Assessment Group Member
Volunteering to be a group member on a course
Written by: Fergus
It all happened in a bit of a rush. A Facebook post led to a private message led to an email. I had been accepted by Ian at Sea Kayak Academy as a Assessment Group Member in an Advanced Sea Kayak Leader assessment in Pembrokeshire.
As part of these assessments the candidate, Bonney, needed some paddlers to lead around a suitably challenging paddling environment. When I asked whether the day would go ahead Ian said, maybe, if the forecast is right. When I asked if that was too much wind he said no, not enough. This level of assessment requires “advanced conditions” so F5 winds and >2 knots of tide. So that was the first clue that it would be a full-on day. The second clue was the 11:00 am meeting time. This was to accommodate the night navigation exercise! So late start but late finish.
As all this was some way out of my comfort zone it was with some trepidation that I loaded up my gear and headed to their base on a farm at Little Newcastle. A very well setup location but I guess I expected to be closer to the water. Ian explained that this gave them the option to choose a variety of paddling venues and dial in the conditions they wanted for the day and the group requirements.
After meeting Bonney and other Assessment Group Member we had a briefing session and got back in the cars and headed to Whitesands.
We were briefed on surf etiquette and then paddled out into 3-4ft of surf and then played in the surf just to get the day started. We had some coaching about putting the kayak on edge which resulted in my 1st roll!
Then we headed over Ramsay Sound through our first tide race and then into the lee of Gwahan island. Here we watched while Bonney did a roll, wet exit re-entry and roll in the middle of the race. At this point, I knew that we were in the best of hands. Between Bonney & Ian, we had two uber-competent paddlers who were relaxed in these advanced conditions. This gave me the confidence to start to relax and enjoy the day.
I paddle an older Nordkapp with an ocean cockpit and a Greenland paddle. Perhaps not standard for this environment but it’s what I have and I enjoy finding out what the combination of myself and the equipment can (& in some cases cannot) do.
Then we headed south down the sound on an ebbing tide. We had a good view of the bitches as we paddled through on a low tide and headed to the southern tip of Ramsey Island. Bonney did a great job of making sure that we stayed as a group, that each of us was comfortable and that we knew what the plan was.
After keeping our distance from the beaches full of seals we played around at the bottom of the island (Roll 2) we headed back to the harbour on Ramsey Island for a lunch stop in the sun and some nice chats with the other participants.
Once the flood tide was deemed to have adequately kicked off it was back out into the bitches. Back and forth across the top, in and out of eddies. On a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is comfortable for me, this was 12. I never imagined I would get to this venue so early in my paddling journey. I wasn’t brave enough to try to get on the wave but it was bizarre to be at one moment paddling like a demon and bracing left and right to stay up and then look over at Ian who was calmly taking pictures with a huge DSLR. Again this reinforced to me just how much support was available in this environment.
We had another drill just north of the Bitches. Unconscious paddler had to be retrieved into his boat and then towed to shore. I was pleased to be able to assist in this and get some use out of my own rescue equipment and it was impressive how Bonney was able to utilize the skills of the rest of the group which also served to keep the group together.
So then it was back out into the tide races which had now gone from merely threatening to terrifying. I set out across them and promptly spilled it (Roll 3). When I came up it was a watery landscape the like of which I had never seen before. Moving water from all directions, no discernible patterns, little upside down ice cream cone volcanoes of water. I don’t even know how that is possible. I remembered Bonney’s advice “the best brace is a strong forward paddle” so just went for it and managed to get across the edge of the race and into the stream proper. Phew.
Next exercise. Missing hatch cover and flooded boat. This made me realise I have no contingency for this in my kit so a huge learning for me as we rafted up, pumped out and replaced the hatch with a temporary cover.
So then it was back to Whitesands for a wrap up in the surf. To be honest I was happy to get back, dry off and play the day back in my mind. I also wanted to start to get my head around the night navigation exercise.
We moved to Porthgain. Parked up and had a big plate of pasta and lots of water at the Sloop Inn. At about 2100 we had a briefing on the night navigation. This would all be completely new for me.
Our PFDs and kayaks were equipped with glowsticks and head torches were adjusted to fit helmets. We set off in the gloom and it just got darker & darker.
The forecast said a full moon but I for one never saw it. By 22:00 it was properly dark and we were navigating on OS maps, compass bearings and sound.
I was determined not to make it Roll 4 but without any vision to assist it felt like I was sitting on a log. It was interesting to see how useful it was to raft up periodically and discuss the exercise, maps, courses and group structure. As my boat has a compass, I had the chance to lead for some periods of time. As we approached the target headland it was eerie to hear the surf landing and have only that to judge your distance.
When the destination was correctly located to Ian’s satisfaction, we then navigated back around the coast to Porthgain. At that point, I was getting on for being exhausted and ready to finish the day. It was a real taste of how disorienting it can be to be paddling at night at the end of a long day.
By now this was in relatively benign conditions too. Porthgain harbour was very brightly lit which was a huge contrast to the darkness we had been in for the previous couple of hours.
Before taking the boats out Ian told Bonney he had passed and we gave him a round of applause. He deserved it. I thought he did a super job and struck a great balance between supporting us but also encouraging us to get out of our comfort zone.
On the drive back to Swansea I had plenty of time to mull over the day’s events and these would be my major takeaways.
- I will never improve as a paddler unless I get out of my comfort zone
- To do that you need to be with experienced & competent paddlers
- I was happy to be able to roll and not have to be helped back into my boat during the day but part of being able to do that was knowing that if I did then Bonney would have been able to help me do so.
- A day like this probably represents 1 to 2 years of self-development and in amongst those years there would have been some major scares
- If you ever get a chance to participate in any such assessments then grab them with both hands
- Ian takes amazing pictures 😊
- If all you want when you get off the water is a junk food hit then there are no McDonalds between Porthgain & Swansea!