We fought the tide

Heading for MullAs every sea kayaker knows, there are certain points on the tide tables that may require some attention, ie springs and neaps. I don’t know about you, but I tend to tense up a little at the mention of “springs” and relax at the word, “neaps” (whilst, being Scottish, trying not to think of turnip). We were due to go paddling in a quite tidal area, in the vicinity of the Firth of Lorne and Sound of Mull at springs, which is one thing. On this particular occasion, however, there was to be a much-reported “Supermoon”, the proximity and extraordinary gravitational pull of which, to my mind, would surely result in super tides … super-springy-spring tides! This did not escape the attention of my fellow paddlers, some of whom were declaring a desire to visit the springiest of tidal places, the Grey Dogs (and much evil laughter ensued). I decided to play it cool and see what transpired.

As it turned out, level heads prevailed and we decided to proceed from Ganavan Bay to Duart Castle – a route that Alan and I had travelled before and enjoyed. We took note of the coincidence of timing of the 3 knot incoming tide with our return, but the consensus was that we would play it by ear.

Duart Castle

Duart Castle

Setting out, conditions were flat calm, making for lots of special “Kodak moments” against the beautiful backdrop of Lismore, the Firth of Lorne and the Sound of Mull. A prevalence of Tiderace kayaks was observed within our group, including a brand new Xcite out on its maiden voyage. It must be said that Tiderace are making big inroads in the sea kayak market and establishing themselves as a manufacturer of quality craft  (I’ve not yet heard of anyone being disappointed in their purchase). With a nice little tidal push, we were soon over at Duart Castle. The castle is, of course, highly photogenic and nothing sets it off better than a kayaker paddling in front of it (the same could be said for most things). We landed for a picnic lunch and, suitably fortified, were soon back on the water to face up to the aforementioned 3 knot tide on our return to the mainland.

And so, we paddled vigorously, taking a transit of a small house on the opposite shore. After a while, it was certainly evident that, despite all the effort, progress was a little slow. One of our group offered up encouragement by declaring that we would soon be seeing the windows of the small house, and so we paddled on. More time passed and, not only could I not see the windows, I was having trouble seeing the house! To my intense disappointment, the house appeared to be getting smaller. I had been deliberately avoiding turning my head to look at our departure point and, in then doing so, disappointment turned to disgust as I realised that the Mull shore was, in fact, getting closer.  We were literally going nowhere quite speedily.

A good workout on the way back

A good workout on the way back

You will note that I am employing the “royal we” in the above narrative. I cannot make a broad statement concerning the capabilities of our group. I’m pretty sure that certain members may well have had sufficient power reserves to have turned on the turbo boosters and left the tide trailing in their wake (so to speak). Alan and I, however, were not averse to admitting that we hadn’t consumed enough Wheaties/spinach/banned substances and that a return to Mull for a wee rest and some contemplation would be the most prudent course of action. Upon our rapid approach to the shore, I found myself experiencing one of those surreal tidal head-games, when points on the shore are moving at high speed, while the paddlers in front of you are stationary.

Passing Oban

Passing Oban

Once in the eddy, we paddled west until we found a landing spot where we stopped for some further refuelling. Fortunately, tidal rates descend by sizeable chunks with time and, after about 40 minutes, we knew that the flow would be at a reduced speed sufficient to afford us some decent progress. The sea state had long since forgotten its mirror-like calm and was now quite lively, the wind having risen from the north. Fortunately, this gave us a push in the right direction. Even so, it required an energetic effort to cross the Firth and, after some time, Alan confessed to having hit a wall, metaphorically speaking.  Somehow, digging deep (and in the knowledge that he hadn’t packed a tent), he bravely soldiered on.

This was, however, a valuable lesson in the need to pack some extra rehydrating fluids and energy bars for those unexpected moments of depletion. It’s something we would never fail to do when cycling, hillwalking or running, due to the very evident intensity and dehydrational impact of those activities. You don’t necessarily have the immediate feedback of gushing sweat and bursting lungs with kayaking, unless you’re racing or survival paddling. The average paddling excursion tends to be a slower burn, requiring more stamina and strength (especially upper body) than supreme cardio fitness. Regardless, and especially over time, resources still need to be replaced efficiently.

Return to Ganavan Bay

Return to Ganavan Bay

Our trip had been an interesting test of our Northern Light Greenland and Aleutian paddles and I was very pleased with the outcome. I didn’t encounter any elbow or wrist aches that I’m pretty sure would have accompanied a Euro paddle on such a trip, and correspondingly, I didn’t have to worry about feather angle in the wind.

Ganavan Bay was a welcome sight as we eventually returned to its shores.  It could be said that we fought the tide, and the tide won, but I prefer to think of it as conceding a small battle, only to win the war.

A day trip to Mull

Having only ever thought of Mull as being somewhere you go on holiday via car and ferry, an invitation to join friends and go there by kayak immediately captured our imagination and interest. We needed little persuasion to sign up for a day trip with a difference.

Our friends emerged off of the water to meet us at Ganavan Bay, north of Oban, and we all then set off on a west northwesterly route, precisely the direction of the wind. Fortunately, it wasn’t too great of a slog initially, although the breeze made its presence felt a little more by the time we reached the Lismore area.

Lighthouse on Eilean Musdile on the south tip of Lismore

Lighthouse on Eilean Musdile on the south tip of Lismore

As usual in this vicinity, a little wind goes a long way in relation to the tides, and the sea state became a bit more interesting than what Alan and I are used to nearer to home. Happily, as I may have mentioned, this spells one thing to us now – fun! Back in the dark old days, I remember expressing fearfulness at the concept of rougher water. Our friend, Magda, assuaged this fear by asking me how many times I’d actually fallen in in such conditions. The answer, to my continuing relief, is – well, not too many! Apart from that one time. Oh, and that other time … (but training doesn’t count). Since acquiring my Rockpool Isel, I feel increasingly confident that I can keep the capsize incident count low, depending on how “interesting” the sea state gets, of course.  And, I suppose I could always try rolling (as radical as that sounds for someone who’s been practising that very skill for ages).

Duart Castle

Duart Castle

After a bit of bobbling about in the chop, we reached the east coast of Mull and made our way around Duart Point to land at the small  bay beside the rather majestic Duart Castle, the ancestral home of Clan MacLean. The bay was filled with small moon jellyfish (rather sadly for the many who wouldn’t be washing back out), but we were especially impressed by the kayaker-friendly “Welcome to Duart Castle” sign posted there. We proceeded to the castle tea room where we enjoyed some sustenance before returning to our kayaks.

Mull to Oban

Photo courtesy: Lewis Smith

Heading back towards Oban, a rare thing occurred – the tide and the wind were behind us. Ordinarily, if you have spent an outward journey paddling against wind, you can pretty much guarantee that, in a fit of mischief, the weather gods will reverse the wind to defy the forecast, such that you get to paddle against it all the way back too. They especially love to do this when the tide is also running against you. But this day the weather gods appeared to be distracted and we were pushed back in a bumpy, following sea.  The outward journey had taken 2 hours and 45 minutes, and the homeward voyage a mere 2 hours.

Ferries kept us company

Ferries kept us company

During the course of the day, the wind was not the only thing that was increasingly making its presence felt. Oban is a hub for ferries going back and forth across the Sound of Mull and the Firth of Lorne to the various islands (including Mull, Lismore, Colonsay, Coll and Tiree and the Outer Hebrides). Some of these vessels are quite large, and it seemed like every 10 minutes we were seeing one or another looming ahead or behind on a direct course towards us (just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean the ferries aren’t out to get me). Most kayakers are acutely aware that they cannot out-paddle a big, muckle ferry, and so it is a question of trying to guess whether or not the ferry will turn and in which direction. Any notion of the usefulness of carrying a Calmac timetable with us was abandoned after our encounter (fortunately not close) with ferry number 7.

Ferry dodging

Ferry dodging

Strangely, not a single seal was seen that Sunday (and no-one was selling seashells either), but we did see and hear many common terns squabbling overhead.

Soon, we were back at Ganavan Bay reflecting on another wonderful day out. I heard Lewis summarise the trip as “very dodgy” and, just as I was swelling with pride and amazement at being able to handle conditions that even Lewis found “dodgy”, it was clarified that he’d actually said, “ferry dodging”. Indeed, that was quite a prominent feature of the day.