RS Aero sailor Ken Fowler has become the first person to sail solo around every island in England and Wales
The aim of the adventure was to become the first person to successfully circumnavigate all the islands in England and Wales.
A big enough challenge in itself, but when you’re attempting it in a 4m RS Aero single-handed dinghy it makes it just that much more difficult!
The motivation behind the circumnavigation was raising funds for two amazing charities, Cancer Research and Oakhaven Hospice.
Having lost my father, several uncles, aunties and my mother-in-law to cancer, I first embarked on my sailing fundraising in 2015 when I sailed a Laser dinghy around the Isle of Wight and raised over £3,000.
After you’ve completed any adventure one of the most common questions people ask you is “What’s your next adventure?”
For me, that turned out to be sailing from Land’s End to John o’Groats in an RS Aero.
The aim of that 865-mile journey was to raise £50,000 for the two charities. It was a colossal target, but thanks to the generosity of many people we raised £37,000 which was staggering, but still short of the target.
To raise the remaining £13,000, I needed another challenge and so Yodare (based on my boat’s name Yoda and ‘You Dare’) was born.
Yodare came from the inspiration of my first island adventure and the fact that on my Scottish journey, I’d sailed past so many islands that I never had the chance to explore the other side of.
I settled upon the criteria that an ‘island’ should be permanently visible at high tide and at least 30m in length – otherwise, I’d be chasing every rock in the sea.
Having set the criteria I discovered that there were around 250 islands, far more than I suspected and quite daunting, especially coupled with the estimated 1,000 miles of sailing needed to round them all.
Obstacles to overcome
Sailing around islands sounds simple, but brings with it many different challenges, including identifying launching sites, tides that stop islands from being islands, bridges, roads and all the normal challenges of sailing close to hostile coastlines.
Finding launch and landing sites was one of the biggest obstacles.
There is often no nearby harbour or slipway to an island and this means either sailing a long way to get around what could be a very small island, or finding an alternative type of launch site nearer to the island.
Surf beach launches are sometimes the only option, but the challenge is to find those sheltered enough from the prevailing conditions to enable safe launch and recovery.
These locations can vary from day to day based on the vagaries of the local weather system and all of them seem to involve a long trolley drag across sinking sand just to reach the water!
I’m so glad my RS Aero only weighed 30kg.
Being out on the open seas in a 4m dinghy is not to be taken lightly.
There were numerous days when, despite having travelled hundreds of miles, I had to say ‘no’ to sailing because of the conditions.
It was frustrating because I knew it meant another long journey to attempt the island on another day, but managing safety is key when undertaking challenges like this.
On those days when it was safe to sail, I regularly used the RYA SafeTrx app to ensure everyone was aware of my location and plans.
A live tracker kindly supplied by YB Tracking also helped supporters and my ground support team to follow my progress live on the internet. It was also invaluable if the RNLI was ever needed.
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Sometimes it might feel like a bit of overkill on short island hops, but I’ve discovered that you never know what each day will bring, so go out there fully equipped – just in case.
A key part of my safety was the amazing team – Earl, Karl and Paul – who acted as my shore support, plus the ever-vigilant eyes of the numerous National Coastwatch Institution volunteers.
Before the Covid-19 era, I’d sailed 94 islands, but had over 150 still to sail, including the extreme tidal islands off Pembrokeshire, the Isle of Wight and challenging Anglesey.
The big one
As the spectre of Covid-19 started to ease and restrictions were lifted, the Yodare adventure was off to Anglesey.
This was always going to be a massive challenge due to its size, the strong tidal influences and the fact that it’s surrounded by another 21 islands which also needed circumnavigating.
Each day’s sail was determined by the tides; higher tide days were used to navigate around tidal islands such as Cribinau and Llanddwyn, while we circumnavigated Anglesey on a neap tide.
Launching from Beaumaris, Yoda and I sailed through the Menai Strait, but after a long day, the wind started to die and we landed near Rhoscolyn.
The following days were a frustrating mix of weather, which meant it took longer than expected.
Slowly the circle around Anglesey was being completed as we ticked off the challenges of the North and South stacks, the overfalls of the Skerries and finally, only the south-east corner and Puffin Island remained.
A tough double crossing of Puffin Sound finally bagged the last of Anglesey’s 21 islands and completed the rounding of the island itself.
The islands of Ramsey, Skomer and Grassholm off the Pembrokeshire coast are notoriously tidal and turbulent and were always high on my ‘difficult’ list.
They certainly lived up to their reputation as it took two attempts to successfully navigate Jack Sound and Skomer, while the long 12-mile journey offshore to Grassholm almost failed when a 7-knot tide completely stopped my progress for nearly an hour before I managed to break out of its clutches.
Having carefully researched the passage of Ramsey Sound I was greatly relieved when I emerged from the waters around the notorious Bitches unscathed, only to discover that in attempting to round the islands to the west of Ramsey I was taking on an even greater challenge.
As I tried to pick my way through the overfalls and standing waves off North Bishop I capsized – only the second one of the entire adventure– in 8-10ft standing waves.
By the time I’d righted Yoda and clambered back aboard, I’d gone backward over 400m due to the ferocious tide – I had to retrace my journey through those turbulent conditions again; the scariest part of the entire challenge!
The farthest North islands
It was a long journey to Northumberland, but the island sailing delivered some of the most amazing wildlife of the entire adventure.
The Farne Islands are a collection of 17 navigable islands that lie just off the coast and which provide a wildlife mecca for puffins, seals, guillemots and numerous other birds.
Sailing through the rafts of puffins surrounding Yoda and watching the towering vertical edges of the islands, almost hidden by the number of nesting birds, was truly stunning.
It was a navigational maze to round all the islands, taking into account all the tidal flows and reefs, but after a long five-hour sail, we had a new Yodare island record – 17 islands in one day!
Lindisfarne provided a different challenge as we had to stop on the causeway to the island to work out how far up the road signs we needed the water to be to ensure Yoda could sail over the road and railing poles – not the usual part of a passage plan!
Once on the island, we waited to be surrounded by water and then sailed one of the most magical roundings of any island with the backdrop of Lindisfarne Castle marking the start and end of our circumnavigation.
Bridges and mud
Essex is rich in islands, big vistas and lots of mud! With numerous rivers peppering its coastline, the tidal challenges of these islands – making sure there was enough water to round them – made them some of the most difficult.
From the narrow channel to Mersea Island where each leg of the numerous tacks could only be five seconds long before you were stuck firmly in the mud, to carrying it over the roads at Wallasea Island, there was rarely a simple island.
The new sailing skill I perfected in Essex was the ability to capsize my RS Aero under bridges.
Of all the islands in Essex, Foulness was the toughest test.
England’s third largest island, the massive expanse of the Maplin Sands meant I had to sail past the 3ft-high version of the Sahara Desert before I could turn southwards, meaning I’d almost sailed double the size of the island.
Being surrounded on the seaward side by a military range, I’d had to wait for a day when the range wasn’t active.
I also needed the Havengore bridge operator to raise the bridge as underneath it were barriers preventing my normal capsize technique.
The first two calls to the bridge operator on my VHF radio were met with a deafening silence and just as I was about to contemplate an emergency beach landing the operator arrived, the bridge was lifted and we entered the maze of the backwaters behind Foulness.
The Isles of Scilly was always the place I was most excited about sailing and as we craned Yoda onto the deck of the Scillonian ferry, I knew at last we’d realise that dream.
With 60 islands to round, the Isles of Scilly needed the most preparation in terms of route planning to ensure we made it around every island in the most efficient and tidal focussed way.
Each one of the four long sailing days was well over eight hours, but by the end of the week, we’d rounded 60 islands and sailed 115 miles.
The colours of the water throughout were incredible and with the white sand beaches it felt as if I’d been transported to the Caribbean with giant forests of swaying kelps that were often so thick, they brought Yoda to a complete halt.
As well as the stunning scenery I was lucky enough to see some amazing wildlife including the most unusual sighting of all my island adventures, a walrus!
Wally had arrived a week before us and, after sinking a few boats, the locals built him a floating platform to rest on to save any further boat damage.
I was always pleased to see him on that platform as I sailed past him every day; his 750kg rather dwarfed my 30kg RS Aero.
Of all the islands in England and Wales, the one furthest from the mainland is Lundy.
Situated 20 miles off the North Devon coast, Lundy was always going to be a challenge in terms of logistics and weather, and it took us three attempts to get there.
On our final trip, the Yodare support vehicle broke down just 40 minutes from Watermouth, our launch point; a nonfunctioning gearbox was the cause.
Facing a third failure, a quick chat with the breakdown service resulted in a tow to our launching point and the promise of a relay back home late on Sunday evening.
For this circumnavigation, I was to sail in company with several slightly larger dinghies and a safety yacht.
The novelty of travelling with others was magical and as we cruised along the North Devon coast, the view behind me revealed how I looked to other marine traffic.
Lundy slowly emerged from the horizon and the place that had always felt so far away was becoming a tangible occasion.
The Wayfarer dinghies were still well behind as I started the circumnavigation.
Lundy’s western coast is hidden from most people’s view and it appeared like a buttress against the Atlantic Ocean, its sheer cliff walls constantly pounded by the long travelling Atlantic waves.
By the time I’d rounded the island, the Wayfarers had moored up in the bay and were there to greet me as I approached the steep boulder-strewn beach.
With many helping hands, it was easy to lift Yoda up to the top of the beach, away from the high tide.
After the novelty of my first-ever camp on an island, it was an early pre-sunrise start to catch the tide back to Watermouth.
With a dolphin escort, it was one of the rare moments in the Yodare adventure when I could just sit back and soak up the amazing scene.
By the time we’d landed back at Watermouth I’d sailed 56 miles and nearly 14 hours, but the island had been conquered.
On the northern coast of Norfolk lies Scolt Head, a stunning wild beach island separated from the mainland by a narrow channel that is only navigable at certain tides.
We’d visited the island earlier in May to be met with 30-knot winds from the north and snow for several days.
Having given a talk during that visit at Brancaster Staithe Sailing Club, members kindly invited me to return in August and participate in their round the island race; this meant I’d have plenty of guidance to get around the island and the added bonus of support boats.
The race was due to start a little after sunrise but a windless start to the day looked like I’d be frustrated again.
As we were optimistically towed out to the start line, I was busy hatching an alternative plan to get around the island.
I left the other boats awaiting wind and headed the wrong way around the race course hoping to take advantage of the tidal flow.
I drifted serenely along the channel, often being passed by kayaks and paddleboarders, but we were progressing eastward and soon reached the end of the island.
The only option now was to land on the beach and wait for the wind and the tide to turn.
After seven hours the wind finally arrived and I was under way again heading along the seaward side of the island and back to Brancaster.
As I finally turned eastwards, I saw two teenagers shouting and waving frantically from Scolt Head Island. I sailed to them, and they told me that they and two other friends were trapped on the island by the incoming tide.
Looking at how quickly the spring tide was racing in, I made an immediate decision that they needed rescuing quickly, so I told them to wait on the beach with their friends and I’d come and get them.
I knew I was only going to be able to transport one person at a time, so I chose to help the only girl first as she seemed least able to cope with the situation.
As I sailed towards the mainland, she kept screaming “I’m going to die!” while clinging to the mast. I tried to reassure her and then asked her why she was so worried. “I can’t swim,” was her response.
The final island
For a challenge that was all about going around in circles, it felt appropriate to make the final island the one where it all started – the Isle of Wight.
While only the second largest island in England and Wales, it was always going to be the longest single day sail, especially as I was launching and returning from my sailing club, Highcliffe Sailing Club.
This added some 2-3 hours to the day’s sail but offered me the opportunity to sail ‘home’ to conclude this adventure.
With a sunrise launch for the tides, I knew it would be a long day, but as I passed through Hurst Point, I was joined by the welcome company of fellow Aero sailor Peter Barton for the long upwind leg to Cowes.
Just after he left me to return to Lymington, my support RIB crew of Earl and Graham called to say they’d broken down.
I continued alone around the eastern side of the island in fantastic conditions, but as I rounded Bembridge the wind and waves suddenly increased and I was pushed further offshore to avoid the turbulent waters.
As conditions out to sea worsened, I turned back towards Sandown.
Fortunately, as I neared the coast, conditions eased off greatly and my support RIB finally appeared.
With the added security of the RIB, we eased our way through the overfalls of St Catherine’s Point and gave the Needles shingle bank a wide berth, before finally turning north-westwards for the beach at Mudeford and the welcoming committee on the beach.
It felt so magical to finally step off that dinghy. The final island had been rounded.
As I look back upon this dinghy sailing odyssey, I’m most proud that we managed to raise over £70,000 for two amazing charities.
The realisation of what I’ve achieved in sailing terms will take longer to sink in.
I know how tough it’s been to round each one of these islands and how the weather has constantly attempted to thwart me at every turn.
I’ve learnt to accept that I must bend with the weather, accept compromise and reset my goals, rather than fight against it.
Throughout the adventure, the support of fellow sailors, strangers and friends will be my most lasting memory.
The final tally of 262 islands is far more than I initially anticipated, but the really staggering fact is the 1,336 miles of sailing it has taken to round them.
My 865-mile Race to Scotland adventure and the Yodare island odyssey now means this 4m RS Aero has sailed over 2,200 miles – the equivalent of an Atlantic crossing.
Follow the adventures of Yoda and learn how to donate at www.yodare.co.uk
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