught the light from the South Stack lighthouse, But to be honest I was concentrating on the tide race waves in the virtual darkness of the night. It wasn’t till I slowed near north stack that Adam finally caught up.
Once out of the tide race the sea smoothed out. We paddled on through the night, across Holyhead harbour entrance, with the Skerries just to our left we headed round Carmel head, the lights on the rock outcrops and sand bars had kept as company for some time, but now the dawn started to show as a thin red line on the horizon. As we paddled towards Bull Bay the dawn pushed the night back and the new day was here.
Adam was going to leave me in Bull Bay as he had to go to work. We said our goodbyes and I headed out deeper into to sea as this was where the flow was going, the plan to take the tide as far out and around as I could and then cut inside puffin Island as the tide turned, allowing the outgoing tide to go around me and not affect my paddling, but this would leave the last homeward leg back up the Menai Straits paddling into the last of an outgoing tide. But as this part of the straits was a few kms wide narrowing to around 500 m. The low flow speed would give a slow water flow speed and I should be able to paddle against it. But as the days temperature had started to climb this last section was going to be the hardest.
I paddled in close to the Penmon or Trwyn Du Light House, I had only seen it from the shore before. It looked some what taller from out here. I had never been there with glassy smooth water either so it was kinda special. As I headed into the straits again the flow was against me and progress was slow. The Seals had come out to watch, their heads like buoys on the smooth waters surface watched me curiously and when I got to close they would disappear and pop up somewhere else.
The tide was pretty much gone by the time i got to Beaumaris it was like paddling up a slow moving river. With the temperature still climbing It seemed like an eternity before the familiar sight of the Menai Bridge could be seen and my starting point the night before would welcome me as the finish point that morning.
As I got closer a lone sea kayak came out to greet me, Pete had taken the time off work to come and watch the first person to circumnavigate the Isle of Anglesey Non Stop by Stand Up Paddleboard in one go, without touching land.
A true SUP Circumnavigation. June 19th 2017 18 hrs 25 mins
Tony runs Green Dragon Activities in Wales. He loves the quiet wilderness environment that abounds in Wales. As a SUP instructor Tony enjoys helping people to develop their personal SUP skills in lake, coastal and river environments around North Wales.