Scottish Women’s Sea Kayak Festival, Isle of Bute

Heading south

Heading south

A few weeks back, Roddy of Kayak Bute issued an invitation to attend the Scottish Women’s Sea Kayak Festival on Bute.  I’d also agreed to assist Mackayak (or, as I like to call her, Lesley) with teaching some traditional skills on the Monday. I thought it could possibly be fun, which turned out to be quite a serious under-estimation of my experience.

The programme of events contained various skills coaching sessions including forward strokes, close quartering and rescues, as well as a a circumnavigation of Bute, a trip to the Cumbraes and the said traditional skills class. I signed up for the round-Bute trip over Saturday and Sunday. Even although the Isle of Bute is very near my home and I do frequent its shores, I’d never gone all the way around it – a bit of a glaring omission in my paddling resume.

The base for the weekend was the campsite and tea-room at the lovely Ettrick Bay. After arriving there early on Saturday, we proceeded by car to Kerrycroy Bay to commence the round-island paddle.

Justine explains the course

Justine explains the course

Keeping land on our right …

The conditions were flat calm for most of Saturday, and this was conducive with chatting to fellow paddlers and coaches. This seems to be my year for meeting famous kayakers, the stars of (watery) stage and screen. First it was Cheri and Turner of Kayak Ways in May, and now it was adventurer and film-maker, Justine Curgenven, whose DVDs and global travels have been a source of inspiration to me since my early paddling days. It’s hard not to be a little bit star-stuck! But Justine’s affable company gave lie to notions of celebrity. The trip was also led by senior coach, Morag Brown of Skyak Adventures, who it was nice to finally meet. We were certainly in good hands. Paddlers came from as far north as Orkney, the south coast of England, and many points in between. It was interesting to learn about  the differences in the typical paddling environment of each participant and I pondered what type of kayaker I would be now if I lived in an area of big tides and ocean swell, if a typical paddling trip over to a nearby island meant the Isle of Wight as opposed to the Isle of Bute.

Arran mountains ... and new friends

Arran mountains ... and new friends

Travelling down the eastern coast of Bute, we were accompanied by several inquisitive grey seals, flocks of oystercatchers and kamikaze gannets before encountering porpoises as we approached the bottom of the island. It was with some personal amusement that we reached the southernmost point of Bute, an area that has little hazard signs flashing in my head, to find barely a ripple.  Turning the corner, we were greeted with the ever beautiful vista of the Arran mountains. The sea did become a little more textured after we passed Inchmarnock and neared Ettrick Bay when the breeze picked up, but I tried not to fixate on the rather nasty looking forecast I’d seen for the following day and only called Alan 3 or 4 times for an update.

Just some of the kayak fleet

Just some of the kayak fleet

I certainly had something to entice me back to the campsite in a hurry and that was the anticipation of my beautiful new Tiderace Xcite S kayak being there waiting for me. Sure enough, Kayak Bute did not disappoint and a very special package with my name on it was sitting on their trailer. Just as I’d started to feverishly tear off the packaging, I was called away to retrieve my car from the day’s starting point – a  cruel tease, really! Not to worry, I was soon back and was greeted by a friend informing me that she really loved my new kayak. What?! My eyes had not been the first to behold it! I did manage to forgive Roddy for unwrapping my Xcite S in my absence as – who can blame him – it really is too beautiful to remain smothered in bubble-wrap. I fought my way through the crowd of appreciative admirers and then joined them in oohing and awing over my new black and red baby. There was a substantial number of  Kayak Bute’s fleet of Tiderace kayaks adorning the campsite throughout the weekend. Those attendees who had not brought their own vessels could pick and choose which shiny new kayak to try out – a fantastic opportunity, although I’m not sure how Roddy kept track of them all! Presumably he has counted them all back in.

On Saturday evening, a buffet dinner of culinary delights was supplied by the team at Ettrick Bay tea room, after which we listened to two very interesting talks. The first was an amusing review by Alice McInnes (aka Alice Tiderace) which traced the history of women’s outdoor attire through the ages, from the tweed skirts of yesteryear (whose “blowing up” potential was a substantial danger), to modern, hi-tech kit and apparel. Next was a presentation by Justine about her circumnavigation (with Barry Shaw) of Tierra del Fuego, the videos and slides from which had everyone riveted. It certainly put my own small paddling anxieties into perspective! I’m very much looking forward to seeing the entire film when it’s released.

A nice day for a launch

Ettrick Bay

Ettrick Bay

Come Sunday, we were set to resume our circumnavigation with Justine again, along with another top coach, Kate Duffus. We departed from Ettrick Bay into a stiff southerly breeze and a rather more interesting sea state.  This would be a good test of my comfort level in the Xcite S (which I’ll be writing more about soon). Suffice to say, I was a very happy camper (in every sense). Passing Tighnabruaich, we rounded the northern end of Bute and approached the Burnt Islands. Many remarks were made about this being the most scenically beautiful part of the journey – which says a lot considering we were shrouded in damp mist! I wished I could show everyone how lovely it is in sunshine, but they’ll just have to take my word for it. We were then sheltered in the Kyles and crossed over to stop for lunch on the shore at Colintraive beside the ferry.

Approaching Kames Bay

Approaching Kames Bay

Crossing back over to Bute and rounding Ardmaleish Point, the sea state immediately became more exciting and it doesn’t get much better than to find myself enjoying every minute of it in my new kayak, with my Greenland paddle, and in the company of a great group of capable kayakers. Some of us ended our journey at Kames Bay where the omnipresent Kayak Bute van and trailer awaited, but Justine and Kate invited anyone who still felt energetic to continue on to complete the circumnavigation. I decided that, having paddled that part of the coast previously, my rounding of Bute was complete (and, no, that’s not cheating!).

After an excellent and much relished dinner at the tea room (I’m still not sure how it’s humanly possible to produce such a variety of desserts – I think elves may have been involved), we listened to a talk given by coach Sally Gregory on weather and tides. Sally’s presentation was succinct and informative, such that my sluggish brain could cope (and, besides, we got notes to take home). Next up was a very special highlight. Global adventurer, Sarah Outen, the first woman to row solo across the Indian Ocean, had arrived to deliver a presentation about her latest “London to London via the World” expedition. I had read Sarah’s book, A Dip in the Ocean: Rowing Solo Across the Indian Ocean, and followed her progress online, so it was an unexpected treat to meet her in person. Her account of her recent rescue after being battered by a typhoon whilst rowing across the Pacific was nothing short of sobering.  I think we all felt a bit of the emotion that lay behind her reflection on that experience and wished her every success as she takes fresh bearings to continue her adventure.

An ancient tradition

It's yoga, Jim - but not as we know it

It's yoga, Jim - but not as we know it (Photo courtesy Ruth Clark)

By Monday, the weather had decided to put a very damp stake in the ground just as we were unstaking our tents. Packing up a sopping wet tent is always a joy, only to be surpassed by trying to keep track of kit (there aren’t enough Ikea bags in the world …). Being that the ultimate objective of Greenland skills training is to get wet, however, the rain was no impediment to our eager band of students. We started out with familiarisation with skinny sticks, reviewing a collection of various types of wooden and carbon (Northern Light Paddlesports) versions. We went on to discuss the history of traditional Greenland kayaking, and the equipment and attire used. This was followed by a spot of stretching, combining 2 ancient traditions by using selected yoga poses  to prepare for the body movements of Greenland rolling. I can honestly say it’s the first time I’ve ever done yoga in a drysuit in a deluge of rain. Slipping into a tuilik, I embraced the role of “glamorous assistant” while Lesley prepared to perform some special Greenlandic magic.

Lesley demonstrates

Lesley demonstrates

The group was introduced to Lesley’s sleek, black Tahe Greenland kayak which she went on to skilfully and  gracefully roll, explaining each move knowledgeably. It was then everyone else’s turn to try out for themselves a bit of balance bracing, rolling and forward paddling and several firsts were achieved and rolls were polished up. The “Green virus” (as Turner calls it) was duly spread, and I believe that there may now be a small uptick in sales of Justine’s “This Is The Roll” DVD.

I am inspired

Scottish Women's Sea Kayak FestivalParticipants were asked what they liked best about the Festival and, without hesitation, my response was the inspiration it provided me. I don’t mean to get into a discussion on the merits of a women’s event other than to say that perhaps, being a woman, I relate particularly well to the experience of other women.  The enthusiasm and willingness to share skills displayed by the coaches present (Justine Curgenven, Morag Brown, Kate Duffus, Carol Lang, Sally Gregory and Lesley Mackay) were a source of encouragement and motivation in themselves.  There were also the attendees with their varied backgrounds and experiences of sea kayaking and, indeed, of life – from the skilled northern and southern coasters, to those who were sharpening up abilities after some absence (undeterred by a bit of wind), to those who have endured significant injury and illness. Lesley, of course, with her beautiful Greenland expertise and solid insights, has been of great help to me for some time now, and it was especially enjoyable to work and share with her. And Sarah’s courageous adventures are enough to grip anyone in the force-field of her determination and positivity.

Participants were also asked what they thought could be improved. I’m not sure if my request for a little more sunshine is reasonable. At least there were no midgies.

Thank you!

A big thanks goes out to everyone who made the Festival such a great success, including all the participants. In particular, Roddy and Sally of Kayak Bute, and Alice of Tiderace Kayaks, who were the engine room of the event. I was seriously impressed by their ability to manage the formidable logistics.  The fact that profits were going to the RNLI made it all the more worthwhile.

The word “Festival” is synonymous with “celebration” and it truly did feel like I spent the weekend celebrating with others how very fortunate we are to be sea kayakers.

See Photo Gallery

A weekend with Kayak Ways

Cheri and Turner of Kayak WaysIt’s not every day that 2 of the world’s leading Greenland kayaking instructors land on your doorstep, but that’s exactly what happened this past weekend – perhaps not our actual doorstep, but very close! We had been booked on to their Greenland Intensive course for some time but, I confess, there was a part of me that was only half believing that it would actually fall into place and that we really would have Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson teaching us personally. It seemed too good to be true. Some things are, however, meant to be, and we arrived at Loch Lomond-side on Saturday and then Largs on Sunday to enjoy the pleasure of their company.

Some weeks ago, Alan and I purchased the excellent DVD, “This is the Roll“, which features instruction from Kayak Ways. I’ve never used an instructional DVD quite as extensively or known one that produces such tangible results. As if by some sort of advanced holographic technology, it was slightly surreal to find the DVD’s stars beamed live to us on the water and offering personal tuition.

On Loch Lomond

On Loch Lomond with Mackayak

First, I must point out, the weather for the weekend was ridiculously abnormal. With typical pessimism/realism in all matters related to Scottish weather, we’d been anticipating that an intense low pressure system would move in to exactly coincide with our activities. Abandoning all precedents, however, the opposite happened and the weather gods smiled upon us. In fact, they weren’t just smiling – they were laughing! The temperature rose to 27°C and the sun beat down hot enough to fry eggs – or at least boil the contents of a drysuit. Cheri and Turner seemed a little bemused that our normal rolling attire was a neoprene tuilik over a drysuit in such an evidently tropical clime. Perhaps the giddy crowds at both locations and the unveiling of vast swathes of blue-white flesh provided a hint that our shores are not usually quite so sun-kissed.

Practising off Largs

Practising off Largs

A good part of our instruction focused on Greenland paddling technique and this was of great benefit. Herein I discovered that my skinny stick paddle-stroke has been, er, less than perfect (Turner’s cries of, “It’s not square!” are still ringing in my ears). On the Sunday morning, we were out on the high seas off Largs practising forward paddling, winged strokes, turning with bow rudders and more, in a north-westerly breeze. It was most interesting to swap around Greenland sticks and I certainly got a feel for which ones were “talking” to me and which ones weren’t. This was a very enjoyable excursion and I related entirely to Turner’s almost spiritual observation of how fortunate we were to be out there on the water in that moment.

Cheri teaching Alan forward finishing norsaq roll

Cheri teaching Alan forward finishing norsaq roll

Then there was the rolling, of course. Cheri needs no introduction and her demonstrations of perfect technique, right down to the straitjacket roll, provoked admiration and inspiration. Soon, it was our turn and Cheri and Turner worked with each of us at length, providing valuable correction and feedback. Everyone came away with something. For me, it was a brand new reverse sweep roll, and a ton of learnings on the storm roll which are all coming together nicely. For Alan it was the foundations of a forward finishing norsaq roll (which he hadn’t even realised he desired!).

Throughout the weekend, one thing that struck me was how much it felt like we were making an authentic connection with kayaking, and not just the Euro-fied version of the skills. As I came off the water on Sunday, another paddler who had been observing our little class asked in a mystified tone what the point of the Greenland paddle was. I confess to being a bit taken aback, but managed to explain that this was kayaking in its true, original form, as designed and perfected over hundreds of years and passed on from the Inuit people. He went on to question how we could get any support from our skinny sticks. My mind filled with thoughts on how my paddle had allowed me to overcome a fear of capsize and was helping me find a myriad different ways to recover, of  how it had increased my confidence and made the water my playmate, and of all the fun I was having in the process of learning. The best I could do was to respond that the stick was, well … magic.

A big thank you goes out to Bruce Jolliffe for co-ordinating the weekend. We’re also indebted to Mackayak from Orkney, whom we finally met, and who had got the ball rolling. And it was great to meet others who had taken up the way of the stick. I hope that we shall roll into one another again.

As the Kayak Ways slogan says, the living tradition continues …

Sticking with tradition

Tuilik testYou can only go so far learning traditional kayak skills before you find yourself staring enviously at photos and videos of Greenland devotees and coveting their tuiliks. The tuilik is an Inuit-designed, all-in-one paddle jacket and spraydeck combined. The original tuiliks were made from sealskin, but modern-day commercial ones are made from neoprene and other manmade fabrics. Reflecting on all the days spent shivering with cold (in the summer!), or impersonating an immobilised Michelin Woman, I somehow found myself on the Brooks Paddle Gear website hitting the “Buy Now” button.  Our tuiliks finally arrived from Canada last week after spending 5 days in Customs. I dare say that HM Customs must have to do research when such esoteric items come their way, and complicated spreadsheets must be consulted in order to calculate which particular level of the stratosphere to target the associated charges.

Balance braceHaving been immersed in matters Greenlandic for some time, it’s easy to forget that such attire might not seem quite so “normal” to other paddlers (let alone non-paddlers, yegads). Greenland kayaking doesn’t have a massive following in Scotland and, as much as I’d like to think that we might be viewed as trendsetters, the reality is that we are probably viewed as just plain odd.  Undeterred, we hit the water for our neoprene baptism and started putting the tuiliks to the test. As our faces recoiled from the icy cold, the rest of us remained toasty and we started on what’s become our usual rolling routine. All layback rolls were present and correct. Indeed, the predictions of Steen in Denmark of “pure neoprene doping” held true – which left me feeling a little like a Tour de France rider on EPO. We stayed warm through a fairly lengthy practice session. The reduction in the number of layers worn underneath, and absence of a torso-hugging spraydeck, allowed for increased freedom of movement. I achieved my first storm roll, while Alan nailed his repeatedly. Being able to get your nose to the deck helps. And finally, I could get the rotation going that Cheri Perry references in the excellent “This Is The Roll” DVD. The most astonishing part was when it came to emptying the kayak at the end of the session – there was scarcely a drop of water! No more rolling in slosh!

Hand rollI should add that I had a bit of a wake-up call the other weekend. I’ve been merrily paddling on trips with my Northern Light Paddlesports Greenland paddle, happy in the knowledge that my Standard Greenland roll had never failed me and could therefore be relied upon in conditions. Which was all fine and dandy … until my Standard Greenland roll failed me (er, in the flat). We’d been on a day trip and decided to do a bit of rolling before coming off the water. In I went quite optimistically, only to get stuck under my kayak. I crunched forward and wiggled and was eventually released from the aquatic forces that had held me in their grip. My resultant roll, however, was all to heck and I was reduced to accepting an “eskimo” rescue from Alan. After more drysuit venting, a couple of further attempts revealed that my roll was still on a little holiday. Finally, I removed my PFD/BA and everything was all right.  In an attempt to salvage my wounded pride confidence, I decided that I couldn’t not try some hand rolling. Mistake! Now I was back to having that “raised water level” experience that I encounter in the pool.  In other words, the water surface is somehow that much higher above me without any buoyancy and I can’t quite make it all the way up. It took several tries before success, when everyone breathed a sigh of relief (because they could finally go home for tea).

So, two things were going on here. First, I’d never actually done Greenland (versus Euro) rolling with a fully loaded BA (including radio, phone, knife, snack bars, lip salve, empty wrappers …), and it’s a bit of a different experience.  Second, if my hand roll fails without the buoyancy assistance of layers or a tuilik, then something needs fixing. And the big lesson from all of this is: more practice is needed, including changing up the variables.

I’m glad it happened, because it keeps things real. Traditional rolling skills should not be confined to flatwater lochs. They should be a living tradition, employed in the seas that they were designed for and in a variety of circumstances. Few illustrate this better than Warren Williamson: