Saturday, 22 June 2013

Trip Planning - Cycling the South Downs Way

I have recently begun planning a multi-day mountain bike trip, to cycle the whole of the South Downs Way - a 160km (almost 100 miles!) trail of on- and off-road cycling (advertised here).

I had heard about the South Downs Way quite a while ago and fancied giving it a go, but I never had the chance due to work commitments. Plus I was unable to take time off work outside of the stipulated holidays, meaning I couldn't organise anything at a suitable sort of time! I tend to worry that I won't go through with things, and finally having an opportunity I really didn't want to waste it. I therefore decided to advertise my trip on a forum called Explorers Connect, figuring that if other people joined me I was then committed and could not let them down.

Planning and effectively being the 'leader' for a trip like this feels a little daunting, but also very refreshing and exciting. The planning is going well too: so far I have recruited team mates, obtained all the route information & mapping, and made up a comprehensive kit list. We have a planning meeting tomorrow to firm up the details, so I'm really looking forward to getting together with everyone and seeing who these people are that have put their trust in me via the internet!

This trip will be unsupported meaning we will carry all our gear, and we will camp or bivvy for our overnight stops. This means that an important part of the planning will be kit selection, and in order to keep the weight down we will share equipment wherever possible, e.g. tent, jetboil, bike toolkit etc. - although we'll make sure we each have a toothbrush!

Don't worry - I have a bigger bag for the actual trip!

Friday, 14 June 2013

Voyage on the Sir Winston Churchill ~ part 4

Saturday, 22nd March

We passed through the Alderney Race during the night, and our Watch had just missed this event when our wake-up call came at 0330hrs for our watch to begin at 0400hrs. We were amply compensated however, as the sunrise we witnessed on this morning was just as stunning as the previous evening’s sunset. The comet and stars gently faded into the light, and the rising sun lit more and more of the foreign coastline ahead.



The sea was as flat as a mill pond as we continued towards the Bretons coast, so it was decided to practise a man overboard drill. A dummy, affectionately known as the Accountant, was jettisoned and when the man overboard alarm – 7 short then 1 continuous blast on the ship’s whistle – was sounded, all hands rushed to their muster stations. As the dinghy is stowed aft it was our responsibility as Mizzen Watch to launch it, and the Boatswain and Cook went off while the Doctor readied his medical kit. Once the Accountant had been rescued and was safely back on board, our Watch had to hoist the dinghy back aboard and stow it away again.

Our arrival to the walled port city of St Malo in Brittany, northern France, was as spectacular as ever. I got to take part this time as we manned the yards, and we all sang sea shanties that the Mate had taught us during the 0900hrs briefing. And when we ran out of shanties? We just sang any song we could think of! We were up on the yards for about an hour altogether, waiting for the lock gates to open, then close again, the lock to fill, and the gates on the other side open to allow us into the dock.

As we climbed down from the yards a mad/drunk/both Frenchman in a pseudo military uniform provided entertainment by shouting French obscenities and suggesting we did strange things with various parts of our bodies, until the Doctor told him “Je suis bien, merci!” and he walked off, still shouting to himself.

We conducted the usual harbour duties: mooring the ship, putting up the gang plank and doing ‘spaghetti runs’, which involve going around the whole ship and tidying all of the lose ropes into neat coils. We then had the next installment in the inter-watch competition: rowing the lifeboat across the dock and back against the clock. This we also lost, and I must admit that I was a bit disappointed not to be part of our rowing team.


Shore leave was allowed until 1500hrs, and a few of us went to visit the old town within the city walls, and changed our money into francs with which to buy postcards and stamps.

Later in the evening we were allowed more shore leave, to return by 2330hrs ship time, so we all went out to the local pubs to ‘splice the mainbrace’. Brittany is one of the Celtic nations, and there were a great many Celtic bars and Irish bars. The two of us crew who were Welsh were made very welcome as fellow Celts, so it was hard to get back for the end of shore leave. On return to the ship I tried to get a little sleep before my next watch.

Sunday, March 23rd (and our Watch Officer’s birthday)

I was on harbour watch at 0100hrs, then back to bed at 0200hrs. We were woken for breakfast, then given a packed lunch and more shore leave to enjoy the small city before we left harbour to once again head back to sea.

Our number 8, Charlotte, and I took a walk through the town. We stopped in a patisserie along the way for delicious freshly baked snacks, before continuing to the Musee Internationale Du Long-Cours Cap-Hornier in the Tour Solidor. This 14th century building housed a collection tracing the history of voyages around Cape Horn, including models, nautical instruments and objects made by the sailors during their crossings or brought back from foreign ports. The museum, invoking thoughts of travel aboard extraordinary tall ships at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, seemed a very appropriate excursion for us.


After the museum we made for the small beach, where we sat sunning ourselves while we ate our lunch and wrote our postcards, before heading back to the old town to search for postboxes.


On returning to the ship we discovered that we had acquired a new number 13 for our Watch. Steve had been travelling around the world from his home in New South Wales, Australia. He had bought a bicycle in Greece, and from there he had eventually cycled all the way to St Malo, ready for a ferry to England and the next stage of his journey. Steve had worked as a crew member on chartered tall ships in Canada, and had come over to admire our ship. He had got chatting to the Captain, and as we were short of crew, the Captain had offered him and his bike passage to England which he gladly accepted. A much more fitting end to a cycle journey across Europe!

We left St Malo as spectacularly as we had arrived, with people singing up the yards. Then we set course north again, headed for the Cornish coast.

The weather was turning rougher again, up to force 6 on the Beaufort Scale which means that long waves begin to form, white foam crests are very frequent and some airborne spray is present. The increasing waves meant that there was some more seasickness, although by now most had found their sea legs, and yet again we spent a bumpy night at sea.

Monday, 10 June 2013

White Water Kayaking

When I still lived in West Wales I was very active in outdoorsy pursuits, and among these much-loved hobbies was kayaking. In the sea, in rivers, going from A to B or just surfing and trying to play boat - all of it was enjoyable for me!

Since going to Uni in 2002 I have rarely been out kayaking. I don't have the kit and I don't know other kayakers now, which all makes getting out on the water pretty difficult... However, finding a good course to go on at a much reduced last-minute price answers that problem very nicely!

Plas-y-Brenin, in North Wales' Snowdonia, offer last-minute empty spots on their courses at a bit of a discount - a wonderful fact I discovered while idly surfing the web, along with the discovery that a white water kayaking course that weekend (meaning, I would leave the following day!) had such a discounted place available!! 

Snowdonia really is beautiful, and the idea of getting out and refreshing my white water skills while meeting like-minded people seemed a fantastic idea. I was still a bit nervous however, as it had been so long since I last paddled, but a quick phone call to the centre allayed my fears as they explained the level this course was pitched at. 

The next day I loaded up the car a headed up to North Wales. I had a good drive up, and was quite excited when I arrived at Plas-y-Brenin. I had only ever driven past the place before, but checking in I discovered that the people were as friendly and welcoming as you would expect outdoorsy sorts to be, and the place itself was really excellent. Nice clean rooms with great showers, and a lovely bar where you could order some pretty good, hearty food on your first night - the food for the following days was included in the booking price, along with the accommodation.

The first morning of the course, after a good safety and orientation brief, we met our instructor Karl and the rest of the group. Our group was really great - there was a young trainee teacher and her dad, plus another girl who was a newly qualified anaesthetist, as well as being a highly accomplished orienteerer and caver. Everyone had a great sense of humour, and we had a great time together.
We had glorious weather, which meant some of the river levels were a little low; but we did get to paddle in spectacular sunshine - and it wasn't too cold if you got dunked :)

I was the most experienced paddler of the group, but I was also the longest away from paddling, so it was a real boost to find I could still paddle well, and still roll when I needed to! This had the added bonus of meaning the instructor allowed me to do a few bumpier sections that the others couldn't - this wasn't being unkind in any way, it would have been too risky to allow people with uncertain support strokes and no roll to do sections where you could easily capsize into white water.

At the end of the final day, I was allowed to have a play in a stopper. I didn't have particularly great skills, but getting stuck in there felt exhilarating - only two days previously I had been nervously asking whether I would be suitable for this course, and there I was with the power of the river all around me, making my kayak dance a little in the surging water, and then finally rolling upright again when I could no longer hold my own against nature and ended up floating away upside-down :)