Let the paddle begin
Westminster Bridge to the English Channel
The first leg of our expedition from Westminster Bridge to the English Channel is officially complete!
Day one started during the early hours of the Saturday morning as we’d been invited in to BBC Radio London for a quick chat before we set off. We pulled up outside Broadcasting House with Benji the kayak strapped to the top of the car, both feeling a strange mix of excitement and nerves for the day ahead, combined with tiredness from the intensity of the final few days of preparation leading up to our departure.
Our radio interview done, the only thing left to do was get ourselves to Westminster Bridge. We must have made quite the spectacle as we dragged our 6.7m kayak along the busy streets of central London on a Saturday morning (though we have since grown accustomed to the stares and confused looks as we walk around fully kitted out in all of our kayaking gear).
We couldn’t have been luckier with the weather that day: a cloudless blue sky reached far above us and the sunshine warmed our skin. The sunny conditions enticed enough people to come along and wave us off and we paddled out under Westminster Bridge to the sound of cheering and applause from friends and family.
Huge smiles adorned our faces as we made our way along the Thames through Central London, our friends Spike and Alex in kayaks either side of us providing some support during the first few days of the trip. Straight after Westminster was the London Eye, skyscraper-like as it towered out of the water above us. We paddled under Tower Bridge, past the Millenium Dome and through the impressive Thames Barrier. We unanimously agreed that getting to kayak past these world-renowned sights was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and without a shadow of a doubt a truly epic way to start our expedition.
The following day we made it out of London and into Kent in just as perfect weather conditions. We’d left behind the more historical sights of the capital and now our attention turned to the huge container ships and barges we were sharing the waterway with.
As we arrived at our day’s destination, the low tide had exposed a wide beach, at the top of which was the rowing club we had arranged to leave our kayaks at overnight. Landing on the sand, Kate and Alex hopped out of their kayaks to start making their way up the beach... Only to discover it was sinking sand! In the process of desperately trying to pick their way back to the safety of the kayaks, their shoes nearly fell prey to the insatiable sand.
Over the subsequent few days, the weather slowly turned against it. The clouds rolled back in and the winds began to pick up, at first gently but by the middle of the week we were paddling through much bigger waves and far less relaxing conditions. We were therefore very grateful for the Isle of Sheppey Sailing Club who kindly hosted us for a night, giving us a sturdier roof over our heads than our tents could provide.
By Wednesday both Alex and Spike had left us and we continued with our expedition alone. Even in the space of those four days we had become a tight-knit unit and waving goodbye to them felt like saying farewell to half of our team. Not letting ourselves be deterred by this, we continued making our way around the Kent coastline. As we made our way closer to Dover, the pebble beaches and arcade-fronted towns swiftly morphed into the iconic steep white cliffs, occasionally interrupted by small sandy bays. One of these lent itself very well to camping on. It felt almost tropical - the sea was a clear turquoise, waves gently lapping against the warm sand of the beach.
The following morning brought with it a truly spectacular sunrise which we watched from the comfort of our sleeping bags. The calm start to the day did not last long however, and shortly after we paddled away from the bay the wind and waves picked up considerably and we ended up battling against a headwind for over an hour before accepting temporary defeat and heading back to shore. A few hours later we returned to the water to attempt to cover the final 4km of the day. The wind had barely dropped, but we persevered and paddled with all our might until we managed to reach a section of beach we could land on. The exhausting day was unfortunately not over yet as we had to drag the kayak for over a kilometre through sludgy, muddy sand. Eventually reaching the dunes, all we could do was give each other a huge hug of relief that we’d survived and crawl into the tent to wolf down a mountain of pasta and couscous.
The following morning we quickly realised the conditions were just as challenging as the previous day. After being overtaken by the third walker on the beach we decided to call it a day; there was no point exhausting ourselves through our futile attempts to overpower the wind.
By day eight our luck seemed to be returning and the wind dropped enough for us to cover the remaining 12km of the coastline. We knew we had a narrow time window to make it past the cliffs, and for once we didn’t snooze the alarm as it pulled us from our sleep at 5am.
As the cliffs rose higher and higher out of the water, the wind decided to return, this time accompanied by a rapidly thickening fog that swiftly began to mask the cliff-tops ahead. By 9am we had managed to reach the bay we were aiming for. By now the waves were crashing onto the beach and we quickly realised that the challenge was not yet over... We spectacularly crash-landed onto the beach, almost capsizing and half-falling out of Benji, filling the cockpits with water. But it mattered not; we were back on land and the coast section of our expedition was complete!
We then well and truly hit gold; a small group had been doing a beach clean that morning and one of them came over to chat to us. It transpired he owned a hotel in the village, and after hearing about our ambitious expedition plans, he insisted on providing us with a room for the night and a plate of bacon sandwiches.
We now have to wait for a few days for the gale force winds to subside so we can cross the English Channel and continue with our expedition in France. Friday 4th May is currently looking to be our best option so as long as the forecast doesn’t change in the next few days, we should be underway in France this weekend.