Farm vet Rupert Kirkwood recently completed a 821-mile circumnavigation of the West Country coastline by kayak, paddling up every inlet, estuary, creek, ditch, gulch and drain, and going into every cave.
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Many people walk the Cornwall coast path. What made you decide to kayak it?
No way would I swap my paddle for a pair of walking shoes. I love everything about the sea and always have done.If the scenery isn't enough to keep you happy there's non-stop wildlife action. In my book there's little more exciting than being in the middle of a feeding frenzy of gannets with them diving all around, or having a basking shark rub against the bottom of the hull, or watching dolphins and porpoises, feeding a seal with a surplus mackerel or having a peregrine zip past your ear at 200 mph. It's a wilderness environment, especially around the north coast of Cornwall, where you can paddle all day and see virtually no sign of human existence apart from vapour trails above. No hassle . . . great.
And anyway, my legs, particularly my knees, are a disaster, having taken a pounding after 27 years in farm practice. I wouldn't make it to the top of the first hill if I was walking.
Did you do any special training for the trip?
No need to train. I was born with a kayak paddle in my hand. Before I took up long- distance coastal paddling I was obsessed with kayak surfing. But the beaches have got too busy and every wave is crowded. Time to head off into the open sea.
Did you fit the trip around work, or work around the trip?
I've pieced the bits of coast together over four years using days off to go to various locations according to the tide, wind and swell. Exposed locations like Land's End and the big north coast headlands like Hartland Point are only paddleable one day in 10 in the summer, and virtually never in the winter. My maximum daily distance has been 40 miles, but 25 is more usual.
Apparently you paddled into the drains of Truro cathedral. Why?
Because I wanted to paddle every inch of the coastline, and on a high tide it's surprising how far inland you can end up. The bowels of the cathedral was just one of a number of weird places. If you cut corners, the circumnavigation of Cornwall is about 250 miles. Going up every inlet makes it more like 700, and I'm sure I'm the only person daft enough to do this.
What were the high points?
Five days of sensational paddling around the Isles of Scilly under cloudless skies and light winds last June will be hard to beat. I went with six kayaking friends, and we took camping gear, caught fish from the kayaks for supper, and it was calm enough to allow us to paddle back to Cornwall. En route we had a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounter. Ten miles off shore we came across a leatherback turtle, about four feet wide by seven feet long. I couldn't believe my eyes. What a thrill. Kayaking is the only way to see sea creatures: silent, unobtrusive and it doesn't upset the animals. In fact, they usually come and have a snoop at you!
Any low points?
None, ever. No matter how foul the conditions, there is always the chance of a memorable wildlife experience. Recently I was struggling against a howling headwind and sleet storm on the Torridge estuary. It was getting dark, and it would have been much more sensible to have been sitting in front of the fire watching the rugby. Suddenly, a peregrine falcon shot past and tried to snatch a teal from the water a few feet from my kayak. Fantastic.
Any worrying moments?
Only once. A friend and I were paddling the 13-mile open crossing to Lundy and we got enveloped in a thick fog. A ship passed within a hundred yards. Its foghorn was so loud it made our eyeballs vibrate, but we never saw it. We would be en route to Newfoundland if my companion hadn't been using GPS.
Did anyone give you a useful piece of advice when you told them of your plans?
No. I plan it all myself. I daren't ask for advice because the first response would probably be ‘don't paddle alone’. I enjoy company while paddling, but have absolutely no problem going solo.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar trip?
The key to enjoyment (and safety) is the use of a sit-on-top kayak. These have the cockpit moulded into the top deck so that if you capsize you can simply climb back on. In a conventional sit-in kayak, if you tip out alone a long way off shore, you are in trouble. Keep an eye on tide and weather. If it looks nasty, paddle up a sheltered estuary. There are plenty around.
Now that you have conquered the West Country coastline, what's next?
I love the UK and its wildlife. The variety is world class. The next place to visit has got to be the west coast of Scotland.
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