Camera Review of Canon Digital Powershot D10 (waterproof 10m)

Review posted by guest blogger:alanf

Canon D10 Powershot Waterproof Camera

The Canon Powershot D10 waterproof digital camera has been around since mid 2009, and is the first Canon aimed at the watersports market. It is a 12 megapixel digital compact camera.

On first inspection, the camera is very stylish, with barely a hard edge anywhere. Most surfaces are smooth and round. The detachable front cover is a snazzy teal colour and, as an optional extra, can be interchanged with extra coloured panels. The teal one is quite nice though. The construction feels good with a lot of impressive looking hex screws clamping the body shut. The lens for this camera is a 6-18.6 mm f2.8-4.9 zoom lens, which actually protrudes out from the front of the camera by about 25 mm (a new first for waterproof compacts?). The zoom lens can actually be seen to move in and out when zooming, inside the waterproof lens housing. In this sense, the camera is a lot more like conventional compact cameras rather than the thin and flatter waterproof ones available to date. This may give better optics, but will also take up extra buoyancy aid pocket room, although it fits with room to spare into a Palm Kaikoura BA pocket. In use out on the water, however, I did find that the lens catches a bit on the pocket zip, although it is tolerable (just not as smooth as my older, thin Pentax Optio W20).

There is no viewfinder on the camera, and the 2.5” large bright LCD screen produces a very clear, crisp and visible display.

There are two waterproof access seals – one on the bottom of the camera for memory card and battery access and one on the side for DC adapter/USB cable access. This is one more access panel than the old Optio W20 which dispenses with DC input and USB access. The optimists would say that it is nice to have a USB access point, but the pessimists would say that there is double the chance of seal failure and water leak into the camera! (I do however need the USB cable since my laptop can’t read High Capacity SD memory cards directly). The seals themselves are a side o-ring for the bottom panel, and a face o-ring for the side panel. Both are secured in place by a grey plastic catch. Only time will tell how robust these are, but I remember having similar reservations with the Optio W20 a couple of years ago, and have had no issues with it.

The rather strange feature on this camera is perhaps the strap attachment and tether mechanism, which gives the user the choice of the 4 corners of the camera to attach the cord to. There are really only two positions that are practical, so it’s a bit gimmicky rather than being an important feature. The cord attaches to a metal bayonet type fixture which can plug into any of the 4 corner fixtures. The corner fixtures themselves are metal, and give a sense of robustness, however they are locked in place only by the actions of a small plastic pincer mechanism which, when squeezed, can cause the whole tether mechanism to be released fairly easily. This makes me feel that it’s not that secure. Do I really want to trust this mechanism out on the water where I’m taking the camera in and out of my BA pocket all day? I feel that Canon should have used a more secure attachment for this purpose. I also feel that once I have settled on the corner that I want to use, I will more than likely try to make it more permanent by squeezing some silicon sealant into the mechanism to solidify it (will my warranty still stand?). I would also have liked Canon to have supplied blanking caps for the other corner tether holes, since they are just left open and serve no purpose other than to collect grit and water. A carabiner fixing cord is available from Canon, but at £35 it’s a bit of a steep price, and I’ll just have to settle for making my own cord and attaching a carabiner!

The turn-on time of the Canon D10 is much faster than the Optio W20. It is really fast! I can turn on and take a single shot in under 2 seconds. The auto focus seems a whole lot quicker than the Optio too, even in lower light conditions. I have been getting fed up using the Optio due to the slow turn-on, slow/poor focusing and shutter lag, and in comparison, this camera is great. These two factors alone make the Canon stand head and shoulders above the Optio.

The 12 megapixel sensor delivers fairly good quality detailed 4000 x 3000 pixel images, although for me, an obvious downside is that Canon seem to have used too much jpeg compression to limit image file size (full size files are in the 2.2 – 3 MB range, compared to the 4+ MB file size range of my 12 megapixel Nikon digital SLR camera). I have never understood manufacturer’s desire to trade off image quality for memory card usage via jpeg compression. I’d prefer less compressed jpegs (or at least the option of setting the camera to use less compression!). Unfortunately there is no ‘super fine’ image quality option in the camera’s shooting menu, only a ‘fine’ and ‘normal’ mode (you don’t select ‘normal’ mode – it’s not normal!). With ISO at 200, aperture at F2.8 I ran a side-by-side comparison of shots between the D10 and a Nikon DSLR, per the 2 images below. The detail from the Canon D10 is good. However, when cropped down and magnified to 500% as shown in the cropped/zoomed images in the comparison chart below, the greater jpeg compression on the Canon D10 image becomes more apparent. On the second image comparison, the nice almost uniform blue sky suffers from jpeg artifacts too, which I’m sure could be eliminated by less jpeg compression. The D10 images also looks a bit more contrasty, probably due to internal auto leveling and sharpening algorithms inside the D10, which the user has no control over.

Image comparison chart Canon D10 v Nikon dslr both (12 Megapixel)

(Click on thumbnails for full image size)

Canon D10 image Nikon DSLR image
Full frame shot – scroll to click outside of large image to return
Cropped shot same image
Cropped shot same image 500x magnification
Full frame image (new scene)

Cropped frame image (new scene)
Cropped shot same scene

As well as control over jpeg compression, it would also have been a big plus to have seen the option to use RAW files. Maybe its a deliberate choice by Canon so this camera doesn’t compete with their more expensive pro-sumer models?

Exposure Control

Click to enlarge

The other slight gripe with the camera in ‘P’ mode (where the user controls the settings) is its propensity to overexpose images on multi matrix ‘evaluative’ mode, with 0 ev compensation (ie the default). In an image that has average brightness in the foreground and bright sky, the sky will have very burned out highlights ( a big no-no in photography). In order to preserve the highlights, it is necessary to knock the exposure level compensation in ‘P’ mode down to -1 ev (others may prefer -0.33 ev or -0.66 ev).

Spot metering seems to deliver better results, but how often do you have time to spot meter on an action shot on a watersports day out? You usually just want to point, click and forget!

The ‘Auto’ mode fares quite well with highlights, but do I trust the auto mode to not blow highlights 100% of the time? I don’t think I’ve used ‘Auto’ mode on any camera before, ever!

Apart from it’s handling of the highlights, Auto mode has a tendency to switch to ISO800 a lot of the time leading to grainier images, even when it doesn’t need to do this, eg when there are ample light conditions.

I normally prefer to knock the ISO level down to 100 from the default ‘Auto’ to prevent high ISO graininess, but unlike some other cameras, in ‘P’ mode the auto iso setting seems to limit at ISO400, so this should prevent the camera from producing excessively grainy shots in low light conditions. However you will notice image graininess at ISO settings of above 200 so manually setting ISO to 100 or 200 may be the best overall option. The Image Stabilisation system will also help out shooting in lower light conditions.

There is no manual exposure or aperture priority mode, ie you can only manually control ISO, exposure compensation, and focus, not shutter speed (apart from long shutter speed in scene mode) or aperture, which is a pity.

Summary

Why am I comparing the D10 to the DSLR? Well doing most photography outside of kayaking with a DSR, I ultimately need a camera to compete with my DSLR when I’m kayaking. Is the comparison fair? No, but it does give you a flavour of what corners are being cut with compact digital cameras. Overall, however, once the settings are optimised, the D10 is a fun to use camera. The controls are smooth, the menu buttons are great, and the image stabilisation seems to work very well, as does the Auto-focus including the facial recognition system. Menu system and functionality options are wide, including the standard scene, movie etc modes. Editing features eg movie editing etc seem to be very handy and powerful, and the images produced are certainly very lively. It also has the option of an intelligent ‘i-contrast’ option which will auto correct dark “contrasty” images, eg bright sky and dark foregrounds. (Note: I am normally adverse to auto corrections, but the D10 does a very good job of brightening up dark foregrounds whilst maintaining overall image contrast).

Other advanced features include facial AF, eye blink recognition, AE lock, AF lock, custom white balance and tone controls, servo focus for moving subjects, and slow sync flash for nigh time photography, which tend to be found on more advanced pro level cameras.

Click to see full, 12 megapixel image. Click outside of large image to return

In conclusion, this camera packs quite a punch for it’s size and price. That coupled with a 12 megapixel sensor, fast turn-on time and minimal shutter lag times make this a big upgrade from the Optio W20, and I am really looking forward to using it out paddling in 2010.

D10 Pros

  • 12 mega pixel sensor
  • smooth edged design
  • robust looking build quality
  • good optics
  • choice of tether mount point
  • fast turn on time
  • responsive autofocus including low light conditions
  • fast responsive shoot time, minimal lags
  • good image quality
  • fast lens F2.8-F4.9
  • image stabilisation
  • auto white balance seems to work well
  • intelligent ‘Auto’ mode, guesses scene type
  • some interesting exposure adjustment tools like i-contrast to help brighten up dark areas
  • intuitive buttons, menus and features
  • programmable ‘print’ function key
  • some advanced features
  • usb/ dc input
  • price (notably reduced from original early release price)

D10 Cons

  • tether mount point locking mechanism robustness/security/ease of unlocking
  • no covers for unused tether points
  • lack of superfine mode for less compressed jpeg image files
  • no raw file support
  • ‘Auto’ mode varies Iso up to 800 which can be grainy
  • 3x optical zoom a bit boring especially given the IS
  • tendency to blow (overexpose) highlights in ‘P mode evaluative metering’ (needs manual compensation down to -1ev)
  • Second waterproof seal panel for USB/dc adaptor means 2x risk of seal failure?
  • full operation manual only available as pdf on supplied CD – I’d have preferred it on paper instead of 5 different language paper versions of the ‘quick start guide’!

D10 Kayaking specific pros

  • waterproof
  • fast lens (quicker shutter speeds, fewer blurred images)
  • image stabilisation (fewer blurred images)
  • fast turn on (no excuses for not photographing that dolphin that just appeared!)
  • fast focus even in low light (faster shots, fewer blurred images)
  • good auto mode (point and click photography)
  • multiple tether points
  • optional tether with carabiner available

D10 Kayak specific cons

  • tether point robustness, ease of release/durability
  • lens protrudes, may not fit some BA pockets
  • lots of crevasses for salt water to stick around in (will need rinsing after every outing)
  • twice as many waterproof seals to worry about!

Maiden voyage in Rockpool Isel

Those of you who have been keeping track of my blog (which is more than I’ve been doing …) will be aware that, up until now, I’ve been a bit of a Valley Girl (I know, readers from California are now confused). To explain, I have always loved my Nordkapp LV, which is made by Valley Sea Kayaks. A year on from having the good fortune to take ownership of the Nordkapp, here is what I continue to love about it:

  • It’s super speedy
  • It edges beautifully
  • It’s lively and playful
  • It’s nice and roomy for camping trips (at 326 litres volume)
  • It has quality and heritage
  • It looks beautiful – to my mind the most aesthetically pleasing kayak out there. I know looks are not everything, but a thing of beauty is indeed a joy to behold.
Shameless posing with Rockpool Isel

Shameless posing with Rockpool Isel (Photo courtesy Julia Darby)

Having said all that, during my time up in Skye, I came to appreciate some other kayak qualities in relation to rough water, comfort, rolling and the like, and a seed was planted in my mind that perhaps a kayak that would not so much compete with, as complement, my Nordkapp would be in order. The idea is to gain experience and hone skills in a kayak in which I feel confident and which enhances my skills, and use that foundation to “grow into” my more challenging kayak. That’s the plan at least.

Enter the Rockpool Isel. Again, avid blog followers will recall that I test drove one last month and was extremely impressed. The situation evolved and somehow I found myself hooked up with a beautiful Isel of my very own.

I was, of course, delighted to have the opportunity to embark upon an inaugural trip on the Clyde in the company of Julia (herself an Isel owner) and friends. I had reluctantly turned down the opportunity to go out the previous weekend having discovered that, no matter how many times I hit “Refresh”, the 40 mph gusts showing on the Met Office Website refused to disappear. Apparently, surf was definitely up. The 20 mph gusts forecast for this weekend seemed a positive relief in comparison. Indeed, it was a little windy, but this was all the better for giving me a feel for comfort levels (of both the physical and mental kind) in my Isel.

A swan escort for my Isel

A swan escort for my Isel

My fellow paddlers spent some time kindly complimenting my choice of kayak as we set off (apart from that one comment … the response to which is, it’s glitter, not dirty marks! Oh, and the design is seaweed, not squiggles). Soon we were emerging from the Holy Loch out into less sheltered seas.

As the journey progressed, I was not disappointed in the Isel. Here are some reasons why:

  • The Isel is built for the smaller paddler. It therefore fits someone of “lesser” dimensions snugly and has less windage.
  • I’m finding that, the plain fact is that I do better with harder chined/flatter hulled kayaks in choppier water at this stage in my kayaking “career”. I hope that I will eventually do as well in rounder hulled kayaks, but it’s nice to have a choice.
  • I have had issues with foot pegs. After a few hours of paddling, my feet ache and I have numb toes. This is actually quite a big deal, as it really can detract from the pleasure of an outing. In retrospect, it might have been better if I’d ordered my Nordkapp with a customised bulkhead, but obviously this makes the kayak very specific to the owner (thus reducing potential resale value and preventing others from using it). The nice thing about Rockpool kayaks is the incredibly comfortable footplate that comes as standard. There is no pressure on the ball of the foot, no numbness, no pain. I love it!
  • When it comes to rolling, I find I benefit from “aggressive” thigh grips that translate all of one’s effort into the maneouvre/roll. The Isel has me clamped nicely into my kayak – it almost won’t let me not roll. (I’m sure I’ve just cursed something now).
  • Rockpool Isel seat

    Rockpool Isel seat

    Another comfort issue relates to back pain. I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve had some significant problems with this too and I think it relates to sacral/lumbar support. Whatever it is – whether it’s the positioning of the lower glass seat (versus the Valley kayaks’ standard foam seats), the shape of the seat, knee positioning, or the back rest – the ergonomics in the Isel are just right and it equates to zero back pain (for me so far at least). Again, a very big deal.

  • The quality and build is flawless.
Moody Loch Long

Moody Loch Long

The swell pushed us up Loch Long nicely and attempts were made at having a bit of a surf. I enjoyed scooting along as the waves caught my stern. We stopped for lunch at Ardentinny and then, as is often the case, the return journey was against the wind. The Isel remained comfortably under control (always nice) and I remained remarkably dry despite the oncoming waves. A good workout was had by all.

Our launch site beside the Marina at high tide turned out to be a less than ideal return site at low tide. Scenes entirely appropriate to Halloween ensued as we found ourselves being sucked into the gloopy, stinky mud-swamp that awaited us. There were moments when we thought we’d never see our friends footwear again. Fortunately, we did manage to make it intact all the way back to the cars.

As I reflect on how wonderful it is to have so many quality kayaks to choose from on the market, I find that, with the Isel in particular, I feel a real sense of appreciation that the designers have taken the time to consider the needs of the smaller paddler. In the paddling world of big, burly, beardie blokes, it’s quite touching to think that we svelte types have not been forgotten and that we too can share in the joy of a snugly fitting, comfortable, maneouvreable craft.

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.

Introductions

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

Sandaig

Sandaig

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 pleasure and the pain

Paddling along the east Bute coastline

Paddling along the east Bute coastline

It started out just like any other kayaking day trip – pleasant conditions beckoned (albeit a little windy in places) and we were eager to get out on the water before summer was once again cancelled. We jumped in our kayaks at Toward and headed over to Bute before proceeding southwards to Kilchattan Bay. That part was very enjoyable and we (along no doubt with the resident seals) kept a sharp eye out for the orca which, most excitingly, was recently reported to be sojourning in the Firth of Clyde.

We turned into Kilchattan Bay accompanied by a playful grey seal (who apparently hadn’t got the memo about the orca). We were then greeted by 2 fellow kayakers who were emerging from the shelter of the bay. They were paddling 2 very eye-catching kayaks – golden, starfish-covered, and very glam-Rockpools. They advised that they were spending a couple of days paddling around Bute, but had pulled in due to lumpy conditions. They were reassured to hear that conditions appeared to have calmed since we had ventured on to the water at least.

At Kilchattan Bay, Bute

At Kilchattan Bay, Bute

We contemplated crossing the Clyde over to Cumbrae at this point, however, the unrelenting procession of outbound warships dissuaded us. Fresh from their “Joint Warrior” NATO exercise, we feared that, still in war games mode, they might not be able to resist a bit of target practice if we couldn’t paddle out of the way quite fast enough. And so we simply reversed our route but then found ourselves, troublingly, doing a little battle with the outgoing tide combined with the easterly wind. Monitoring my progress against the “transit point” (of sorts) provided to starboard by the colossal Maersk Beaumont anchored off of Cumbrae, I couldn’t help but notice that I wasn’t making much headway at all. Of course, this is a rather massive ship (recently joined by another huge Maersk ship also in layup – it’s a veritable parking lot out there), so perhaps not the best gauge for assessing advancement. Instead, I concentrated on the Bute shoreline to port but, sadly, that only served to confirm that it was indeed heavy going.

The next thing I noticed was a growing pain in my right elbow. Shortly thereafter, my left elbow came out in sympathy. My increasing focus on this latest discomfort was interrupted by a pleasant encounter with a flotilla of very smart TideRace kayaks which had set off from Castle Toward. Alan commented that he’d never seen so much bling on the Clyde in one day. The paddlers were in fact trainee instructors from the Castle Toward outdoor centre and were accompanied by Roddy, the eminent kayak coach from Bute (who we regularly bump into on our seaward travels these days) and Peter, who heads up the training centre. They too were on their way to circumnavigate Bute, which seems to be the thing to do. After a blether, we were back on our way and my attention was re-captured by my sore elbows.

It was then that Alan noticed that his skeg appeared to be non-functional and, with some dismay, he recalled experimenting with it before going ashore. This is rather atypical behaviour as Alan rarely uses his skeg. Unfortunately therefore, it had been in a downward position when he dragged his kayak on to the beach, thus causing the cable to kink and rendering it essentially knackered.

The aforementioned glitches served to compound the experience of paddling in increasing chop and it really did become quite challenging as we approached Craigmore. I mentally rehearsed my recently rediscovered self-rescue abilities, but felt these may well be impeded by the very real presence of quite boisterous waves. We soldiered on bravely in the hope that some shelter would be afforded by the upcoming approach to Rothesay Bay. My elbows were screeching out in protest just at the point when, thankfully, sea conditions did calm. We paddled against the wind back to Toward and I was very glad to make it home, this being the first trip where that goal had not been guaranteed.

But my troubles were not over because, as the evening progressed, my left elbow pain descended into much more acute wrist pain which lasted through to the end of the week. Even today, it is not completely healed. I am now left contemplating the cause. The suspects are: gripping the paddle too tightly – but I really did pay attention to this and I swear I wasn’t, or insufficient torso rotation – um, not sure. Could it even be the tightness of my wetsuit cuffs cutting off synovial fluid to the tendons? (And yes, I do have a PhD from Google University, in case you were wondering).

Still, as my mother (who, incidentally, used to holiday in Kilchattan Bay as a child) would have said, what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. It says a fair bit that, despite the tribulations of my latest outing, I am still looking forward to getting back out there with the gannets, the goosanders, the seals, the orcas … and the bling.

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:

But it’s Thursday …

Loch Striven

Out on Loch Striven ... on a Thursday

I recall a TV advert some years ago (in the US, I think) which featured a be-suited chap walking down a busy city street. He is stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of a SUV driving past, fully laden with adventure gear and evidently heading off to the great outdoors somewhere well beyond the city limits. As he stares in disbelief, he mumbles, “But it’s Tuesday”. I can relate to both parties in that advert – I have been that frustrated office worker, but more recently I have been that Tuesday skiver. Guess which one I like best!

So it was Thursday and the sun was shining. As much as I love my days spent in the office clicking a mouse and attending to the whims important and pressing needs of my customers, I decided to take advantage of the benefits of being self-employed and awarded myself a well-deserved day off. Alan did likewise, so we hit the high seas for a day of unremitting enjoyment in the wind and waves (and calm). We had a bit of everything to keep us entertained, a brisk breeze and some lumpiness upon setting out (which saw our Nordkapps friskily at play), followed by an ethereal flat calm by the end of the day.

Returning in the gloaming

Returning in the gloaming

After reaching Bute, we headed north towards the Kyles. We stopped for lunch at a nice little beach back over on the Cowal side and noted that the temperature would suggest that it wasn’t quite summer yet. As we were approaching Colintraive, Alan commented that his shoulder was beginning to hurt. Rolling practice has taken its toll, alas. I therefore resigned myself to a slightly shorter paddle than I’d been anticipating. We turned around and started heading homewards, but then Alan suggested we take a detour up Loch Striven, and very pleasant it was. Having gone some way up the loch, we worked our way back down towards Toward. After 26 km of paddling, I began to notice that I was feeling the tiniest bit exerted, and contemplated who, at this rate, would win the competition for the sorest shoulders. Alan appeared to have worked through his pain, but I was developing some new and interesting aches all of my very own. I consoled myself by focusing on the beautiful surroundings, the various seal sightings (5 total!), the birds, the peacefulness and the realisation that I was building some good conditioning for the months of paddling ahead.

Miscellaneous observations from our outing:

  • I still cannot imagine making an urgent surf landing after a full day’s paddling. As I peel my spray deck back, it takes some considerable time for me to re-engage the use of my legs. This, combined with the uneven surface of the shoreline, often reduces me to a state of near crawling on hands and knees, which is all very pathetic. Answers on a postcard please …
  • If I tweak the wrist seals of my drysuit throughout the day, it stops my hands from swelling. Good to know.
  • Sanitary products of a feminine nature do not miraculously evaporate when flushed down the toilet. If they don’t choke the sewage system, they are likely to end up floating in the sea, which is unpleasant for humans and wildlife alike. (Perhaps there is a need for an awareness campaign here).
  • To my mind, seals sound a lot like whales when they snort unexpectedly behind you.
  • Nordkapps handle chop with consummate ease.

And so on Friday, I returned refreshed and renewed to my desk … until such time as the contents of my inbox disgorged themselves on to my PC screen at least. I’m not sure if these sneaky days off truly serve the purpose of renewal, especially as I do have to make up the lost work time, or if they just leave one yearning for a lot more of the same.

“Some people say that mountain climbers are really wasting their time. They have nothing better to do so they climb mountains, tire themselves out, and come back with nothing to show for it. Yet a person who climbs a tall mountain sees the world and experiences nature in a very different way from someone who never leaves his own front door. Genuine mountain climbers do not struggle up great precipices for the glory of it. They know that glory is only a label given by others. A true climber climbs for the experience of climbing.” Ch’an Master Sheng-yen,

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

Goodbye QE2 (and thanks for the ride!)

The QE2 sailed back to her birthplace on the Clyde one last time today, before heading for retirement as a floating hotel in Dubai. This was quite a momentous event – almost as momentous as her 40th birthday celebrations last year, which we had also thought was her last visit to the Clyde. I still haven’t really determined if I got that wrong, or everyone else did. Nonetheless, it’s always good to see the QE2 again and to feel the pride (and poignancy) of knowing that such a splendid vessel is Clyde-built.

Thar she blows! (And so does the QE2)

Thar she blows! (And so does the QE2)

So today we decided to join in the festivities on the water, especially seeing that it was a fittingly beautiful, sunny day. Moments after spotting the QE2 with her escort, HMS Manchester, from our house as large dots on the horizon, we headed down to launch at Cluniter in Innellan. We knew that it wouldn’t be long before we were alongside both ships, although perhaps not in the strictest sense. A few things prevented us from getting up too close, including the exclusion zone in operation (had we known about it), but mostly the prospect of being mowed down by the behemoth vessels (and entourage of followers) with which we found ourselves sharing the Clyde.

Sure enough, the celebrity liner, her military bodyguard and flotilla of fans and paparazzi sailed grandly past, a couple of miles to our starboard, as we stuck to the quiet side of the river. We took photos and listened avidly to the greatly increased VHF radio traffic which served to heighten the sense of occasion. Helicopters, including the Royal Navy’s, flew directly above us – I’d like to think they found us interesting had seen us, but we resisted the temptation to wave lest an airman were to urgently descend on a rope to perform a rescue (things not to do …). Certainly, if we had planned on having an emergency, today would have been a good day to do it, being that there were any number of potential rescue vessels and aircraft in the vicinity.

QE2 and HMS Manchester (swell to follow)

QE2 and HMS Manchester (swell to follow)

As it became apparent that we couldn’t quite match the speed of the QE2 and her fleet, we dropped back to our usual more leisurely 3-4 knots, but soon discovered that the real fun was only just starting! Suddenly we became aware of a significant and increasing swell. It soon became quite reminiscent of our trip to Lewis as we bounced up and down on the wake generated by the QE2 and her fleet. Well, perhaps the swells weren’t quite as high as those experienced in Lewis, but we estimate a good metre’s worth and certainly enough to give our Nordkapps their first experience of something resembling “conditions”. What fun it was! Finally we had confirmation of the Nordkapps’ legendary solid handling of waves and neither of us felt at all uncomfortable or nervous. I would go as far as to say that I felt less anxious than when in my Capella, but of course time and a little experience could have helped a bit with that.

It was with disappointment that we determined that the swell had diminished by the time we approached Dunoon. Once again, the entertainment was provided by the radio traffic. I had been noting communication with the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and started to speculate that it was still to sail up-river, which could only mean one thing – more swell! Sadly, however, it came into view in the vicinity of the Tail o’ the Bank having anchored there stealthily outwith our awareness (perhaps sailing up yesterday when we could scarcely see across the river due to poor weather).

Beautiful Holy Loch

Beautiful Holy Loch

We cruised past Dunoon and on to Hunter’s Quay, paddling briskly past both ferry stops (never good places to linger). As we turned into the Holy Loch, we were once again reminded of the magnificent scenery right on our doorstep and we took a few moments there to fuel up on snacks for the return journey. Conditions were by now completely calm and, it must be said that, despite the sunshine, the scenery, the wildlife etc, we did feel a small sense of anti-climax in the knowledge that the excitement experienced on the outward journey would not be forthcoming on the return.

Still, it was good to turn our attention to the less temporary visitors and residents of the Clyde, being the birds and the seals. I spotted a few turnstones and stopped to watch them shuffle about the shore line whilst Alan was visited by a seal. There were all the usual cast and crew of eider ducks, cormorants, oystercatchers and gulls – all no doubt wondering what the fuss and noise were about.

The CalMac ferry’s hourly sailing appeared to have been delayed, so we paddled under Dunoon pier and around the linkspan to avoid the risk of being caught up in any sudden departures. A leisurely journey back to Innellan saw us home by 4 pm, having been on the water since 10 am. A little stiffness was noted as we clambered out of our kayaks and I have still to determine how this will translate when potentially making a speedy exit during a surf landing (yet to be experienced). I imagine a lot of flailing and cursing may be involved.

As I type this, the QE2 is due to make her final sail down the Clyde any minute now. I’m certain a little lump will come to the throat as we bid her farewell for the last time (this time) and say good bye to a grand Scottish lady. We will remember her fondly, not least because of the fun she provided 2 tiny kayaks sharing her waters on this special day.

Nordkapp Nirvana

Valley Nordkapp LV and Nordkapp

Valley Nordkapp LV and Nordkapp

Finally, the happy day arrived when we were united with our new Valley Nordkapps. We drove to Loch Lomondside on Thursday and met up with the chaps from Desperate Measures who kindly delivered our new charges to us, having travelled all the way from their birthplace (the kayaks’, that is) in Nottingham. My Nordkapp LV came wrapped in a big tubi-grip (which I’m sure will come in handy again some day for a very large sprain), and Alan’s Nordkapp was still in its factory wrappings. We loaded the kayaks on to our j-bars in the middle of a torrential downpour which I viewed as an auspicious baptism of sorts. Alan discovered that it was no longer feasible to suspend himself off of the ties when tightening them, as fibre-glass kayaks are slightly more delicate than our old plastic boats. On the drive south, a rainbow appeared (another auspicious sign) which had me contemplating a suitable name. I think Rainbow Warrior is, however, taken.

Nordkapp

Nordkapp

By happy coincidence, it was club night at the loch, so we headed straight for Kilbirnie. Our beautiful vessels were unveiled and launched (minus champagne, alas) amidst much favourable comment from our fellow paddlers. It was quite a privilege to have the history of the Nordkapp related to us by the elder statesman of UK kayaking, Duncan Winning, who played no small part in the development of the very kayaks we now proudly own.

Alan and I took great pleasure in birling around in circles in the loch as we edged with abandon, feeling as if the kayaks were an extension of ourselves. Finally, our energy was being channelled directly to the kayak, and not dissipating somewhere along the way as used to be the case. We found ourselves wondering how we’d managed for a whole entire year of paddling without this amazing advantage.

The self-rescue question remained prominent in my mind and I felt that there was no point in losing an opportunity to practice. So, as the evening darkness descended, in I jumped, once again marvelling at how liftable the Nordkapp LV is as I righted it and then clambered on top. I was able to maintain my balance and shuffled along to regain my seat, almost effortlessly. Yet another auspicious sign! It felt as if my kayak was proving its allegiance to me – the start of a beautiful relationship.

Happiness is ... a new Nordkapp LV

Happiness is ... a new Nordkapp LV

We were back out on Sunday in the flat calm of the Clyde as we paddled from Toward to Bute, to the Kyles of Bute, to Loch Striven and back to Toward. We must have sounded a bit like the nearby eider ducks, ooh-ing and aww-ing away at the wonderful qualities of our respective kayaks. The only thing missing was a bit of chop or swell in order to test the Nordkapps’ legendary performance in rougher seas, but I’m sure that will come soon enough.

I recognise that I have spent a great deal of time recently expounding affection for what is essentially a material thing. This rather contradicts the principles of non-attachment that I have been studying in yoga and in relation to mindfulness generally. I would argue in my defence that my kayak is not purely a material “thing”. It is very much a vehicle for focusing one’s mind away from the clutter of everyday life, the anxieties, the conditioned responses, the judgements. When you are out on the water, at one with your kayak and the sea, there is nothing else for you to do except just be in the moment. And that is nothing short of spiritual.

On my radio

It’s amazing the places that sea kayaking takes you. I don’t just mean the physical places, but also the new learnings and skills that one must acquire. For example, if someone had told me a few years ago that I would now find myself possessing an official VHF Radio Operator’s License, I would have greeted them with incredulity to say the least.

A VHF Radio is a fairly vital piece of kit for anyone planning on going out on the sea as, signal permitting, it provides a direct connection to safety, in the form of the rescue services or other vessels in the vicinity. This could quite literally mean the difference between life and death in an emergency. I think it is fairly clear to any kayakers who have ventured out into less than pristine conditions, that, regardless of the skill levels present, an unstable situation can all too readily go pear shaped and one can never ever presume that “it won’t happen to me”. In addition, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a party of sea kayakers could assist another vessel in distress and indeed we have heard one such story.

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