Lapping the couch

No matter how slow you are going, you are still lapping everyone on the couch.

The CouchYou may have encountered the above quote already. Obviously, it’s intended to serve as a spark of consolation when you find yourself trailing at the back of the kayak bunch, or when flubbing rolls, or simply whenever you’ve been comparing your efforts with those of some superhuman who probably only exists in your head. Even although you are a little slow/stiff/out-of-condition, you’re at least not as bad as that pizza-guzzling slob on the couch, also in your head.  But there lies a problem with the quote itself – it is once again doing comparing. This time, it’s you and the aforementioned slob. And that’s when things get tricky.

I’m kind of done with dualistic or competitive thinking such as: me versus (insert name of sporting hero here), me versus my 22 year-old self, me versus the imaginary couch-dweller, me versus you. It deals in delusion and doesn’t achieve much. Often only half the facts are available and many assumptions are made. For example, the person on the couch could be injured, or ill. There are many kayakers who have been in that very position and it has perhaps been the primary reason for them abandoning another activity, such as hillwalking, and taking up paddling instead. Alan is one of them.

Greenland rollingInjuries can teach you a lot (perhaps that’s why many kayakers are so wise). First of all, they force you to slow down and assess. This in turn breeds acceptance. Then you start to learn, not just about your injury, but how to help it heal and how to prevent it recurring. If it’s beyond that, then the human spirit has a way of finding other life-affirming interests. It can be a real voyage of discovery.

Many people have come to Greenland kayaking as a result of bodily incompatibilities with a Euro paddle. All it takes is a wrenched shoulder to prompt an investigation of more traditional methods of rolling and forward progress. The Inuit did know a thing or two, long before the Europeans. And therein lies a world of opportunity, with all sorts of morale-boosting accomplishments waiting to be attained, as well as a strong connection to the very origins of kayaking.

And where there is life, there is always hope – or rather, possibility. After finally overcoming an old hip problem, and many comeback attempts over the best part of a decade, not to mention the anguish associated with an unrelated but sombre diagnosis, I have unexpectedly returned to running. Heel-striking runnerOf course, this is an activity that has a strong association with injury. It didn’t ever occur to me that this shouldn’t necessarily be the case and that – like yoga, swimming or kayaking – there is a technique to be mastered which can prevent injury (and which I’m learning!), that state-of-the-art shoes might be harmful (heel-strikers beware!), that cross-training is vital, as is yoga plus strength and flexibility exercises generally. I’ve also been learning about the incredible benefits of plant-based whole foods for fuelling and rebuilding the body cell by cell (so many ultra-athletes can’t be wrong), as well as therapies such as Trigger Point and Active Release Technique (a foam roller is your friend). And I used to think I knew about running. Everything in life boils down to – and let’s get dualistic for a moment – awareness versus ignorance.

Most of all, I’ve been learning about the mind’s ability to focus on the positive, or the negative, and to therefore contribute towards a corresponding outcome. Years ago, I talked myself out of running and gave up on it featuring in my life again. It’s come as a real surprise to welcome it back, simply because I opened one more little window of possibility. I’m just working on shorter distances at the moment. Maybe one day they’ll amount to something. Maybe they won’t. Maybe it’ll just be nice to run along the shore road for a bit. Regardless, it’s a treasure. Kayaking has taught me to leave my Type A-ness at home and just try things out, to enjoy the scenery, to see what the sea and the wind bring. It can be applied throughout life.

Felix BaumgartnerOf course, when I spoke about making comparisons, I didn’t mean to confuse this with gaining inspiration from others. As I watched Felix Baumgartner fall 128,000 feet to Earth, I was dumbfounded by his bravery. If I were silly enough to make comparisons, let’s just say I was several places behind Felix when they were handing out the awesome – but that doesn’t stop me from being inspired by him. Even so, there is more to that particular story. Falling through space might not have fazed Felix, but wearing a spacesuit did, and the claustrophobia he experienced in practice runs nearly became a showstopper.  As I mentioned, sometimes you only know half the story.

For now, I’m thankful to be lapping the couch, whether someone happens to be on it or not. But I’d encourage anyone seated there not to give up, no matter how pointless it all feels. You just never know what windows are going to open and what sea breezes might come rushing in.

Because you are alive, everything is possible.

– Thich Nhat Hahn

Making a Greenland Paddle

Maybe it’s just part of traditional kayaking, but there comes a time when you simply want to try making your own paddle. That time arrived for me not too long  after spending a weekend with Kayak Ways, where I was surrounded by Greenland paddles (GPs) of various shapes and sizes, some of which I liked more than others. It became apparent that Greeenland paddles can be a very personal thing.

One thing for sure was that a large sized paddle blade seemed not so desirable. Indeed, one remark heard when analysing a GP from a UK supplier was, “The best thing about this paddle is that they have left enough wood on it for you to carve off”! I realised  my king-sized GP was too big and I had to get a smaller paddle blade! Preferably one with an oval loom shape. This was my first encounter with an oval loom and I really liked it’s feel compared to the rounded off square looms. Square looms are easy to index (orient)  but can be rather uncomfortable to paddle with for any length of time.

Using a draw knife to do bulk removal of wood on a paddle

Using a draw knife to do bulk removal of wood on a paddle

I had taken a few rough measurements of a paddle that I had especially liked (one of Turner’s, and with his permission), and my first thoughts were along the lines of getting a paddle-maker to make one, which is exactly what I did. The paddle came back and had just about the correct blade size, but without an oval loom. Indeed the loom was a rounded off square shape, as was normal for the paddle-maker’s own standard paddles, but not the oval shape that I’d desired.

After a bit of head-scratching I decided that the best option was to learn how to do some adjustments myself and perhaps eventually work towards making my own paddle to my own requirements. I fired off a quick question to a friendly paddle maker (Gerhardt at Ravenwoods Paddles) on the wonderful kayaking resource  that is Facebook, before embarking up on a crash course of  YouTube videos and examining some helpful documentation. I started to equip myself with some spokeshaves, draw knives and bench planes (many courtesy of a very active secondhand Ebay market). I hadn’t even heard of some of this equipment before, let alone used it (well OK, I’d heard of a bench plane!)

A bench plane used to plane a Greenland style paddle

A bench plane for planing the faces

Metal bench planes can be found quite easily on Ebay. They are pieces of equipment that you can buy quite cheaply new (perhaps not great quality) or for the same price second hand (better quality). I was able to pick up a few 2nd hand bench planes in very good condition, some even dating from the 1943-47 era! They just needed a tune up, sharpen, hone and were ready to go.

I managed to source some 3m x 100mm x 50mm planks of top grade western red cedar from a local wood merchant who bought them in for me. They worked out to be about £30 (GBP) per plank. One 3m plank is good for  making 1 x paddle and 4 x norsaqs.

It should be noted that, before I started this project, my wood-working skills were fairly rudimentary. The last woodwork training I had had was 30 years ago at school where I had successfully carved a large gouge in my finger (I still have the scar today!). My point is that you can do Greenland paddle-making yourself without a lot of technical expertise.

A spokeshave used for planing edges and sculping blades

A spokeshave used for planing edges and sculping blades

I started off by practising my skills with a spokeshave and a few different bench and block planes. I did this by continually sharpening and adjusting them and soon learned good techniques for shaving and planing the wood surface. It’s good to do this with just a cheap old bit of spare pine before going anywhere near a paddle! As my technique improved I decided to start by making a norsaq (hand held rolling stick) or two. These are small enough to not be too challenging, whilst they allow you to actually make something and improve your skills.



Several norsaqs later and it was time to make a paddle!

I determined my ideal paddle length (it’s really only the loom length that changes according to your shoulder separation) at 2.2m. As a rule of thumb you should be able to get your finger tips around the end of a vertical paddle with your arm vertically above your head. I chopped the 3m plank of cedar down to this value, bench planed the rough faces off and was ready to sketch out my paddle carving plans on the wood. Good, accurate sketched plans on the wood are a very important part of making a good paddle.

Sculpting the Greenland style paddle with a low angle spokeshave

Sculpting the paddle tips with a low angle spokeshave

There are a few good resources out there to explain making a Greenland paddle, but a seminal reference has to be Chuck Holst’s guide, available here. Another good guide is Brian Nystrom’s excellent  ‘Making the Greenland Paddle’.

Basically the procedure can be broken down into several stages –

  1. Plane the plank to true the edges and smooth  it for marking
  2. Mark on the loom and slopes
  3. Bulk removal of the slope wood (bench plane #6, #5, #4, or power plane)
  4. Mark outline of paddle (rounded blade faces and loom)
  5. Bulk removal to outline of paddle (draw knife, bench planes #5, #4, spokeshave, or band-saw)
  6. Sketch on centre lines and guides
  7. Sculpt paddle blades and loom shape using spokeshave(s)
  8. Sand paddle (perhaps the most fun part, as your paddle appears from a rough cut/spoke shaved piece of wood)
  9. Oil paddle (tung oil)
  10. Test paddle on water (important!)
  11. Modify paddle if required by going to back to step 7
The finished Greenland paddle

The finished paddle

These steps take much longer when you are working on your first paddle. They will, however, speed up when you understand the basic principles involved. My first paddle took me 3 days to complete.

Wanting to make my own identification mark, I used pyrgograhy (wood burning) to imprint a logo that I had designed. Pyrography is a delicate skill indeed and is a one shot process as you are actually burning the wood with a small hot tip.

I also decided while making my second paddle that I’d introduce gelcoat blade tips to mimic the bone tips used on some of the traditional Greenland paddles. Only time will tell how robust a solution the gelcoat is, but I used 3 coats.

Testing the Greenland paddle

Pam rolling with my Greenland paddle

Of course, the final important stage is to test your paddle out on the water! And perhaps make minor adjustments to it if you are not happy about something.

We’ve used it during a few rolling sessions, and I used it on my weekend trip around Luing and have been very happy with it.

The first paddle I have made is a thin bladed paddle with an oval loom and some flexibility. My second one (with the white tips) also has an oval loom but is a more rigid paddle with much less flex. Whether I like this more rigid paddle is still to be determined, but the beauty of making wooden paddles means that you have the option to make adjustments to them as an when necessary!

I strongly recommend that you consider making your own paddle. It can be a rewarding experience and creates a personal connection between yourself and your equipment.

Luing at a good few licks

Posted by Alan

Sunset over Mull from north end of Luing

Sunset over Mull from north end of Luing

With summer waning (wow, where did it go to? I must have blinked!), it was time to grab a camping trip before we ran out of season. Fortunately a friend had suggested a weekend trip around the Isle of Luing which is a small island located about 16 miles south of the west of Scotland tourist mecca, Oban.

After stopping off to camp on Friday night in the very pleasantly located and well equipped Gallanachmore Farm campground (just a mile or two south of Oban), we set off early on the Saturday to arrive at Ellenabeich on Seil (near Easdale) at about 8 am.

The trip was coincidental with spring tides, and this part of the west of Scotland is renowned for being an epicentre of significant tidal flows which continuously ebb and flow their way around the many islands at rates topping 8 knots in places. As a result, good tidal planning was a necessity unless we wanted to find ourselves visiting somewhere completely different from that intended!

By starting early we planned to catch the tail end of the ebb tide down from Easdale towards Luing, which also involves crossing the highly tidal Cuan Sound, the west of which is an area known for significant turbulence under certain wind and tide conditions.

Heading towards Cuan Sound

Heading towards Cuan Sound

When we looked on Friday, the forecast had been for F2 winds from the south for most of the weekend but, as we unpacked our cars and readied our kayaks and camping gear, glances to the south revealed quite a few white caps between us and Cuan Sound. An anemometer reading showed 13 mph winds (gusting to 20 mph) from SW.

We eased out of Easdale Sound and headed south, quickly encountering the south-westerly wind on the last of the ebb tide which kicked up some nice chop for us to plough into as we approached Cuan Sound.

Cuan Sound is a narrow gap (200m) between the south end of Seil and the north end of Luing, and the Sound is rarely not in motion. Indeed, it is inactive for only one hour in every 6 or so and even then it shows evidence of moving water. At peak flow, it hits 7 knots in either direction. A ferry crosses the Sound to service the local communities on Luing.

Entering Cuan Sound

As we rounded the corner in an active sea into the Sound, the north end of Luing provided shelter from the prevailing southwesterly winds and the sea state lessened. The flow was due to reduce too, but was still running east when we arrived. We targeted a bay on the northern coast of the island and ferry glided over the Sound towards it.

I then did a quick weather check by phoning  home to “Weather Station Pam” whilst trying to avoid being sucked back into the flow out of the bay. During this act of juggling the phone, phone bag and paddle, I nearly dropped the phone but somehow didn’t. The outer waterproof phone bag took a swim, however, and was soaking for the rest of the trip. Just as well I double bag the mobile!

Weather Station Pam revealed that 13 mph gusting to 25 mph southerlies were now appearing in the forecast and that they would eventually die out as the day progressed. This was a change from the previous forecast we had of F3-F4 SW later in the day. It looked like it had blown up a bit earlier than expected.

Cuan Sound

It was interesting to note the extreme lack of mobile reception in this part of the world. I frequently experienced signal dropout, and the maximum signal I had all weekend was a single ‘notch’,  obtained while standing on a hillside! The learning to take from this is that, if you are kayaking in this area, it may not be a good idea to rely on just your mobile phone for emergencies. A VHF radio (which I also carry) is useful, but it is only a line-of-site device and can potentially be limited with all the hills around. There also wasn’t a whole lot of shipping in the vicinity to radio to if required. So it did raise the valid question of what else should I be carrying for emergency communication around here? A PLB? An EPIRB?

We had intended heading down the west of Luing first then coming up the eastern side to complete the circumnavigation, but the conditions between Easdale and the Cuan Sound coupled with the wind forecast for the earlier afternoon made the option to head down the eastern side first seem more appealing.

Narrows at island of Torsa

We proceeded eastwards and the conditions calmed as we turned to explore the narrows between the islands of Torsa and Luing, which are, indeed, quite narrow – 15 feet in places and shallow,  and hence are not navigable in much other than a kayak. After heading through, the views opened out to the eastern side of  Luing as well as to the mainland, and south to the island of Shuna.

An hour or so later, we arrived at the small and rather picturesque hamlet of Toberonochy. As you arrive in Toberonochy you are immediately reminded of the heritage of the islands in this area as you are surrounded by slate.

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy Harbour


A lot of the islands in this locale are referred to as the ‘Slate Islands’ , which relates to their previous historical importance within the slate industry. This includes Easdale, Seil, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua. Slate, as you are probably aware, is used for roofing on buildings, and Easdale was the main hub for the industry for the best part of 3 centuries. In its heyday, slate from this part of the world roofed buildings such as Glasgow University, Glasgow Cathedral, Iona Abbey and was even exported as far away as Canada before business came to a halt in the 1950s as different and cheaper roofing methods became the norm.

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy harbour had a pier made of slate, and a surrounding beach of crushed slate, as could be found on other parts of the island. There was an old fishing vessel ‘Crystal Waters’, lying in ruin at the harbour which, even although not relating to slate, added to the historical character of the place.

After having a very relaxed lunch break and enjoying some sun rays and ever increasing blue skies, we reluctantly departed and headed further south.

The coastline at the bottom of Luing is rather unremarkable, mainly grassy hills with the odd small pocket of trees breaking the horizon. The breeze we were paddling into was the only sign of what lay round the end of the island.

Rounding the south end of Luing

Rounding the south end of Luing

We gradually approached the south of the island and, as we rounded it, the views over to north Jura and Scarba opened out. We could see  the tide race off the south end of Luing in action, and passed though the tip of it.  For the next few kilometres, we had a south-westerly F3/4 wind giving us some beam waves and the sea was once again quite lively. The sun was out, the views were stunning and we all had smiles on our faces as we headed north. During a very brief break at a small inlet, the winds suddenly dropped by a couple of levels and the seas calmed down. I was amazed at how quickly weather can change!

Cullipool, Luing

Cullipool, Luing

We headed north up Luing at a good few licks, greatly assisted by the flood tide (sometimes whizzing along at 4-5 knots), and soon arrived in Luing’s main village, Cullipool, which as chance would have it is also home to the island’s only shop. With the sun now blazing down on us, we used the opportunity to buy a few chilled drinks and ices and enjoy the sights.

Leaving Cullipool, we resumed a northerly passage and, as it was getting late, we resolved to find somewhere to set up our camp.

Dave spotted a likely campsite on the north end of the island just a couple of kilometres from Cuan Sound, but with some breaking surf onto yet another slate beach. He selflessly went in and scoped it out before signalling to us all to go in. The surf wasn’t big, but it was there and the beach was very steep with slate so it made for a nervy landing.

Elevated view of camp spot on north end of Luing

Elevated view of camp spot on north end of Luing

After we were all off the water, kayaks unpacked, tents pitched and bellies filled, we were treated to a lovely sunset stretching out to the west over the Garvellachs and the Isle of Mull.  We watched the sun roll down until it dropped over the horizon and gradually turned the sky an array of pastel hues. All this whilst listening to the gentle crash of waves over the beach – what a pleasant  end to a fantastic day!

We left our camp at about 11 am the following morning with a slightly awkward surf launch (teamwork was required!) and headed back north, once again keeping a careful eye on the tidal timing to take in Cuan Sound in order to complete the  circumnavigation. We then made our way north along Seil’s coastline which had some nice gentle, breaking swell to play in for a while.

Pastel Hues over the Garvellachs, Mull and beyond

Pastel Hues over the Garvellachs, Mull and beyond

Strangely, for a few minutes the Coastguard helicopter appeared and flew over us before setting off elsewhere. Maybe they were looking for someone? Or maybe they were just admiring the wonderful kayaking scene below them.

One other highlight for me was that I used a new Greenland paddle for the entire trip – one that I had made myself. More on that later, but I was very pleased that I had done this and was happy with the performance of the stick. There is something very satisfying about using something you have made yourself for propulsion!

Using my self made Greenland stick

Using my self made Greenland stick

Arriving back in Easdale Sound  I decided to do a couple of rolls, not for any applause, but mainly because I’d never rolled a fully laden sea kayak before. I especially wanted to try those well rehearsed Greenland rolls we have been working on for so long! I firstly used a side scull recovery, then did a full reverse sweep. Both rolls worked well, but the main difference with the laden kayak was the greater inertia of the kayak as it rotated in the water. Indeed I had to do a little extra pry just to get the kayak to fully turn round before doing the actual recovery sweep and  pry. I’m just glad that it worked with a full load, and this just adds to the importance of practising rolls in real life scenarios. I maybe need to try rolling it loaded in some chop next!

Sunset from north Luing looking west

Sunset from north Luing looking west

We all arrived back on shore at Ellenabeich with enough time to spare for a late lunch , which concluded an extremely pleasant weekend trip in superlative scenery and excellent company.

It’s just a ride

Greenland skills on Loch EckSpending time with other kayakers, I realise that there is often quite a contrast of opposites being balanced in our lives. The opposites might manifest as: sitting in an office versus going out in a kayak; wearing a business suit versus a drysuit; cubicle walls and striplights versus undulating seas and vast, changing skies; counting down the hours versus losing track of time; numbing our senses versus heightening them … etc. In the “normal” world, we are engulfed by the trappings of civilisation – electronics, home comforts, entertainment and so on. It’s all quite nice, but somehow it’s not enough. On the sea, we set out with our kayaks, whatever we can stash in our hatches and the skills we have worked to acquire. Yet we return with so much more, all of which can be placed firmly in the “Money Can’t Buy” category –  things like perspective, self-confidence, creativity and connection. Importantly, we get out to play!

So, why is there often a little soupcon of guilt lacing our pleasure, especially if we have the audacity to go out playing during what might not be strictly considered as our spare time? Is it some puritanical streak in our culture that views play as merely a luxury or indulgence that we are only “allowed” after we’ve finished the important business of work (a bit like no dessert without first eating vegetables?). The culture many of us were raised in programs us to believe that we can’t afford to be too frivolous, we must conform to a schedule. Our worth is rooted in devoting our time to earning a living which, in today’s society, justifies our right to exist.

After some rolling practiceYet could it be that play is something quite natural? We might more readily associate it with children, yet it’s very much how children learn and create, explore their limits, engage with their environment and let go of boundaries. Is that such a bad thing for adults to do?  Can anyone argue that humanity has become ever so slightly disengaged from “the environment” (which is over there somewhere), from nature (as seen on TV), indeed from itself ? Perhaps this isn’t working out so well – just read the papers! (Of course, I’m not including non-creative  imitations of play in this discussion, such as computer games and entertainment, where we rely on others to create experiences for us to consume).

A great rideSome days, I look out on the water and there is simply a need to connect with it, to bounce around on the waves and whoop, to see what I can do with my kayak, to get a little ecstatic and a little scared, to chat to the seals, to “waste” time, to be an unbroken spirit. It doesn’t earn me a living.  Instead perhaps – to put it grandly – I get to feel like I’m a part of the universe’s creative force, as opposed to a cog in a human-made machine.

Does that mean that we kayakers should just spend all our time out having fun on the water then? Well, unless you have a particularly fortuitous job, most of us have to come ashore and stare at a computer screen for a while. Ray Mears programmes and veggie gardens aside, it is still necessary to participate in the world and work within its structures (at least to some extent) in order to eat, amongst other things. The trick is not to be numbed or betrayed by it. At the end of the day, it’s just a ride – and we can change it any time we want.

The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.

Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they’ve begun to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’, and other people have remembered, and they’ve come back to us and they say, ‘Hey, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ and we KILL THOSE PEOPLE.

“Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This just has to be real.”

It’s just a ride.

But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because … It’s just a ride.

And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead see all of us as one.”

— Bill Hicks (1961 – 1994)

When you’re smiling …

Happy in a Tiderace Xcite SI recently wrote up a little article that’s been published on Kayak Bute‘s blog, all about my experience of buying a new Tiderace Xcite S kayak from them.  You can find it here.

I am definitely one happy customer!

Scottish Women’s Sea Kayak Festival, Isle of Bute

Heading south

Heading south

A few weeks back, Roddy of Kayak Bute issued an invitation to attend the Scottish Women’s Sea Kayak Festival on Bute.  I’d also agreed to assist Mackayak (or, as I like to call her, Lesley) with teaching some traditional skills on the Monday. I thought it could possibly be fun, which turned out to be quite a serious under-estimation of my experience.

The programme of events contained various skills coaching sessions including forward strokes, close quartering and rescues, as well as a a circumnavigation of Bute, a trip to the Cumbraes and the said traditional skills class. I signed up for the round-Bute trip over Saturday and Sunday. Even although the Isle of Bute is very near my home and I do frequent its shores, I’d never gone all the way around it – a bit of a glaring omission in my paddling resume.

The base for the weekend was the campsite and tea-room at the lovely Ettrick Bay. After arriving there early on Saturday, we proceeded by car to Kerrycroy Bay to commence the round-island paddle.

Justine explains the course

Justine explains the course

Keeping land on our right …

The conditions were flat calm for most of Saturday, and this was conducive with chatting to fellow paddlers and coaches. This seems to be my year for meeting famous kayakers, the stars of (watery) stage and screen. First it was Cheri and Turner of Kayak Ways in May, and now it was adventurer and film-maker, Justine Curgenven, whose DVDs and global travels have been a source of inspiration to me since my early paddling days. It’s hard not to be a little bit star-stuck! But Justine’s affable company gave lie to notions of celebrity. The trip was also led by senior coach, Morag Brown of Skyak Adventures, who it was nice to finally meet. We were certainly in good hands. Paddlers came from as far north as Orkney, the south coast of England, and many points in between. It was interesting to learn about  the differences in the typical paddling environment of each participant and I pondered what type of kayaker I would be now if I lived in an area of big tides and ocean swell, if a typical paddling trip over to a nearby island meant the Isle of Wight as opposed to the Isle of Bute.

Arran mountains ... and new friends

Arran mountains ... and new friends

Travelling down the eastern coast of Bute, we were accompanied by several inquisitive grey seals, flocks of oystercatchers and kamikaze gannets before encountering porpoises as we approached the bottom of the island. It was with some personal amusement that we reached the southernmost point of Bute, an area that has little hazard signs flashing in my head, to find barely a ripple.  Turning the corner, we were greeted with the ever beautiful vista of the Arran mountains. The sea did become a little more textured after we passed Inchmarnock and neared Ettrick Bay when the breeze picked up, but I tried not to fixate on the rather nasty looking forecast I’d seen for the following day and only called Alan 3 or 4 times for an update.

Just some of the kayak fleet

Just some of the kayak fleet

I certainly had something to entice me back to the campsite in a hurry and that was the anticipation of my beautiful new Tiderace Xcite S kayak being there waiting for me. Sure enough, Kayak Bute did not disappoint and a very special package with my name on it was sitting on their trailer. Just as I’d started to feverishly tear off the packaging, I was called away to retrieve my car from the day’s starting point – a  cruel tease, really! Not to worry, I was soon back and was greeted by a friend informing me that she really loved my new kayak. What?! My eyes had not been the first to behold it! I did manage to forgive Roddy for unwrapping my Xcite S in my absence as – who can blame him – it really is too beautiful to remain smothered in bubble-wrap. I fought my way through the crowd of appreciative admirers and then joined them in oohing and awing over my new black and red baby. There was a substantial number of  Kayak Bute’s fleet of Tiderace kayaks adorning the campsite throughout the weekend. Those attendees who had not brought their own vessels could pick and choose which shiny new kayak to try out – a fantastic opportunity, although I’m not sure how Roddy kept track of them all! Presumably he has counted them all back in.

On Saturday evening, a buffet dinner of culinary delights was supplied by the team at Ettrick Bay tea room, after which we listened to two very interesting talks. The first was an amusing review by Alice McInnes (aka Alice Tiderace) which traced the history of women’s outdoor attire through the ages, from the tweed skirts of yesteryear (whose “blowing up” potential was a substantial danger), to modern, hi-tech kit and apparel. Next was a presentation by Justine about her circumnavigation (with Barry Shaw) of Tierra del Fuego, the videos and slides from which had everyone riveted. It certainly put my own small paddling anxieties into perspective! I’m very much looking forward to seeing the entire film when it’s released.

A nice day for a launch

Ettrick Bay

Ettrick Bay

Come Sunday, we were set to resume our circumnavigation with Justine again, along with another top coach, Kate Duffus. We departed from Ettrick Bay into a stiff southerly breeze and a rather more interesting sea state.  This would be a good test of my comfort level in the Xcite S (which I’ll be writing more about soon). Suffice to say, I was a very happy camper (in every sense). Passing Tighnabruaich, we rounded the northern end of Bute and approached the Burnt Islands. Many remarks were made about this being the most scenically beautiful part of the journey – which says a lot considering we were shrouded in damp mist! I wished I could show everyone how lovely it is in sunshine, but they’ll just have to take my word for it. We were then sheltered in the Kyles and crossed over to stop for lunch on the shore at Colintraive beside the ferry.

Approaching Kames Bay

Approaching Kames Bay

Crossing back over to Bute and rounding Ardmaleish Point, the sea state immediately became more exciting and it doesn’t get much better than to find myself enjoying every minute of it in my new kayak, with my Greenland paddle, and in the company of a great group of capable kayakers. Some of us ended our journey at Kames Bay where the omnipresent Kayak Bute van and trailer awaited, but Justine and Kate invited anyone who still felt energetic to continue on to complete the circumnavigation. I decided that, having paddled that part of the coast previously, my rounding of Bute was complete (and, no, that’s not cheating!).

After an excellent and much relished dinner at the tea room (I’m still not sure how it’s humanly possible to produce such a variety of desserts – I think elves may have been involved), we listened to a talk given by coach Sally Gregory on weather and tides. Sally’s presentation was succinct and informative, such that my sluggish brain could cope (and, besides, we got notes to take home). Next up was a very special highlight. Global adventurer, Sarah Outen, the first woman to row solo across the Indian Ocean, had arrived to deliver a presentation about her latest “London to London via the World” expedition. I had read Sarah’s book, A Dip in the Ocean: Rowing Solo Across the Indian Ocean, and followed her progress online, so it was an unexpected treat to meet her in person. Her account of her recent rescue after being battered by a typhoon whilst rowing across the Pacific was nothing short of sobering.  I think we all felt a bit of the emotion that lay behind her reflection on that experience and wished her every success as she takes fresh bearings to continue her adventure.

An ancient tradition

It's yoga, Jim - but not as we know it

It's yoga, Jim - but not as we know it (Photo courtesy Ruth Clark)

By Monday, the weather had decided to put a very damp stake in the ground just as we were unstaking our tents. Packing up a sopping wet tent is always a joy, only to be surpassed by trying to keep track of kit (there aren’t enough Ikea bags in the world …). Being that the ultimate objective of Greenland skills training is to get wet, however, the rain was no impediment to our eager band of students. We started out with familiarisation with skinny sticks, reviewing a collection of various types of wooden and carbon (Northern Light Paddlesports) versions. We went on to discuss the history of traditional Greenland kayaking, and the equipment and attire used. This was followed by a spot of stretching, combining 2 ancient traditions by using selected yoga poses  to prepare for the body movements of Greenland rolling. I can honestly say it’s the first time I’ve ever done yoga in a drysuit in a deluge of rain. Slipping into a tuilik, I embraced the role of “glamorous assistant” while Lesley prepared to perform some special Greenlandic magic.

Lesley demonstrates

Lesley demonstrates

The group was introduced to Lesley’s sleek, black Tahe Greenland kayak which she went on to skilfully and  gracefully roll, explaining each move knowledgeably. It was then everyone else’s turn to try out for themselves a bit of balance bracing, rolling and forward paddling and several firsts were achieved and rolls were polished up. The “Green virus” (as Turner calls it) was duly spread, and I believe that there may now be a small uptick in sales of Justine’s “This Is The Roll” DVD.

I am inspired

Scottish Women's Sea Kayak FestivalParticipants were asked what they liked best about the Festival and, without hesitation, my response was the inspiration it provided me. I don’t mean to get into a discussion on the merits of a women’s event other than to say that perhaps, being a woman, I relate particularly well to the experience of other women.  The enthusiasm and willingness to share skills displayed by the coaches present (Justine Curgenven, Morag Brown, Kate Duffus, Carol Lang, Sally Gregory and Lesley Mackay) were a source of encouragement and motivation in themselves.  There were also the attendees with their varied backgrounds and experiences of sea kayaking and, indeed, of life – from the skilled northern and southern coasters, to those who were sharpening up abilities after some absence (undeterred by a bit of wind), to those who have endured significant injury and illness. Lesley, of course, with her beautiful Greenland expertise and solid insights, has been of great help to me for some time now, and it was especially enjoyable to work and share with her. And Sarah’s courageous adventures are enough to grip anyone in the force-field of her determination and positivity.

Participants were also asked what they thought could be improved. I’m not sure if my request for a little more sunshine is reasonable. At least there were no midgies.

Thank you!

A big thanks goes out to everyone who made the Festival such a great success, including all the participants. In particular, Roddy and Sally of Kayak Bute, and Alice of Tiderace Kayaks, who were the engine room of the event. I was seriously impressed by their ability to manage the formidable logistics.  The fact that profits were going to the RNLI made it all the more worthwhile.

The word “Festival” is synonymous with “celebration” and it truly did feel like I spent the weekend celebrating with others how very fortunate we are to be sea kayakers.

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The House of Flying Norsaqs

Mutant ninja midgies

Ninja moves ... don't work on midgies

Duly inspired after our training weekend with Kayak Ways, we’ve been busy working on our Greenland skills, averaging a couple of rolling sessions a week and/or paddling exclusively with sticks. Our dedication is now sufficient to withstand torrential rain, thunderstorms, cold water and – worst of all – tuilik-piercing midgies.

It occurred to me that keeping existing skills intact whilst acquiring new ones is a lot like spinning plates. For me, the flow has gone something like this:

  1. Master the balance brace.
  2. Work on layback rolls: Standard Greenland, butterfly, norsaq, hand.
  3. Start work on forward finishing rolls: chest scull/reverse sweep and continuous storm.
  4. Investigate disappearance of hand roll. Go back to 2.
  5. Throw in a few new layback rolls: shotgun, elbow crook.
  6. Address ongoing neglect of offside. Go back to 1.
  7. Reverse Sweep set-upWork on storm roll.
  8. Keep working on storm roll.
  9. Work some more on storm roll.
  10. Hand roll has gone again. Back to 2
  11. Discover offside storm roll is several light years behind onside. Back to 7.
  12. Try all rolls in full paddling gear (with BA/PFD). Back to 1.
  13. Move on to more advanced layback rolls, starting with the elbow roll. Back to 1 and 2.
  14. Try all rolls in a different kayak. Back to 1.
  15. And so on.

I’m certainly never bored. And this is all very good for me. No longer do I descend into a tantrum of frustration when a roll fails, although norsaqs have been thrown. With Greenland skills, failure and success are like sunshine and shadows – you can’t expect only sunshine. Although, it’s actually all sunshine.

Chest sculling

Alan chest sculls with the Olympic torch

For research purposes, we recently attended a Kayak Bute demo day at Loch Lomond. I can well recommend going along to one of these if you’re in the area. It’s a great opportunity to not only drool over some beautiful, state-of-the-art Tiderace kayaks, but to try them out and have some fun. Typical of our “summer” now (after Kayak Ways took the much more desirable weather experienced during their visit away with them), it was a pretty dreich and murky day. What better thing to do than embrace the dampness and try rolling a few of the Tiderace fleet. Roddy and Alice joined in and tried out their Greenland skills too. Indeed, fun was had! And, as seems to happen with such sessions, I’ve no idea where the time went. Afterwards, a very kind onlooker took the trouble to tell me how much she had enjoyed watching our practice. This certainly helps me to finally move beyond my silly “people are  looking” hang-ups. It now seems quite feasible that not everyone is pointing and laughing.

Despite at times feeling a little isolated in what might be called a more niche area of kayaking, our skills development benefits greatly from the help of others, many of whom are in far-flung places and we know them only virtually. This assistance manifests in the circulation of photos, videos, advice and encouraging comments. We’re a strange little group and there’s nothing we love more than to watch each other’s clips, whether it be an expert’s well-executed rolls, or a beginner’s first attempt, it’s all good – even the flying norsaqs.

A weekend with Kayak Ways

Cheri and Turner of Kayak WaysIt’s not every day that 2 of the world’s leading Greenland kayaking instructors land on your doorstep, but that’s exactly what happened this past weekend – perhaps not our actual doorstep, but very close! We had been booked on to their Greenland Intensive course for some time but, I confess, there was a part of me that was only half believing that it would actually fall into place and that we really would have Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson teaching us personally. It seemed too good to be true. Some things are, however, meant to be, and we arrived at Loch Lomond-side on Saturday and then Largs on Sunday to enjoy the pleasure of their company.

Some weeks ago, Alan and I purchased the excellent DVD, “This is the Roll“, which features instruction from Kayak Ways. I’ve never used an instructional DVD quite as extensively or known one that produces such tangible results. As if by some sort of advanced holographic technology, it was slightly surreal to find the DVD’s stars beamed live to us on the water and offering personal tuition.

On Loch Lomond

On Loch Lomond with Mackayak

First, I must point out, the weather for the weekend was ridiculously abnormal. With typical pessimism/realism in all matters related to Scottish weather, we’d been anticipating that an intense low pressure system would move in to exactly coincide with our activities. Abandoning all precedents, however, the opposite happened and the weather gods smiled upon us. In fact, they weren’t just smiling – they were laughing! The temperature rose to 27°C and the sun beat down hot enough to fry eggs – or at least boil the contents of a drysuit. Cheri and Turner seemed a little bemused that our normal rolling attire was a neoprene tuilik over a drysuit in such an evidently tropical clime. Perhaps the giddy crowds at both locations and the unveiling of vast swathes of blue-white flesh provided a hint that our shores are not usually quite so sun-kissed.

Practising off Largs

Practising off Largs

A good part of our instruction focused on Greenland paddling technique and this was of great benefit. Herein I discovered that my skinny stick paddle-stroke has been, er, less than perfect (Turner’s cries of, “It’s not square!” are still ringing in my ears). On the Sunday morning, we were out on the high seas off Largs practising forward paddling, winged strokes, turning with bow rudders and more, in a north-westerly breeze. It was most interesting to swap around Greenland sticks and I certainly got a feel for which ones were “talking” to me and which ones weren’t. This was a very enjoyable excursion and I related entirely to Turner’s almost spiritual observation of how fortunate we were to be out there on the water in that moment.

Cheri teaching Alan forward finishing norsaq roll

Cheri teaching Alan forward finishing norsaq roll

Then there was the rolling, of course. Cheri needs no introduction and her demonstrations of perfect technique, right down to the straitjacket roll, provoked admiration and inspiration. Soon, it was our turn and Cheri and Turner worked with each of us at length, providing valuable correction and feedback. Everyone came away with something. For me, it was a brand new reverse sweep roll, and a ton of learnings on the storm roll which are all coming together nicely. For Alan it was the foundations of a forward finishing norsaq roll (which he hadn’t even realised he desired!).

Throughout the weekend, one thing that struck me was how much it felt like we were making an authentic connection with kayaking, and not just the Euro-fied version of the skills. As I came off the water on Sunday, another paddler who had been observing our little class asked in a mystified tone what the point of the Greenland paddle was. I confess to being a bit taken aback, but managed to explain that this was kayaking in its true, original form, as designed and perfected over hundreds of years and passed on from the Inuit people. He went on to question how we could get any support from our skinny sticks. My mind filled with thoughts on how my paddle had allowed me to overcome a fear of capsize and was helping me find a myriad different ways to recover, of  how it had increased my confidence and made the water my playmate, and of all the fun I was having in the process of learning. The best I could do was to respond that the stick was, well … magic.

A big thank you goes out to Bruce Jolliffe for co-ordinating the weekend. We’re also indebted to Mackayak from Orkney, whom we finally met, and who had got the ball rolling. And it was great to meet others who had taken up the way of the stick. I hope that we shall roll into one another again.

As the Kayak Ways slogan says, the living tradition continues …

We fought the tide

Heading for MullAs every sea kayaker knows, there are certain points on the tide tables that may require some attention, ie springs and neaps. I don’t know about you, but I tend to tense up a little at the mention of “springs” and relax at the word, “neaps” (whilst, being Scottish, trying not to think of turnip). We were due to go paddling in a quite tidal area, in the vicinity of the Firth of Lorne and Sound of Mull at springs, which is one thing. On this particular occasion, however, there was to be a much-reported “Supermoon”, the proximity and extraordinary gravitational pull of which, to my mind, would surely result in super tides … super-springy-spring tides! This did not escape the attention of my fellow paddlers, some of whom were declaring a desire to visit the springiest of tidal places, the Grey Dogs (and much evil laughter ensued). I decided to play it cool and see what transpired.

As it turned out, level heads prevailed and we decided to proceed from Ganavan Bay to Duart Castle – a route that Alan and I had travelled before and enjoyed. We took note of the coincidence of timing of the 3 knot incoming tide with our return, but the consensus was that we would play it by ear.

Duart Castle

Duart Castle

Setting out, conditions were flat calm, making for lots of special “Kodak moments” against the beautiful backdrop of Lismore, the Firth of Lorne and the Sound of Mull. A prevalence of Tiderace kayaks was observed within our group, including a brand new Xcite out on its maiden voyage. It must be said that Tiderace are making big inroads in the sea kayak market and establishing themselves as a manufacturer of quality craft  (I’ve not yet heard of anyone being disappointed in their purchase). With a nice little tidal push, we were soon over at Duart Castle. The castle is, of course, highly photogenic and nothing sets it off better than a kayaker paddling in front of it (the same could be said for most things). We landed for a picnic lunch and, suitably fortified, were soon back on the water to face up to the aforementioned 3 knot tide on our return to the mainland.

And so, we paddled vigorously, taking a transit of a small house on the opposite shore. After a while, it was certainly evident that, despite all the effort, progress was a little slow. One of our group offered up encouragement by declaring that we would soon be seeing the windows of the small house, and so we paddled on. More time passed and, not only could I not see the windows, I was having trouble seeing the house! To my intense disappointment, the house appeared to be getting smaller. I had been deliberately avoiding turning my head to look at our departure point and, in then doing so, disappointment turned to disgust as I realised that the Mull shore was, in fact, getting closer.  We were literally going nowhere quite speedily.

A good workout on the way back

A good workout on the way back

You will note that I am employing the “royal we” in the above narrative. I cannot make a broad statement concerning the capabilities of our group. I’m pretty sure that certain members may well have had sufficient power reserves to have turned on the turbo boosters and left the tide trailing in their wake (so to speak). Alan and I, however, were not averse to admitting that we hadn’t consumed enough Wheaties/spinach/banned substances and that a return to Mull for a wee rest and some contemplation would be the most prudent course of action. Upon our rapid approach to the shore, I found myself experiencing one of those surreal tidal head-games, when points on the shore are moving at high speed, while the paddlers in front of you are stationary.

Passing Oban

Passing Oban

Once in the eddy, we paddled west until we found a landing spot where we stopped for some further refuelling. Fortunately, tidal rates descend by sizeable chunks with time and, after about 40 minutes, we knew that the flow would be at a reduced speed sufficient to afford us some decent progress. The sea state had long since forgotten its mirror-like calm and was now quite lively, the wind having risen from the north. Fortunately, this gave us a push in the right direction. Even so, it required an energetic effort to cross the Firth and, after some time, Alan confessed to having hit a wall, metaphorically speaking.  Somehow, digging deep (and in the knowledge that he hadn’t packed a tent), he bravely soldiered on.

This was, however, a valuable lesson in the need to pack some extra rehydrating fluids and energy bars for those unexpected moments of depletion. It’s something we would never fail to do when cycling, hillwalking or running, due to the very evident intensity and dehydrational impact of those activities. You don’t necessarily have the immediate feedback of gushing sweat and bursting lungs with kayaking, unless you’re racing or survival paddling. The average paddling excursion tends to be a slower burn, requiring more stamina and strength (especially upper body) than supreme cardio fitness. Regardless, and especially over time, resources still need to be replaced efficiently.

Return to Ganavan Bay

Return to Ganavan Bay

Our trip had been an interesting test of our Northern Light Greenland and Aleutian paddles and I was very pleased with the outcome. I didn’t encounter any elbow or wrist aches that I’m pretty sure would have accompanied a Euro paddle on such a trip, and correspondingly, I didn’t have to worry about feather angle in the wind.

Ganavan Bay was a welcome sight as we eventually returned to its shores.  It could be said that we fought the tide, and the tide won, but I prefer to think of it as conceding a small battle, only to win the war.

Sticking with tradition

Tuilik testYou can only go so far learning traditional kayak skills before you find yourself staring enviously at photos and videos of Greenland devotees and coveting their tuiliks. The tuilik is an Inuit-designed, all-in-one paddle jacket and spraydeck combined. The original tuiliks were made from sealskin, but modern-day commercial ones are made from neoprene and other manmade fabrics. Reflecting on all the days spent shivering with cold (in the summer!), or impersonating an immobilised Michelin Woman, I somehow found myself on the Brooks Paddle Gear website hitting the “Buy Now” button.  Our tuiliks finally arrived from Canada last week after spending 5 days in Customs. I dare say that HM Customs must have to do research when such esoteric items come their way, and complicated spreadsheets must be consulted in order to calculate which particular level of the stratosphere to target the associated charges.

Balance braceHaving been immersed in matters Greenlandic for some time, it’s easy to forget that such attire might not seem quite so “normal” to other paddlers (let alone non-paddlers, yegads). Greenland kayaking doesn’t have a massive following in Scotland and, as much as I’d like to think that we might be viewed as trendsetters, the reality is that we are probably viewed as just plain odd.  Undeterred, we hit the water for our neoprene baptism and started putting the tuiliks to the test. As our faces recoiled from the icy cold, the rest of us remained toasty and we started on what’s become our usual rolling routine. All layback rolls were present and correct. Indeed, the predictions of Steen in Denmark of “pure neoprene doping” held true – which left me feeling a little like a Tour de France rider on EPO. We stayed warm through a fairly lengthy practice session. The reduction in the number of layers worn underneath, and absence of a torso-hugging spraydeck, allowed for increased freedom of movement. I achieved my first storm roll, while Alan nailed his repeatedly. Being able to get your nose to the deck helps. And finally, I could get the rotation going that Cheri Perry references in the excellent “This Is The Roll” DVD. The most astonishing part was when it came to emptying the kayak at the end of the session – there was scarcely a drop of water! No more rolling in slosh!

Hand rollI should add that I had a bit of a wake-up call the other weekend. I’ve been merrily paddling on trips with my Northern Light Paddlesports Greenland paddle, happy in the knowledge that my Standard Greenland roll had never failed me and could therefore be relied upon in conditions. Which was all fine and dandy … until my Standard Greenland roll failed me (er, in the flat). We’d been on a day trip and decided to do a bit of rolling before coming off the water. In I went quite optimistically, only to get stuck under my kayak. I crunched forward and wiggled and was eventually released from the aquatic forces that had held me in their grip. My resultant roll, however, was all to heck and I was reduced to accepting an “eskimo” rescue from Alan. After more drysuit venting, a couple of further attempts revealed that my roll was still on a little holiday. Finally, I removed my PFD/BA and everything was all right.  In an attempt to salvage my wounded pride confidence, I decided that I couldn’t not try some hand rolling. Mistake! Now I was back to having that “raised water level” experience that I encounter in the pool.  In other words, the water surface is somehow that much higher above me without any buoyancy and I can’t quite make it all the way up. It took several tries before success, when everyone breathed a sigh of relief (because they could finally go home for tea).

So, two things were going on here. First, I’d never actually done Greenland (versus Euro) rolling with a fully loaded BA (including radio, phone, knife, snack bars, lip salve, empty wrappers …), and it’s a bit of a different experience.  Second, if my hand roll fails without the buoyancy assistance of layers or a tuilik, then something needs fixing. And the big lesson from all of this is: more practice is needed, including changing up the variables.

I’m glad it happened, because it keeps things real. Traditional rolling skills should not be confined to flatwater lochs. They should be a living tradition, employed in the seas that they were designed for and in a variety of circumstances. Few illustrate this better than Warren Williamson: