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Luing at a good few licks

Posted by Alan

Sunset over Mull from north end of Luing

Sunset over Mull from north end of Luing

With summer waning (wow, where did it go to? I must have blinked!), it was time to grab a camping trip before we ran out of season. Fortunately a friend had suggested a weekend trip around the Isle of Luing which is a small island located about 16 miles south of the west of Scotland tourist mecca, Oban.

After stopping off to camp on Friday night in the very pleasantly located and well equipped Gallanachmore Farm campground (just a mile or two south of Oban), we set off early on the Saturday to arrive at Ellenabeich on Seil (near Easdale) at about 8 am.

The trip was coincidental with spring tides, and this part of the west of Scotland is renowned for being an epicentre of significant tidal flows which continuously ebb and flow their way around the many islands at rates topping 8 knots in places. As a result, good tidal planning was a necessity unless we wanted to find ourselves visiting somewhere completely different from that intended!

By starting early we planned to catch the tail end of the ebb tide down from Easdale towards Luing, which also involves crossing the highly tidal Cuan Sound, the west of which is an area known for significant turbulence under certain wind and tide conditions.

Heading towards Cuan Sound

Heading towards Cuan Sound

When we looked on Friday, the forecast had been for F2 winds from the south for most of the weekend but, as we unpacked our cars and readied our kayaks and camping gear, glances to the south revealed quite a few white caps between us and Cuan Sound. An anemometer reading showed 13 mph winds (gusting to 20 mph) from SW.

We eased out of Easdale Sound and headed south, quickly encountering the south-westerly wind on the last of the ebb tide which kicked up some nice chop for us to plough into as we approached Cuan Sound.

Cuan Sound is a narrow gap (200m) between the south end of Seil and the north end of Luing, and the Sound is rarely not in motion. Indeed, it is inactive for only one hour in every 6 or so and even then it shows evidence of moving water. At peak flow, it hits 7 knots in either direction. A ferry crosses the Sound to service the local communities on Luing.

Entering Cuan Sound

As we rounded the corner in an active sea into the Sound, the north end of Luing provided shelter from the prevailing southwesterly winds and the sea state lessened. The flow was due to reduce too, but was still running east when we arrived. We targeted a bay on the northern coast of the island and ferry glided over the Sound towards it.

I then did a quick weather check by phoning  home to “Weather Station Pam” whilst trying to avoid being sucked back into the flow out of the bay. During this act of juggling the phone, phone bag and paddle, I nearly dropped the phone but somehow didn’t. The outer waterproof phone bag took a swim, however, and was soaking for the rest of the trip. Just as well I double bag the mobile!

Weather Station Pam revealed that 13 mph gusting to 25 mph southerlies were now appearing in the forecast and that they would eventually die out as the day progressed. This was a change from the previous forecast we had of F3-F4 SW later in the day. It looked like it had blown up a bit earlier than expected.

Cuan Sound

It was interesting to note the extreme lack of mobile reception in this part of the world. I frequently experienced signal dropout, and the maximum signal I had all weekend was a single ‘notch’,  obtained while standing on a hillside! The learning to take from this is that, if you are kayaking in this area, it may not be a good idea to rely on just your mobile phone for emergencies. A VHF radio (which I also carry) is useful, but it is only a line-of-site device and can potentially be limited with all the hills around. There also wasn’t a whole lot of shipping in the vicinity to radio to if required. So it did raise the valid question of what else should I be carrying for emergency communication around here? A PLB? An EPIRB?

We had intended heading down the west of Luing first then coming up the eastern side to complete the circumnavigation, but the conditions between Easdale and the Cuan Sound coupled with the wind forecast for the earlier afternoon made the option to head down the eastern side first seem more appealing.

Narrows at island of Torsa

We proceeded eastwards and the conditions calmed as we turned to explore the narrows between the islands of Torsa and Luing, which are, indeed, quite narrow – 15 feet in places and shallow,  and hence are not navigable in much other than a kayak. After heading through, the views opened out to the eastern side of  Luing as well as to the mainland, and south to the island of Shuna.

An hour or so later, we arrived at the small and rather picturesque hamlet of Toberonochy. As you arrive in Toberonochy you are immediately reminded of the heritage of the islands in this area as you are surrounded by slate.

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy Harbour

 

A lot of the islands in this locale are referred to as the ‘Slate Islands’ , which relates to their previous historical importance within the slate industry. This includes Easdale, Seil, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua. Slate, as you are probably aware, is used for roofing on buildings, and Easdale was the main hub for the industry for the best part of 3 centuries. In its heyday, slate from this part of the world roofed buildings such as Glasgow University, Glasgow Cathedral, Iona Abbey and was even exported as far away as Canada before business came to a halt in the 1950s as different and cheaper roofing methods became the norm.

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy harbour had a pier made of slate, and a surrounding beach of crushed slate, as could be found on other parts of the island. There was an old fishing vessel ‘Crystal Waters’, lying in ruin at the harbour which, even although not relating to slate, added to the historical character of the place.

After having a very relaxed lunch break and enjoying some sun rays and ever increasing blue skies, we reluctantly departed and headed further south.

The coastline at the bottom of Luing is rather unremarkable, mainly grassy hills with the odd small pocket of trees breaking the horizon. The breeze we were paddling into was the only sign of what lay round the end of the island.

Rounding the south end of Luing

Rounding the south end of Luing

We gradually approached the south of the island and, as we rounded it, the views over to north Jura and Scarba opened out. We could see  the tide race off the south end of Luing in action, and passed though the tip of it.  For the next few kilometres, we had a south-westerly F3/4 wind giving us some beam waves and the sea was once again quite lively. The sun was out, the views were stunning and we all had smiles on our faces as we headed north. During a very brief break at a small inlet, the winds suddenly dropped by a couple of levels and the seas calmed down. I was amazed at how quickly weather can change!

Cullipool, Luing

Cullipool, Luing

We headed north up Luing at a good few licks, greatly assisted by the flood tide (sometimes whizzing along at 4-5 knots), and soon arrived in Luing’s main village, Cullipool, which as chance would have it is also home to the island’s only shop. With the sun now blazing down on us, we used the opportunity to buy a few chilled drinks and ices and enjoy the sights.

Leaving Cullipool, we resumed a northerly passage and, as it was getting late, we resolved to find somewhere to set up our camp.

Dave spotted a likely campsite on the north end of the island just a couple of kilometres from Cuan Sound, but with some breaking surf onto yet another slate beach. He selflessly went in and scoped it out before signalling to us all to go in. The surf wasn’t big, but it was there and the beach was very steep with slate so it made for a nervy landing.

Elevated view of camp spot on north end of Luing

Elevated view of camp spot on north end of Luing

After we were all off the water, kayaks unpacked, tents pitched and bellies filled, we were treated to a lovely sunset stretching out to the west over the Garvellachs and the Isle of Mull.  We watched the sun roll down until it dropped over the horizon and gradually turned the sky an array of pastel hues. All this whilst listening to the gentle crash of waves over the beach – what a pleasant  end to a fantastic day!

We left our camp at about 11 am the following morning with a slightly awkward surf launch (teamwork was required!) and headed back north, once again keeping a careful eye on the tidal timing to take in Cuan Sound in order to complete the  circumnavigation. We then made our way north along Seil’s coastline which had some nice gentle, breaking swell to play in for a while.

Pastel Hues over the Garvellachs, Mull and beyond

Pastel Hues over the Garvellachs, Mull and beyond

Strangely, for a few minutes the Coastguard helicopter appeared and flew over us before setting off elsewhere. Maybe they were looking for someone? Or maybe they were just admiring the wonderful kayaking scene below them.

One other highlight for me was that I used a new Greenland paddle for the entire trip – one that I had made myself. More on that later, but I was very pleased that I had done this and was happy with the performance of the stick. There is something very satisfying about using something you have made yourself for propulsion!

Using my self made Greenland stick

Using my self made Greenland stick

Arriving back in Easdale Sound  I decided to do a couple of rolls, not for any applause, but mainly because I’d never rolled a fully laden sea kayak before. I especially wanted to try those well rehearsed Greenland rolls we have been working on for so long! I firstly used a side scull recovery, then did a full reverse sweep. Both rolls worked well, but the main difference with the laden kayak was the greater inertia of the kayak as it rotated in the water. Indeed I had to do a little extra pry just to get the kayak to fully turn round before doing the actual recovery sweep and  pry. I’m just glad that it worked with a full load, and this just adds to the importance of practising rolls in real life scenarios. I maybe need to try rolling it loaded in some chop next!

Sunset from north Luing looking west

Sunset from north Luing looking west

We all arrived back on shore at Ellenabeich with enough time to spare for a late lunch , which concluded an extremely pleasant weekend trip in superlative scenery and excellent company.

A weekend with Kayak Ways

Cheri and Turner of Kayak WaysIt’s not every day that 2 of the world’s leading Greenland kayaking instructors land on your doorstep, but that’s exactly what happened this past weekend – perhaps not our actual doorstep, but very close! We had been booked on to their Greenland Intensive course for some time but, I confess, there was a part of me that was only half believing that it would actually fall into place and that we really would have Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson teaching us personally. It seemed too good to be true. Some things are, however, meant to be, and we arrived at Loch Lomond-side on Saturday and then Largs on Sunday to enjoy the pleasure of their company.

Some weeks ago, Alan and I purchased the excellent DVD, “This is the Roll“, which features instruction from Kayak Ways. I’ve never used an instructional DVD quite as extensively or known one that produces such tangible results. As if by some sort of advanced holographic technology, it was slightly surreal to find the DVD’s stars beamed live to us on the water and offering personal tuition.

On Loch Lomond

On Loch Lomond with Mackayak

First, I must point out, the weather for the weekend was ridiculously abnormal. With typical pessimism/realism in all matters related to Scottish weather, we’d been anticipating that an intense low pressure system would move in to exactly coincide with our activities. Abandoning all precedents, however, the opposite happened and the weather gods smiled upon us. In fact, they weren’t just smiling – they were laughing! The temperature rose to 27°C and the sun beat down hot enough to fry eggs – or at least boil the contents of a drysuit. Cheri and Turner seemed a little bemused that our normal rolling attire was a neoprene tuilik over a drysuit in such an evidently tropical clime. Perhaps the giddy crowds at both locations and the unveiling of vast swathes of blue-white flesh provided a hint that our shores are not usually quite so sun-kissed.

Practising off Largs

Practising off Largs

A good part of our instruction focused on Greenland paddling technique and this was of great benefit. Herein I discovered that my skinny stick paddle-stroke has been, er, less than perfect (Turner’s cries of, “It’s not square!” are still ringing in my ears). On the Sunday morning, we were out on the high seas off Largs practising forward paddling, winged strokes, turning with bow rudders and more, in a north-westerly breeze. It was most interesting to swap around Greenland sticks and I certainly got a feel for which ones were “talking” to me and which ones weren’t. This was a very enjoyable excursion and I related entirely to Turner’s almost spiritual observation of how fortunate we were to be out there on the water in that moment.

Cheri teaching Alan forward finishing norsaq roll

Cheri teaching Alan forward finishing norsaq roll

Then there was the rolling, of course. Cheri needs no introduction and her demonstrations of perfect technique, right down to the straitjacket roll, provoked admiration and inspiration. Soon, it was our turn and Cheri and Turner worked with each of us at length, providing valuable correction and feedback. Everyone came away with something. For me, it was a brand new reverse sweep roll, and a ton of learnings on the storm roll which are all coming together nicely. For Alan it was the foundations of a forward finishing norsaq roll (which he hadn’t even realised he desired!).

Throughout the weekend, one thing that struck me was how much it felt like we were making an authentic connection with kayaking, and not just the Euro-fied version of the skills. As I came off the water on Sunday, another paddler who had been observing our little class asked in a mystified tone what the point of the Greenland paddle was. I confess to being a bit taken aback, but managed to explain that this was kayaking in its true, original form, as designed and perfected over hundreds of years and passed on from the Inuit people. He went on to question how we could get any support from our skinny sticks. My mind filled with thoughts on how my paddle had allowed me to overcome a fear of capsize and was helping me find a myriad different ways to recover, of  how it had increased my confidence and made the water my playmate, and of all the fun I was having in the process of learning. The best I could do was to respond that the stick was, well … magic.

A big thank you goes out to Bruce Jolliffe for co-ordinating the weekend. We’re also indebted to Mackayak from Orkney, whom we finally met, and who had got the ball rolling. And it was great to meet others who had taken up the way of the stick. I hope that we shall roll into one another again.

As the Kayak Ways slogan says, the living tradition continues …

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.

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!