Four star paddling

For those of you who may have stumbled across this post and are now anticipating a discourse on the various components of the BCU 4 Star Sea Kayaking syllabus, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. The assessment to which I refer does not relate to paddling capability. It does, however, relate to that other essential requirement when out on the water – style!

Would someone turn the lights on?

Would someone turn the lights on please?

Yes, you’ve either got or you haven’t got it, and I’m pleased to mention that it so happens that my paddling pals are not lacking when it comes to a bit of upmarket class. Of course, they are perfectly capable of getting “down and dirty” in rough weather, wilderness camping, surviving on berries type situations, but they are also capable of accommodating a more civilised, leisurely and altogether tasteful approach to sea kayaking when the opportunity presents.

And such opportunities tend to present themselves on winter days, when one feels the need to reward oneself for simply getting out of bed on the water, such are the temperatures and general dreichness. Conditions last Saturday were calm, although the lighting resembled that of a nuclear winter (a not altogether inappropriate analogy as I shall later explain). It was so dim, my camera seemed convinced I’d left the lens cover on and refused to focus, although I did manage one or 2 gloomy shots. Not even Barrie’s orange glow could brighten things up.

Just as we were about to launch, a group of road cyclists breezed past us, one of whom shouted, “And we thought we were mad!”. As Maggi helpfully reminded them, at least sea kayakers don’t break anything when they fall over.

A spot of kayak yoga on Loch Long

A spot of kayak yoga on Loch Long

We departed from the Holy Loch and, in what might be called setting a trend (for a couple of us at least), we once again headed in the direction of Knockderry. An initial spot of choppiness gave way to some flat water conditions quite in keeping with the leisurely, stylish day that we had planned (although one of our number was heard to complain pitifully about a lack of waves, like it was a bad thing). Soon Knockderry House Hotel came into view and we landed elegantly on the beach. The hotelier and staff greeted us at the door by informing us that the “men in white boats” would be arriving shortly. How thrilling, I thought – more kayakers! Until someone informed me that I’d misheard and that the word used had, in fact, been “coats”. You might therefore think that this would suggest that our soggy presence was not desired in such a fine, 4 star establishment as the Knockderry House Hotel, however, that was not the case at all as we were heartily welcomed into the (now legendary) warmth of the bar lounge.

Our table awaits ... Knockderry House Hotel

Our table awaits ... Knockderry House Hotel

Menus were handed out and soon we were selecting our choices for lunch. I didn’t even hear the chef cursing from the kitchen after being presented with the various quirks and limitations presented by the 2 “special” diners amongst us who were trying to avoid death by allergic anaphylaxis and/or any food with a face. Our waitress insisted that we should eat lunch in the restaurant despite our embarrassment at not having dressed for the occasion, although Barrie subsequently pointed out that he did have a suit on (albeit a wetsuit). Our embarrassment was only mildly alleviated by the fact that we were, in fact, the only diners. Suffice to say, Knockderry House Hotel gets an enthusiastic thumbs up for its amiability and hospitality towards sea kayakers. If you’re in the vicinity, do call by and experience it for yourself (just leave your spraydeck and BA outside).

After lunch, a quick demonstration was given by Julia of yoga-for-kayaking which involved a good deal of rolling about on the bar floor. I know what this must have looked like (and have deliberately withheld the potentially incriminating photos), but you have to take my word that it was serious sea kayaking business. We then exited back into the gloom and cold.

Vanguard submarine

Vanguard submarine

And so back to matters nuclear. Our return journey found us sharing the water with a large Vanguard class submarine, a common sight on the Clyde, making its way to the Faslane base. I am reliably informed that this vessel can carry a payload of 16 American Trident missiles. As a bit of a sobering exercise, I did a little calculation on this and I estimate that one such submarine can pack 7600 times the explosive punch of the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima (do correct me if I’m wrong here). Having tuned into my VHF radio, it was unsurprising to find that they were not broadcasting their maneouvres on Channel 16 and a quick scan failed to reveal the no doubt top secret, encrypted military channel that they were using to communicate (in Navajo, I imagine) with their small flotilla of RIBs and MOD Police escorts. We resisted the urge to go join the procession for fear of being shot shooed away.

Heading home

Heading home

This had proven an interesting, although slightly surreal, distraction, but we were soon back at the Holy Loch just as a rain shower moved in. After some fumbling around, our numb hands managed to tie the odd knot sufficient to keep the kayaks at least partially secured to the roofracks until we reached Julia’s for the obligatory end-of-journey, recap-and-reflect-on-a-lovely-day-out cup of tea.

As you can tell, I am quite a fan of this most proper form of sea paddling. If I am to aspire to any kind of star system, this is the one that perhaps holds the most promise for me personally and that contains any hope at all of attaining 5 stars!

Proper sea kayaking

After spending another Friday anxiously hitting the “Refresh” button whilst viewing the Met Office site on my Web browser, I realised that there was no getting away from it – Saturday (14 Nov) was going to be windy. Indeed, I awoke to a view of a very choppy Clyde, as well as a strange lack of appetite. It was decision-time: should I call my friends and wimp out, or bite the bullet and show up for a day’s paddling? This is a difficult judgement call when one must weigh up one’s abilities versus the nuances of the weather forecast versus imagined fears versus the abilities of one’s fellow paddlers. No-one likes to be a liability but, at the same time, how can you progress from liability to asset without going out and gaining experience? Eventually, and in the spirit of the yogic concept of “letting go”, I decided to go with the flow, to turn up and see what would happen.

I tried to ignore the view to my right as I drove along the Innellan and Dunoon shore road, although occasional bouts of jostling, confused waves caught my attention. There’s nothing like a dose of clapotis to make you feel a bit squeamish in the morning.

A sense of foreboding

A sense of foreboding

My paddling pals couldn’t help but express some congenial surprise at my appearance. No, not my stylish fleecewear, but more to do with the fact that I am not known for jumping to the head of the queue when rough water paddling opportunities arise. I instantly latched upon their reaction as a cue for me to bow out gracefully after an obvious misjudgement on my part. They, however, would hear none of it and insisted that I join them, even although (being that they are of advanced abilities) I am certain it meant an adjustment to their potentially more ambitious plans.

The prevailing wind was due to be westerly, so it was decided that we would put in at Ardentinny with a view to considering 2 potential destinations. Magda profferred a choice between the “warmth” (emphasis hers) of Knockderry House Hotel on the eastern side of Loch Long, or the (somewhat cooler) “mysteries” of Carrick Castle to the north. Purely because at least 2 of us had recently visited Carrick Castle (and for no other reason), we decided to head for Knockderry.

Crossing Loch Long was breezy but manageable and, despite all of my noises to the contrary, I will confess (just a tiny bit, let’s not get carried away now) that I do enjoy some weather. I love the feeling of freedom that is afforded by being out in the midst of the elements in your small craft, the sense of being in a minority of fortunate folks who have the chance to experience this level of exposure to nature. Surrounded by changing seas, and skies that range from bright to brooding, being followed by the occasional seal and laughed at by the seabirds, certainly beats sitting at home*.

We duly reached the shores of Knockderry and I managed a small surf landing, something I definitely need to practise. The great thing is that, in my Isel (with its lovely footplate), I now have sensation in my feet upon exiting my kayak and can walk like a normal person up the beach. I am still getting over the novelty of this.

The warmth of Knockderry House Hotel

Knockderry House Hotel

It seems that the owners and staff at the Knockderry House Hotel have no issues with sea kayakers dripping their way into their cosy and well-appointed establishment. Magda had been correct about the warmth as we took up prime position next to the log fire. Just the ticket! As a well-known coach has commented already (hello Richard) – this was proper sea kayaking! Lunch was served and it certainly looked very nice. Due to previously referenced dietary issues, I chose instead to dine later al fresco in the shelter of Lewis’s luxury emergency shelter. This wasn’t bad at all actually – the company was excellent and, unlike the others, I had cake.

Soon we were gazing out to the white horses on Loch Long and, I suddenly noticed that I was feeling absolutely no sense of anxiety at the sight of them. Obviously, the company that I keep (and that would include my Isel) is having an influence upon me.

White horses on Loch Long (Me? Bovvered?)

White horses on Loch Long

We battled our way against the wind to the other side of the loch and, upon reaching more sheltered waters, we proceeded to chat about important paddling matters. From Lewis I learned a great deal about paddle types, lengths and blade sizes and we swapped paddles in order for me to experience a Werner Shuna carbon model – an interesting revelation.

No paddle expedition is complete these days without a cuppa at Julia’s on the way home, at which point some time was spent exploring Facebook and its many uses. Against my better judgement, I now have an account and am publishing away merrily there as well. Between Facebook, my blog and all the many useful paddling forums and Websites out there, if I’m not careful, I’ll soon have no time for actual paddling. I know, I’m just being ridiculous. I could always give up work.

* With apologies to Alan who is still sitting at home battling injury.