200 islands in a dinghy
Practical Boat Owner|January 2021
Ken Fowler sets sail on a unique challenge to round all the islands of England and Wales, and learns some intriguing history along the way
Ken Fowler

Funny how small ideas in life often turn in to bigger ones. The Yodare challenge is definitely one of those. What started out as sailing around one solitary island in 2015 has now morphed into sailing round all the islands in England and Wales – that’s over 200 islands at the last count – although unfortunately I keep discovering more! So how did this sailing odyssey come about and what’s it like to take on the many varied challenges of the British coast in a 4m dinghy?

In 2015 I turned 50 and, more poignantly, it was the point at which I’d lived more of my life without my father, than with him. He died of cancer when I was only 24. He was from a family of six siblings, five of whom were taken by cancer. To commemorate his life and to mark this milestone I sailed a Laser dinghy around the Isle of Wight to raise funds for Cancer Research and Oakhaven Hospice in Lymington. That 72-mile adventure raised over £3,000 and most surprisingly, also earned me a nomination for a national sailing award. Although I didn’t win, coming runner-up was a fantastic achievement and seemed to be the catalyst to people suddenly approaching me with “What’s your next adventure – sailing round Britain?”

That idea sparked my interest and after some extensive research, including reading Land On My Right by Ron Pattendon, I knew this was the adventure for me, but with the complications of a full time job and a family it just wasn’t feasible. So instead of sailing all the way round Britain I narrowed my goal to sailing from Lands End to John O Groats in a small dinghy! That 865-mile challenge had to be completed in 31 days as that’s all the leave I could get from my job, so the title for the adventure was born – Race to Scotland.

Setting off

After 18 months of preparation I finally set sail from Lands End on 07 May 2017 in Yoda, my 4m, 30kg RS Aero dinghy. It was an adventure of highs and lows where the weather constantly challenged my progress northwards. The first few days typified the difficulties that were to shape the challenge, an unseasonal northeasterly wind created a 138-mile beat up the north Cornish and Devon coasts. As the journey continued the complications didn’t abate with fog banks, nuclear submarine exercises, giant whirlpools, hours of paddling and the odd RNLI rescue! In the end the challenge finished just 40 miles short of John O Groats as weather and time defeated me. I’d given it my all, but had to accept defeat. The real purpose of the adventure had been to try and raise £50,000 for the two charities. It was a colossal target but thanks to the generosity of many people we raised an amazing £37,000 which was staggering, but still short of the target.

In order to raise the remaining £13,000 I needed another challenge and so Yodare (based on my boat’s name Yoda and ‘You Dare’) was born. Yodare came from the inspiration of my first adventure and the fact that on Race To Scotland I’d sailed past so many islands that I never had the chance to explore the other side of. I decided to rectify this by setting myself the challenge to circumnavigate as many islands that were reachable from my South Coast home. Although the islands of the West Coast of Scotland had blown me away with their beauty, their distance from home and the sheer number of them– roughly about 900 – meant they were just unachievable. However, all the islands in England and Wales sounded like a challenging target, and offered some hope of being completed. After extensive research, I discovered there was no clear definition of what an island was, so the first thing I needed to do was to make this definition!

I settled upon the criteria that an ‘island’ should be permanently visible at high tide and at least 30m in length – otherwise I’d be chasing every rock in the sea! Having set the criteria I discovered that there were around 183 islands, far more than I suspected and quite daunting, especially coupled with the estimated 1,000 miles of sailing needed to successfully round them all. But the goal was set – to become the first person to sail all the islands in England and Wales in a dinghy. Funnily enough no one else had been foolhardy enough to attempt it.

Sailing round islands sounds simple, but brings with it many different challenges, including finding launching sites, tides that stop islands being islands, bridges, roads and all the normal challenges of sailing close to hostile coastlines. Finding launch and landing sites has been one of the biggest obstacles. There is often no nearby harbour or slipway to an island and this means either sailing a really long way to get around what could be a very small island, or finding an alternative type of launch site nearer to the island. Google Earth has really helped me identify beaches and coves with road access, many of which have probably never seen a boat launched from them. The north Cornish coast is one of the more challenging areas of the Yodare challenge as it has a distinct lack of safe harbours. Surf beach launches are sometimes the only option, but the challenge is to find those sheltered enough from the prevailing conditions to enable safe launch and recovery. These locations can vary from day to day based on the vagaries of the local weather system and all of them seem to involve a long drag across the beach with the trolley wheel sinking in the sand, at the beginning and end of the day’s sailing! I was so glad Yoda only weighs around 30kg

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