A Guide to Sea Kayaking in the Isle of Man
The Isle of Man, or Ellan Vannin in its native Manx language, is located in the Irish Sea between the larger islands of Great Britain and Ireland. It has benefitted from a strong Celtic and Viking heritage, influencing the rich local culture and the island’s tradition as a place to keep personal wealth. One of six Celtic nations, it is a self-governing crown dependency. Tynwald, the Manx parliament, celebrated 1000 years of assembly in 1979 after originally being set up by the Vikings. Hoards of Viking silver coins and artefacts have been discovered at various sites throughout the island. Smugglers also used this refuge to avoid paying duty on imported goods. Through the ages, others have found a spiritual side to ‘the gem of God’s Earth’. Being at the heart of the druid network, there are discreet stones circles and standing stones for interpretation. Ellan Vannin has also been home to both hermits and monks.
THE MINI GUIDE
What is now being discovered is the view from a kayak: the immense wealth of natural beauty, the perfect adventure playground and a mecca for sea kayaking. A diverse range of paddling, combining a stunning coastline accessible from sandy beaches and slipways with short travelling distances from anywhere on the island, to 6-8 knots of tide running like a freight train offshore are all available. The spectacular cliffs and inlets, sea stacks, caves and beaches are made even more enjoyable by encounters with marine animals and birdlife such as grey seals, porpoise, dolphins, peregrine falcons, chough, minke whales, migratory basking sharks, puffins, guillemots, razorbills and rare sightings of orca. This all combines to guarantee that sea kayaking around the Isle of Man is an unforgettable and adventurous experience.
Different species of wildlife are more prolific at varying stages of the season, so there is always something to see. Being an island means great flexibility on location choice to suit the level of outdoor activity you require, year round. Excellent water clarity gives the perfect opportunity to look beneath as well as around the kayak.
This guide gives basic information about some of our favourite sea kayak trips on the Isle of Man, suitable for paddlers with a fundamental level of competence and above. While the trips described are gauged as including typically novice, intermediate and advanced conditions/exposure, each and every trip can vary over these levels of challenge with the wind strength and direction. Tidal streams vary in complexity around the island, adding another layer to planning and predicting the local sea conditions. Sources of information to assist planning are listed at the end of the guide.
CALF OF MAN
The stretch of water between the mainland and the Calf of Man regularly has very strong tidal flows and should not be attempted by the unguided novice. Surrounded by almost continuous cliffs, its five miles of breath-taking coastline include the iconic Drinking Dragon overfall and offshore Chickens Rock tide races. Other moving water features such as the Pepper Pot and Little Sound overfalls are often used on the way out to the Calf of Man, which is situated roughly quarter of a mile from the southwest tip of the ‘mainland’. This is typically an advanced paddling location, including areas of fast tides, associated turbulent water and very committed stretches of the coast. This protected bird sanctuary (and home to hundreds of seals) has all the best elements of advanced paddling in condensed form, providing the ultimate adventure playground.
For stunning scenery alone, the Calf is a must. Experienced judgment is required to access the Calf safely by sea kayak, or take the easier option of the passenger ferry boat running in the summer.
Visitors should also be aware of Manannán mac Lir, the Celtic God of the sea. Manx mythology has Manannan as the protector of the Isle of Man, dropping his cloak of mist to prevent unwelcome visitors. Should invaders land upon the shore, Manannan would roll down the slopes from his fortress on South Barrule in a ring of fire.
THE WEST COAST
Located mid-point on the west coast, the Sunset City of Peel offers easy parking at Fenella Beach beneath the impressive 11th Century Peel Castle (completed during the Viking era). The towering red sandstone walls give a comfortable historic feel to the small sandy beach. The main beach at Peel is across the harbour bridge from Fenella, popular with families and tourists because of the long sandy stretch and sheltered shallow bay. For this reason it is often used by complete novices, paddlers with sit-on-top kayaks and swimmers.
Paddling northwards towards White Strand Beach has frequent access to coves and many get-out points with some areas of short cliffs, intermittent caves and rock gardens. An ideal novice sea kayak return trip includes the short distance around St Patrick’s Isle (on which Peel Castle sits); the main breakwater provides a more committing finish with some tide and no easy landing. Seals are numerous and active.
Paddling south to Port Erin past Glenmaye, Niarbyl point and Fleshwick is more committing with some tide off Contrary Head and Bradda Head. Spectacular rock formations, sea caves, abundant wildlife, tall and rocky cliffs with occasional rocky beaches can all be enjoyed. Gauged as novice to intermediate paddling, the tide typically reaches a maximum of 1 knot. There is superb rock-hopping to Glenmaye, with steep cliffs and regular peregrine falcon sightings. The short rocky coastline with few easy landings after this point is mildly committing. Eider ducks (and in season accompanying ducklings) are often spotted on this stretch.
Niarbyl, meaning the ‘tail of rocks’ (made famous by the film Waking Ned Divine), is one of the classic and most beautiful sections of coastline, unspoilt by human habitation. The recently built public car park and visitors centre is hidden just above, a short carry to the beach. The beach itself has a strip of sand stretching out to the sea facing south and a rough rocky shore facing west.
Continue round Niarbyl Bay past the picturesque White Beach, where the mini-waterfall is ideal for a refreshing shower. Further down to the stack is sheltered and provides easy landing at most of the frequent beaches. Steep bracken and grass cliffs, broken by occasional boulder beaches, stretch ahead, providing spectacular views towards Fleshwick bay, Bradda Head and the West coast of the Calf of Man. Kayak past Lag-ny-Keeilley, an ancient chapel and burial ground and monk’s abode. On the skyline above, Cronk Ne Arrey Laa (hill of the witch’s tit) provides a grim reminder of a different Manx tradition: suspected witches were rolled down a hill in a barrel with nails driven through to check their innocence. The favourite slope was believed to be Slieau Whallian in St Johns, a few miles inland.
Locate the hidden cave with a freshwater spring and a secluded seal colony cave, then explore the network of caves and caverns leading round into Fleshwick Bay. Accessible by car, this shale beach is overlooked by steep hillsides and protected from most directions except a strong southerly wind, which accelerates through the valley and offshore. A shipwreck lies in the bay just below the surface, occasionally visible at LW.
Bradda Head with its network of old copper mines to explore is committing. Streaks of copper oxide can be seen leaching from the cliffs in bright green streaks. Although worked as mines from the 1600s to the 1800s, stone hammers date quarrying at Bradda Head back to prehistoric times. The headland provides more caves and very steep rocky cliffs, some tide and no easy landings.
Enter Port Erin, arguably the most popular bay on the Isle of Man, through a sea arch and explore the cave with derelict mining buildings on the cliffs above. Milner’s Tower crowns Bradda Head, and can be seen from many miles away. A locksmith and fireproof safe-maker by trade, William Milner was a great benefactor of Port Erin; the tower built in his honour is the shape of a lock barrel.
Facing southwest towards the distant Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland, Port Erin boasts a well-protected bay, large sandy beach and plenty of parking. Ice-cream shops serve award-winning local produce, making it a very popular summer resort. The bay itself provides very sheltered paddling with a mixture of secluded coves, low rocky shoreline and tall steep cliffs, an ideal put-in and warm-up for the trip to the Calf of Man.
THE SOUTH COAST
Heading south from Port Erin Bay in the direction of the Calf of Man, the coastline is steep and rocky with few options for landings. Time the paddle to pass right through the long narrow tunnel and exit through a different cave. Look out for peregrines, ravens and seasonal sea birds. Large shallow bays beneath the expansive cliffs are a main feature here. Pass Aldrick where you may see rock climbers testing the crags or traversing near sea level. The Sound visitor centre is located just after Aldrick, where a lower grassy area above the Sound provides an excellent viewing platform for the seal colonies which bask on the Kitterland Rocks below. Hot food, panoramic views and a large car park: perfect! Access the water via a rock slab path to a narrow inlet on the west of the tip, a goat track down to the old harbour on the east (preferably at HW) or a short carry to the rock platform directly facing Kitterland Isle.
The direct route launches straight into the tidal flow on the edge of the overfall, and can be exhilarating. With the cafe behind you the next mini headland is Burroo Ned, an old fort site sticking out marginally into the main tide flow. Possible landings are available just before and after, using the eddy in the bays where needed. The paddle then becomes fully committed as the cliffs steepen and rise to form Spanish Head, named after the Armada galleon wrecks. Stay close to avoid the main tide flow round to Black Head, looking up at a few exposed rock climbs and cliff face where stone lintels were hewn and lowered to barges for transport.
Black Head typically has tide running south off it, often producing a small wave train. Every bay along the south and east coast has similar features of varying strength, due to the tidal stream being typically two knots plus (more than double that of the west coast).
Bay Stacka, almost impossible to access from land, has a few boulder ‘beaches’ and the most renowned coastal section of sea cliffs on the Isle of Man. Dolphins and porpoise feed in this bay in summer. The majority of the single-pitch crag climbs on the island and some brilliant multi-pitch lines are located high above on the cliffs among the numerous choughs. The Sugarloaf sea stack and Anvil occupy the northeast headland, each with their own spectacular caves (electric blue water can be viewed from inside the caves, while listening out for a snoring seal bobbing at the back) and dramatic rock formations. Sugarloaf and surrounding multi-ledged cliffs create nesting ledges for the vast numbers of migratory razorbills and guillemots.
Having explored this area thoroughly, paddle along to Kione Y Choggan as the cliffs drop away to lower rocky sections and stone beach inlets. The Manx National Trust, who own and manage the land from Burroo Ned to here, do not permit camping or campfires. Rock-hopping prevails round into Perwick bay with plenty of scope for landings, occasional dolphin and porpoise sightings and general exploring. The coastline flattens to low-lying flats of rock extending out and catching the swell, something to be aware of when paddling close to shore. Some tide also runs off Kallow Point. Follow the main breakwater round into the southeast-facing Port St Mary, the other well-used put-in for a trip to the Calf of Man. In addition to Peel and Ramsey, Port St Mary is one of the few working fishing ports on the island. Toilets and a token-card shower are by the harbourmaster’s office with parking. The lifeboat slip gives easy access to the main harbour and the inner harbour, with its small slipway, fills at HW.
Bay ny Carrickey occupies a third of the south coast from Port St Mary, past sandy Gansey Bay (known for its surf), low-lying rocky shore and boulder beaches with regular landings, round to Scarlett Point where marble is quarried and fossils abound within the rock slabs. The Carrick, a reef in the centre of the bay, can produce interesting breakers and occasional clean sets.
Continue round into Castletown Bay with its prominent Castle Rushen, home to the previous Lords of Mann. This was the Manx capital until 1869, when the finance centre Douglas took this role. Round the bay to Llangness, a small low-lying peninsula with a championship golf course (one of seven on the island). Sticking out into the main flow, the tide race at Dreswick Point can exceed 5 knots on the ebb. Jeremy Clarkson owns the lighthouse overlooking this engaging piece of water. The east-facing section of Llangness is a rock-hopping paradise, with a mix of seals and typical swell. St Michaels Island (known locally as Fort Island) on the northern tip has a 12th century chapel. This was the site of 13th century battles to control the Isle of Man and the round fort was built in 1645 to protect Derbyhaven port. Launching and landing at HW is advised, as the very sheltered bay drains quickly leaving behind mudflats.
THE EAST COAST
This stretch of coast between Derbyhaven and Maughold Head runs almost straight with a few notable headlands. The tidal stream is typically two knots or more, running south on the ebb. Passing the airport and recent runway extension, the area of Santon Gorge can provide some cleans sets for surfing (aided when a high flow from the river meets a southerly swell). Explore the intermittent small coves, short rocky cliffs and landings at Port Solderick (no road access) and Port Grenaugh before committing to Santon Head, a section of steeper rocky cliffs with no easy landings until Port Soderick. Pistol Castle crag, part of the original climbing guide, is passed midway along.
Port Soderick has ample parking; the deteriorating concrete groin allows you to avoid the slippery boulder beach except at times close to HW. From here round Little Ness Point to Douglas Head is a contrasting section of barren stone beaches, steep cliffs and occasional sightings of dolphins. The old Victorian walkways created in the heyday of the island’s mass tourism are still partly evident here and further on.
Cross Douglas harbour entrance (VHF channel 12) and land at the renowned Tower of Refuge, built on St Mary’s Isle or ‘Conister Rock’ reef, for survivors of shipwrecks. The project was driven by founder of the RNLI Sir William Hillary in 1832. Douglas was a booming Victorian ice-cream destination in its day, and is now the centre for offshore finance. The north end of Douglas Bay from Port Jack beneath Onchan and round to Port Groudle has some fun rock-hopping, especially at night. Groudle beach is private, fires and camping are not allowed without permission. Paddle past the old Sea Lion Pit, Polar Bear enclosure and more remnants of the Victorian walkway.
Heading north to Clay Head the paddling becomes more exposed with no easy landings, and the sheer cliffs steepen. The headland itself experiences some tide and a wave train on the ebb. A seal colony can often be seen basking here, and the land above is a private nature reserve. Garwick beach inside Laxey Bay is the next landing, accessed by land via a narrow winding road. The rest of the bay has ample rock-hopping at HW, a small through-cave and plentiful sightings of eider duck, curlew, peregrine falcon and gannets. Laxey beach is renowned for its dumping surf in most sea conditions. Laxey has ample parking and toilets and is sheltered from the NW winds.
Laxey Head round to Bulgham Bay is an area of steep rocky cliffs with a local population of wild goats, perched in family groups or balanced on precipices. Enjoy regular sightings of both kestrel and peregrine falcon along this section to Dhoon Beach, a remote beautiful cove at the end of a long steep glen (accessible on foot by land). From Dhoon to Port Mooar the coastal features are very similar: rocky coastline broken by small inlets, with occasional grey seals and year round of birdlife. Port Cornaa is privately owned and, due to local abuse of public access, camping and fires are strictly forbidden. Port Mooar has a sandy beach, and is accessible by road. Portage by car to Port Lewaigue to avoid Maughold Head if required.
The paddle round Maughold Head to Port Lewaigue is alongside steep cliffs, an imposing lighthouse, lots of seals and nesting sea birds. This is a committing trip including caves and opposing tides.
THE NORTH COAST
Admire the sand dunes and marram grass, passing the occasional porpoise, diving gannet and seasonal terns. Keep in close to shore around the Point of Ayre to avoid the strong tidal streams, passing the lighthouse and buildings, Rue Point, Blue Point, Jurby Head and Orrisdale head. Heave a sigh of relief when you reach Glen Wyllin in Kirk Michael, where the campsite has people, a shop and facilities. During the short paddle from Kirk Michael down to Gob Y Deigan, the sand cliffs dissolve into meaningful rocky coastline with caves and small coves. White Strand Beach just south picks up the west coast route.
CALF OF MAN
Typically accessed from either Port Erin or Port St Mary, the paddle south gives a steady warm up. Putting-on directly at the Calf Sound to ‘park and play’ may suit paddlers with time limitations. Cross the very short distance from the Calf Sound (the island’s southern tip) to Kitterland rocks, drop through the little Sound overfall (which forms clean waves for the first 2-3 hours of the ebb stream) and then over to the awesome Calf of Man itself, through the big Sound with increased water volume.
The Pepperpot Challenge (a beacon on the Thousla Rock reef in the centre of the main channel) offers a small eddy for executing precise ferry glides and break-ins. Landings at Cow Harbour itself, or the flat rock shelf ‘beach’ just south of this, are often taken by Atlantic Grey seals, especially in the pupping season beginning in September. The main tracks from Cow Harbour (which gets its name from when cattle were swum from here to the ‘mainland’, tied by rope to the accompanying boat) and Grants Harbour lead to the hidden farmhouse, home to the seasonal warden and wildlife officer, and also South Harbour. Camping and fires are strictly forbidden on the Calf of Man.
Paddling anticlockwise around Calf Island works well on the ebb, past The Cletts reefs and steep sheer cliffs, down the straight section of moving water feeding into the Drinking Dragon. Known for its ferocity on the ebb, the dragon’s breath overfall and mini whirlpool can be paddled or avoided a few hours either side of HW by taking the adjacent inner chute or ‘eye’, which has a submerged reef prior to drying. (South Harbour inlet allows for a break just before the Dragon and a view down into the meaty turbulence. Follow the wave train out to Chicken Rock with your eyes before paddling it; the water features around Chicken Rock may be surprising.) Regular sightings of porpoise in clear weather make this trip extra special.
The lighthouse no longer has a foghorn (due to no ships being wrecked there during its operation) and the rock covers at HW. The granite tapered block tower itself (built by the same family as the Maughold lighthouse) was completed in 1874. The Stevenson engineering family achieved recognition for building Bell Rock Lighthouse in 1810, previously deemed ‘impossible’, and were then commissioned by the Northern Lighthouse Board to design one for Chicken Rock. A fulltime lighthouse keeper once painted ‘BABY’ in massive letters on the tower, relaying a cry for assistance for a newborn child on the Calf; on another occasion, an internal fire required a rescue in stormy seas. Seals often bask on the rocks beneath and landing can be interesting. Use the transit line and original beacon (two older lighthouses, one below the other on the western tip of the calf) to paddle the crossing over to The Stack. Although no longer used to warn sailors, aligning the two provides a useful gauge for paddlers on the conveyer.
A large eddy forms in Puddle Bay (with possible landings) between the Burroo (or Drinking Dragon) and Caigher Point, useful if keeping close to the Calf itself, avoiding Chicken Rock crossings. A few caves, a blowhole and occasional seal-strewn rocks after the point make up the sheer west coast, before passing beneath the three lighthouses onto the northern section. Flow runs SW towards The Stack for nine consecutive hours (changing for an elusive three hours). Paddlers can opt to punch up through the inside channel or enjoy the outer race, which typically provides a clean overfall. The shallow Bay Fine and Gibbdale Bay often have tide running out in the direction of the main flow. Expect to find seals on most low-lying rocks as you paddle round to reach Cow Harbour.
If following the coastline in and out of the bays, the circumnavigation is typically 85 land miles around. This can be quite enjoyable spread over four days while camping and exploring the coves and caves. There is also a race around the island in a touring-class sea kayak, retaining the ethos of self-sufficiency for the typically 62.3 nautical mile journey. For the present record time and holder, and other info;
PADDLING TO THE ISLE OF MAN
Mythology tells how the Isle of Man was formed during a fight between Irish and English giants, when one picked up a sod of earth and threw it at the other which landed short in the middle closer to Scotland. It is only a 20-mile paddle from Isle of Whithorn to the Point of Ayre. Other routes used are St Bees Head to Maughold, Anglesey north coast to Port St Mary and Strangford Lough to Peel.
Kayaks are only as safe as the paddler in them. Taking risks responsibly will allow you to enjoy many more years of sea kayaking. In most cases it is preferable to paddle in company, wear a buoyancy aid and carry appropriate safety kit. A local current weather forecast is essential. In strong winds, locations described as ‘sheltered’ can become hazardous.
Of the many species observed unobtrusively by sea kayakers, a few are especially protected from disturbance and harassment: peregrine falcons, basking sharks, the large colonies of grey seals (and the less-common common or harbour seals) and all species of dolphins.
Guidelines in place to prevent disturbance can be read by visiting: http://baskingsharks.wildlifetrusts.org/wise.php.
By positioning your kayak carefully and then watching the wildlife come to you, the experience is far more enjoyable and rewarding long term. Young seal pups often swim up to kayaks to nibble the carrying toggles and nuzzle the smooth hull. Being totally wild and generally quite curious, basking sharks often continue feeding right up to and beneath kayaks and other small craft. These ‘gentle giants’, which feed on microscopic plankton, have an acute sense of their surroundings and can change direction with ease. With large adults growing to 35 feet, when they pass beneath your kayak the sheer size of these awesome creatures can take your breath away! Passing within inches of watercraft, their excellent spatial awareness ensures they do not actually touch. Purposeful contact and interference by humans is an offence and totally unnecessary.
For more information on locations mentioned in this guide, including distances, facilities, public transport and other fantastic locations to visit, pick up a ‘one-stop guide’ published by Isle of Man Tourism or visit: http://www.visitisleofman.com/.
Resources to help you plan
OS Landranger Map: Sheet 95
Isle of ManImray Irish Sea: Chart Y70 Isle of Man
Sailing Directions, Tidal Streams and Anchorages of the Isle of Man (sold at Manx Marine chandlery, Douglas marina)
Sea Kayaking Northern England & Isle of Man by Jim Krawiecki, Pesda Press.