A day trip to Mull

Having only ever thought of Mull as being somewhere you go on holiday via car and ferry, an invitation to join friends and go there by kayak immediately captured our imagination and interest. We needed little persuasion to sign up for a day trip with a difference.

Our friends emerged off of the water to meet us at Ganavan Bay, north of Oban, and we all then set off on a west northwesterly route, precisely the direction of the wind. Fortunately, it wasn’t too great of a slog initially, although the breeze made its presence felt a little more by the time we reached the Lismore area.

Lighthouse on Eilean Musdile on the south tip of Lismore

Lighthouse on Eilean Musdile on the south tip of Lismore

As usual in this vicinity, a little wind goes a long way in relation to the tides, and the sea state became a bit more interesting than what Alan and I are used to nearer to home. Happily, as I may have mentioned, this spells one thing to us now – fun! Back in the dark old days, I remember expressing fearfulness at the concept of rougher water. Our friend, Magda, assuaged this fear by asking me how many times I’d actually fallen in in such conditions. The answer, to my continuing relief, is – well, not too many! Apart from that one time. Oh, and that other time … (but training doesn’t count). Since acquiring my Rockpool Isel, I feel increasingly confident that I can keep the capsize incident count low, depending on how “interesting” the sea state gets, of course.  And, I suppose I could always try rolling (as radical as that sounds for someone who’s been practising that very skill for ages).

Duart Castle

Duart Castle

After a bit of bobbling about in the chop, we reached the east coast of Mull and made our way around Duart Point to land at the small  bay beside the rather majestic Duart Castle, the ancestral home of Clan MacLean. The bay was filled with small moon jellyfish (rather sadly for the many who wouldn’t be washing back out), but we were especially impressed by the kayaker-friendly “Welcome to Duart Castle” sign posted there. We proceeded to the castle tea room where we enjoyed some sustenance before returning to our kayaks.

Mull to Oban

Photo courtesy: Lewis Smith

Heading back towards Oban, a rare thing occurred – the tide and the wind were behind us. Ordinarily, if you have spent an outward journey paddling against wind, you can pretty much guarantee that, in a fit of mischief, the weather gods will reverse the wind to defy the forecast, such that you get to paddle against it all the way back too. They especially love to do this when the tide is also running against you. But this day the weather gods appeared to be distracted and we were pushed back in a bumpy, following sea.  The outward journey had taken 2 hours and 45 minutes, and the homeward voyage a mere 2 hours.

Ferries kept us company

Ferries kept us company

During the course of the day, the wind was not the only thing that was increasingly making its presence felt. Oban is a hub for ferries going back and forth across the Sound of Mull and the Firth of Lorne to the various islands (including Mull, Lismore, Colonsay, Coll and Tiree and the Outer Hebrides). Some of these vessels are quite large, and it seemed like every 10 minutes we were seeing one or another looming ahead or behind on a direct course towards us (just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean the ferries aren’t out to get me). Most kayakers are acutely aware that they cannot out-paddle a big, muckle ferry, and so it is a question of trying to guess whether or not the ferry will turn and in which direction. Any notion of the usefulness of carrying a Calmac timetable with us was abandoned after our encounter (fortunately not close) with ferry number 7.

Ferry dodging

Ferry dodging

Strangely, not a single seal was seen that Sunday (and no-one was selling seashells either), but we did see and hear many common terns squabbling overhead.

Soon, we were back at Ganavan Bay reflecting on another wonderful day out. I heard Lewis summarise the trip as “very dodgy” and, just as I was swelling with pride and amazement at being able to handle conditions that even Lewis found “dodgy”, it was clarified that he’d actually said, “ferry dodging”. Indeed, that was quite a prominent feature of the day.

Garvellachs … not quite as forecast

Leaving EasdaleThe forecast looked quite benign, so our group set the intention of departing from Easdale and circumnavigating the Garvellach Islands in the Firth of Lorne. Certainly, there was little in the way of wind as we set out from the stony beach next to Easdale’s harbour and headed west. This is a renowned area of varied tidal activity and so provided some particular interest for us, having spent the bulk of the past few months paddling in our local waters where the tide simply goes in and out. In the Firth of Lorne and amongst its islands, the rather significant tide flows up and down and around and about as well as in and out (sometimes also shaking it all about). Generally speaking, the plan was to catch a bit of ebb tide on the journey south-west and a bit of flood tide to push us back.

Approaching the Garvellachs

Approaching the Garvellachs

A fair portion of the outward journey was spent vacillating over whether or not I was going to be too hot in my drysuit (a fairly pointless exercise, being that I was unlikely to change out of it on the water). Fortunately, the sun only made momentary appearances and the clouds kept interior drysuit temperatures bearable.

Garvellach IslandsWe cruised south-west, observing Fladda lighthouse before rounding the northernmost Garvellach island. We continued down the west coast of Garbh Eileach, admiring the dramatic cliff faces along the way, including evidence of a prehistoric rollercoaster, before turning in to a small, bouldery bay for a lunch stop. Soon we were continuing past the remaining islands in the chain and the lighthouse at the southern end of Eileach an Naoimh.

Prehistoric rollercoaster?

Prehistoric rollercoaster?

We had been encountering some wave surges scooshing up and down the rocky cliff-bases during our journey, of which those group members not afflicted with the debilitating condition known as Gelcoat Anxiety Syndrome (GAS, also known as Barnacle Avoidance Syndrome) took full advantage. We also used these swells to make paddling through the gaps in the islands and skerries more fun.

Epic win! Photo by Graham Milne

Epic win by Andy! Photo by Graham Milne

As we turned around the southern end, we were confronted with similar surges and one of our number took a most daring and heroic ride on a big, fearsome wave over the skerries, a move which could firmly be placed in the category of “epic”. The heights of heroism attained were only marginally lowered in our estimation by Andy’s subsequent cry of, “I thought I was a goner there!”. (What not to say when clearly demonstrating awesomeness).

St Brendan was here (and St Columba)

St Brendan was here (and St Columba)

Further north-east, we stopped for a look at the surprisingly substantial remains of the monastery founded by St Brendan in 542 AD, visited by St Columba (it is believed that his mother is buried there) and later destroyed by the Vikings (who else?!). Nearby, 3 sea kayakers had already pitched their tents for the evening and we thought it would be a great  wheeze to suggest to them that all 8 of us were about to do likewise.  As it turned out, upon departing, we encountered an incoming trail of about 8 kayakers heading for that very spot, intent on setting up camp. It was indeed going to be a busy night at the monastery. And I hear there are ghosts.

We had anticipated that, as we travelled north-east, there would be a bit more tidal activity and even a teeny bit more wind. Indeed, wavelets were expected. At this point, I have a confession to make. As pleasurable as our paddle had been so far, I secretly yearned for a little more movement in the water. It seems that the weather gods picked up on my furtive hankerings and, in true be-careful-what-you-wish-for fashion, decided to whip it up a little.  Upon reaching the north end of the islands once more, Coach Lewis convened our group for a quick vote on the most favoured course of action and, with muscles warmed up and adrenaline pumping, it was agreed that a straight shot back to Easdale was called for.

Lovely jubbly! Photo by Andy McManus

Lovely jubbly! Photo by Andy McManus

At first, it was mostly about battling a north-easterly headwind in the F4-5 to region, but with the wind hitting the opposing tide(s), things became more exciting. Casting aside the “what if this gets worse” doubts, I instead focused on the “great to be alive” thrills of being shoogled about in the fray. One minute the waves were coming from ahead, the next from the beam. I could tell, however, that my trusty Isel could handle it and I was very glad I’d worn my drysuit.

I was vaguely aware of a motor boat pulling alongside me, only to realise it was Lewis who proceeded to ask me for a rating of my experience of the “wavelets”. The first word that came to mind was, “Fun!”. What a difference time and the right kayak makes.

An hour and a half after leaving the Garvellachs, we were back at Easdale. As we packed up for the drive homewards, it felt great to have had the opportunity to experience such a varied and memorable trip. A big thanks to the team we paddled with, including Lewis, and Julia (especially for all the driving).