Friday, 10 August 2012

The Smalls

The Smalls is a cluster of small rocks in the Irish Sea, 21 miles off St Davids Head.  For over 200 years the Small lighthouse has been acting as a hazard warning to passing ships.  For myself and Mike Mayberry  it was a target, as far as we are aware something that may have only been done once prior.  This was the plan...
A fairly simple ferry glide, using the ebbing flow to take us out and down on the rocks, taking in South Bishop along the way.  Allowing enough time on the rocks for lunch before taking the flood tide back up to St Davids Head.  The Met Office forecast...easterly force 3 becoming F4 later, F5 for a time (I think), sea slight, becoming moderate later.
I drove across to Fishguard the night before and stayed with Mike and Shelley.  Alarm set for 3:30am, breakfast then head on down to Whitesands Beach.
The early start paid off.  On the water it was perfect.
The glassy water reflected the soft purples and blues of the twilight sky.  Dark shapes of the Bishops and Clerks stood on the horizon.
 Looking back St Davids head silhouetted against the fiery sky as the sun rose up in the east.  

Shearwaters glided effortlessly around us, their wing tips just skimming the glassy water.  Some flying straight at our heads turning on the wing within arms reach.
We were now amongst the small cluster of rocky islands called the Bishops and Clerks.  New territory for me and something I've been meaning to do for quite some time.
The tide moves fast out here between the maze of islands.  We cut through the fast moving races, thankfully just a bit of confused water today and on to South Bishop.
The lighthouse on South bishop was established in 1839.  The lighthouse tower is attached to a pair of two-storey houses, originally intended for two families.  Due to the extreme and exposed environment, which often flooded and broke windows, it is unlikely that anyone other than the keepers lived on the rock.  There is also a helipad on the rock.
Our first hourly break is taken just after South Bishop, from here on out it was open water all the way to The Smalls.
We kept to our bearing in the hope that the 141ft Smalls lighthouse would present itself on the horizon.  It wasn't until we were about 5 or 6 nautical miles off that it did.  We were joined by a host of sea birds along the way including Fulmars, Puffins, Razzorbills, Shearwaters and huge Gannets gliding on big wings to check us out.  A splash and a blow of air signalled a small group of dolphin off to our left.  Moments later they were on our right, then they came up fairly close behind.  Cameras at the ready...then silence.
Getting closer we can work out the red helipad on top of the Ireland.  We could here whaling sounds, like the sound of a distance boat engine or the wind blowing through the top of the tower...
As we got closer it became obvious where the noise was coming from...seals.  There we have it the first picture of a kayak in front on the Smalls!  We make it in three and half hours, half hour earlier than planned and about an hour before the turn of the tide.
We circled the rock looking for a possible landing sight away from the blubbering seals all sloping off into the water for a closer look.
There were quite a lot of huge bulls, making a lot of splashing and grunting.
We decided landing would be a bit difficult with all the seals about so took a break between the two main rocks.

I took a short video to capture the moment.
The present tower was completed in 1861 and based upon Eddystone tower.  It was originally painted red and white but in Ju8ne 1997 the stripes were no longer considered necessary and sand blasted back to natural granite.  
We find a set of steps leading up to the concrete plateau and discuss the option of using the last of the ebb to take us down and across to Grassholm or hauling the boats up the steps and take a well earn rest.  We opt for the latter.  

The heilipad above the tower replaced the earlier helipad built over the stations water and oil tanks in 1978.  The light was automated in 1987.
A congratulatory handshake and the touching the tower making the journey to the tower official.
141ft straight up, there will be now lighthouse leaping today, although I'm sure if Taran came along he'd find a way.
Hmmmm maybe not.
Grey Seal cow enjoying the sun a little too much doesn't even notice me approach.
What remains of the timber pillars of the original light house built in 1776.

The original smalls light house consisted of an octagonal timber house supported by atop of 9 pillars spaced around a central timber post.  The structure was 66ft tall.  The structure was built at Solva and taken whole to the rock for assembly.  It suffered considerable damage and underwent continual maintenance but was eventually replace by the current tower in 1961.
View to the west, nothing but sea all the way to Ireland.  We could not sea land in any direction.
A bull and cow being affectionate on a rock.
Two kayaks on the Smalls looking out to the west.
Back on the water, still about another half hour before the turn of the tide north.
What would you know, out here in the middle of the Irish sea and we bump into the first people of the day on a dive boat, Mike only new one of the people on board.  It really is a small world.
We head off into a force 3/4 head wind making progress slow.  Here we are on our second hour break, taking a transit off Grass Holm to work out we were approximately half hour behind.
It seemed to take ages but Ramsey Island and the white tower of South Bishop eventually came through the haze on the distant horizon.  A dolphin made another short appearance and so did the curious sea birds.  We past through hoards of jelly fish, mainly compass and moon jellyfish.
The plan was to try and pass up through Ramsey sound but it took us an hour longer due to the winds and lack of tidal movement at the start of the return journey.  We past the north side of South Bishop again and on to St Davids.
The flow was still flowing fast north as we past though the Bishops and Clerks.  At this point I was struggling to keep up with Mike, painfully holding in my bladder for the last few hours was having an effect.
I made a hasty exit when we reached Gwahan rock.
Paddling into Whitesands bay I noticed a man in a small river boat moving at some pace franticly waving at us.  It was Martyn who had been anxiously listening over the radio of news of our return.  We collapsed on the beach very tired but well pleased with ourselves and our achievement.
69.4 km, 37.5 nautical miles, 43 miles over 11 hours and 8 mins.  A fantastic day, a huge achievement and great company.  Thanks Mike it was a pleasure.


The earlier Smalls lighthouse was supposedly the scene of a tragic episode which occurred around 1800 involving two lighthouse keepers Howell and Griffith.  Apparently Howell died unexpectedly one night and Griffith, feared of being accused of murder put the body in a coffin which he made from interior woodwork and lashed it to the lantern rail outside.  Fierce winds ripped the makeshift coffin apart and the decomposing hand of the corpse fell in such a way that it looked as if it was beckoning Griffith from outside the lantern window.  Griffith managed to keep the lantern lit with the decaying corpse of his former workmate outside.  When the usual relief boat arrived several months later, having been prevented by storms from getting close to the rock, Griffith had been driven mad.  After this incident, three keepers were always appointed to lighthouse teams.       


Taran Tyla said...

Fab, you hardly paddle for ages & then pull this out of the bag :)
Top pics too, I particularly liked the one of Mike stroking the huge erection. Don't tell his misses ;D

Stuart said...

I know and the lack of paddling showed as well, think I need to get the paddling hours in before I attempt Ireland.

eurion said...

Great trip Stuart. Have I got the timings correct - 3.5 hrs there 1hr lunch and 6.5hrs back?

Stuart said...

I think we left about 6:00 got there about 9:30. Tide turned North about 10:40 but I remember we left about half hour early making it around 10:10. I know we were struggling to get to St Davids head before the tide turned south again at about 15:15. I'm sure we landed around 16:30-17:00. We did take our time on the last stretch landing on Gwahan breifly, calling in with coastguard and achat with Martyn for a bit on the water.

Jules said...

Excellent trip Stuart - if you repeat it let me know! Hopefully back on the paddling radar again soon as well....

Stuart said...

Will do, there are a few people who want to get it done so there will definitely be another paddle out there. Take in Grassholm on the way back as well next time.