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

The Whale Warriors

As someone who is known to just about fall out of my kayak in excitement upon the briefest of glimpses of marine wildlife, I was naturally inclined towards reading the book, The Whale Warriors by Peter Heller. Billed as, “The battle at the bottom of the world to save the planet’s largest mammals”, it chronicles the experience of the author (a National Geographic journalist) aboard the anti-whaling vessel, the Farley Mowat, during one of its campaigns in Antarctica. The Farley Mowat belongs to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organisation known for its direct approach to stopping the slaughter, in violation of international laws and treaties, of hundreds of endangered whales each year. Led by a co-founder of Greenpeace, Paul Watson, the Sea Shepherds have been labelled everything from eco-pirates to eco-terrorists to (scariest of all) “dangerous vegans” by their whale-slaying, dolphin-butchering and seal-clubbing adversaries. Sea Shepherd counter that they do not violate laws and have not injured anyone.

From the back of the book:

“In the face of unrelenting Force 8 gales and 35-foot seas thick with ice floes, Heller’s shipmates risked their lives for what they believe: that the plight of the whales and the overexploitation of the ocean will soon bring about its total collapse – and that life on earth hangs in the balance.”

Stirring stuff. And indeed, the book makes for a rip-roaring read. The fact is that Sea Shepherd is doing the job that should be done by international governments. While we are busying ourselves worrying about MPs’ duck ponds, the world’s fisheries are facing impending collapse within our lifetime. That’s a sobering thought. Plus Japan is doing all it can to circumvent the protection afforded whales by self-allotting their own “lethal research” quota (of 935 minke whales and 50 fin whales in 2009) with a view to “assistingwhale populations. This exploitation of the infamous “research” loophole is transparent baloney of course, and is merely used as an excuse to slaughter whales – by harpooning, electrocuting and then drowning them – for whale meat. So why aren’t the world’s navies taking action against this atrocity? Because it would upset trade relations. It’s that old culprit, short term economic progress (at all costs).

To quote from the book,

Countries around the world pledged to protect the whales and codified that promise in treaties and laws, and yet the protections meant nothing …. In reality, the whales of the Southern Ocean, of all oceans, were as vulnerable as if there had been no treaties at all.”

“The whales could not advocate for themselves. They had no allies on the entire planet who were willing to intervene at all costs, even their own death – except Watson and Sea Shepherd.”

Quoting again from the book, Dr Roger Payne (a whale researcher) states:

“… a society which does not kill the largest, most complex animals around it for the most mundane purposes is likely to have a more luminous future than one for which all animals are but fuel for its meat grinders.”

“Considering … how much we could learn from them about living, … to kill and eat them is not much different from using the works of Shakespeare to light your fire. The sonnets make good kindling and lots of people have probably used them for such, but such people, I suspect, haven’t left much of a mark on history.”

And as if a riveting book wasn’t enough, there’s also a TV series, made for Animal Planet/Discovery and presently airing in the UK (I believe the US has moved on to Series 2 already). If you don’t get Discovery, you can always buy the DVD. It is compelling viewing.

One last quote:

“In the November 2006 issue of Science, a report by an international team of scientists studying a vast amount of data gathered between 1980 and 2003 declared that if current trends of fishing and pollution continue, every fishery in the world’s oceans will collapse by 2048. No more fish sticks. No more snorkeling along reefs with schools of fish. No more fish cat food. No more fish. The oceans as an ecosystem would completely collapse.”

And no more kayaking with the seals, the sea-birds, the dolphins, the whales et al.

It so happens that a film has recently come out tackling this very issue: “The End of the Line”, the first major feature documentary film revealing the impact of overfishing on our oceans.

I’m having a big problem right now accepting the reality that I am part of the last gasp generation that is watching this happen. It’s taking me all my time not to sign up here.

This Is The Clyde

Kayaking wannabe

Here I am back out on the Clyde, where else, for a putter on a breezy day. We had a bit of a workout as we paddled into the wind and chop, but nothing too severe. Having experienced a bit of chop before, and now that I can roll (kayaks in the Dunoon pool … er, on one side), you might think I could be getting a bit cocky more assured. I have, however, recently been reminded that I am still very much a wannabe in this business. Let me explain …

It so happened to be a certain someone’s birthday last week and what better present to give the keen sea kayaker than a copy of This Is The Sea 4 (and no – I dare not refer to the commonly used acronym for this DVD series for fear of having my blog black-listed, or consigned to the murkier depths of the Internet). Anyway, having watched and enjoyed This Is The Sea 1 and 2, and having heard many favourable reports about the most recent number 4 in the series, I felt it was a safe bet to order in a copy as a present. The fact that I sat and watched it alongside the birthday boy was an incidental bonus, of course. The DVD consists of 2 discs (and is thus excellent value for money). The first contains several short films featuring sea kayakers from around the world. The 2 films on this disc that left the greatest impression on Alan and me were the one featuring a (certifiably insane) sea kayaking duo (along with brave film-maker, Justine Curgenven) on the wild and woolly Ottawa River, as well as the film featuring “commando kayaker”, Dubside. One thing is clear, these are not any old kayakers, especially the latter. I’m not sure about dressing in black and acquiring a self-assembly kayak, but using the bus system to get to one’s launch spot has its appeal in terms of generally maintaining harmony with the low eco-footprint of kayaking. As a small start, I have thought about purchasing a trolley so that we could wheel our kayaks down to the shore where we launch. The only thing that puts me off is the thought of hiking back up the (steep) hill after a day’s exertions, with kayaks in tow.

Disc 2 contains footage of 2 exceptional kayaking expeditions: the first involves a journey around the Queen Charlotte Islands, or Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of Canada. It so happens that I am currently reading a book about that very location, “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed” by John Vaillant, which offers a captivating insight into the history and culture of this area (and its relationship with the logging industry in particular). The second expedition involves film-maker Justine and her partner, Barry Shaw, circumnavigating the South Island of New Zealand. This is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Surf becomes an ever-present theme and I could practically taste the salt water (and the adrenaline) as Justine and Barry took on yet another dreaded surf launching or landing. This really is tremendous filmwork and I think the “up close and personal” nature of the filming truly involves the viewer at a level not seen in many other adventure documentaries.

The end result is both inspiring and humbling. We at once recognise that we need a lot more kayaking experience under our belts before we can aspire to anything like some of the trips reviewed in the DVDs, but we also very much look forward to gaining that experience.

With that in mind, I did take my nose clip with me today – you know, just in case I had the opportunity to break out into a bit of rolling practice on the sea. Once I get over this particular aversion, there’ll be no stopping me.

Kayaking books

Recent weather in western Scotland has been conducive to pulling up a chair in front of the fire and reading a good book. I might argue that any weather is conducive to reading a good book, being that reading ranks up there with food, water and air in terms of necessary sustenance by my reckoning. Certainly, we’ve been a teeny bit averse to going out kayaking when wind speeds are reaching up to 80 mph, or temperatures are in the minuses, both of which have been the case lately. As much as I remain highly impressed with the performance of my drysuit, I feel it’s best to leave immersion trials in the more extreme temperatures to the good folks at Palm and their team of expert testers, of whom I am not one.

So, that brings us to a little interim vicarious pleasure in the form of reading about other people kayaking. As promised, I wanted to share my impressions of a few books I have read in recent times, and I would be happy to hear the thoughts of others who may also have read them. Here are 3 to get us going.

Hebridean Waves: Kayaking Scotland’s West Coast by Ewan Gillespie (unsurprisingly, from the title) chronicles the author’s journeys on the waters of the west coast of Scotland, including circumnavigations of Skye, Mull, Arran and Islay. This is definitely a book to read if you are planning to paddle in those vicinities: at the very least, it helps to encourage the realisation that you must be prepared for any conditions, and that a sustained period of good weather is very much a bonus. A somewhat flexible schedule (and attitude), as demonstrated by the author, is definitely of benefit. And, of course, decent paddling skills are also a must. It’s apparent that Mr Gillespie is no slouch when it comes to kayaking, nor is his companion, the oft-mentioned Andrea. The book efficiently documents the landscapes, the logistics, the difficulties and the pleasures of each trip and I would say it is very much a book for kayakers as opposed to just any old armchair adventurers. I personally would have liked to have learned a little more about the author, and indeed his companions, but maybe that’s just my nosiness natural inquisitiveness. Mr Gillespie revealed very little of himself – his personal life and feelings, and the answers to some pressing questions were left in doubt, such as what he does for a living, and whether or not he and Andrea are just good friends. Some may ask why this should matter, and indeed it need not. It would, however, add a certain element of “personality” (for want of a better word) to the narrative that I think would enhance its appeal. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading about the author’s travels and I shall return to this book particularly when planning a trip that corresponds with any of the areas described therein.

In contrast, On Celtic Tides by American author, Chris Duff, is much less reserved when it comes to the expression of personal sentiment. A quite intimate account of his circumnavigation of Ireland explores the author’s reactions to the landscape, heritage and people of Ireland, against a backdrop of ever-troubling snatches of news from the wider world. Mr Duff has no compunction about expressing his emotions, whether it relates to a particularly arduous section of paddling, the welcome hospitality of locals, a sense of his ancestry in some of the ancient sites, or bad news from abroad. It may be an especially American trait to appreciate and ponder one’s lineage, to feel “at home” when visiting a place of origin, but I was left with an improved awareness of how special it is to be able to visit such places, as yet unspoiled, and to take in the same landscapes that one’s forebears viewed. And of course, there’s plenty of kayaking involved. Having read the author’s account, let’s just say that I am in no particular rush to paddle in the vicinity of the Giant’s Causeway. Other than that, this is one book that would certainly motivate the weekend kayaker into considering something a little more expeditionary, something to fill up those empty hatch spaces for a month or two (or three).

The book that started it all for me, however, was Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey Through the North West Passage by Victoria Jason – a book I shall return to again and again. The author is a quite ordinary Canadian woman who sets out in her 40s with a copy of “Canoeing and Kayaking” magazine’s article on “A Primer on Paddling Strokes” on her lap as she teaches herself to paddle on a lake in Ontario. Motivated by a love of the North, she undertakes the epic journey of completing the Northwest Passage by kayak across a span of 4 summers. This is no small feat, especially as she encounters considerable adversity in the form of a “difficult” (to say the least) trip leader for the first 2 years (who would doubt the direction of the sun before he would doubt his own judgement), as well as illness and, of course, weather. It is evident from the author’s writings that she is very much a people person, revelling in the company of fellow travellers and the Inuit people who inhabit the Northern Territories, whom she holds dear. But she is also someone who appreciates the solitude of kayaking alone, of absorbing the nature, the beauty and the harshness of the icy Arctic landscapes. It is all the more poignant to contemplate that she died not that long after the completion of her journey, however, the prevailing sense is one of a life lived to the full. Perhaps, as another ordinary woman setting out in the world of kayaking, I feel a special kinship with this lady. She is someone who, in her own gracious way, remained undeterred by circumstance, by conditions, by egos, or even by grizzlies – and she will continue to be a source of inspiration to me for a long time to come.

A short pause

So what do paddlers do when they’re not out paddling? They read about paddling, of course. I will shortly include some brief reviews of books that I have read over the past several months. It is always interesting to understand others’ perspectives on kayaking – and on life – which are revealed to varying degrees dependent upon the author. Some writers prefer to focus purely on the task/journey at hand, while others reveal a little more about themselves – their fears, their inspirations, their frailties. I think that perhaps most of us are more inclined towards the latter type of memoir, and I know that I’m not averse to a bit of soul-baring. We are, after all, just human. This has been brought home to me especially of late after receiving a piece of news that has given my aspirations for the New Year and beyond some new impetus. It seems that my recent eye problems are a warning sign of something a little more serious. I am now embarked upon a new journey in life, one that offers challenges, but also a great deal of hope. It has given me pause for thought, but it will be a short pause as I fully intend to get on with the business of living (and kayaking) forthwith. As a good friend told me, “Carpe diem – and make sure to carpe every diem you can get hold of”. Too true.

Palm Kaikoura Tour Buoyancy Aid

Palm Kaikoura Tour Buoyancy Aid

Aside from these distractions, festive-time family commitments and associated travels have prevented us from taking advantage of the period of benign (albeit cold) weather conditions that has prevailed in recent days on the west of Scotland. But there’s still some holiday time left and, as soon as I can adapt to the prospect of my hands freezing to the paddle shaft, I will be right out there. Christmas pressies included one piece of significant gear – a Palm Kaikoura buoyancy aid for Alan. The constant whingeing occasional comment about the lack of pockets in his previous BA served as a useful hint to me as to what to get Alan for Christmas. There has been significant discussion on the UK Rivers Guidebook sea kayaking forum about the addition of plastic zips to the Kaikoura, thus removing the potential for corrosion of their metal predecessors. As a result of the forum, I was fortunate enough to source the latest model and Alan is now the proud possessor of a multi-pocketed, corrosion free, state-of-the-art BA in which to stuff many trips’ worth of used sweetie papers and peanut packets. Comments about its qualities upon immersion will follow (in the summer).

A happy, paddling-filled New Year to everyone!

“Only as a warrior can one withstand the path of knowledge. A warrior cannot complain or regret anything. His life is an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges”. The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda

Winter Kayaking

As we awoke to a temperature of -2°C, crystal blue skies and the glistening waters of the Clyde within view, it was hard to resist the call of our kayaks. Having said that, it was also hard to resist remaining tucked up under the duvet. There’s something about a combination of freezing temperatures and the close proximity of water that causes an instinctive physical recoil. Yet, we are fortunate enough to have the cold-weather kit that’s required to enable us to get out on the water despite the chilly conditions, so – as often is the case – it really was all (or mostly) in the mind.

Insufficient daylight hours ruled out a very long paddling trip, so we kept things local. Of course, these local journeys happily coincide with being a more environmentally conducive approach than travelling by car for many miles to gain access to the sea. With the smörgåsbord of idyllic paddling locales that is presented by Scotland, however, it is hard to strictly adhere to this principal.

We were drawn northwards by incredibly beautiful scenery, consisting of snow-dusted hilltops on all sides. A fantastic day for photography, we thought! Alan struggled a little with moisture on the camera lens and – as I discovered upon applying it to my sunglasses – a spongey, fake chamois serves only one purpose and that is to fog and smear the lens further. Alas, we had forgotten to take a proper lens cloth with us. This was cruelly confirmed upon our return to discover that barely a handful of photographs (seen here) were worth salvaging out of the many besmeared and blurrily vague renderings revealed on the laptop. No amount of hours spent with Photoshop will save the majority. There lies lesson number one of winter kayaking photography.

As much as we were toasty in our triple-layered fleeces and encompassing drysuit (plus BA and kayak, of course), our hands – being exposed to water drips – became quite cold despite wearing neoprene gloves. This was especially felt upon reaching the Holy Loch where a northerly breeze was blowing, albeit gently. We decided to have a snack at that point and, being that I didn’t necessarily want to feed the eider ducks with my salted peanuts, I decided to take my gloves off momentarily. I instantly regretted this as the cold then felt by my hands brought tears to my eyes and I clumsily fumbled my gloves back on accompanied by a great deal of whining stoic fortitude.

As we paddled on the Holy Loch, I found myself contemplating what it was like there when the loch was host to a US Naval base and the odd nuclear submarine that that entailed. The very notion felt quite incongruous – that such a beautiful area could be so militarised, but one need only paddle up the Gareloch to see a modern-day example of the same. I have recently read On Celtic Tides by Chris Duff and, proving the concept of “six degrees of separation” (or even fewer), I was interested to note that the author was formerly stationed at the Holy Loch as a US Navy diver. Indeed, that very posting played a part in inspiring him to undertake his circumnavigation of Ireland at a later date, the subject of the book.

As we headed over to the east side of the loch, we were assailed by shouts of our names and soon spotted our neighbour bounding down to the shoreline to greet us, once again proving that it’s a small world (well, it definitely is in Cowal). It was tempting to request a lift home in his van (where there would surely be plenty of room for 2 kayaks), but we refrained. Instead, we headed back out of the loch and turned south into the blinding sunshine. Applying our recently improved navigational skills, Alan informed me of what heading he was on, however, this was a bit superfluous considering I couldn’t even see my compass. A quick game of chicken with Western Ferries and we were soon past Hunter’s Quay and approaching Dunoon – at least I think it was Dunoon, having only the smell of kebabs to go by.

With immaculate timing, we stepped out of our kayaks just as the sun disappeared behind the hills, resulting in an instant plummet in the temperature from almost bearable, to get-me-home-to-a-hot-shower-right-now levels. Taking the metal j-bars off of our car roofrack upon our return was like fondling the contents of the freezer, and practically tore the skin off of our fingers. A speedy cold-water hose-down (of our kit, not us) was followed by a wonderfully hot shower and a cosy night by the fire that not even the disappointment of some botched photographs could spoil.

Kayak Yoga

That may seem a strange juxtaposition of words, but kayaking and yoga do indeed go very well together. Who has not draped themselves extravagantly over the stern of their kayak after a hard day’s paddling in order to enjoy the wonderful back muscle stretch that this affords? It has become the case that activities such as climbing now go hand-in-hand with yoga, with many climbing gyms offering yoga classes, and many leading climbers becoming proficient in both activities. This is extending to other sports and physical pursuits as the benefits of yoga are increasingly recognised. One need only refer to the definitive Sea Kayak: A Manual for Intermediate and Advanced Sea Kayakers by Gordon Brown (no, the other one) to find (on pages 33 to 40) a section on “Preparing Mind and Body”, which includes some useful yoga stretches and advice.

The reference to preparing the mind is, of course, highly pertinent. The ancient discipline of yoga is not simply about stretching. I confess that, at one time, that was all that I thought it comprised. I admit to watching attendees arrive for the lunchtime yoga class at my gym and to harbouring delusions of superiority. While they were om-ing away their lunchbreak, I was out there doing “proper” exercise and kicking butt on the running track/elliptical/stepper. I’ve learned a few things since then. First, while those yoga students were building strength and flexibility, I was building up to injury. Second, with the exception of my own ego, no-one actually cared whose butt I kicked in the gym or elsewhere.

It took me a while to come to those realisations and 2 situations were instrumental in leading me to yoga. One scenario was, indeed, that of physical injury. I discovered that, for all the running, biking, hiking etc I’d done, I had a weak lower back which led to a great deal of pain and discomfort on my acquisition of a garden. Gardening is the ultimate back workout, of course, and mine simply wasn’t up for it. Years of sitting at a desk, combined with ever-tightening hamstrings (from all the running, biking etc), and a total lack of conditioning of my back meant that bending down and standing became unbearable. This, in combination with hip flexor tendinitis, made running a non-starter. Being that going to see your GP with a sore back is the equivalent of going to see him/her with a cold, I realised that it was time to learn how to help myself. Around this timeframe, Alan and I were also dealing with some pretty trying life circumstances involving family illness, career changes, house/country moves etc, and a general sense of being overwhelmed. Similarly, I realised that I could either sink with it all, or learn to swim. During my research into the physical benefits of yoga, I uncovered a mine of information on the benefits that relate to the mind. In fact, it can be said that yoga is more about the mind than it is about the body, being essentially “moving meditation”.

So how exactly can this assist with kayaking? Obviously, there are the physical benefits of the holistic approach that yoga offers. It’s easy to focus on one or 2 areas of the body, whilst neglecting or overworking other areas that in turn could lead to injury elsewhere. By addressing the whole body, yoga ensures that all the interconnected muscles and tendons (right, left, front, back, top and bottom) are kept flexible and strong and therefore stand you in good stead for continuing years of “fitness” in the truest sense of the word. In addition, by linking movement with breath, we learn to calm our minds and I have certainly directly experienced the benefit of this, particularly when submerged in a failing roll. Yoga encourages you to check your ego at the door, to ignore the “monkey mind” that is busy telling you that you’re making an eejit of yourself, that everyone’s watching, that you’ll never learn to roll/brace/surf/do the lotus etc, and to simply breathe and be. Sometimes it’s difficult for your ego to accept that it doesn’t have to be the centre of attention, but eventually it will take a back seat and let you get on with the business of living more fully in the present moment.

There are many different styles of yoga, from beginners to advanced, from gentle to dynamic. I have the very good fortune of having an excellent yoga teacher in Cowal whose ashtanga classes I attend each week. I am attracted to the more dynamic forms of yoga, probaby because of my background in outdoor pursuits, but that doesn’t mean there is no appeal in the “gentler” styles. Some would argue that the less physically demanding forms are better for taming the mind and that, especially in today’s society, savasana (or corpse pose) is the most difficult pose of all.

It seems that I cannot locate the photo of me doing a headstand in my kayak that should accompany this entry. That’s probably because it’s never been taken (and likely never will). The important thing is that we are all exactly where we’re meant to be – in kayaking, in yoga, in life, and I’m grateful to yoga for allowing me to accept this.

“We are training in choicelessness and kindness. Giving up all hope of fruition, we recommit each day to doing the best we can”. Ani Pema Chödrön

Capella dilemma

Now that we are upgrading to fibre-glass kayaks (2 weeks from today for me!), we have been deliberating over what to do with our Capella RMs. This is no easy decision. I am well aware of the potential for them to work their way down to assuming a place in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or at last its Atlantic equivalent (which must surely be in the process of forming). So – is it better to keep them and have them take up space in our garage, to be taken out on the odd occasion when we have kayaking visitors, or when we decide to do a spot of rockhopping? Or is it better to sell them on so that someone else can benefit and get started in the world of sea kayaking, just like we did (oh, and we get a little return from the sale)? Both options will probably eventually lead to the garbage patch regardless, but hopefully not for some time. And maybe by then, nature will have evolved a way to break down polymers.

Farewell old friend

Farewell old friend

I think we’ve decided that one Capella must definitely go, so we’ve been jumping in and out of each other’s kayaks in order to determine which one. Alan can fit (albeit snugly) into my RM 160. I can fit into his RM 166 – but so could another me. In Gordon Brown’s excellent book, Sea Kayak, there is a photo of an example of an ill-fitting kayak. In the RM 166, I am that photo. The cockpit rim encircles my rib cage and there’s enough freeboard to ensure that my spraydeck need never get wet. Not exactly a perfect fit then. It therefore looks like we will divest ourselves of the 166.

And so we will keep my trusty RM 160 for now. It will serve as a “back-up” should either of our Nordkapps ever need repaired (heaven forfend!), or should we have a visitor who would like to go paddling with us.

It will be a sad farewell actually, as it has served Alan well. From our first “tippy” outing on Loch Eck to the high seas of Lewis and Islay, the Capellas have never let us down (although we have no doubt let them down on occasion). I hope the 160 doesn’t pine after its old stablemate … but at least it will have 2 new thoroughbreds to keep it company.

Plastic crap – now the most common surface feature of the world’s oceans

I’m trying to save the trees
I saw it on TV
They cut the forest down
To build a piece of crap

I went back to the store
They gave me four more
The guy told me at the door
It’s a piece of crap

Piece of Crap, Neil Young, Sleeps with Angels

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conversation during our Arctic trip often turned to the environment. During one such interesting discussion, our skipper, Mark, voiced his concern that the attention focused on global warming was overshadowing the equally grave issue of global pollution. Those whose lives are closely aligned with the sea perhaps have a greater awareness of the extent to which humanity has fouled its abode.

I am reading the thought-provoking book, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. In the chapter entitled “Polymers are Forever”, referring to a study of beach samples by the University of Plymouth, it states,

“About one third turn out to be natural fibers such as seaweed, another third are plastic, and another third are unknown – meaning that they haven’t found a match in their polymer database, or that the particle has been in the water so long its color has degraded, or that it’s too small for their machine which analyzes fragments only to 20 microns – slightly thinner than a human hair.”

“This means we’re underestimating the amount of plastic that we’re finding. The true answer is we just don’t know how much is out there.”

“When they get as small as powder, even zooplankton will swallow them.””

It is with incredulity that we then learn that many cosmetic/toiletry products contain “exfoliants” which are actually plastic beads.

“”They’re selling plastic meant to go right down the drain, into the sewers, into the rivers, right into the ocean. Bite-sized pieces of plastic to be swallowed by little sea creatures.””


Waving, not drowning

As the weather turned positively summer-like last week, Alan and I took the opportunity to bunk off work and go practice not-drowning (aka self/assisted rescues) in Loch Eck one afternoon. The conditions, of course, didn’t exactly match those that one might predict would necessitate a real-life rescue situation, but we have to start somewhere. We commenced with self rescues and my most immediate issue was, as before, a complete inability to lift and twist the capsized kayak to get at least some of the water out. So I end up working with a kayak that’s full of water and incredibly tippy. I managed to re-enter by hauling myself in from the stern, but it was like walking a tightrope in my attempt not to tip over. All the while, the usual thoughts reverberate around my head: this would be such a non-starter in rough conditions and I am therefore doomed. Not very encouraging. The same thoughts accompanied my efforts to use a paddle float which were ultimately successful, but am I really going to be faffing about inflating a float, attaching the paddle to deck lines, having it fall out, re-attaching, still trying not to tip etc etc in an emergency situation? My gut feel all along has been that I simply need to learn a quick way to get the water out (or as much as possible) and get in, period. If I can’t learn this, then the future of my sea kayaking activities is in doubt. (more…)