Wye on a Surf Ski?

On previous birthdays I have run my age in miles, climbed mountains, or combined the two on one occasion by attempting to run the Brecon Beacons Traverse, but this year things were to be different as knee trouble is keeping running, hiking and biking off the menu (for the moment - I shall be back!!). At times like this I turn to alternative forms of exercise and - equally important - of fun. The latest toy I've acquired is a surf ski - basically a thick surf board that you sit on and paddle in the sea. Of course, being me, I like to take mine on rivers too, a pursuit for which it isn't really designed. It gets me out into beautiful valleys with amazing wildlife, and there are rapids (easy ones) to provide some excitement. Solo paddling in a kayak - for a novice like me - seems a bit risky, but with a surf ski there is no way to be trapped in if you capsize. It's as easy as falling off a log (and in fact remarkably similar).

My birthday this year was a great opportunity - with the weather so good - to take a trip to Hay and try out a section of the Wye that I had heard a lot about but never had the chance to paddle. Glasbury marks the beginning of the "easy" sections of the Wye that touring canoeists can tackle - what rapids there are from here down to the tidal section are either mild riffles or, in one or two places, grade one. We arrived mid-morning and easily found the put-in, a grassy common on the left bank next to the bridge, with a small car park right next door. There was even a loo where I could don my shorty wetsuit before shouldering the ski and walking it down to the river. After all those struggles with my old canoe - a 16' wooden canadian that was hard to even lift let alone carry - it felt great to have a boat (if a surf ski qualifies as a "boat") that was so light and easy to get around. There were two parties of youngsters getting ready to take open boats down the same section, and I could hear them asking what this bloke was doing carrying a surf board down to a river. All became clear when I carried it into the shallows, got on and started paddling around. I left Fran taking a well-earned rest from her marathon training (by lying down for a sunbathe on the bank), then it took me a few minutes to get used to the rather wobbly ski again. When I had my balance I got going downstream under the bridge and straight into the first rather modest rapid.

The river at Glasbury is shallow and runs beautifully clear over a bed of smooth stones. There are what you might call pebble beaches along the banks and sometimes on the numerous islands that you can land on for a rest. The first rapid was an easy scrape with small waves but, as I discovered at Symonds Yat a few weeks before, taking any rapid at the low level of a surf ski (you are almost sat IN the water, hence the wetsuit) is quite exciting. I glided down through the trains of small waves, with the odd bump on a rock where the course was at its most shallow, and managed to keep my balance pretty well. On the odd occasion when I almost came off, it was always shallow enough to just drop my feet down to the side of the ski and regain my balance.

From Glasbury to Hay is supposedly about 9k, and my GPS read it as 9.1 so the guidebooks aren't far wrong. There must be a dozen or so rapids and riffles before the bridge at Hay and the take-out, so there is plenty to keep you amused. On the quieter stretches, I saw lots of great wildlife - I love to see Herons, so sighting about ten of them - always alone of course - was a treat. They would take off with lazy wingbeats as I approached and land again to resume their statuesque pose, feet in the water, after I passed. There were buzzards overhead too, and even jumping fish in the quiet, moody, tree-lined section approaching Hay. There were awesome views too, of the Black Mountains and their foothills. All in all it was a fantastic paddle, and it felt great to be alive.

One rapid, just after half way, set into the left bank and formed a small wave train under overhanging willows. I dug the paddle in behind me as a rudder, and enjoyed the feeling of being carried swiftly downstream, ducking the willow fronds, with the river-waves breaking over the front of the ski. After 7.5 k or so came the "natural weir" mentioned in the guide, and here I scraped the ski down and powered through the small waves at the bottom before getting a first sight of Hay bridge. I only saw a few people in the whole 1 hour 55 mins of the paddle - a couple who were picnickng on one of the shingle beaches, one or two onlookers on a bridge and a party in kayaks who looked to have just launched from some outdoor centre on the left bank.

This stretch of river is very peaceful and wonderfully natural (no weirs, no built-up banks) so it's perrfect for any kind of open boating or touring. I could, in truth, have done with some more water to avoid so many bumps and scrapes, so the perfect time for this venture would have been during summer but after a week of serrious rain on the Welsh Mountains. Once In Hay, and under the bridge (I chose the central span, but the small rapid under the right arch looked deeper and therefore a better course with hindsight) I broke out to the right and paddled back upstream in a small eddy to the get-out on the right bank. Again, it was easy to shoulder the ski and walk right into town with it, where I regained mobile signal (no o2 coverage near the bridge) and met up with Fran for a lazy lunch and stroll around Hay. Here you have a gem of a town, with wonderful buildings, eclectic shops and luscious countryside all around. I looked out of the window of the old ice cream bar and mused on the exquisiteness of rural England - or was it Wales in that direction? Hay is a border town, and the two countries merge beautifully here. The best of both worlds.

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