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.