Kayaking around Canvey Island

by Ian Tokelove
Sea kayaking around Canvey Island, looking towards Coryton Refinery

A short sea kayaking adventure within easy reach of London

A kayak circumnavigation of Canvey Island is a surreal experience, taking in big, estuarine seascapes, a massive gas refinery and wildlife-rich sea marshes. Get the tides wrong and you’ll also encounter lots of mud.

A large container ship travelling past Canvey Island

Canvey Island is located about 40 miles east of London, an hour or two’s drive along mostly fast roads until you leave the A13. We did this trip in spring 2019, with good weather and calm seas.

Our starting point was at Two Tree Island car park, along the road from Leigh-on-Sea train station and the Leigh golf range and café (this is a good place to meet and grab a pre-paddle sarnie).

At the car park there is a long slipway that will get you into the water. If an official is present you will probably have to pay a launch fee of £4 per kayak, but the parking is free.

We set off about two and a half hours before high water, kayaking out along Hadleigh Ray, clockwise around the island. Much of this area dries out at low tide; our paddles scraped mud on several occasions.

Out in the Thames Estuary we headed west, with a high river wall and esplanade hiding much of the island. Across the estuary the Isle of Grain sat low on the horizon, dark beneath an overcast sky. This can be a busy shipping route, with huge container ships heading to and from London Gateway and Tilbury.

Beach breaks, gas terminals and stoners

There are two small, sandy beaches along this stretch, good for a quick break. But don’t linger too long, or you’ll be paddling against the tide later on. We then passed under a series of five jetties, serving a large petro-chemical terminal. If tankers are unloading here there is an exclusion zone of 60m.* Back in the late 70’s the IRA almost succeeded in blowing up one of the island’s oil terminals; you don’t want to be mistaken for a modern day terrorist.

Kayaking amid petro-chemical pipelines and jetties at Canvey Island

Moving up the island’s flank and into Holehaven Creek, the western horizon is dominated by Coryton’s countless gas storage tanks. Here we met a couple of chilled out stoners, adrift in inflatable Decathlon kayaks. They were enjoying their day, getting high under a big sky. As one said with a smile, it kept them out of the pub.

Sea kayaking around Canvey Island, looking towards Coryton Refinery

Creeks and cuckoos

A large flood defence barrier comes into view ahead, but we aimed instead for a smaller barrier on our right, paddling beneath it to reach East Haven Creek. With the high tide there was little mud and a lot more greenery as the creek wriggled though the landscape.

Wanting a better glimpse of the island, we climbed up the grassy river bank and were treated to a cuckoo singing his heart out on a telephone wire, just 20m away from us. To see one cuckoo is a rare treat, but this cuckoo was then joined by another, a female. This led to lots of flirtatious aerial chasing and a lot more excited cuckooing!

Using binoculars to watch cuckoos on Canvey Island

We paddled on to a road bridge, which is roughly where the tidal flow around the island changes direction. Once past this, the ebbing tide would help us as we kayaked back to Two Tree Island.

A series of shabby boats drunkenly lined the mud banks as we approached the road bridge at Benfleet and another raised flood barrier. We were now back in Hadleigh Ray, home to Benfleet Yacht Club. This was the final stretch, back to the slipway, with the distant ruins of Hadleigh Castle overlooking our passage home.

This trip took us four and a half hours, with a half hour lunch stop. If you are taking a break after high tide, keep an eye on the water levels as the tide drops fast, and getting back to the water may prove to be a muddy challenge!

Thanks to Barbara McFarlane for suggesting and organising this trip.

These notes are only intended as a rough guide for experienced paddlers. We undertook this trip using sea kayaks in May 2019, carrying Imray chart no 2100.2 River Thames Sea Reach.

* The 60m exclusion zone actually includes the jetties, whether a tanker is present or not. So there is no right of navigation under these jetties. Use your judgement.

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