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Rider on the Stream

Notes on a journey from Exmoor to the English Channel by SUP
David Pickford

‘I think you’re bloody mad, mate.’

The old fisherman’s voice drifted across the ink-dark water half a mile off the low cliffs of Foreland Point, the broad headland that extends into the sea east of Exmoor. His tone was not one of alarm but of curious surprise. He looked even older than his boat, which was the first I’d seen since launching from Porlock Weir two hours before. I took his words as a muted compliment. It turned out he’d never seen anyone on a paddleboard off the Exmoor coast before.

It was the final hour of the ebb, and the 2-knot current I’d been running with had slackened off. As with most of the headlands around the coast of south-west England, a fierce tide race forms off Foreland Point in choppy conditions, creating big overfalls and standing waves. Today, though, the wind was light. Green shadows extended across the sea, and it was hard to imagine the violence of the race in full spate. Even so, in half an hour the beginning of the flood would be racing up from the Atlantic.

‘Tide’s about to turn…’

This was the old fisherman’s final remark as he headed east and I continued west. I checked my watch: he was right. Fortunately, only a short distance remained to Lynmouth, where the East and West Lyn rivers meet at the end of their descent from the high moorland before bubbling invisibly into the sea.

Into the stream

The tide forces so much water into the giant bottleneck of the Bristol Channel that this region experiences the world’s second-largest tidal range after Canada’s Bay of Fundy. On spring tides, the difference between high and low water at Avonmouth exceeds 14m. By using this spectacular tidal power to your advantage, you can travel with serious speed along this coast, making long sections by paddleboard or kayak possible within the window of favourable current.

On springs, the tide flows through the Shoots Channel – the stretch of wild water separating Wales and England as the Severn Estuary narrows – at 8 knots. Combined with a tailwind plus paddle power, a paddleboard or kayak might reach a top speed of more than 14 knots through this gargantuan funnel. That’s human sprinting pace. It’s an intoxicating feeling, going this fast when you’re standing 10cm above the surface of the sea.

I pushed off from Lynmouth just before noon on a perfect summer’s day. I’d paddled the section from Lynmouth to Combe Martin – the most spectacular part of the Exmoor Coast – the previous year. But today I intended to use the spring tide to go even further, around Bull Point and to the very end of the Exmoor Coast at Mortehoe. A fresh easterly breeze was forecast, and I picked it up soon after leaving Lynmouth, clocking 8 knots as I travelled across Woody Bay and towards Heddon’s Mouth. The tide was already ebbing fast, speeding my progress westwards.

Once I’d reached the bulk of Great Hangman, Britain’s highest mainland cliff, the wind slackened off and my pace slowed. An hour later, though, I’d made it to Lee Bay, and picked up the last of the ebb tide rounding Bull Point’s prominent lighthouse. Morte Point was the last obstacle of the day: a slender prow of rock shelving into the sea in the shape of a crocodile’s jaw, guarding access to Woolacombe Bay and my final destination.

It was the final hour of the ebb, and the 2-knot current I’d been running with had slackened off. As with most of the headlands around the coast of south-west England, a fierce tide race forms off Foreland Point in choppy conditions, creating big overfalls and standing waves.

Approaching it from the east, I picked up a south-west groundswell, and my speed dropped back considerably. A telltale micro eddy around a lobster pot confirmed my suspicion: the tide had already turned. I calculated that, if I couldn’t make it around the point due to the strength of the early flood current, I could safely land in one of the coves to the east. With that fallback plan in mind, I turned the board nose to the tide, and headed west into the stream.

In local lore, Morte Point is ‘the place that God made last and the Devil will take first’. One reason this headland has been the site of so many wrecks is that there’s no inshore passage of calm water between the point and the tide race beyond it. Most treacherous of all is the cauldron of breaking swell across a jagged reef between the point itself and the large rock 100m offshore. Compound this with the tide running off the point at 4 knots, and you’ve got a seriously challenging environment. Even in good conditions this is a very serious place to be. In the wrong conditions, it’s a death trap.

Although I was paddling hard, my position relative to the rocks 200m to my left hardly budged. The flood current was fully running now, hauling me back into the increasing violence of the race. The prospect of negotiating those overfalls for a second time did not appeal…

I could feel the power of the tide as I was paddling against the main flow rounding the point. Although I elected to stay out to sea beyond the offshore rocks to keep well clear of the breaking waves, the nose of the board pitched and dived through the overfalls and eddies of the race. The groundswell coming in from the west amplified the power of the tide, but I cleared the point successfully and entered calmer water on the westerly side. It wasn’t over though.

Although I was paddling hard, my position relative to the rocks 200m to my left hardly budged. The flood current was fully running now, hauling me back into the increasing violence of the race. The prospect of negotiating those overfalls for a second time did not appeal, so, checking my speed as I cross-referenced a series of fixed points on the headland, I turned and executed a ferry-glide manoeuvre sideways across to the shore, making final landfall in a sheltered sandy cove off Mortehoe. In the 33km from Lynmouth, this final stretch against the tide had been the most challenging and exhausting by far.

The wild stretch of coast between Clovelly and Bude holds many special memories. I’ve climbed on the Culm cliffs since my early teens, and the solitude and mystery of the place still has a powerful effect more than 20 years since I first came here.

I set off from Clovelly on a cloudless June morning, heading west for Hartland Point. I had to deal with a headwind all the way, and finally rounded the Point after a three-hour tussle with the wind, taking the easy inshore passage through the race only to hit a massive eddy current running against me.

The following day, between Hartland Quay and Bude, I didn’t see a single other craft on the water. Half a mile off Lower Sharpnose Point – the best crag of the Culm Coast for rock climbing – I realised that some of the greatest landscapes of the mind are not those that you travel across the world to explore; they’re often those that lie just beyond your own doorstep.

Further south-west, the tide was running strongly with me as I cut through the lively race that forms off the point south of Crackington Haven. The momentary drama of the overfalls was overshadowed, though, by the rampart of enormous shale cliffs in the distance – some up to 600ft high – stretching south-west to Tintagel as I cleared the point.

Passing Beeny Cliff, the coast appeared to compress into a series of inlets dotted with impregnable offshore stacks. Reaching the unlikely natural harbour of Boscastle in an otherwise inhospitable coast for navigation is a marvel, with sheer walls of jet-black stone rising up on both sides then twisting into a wide, deep, north-running inlet.

A few weeks later, on a day of unreal Mediterranean conditions, I launched through turquoise water and surf at New Polzeath under azure skies and a blazing sun. Was this Cornwall or Sardinia? Cutting the corner from Pentire Point across to Tintagel took me far out to sea. Rounding this headland was a highlight of the journey, with the race running hard through deep water directly under the 300ft cliffs.

I completed Padstow to St Ives over three days, taking me to West Penwith and the final stage of my staggered journey from Exmoor to the English Channel. If forced to choose, I’d select the 28km from Sennen Cove to St Ives as the finest section of the whole trip.

I know it well as a climber, but to experience this place from the wild sea that defines the very edge of the European continent takes it to another level. Seals and ocean sunfish (Mola mola) are regular sightings; other humans are not. What truly makes this trip committing, particularly in any swell, is the lack of safe landings and points of exit along the route.

I launched from the slipway at Sennen Cove just after low water for the final leg around Land’s End. Here the different tidal streams of the Celtic Sea to the north and the English Channel converge, creating conflicting inshore and offshore currents and eddies. Without much swell to worry about, I navigated through granite arches, deep zawns, and various tidal rapids that form in the narrow channels between the headlands and the reefs that surround them. Between Land’s End and Chair Ladder, the rudder-like fin of an ocean sunfish flapped for a while against the side of the board before it plunged back into the deep.

Rounding Chair Ladder and passing the coastguard lookout on Hella Point, I’d crossed the threshold of the Celtic Sea and entered the English Channel. The swell dropped back and a stiff westerly tailwind whipped across the deep blue water. Half a mile off Porthcurno, the combined effect of the wind and the last of the flood current carried me east at speed towards Penzance, and I reached the shelter of Mousehole Harbour’s solid granite walls after a fast and exhilarating trip, completing my journey along England’s wildest coast.

Despite numerous climbs and travels all over the world, riding the stream from Exmoor to the English Channel by paddleboard counts as one of the greatest adventures of my life. From the water, the cliffs that I’ve spent so many days of my life scaling and trying to understand as a climber are very different places: they become measuring devices for distance, course, and changing weather. At the same time, the races that form off proudest headlands define the speed and ferocity of the water that constantly rushes beneath them, changing direction day and night, winter and summer long.

Most of all, my journey revealed at close hand the awesome wild force of the tidal streams that surge perpetually around all the British islands. Strange standing waves two miles out. Fickle cross-currents slicing through the no-man’s-land between cliff and reef. The weird darkness of the sluicing water before the outer rocks.

The blind unfathomable power of the sea.

David is a writer and editor based in the United Kingdom, and the author of two books. You can find out more about his work at davidpickford.com.

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