Escape to Islay

As if we haven’t had enough excellent trips by way of the Garnock Canoe Club this year, we’ve just come back from another one. We were in Islay over the weekend as guests of the very gracious (and environmentally upstanding) Dave and Emma of the Islay Canoe Club. Islay is much closer to us than Lewis, involving a mere 38 miles of driving and a quick hop on the Portavadie-Tarbert ferry followed by 2 hours on the Kennacraig-Port Askaig ferry. We’re practically neighbours!

Kintra on Islay

Kintra on Islay

On Friday evening, we all went for a stroll along the beautiful Kintra beach at sunset, accompanied by Sam and Bria, the springer spaniels. The weather forecast was predicting a day indoors on Saturday, although Richard confidently maintained that conditions would be fine. I know that Richard has some god-like abilities in relation to paddling, but I hadn’t realised that they extended to weather forecasting as well. After a morning of yoga class (during which I determined that I will never again be as flexible as my 10 and 15 year-old classmates), the weather did clear by Saturday afternoon. So off we popped for a few hours of playing in the surf at Traigh Bhan near Port Ellen. This was precisely the type of experience that I needed after my little capsizing episode in Lewis. Richard waded into the soup and taught me how to low brace properly, ensuring that I hip flicked as appropriate to prevent the kayak’s edge from being caught. The more I managed to stay upright, the more it seemed like fun. Next, Dave insisted that I try a little kayak rolling with his guidance. I had been observing Alan’s attempts where it seemed that he wasn’t entirely enjoying his salt-water nasal flushings and I therefore launched a vigorous protest that I wasn’t up for it. Dave seemed deaf to my pleadings. I then watched Kirsty executing a roll unassisted and, duly inspired, I succumbed on the grounds that I be allowed to use a nose clip. Of course, I couldn’t roll without Dave guiding the paddle as my brain engaged a brand new sensory assault (salt water, “stuff” in the water, gushing noises, and so on), but at the very least, it gave me an introduction to the whole rolling-in-the-sea experience. I am pleased to say that it wasn’t quite as horrific as I had anticipated, so there is hope.

Later at dinner, I was warned that I had to finish all of my pasta in preparation for paddling on Sunday. This alerted me to the possibility of a challenging day, although there’s only so much pasta that you can consume at one sitting. We then spent the evening watching This is the Sea I (for the umpteenth time for most of us). This is what paddlers do in their free time. That, and play girlsgogames (introduced to us by Jessica, aged 10, and handily bookmarked on Dave’s laptop).



Once again, Sunday’s weather proved quite amenable, so we set off for Frenchman’s Rocks – well, Portnahaven at least. There had been a great deal of mention of Frenchman’s Rocks during the course of the weekend, such that I couldn’t think of this legendary place without summoning up visions of dramatic wind and waves accompanied by thunder claps and capsizing vessels all over the place. As we exited the little Portnahaven harbour, it became apparent that those visions were perhaps not entirely unwarranted.

Alan and I soon found ourselves in conditions that once again pushed us to the outer limits of our respective comfort zones. This had resulted from the low pressure system that had been passing over the west coast of the country in recent days. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling more nervous on this day when I knew that I’d already experienced some pretty large swell in Lewis in recent weeks. Something about these conditions had me looking for the eject button on my kayak and I wondered if I was just having an “off” day. Richard then explained that we were experiencing significant clapotis, or confused seas, which was in turn messing with our minds (basically). Instead of purely rolling swells, we had jumbled, frothy waves to contend with as well. It is certainly quite intimidating when a large wave veers up menacingly in front of you, only to be joined by its friend coming from the opposite direction (recalling scenes from “The Sorceror’s Apprentice”), and so on over and over. The nerves do get a little jangled. Dave remarked (or rather, shouted across the melee) that I had gone rather quiet. This was probably because I was mentally rehearsing the many ways in which I could die say, “I’d like to go back now please” without crying. As time went on, however, it became apparent that I wasn’t about to capsize and that my wee orange boat was quite capable of handling the assault. Alan and I had joked in Lewis about “redefining our definition of rough”. I think I can say that we have re-redefined it further now! When I reflect that merely a year ago I was gingerly getting into my kayak on the flat calm of Loch Eck and remarking on how “tippy” it was, I can but laugh in embarrassment.

Despite my awareness being 99% consumed by the sea state, I did manage to notice the large number of seals in our vicinity, one of whom became particularly curious and decided to follow us about. We also saw for the first time seals sleeping in the water, with one nostril held aloft for air as they snoozed amongst the turbulent waves. Quite a feat.

Portmais-sgeire rocks

Portmais-sgeire rocks

We paddled over to the steep beach at Port Mais-sgeire and practised landing. It was there that we met up with the rest of our party who had (much more sensibly) travelled on foot. We then paddled a little further in the general direction of Frenchman’s Rocks. A suitably gnarly array of “rocky water” provided a perfect opportunity for the more senior members of our party to test their rockhopping skills. It’s all in the timing, and it was impressive to watch the others employing their skills to use the undulating swell in order to work their way through the narrow gap.

Playing at a reef

Playing at a reef

After that, we headed back out to the ocean for another dose of clapotis (as it were) and Richard encouraged us to prepare for a fast about-turn when he gave the say-so. We were, in fact, dabbling our toes in the edges of the tide race located in the vicinity of Frenchman’s Rocks. As soon as the waves changed shape (I admit that, after such a barrage, subtleties of wave shape were lost on me), we headed back towards land. It wasn’t long before we’d returned to the very picturesque Portnahaven.

By the time we got back to the house, the rest of our party had kindly prepared dinner for us after which the adults went for a walk. That left us kids at home to entertain ourselves and we had a most hilarious evening playing Whist, Snap, Blackjack and “Scabby Queen”.

When we started out sea kayaking, I had thought that our main goal would be to be able to travel from A to B, enjoy a bit of scenery and wildlife, and learn some basic safety skills along the way. I had not anticipated the adrenaline rush that we have been experiencing of late as we learn to deal with some very “real” (and some very fun) conditions. I’m not even sure I would have said that I wanted it. I had also not anticipated meeting so many great people of all ages as a result of this activity. All I know is that I keep coming back from these trips absolutely buzzed, feeling more alive than ever and with only one wish – more please!

Addendum: I should mention again that photos of the more exciting conditions were simply not possible. You’ll just have to take my word for it.


  1. Armin says:

    Reading your addendum brought back a question I had in my mind but never asked after reading another blog with kayaking pictures from Islay:

    How do you actually keep the camera dry in a kayak and how do you take the pictures? Is it in a waterproof housing and you somehow balance it in one hand while the other holds the paddle?

    (I’ve only been in a kayak for a few weeks at school, more than 25 years ago)

  2. pamf says:

    Hi Armin – Thank you for your comment. The camera used on this blog is a waterproof one – it is a Pentax Optio W20, so you don’t need to keep it dry. I place it in my buoyancy aid pocket, and it is also secured by a cord tied to my BA. I then grab it when I see a photo opportunity. I usually need 2 hands, so the paddle sits on my lap while I power up etc – hence the need for stable conditions. In time, I hope to perfect my ability to use one hand only and get some better “action” shots.

  3. Armin says:

    Thanks for the explanation Pam, really appreciated!

    I do a lot of photography on dry and usually mostly steady land, so it’s interesting to read about how to do it when things around you are moving. Come to think of it, I’ve struggled quite a bit taking pictures with a big lens when standing on an exposed cliff buffeted by fairly strong gusts…

    Good luck with perfecting your skills, I’m sure you’ll master it soon!

    PS: Do you know Douglas Wilcox seakayaking blog? He’s been to Islay a few weeks ago and also just went round the Mull of Kintyre.

  4. pamf says:

    Hi again Armin – Yes I often visit Douglas Wilcox’s site. He is the master kayaking photographer without a doubt, and his photos provide real inspiration to get out there and get snapping.

  5. Ignacio Wenley Palacios Iglesias says:

    You and Alan in Frenchman’s Rock as I grunt and sweat under a weary life…

  6. pamf says:

    Wenley, you were missed! You would have loved it, I’m sure. We’re back to “auld claithes and purridge” now (trans: old clothes and porridge), meaning we too must work for a living. Sigh …

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