Sea Kayak Navigation

It’s well seen that decreasing winter temperatures need not preclude a bit of kayaking activity, both on and off the water. Unlike the many yachties who take their boats out of the water for the “off” season, we fortunate kayakers can still jump out there when it’s not howling a gale – so at least a couple of times during the winter then. When we’re not doing that, we are busy studying up on the many skills that a proficient paddler must possess for their own and their group’s safety. And that’s what Alan and I found ourselves doing just last weekend as we attended a Sea Kayak Navigation course organised by Garnock Canoe Club.

Our instructors were the legendary Cailean from the Far North, and the equally legendary Richard, who kept things interesting and fun for their avid students. Like several others, Alan and I had done a little advanced preparation by reading the latest edition of Sea Kayak Navigation: A Practical Manual, Essential Knowledge for Finding Your Way at Sea, which is an excellent place to start. My prep was a little last-minute and I admit to having a minor tantrum on Friday night at 11 pm as I tried to come to grips with the later chapters involving multiple calculations of distances, times, bearings, allowances for tide and wind, ferry angles and so forth. Nonetheless, it was good to have at least some pertinent information fresh in my mind before class, as trying to recall my school geography learnings of many, many some years ago was a bit more of a stretch.

Saturday was spent in the classroom, as we pored over maps, charts, tidal atlases and pilot guides. Many useful tidbits were gleaned, particularly in relation to weather, tidal flows, distances, timings etc. We were split into pairs and instructed to plan a trip to a specific location. It was during this exercise that Alan and I discovered that the best laid plans often have to be re-visited, for example, upon the discovery of unforeseen increased tidal activity at precisely the time we’d planned on reaching its locale.

Later, we retired to Richard’s house for an excellent dinner, including dishes specially prepared for the strange dietary habits of certain of us, which were much appreciated. This left us well fortified and stood us in good stead to watch the X Factor weather forecast for the following day which revealed all the makings of a substantial “weather event” involving snow and icy winds. I think it’s safe to say that several of us were quite upset at the prospect of not being able to go out kayaking in frigid temperatures on Sunday, should the forecast hold true. It was therefore with some uncertainty that we took leave of one another that evening.

Imagine my relief when I woke up the following morning to Alan informing me that there was no snow and that the icy winds were just below gale force. Thank goodness we wouldn’t be prevented from travelling back over to Ayrshire to spend time out on the water whilst barely managing to fend off hypothermia. Three layers of fleece and a dry suit were the order of the day as we launched our kayaks into Castle Semple Loch in the middle of a heavy downpour. After a vigorous paddle to warm up, we quickly set about putting our learnings of the previous day into practice. It’s a little difficult to simulate being lost in a foggy sea when on a loch, but we did manage to create a semblance of sufficient locational uncertainty as to warrant breaking out the maps and compasses, if not the GPS (which was verboten by the way). Again, many useful tips were absorbed, such as: a quick way to take a bearing from a landmark to yourself (something that easily threw me for some reason), the difference that wind and a couple of degrees of variation can make, and how impractical it is to maintain on your foredeck all the instruments, maps etc required for attaining navigational accuracy in the midst of storm-like conditions, among various other things.

After a couple of hours of familiarisation, we rewarded ourselves with a hasty retreat to the tea room at the lochside where a hot cuppa was downed with gusto.

Allegedly, the course we completed is relevant to the BCU 4 Star Leadership qualification. Despite the fact that at this point in my paddling career I relate more to the Bart Simpsons of the kayaking world (under-achiever and proud of it), I have applied for the certificate that proves I have completed the course. I can’t quite think when I would need to produce it, but if nothing else it will serve as a souvenir of a weekend very well spent.