Posts belonging to Category Wildlife



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 day trip to Mull

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

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

Lighthouse on Eilean Musdile on the south tip of Lismore

Lighthouse on Eilean Musdile on the south tip of Lismore

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

Duart Castle

Duart Castle

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

Mull to Oban

Photo courtesy: Lewis Smith

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

Ferries kept us company

Ferries kept us company

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

Ferry dodging

Ferry dodging

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

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

A sad day

DolphinsI think I would be safe in saying that most of us sea kayakers love the sea and the creatures in it. Nothing is more thrilling than witnessing wildlife up close from your kayak and I have had the privilege of seeing everything from otters to basking sharks to seals to starfish. It is one of the main reasons that I love kayaking. Unlike some lucky folks, I have yet to be accompanied by dolphins whilst out on the water, a dream that I hope to realise in time.

Many humans feel a special affinity with dolphins. This may be in part due to a recognition of, and connection with, their consciousness and levels of intelligence which are not far removed from (and may even exceed) our own. Scientists have recently concluded that dolphins should be considered “non-human persons”. Quoting from the linked article:

“The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.”

“What Marino and her colleagues found was that the cerebral cortex and neocortex of bottlenose dolphins were so large that “the anatomical ratios that assess cognitive capacity place it second only to the human brain”.”

With this in mind, it is with horror that I learn today that the massacre of dolphins that occurs annually in Taiji, Japan (as documented in the film, “The Cove“) is proceeding apace, with 52 bottlenose dolphins and 6 risso dolphins butchered within an hour in the last day. As anyone who is familiar with the film will know, this is an act of utterly depraved barbarism. As dolphin families who have been herded into the cove struggle to stay together against the hatcheting inflicted by their brutal captors, mothers are separated from their babies, and all are mercilessly hacked to death. Some are left on the quayside in the throes of agony, gasping their last breaths.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is one of the few organisations who bear witness to this atrocity and I am grateful to them for keeping the world informed and refusing to allow the Japanese to hide this shameful “tradition”. And on that note, the pitiful argument of upholding tradition is soon refuted by the knowledge that there are many human traditions that have thankfully largely been abandoned (such as slavery) as intolerable and morally corrupt.

We must not forget, of course, what makes this annual capture and butchery especially lucrative is the marine aquariums who select and pay for captive animals who are then taken to the likes of Sea World for a life of confinement in chlorinated tanks, reduced to performing tricks for “captive” audiences of tourists. The proceeds from the actual slaughter pale in comparison. Indeed, it is hard to believe that there is much of an appetite for mercury-laden dolphin meat, and certainly not much outside of Japan.

If, like me, you feel sickened by this butchery, there are a few things you can do:

  • Contact the Japanese ambassador/consulate general for your country, detailed here.
    The Consulate General for Japan in Edinburgh’s details are:
    Consulate General of Japan in Edinburgh
    2 Melville Crescent Edinburgh EH3 7HW
    Tel: +44 (0)131 225 4777
    Fax: +44 (0)131 225 4828
    ryouji.cgj@btconnect.com
  • Boycott all marine aquariums
  • Contact the press and request that they cover this important news story
  • Support Sea Shepherd
  • Tell everyone you know.

One is not a great one because one defeats or harms other living beings. One is so called because one refrains from defeating or harming other living beings.”
~ The Buddha, Dhammapada

The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.”
– Douglas Adams , The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Back on home waters

Just down the road ...During our last trip, before leaving from Ballachulish, I noticed that Lewis had dug some laminated maps of our paddling area out of a folder labelled “Local Paddles”. This made me consider the definition of “local” and how it varies from one person to another. For example, if Alan and I were organised enough to have such a folder, it would contain a map of the Clyde, extending to Loch Striven, the Kyles of Bute, Loch Long, Loch Goil and Loch Fyne. Maps for far flung areas such as north of Oban would go in the folder labelled “Remote Paddles”, whilst everything else would go in the folder marked “Foreign (There be Dragons)”.

It just so happens that the bulk of our kayaking has been done in local waters, simply because it’s so handy. It also happens to be rather beautiful, and one can never get bored with beauty. A lowered carbon footprint is a nice little bonus. True to form, we were back on local waters this past Saturday, returning to Colintraive but this time leaving from Toward.

I read with some disbelief that the temperature was supposed to reach 2°C by 7 am. The brilliant sun shining through the window implied only warmth. I stopped short of grabbing my wetsuit (which is now in winter hibernation), but feared I might stew in my drysuit. To create a sort of compromise I wore only one layer of capilene as my thermal base.

Toward Sailing Club lifting yachts out

Toward Sailing Club lifting yachts out the water

We paddled past Toward Sailing Club, whose members were busily extracting yachts from the water by way of a crane. What could be sadder, I pondered, than removing your sailing vessel from the sea on a beautiful breezy, sunny day? I feel a pang locking my kayak up overnight (heck, I have friends who take theirs into the house with them), but imagine parting company until spring. We paddled past in an appropriately solemn fashion.

Soon we were in amongst the ever lovely Kyles of Bute, pausing to gaze towards the now vacant Loch Striven along the way. The half dozen container ships that had been in cold lay-up there have now departed, travelling emptily to an uncertain future in the Far East, last I heard. Loch Striven has been returned to its previously slumbering state with nothing more than a few bouncing bombs to attract any attention.

Northerly breeze

Northerly breeze

As we approached the East Kyles, the northerly wind was making itself known and I realised that, contrary to my initial fears, sweltering heat was definitely not an issue. It might be said that a disadvantage of paddling with one’s spouse is that one is more readily given to voicing one’s discomforts aloud. When in a group, I am slightly less inclined to burden my friends – but husbands, on the other hand, are fair game. Alan soon pulled into the shore and I followed, managing to scrape my kayak along some barnacles in the process. He insisted that I put something warm on – something being his fleece as I noted that I’d left mine in the car. Suddenly, the air became frostier. (Note to self: time for a spare clothing drybag audit).

Rhubodach ferry

Rhubodach ferry

It was the first time that we had paddled all the way to Colintraive from South Cowal, powered on by the promise of the wind and tide at our backs on our return. We had lunch beside the Rhubodach ferry jetty before being pushed back to Toward with the sun in our faces.

The sudden onset of cooler temperatures brought home the fact that we are now running out of time for anything but minimal wet practice, outdoors at least. I duly swapped my baseball cap for a neoprene hood and plopped into the water for a spot of rolling. Whenever I am about to declare stupendous, bombproof, super-robust rolling success to the world, the Universe comes knocking at my door with a little calling card that says, “Catch yerself on”. Last week, I introduced a new and unexpected quirk to my ever-growing list of new and unexpected quirks. As I tumbled upside down and initiated my sweep, I became aware that the blade wasn’t “catching”, resulting in a truncated roll which gets me up, but not as easily as I’ve known. I could not determine the cause of this until I figured out from video evidence that I am initially sweeping the air (which was also a recently diagnosed problem with Alan’s offside roll). It’s funny how, underwater, my brain couldn’t work this out – but then again, it has difficulty working anything out beyond not breathing.

Rolling on Loch Eck

Practice on Loch Eck

Anyway, this week I was completely focused on fixing the problem and, in the process, managed to forget the One Thing that has changed my roll from being hit and miss to being something I can depend on. This is my most important rolling discovery since … well, the last one. The trick is to flick my leading wrist back emphatically. It works beautifully in achieving perfect blade angle every time. But this week, my underwater brain succumbed to the law of Sudden Oxygen Deficiency (SOD) and decided to dispense with the One Thing altogether. So my first couple of rolls were laboured, to say the least. Fortunately, Alan’s brain was still working and he could plainly see the climbing blade angle that was the source of the trouble. As much as I would like to, I dare not yet make a declaration of bombproofness, as all too often I have proved that pride comes before a fail.

Alan with empty Loch Striven in background

Alan with empty Loch Striven in background

As we paddled past the sailing club once again, we were surprised to note that the crane had gone and that, barring a few whose owners had presumably slept in, all the yachts were now out of the water and were getting herded into their winter pen. That was fast work!

Back at our launch spot, we threw the kayaks on to the car roof and were home within 10 minutes. As we tucked our kayaks in for the night, it was with the reassurance that they would soon be back out on the water. Even if we don’t go far, it’s always good to go kayaking no matter what the season.

Goals
There are no goals
There is no order
Paid for in laughter

Home
Is this my home
Been starting over
Bathe in the water

Home, Engineers

The kayak chronicles

It has come to my attention that, at an average of 2 excursions on the water per week, my backlog of potential blog posts is growing at an alarming rate. The only way to fully catch up would be to stop paddling for a bit and do nothing but blog, but that is rather a Catch 22 situation and asking too much. As a compromise, I’ll share with you the highlights of the past month or so:

  • MV Captayannis wreck, River Clyde

    A visit to the “sugar boat” (the MV Captayannis) in the Clyde off Helensburgh. I recall the night it was wrecked, and it was all the talk of my primary school the next day. The ship itself dates back to the 1940s (it was wrecked somewhat later, I hasten to add) and is now the home (or at least perch) of sea birds and other marine critters, for whom it provides a “fragrant” environment. Being able to view an historic and personally meaningful shipwreck above water is quite a unique opportunity and beats having to don a diving suit!

  • PS Waverly and kayakers in Kyles of Bute

    PS Waverley and kayakers in Kyles of Bute

    A pleasant paddle in the Kyles of Bute culminating in our attendance at the Colintraive Fete immediately upon our emergence off the water. As we trailed our soggy presence through the crowds and stalls, many strange looks were cast our way. Apparently, wetsuits and cags are not de rigueur at a country fete. It was a relief to stumble upon a friendly and welcoming face – that of Andy, the chief burger flipper who, when he is not flipping venison burgers, is a fellow paddler.

  • Clyde Swim 2010

    Clyde Swim 2010

    A return journey across the Clyde in order to accompany swimmers participating in the cross-Clyde charity swim which was being supported, as per tradition, by the RWSABC. Each swimmer was appointed a kayaker to guide them across the river, and it was up to the kayaker to assess the best (and fastest) “line”. This introduced a slightly more competitive element to the kayaking proceedings than I had anticipated and the responsibility weighed heavily upon me, for a few seconds at least. I soon realised that the presence of slack water and the allocation of a fast swimmer reduced any need for strategic tidal planning on my part and my role reverted comfortably to that of security blanket, so to speak. Hats off to the swimmers that day for their sterling efforts which were quite inspiring (must get back to the pool and work on swimming fitness!).

  • Rolling practice is of course ongoing, mostly occurring along the shores of the Clyde or in Loch Eck. My on-side has been tested in a variety of kayaks now and is still “on” (hooray), while my offside has progressed from DOA to sporadically AWOL, with occasional bouts of FUBAR.

  • Surfing waves on Loch Fyne

    Surfing waves on Loch Fyne

    A windy weekend spent surfing (and a bit of slogging) on Loch Fyne, interspersed with refuelling stops in civilised tea/lunch establishments at Castle Lachlan and Inveraray. These outings were marked with some poignancy, being that Julia was about to go under the knife that Monday to have her knee ligaments reorganised. At least she managed to squeeze the very last droplet of saltwater out of the weekend.

  • Loch Caolisport, Knapdale, Argyll

    Loch Caolisport, Knapdale, Argyll

    A quiet and peaceful outing to Loch Caolisport. Whenever I mention this loch to anyone, I am greeted with a quizzical look – which might explain why we had the place entirely to ourselves (apart from one prawn fishing boat, some seals and seabirds). With beautiful views of Jura and Islay and a lovely lunch beach, it has a lot to offer. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that.

  • Paddling on Loch Linnhe

    Paddling on Loch Linnhe

    A day spent paddling around the north end of Lismore. This brought to mind our first ever kayaking trip of any significance, which took place at that location. It’s pleasing to reflect on how those first tentative paddlestrokes have led to something that’s now approaching a way of life. This is a scenically awesome area, and under 2 hours’ drive away from where we live. The wind reached F5 on our return journey to the Benderloch vicinity, resulting in quite an effort. “Rotation” was the order of the day, as I worked to engage my very toe muscles in assisting my rapidly tiring arms and shoulders in the battle against the wind. It was, however, definitely worth it.

As always, the many kayaking opportunities presented to us have been thanks to the availability of an ever-expanding array of amiable paddling companions whose company we have much appreciated. Not least of these of course is Julia who is now off the water momentarily whilst mending from her knee surgery.  Hopefully, it won’t be long before we see her return – better, stronger, faster than she was before! We wish her a full and speedy recovery.

Paddling on Loch Linnhe

North of Lismore

So take the photographs
And still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf
In good health and good time …

It’s something unpredictable
But in the end it’s right.
I hope we have the time of our lives.

Time of Your Life, Nimrod, Green Day

Shark tales

Looking for rocksNever ones to miss out on an opportunity for skills improvement, Alan and I signed up last weekend for a coaching session which had been kindly offered by our paddling chum (and able coach), Lewis. The venue was set as Maidens in Ayrshire and I can now officially say that I have visited South Ayrshire more times in the past few months than I had previously in my entire life.  Which is all good, as that area offers the sea kayaker many challenges and attractions, as I shall elaborate.

We were in full “business” mode as we put in at the rather muddy Maidens harbour. This outing was not, after all, a nice summer’s day trip – it was the serious matter of skills practice and general self-improvement, at least in relation to paddling. Not for us would there be scenic wonders or wildlife sightings – no, it would be all bow rudders, hanging draws and low braces on this day.

Training dayOur initial practice took place within the harbour. The gloom that has come to characterise July prevailed and lighting conditions were such that I thought we might need some torches to find our way about. Eventually, we did find the harbour exit and headed south. Winds were around F3 as we puttered about the rocky patches of coastline, and we were duly encouraged to engage in a spot of rockhopping. At this point, I know I am at high risk of acquiring a bit of a reputation, one that has nothing to do with skills and everything to do with avoidance. I understand the argument that kayaks are there to be used (and repaired), and I respect that rockhopping is an excellent means of honing one’s paddle technique, but am I really being “precious” to suggest that composite kayaks + barnacles + less than stellar skills are not the best mix? Just as Lewis was encouraging me to have a go, Alan helpfully illustrated the point and landed on a pinnacle of barnacles whilst emitting disturbing grinding sounds (the kayak, that is). Hours (or perhaps seconds) later, he did manage to get off of the rocks, and I was off the hook.

Shark in the water!

Shark in the water!

As we continued on, a sudden movement caught my eye just as Alan shouted urgently and pointed to my right. Upon sighting the tell-tale triangular dorsal fin and the following tail fin, we realised immediately that it was a basking shark. This was the first time we’d seen one, having heard about them from other paddlers’ reports. The basking shark is the world’s second largest shark, growing to lengths in excess of 20 feet. Fortunately, they are veritable vegetarians, only consuming plankton, and are no threat to humans, unless they unexpectedly breach under your kayak (a thought that did flit through my mind).  It zipped about the water near us with amazing agility before darting off and we were all thrilled to have seen one so close.

We paused for lunch next to the famous Turnberry golf course (once again). It seemed to be a busy day on the course, as I glanced over at the poor golfers with their backs to the sea.

Nick paddles into the sunset

Nick paddles into the sunset

Back on the water, as we stopped to engage in a bit of surf tuition (such as conditions would permit), we saw a lone kayaker approaching from the south. We broke off our discussions to greet him and, as he came nearer, Alan and I both realised that we knew him. This might not sound particularly astonishing, but this kayaker wasn’t exactly local. He had, in fact, paddled up from the south coast of England having set out in May! We had met Nick during our course at Skyak Adventures last August. It seems that he had really put his learnings to work. And here he was paddling just off the Ayrshire coast, at the exact same time as we were paddling just off the Ayrshire coast … what are the chances? It’s a little spooky.

Cue Jaws theme tune

Cue Jaws theme tune

Shortly after this most interesting encounter, we had yet another one – with more basking sharks! This time there were two, an adult and a smaller, probably juvenile, one.  For whatever reason, they appeared almost drawn to our presence and stayed within our locale for quite some time, obliging us with several photo-opportunities by swimming under our kayaks repeatedly. We were definitely in breach of the proximity to wildlife guidelines, but – in our defence – it was entirely of the sharks’ choosing.

As our training came to an end, I realised that we were only supposed to be doing skills practice off a coast not far from home, yet not only were we returning with improved skills, we also had unforgettable memories of an amazing wildlife encounter. It’s just another day at the office for a sea kayaker.

[Sharks reciting]: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself.”
Bruce, Anchor and Chum, “vegetarian” sharks, Finding Nemo

Moving goalposts (and pushing envelopes)

Fairlie to Cumbrae and backThe summer days of July have well and truly arrived here on the west coast of Scotland. How do I know?

  • The calendar says so.
  • The schools are all on holiday.
  • It’s blowing a gale and raining torrentially.
  • The garden now looks like a bombing range.

Yes, gone is the tranquility of balmy May and June and now we have some proper Scottish summer weather.  Never mind, we have used this as an opportunity to switch focus from journeying, to expanding our skills and experience in less-than-tranquil conditions.

Alan is happy

Alan is happy

On that note, I’ve seen a change in Alan recently. Gone is the mild-mannered, fair-weather paddler I loved and in his place is this other chap, whose eyes light up at the sight of white caps, whose shoulders slump at the prospect of calm seas, who laughs (I’d say a little demonically) at wind and waves. All of which places yours truly in an awkward position.

Anyone who knows me as a kayaker will not immediately leap to associations of high-risk, adrenaline-soaked feats of paddling derring-do at the mention of my name. Rather, they might think of a nice, sensible day out in nice, sensible conditions with perhaps some seal-spotting and a bit of lunch thrown in. Regardless, and no matter how much I drag my heels along the sand, somehow I find myself bobbing about on lumpy seas more than my nice, sensible self thinks desirable. Alan’s latest proclivity is therefore not helping.

On our way to Cumbrae

On our way to Cumbrae

The word came from Julia that a group was going out on Saturday and we were invited to join in. I’d seen the forecast of background winds of nearly 20 mph and gusts of over 30 mph. In addition, Julia used certain phraseology that caught my attention, such as: “looking for waves”, and something (that I think was intended as reassurance) about folks being available to “pick up the pieces if things go pear-shaped”. I duly convinced myself that this was not for me. No thank you. I would be perfectly happy staying at home sobbing at my complete lack of gumption catching up on housework. I’d even changed into non-paddling attire, when Alan informed me that wild horses wouldn’t stop him he’d quite like to go. He then advised that, for reasons of kayak-loading group logistics, he couldn’t double up with Julia and he’d therefore be in the car on his own … with an empty cradle beside his kayak …

My hat out kayaking

My hat out kayaking

So there I was heading down to Fairlie, trying my best to drown out all the little alarm bells sounding inside my head. I was reminded of my yoga practice, where certain postures are made so much more difficult by mental (and physical) resistance and I tried not to become my own worst enemy. Once on the water, we aimed for Great Cumbrae. It was a bit of a slog and I rued my inaction about pursuing a repair to my skeg. For some time, it’s been a bit sticky, to say the least. Once it’s down, it’s all the way down and no further adjustment (including retraction) is possible. I therefore prefer to leave it up. Lewis kindly reminded me to edge and this immediately assisted matters.

Nearing Millport

Nearing Millport

Upon reaching Cumbrae, we proceeded towards Millport. With southwesterly winds blowing, the south end of Great Cumbrae is associated with a certain quality of wildness, something I’d been anticipating since our destination was made known. Upon reaching that locale, Alan’s eyes duly lit up while mine didn’t so much light up as fill up. Well, not exactly … but the waves did take on a slightly more formidable quality and I found myself once again seated in the departure lounge of my comfort zone. Maria prompted me to remember that, as much as there is a certain awe and beauty in the waves, it’s actually better to paddle vigorously through them as opposed to stopping to admire them.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Inside my head

Lewis also helped me with various pointers and assurances, including an exercise in paddling with one’s eyes closed to gain an appreciation of the fact that the waves are merely moving up and down. This certainly helped me swap out the images inside my head with something more akin to, you know, reality. It is very much a head game, where the senses undergo a bit of an onslaught and the mind takes off and runs with it.

Millport

A nice spot for lunch

Observed by a lone grey seal, we stopped for lunch at one of the little islands in front of Millport just in time for the sun to come out. Thereafter, it was back into the rough and tumble for a play. The word “play” does suggest fun and enjoyment, doesn’t it? I could see that that was the experience of my “playmates” and I envied their confidence. I found heading into the wind quite do-able and would probably have ended up on the shores of Little Cumbrae had it not been agreed that we were not to do that. I am not super-keen on paddling downwind in such conditions. I like to know what’s behind me and my imagination runs riot as soon as I feel my stern lift. I then become caught in a battle between learning the skills to best handle the surf and stay upright, and not becoming distracted from staying the heck upright. Out on the waves, rational thought becomes optional. But, like everything else, it’s a question of getting used to it. Meanwhile, Alan’s grin was getting wider.

I get by with a little help ...

I get by with a little help ...

We re-grouped to head back to Fairlie. This meant negotiating the bigger waves again side on and I very much appreciated the company of Lewis as we rounded the bend to the east side of Great Cumbrae.

Alan had already practised his roll successfully out off Millport, but I saved mine for the end. I’ve had a little trouble on practice nights lately and have only now determined that it relates to using my spare (Lendal) paddle. My roll is feeling great with my Werner paddle, but not so great with the Lendal. Another little piece of the blade angle puzzle to figure out. On this day, I was using the Werner, so all was well and there were no tears before bedtime.

Heading back

Heading back

During the return journey, I noticed that, already, the goalposts had moved, the envelope had been pushed (and sealed and mailed off) and that what I would have thought of as a bit choppy when we started out, was now a welcome patch of (relative) calm. This is why opportunities such as these are so good for anyone who wants to become a more self-confident paddler. I read a commentary recently about how a fear of dying can become a fear of living. Likewise, in the world of sea kayaking, a fear of conditions can, if one is not careful, become a fear of learning.

Seeing as I wrote this on July 4th, I don’t mind declaring my interdependence on, and appreciation of, a group of friends who happen to be rather good at paddling. It has made all the difference to Alan and me to be able to push ourselves and, judging by that grin that’s still on Alan’s face, I have a feeling those goalposts aren’t going to stay put for long.

And I, I don’t want no money from you
I don’t want promises that you’ll be true
You can do anything you wanna do
All I ask is that you … you push me to my breaking point …

The Breaking Point, Shooter Jennings and Hierophant, Black Ribbons

Claonaig to Lochranza and back again

Looking towards to Arran from SkipnessUnbelievably, it is midsummer already. I’ve barely adapted to the idea of not wearing my drysuit and fleece-wear, only recently having removed the pogies and handwarmers from my gear bag. Yet here we are passing the longest day of the year, when darkness is scarcely seen.  The settled weather prevails and this past weekend we decided to visit the beautiful island of Arran, aka “Scotland in miniature”. There are many ways to approach Arran, including from Ayrshire and from Bute, but we decided to depart from the Kintyre peninsula, and cross the Kilbrannan Sound from Claonaig to Lochranza.

Claonaig to Lochranza ferry

Claonaig to Lochranza ferry

Alan and I had been doing our best not to fixate on the weather forecast which was predicting gusts of up to 29 mph. On conferring with our friends, we agreed to play matters by ear and make an assessment once we reached Claonaig. Certainly, it was a little breezy and we could see the odd white cap out on the Sound. Some discussion ensued and, lured by the beautiful scenery before us, it was democratically decided (after some pouting from Barrie) that we would see if we couldn’t at least cross over to Lochranza and, if the gusts increased as predicted, we could take the ferry back.

Approaching Lochranza

Approaching Lochranza

We put in at the ferry terminal, departing just ahead of the ferry itself. As it turned out, the crossing over to Lochranza saw us being pushed along by a nice little breeze with nothing untoward in the way of gustiness. The scenery ahead – the Arran mountains, with quaint Lochranza nestled on the shore – was a joy to behold and, indeed, Lochranza became even quainter as we neared.

After just over an hour’s paddling, we landed on the beach and made our way to a nearby cafe for a leisurely lunch in the sun. Kirsty had spent a large portion of the outward journey hating getting acquainted with Julia’s Pintail. A small skeg fix had since changed her view of it considerably and what had been a source of frustration had become a thing of desire. Love is fickle, even for kayaks.

Into the wind

Into the wind

On the return crossing, we set a course for Skipness Castle, which was north-east of our starting point. The wind had increased a bit as the day wore on, and we were now paddling into it.  This made the going quite vigorous but I once again enjoyed having more interesting conditions to kayak in. This is becoming a trend.

Siesta time

Siesta time

Eventually, we reached the Kintyre shore and noticed that the water had started to turn a tropical turquoise as we approached the deserted sandy beach. We pulled our kayaks ashore and Alan and I started taking the obligatory kayaks-on-the-beach calendar shots, while certain of our number took the opportunity for a quick snooze or to work on their paddler’s tan. Fetchingly, this involves very brown hands and arms, with everything else a Scottish shade of white (and may yet ruin Kirsty’s forthcoming prom). It struck me as I viewed the kayaks arrayed along the beach that they really do seem like a part of the nature of things, resting on the shore in the manner of sea creatures – and not some motorised, pollution-belching atrocities, say.

Skipness Castle

Skipness Castle

We set off south-westwards and battled a very stiff wind back to the ferry jetty at Claonaig with Alan firstly taking the opportunity to show off practice his roll as we left the clear, balmy waters of the beach. I’ll confess that this segment of the journey became a bit of a slogfest, but I am pleased to note that I no longer develop wrist pain when paddling into the wind. The problem seems to have been cured by the advice of none other than Kirsty’s Dad (who’s quite a good paddler) who suggested I try a 60 degree feather. It works!

Heading home

Heading home

It wasn’t too long before we were re-encountering the ferry back at the jetty and a lone seal saw us off the water. With that, another day of beauty was etched into the memory banks.

Quite recently, I was in a hospital waiting room and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop overhear a conversation between 2 fellow patients. One was asking the other if he had any plans to go away on holiday this year. The person who’d been asked responded that he hadn’t been “away” on holiday in 12 years, adding, “I’m out in the boat, you see”.  And so it seems, every kayak trip is like a little holiday. It certainly beats queueing at airports.

Summertime, and the living is … busy

Paddling across the ClydeI think it might be a Scottish phenomenon but, when the weather improves, suddenly life gets very busy. What should be the lazy days of summer are filled with a mad compulsion to get out and make the most of the weather before it changes back to wind and rain (which, let’s face it, could happen any minute).  Indeed, it took me a few years of living in permanently sunny climes to resist this urge, to realise that it never rains in California and therefore there was no urgency to, say, complete all my outdoor activities in the space of 3 days.  Back in Scotland, however, we cannot take anything for granted, therefore, when a spell of good weather appears, one feels the need to cram in all gardening, kayaking, hiking, biking, house-painting, window-cleaning etc etc activities at once. Indoor activities, such as housework and working for a living, tend to get neglected. If you’re not careful, it can get stressful.

Of course, not getting out on the water during a spell of good weather, in particular an actual stable high pressure system is, I’m fairly certain, a criminal offence.  With this in mind, we have been hitting the sea on a regular basis by way of outings of varying locations, durations and companions.

Friendly porpoise

Friendly porpoise

Back and forth across the Clyde

A highly memorable trip was one undertaken by just Alan and myself. That statement is no reflection on our excellent paddling friends, but relates to the fact that it was our wedding anniversary and the conditions were, in all respects, perfect. We put in at the bottom of our street and headed across the Clyde to Inverkip. We were only a few minutes into our journey when we saw a couple of porpoises swimming nearby. I anticipated that, upon sensing our presence, they would hasten away as porpoises usually do. But these two were different, they proceeded to approach us, getting closer and closer until they were within a few feet of our kayaks. They were quite unperturbed and, I imagine, were probably intent on feeding on whatever delicacies abounded in that vicinity. I actually prefer, however, to imagine that they were saying “hello”. Anyway, it made my day.

Inverkip Power Station wildlife haven

Inverkip Power Station wildlife haven

Eventually, we parted company, bidding our porpoise friends farewell, and headed across the river. Towards the eastern coast, we came across the famous 78-foot yacht, Drum (formerly owned by Simon Le Bon and now Arnold Clark), looking very smart indeed. Upon reaching Inverkip power station, we rediscovered the little wildlife haven there, where we encountered eider ducks, nesting cormorants and starlings, shags, guillemots, masses of tiny moon jellyfish and more. We heard some clanking sounds and I understand that some dismantling work is now being conducted. It has been rumoured for some years now that the landmark chimney of the unused power station is to be taken down and that, indeed, the power station will be demolished to accommodate 800 new houses which will make the village of Inverkip a very busy place indeed. Of course, it remains to be seen.

Collecting rubbish ... could be here a while

Collecting rubbish ... could be here a while

Departing Inverkip, we made landfall on a quiet stretch of coast just ahead of Lunderston Bay where we had lunch. Being sensitive to such matters, we began to notice various bits of plastic on the beach. Alan then dug out rubbish bags and started his own one-man beach clean-up. After a short time, which involved delving into the undergrowth (mistake), it became clear that this could evolve into a task of mammoth proportions, requiring a small team of assistants and a bin lorry. Not having those on hand, he did what he could with some input from me. Every little helps.

Returning to Dunoon

Returning to Dunoon

We stopped briefly at the very busy Lunderston Bay in order to deposit the collected rubbish, before proceeding north to the Cloch Lighthouse which is always a photogenic stopping point. The sun had shone brightly all day and a bit of a breeze had got up as we paddled back across the Clyde to Dunoon. This made the conditions pleasantly interesting and we felt invigorated by the time we reached Dunoon for a tea-stop at the Yachtsman’s Cafe.  What better way to celebrate our anniversary!

Ailsa Craig must wait

After our recent sojourn on the South Ayrshire coast, the fire of ambition had been lit for a crossing to Ailsa Craig. And so it was planned that we should make an attempt during a continuing spell of settled weather. The day did not get off to a good start for me. Alan was away conducting a training course, and I had to undertake the arduous task of organising myself without a support crew (solo paddlers will have no sympathy, I know). I opened the curtains at 6 am that Sunday to find a small roe deer staring back at me having, I soon learned, consumed half of our garden already. OK, I exaggerate, but he had made significant inroads. Suffice to say, this summer’s roses and strawberries are now cancelled, but thankfully, the veggie plot remains intact. Who knows what apocalyptic scene would have greeted me if I’d got up at 7 am. In the process of chasing the deer, I lost a cat. (I spent the majority of the journey down to Ayrshire absorbed in frantic texting to Alan who co-ordinated communications with our neighbour and … well, to cut a long story short, the cat was behind the TV. Fortunately, I wasn’t driving).   I managed to turn my attention to paddling by the time we reached Lendalfoot.

Setting out for Ailsa Craig

Setting out for Ailsa Craig

A bit lumpy

A bit lumpy

At this point, we noted that it wasn’t quite the balmy, windless day that we’d hoped for. Nonetheless, we gamely set out for the unmissable lump of rock that dominated the scene.  I noted that conditions were not entirely calm and a small doubt crossed my mind – the all-too-familiar thought of, “Well, this is fine … but what if it gets worse?”. This was heightened by my awareness that 2 coaches in our number had taken up the rear and were having a bit of a conference. My spider senses anticipated a possible outcome and, indeed, Lewis called us to a meeting where he explained the realities of the conditions in which we found ourselves. Basically, the sea state suggested that there was more weather activity further south and local knowledge indicated that the wind would increase as the day went on, making the return crossing in particular a potential challenge. Being that the crossing is 2.5 hours long and fairly exposed, and not being in the mood for any epics, those words of wisdom were certainly good enough for me. Everyone else seemed to manage to hide their disappointment very well as we settled on a coastal paddle instead. As Dave said, Ailsa Craig isn’t going anywhere  – unless of course there’s a tectonic plate shift (hey – I’ve seen the putrid trash movie “2012”, you know).

Heading south

Heading south

We paddled northwards to Girvan and had lunch on the beach. Then, as we headed back south, the wind duly did get up and conditions became a bit more challenging, but in a very good way. Albeit that it was a long drive for a coastal paddle, it did provide us with some practice in bigger swell than one usually experiences further north on the Clyde. I always hugely appreciate the chance to broaden my abilities in the company of proficient potential rescuers good friends.

Alan adjusts my Isel

Alan adjusts my Rockpool Isel

A short hop to Bute

Alan was back on the scene last weekend, with the weather still holding, albeit a little breezy. We intended to go across to Bute on the Saturday, and even had the kayaks on the car roof, but the wind and a total lack of oomph on my part made us turn around. By Sunday, my energy levels had improved and, we thought, so had the wind. The crossing to Bute was very tranquil to the point of  – apart from the spectacular scenery – well, a tiny bit boring (did I just say that?). We paddled south along the Bute coast for a bit, then swapped kayaks and returned to Craigmore for a tea-stop. Alan had been coveting admiring my Isel and had requested a test drive. Even although its design is intended for a smaller person, he did manage to squeeze in and get a flavour of the delights of Isel ownership (of which I have raved extensively). Upon enjoying a cuppa in the tearoom, Alan, who was facing the window, noticed that the weather was changing in front of him. The flat calm had been replaced by a vigorous breeze. There was even some surf on the beach! Torn between waiting to see if it would settle, and making a run for it, we decided on the latter, just in case matters got worse. If we were going to do wind, I wanted my Isel back and Alan graciously obliged. We jumped into our kayaks, reversed into the surf and turned to face the elements.

Who ordered wind?

Who ordered wind?

The northwesterly breeze would be fairly described as a quartering wind and provided us with some decent waves to negotiate as we battered our way eastwards. We adopted a PLF (paddle like … fury) strategy, keeping close together and, before we knew it, we were in the shelter of the Toward shore. Being that Alan and I have not spent a lot of time in such conditions all on our own, our reaction was perhaps understandable – yes, high-fives and big grins all round! It felt like a small step forwards in our self-sufficient paddling evolution, and one that we really enjoyed.

And in between trips, we’ve been hopping over to the Royal West club in Greenock for practice evenings, the most recent one involving lots and lots of rescues: self-rescues, assisted rescues and rolls, including Alan’s first ever (and entirely unheralded) re-entry and roll.

So, to summarise, we’ve been busy spending the days paddling, and this is very much a good thing. With the news of the unending Gulf oil catastrophe which will affect us all one way or another (and which, especially as kayakers who love the sea, leads us to a place of deep despair), all we can do is turn our attention to what we have now, to moments filled with beauty and wind and saltwater and birds and porpoises.

“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am ageing and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”
Annie Dillard

Say no to dirty coal at Hunterston

Some background info, courtesy of the RSPB:

“Developers are planning to build a huge coal-fired power station at Hunterston in North Ayrshire. If built, this would have a devastating impact on one of the best areas for wildlife on the Firth of Clyde and destroy a huge part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Inter-tidal habitats like this are vital for wading birds, such as redshank, and curlew. They also act as ‘service stations’ for thousands of ducks, which use them to top up on energy during their long migrations.

Coal power stations like this are the dinosaurs of the energy industry, because they pump massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The developer will have to fit technology to help capture and store these carbon emissions. But these technologies aren’t yet commercially or technically proven at this scale, and crucially, would only be required to deal with a small proportion of Hunterston’s emissions. Millions more tonnes of CO2 would be released – so much for Scotland’s ambitious targets to stop climate chaos.”

And think of all the lovely pollution!

If you object and would like your voice to be heard, click here to fill out and submit the RSPB’s prepared template.