Posts belonging to Category Kyles of Bute



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.

See Photo Gallery

Wind

Windy ClydeI remember a good few years back, there was a movie called “Wind”. The film was not about gastro-intestinal issues, however, it was all about sailing (some Americas Cup thingy). If the past few weeks are anything to go by, it could equally have been about west coast of Scotland sea kayaking. Indeed, wind has been the central theme of kayaking conditions for what seems like  ages and ages.

This actually wasn’t in the plan. I’ve mentioned previously that, when I started out sea kayaking, I was perfectly happy to go nice little coastal paddles on calm days. Nothing too choppy, nothing requiring any more than a steady, forward stroke and a steady, forward gaze (because moving one’s head could make the kayak “tippy”). But that was so 4 years ago. Since then, I have discovered that, if you confine your paddling to purely calm days in Scotland, you’ll get out about  one day a year (ie “summer”).

I guess it is inevitable therefore that paddlers in Scotland must confront wind, and perhaps therefore, that old adversary – fear.  Or should I say – the mind.  I’m going to quote Mr Gordon Brown here, from issue 2 of Ocean Paddler, in which he says:

“If all we do as sea kayakers is paddle along nice parts of the coast we get very good at paddling along nice parts of the coast. This does not prepare us for the day that will come when that nice part of coast becomes nasty, and the gentle swells we have become used to washing around the rocks become the foaming jaws of some rabid sea serpent waiting for its next victim.”

Our past several outings have all featured lots of wind (the blowy kind), including a couple of runs up and down the Kyles of Bute in up to 37 mph gusts. An exciting push was had down the Kyles, wherein the impending departure of the Rhubodach ferry improved my back-paddling skills markedly.

Crossing the ClydeMost recently we celebrated the fourth anniversary of our taking up sea kayaking by going out for a small workout against F4/5.  Alan had stopped for a moment and I noticed him having a little wobble reminiscent of the day we entered our “tippy” RM kayaks on the flat calm of Loch Eck on our first ever kayak outing. This time, as I approached, to my surprise I heard him mutter that he was having some difficulty. It was only when I’d caught up that he clarified that his difficulty related to juggling “devices”  – windfinder, camera, phone, iPod (OK, exaggerating a little … ) on his deck along with a paddle. (Note to self: don’t ever buy Alan a GPS). I dare say the Inuit had a similar problem (hence all the fancy Greenland rolling), but with different types of devices. But it is interesting to note that some inroads have been made in 4 years in expanding our respective comfort zones. No longer do our sighs of disappointment relate to frothier sea states (I draw the line at rabid sea serpents), but rather to the flat calm that we used to seek out.

And, by the way, what is a comfort zone exactly anyway? Life isn’t comfortable! So seeking out comfort is a false goal – plus there may  be plenty of time for that in the eventide home.

Approaching DunoonNo blog post on wind at this point would be complete without mentioning the Great Storm of 23 May 2011. What a humdinger! I’ve scarcely known a storm like it, let alone one in May. Winds across Scotland reached up to over 90 mph (I reckon even the best paddlers were grounded) and a lot of damage occurred, not least to the trees. In many areas, it now looks like autumn, there has been so much wind burn.  Apparently, the jet stream had thrown a wobbly. But never mind the jet stream, with maximum day temps of 12-13°C lately, I’m wondering where the Gulf stream has gone. In recent weeks, I have experienced something approaching hypothermia during rolling practice, both in a drysuit and – more ridiculously (just because the sun showed its face) – in a wetsuit. When I start to feel a complaint coming on, however, I just think to myself, “What would the Inuit do?”.  Right now, a tuiliq’s looking appealing.

Back on home waters

Just down the road ...During our last trip, before leaving from Ballachulish, I noticed that Lewis had dug some laminated maps of our paddling area out of a folder labelled “Local Paddles”. This made me consider the definition of “local” and how it varies from one person to another. For example, if Alan and I were organised enough to have such a folder, it would contain a map of the Clyde, extending to Loch Striven, the Kyles of Bute, Loch Long, Loch Goil and Loch Fyne. Maps for far flung areas such as north of Oban would go in the folder labelled “Remote Paddles”, whilst everything else would go in the folder marked “Foreign (There be Dragons)”.

It just so happens that the bulk of our kayaking has been done in local waters, simply because it’s so handy. It also happens to be rather beautiful, and one can never get bored with beauty. A lowered carbon footprint is a nice little bonus. True to form, we were back on local waters this past Saturday, returning to Colintraive but this time leaving from Toward.

I read with some disbelief that the temperature was supposed to reach 2°C by 7 am. The brilliant sun shining through the window implied only warmth. I stopped short of grabbing my wetsuit (which is now in winter hibernation), but feared I might stew in my drysuit. To create a sort of compromise I wore only one layer of capilene as my thermal base.

Toward Sailing Club lifting yachts out

Toward Sailing Club lifting yachts out the water

We paddled past Toward Sailing Club, whose members were busily extracting yachts from the water by way of a crane. What could be sadder, I pondered, than removing your sailing vessel from the sea on a beautiful breezy, sunny day? I feel a pang locking my kayak up overnight (heck, I have friends who take theirs into the house with them), but imagine parting company until spring. We paddled past in an appropriately solemn fashion.

Soon we were in amongst the ever lovely Kyles of Bute, pausing to gaze towards the now vacant Loch Striven along the way. The half dozen container ships that had been in cold lay-up there have now departed, travelling emptily to an uncertain future in the Far East, last I heard. Loch Striven has been returned to its previously slumbering state with nothing more than a few bouncing bombs to attract any attention.

Northerly breeze

Northerly breeze

As we approached the East Kyles, the northerly wind was making itself known and I realised that, contrary to my initial fears, sweltering heat was definitely not an issue. It might be said that a disadvantage of paddling with one’s spouse is that one is more readily given to voicing one’s discomforts aloud. When in a group, I am slightly less inclined to burden my friends – but husbands, on the other hand, are fair game. Alan soon pulled into the shore and I followed, managing to scrape my kayak along some barnacles in the process. He insisted that I put something warm on – something being his fleece as I noted that I’d left mine in the car. Suddenly, the air became frostier. (Note to self: time for a spare clothing drybag audit).

Rhubodach ferry

Rhubodach ferry

It was the first time that we had paddled all the way to Colintraive from South Cowal, powered on by the promise of the wind and tide at our backs on our return. We had lunch beside the Rhubodach ferry jetty before being pushed back to Toward with the sun in our faces.

The sudden onset of cooler temperatures brought home the fact that we are now running out of time for anything but minimal wet practice, outdoors at least. I duly swapped my baseball cap for a neoprene hood and plopped into the water for a spot of rolling. Whenever I am about to declare stupendous, bombproof, super-robust rolling success to the world, the Universe comes knocking at my door with a little calling card that says, “Catch yerself on”. Last week, I introduced a new and unexpected quirk to my ever-growing list of new and unexpected quirks. As I tumbled upside down and initiated my sweep, I became aware that the blade wasn’t “catching”, resulting in a truncated roll which gets me up, but not as easily as I’ve known. I could not determine the cause of this until I figured out from video evidence that I am initially sweeping the air (which was also a recently diagnosed problem with Alan’s offside roll). It’s funny how, underwater, my brain couldn’t work this out – but then again, it has difficulty working anything out beyond not breathing.

Rolling on Loch Eck

Practice on Loch Eck

Anyway, this week I was completely focused on fixing the problem and, in the process, managed to forget the One Thing that has changed my roll from being hit and miss to being something I can depend on. This is my most important rolling discovery since … well, the last one. The trick is to flick my leading wrist back emphatically. It works beautifully in achieving perfect blade angle every time. But this week, my underwater brain succumbed to the law of Sudden Oxygen Deficiency (SOD) and decided to dispense with the One Thing altogether. So my first couple of rolls were laboured, to say the least. Fortunately, Alan’s brain was still working and he could plainly see the climbing blade angle that was the source of the trouble. As much as I would like to, I dare not yet make a declaration of bombproofness, as all too often I have proved that pride comes before a fail.

Alan with empty Loch Striven in background

Alan with empty Loch Striven in background

As we paddled past the sailing club once again, we were surprised to note that the crane had gone and that, barring a few whose owners had presumably slept in, all the yachts were now out of the water and were getting herded into their winter pen. That was fast work!

Back at our launch spot, we threw the kayaks on to the car roof and were home within 10 minutes. As we tucked our kayaks in for the night, it was with the reassurance that they would soon be back out on the water. Even if we don’t go far, it’s always good to go kayaking no matter what the season.

Goals
There are no goals
There is no order
Paid for in laughter

Home
Is this my home
Been starting over
Bathe in the water

Home, Engineers

The kayak chronicles

It has come to my attention that, at an average of 2 excursions on the water per week, my backlog of potential blog posts is growing at an alarming rate. The only way to fully catch up would be to stop paddling for a bit and do nothing but blog, but that is rather a Catch 22 situation and asking too much. As a compromise, I’ll share with you the highlights of the past month or so:

  • MV Captayannis wreck, River Clyde

    A visit to the “sugar boat” (the MV Captayannis) in the Clyde off Helensburgh. I recall the night it was wrecked, and it was all the talk of my primary school the next day. The ship itself dates back to the 1940s (it was wrecked somewhat later, I hasten to add) and is now the home (or at least perch) of sea birds and other marine critters, for whom it provides a “fragrant” environment. Being able to view an historic and personally meaningful shipwreck above water is quite a unique opportunity and beats having to don a diving suit!

  • PS Waverly and kayakers in Kyles of Bute

    PS Waverley and kayakers in Kyles of Bute

    A pleasant paddle in the Kyles of Bute culminating in our attendance at the Colintraive Fete immediately upon our emergence off the water. As we trailed our soggy presence through the crowds and stalls, many strange looks were cast our way. Apparently, wetsuits and cags are not de rigueur at a country fete. It was a relief to stumble upon a friendly and welcoming face – that of Andy, the chief burger flipper who, when he is not flipping venison burgers, is a fellow paddler.

  • Clyde Swim 2010

    Clyde Swim 2010

    A return journey across the Clyde in order to accompany swimmers participating in the cross-Clyde charity swim which was being supported, as per tradition, by the RWSABC. Each swimmer was appointed a kayaker to guide them across the river, and it was up to the kayaker to assess the best (and fastest) “line”. This introduced a slightly more competitive element to the kayaking proceedings than I had anticipated and the responsibility weighed heavily upon me, for a few seconds at least. I soon realised that the presence of slack water and the allocation of a fast swimmer reduced any need for strategic tidal planning on my part and my role reverted comfortably to that of security blanket, so to speak. Hats off to the swimmers that day for their sterling efforts which were quite inspiring (must get back to the pool and work on swimming fitness!).

  • Rolling practice is of course ongoing, mostly occurring along the shores of the Clyde or in Loch Eck. My on-side has been tested in a variety of kayaks now and is still “on” (hooray), while my offside has progressed from DOA to sporadically AWOL, with occasional bouts of FUBAR.

  • Surfing waves on Loch Fyne

    Surfing waves on Loch Fyne

    A windy weekend spent surfing (and a bit of slogging) on Loch Fyne, interspersed with refuelling stops in civilised tea/lunch establishments at Castle Lachlan and Inveraray. These outings were marked with some poignancy, being that Julia was about to go under the knife that Monday to have her knee ligaments reorganised. At least she managed to squeeze the very last droplet of saltwater out of the weekend.

  • Loch Caolisport, Knapdale, Argyll

    Loch Caolisport, Knapdale, Argyll

    A quiet and peaceful outing to Loch Caolisport. Whenever I mention this loch to anyone, I am greeted with a quizzical look – which might explain why we had the place entirely to ourselves (apart from one prawn fishing boat, some seals and seabirds). With beautiful views of Jura and Islay and a lovely lunch beach, it has a lot to offer. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that.

  • Paddling on Loch Linnhe

    Paddling on Loch Linnhe

    A day spent paddling around the north end of Lismore. This brought to mind our first ever kayaking trip of any significance, which took place at that location. It’s pleasing to reflect on how those first tentative paddlestrokes have led to something that’s now approaching a way of life. This is a scenically awesome area, and under 2 hours’ drive away from where we live. The wind reached F5 on our return journey to the Benderloch vicinity, resulting in quite an effort. “Rotation” was the order of the day, as I worked to engage my very toe muscles in assisting my rapidly tiring arms and shoulders in the battle against the wind. It was, however, definitely worth it.

As always, the many kayaking opportunities presented to us have been thanks to the availability of an ever-expanding array of amiable paddling companions whose company we have much appreciated. Not least of these of course is Julia who is now off the water momentarily whilst mending from her knee surgery.  Hopefully, it won’t be long before we see her return – better, stronger, faster than she was before! We wish her a full and speedy recovery.

Paddling on Loch Linnhe

North of Lismore

So take the photographs
And still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf
In good health and good time …

It’s something unpredictable
But in the end it’s right.
I hope we have the time of our lives.

Time of Your Life, Nimrod, Green Day

Around Inchmarnock

Heading to InchmarnockThe word was out that we would be going for a paddle around the island of Inchmarnock, which greatly pleased Alan and me as we’ve had had a notion of just such a trip for a while. Inchmarnock lies to the west of Bute and is south-east of Ardlamont Point on Cowal. In other words, it’s right in our back yard. The island has an interesting history and we studied up the night before by consulting with the trusty The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell Smith, and of course the Sea Kayak Photo Blog.

Our launch point was the appropriately named Carry Point in Kames, as we duly carried our kayaks to the water over the rocky beach exposed by the low tide. A couple of our number borrowed Julia’s robust C-Tug trolley to trundle their heavier vessels over the rocks, a feat that impressed me greatly (note to self: this trolley could be handy!). Overnight the Met Office had been busy removing the previously forecast gusts from their predictions and it was now set to be a calm day. This came as a disappointment to Dave who was testing out a Rockpool GT. Never mind, we stoically endured the tranquil conditions as we headed south to our destination.

Arran Mountains

Arran Mountains

The crossing to the island was set against the beautiful backdrop of the Arran mountains to the south-west, which always makes for good photos. After about an hour’s paddling, punctuated by some much-needed kayak adjustments for Dave, Inchmarnock finally increased in size and we became aware that the island is, in fact, inhabited, a fact that I’d failed to appreciate despite (or because of) my recent hasty studies.

The natives were nervous

The natives were nervous

The inhabitants appeared to be quite nervous and, as we landed on the pebbly beach and started digging out our respective lunches, we became conscious of being avidly watched. My approach to take photos was met with stumbling retreat and it became evident that our hosts were not accustomed to visitors, especially ones clad in bright yellow. Our audience was in fact a motley crew of Highland cattle and I have since established that they are residents of an organic farm on the island, themselves deemed to be “organic”. At least I hadn’t started giving them names …

Geese overhead

Geese overhead

After lunch, we proceeded down the east coast of the island and the wildife count began to increase at a great rate of knots. Seals were aplenty and my progress was slowed by my attempts to photograph them all. I have now established with some scientific certainty that the sound of a camera lens focusing, no matter how quiet, is audible to seals and is a signal to immediately dive.

Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea stop

Inchmarnock is popular with the greylag geese set and we saw many of them flying (and heard them honking) overhead, as well as on the water and on the island itself. There were lots of little goslings following their parents around and we were reminded that, despite the chilly temperature, it was well into breeding season. We also saw: oystercatchers, curlews, plovers and more, and lots and lots of herring gulls. I marvelled at the clarity of the water, with news of the horrific and ongoing massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico playing on my mind. My heart aches for the people and wildlife who will suffer as a result and it is to be hoped that it is somehow stopped soon and that it does not enter the Gulf Stream to make its way northwards. We can never take for granted the beauty that nature has gifted us.

A spot of hail

A spot of hail

Having rounded the island and paddled up the western side, we stopped for afternoon tea at an idyllic beachlet on the north-western edge before setting out on the crossing back to Cowal. During the journey back we saw our second porpoise of the day, a sight that is always a thrill. We went through a few different seasons during that crossing – from spring sunshine to winter hail and even some chilly gusts after all. And then we were back at Carry Point, the tide having come in and thus making it not so far to carry this time.

A spot of sunshine

A spot of sunshine

The thing that strikes me so often on such excellent local trips is that they are precisely that – local. When growing up in Scotland, my main ambition was to go travel and see the world. Certainly I’ve done a little of that and it’s been all very nice. But maybe it’s ironic that I now want nothing more than to explore my own country. And all I really need is a kayak … and maybe a trolley.

All the rusted signs we ignore throughout our lives
Choosing the shiny ones instead
I turned my back, now there’s no turning back
No matter how cold the winter, there’s a springtime ahead

Thumbing My Way, Pearl Jam, Riot Act

Disregarding obstacles

Kyles of ButeI think everyone who has taken up paddling would agree, there are obstacles that must be dealt with along the way. Every training class, every trip, every swimming pool session presents something to be surmounted, some of it real, and some of it a creation of the mind of course.

At the moment, a couple of our paddling pals are overcoming the obstacle of having to learn open boating skills as part of the syllabus for SCA qualifications relevant to their pursuit of sea kayaking (I know, I don’t get it either). While they have been exploring the complexities of single-bladed paddling, Alan and I have been left to our own devices.

Tighnabruaich

Tighnabruaich

So, a couple of weekends ago, we kayaked from Colintraive to Tighnabruaich on a relatively calm day.  The first obstacle of that particular trip was the discovery that Tighnabruaich had succumbed to the Dreaded Curse. The sign had said something about “unforeseen circumstances”, but my disgust impinged upon my forbearance to read further. I would say that being a Sunday in the West of Scotland is not so much an unforeseen circumstance as a requirement for toilet closure. Disgust then took on a whole new meaning when, upon rejoining Alan on the beach, we discovered the source of an unpleasant odour that had been putting him off his lunch. Disturbingly, it was emanating from his boot. I’ll stop right here as, if I continue on I will get queasy. Needless to say, the sewage facilities at Tighnabruaich require some attention (perhaps that’s why the toilets were closed?).  Like me, you might now be interested in supporting this organisation. You might also be interested to learn that mukluks can withstand high-powered jetwashing.

Near the GantocksLast weekend, we were out on the Clyde with a couple of other members of the Cowal Kayak Club, one of whom comes from a river kayaking background. He informed us of a recent incident on the river that left him shaken, such that he is considering transferring his allegiance over to touring.  I have had my own little dance with the rough and tumble demons, which has been greatly alleviated by acquiring a Rockpool Isel (not so much my knight in shining armour as the kayak he paddled in on).

Then, of course, there are the obstacles that can be found each Friday night at the pool – mostly relating to the ever-moving goalposts of acquiring or perfecting a bombproof roll.

There are also the obstacles of everyday life as they impact our ability to get out  – whether related to time, family, health, injuries, work or even the weather. It’s all part of what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe”.

Why do we put ourselves through all this? Why do we work so hard to overcome these impediments? And is it so much about overcoming them, as disregarding them, or even working with them? The answer is difficult to put into words.  I recently found the following moving/inspiring/beautiful video circulating on the paddling blogosphere, and I think that perhaps it expresses it best:

BIRTHRIGHT from Sean Mullens on Vimeo.

Each of us has obstacles to transcend, and once we’re out there on the water, in amongst nature, we do just that. We are free and in the moment. We can breathe and be our natural selves.

About a year and a half ago, I lost a chunk of vision. Not to over-dramatise, I thought I might be going blind. The thing that concerned me most at the time took me by surprise. I recall standing on the shore road of Innellan as a storm blew in. I was fixated on the sea and how I might not be able to get back out in it. Day after day, I looked out at the Clyde and measured the changes in my vision against it.

My sight came back, but – like everyone else – I don’t know what lies ahead. I certainly won’t be taking anything for granted and, inspired by others, it will take more than a few obstacles to stop pursuing what is, after all, a birthright.

If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.
Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple Computer

Never too much of a good thing

There is a Zen saying that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” I have come to realise a slightly adapted version of this, which is: “When the kayaker is ready, the paddling opportunities will come.” This has certainly been the way of things lately. When Alan and I started out, we didn’t know any other kayakers.  We then made friends down at Garnock and, now, we find similarly minded folks right on our very doorstep, providing no shortage of opportunity to get out on the water. It’s a truly wonderful thing.

Misty Holy Loch

Last weekend saw several of those folks stranded on the “wrong” side of the water. Those of us on the Cowal side had intended to meet our friends at Kilcreggan, however, a thick, pea-souper of a fog had descended upon Greenock. Not possessing any suicidal tendencies, our friends quite sensibly abandoned any plans to cross the Clyde shipping channel. Sadly, therefore, they missed out on the beautiful sunny window that had opened over the Cowal Peninsula. We gazed over at the fog-enshrouded gloom in disappointment, which was only assuaged by blue skies, sunshine and beautiful scenery as we made our way from the Holy Loch to Dunoon and a hot cuppa at the Yachtsman’s Cafe.

Heading for the Kyles

Paddling in the Kyles

This weekend saw everyone gathered on the “right” side of the water where more blue skies and sunshine, if not exactly balmy temperatures, beckoned us out for a paddle from Toward to the East Kyles of Bute. After a great deal of deliberation, Alan decided that this would be the day of his “official” return to the world of sea kayaking after a nearly 4 months’ absence due to injury (give or take a couple of short practice outings). It was really excellent to have him back. Also a little strange. I confess to having become a bit “precious” about organising my kit, and I did try not to show my irritation upon discovering bits of his kit appearing in “my” Ikea bag. On the other hand, it’s awfully nice to have someone help you tug your mukluks off (paddlers will understand) at the end of a day’s exertions.

Taxi for Alan

Taxi for Alan

The wind was coming from the NNW  at about 20 kph as we headed straight into it on the way up the Kyles. Fortunately, the sun was out sufficient to keep us from freezing, despite the 3°C temperature and, indeed, my hands became quite sweaty in my pogies. I watched Alan with some concern, hoping that he wasn’t at risk of undoing all the hard physio work he’d undertaken in order to heal, but he assured me that he was feeling fine.  It seemed like the wind was picking up a bit as we pulled into shore for a spot of lunch. Most conveniently, our lunch site sported a rope swing, the temptation of which was too great to resist. Several of us let loose with our inner child and were soon flying through the air in a state of reckless abandon.

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Returning was a quite different experience, with the wind now behind us. We soon established that, at the rate we were being pushed along, we were acquiring 2-3 knots of wind and tidal assistance. It took me all my time not to pull out a newspaper and make a cup of tea as we coasted along. As the waters exiting the Kyles met up with their relations exiting Loch Striven, however, things became a little livelier and required a return of all hands on paddles as we negotiated a bit of F4 chop. The optimists within our party had anticipated that it might be possible to not have to skirt around the fish farm at the southern end of Loch Striven, however, such hopes were obliterated upon meeting up with the rather chunky cables and pipes inconsiderately placed between the shore and the fish cages.  And so we laboured through the chop all the way around the fish farm. Suddenly Alan was making excellent progress as, momentarily distracted from his injury, he had hit the “turbocharger” button on his kayak (a well-known bonus feature of the Nordkapp). I continued to enjoy and appreciate my Rockpool Isel, which took the turbulence in its stride.

A January roll

A January roll

Soon we were back in the calmer waters of Toward. As we approached our destination slipway, not happy with a successful day’s paddling, Alan decided to test out his roll. I am pleased to report that it was present and correct, thus motivating the rest of us to duly pat him on the back and declare him mad (but in a good way).

And, speaking of resurfacing, the Cowal Kayak Club is now providing yet more opportunities to paddle. The Friday night pool sessions have re-started and future trips are in the works. If I’m not careful, this paddling thing could become a bit of an obsession …

Maiden voyage in Rockpool Isel

Those of you who have been keeping track of my blog (which is more than I’ve been doing …) will be aware that, up until now, I’ve been a bit of a Valley Girl (I know, readers from California are now confused). To explain, I have always loved my Nordkapp LV, which is made by Valley Sea Kayaks. A year on from having the good fortune to take ownership of the Nordkapp, here is what I continue to love about it:

  • It’s super speedy
  • It edges beautifully
  • It’s lively and playful
  • It’s nice and roomy for camping trips (at 326 litres volume)
  • It has quality and heritage
  • It looks beautiful – to my mind the most aesthetically pleasing kayak out there. I know looks are not everything, but a thing of beauty is indeed a joy to behold.
Shameless posing with Rockpool Isel

Shameless posing with Rockpool Isel (Photo courtesy Julia Darby)

Having said all that, during my time up in Skye, I came to appreciate some other kayak qualities in relation to rough water, comfort, rolling and the like, and a seed was planted in my mind that perhaps a kayak that would not so much compete with, as complement, my Nordkapp would be in order. The idea is to gain experience and hone skills in a kayak in which I feel confident and which enhances my skills, and use that foundation to “grow into” my more challenging kayak. That’s the plan at least.

Enter the Rockpool Isel. Again, avid blog followers will recall that I test drove one last month and was extremely impressed. The situation evolved and somehow I found myself hooked up with a beautiful Isel of my very own.

I was, of course, delighted to have the opportunity to embark upon an inaugural trip on the Clyde in the company of Julia (herself an Isel owner) and friends. I had reluctantly turned down the opportunity to go out the previous weekend having discovered that, no matter how many times I hit “Refresh”, the 40 mph gusts showing on the Met Office Website refused to disappear. Apparently, surf was definitely up. The 20 mph gusts forecast for this weekend seemed a positive relief in comparison. Indeed, it was a little windy, but this was all the better for giving me a feel for comfort levels (of both the physical and mental kind) in my Isel.

A swan escort for my Isel

A swan escort for my Isel

My fellow paddlers spent some time kindly complimenting my choice of kayak as we set off (apart from that one comment … the response to which is, it’s glitter, not dirty marks! Oh, and the design is seaweed, not squiggles). Soon we were emerging from the Holy Loch out into less sheltered seas.

As the journey progressed, I was not disappointed in the Isel. Here are some reasons why:

  • The Isel is built for the smaller paddler. It therefore fits someone of “lesser” dimensions snugly and has less windage.
  • I’m finding that, the plain fact is that I do better with harder chined/flatter hulled kayaks in choppier water at this stage in my kayaking “career”. I hope that I will eventually do as well in rounder hulled kayaks, but it’s nice to have a choice.
  • I have had issues with foot pegs. After a few hours of paddling, my feet ache and I have numb toes. This is actually quite a big deal, as it really can detract from the pleasure of an outing. In retrospect, it might have been better if I’d ordered my Nordkapp with a customised bulkhead, but obviously this makes the kayak very specific to the owner (thus reducing potential resale value and preventing others from using it). The nice thing about Rockpool kayaks is the incredibly comfortable footplate that comes as standard. There is no pressure on the ball of the foot, no numbness, no pain. I love it!
  • When it comes to rolling, I find I benefit from “aggressive” thigh grips that translate all of one’s effort into the maneouvre/roll. The Isel has me clamped nicely into my kayak – it almost won’t let me not roll. (I’m sure I’ve just cursed something now).
  • Rockpool Isel seat

    Rockpool Isel seat

    Another comfort issue relates to back pain. I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve had some significant problems with this too and I think it relates to sacral/lumbar support. Whatever it is – whether it’s the positioning of the lower glass seat (versus the Valley kayaks’ standard foam seats), the shape of the seat, knee positioning, or the back rest – the ergonomics in the Isel are just right and it equates to zero back pain (for me so far at least). Again, a very big deal.

  • The quality and build is flawless.
Moody Loch Long

Moody Loch Long

The swell pushed us up Loch Long nicely and attempts were made at having a bit of a surf. I enjoyed scooting along as the waves caught my stern. We stopped for lunch at Ardentinny and then, as is often the case, the return journey was against the wind. The Isel remained comfortably under control (always nice) and I remained remarkably dry despite the oncoming waves. A good workout was had by all.

Our launch site beside the Marina at high tide turned out to be a less than ideal return site at low tide. Scenes entirely appropriate to Halloween ensued as we found ourselves being sucked into the gloopy, stinky mud-swamp that awaited us. There were moments when we thought we’d never see our friends footwear again. Fortunately, we did manage to make it intact all the way back to the cars.

As I reflect on how wonderful it is to have so many quality kayaks to choose from on the market, I find that, with the Isel in particular, I feel a real sense of appreciation that the designers have taken the time to consider the needs of the smaller paddler. In the paddling world of big, burly, beardie blokes, it’s quite touching to think that we svelte types have not been forgotten and that we too can share in the joy of a snugly fitting, comfortable, maneouvreable craft.

Kyles of Bute Again

Approaching Tighnabruaich

Approaching Tighnabruaich

On a weekend of good weather, we had toyed with the idea of travelling beyond the borders of Cowal, but decided to minimise our driving time and maximise our paddling time instead. Being that “in-between” time of year, and being that the weather was so pleasant and sunny, I found myself entering the great drysuit versus wetsuit debate, known to delay many a kayaker’s departure. Water temperatures are the gauge (dress for immersion!) and they are not quite Mediterranean standard just yet, so I compromised by wearing a lighter fleece under my drysuit.

We launched at Colintraive on Sunday morning. Sadly, I misjudged my entry point and was perturbed to be blown on top of barnacled rocks. There is no more troublesome sound than that of a grating noise from under one’s kayak. Oh well … it had to happen one day (but no, this doesn’t mean I’ll be lining up for a spot of rock-hopping – not in my Nordy!).

Kayaks at Ettrick Bay

Kayaks at Ettrick Bay

We headed north up the East Kyle, hugging the Bute coastline until we reached the ever picturesque Tighnabruaich and Kames. On we paddled south, remaining on the Bute side of the West Kyle, against a bit of a breeze. We eventually reached Ettrick Bay on Bute, a most appealing stop. As we paddled into the bay, we noted that a small crowd of daytrippers was on the beach either picnicking, playing ball, or simply enjoying the scenery. Everyone there had arrived by road, except for us. We took advantage of the facilities before returning to our kayaks. There was something quite special about that moment when, taking our leave of “civilisation” (albeit not exactly a horde), we turned around and kept walking, walking on past the tide line, away from the sounds of people and cars, to our waiting kayaks and back to our element of the sea. Is this how a seal feels perhaps?

Returning to Colintraive

Returning to Colintraive

And so we embarked upon the return journey, this time crossing over to skirt the Cowal shoreline. We had anticipated being pushed back by the same wind that we’d faced previously, however, it had died away – a similar phenomenon has frequently occurred when we’ve been out cycling. Nonetheless, the tide was in our favour and, whenever I stopped for a quick nap stretch, I noted that I was still making perhaps about 1 knot of progress. This certainly lifted my spirits, not that they needed much lifting.

Any worries I’d had about the potential scratching of my kayak upon launching were quickly surpassed by a further moment of carelessness when I was once again scraping over a barnacled rock that I’d failed to see looming ahead of me. I could have swerved urgently to one side, but I was busy recalling the TV programme I’d watched the night before which documented the cause of the demise of the Titanic, ie the captain had steered the ship to the side of the iceberg, where it inflicted greater damage. I’m not sure the same logic applies to kayaks and rocks. Anyway, you can imagine the rending of my heart into pieces as the rock scoured the hull of my beautiful kayak. Happily, it sounded a lot worse than it actually was as I later discovered only a few minor scratches.

Edging practice

A bit of edging practice

It was early evening by the time we returned to Colintraive, with happy hearts and sun-burnt hands.

I had a bit of an epiphany recently when I reflected on the various magical days we’ve had out in our kayaks (and those to come). It related to how fortunate I am and how I really have no reason to complain about anything when such uplifting and life-enhancing activities are available to me. So, on that note, I’m going to stop complaining now. Honest!

But it’s Thursday …

Loch Striven

Out on Loch Striven ... on a Thursday

I recall a TV advert some years ago (in the US, I think) which featured a be-suited chap walking down a busy city street. He is stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of a SUV driving past, fully laden with adventure gear and evidently heading off to the great outdoors somewhere well beyond the city limits. As he stares in disbelief, he mumbles, “But it’s Tuesday”. I can relate to both parties in that advert – I have been that frustrated office worker, but more recently I have been that Tuesday skiver. Guess which one I like best!

So it was Thursday and the sun was shining. As much as I love my days spent in the office clicking a mouse and attending to the whims important and pressing needs of my customers, I decided to take advantage of the benefits of being self-employed and awarded myself a well-deserved day off. Alan did likewise, so we hit the high seas for a day of unremitting enjoyment in the wind and waves (and calm). We had a bit of everything to keep us entertained, a brisk breeze and some lumpiness upon setting out (which saw our Nordkapps friskily at play), followed by an ethereal flat calm by the end of the day.

Returning in the gloaming

Returning in the gloaming

After reaching Bute, we headed north towards the Kyles. We stopped for lunch at a nice little beach back over on the Cowal side and noted that the temperature would suggest that it wasn’t quite summer yet. As we were approaching Colintraive, Alan commented that his shoulder was beginning to hurt. Rolling practice has taken its toll, alas. I therefore resigned myself to a slightly shorter paddle than I’d been anticipating. We turned around and started heading homewards, but then Alan suggested we take a detour up Loch Striven, and very pleasant it was. Having gone some way up the loch, we worked our way back down towards Toward. After 26 km of paddling, I began to notice that I was feeling the tiniest bit exerted, and contemplated who, at this rate, would win the competition for the sorest shoulders. Alan appeared to have worked through his pain, but I was developing some new and interesting aches all of my very own. I consoled myself by focusing on the beautiful surroundings, the various seal sightings (5 total!), the birds, the peacefulness and the realisation that I was building some good conditioning for the months of paddling ahead.

Miscellaneous observations from our outing:

  • I still cannot imagine making an urgent surf landing after a full day’s paddling. As I peel my spray deck back, it takes some considerable time for me to re-engage the use of my legs. This, combined with the uneven surface of the shoreline, often reduces me to a state of near crawling on hands and knees, which is all very pathetic. Answers on a postcard please …
  • If I tweak the wrist seals of my drysuit throughout the day, it stops my hands from swelling. Good to know.
  • Sanitary products of a feminine nature do not miraculously evaporate when flushed down the toilet. If they don’t choke the sewage system, they are likely to end up floating in the sea, which is unpleasant for humans and wildlife alike. (Perhaps there is a need for an awareness campaign here).
  • To my mind, seals sound a lot like whales when they snort unexpectedly behind you.
  • Nordkapps handle chop with consummate ease.

And so on Friday, I returned refreshed and renewed to my desk … until such time as the contents of my inbox disgorged themselves on to my PC screen at least. I’m not sure if these sneaky days off truly serve the purpose of renewal, especially as I do have to make up the lost work time, or if they just leave one yearning for a lot more of the same.

“Some people say that mountain climbers are really wasting their time. They have nothing better to do so they climb mountains, tire themselves out, and come back with nothing to show for it. Yet a person who climbs a tall mountain sees the world and experiences nature in a very different way from someone who never leaves his own front door. Genuine mountain climbers do not struggle up great precipices for the glory of it. They know that glory is only a label given by others. A true climber climbs for the experience of climbing.” Ch’an Master Sheng-yen,