Times like these

Yes, there’s been a bit of a hiatus in blog posts. I do apologise. But fear not, we have been out on the water, despite adversity, enjoying mostly calm yet chilly conditions.

Kilcreggan to Greenock

Kilcreggan to Greenock

We accompanied Julia on her momentous return to the water after ACL repair surgery. In case her surgeon is reading this, I would just like to assure that we were exceedingly sensible and conservative in our undertaking of this trip. After some rescue practice in F6, we went for tea at Kilcreggan. OK, I’m kidding about the first bit. I can confirm that conditions were flat calm and that no ligaments were harmed in the completion of our outing.

Later, during another flat calm day out, this time on Loch Long, the mirror-like reflections were disturbed only by our paddle strokes and made for some great photography.

Not a breath of wind

Not a breath of wind

As we made our way northwards, we were almost flattered by the attentiveness displayed by the MOD Police as they pulled alongside us in their motor vessel to question our destination. I dare say that answering, “We’re just popping over to take photos of your lovely military installation”, would not necessarily have been perceived as the witty riposte that we’d intended, so we refrained. Our sensible (and truthful) answer of “Loch Goil” allowed our questioners to bid us a “nice day” before going on their way.

Loch Long

Loch Long

Later, their colleagues in a RIB swung by our lunch spot just as I was about to set up for some rolling practice. Determined not to provide them with any free entertainment (I might have considered a small fee), I waited for them to lose interest before plunging into the chilly water (me that is, not them). We later learned that HMS Ark Royal was due to arrive at Loch Long in a few days’ time, to offload some armaments before being decommissioned. Perhaps that would explain the apparent security “sensitivity”.

Loch Eck lunch stop

Loch Eck lunch stop

We also enjoyed a lovely winter’s paddle down Loch Eck and back, punctuated by a stop at the Coylet Inn where we were befriended by the ever-so-handsome and attentive Buster, the resident boxer dog.

We were back crossing the Clyde and heading to Loch Long again last weekend where we lunched al fresco on the bench at the Kilcreggan shore-front on the return. We hardy paddlers don’t mind a bit of snow on our picnic bench.

During the course of all this, however, as tends to happen when you’re busy making other plans, life has intervened, and tending to family illness has taken priority over matters kayaking (and blogging). Indeed,  it is at times like these that you become exceedingly aware of the impermanence of … well, everything. And suddenly, everything and everyone becomes a little more precious. Life is short and meant to be enjoyed – happiness is indeed a birthright.

So do me a favour and get out paddling! Buy that kayak you’ve been ogling. And the drysuit. Learn to roll (you know you can!). Plan that trip. And I don’t want to hear winter being used as an excuse 😉

We are all just walking each other home.”  Ram Dass

It’s times like these you learn to live again
It’s times like these you give and give again
It’s times like these you learn to love again
It’s times like these time and time again

Times Like These, Foo Fighters

New Year’s intentions

What better way to start the year than on the water, even if it is a little chilly out there? Recent weather would suggest that the much rumoured “switching off” of the Gulf Stream (which is supposed to keep our climate from going the way of Canada’s) has now occurred. We’ve had snow and ice on the ground for so long now, I can barely recall the colour of grass. OK, I exaggerate – but it has been a couple of weeks at least since our “big freeze” began and it’s going to take a bit of practice to re-learn how to walk without shuffling or clinging on to walls and such by the time the thaw does come.

No such worries on the water and New Year’s Day found a group of us shaking off 2009 with a refreshing paddle from the Holy Loch to Loch Long and back. Some eejit suggested that, in the tradition of the New Year’s Day “dook” (trans: swim), a New Year’s Day roll might be in order. Fortunately no-one heard me.

Palm River Tec Paddle Mitts

Palm River Tec Paddle Mitts

Santa was very good to well-behaved paddlers this year, and I donned my new Arctic gale-proof Palm River Tec pogies, eager to test them out. Northern Kayaker has already reviewed them here – and I concur with her opinion. They are a little tricky to get on, I’d say impossible without the use of teeth. I’m thinking about asking Palm what they recommend – surely it’s not the inelegant tugging and biting performance that I put on (people with dentures can forget it). Once in position, however, the pogies sure are toasty.

 

Alan - back on the water (for a little bit)

Alan - back on the water (and testing my pogies)

Suitably bolstered by this auspicious start to the paddling year, I was back out on the water a couple of days later, but this time a special treat was in store – the return of Alan! After hand surgery which was immediately preceded by a sternum injury, the latter being particularly debilitating, he has been out of commission since October. We didn’t go too far, not wishing to cause re-injury, but it was lovely to float about on the Clyde and do a bit of seal-spotting on a bright winter’s day. And it was especially lovely to see Alan back in a kayak. I have missed him.
Bustin' a moveI do like to set a few intentions at this time of year (or in the yoga nidra tradition, some sankalpas). I won’t bore you with the minutiae of my more minor resolutions (mostly addressing sugar intake and time spent on LOLcats). It would be easy to say my primary intention is to go paddling (well … it is!). But I will also mention my other “big ticket” item, which does tie in: I intend to live in the present tense. It is, after all, the only thing that exists – the past and the future reside only in our minds, and all we have is this very moment. Kayaking has a way of plonking you straight into the moment and making you literally sit up and pay attention. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we get so much out of it, because it relieves us of all the other “junk” in our heads for a short while. And what a relief it is.

On that note, as we raise a glass to the New Year, indeed, the new decade, let’s also raise a glass to this very moment.

Makes much more sense to live in the present tense.
Present Tense
, No Code, Pearl Jam

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.

Maiden voyage in Rockpool Isel

Those of you who have been keeping track of my blog (which is more than I’ve been doing …) will be aware that, up until now, I’ve been a bit of a Valley Girl (I know, readers from California are now confused). To explain, I have always loved my Nordkapp LV, which is made by Valley Sea Kayaks. A year on from having the good fortune to take ownership of the Nordkapp, here is what I continue to love about it:

  • It’s super speedy
  • It edges beautifully
  • It’s lively and playful
  • It’s nice and roomy for camping trips (at 326 litres volume)
  • It has quality and heritage
  • It looks beautiful – to my mind the most aesthetically pleasing kayak out there. I know looks are not everything, but a thing of beauty is indeed a joy to behold.
Shameless posing with Rockpool Isel

Shameless posing with Rockpool Isel (Photo courtesy Julia Darby)

Having said all that, during my time up in Skye, I came to appreciate some other kayak qualities in relation to rough water, comfort, rolling and the like, and a seed was planted in my mind that perhaps a kayak that would not so much compete with, as complement, my Nordkapp would be in order. The idea is to gain experience and hone skills in a kayak in which I feel confident and which enhances my skills, and use that foundation to “grow into” my more challenging kayak. That’s the plan at least.

Enter the Rockpool Isel. Again, avid blog followers will recall that I test drove one last month and was extremely impressed. The situation evolved and somehow I found myself hooked up with a beautiful Isel of my very own.

I was, of course, delighted to have the opportunity to embark upon an inaugural trip on the Clyde in the company of Julia (herself an Isel owner) and friends. I had reluctantly turned down the opportunity to go out the previous weekend having discovered that, no matter how many times I hit “Refresh”, the 40 mph gusts showing on the Met Office Website refused to disappear. Apparently, surf was definitely up. The 20 mph gusts forecast for this weekend seemed a positive relief in comparison. Indeed, it was a little windy, but this was all the better for giving me a feel for comfort levels (of both the physical and mental kind) in my Isel.

A swan escort for my Isel

A swan escort for my Isel

My fellow paddlers spent some time kindly complimenting my choice of kayak as we set off (apart from that one comment … the response to which is, it’s glitter, not dirty marks! Oh, and the design is seaweed, not squiggles). Soon we were emerging from the Holy Loch out into less sheltered seas.

As the journey progressed, I was not disappointed in the Isel. Here are some reasons why:

  • The Isel is built for the smaller paddler. It therefore fits someone of “lesser” dimensions snugly and has less windage.
  • I’m finding that, the plain fact is that I do better with harder chined/flatter hulled kayaks in choppier water at this stage in my kayaking “career”. I hope that I will eventually do as well in rounder hulled kayaks, but it’s nice to have a choice.
  • I have had issues with foot pegs. After a few hours of paddling, my feet ache and I have numb toes. This is actually quite a big deal, as it really can detract from the pleasure of an outing. In retrospect, it might have been better if I’d ordered my Nordkapp with a customised bulkhead, but obviously this makes the kayak very specific to the owner (thus reducing potential resale value and preventing others from using it). The nice thing about Rockpool kayaks is the incredibly comfortable footplate that comes as standard. There is no pressure on the ball of the foot, no numbness, no pain. I love it!
  • When it comes to rolling, I find I benefit from “aggressive” thigh grips that translate all of one’s effort into the maneouvre/roll. The Isel has me clamped nicely into my kayak – it almost won’t let me not roll. (I’m sure I’ve just cursed something now).
  • Rockpool Isel seat

    Rockpool Isel seat

    Another comfort issue relates to back pain. I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve had some significant problems with this too and I think it relates to sacral/lumbar support. Whatever it is – whether it’s the positioning of the lower glass seat (versus the Valley kayaks’ standard foam seats), the shape of the seat, knee positioning, or the back rest – the ergonomics in the Isel are just right and it equates to zero back pain (for me so far at least). Again, a very big deal.

  • The quality and build is flawless.
Moody Loch Long

Moody Loch Long

The swell pushed us up Loch Long nicely and attempts were made at having a bit of a surf. I enjoyed scooting along as the waves caught my stern. We stopped for lunch at Ardentinny and then, as is often the case, the return journey was against the wind. The Isel remained comfortably under control (always nice) and I remained remarkably dry despite the oncoming waves. A good workout was had by all.

Our launch site beside the Marina at high tide turned out to be a less than ideal return site at low tide. Scenes entirely appropriate to Halloween ensued as we found ourselves being sucked into the gloopy, stinky mud-swamp that awaited us. There were moments when we thought we’d never see our friends footwear again. Fortunately, we did manage to make it intact all the way back to the cars.

As I reflect on how wonderful it is to have so many quality kayaks to choose from on the market, I find that, with the Isel in particular, I feel a real sense of appreciation that the designers have taken the time to consider the needs of the smaller paddler. In the paddling world of big, burly, beardie blokes, it’s quite touching to think that we svelte types have not been forgotten and that we too can share in the joy of a snugly fitting, comfortable, maneouvreable craft.