Bear Grylls invites MBY editor Hugo Andreae to join him and Aldo Kane on an attempt to circumnavigate the Isle of Wight on an Axopar 28 and a pair of jetskis during a Force 9 gale.
What is it with Bear Grylls and me? Every time I get on a boat with him we get beaten up.
I know the bloke’s an extreme adventurer and a massive boat fan but couldn’t we just go for a quick blast in some nice calm water, shoot the breeze, share a few beers and come home dry at the end of it? Apparently not.
My first experience of boating with Bear was piling into the teeth of Force 9 gale to test the rough weather handling of an open RIB prior to his North Atlantic crossing, the second was punching through a tidal race known as the Bitches of Ramsey Sound, and the third was meant to be a straightforward sea trial of an AMP 8.4 amphibious boat to see if it would be suitable for ferrying his family to and from their island off the coast of North Wales.
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The latter was all going smoothly right up until we nose-dived into the back of a wave sending a wall of green water crashing through the windscreen.
Yet again we ended up limping back to port with water and glass up to our knees wondering where it all went wrong.
Despite this Bear always seems to pop up with a massive grin on his face whereas I struggle to raise a half-hearted grimace. We just seem to be made of different stuff; tempered steel in Bear’s case, soggy papier-mâché in mine.
So when he called to see if I wanted to join him and a few mates on a boating adventure round the Isle of Wight earlier this summer I was a little wary to say the least.
It was only when he reassured me that he and fellow adventurer Aldo Kane would be on jetskis, while I would be safely ensconced on an Axopar 28 Cross Cabin that I began to drop my guard.
They would be the ones getting cold and wet, whereas I would be staying warm and dry on an enclosed boat – or to put it another way, in my element rather than exposed to them. What could possibly go wrong?
Two weeks later I am busy packing my shorts and sunglasses for the trip when a message from Bear pings up on the WhatsApp group.
It’s a screen grab of the next day’s weather forecast and reads: “High Wind Speed Alert: Gale force winds from the West with speeds up to 8 or 9 Beaufort. This can lead to minor damage to houses and some breakage of tree branches.”
Not again! My only hope is that Bear aborts the mission. If the wind is strong enough to damage houses and rip branches from trees, surely it would be madness to try to go round the Island in a 28ft sportsboat let alone a jetski?
I am not the only one having doubts. A message pings up from another member of the group. “Maybe not one for IoW circumnavigation,” he suggests tentatively.
“Yep, we can improvise, adapt and no doubt overcome,” responds Bear. “The hard part will be to the Needles, then we’ll be with the waves but let’s see.”
So that’s definitely not a no then and he still sounds worryingly keen to try and get round the island. In a Force 9. On a jetski.
Not wanting to wimp out before we’ve started, I carry on with my packing, taking care to swap my blue shorts for brown ones and throwing in an extra set of waterproof trousers just in case.
We are told to “RV at 1pm Monday” at a pin-drop on Google maps. It all sounds scarily military so I’m relieved to discover that when I click on the pin, it’s not some remote location but the rather more civilised surroundings of Hamble Point Marina.
Encouraged by this nod to normality, I stop off en route to grab a sandwich and a drink before ambling down the pontoon towards the boat.
As with any boat outing, I’m expecting the usual 20 minutes of faffing around while we all say hello, swap a few niceties and carefully stow our kit away on board.
No such luck, the Axopar’s engine is already running and the lines are cast off before I’ve even had a chance to open my BLT.
What is it with these army types? Don’t they understand that food and drink always takes priority when it comes to leisure boating?
Half a rasher of bacon still hanging from my lips, I clamber onto the side deck and try to find somewhere discreet and dry to stash the rest of my lunch before it gets blown overboard.
We’re barely out the marina before Bear guns the throttles and rockets up Southampton Water towards Town Quay where he and Aldo have arranged to pick up the jetskis.
He’s heard good things about the Axopar and wants to test its handling for himself before he’s relegated to one of those wet, noisy PWC things.
This earns him an immediate reprimand for exceeding the speed limit but since we’re only seconds away from Town Quay he’s let off with a slap on the wrist.
Bear berths the Axopar neatly alongside the pontoon between two expensive-looking sailing yachts and hurriedly starts changing into a wetsuit before jumping onto one of the two matching Seadoos waiting for him and Aldo.
It’s exhausting just to watch him. God knows what he must be like to live with.
A brief discussion ensues between me and the remaining members of the crew to try and dodge the unenviable task of extricating the Axopar from its current berth.
The wind is now howling directly on our stern and one of us is going to have to get the boat off the berth and spin it round in not much more than its own length without bouncing off one of those fancy sailing yachts.
Inevitably, as the editor of a boat magazine, I am deemed least likely to break anything even though one of our crew used to own a Princess 43 and the other has crossed the Atlantic on an open RIB.
Once again the desire not to lose face trumps my inner fears and somehow I succeed in wrangling the Axopar’s backside out of the berth and spinning the bow round into the wind without damaging either boat or ego.
Choppy as it is in Southampton Water, it’s nothing compared to the conditions once we leave the shelter of land and head out into the Solent.
Waves seem to be coming from everywhere and nowhere with no predictable frequency or direction. It’s tough enough to pick our way through it in the Axopar, let alone the jetskis which keep disappearing into troughs so large we lose sight of them altogether.
It’s a good job Bear and Aldo are wearing goggles because the spray coming off the tops of the waves is being whipped directly into their faces by the wind.
Even in the relative comfort of the Axopar we’re taking quite a beating. The windscreen wipers are flapping away like a hummingbird’s wings but still they can’t keep up.
As for the poor canvas bow cover, I’m astonished it hasn’t either collapsed under the weight of water or taken off like a handkerchief in a storm.
In ‘normal’ conditions the Axopar’s knife-like bow works a treat, cutting through the chop with nonchalant ease but in waves this size the freeboard looks disconcertingly low and sure enough from time to time the biggest ones break over the top of it.
It’s not just the bow cover that’s getting a dousing, the fabric sunroof is being hosed down so frequently I’m worried it might pop out of its tracks.
But despite the hammering we’re getting, the plucky little Axopar is holding up remarkably well. No water seems to be penetrating into the cabin and everything that does breach the bow’s defences seems to wash down the side decks and straight back over the stern.
I can’t say I’m enjoying it much though, so it’s with some relief that we see the two jetskis duck into Newtown Creek for a respite from the waves.
Once inside the creek’s natural defences, the wind drops away and we can finally feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. Bear is still as chipper as ever but Aldo looks like he’s just survived 12 rounds with Tyson Fury.
Even that bird’s nest of a beard can’t hide the effects of being hosed down by near freezing water while clinging on to a high-powered watercraft designed for flat water speed thrills rather than rough water wave-bashing.
Good job he appears to be made of the same flinty stuff that Bear is, because I would have long-since thrown in the towel and stomped off back to my corner.
While the two of them share war stories about the beating they’ve just been taking, the rest of us get on with the serious business of tucking into what’s left of our lunch.
The Axopar 28’s wheelhouse felt a little claustrophobic with the four of us holed up inside, but sat in the forward cockpit with the sun on our faces, I’m reminded of what boating is meant to be like.
Admittedly, my multi-pack of Twix are a little damp and salty but they slip down well enough, at least until Bear puts me to shame once more by pulling out a bag of cashew nuts from his perfectly sealed dry bag.
Perhaps there’s a reason that he still looks as ripped as the day he left the SAS reserves while I look about as ripped as a wet paper bag.
The one small piece of good news is that either the nuts have acted as some form of brain food or Aldo has threatened lethal violence because Bear finally succumbs to the idea of turning back towards Cowes rather than pressing on round the Needles and the much more exposed South Coast of the Island.
Just as well because I was seriously considering abandoning ship and wading my way to the nearest hostelry for a pie and pint.
Die another day
Buoyed by the news that I might live to see another day, not to mention the sugar hit from three Twixes, I settle in for what I hope will be a rather more comfortable ride back to Cowes.
While far from the kind of fair weather boating I’d like to be enjoying, we are at least travelling with the wind and starting to relish the Axopar’s uncanny ability to roll with the punches.
It may not feel as bombproof as a Botnia Targa but the Axopar’s agile handling and responsive outboard engine allows us to pick our way through the waves while shrugging off any water that does make its way on board.
Bear and Aldo seem to be revelling in the conditions even more than we are now that the prospect of a warm bath isn’t quite so far away.
Several times I spot them completely engulfed in an explosion of white water as they plough headlong into the back of the following waves only to emerge the other side beaming with undisguised glee.
Nevertheless, it is with some relief that we finally arrive in Cowes marina with all the craft still in one piece and no casualties other than my transparent lack of grit.
Circumnavigating the island will have to wait for another day, preferably one when I’m busy washing my hair or rearranging my CD collection.
First published in the January 2022 issue of MBY.
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