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.

Tighnabruaich

Tighnabruaich

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

A rare day

On the west coast of Scotland, you will often hear the word “rare” (pron: rerr) being used to describe something that is very special, indeed quite rare. A “rare tear” (pron: rerr terr) would denote a most enjoyable event. Hopefully, that piece of information will help explain my post title, for indeed a “rerr” day was recently had within the otherwise murky depths of a Scottish November.

It seems that the weather had outwitted the Met Office’s predictions. The clouds parted, the sun shone, the wind died, and the temperature dipped. It was to be a clear, crisp winter’s day, with the first snows appearing on the mountain tops. For once, several other of the hardy paddlers in our group (well, 2 of them) had donned their dry suits, so it was official – winter has arrived.

Putting in at Portavadie

Putting in at Portavadie

We put in at Portavadie and proceeded across Loch Fyne to Tarbert in perfect conditions. The sea state was calm as we turned our attention to the beauty around us: the dramatic Arran mountains, the Argyllshire countryside, the artistic cloud formations, the sleek Rockpool Isels …

Tarbert really is picture postcard perfect, and especially if you approach it by kayak. This was the first time I had had the opportunity to view the actual harbour from the water, being that the ferry landing (most people’s usual arrival point) is situated before reaching the harbour. And what an interesting place it is! I got busy with my camera, photographing the combination of jaunty and rusty fishing boats, each one sporting colour and character, with names like “Our Lassie” and “Destiny”.

Picture postcard Tarbert

Picture postcard Tarbert

We landed next to a well-positioned waterside seating area where we consumed lunch. Certain members of our party ventured over to the shops to try to purchase some nourishment to go, but with limited success (cold, plasticky soup and microwaveable bacon rolls did not pass muster, sadly). And, of course, it seems that Tarbert had not escaped the curse of West Coast Scotland – the dreaded inconveniently closed toilet facilities (of which I have previously written). Our final disappointment in an otherwise highly satisfactory visit was the state of the water. It was only upon setting off again that we realised how very slick with oily sludge it was, covering our kayaks with slimy gunge (I did feel sorry for the swans living there). This caused some amount of anxiety to certain recently appointed Isel owners, but nothing that couldn’t be solved by a good cold water rubdown later (and the kayak cleaned up nicely too).

We returned to Portavadie at a leisurely pace, enjoying the social aspects of kayaking by engaging in a good blether. Indeed, kayaking is an activity wherein I have come to greatly appreciate the company of others. Not only is it handy to have folks around from a safety viewpoint, it is also good for one’s mental health. I do recommend it.

Fishing boat at Tarbert

Fishing boat at Tarbert

As I later sat down to review the photo haul of the day, a sinking feeling overcame me as I realised that many of my snaps had succumbed to another curse – the curse of the dreaded water droplets on the lens. I had been aware of these droplets and had attempted to clear them by dunking the camera in the water, by blowing on the lens and by licking the lens (I know, ewww … but desperate measures were required). It seems that those methods served no other purpose than to produce various states of wateriness. Alan helpfully remarked that it looked like I’d run the images through Photoshop’s “Drunk” filter. Oh, ha ha.

Never mind, it just makes the good shots, like the day, rare.

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: