Posts belonging to Category Tide races



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.

Hurricanes and supernovas

Surface pressure chartWe appear to be living in interesting times. Tuning into the news lately, I’ve learned:

*(remnants of)

We’ve had our fair share of man-made crises too in the past year, from oil leaks to nuclear meltdowns. And, of course, the usual wars, alerts, and political and economic upheavals.

Stormy dayIt’s enough to make you anxious.

What’s this got to do with kayaking? Well, the common denominator is: fear. We live in a fear-filled world. The mainstream media likes nothing better than to amp up the fear factor (as well as the X Factor). Before you know it, you’re anxious about everything, even your leisure pursuits.

I realise that everyone is different and perhaps many of you braver, chilled out individuals can’t relate. But I would wager that a few of you have danced with anxiety in the great céilidh of life.

In particular, in sea kayaking, there’s a lot to potentially be anxious about:

  • big, scary waves
  • tidal flows
  • failed rolls
  • barnacles
  • jellyfish
  • looking stupid

If like, me, you bore yourself to death with such thoughts and their paralysing tendencies, there comes a point when you very much want to be free of them. And that’s when you realise – well, they’re just thoughts. They are 100% in your head. Just because you’re fixated on encountering big, scary hurricane-powered waves in a 12 knot tidal flow whilst failing your roll and being swept into a bay of jellyfish (after your GPS fails due to a solar storm) before crash-landing on top of barnacles (and looking very stupid), doesn’t mean it’s actually happening, or going to happen. It’s all a (bad) dream of yours and is no more pertinent than the one you had about public speaking whilst naked (you had that one, right?). Afterwards, you wake up, reflect with alarm/amusement/embarrassment on your crazy old mind, then get on with the reality of your day.

And that is the tack I am now taking. But it’s not a case of ignoring my crazy old mind – au contraire. Instead, I am inviting it to come in and take a seat while we have a little talk. What’s this fear thing then? After I’ve shone the spotlight on it for a bit, it starts looking rather like my bank account after a visit to the kayak gear shop – empty. It has no substance. It’s no more than a feeling. The other shocker for me has been to discover how much of that fear relates to appearances – not so much how great I look in my neoprene hood, but more whether or not I can maintain that norsaq-wielding, rockstar kayaker image I’ve been working so hard to build. I know, I laughed too. It is much easier to let all that go, to escort fear out of the building with a polite handshake and a thanks for the insight, and to return to being – well, nobody.

Here’s a quote that’s inspired me recently:

It’s actually wonderful to see that you’re nobody and that all the fear you’ve had all your life was in relation to this self you thought you had. You have one less thing to promote, protect, maintain, dress up and present to the world.

Radical stuff! It’s from Larry Rosenberg, in his book “Breath by Breath”, in which he also says:

We see that fear isn’t something we own or have any control over. We’ve been living as if we do, as if we should be able not to feel it. But all we can do is meet it skillfully.

And then we just go kayaking and we see what’s out there. We might even have fun. We might pick up skills and, funnily enough, have less to fear afterwards. We might have some failures (and I don’t mean the ones involving unnecessary risk), but that’s part of learning. One person’s failure is another’s first step on the ladder to acquiring an awesome skill.

With that in mind, hurricanes permitting, I am off to the Falls of Lora next weekend. I’ll be taking my old pal Fear with me, but firstly we’ll be sitting down for a little chat, and then he can watch me from the shore.

Up here in my tree, yeah
Newspapers matter not to me, yeah
No more crowbars to my head, yeah
I’m trading stories with the leaves instead, yeah

In My Tree, Pearl Jam, No Code

Garvellachs … not quite as forecast

Leaving EasdaleThe forecast looked quite benign, so our group set the intention of departing from Easdale and circumnavigating the Garvellach Islands in the Firth of Lorne. Certainly, there was little in the way of wind as we set out from the stony beach next to Easdale’s harbour and headed west. This is a renowned area of varied tidal activity and so provided some particular interest for us, having spent the bulk of the past few months paddling in our local waters where the tide simply goes in and out. In the Firth of Lorne and amongst its islands, the rather significant tide flows up and down and around and about as well as in and out (sometimes also shaking it all about). Generally speaking, the plan was to catch a bit of ebb tide on the journey south-west and a bit of flood tide to push us back.

Approaching the Garvellachs

Approaching the Garvellachs

A fair portion of the outward journey was spent vacillating over whether or not I was going to be too hot in my drysuit (a fairly pointless exercise, being that I was unlikely to change out of it on the water). Fortunately, the sun only made momentary appearances and the clouds kept interior drysuit temperatures bearable.

Garvellach IslandsWe cruised south-west, observing Fladda lighthouse before rounding the northernmost Garvellach island. We continued down the west coast of Garbh Eileach, admiring the dramatic cliff faces along the way, including evidence of a prehistoric rollercoaster, before turning in to a small, bouldery bay for a lunch stop. Soon we were continuing past the remaining islands in the chain and the lighthouse at the southern end of Eileach an Naoimh.

Prehistoric rollercoaster?

Prehistoric rollercoaster?

We had been encountering some wave surges scooshing up and down the rocky cliff-bases during our journey, of which those group members not afflicted with the debilitating condition known as Gelcoat Anxiety Syndrome (GAS, also known as Barnacle Avoidance Syndrome) took full advantage. We also used these swells to make paddling through the gaps in the islands and skerries more fun.

Epic win! Photo by Graham Milne

Epic win by Andy! Photo by Graham Milne

As we turned around the southern end, we were confronted with similar surges and one of our number took a most daring and heroic ride on a big, fearsome wave over the skerries, a move which could firmly be placed in the category of “epic”. The heights of heroism attained were only marginally lowered in our estimation by Andy’s subsequent cry of, “I thought I was a goner there!”. (What not to say when clearly demonstrating awesomeness).

St Brendan was here (and St Columba)

St Brendan was here (and St Columba)

Further north-east, we stopped for a look at the surprisingly substantial remains of the monastery founded by St Brendan in 542 AD, visited by St Columba (it is believed that his mother is buried there) and later destroyed by the Vikings (who else?!). Nearby, 3 sea kayakers had already pitched their tents for the evening and we thought it would be a great  wheeze to suggest to them that all 8 of us were about to do likewise.  As it turned out, upon departing, we encountered an incoming trail of about 8 kayakers heading for that very spot, intent on setting up camp. It was indeed going to be a busy night at the monastery. And I hear there are ghosts.

We had anticipated that, as we travelled north-east, there would be a bit more tidal activity and even a teeny bit more wind. Indeed, wavelets were expected. At this point, I have a confession to make. As pleasurable as our paddle had been so far, I secretly yearned for a little more movement in the water. It seems that the weather gods picked up on my furtive hankerings and, in true be-careful-what-you-wish-for fashion, decided to whip it up a little.  Upon reaching the north end of the islands once more, Coach Lewis convened our group for a quick vote on the most favoured course of action and, with muscles warmed up and adrenaline pumping, it was agreed that a straight shot back to Easdale was called for.

Lovely jubbly! Photo by Andy McManus

Lovely jubbly! Photo by Andy McManus

At first, it was mostly about battling a north-easterly headwind in the F4-5 to region, but with the wind hitting the opposing tide(s), things became more exciting. Casting aside the “what if this gets worse” doubts, I instead focused on the “great to be alive” thrills of being shoogled about in the fray. One minute the waves were coming from ahead, the next from the beam. I could tell, however, that my trusty Isel could handle it and I was very glad I’d worn my drysuit.

I was vaguely aware of a motor boat pulling alongside me, only to realise it was Lewis who proceeded to ask me for a rating of my experience of the “wavelets”. The first word that came to mind was, “Fun!”. What a difference time and the right kayak makes.

An hour and a half after leaving the Garvellachs, we were back at Easdale. As we packed up for the drive homewards, it felt great to have had the opportunity to experience such a varied and memorable trip. A big thanks to the team we paddled with, including Lewis, and Julia (especially for all the driving).

Going with the flow

At the Ballachulish NarrowsIt hardly seemed like a week had passed since we had journeyed towards a rendezvous at the Falls of Lora on Sunday morning. Here we were retracing our steps northwards, the somewhat variable weather forecast requiring an “on the spot” decision as to our ultimate destination. At the Falls, the group agreed that plans for the Cuan Sound should be momentarily shelved  in view of the somewhat formidable westerly winds predicted along with the spring tides. The Ballachulish area seemed like the most viable option as it would present tidal activity and a bit of weather, but hopefully not too much.

We put in at Ballachulish Bridge, just in time for some play in the narrows which, while we were there, saw the tide ebbing at the spring rate of 5 knots. This was just about right for practising manoeuvres and becoming accustomed to the movement of the water.  In the realms of quite speedy tidal flow, tricks are played on the brain and it’s not until one directs one’s gaze shorewards that one realises – helpmaboab, I’m fairly chugging along here!  Fortunately, the manageable rate on this occasion allowed me to cast aside my imagined worst case scenario (being trapped in a flow headed direct to Canada) and try out some ferry gliding, breaking in and out and general scooting about.

In the tide race

In the tide race

Another group meeting was then called to decide where we would head next. There was a lot of enthusiastic pointing at some gnarly waves in the distance and, after a brief lecture from Lewis about what to do in the event of any of us falling in and requiring help (proceed calmly to the nearest Lewis, basically), we duly allowed the flow to push us westwards.

As we approached said waves, their presentation appeared quite surreal. We could see the sea state instantly transform from flat to roiling, to the extent that it felt like we were sitting on the shore. I decided that I wasn’t 100% ready to meet the lumpy stuff and, when I did so, it would be on my own terms, in a civilised fashion and with polite introductions. It would also be immediately after I’d identified an escape route. So, departing from reality for a few seconds, I started paddling backwards in order to buy some time. Of course, this was a quite useless endeavour as, akin to being on a conveyor belt, I was soon pitched into the thick of it.

Up and down

Up and down

It must be said that, when the words “tidal flow” are mentioned, my brain unplumbs itself from its reservoir of Known Knowns and floats into the vacuum of Unknown Unknowns. Tides are mysterious and mythical phenomena, affected by the wind, the land and the seabed, controlled by the moon, the sun, gravity, river gods and pixies. It’s all fodder for the active imagination. As it turned out, however, the conditions were no worse than previous rough water encounters and, once bobbing about in the fray, things seemed a lot more “normal”.

Lunch stop

Lunch stop

We played in the waves for a bit, before continuing westwards into the wind, pulling in for lunch just before rounding the corner at Rubha Cuil-cheanna. We then continued north to another set of narrows – the Corran Narrows. The waves became bigger and a bit more “swelly” at this point. As we stopped to listen to Lewis’s explanations of the sea state (summary: the outgoing ebb was meeting shallows and incoming wind), I admit that lunch wasn’t sitting terribly well. We were, however, soon moving on downwind, disappearing into the big troughs before being elevated and pushed forward up the crests (the bit I’m still getting used to). One of my paddling companions asked if I was enjoying myself, to which I replied in the affirmative. I expressed some frustration at my lack of bravery in that I didn’t feel up to attempting to surf the bigger waves, to which he replied, “But you have a roll, right?”.  I confirmed that, well yes, technically I did. Fortunately he did not hear me then mutter, “What’s that got to do with anything?”!

Corran Lighthouse

Corran Lighthouse

As we neared the narrows, the sea calmed down and, to be honest, it was a tad disappointing after the preceding thrills. We had to make do with the picturesque scene of the lighthouse and the ferry. Oh, and did I mention the magnificent Glencoe mountains?

We about-turned and battled south-west against the wind before turning east back towards Ballachulish. Just when I’d thought that the day’s excitement was over, there was more vigorous pointing at more frothy waves and – like moths to a flame – we were soon bouncing around in the turbulence again. It was a great way to end the day.

Decent conditions

Decent conditions

Just as we exited the water, the heavens opened and we were rained on fairly torrentially for a large part of the way home. It is said that the rain is God’s way of washing the coos, and I think that that must include the kayaks who, after a great day on the water, were surely as happy as the occupants of the car transporting them homewards.

A big thank you to Lewis who, once again, allowed us to go out and play in the lumpy stuff.