A call to paddlers and others

Paul in trainingIf you are a sea kayaker in the west of Scotland, your assistance in sought in a special event targeted for 23 June 2012 (weather dependent). The event is a swim across the Clyde and kayaking safety support is being requested. This is a swim with a purpose that is close to my heart.

Paul Kerr is a former Royal Marine Commando who has always prided himself in being a fit and able individual. At the age of 26, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a condition which has given him his own considerable personal battles to fight. At the time of diagnosis, he foresaw a future filled with worst case scenarios involving wheelchairs, home carers and general disability. With the advancement of medicine, as well as improved awareness of the role of nutrition, lifestyle and a positive mindset – and despite having endured significant symptoms – Paul continues to challenge himself in defiance of those initial fears.  Two years ago, he completed the UK’s 24 Hour Three Peaks Mountain Challenge in 22 hours and 30 minutes. This year, with some friends, he is going to swim across the Clyde from Cloch Lighthouse to the Breakwater off Dunoon Pier, a distance of 1.4 nm.

Three Peaks ChallengeThe purpose of this swim is to try and show another side of living with MS to newly diagnosed sufferers, and to encourage those who are coming to terms with such a diagnosis.

Paul is also raising funds for the Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre, an organisation which provides excellent information resources and support to those with MS.

Some readers will know that I also received this diagnosis some 3 years ago. I won’t ever forget the ferry journey home from my hospital appointment as I wept over visions of a melted future.  One of my first priorities was to search for any information I could find about people who were able to somehow continue doing what they loved whilst living with MS. To me, this was almost more important than researching the condition and its treatment. Of course, the worst case scenarios leapt out at me at every turn, and it was only through grasping on to the stories and efforts of people such as Paul that I kept myself out of an abyss of despair. I would very much like to help pass this along.

In support of Paul, around 20 swimmers are anticipated to participate. He is co-ordinating with Clyde Coast Guard and Clydeport, as well as organising RIB safety cover and media coverage (in particular via the Multiple Sclerosis Resource Centre).  Full details will be confirmed as the date approaches.

If you’d like to join in, please give me a shout, leave a comment or use the contact form. Whether or not you can make it,  you can sponsor Paul –  his JustGiving page is here. You don’t even have to be a sea kayaker to do that!

Your help is greatly appreciated.

Fake plastic seas

Julia and Pam off InnellanAs much as I’d like to post about numerous exciting paddling trips since I last blogged, I’m afraid such trips have been a little thin on the, er, water due to my succumbing to a cold bug which I have now generously passed on to Alan. I did manage to go out on a pioneering all-girl paddle with Julia last weekend, which consisted of a pleasant (albeit chilly) outing  in local waters. The promising conditions of the previous week had been replaced by something much more akin to November weather, where icy winds and rain prevailed. Nonetheless, we bravely soldiered through the elements (and the volcanic ash), Julia with her gammy knee and me with my sniffles. Alan was still off the water due to his injuries, but helped us with the kayaks at either end. Together, we are a team!

Julia off KirnJust when I’d thought that the little lightweight cold that I’d had nearly 2 weeks ago was history, it took some anabolic steroids and came back with a purpose. And so I have spent this week hacking and snuffling. Not only that, with the warnings of my MS nurse ringing faintly in my ears, I realised that my eye had gone a bit “wonky” again. Consulting with Dr Google, I have confirmed that the common cold can aggravate MS symptoms. I have certainly learned something. Hopefully, it will all go away soon.

Not being out on the water has left me with too much time on my hands to surf the Internet and come across the following stories. If you are in any way attached to the concept of saving the planet for future generations, then I warn you – they make difficult viewing:

I’m not going to lie to you – this depresses the bejesus out of me.

Why is  humanity the only species that is so intent on trashing its own nest? Not only that, we’re taking everyone else – all our fellow earthlings – down with us.

It’s all so overwhelming at times, it feels like our pathetic little gestures to help the environment are pointless. But are they? As I view the videos above, I’m tempted to conclude that picking up the odd plastic bag out of the sea is meaningless. If, however, by doing so I saved one animal’s life, it is definitely worth it. If it simply stopped garbage from washing up on a pristine Hebridean beach, it’s worth it. So, I will keep on plucking the plastic bags and bottles out of the sea when I come across them, I’ll refuse plastic bags at source (the supermarket), as well as the ubiquitous, all-pervading plastic bottles.  And, who knows – going out on a limb here – maybe if enough of us keep doing this, we could turn the plastic tide.

I’ve blogged before about the rubbish in our seas, and the situation will only get worse. Unless of course our ability to produce these insanely vast quantities of plastic junk is somehow limited. In the recent past, both the US Department of Energy (see p.8) and the US Joint Forces Command (and Richard Branson!) have warned that we are about to enter into an era of ever-diminishing availability of cheap oil. With plane-free skies courtesy of the (unpronounceable) Icelandic volcano, we were perhaps given a slight foretaste of the future in recent days. As much as our lack of planning for this inevitability will make it in many ways painful for humanity, Mother Earth may well breathe a small sigh of relief.

“And it wears me out, it wears me out.”
Fake Plastic Trees, The Bends, Radiohead

Disregarding obstacles

Kyles of ButeI think everyone who has taken up paddling would agree, there are obstacles that must be dealt with along the way. Every training class, every trip, every swimming pool session presents something to be surmounted, some of it real, and some of it a creation of the mind of course.

At the moment, a couple of our paddling pals are overcoming the obstacle of having to learn open boating skills as part of the syllabus for SCA qualifications relevant to their pursuit of sea kayaking (I know, I don’t get it either). While they have been exploring the complexities of single-bladed paddling, Alan and I have been left to our own devices.



So, a couple of weekends ago, we kayaked from Colintraive to Tighnabruaich on a relatively calm day.  The first obstacle of that particular trip was the discovery that Tighnabruaich had succumbed to the Dreaded Curse. The sign had said something about “unforeseen circumstances”, but my disgust impinged upon my forbearance to read further. I would say that being a Sunday in the West of Scotland is not so much an unforeseen circumstance as a requirement for toilet closure. Disgust then took on a whole new meaning when, upon rejoining Alan on the beach, we discovered the source of an unpleasant odour that had been putting him off his lunch. Disturbingly, it was emanating from his boot. I’ll stop right here as, if I continue on I will get queasy. Needless to say, the sewage facilities at Tighnabruaich require some attention (perhaps that’s why the toilets were closed?).  Like me, you might now be interested in supporting this organisation. You might also be interested to learn that mukluks can withstand high-powered jetwashing.

Near the GantocksLast weekend, we were out on the Clyde with a couple of other members of the Cowal Kayak Club, one of whom comes from a river kayaking background. He informed us of a recent incident on the river that left him shaken, such that he is considering transferring his allegiance over to touring.  I have had my own little dance with the rough and tumble demons, which has been greatly alleviated by acquiring a Rockpool Isel (not so much my knight in shining armour as the kayak he paddled in on).

Then, of course, there are the obstacles that can be found each Friday night at the pool – mostly relating to the ever-moving goalposts of acquiring or perfecting a bombproof roll.

There are also the obstacles of everyday life as they impact our ability to get out  – whether related to time, family, health, injuries, work or even the weather. It’s all part of what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe”.

Why do we put ourselves through all this? Why do we work so hard to overcome these impediments? And is it so much about overcoming them, as disregarding them, or even working with them? The answer is difficult to put into words.  I recently found the following moving/inspiring/beautiful video circulating on the paddling blogosphere, and I think that perhaps it expresses it best:

BIRTHRIGHT from Sean Mullens on Vimeo.

Each of us has obstacles to transcend, and once we’re out there on the water, in amongst nature, we do just that. We are free and in the moment. We can breathe and be our natural selves.

About a year and a half ago, I lost a chunk of vision. Not to over-dramatise, I thought I might be going blind. The thing that concerned me most at the time took me by surprise. I recall standing on the shore road of Innellan as a storm blew in. I was fixated on the sea and how I might not be able to get back out in it. Day after day, I looked out at the Clyde and measured the changes in my vision against it.

My sight came back, but – like everyone else – I don’t know what lies ahead. I certainly won’t be taking anything for granted and, inspired by others, it will take more than a few obstacles to stop pursuing what is, after all, a birthright.

If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.
Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple Computer

Peace and reflection

It seems we’ve finally reached that point. Destinations have been arrived at (or not, dependent on the weather where you live), presents have been exchanged, food and drink are being consumed and Christmas is almost over. It’s therefore a good opportunity to think back on the year that’s passed by, both the good and the bad bits.

Let’s focus on the good bits. For me, there have been a lot of them, ranging from “routine” pleasures such as yoga class, reading good books, watching birds appear at the feeder etc, to special occurrences such as fully restored vision, no MS relapses and a clear c-spine MRI. As I ponder the past 12 months, however, one thing becomes evident – the really good bits, the ones that stand out the most, tend to involve kayaks and salt water.

Perhaps other paddlers are reaching the same realisation, and it’s interesting to consider why this is so. Of course, there are many positives to kayaking, including: excellent paddling pals, visiting beautiful places, getting up close and personal with the wildlife, gaining confidence from improved skills and so on. To me, however, there’s a little more to it. At risk of being labelled a sandal-wearing, granola-eating hippy, allow me to get a little “spiritual” on you for a moment.

In our technological age, we’ve largely parted company with our roots as nature-based people. In thousands of generations of humanity, only about the last six represent the Industrial Age, an era of technological advancement and consumption that has been accelerated by the abundance of petroleum products. We could view this as evolution, and of course it contains many positives, but we could consider how it has also produced barriers between us and the natural world, as evidenced by the damage to our environment.

At our core, we recognise that something essential and intuitive to us is now missing from our everyday lives. This is the reason why we thrill at natural beauty, at taking on the wind and the waves, at spending time amongst the non-human animals of the sea. It’s not so long ago that our ancestors were much more highly attuned to the ways of nature and the universe, and it’s not forgotten in our genes.

It’s no coincidence that the kayak is a vessel designed by the nature-based Inuit people thousands of years ago. Even although our modern-day versions may be technologically facilitated in terms of the design process and materials used, the fundamentals remain the same. In many ways, the kayak spans time and re-connects us with the elements of which we are a part. It returns to us that which has been lost and helps us to heal. You might say that it comes to us naturally.

So, as I sit here and count my blessings and look forward to a new decade, the thing that I am most grateful for is the ability to get out on the water and engage in the life-affirming and unforgettable experience of being immersed (in every sense!) in the natural world, for however long that opportunity exists. And working in harmony with the healing potential of nature, my intention is to make that opportunity last as long as possible.

The winter solstice has passed and the days are already getting longer. A year full of adventure awaits!

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Decade!

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

Snapping out of it

With perfect timing, I came across this article: “Overcoming MS to scale Everest“. Exactly the kind of news I need to read right now. The last couple of sentences are particularly meaningful:

“Who you are inside… that’s what’s important. That will always be there,” she said.

“Whether my legs carry me up a mountain or not, I’m still who I am deep inside.”

And speaking of snapping out of it, I’m still working on hip snaps (aka hip flicks) in my sea kayak. Interestingly, I’m making better progress with my Capella solely due to the thigh grips. When (not if!) I do get it working, I will next have to look at perhaps modifying my Nordkapp with some foam to allow better contact for learning to roll purposes at least.

But before I get overly focused on rolling as a core skill (oops … too late), I am conscious of the fact that it is important to also focus on avoiding having to roll in the first place by learning other core skills that go some way to preventing capsize. Fear not, we are looking forward to addressing those further very soon.

A new club, and other trials

There are certain clubs that are a pleasure to join and participate in. I can think of the 2 kayaking clubs that I have joined in the past couple of years. It’s been a while since we’ve been over at Garnock in Ayrshire and it’s not for want of wanting. We haven’t forgotten our pals over there and the fun we had with them last year. A happy complication occurred when the local Cowal club started up and met on the same night as Garnock. The choice was drive 20 minutes to the Cowal club, or 1.5 hours to Garnock. As you might guess, Cowal won out and we now hang our heads in shame in front of the Garnock crew (we do intend to return soon).

Some clubs aren’t so fun, and last week I discovered that I had qualified (without even trying!) for entry into a new one, the one called “Multiple Sclerosis”. Ugh. The diagnosis didn’t come as a shock as it’s been suspected since last October, and it is classified as “mild”. But somehow actually having the label pinned on me has been a bit unsettling, to say the least. Half of me is in complete denial – I feel fine overall and still have all my fitness, and the other half is determined to beat it (yes, I will be the one!). There’s another half of me (I know, I know) that is all messed up. I am told that that is natural.

I’ve been grappling around for something to lift me out of that third half’s abyss, to occupy my mind with more pleasant things. The other day, Alan and I decided to take advantage of the sultry temperatures and go to Loch Eck to try to roll our sea kayaks. I figured, now that I’ve mastered rolling the Dunoon pool boats (one of my proudest achievements of recent times), there was a fair chance of success and nothing would cheer me more than rolling my very own Nordy.

OMG it was like trying to roll concrete.

There are several possibilities here:

  • The amnesiac excuse: I’ve completely forgotten everything I ever learned about rolling (it sure felt that way).
  • The blame someone else excuse: the technique is waaay different between a river kayak and a sea kayak, even although several coaches assured me it would not be.
  • The feeble excuse: the cold shock of rolling in the not-so-sultry waters of Loch Eck deprived me of any cognitive ability, other than to gasp and panic.
  • The looking for sympathy excuse: I was a wee bit distracted and not in the best frame of mind.
  • The poor workman blames his tools excuse: the Nordkapp’s thigh braces aren’t the most gripping.
  • The bad karma excuse: my self-pride at learning to roll the pool boats was unwarranted and OTT, so this is what I get.

It was with great despondency that I exited the water realising that I have taken a bit of a step back, in more ways than one. But no-one promised us a rose garden, did they? Life is by its very nature a bit of a trial – it’s how we respond to that trial that determines how much we actually suffer. Happiness is, after all, a choice.

So I’ll try rolling again, maybe with my Capella just for comparison. I’d pay good money for appreciate any tips about transitioning from rolling a river kayak to rolling a sea kayak.

I’ll do a bit of yoga to sort my head out. And I’ll probably go for a paddle somewhere nice too.

Tomorrow is another day.