The head canoe coach of the UK, Ray Goodwin, certainly planned an adventurous send off for me before I flew back across the pond after speaking at the Welsh Open Canoe Symposium. We paddled a 25 kilometre (16 mile) stretch of tidal water called the Menai Strait, home to one of the strongest tides in the UK.
Timing of the trip was key. The rising tide, beginning around mid-morning, approaches from the southwest, with the salt water from the Irish Sea flushing northeast. We would use both to our advantage, having the tide and wind push us along our planned route.
Around late afternoon the flow changes direction, flushing into the strait from the opposite direction. So, if we didn’t reach our take-out before the tidal switch, we’d be paddling against the current, maneuvering up a series of rapids, pushing through rolling waves, and trying to keep upright while floating over unpredictable boils and whirlpools.
You guessed it: we were late and got caught in all of the nastiness the Menai Strait can throw at you.
In hindsight, we could have reduced the length of the route by putting in at Plas Menai National Outdoor Centre, reducing the trip length to our take-out just beyond the Menai Bridge. But Ray promised me a castle. So, we started just before the Caernarfon Castle, located on the southern end of the Menai Strait, on the banks of the River Seiont.
Paddling past the castle was worth it. Caernarfon Castle is recognized around the world as one of the greatest buildings of the Middle Ages. It’s teaming with history. The castle was born out of bitter war with Welsh princes. It gave Edward I a strategic advantage during his invasion of Wales since it’s situated in the middle of Anglesey and North Wales. After 700 hundred years, it remains to awe visitors with its polygonal towers and multi-coloured masonry.
The sun was shining when we completed the car shuttle and departed from the put-in. The prevailing eastern winds were at our favour. Even the current seemed slack and benign. Ray paddled with his daughter Maya, and I paddled with another U.K. canoe coach, Lizzie Harrington and her dog, Blodyn.
Our speed became more obvious while we paddled past a navigational buoy. You could physically see the strong current cutting and maneuvering around the structure. Lizzie just ruddered the canoe forward and I enjoyed filming the scenery between the odd power stroke. However, halfway en route the wind died, dark clouds loomed behind us, and Lizzie and Ray had a concerned look on their faces. Lizzie made a quick comment, with a calm but sober undertone: “Just an observation Kevin, but I think we’ll miss the tide. You might want to paddle a little more.” I put my camera away and started paddling with earnest.
Three-quarters along, we could feel the calm before the tidal storm. The flow slacked considerably, and then localized whirlpools formed and tongues of whitewater began to shape around half-submerged rocks.
Pushing hard, we navigated again the current with a series of upstream ferries, and we finally reached the last stretch where the strait is bridges in two places: the Menai Suspension Bridge (Welsh: Pont Grog y Borth) carrying the A5, and Robert Stephenson's 1850 Britannia Tubular Bridge (Welsh: Pont Britannia or Pont Llanfair).
Between the two bridges happens to be the most dangerous place to be, a narrow spot with class 1 and 2 rapids collectively known as the Swellies or, in Welsh, Pwll Ceris. It has a fearsome reputation for all boaters.
We maneuvered past the fast water, flushing around a small island that housed an old monk monastery, Ynys Gorad Goch, and the remains of fish traps, no longer used. And we even managed to get to the second bridge. However, it became impossible to go beyond it, to where our second vehicle was parked. So, we pulled out on the downstream side of the Menai Suspension Bridge, and Ray went to retrieve the vehicle while the rest of us huddled in some back alley, heating water on our JetBoil stove to make hot coffee and hot chocolate for Maya.
Here we sipped on hot drinks and finished our sausage rolls, which had become soggy from the constant downpour of rain, before driving back through the Snowdon Mountains of North Wales to Ray’s place near Bala. I had just one more sleep before I travelled back over the Pond, keen to tell tales of paddling past ancient castles and battling against powerful ocean tides.
It’s a canoe trip I’ll never forget.
Check out my video of the trip on my KCHappyCamper YouTube channel: