Posts belonging to Category River Clyde



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

Forward motion

Northern Light 3-piece paddleI now seem to have found myself in possession of 2 Greenland paddles. In my defence, I am sharing these with Alan (or maybe he is sharing them with me?). We acquired an Anglesey Stick in the summer, which sparked our pursuit of all things Greenland (minus the icebergs). More recently, we obtained a Northern Light 3-piece carbon fibre paddle which combines ancient and modern technology in one sleek, black package. The reasons for pursuing this particular option were:

  • Now we have a Greenland stick each
  • The paddle can be dismantled for ease of transportation (which saves the car windscreen from being speared)
  • It can also be shortened into a storm paddle.

I am hard pressed to choose a favourite between the wooden and the carbon fibre versions of the Greenland paddle. I’ve enjoyed working with both of them when rolling, but haven’t yet done an indepth comparison when paddling from A to B. As a matter of fact, I haven’t done a whole lot of journeying with a Greenland paddle full-stop. After reading a blog post by Mel in Australia, where she describes her journey from using a Euro paddle to a Greenland stick (most recently completing a 111 km ultra-marathon), it lodged the idea in my mind that perhaps a Greenland paddle isn’t just for rolling!  I’m also familiar with its reputation for being easier on the wrists. This past weekend, I decided to see how I would fare on a short day trip. My treasured Werner splits were secured to my foredeck, as I ploughed forward armed with nothing more than a skinny stick.

Greenland paddleThe one thing that I notice when forward paddling with a “G-stick” is that it feels like a different set of muscles is being employed, compared with a Euro paddle. These muscles reside more in the torso and shoulders as opposed to the arms and wrists. I found myself being more naturally inclined to rotate, with marked improvement occurring when engaging the feet (of course, this should apply to Euro paddles too). The Northern Light paddle slips through the water smoothly and stealthily and, despite my initially less than perfect technique, I did not experience flutter. It takes a little adjusting, but wasn’t long before I got into the swing of things and I started to feel quite comfortable and made good forward progress.

Something that Alan and I have both experienced is a slight hesitance to trust our Greenland paddles when bracing. Without a big, fat blade to lean against, we feel a little exposed. But this is more of a psychological/perception issue and I think that, with practice, we will be bracing effectively regardless. Counterbalancing this, I did notice a heightened sense of security in relation to the fact that rolling with a Greenland paddle is significantly more reliable than with a Euro paddle. This really does improve one’s confidence. I have read comments suggesting that, for example, a standard Greenland roll isn’t as effective in rough water. Yet I’ve also recently read reports of  Greenland paddlers out in serious surf who had no problem with, and thus every confidence in, repeatedly employing this roll (comments here, for instance).

Greenland rollingPassing my G-stick over to friends to try out gave me the opportunity to make a direct comparison with a (crank shaft carbon fibre) Euro paddle. Suddenly, it felt like I was paddling with a shovel. I could feel every tendon in my arms and wrists and it all seemed a bit like hard work, especially against the wind. My right elbow is a slight weak spot (in wind in particular), which ultimately leads to a wrist problem, and it wasn’t long before it started to tweak. I will confess to being relieved to get my skinny stick back, when the elbow pain disappeared and everything felt more comfortable again.

I’m certainly going to continue taking the Greenland stick out on trips. Alan will probably have a go with the carbon fibre paddle next time while I try out the wooden Anglesey Stick which I already know is a beautiful paddle to hold.

The Greenland adventure continues!

A kayak’s view of the Tall Ships Race 2011 Parade of Sail

I have a few blog posts queued up (so much kayaking, so little time!), but in the meantime, I thought I’d share a couple of photo albums relating to a special event held on the River Clyde: the concluding “Parade of Sail” of the 2011 Tall Ships Race.

Red Arrows over Clyde

Red Arrows Display

Tall Ships Race 2011

Tall Ships Race 2011 Parade of Sail

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.

Times like these

Yes, there’s been a bit of a hiatus in blog posts. I do apologise. But fear not, we have been out on the water, despite adversity, enjoying mostly calm yet chilly conditions.

Kilcreggan to Greenock

Kilcreggan to Greenock

We accompanied Julia on her momentous return to the water after ACL repair surgery. In case her surgeon is reading this, I would just like to assure that we were exceedingly sensible and conservative in our undertaking of this trip. After some rescue practice in F6, we went for tea at Kilcreggan. OK, I’m kidding about the first bit. I can confirm that conditions were flat calm and that no ligaments were harmed in the completion of our outing.

Later, during another flat calm day out, this time on Loch Long, the mirror-like reflections were disturbed only by our paddle strokes and made for some great photography.

Not a breath of wind

Not a breath of wind

As we made our way northwards, we were almost flattered by the attentiveness displayed by the MOD Police as they pulled alongside us in their motor vessel to question our destination. I dare say that answering, “We’re just popping over to take photos of your lovely military installation”, would not necessarily have been perceived as the witty riposte that we’d intended, so we refrained. Our sensible (and truthful) answer of “Loch Goil” allowed our questioners to bid us a “nice day” before going on their way.

Loch Long

Loch Long

Later, their colleagues in a RIB swung by our lunch spot just as I was about to set up for some rolling practice. Determined not to provide them with any free entertainment (I might have considered a small fee), I waited for them to lose interest before plunging into the chilly water (me that is, not them). We later learned that HMS Ark Royal was due to arrive at Loch Long in a few days’ time, to offload some armaments before being decommissioned. Perhaps that would explain the apparent security “sensitivity”.

Loch Eck lunch stop

Loch Eck lunch stop

We also enjoyed a lovely winter’s paddle down Loch Eck and back, punctuated by a stop at the Coylet Inn where we were befriended by the ever-so-handsome and attentive Buster, the resident boxer dog.

We were back crossing the Clyde and heading to Loch Long again last weekend where we lunched al fresco on the bench at the Kilcreggan shore-front on the return. We hardy paddlers don’t mind a bit of snow on our picnic bench.

During the course of all this, however, as tends to happen when you’re busy making other plans, life has intervened, and tending to family illness has taken priority over matters kayaking (and blogging). Indeed,  it is at times like these that you become exceedingly aware of the impermanence of … well, everything. And suddenly, everything and everyone becomes a little more precious. Life is short and meant to be enjoyed – happiness is indeed a birthright.

So do me a favour and get out paddling! Buy that kayak you’ve been ogling. And the drysuit. Learn to roll (you know you can!). Plan that trip. And I don’t want to hear winter being used as an excuse 😉

We are all just walking each other home.”  Ram Dass

It’s times like these you learn to live again
It’s times like these you give and give again
It’s times like these you learn to love again
It’s times like these time and time again

Times Like These, Foo Fighters

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

Shark tales

Looking for rocksNever ones to miss out on an opportunity for skills improvement, Alan and I signed up last weekend for a coaching session which had been kindly offered by our paddling chum (and able coach), Lewis. The venue was set as Maidens in Ayrshire and I can now officially say that I have visited South Ayrshire more times in the past few months than I had previously in my entire life.  Which is all good, as that area offers the sea kayaker many challenges and attractions, as I shall elaborate.

We were in full “business” mode as we put in at the rather muddy Maidens harbour. This outing was not, after all, a nice summer’s day trip – it was the serious matter of skills practice and general self-improvement, at least in relation to paddling. Not for us would there be scenic wonders or wildlife sightings – no, it would be all bow rudders, hanging draws and low braces on this day.

Training dayOur initial practice took place within the harbour. The gloom that has come to characterise July prevailed and lighting conditions were such that I thought we might need some torches to find our way about. Eventually, we did find the harbour exit and headed south. Winds were around F3 as we puttered about the rocky patches of coastline, and we were duly encouraged to engage in a spot of rockhopping. At this point, I know I am at high risk of acquiring a bit of a reputation, one that has nothing to do with skills and everything to do with avoidance. I understand the argument that kayaks are there to be used (and repaired), and I respect that rockhopping is an excellent means of honing one’s paddle technique, but am I really being “precious” to suggest that composite kayaks + barnacles + less than stellar skills are not the best mix? Just as Lewis was encouraging me to have a go, Alan helpfully illustrated the point and landed on a pinnacle of barnacles whilst emitting disturbing grinding sounds (the kayak, that is). Hours (or perhaps seconds) later, he did manage to get off of the rocks, and I was off the hook.

Shark in the water!

Shark in the water!

As we continued on, a sudden movement caught my eye just as Alan shouted urgently and pointed to my right. Upon sighting the tell-tale triangular dorsal fin and the following tail fin, we realised immediately that it was a basking shark. This was the first time we’d seen one, having heard about them from other paddlers’ reports. The basking shark is the world’s second largest shark, growing to lengths in excess of 20 feet. Fortunately, they are veritable vegetarians, only consuming plankton, and are no threat to humans, unless they unexpectedly breach under your kayak (a thought that did flit through my mind).  It zipped about the water near us with amazing agility before darting off and we were all thrilled to have seen one so close.

We paused for lunch next to the famous Turnberry golf course (once again). It seemed to be a busy day on the course, as I glanced over at the poor golfers with their backs to the sea.

Nick paddles into the sunset

Nick paddles into the sunset

Back on the water, as we stopped to engage in a bit of surf tuition (such as conditions would permit), we saw a lone kayaker approaching from the south. We broke off our discussions to greet him and, as he came nearer, Alan and I both realised that we knew him. This might not sound particularly astonishing, but this kayaker wasn’t exactly local. He had, in fact, paddled up from the south coast of England having set out in May! We had met Nick during our course at Skyak Adventures last August. It seems that he had really put his learnings to work. And here he was paddling just off the Ayrshire coast, at the exact same time as we were paddling just off the Ayrshire coast … what are the chances? It’s a little spooky.

Cue Jaws theme tune

Cue Jaws theme tune

Shortly after this most interesting encounter, we had yet another one – with more basking sharks! This time there were two, an adult and a smaller, probably juvenile, one.  For whatever reason, they appeared almost drawn to our presence and stayed within our locale for quite some time, obliging us with several photo-opportunities by swimming under our kayaks repeatedly. We were definitely in breach of the proximity to wildlife guidelines, but – in our defence – it was entirely of the sharks’ choosing.

As our training came to an end, I realised that we were only supposed to be doing skills practice off a coast not far from home, yet not only were we returning with improved skills, we also had unforgettable memories of an amazing wildlife encounter. It’s just another day at the office for a sea kayaker.

[Sharks reciting]: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself.”
Bruce, Anchor and Chum, “vegetarian” sharks, Finding Nemo

Familiarity breeds content

Paddling against the windWhile the rest of the northern hemisphere basks in summer sunshine, we have been soaking up all the rain, wind and cool temperatures that only Scotland can provide in July. Theoretically this might sound like a miserable prospect, but as the wise and ancient adage goes – when life hands you lemons, add some salt and tequila! And the same applies for the weather. We could choose to spend the rainy, windy days indoors playing dominoes, or we could go out and paddle anyway. And so we have been squirting those lemons right back in life’s eye. Who wants sunshine and balmy conditions anyway?

I know what you’re thinking: who is this and what have you done with Pam? The fact is that lately I have, through a process of gradual coercion immersion (the type that hasn’t involved too much capsizing, fortunately), become increasingly familiar with conditions that lie in the F4/5 slot on the Beaufort Scale.

After our exciting day out off Cumbrae, we went along to practice night at the RWSABC when the wind was making a direct hit on the bay and veritable breakers were rolling ashore. A few deep breaths and out I went into the fray. It wasn’t long before (what felt like) a rather large wave caught my stern and powered me forwards with such speed that I thought that it might see me hurtled into the club bar to get in an early round of ginger beers. A little shaken, I landed and collected my nerves before heading back out, by which time the waves had subsided a tiny bit.

A lovely summer's day out on the PS Waverley

A lovely summer's day out on the PS Waverley (I'd rather be paddling!)

Last Saturday was yet another grey and windy day, so we decided that it wasn’t worth venturing too far away. Launching at Lazaretto Point, it had all the feel of one of our winter’s day paddles, and we headed east out of the Holy Loch. It took us about 10 minutes to reach Kilcreggan – well, I exaggerate, but with the F4-5 westerly wind behind us, we scooted along as if engine-powered, scarcely requiring a paddle stroke. As much as this was all very pleasurable, our enjoyment was tempered by the realisation that this could only mean one thing for the return journey.

Scooting along

Scooting along

We fortified ourselves at the cafe on the waterfront of Kilcreggan, another establishment that is kind to sodden paddlers and doesn’t mind saltwater puddles forming on the floor. Soon, we were back on the water experiencing the full-frontal force of the wind. There’s no denying it, this was quite a slog. I made a concerted effort not to gauge my progress against any landmarks as I knew this would only result in depression. On the bright side, it proved an excellent opportunity to work on maximum forward stroke efficiency, focusing on rotation and paddle grip in particular. I explored the fine line between lessening my grip on the paddle so as to prevent raging tendinitis, and having the paddle whipped from my hands. The gusts were sufficient to bring us to a halt on occasion and we contemplated a shore stop at Cove before deciding to plough ahead regardless. There were some moments of respite, but the gusts experienced upon reaching the Holy Loch were some of the most fearsome of the day.

Rescue "practice"

Rescue "practice"

A few feet from the shore, my wind-ravaged senses became aware of some wobbling going on to my left. Almost in slow motion, I observed Alan inelegantly capsizing in what looked like a most unintended way. As Alan floundered about in the water, my finely honed rescue skills immediately kicked in, but I discarded them in favour of a fit of the giggles. The official story regarding this embarrassing debacle (avidly watched/photographed by our fellow paddlers and various pedestrians on the shore-side) was that Alan was paddling Julia’s Pintail and, due to a lack of practice at emerging from that particular kayak, he managed to tip himself over whilst doing some sort of yoga pose in the cockpit. Actually, he tells me that he was in fact trying to disengage his foot from the kayak in preparation for landing. What resulted was a fiasco hybrid between a self-rescue and an assisted rescue. I will share some key learnings:

  • The rescuer should not giggle at the rescuee. It is considered bad form.
  • The rescuee should not shout at the rescuer.
  • The rescuee should follow the rescuer’s instructions, even if the rescuer is his wife.
  • The rescuer should refrain from saying “I told you so” afterwards, no matter how tempting.

One thing for sure is that paddling into F4/5 wind provides an excellent workout, although I confess to moving a bit like a turtle the next day, until I’d done some yoga at least.

Happy place, despite the weather

Happy place, despite the weather

Aside from the practical benefits to be gained from increased familiarity with rougher conditions, there are some considerable psychological ones too. With more windy weather under my belt, I am no longer hitting “Refresh” on the Met Office website weekend forecast on a Wednesday. Gone is the nervous anxiety created by predicted gusts that only a few weeks ago would have seen me bailing out of a trip. And all told, it serves to increase the number of available paddling opportunities, which can’t ever be a bad thing. Living in Scotland, it’s not as if we can hold off and wait for summer to arrive.

Moving goalposts (and pushing envelopes)

Fairlie to Cumbrae and backThe summer days of July have well and truly arrived here on the west coast of Scotland. How do I know?

  • The calendar says so.
  • The schools are all on holiday.
  • It’s blowing a gale and raining torrentially.
  • The garden now looks like a bombing range.

Yes, gone is the tranquility of balmy May and June and now we have some proper Scottish summer weather.  Never mind, we have used this as an opportunity to switch focus from journeying, to expanding our skills and experience in less-than-tranquil conditions.

Alan is happy

Alan is happy

On that note, I’ve seen a change in Alan recently. Gone is the mild-mannered, fair-weather paddler I loved and in his place is this other chap, whose eyes light up at the sight of white caps, whose shoulders slump at the prospect of calm seas, who laughs (I’d say a little demonically) at wind and waves. All of which places yours truly in an awkward position.

Anyone who knows me as a kayaker will not immediately leap to associations of high-risk, adrenaline-soaked feats of paddling derring-do at the mention of my name. Rather, they might think of a nice, sensible day out in nice, sensible conditions with perhaps some seal-spotting and a bit of lunch thrown in. Regardless, and no matter how much I drag my heels along the sand, somehow I find myself bobbing about on lumpy seas more than my nice, sensible self thinks desirable. Alan’s latest proclivity is therefore not helping.

On our way to Cumbrae

On our way to Cumbrae

The word came from Julia that a group was going out on Saturday and we were invited to join in. I’d seen the forecast of background winds of nearly 20 mph and gusts of over 30 mph. In addition, Julia used certain phraseology that caught my attention, such as: “looking for waves”, and something (that I think was intended as reassurance) about folks being available to “pick up the pieces if things go pear-shaped”. I duly convinced myself that this was not for me. No thank you. I would be perfectly happy staying at home sobbing at my complete lack of gumption catching up on housework. I’d even changed into non-paddling attire, when Alan informed me that wild horses wouldn’t stop him he’d quite like to go. He then advised that, for reasons of kayak-loading group logistics, he couldn’t double up with Julia and he’d therefore be in the car on his own … with an empty cradle beside his kayak …

My hat out kayaking

My hat out kayaking

So there I was heading down to Fairlie, trying my best to drown out all the little alarm bells sounding inside my head. I was reminded of my yoga practice, where certain postures are made so much more difficult by mental (and physical) resistance and I tried not to become my own worst enemy. Once on the water, we aimed for Great Cumbrae. It was a bit of a slog and I rued my inaction about pursuing a repair to my skeg. For some time, it’s been a bit sticky, to say the least. Once it’s down, it’s all the way down and no further adjustment (including retraction) is possible. I therefore prefer to leave it up. Lewis kindly reminded me to edge and this immediately assisted matters.

Nearing Millport

Nearing Millport

Upon reaching Cumbrae, we proceeded towards Millport. With southwesterly winds blowing, the south end of Great Cumbrae is associated with a certain quality of wildness, something I’d been anticipating since our destination was made known. Upon reaching that locale, Alan’s eyes duly lit up while mine didn’t so much light up as fill up. Well, not exactly … but the waves did take on a slightly more formidable quality and I found myself once again seated in the departure lounge of my comfort zone. Maria prompted me to remember that, as much as there is a certain awe and beauty in the waves, it’s actually better to paddle vigorously through them as opposed to stopping to admire them.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Inside my head

Lewis also helped me with various pointers and assurances, including an exercise in paddling with one’s eyes closed to gain an appreciation of the fact that the waves are merely moving up and down. This certainly helped me swap out the images inside my head with something more akin to, you know, reality. It is very much a head game, where the senses undergo a bit of an onslaught and the mind takes off and runs with it.

Millport

A nice spot for lunch

Observed by a lone grey seal, we stopped for lunch at one of the little islands in front of Millport just in time for the sun to come out. Thereafter, it was back into the rough and tumble for a play. The word “play” does suggest fun and enjoyment, doesn’t it? I could see that that was the experience of my “playmates” and I envied their confidence. I found heading into the wind quite do-able and would probably have ended up on the shores of Little Cumbrae had it not been agreed that we were not to do that. I am not super-keen on paddling downwind in such conditions. I like to know what’s behind me and my imagination runs riot as soon as I feel my stern lift. I then become caught in a battle between learning the skills to best handle the surf and stay upright, and not becoming distracted from staying the heck upright. Out on the waves, rational thought becomes optional. But, like everything else, it’s a question of getting used to it. Meanwhile, Alan’s grin was getting wider.

I get by with a little help ...

I get by with a little help ...

We re-grouped to head back to Fairlie. This meant negotiating the bigger waves again side on and I very much appreciated the company of Lewis as we rounded the bend to the east side of Great Cumbrae.

Alan had already practised his roll successfully out off Millport, but I saved mine for the end. I’ve had a little trouble on practice nights lately and have only now determined that it relates to using my spare (Lendal) paddle. My roll is feeling great with my Werner paddle, but not so great with the Lendal. Another little piece of the blade angle puzzle to figure out. On this day, I was using the Werner, so all was well and there were no tears before bedtime.

Heading back

Heading back

During the return journey, I noticed that, already, the goalposts had moved, the envelope had been pushed (and sealed and mailed off) and that what I would have thought of as a bit choppy when we started out, was now a welcome patch of (relative) calm. This is why opportunities such as these are so good for anyone who wants to become a more self-confident paddler. I read a commentary recently about how a fear of dying can become a fear of living. Likewise, in the world of sea kayaking, a fear of conditions can, if one is not careful, become a fear of learning.

Seeing as I wrote this on July 4th, I don’t mind declaring my interdependence on, and appreciation of, a group of friends who happen to be rather good at paddling. It has made all the difference to Alan and me to be able to push ourselves and, judging by that grin that’s still on Alan’s face, I have a feeling those goalposts aren’t going to stay put for long.

And I, I don’t want no money from you
I don’t want promises that you’ll be true
You can do anything you wanna do
All I ask is that you … you push me to my breaking point …

The Breaking Point, Shooter Jennings and Hierophant, Black Ribbons