Tuesday was set to be a scorcher – no less than 30°C predicted in mid-September (in the end over 34°C, the hottest September day for over a century; the new normal). No excuses then to try my first south coast paddle if the winds and tides lined up. It could be my last paddle this year.
With bands of chalk cliffs and the Atlantic getting funnelled in, the Sussex coast feels a bit exposed compared to northwest Scotland where I usually sea kayak. With little of interest, it’s not exactly a sea kayaking mecca, even though it’s highly populated. At least if you have a shipwreck, it won’t be far to a road or even a bus and I bet a phone works everywhere.
Wind direction for Tuesday was ESE – an ideal onshore-ish backwind, if a bit breezy (for a lone IK) at 13mph. And by chance the tide was just right too: high at a handy 9am with a moderate 3.5m drop. (good tide times website). In five days time the spring tide would be nearly twice that. Clearly this was shaping into a westbound day. Anyway, that was academic as wind and tide made Newhaven west to Brighton and beyond the way to go. With lots of rail stations, I could go as far as the arms lasted.
I learned an interesting thing about Sussex and Kent tides while planning this run earlier in the summer. For the last two hours of the incoming (eastbound) flow, the tide keeps rising but reverses westbound along the English coast as it backs up at the Straits of Dover and spills back down the sides.
This makes a more usual easterly run with the prevailing SW winds a bit tricky (or short) on an incoming tide. The nearer the Straits the more skewed the tides. At Dover it falls for nearly 8 hours, but fills in less than five. At Brighton, where the Channel is four times wider, ebb and flow are equal but you still get that 2-3 hour backwash at the end of a high.
The Newhaven train took me over and along the South Downs where sheep nibbled in the early morning sunshine. It sure was nice to get out, even in southeast England which isn’t exactly terra incognita to me.
On the steep shingle beach below Newhaven fort, the tide was topping out as I topped off the Seawave and the Dieppe ferry backed out of the harbour. These shingle beaches have steep ramps bashed out by stormy seas. At high tides this terracing kicks up the surf and means wading in can quickly put you out of your depth, as I recall well from childhood holidays on the Southeast’s shingle beaches. But probably more by chance, I timed my put-in on a lull, hopped in and PLF’d out of the surf zone.
As usual, alone on a new shore after a couple of months off, the first few minutes or more required managing an agoraphobic anxiety. I reassured myself the wind was blowing me along- and towards the shore, and the dropping tide would gradually expose beaches below the cliffs if I needed a break. On the beach I’d inadvertently pumped the seat right up, and in trying to deflate it on the water, the annoying sticky twist valve stuck and I was soon sat flat on the floor. Oh well, it will make me more stable if it all gets rough. I’d forgotten my rudder too, but wasn’t too bothered about that. One less thing to concentrate on.
The trouble with backwinds is they give no impression of movement and soon I was dripping like a dewy fern at dawn. As you’d expect out here, the seas were jaunty, with occasional swells rolling by that looked higher than me. But there were no tell-tale whitecaps, the stern wasn’t pushed about, and half an hour in, a long concrete ledge/seawall below Peacehaven cliffs offered a way out if needed. That would have to be in extremis though, as at times the swell slapped hard against the walls and there were only steps to get out.
No need for that yet. We were moving along probably faster than I felt. I tried to keep away from the shore so as not to get caught by a rogue swell – I saw one break up ahead way off the shore and steered well behind that point. There seemed to be no pattern to these choppier episodes. Was it a set coming through or just seabed related? Later, looking at an OS map and what the sat map below shows too, a wave-cut sub-sea platform of the soft chalky cliffs extends quite far out. Where the jade green sea turns blue is where it drops off? Who knows, perhaps it’s just the sea, but it created an uneven rhythm considering the linear nature of the paddle.
Another thing I noticed was that I drifted out to sea if I didn’t concentrate. It was probably the tide which not only ebbs westwards but goes out too. Hence the well-known expression and phenomenon: ‘the tide is going out’. Every once in a while a quick spurt inshore (but not too far inshore) put me right.
A few miles ahead I could see the whitewashed conurbation of Brighton, but without a seatbase the old backside was now beginning to feel the strain. I passed by a couple of serious-looking sea swimmers heading upwind, then put in between some groynes at Saltdean, where another cliff-protecting concrete walkway ran all the way to Brighton; a fun cycle or hoverboard, I dare say. I timed my landing well enough, but after pumping the seat and a rest, re-entry required flipping the swamped boat a couple of times. Probably because getting back out between the surf can’t be done as briskly as coming in.
Next obstacle: getting round Brighton marina where the seas really felt quite lively. The southeasterly swell was bouncing off the marina walls like Brighton revellers on legal highs. Nothing for it but to PLF; at least the wind was helping. Round the back of the breakwater all was calm, bar the odd oversized swell. I found a piece of coal and a child’s wet shoe. It was a good omen: follow the shoe!
Up ahead lay Brighton pier and the effort and early tension of only a couple of hours was starting to show. I hacked away towards the pier, then decided I must pass underneath it with my new shoe if I was to reach salvation. SUPers were gliding by and wetbikers were gunning about, making a grating, aggressive din.
A surfy beach landing was performed ‘with aplomb‘ in front of the basking crowds. I recall an apocryphal American’s view of Brighton Beach
‘Beach? Where’s the saynd? It’s all stones!’.
GPS check: ten miles at 4mph average, peak 6.5mph. Quite fast really. Time to pull the plugs.
In case you don’t know, Brighton is an unusually groovy and arsty enclave by English south coast standards; ‘London by Sea’ some call it. I met up with a young entrepreneur who was hoping to start-up an innovative coffee-by-drone delivery service. So far the response had been excellent and the odd sunbather who’d got a scalding espresso shower merely thought it was an amusing prank. If coffee-by-drone could work anywhere in the UK, Brighton would be the place. Apparently he’s idea is on an upcoming Dragon’s Den.
As for the paddle. It’s good to get a salty tan while exercising, but the run was as ordinary as I expected, not like the wilds of the northwest or even the rural southwest, and without much intriguing geographic detail to explore. I bet looking down on the passing Seawave from the clifftops was a lot more alluring.
West beyond Brighton it’s built up pretty much all the way to Selsey Bill before the Solent. In the other direction Cuckmere Haven around the much bigger cliffs of Seven Sisters and Beachy Head to Eastbourne pier (8 miles) would be a good one on a calm day.
You can’t get lost – just follow the shoe.