Posts belonging to Category Rockpool Isel



It’s just a ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s just a ride.

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

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

— Bill Hicks (1961 – 1994)

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

We fought the tide

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

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

Duart Castle

Duart Castle

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

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

A good workout on the way back

A good workout on the way back

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

Passing Oban

Passing Oban

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

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

Return to Ganavan Bay

Return to Ganavan Bay

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

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

Upside down, and round and round

Balance bracePool sessions have been very beneficial in reviving our Greenland rolling skills after a winter break but – even better – we have also been practising those skills outside again. This makes us happy! The weather threw a complete wobbly (of the good kind) last week and we were hurtled straight into summer – in March.  It was actually a bit strange and disorienting but, all troubling thoughts of climate change and weather modification aside, we decided to make the most of it. I should add that, before everyone gets too weirded out, it’s now snowing and blowing a gale.

As soon as the temperature edges above, say, 12°C in Scotland and the sun comes out, everyone is dressed in their shorts and tee-shirts (and the glare off of white skin can be seen from space). So, at 20°C, it did seem a bit odd to be layering up for immersion, but the water temperature confirmed that this was quite necessary. After a couple of standard Greenland rolls, it became apparent that the layering system was effective and that the water’s iciness was not penetrating much at all. I moved on to butterfly, then norsaq then hand rolls and realised that the contrast with the zero buoyancy at the pool was huge. It almost felt like cheating – so much so, that I took my BA off and have now consigned it to the “not required while rolling” gear bag. This is progress and has made the struggling in the pool worthwhile. It’s true that failure is a stepping stone to success.

We’ve started working on forward finishing rolls and have made some inroads. After watching Maligiaq and Dubside’s DVD, we are going through the “progression” steps and Alan is off and running on his own, whilst I need someone to hold my hand/paddle as I fumble about trying to get my head around this whole new technique. If ever there was a roll that would benefit from yoga (paschimottanasana in particular), it’s this one. Working our way through all of the official Greenland rolls is going to take a while, but we’ve been working on a few more now, including the elbow crook, shotgun and paddle-behind-the-head (presently aka stuck-under-the-kayak) roll.

It’s interesting to note that we both feel real improvement in our Euro rolls. The nuances of blade angle are less important and now it feels like we have a big blade surface to help (versus impede) us.

As we count down towards our much anticipated training with Kayak Ways, we are not short of resources to help us learn. Any day now, 2 DVDs will be released:  as already mentioned, Justine Curgenven (of the excellent “This Is the Sea” series) has produced “This Is The Roll“, featuring none other than Kayak Ways’ Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson. Christopher Crowhurst (of “Qajaq Rolls” fame) has produced a “Rolling With Sticks” DVD to accompany his very handy book of the same name. We are getting spoiled!

For the past several days, it so happens that I’ve had a tab open in my browser window directed to the “Buy now” page for a Brooks tuilik. I’m not sure how that happened – I mean, I am coping without a tuilik. Although, I do feel a little restricted when rotating. And maybe it would allow me to ditch a fleece or two. And I don’t mind whatsoever being compared to a seal (in fact, I’d be flattered). I don’t want to be impulsive … but I am open to persuasion.

Greenland comes to Scotland

Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson

Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson of Kayak Ways

Before I started paddling, my only association with Greenland was flying over that country and marvelling at its Arctic beauty from high above. I’ve still never been there, however, slowly but surely, we are pulling more and more bits of Greenland over to Scotland. Not the actual icy bits, but some of the traditions, craft and skills of the Inuit people. We have kayaks and paddles, and now we are going to be learning skills from 2 of the best-known traditional paddlers in the world, Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson of Kayak Ways. They aren’t actually from Greenland (at least not in this life), but their status as traditional skills experts is recognised both in that country and throughout the world. You can imagine my excitement to be booked on to a weekend course with them when they come to Scotland in late May. What a privilege! (You can pre-order their “This is the Roll” DVD here, by the way).

Greenland paddlingNow that Spring is springing, my thoughts are turning to rolling in the sea again and I’m looking forward to sharpening up existing skills so as to not look like a numpty have a good foundation to work on when Cheri and Turner arrive. We have had the good fortune of attending pool sessions lately and I’m having fun playing with my Greenland stick there. Gone are the days of spending the entire evening stressing over that one perfect Euro roll.

My only concern is from witnessing where this Greenland path leads, as demonstrated by Mackayak in Orkney. She started out in a colourful drysuit and an Isel (which sounds awfully familiar), but can now be found in a tuilik and a shiny, black beauty of a kayak. I am feeling a bit gaudy …

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!

Life in balance

Yoga balanceIt started off with yoga class. Each week, our teacher designs a sequence of asanas to address a specific focus, for example: back bends, forward bends, hip openers, twists or, as was the case last week, balance. When Jude informed us that we were about to embark upon a balancing adventure (or words to that effect), I readied myself for the voyage of inward discovery that this usually entails.

The thing about balance is that it is not a given. It could go either way. It takes effort and concentration and, as our teacher pointed out to us, when you are balancing – be it in tree pose or crow or eagle or whatever – you are not thinking about anything else. After arriving at yoga class with a head full of chatter, stress and judgements, it is no bad thing to empty it all out whilst tottering on one’s tippy toes (or hands) and quite possibly, in the process, discovering previously unknown capabilities. Even so, the prospect can cause some pre-asana anxiety, perhaps because we aren’t very good at handling uncertainty and balancing is, in a way, a state of sustained uncertainty.

With this in mind, the following day I set off to do some rolling practice. I’ve recently been working quite diligently on norsaq and hand rolls, but on my previous outing, I lost my hand roll completely and my norsaq roll seemed a bit of a struggle. This left me with a sense of unfinished business which is quite a distortion really. I mean, if I were to get hung up on unfinished things, there would be rather an endless list to ponder (the other 30+ Greenland rolls, learning to speak French, the housework …). But still, the thought of having lost my hand roll  irritated me like velcro underwear, and I had to address it.

Balance BraceAt some deeper level, I intuited that there was a missing link in my versions of those rolls that don’t involve a paddle. I’ve mentioned before how a Greenland paddle acts as a teacher and, certainly, rolling with this ancient technology is a bit like grasping a hand from the past. When the paddle is there, I have found that it can guide you through the water and allow you to position your body appropriately, without struggle,  if you let it. Without the paddle, the rolls were all down to me and seemed to require a lot more exertion and striving. After starting off badly, oomphing my way through yet another failed attempt, I reminded myself of the advice given to me by Mackayak in Orkney which was to focus first and foremost on the balance brace. I also recalled being inspired by this particular video which clearly demonstrates effortless hand rolling up into, indeed, a balance brace. I had only ever experienced this before with the help of my paddle as part of a butterfly roll. I therefore realised that it’s not all about desperately competing for success on the back deck, so much as simply reaching a state of  balance.

I proceeded to practice slipping on and off of the deck of my kayak with the aid of my paddle, then letting go of the paddle whilst maintaining the brace. I then focused on getting back on to the back deck in one swift move as this essentially constitutes the last part of the roll. Next up, I tried a full norsaq roll. For the first time, I did not aim for glorious success in one movement, but rather I sought to simply reach the surface of the water and stay there. To my delight, it was a quite achievable thing, and then purely a case of getting from there to the back deck as I’d practised. Next, I tried it with my webbed rolling mitts, with the same result. A breakthrough!

Just like in yoga, balancing in Greenland rolling is all about clearing out distracting thoughts (of anxiety, success, failure, unfinished housework) and simply concentrating on holding a steady bearing right in this very moment. In many respects, it is a Middle Way, a path of moderation and equilibrium between the extremes of hopeless defeatism and questionable triumph. Perhaps in times of uncertainty, it’s the best path to take.

Rockpool Isel, how do I love thee?

Rockpool Isel

Rockpool Isel

Let me count the ways!

It’s been almost 2 years since I became the proud owner of a Rockpool Isel kayak. I think it was Fate that brought us together as, quite simply, I don’t believe I could have found a kayak that could be more perfect for me.

I am a 5′ 5″ (1.524m) tall female weighing 8 st 4 lbs (116 lb, 52.6 kg).  The Isel is designed for “the smaller paddler” and features a “snug fitting cockpit”. This sounds highly appealing to smaller paddlers, however, I admit to having a little, er, flirtation, with another brand of kayak “designed for the smaller paddler” that left me less than convinced of the suitability of such models. The Isel, however, is a quite different animal and I knew immediately upon testing it that I could trust it.

First of all, it is an excellent fit. With correct footplate and seat positioning, I can sit relaxed in the kayak and my legs are in constant, comfortable contact with the thigh braces. This affords a feeling of real control and, combined with the stability of the kayak, I simply feel safe and secure. I also added a thin layer of foam into the conveniently located hip pockets.

All this safety and security doesn’t make for a boring kayak. Indeed, the Isel is manoeuvrable and nippy and I am able to turn it in high winds without difficulty. Because of its harder chines, it sticks nicely when edged and I get instant feedback on how far to go. It loves to pick up waves and, although I am not the bravest of surfers, I have had fun scooting along on a following sea.

Two Isels on the water

Two Isels on the water

Other features that have particularly impressed me include, firstly, the adjustable footplate. I am not a fan of foot pegs, although this is a very personal preference. I developed sore feet when paddling kayaks with foot pegs and this simply isn’t an issue any more. I know people comment on not being able to stretch their legs when a footplate is present, but I find that I can do so simply by straightening my legs out. I dare say that I have found the ideal positioning of the plate and seat in order to allow good contact along with a little room for manoeuvre. Secondly, lower back pain used to feature quite regularly when I paddled other kayaks, but no more. This could be because of the adjustable (and removable) glass seat design and the lumbar support provided by the back rest (and/or because I have toughened up a bit since my earlier kayaking days – yoga helps). Thirdly, I love Rockpool’s unkinkable wire skeg design. On those inevitable occasions when the kayak is plopped on the beach and the skeg is down, it is no longer a potentially trip-ruining event.

I have frequently received comments from fellow paddlers as to how much happier I look in rougher water since acquiring the Isel. I went through a bit of a rough water confidence setback a couple of years ago after a good trashing in the aforementioned unsuitable “smaller paddler” kayak. The Isel has helped me overcome this, such that I believe I am now at an appropriate proficiency level for someone of my experience on the water.  For me, it has taken a great deal of the fear out of paddling and I now find myself seeking out and enjoying conditions that used to fill me with trepidation. I have been out in up to F6 (F7 if you count gusts) mostly in the Cowal/Clyde area, and various tidal conditions elsewhere, and have had no issue with control, windage, tracking or speed. I use the skeg minimally, really only in cross-winds and downwind when surfing.

The kayak is excellent for rolling and, importantly, for self-rescuing too. When practising self-rescues with other kayaks, it has often felt like wrestling an alligator. In comparison, the Isel practically lays out a welcome mat and offers you a leg-up to get back in.

Alan balance bracing in Isel

Alan balance bracing in Isel

Just when I thought I’d realised and appreciated all of the Isel’s good qualities, I recently discovered another major bonus – it makes for an excellent Greenland rolling kayak! As I mentioned before, the harder chines, the lower profile and lower rear cockpit rim are perfect for Greenland style (layback in particular) rolling.

It might seem like I have nothing bad to say, which is true. The closest I can come is that, naturally, being a smaller, low volume kayak, there is not a huge amoung of room for gear in the hatches, although it is possible to camp out of it on short trips if you pack as if you were backpacking, say.

As Rockpool point out on their Web page, the Isel doesn’t have to be used by smaller people only, and Alan has proved this by sneaking into mine for Greenland rolling practice. He might not be able to load the kayak, but he can certainly roll it.

I wouldn’t swap my Isel for anything. It is a wonderful kayak that has brought out the best in my abilities and has made my kayaking journey a real joy.

Laidback and reckless

In my experience, there are several stages of evolution when it comes to kayak rolling. They are:

  • Acceptance that, if you’re serious about kayaking, you will need to get your hair wet.
  • Observation of kayakers who can roll proficiently, accompanied by frequent utterances of, “I’ll never be able to do that.”
  • Pool sessions, starting with lots of poolside hip flicking (usually surrounded by river paddlers doing ridiculous acrobatics).
  • Developing familiarity with eskimo rescues. Increased presence of the “hand of God”.
  • Discovery of the joy of floats.
  • First pool boat roll.
  • First sea kayak roll, in the sea.
  • Work on off-side.
  • Robust, dependable roll on both sides.
  • World domination.

Well, that’s the general idea. Along the way, of course, are many, many hours of hand-wringing, soul-rending, excruciating, intricate analysis of ever minute detail of the technicalities of the roll, carefully documented via blog and forum posts. (Or is that just me?). Let’s just say, things can get a bit “uptight”.

Whilst working on my off-side roll, it occurred to me that it felt like I always seemed to need a checklist before setting up. This list would include items such as: direction of wind/waves, location of nearby rescuer, sea temperature, nose clip, venting/buoyancy of drysuit, positioning of hands, blade angle, positioning of head, adequate sweep, lucky white heather etc. I’ve seen the Space Shuttle commander go through less before lift-off.  Yet I also knew that my best rolls were achieved when I abandoned all thought and went by feel.

Which brings me to the next stage in my personal rolling evolution. For quite some time, I’ve been aware of that strange breed of kayaker who can be found in sleek, black craft (called qajaqs actually), who employ wooden sticks and clothes lines, dress up as seals and speak in a secret, encrypted code involving a confusion of vowels and consonants that would make an Icelandic volcano proud. Most of all, they demonstrate grace, ease and calm in executing their elegant rolls. They have intrigued me and I have secretly longed to join their cult (not just because black looks cool). You might be familiar with some of their names, such as Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson, Helen Wilson and Dubside. I have also been following Lesley in Orkney, who went over to the dark side some time ago and whose progress has been hugely inspiring. I speak, of course, of Greenland paddlers.

And so, with a view to freeing ourselves from the tyranny of Euro-blade checklists, Alan and I acquired a Greenland paddle, a beautiful red cedar Anglesey Stick in fact. Being that there are 35 Greenland rolls to learn, it is apparent that an entirely different mindset would be required in acquiring these skills, but nonetheless one that we hoped we could transfer over to our Euro paddles when needed. By a stroke of good fortune, I have also discovered that my Rockpool Isel makes a wonderful “Greenland” kayak, being of low profile, having harder chines and a back deck that’s entirely conducive to lay-back rolling. Yet another reason to love my Isel.

The first thing I notice is how much Greenland rolling relates to body movement and awareness. The paddle itself will scarcely let you fail in a standard roll (although you do get style points), inspiring confidence and motivation to move on to the more complex moves. Ironically, much of the Greenland technique teaches reduced dependence on the paddle and more on body positioning. The paddle becomes the teacher who sets you free.

Balance braceThe Greenland paddle is, of course, ancient technology and I find it interesting to compare the relaxed, (literally) laid-back rolls that it induces with the obsessive-compulsive efforts that often result from learning to roll with a modern Euro blade.  I feel like I am letting go and working in harmony with nature (what could be more natural than water and a wooden stick?), as opposed to being a carbon-fibre wielding control freak.

My repertoire is short at this stage, extending to the balance brace, the standard Greenland roll and the butterfly roll. I have attempted a norsaq roll, but am not quite ready (it’s a mind thing – I tend to find myself hanging upside-down thinking, “What am I doing here, and why am I holding this lump of wood?”). The thing is that I am in no rush. I know that, with practice, it will come one day. Greenland rolling has turned an activity I used to fear into something I look forward to, plus already I see improvement in my Euro-blade off-side.

Most recently, in an effort to make better contact with the back deck, we dispensed with our buoyancy aids (or PFDs if you’re in the US).  We have been accused of demonstrating recklessness, but I might argue that rolling in 3 feet of water in 2 mph winds, with 2 radios pre-tuned to Ch 16 and mobile phones to hand surely can’t be called reckless. Anyway:

reck·less (rkls) adj : Indifferent to or disregardful of consequences.

Well, that beats being scared! A good approach to rolling, if you ask me.

After each practice session, Alan and I return home feeling buzzed. Time disappears as we lose ourselves in a place where every moment is now. Why does something so inconsequential to modern life create such a high? Could it be because we are connecting with something that is inherent to human nature – an ancient physical skill that engages our senses, places us firmly in the present, inspires our confidence and allows us the opportunity to overcome fear and other demons in our heads? And – allows us to relax. What’s not to like?!

From now on, I may just have to qajaq across the water …

A day trip to Mull

Having only ever thought of Mull as being somewhere you go on holiday via car and ferry, an invitation to join friends and go there by kayak immediately captured our imagination and interest. We needed little persuasion to sign up for a day trip with a difference.

Our friends emerged off of the water to meet us at Ganavan Bay, north of Oban, and we all then set off on a west northwesterly route, precisely the direction of the wind. Fortunately, it wasn’t too great of a slog initially, although the breeze made its presence felt a little more by the time we reached the Lismore area.

Lighthouse on Eilean Musdile on the south tip of Lismore

Lighthouse on Eilean Musdile on the south tip of Lismore

As usual in this vicinity, a little wind goes a long way in relation to the tides, and the sea state became a bit more interesting than what Alan and I are used to nearer to home. Happily, as I may have mentioned, this spells one thing to us now – fun! Back in the dark old days, I remember expressing fearfulness at the concept of rougher water. Our friend, Magda, assuaged this fear by asking me how many times I’d actually fallen in in such conditions. The answer, to my continuing relief, is – well, not too many! Apart from that one time. Oh, and that other time … (but training doesn’t count). Since acquiring my Rockpool Isel, I feel increasingly confident that I can keep the capsize incident count low, depending on how “interesting” the sea state gets, of course.  And, I suppose I could always try rolling (as radical as that sounds for someone who’s been practising that very skill for ages).

Duart Castle

Duart Castle

After a bit of bobbling about in the chop, we reached the east coast of Mull and made our way around Duart Point to land at the small  bay beside the rather majestic Duart Castle, the ancestral home of Clan MacLean. The bay was filled with small moon jellyfish (rather sadly for the many who wouldn’t be washing back out), but we were especially impressed by the kayaker-friendly “Welcome to Duart Castle” sign posted there. We proceeded to the castle tea room where we enjoyed some sustenance before returning to our kayaks.

Mull to Oban

Photo courtesy: Lewis Smith

Heading back towards Oban, a rare thing occurred – the tide and the wind were behind us. Ordinarily, if you have spent an outward journey paddling against wind, you can pretty much guarantee that, in a fit of mischief, the weather gods will reverse the wind to defy the forecast, such that you get to paddle against it all the way back too. They especially love to do this when the tide is also running against you. But this day the weather gods appeared to be distracted and we were pushed back in a bumpy, following sea.  The outward journey had taken 2 hours and 45 minutes, and the homeward voyage a mere 2 hours.

Ferries kept us company

Ferries kept us company

During the course of the day, the wind was not the only thing that was increasingly making its presence felt. Oban is a hub for ferries going back and forth across the Sound of Mull and the Firth of Lorne to the various islands (including Mull, Lismore, Colonsay, Coll and Tiree and the Outer Hebrides). Some of these vessels are quite large, and it seemed like every 10 minutes we were seeing one or another looming ahead or behind on a direct course towards us (just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean the ferries aren’t out to get me). Most kayakers are acutely aware that they cannot out-paddle a big, muckle ferry, and so it is a question of trying to guess whether or not the ferry will turn and in which direction. Any notion of the usefulness of carrying a Calmac timetable with us was abandoned after our encounter (fortunately not close) with ferry number 7.

Ferry dodging

Ferry dodging

Strangely, not a single seal was seen that Sunday (and no-one was selling seashells either), but we did see and hear many common terns squabbling overhead.

Soon, we were back at Ganavan Bay reflecting on another wonderful day out. I heard Lewis summarise the trip as “very dodgy” and, just as I was swelling with pride and amazement at being able to handle conditions that even Lewis found “dodgy”, it was clarified that he’d actually said, “ferry dodging”. Indeed, that was quite a prominent feature of the day.