Disregarding obstacles

Kyles of ButeI think everyone who has taken up paddling would agree, there are obstacles that must be dealt with along the way. Every training class, every trip, every swimming pool session presents something to be surmounted, some of it real, and some of it a creation of the mind of course.

At the moment, a couple of our paddling pals are overcoming the obstacle of having to learn open boating skills as part of the syllabus for SCA qualifications relevant to their pursuit of sea kayaking (I know, I don’t get it either). While they have been exploring the complexities of single-bladed paddling, Alan and I have been left to our own devices.



So, a couple of weekends ago, we kayaked from Colintraive to Tighnabruaich on a relatively calm day.  The first obstacle of that particular trip was the discovery that Tighnabruaich had succumbed to the Dreaded Curse. The sign had said something about “unforeseen circumstances”, but my disgust impinged upon my forbearance to read further. I would say that being a Sunday in the West of Scotland is not so much an unforeseen circumstance as a requirement for toilet closure. Disgust then took on a whole new meaning when, upon rejoining Alan on the beach, we discovered the source of an unpleasant odour that had been putting him off his lunch. Disturbingly, it was emanating from his boot. I’ll stop right here as, if I continue on I will get queasy. Needless to say, the sewage facilities at Tighnabruaich require some attention (perhaps that’s why the toilets were closed?).  Like me, you might now be interested in supporting this organisation. You might also be interested to learn that mukluks can withstand high-powered jetwashing.

Near the GantocksLast weekend, we were out on the Clyde with a couple of other members of the Cowal Kayak Club, one of whom comes from a river kayaking background. He informed us of a recent incident on the river that left him shaken, such that he is considering transferring his allegiance over to touring.  I have had my own little dance with the rough and tumble demons, which has been greatly alleviated by acquiring a Rockpool Isel (not so much my knight in shining armour as the kayak he paddled in on).

Then, of course, there are the obstacles that can be found each Friday night at the pool – mostly relating to the ever-moving goalposts of acquiring or perfecting a bombproof roll.

There are also the obstacles of everyday life as they impact our ability to get out  – whether related to time, family, health, injuries, work or even the weather. It’s all part of what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe”.

Why do we put ourselves through all this? Why do we work so hard to overcome these impediments? And is it so much about overcoming them, as disregarding them, or even working with them? The answer is difficult to put into words.  I recently found the following moving/inspiring/beautiful video circulating on the paddling blogosphere, and I think that perhaps it expresses it best:

BIRTHRIGHT from Sean Mullens on Vimeo.

Each of us has obstacles to transcend, and once we’re out there on the water, in amongst nature, we do just that. We are free and in the moment. We can breathe and be our natural selves.

About a year and a half ago, I lost a chunk of vision. Not to over-dramatise, I thought I might be going blind. The thing that concerned me most at the time took me by surprise. I recall standing on the shore road of Innellan as a storm blew in. I was fixated on the sea and how I might not be able to get back out in it. Day after day, I looked out at the Clyde and measured the changes in my vision against it.

My sight came back, but – like everyone else – I don’t know what lies ahead. I certainly won’t be taking anything for granted and, inspired by others, it will take more than a few obstacles to stop pursuing what is, after all, a birthright.

If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.
Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple Computer

Never too much of a good thing

There is a Zen saying that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” I have come to realise a slightly adapted version of this, which is: “When the kayaker is ready, the paddling opportunities will come.” This has certainly been the way of things lately. When Alan and I started out, we didn’t know any other kayakers.  We then made friends down at Garnock and, now, we find similarly minded folks right on our very doorstep, providing no shortage of opportunity to get out on the water. It’s a truly wonderful thing.

Misty Holy Loch

Last weekend saw several of those folks stranded on the “wrong” side of the water. Those of us on the Cowal side had intended to meet our friends at Kilcreggan, however, a thick, pea-souper of a fog had descended upon Greenock. Not possessing any suicidal tendencies, our friends quite sensibly abandoned any plans to cross the Clyde shipping channel. Sadly, therefore, they missed out on the beautiful sunny window that had opened over the Cowal Peninsula. We gazed over at the fog-enshrouded gloom in disappointment, which was only assuaged by blue skies, sunshine and beautiful scenery as we made our way from the Holy Loch to Dunoon and a hot cuppa at the Yachtsman’s Cafe.

Heading for the Kyles

Paddling in the Kyles

This weekend saw everyone gathered on the “right” side of the water where more blue skies and sunshine, if not exactly balmy temperatures, beckoned us out for a paddle from Toward to the East Kyles of Bute. After a great deal of deliberation, Alan decided that this would be the day of his “official” return to the world of sea kayaking after a nearly 4 months’ absence due to injury (give or take a couple of short practice outings). It was really excellent to have him back. Also a little strange. I confess to having become a bit “precious” about organising my kit, and I did try not to show my irritation upon discovering bits of his kit appearing in “my” Ikea bag. On the other hand, it’s awfully nice to have someone help you tug your mukluks off (paddlers will understand) at the end of a day’s exertions.

Taxi for Alan

Taxi for Alan

The wind was coming from the NNW  at about 20 kph as we headed straight into it on the way up the Kyles. Fortunately, the sun was out sufficient to keep us from freezing, despite the 3°C temperature and, indeed, my hands became quite sweaty in my pogies. I watched Alan with some concern, hoping that he wasn’t at risk of undoing all the hard physio work he’d undertaken in order to heal, but he assured me that he was feeling fine.  It seemed like the wind was picking up a bit as we pulled into shore for a spot of lunch. Most conveniently, our lunch site sported a rope swing, the temptation of which was too great to resist. Several of us let loose with our inner child and were soon flying through the air in a state of reckless abandon.

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Returning was a quite different experience, with the wind now behind us. We soon established that, at the rate we were being pushed along, we were acquiring 2-3 knots of wind and tidal assistance. It took me all my time not to pull out a newspaper and make a cup of tea as we coasted along. As the waters exiting the Kyles met up with their relations exiting Loch Striven, however, things became a little livelier and required a return of all hands on paddles as we negotiated a bit of F4 chop. The optimists within our party had anticipated that it might be possible to not have to skirt around the fish farm at the southern end of Loch Striven, however, such hopes were obliterated upon meeting up with the rather chunky cables and pipes inconsiderately placed between the shore and the fish cages.  And so we laboured through the chop all the way around the fish farm. Suddenly Alan was making excellent progress as, momentarily distracted from his injury, he had hit the “turbocharger” button on his kayak (a well-known bonus feature of the Nordkapp). I continued to enjoy and appreciate my Rockpool Isel, which took the turbulence in its stride.

A January roll

A January roll

Soon we were back in the calmer waters of Toward. As we approached our destination slipway, not happy with a successful day’s paddling, Alan decided to test out his roll. I am pleased to report that it was present and correct, thus motivating the rest of us to duly pat him on the back and declare him mad (but in a good way).

And, speaking of resurfacing, the Cowal Kayak Club is now providing yet more opportunities to paddle. The Friday night pool sessions have re-started and future trips are in the works. If I’m not careful, this paddling thing could become a bit of an obsession …

Cowal Kayak Club

Cowal Kayak Club WebsiteAfter a small hiatus, the Cowal Kayak Club is back. And this time it’s personal. See their brand new Website here.

If you’re in the neighbourhood, why not come along to one of the trips or pool sessions.

A new club, and other trials

There are certain clubs that are a pleasure to join and participate in. I can think of the 2 kayaking clubs that I have joined in the past couple of years. It’s been a while since we’ve been over at Garnock in Ayrshire and it’s not for want of wanting. We haven’t forgotten our pals over there and the fun we had with them last year. A happy complication occurred when the local Cowal club started up and met on the same night as Garnock. The choice was drive 20 minutes to the Cowal club, or 1.5 hours to Garnock. As you might guess, Cowal won out and we now hang our heads in shame in front of the Garnock crew (we do intend to return soon).

Some clubs aren’t so fun, and last week I discovered that I had qualified (without even trying!) for entry into a new one, the one called “Multiple Sclerosis”. Ugh. The diagnosis didn’t come as a shock as it’s been suspected since last October, and it is classified as “mild”. But somehow actually having the label pinned on me has been a bit unsettling, to say the least. Half of me is in complete denial – I feel fine overall and still have all my fitness, and the other half is determined to beat it (yes, I will be the one!). There’s another half of me (I know, I know) that is all messed up. I am told that that is natural.

I’ve been grappling around for something to lift me out of that third half’s abyss, to occupy my mind with more pleasant things. The other day, Alan and I decided to take advantage of the sultry temperatures and go to Loch Eck to try to roll our sea kayaks. I figured, now that I’ve mastered rolling the Dunoon pool boats (one of my proudest achievements of recent times), there was a fair chance of success and nothing would cheer me more than rolling my very own Nordy.

OMG it was like trying to roll concrete.

There are several possibilities here:

  • The amnesiac excuse: I’ve completely forgotten everything I ever learned about rolling (it sure felt that way).
  • The blame someone else excuse: the technique is waaay different between a river kayak and a sea kayak, even although several coaches assured me it would not be.
  • The feeble excuse: the cold shock of rolling in the not-so-sultry waters of Loch Eck deprived me of any cognitive ability, other than to gasp and panic.
  • The looking for sympathy excuse: I was a wee bit distracted and not in the best frame of mind.
  • The poor workman blames his tools excuse: the Nordkapp’s thigh braces aren’t the most gripping.
  • The bad karma excuse: my self-pride at learning to roll the pool boats was unwarranted and OTT, so this is what I get.

It was with great despondency that I exited the water realising that I have taken a bit of a step back, in more ways than one. But no-one promised us a rose garden, did they? Life is by its very nature a bit of a trial – it’s how we respond to that trial that determines how much we actually suffer. Happiness is, after all, a choice.

So I’ll try rolling again, maybe with my Capella just for comparison. I’d pay good money for appreciate any tips about transitioning from rolling a river kayak to rolling a sea kayak.

I’ll do a bit of yoga to sort my head out. And I’ll probably go for a paddle somewhere nice too.

Tomorrow is another day.

Failure is an option

After several weeks at the Riverside pool in Dunoon, the newly re-formed Cowal Kayak Club has transferred its Friday night activities to Loch Eck. The sea kayakers are presently outnumbered by the river kayakers, but hopefuly in time, as word gets out, this imbalance may be rectified. Already we have formed the expected “us versus them”/sea versus river cliques. We sea folks remain dubious of any ostentatious displays of kayak acrobatics by the river guys, and they in turn have watched with derision fascination as we practice our wet exits and re-entries. Cruising around in our sea kayaks amongst the river boats is a bit like being a whale surrounded by lots of little fishies.

It has come to my attention that Loch Eck is rather cold, actually Baltic, to use the vernacular. This has made me less than enthusiastic to plunge myself into its freezing depths, despite wearing a drysuit. Bracing practice for me has been a rather muted affair, and I have rarely surpassed a “2” (out of 3) on the edging scale. Rolling is out of the question quite frankly, as I’m not sure my noggin could handle the shock. Alan, on the other hand, has been throwing himself into our various practice drills with gusto and is accelerating past me on the learning curve. I plan to catch up just as soon as the loch warms up – even if that is only for one week in July.

Nonetheless, I did manage to chuck myself out of my kayak for a bit of self-rescue practice. I confess to not having attempted this for quite some time, for similar temperature-related excuses reasons. And it showed. After about 15 attempts to climb on top of my kayak, during which time Alan had been deftly demonstrating correct technique to a rapt audience of river folks, he noticed that I was positioned at the wrong spot. My memory had dimmed since the last time I’d practiced – but it is now seared on my mind that the correct place is precisely where my “Nordkapp” logo is located. Unfortunately, after all those failed attempts I couldn’t succeed in completing the rescue due to having run out of “oomph” and having lost all sensation in my (by now blue) hands.

Following on from that, I sensed the commencement of what I’ve come to know as the “Friday night funk”. No I didn’t immediately head for the night clubs, instead I observed my mind descending down the spiral of negative thought. It goes something like this:

  • I am a failure and will never learn to (insert desired skill here)
  • (Insert name of person) can do it so much better than I can
  • Everyone must think I’m a loser
  • Everyone must be laughing at me
  • If I can’t (insert skill) soon, I will have to give up kayaking for good

Of course, you can see a common theme here. The frequency of references to “I” and “me” gives it away. Yes, that old culprit – the ego. It doesn’t like when it’s been given a bit of a battering and can tend to exact its revenge by undermining any consoling thoughts that one might happen to muster. Conversely, I confess to having allowed my ego to enjoy a little inflating in the recent past. For example, when I learned to roll in the pool, I definitely permitted myself more than one happy dance (much to Alan’s nauseation). But that only serves to create a bigger fall when the next setback occurs.

As we drove home, it occurred to me: I can let this encroaching gloom engulf me, or I can … not. It is like the Cherokee legend about the two wolves. One is angry, envious, greedy, self-piteous, proud and arrogant, the other is joyful, peaceful, loving, hopeful, serene and kind. The question is, which wolf survives? The answer is, the one you feed.

In kayaking, as in yoga, as in life, failure is not a defeat, it is a learning experience. We never stop practising and we never stop learning.

A light paddle

A little excursion on Easter Sunday revealed the gradual emergence of other vessels back on to the water after their winter hibernation. Not all mariners are as fortunate as we sea kayakers are. While others are busy painting and repairing their yachts and gin palaces motor vessels, we are still out there engaging with the high seas (when it’s not too windy … or cold). But now it’s spring we find ourselves sharing the water once again. Correspondingly, VHF radio traffic has increased and we were interested to listen to the idle chitchat vital communications enlivening Channel 16.

Approaching the metropolis of Gourock

Approaching the metropolis of Gourock

We launched at the Holy Loch and headed east across the entrance to Loch Long, keeping a sharp eye out for speeding tankers who might be heading towards the Finnart Ocean Terminal. Upon reaching Kilcreggan, we decided to cross the Clyde and aim for Gourock. The number of times I have entered the locale of Gourock in my lifetime must reach the many thousands, but this was the first time ever in a sea kayak so it was a rather notable event. Nothing beats the feeling of reaching a destination under one’s own steam. We made a quick stop at the Gourock shore front in order to take advantage of its conveniently located facilities. Being Easter Sunday and thus a popular day for visitors who may well require the use of said conveniences, they were of course inconveniently closed. Re-donning my spray deck, BA etc, whilst cursing the toilet gods, I got back into my kayak to paddle northeast towards Gourock Pier where fortunately relief was available. Note to self: do not gulp down half of one’s water supply in anticipation of facilities that (being Scotland) are more than likely going to be locked/relocated/out of order/non-existent.

After re-launching at the delightful trash heap that is the beach beside Gourock Pier, we turned southwest and made our way to Lunderston Bay. Entertainment was provided by a couple of tugs chugging past us who created a decent bit of wake for us to play in. We then recrossed the Clyde back to Dunoon and, dodging the ferries, returned safely to the Holy Loch.

Me and my paddle

Me and my paddle

The observant amongst you may have noticed a new addition to our paddling kit. I am abashed to point it out, but the photos do not lie. We splashed the cash and bought a set of Werner Ikelos paddles for Alan and Werner Cyprus ones for me, both neutral bent shaft. I’m sure I don’t need to justify such purchases to fellow kayakers, but the fact is that it is through trial and error (and expense) that one determines what is best suited to one’s needs. We started out with straight-shaft paddles before appreciating the wonders of crank shafts. We were then quite happy with our Lendal Kinetic Touring paddles, until we lifted a set of Werners and our perception of what a paddle should be like was duly rocked. Indeed, I have been aware that my Touring blades were a bit on the big side for me, requiring more effort than is strictly needed and being better suited to a big, burly bloke.

Upon setting out on Sunday, we found ourselves repeatedly checking that we hadn’t somehow managed to drop our paddles and were instead clutching air. Such lightness! It brings a whole new meaning to the term paddle feather. And yes, the Cyprus blades are the very ticket for someone of my strength and stature. We are delighted.

Cloch Lighthouse

Cloch Lighthouse

And so it seems that paddling can be quite an expensive business, but herewith is an excerpt from my handy Great Big Book of Excuses for purchasing kit:

  • It is a lifetime (and a quality of life) investment (well, once you’ve identified your ideal kit, that is … and until it wears out or breaks …)
  • The dollar/pound is losing/gaining value, ie the exchange rate may or may not be favourable when you next think about buying imported goods
  • You could, of course, prudently save the money in your bank account and have it earn … nothing much at all now actually
  • As my mother used to day, it will all be the same 100 years from now.

Not only that, it’s always good to have back-up kit in case of emergencies, or for, say, roughing about on Loch Eck – which is what we’ll be doing tomorrow night at 5.30 pm under the guise of the Cowal Kayak Club. What better way to spend a Friday evening.

For some interesting info on paddle choice, check out the following:


Finally, finally, after many months of effort, it has all come together. I knew I was getting closer, and even felt a little nervous in a now-or-never sort of way as I travelled along to the pool last night. Picking up where I left off at the last session, and with one last tweak, it happened – my first unassisted and successful sweep roll! The joy is indescribable. No, really. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, in the middle of a global economic meltdown for example, being able to roll a kayak might not be considered to be very important. But for those of us who love kayaking and have worked diligently towards achieving this skill, it is a very big deal indeed. I haven’t stopped grinning. Not even the news that the country is bankrupt could upset me. Oh wait …

I think on my first attempts to learn rolling and on the panic and disorientation experienced back then. My presence in a pool full of proficient paddlers felt like sacrilege, like the embarrassing drunk at a wedding. It was quite some time ago, but yet not that long ago really. All those weeks of capsizing and using a float or Alan’s hands to right myself, working on the building blocks until the movements became imbued in muscle memory, until the disorientation diminished and the brain was able to engage – all have amounted to something at last. Many are the times I thought I might never roll, so it is with some disbelief that I reflect on last night’s success.

Perhaps it is that disbelief that causes me a little trepidation. After one roll, for example, I was gripped with a fear that it might be my first and last, that I’d never be able to repeat the feat. After several rolls, however, I started to believe. Then the drill turned towards more unpredictable capsizes, with no opportunity to set up – and still I could roll. The joy! It felt a lot like learning to ride a bike – hard to explain, but something just clicked.

For anyone who is in the process of learning to roll, and especially anyone who has felt dejected on occasion, I hope that my experience might encourage you. I had no natural ability or raw talent – indeed, as noted, I was markedly averse to the prospect of repeated underwater dunkings when I started out. It took lots of perseverance, patience, an occasional rest, and a reminder that self-doubt is merely an empty and unnecessary distraction. It also took the assistance of many people: all the folks at Garnock Canoe Club who got me off and running and, more recently, the Benmore Outdoor Centre coaches who have been providing training at the Riverside pool in Dunoon. The latter training sessions have been a terrific bonus, being a mere 10 minutes from our house. And what better way to learn than via a pool full of enthusiastic coaches. Our little sub-group’s excellent coach was able to spot the 2 main impediments to my roll. For the record, they were an inadequate torso extension/sweep, plus incorrect blade angle. Correcting those 2 things was like flipping a switch for me.

But the coach who helped me the most, and to whom I am most indebted (sorry for getting all Oscars night here) is Alan. He isn’t a qualified coach of course, but he’s the one who’s stood by me night after night, ready to rescue me after my many, many failed rolls, and to offer a word of encouragement, to guide my paddle, to listen to me dissect my mistakes every Saturday morning ad nauseum. His patience knows no bounds and this is not the first time that he has helped me to achieve a goal that I’d previously thought to be nigh impossible.

Of course, the work is far from done. My next big task is to translate my new skills over to rolling up on both sides (ha!), to new and different boats (sea kayaks even – imagine!), to perfecting all the finer points, to doing kingup apummaatigut … ok, getting carried away, will stop here.