Familiarity breeds content

Paddling against the windWhile the rest of the northern hemisphere basks in summer sunshine, we have been soaking up all the rain, wind and cool temperatures that only Scotland can provide in July. Theoretically this might sound like a miserable prospect, but as the wise and ancient adage goes – when life hands you lemons, add some salt and tequila! And the same applies for the weather. We could choose to spend the rainy, windy days indoors playing dominoes, or we could go out and paddle anyway. And so we have been squirting those lemons right back in life’s eye. Who wants sunshine and balmy conditions anyway?

I know what you’re thinking: who is this and what have you done with Pam? The fact is that lately I have, through a process of gradual coercion immersion (the type that hasn’t involved too much capsizing, fortunately), become increasingly familiar with conditions that lie in the F4/5 slot on the Beaufort Scale.

After our exciting day out off Cumbrae, we went along to practice night at the RWSABC when the wind was making a direct hit on the bay and veritable breakers were rolling ashore. A few deep breaths and out I went into the fray. It wasn’t long before (what felt like) a rather large wave caught my stern and powered me forwards with such speed that I thought that it might see me hurtled into the club bar to get in an early round of ginger beers. A little shaken, I landed and collected my nerves before heading back out, by which time the waves had subsided a tiny bit.

A lovely summer's day out on the PS Waverley

A lovely summer's day out on the PS Waverley (I'd rather be paddling!)

Last Saturday was yet another grey and windy day, so we decided that it wasn’t worth venturing too far away. Launching at Lazaretto Point, it had all the feel of one of our winter’s day paddles, and we headed east out of the Holy Loch. It took us about 10 minutes to reach Kilcreggan – well, I exaggerate, but with the F4-5 westerly wind behind us, we scooted along as if engine-powered, scarcely requiring a paddle stroke. As much as this was all very pleasurable, our enjoyment was tempered by the realisation that this could only mean one thing for the return journey.

Scooting along

Scooting along

We fortified ourselves at the cafe on the waterfront of Kilcreggan, another establishment that is kind to sodden paddlers and doesn’t mind saltwater puddles forming on the floor. Soon, we were back on the water experiencing the full-frontal force of the wind. There’s no denying it, this was quite a slog. I made a concerted effort not to gauge my progress against any landmarks as I knew this would only result in depression. On the bright side, it proved an excellent opportunity to work on maximum forward stroke efficiency, focusing on rotation and paddle grip in particular. I explored the fine line between lessening my grip on the paddle so as to prevent raging tendinitis, and having the paddle whipped from my hands. The gusts were sufficient to bring us to a halt on occasion and we contemplated a shore stop at Cove before deciding to plough ahead regardless. There were some moments of respite, but the gusts experienced upon reaching the Holy Loch were some of the most fearsome of the day.

Rescue "practice"

Rescue "practice"

A few feet from the shore, my wind-ravaged senses became aware of some wobbling going on to my left. Almost in slow motion, I observed Alan inelegantly capsizing in what looked like a most unintended way. As Alan floundered about in the water, my finely honed rescue skills immediately kicked in, but I discarded them in favour of a fit of the giggles. The official story regarding this embarrassing debacle (avidly watched/photographed by our fellow paddlers and various pedestrians on the shore-side) was that Alan was paddling Julia’s Pintail and, due to a lack of practice at emerging from that particular kayak, he managed to tip himself over whilst doing some sort of yoga pose in the cockpit. Actually, he tells me that he was in fact trying to disengage his foot from the kayak in preparation for landing. What resulted was a fiasco hybrid between a self-rescue and an assisted rescue. I will share some key learnings:

  • The rescuer should not giggle at the rescuee. It is considered bad form.
  • The rescuee should not shout at the rescuer.
  • The rescuee should follow the rescuer’s instructions, even if the rescuer is his wife.
  • The rescuer should refrain from saying “I told you so” afterwards, no matter how tempting.

One thing for sure is that paddling into F4/5 wind provides an excellent workout, although I confess to moving a bit like a turtle the next day, until I’d done some yoga at least.

Happy place, despite the weather

Happy place, despite the weather

Aside from the practical benefits to be gained from increased familiarity with rougher conditions, there are some considerable psychological ones too. With more windy weather under my belt, I am no longer hitting “Refresh” on the Met Office website weekend forecast on a Wednesday. Gone is the nervous anxiety created by predicted gusts that only a few weeks ago would have seen me bailing out of a trip. And all told, it serves to increase the number of available paddling opportunities, which can’t ever be a bad thing. Living in Scotland, it’s not as if we can hold off and wait for summer to arrive.

Rolling as religion

Alan doing C-to-C roll

Alan doing C-to-C roll

It’s been feeling like I’ve converted to a new religion lately, the religion of kayak rolling. The way it occupies my thoughts and spare time has all the markers of a cult-like fervour, a saltwater brainwashing of sorts. Heaven or Nirvana can be found in a perfect roll. Hell or dukkha is found in repeated failure. There are even sects to this religion – the sweep-roll followers, the C-to-C convertees, the “hybrids” who dabble in various forms. Our temple is the sea, our church a convenient loch or pool. Our rosary or mala is the noseclip worn around our neck and our skullcap is made of neoprene.

Sometimes the God of Rolling is in benevolent mood and the planets are aligned, blessings are bestowed and some sweet rolls are manifest. But sometimes this God is angry and vengeful and punishes by cruelly denying the devout prayers of unworthy disciples.

I’m certain also that there are many religious parallels concerning the gifting of a lowly devotee with a powerful and blessed tool that renders them capable of wondrous things, such as smiting enemies and parting seas and so on. I have been given such a tool – it’s called a Valley Nordkapp LV. I have yet to prove my worthiness.

So Alan and I made our weekly pilgrimage to Loch Eck yesterday. Alan struggled with his sweep and took a break for some contemplation. I jumped in my kayak and, to my immense pleasure, performed a highly successful roll that had the sound of “hallellujah” echoing up and down the loch.

That was my last really good roll.

And so it followed that I started to think. And then I thought some more. Here’s how my thoughts went:

  • I need to adjust my head positioning
  • I need to adjust my blade angle
  • I seem to be coming up too high and can’t get my blade on the water at the start of my sweep, why is that?
  • My BA is too buoyant
  • I need to reach forward more
  • Wow, I haven’t thought about my hip flick in a while, I need to focus on that
  • I’ve forgotten my head movement
  • My blade angle’s all wrong
  • I’ve forgotten everything, but if I try another 3 dozen times it might come back to me
  • I feel dizzy
  • I’m tired, cold and want to go home

There were some more successful rolls, and I should have stopped at 2 in a row, but I honestly can’t figure out what made them successful. Or why in some kayaks all this seems almost effortless.

Meantime, after his contemplation, Alan made a declaration that he was sick fed up with failed sweep rolls and was going to convert over to the C-to-C side. To me, such switches of allegiance at this stage in our rolling practice are akin to converting from Church of Scotland to Rastafarianism. It is beyond comprehension, a step too far. But Alan has been dabbling with the C-to-C for some time now and yesterday saw him on his road to Damascus (OK, enough with the religious metaphors). Needless to say, the C-to-C with an extended paddle (the latter recommended by Gordon) worked. Every single time. In my Nordkapp LV. In his Nordkapp. Awesome.

So, with a desire to share in the awesomeness, I had a go myself. It felt weird and different, yet not. I came up after 3 attempts, which isn’t bad for a brand new roll. I am torn.

I started a discussion on the UK Rivers Guidebook Sea Kayaking forum where I have found like-minded souls who evidently also spend their non-practising hours contemplating matters of deep and philosophical meaning relevant to all things salty. I would, however, like to know where they all were when I was checking for new responses at 8 am this Sunday morning. I mean, priorities.

But until such time as I figure it all out and achieve Ultimate Enlightenment, aka a consistent, bombproof roll in my Nordy, that’s me in the corner …

The body moves naturally, automatically, unconsciously, without any personal intervention or awareness. But if we begin to use our faculty of reasoning, our actions become slow and hesitant.” Zen Master Taishen Deshimaru

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

Failure is an option

After several weeks at the Riverside pool in Dunoon, the newly re-formed Cowal Kayak Club has transferred its Friday night activities to Loch Eck. The sea kayakers are presently outnumbered by the river kayakers, but hopefuly in time, as word gets out, this imbalance may be rectified. Already we have formed the expected “us versus them”/sea versus river cliques. We sea folks remain dubious of any ostentatious displays of kayak acrobatics by the river guys, and they in turn have watched with derision fascination as we practice our wet exits and re-entries. Cruising around in our sea kayaks amongst the river boats is a bit like being a whale surrounded by lots of little fishies.

It has come to my attention that Loch Eck is rather cold, actually Baltic, to use the vernacular. This has made me less than enthusiastic to plunge myself into its freezing depths, despite wearing a drysuit. Bracing practice for me has been a rather muted affair, and I have rarely surpassed a “2” (out of 3) on the edging scale. Rolling is out of the question quite frankly, as I’m not sure my noggin could handle the shock. Alan, on the other hand, has been throwing himself into our various practice drills with gusto and is accelerating past me on the learning curve. I plan to catch up just as soon as the loch warms up – even if that is only for one week in July.

Nonetheless, I did manage to chuck myself out of my kayak for a bit of self-rescue practice. I confess to not having attempted this for quite some time, for similar temperature-related excuses reasons. And it showed. After about 15 attempts to climb on top of my kayak, during which time Alan had been deftly demonstrating correct technique to a rapt audience of river folks, he noticed that I was positioned at the wrong spot. My memory had dimmed since the last time I’d practiced – but it is now seared on my mind that the correct place is precisely where my “Nordkapp” logo is located. Unfortunately, after all those failed attempts I couldn’t succeed in completing the rescue due to having run out of “oomph” and having lost all sensation in my (by now blue) hands.

Following on from that, I sensed the commencement of what I’ve come to know as the “Friday night funk”. No I didn’t immediately head for the night clubs, instead I observed my mind descending down the spiral of negative thought. It goes something like this:

  • I am a failure and will never learn to (insert desired skill here)
  • (Insert name of person) can do it so much better than I can
  • Everyone must think I’m a loser
  • Everyone must be laughing at me
  • If I can’t (insert skill) soon, I will have to give up kayaking for good

Of course, you can see a common theme here. The frequency of references to “I” and “me” gives it away. Yes, that old culprit – the ego. It doesn’t like when it’s been given a bit of a battering and can tend to exact its revenge by undermining any consoling thoughts that one might happen to muster. Conversely, I confess to having allowed my ego to enjoy a little inflating in the recent past. For example, when I learned to roll in the pool, I definitely permitted myself more than one happy dance (much to Alan’s nauseation). But that only serves to create a bigger fall when the next setback occurs.

As we drove home, it occurred to me: I can let this encroaching gloom engulf me, or I can … not. It is like the Cherokee legend about the two wolves. One is angry, envious, greedy, self-piteous, proud and arrogant, the other is joyful, peaceful, loving, hopeful, serene and kind. The question is, which wolf survives? The answer is, the one you feed.

In kayaking, as in yoga, as in life, failure is not a defeat, it is a learning experience. We never stop practising and we never stop learning.

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.

Nordkapp LoVe

Something unexpected happened last weekend: I fell in love! The object of my affection has it all – good looks, loads of personality, upstanding reputation, and I hope that our relationship will be long and rewarding. For those of you who haven’t connected the dots with the title of this post, I do not speak of a person (although Alan possesses all of the aforementioned qualities, of course), I speak of the thing of beauty that is the Valley Nordkapp LV sea kayak. I am smitten.

The Nordkapp LV (mine is red though)

The Nordkapp LV (mine is red though)

It had been on my short-list of kayaks to try out, based on my understanding of its qualities, especially in relation to a smaller paddler like myself. To be very honest, I was rather hotly anticipating the new Rockpool Isel, or the TideRace xPlore-S, but that was before I met the Nordy.

(more…)

Back on the Clyde

Passing Toward Lighthouse

Passing Toward Lighthouse on the River Clyde

Whilst it’s wonderful to venture further afield, slipping into the Clyde from the Cowal shore remains a treat. We have proven that you don’t have to go far (which is just as well, considering the cost of petrol) to have a pleasant day out paddling. We had a brief burst of summer at the weekend, with temps in the sweltering 20s! So we decided to hop out for a bit of skills practice. Here’s what we found off the shores of Innellan and Toward:

> Lots of curious grey seals popping up for a look at the strangely noiseless, yet garish small human craft floating past them.
> A juvenile common tern waiting on shore while its parents fought aerial wars with a seagull.
> A host of other terns, guillemots, gannets, eider ducks (by the hundred!), cormorants and gulls.
> A handful of Lion’s Mane jellyfish.
> The Rothesay ferries, ploughing back and forth.
> Yachts trying to maximise the small puffs of wind available.
> Poignantly, a trail of roses cast on the water – in memory of a loved one perhaps.
> Two other paddlers who had just finished circumnavigating Bute.
> Plastic, of course: plastic bags, Coke bottles etc, which we did our best to clean up (it starts with one).

Not bad for one afternoon on our doorstep.

We spent some time at Ardyne Point practising hanging draws, cross bow rudders, edging and sculling. Alan unexpectedly practised capsizing, and we performed a successful assisted rescue.

I find that there is a clear connection between my yoga practice and my kayak practice. For example, when sculling, if I over-think the action, I fail to achieve any flow as I tend to jiggle the boat too much, or shoot forward. On Sunday, as I sculled my way over to rescue a plastic bag, I found that if I instead focused on the “third eye”, as it’s referred to in yoga, and allow my mind to enter the flow of the water whilst balancing in the support of the water, I am far more successful. I must now try to extend this learning to other aspects of kayaking, such as rolling.

By the way, that plastic bag that I mentioned was emblazoned with a statement about how the Co-op doesn’t test its cosmetic products on animals. It just seems a shame that their (and everyone else’s) bags end up choking other animals.

Kayaking in Lewis, Outer Hebrides

Had an awesome week up in Lewis with the Garnock Canoe Club. Conditions were wild upon our arrival – it’s the first time we’ve set the tent up in a hurricane and could only do so with the assistance of several kind folks who literally pitched in. It was good to learn that our kayaks had remained attached to the car roof as we journeyed from Stornoway up to our campsite at Traigh na Beirigh, Cnip.

The day after our arrival was a tourist day as the high winds precluded venturing on to the water. Instead, we explored Uig Bay, the Callanish Standing Stones (pre-dating Stonehenge), the Dun Carloway broch and the Gearrannan Black House Village – all well worth a visit.

Kayaks on Traigh na Beirigh beach, Lewis

Kayaks on Traigh na Beirigh beach, Lewis

The next day, we did manage to get out in our boats. For the less experienced kayaker, this should have been a complete non-starter. It was only the presence of 2 senior coaches that allowed us the privilege of experiencing some pretty challenging conditions generated by the Atlantic swells making their way over to the Hebrides. We paddled with Richard Cree of our club, and Mike Sullivan of Stornoway Canoe Club, and their upbeat encouragement and instruction gave us the self-belief needed to tackle the roller-coaster swells and to have a lot of fun in the process.

Wednesday saw us paddle north-west from Trigh na Beirigh up the Bhaltos coast before crossing over to Pabaigh Mor and following its coastline south-east.

In the surf

In the surf

After stopping for lunch on a small beach on Pabaigh, we paddled around Bhacsaigh and then headed back against the wind to our starting point. This was followed by some play in the surf by some of our company.

Thursday saw us set out once again from Trigh na Beirigh, heading north to the east coast of Pabaigh Mor and exploring some caves along the way. As we passed between Pabaigh and the little islet of Bogha Dubh, I decided to make a quick visit to the “white room” located there.

Exploring a cave, Pabaigh Mor, Lewis

Exploring a cave, Pabaigh Mor, Lewis

To my shame, my novice skills were overwhelmed by a substantial wave bouncing off the islet which swiped my boat and sent me off in a sideways detour. I should have, of course, braced into the wave. Failing that, I could have executed a perfect roll back up, or a high brace, or I could have hung around for a short while and then performed an eskimo rescue. Failing all that, I could have flipped my boat and jumped back in swiftly before paddling to safety. Would have, should have, could have.

Paddling off Pabaigh Mor, Lewis

Paddling off Pabaigh Mor, Lewis

Of course, I am entering the realms of fantasy when I talk about perfect rolls and high braces, but the other options would not have been beyond my capabilities had I managed to engage my brain. Instead, I went for a bit of a swim, but only briefly as, faster than you can say “watery grave”, Richard and Mike were on the case. Mike quickly attached a tow rope to Richard’s boat, whilst Richard was busy emptying and righting my boat, whilst I clung on to Richard’s boat. Safely towed away from the lurking rocks off Pabaigh by Mike, Richard helped me jump back into my boat and we paddled off into the sunset. Or so it seemed. A perfect assisted rescue all round. But that doesn’t make up for my own inadequacies and I have vowed to address these forthwith. The up-side is that this was a sterling test of my new dry suit, which held up impressively and I didn’t feel a thing.

Kayaks at lagoon, Pabaigh Mor

Kayaks at lagoon, Pabaigh Mor

Recovering from our recent excitement, we made our way to a beautiful lagoon at Pabaigh where we hopped ashore to enjoy lunch. Mike explained that the lagoon had, in the past, been used to store lobsters before they were shipped to restaurants around the world. It was a beautiful spot and, with the azure waters around the beach in the sunshine, one could think of oneself as being on a tropical island.

After a little exploring, we set off again, heading west, then turning south-east through some formidable swell. Only Mike’s exuberant cries of “Fan-tastic!”, and Richard’s declarations of “It’s a beautiful thing!” kept me from contemplating my next wet exit too seriously.

We all returned safely and, despite my mishap, I felt pretty buzzed at having at least been out there in some “real” conditions and survived. I was greatly inspired by not only the senior paddlers in our company, but also the hugely competent younger members – I hope to be as good as those guys one day.

Addendum: Photos displayed here were taken when conditions permitted Alan to take his hands off the paddle – so sorry, no shots of yours truly going for a swim.

Long time, no sea

I have several good excuses for not updating lately. First, we were away. Second, Alan had a training course. And third, the car’s playing up. The last one has contributed greatly to a lack of access to all things paddling – in fact, to all things beyond Dunoon. Of course, we could just jump into our boats at Ardyne Point, but haven’t quite worked up the motivation (in not especially great weather) as we’d really quite like to go somewhere new.

Elkhorn Slough sea ottersIt doesn’t mean to say we haven’t been paddling at all. We did in fact spend 2 glorious days on the water whilst in California. The first day was on Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing near Monterey. This is a protected marshland reserve so there is no shortage of wildlife. We’d paddled there some 4 years ago, but there’s been a development since then. No, not the usual housing development, but the arrival of sea otters! It started with a few (allegedly) and then they invited their friends and now there are dozens of them. Considering the endangered status of these animals, it is quite a privilege to see a whole raft of males hanging out at the mouth of the Slough, or to watch mothers and pups playing throughout the reserve. And, of course, there were plenty of seals hauled up sunbathing. The conditions on the Slough were not what you might call challenging, which meant that all of one’s attention could be focused on the amazing wildlife and beautiful scenery. There were even some volunteer guides out in their kayaks ready to educate and inform other passing paddlers. I found this very useful as I realised I could not readily equate the birds I was seeing with their cousins back in Scotland. (more…)

A Fool and Their Kayak …

The weather forecast for Thursday night revealed a low pressure system moving in at precisely the time we were due at Kilbirnie Loch for our canoe club session. We wondered momentarily if class would be cancelled, but somehow knew that the folks of Garnock Canoe Club were made of hardier stuff than to let a wee bit of wind and rain hold them back.

Indeed we were correct as we arrived to a veritable tempest in the company of most (although not all) of our usual classmates. Admittedly, there was no great rush to enter the fray. As several small children put in ahead of us for their class, however, the adults soon followed albeit with a little less enthusiasm (and a little more trepidation) than normal. I’m sure I saw an evil glint in Richard’s eye as he pronounced that the blasting wind was a mere Force 2 and that we would be using these “ideal” conditions to practise edging and to continue with our self-rescues. Helpfully, he mentioned that hardly anyone had died during previous sessions in such conditions. (more…)