Post Cockleshell Heroes Expedition

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Fort Albert

Following Roger and Sandra Downton’s remarkable achievement of canoeing from the Bay of Biscay, 75 miles up the formidable River Gironde to Bordeaux in their mission to commemorate the famous Cockleshell Heroes, they were not content to simply sit back and wallow in their unquestionable tenacity and success. No, for this courageous and intrepid couple from Poole, Dorset, the soft option (pipe, fluffy slippers, chocolates and bland TV) is totally out-of-the-question. Itching for another opportunity to stretch themselves, they have now successfully completed, and logged, a circumnavigation of the Isle of Wight. Its unpredictable waters have gained the reputation as one of the most challenging sea areas on the planet. For the middle-aged couple, tough as they undoubtedly are, they have to admit that it was, without doubt, physically and psychologically, a feat of raw courage, stamina and endurance.

Day One

South of the Needles

Tea break at Freshwater

They set off from the south coast port of Key Haven, Hampshire, crossed the Solent (tricky at the best of times, but in a canoe?), rounded the rugged waters of the Needles (to be confronted by a formidable oblique wind), bashed on along to Freshwater Bay (for a nice cuppa on picnic benches with a bunch of lycra-clad male cyclists), and continued on to their first over-night camp on a farm (menagerie of goats, a donkey, guinea pigs, ponies, chicken, lamas, to mention a few) at rugged, rural Brighstone.

Day Two

Brook Chine

Stiff, but getting into their stride, they paddled off again. Battling through the maelstrom of huge, ripcurl breaking waves in the tidal races of St Catherine’s Point, they fought through to the tranquil water on the south west coastline to visually absorb the spectacular and picturesque cliff formations. Sometimes chalk white, then blending to reddish brown, the fossil encrusted sandstone rock had formed over many thousands of years. Enjoying the advantage of being so close to the water in their canoe, they were mesmerised and amazed by the beautiful live coral reefs that passed inches below the hull of their canoe ‘Sardine’.

Another worthy rest, compliments of a delightful, old-world comfortable B&B (no campsite available this time) right on the waters edge (plus fish and chip supper) in Bonchurch, just beyond Ventnor.

Day three, refreshed by a shower, a night in clean sheets and a hearty breakfast, they set off on glassy waters under a blazing sun to the next destination, the harbour at Bembridge. On the way, although way out from the shore with some jolly, friendly fishermen, they observed the seaside resort towns of Shanklin, and with its traditional pier, Sandown. Effecting a minute detour in Sandown Bay, a floundering bumble bee was plucked from the rolling swell by paddle, and hoisted on to the foredeck of the 'Sardine' where it dried its salt-encrusted wings before taking off once again towards the shore. As well as bumble bees, butterflies often fluttered by, even 'though they were sometimes a mile or so from the shore. As they paddled, they asked themselves, "Had these hapless insects crossed the channel from France, or simply strayed from the sancturary of the Isle of Wight?" Anyway, whatever the answer, it was food to ponder. With a small, winding channel of water to float them into Bembridge Harbour, some accommodating fellows at the yacht club afforded them a space to moor against a floating pontoon. A short, hot, uphill back-pack of roughly 30 minutes saw them in a holiday touring campsite. A refreshing evening swim (from the very beach that Lord Nelson boarded HMS Victory for Trafalgar to vanquish the French) preceded their evening meal of instant mash (in mess tins) and red wine, before collapsing cosily into their sleeping bag inside their minute touring tent.

Day four started with a £1.99 breakfast on the sunlight veranda of the campsite bar. This fortified them for the hard day’s paddling (seven and a half hours) that lay ahead of them.

from Portsmouth

The Solent proved to be a formidable creature, throwing rough, irregular sea conditions at them.

Simultaneously, they had to negotiate and contend with the extremely busy commercial shipping lanes criss-crossing from the Island to the mainland, and vice versa. All the large shipping, plus a myriad of private boats of all shapes and sizes, required that they had to stay mentally and physically alert at all times. With the tide low (but in their favour), and to avoid grounding on protruding sandbanks, they were forced to paddle way out into the centre of the Solent. Just prior to Cowes Harbour, they retreated exhausted, dragging the ‘Sardine’ on to a one metre steeply raked scrap of gravely shore-line just below the crumbling sea wall of Queen Victoria’s Palace, Osborne House. She would not have been amused!

Crossing Ryde Sands

Shingle Beach

After a few gulps of water to dull the pain of dehydration due to the searing heat, and a welcome handful of energy mix nuts and raisins to boost their aching muscles, they were back in the water and passing the entrance to Cowes and the Royal Yacht Club. Blessed with a period of calm evening water and a warm setting evening sun, they soon found themselves in the area of Thorness Bay. A sudden change of wind and sea state saw them paddling hard over the rough quarter of a mile to the sanctuary of the sandy shore.

Overnight at Thorness Bay

A mile hike with all their gear, and they were camped for their last night at a holiday centre in the company of holiday makers who wondered at Roger and Sandra’s achievements so far. “You’re very brave,” commented the Site Manager. With the ‘Sardine’ safely chained to a sign post on the shore, they enjoyed the camp facilities, including the launderette dryers, and a comedy double act in the entertainment complex.


Day five

The Sardine in Yarmouth Harbour

An early start, their traditional tin of all day breakfast and mug of tea, and the tent was packed, and before the outward going tide could go too far, they were on board and on the home run. Post a cup of coffee in a rather posh, puffed up with itself, churlish staffed quayside restaurant in Yarmouth, the couple were battling the high, erratic, unrelenting waves on their way to their home port of Key Haven. A Royal Navy destroyer sounded its horn as they came dangerously close, and following an avoiding change of course, the captain and bridge crew waved for a photograph as Sandra grappled with her paddle and camera amongst the high seas.


Home and dry at
Key Haven

Hurst Castle back to Key Haven

After four eventful and sometimes frightening days, Roger and Sandra floated serenely along the mud-lined channel of Key Haven to the spot where they had set off on their epic voyage.Yes, many have done this trip and other challenging journeys, but for a middle-aged couple, they admit that it put them on their mettle and would have stretched anyone, whatever age and ability.

The End

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