August Bank Holiday weekend.
The weather was flat calm, blazing sunshine.
The tides were at neap
(the moon at ninety degrees the sun, so the currents were weak).
I got the feeling that we were the only people in
Britain playing at this dive kayak game.
If it doesn't burn gasoline, it ain't kosher.
Boy, there was a lot of burning gasoline that weekend!
The most important factor in the success of this trip was
the publication of
The Essential Underwater Guide to North Wales, Volume One:
Barmouth to South Stack, by Chris Holden, a
couple of weeks before.
Janet, on her drive home, stopped by at the author's home
and bought a copy for us (they were not yet in the shops).
She had a good conversation with him about where we could
dive, during which time he gave the extremely poor advice
that we should leave
the kayaks at home, and just do the shore dives listed
in his book.
Fortunately, we ignored him, and took his book, which is
superb. This is the kind of book you want to see.
If he does Volumes 2 through 26, and goes right round
the coast of Britain, I won't look at any others.
This area of the coastline has been utterly devoid of
any guidebooks whatsoever, so the fact that the first one
to come along is the best dive guidebook
I have seen anywhere, is a wish come true.
Everyone should get it so they know how these
books should be done. I have read some pretty appalling
guide books in the past, with garbled GPS coordinates,
and colourful pictures of fish, neither of
which get you anywhere. Here, where possible, he gives
transits in the form of photographs, as well as pictures
of the rocks above the dive sites.
These may not be so "attractive" as perfectly balanced,
luscious, award-winning photographs of pipe fish,
but they are worth more than the whole boat,
because they enable you to find
exactly where you want to dive, and no messing.
That's what a guide book is for!
It's not supposed to be read at the end of a wasted
day, where all you've found were bare rocks and sand,
so that you can stare at pictures of what you didn't see;
it shows you pictures of what you need to see
when you throw your anchor
-- then you will see the stuff for real!
So, buy this book! The only thing missing are references to dive kayaking, but no one's got any, so it can't be held against it.
The factors that get novice dive kayakers like us
nervous are currents.
With a powered boat, they're not a problem because you can
zoom over or round any piddly three to five knot drift that the
tides push past you.
There's always someone driving to
pick up the divers who have drifted
away. But the cruising speed of a kayak is about
three knots (when you're sitting up and paddling)
-- approximately walking speed --
and they don't like wind. What I really need to know
about the currents are how localized are they?
In the vicinity of the coast (where you do almost all of the diving),
the water flows slower because of the drag.
There are back-eddies around the headlands.
To what extent are these features -- entirely ignored by
powerboat drivers -- prevalent and vital for kayak
All I know is I've not yet had a problem with currents. But I am writing to you now, not having been washed up dead on a beach in Dublin after four weeks in the Irish sea, so I am aware of a small matter of the anthropic principle. Low water was a midday or early afternoon on the days we were out, so the currents could not have been weaker. I have also taken the precaution of getting a pack of those hand-held percussion cap flares and storing four of them in an old underwater torch that I'd lost the innards to years ago. Never throw old junk away.
The main issue with kayak diving is the lack of
surface cover when you are down. You do not have any idea what
is going on above, with those empty canoes.
I've so far failed to get a dive flag (really ought to
do this soon) so that other people on the surface
don't zoom over on their jetskis to have a look
at what's going on. It never occurs to anyone, not
even other divers, that you can actually be diving from
So, having Janet around was a very welcome, even if we didn't have enough canoes to go around. We found and dived the 'Glenocum' out of Aberdaron together, and left Becka to paddle out to us from the beach on a boogie board. She was our surface cover while I dived with Janet, then I swapped places and dived with Becka. The wreck is nine metres deep, but surprisingly intact.
What to do in the afternoon after that success? I'd long heard of an interesting tunnel at the southern headland of Aberdaron bay. It was listed in the book. I said to Becka, Why don't we have a little look at it, as we got a chance now. She said, Shall we unload the tanks? No, it's easier to keep them on than carry them to the car right now. If we go now we can beat the tide.
Forty minutes of paddling took us to the place,
just a few metres
around the corner into Bardsey sound. I was nervous
because this is where some of the worst
currents in the whole country run.
Always, with sea kayaking, there's point where you
leave the harbour and are in open sea.
I got that feeling really strong there.
We didn't find any a sea caves that we could paddle the canoes
through, as I we'd hoped. But, in the book, there was a
photograph of the rock below which was the underwater tunnel.
Hmm. Maybe I'll just pop over the side with a tank for
a few seconds to have a look.
It was absolutely fantastic. The light felt sharp, as if I was in an aquarium. Becka was tempted to have a look when I resurfaced. I took a gloomy picture of her on her way back through as I waited at the entrance near the canoe anchor chain. My heart was pounding. I was hypersensitive to the current I could feel flowing into the tunnel, slightly faster than when I had first visited it.
As usual, nothing went wrong in the slightest. Hmm.
Someday I am sure I am going to have to pay
for all this good fortune with a really
appalling disaster at sea where, as they say,
'worse things happen'. Maybe I'll
get some more safety equipment, like radios, flares,
satellite homing beacons, and rape alarms.
So, that was Saturday diving. We were camping at Tyn Rhos, the dive centre
in the middle of Lleyn, near Abersoch
(without a web page for me to link to).
Since the car was full of junk, and Janet had come down with another
car full of junk,
there wasn't enough room for the three of us. Anyway,
the weather was lovely, and we didn't want to waste it,
so we had all brought bikes. Becka and Janet had cycled
ten miles to Aberdaron in the morning
to exercise the legs, not just the arms,
while I drove.
Becka gave me her bike and drove back so I could
gorge myself on the blackberries
dripping from the hedgrows.
We had intended to do a night dive at Ysgaden not far from
the campsite, but felt much too tired to bother
after making dinner.
Bank Holiday Sunday.
We made a plan for me to paddle south from Abersoch with Janet, around the peninsula, change her for Becka on the beach in Porth Ceiriad, and then continue round the headland to the delightfully named five mile bay called Hell's Mouth. We could have headed for those St Tudwal's Islands, as was my original plan, but you're not supposed to land on them, and the best diving is appears to be some distance off shore.
It was August Bank Holiday Sunday. Put yourself in mind of the Great British Motorway Service Station Experience, in the blazing hot sunshine with jam-packed carparks, engines, junk-food litter, and then add sand and humidity. There's a saying that 'traffic is sewage', which sums up its evil, dangerous nature, and the way it should be contained and managed, rather than poured all over the streets from chamber pots. All this associated misery was brought to us, miles and miles away from the nearest motorway, which could have been excused as having a purpose of connecting one place to another between which exists a propensity to travel. We were out here, on the water, with the experience recreated for us by the jet-ski.
What the bloody hell do those guys think they're
doing? They spend twenty grand on their
fat-mobile, six grand on a waterbike and trailer,
come all the way to an otherwise quiet corner of
the country, sweat for an hour in a half-mile
long tail-back trying to get into
the carpark, eventually launch their craft through a
crowd so thick they might as well be in London,
fill it with gas, get in their wetsuits, crank
up the power, zoom off across the water, and
get bored because there's not
a lot to do! There's no trees, curbs, cones, hills,
stunning vistas to greet you around the next hair-pin bend.
Nothing, but a flat wobbly plane with coastal edges.
And you don't want to get too close to the
coastal edges, where there's actually things to see,
because when you're near the rocks you can't go fast,
and that's the point of having a jet-ski!
Janet and I dragged our over-laden kayaks across the beach with great difficulty because the tide had gone out in the time it took us to load them. We melted in our drysuits. As we sneaked along the coast, buzzed by jet-skis, cruise boats, and pointless, pointless slim-lined motorboats that looked about as sea-worthy as a frisbee, I thought we were going to get a ticket from the coast patrol. "Excuse me, sir, it appears that you are not using an engine today. Do you realize that this is unsafe? You could get a torn muscle for using a paddle like that. And then, do you know what will happen? Someone more responsible than you will have to come out in a power boat and rescue you."
We anchored near the waterfall at Pistyll Cim (Becka had climbed down the cliff to sit opposite us and watch) and dived with a surface marker bouy (SMB) so that the boats would not run us over. We found kelp, sad fish, and sand. Becka said we went quite far out into the channel and got in the way of the jet-skis who had to slalom around it. I bet they were annoyed with that, I said. When we were diving it sounded like we were under a flight path.
The beach around the corner in Porth Ceiriad
was heaving. So
much powered entertainment was going on, from
waterskiing, tubing, yet more jet-skis, that we could
hardly find our way through. I'd carried a spare
tank for Becka. As soon as we got out of the bay,
away from that hell hole, around the corner into
Hell's Mouth, everything went silent.
The cliffs were spectacular. We pottered along, poking our canoes into most of the sea caves. In one of them Becka thought she'd found a dead seal floating on its back. She tried to paddle past it because she wanted to reach the end of the cave, and woke it up. That's one thing you never find in the sea: seal skelitons. The bones are big, so you don't expect them to decompose more readily than cuttlefish bones, so why don't we find any?
Nice pleasant dive half-way along the cliffs at one of those boat-only dives from the book, and then a bugger of a carry out from the beach to the carpark. We were knackered again that evening, and Janet drove home.
Monday was yet another success. Three dives out of Porth Nefyn, one round the corner below the abandoned coast guard station, one at the headland, and one by the rocky obstruction in the middle of the bay once the current had died down. Loads of dogfish. The trick of reeling off a line from the anchor chain so you don't get lost is less hassle than carrying a torch. I tried to get Becka to put up my flag (I got the flag pole, but only some blue material for a flag), and it blew off while we were at anchor. While we were underwater, someone picked it up, worked out where it had come from, and stuffed it behind the seat of my canoe.
And so, after not a single mis-hap, to Conwy went for chips on the way home to Liverpool. Next stop: a better attempt at diving the Hermine in Anglesey, now I have instructions. Also for the winter: the Conwy Ascent. But that story hasn't happened.