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 …


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.