How sea kayaking sustains me.
By George Monbiot, published in the New Statesman, 26th July 2023
There’s one question I’m asked more than any other. How do you cope? Like other environmental journalists, I spend my life rolling in the excrement of humanity. Every day, I must think about the terrible things we’re doing to the living planet and our own prospects of survival. Somehow I have to reconcile this knowledge with bringing up children. Somehow I have to start work in the morning with the expectation that there is some bloody point to it.
None of us can live without hope. Yet with every year of inaction and denial by our governments, with every extension of economic power over political life, the grounds for hope seem fainter. I have an unhealthy habit of disassociation, seeking to park my environmental awareness in one part of my mind while the rest of my life occupies another. But as time goes by, the wall begins to crumble.
The answer I give invariably disappoints the questioner. I think people expect a universal law, a profound insight into the human condition whose applications they can immediately deploy. Sorry. It’s sea kayaking.
When I first sat in a kayak, I was 13. It was a school trip, paddling the tame and stagnant waters of the Kennet and Avon Canal. I had, until that point, never found a sport I enjoyed. I could have been a professional footballer, had it not been for a career-ending condition: two left feet. I loved the idea of rugby, but I could scarcely see the ball, let alone handle it. When it came to the selection of positions on the pitch, mine was always left behind. But when I sat in that kayak, it was as if my physical life suddenly began.
I’m not sure what triggered the feeling. Being so close to the water? Sensing the power the paddle lent me? I grasped the principles immediately and found myself racing ahead and having to stop and wait for the others, as they splashed and veered about. Like a penguin, ungainly on land, I turned out to be graceful in the water.
But I had no desire to compete. Almost from the first moment, I intuited something else about a kayak: that it could take me anywhere. It was so light, so narrow, with so small a draft, that you could pass through the tightest channels, while bouncing off obstacles without damaging the boat. I didn’t want to kayak with other people, let alone against them. I was sitting in an escape hatch. This vessel would enable me, when I needed it, to escape from others; escape from myself.
For most of my adult life, I lived inland. I bought a second-hand kayak as soon as I had a place to keep it, and explored every inch of the local rivers, lakes, channels and drains. I found I could visit places inaccessible by other means. I could travel down cuts and leats through the cities in which I lived, hung with great swags of vines and creepers, that could have been backwaters in the várzea plains of the Amazon. When I stepped out of the boat to see where I was, I might discover the park-and-ride on one side of me and the municipal dump on the other. Passing behind the screens of vegetation, below the level on which the rest of human life was lived, I seemed to inhabit another world.
But the real awakening came when I signed up for an expedition around the north-west coast of the island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. If you set out to design a coast for kayaking, you could not do better than this wild ragged margin. On the right tide, you can ride through rocky arches, behind stacks, into sea caves that dwindle into darkness. Otters are everywhere, the dogs standing in the water to chitter at you. Dolphins and porpoises slick past the boat, seals come close enough to shake you by the hand.
At night, we camped by calm lagoons separated from the sea by fissures in the cliffs not much wider than a kayak’s length. Sitting on the beach, listening to the oystercatchers, watching the weird ethereal glimmer of the night-long twilight shifting on the water, I realised that, once equipped with a seagoing boat, everything I needed could be found somewhere in the British Isles.
Our instructor taught us to surf in our kayaks on Uig Sands: much easier than using a board. Had the wind abated a little more, we could have travelled south, with a high chance of paddling among minke whales. But that thrilling prospect was something I would hold in front of me.
The instructor, a man of astonishing physical power, told us he had kayaked to St Kilda in a 60-foot swell.
“60 foot! What was that like?”
“It was a wee bit lumpy.”
He explained that the kayak’s shape – first developed by Arctic peoples (kayak is an Inuktitut word) – is beautifully adapted for even massive seas. (Please don’t try anything like this unless you’re highly skilled and experienced, and have the necessary support). It sticks to the face of the waves, breaking its own fall.
A few years later I moved to Cardigan Bay in Wales. I was delighted to live by the sea, though the coast was almost the opposite of Lewis’s: one long smooth crescent of sand. That might sound soft and safe: it’s anything but. There are scarcely any havens for launching and landing. You can launch in the estuaries, but they tend to be separated from the open sea by sandbars, which are often dangerous to cross. The wind blows nearly all the time and mostly from the west, and the sea is shallow. So when you push off from the beach, you must battle through a set of 10 or 20 breaking waves, some of which can flip you over backwards. When you try to land, more often than not you’re rolled.
On exposed coasts, launching and landing are the most dangerous moments. When you are flung from the boat by breaking waves, the kayak bobs up on the seaward side of you. You have a couple of seconds to flatten yourself against the seabed, otherwise the next wave brings the boat down on your head. If it knocks you out, you drown. Despite all this, my days at sea carried me through difficult years. I sometimes found myself miles from the land, surrounded by pods of bottlenose dolphins or swirling flocks of gannets and shearwaters.
After five years in Wales, I moved to Oxford. Oxford has many virtues, but sea kayaking is not among them. This was one of several reasons – for me the major one – for our migration to South Devon just under a year ago.
Even if I live much longer than my due, I will not be able fully to explore this wonderful coast. The small peninsula on which we live, a mere fractal of the great peninsula of south-west England, resembles one of those geological illustrations that crams as many features as possible into a single diagram. There are cliffs and rocky coves, clefts and chasms, reefs and skerries, sandy beaches, shingle beaches and estuaries of varied topography.
I have passed through elbowed sea caves, whose walls glitter with anenomes and coral weed, to enter which you must wait for the right wave to lift you over the rocky teeth that line their mouths. I’ve paddled around islands carved from stacked shafts of vertical rock. On one occasion, I noticed pipits on the rocks just above the sea, crows sitting above them, black-backed gulls above them and, standing on the very pinnacle of the island, a peregrine falcon. It looked like a textbook representation of a food web.
I have not been lucky with the weather. Before we moved last year, I compulsively checked the forecast almost every day: for nearly two months there was a flat calm. Within a week of our move, the wind started blowing and has scarcely paused since. Kayaks can cope with a monster swell, but not with even a middling wind. Depending on the boat, at around 14-17 knots the wind resistance exceeds your ability to push against it, however strong you may be.
This is why so many people, on kayaks and especially paddle boards (an inefficient, stand-up version of the kayak), get into trouble. A few days ago, on a camping holiday in South Wales, I called the coastguard after watching two paddle boarders launch into a 22-knot longshore wind – utter madness! One of them managed to scrape his way back to the beach across the wind, the other dropped to his knees then to his belly, then started paddling with his hands, at which point I realised he would die if he wasn’t rescued. At sea, pushing against the water or the wind, you can run out of energy with horrifying speed. Hypoglycaemia sets in, then hypothermia, then you die. It turned out I wasn’t the first to call: the lifeboat was already on its way. They reached him just in time.
When I lived in Wales, I took some stupid risks. I’ve vowed never to do so again. So, alongside the usual precautions (religiously checking the wind, surf and swell forecasts on different apps, hanging a charged phone in a waterproof case around my neck and under my cagoule, using a good flotation device and the rest), I make a rule of always paddling into the wind. Then, even if it freshens unexpectedly, I won’t be swept out to sea.
Living on a small peninsula, I have 270° through which to travel. But I’ve had to exploit every gap in the wind. As I write, I’m coming down from my last expedition. I launched before dawn into a swell rolling in from a great mid-Atlantic storm. I found myself on an offshore reef at daybreak, over which poured vast green combers, miles long but scarcely visible until they hit the shallow ground. From behind their glassy windows, thousands of tiny sandeels peered.
A sudden rainstorm cratered the sea and stung my face. There’s something magical about rain at sea. In a wetsuit and cagoule it doesn’t matter how wet you get, and you’re probably wet already. The mingling of fresh water with salt, the rising below and the falling above, offer a sense of balance I don’t think I have felt so keenly anywhere else. Sometimes at these moments I have a kind of out-of-kayak experience: I see myself as if from a drone 5000 feet above the sea, a tiny figure on an orange splinter, riding the great green corrugations, that can be seen approaching from miles away. It’s sometimes comforting to know how small I am.
It calms the mind and it tempers the body. In kayaking, you generate power in the upper body and transmit it to your feet, pushing against the hull. I do a lot of exercise, but nothing compares to this. When I’ve been often at sea, all the aches and pains of age disperse. It straightens any kinks in my back, tightens every bolt. I feel lighter on my feet.
I’ve learnt to seek out situations that are thrilling but not dangerous: places where the waves bounce back from the rocks, stirring a jumble of water that demands concentration but doesn’t tip the boat; submarine ridges whose lifting of the swell guarantees a wild ride.
Partly with this in mind, I invested in a remarkable piece of kit that has further reduced the barriers between me and the world through which I pass. It’s a sounder, a miniaturised version of the sonar systems developed to protect ships from icebergs and submarines. Today, you can buy one for £300. I attached the transponder to the inside of the hull with a sealant whose density is similar to water’s and connected it to a battery and a 5-inch screen I mounted on the deck.
The resolution is astonishing. If you paddle down an estuary in the autumn, you can see every leaf suspended in the water column. You can follow the contours of the seabed, allowing you better to anticipate the movement on the surface. You can see great glowing shoals of baitfish and the long streaks of predatory species corralling and pursuing them. On two occasions, I’ve seen a giant yellow blob immediately beneath the boat (the hotter the colour, the denser the medium). The first time it happened, I couldn’t work it out: it looked like a floating rock. Then the blob disappeared and a head emerged two metres away: a seal had been exploring the underside of the kayak.
My adventure here has just begun. Last year, a friend found himself among a shoal of bluefin tuna, some two metres long, just half a mile from the coast. Having been largely absent from our waters for about 70 years, the bluefin are now chasing mackerel and herring along our southern shores. Basking sharks and sunfish come through in the summer. Six years ago a humpback whale, drawn by enormous shoals of small fish, spent several days here within sight of the shore.
I can never escape entirely from ecological distress. This year’s monstrous sea surface temperature anomaly, the repeated signs of depredation by the fishing industry, the plastic (much of it fishing gear) washing up on the beaches: I cannot pretend it doesn’t get to me. But for hours at a time, I lose myself. The sea washes off the stain. I come home ready for the next grim reckoning.