Paddling around the Isle of Wight has been on my ‘to do’ list for a number of years now. As a family we have holidayed there many times and living on the south coast there’s no escaping the Isle of Wight, sitting tantalisingly close, just 4 miles across the Solent. Paddling across from the mainland really appealed to me, as the ferry across is expensive and I’m a very tight Yorkshireman.
Paddling across from the mainland really appealed to me, as the ferry across is expensive and I’m a very tight Yorkshireman.
I’d planned the paddle a couple of times over the last few years, but for one reason or another had never followed through. So at the beginning of 2019 I decided this would be the year. You know what it’s like? Between work, family, weather and tide, time just seems to slip away. It was already July and I hadn’t made the commitment. I could see that if I didn’t make the move to do it now, it just wasn’t going to happen. So I checked the wind and tides and decided to go for it.
Saturday morning started with a 5:30am alarm call and a drive down to Lee on Solent, with a stop off at Tesco for some dried fruit, nuts and energy bars. High tide was at 9:30 so I planned to hit the water at around 9:00. Although my decision to paddle round was a quick one I’d already done quite a bit of tidal planning previously. Getting the tides right is critical for a paddle around the island. They flow pretty fast in some places and if you’re paddling against them, you’ll be going nowhere. I decided to take the Fanatic Blitz 14’ x 26”. A board I bought specifically for paddles like this one as well as downwind and beach racing. At 26” wide it’s got a bit more stability for those longer paddles, but with the glide and rigidity of a 14’ hard board. It was a great choice.
I hit the water on schedule and started the paddle across the Solent to Cowes. All of the high tide shipping movements had ceased by the time I departed, so crossing the shipping lanes was easy and setting off from Lee on Solent meant I avoided crossing any of the IOW ferry routes. The forecast was for a light North Easterly. It turned out a little stronger than Forecast, and enough to kick up a pretty evil short period wind chop hitting me side on. This resulted in a few wobbly moments and a lot, and I mean a lot! Of paddling on my left side!
After a short break at Cowes and having to wait for around 5 sailing boats and one Fast cat ferry to pass before I could cross the channel. I headed out past the Royal Yacht Squadron and alongside Princes Parade towards Yarmouth. The Sea state was choppy again, but I had the tide with me so made good progress, despite having a few dunking’s. I cruised past Yarmouth without incident. The IOW ferry was docked and loading, and I had plenty of time to pass in front of it. The tide was racing now and I paddled past Fort Victoria and Cliff end Battery pretty quickly.
That view across the bay to St Catherine’s is the type of view that will either destroy you, or make you determined to knuckle down and just keep pushing.
Getting up close and personal with the iconic needles has to be the highlight of any circumnavigation of the island, and they didn’t disappoint. Gleaming white cliffs towering out of the sea, and the small pebble beach at the base of the cliffs in Scratchells bay was really special. As I rounded the headland out of Scratchells bay I could see St Catherine’s lighthouse flashing in the distance, despite the strong sunshine beating down on me. That view across the bay to St Catherine’s is the type of view that will either destroy you, or make you determined to knuckle down and just keep pushing. Its 24km in a straight line and 2.5 km off the shore! The going was good, if a little monotonous.
I rounded St Catherine’s and headed on to St Laurence and Ventnor, stopping in at a lovely little spot we found whilst on holiday a few years ago called Steephill Cove. A little hidden gem with a café, beach shops and lots of rock pools. Thoroughly recommended if you’re ever over on the island on holiday. Steephill Cove took me past the 65km mark and after 9 hours of paddling it would have been so easy to find a quiet little beach and bed down for the night, but that’s not why I was there. I was there to paddle around in one hit. That was the challenge I had in mind and that’s what I was going to do.
I checked out my tidal flows and remembered that I only had around two hours to get to the lifeboat station at Bembridge. If I wasn’t there by 20:30, the tide would swing around and I’d be paddling against it. So I dug deep and paddled straight across Sanddown Bay as fast as I could. The barrel Jelly fish were out in force and they were BIG! I thought they were plastic carrier bags floating just below the surface at first.
The clock had just ticked past 20:30 as I reached Bembridge and I was treated to the spectacular sight of the sun setting behind the Lifeboat station and in time to observe the last of the large shipping movements out in the Solent. Those things are bloody big, even from a couple of miles away and I really didn’t want to get in their way.
So now it was decision time. Do I take on the Solent at Night, or do I sleep on the beach at Bembridge? To be honest with you, either one would have been fine, but I was so close it seemed a shame to stop now. I decided to go for it. I fixed my torch to the front of my board, strapped my flare within easy reach and paddled out into the twighlight.
The sky was clear and there was a bright moon, so it was pretty easy to see the water surface and anticipate the chop. As I reached the middle of the Solent and started crossing the IOW ferry routes, I don’t mind admitting I was a tad nervous. I was constantly checking all around me and mistook No Man’s Land Fort for a big ship on a couple of occasions. Prior to setting out from Bembridge I concocted an emergency plan for if confronted with a large vessel. My plan was to shine my torch at it and get out of the way. Failing that my final chance of survival was to light my flair and wave it like an absolute loon. Now I was out in the middle, that didn’t seem like such a good plan anymore. It the blood pumping though.
I could hear the Hovercraft, but couldn’t actually see it as it was blacked out apart from a small flashing light on the front, and I knew that the fast fat was at Ryde pier head as I saw it cross earlier. The IOW ferry did come pretty close, but it was easy to spot on account of it being lit up like a small town. I just let it pass in front of me and paddled well behind it to avoid any turbulence. I think that was the most vigilant I have ever been on a paddleboard.
You just can’t beat watching firework displays from the middle of the Solent, whilst listening out for the hovercraft, keeping an eye on the Fast cat and the Car ferry, looking out for other large ships and hoping not to get hit from behind by a stealth sailing boat. Who says men can’t multitask?
Though it was mildly terrifying, crossing the Solent at night was also a beautiful experience. The lights of Portsmouth look amazing from the water, with Spinnaker tower rising up from Gunwarf Quays, and the lights of Ryde shining back from the island. I recon there was a firework display competition between the Mainland and the island, with two displays on the Island and two on the mainland almost synchronised, a wonderful sight. You just can’t beat watching firework displays from the middle of the Solent, whilst listening out for the hovercraft, keeping an eye on the Fast cat and the Car ferry, looking out for other large ships and hoping not to get hit from behind by a stealth sailing boat. Who says men can’t multitask?
I arrived back at Lee on Solent tired, relived, but overall really happy, with a great sense of achievement! For me that’s the best part of endurance paddling, that great feeling that you’ve set yourself a challenge and completed it. It’s so addictive! I’ll definitely be returning to the island, but I think next time I’ll take it a bit easier and wild camp over a couple of nights. I can’t wait.