Back on home waters

Just down the road ...During our last trip, before leaving from Ballachulish, I noticed that Lewis had dug some laminated maps of our paddling area out of a folder labelled “Local Paddles”. This made me consider the definition of “local” and how it varies from one person to another. For example, if Alan and I were organised enough to have such a folder, it would contain a map of the Clyde, extending to Loch Striven, the Kyles of Bute, Loch Long, Loch Goil and Loch Fyne. Maps for far flung areas such as north of Oban would go in the folder labelled “Remote Paddles”, whilst everything else would go in the folder marked “Foreign (There be Dragons)”.

It just so happens that the bulk of our kayaking has been done in local waters, simply because it’s so handy. It also happens to be rather beautiful, and one can never get bored with beauty. A lowered carbon footprint is a nice little bonus. True to form, we were back on local waters this past Saturday, returning to Colintraive but this time leaving from Toward.

I read with some disbelief that the temperature was supposed to reach 2°C by 7 am. The brilliant sun shining through the window implied only warmth. I stopped short of grabbing my wetsuit (which is now in winter hibernation), but feared I might stew in my drysuit. To create a sort of compromise I wore only one layer of capilene as my thermal base.

Toward Sailing Club lifting yachts out

Toward Sailing Club lifting yachts out the water

We paddled past Toward Sailing Club, whose members were busily extracting yachts from the water by way of a crane. What could be sadder, I pondered, than removing your sailing vessel from the sea on a beautiful breezy, sunny day? I feel a pang locking my kayak up overnight (heck, I have friends who take theirs into the house with them), but imagine parting company until spring. We paddled past in an appropriately solemn fashion.

Soon we were in amongst the ever lovely Kyles of Bute, pausing to gaze towards the now vacant Loch Striven along the way. The half dozen container ships that had been in cold lay-up there have now departed, travelling emptily to an uncertain future in the Far East, last I heard. Loch Striven has been returned to its previously slumbering state with nothing more than a few bouncing bombs to attract any attention.

Northerly breeze

Northerly breeze

As we approached the East Kyles, the northerly wind was making itself known and I realised that, contrary to my initial fears, sweltering heat was definitely not an issue. It might be said that a disadvantage of paddling with one’s spouse is that one is more readily given to voicing one’s discomforts aloud. When in a group, I am slightly less inclined to burden my friends – but husbands, on the other hand, are fair game. Alan soon pulled into the shore and I followed, managing to scrape my kayak along some barnacles in the process. He insisted that I put something warm on – something being his fleece as I noted that I’d left mine in the car. Suddenly, the air became frostier. (Note to self: time for a spare clothing drybag audit).

Rhubodach ferry

Rhubodach ferry

It was the first time that we had paddled all the way to Colintraive from South Cowal, powered on by the promise of the wind and tide at our backs on our return. We had lunch beside the Rhubodach ferry jetty before being pushed back to Toward with the sun in our faces.

The sudden onset of cooler temperatures brought home the fact that we are now running out of time for anything but minimal wet practice, outdoors at least. I duly swapped my baseball cap for a neoprene hood and plopped into the water for a spot of rolling. Whenever I am about to declare stupendous, bombproof, super-robust rolling success to the world, the Universe comes knocking at my door with a little calling card that says, “Catch yerself on”. Last week, I introduced a new and unexpected quirk to my ever-growing list of new and unexpected quirks. As I tumbled upside down and initiated my sweep, I became aware that the blade wasn’t “catching”, resulting in a truncated roll which gets me up, but not as easily as I’ve known. I could not determine the cause of this until I figured out from video evidence that I am initially sweeping the air (which was also a recently diagnosed problem with Alan’s offside roll). It’s funny how, underwater, my brain couldn’t work this out – but then again, it has difficulty working anything out beyond not breathing.

Rolling on Loch Eck

Practice on Loch Eck

Anyway, this week I was completely focused on fixing the problem and, in the process, managed to forget the One Thing that has changed my roll from being hit and miss to being something I can depend on. This is my most important rolling discovery since … well, the last one. The trick is to flick my leading wrist back emphatically. It works beautifully in achieving perfect blade angle every time. But this week, my underwater brain succumbed to the law of Sudden Oxygen Deficiency (SOD) and decided to dispense with the One Thing altogether. So my first couple of rolls were laboured, to say the least. Fortunately, Alan’s brain was still working and he could plainly see the climbing blade angle that was the source of the trouble. As much as I would like to, I dare not yet make a declaration of bombproofness, as all too often I have proved that pride comes before a fail.

Alan with empty Loch Striven in background

Alan with empty Loch Striven in background

As we paddled past the sailing club once again, we were surprised to note that the crane had gone and that, barring a few whose owners had presumably slept in, all the yachts were now out of the water and were getting herded into their winter pen. That was fast work!

Back at our launch spot, we threw the kayaks on to the car roof and were home within 10 minutes. As we tucked our kayaks in for the night, it was with the reassurance that they would soon be back out on the water. Even if we don’t go far, it’s always good to go kayaking no matter what the season.

There are no goals
There is no order
Paid for in laughter

Is this my home
Been starting over
Bathe in the water

Home, Engineers

Amongst the waves

After the storms of the previous weekend, it looked like the weekend to come would be a bit more suited to getting out in our kayaks. I had anticipated a Sunday paddle, but – as a bonus – a “lazy” paddle over to Bute was scheduled in for Saturday. This involved a bit of a later start and a saunter over to Craigmore where lunch was enjoyed at the Pier at Craigmore restaurant.

On the way to Craigmore

Conditions were calm with some sunshine, albeit cold. At least the lack of wind made the temperature bearable. Just as I was contemplating breaking out my pogies, we had turned into the sun which warmed the hands nicely. It was good to get out and clear the head. At some point, Barrie mentioned that Sunday’s forecast had tacked a “2” on to the front of today’s prevailing wind speeds. I chuckled merrily, not giving it much more thought as we headed back to watch the sunset from Toward.

Our Sunday departure point was once again South Cowal, as we put in just beyond Inverchaolain on Loch Striven. I happened to notice it was a wee bit gusty and the wind was coming from the north as opposed to the previously forecast north-east, giving it a clear run down Loch Striven. The pogies would be out from the start today, it seemed.

And then there were 6 ... Maersk ships in cold lay-up on Loch Striven

And then there were 6 ... Maersk ships in cold lay-up on Loch Striven

We set off with the wind behind us which, ordinarily, would be ideal. It became evident, however, that the gusts really did mean business and conditions became quite exciting. (FYI – you will note here that I have switched over to “paddler-speak”, which tends towards understatement and euphemism). I paddled along for a bit, feeling the surges from behind and gripping my paddle tightly lest it be swiped out of my hands. I tried to assess if I was the only one who was feeling just a teeny, tiny bit tense. I watched as young Kirsty confidently paddled ahead quite unperturbed, and admonished myself for being a wuss.

As we rounded the Maersk ships anchored in cold lay-up, Julia checked in to see how I was doing. If I were to rate my comfort level according to the following scale, which correlates loosely (or not at all) to the Beaufort Scale:

    Frothy Loch Striven

    Frothy Loch Striven

  1. Chillin’ with the seals
  2. Paying a bit more attention
  3. Have been in worse conditions, it’s cool
  4. Good opportunity for skills practice
  5. Continuous monitoring of proximity of nearest potential rescuer
  6. Mental rehearsal of radio procedure, and location of flares
  7. Beam me up Scotty!

I quickly surmised that I was sitting at around 5. I confirmed to Julia that I really was quite fond of the notion of an early lunch and, before I knew it, I had the company of fellow paddlers ensuring that I made it across to the eastern shore without incident. On the way, I was presented with a beam sea, with waves and wind both to my left and in prime “tipping over” position. I was especially appreciative of Julia’s instruction as we crossed which corroborated what many people have told me, that bracing skills are hugely important. I won’t forget that real-time skills clinic. I was also appreciative of my faithful Isel, which played a large part in keeping me upright.

Heading home

Heading home

There was a palpable sense of achievement as we landed on the gravelly beach in time to watch a group of divers preparing to depart. We made our way over beyond the small point of protruding land to seek some shelter from the wind in order to consume lunch. It soon became apparent that a dividing line existed here separating the frothier north of the loch from the somewhat calmer south. And so, after eating, we carried our kayaks around to the more sheltered side and continued south. I was once again securely back in my comfort zone as we headed homewards.

I took away a number of things from Sunday:

  • My skills focus is now firmly on bracing.
  • I love kayaking. Even when I’m not 100% at ease in the conditions, I feel completely alive. This is important!
  • Paddling pals are always there to support and encourage you, to teach you, to console you, and – if necessary – to rescue you. Indeed, they are the best type of friends.

Riding high amongst the waves
I can feel like I
Have a soul that has been saved
I can feel like I
Put away my early grave

Gotta say it now
Better loud
Than too late

Amongst the Waves, Backspacer, Pearl Jam

Deja vu all over again at Loch Striven

Friday night’s pool training took on a new and interesting twist last week. Alan and I had been busying ourselves with our usual rolling drills when I became aware of something resembling “shenanigans” going on at the deep end. I tried to ignore this and look busy, but was spotted by coach Richard who bullied invited me to participate. I then found myself in a kayak with a rope tied to each end, a bit like some sort of mediaeval torture device really. Richard and Euan then pulled the kayak up and down the pool, encouraging me to brace to prevent capsize. I have to admit, I was starting to enjoy it. Upon inevitably capsizing, I then had the opportunity to roll in the “moving” water. It definitely simulated the sensation of battling opposing forces under the water and I got a lot out of it. Alan’s turn was next and I think that there’s the tiniest of chances that Richard and Euan set the bar slightly higher for him (this could be a guy thing).

Duly trained up, we were keen to get out on the real water at the weekend. The forecast made Saturday a complete non-starter as, despite Richard and Euan’s best efforts, our training hadn’t quite extended to simulations of 65 mph gusts (maybe just 35 mph), so we pinned our hopes on getting out on Sunday when conditions were predicted to be calmer. And indeed they were, so off we popped for an afternoon jaunt.

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

More often than not we find ourselves putting in at Toward shoreline and seeing where the fancy takes us. More often than not, it takes us to Bute. And then maybe back over to Loch Striven. Being creatures of habit, that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. Well, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely finished inspecting the Maersk ships anchored in the loch, especially as another one had been added to the “raft” since we were last there. I suppose I am slightly fascinated by ships. It must have something to do with growing up on the banks of the Clyde.

After a pleasant paddle over to Bute and then northwards up Loch Striven, we managed to get a little more up close and personal this time (with the ships, that is). There were no signs of life aboard the behemoth vessels as we paddled around them, although I believe they are still being “powered down”. It’s astonishing to think that there is no work for them (or hundreds of others like them around the world) for the foreseeable future. What were all those ships transporting previously that we are somehow managing to live without now?

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

We noted that one of them (the Sealand Performance) was registered in New York and was flying the Stars and Stripes, which seemed a little incongruous in wee, backwater Loch Striven. But I’m forgetting how recently nearby Holy Loch played host to those very colours.

Having satisfied ourselves that we’d seen enough, we were escorted off the premises by a friendly seal as we turned to head home. We noticed that the sea state was changing a little at this point. It was no longer calm, for a start. The tide was going out and meeting the incoming wind. There were no 65 mph gusts or anything, but it was definitely lively. Something very similar happened the last time we made this self same trip, so it was all getting a bit Groundhog Day-ish. By the time we reached the NATO refuelling depot, I declared to Alan that I wanted to head in for a short break. Alan appeared to be unfazed by the conditions, but I threw a small wobbly. I’m not sure why this is. I think I am naturally predisposed towards thinking the worst. Alan pointed out that the worst that could actually happen was:

  • I might capsize
  • My roll might fail
  • I’d simply be blown over to the nearby shore

Processed through the “Pam’s even worse, worst case scenario filter” however, this reads as:

  • I might capsize
  • I might become entangled in something (seaweed? fish farm paraphernalia? NATO pipelines?) and be unable to free myself
  • I might hit my head off a rock
  • My roll might indeed therefore fail
  • Conditions might deteriorate to gale force
  • That squall moving to the north of us might contain south-bound tornadoes*
  • I (and my kayak) might get smashed to little pieces along the shoreline

(*Before you ask, I have seen a tornado forming above a car park in Greenock).

Where does all of that come from? It does get tedious.

Sensing my discomfort, Alan swapped kayaks with me. He had been paddling his new Avocet, while I was in my Nordkapp LV. I must say that I’d rather liked this arrangement as it levelled the playing field in terms of our respective speeds. Alan, therefore, got a big dollop of his own medicine feel for paddling at a reduced pace. After the wind had made its presence known, however, I was inclined to jump into the Avocet to see how it compared. And yes, I did feel a little more “in control” in the smaller kayak. It was also interesting to note that, whilst the Nordkapp had tended to rear up and then slap down on the waves, the Avocet delivered several face-fulls of saltwater instead (no, I wasn’t crying!).

We chugged our way back, rounding the fish farm, where it became especially bouncy and confused. I summoned up my learnings from Lewis, Islay, Skye and the pool, all of which had involved considerably worse conditions (ok, except for the pool). In my mind, I can honestly say, I was mentally prepared to try rolling upon capsize, especially as most of the sea activity was on my “good” side. I no longer think that my only instinct would be to pull the deck’s grab loop, but it remains to be seen as, on this occasion, I (and Alan) did manage to stay upright.

I am leaning towards adopting another indispensable tip from coach Richard in the meantime, proven to help many a kayaker get through rough waters and also to engage their roll. So where can I order a smiley face sticker for my deck? 🙂

I want to be you – whenever I see you smilin’
Cause it’s easily one of the hardest things to do
Your worries and fears become your friends
And they end up smilin’ at you
Put on a smilin’ face

Smiley Faces, Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

Laid Up in Loch Striven

Some vigorous rolling practice back at Garnock pool on Friday night produced good results for Alan and me, under the guidance of the very helpful Lewis. Duly inspired, we decided to go for a quick paddle up Loch Striven on Saturday morning.

Container ships on Loch Striven

Container ships on Loch Striven

There’s been a bit of a change of scenery since we were last there and anyone familiar with the area will know that the loch is being used to pen some rather large container vessels in “cold lay-up” to sit out the recession. These are the same ships that made their considerable presence known for several weeks at the anchorages on the lower Firth of Clyde before being taken to their new home in the loch. Basically, with the downturn in demand for consumer goods, there is presently a global excess of container vessels to requirements. As a result, many ships are being “parked” in various locations throughout the world until the economy picks up.

As soon as we turned in towards the Kyles of Bute, we saw the ships up ahead. They are, of course, a reminder that looks are deceiving and that, despite its serene and unspoiled appearance, Loch Striven has been used for many a military-industrial purpose from the past to the present day. Aside from accommodating previous ship lay-ups (with 2 ships remaining there for 20 years), it houses a NATO refuelling depot at the mouth of the loch, where a naval vessel was in fact present as we paddled past, as well as comprising a submarine exercise area (as revealed by nautical charts of the loch). Indeed, longer-term residents of Cowal will tell the tale of how the loch was used for tests of a smaller version of the “bouncing bomb” used to destroy the Ruhr dams in 1943.

As we were pushed handily northwards by the wind and the tide, we were overtaken by 4 porpoises who duly broke the personal-proximity-to-kayak record, for me anyway. That initself made our trip worthwhile, however, the investigative reporter in me wanted to press on to get a bit nearer to the mammoth container ships. Part of my curiosity lay in the fact that they are the biggest and fastest ships of their kind (reportedly reaching speeds of over 30 knots), with some of the biggest engines in the world. Here is an excerpt from the ClydeSights Website:

“MAERSK BEAUMONT is the seventh, and last, ship of the VWS 4000 class built at the German Volkswerft Stralsund shipyard and delivered to Maersk UK in December 2007. She is 294.1 metres in length – similar to some of the larger bulk carriers that have visited the river and making her one of the largest vessels that can be accommodated within the locks of the Panama Canal – and has a deadweight of 52,400 tonnes. She can carry up to 4,170 TEU containers, and appears to have last been employed on a service to South America. MAERSK BEAUMONT and her sisters all fly the Red Ensign.”

BIG SHIPS ... and tiny kayak

GREAT BIG SHIPS ... and toty wee kayak

All I can say is that I’d much rather encounter them safely tied up than out on the high seas. They made our kayaks seem very, very tiny indeed and its hard to believe that 2 such disparate vessels can possibly share the same waters. It remains uncertain as to whether or not the 4 ships presently laid up will be joined by any others. There had been rumours of anything up to 18 more ships on their way. Perhaps a sign at the mouth of the loch will be needed to indicate “Spaces” or “Full”.

Having satisfied our curiosity, we about-turned and headed back the way we’d come. Of course, we knew the wind and tide would now be against us and it was a bit of a slog. By the time we reached Toward, however, it was straying beyond a slog into the territory of panic skills-testing. Alan is a lot more cool in these situations and was positively enjoying bouncing along on the frothing waves (apart from the occasional whining noise coming from somewhere behind him). I, on the other hand, have read one too many “how-it-all-went-wrong” reports and remained acutely aware of the marked absence of an essential bit of safety kit, namely a Level 5 coach with excellent rescue capabilities. Never mind, all of that will be put to right next week when we travel up to Skye to test out those very capabilities as exemplified by Skyak Adventures. Can’t wait!

But it’s Thursday …

Loch Striven

Out on Loch Striven ... on a Thursday

I recall a TV advert some years ago (in the US, I think) which featured a be-suited chap walking down a busy city street. He is stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of a SUV driving past, fully laden with adventure gear and evidently heading off to the great outdoors somewhere well beyond the city limits. As he stares in disbelief, he mumbles, “But it’s Tuesday”. I can relate to both parties in that advert – I have been that frustrated office worker, but more recently I have been that Tuesday skiver. Guess which one I like best!

So it was Thursday and the sun was shining. As much as I love my days spent in the office clicking a mouse and attending to the whims important and pressing needs of my customers, I decided to take advantage of the benefits of being self-employed and awarded myself a well-deserved day off. Alan did likewise, so we hit the high seas for a day of unremitting enjoyment in the wind and waves (and calm). We had a bit of everything to keep us entertained, a brisk breeze and some lumpiness upon setting out (which saw our Nordkapps friskily at play), followed by an ethereal flat calm by the end of the day.

Returning in the gloaming

Returning in the gloaming

After reaching Bute, we headed north towards the Kyles. We stopped for lunch at a nice little beach back over on the Cowal side and noted that the temperature would suggest that it wasn’t quite summer yet. As we were approaching Colintraive, Alan commented that his shoulder was beginning to hurt. Rolling practice has taken its toll, alas. I therefore resigned myself to a slightly shorter paddle than I’d been anticipating. We turned around and started heading homewards, but then Alan suggested we take a detour up Loch Striven, and very pleasant it was. Having gone some way up the loch, we worked our way back down towards Toward. After 26 km of paddling, I began to notice that I was feeling the tiniest bit exerted, and contemplated who, at this rate, would win the competition for the sorest shoulders. Alan appeared to have worked through his pain, but I was developing some new and interesting aches all of my very own. I consoled myself by focusing on the beautiful surroundings, the various seal sightings (5 total!), the birds, the peacefulness and the realisation that I was building some good conditioning for the months of paddling ahead.

Miscellaneous observations from our outing:

  • I still cannot imagine making an urgent surf landing after a full day’s paddling. As I peel my spray deck back, it takes some considerable time for me to re-engage the use of my legs. This, combined with the uneven surface of the shoreline, often reduces me to a state of near crawling on hands and knees, which is all very pathetic. Answers on a postcard please …
  • If I tweak the wrist seals of my drysuit throughout the day, it stops my hands from swelling. Good to know.
  • Sanitary products of a feminine nature do not miraculously evaporate when flushed down the toilet. If they don’t choke the sewage system, they are likely to end up floating in the sea, which is unpleasant for humans and wildlife alike. (Perhaps there is a need for an awareness campaign here).
  • To my mind, seals sound a lot like whales when they snort unexpectedly behind you.
  • Nordkapps handle chop with consummate ease.

And so on Friday, I returned refreshed and renewed to my desk … until such time as the contents of my inbox disgorged themselves on to my PC screen at least. I’m not sure if these sneaky days off truly serve the purpose of renewal, especially as I do have to make up the lost work time, or if they just leave one yearning for a lot more of the same.

“Some people say that mountain climbers are really wasting their time. They have nothing better to do so they climb mountains, tire themselves out, and come back with nothing to show for it. Yet a person who climbs a tall mountain sees the world and experiences nature in a very different way from someone who never leaves his own front door. Genuine mountain climbers do not struggle up great precipices for the glory of it. They know that glory is only a label given by others. A true climber climbs for the experience of climbing.” Ch’an Master Sheng-yen,

Away from it all

winter paddleFinally having encountered a break in the rain/wind that actually coincided with a weekend, we headed out for a paddle up Loch Striven again. We set out at the entrance to Glen Striven Estate and headed up towards the top of the loch. I confess to having lost a little conditioning, as attested by my sore bits today. The good thing is, however, that it’s not my arms that are aching, but my torso/side muscles. Hopefully, this means that I was managing a bit of rotation in the old forward paddle stroke. I did try.

I do like Loch Striven. No-one goes there. It was just us, some sea birds, one fishing boat and one seal. Oh, and a dirty great warship with the unassuming name of HMS Wave Ruler parked at the NATO fuel depot. I’ve heard locals describe the loch as an “eerie” place, but I disagree. It’s incredibly peaceful, especially as there are no roads nearby. Not that we exactly live in a seething metropolis in nearby Innellan, but still – it’s nice to not hear or see a single car for a few hours. (more…)