I had never seen a photograph of a sea kayak at the Smalls Lighthouse, the farthest of the Pembrokeshire islands from the mainland, so sea kayaking to the Smalls had been on my “to do” list for a while. At 21 miles offshore and maybe only 50 square metres visible at high water, it was a small target to find. Getting there would involve navigating the infamous Bishops and Clerks as well as up to four knot tides around the Smalls themselves. Only Stuart Yendle volunteered to join me, he’s been wanting to cross the Irish Sea by sea kayak so this was an ideal warm up trip for him.
We’ve since heard that the first successful sea kayaking trip to the Smalls Lighthouse was in 1984, led by Nigel Foster. He says that in the years following there were a few unsuccessful attempts. As far as we know, we are only the second people to sea kayak to the Smalls.
We were up early Friday morning, needing to catch the tide from St. David’s Head at 6am. The street lights outside my house were still off when we left and the sun was still sleeping when we arrived at Whitesands.
The Bishops and Clerks were rising mysteriously from the misty waters on the horizon across and the light from South Bishop cast it’s eye towards us every five seconds. It was a beautiful morning as we packed our sea kayaks and readied ourselves for this committing trip.
We confirmed our plans with the coastguard before we left the bay and headed off towards the Bishops, the sun rising behind us above St. David’s Head a little while later. Shearwaters circled around us, gliding past and checking us out. They leave their homes on Skomer in the day time due to the Black backed gulls and visit me on most of my extended trips. I’ve started to think of them as lost friends keeping an eye out for me. It’s these moments that help me to realise why I love sea kayaking so much.
We reached South Bishop lighthouse before the hour, the 3 knot tide helping us through the islands quickly.
By the time of our first break St. David’s Head was a long way behind us. We were expecting the wind to pick up to an Easterly force 3-4 but there was no sign of it yet, the sea almost mirror smooth.
By the time of our second break we were well out to sea, St. David’s Head almost gone from view now and the Smalls Lighthouse only just visible on the horizon. We had a couple of dolphins pass us, typically they didn’t resurface once we had our cameras ready. Porpoise also made a brief appearance during the trip out.
Another hour and we were now able to make out the colour. We now knew that we were going to easily hit our target and were at last able to see how small the reef really was. It only took us another half hour to reach the lighthouse and we were able to get the photographs I’d talked about getting for so long.
The reef was covered in seals and gulls, none of whom seemed bothered by our arrival. We didn’t want to land as this is their home and we are but guests; we discussed heading east on the last of the ebb tide to try and take in Grassholm as well but around the other side we found some steps and no seals so we took the opportunity to stretch our legs instead.
Stuart paddles a lot in the Bristol Channel and they almost have a sport of “lighthouse jumping”. This wasn’t possible from here but he did take the time to climb the steps.
As were getting ready to launch again we could hear a dive boat approaching. Once we were on the water someone was frantically waving so we went over. I think Stuart was surprised we had seen anybody this far offshore and even more so when it turned out to be someone I knew!
Heading back to the Pembrokeshire mainland was a little more tricky than sea kayaking out. We were leaving at the start of the flood and by the time we would arrive at the Bishops and the Clerks we would be catching the last of the tide there. Add to this the easterly Wind in our face now and progress was much slower.
It seemed to take an age for Ramsey Island to appear on the horizon, the wind costing us 25% of our usual progress. Fortunately it eased of again after two hours.
We made it to the South Bishop lighthouse an hour before the tide across to the mainland would turn against us and had easy conditions for our tired bodies to navigate our sea kayaks through the Bishops and Clerks waters.
Once back safely in Whitesands Bay we called in to the coastguard and looked out for Martyn Armstrong who said he’d meet us with a floating flotilla, he was no where to be seen but then we were an hour later than we’d told him. The wind cost us half an hour and Stuart’s bladder(!) had cost us the same.
We headed towards the beach, full of tourists utilising almost every inch of available beach space. To our right a creek boat’s occupant was paddling hard and trying to attract our attention, it was Martyn. He’d heard us call in to the coastguard and launched to meet us, great timing as he was able to get the only photos of the two of us together on the trip.
As we hobbled up the beach at the Whitesands with the sea kayaks, we felt very overdressed and attracted a few strange looks.
The navionics track of our route paddled. We had sea kayaked a distance of 69.4km, been gone for over 11 hours, average speed 6.2km/h and maximum speed 14.5km/h.
I think it’s important that coaches are always a kayaker first and a coach second and with so much to offer, sea kayaking in Pembrokeshire can never be boring. As long as I am able to take the odd day here and there to go off sea kayaking for myself, with great company then I doubt I’ll ever get bored of this wonderful sport. Sea kayaking to the Smalls Lighthouse was one of those days.
This sea kayaking journey to the Smalls was written published in Canoe Focus; you can read it here.