Kippford to Gamelsby (or from Scotland to England)

This was my first article I wrote for the DCA (Dinghy Cruising Association) describing my kayak trip I did from the small Scottish village of Kippford and ending in the small English/Cumbrian village of Gamelsby.

Introduction to the DCA
By way of introduction to the DCA I would like to write an account of a trip on the Solway from Kippford to Gamelsby or Scotland to England, a trip I did from 30th August to the 3rd September 2008. I used O/S maps Nos. 84 & 85 and I have given the distances in kms as it is simple to count the squares!

I am new to sailing. I am currently learning on a Mirror dinghy and I have crewed on some of the DCA member’s boats but I have been a sea kayaker for a number of years and enjoy the sea in all its forms. I might be taking liberties with this article as it recounts the journey I did in my sea kayak not a sail boat, but I did the trip as a reconnaissance for when I will own my own sail boat (hopefully this winter) as the Solway will be my sailing area. The details I recorded on the trip are with a sail boat in mind and may be of some interest to DCA members especially to those who sail/will sail these waters.

This part of the Solway has very few sail boats these days and perhaps the reason for this is the dangerous tide races that enter/leave the Solway Firth as well as the shifting sandbanks. I know these tide races from my kayaking; my area is normally from Port Carlisle to Rockcliff and the River Eden all the way to Carlisle; as well as Moricambe Bay and the River Wampool east of Silloth. The tide race on the Solway Firth has its own bore and its own peculiarities, it can enter the estuary at high speeds and pick you up and spin you around. According to the haaf-netters there is a whirlpool that is dangerous; and I have experienced 3-4 tide races on top of each other and depending on its depth the tide can fill a 7-meter deep channel in 10-15 minutes. This is all amazing to see and experience but it has its dangers and it has caused fatalities, there is a monument to Edward the 1st’s army that drowned by the incoming tide as it was trying to invade Scotland at the time. So care should be taken when sailing these waters not only because of the tides but also for its shifting sand bars.

In the beginning of my trip in Scotland at Kippford I happened to glance at an Admiralty chart of the Solway and the eastern corner of the Solway Firth was a white blank!

Probably the reason why the chart is kept blank is because the sand banks are never constant. The channels get shallow quickly which can leave boats stranded or worse, and after a strong high tide it can change the sand bar to a new destination so maps will be out of date after the next high tide. I have paddled over sand bars by edging the kayak and it would take a shallow draft on a boat to get over some of them, keel-less boats or shallow draft bilge keels or lifting keels are recommended. An owner of the only sail boat I have seen there tells me that 3 hours is the maximum he has got out of the tides before it gets too shallow for his bilge keeled 19ft yacht. I suspect in a shallow keeled boat I could wait for the 2nd race and it would be enough to see me over most of the sand bars no problem and if I judge it right I can avoid the surface turbulence that the sand bars cause.
When there is a 7-meter tide the sea engulfs the vegetation of the Rockcliff Marshes that divide Scotland and England, but this still will be too shallow to make a straight crossing, one must go around the marshes and use the tides to bring you in and out of the estuary.
This is the area I know but the area between Kippford and Bowness-on-Solway was new and it held some surprises.

31/8/08 Sunday. Scotland, Kippford to Sandyhills (roughly 7kms)
I had camped on the grass at Kippford and on the Sunday as the tide was flowing I packed the kayak an headed out in the rain, as doing so I said goodbye to Stuart Calcut a DCA member who was there in his self built junked rigged sail boat “Karmatoo”, I am quite interested in junk rigs and as we chatted in the rain he spoke of the DCA and how it could suit me and with meeting like minded people.

I headed out by the main channel of Kippford via Glen Isle and Rough Island where the bay dries out all the way to Castlehill Point at low tide; there is a coastal footpath to Kippford if one needs to get to town if one has been caught high and dry. The rain had stopped and I made good time out to Castlehill Point there I turned to port and was greeted with beautiful cliffs of Barcloy Hill that ran straight down to the sea, they had been clearly battered over the years by the strong sea/winds and it gave an indication of how rough this area can be. There is no shelter along the cliffs if one needs to pull in, and I would not recommend anchoring along that coast due to it being a lee shore unless one squeezes between the rocks that lead to sheltered and seclude bays.

Continuing east the sea was calm and I made good progress in reaching Port O’Warren with more dramatic cliffs of Cow’s Snout and Gillis Craig. Port O’Warren has a good sheltered bay for a short halt but offers no real protection in high winds from the south; there is a shingle beach so no good for boats without bilge keels. I am planning to buy a lifting keel boat and I am thinking of ways that I can protect the hull when drying out, something that can be attached to the hull just before it dries out that would give the boat a ‘cushion’ and more berthing possibilities. These waters are murky and although larger rocks could be seen at low water shingle or larger stones would not be apparent until one is laying upon them; nautical charts for this area are hard to find or none existent especially for the area east of Annan. I have only used O/S maps and these do not always give an indication where sand stops and shingle begins.

Next to the bay there are a few houses and a track that leads to Portling, but I did not stay long and after a snack I headed off round the point to Portling Bay then paddled on with the next point in view, a man made structure jutting out from the sand (often these things were used for aerial target practice in the war and there is another one at Moricambe Bay on the English side), and passing fishing nets jutting out from the coast. I noticed shallow water underneath me, I headed further out seeking deeper water but only found more shallow water, then a surprise in the matter of 20 minutes I was high and dry, the tide had just disappeared, I had to portage about 1 mile to shore over rippling sand to camp at Needles Eye close to Sandyhills.

Looking on the OS map the whole area of Mersehead Sands is a large sand bank but I was not prepared for the speed in which the tide had drained away, if I had known I would have stayed close to the shore and just camped earlier, one moment I was in deep water the next I was floundering.
This portage was my deciding factor in getting a sail boat; I could have just waited aboard until the returning tide in relative comfort instead of pulling a dead wait over bumpy sand. I was tired and my arms ached.

Monday 1/9/08. Sandyhills to Borron Point (roughly 14kms)
Another reminder about camping next to a strange sea is to be aware how high the tide will rise in the night! I did wake up in the night to hear the sea gurgling only feet away from my tent, I thought I had left enough depth from the tide but I was not high enough for comfort, luckily there was no head wind and I had several meters of rocks to shelter me.

At Kippford I had overheard that Monday was bringing in a force 5-6 winds. I tried out my home made ‘sponsons’, these are air bags either side of the cockpit strapped to the lines, a belt goes underneath the hull and fixed to the other air bag. I mention these ‘sponsons’ as I intend to make a larger version and fix it to my boat. In doing so it will help in stability if/when I am caught out in rough weather, it can also help in stability at night for when I have to sleep on board as it will increase the beam of the boat and reduce movement, and if I ever did capsize it could help in stabilizing the boat while I bail out or re-enter. They can be deflated and stored in a corner until needed and they can be attached while afloat, or at the beginning of the day if one knows that bad weather is coming. The disadvantage of them is they drag and reduce speed, but if one is going with the tide or using sails then I think it is not a problem and another aid for a single-handed yacht person.

The sponsons offered me great stability in the seas that day, I later found out that the winds were force 6-7 and I experienced crashing surf, lots of white tops at close sequence and without these air bags I would have been flipped many times. But the question remains “would I have gone out in such conditions if I did not have them?” well the only way I could get home was by water as I do not drive and I can not put a 16ft kayak on the bus or train! So I was committed to travel by sea and reach home.

I heard the in-coming tide before I could see it and it rushed over the flat sand filling the Mersehead Sands very quickly, there is the channel of the Fairgirth Lane that went further inland and possibly a good anchor point in Sandyhills Bay for a shallower draft boat for a night’s halt and it was near Sandyhills village/caravan park for supplies.

I made fast progress to the other side of the Sands, I was looking for the Boneland Burn that snaked inland, but could not see it, then I struck bottom again. The wind had picked up and the small white tops where pushing me into the land. I headed back into the wind [south] but again I found only sand; it seemed it went on for miles and the sea never got any deeper. I had to edge the kayak, as well as take the white tops on my starboard beam this area would be too shallow for a boat in such seas. I eventually rounded the point of Preston Merse at Mersehead Plantin and found deeper water but not deep enough to reduce drag, and I could still touch the bottom with my paddle, now I was beam onto the waves and I was quite far out from the land. I am a “coast hugger” I like to see land and know that if I came out I could swim ashore if need be, but I was about 1 mile out and encountering large waves that broke over the kayak and often onto my body and they would certainly enter an open dinghy.

There must have been another surge from the tide race as I found depth and I tried to edge towards the shore to be a little safer, but close to the lee shore the bigger and stronger the waves were. I dislike moving with my back to the waves one can easily tip you over, so it was a slow progress and weather-cocking made it hard to keep the kayak in a desired direction. The coast along Preston Merse is sandy and grassy, a good place to beach a boat as long as it is not a lee shore, today it was and spray was flying up into the air as the waves hit the grassy banks; the area is a nature reserve and a good bird watching area.

Late afternoon I reached Southerness Point, it has a name for crashing waves and dramatic scenes; there are shops and Caravan Park near by. I beached on the west of the point and had a walk round to see if it was feasible to portage, as I did not fancy paddling around the point the waves were too big and a line of rocks jutted out into the sea would make it dangerous if I was capsized, it all looked very turbulent, breaking seas on the backs of large ebbing swells. What would a yacht have done?

The thought of dragging a heavy kayak even with wheels over a gravel track seemed more difficult than being bounced around in a force 7 wind, so in the end I returned to sea and paddle around.

The surf looked worse than what it was, sure they were big, and they crashed down on my head, but I kept the kayak pointing into them and ferry glided round to the rocks and main channel. I made a quick turn and let the swells take me towards a small “corridor” between the rocks and the ebb tide. It must have been 10 minutes until I realised I was not going anywhere! The swell brought me forward and the ebb took me out again, the sea was jumping all around me, not a place for a boat in these conditions. I was getting tired and I had to battle to get passed the rocks and stay away from the strong ebb.

Once passed this corridor I paddled another 2 miles in relatively clam seas through Gillfoot Bay and I just before Borron Point the tide disappeared again. I emptied the kayak in stages as the sand gave way to shin deep soft mud then pulled the empty kayak around the point out of the wind to another world that was calm, sunny and warm! It was not a good place to camp, very little grass for camping, no amenities for fresh water and I was knackered. I camped in a freshly cut hay field and during the night it thundered and the sky was illuminated with sheet lightning right above my head.

Tuesday 2/9/08. Borron Point to Cardurnock Flatts (roughly 24kms)
In the morning it was good sunny weather with no wind. The tide did not race that morning it plodded along slowly and gently creeping over the sands and odd patches of shingle. As the weather was good I decided to go across Carse Sands and miss out the mouth of the River Nith. I edged out down the coast until Carsethorn and turned to starboard across the sands noticing a small yacht anchored in Carse Bay, besides Kippford this was my second sighting of a yacht in this area (other being at Port Carlisle), so at least there are two yachts in the eastern Solway Firth! I am guessing this section of coast is less of a lee shore compared with the northern coast. Carse Bay would offer good anchorage while exploring the beautiful village of New Abbey or with the right boat one could sail up the tidal river of New Abbey Pow and moor close by.

It is a strange feeling for me to be so far out at sea and to be alone, I guess DCA members will be used to this feeling, it is something I will have to get used to, but even on that calm day I was always aware that I was a long way from shore and that the weather could change at any moment then what would I do? This feeling made me quicken my strokes.

Out in the middle of Carse Sands I could see the tide advancing not behind me but coming towards me! It must have circled around and doubled back upon itself, I was crossing a shallow sand bar and there was some movement that broke the surreal feeling of moving over mercury, I could of got out and walked (or sunk) it was so shallow yet I was two or three miles out.

The River Nith would be good to explore with a possible mooring at Glencaple, as this area has a history of shipping and a further possibility to reach Dumfries or the near to it for shopping. The coastline east of the River Nith is flat, saltings with occasional small in-ways, but on this occasion a lee shore. It is the Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve with good walks and historical sites along its shores. After crossing Carse Sands and paddling towards the coast again I struck bottom and had to paddle 2 miles out to have any depth, but very often I struck sand bars which looked like it was apart of the mainland but were possibly in the middle of the sea on what I think was Blackshaw Bank. I had to feel my way around as I could see too far head, as I was quite far off shore (if it really was the shore) it was slow going.

The wind freshened and white tops appeared again on my starboard beam; what I thought was a flowing tide must have been something else, as I could not understand why it was so shallow. It was slow progress heading east with a southerly wind and a breaking sea hitting me every few seconds, if I had capsized [I did not have any sponsons this time] I could have got out and walked, but being so far out and in unpredictable seas as these I did not fancy the idea. Eventually I found deeper water as the tide must have found its way over various sand bars so enabling it to rush in, one moment I was touching ground the next I was in deep water and larger surf. I did not see land clearly so I missed the inlet of Lochar Water that I hopped would be a possible future anchorage spot, so I kept on going east and trying to get closer to the shore.

There are a few towns along this stretch and no good shelter for small craft besides Lochar Water, although it maybe possible to get into a cut in the smaller inlets, but sailing time would be short.

Later that day the tide started to ebb as I pulled in for a bite to eat and within 20 minutes my kayak was high and dry on the saltings, the tide obviously ebbs faster than it had come in, the closer I got to Annan and Bowness the faster the race would be.

After Powfoot I began to encounter shallow water again I did not want to camp just yet so I headed out into the middle of Priestside Bank and south of Howgarth Scar but with depth came the strong ebbing tide and I was making little progress. I began to recognise various landmarks, I wanted to camp at the mouth of the River Annan especially at Waterfoot where I have read and seen old photos of gaff rigged Solway Shrimpers from the 19th century. Fishermen and various pleasure and work craft used that area extensively though out the ages, but sadly now it is nearly all gone. At least the area was more boating friendly as the channel between England and Scotland was still passable at low tide.

I did not find the mouth at Waterfoot, I was getting tired it was getting dark and I decided to make the crossing to England when the weather was good and when the tide was out, I did not want to leave it to chance the next day as if the weather was bad then I would have to contend with a strong tide surge as well as a possible choppy crossing. I turned north at Annan Waterfoot just before the mouth over the calm ebbing tide; years before I had dreaded this crossing and I had put it off because I know what the tide was like but my first crossing was calm and serene. I made it to England no problem and beached on soft sand just west of the defunct railway viaduct that used to span the Solway until the Solway decided it had had enough and shifted its sands with the help of the force of the tides. I beached near High West Scar but then had to pull the heaviest kayak over another length of sand. I camped on the flat grass near North Plain Farm. I was tired as I pitched tent and it rained and blew a gale in the night.

Wednesday 3/9/08. Cardurnock Flatts to Gamelsby (roughly 19kms)
The next morning I had to wait for the incoming tide as I did not want to pull the kayak over the sands again and battle against the incoming tide, but in the end I pulled the kayak west over the saltings to the mouth of Moricambe Bay. Moricambe Bay will also be my sailing area especially at the mouth of the Bay where there is a low sandy shelf on entering and a good mooring to the south of Grune Point. The going was not so bad at least it was firm underfoot, but it was far along Cardurnock Flatts avoiding tractor and sheep tracks, watery holes and small streams. I eventually started on my final day’s paddling by aerial masts near Curdurnock and by going into the Moricambe Bay.

I was preparing the sponsons when the tide raced in round the back of me I had to jump in the cockpit, and battle against it and the wind or I would have been pushed back to where I had camped and where I had spent all morning portaging. I rounded Longdyke Scar but it was a slow journey. I had put sponsons on as I knew this area from previous journeys and the east shore can be a bad lee shore and the tide and wind can create high white tops. I have also seen a small sailing dinghy in Moricambe Bay, but the tide ebbs fast and it is a big bay to be stranded, as I know from experience.

Today the tide was high and it over came the saltings stranding a flock of sheep that were pressed against the barbed wire, the wind was strong but it did not create white tops like on previous times, the sponsons slowed me down and they were not needed. I decided to pass Anthorn (a village, buses to Carlisle/Silloth and a small shop only) on the weather shore and remove them, behind me was a big black rain cloud that opened its contents as I was just about passed Anthorn, sheet lightening and thunder was right above my head, the rain bounced off the water creating a mist and made all waves indiscernible, I made the most energetic dash for the shore hoping it would not be fork lightning! After that the temperature dropped and the wind brought hailstones, I was very tired and cold as I got to the bridge near Whitrigglees.

The last leg of my journey was up the River Wampool that snaked and doubled back on itself, a beautiful river, tidal as far as The Laythes then the water changes from murky to clear; hard to get up this river due to the high sand banks just passed Anthorn but well worth a look with high tides. I got to Gamelsby village where I pulled the kayak out amid a bank full of nettles and pulled the kayak 4 miles home.