A freezing paddle around Great Cumbrae

cumbrae kayak preparation It seems I have a bit of catching up to do, so let’s begin with the small Ice Age recently endured by the UK, when “Arctic deep freeze” conditions were making daily headlines. That now famous satellite photo of a white and frozen Blighty was actually more than a little disturbing. It looked awfully like Greenland. I suppose this might explain why it seemed to have no negative impact upon the aspirations of my paddling pals, and may actually have served to encourage them. Indeed, I did try to keep in mind that using temperature (of -3°C that day) as an excuse for not going kayaking would not fly in Inuit circles. Not that I’m an Inuit, as I later confirmed.

And so, the put-in point was set for Largs with a view to a circumnavigation of at least one of the Cumbrae Islands. There was certainly a nip in the air as we exited the coffee shop at the Largs Marina and organised our gear on the shore. Enveloped in a drysuit, 3 interior layers, 2 pairs of socks, mukluks, pogies, a neck gaiter and fleece-lined cap, I felt sure I had (literally) covered all bases when it came to maximising my chances of staying warm.

Hungry robin

Hungry robin

A robin was quite gallusly hopping about our launch area and we concluded that, along with all the other birds and wildlife, he must have been hungry, being that a large portion of his regular food supply was presently frozen. I selflessly scattered a corner of my energy bar in his direction.

There wasn’t much in the way of wind as we headed over to Great Cumbrae. Heading southwards, we passed Millport and then the mountains of Arran came into view which, although a little clouded over, were nonetheless snowy and beautiful. Agreeing that we would not encompass Little Cumbrae in our journey this time around, we turned right at the Tan, at which point a friendly seal showed some moderate interest in Barrie’s and my whistling efforts.

Arran mountains

Arran mountains

I was feeling fairly happy in the awareness that, indeed, I was not experiencing much in the way of cold when we pulled in at Bell Bay on the west side of Great Cumbrae to enjoy lunch. I use the term “enjoy” loosely. To my surprise, another robin appeared to investigate our foodstuffs … or perhaps that energy bar had really worked wonders?! After imbibing various concoctions from our respective (thermos) flasks, it became apparent that there would be no further hanging about as a chill was descending rapidly. Sadly, footering about with flasks and snacks involves the removal of one’s pogies. I had brought neoprene gloves with me, but couldn’t even get them on as my hands were damp and numb with cold. I would have given my right arm for a pair of mittens! (Or, I suppose then I’d only need one mitten …). Not only that, I could feel the cold starting to seep through my various layers. So, with visions of hypothermia setting in, I began to PLF (Paddle Like – er, Fury) in order to generate some heat. I know that my companions wondered what it was that they’d said, or why I’d suddenly developed an inappropriately competitive streak, as I paddled off ahead of them without the merest thought towards group cohesion. This was a matter of survival! Alas, they could not see the tears of pain that I was shedding over my frostbitten fingers. Fortunately, my efforts worked and feeling and warmth gradually returned to my person.

Bell Bay, Cumbrae

Bell Bay, Cumbrae

We re-grouped before paddling eastwards back to Largs. It was a long slog back against the wind and there were moments when I could have sworn we were getting no closer to our destination. Upon arrival, the cold torture was not over, of course, as we then set about unpacking our kit, loading cars up etc. Once again, I cursed the absence of mittens, however, ever-thoughtful Julia produced a gel hand warmer for me to clutch in order to aid my hopeless efforts at knot-tying and general fumbling. This is the best invention ever! You can guess which section of the outdoor store I made a beeline for at the first opportunity.

It’s no surprise that during our excursions in the colder months, we are frequently interrogated by passersby, with comments ranging from the observant “Is it not cold out there?”, to the more judgemental “You must be insane” variety. I fear that our attempts to reassure everyone that we have a firm grasp of our sanity are not very effective – but they just don’t know what they’re missing!

Astronomical view of our tripUpon returning to the shores of Cowal, we discovered that (still injured, but now healing) Alan had been busy in our absence. Left to his own devices, the thought had occurred to him that the inventive use of one astronomical telescope and a camera might produce results. Indeed, he managed to locate us at the northern end of Great Cumbrae from a distance of 7 miles! This is quite a technological breakthrough, I feel and just goes to prove that, even when you think you’re not being watched, quite possibly you are!

Big Brother is watching you.
1984, George Orwell

Bunking off to Cumbrae and Gigha (Part 1)

A momentous event occurred this week: it stopped raining and blowing a gale for the first time in living memory, or at least in several weeks. A high pressure system finally managed to muster up enough oomph to nudge the all-too-prevailing low pressure out of the way for a bit. This left us with no choice, but we simply had to bunk off work take an official, well-deserved 2-day holiday. It did feel a wee bit like skidging school as we sneaked out the house, surreptitiously securing our kayaks to the car roof and wending our way seawards. We’d originally thought about camping out overnight, but a lack of forward planning/organisational skills narrowed our options and we decided to explore two quite different locales each day instead.

Arran mountains from Cumbrae

Arran mountains from Cumbrae

On Monday, we paddled around Great Cumbrae. Somewhat amazingly, especially considering that we are members of an Ayrshire kayaking club, we had never done this before and therefore felt that it was high time. Yet again, we found ourselves in flat calm conditions. If Nordkapps have feelings, I’m sure that ours would be experiencing anxiety, or even depression over having such soft marks as owners and being deprived of the conditions upon which they thrive. It’s not that we’re avoiding a more challenging environment, it’s more that we’re saving it for company (preferably of 5 star ilk with good rescue skills). Certainly though, a little more chop wouldn’t go amiss, however, the winds have tended to veer from gale force to non-existent of late, with not much in between. And so it was as we paddled our way around Cumbrae to Millport, a place I haven’t been since Sunday school picnics of yore.

We continued south and experienced some highly momentary excitement as the wake of a motor vessel caught up with us. But we soon returned to boring old idyllic, almost tropical, conditions as we made our way around to the western side of the island. This is where matters took a bit of a disappointing turn as we encountered endless amounts of rubbish in the water on the approach to Fintray Bay. It looked like someone had emptied a huge bin full of sweetie papers and crisp packets directly into the river. I have read recently that an excess of jellyfish signifies a degraded ecosystem, and – albeit coincidentally – there were certainly plenty of Lion’s Mane jellyfish in the vicinity of the rubbish tip that we paddled through. This all fed a building sense of despair which was compounded by the discovery of a dead guillemot floating in the water (a seabird whose future is in jeopardy – see recent news item). Like an icebreaker travelling through the Arctic, we managed to cut a path through the jellyfish up to Bell Bay where we stopped to enjoy the view and have a bite to eat.

Isn't she lovely? Nordkapps at Bell Bay, Cumbrae

Isn't she lovely? Nordkapps at Bell Bay, Cumbrae

I do find myself continually pausing to admire and photograph my Nordkapp LV whenever we land on a beach. It reminds me of an occasion in the past when, upon visiting the Grand Canyon, we were amused to see an enormous articulated RV (recreational vehicle) pull up to a scenic viewpoint. The driver jumped out of the cab and, while everyone else was turned to face the amazing scenery presented by the Canyon, he turned in the opposite direction to gaze with awe at his big rig and then take some photos of it. It is just a tiny bit troubling to note that I can now relate, however slightly.

Heading back to Largs

Heading back to Largs

We completed our trip by paddling around the north end of the island, affording us good views of the large pipe-laying vessel, the Solitaire, which has been anchored off of Cumbrae for some days now. Soon we were back over at Largs which was still happily bathed in sunshine.

And today Cumbrae is in the news. Continuing on a cheery environmental note, the scientists at the University Marine Biological Research Station located there are issuing warnings concerning the threat of invasive Japanese wireweed which has spread rapidly up the west coast of Scotland. Users of the sea are being asked to report any findings. I’m not entirely sure to whom, but I imagine that Scottish Natural Heritage would be a good start. Whilst I do take serious issue with certain environmental matters relating to Japan, I’m not convinced that the combined threat of Japanese wireweed and Japanese knotweed is part of a plot to entwine the world in weed. I do, however, wish they would confine their exports to the more traditional cameras and tellies … or at least send us an antidote.

With continuing good weather, albeit in more autumnal temperatures, we set off early on Tuesday for Tayinloan and a visit to the island of Gigha. More to follow …