The Slightly Imperfect Paddling Club

Julia, back on the waterWe’ve been a bit out of our paddling routine lately, what with Easter visitors and some poor weather to boot.  We were, however, back at the pool on Friday for the last session of the year, and then out on the sea on Saturday which coincided with the arrival of summer. Warmth and sunshine abounded and seemed like such a luxury after the harsh winter that we endured. I popped along to Loch Eck yesterday to try out some new rolling technique, but I can honestly say that it had more to do with just getting out on a beautiful day than with fretting over blade angles and head positioning. (Note to self: no matter how sunny and warm a day it is, Loch Eck is still a barely defrosted icebox in April. It certainly sped my roll up.)

A significant and unfortunate development occurred since I last posted. In the course of a “warm-up” during a coaching assessment a couple of weeks back, our paddling pal, Julia, ruptured her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). I don’t know about warmed up, but I understand that things certainly got a little heated as she writhed about in extreme pain before heading for the hospital. And so, she now awaits some quite serious surgery (I’ve squirmed my way through the animation). This did not , however, stop her from going for a little paddle from the beach at Ardentinny at the weekend.

Naturally, Alan and I were keen to offer our help and support, making offers to carry her kayak, assist her in and out of it etc etc. This lasted all of half an hour before we basically left her to fend for herself. Well, not quite. To explain, Alan wasn’t having a good day. His recent sternum injury had reawakened and he was becoming increasingly nervous about setting it back again. And so he decided to bail out of the paddle shortly after setting out. Fortunately, the others in our group were of adequate strength and number to ensure that Julia wasn’t left floating about the Clyde helplessly.  On the plus side, I got some towing practice in.

It started out so well ...

It started out so well ...

As a result of recent events, and following on from my post on the subject, I’ve come to appreciate that almost everyone is dealing with their own personal challenges. In our little group on Saturday we had a torn ACL, a sternum injury and 2 gammy knees, one bad ankle and a neurological condition. And that’s just the stuff I know about! The Scottish paddling community is also acutely aware of the absence from the waters of a well known paddler who has  recently undergone radical knee surgery.

All of this serves to make me appreciate that getting out in a kayak is a privilege that is not to be taken lightly. I am less inclined to obsess over matters such as rolling (no, really) and more inclined to just enjoy being on the water.  To those of us with slight imperfections, the “ordinary” moments of kayaking – and indeed life – are without doubt something to be savoured and appreciated.

“”That’s why I always say, what is the mark of a good warrior if he has no scars? What battle did he fight? When you see someone all scarred up and still going on, you can say, “That’s a good warrior.”
The Wind is My Mother, Bear Heart (Muscogee Creek Indian medicine man)

Maiden voyage in Rockpool Isel

Those of you who have been keeping track of my blog (which is more than I’ve been doing …) will be aware that, up until now, I’ve been a bit of a Valley Girl (I know, readers from California are now confused). To explain, I have always loved my Nordkapp LV, which is made by Valley Sea Kayaks. A year on from having the good fortune to take ownership of the Nordkapp, here is what I continue to love about it:

  • It’s super speedy
  • It edges beautifully
  • It’s lively and playful
  • It’s nice and roomy for camping trips (at 326 litres volume)
  • It has quality and heritage
  • It looks beautiful – to my mind the most aesthetically pleasing kayak out there. I know looks are not everything, but a thing of beauty is indeed a joy to behold.
Shameless posing with Rockpool Isel

Shameless posing with Rockpool Isel (Photo courtesy Julia Darby)

Having said all that, during my time up in Skye, I came to appreciate some other kayak qualities in relation to rough water, comfort, rolling and the like, and a seed was planted in my mind that perhaps a kayak that would not so much compete with, as complement, my Nordkapp would be in order. The idea is to gain experience and hone skills in a kayak in which I feel confident and which enhances my skills, and use that foundation to “grow into” my more challenging kayak. That’s the plan at least.

Enter the Rockpool Isel. Again, avid blog followers will recall that I test drove one last month and was extremely impressed. The situation evolved and somehow I found myself hooked up with a beautiful Isel of my very own.

I was, of course, delighted to have the opportunity to embark upon an inaugural trip on the Clyde in the company of Julia (herself an Isel owner) and friends. I had reluctantly turned down the opportunity to go out the previous weekend having discovered that, no matter how many times I hit “Refresh”, the 40 mph gusts showing on the Met Office Website refused to disappear. Apparently, surf was definitely up. The 20 mph gusts forecast for this weekend seemed a positive relief in comparison. Indeed, it was a little windy, but this was all the better for giving me a feel for comfort levels (of both the physical and mental kind) in my Isel.

A swan escort for my Isel

A swan escort for my Isel

My fellow paddlers spent some time kindly complimenting my choice of kayak as we set off (apart from that one comment … the response to which is, it’s glitter, not dirty marks! Oh, and the design is seaweed, not squiggles). Soon we were emerging from the Holy Loch out into less sheltered seas.

As the journey progressed, I was not disappointed in the Isel. Here are some reasons why:

  • The Isel is built for the smaller paddler. It therefore fits someone of “lesser” dimensions snugly and has less windage.
  • I’m finding that, the plain fact is that I do better with harder chined/flatter hulled kayaks in choppier water at this stage in my kayaking “career”. I hope that I will eventually do as well in rounder hulled kayaks, but it’s nice to have a choice.
  • I have had issues with foot pegs. After a few hours of paddling, my feet ache and I have numb toes. This is actually quite a big deal, as it really can detract from the pleasure of an outing. In retrospect, it might have been better if I’d ordered my Nordkapp with a customised bulkhead, but obviously this makes the kayak very specific to the owner (thus reducing potential resale value and preventing others from using it). The nice thing about Rockpool kayaks is the incredibly comfortable footplate that comes as standard. There is no pressure on the ball of the foot, no numbness, no pain. I love it!
  • When it comes to rolling, I find I benefit from “aggressive” thigh grips that translate all of one’s effort into the maneouvre/roll. The Isel has me clamped nicely into my kayak – it almost won’t let me not roll. (I’m sure I’ve just cursed something now).
  • Rockpool Isel seat

    Rockpool Isel seat

    Another comfort issue relates to back pain. I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve had some significant problems with this too and I think it relates to sacral/lumbar support. Whatever it is – whether it’s the positioning of the lower glass seat (versus the Valley kayaks’ standard foam seats), the shape of the seat, knee positioning, or the back rest – the ergonomics in the Isel are just right and it equates to zero back pain (for me so far at least). Again, a very big deal.

  • The quality and build is flawless.
Moody Loch Long

Moody Loch Long

The swell pushed us up Loch Long nicely and attempts were made at having a bit of a surf. I enjoyed scooting along as the waves caught my stern. We stopped for lunch at Ardentinny and then, as is often the case, the return journey was against the wind. The Isel remained comfortably under control (always nice) and I remained remarkably dry despite the oncoming waves. A good workout was had by all.

Our launch site beside the Marina at high tide turned out to be a less than ideal return site at low tide. Scenes entirely appropriate to Halloween ensued as we found ourselves being sucked into the gloopy, stinky mud-swamp that awaited us. There were moments when we thought we’d never see our friends footwear again. Fortunately, we did manage to make it intact all the way back to the cars.

As I reflect on how wonderful it is to have so many quality kayaks to choose from on the market, I find that, with the Isel in particular, I feel a real sense of appreciation that the designers have taken the time to consider the needs of the smaller paddler. In the paddling world of big, burly, beardie blokes, it’s quite touching to think that we svelte types have not been forgotten and that we too can share in the joy of a snugly fitting, comfortable, maneouvreable craft.

A bit of a guilt trip

What some people will do to get out of housework

What some people will do to get out of housework

My principal paddling partner, Alan, is out of commission at the moment, having undergone hand surgery. Any notions we had that he might be swiftly back in action were dispelled upon his emergence from the operating theatre with a dirty great bandage on his right hand (well actually, it was clean) and a fistful of stitches. The bandage means serious business, announcing to the world that paddling excursions, along with working for a living, are presently on hold and that normal service won’t be resumed for a while. It was with a sense of despondency that I collected him from the hospital, a feeling that was not alleviated by the unnecessary (I felt) lecturing of the (male) nurse that Alan was on no account to be allowed to do housework.

And so I wondered what we would do instead of jumping in our kayaks at the weekend. Long hours of emptiness stretched ahead, until I received an invitation from Julia to ditch Alan and go paddling with some new friends. To be fair, the invitation had been extended to both of us, but obviously Alan was not in a position to accept. It was with some remorse that I therefore left him at home while I went kayaking without him for the first time ever. It seemed strange to only take one set of gear and one kayak and I stressed over the many opportunities that existed to forget something. Sometimes a second brain is handy.

Autumn day on Loch Long

Autumn day on Loch Long

But what a day! Departing from Ardentinny with various members of the Greenock club (or the Royal West of Scotland Amateur Boat Club, to give it its rather regal Sunday name), we were all in awe of the beautiful autumn hues that coloured the landscape. The sun was shining and the wind was absent, so a relaxed, scenic paddle was the order of the day.

As we progressed northwards on Loch Long, we continuously caught up with a small flock of nervous oystercatchers who repeatedly flew ahead of us, not having figured out that they could save energy by flying behind us. We then encountered some Heron Trees. These are evergreen trees that seem to sprout exotic Heron flowers at this time of year.

Exotic Heron Tree

Exotic Heron Trees

We took a left at Loch Goil and headed towards Carrick Castle where a lunch stop was enjoyed. It was especially enjoyed by the local goose who volunteered to consume some blueberry muffins that were going spare. We decided to continue on to Lochgoilhead. Upon its approach, 2 mutually attracting things happened. Firstly, a friendly seal popped up and decided to hang out with me for a little while at excellent photographic proximity. Secondly, my camera battery died. Of course, I was then in full anticipation of entire pods of dolphins and possibly the odd whale putting in an appearance thereafter. Not that I would have been disappointed per se. Instead, we found ourselves floating into the backdrop of a most picturesque and inviting venue, The Lodge, where a wedding was about to ensue. You will just have to visit the Website to see how nice it is.

Friendly seal, Loch Goil

Friendly seal, Loch Goil

A piper was up in the hugely impressive treehouse practising some tunes ahead of the big event, so it was all rather atmospheric. We engaged in some banter with the groom-to-be who came down to the shoreside to chat. (Or maybe he was just trying to ensure his wedding pics weren’t going to be spoiled by a motley collection of kayakers in the background!).

After this pleasant interlude, we decided to turn around and head back to Ardentinny. The occupants of a Police launch gave us a cheery wave as they passed us and it was nice to realise that there was no chance of being pulled over for speeding. There was a slight chop to the water on the last leg of the journey when a bit of wind emerged as if from nowhere (certainly not the forecast).

A great day out

A great day out

After a quick tea stop at Julia’s, I wended my way homewards, resolving to display some sensitivity upon returning and not to gush about the excellent day I’d just had. I fear that I may have failed. Fortunately, this has only served to make Alan all the more determined to heal quickly. Already, he’s making cups of tea, a sure sign of improvement.