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  • Phil Keetley

Sea kayaking the Isles of Scilly

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

Ok, there may seem something a bit off the wall about a sea kayak coach and guide in Scotland writing about sea kayaking in the Isles of Scilly’s but those islands call me back, time and time again. Maybe it’s because they tend to be a little sunnier and drier than my beloved west coast of Scotland, maybe it’s the contrast they provide to paddling in another favourite place, Shetland, or maybe it’s just they are what they are, fantastic! Anyway if your mood takes you to the south western most islands of Britain here are few tips based on half a dozen visits to the Scilly’s, isles that really do feel like a ‘ far and distant land’.

Crystal clear seas of the Isles of Scilly

Four of the main islands have commercial camp sites and all have their unique appeal. I love our right to ‘wild camp’ in Scotland but I do think they are right on the Scilly’s not to allow it. The islands are just too small, the density of usage too great for unregulated camping, it would put intolerable pressure on the ecosystems.

The camp site on St Mary’s’ has the advantage that it is on the island where the main ferry port is, but it’s a bit of a walk up the hill to it from the beach and dinghy park at Porthloo, which is pretty much the nearest area that kayaks can be left at. The main beach in the harbour at St. Mary’s covers at high tide. St Agnes has a great camp site but if the swell is up, the tide running and the wind a blowing it can be a bit challenging to reach it. The Bryher site is just great as is the one on St Martins and it is this island that is my favourite being a little bit ‘quieter’ than the others, although nothing is exactly busy on the Scilly’s. I’m sure you will find your own a personal favourite, and there are no Scottish midges to bother you on any of them.

Beach briefing

It is perfectly feasible in a week to visit all the camp sites on all islands, as I have done. If you do this do your tidal planning carefully as some of the walks up the beach at low tides can be nothing short of major expeditions in themselves! It is for this reason that I base myself at my favourite site on St Martins

Glorious campsites

You can then paddle to the other islands with a relatively lightly packed boat on a day trip basis. This means that you can put camping kit into one or two big holdalls and have it delivered to the camp site of your choice, you just label it for its destination put it in the appropriate container at Penzance before boarding the ferry. Your kayak goes as deck cargo and your baggage by inter island ferry, you don’t see your heavy bags again until the camp site owner greets you when you arrive. If you want to give a little simple protection to your kayaks when they’re being handled and winched on and off the ferry by the crew here’s my simple solution — but it’s also appropriate to state I have never had a problem with them being badly treated.

Protecting the boats

A trolly is useful for getting kayaks from the ferry to the launch point on the beach adjacent to the main pier in St Mary’s where the ferry docks but it is also a ‘do-able’ carry by two folk.

Launching at last

Loading and unloading the boats

The whole process works in reverse for departure, you just organise it with the camp site owners and book through tickets for your baggage accordingly. If it looks like poor weather for the day of departure then paddle over the day before and stash your kayaks at Porthloo and use the frequent inter island ferries, they do operate in gail force winds!

If you do chose St Martins as your base I would recommend landing and storing your kayaks at approximately OS Grid ref 914 162, a couple of hundred meters south of the hotel, the hotel has a kayak friendly bar. Leave your kayaks at the top of the beach with the bows up in the grass and walking round to the camp site by road, about 700 meters or via the coastal path. Having your boats here means easy access to the water at all states of the tide.

It’s a leisurely hours paddle back to St Mary’s from this launching and landing site or a quick nip through Tean Sound (quite strong tidal flows) to the drama of the North and West sides of the islands.

If you feel like a big day out and the conditions are within your comfort zone then 40 odd kilometres should see you out to Bishops Rock and back.

Don’t under estimate how far it feels back to the nearest skerries when you’re out there at ‘the Bishop’ and keep a careful watch on your transits!

Bishops Rock Lighthouse

The shop/post office on St Martins is really well stocked, they will deliver to the camp site and there are several market gardens adjacent to the site that have fresh veg picked daily, just pop your money in the honesty box! There is also a local baker and several really nice places to eat on the island. Ben and Caroline, the camp site owners keep a great stock of essentials such as gas, fuel, etc. They are totally friendly and positive about kayakers visiting, have great local knowledge about the seas and will make you very welcome.

Enjoy the Isles of Scilly.

The Tiderace Fleet

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