Islander Expeditions- The Inner Sea and the Heart of Penghu

The Inner Sea

Penghu from the air.  But you knew that already.

Penghu’s Inner Sea or Nei Hai is, perhaps, its best-kept secret. So well-kept in fact, that even people who’ve lived here for years might wrinkle their brow in puzzlement when you mention it, despite the fact many people see it on a regular basis, whenever they look out from Rainbow Bridge towards the hazy shoreline of Xiyu in the distance. It’s rarely mentioned in guides or the target of tourist excursions. It just kind of, there. I was only vaguely aware of it myself, as a place to visit and travel, at least. But since taking up sea kayaking last summer, I have begun to explore the large, tidal lagoon which the three main islands of Penghu coil themselves around and have discovered a strange, almost mystical place of calm, glassy water, hidden beaches, sand bars, shallow reefs and oyster farms.

I first crossed the Inner Sea at the end of last summer when, dissatisfied with the performance of my Sea Eagle, I decided, with characteristic impulsiveness, to buy a real boat. Well, okay, it’s still a kayak. But the crimson and mango Wildeness Systems Tempest 165 that I’d set my heart on was in a different class to the inflatable boat I’d spent much of that summer paddling. It was a true sea kayak, long and sleek with a shapely hull that cut through water like a blade with the slightest flick of my new paddle.  My new greenland paddle, a slender strip of kevlar reinforced carbon fiber. Well, if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it properly, right? If I was going to achieve my dream of paddling to all of Penghu’s ninety islands and islets, I was going to need a craft capable of the job. An expedition-class boat able to undertake long crossings and handle unpredictable ocean swell and tidal streams, breaking waves and rips. A boat which could be paddled swift and straight in adverse weather and which could carry and protect camping gear, food and supplies. A boat in which I could learn the skills and techniques of sea kayaking and ‘grow into’. The Tempest 165 was that boat, and from the first moment I wiggled myself into her cockpit and dipped my paddle into the water, feeling her respond like a well-trained horse, leaping forwards almost on her own volition, I knew I’d chosen well. It was love at first paddle.

World, meet Zephyrine. Zephyrine, world.

And paddle I had to. The kayak had been delivered courtesy of a small group from Taiwan’s Kayaking Association who arrived in Magong’s ferry terminal from the mainland with their long, unwieldy crafts balanced precariously on their shoulders. They were embarking on a week-long tour of the islands and had generously agreed to bring my boat with them, saving me a fortune in shipping. The boathouse where I would keep my kayak and from where they would begin their tour of Penghu’s Southern Sea was some five miles away from Guanyinting, on Zhongtun island. Five miles by sea, that is. Off we set, into a light cross-wind that had me fiddling with the adjustable skeg on my new kayak to try and combat ‘weather-cocking’, the habit of a kayak to be turned into the wind. Being my first time in a true sea kayak the crossing was something of a baptism of fire but I made it without incident, under the tutelage of a new friend, Jean Marc, a veteran sea kayaker from France. Upon arriving in the sheltered harbour of Zhongtun, he was kind enough to demonstrate the “wet exit” technique by placing a hand on the side of my kayak and unceremoniously capsizing me. Moments before I had been voicing my concern about how I’d get out of the cockpit in the event of a capsize, given that my legs were wedged rather tightly inside. Upside down and underwater, I figured it out rather quickly, rising to the surface in an indignant, spluttering mass of flailing limbs. We tried it a few more times and he taught me to remain calm once upside down, tapping my hand three times on the upturned hull to demonstrate I was “in control” and not panicking, before spilling out of the kayak, rolling it over and clambering ungracefully back inside. The mischievous hands of visiting Frenchmen notwithstanding, my kayak is actually remarkably stable and I’ve never felt like capsizing. Yet, the wet exit is the first of an important list of self-rescue skills any sea kayaker must learn. My second lesson was how to lift and carry its awkward weight on my shoulder, another essential skill if I was to make solo voyages (which of course, I was). That proved trickier. The thing, as weightless and agile as a bird on the wing while floating, was a 60lb, 17 foot telegraph pole on dry land. With much grunting and heaving, I proved I could just about handle it. Clearly I’d have to start paying more attention to my legs in the gym. Where I don’t go.

Home Sweet Home

Anyway, the result of my first voyage was that I now had a sea kayak, a true ocean-faring vessel, stashed on Zhongtun Island, which was to become my new base camp for waterborne exploration of Penghu’s many islands. It’s about ten paces from the understated boathouse with its unassuming, rusted door, secured by a salt-encrusted padlock, to the silty beach from which I launch into a sheltered corner of the lagoon, protected from the north wind by the island behind. On still days, the water there resembles a mirror, gleaming a brilliant silver, with barely a ripple to disturb the glassy surface. Paddling silently into that water is a wonderful, magical thing. I find myself consciously trying to propel myself while causing the least disturbance possible, my paddle folding into the liquid mercury, the nose of my kayak knifing through, displacing the water effortlessly in a mesmerising ripple that travels far and wide. The effect doesn’t last long, a few hundred metres from the shore a gentle chop starts up, little wavelets gently slap the side of the boat and I’m reminded I’m entering Neptune’s domain. The sea is not made of glass anymore, but is a shifting mass of hidden depths, of adventure, danger and hard work.

One of the many oyster farms in the Inner Sea.

The Inner Sea, while significantly more sheltered than the open ocean, still has its hazards. Water streams in from the various openings, producing powerful tidal streams as the lagoon fills and empties on its twice daily schedule. I once tried to paddle out to the North Sea through a narrow gap under the bridge which links Zhongtun with Magong Island as the tide came in. The water, quiet but well-muscled, pushed back against my efforts with grim determination. After about twenty sweaty minutes in which I moved forward perhaps twenty metres, I gave up. Lesson learned: Respect the tides. On another occasion, paddling out at low tide, I found the seascape transformed into a minefield of shallow, hull-scraping reefs and sand bars. It was as though the plug had been pulled in an enormous bath. A complicated labyrinth of deeper channels were still navigable and I now realised what the various iron rods and little towers in the sea were there for as I watched small fishing vessels follow the pathways they mapped out. But not in time to stop me beaching myself on a sand bar which I was forced to drag my kayak across in search of water deep enough to refloat it. The people of Penghu are, of course, aware of these features, timing their voyages and fishing trips and carefully following the water roads. They use the tide to their advantage, venturing out in waders and polystyrene rings to collect shellfish and seaweed from the freshly revealed seabed. I am often struck by how, even in this modern world of smartphones and satellites, life here and in other coastal regions all over the world is still regulated by an invisible force as old as the Earth itself, an ancient ritual more regular and predictable than clockwork, immutable, unchangeable and controlled entirely by a celestial being 239,000 miles away. The tides are eternal.

That there’s some smooth water.

In the middle of Penghu’s Inner Sea is small, heart-shaped island called Dachang. It’s a curious, sleepy place, inhabited by only a handful of people. One government website describes it as the ‘Center-Point of Penghu’ and a quick look at a map seems to confirm this claim. Standing on its shore you can look out across the water towards land in almost 360 degrees, towards the inter-connected islands of Penghu, Baisha and Xiyu. From here, the skyline of Magong City stands silently across the water like a shimmering mirage or a painted backdrop in a theatre, oddly flat and two dimensional; a world away.

Islands in the middle of lakes often seem to inspire myths and legends and take on magical properties in the popular imagination. Many years ago I visited Lake Titicaca “the Birthplace of the Incas” and made the journey to its centre, an island called Taquile where, legend has it, the Sun God was born. I spent a few days hiking and enjoying its strange, unique culture of exclusively male weavers and legendary trout. Landing on Dachang Island brought back those memories and its since become one of my favourite places in Penghu to visit. Separated by a mere two miles of water from my base in Zhongtun, its a quick, easy crossing but each time I paddle into its tiny harbour, tie up my boat and step ashore, I experience a strange sensation of homecoming. The island itself has little to offer tourists. There’s a small village clustered around the working fishing harbour, a temple, tiny grocery store and an elementary school which closed in 2004. In the summer months a small activity centre takes small groups to nearby coral reefs for snorkelling and banana boat rides but in winter, the whole island is eerily quiet. Which suits me just fine.

Dachang Harbour

The Chinese New Year Expedition

After making a few short test runs to Dachang, I decided to take advantage of a window of beautiful weather during Chinese New Year and have a proper explore of the Inner Sea. It would be my first expedition in my sea kayak, which I named “Zephyrine”, after the west wind which fluttered lightly across the water as I set out that morning. This was to be an overnighter, my first time camping out of the kayak and paddling it fully-laden with gear. I gathered the various kayaking bits and bobs I’d collected over the last few months, from specialist PFD (lifejacket) to floating waterproof phone case, deck compass and bilge pump and stowed them, along with tent, hammock, provisions, water, and everything else I needed to survive for two days, in Zephyrine’s watertight hatches. What wouldn’t fit was secured under the generous deck rigging of reinforced bungee cord. With a helping hand into the water and a cheery wave from my wife, I paddled out for an adventure. My plan was simple. Cross to Dachang before heading on to the far side of the Inner Sea to Xiyu Island. From there I’d hug the coast and paddle south, landing that night at what appeared, on the map at least, to be a small, disused harbour. Set up camp, preferably hang my hammock and avoid a long night on the hard ground and the next morning head out through the “Southern Gateway” where the Inner Sea flows out into the open ocean. My target was the island of Tongpan, a small, volcanic island ringed entirely by steep basalt columns that I’d visited years before on a tour. That time I’d been on a ferry. This time I’d get there under my own steam. After a quick circumnavigation of the island, I’ take advantage of the south wind that was forecast to hit in the afternoon, sailing it back into the inner sea and to Zhongtun in one long leg.

The plan. I didn’t have a napkin handy.

There’s something immensely satisfying about embarking on a sea kayak expedition, even one as modest as mine. Everything I needed to survive was either on my person or safely stowed in my boat and together we glided forward as one. It’s like going backpacking, but without the weight of a rucksack and all your gear on your shoulders and in your pockets, supported by weary legs. As my feet find the footpegs and my hips slot comfortably into the cockpit, pushing gently against the braces, the boat becomes an extension of myself. When I lean, it leans. When I dip in my paddle and push with a gentle twist of my torso it leaps forward, playful, powerful and reassuring in its movement. The rhythm of paddling is a soothing one, almost hypnotic. Back straight, paddle held loosely but firmly. Catch, rotate and pull. Catch rotate and pull. With the proper technique (which I’m still working on) your arms do as little work as possible, the power coming instead from your core and the rotation of your torso. Even so, a slow, pleasing burn from your muscles confirms you’re getting a workout, although the exercise is more akin to cycling than running. A constant, circular motion of un-strenuous exertion and you move steadily along at the pace of a slow jog. It’s zen-like, therapeutic and healing as your world shrinks to the small craft around you and the motion of cutting through the water, quietly and unobtrusively. The quiet is exquisite, not quite total. There’s always the barely perceptible sound of the paddle going in and the water running off the surface of the boat. The call of the odd seabird, the occasional distant, echoing sound from the shore, a car perhaps or the musical tone of a garbage truck (this is Taiwan, where one can never quite escape that sound!). But you are, essentially, alone at sea with your thoughts.

Ready to launch

The sea does, however, have a habit of keeping you from becoming too complacent or  ‘zoned out’, periodically reminding you, “Hey, quit day-dreaming you hippy landlubber. You’re in my world now and you better pay attention.” What was pink champagne, sparkling in the morning sun one moment becomes a threatening grey mass the next as clouds cover the sun. The wind picks up and suddenly you’re no longer gliding effortlessly over a millpond but bobbing across waves bigger than your boat. An invisible boundary is crossed, when the island that was protecting your from the swell is rounded and the open ocean rushes to greet your little craft. Suddenly you need to refocus. You’re alone and vulnerable. The sea is not your friend, or your playground. A slight frown furrows your brow for a moment and you rush a stroke or two. But then it’s  replaced by a smile. This is why you go kayaking. Adventures are never predictable or easy. Often, they’re not even fun. I’m responsible for myself out here, so yes Mr. Ocean, I will pay attention.

The sea also periodically reminds you it is a habitat, teeming with normally invisible life. As I paddled south, following the coastline, my thoughts were disturbed when a trio of large fish with long needle-like noses erupted from the surface and then proceeded to skip across the surface like miniature jet-skis, straight towards my boat. One flew across my bow, inches away hitting me in the face and skewering my nose. You often feel alone on the water, but you rarely are.

Plenty of room for a man, his thoughts and a cold(ish) beer.

After a few hours I was ready for a break and set my sights on a strip of golden sand. I checked my map but this wasn’t a beach I was familiar with. Still, it was as good a place as any to come ashore, have a banana and send a text to my wife, letting her know I hadn’t perished on the five mile crossing. As I stood on the sand and surveyed the beach, I felt the familiar glow of discovery. A picture perfect bay, guarded by thick scrub that hid it completely from anyone on the interior of the island. For a moment I considered stopping right there and setting up camp. Observing the high tide line however, I quickly realised the beach would be swallowed in a few hours time and there was no safe place to pitch a tent, hang a hammock or keep my kayak. Back to the water then, a new star twinkling knowingly on my google map.

Pit stop

Although the prospect of making an open water crossing is always exciting, the reality can be quite tedious. There’s nothing to look at and no sensation of speed or progress. Following a coastline on the other hand is definitely more interesting, as you watch cliffs, beaches and harbours drift past, with each new headland you round providing a new view. Fishermen perched precariously on rocky outcrops waved to me as I paddled south and I was treated to more displays of leaping fish. I’ve driven the length of Xiyu countless times but seeing it from the Inner Sea gave me the impression I’d never been there before, of fresh discovery. I recognised Niuxin Shan (Cow Heart Mountain) rising from the sea as I tracked west into the glare of the late afternoon soon. A little further and I’d reach my campsite. As I rounded its bulk I had to navigate a series of jagged reefs exposed by the falling tide and was forced further away from the coastline. I also needed to negotiate iron rods protruding out of the water and others lying treacherously just beneath the surface. I’d been told they were for fisherman to tie nets to. To me and my plastic boat, they were a nuisance, if not a hazard and I watched the water in front of me warily for sharp, rusted metal.

Squinting against the glare, I saw the harbour I’d planned to land. Something didn’t seem right. The entrance was guarded by high walls and imposing towers. Weird. The map made no mention of a military base here, yet that was exactly what it looked like. I fished out my monocular and took a closer look. The towers appeared unmanned. It was probably abandoned, but I wouldn’t know for sure until I got inside. As getting blown out of the water by a frigate wasn’t on my list of things to do that day, I decided to paddle on. The only problem with that plan was that I was rapidly running out of Inner Sea, as I approached the cape and open ocean. The coastline became rocky with steep cliffs and I couldn’t see anywhere to land. Waves raced in towards shore, and currents swirled around my boat. Knowing breaking waves and whitecaps signalled rocks, I steered clear, paddling doggedly on while growing a little more apprehensive. I had about an hour of daylight left and needed to find a place to land. As I rounded the cape, the water calmed almost immediately and the sun re-emerged. Entirely protected now from the north wind and paddling in once again glassy water calmed my nerves, but I was still relieved when I saw a coastguard tower in the distance. I checked my map: Neian South Harbour. Hmm. That would do. As I drew nearer and rounded the harbour wall, passing more waving fishermen, I saw a small village and beyond it a wide, sandy beach. Perfect, I grinned to myself.

Neian South Beach.

I paddled in, surprising the handful of locals out for an evening walk as I dragged my boat up the sand and began to set up camp above the high water mark. A youthful looking coastguard turned up a short time later, staring suspiciously at my kayak and tent. I told him where I’d come from and my plans for the next day. He mentioned the conditions were changing tomorrow and there might be some waves on my crossing to Tongpan Island. I noticed he was actually pointing to a different island altogether, wrongly identifying it as Tongpan. I corrected him and he seemed confused for a moment before agreeing with me. “Oh yes, that’s Tongpan.” “It’s about 7 km, right?” I asked. He looked uncertain for a moment before nodding without confidence. It was safe to say he wasn’t inspiring me with his knowledge of the local waters and I realised he was probably just seeing out his national service and wasn’t a professional coastguard. I wouldn’t be relying on him to rescue me on the High Seas. Still, he had no problem with me camping there that night or crossing to Tongpan the next morning and, after wishing me a safe trip, returned to his post on the other side of the harbour.

A friendly local who’d been scootering past and caught sight of my camp, insisting several times that I was “too cool” offered to drive me to the local grocery shop where I bought some beer and crisps, essential provisions for a night camping solo on a beach. I settled down for the evening, drank some beers and stared up at the stars. It was fair to say I was feeling pretty pleased with myself. Unpacking a camp from my kayak was one of the most gratifying things I’d done in a long time. Although there was a populated village only half a mile away, I felt very much the intrepid explorer. I dented that illusion a little by streaming some Netflix on a perfect 4g connection, but hey, it was better than going to bed at 7pm.  I crawled into my tent sometime around midnight, wishing, not for the first time, that I’d brought a sleeping pad. I slept fitfully, slightly nervous about the crashing waves which seemed to get louder and praying I’d pitched high enough up the beach.

The beach that morning

Waking naturally at 7am, I was struck by how loud the waves now seemed. Emerging from my tent, I stared at the sea in groggy confusion. My ears had not decieved me. 2-3ft waves were breaking on the shore. I checked my phone, bringing up the surf forecast and, sure enough, the southerly wind and swell that had been forecast to hit later in the afternoon had already arrived. The ocean that had been as tame as a kitten the previous evening as I’d looked out at the twinkling lights on distant islands was now a seascape of grey rolling hills. I could barely make out Tongpan through the spray and the mist. I packed up my camp, trying to decide what to do. I’d have to paddle into the wind with bad visibility to reach Tongpan now. I had no idea how big the waves might get on the crossing, I was paddling solo and with little experience. Brave, not stupid, I told myself. I’d cut my losses and paddle back to Zhongtun the way I’d come, leaving myself lots of time to deal with problems on the way.

It was my first kayak launch into surf and let me tell you, it ain’t easy. Getting through the breakers with my legs dangling out the boat was hairy but once I was outside the breaking zone and had my legs inside, I could take a breather. My surfing experience kicked in, and I timed my bursts of energy in between the sets, paddling forward aggressively whenever there was an opening. Once on the outside, I had no time to relax as rolling swell forced me to concentrate on my balance as I made my way back out towards the Cape. The Cape. How might it have changed with the wind and swell switch?

I soon found out. I could see a line in the ocean where relatively smooth water suddenly morphed into a swirling, broiling mess of whitecaps and waves travelling in different directions, like a witch’s caludron being stirred by a giant, invisible spoon. There seemed no way round it. I would have to punch through to reach the shelter of the Inner Sea. “Don’t think, just paddle. Maybe it won’t look as bad once you’re in it.” I told myself. I was acutely aware at that moment that I was alone out there, the Coastguard tower already out of sight. I had no radio, no rescue beacon and nobody knew exactly where I was. I was on the stupid side of my personal paddling mantra. As I entered the danger zone, my kayak was immediately assailed by waves and currents, turning it this way and that. I fought to keep my bearing and paddled on. A wave broke over the side, drenching my legs with cool water. I wasn’t using a spray skirt and although I had my bilge pump handy I needed both hands free to control the kayak. I didn’t feel like capsizing, but I also didn’t fee particularly in control at that moment, and fear welled up inside me. I made a snap decision. Go back. Back to safety. Back to Neian.

I don’t have any pictures from this part of the trip, as I was busy trying not to die. Here’s a big wave surfer.

And that’s what I did. It took some effort but with half an hour of hard paddling I made it back, re-entered the surf zone and attempted to land, jumping out of my kayak before it hit the beach but failing to get a handle on it as another wave crashed into it, turning it over and driving it into the beach. I righted it and pulled its waterlogged weight up the beach before draining out as much as I could. Black clouds gathered overhead and it started to rain. I shuttled my stuff to a pavillion in the harbour, leaving my kayak, now full of sand and water, on the beach. There was no question of going back out. I’d been foiled by the early arrival of the bad weather which always accompanies the first south wind of the year. The monsoon. I’d also failed to appreciate how much a light south wind would change the sea I’d planned to paddle across. I’d anticipated a gentle breeze pushing me back to Zhongtun in the sunshine, not rain, an angry sea and a a kayak full of sand and water.

Again, no photos. I was busy feeling ashamed and sorry for myself. Here’s a picture of my friend helping me transport my new kayak to our launching point.

I swallowed my pride along with a bit of sand and called for a rescue, arranging for a blue truck (the white van men of Taiwan) to pick me up and take me back to Zhongtun. My wife met me there and went easy on my bruised ego, only scolding me gently for messing up. I hadn’t attempted to paddle through the weather, which she was grateful for. Getting the sand out of my kayak would have to wait for fairer weather, I hastily stashed it in the boathouse and returned home for some hot soup and rumination.

What did I learn from this expedition? Don’t take weather conditions for granted. Remember how quickly the sea can change, with a slight change in weather that would cause no problems on land. Buy and use a spray skirt to keep water out of my cockpit. Buy and carry with me a marine band radio and maybe flairs and a rescue beacon. But most importantly, work on improving my skills and refrain from trying to paddle in bad weather until I’m more confident. Many out there would say, don’t go solo kayaking. But for me, that’s not an option. The freedom and enjoyment I get from being on the water alone is second to none. Being self-reliant and self-sufficient, even for a couple of days, is awesome. There will be more Islander Expeditions coming soon and next time, I’ll be a little wiser and a little better prepared.

Happy Islanding.

nb. I didn’t take as many pictures of this adventure as I would have liked, because without my GoPro I only had my phone, ensconced in its waterproof, salt encrusted case which is a pain to get out while paddling. I’ll do better next time. 🙂

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