Good Times, Bad Times: we had them all in Seaford, Dec 2019

The weather looked reasonably good over the Christmas holiday period, so it was suggested that a paddle from Newhaven to Brighton on the Sunday after Christmas might be possible. Unfortunately Newhaven beach access was closed, and the tides didn’t really work that well for that trip. Instead it was decided to go to Seaford to launch then to paddle to Birling Gap for lunch, wait for the tide to turn and return to Seaford.

Although I was a bit sleepy still, I was able to drag my bones out of bed and head down to the south coast to meet up with my fellow experienced paddlers. We met up at the Seaford Martello Tower, with its rooftop cannon, next to a small café. This is one of numerous similar towers built along the south-eastern and eastern counties coastline to protect against a Napoleonic invasion. This one, the most westerly one in England, is now used as a museum. Wherever you paddle along the British coastline there are coastal defences to see. This year we’d already visited other Martello Towers at Sandgate and Hythe; the Maunsell army forts in the Thames Estuary (Red Sands Fort) and in the Medway, Darnet Fort, all with Rob Davis at South East Kayaking. We’d also seen numerous Palmerston Forts in our circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight at Easter this year.

The Seaford Martello Tower overlooks a pebble beach, with a steep bank down to the seashore. Waves breaking close to the shore meant that the launch might be interesting. As it turned out we were all able to launch quickly and without incident, only losing a water bottle in the process. As we set off the weather was cloudy but fine with F3 winds and 0.75m waves, with the occasional, and occasionally startling, 1m wave. We paddled around Seaford Head – part of which had collapsed into the sea two days earlier – passed the entrance to Cuckmere River with its complicated moving sand bars across the entrance, then along the stunning white cliffs of the Seven Sisters with the sun now shining and on to Birling Gap.

At Birling Gap, we all successfully landed through the surf only for some of us to get trashed by the surf while trying to get out of the kayaks. As you may know Birling Gap is a bit of a tourist venue, so we were able to provide quite some entertainment for the large group of Chinese tourists on the beach. I’m sure we got onto a lot of WeChat updates as a result too. Here’s how to do it properly:

And here’s how to do it improperly:

Having successfully got our boats ashore we were able to enjoy some lunch in the sunshine, before attempting the return trip. Seal launching from Birling Gap was easy and I’d like to think we got some respect back for that as it looked like we knew what we were doing, as opposed to (some of) our earlier landings.

On arrival back at the Martello Tower at Seaford, the waves looked entirely flat except right at the shoreline, where the waves suddenly rose up to 1m and broke immediately (see photo below). Although we didn’t realise that until we were ashore. So like lambs to the slaughter we all paddled in, carefully looking behind for the bigger sets, only to get dumped big time right on the shore. We all had the same experience: spray deck off and feet out for a quick exit, controlled paddling to close to the shoreline, then very quickly picked up by a huge wave and surfed in so rapidly to the beach that it caused a capsize. Ordinarily that wouldn’t have been an issue with boat and paddler on the shore, but here the back flow of the waves into the sea was immense and all of us lost our boats and we had to really fight to recover them and pull up the beach. Even after doing that some bigger waves caught the back end of the boats and sucked them back out. I don’t think I’ve landed in such a strong back flow as that. It was so strong it dislodged one of my splits and I had to go into the waves to recover that – another pretty hairy experience! Luckily this time the 25+ people at the café couldn’t see any of this as the pebble beach is so steep, so we didn’t get on any more social media feeds fortunately.

With an improbably large amount of pebbles and stones inside our kayaks and water shoes, we retreated to the café, exhausted from the physical effort of getting ourselves and the boats out of the surf. Reflecting on the experience, I realised that having your face dragged along a pebble beach under cold seawater was certainly one way to stop feeling sleepy, and actually to feel hugely energised: good times from bad times, as they say.

Although a challenging trip, it was a perfect safe learning environment for practicing surf landings, but we did lose some kit in the process: towline, sponge, hat, water bottle (nearly: split paddle). Please return these if you find them!

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