Winter Kayaking

As we awoke to a temperature of -2°C, crystal blue skies and the glistening waters of the Clyde within view, it was hard to resist the call of our kayaks. Having said that, it was also hard to resist remaining tucked up under the duvet. There’s something about a combination of freezing temperatures and the close proximity of water that causes an instinctive physical recoil. Yet, we are fortunate enough to have the cold-weather kit that’s required to enable us to get out on the water despite the chilly conditions, so – as often is the case – it really was all (or mostly) in the mind.

Insufficient daylight hours ruled out a very long paddling trip, so we kept things local. Of course, these local journeys happily coincide with being a more environmentally conducive approach than travelling by car for many miles to gain access to the sea. With the smörgåsbord of idyllic paddling locales that is presented by Scotland, however, it is hard to strictly adhere to this principal.

We were drawn northwards by incredibly beautiful scenery, consisting of snow-dusted hilltops on all sides. A fantastic day for photography, we thought! Alan struggled a little with moisture on the camera lens and – as I discovered upon applying it to my sunglasses – a spongey, fake chamois serves only one purpose and that is to fog and smear the lens further. Alas, we had forgotten to take a proper lens cloth with us. This was cruelly confirmed upon our return to discover that barely a handful of photographs (seen here) were worth salvaging out of the many besmeared and blurrily vague renderings revealed on the laptop. No amount of hours spent with Photoshop will save the majority. There lies lesson number one of winter kayaking photography.

As much as we were toasty in our triple-layered fleeces and encompassing drysuit (plus BA and kayak, of course), our hands – being exposed to water drips – became quite cold despite wearing neoprene gloves. This was especially felt upon reaching the Holy Loch where a northerly breeze was blowing, albeit gently. We decided to have a snack at that point and, being that I didn’t necessarily want to feed the eider ducks with my salted peanuts, I decided to take my gloves off momentarily. I instantly regretted this as the cold then felt by my hands brought tears to my eyes and I clumsily fumbled my gloves back on accompanied by a great deal of whining stoic fortitude.

As we paddled on the Holy Loch, I found myself contemplating what it was like there when the loch was host to a US Naval base and the odd nuclear submarine that that entailed. The very notion felt quite incongruous – that such a beautiful area could be so militarised, but one need only paddle up the Gareloch to see a modern-day example of the same. I have recently read On Celtic Tides by Chris Duff and, proving the concept of “six degrees of separation” (or even fewer), I was interested to note that the author was formerly stationed at the Holy Loch as a US Navy diver. Indeed, that very posting played a part in inspiring him to undertake his circumnavigation of Ireland at a later date, the subject of the book.

As we headed over to the east side of the loch, we were assailed by shouts of our names and soon spotted our neighbour bounding down to the shoreline to greet us, once again proving that it’s a small world (well, it definitely is in Cowal). It was tempting to request a lift home in his van (where there would surely be plenty of room for 2 kayaks), but we refrained. Instead, we headed back out of the loch and turned south into the blinding sunshine. Applying our recently improved navigational skills, Alan informed me of what heading he was on, however, this was a bit superfluous considering I couldn’t even see my compass. A quick game of chicken with Western Ferries and we were soon past Hunter’s Quay and approaching Dunoon – at least I think it was Dunoon, having only the smell of kebabs to go by.

With immaculate timing, we stepped out of our kayaks just as the sun disappeared behind the hills, resulting in an instant plummet in the temperature from almost bearable, to get-me-home-to-a-hot-shower-right-now levels. Taking the metal j-bars off of our car roofrack upon our return was like fondling the contents of the freezer, and practically tore the skin off of our fingers. A speedy cold-water hose-down (of our kit, not us) was followed by a wonderfully hot shower and a cosy night by the fire that not even the disappointment of some botched photographs could spoil.


  1. Alex Gray says:

    Enjoyed reading your piece about kayaking on the west coast and the photos, but one thing puzzled me at first. You said in regard to militarization “one need only paddle up the Gairloch to see a modern-day example of the same”, but the Gairloch here in Wester Ross is blissfully free of any miltary or industrial installations of any kind, and we see sea kayakers enjoying it when the weather permits!

    I suspect you meant the Gareloch, off the Clyde, and were referring to the Faslane base near Garelochhead.

    Alex Gray
    Two Lochs Radio, Gairloch

  2. pamf says:

    Hi Alex – Thank you for your feedback. I must apologise for this blatant spelling error! Indeed, I meant the Gareloch off the Clyde and have duly corrected my post. Apologies to all at the non-militarised Gairloch of Wester Ross!

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