Tuesday, 21 June 2011

A real sea change

I've always been scared of the sea. Not of flying over it, dipping a sandy flip flop in it or looking wistfully at it from restaurant terraces you understand, but being in it. Specifically being in it and in among all those slippery sea creatures and terrifying dark shapes which always turn out to be clumps of seaweed and not the imagined jellyfish/shark/seasnake.

Lunch at the Wishing Arch, near Portrush
So it may surprise you to learn that I loved sea kayaking. For the past two days I've been bobbing about on the ever-cold Atlantic Oceans off the coast of Northern Ireland in a plastic boat and when asked that immortal question journalists always get asked by the people hosting them – namely "did you enjoy it?" – for once I didn't have to smile painfully and lie.

Of course I do a lot of things for work that I wouldn't elect to do on my own travels – ice climbing, cycling, surfing in February – and, being someone who hates getting cold, wet and unattractive, often find my positive journalist self struggling against my lily-livered would-rather-curl-up-with-a-book self. But today was different. Today I discovered a love of the sea.

This is largely because, as it turns out, travelling by kayak is without doubt the best way to see the coast. And what a coast it is. The UK should be scream-from-the-rooftops proud of its diverse, endlessly fascinating and stunningly beautiful coastline. We have glorious sweeps of white sandy beach which are devoid of all human life (except possibly a guy with a kagoule and a metal detector). We have craggy inlets, cathedral-like caves and interesting geological oddities. We have castles perched on clifftops, harbours which have barely changed in centuries and salty stories aplenty about all of them. And yet we don't spend much time looking at it.

I for one have spent far more time looking away from our coastline and out to sea than I have turned around and looking at the cliffs, caves and beaches themselves. A sea kayak lets you do just that: its low clearance means you can glide over submerged rocks and sand banks a regular boat would run aground on; its diminutive size means you can squeeze into caves and along channels no other vessel could; and its solidness allows you to explore dangerous areas swimmers could never safely venture.

And boy did we venture. Over the past two days I've seen the secret escape channel from 13th-century Dunluce Castle, discovered that a simple rock can be all the colours of the rainbow in Dunkerry Cave, watched gannets dive and cormorants nest from just feet away and played hide and seek with a seal. I've seen the postcard-famous Giants Causeway from an angle most people never do, drifted under Carrick A Rede rope bridge as people walked gingerly above and been carried towards the shore by the too-dangerous-to-surf waves at White Park Bay. I've discovered a new way to travel – and it's fabulous.

Yes, my muscles ache more than a pint of the black stuff could make me forget. Yes, I got soaked through to my underwear, sat in a puddle of seawater and am still finding sea salt crystals in everything. And yes, the rain eventually did roll in. But I enjoyed every sodden minute of it – and for the first time in my life, I'm actually keen to get out on the water again. Even if there are slippery sea creatures involved.

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