“Cornwall,” Marion said.
“Sure,” I said. “Sounds good.”
It is worth noting that at the time I was lying in the sun at the Renclusa alpine hut in the Spanish Pyrenees. I was deep in some endorphin-induced delirium on account of having survived the telemarking experience down Pico de Aneto, the highest summit in the Pyrenees.
It is also not beyond the realm of possibility that I was subject to some biochemical alteration in the brain owing to high altitude. Whatever the contributing factors, I maintain that I was not fully myself when I agreed to the sea-kayaking trip.
Marion is about the finest friend you could hope for—an über-friend, even. There is nothing on this earth that she would not do for you. There is also nothing on this earth that she would not do, and she prefers to have company to do most things. Which is how I found myself lying in a tent somewhere near Land’s End, England, listening to the rain lashing down and cursing myself.
We were five: There was Marion, her partner Ken, Paul, Denise and me. We convened in the drizzle for a soggy breakfast, then made the first of what would be many phone calls that week to the British Coast Guard.
Stripped of meteorological euphemisms, the essence of the forecast was nasty. I have lived in Britain quite a long time now, and I feel qualified to state that, while the forecast is usually a variation on this theme, the reality is often worse.
The Coast Guard alleged that the rain would abate in the afternoon, and while this prediction stood a good chance of being typically inaccurate, our fearless leader nevertheless directed the movement of people, craft and sundry gear to a beach east of Penzance for an early afternoon launch.
The surfers were there too and looking enthusiastic, which I did not take to be a good sign. As Paul and I dragged our loaded kayaks down to the water’s edge, we passed a windsurfing board torn in two, with the sail still attached and no sign of a passenger.
We looked at one another. I tightened my life jacket, and made sure my whistle was firmly attached to it. Some good a whistle was going to be underwater.
“If you capsize while you’re launching…” Marion said to me. The way she’d stated it, as if it were a foregone conclusion, made me want to go back to the snack bar and call a taxi.
It’s worth pointing out that Marion was five months pregnant as we set out on this adventure.
At a stage when most women are already taking advantage of being in the family way to recline at every available opportunity, Marion, with her noticeable bulge, was securing my spray skirt and pushing me out into the choppy sea.
I made it through the breakers without capsizing. So did everyone else, although they seemed less amazed by their success. We rounded St. Michael’s Mount, which I know from photos is a breathtaking spectacle: a fairy-tale church on an island.
Despite our proximity to this much-photographed landmark, I didn’t see it because I didn’t dare lift my eyes from the immediate surroundings of my kayak.
By way of background, I should mention that I grew up on the Canadian prairie, that I saw Jaws before I first saw the ocean, and that anything ocean-related I have done in my life has been a fight against type.
While I have kayaked and canoed on rivers, lakes and calm stretches of the sea, I have a healthy respect for the sea that some might call terror.
Although I harbored no delusions that this adventure would find me out on the water, splashing and laughing, doing Eskimo rolls, having a big aquatic love-in like some beer commercial bon vivant, I still had an ambition.
I was there to conquer my fear of the sea. By the time we were on the water, however, I’d seen the folly of my ways and had made a Faustian pact that, should I live, I would swear off nautical activities ’til kingdom come.
I did not smile; I did not laugh. I scowled when my paddling partners shouted a tip or other information at me and refused to look at them. Occasionally I glanced at the horizon, but only to make sure the land was still there.
Obviously, I had not given due thought to this misadventure before signing up, but the most striking thing that hadn’t occurred to me was how difficult it would be to land anywhere along the coast of Cornwall. Before the trip, I had soothed myself with the thought that, if the going got rough and I felt uneasy, I could always just head for shore. Wrong.
It simply hadn’t dawned on me that I couldn’t land anywhere at any time by simply heading for the beach. Cornwall, I was coming to realize, has hardly any beaches, and half the beaches it has disappear at high tide.
The whole of western Cornwall appeared to be one big sea cliff, against which it was all too easy to imagine my kayak and skull crashing. In sea-kayaker parlance, such circumstances are known as “committing.” Committing what?
After what seemed like 300 miles (but which I later learned was eight), Marion shouted that we would land at a nearby beach. I snatched a quick glance at her.
She had her paddle out of the water, lying across her boat, and was looking at the laminated map she had strapped to her kayak. She lifted her head to smile widely at me.
That isn’t just sangfroid; it’s nothing short of reptilian. She came up right beside me and told me that the beach was called Praa Sands, and we would land there and either eat our lunch and carry on down the coast or stay there for the night.
In the end, it wasn’t our decision to make.
As we neared the coast, we could see the big waves breaking onto the broad, empty beach.
“If you capsize…” Marion said again. I didn’t want to prolong the agony. Ken had gone first, and I hadn’t watched to see where he wound up.
Denise had caught the wave before me, and as a huge wave hefted my kayak up to an impossibly high vantage point, I saw Denise below, in the water beside her capsized kayak.
The bow of my kayak was progressing toward Denise’s head at a terrific velocity, and I was powerless to slow down or alter my course, or do anything except plummet toward her head.
What happened I can’t say exactly, but I do know that I wound up underwater and quite instinctively pulled off my spray skirt, got out of my kayak and surfaced.
There were no bits of brain floating on the water. Instead, a frantic-looking but intact Denise was dog-paddling toward me. I felt like weeping with relief that I hadn’t killed her.
I pulled her to my capsized boat, put her hand on the bow toggle and told her to stay with the kayak. Then I swam out into the waves and gathered together the detritus: paddles, Denise’s boat, a cap, sunglasses, bandanna. I swam back to shore hauling these things, and together we pulled our waterlogged boats up onto the beach.
Everyone had capsized.
We phoned the Coast Guard to tell him of our heroic landing. I realize it’s delusional to speak of the Coast Guard as if he’s one guy—a bit like the Great and Powerful Oz, keeping a round-the-clock vigil.
Still, it’s a comforting fiction. In my mind, the Coast Guard looked a bit like Neptune dressed up as Captain Stubing from The Love Boat, skippering a giant white yacht with HM Coast Guard written on it in red letters.
The Coast Guard of reality had to look over his list twice before he figured out which party we were. “Oh, the kayakers,” he said. He told us the next day’s forecast was for Force 6 or 7 and occasionally Gale Force 8 winds.
I had no idea what Gale Force 8 meant, but if the wave scale was anything like the Richter scale, I’d decided I would remain at Praa Sands, sleep in a homemade hammock and drink out of coconut shells à la Gilligan for the rest of my days, rather than brave those freaking waves again. The sea was no friend of mine, and it was over between us.
I have no explanation for how it came to be that a day and a half later, after two nights at Praa Sands, I had this déjà vu experience of heading out into the churning sea in my ever-loving kayak.
My upper body was completely soaked within minutes. The swells were even higher than they had been previously. The sensation was something akin to watching your friends atop rapidly moving buildings. At one moment they’re towering above you, and the next moment, you’re the equivalent of four stories above them.
At times, you’re in a deep trough, unable to see anyone else, and it’s easy to gain the impression that you’re utterly alone.
I assumed my don’t-talk-to-me-except-in-an-emergency scowl and paddled determinedly along. Again, the continuous wall of sea cliff was to our left. We loomed as close as we dared to the two beaches we saw en route, only to discover that they were peopled by surfers, and an encore performance of the collective capsize-o-rama was guaranteed if we tried landing.
Marion shouted that there was a small harbor at a place called Mullion Cove, and if we made for it, we could land safely and perhaps even with grace. We had to get very close to it before the small opening in a sea wall revealed itself. In we went. Instant calm; profound relief. Better still, the place had a little café that served cream teas.
It was decided that we’d stay put for the rest of the day in view of the choppy seas and the difficulty of landing between Mullion Cove and Lizard Point. We would do the Lizard Point passage the following day, and with any luck the sea would calm down.
This expedition was not noted for its luck, nor the sea for its calmness, and my heart was heavy with trepidation as I slathered a scone with cream. Might as well enjoy myself, I thought. It could be my last scone for life. Considering that the swells had the entire distance between the east coast of Canada and Cornwall to work up a head of steam, it seemed improbable that they would calm down somehow.
Early the next morning found us schlepping back to Mullion Cove from our campground. According to Marion, we had to start off at 6:30 to hit Lizard Point at the right time, with respect to currents and tides.
When we got to the harbor, the sea was whipped up white and frothy, looking more forbidding than it had to date. The Coast Guard certainly had nothing good to say.
Denise and I convened an emergency meeting and decided that whatever the inconvenience or expense in terms of cash or dignity, we were willing to suffer same rather than go out there.
We presented our proposal as decorously as possible to meet the balance of the party farther along the route, but it wasn’t necessary. They had also decided it was too risky. Even Marion.
Marion and Ken brainstormed a complex arrangement that involved public transportation and a lot of time, but the upshot was that we were going to do a car portage to cheat Lizard Point and drive to Kennack Sands, which would hopefully be more sheltered and calm. I was ecstatic. Perhaps the sea would not have me after all.
True to prediction, the sea at Kennack Sands was millpond still. The only churning was the human activity on the busy beach, where even toddlers were venturing into the water with just limited supervision. I launched without incident or even fear, which made it a bit of an event.
We paddled along the coast, the topography of which had become much less dramatic: beaches all along and no sea cliffs. I could land anywhere. I could laugh and splash and make conversation. I could be a beer commercial bon vivant. This was the kind of committing I could get into.
It was nice. The sun shone, and we chatted as we paddled. Ken got out a fishing line and caught a few mackerel that he and Paul later cooked over a campfire on the beach.
After Lizard Point, the Coast Guard’s forecast never predicted winds of more than Force 4. We went up Helford Estuary and Frenchman’s Creek, of Daphne du Maurier fame, where smugglers and other lawless types once hid out. At high tide, we paddled all the way up the estuary to a pub at Gweek. It was all incredibly pleasant.
It was also a bit boring. Which goes some small way to explaining how the following exchange happened after we’d paddled back out the estuary and were spending our final night at a campground near Falmouth:
“What do you think of paddling around Corsica next?” Marion asked, sitting cross-legged beside the camp stove, with her tummy protruding into her lap.
“Sure,” I heard myself say. “I’ve never been to Corsica.”
I could put it down to sunstroke or water on the brain, or blame Marion for transforming me into an adrenaline junkie. But a girl doesn’t make an über-friend everyday, and one like Marion is probably more of a once-in-a-lifetime offer, however abridged that lifetime might turn out to be.