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:

Kyles of Bute, and kayak paddles

Saturday saw us out on a paddle from Colintraive to Tighnabruaich. The weather was sublime and it was easy to imagine that we’d relocated to a tropical idyll. It’s the first time I’ve approached Tighnabruaich by sea, and it was all the more special that it was in my own wee boat. There was a fair blast of wind on the way back and I did tire from battling it. But it was worth the effort just to be out on the water on a perfect summer’s day.

I have to mention something that has really helped me progress with my paddling. Earlier in the year I developed a very sore wrist whilst out on a day trip, to the extent that I had to swap paddles with Alan. He had a crank-shaft paddle and using it allowed me to get back (which I had started to doubt was possible, such was the pain). I had a carbon (straight) shaft Lendal Archipelago paddle before. I have since upgraded to the same kind as Alan’s – Lendal Kinetic Touring carbon crank-shaft with polymer blades. What a difference! So comfortable to use and my paddling is much more efficient now, to the extent that I no longer lag quite as far behind Alan. I feel like I get a lot more power out of my stroke and it’s made kayaking a great deal more fun as a result.

It’s a shame that Lendal are no longer resident in Scotland, having been bought over by US company, Johnson Outdoors, and relocated to the US. I feel pleased that my paddle was manufactured here, but it was one of the last.

Addendum: I have since learned that ideally I should have purchased Kinetic Touring-S blades, designed for the smaller paddler, as the larger blades require more strength. Alas, it is too late now as the money has been spent and I can’t swap in blades. These are the pitfalls of shopping for kit as a (smallish) novice.