Posts belonging to Category Valley Avocet

Deja vu all over again at Loch Striven

Friday night’s pool training took on a new and interesting twist last week. Alan and I had been busying ourselves with our usual rolling drills when I became aware of something resembling “shenanigans” going on at the deep end. I tried to ignore this and look busy, but was spotted by coach Richard who bullied invited me to participate. I then found myself in a kayak with a rope tied to each end, a bit like some sort of mediaeval torture device really. Richard and Euan then pulled the kayak up and down the pool, encouraging me to brace to prevent capsize. I have to admit, I was starting to enjoy it. Upon inevitably capsizing, I then had the opportunity to roll in the “moving” water. It definitely simulated the sensation of battling opposing forces under the water and I got a lot out of it. Alan’s turn was next and I think that there’s the tiniest of chances that Richard and Euan set the bar slightly higher for him (this could be a guy thing).

Duly trained up, we were keen to get out on the real water at the weekend. The forecast made Saturday a complete non-starter as, despite Richard and Euan’s best efforts, our training hadn’t quite extended to simulations of 65 mph gusts (maybe just 35 mph), so we pinned our hopes on getting out on Sunday when conditions were predicted to be calmer. And indeed they were, so off we popped for an afternoon jaunt.

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

More often than not we find ourselves putting in at Toward shoreline and seeing where the fancy takes us. More often than not, it takes us to Bute. And then maybe back over to Loch Striven. Being creatures of habit, that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. Well, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely finished inspecting the Maersk ships anchored in the loch, especially as another one had been added to the “raft” since we were last there. I suppose I am slightly fascinated by ships. It must have something to do with growing up on the banks of the Clyde.

After a pleasant paddle over to Bute and then northwards up Loch Striven, we managed to get a little more up close and personal this time (with the ships, that is). There were no signs of life aboard the behemoth vessels as we paddled around them, although I believe they are still being “powered down”. It’s astonishing to think that there is no work for them (or hundreds of others like them around the world) for the foreseeable future. What were all those ships transporting previously that we are somehow managing to live without now?

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

We noted that one of them (the Sealand Performance) was registered in New York and was flying the Stars and Stripes, which seemed a little incongruous in wee, backwater Loch Striven. But I’m forgetting how recently nearby Holy Loch played host to those very colours.

Having satisfied ourselves that we’d seen enough, we were escorted off the premises by a friendly seal as we turned to head home. We noticed that the sea state was changing a little at this point. It was no longer calm, for a start. The tide was going out and meeting the incoming wind. There were no 65 mph gusts or anything, but it was definitely lively. Something very similar happened the last time we made this self same trip, so it was all getting a bit Groundhog Day-ish. By the time we reached the NATO refuelling depot, I declared to Alan that I wanted to head in for a short break. Alan appeared to be unfazed by the conditions, but I threw a small wobbly. I’m not sure why this is. I think I am naturally predisposed towards thinking the worst. Alan pointed out that the worst that could actually happen was:

  • I might capsize
  • My roll might fail
  • I’d simply be blown over to the nearby shore

Processed through the “Pam’s even worse, worst case scenario filter” however, this reads as:

  • I might capsize
  • I might become entangled in something (seaweed? fish farm paraphernalia? NATO pipelines?) and be unable to free myself
  • I might hit my head off a rock
  • My roll might indeed therefore fail
  • Conditions might deteriorate to gale force
  • That squall moving to the north of us might contain south-bound tornadoes*
  • I (and my kayak) might get smashed to little pieces along the shoreline

(*Before you ask, I have seen a tornado forming above a car park in Greenock).

Where does all of that come from? It does get tedious.

Sensing my discomfort, Alan swapped kayaks with me. He had been paddling his new Avocet, while I was in my Nordkapp LV. I must say that I’d rather liked this arrangement as it levelled the playing field in terms of our respective speeds. Alan, therefore, got a big dollop of his own medicine feel for paddling at a reduced pace. After the wind had made its presence known, however, I was inclined to jump into the Avocet to see how it compared. And yes, I did feel a little more “in control” in the smaller kayak. It was also interesting to note that, whilst the Nordkapp had tended to rear up and then slap down on the waves, the Avocet delivered several face-fulls of saltwater instead (no, I wasn’t crying!).

We chugged our way back, rounding the fish farm, where it became especially bouncy and confused. I summoned up my learnings from Lewis, Islay, Skye and the pool, all of which had involved considerably worse conditions (ok, except for the pool). In my mind, I can honestly say, I was mentally prepared to try rolling upon capsize, especially as most of the sea activity was on my “good” side. I no longer think that my only instinct would be to pull the deck’s grab loop, but it remains to be seen as, on this occasion, I (and Alan) did manage to stay upright.

I am leaning towards adopting another indispensable tip from coach Richard in the meantime, proven to help many a kayaker get through rough waters and also to engage their roll. So where can I order a smiley face sticker for my deck? 🙂

I want to be you – whenever I see you smilin’
Cause it’s easily one of the hardest things to do
Your worries and fears become your friends
And they end up smilin’ at you
Put on a smilin’ face

Smiley Faces, Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

Club trip to Glencoe and Loch Leven


Pap of Glencoe and Loch Leven

It was high time for a Garnock Canoe Club jamboree and one had duly been scheduled for last weekend. If I hadn’t known better, however, I would have wondered if the organisers weren’t trying to throw us off the scent in the communications leading up to our departure. The email entitled “Arisaig Trip” which informed us that the trip that had previously been moved from Arisaig to Oban had now been relocated to Glencoe, was especially confounding. Undaunted, we tracked everyone down to the Invercoe campsite in Glencoe on Friday evening. As various cars emptied out their occupants, something became apparent to me and that was a growing sense of being outnumbered. To explain: there was me, and then there were 10 chaps of the male persuasion. Which leads me to ask the question – oh, where were the women of Garnock? At least the conversation around the campfire didn’t resort to the usual stereotypical subject matter of football and cars (no, it was much worse than that).

Setting out on Loch Leven

Setting out on Loch Leven

I would like to say that I was up and about, bright and breezy on Saturday morning, but this was not the case at all. Unfortunately, Friday night had been claimed by the demons of insomnia from whom I receive occasional visitations. Once they appear, no amount of relaxation technique, yogic breathing, counting sheep or just plain wishing will get me to sleep. What starts as a small, nagging worry that I haven’t fallen asleep yet becomes a full-blown anxiety attack that I will be trapped in a torturous hell of sleep deprivation the following day, and, of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not to worry, I somehow managed to find myself sitting fully dressed in a drysuit and in a kayak on the waters of Loch Leven on Saturday morning. Not just any old kayak mind you, but a beautiful white Valley Avocet with black trim. After the very favourable impressions that had been made upon us during our week with Skyak Adventures, one thing had led to another and we were now taking a lovely, nippy wee day kayak out to play. Through the foggy haze (I refer to my sleepless state and not the weather conditions), I became aware of some truly astounding scenery as we paddled from our campsite eastwards to Kinlochleven. Majestic mountains prevailed, and it was wonderful to admire the Aonoch Eagach ridge from the water having climbed it some years ago. The conditions were most favourable, especially with the wind pushing us along.

Heading for the rocks at Kinlochleven

Heading for the rocks at Kinlochleven

Upon reaching Kinlochleven, the environment began to take on more of a feel of a river, as opposed to a sea loch, as indeed the loch effectively becomes the River Leven (or that might actually be the other way around). The water narrowed in on us and became “gushy” in places, and there were lots of rocks. You can tell from my description that I am not a river kayaker. There are reasons for this, mostly relating to sharp, pointy rocks (did I mention those?), icy cold, moving water – er, and unrelenting fear. Regardless, some members of our group saw this as an excellent opportunity to toss their kayaks about the rocks. I started to believe that my tired state was causing hallucinations when I then saw bodies floating down the river, but it seems that certain individuals had abandoned their vessels altogether in favour of engaging in a whole new sport the name of which eludes me (“unkayaking”? “drysuiting”?). Having no desire to scratch wreck our kayaks, or get icily cold, Alan and I sensibly decided to have some hot soup and pull up a chair to watch the other hardy souls from the sidelines.

Loch Leven

Garbh Bheinn, from Loch Leven

Whilst the rest of the group then embarked on an elaborate climbing exercise in order to consume their lunch on top of the riverbank, Alan and I, having dined already, decided to start heading back the way we’d come. Our progress was slowed by the wind which was now doing its best to place us in reverse gear. Around the half way point, my lower back was screaming for a rest and we pulled in to a pebbly beach. Here, a solo paddler in a Capella 163 came ashore and sat down with us for a chat. It seems that whenever I write about paddlers whom we happen to bump into on the water, to my delight they somehow later find my blog and make contact. Perhaps I will hear from this lady too. Anyway, let me just say, it was nice to enjoy the company of another female paddler.

Soon our group had caught up with us and quickly embarked on a challenging and manly survival exercise on the beach involving fire-building and slater-eating, in the manner of – I think I’m safe in saying – Ray Mears. I had dared to mention the name of Bear Grylls, which was greeted with snorts of derision from the guys. I wonder if female paddlers feel similarly? 😉

Making friends with guillemot

Making friends with a guillemot

At this point, Jordan graciously offered to swap kayaks with me in order for me to try out his Rockpool Isel. This is a relatively new Rockpool kayak, designed for the smaller paddler, and I have been very interested in learning more about it. To be able to try it out was an opportunity not to be missed. Well, let me just say – I like it very much! Whilst I cannot put a kayak through its paces in quite the way Jordan can, here’s what I did manage to observe:

  • What a great fit! Part of the trouble that I’ve had in assessing fit is that the majority of kayaks out there don’t fit the smaller person well – so how do you truly know what a good fit is until you actually encounter it? The Isel makes snug contact in all the places that matter, including the excellent thigh braces. I felt like the kayak fitted me, as opposed to me trying to fit it via outfitting (or eating pies).
  • After kayaking back the remaining half of the return journey, my back no longer hurt. The seat and lumbar support are exactly that, supportive.
  • My feet loved the footplate (versus foot pegs). I could feel the blood in my toes again. Such comfort.
  • The hard chines took me back to my Capella a little and edging seemed “stickier” than the Valley kayaks – obviously not an issue to the skilled paddler.
  • The Isel doesn’t turn quite as responsively (imho) as the Avocet, but it turns perfectly well nonetheless.
  • Despite tiredness to the extreme, a less than ideal set-up, and some gusty wind, I managed to roll the Isel. It wasn’t my prettiest roll ever due to the aforementioned, but the kayak simply has that feeling that suggests that you can rely on a roll even when conditions/you are less than perfect. I really like that feeling.

Meanwhile, it was fun to watch young Jordan making our Avocet dance in the water the way it was meant to. If kayaks had emotions, ours would have been very happy to have someone with such natural skill in charge.

Eilean Munda

Eilean Munde

Before returning to our campsite, we detoured over to Eilean Munde, the “Burial Island” of Loch Leven. We stepped ashore to explore its many gravesites. I hadn’t realised that they were so numerous and it was interesting to read the inscriptions and examine the symbology (to use a Dan Brown kind of term), as well as to view the graves’ seemingly random placement across the island. Many of the slate gravestones seemed as new, no doubt scoured clean by the prevailing elements.

It was a short trip back to Invercoe where a hot shower followed by dinner in the smirry rain awaited. In danger of falling asleep as we sheltered in the car, Alan and I turned in for the night not long after 9 pm. Sleep came upon me like an anaesthetic and I would have known nothing of the party in the neighbouring tipi but for the impressive amount of recyclable materials and marked lack of perkiness that emerged from it in the morning, combined with the run on Powerade in the campsite shop.

Eilean Munda

Eilean Munde

What with all the blustery wind and rain on Sunday morning, I was gutted to learn that no-one seemed keen to go and get soaked and freeze in the Falls of Lora as had been originally planned. But a consensus of reluctance had been reached and who was I to argue? So we packed up and made our way homewards. After having nearly lost our kayaks to the wind on the way over Rannoch Moor on the journey to Glencoe, we decided to take the less gusty route home via Oban. This took us past the said Falls of Lora where, to our surprise, we found other members of the Garnock club! Apparently, a second branch of the club had arrived for Sunday’s activities. As inviting as it was to get out and join them, Alan and I were in full “going home to cosy fireside” mode and, after stopping to chat briefly, proceeded on our way. I confess, however, that a slight pall hung over me as often occurs when left with the feeling of having missed out on something. Never mind, the cosy fireside was nice.

And so concluded a fun weekend in a beautiful location, in good company (despite there being gender disparities) … what more could you want? Apart from a good night’s sleep.

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.


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



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