Sighing silk and seas of stars
Paddling 250 miles round the South West coast of England in August sounds idyllic. Matt Button discovered the wind and salt lashed reality on an epic trip to document and fight against the plastic tide that blights our remotest outposts. Matt captured his adventures in all their gritty beauty for an upcoming crowdsourced photo journal. We asked Matt for an insight into his trip and what he learnt from it.
The disembodied hand reached up out of the sea, grasping at the leaden skies.
A solid red plastic glove, a fisherman’s glove maybe, floated with air trapped in the finger tips. It pleaded and bobbed in the tides beneath the Tintagel bluff. It was an ominous sight that made approaching the tall cliffs and the castle above more terrifying than it already was. I threaded my way through the currents hours behind schedule and counted fishing pots to measure distance as I seemed to be going nowhere.
I was tired and exhausted, salted and wind burnt, bruised, cut and blistered. For the first time in the now hundreds of miles of ocean paddling since I left the safety of Plymouth, a month earlier, I’d misread the map and under estimated the route by an extra seven miles. No-one wants to find that they have another seven miles to walk, run, swim or paddle. Especially when you're chasing a dying sun and have to get to the last and only safe port before dark.
Summer gales, solid surprise swells and raging tides had left me feeling that it was an impossible task.The summer weather had been even more unpredictable and aggressive than normal. Well that’s climate change for you. The week before the sea had snatched a local fisherman off the cliffs. Later in the month, the weekend after I finished, it would tear a family off the rocks at Fistral, including a baby in a pram, killing the father and leaving the children and wife in hospital. It had been a brutal August and not at all the romantic exploration of my home I had dreamed of as i pushed out from the Tamar. How far I had actually paddled is up for debate, how many bays were cut across was balanced against how many miles of coastline the wind forced me to re-paddle, but it was somewhere in the realm of 250 miles.
Two hundred and fifty miles of beautiful, tortured geology and wildlife. Part of what I had hoped to do was explore the state of marine litter along the way. Those hidden and secret coves are rarely visited and therefore miss out on the community beach cleans and pressure to do something about the problem. I’d wanted to see how untouched they remained.
Stretches like Loe Bar near Porthleven were awful. Wild angry currents take souls every year and consequently it remains unloved and isolated, visited only by dog walkers and tourists who mistake it for a quiet Cornish beach. The length of the bay was strewn with debris from both our own tourism and fishing industries as well as foreign imports of bottles, bags and brick-a-brac from Europe and the Americas. So amongst the piping oyster catchers and juvenile black headed gulls wrappers and packing crates tumble in the surf or cartwheel along in the prevailing south westerlies.
As part of the trip I wanted to record, document and collect as much of the marine litter as possible, then bagging up what I could sensible and safely carry to the next town for disposal. Today there may be as many as 46,000 pieces of plastic litter per square mile and marine plastic blights our coasts. I wanted to do my own small part in cleaning things up, identifying problems spots and highlighting Tim Nunn’s Plastic Project and Martin Dorey’s #2minutebeachclean.
Loe bar was a low mark, no pun intended, yet most beaches were touched by plastics. Some around the heads, Black, Rame or Nare had buoys and ghost netting wedged and wrapped so tightly around boulders that no hard work or teams of well meaning ocean minded souls could remove them.
Yet all challenges and adventures have their rewards and the nights were spent in isolated perfection beneath fields of stars with only seals for company and the sizzling of mackerel on the fire. When the angry sea gods were distracted the ocean poured out its beauty. When the winds dropped and the tide still the seas rippled like sighing silk. Mackerel shoals boiled in feeding frenzies like nothing I had ever witnessed. Sun fish flapped and rolled and yet were still able to to swim faster then I could paddle with all my camping kit. Occasionally dolphins, locked in feeding search, passed by ignoring me as they hunted, they mocked me with their nonchalance as I huffed and puffed my way first south then west then north towards Bude.
And now after weeks at sea, sleeping in caves and dunes Bude was a few days away and the finish line within striking distance, if only i could get to Boscatle before dark. If I didn't then I would certainly be in trouble, a lot of trouble, coastguard calling trouble. Crab pot 32 slipped passed and I dug deeper, reached out my stroke and pulled back. The sun was rushing for the horizon but I set my focus on crab pot 33 and dug deep again and again and again...