The kayak chronicles

It has come to my attention that, at an average of 2 excursions on the water per week, my backlog of potential blog posts is growing at an alarming rate. The only way to fully catch up would be to stop paddling for a bit and do nothing but blog, but that is rather a Catch 22 situation and asking too much. As a compromise, I’ll share with you the highlights of the past month or so:

  • MV Captayannis wreck, River Clyde

    A visit to the “sugar boat” (the MV Captayannis) in the Clyde off Helensburgh. I recall the night it was wrecked, and it was all the talk of my primary school the next day. The ship itself dates back to the 1940s (it was wrecked somewhat later, I hasten to add) and is now the home (or at least perch) of sea birds and other marine critters, for whom it provides a “fragrant” environment. Being able to view an historic and personally meaningful shipwreck above water is quite a unique opportunity and beats having to don a diving suit!

  • PS Waverly and kayakers in Kyles of Bute

    PS Waverley and kayakers in Kyles of Bute

    A pleasant paddle in the Kyles of Bute culminating in our attendance at the Colintraive Fete immediately upon our emergence off the water. As we trailed our soggy presence through the crowds and stalls, many strange looks were cast our way. Apparently, wetsuits and cags are not de rigueur at a country fete. It was a relief to stumble upon a friendly and welcoming face – that of Andy, the chief burger flipper who, when he is not flipping venison burgers, is a fellow paddler.

  • Clyde Swim 2010

    Clyde Swim 2010

    A return journey across the Clyde in order to accompany swimmers participating in the cross-Clyde charity swim which was being supported, as per tradition, by the RWSABC. Each swimmer was appointed a kayaker to guide them across the river, and it was up to the kayaker to assess the best (and fastest) “line”. This introduced a slightly more competitive element to the kayaking proceedings than I had anticipated and the responsibility weighed heavily upon me, for a few seconds at least. I soon realised that the presence of slack water and the allocation of a fast swimmer reduced any need for strategic tidal planning on my part and my role reverted comfortably to that of security blanket, so to speak. Hats off to the swimmers that day for their sterling efforts which were quite inspiring (must get back to the pool and work on swimming fitness!).

  • Rolling practice is of course ongoing, mostly occurring along the shores of the Clyde or in Loch Eck. My on-side has been tested in a variety of kayaks now and is still “on” (hooray), while my offside has progressed from DOA to sporadically AWOL, with occasional bouts of FUBAR.

  • Surfing waves on Loch Fyne

    Surfing waves on Loch Fyne

    A windy weekend spent surfing (and a bit of slogging) on Loch Fyne, interspersed with refuelling stops in civilised tea/lunch establishments at Castle Lachlan and Inveraray. These outings were marked with some poignancy, being that Julia was about to go under the knife that Monday to have her knee ligaments reorganised. At least she managed to squeeze the very last droplet of saltwater out of the weekend.

  • Loch Caolisport, Knapdale, Argyll

    Loch Caolisport, Knapdale, Argyll

    A quiet and peaceful outing to Loch Caolisport. Whenever I mention this loch to anyone, I am greeted with a quizzical look – which might explain why we had the place entirely to ourselves (apart from one prawn fishing boat, some seals and seabirds). With beautiful views of Jura and Islay and a lovely lunch beach, it has a lot to offer. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that.

  • Paddling on Loch Linnhe

    Paddling on Loch Linnhe

    A day spent paddling around the north end of Lismore. This brought to mind our first ever kayaking trip of any significance, which took place at that location. It’s pleasing to reflect on how those first tentative paddlestrokes have led to something that’s now approaching a way of life. This is a scenically awesome area, and under 2 hours’ drive away from where we live. The wind reached F5 on our return journey to the Benderloch vicinity, resulting in quite an effort. “Rotation” was the order of the day, as I worked to engage my very toe muscles in assisting my rapidly tiring arms and shoulders in the battle against the wind. It was, however, definitely worth it.

As always, the many kayaking opportunities presented to us have been thanks to the availability of an ever-expanding array of amiable paddling companions whose company we have much appreciated. Not least of these of course is Julia who is now off the water momentarily whilst mending from her knee surgery.  Hopefully, it won’t be long before we see her return – better, stronger, faster than she was before! We wish her a full and speedy recovery.

Paddling on Loch Linnhe

North of Lismore

So take the photographs
And still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf
In good health and good time …

It’s something unpredictable
But in the end it’s right.
I hope we have the time of our lives.

Time of Your Life, Nimrod, Green Day

Failure is the path of least persistence

Avocet at poolHaving learned that sea kayaks are allowed in the Riverside Leisure Centre pool (as long as they’ve been thoroughly washed), we decided to bring one along to practice some “real” rolling at the Club session on Friday night.  Of course, I was keen to take my Rockpool Isel, but this was not conducive to letting other folks have a shot, being that the Isel’s footplate takes a bit more work to adjust than foot pegs. And so, we took along Alan’s Valley Avocet. This choice caused me a little trepidation as my history of rolling the Avocet has not exactly been one filled with glowing accomplishment. I have had the odd moment of success, but it’s been exactly that – odd. And, of course, after the arrival of my Isel, I was in no rush to go back and engage in further self-torture. I managed, however, to delude myself into thinking that I had been making decent progress in improving my skills in the pool boats, so perhaps rolling the Avocet would be a scoosh now. Or perhaps not …

The moment of truth arrived. Alan jumped in and rolled in his usual style, with grace and poise. Next up, it was my turn. After a particularly ugly roll, I then went for a little swim. This was followed by a couple more laboured efforts and some more swimming. Sigh …

Meantime, various other members of the Cowal Kayak Club (mostly river paddlers) jumped in for a go, and each one of them rolled the Avocet with ease.  By the end of the evening, it was as if my ego had imbibed a shrinking potion and  promptly jumped down the rabbit hole into a distorted wonderland of neurosis and despair. Through the haze of blind rage chlorine, I heard a coach’s voice advise something about giving it more “oomph”, fixing my hand position … oooh and look at how good Terry’s (first ever) roll in a sea kayak is … it’s so good, he doesn’t even know how good it is … yada yada yada (I hate Terry …*).

We did of course bring along a camera and I have now reviewed the video evidence.

Readers who are bored senseless at this stage can skip.

For the remaining 2 of you, I give you Exhibits A and B (and C and D):

Alan at set-up

Alan at set-up, note that kayak has started to rotate already

Pam at set-up

Pam at set-up, note that kayak is not rotating at all

Alan rolling up

Paddle at 90 degrees, and Alan's well on his way

Pam not rolling

Paddle at 90 degrees and kayak only just starting to rotate

So, what’s up with that? Yes, yes, I know what you’re all thinking – HIP FLICK! But I swear I can’t get it going any sooner in the Avocet.  Is this a connectivity issue (with thanks to Julia for supplying that technical term), or am I just rubbish?  My most successful roll was the one that involved an absence of noseclip which resulted in a degree of urgency, or “oomph”. I am now inclined to learn a C-to-C roll for those kayaks with which I have difficulty, being that the first half of my sweep isn’t achieving anything anyway.

Fast forward to Saturday and I awoke to a disinclination to go anywhere near a kayak. The prospect of sulking at home all day, however, was even less appealing, and so we trundled along to meet up with our friends and then made our way to Strachur.

Hebridean Princess

Hebridean Princess

It was a pleasure not to be warding off frostbite as we got our gear ready for going on the water, and we were soon heading south towards Strathlachlan, with some slight wind coming from the northwest. There were few other vessels on Loch Fyne, and we were passed by the Hebridean Princess (HM The Queen was not on board). Alan took a photo of her (the ship) with me in the foreground and said he was going to label it “Hebridean Princess and cruise ship”.  I simpered obligingly.

Castle Lachlan

Castle Lachlan

We stopped for lunch at the Inver Cottage Restaurant, whose welcoming fireside is always appreciated.

Upon departure, I took the opportunity to surreptitiously dip my hands in the loch to test the temperature. It wasn’t exactly bath-like, but I speculated that I could perhaps handle a little dunking as long as I kept my drysuit on. In other words, I needed to regain my rolling mojo. I read a book recently that dealt with how the brain attaches to negative associations, being that primitive peoples had to place great focus on matters such as not being killed or starving to death, versus the more positive matters of finding a mate, or a flat-screen telly.  And so we are hard-wired to attach to negativity. The book recommended that, when something negative occurs, you should immediately replace it in your mind with something positive and, in so doing, you can effectively rewire your brain.  My intention, therefore, was to replace the painful associations of the previous evening, with the memory of a perfect, effortless roll in my Isel.

Loch Fyne

Loch Fyne

It didn’t work out exactly as planned. No sooner had I capsized than I became aware of a complete inability to surface. Convinced that I’d been snagged by the Loch Fyne Monster (or at least an especially vicious piece of kelp), I went for yet another frantic swim. On my next attempt, Alan pinpointed the problem. My drysuit was full of air and I was resembling the Michelin Woman upon immersion. Lesson No. 1: always make sure to fully purge your drysuit. Alan helped me deflate by hugging me (which Julia mistook for a romantic gesture – as if!).  Finally, I nailed the roll and it felt exactly as it should – effortless. I love my Isel.

I cheered heartily, however, not as heartily as Alan did. I’m sure I heard some utterances about finally getting some peace. Well, I can take a hint.

Now, I wonder if I should take my Isel into the pool next week …

* With apologies to Terry, it was the chlorine talking

A winter’s paddle

If someone had told me earlier this year that most of my kayaking would be done in the winter months, I would have pointed out the error of their assumptions. As it turns out, it seems that my paddling gear has barely had time to dry before I am back out on the water during these shorter, colder days. As I have perhaps mentioned, it’s been my very good fortune to find friends who are enthusiastic and serious kayakers and for whom a little cold weather is no reason to forego a good day out on the water.

Last Saturday was one such cold day. As we were enjoying some settled conditions, however, it seemed guaranteed to be sunny. Winter sunshine provides some of the best lighting for photography. With that in mind, Alan (who is still healing from injury) accompanied us in order to provide a roving shuttle service and land support where needed, as well as on-shore photography.

Kayakers on Loch Fyne

Kayakers (and ducks) on Loch Fyne

Suitably attired in warm paddle-wear, our group launched at picturesque Otter Ferry and the low sun lit up the landscape as we crossed Loch Fyne. We landed at a small beach and, failing to find a 4 star eating establishment, we consumed our respective packed lunches, compensated by the beauty of the scenery before us. The sun managed to keep the temperature bearable.


Scottish sea kayaker in winter plumage

Scottish sea kayaker in winter plumage

At this point, it is useful to note what constitutes adequate and warm apparel for cold-weather paddling. I find I am perfectly toasty in a decent fleece base layer and a drysuit, accompanied by mukluks, a neck gaiter and – my latest prized possession – a fleece-lined Gore-Tex cap with earflaps. The appendages most at risk of freezing off a kayaker are, however, the hands. I have tried neoprene gloves, but find that they alter my grip of the paddle to the extent that certain wrist/arm tendons start to hurt after a while. I also haven’t found them especially warm. Since I’ve taken possession of borrowed Alan’s Kokatat pogies, however, I have decided that they are my accessories of choice as they do a great job of keeping the icy breezes off of your hands whilst allowing you to grip the paddle shaft as you would normally.

Synchronise your paddles

Synchronise your paddles

Following lunch, we ferry glided our way back over Loch Fyne and made for Castle Lachlan by sunset. At this point in the journey, the sky started to really put on a performance, glowing with the most beautiful pastel and russet hues. We spotted Alan’s car by the shore as he stopped to take pictures of us. He then drove on in order to take photos of us landing at Castle Lachlan where, inspired by the recent photographic achievements of a certain well-known Scottish paddler, we practised some synchronised paddle strokes under the direction of Wing Commander Andy. All that was missing were some vapour trails.

Sunset at Castle Lachlan

Sunset at Castle Lachlan

Our arrival at the ruin of Castle Lachlan was almost exactly timed with the sun finally going down around 3.30 pm. This in turn coincided with an immediate decline in temperature. Upon withdrawing my hands from my pogies and hauling my kayak ashore, I instantly lost contact with my fingers to the point that I was almost launching a search for them along the shoreline. I have never known such rapid freezing of digits! Our group quickly abandoned the kayaks and beat a path to the nearby InverCottage Restaurant where – oh bliss – a cosy fireside awaited. I took urgent advantage of the empty seat next to the hearth and all but crawled into the fireplace. Alan had to point out that my fingers were melting before I would remove them. Tea, coffee and hot choc all round ensured that we soon thawed out sufficient for some of our party to venture back out in order to retrieve cars from our launch point. The rest of us volunteered to “look after” the kayaks – an onerous duty involving a good deal of mutual reassurance that the kayaks would probably be fine as we continued to warm ourselves by the fire.

Upon returning home, Alan and I reviewed our collective haul of photos. The trouble with having 2 photographers at work is that there are (at least) twice the number of photos to sift through. Still, such superb conditions warranted ample recording. I’m sure that there will be plenty of duller days to spend reflecting on a perfect winter’s day of paddling.

A rare day

On the west coast of Scotland, you will often hear the word “rare” (pron: rerr) being used to describe something that is very special, indeed quite rare. A “rare tear” (pron: rerr terr) would denote a most enjoyable event. Hopefully, that piece of information will help explain my post title, for indeed a “rerr” day was recently had within the otherwise murky depths of a Scottish November.

It seems that the weather had outwitted the Met Office’s predictions. The clouds parted, the sun shone, the wind died, and the temperature dipped. It was to be a clear, crisp winter’s day, with the first snows appearing on the mountain tops. For once, several other of the hardy paddlers in our group (well, 2 of them) had donned their dry suits, so it was official – winter has arrived.

Putting in at Portavadie

Putting in at Portavadie

We put in at Portavadie and proceeded across Loch Fyne to Tarbert in perfect conditions. The sea state was calm as we turned our attention to the beauty around us: the dramatic Arran mountains, the Argyllshire countryside, the artistic cloud formations, the sleek Rockpool Isels …

Tarbert really is picture postcard perfect, and especially if you approach it by kayak. This was the first time I had had the opportunity to view the actual harbour from the water, being that the ferry landing (most people’s usual arrival point) is situated before reaching the harbour. And what an interesting place it is! I got busy with my camera, photographing the combination of jaunty and rusty fishing boats, each one sporting colour and character, with names like “Our Lassie” and “Destiny”.

Picture postcard Tarbert

Picture postcard Tarbert

We landed next to a well-positioned waterside seating area where we consumed lunch. Certain members of our party ventured over to the shops to try to purchase some nourishment to go, but with limited success (cold, plasticky soup and microwaveable bacon rolls did not pass muster, sadly). And, of course, it seems that Tarbert had not escaped the curse of West Coast Scotland – the dreaded inconveniently closed toilet facilities (of which I have previously written). Our final disappointment in an otherwise highly satisfactory visit was the state of the water. It was only upon setting off again that we realised how very slick with oily sludge it was, covering our kayaks with slimy gunge (I did feel sorry for the swans living there). This caused some amount of anxiety to certain recently appointed Isel owners, but nothing that couldn’t be solved by a good cold water rubdown later (and the kayak cleaned up nicely too).

We returned to Portavadie at a leisurely pace, enjoying the social aspects of kayaking by engaging in a good blether. Indeed, kayaking is an activity wherein I have come to greatly appreciate the company of others. Not only is it handy to have folks around from a safety viewpoint, it is also good for one’s mental health. I do recommend it.

Fishing boat at Tarbert

Fishing boat at Tarbert

As I later sat down to review the photo haul of the day, a sinking feeling overcame me as I realised that many of my snaps had succumbed to another curse – the curse of the dreaded water droplets on the lens. I had been aware of these droplets and had attempted to clear them by dunking the camera in the water, by blowing on the lens and by licking the lens (I know, ewww … but desperate measures were required). It seems that those methods served no other purpose than to produce various states of wateriness. Alan helpfully remarked that it looked like I’d run the images through Photoshop’s “Drunk” filter. Oh, ha ha.

Never mind, it just makes the good shots, like the day, rare.

Fyne and dandy

Arran mountains from Kilbride Bay, Loch Fyne

Arran mountains from Kilbride Bay, Loch Fyne

On days when the sun is shining, the skies are blue, and the temperature is balmy (well, above 15°C), it is not unlike a form of torture to find oneself working indoors. On such days, the call of the kayak becomes deafening and I find that I am doing my customers no favours by attempting to continue working. Resentment festers until I am incapacitated by belligerent rage. I get distracted.

So, in the unpredictable climate of Scotland, on such days it’s often better to just down tools and get out there. There will be plenty of rainy days to catch up with work.

I am learning, however, that the weather forecast can be a little “quirky”. This is not a startling revelation to Scottish readers who know that the only reliable forecast is the one obtained from looking out the window. But I refer in particular to the prediction of wind. For example, more than a few times Alan and I have convinced ourselves that the occasional 30 mph gust is within our remit, as long as the background wind remains at the forecast 5 mph level. Alas, it’s more often than not been the case that we have then encountered one day-long 30 mph “gust”.

Cirrus clouds above Loch Fyne

Cirrus clouds above Loch Fyne

On our most recent excursion, such occasional gusts had indeed been forecast. We entered Loch Fyne from Portavadie and decided to head north. It was all very pleasant, if bumpy, for about the first 15 minutes but then I became aware of that familiar feeling of teetering over the fine line that differentiates “a wee bit lumpy” from “where did I put the flares?”. A quick shout over to Alan confirmed that he was experiencing the same feeling and, abandoning all our recently learned, fancy-schmancy bow-ruddering techniques, we hefted our kayaks somehow, any-old-how against the waves into a 180° about face. Influencing our decision was a quick scan up ahead which confirmed that the sea state looked equally lively further north.

I have no problem running up the white flag of – not so much surrender as – admission of limitations. In kayaking, taking a risk can quickly end in tears, a costly rescue and several embarrassing column inches in the local rag (who’d no doubt print our ages). It’s inconvenient, to say the least. When it’s just the 2 of us out together, Alan and I are not inclined towards heroics. It wasn’t like we were attempting the Tsangpo Gorge, just going for a wee putter on Loch Fyne, that’s all.

Ascog Bay lunch stop

Ascog Bay lunch stop

But, facing the prospect of having to abandon our paddle altogether, we were pleased to realise that the “gusts” were calming sufficient to allow us to explore the coastline south of Portavadie. Lunch was consumed at picturesque and tranquil Ascog Bay, which we had to ourselves, and there can’t be much more beautiful scenery than that looking out towards the Arran mountains from Kilbride Bay where we also landed for a quick sunbathe. The water was so clear, I contemplated a little rolling practice, but was overcome by stage-fright upon realising that five a small crowd of people (and a dog) had appeared on the beach, constituting a potentially critical audience for whom I was not prepared.

Poor technique on Loch Fyne

Poor technique on Loch Fyne

During the southward journey, I became conscious of my previously injured left wrist tendon “tweaking” a little. Of course, I am once again using my Werner Cyprus paddle, having had a little break to use my Lendal Kinetic one during the last couple of outings. You might think, therefore, that there can only be one conclusion – that my Werner paddle is causing me injury. I would argue au contraire – the Werner is much too expensive well-designed for that to be the case. It is a poor workman who blames his tools. Indeed, the problem lies with the user, ie me. I started to pay close attention to the exact point during my forward stroke when I was feeling the tweak and it became clear that it was during the catch phase of the opposite (right) blade. I examined where my left hand and wrist were positioned at that point, and compared them with Alan’s. And therein lay the problem – my wrist was flexing, or bending back on itself, and my hand was bending away from my thumb, putting strain on the tendon leading to the thumb, whereas Alan’s wrist remained entirely neutral throughout the stroke.

Alan at Ascog Bay

Alan at Ascog Bay

I should explain that Alan has had to perfect his paddling technique due to the fact that he suffers from a career-ending repetitive strain injury in both wrists (caused by years of computer-intensive work). Ensuring correct wrist positioning for him is more than just a comfort adjustment, it’s the difference between paddling and not. So he’s a pretty good person to go by.

Inadequate rotation was part of my problem too, as well as a general lack of mindfulness of hand and arm positioning (wrists bent, arms bent, quite a mess really). It seems that the Werner paddle’s neutral crank, which differs from the Lendal’s “modified” crank, has somehow “encouraged” this little non-neutral idiosyncrasy of mine. Very ironic and, as I mentioned, not the fault of Werner. The good news is that I am now a lot more mindful of my hand/arm/wrist/torso positioning which should lead to (hopefully) many years of more comfortable paddling.

And so, managing to forestall capsizing and debilitating pain, we were able to explore a portion of Loch Fyne successfully. And what’s the definition of success in sea kayaking? Possibly that feeling of sun-burned, wind-blown, salty, sea-sprayed contentment that accompanies one on the drive home.