Friday, July 29, 2005

Man Overboard!

Finally! A decent depression has arrived a little to the north and east of The City, bringing clouds and rain - but also some decent breezes, which we haven’t had for quite some time (at least a month, I think). Mr. S and I agreed to meet after work at a nearby cove and hire a nice fast dinghy, for Mr. S’s second sailing lesson.

Arriving at the cove, I was introduced to Mrs. S – very pretty, but with at least two serious defects: she hates (fears?) both fish and the sea, and so, her role was to be restricted to spectator and dog-walker. I rather hoped she wouldn’t watch us too closely – if she wasn’t used to the normal hazards of dinghy sailing, she might see a simple capsize, and think I had drowned her poor husband.

Our launch was fast and fairly smooth, although a little delay in putting down the centerboard very nearly saw us forced onto a lee shore within the first 30 seconds or so – with me trying not to shout...“yes, it would really be quite useful now, in your own time of course, Mr. S”. The breeze was good, and once our sails were properly trimmed, we fairly flew across the water on a beam reach. Mr. S was grinning broadly when I handed him the helm. At first, the speed and responsiveness of the boat were too much for him (he had less than two hours of steering experience, and we were sailing the nautical equivalent of a rally car), and we left the worst wake – looked like we were drawing sine curves in the water. Then a gust caught us – and over we went. I had been a careless crew, and was briefly caught in the rigging, as well as dropped in the sea. Wouldn't it be ironic to be trapped and drowned by a lifejacket?

Mr. S had been told what to do in the event of capsize, and he did it: clung to the transom and awaited rescue. Climbing onto the centre board, righting went very smoothly, and I resumed my seat as crew, waiting for Mr. S to board and regain control. This did not happen: although he returned to the tiller, there followed the most extraordinary sequence of tacks and gybes as we spun about like a top. He drew my attention to the rudder – it was the lifting kind, and had been allowed to rise till it barely touched the water at all. No wonder he couldn’t keep a course – effectively, he had no steering!

Things went more smoothly for while, until, during a tack, we had a near-capsize. Surprised to find the boat righting itself (with water pouring into the cockpit over the leeward side, I was already climbing over the high side to stand on the keel), I turned around to congratulate Mr. S on his success – and found the tiller swinging idly, with my helmsman bobbing 15 metres astern – man overboard! Taking control, I continued the same course for a while, then tacked back to make the rescue. Perhaps I should not have made so much ground to windward, because I still had plenty of way on as I turned upwind to collect Mr. S: I caught him as he went by on the windward side, yanked him in over the transom, and returned him to his post, none the worse for his dip, which he took very calmly.

To be fair, he did very well indeed. The wind was variable, which meant he had often to react instantly in order to avert capsize – and although I think I used my weight pretty effectively, his lightening-fast turns into the wind probably saved us a swim on more than one occasion. After some confusion about which was a tack and which was a gybe, he got pretty handy at changing course – we beat to windward, and spent a while at a narrows in the inlet where the funneled wind was at its strongest. This meant fast sailing, less than a minute on each tack, turning at the last second to avoid the rocks of the shore, and dodging some windsurfers (who often got up and planing – pretty good conditions). Excellent practice – there is nothing like a hard beat to windward for perfecting tacks. After a while, I tool the helm, and showed how we could use our collective weight to take the power of even the stronger gusts without having to change course or dump wind from the main sail. Mr. S got to enjoy hiking out – his back actually touched the water at one point.

Our evening ended with a nice fast run downwind to the landing beach, where Mr. S turned us neatly head to wind, stopping us dead in the shallows. Sails dropped and trailer loaded, Mr. S returned safely, if damply, to his wife and dogs. Future sails are planned: he asked about sailing to a nearby town. We couldn’t do that in a little hired dinghy: but I know of a couple of other sailing folk in our office – perhaps we could organize a 1 or 2 day charter some weekend? The coast here is really a fantastic place to sail – full of interesting islands and inlets, dolphins to play with, and the odd passing whale to remind us of our insignificance.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Turn up the volume

Why are we here? I’ve been re-reading my old blog postings, and decided I need to tighten up my focus and my writing. Let’s begin by redefining why you might want to read this blog:

“After a night at fight club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down.”

Most days are Ground-hog day. Every day, the same flight roars over my car on its way to land. Every day, I buy the same newspaper from the same bored shop assistant. Every day, my friends sit down to watch the same soaps, where the same actors take turns at the same old games of love triangle. If anybody should trail me, a week or two of observation would allow them to predict the rest of my year pretty accurately.

A certain amount of routine is inevitable, in the life of a working man. However, even in leisure, falling into a rut is so easy. The fact is, we tend to reduce ourselves to mere spectators - very easy to do, when there is so much spectacle about - TV, the cinema, books and magazines. Here's the thing: I have had a taste or two of adventure, and I want more. Just like the quote says, real experience seems to dampen the vicarious pleasures of the media. So, I don't want to spend my life in the audience - I want to get my turn on the stage, metaphorically speaking. I'm making a conscious effort to avoid passivity, to seek out new experiences, new activities and new adventures, to boldly go... somewhere fun. As part of my fun/adventure seeking efforts, I'm going to record the results on this blog, staying, so far as possible, on-topic - fun/adventure.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Shark Tipping

In which the author and Mr. T reach some very unusual spots, and the author has a close encounter with a Notorious Denizen of the Deep

A week on from my last adventure with Mr. T, we returned to The Beach, scene of our previous cave-swimming adventure. This time, we arrived at or very close to high water – our coast has tides of about 8 to 9 feet, on the average – and the reefs below the cliffs looked quite different. On the theory that where conditions exist to create one cave, there must be more, we had come to look for more caves and to swim through a sea arch we had seen a little further along the cliffs. We were very fortunate with the weather: although The Beach is known as a surfing spot, the sea was flat calm.

Walking past the top of the shaft I have described previously, we found the top of the “secret beach” I had glimpsed from the sea on my first swim in the area (and photographed – I may post it here at some point). This tiny beach lies in a very narrow inlet, with almost vertical walls in most places, perhaps 40 to 50 feet in height. I believe it was Mr. T who first spotted that stone steps had been carved into eastern wall of the inlet – these turned out to offer an easy route to sea level, with a turn in the stairs providing plenty of space to change.

I found the first cave of the evening – just around the corner, only a few metres from the mouth of the inlet. It had flooded roof-high, and more – but the roof had a narrow slot, which rose above sea level. Approaching cautiously, I almost swallowed my snorkel when I received a jet of compressed air and sea water right in the face at point-blank range! In effect, this cave had become a reverse blowhole. Moving below the surface, I found a handhold on the rock at the cave mouth and shone my torch up into the blackness within. Below the sea, the entrance was reassuringly broad, about the width of a small car. However, visibility was limited and my torch found only rock walls stretching off into night, with no hint of trapped air pockets that might support an explorer. I surfaced and told Mr. T that this was one to skip – wave action and our own natural buoyancy would tend to force us into the narrow crack at the top, which could become a lethal trap. We moved on.

The next inlet was more welcoming: we swam in clear water, over a rock bottom which millennia of wave action have ploughed into smooth furrows, so that the stone, like many trees on our cost, shows the direction of the prevailing wind and seas. In places, rock debris from the cliffs has been rattled and rolled till it digs deep “pots” in the seabed – at times, we seemed to be swimming over a museum of abstract sculpture, which in a sense, I suppose we were.

This inlet proved to be something of an echo chamber for wave action, with a boxy shape that has cut two facing caves, each running perpendicular to the prevailing sea and wind. Both are narrow, disconcertingly so – the cut being along the plane of the rock, the strata seem better able to constrain and resist the cutting action. Coming to the first, I had already decided that Mr. T should have the honour of “first entry” – since I had taken the first swim into the large cave he had discovered. This honour was accepted rather diffidently, and Mr. T advanced with caution – the extreme narrowness created a very strong surge back in and out – as it had in the cave we had visited previously, but on that occasion he had only to follow my lead. This cave was completely black, very loud, and an unknown quantity so far as hazards were concerned.
Probing with our torched, we eventually advanced to a fork in the cave created by a huge bulge in the roof which descended almost to a floor which was in only a foot or so of water. This divided end chamber was wider than the entry tunnel – nice to see – I had already begun to keep my fins in front as I moved, in case we should be unable to turn. Satisfied that we had reached the limit of possible exploration, we returned to the daylight – and it says something about human perception that we found the outward view from our tunnel very beautiful, glistening black walls forming a narrow frame for restless water and, more distant, daylight – quite different from the impression of menace we took from the darkness and foam as we entered. One aspect I have not mentioned is the sound – the sea is very loud in these tunnels, heavy sloshing, deep booming, a sonorous bass that can feel rather threatening, particularly when a wave is thrusting one deeper into the dark beyond the reach of one’s torch.

Moving on to the facing cave, I took the lead again. In fact, there wasn’t much danger that I would be overtaken: this cave was narrower again, and in several places it would have been very difficult for us to pass each other. The roof narrowed as it rose, and it is terminus we found fishermen’s floats wedged into a thin crack above our heads – which I took as a warning about the mechanics of the place, and further basis for caution in caves of this shape. Apart from the length and narrowness of it, this tunnel was otherwise unremarkable – more of a thrill than a spectacle.

Three newly-discovered caves behind us, we finned on into the next cove, with me making occasional dives but not finding very much. However, facing the sea, we found a classic sea cave – quite broad, but low-roofed. We moved in as far as we could, which was not so deep as we had in the first two. However, this cave was much prettier – the broad entrance and greater depth below us kept the water clear, and it brought the daylight to us – filtered to a luminescent green. The thrill factor here came from the roof level, which was higher than sea level, but not by much, especially when waves came in. In fact, at one point Mr. T came up from a short swim to find his snorkel obstructed. Investigation revealed the blockage: about fifteen metres of solid sandstone between his head and the air – hard to breathe through, and so we moved on.

Our goal was a small headland with a sea-arch – but being low in the water, Mr. T missed it, and was too far around the head to be called back when I found the mistake. As it turned out, he chose a good route: we found two points of interest at the seaward end of this head. The first was in deep water. Below us, rock walls dropped away and became sloping overhangs above a round-walled chamber perhaps twenty feet down. Possible tunnel entrances were visible below – perhaps these, and the overhang, were carved during an ice age, when the sea was lower? Diving down to investigate, I found an extraordinary sight: the open roofed chamber, perhaps fifteen feet across, was alive with spider crabs. I counted sixteen before coming up for air – but there were more. They didn’t seem to be feeding, or even moving. What brought them there? I have never seen such a crab swim, and thought the shape of the rock might have trapped them, but then again no corpses were apparent – all present were upright, and apparently healthy.

Moving in along the head to find the entrance of the arch, I spotted a nicely rounded tunnel with an imperfect roof – several holes. It was a pretty one, so I called Mr. T back, and in we went. This one was nice and wide, not at all claustrophobic, especially after caves 1 and 2, so we were quite comfortable. We came fairly quickly to a blank wall – but I didn’t think the tunnel could end so soon, and submerged to investigate. In the clear water, I found white sands below me, and in front, only a foot or two below, a broad entrance, whose walls were smooth and reddish in my torch. With no sign of a “pinching” roof, and a fairly gentle swell, I was feeling brave – so I told Mr. T that I was going in to check for air pockets, and down I went. Moving cautiously I did not swim in: instead, I crawled upside down, deeper to reach the entrance, where I paused to search ahead by torchlight. At first, I thought that I was seeing a rippled roof where the rock rose up from the entrance – but then I recognized the quicksilver look that is typical of an air-water interface, and moved up smartly to see if there was enough to breathe. There was: and after I short rest, I submerged again and moved back out. Now, Mr. T has had limited experience of snorkeling and free diving to-date – but, assured that only a short dive was necessary, he decided to try it. In case the reader thinks that I was a little careless of his safety, I can tell you that the swim was very short, a single body-length or so, and that I re-entered first, so as to be able to guide him to the air.

This chamber was very pretty – the roof was very close to the water, and jagged in the middle, but the brightness below us made it seem airy and friendly. At the rear of the chamber, I found that the tunnel continued beneath the surface of the air pocket. However, after preliminary checks showed no sign of further pockets of trapped air, we agreed to leave further investigations for another day and a lower tide.

Leaving the 4th (and probably the prettiest) cave, we proceeded as planned through the sea arch. Although a very nice feature when seen from a distance, as a snorkeling venue it under-whelmed me – but perhaps doing 4 cave-swims and visiting a spider-crab den was not the right preliminary.

This had been rather a long swim – the cave sections being done quite slowly and cautiously, and with stops to dive on features of interest – so we decided to exit at a point near the head, climbing sharp rocks. At this point, the reader should be aware that Mr. T was wearing swimming shorts and a socks (to make his fins fit), while I was in a full wetsuit, with hard-soled wetsuit boots. At the top of the cliff, we found the expected path, and began to backtrack. However, we soon came to a stop – the path detoured inland to get around a sharp inlet where we could hear a falling freshet, and became very overgrown with bracken. I was confident of the path – but the less-protected Mr. T decided we should try cutting inland, through a field of cattle, to detour the obstacle. This field turned out to have an electric fence, which the unfortunate Mr. T backed into: still dripping with seawater, he got a most amazing shock – being at the time a very effective conductor indeed.

The cattle turned out to be over-friendly: lonesome or hungry, they would come to look us over, but being over-stimulated by our company, a walk would not do them, and they would run at us, at which point we would turn on them, flippers held in our outstretched arms and shout terrible insults. This rejection would hurt their feeling, and they would turn away. However, they had a nasty habit of forgiving our cruel words as soon as our backs were turned and advancing even closer. We had the uneasy feeling that they were stalking us, and at times it seemed we might have survived the caves only to perish in a stampede.

The field turned out to be bounded by extremely thorny ditches: so we returned to the path, which did also have some briars: after the first few thorns, Mr. T donned flippers and walked backwards, at the top of an unguarded cliff. I thought this was ludicrously dangerous, and simultaneously very funny – we were both slightly high on the scenery and adrenaline.

Collecting our gear, we walked back past our entry point of the previous week – where, tempted by the clearness of the water and the beautiful light of the last of the evening, I decided to do a quick solo snorkel, Mr. T being content to lie back in the grass and doze in the sun, which still had some warmth.

Almost immediately on entering, I had the good luck to find, slinking along beneath a sloping overhang, a good-sized dogfish, which is a very small member of the shark family – about a metre or so in length. Knowing them to be quite approachable, I swam to within touching distance. Diving later, I found what may have been the same fish, and was actually able to touch its tail fin, which it did not like. I have heard of a practice whereby divers can make these fish “sleep” – they are very easy to grab – but I did not try it on this occasion.

Swimming further out, I found a playground of reefs, full of kelp and crevices. Fish seem more numerous later in the evening – I found many an angler would have been very pleased to meet. On one magical occasion, several large fish seemed to be rising up to me in slow circles as I hung stationary and resting – while below them, only I saw a stalking dogfish slipping along behind and much deeper, keeping close to the rocks and weed. I’m almost sure he was up to no good! There were at least two dogfish in the area – I wonder if they hunt together?

The great clarity and stillness encouraged me to deeper dives, and I reached bottom several times in fifteen feet or deeper, tapping spider crabs on their shells and talking pebbles from the bottom as trophies. The deeper dives seemed easy – I could take my time on the bottom, even stop at a handhold, enjoy the view, and then rise motionless and silent to the surface – I love a long ascent from the deep, when the green water is shot through with golden rays of setting sun, and the air above is rippling mercury.

So it ended, my third exploratory swim through the sea caves west of the beach. Further adventures of a similar nature in the same area are already being planned…

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Sea Cave

I have written previously of a surf break not far from The City where Mr. T discovered a sea cave, whose blow-hole I later found with Miss C and Miss P. From the moment Mr. T described what he had seen of it, I was determined to get inside it. I knew sea conditions would have to be right, not to get in, but to get out again safely, my intention being to enter it from the seaward side and not by climbing down the shaft.

I should say at this point that, since my mid-teens, I have been very fond of body-boarding, snorkeling and free-diving. I do not mind tight spaces, or involuntary duckings, and can cope well with surf. So, although I enjoy exploring places like this cave, the reader should think carefully before doing any similar exploration - it really isn't very safe.

Why I would try to visit dangerous places? Because they are beautiful, and because if I spend too long at a desk away from my favourite "risk sports", I get itchy feet and start to daydream.

This week, the weather finally obliged with precisely the conditions I wanted for my adventure. Although I enjoy risk, I do try to keep my dosage within reasonable limits (my definition, not Miss C’s). Surf has been absent or negligible for a week or so, and even the wind, a constant presence on this coast, has finally deserted the sailors. Also – not essential, but very nice – we’ve had almost constant sunshine. So, with bright light and clear, untroubled water, I knew that conditions should be ideal for underwater photography.

Arriving at the The Beach, I could hardly believe my luck. Not only was the weather perfect at the site – a flatter sea that I have ever seen on this coast, with no visible swell or waves higher than two inches or so - but my arrival coincided with low tide – I could expect maximum headroom on the entry to the cave. At this point, having seen only the upper section of the shaft which enters the cave from above, I had no knowledge of the sea-ward entrance to the cave, and thought it might be flooded all the way to the roof.

Before entering the water, I walked the cliffs around the shaft – really too large for a proper blowhole, I think, at 10 meters or more across - trying to get a sense of the sea conditions around the cave entrance (which I could not see, but assumed to be directly to seaward of the huge shaft). What I saw explained immediately the existence of the cave. Although it was everywhere else the very picture of tranquility, something beneath the sea was focusing and magnifying an imperceptible swell. This grew from nothing into a series of distinct and very well-formed waves, funneled directly towards the cliffs at my feet, the wave front narrowing as it approached the rock, so that all the kinetic energy of the surf was concentrated on a short section of cliff somewhere under my feet. Deep below, hollow booming warned of the forces at work upon the stone.

Impressed and sobered by the power of the place, I backtracked till I found a way down from the cliffs onto a wave-cut platform high enough above the water to keep my gear safe from an advancing tide for several hours. Entering the water felt very odd – had it been so long since I swam without a surfboard beside me? Where I entered, the rock formed a narrow channel, focusing the swell in the same way as had the approach to the cliff above the cave. The push and suck of the water was rather welcome – a chance to re-acclimatize to an environment very alien to one’s everyday experience. The evening was incredibly beautiful – the sun was lower, shadows bringing the warm sandstone cliffs into sharp relief, and the light having a golden quality that is missing in the afternoon. With the blue of the sky perfectly reflected by silken ripples… sublime.

Swimming out into deep water, I stopped for an equipment check: watch – entered the water at 18:40– check. Dive torch (bought on special offer in a supermarket) – check. Underwater camera (bought the same day, on the same offer), check. Fins – secure. Mask – well sealed.

Making my way west along the cliffs, I was struck by the beauty of the land, above and below the water – sandstone cliffs and rock “fins”, above and below. Beneath, there was kelp, which promised fish and crab sightings. The sea itself was exceptionally beautiful in its stillness, and carried a thick surface layer heated by the sun far beyond normal sea temperatures in these waters.

Coming opposite the shaft, I was surprised to see a sheer sandstone wall descending unbroken into the sea. At first, I thought this must mean an underwater entrance, but checked my assumption by swimming a little further. Hallelujah! A concealed crack opened up, surprisingly narrow. Approaching the cave, the growth of the swell was very marked, even though the water was not very shallow – a warning sign which made me very wary. Close to the entrance, I hung back, peering into the gloom and watching the surge and ebb of the water. From there, I could see through to the pool at the bottom of the shaft, where waves were breaking.

Decision time: moving into the mouth, I switched on my torch. In the centre, I could easily raise my head to breath, but at the sides the roof hugged the water. Rock overhead now: I looked beneath me, and saw a deeper, narrower channel. Something about the geometry of it was rather suggestive of a huge throat – once which was swallowing me whole, taking me deeper into its gullet with every wave. The rock around the entrance is actually rather beautiful.

If the narrow entrance tunnel was suggestive of a throat, the pool at the end was a perfect sea-monster’s stomach – huge, round and smooth, with the deep and echoing slap of the waves a perfect counterfeit of giant belly-rumbling. Moving to the side of the chamber, I used a corner to “hide” from the surf, and found I could easily stand. Here, a torch was not necessary – I could see sky above me, and grass rimming the edges of the shaft. My choice in entering from the sea was vindicated – although its higher reaches looked manageable for a climber, the section within reach of the tide had been polished smooth, and appeared completely free of foot or handholds. Higher up, the stone is much rougher, with interesting ledges, cracks and various "relief" features. It struck me as more like a movie set than a real place - except that I can't imagine a sculptor or painter improving on its craggy features.

In particular, I noticed that the “throat” and “belly” were almost completely void of marine life. Some sea anemones clung to wall high above the floor, but that was it. I believe that if any significant swell is running, the amplified waves gushing into the central chamber must wield the stone debris on the floor like a thousand hammers, beating the cave a little smoother and deeper with every tide. Not a very friendly place!

Swimming once again (not because walking was impossible, but to avoid the risk of having the surf trip me in shallow water with a very uneven stone bottom), I kept my head down and used my torch and arms to avoid hazards as I moved into the gloom which lay in the innermost shaft. I found a shingle beach which rose steeply from the water, and for the first time since entering the sea was able to get out, take off my fins, and try a few photos from a stable platform. The beach turned out to lie at the neck of an inner tunnel, which I followed. The low entrance was deceptive – it concealed a chamber with a room that must have been close to twenty feet high – a blow hole forming? The shape does suggest that air would be trapped here by a rising tide, and the surging swell, compressing it, seek out any weaknesses in the roof. A short shaft led deeper into the bedrock, and here the roof came lower, to just over five feet. At this point, the cave was very dark, and I was glad of the torch.

Looking back towards to the main chamber, I could see the pool at the base of the shaft, which was very beautiful. I had thought it dark, when I had looked in from the sea, with my pupils narrowed by direct sunlight, but as my eyes adjusted, I saw that it was the most amazingly luminous aquamarine, lit both from above and from below, by light leaking in from the tunnel to the sea.

After the photo shoot, I began my swim out, this time diving repeatedly to explore the floor of the “throat”. I found no sea-life, but rocks torn from the roof or the walls helped to anchor me as swells passed over. Escaping into open water, the light was dazzling. I moved further out to sea, where the visibility was very good – I swam along flooded cliffs, over bone-white scalloped sands, easily seen a good six metres or more below me. I found huge wrasse and spider crabs moving on rocks and in the weed. A time check told me that it was time to get back to the city – and dinner with Miss C – and so I returned to my entry point. Along the way, I noted a point for future exploration – a hidden beach, almost certainly cliff-bound and accessible only from the water. Just before I climbed out, I found, literally under my nose, a classic rock feature – a submerged hole or arch, a metre and a half in diameter, and quite round. I couldn’t resist swimming through it – a great photo opportunity, if one had a second swimmer.

So ended my first swim along the cliffs west of The Beach (20:10, an hour and a half after entry). It was a very exciting evening, and a visually stunning experience. I’m hooked – so much so, that I have arranged to visit again this evening with Mr. T. Adventure calling. Again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Equine Initiation II: Escape from the shed

A few weeks and several lessons later, a much reduced group of friends set out for the riding school – just three of us. My companions were Miss C and a new acquaintance, Miss K. Leaving The City, we traveled together with Miss K at the wheel, which was an experience in itself (she covered about 15 miles with the hand brake engaged, was in the habit of making terrifying turns at the last possible second, and very fond of pot-holed verges). It was possibly the hottest day of the year so far, with temperatures reaching the high twenties – quite unusual in these parts – and the humidity which had been stifling us for the last few days had finally given birth to huge clouds of thunderous aspect, moving over the country around the city like wandering mountains. The air was thick and heavy with heat and haze, with ominous (but beautfiul) tints of purple and orange beneath the clouds. I wondered about the horses, and whether they might not find lightening a little over-stimulating, and feel inclined to dance about on two legs.

Arriving at the riding school, we found only one other rider was to join us for the class, an older lady who claimed 35 years of riding experience. She was wearing a safety vest, which Miss C and Miss K did not find encouraging, with its suggestion of chest-crushing mishaps waiting around the corner. However, I was very pleased - we had spent all our previous lessons riding circuits inside a large shed, practicing walking and three types of trot – sitting, rising, and standing – and I was sure that our instructor would have to do something more stimulating for the sake of the veteran rider.

Sure enough, when all students were mounted, the instructor entered the arena on his own mount, then wheeled and let us out by the stables. My own horse, and Miss C’s, seized the opportunity to snatch hay from a bale as they passed: they knew we were green, and took advantage. We rode uphill, away from the shed and into the surrounding fields, in the warm, soft light of the evening sun. In the distance, the thunderheads trailed columns of torrential rain towards The City.

At first, my mount and I got on fairly well. However, the hedgerows of the fields we passed seemed to present him with innumerable temptations, and he began to snatch mouthfuls of this and that. Glancing back, our instructor told me that I mustn’t permit it, and told me to keep a tight rein. I tried to do so, but perhaps not firmly enough, as I had several times to tug very hard indeed on the reins – not so much suggesting as forcing my mount’s head up. After a while, I began to get wary, and anticipate this incidents: but my mount had another trick – he stopped. I tried the mild heel-kicks which I had used in the shed – but those had always been supplemented by the commands of the instructor, who is obeyed completely by all the horses, and were quite ineffectual.

Feeling rather foolish, I remained standing there until the instructor called us on from the next field, and told me to kick hard. I did this, rather gingerly at first, but eventually hard enough to leave bruises on a human opponent, and my mount managed first a brisk walk, and then even a brief trot. Moving on, our class managed a few trots between the longer walks, one along a hedgerow whose branches were low enough to force me to duck low over my horse’s head. The confidence and balance we had developed indoors stood to us rather well , although Miss C did not quite like the downhill stretches, where she felt I might slide straight down my mount’s neck – which really should not be a danger at all, if I make proper use of my stirrups. I rather like that she worries about my bones much more than I do. Another interesting point of the ride was when we passed some houses which backed onto the field we were circuiting: I had almost forgotten about the extra height being mounted gives one, as all my friends were similarly placed – but now I felt like a maharajah on an elephant, being able to look down over a bank and right into all the kitchens.

Adventure threatened to overtake us at one point, when I saw two pheasants, a cock and a hen, feeding only a little way off. I had been out shooting once, and thought they might take off in their feathery-rocket way and spook the horses: but they stayed put. A nice thing to see, and one which reminds me how little time I have been spending in the country.

Our excursion ended uneventfully enough, with all of us very pleased to have got outside, and all looking forward to the next session. I’m not really sure what to expect as we progress – perhaps we’ll learn to canter? My lesson on this ride: total control is very important – one must not allow any doubt to develop behind those big dark eyes about the respective roles of rider and mount. Mine would be quite happy to be given his head, in which case he would stand still, and eat till he burst. He is also quite happy to be commanded, and can step up smartly when he feels there is no room for dissension – but he finds a loose rein confusing, and it lets out the mischief in him. Rather like some people I’ve taught.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


Last Saturday, I left The City for the coast, planning to take advantage of a heavy swell which I had been watching over the internet as it moved in from the south west. My plan was to meet with a couple of colleagues and get my board wet again. Arriving at The Beach (the closest break to The City), I wasn’t thrilled to see that the swell had arrived with its generator – winds of force 6 to 7, blowing on-shore, and making a right old mess of the swell – a nasty chop, with hints of cross-sea in places.

Perhaps non-surfing readers would like a more detailed explanation? Surfers, contrary to what many non-surfers believe, don’t like strong winds – and particularly not strong on shore winds (those that blow from the sea towards the beach). Why not? Because the ideal surfing wave has a low frequency (the distance between successive peaks) and a high amplitude (is tall). A wave with these properties has plenty of power, which surfers can use to get their rise. In between waves, the water should ideally be calm and flat – ideal for paddling out to catch those waves, and easy to balance on, once up and riding. These properties correspond to the classic ocean swell – large, smooth waves generated over long distances in the open ocean by strong winds blowing continuously for days. Once formed, these waves can travel huge distances before dissipating – fulfilling the surfer’s dream of a beach with no wind but a steady sequence of huge waves breaking on the shore. Of course, storms also produce small choppy waves – but these don’t travel so far. However, if the storm is blowing at the beach, then the chop will not dissipate before it reaches the surfers, and, although far smaller than the “swell”, it causes great problems. As these waves come upon the beach in large numbers, a paddling surfer has very little time between waves to make progress to seaward, and will tend to lose ground with every succeeding wave. Moreover, while the ocean swell can have breaks, periods of sudden and temporary calm, locally-generated waves tend to be continuous.

This Saturday, conditions were really very poor – almost continuous lines of white water sweeping in. Not a very surfer-friendly environment! Just past the lineup, I could see that some people had come prepared – a man whom I later heard is the 3rd ranking windsurfing in the country was flying back and forth on a windsurfing rig – tiny board carving through whip-snap jibes, and reaching amazing speeds on a beam reach. It was really quite a remarkable performance – using the waves as ramps, I saw him jump a good five or six feet clear of the water, landing very cleanly. Like the pin-ball wizard, he never falls.

Sorely tempted to ditch my surfing plans and hire some form of sailing craft instead – a good strong south-westerly being my favorite sailing weather – I opted for solidarity, suited up and joined my fellow cubicle-escapees. As anticipated, conditions were not easy – even the shore-break was very vigorous. In fact, just reaching the shore-break required careful board-handling, the wind being strong enough to hold the board to my side unaided. Once in the water, my attempts to paddle out to the lineup met with predictable results – 10 meters progress being undone by a single wave, to be repeated with salt-stung eyes ad nauseum. Mr P, an expert surfer with a tiny board, was the first out – duck-diving his way through a succession of combers which, true to their name, swept the rest of us straight back in, leaving nothing behind them but clean white foam – and Mr. P. Mr. S (who was, I believe, experiencing our ocean for the first time) and myself were not so skilful – and, to be fair, our boards were far larger. Repeated attempts eventually led to a breakthrough, but only after the hardest and most sustained paddling of my surfing career - the experience was more like long-distance running than surfing, forcing fatigued muscles through the pain barrier, the mind trying to force exhausted limbs to sprint speed, desperately trying to pass the next wave before its crest should reach breaking point. The more slightly built Mr. S - despite heroic efforts and previous experience in such exotic locations as Mexico and Australia - did not once get out past the shore break. He didn’t miss much, though - the ride I got for my efforts was far from satisfying. I didn’t fall, but somehow the wave gradually subsided and slipped from under me. Subsequent efforts, including an encounter with a rip, were similarly disappointing. Altogether, an exhausting session, with very few rides, and those short. Best to think of it as two hours of conditioning exercises for the triceps. The only real upside is that I had no collisions on this occasion, with the exception of one bruising encounter with my own board’s fin after a wipe-out.

Lessons learnt? That sufficiently determined paddling can get results, even in very difficult conditions. That Mr. S needs a warmer wetsuit – adding injury to insult, he caught a cold after the chilling he got in our “summer” sea. Also, that a smaller board can have its uses, and that some days are just better used for body-boarding – or windsurfing. Having recently returned to a certain cove near The City, scene of previous sailing adventures, I found that my windsurfing skills, such as they are, have survived a long “dry” period almost intact. I can’t wait to try them out again in “proper” weather – learning to wave-ride is a long-held dream of mine. The autumn will bring more and more days like Saturday - time, perhaps, to get my own gear at last. All reasonably-priced second-hand rigs considered…