Posts belonging to Category Sea Kayak Navigation



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

A week with Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures

Out on the water with Gordon Brown

Out on the water with Gordon Brown

Mention the name Gordon Brown to the average person and they will instantly think of the besuited chap who resides at No 10 Downing Street. Do likewise to the avid sea kayaker and their thoughts will turn to Skyak Adventures and one of the best-known and most revered coaches in the sea kayaking business, also author of the hugely successful Sea Kayak: A Manual for Intermediate and Advanced Sea Kayakers. Such are his reputation and credentials that I used to think that someone of my lowly paddling status would not “qualify” for a course with him. A conversation with a certain well-known Spanish paddler some time ago, however, convinced me otherwise. It is the case that Skyak Adventures can accommodate everyone from beginners to advanced.

Introductions

And so it came to pass that Alan and I signed up for a 5 day course which took place last week. As our little group of fellow trainees gathered in Gordon’s converted bothy office at Isle Ornsay on Skye on Monday morning, some modest introductions were made. I recall mentions of paddling for wildlife photography purposes, and of a recent conversion from “couch potato” status, all very benign and it seemed that these were my people. As Gordon sought to learn what skills we wished to focus on, however, I tried not to become alarmed at the frequency of mention of “rough water”, or the size of the lettering of those very words on his white board. I deny all accusations that I participated in this madness. I was assuaged only by the appearance of the word “FUN” in even bigger letters. Gordon then asked what was the one skill that we would like to take home and, for fear of appearing a bit silly, I suppressed the desire to blurt out, “roll my sea kayak dammit”, and mumbled something about kayak handling instead.

Certainly, I was pleased to note that, rather than being some sort of kayaking boot camp, fun had indeed been included on our itinerary. It became very apparent from Gordon’s affable and jocular style and his many witty anecdotes that a light-hearted mood would prevail, although he did warn us that we would know when he was being serious. I fervently hoped that I would not be the one to provoke any “seriousness”.

Out on the water

At Armadale Pier

At Armadale Pier

Soon we were out in Armadale Bay practising sweep strokes and turning in and out of wind. Using these skills, we negotiated our way under the pier and I confess to the odd misjudgement which perhaps added a couple of deeply ingrained scores minor scratches to the Valley Avocet in which I found myself. This brought us out into choppier waters as someone (I remain blameless here) had suggested that self rescuing in calm waters was a scoosh and that they wished to try it in rougher conditions. All eyes fell on Alan as he wrestled his kayak into near submission only to capsize at the last moment. Gordon steered us back to less choppy waters and taught us the finer points of self and assisted rescues. The day wrapped up with a rolling clinic. I had secretly looked forward to this and duly paddled over to Gordon as he stood in the water and motioned for me to approach in the manner of Morpheus in the fight scene of The Matrix. But I was no Neo and my roll failed. It seemed that not even Gordon could work miracles. (Or perhaps they would just take a little longer?).

Tuesday at Kylerhea – off to the races

Breaking out of the tide race

Breaking out of the tide race

Tuesday introduced me to a new concept – entering and exiting tidal races. As most of our paddling is done in the Clyde Estuary, Alan and I do not have a whole lot of experience in this field. Our group had timed our visit to coincide with maximum tidal flow, however, the absence of strong winds made the conditions – I am told – less than perfect in terms of challenge and general scariness. I was OK with this as I have not spent sufficient time practising extravagant low braces to cope well with the entry and exit process for a start. Alan has frequently chastised me for my lackadaisical attitude to this particular skill and indeed I did manage to show myself up. I think I got away with it in our morning session, but the afternoon gave the game away. Let’s just say I was getting to know Gordon quite well during our various rendezvous across an upturned kayak and upon the long paddle back from whence the tide had cast me.

In between tides, a small miracle did occur. Gordon commenced another rolling clinic and I once again signed up. Some precision critiquing from him and – up I came! In a sea kayak! Of course, that was not quite sufficient and soon he had me dispensing with my nose clip (not as terrible as I had imagined) and skull cap, trying out rolling on the move, in moving water etc.

After my various tidal dunkings, Gordon made me end the day with a successful roll and it had the desired effect. I went back to the hotel that night smiling to myself.

Wednesday – the lows and the highs

The wind obliged by getting up a little on Wednesday, to F4-5. We were back at Armadale and once again made our way under the pier to what definitely qualified in my book as rough water. We paddled over to 2 nearby skerries. Gordon instructed us to paddle between them, out into the fray and anti-clockwise around the first one, returning to its lee.

It was like a wild, bucking bronco rodeo ride on an unbroken colt all the way around! Amongst confused waves of up to 6 feet, I knew that at any moment I was about to capsize and only pure luck was keeping me upright. I was so far away from my comfort zone, I was sending it postcards. Back in the lee, to my despair, Gordon sent us around again and my luck finally ran out as I completely misread the water and got trashed by one of the many thousands of waves that were jostling for position to unhinge me. Like a smiling, neoprene clad guardian angel, Gordon materialised at my side and we resumed our acquaintance across my upturned vessel. Once back in, I was given a class in reading the black and the white water and we commenced a clockwise circumnavigation of the island. Next up, an enormous wave loomed over my bow and, to the sound of Gordon shouting “Paddle!” resounding in my ears, I did what came naturally – I completely froze and was once again trashed.

Sorry, no photos from Wednesday - this is Thursday!

Sorry, no photos from Wednesday - this is Thursday!

I’m not going to lie to you, I was not a happy bunny at this point. My mind started spinning to thoughts of giving up completely, to my neglected bike in the garage, to my book and a cosy fireside, and so on. I started to doubt I was cut out for this sea kayaking business – it felt like my ego had been writing cheques that my ability couldn’t cash. I couldn’t help but hate observe my fellow trainees. They seemed to be coping admirably with the conditions, more than is strictly necessary for a spot of wildlife photography if you ask me. So what was my problem? As I sat in the shelter of the island where Gordon had awarded me a rest, I could feel tears welling. But something interesting happened at this point. I paused and took a breath – and somehow I knew I was OK. Underneath the spinning mind, the strangled ego, the envy, I was actually perfectly OK. They were only thoughts, after all. I started watching the manx shearwaters, the terns and the seals, and that very moment felt pretty good in fact. I even started feeling happy that everyone else was doing well – what purpose would it serve if everyone was having a bad time?

As we all met up and pulled in for lunch, Alan confessed to just having had a bit of a swim himself (the omnipresent guardian angel had appeared at his side too). But I’m sure he only did this to try to make me feel better.

Gordon suggested we swap around kayaks and I relinquished the Avocet LV to a willing taker (God bless Nick, who seemed to relish its “liveliness”). We were then informed that we were going out to do some rough water rolling practice and I contemplated what I would do during this time, apart from watch the seals. On the way out, I started to become pleasantly aware that I was doing a little better in my new kayak. Next, 2 more advanced trainees in our party were rolling in the middle of the turbulent conditions. I could only hang back, agog with admiration. Imagine my shock when Gordon turned to me and yelled, “Your turn, Pamela!”. I whimpered back that I had only just learned to roll a sea kayak the day before, and that he could not be serious, but he reminded me that I’d been effectively learning for 2 years. There’s no arguing with the man. And so I capsized. And I rolled up. And stayed up. He made me do it again, and again – and I kept coming up. After about half a dozen rolls in the rough water, I eventually failed – but came up on the second attempt, which proved that my brain could operate without air. Who knew?

Finally, a last couple of trips around the island allowed Alan and me to gain confidence by demonstrating that it was indeed possible to stay upright.

I won’t ever forget that day. I won’t forget the despair or the elation. I had been pushed to a certain limit and had come out the better. It is quite something for someone to believe in you more than you believe in yourself. I won’t forget the encouragement of Gordon, Alan and my fellow trainees. Or the little audience of seals who seemed to approve. Or the terns squawking overhead. It is captured in my memory, and feels a lot like being given a gift.

Thursday – a ring of bright water

Sandaig

Sandaig

As most of our group had travelled quite some distance to get to Skye, including from southernmost England, there was a general desire to do a little exploring. It had been hoped (by some) that the tide race at Kylerhea might be running at savage proportions at some point later in the week, but alas the forecast had changed and this seemed unlikely. So now was a good opportunity to do some sightseeing. We agreed to set out from Camuscross for Sandaig.

The crossing was a little choppy, but I felt good in the Avocet (non LV version) which seemed to handle it with ease. Tips previously provided by Gordon on how to improve forward paddling efficiency helped enormously.

Edal's grave

Edal's grave

Sandaig is the former home of Gavin Maxwell who wrote one of my (and millions of others’) favourite books, “Ring of Bright Water”. It was absolutely magical to visit the scene of “Camusfearna” and I could easily envisage the otters playing about in the bay and the waterfall. After all, not much has changed in that beautiful place over the years. The house is gone now, of course, but a monument to Gavin Maxwell is there in its place, as well as the grave of Edal the otter, poignantly decorated with stones and shells. Some tears were shed as I read the inscription on the latter, written by Maxwell himself:

“Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to Nature.”

On leaving Sandaig, we paddled south-east and then west to Knoydart, stopping briefly for afternoon tea before heading “home” to Camuscross.

Friday – towing the line

The weather had established itself as definitely “settled”, so Friday morning was spent at Skyak Adventures’ international headquarters, aka the bothy, working on tidal planning. During the course of our lesson, Gordon advised Alan and me of a location not far from Cowal to which we will shortly be making a beeline to play with the tide. More later!

Towing Alan to the Cuillins

Towing Alan to the Cuillins

We took the Skyak minibus down to Ord where, against a magnificent backdrop of the Cuillins, we commenced practice with the many different kinds of towing that one can do, including improvised methods. It was amusing to note that all the females of our party had chosen to be towees first, followed by the the males who relished their turn a bit too enthusiastically. This was succeeded by some sort of kayak display team stunt that I haven’t quite fathomed, but looked like fun. Rolling clinic came after that and, before we knew it, it was all over and time to go home.

Having taken leave of Gordon and our other new friends, our minds were filled with the sea and kayaks as we headed down the road to Cowal. We came away from our week in Skye so completely encouraged and enthused that it was actually difficult to imagine going for more than a couple of days without being back out on the water. We were greatly looking forward to continuing to work on our skills. So it’s no surprise that on Sunday, we were out on Loch Eck and – notching up another day of achievement – I rolled my very own Nordkapp LV.

When I’m at the pearly gates
This’ll be on my videotape
My videotape


No matter what happens now
I won’t be afraid
Because I know
Today has been the most perfect day I have ever seen

Videotape, In Rainbows, Radiohead

Sea Kayak Navigation

It’s well seen that decreasing winter temperatures need not preclude a bit of kayaking activity, both on and off the water. Unlike the many yachties who take their boats out of the water for the “off” season, we fortunate kayakers can still jump out there when it’s not howling a gale – so at least a couple of times during the winter then. When we’re not doing that, we are busy studying up on the many skills that a proficient paddler must possess for their own and their group’s safety. And that’s what Alan and I found ourselves doing just last weekend as we attended a Sea Kayak Navigation course organised by Garnock Canoe Club.

Our instructors were the legendary Cailean from the Far North, and the equally legendary Richard, who kept things interesting and fun for their avid students. Like several others, Alan and I had done a little advanced preparation by reading the latest edition of Sea Kayak Navigation: A Practical Manual, Essential Knowledge for Finding Your Way at Sea, which is an excellent place to start. My prep was a little last-minute and I admit to having a minor tantrum on Friday night at 11 pm as I tried to come to grips with the later chapters involving multiple calculations of distances, times, bearings, allowances for tide and wind, ferry angles and so forth. Nonetheless, it was good to have at least some pertinent information fresh in my mind before class, as trying to recall my school geography learnings of many, many some years ago was a bit more of a stretch.

Saturday was spent in the classroom, as we pored over maps, charts, tidal atlases and pilot guides. Many useful tidbits were gleaned, particularly in relation to weather, tidal flows, distances, timings etc. We were split into pairs and instructed to plan a trip to a specific location. It was during this exercise that Alan and I discovered that the best laid plans often have to be re-visited, for example, upon the discovery of unforeseen increased tidal activity at precisely the time we’d planned on reaching its locale.

Later, we retired to Richard’s house for an excellent dinner, including dishes specially prepared for the strange dietary habits of certain of us, which were much appreciated. This left us well fortified and stood us in good stead to watch the X Factor weather forecast for the following day which revealed all the makings of a substantial “weather event” involving snow and icy winds. I think it’s safe to say that several of us were quite upset at the prospect of not being able to go out kayaking in frigid temperatures on Sunday, should the forecast hold true. It was therefore with some uncertainty that we took leave of one another that evening.

Imagine my relief when I woke up the following morning to Alan informing me that there was no snow and that the icy winds were just below gale force. Thank goodness we wouldn’t be prevented from travelling back over to Ayrshire to spend time out on the water whilst barely managing to fend off hypothermia. Three layers of fleece and a dry suit were the order of the day as we launched our kayaks into Castle Semple Loch in the middle of a heavy downpour. After a vigorous paddle to warm up, we quickly set about putting our learnings of the previous day into practice. It’s a little difficult to simulate being lost in a foggy sea when on a loch, but we did manage to create a semblance of sufficient locational uncertainty as to warrant breaking out the maps and compasses, if not the GPS (which was verboten by the way). Again, many useful tips were absorbed, such as: a quick way to take a bearing from a landmark to yourself (something that easily threw me for some reason), the difference that wind and a couple of degrees of variation can make, and how impractical it is to maintain on your foredeck all the instruments, maps etc required for attaining navigational accuracy in the midst of storm-like conditions, among various other things.

After a couple of hours of familiarisation, we rewarded ourselves with a hasty retreat to the tea room at the lochside where a hot cuppa was downed with gusto.

Allegedly, the course we completed is relevant to the BCU 4 Star Leadership qualification. Despite the fact that at this point in my paddling career I relate more to the Bart Simpsons of the kayaking world (under-achiever and proud of it), I have applied for the certificate that proves I have completed the course. I can’t quite think when I would need to produce it, but if nothing else it will serve as a souvenir of a weekend very well spent.