Rockpool Isel, how do I love thee?

Rockpool Isel

Rockpool Isel

Let me count the ways!

It’s been almost 2 years since I became the proud owner of a Rockpool Isel kayak. I think it was Fate that brought us together as, quite simply, I don’t believe I could have found a kayak that could be more perfect for me.

I am a 5′ 5″ (1.524m) tall female weighing 8 st 4 lbs (116 lb, 52.6 kg).  The Isel is designed for “the smaller paddler” and features a “snug fitting cockpit”. This sounds highly appealing to smaller paddlers, however, I admit to having a little, er, flirtation, with another brand of kayak “designed for the smaller paddler” that left me less than convinced of the suitability of such models. The Isel, however, is a quite different animal and I knew immediately upon testing it that I could trust it.

First of all, it is an excellent fit. With correct footplate and seat positioning, I can sit relaxed in the kayak and my legs are in constant, comfortable contact with the thigh braces. This affords a feeling of real control and, combined with the stability of the kayak, I simply feel safe and secure. I also added a thin layer of foam into the conveniently located hip pockets.

All this safety and security doesn’t make for a boring kayak. Indeed, the Isel is manoeuvrable and nippy and I am able to turn it in high winds without difficulty. Because of its harder chines, it sticks nicely when edged and I get instant feedback on how far to go. It loves to pick up waves and, although I am not the bravest of surfers, I have had fun scooting along on a following sea.

Two Isels on the water

Two Isels on the water

Other features that have particularly impressed me include, firstly, the adjustable footplate. I am not a fan of foot pegs, although this is a very personal preference. I developed sore feet when paddling kayaks with foot pegs and this simply isn’t an issue any more. I know people comment on not being able to stretch their legs when a footplate is present, but I find that I can do so simply by straightening my legs out. I dare say that I have found the ideal positioning of the plate and seat in order to allow good contact along with a little room for manoeuvre. Secondly, lower back pain used to feature quite regularly when I paddled other kayaks, but no more. This could be because of the adjustable (and removable) glass seat design and the lumbar support provided by the back rest (and/or because I have toughened up a bit since my earlier kayaking days – yoga helps). Thirdly, I love Rockpool’s unkinkable wire skeg design. On those inevitable occasions when the kayak is plopped on the beach and the skeg is down, it is no longer a potentially trip-ruining event.

I have frequently received comments from fellow paddlers as to how much happier I look in rougher water since acquiring the Isel. I went through a bit of a rough water confidence setback a couple of years ago after a good trashing in the aforementioned unsuitable “smaller paddler” kayak. The Isel has helped me overcome this, such that I believe I am now at an appropriate proficiency level for someone of my experience on the water.  For me, it has taken a great deal of the fear out of paddling and I now find myself seeking out and enjoying conditions that used to fill me with trepidation. I have been out in up to F6 (F7 if you count gusts) mostly in the Cowal/Clyde area, and various tidal conditions elsewhere, and have had no issue with control, windage, tracking or speed. I use the skeg minimally, really only in cross-winds and downwind when surfing.

The kayak is excellent for rolling and, importantly, for self-rescuing too. When practising self-rescues with other kayaks, it has often felt like wrestling an alligator. In comparison, the Isel practically lays out a welcome mat and offers you a leg-up to get back in.

Alan balance bracing in Isel

Alan balance bracing in Isel

Just when I thought I’d realised and appreciated all of the Isel’s good qualities, I recently discovered another major bonus – it makes for an excellent Greenland rolling kayak! As I mentioned before, the harder chines, the lower profile and lower rear cockpit rim are perfect for Greenland style (layback in particular) rolling.

It might seem like I have nothing bad to say, which is true. The closest I can come is that, naturally, being a smaller, low volume kayak, there is not a huge amoung of room for gear in the hatches, although it is possible to camp out of it on short trips if you pack as if you were backpacking, say.

As Rockpool point out on their Web page, the Isel doesn’t have to be used by smaller people only, and Alan has proved this by sneaking into mine for Greenland rolling practice. He might not be able to load the kayak, but he can certainly roll it.

I wouldn’t swap my Isel for anything. It is a wonderful kayak that has brought out the best in my abilities and has made my kayaking journey a real joy.

Laidback and reckless

In my experience, there are several stages of evolution when it comes to kayak rolling. They are:

  • Acceptance that, if you’re serious about kayaking, you will need to get your hair wet.
  • Observation of kayakers who can roll proficiently, accompanied by frequent utterances of, “I’ll never be able to do that.”
  • Pool sessions, starting with lots of poolside hip flicking (usually surrounded by river paddlers doing ridiculous acrobatics).
  • Developing familiarity with eskimo rescues. Increased presence of the “hand of God”.
  • Discovery of the joy of floats.
  • First pool boat roll.
  • First sea kayak roll, in the sea.
  • Work on off-side.
  • Robust, dependable roll on both sides.
  • World domination.

Well, that’s the general idea. Along the way, of course, are many, many hours of hand-wringing, soul-rending, excruciating, intricate analysis of ever minute detail of the technicalities of the roll, carefully documented via blog and forum posts. (Or is that just me?). Let’s just say, things can get a bit “uptight”.

Whilst working on my off-side roll, it occurred to me that it felt like I always seemed to need a checklist before setting up. This list would include items such as: direction of wind/waves, location of nearby rescuer, sea temperature, nose clip, venting/buoyancy of drysuit, positioning of hands, blade angle, positioning of head, adequate sweep, lucky white heather etc. I’ve seen the Space Shuttle commander go through less before lift-off.  Yet I also knew that my best rolls were achieved when I abandoned all thought and went by feel.

Which brings me to the next stage in my personal rolling evolution. For quite some time, I’ve been aware of that strange breed of kayaker who can be found in sleek, black craft (called qajaqs actually), who employ wooden sticks and clothes lines, dress up as seals and speak in a secret, encrypted code involving a confusion of vowels and consonants that would make an Icelandic volcano proud. Most of all, they demonstrate grace, ease and calm in executing their elegant rolls. They have intrigued me and I have secretly longed to join their cult (not just because black looks cool). You might be familiar with some of their names, such as Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson, Helen Wilson and Dubside. I have also been following Lesley in Orkney, who went over to the dark side some time ago and whose progress has been hugely inspiring. I speak, of course, of Greenland paddlers.

And so, with a view to freeing ourselves from the tyranny of Euro-blade checklists, Alan and I acquired a Greenland paddle, a beautiful red cedar Anglesey Stick in fact. Being that there are 35 Greenland rolls to learn, it is apparent that an entirely different mindset would be required in acquiring these skills, but nonetheless one that we hoped we could transfer over to our Euro paddles when needed. By a stroke of good fortune, I have also discovered that my Rockpool Isel makes a wonderful “Greenland” kayak, being of low profile, having harder chines and a back deck that’s entirely conducive to lay-back rolling. Yet another reason to love my Isel.

The first thing I notice is how much Greenland rolling relates to body movement and awareness. The paddle itself will scarcely let you fail in a standard roll (although you do get style points), inspiring confidence and motivation to move on to the more complex moves. Ironically, much of the Greenland technique teaches reduced dependence on the paddle and more on body positioning. The paddle becomes the teacher who sets you free.

Balance braceThe Greenland paddle is, of course, ancient technology and I find it interesting to compare the relaxed, (literally) laid-back rolls that it induces with the obsessive-compulsive efforts that often result from learning to roll with a modern Euro blade.  I feel like I am letting go and working in harmony with nature (what could be more natural than water and a wooden stick?), as opposed to being a carbon-fibre wielding control freak.

My repertoire is short at this stage, extending to the balance brace, the standard Greenland roll and the butterfly roll. I have attempted a norsaq roll, but am not quite ready (it’s a mind thing – I tend to find myself hanging upside-down thinking, “What am I doing here, and why am I holding this lump of wood?”). The thing is that I am in no rush. I know that, with practice, it will come one day. Greenland rolling has turned an activity I used to fear into something I look forward to, plus already I see improvement in my Euro-blade off-side.

Most recently, in an effort to make better contact with the back deck, we dispensed with our buoyancy aids (or PFDs if you’re in the US).  We have been accused of demonstrating recklessness, but I might argue that rolling in 3 feet of water in 2 mph winds, with 2 radios pre-tuned to Ch 16 and mobile phones to hand surely can’t be called reckless. Anyway:

reck·less (rkls) adj : Indifferent to or disregardful of consequences.

Well, that beats being scared! A good approach to rolling, if you ask me.

After each practice session, Alan and I return home feeling buzzed. Time disappears as we lose ourselves in a place where every moment is now. Why does something so inconsequential to modern life create such a high? Could it be because we are connecting with something that is inherent to human nature – an ancient physical skill that engages our senses, places us firmly in the present, inspires our confidence and allows us the opportunity to overcome fear and other demons in our heads? And – allows us to relax. What’s not to like?!

From now on, I may just have to qajaq across the water …

Moving goalposts (and pushing envelopes)

Fairlie to Cumbrae and backThe summer days of July have well and truly arrived here on the west coast of Scotland. How do I know?

  • The calendar says so.
  • The schools are all on holiday.
  • It’s blowing a gale and raining torrentially.
  • The garden now looks like a bombing range.

Yes, gone is the tranquility of balmy May and June and now we have some proper Scottish summer weather.  Never mind, we have used this as an opportunity to switch focus from journeying, to expanding our skills and experience in less-than-tranquil conditions.

Alan is happy

Alan is happy

On that note, I’ve seen a change in Alan recently. Gone is the mild-mannered, fair-weather paddler I loved and in his place is this other chap, whose eyes light up at the sight of white caps, whose shoulders slump at the prospect of calm seas, who laughs (I’d say a little demonically) at wind and waves. All of which places yours truly in an awkward position.

Anyone who knows me as a kayaker will not immediately leap to associations of high-risk, adrenaline-soaked feats of paddling derring-do at the mention of my name. Rather, they might think of a nice, sensible day out in nice, sensible conditions with perhaps some seal-spotting and a bit of lunch thrown in. Regardless, and no matter how much I drag my heels along the sand, somehow I find myself bobbing about on lumpy seas more than my nice, sensible self thinks desirable. Alan’s latest proclivity is therefore not helping.

On our way to Cumbrae

On our way to Cumbrae

The word came from Julia that a group was going out on Saturday and we were invited to join in. I’d seen the forecast of background winds of nearly 20 mph and gusts of over 30 mph. In addition, Julia used certain phraseology that caught my attention, such as: “looking for waves”, and something (that I think was intended as reassurance) about folks being available to “pick up the pieces if things go pear-shaped”. I duly convinced myself that this was not for me. No thank you. I would be perfectly happy staying at home sobbing at my complete lack of gumption catching up on housework. I’d even changed into non-paddling attire, when Alan informed me that wild horses wouldn’t stop him he’d quite like to go. He then advised that, for reasons of kayak-loading group logistics, he couldn’t double up with Julia and he’d therefore be in the car on his own … with an empty cradle beside his kayak …

My hat out kayaking

My hat out kayaking

So there I was heading down to Fairlie, trying my best to drown out all the little alarm bells sounding inside my head. I was reminded of my yoga practice, where certain postures are made so much more difficult by mental (and physical) resistance and I tried not to become my own worst enemy. Once on the water, we aimed for Great Cumbrae. It was a bit of a slog and I rued my inaction about pursuing a repair to my skeg. For some time, it’s been a bit sticky, to say the least. Once it’s down, it’s all the way down and no further adjustment (including retraction) is possible. I therefore prefer to leave it up. Lewis kindly reminded me to edge and this immediately assisted matters.

Nearing Millport

Nearing Millport

Upon reaching Cumbrae, we proceeded towards Millport. With southwesterly winds blowing, the south end of Great Cumbrae is associated with a certain quality of wildness, something I’d been anticipating since our destination was made known. Upon reaching that locale, Alan’s eyes duly lit up while mine didn’t so much light up as fill up. Well, not exactly … but the waves did take on a slightly more formidable quality and I found myself once again seated in the departure lounge of my comfort zone. Maria prompted me to remember that, as much as there is a certain awe and beauty in the waves, it’s actually better to paddle vigorously through them as opposed to stopping to admire them.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Inside my head

Lewis also helped me with various pointers and assurances, including an exercise in paddling with one’s eyes closed to gain an appreciation of the fact that the waves are merely moving up and down. This certainly helped me swap out the images inside my head with something more akin to, you know, reality. It is very much a head game, where the senses undergo a bit of an onslaught and the mind takes off and runs with it.

Millport

A nice spot for lunch

Observed by a lone grey seal, we stopped for lunch at one of the little islands in front of Millport just in time for the sun to come out. Thereafter, it was back into the rough and tumble for a play. The word “play” does suggest fun and enjoyment, doesn’t it? I could see that that was the experience of my “playmates” and I envied their confidence. I found heading into the wind quite do-able and would probably have ended up on the shores of Little Cumbrae had it not been agreed that we were not to do that. I am not super-keen on paddling downwind in such conditions. I like to know what’s behind me and my imagination runs riot as soon as I feel my stern lift. I then become caught in a battle between learning the skills to best handle the surf and stay upright, and not becoming distracted from staying the heck upright. Out on the waves, rational thought becomes optional. But, like everything else, it’s a question of getting used to it. Meanwhile, Alan’s grin was getting wider.

I get by with a little help ...

I get by with a little help ...

We re-grouped to head back to Fairlie. This meant negotiating the bigger waves again side on and I very much appreciated the company of Lewis as we rounded the bend to the east side of Great Cumbrae.

Alan had already practised his roll successfully out off Millport, but I saved mine for the end. I’ve had a little trouble on practice nights lately and have only now determined that it relates to using my spare (Lendal) paddle. My roll is feeling great with my Werner paddle, but not so great with the Lendal. Another little piece of the blade angle puzzle to figure out. On this day, I was using the Werner, so all was well and there were no tears before bedtime.

Heading back

Heading back

During the return journey, I noticed that, already, the goalposts had moved, the envelope had been pushed (and sealed and mailed off) and that what I would have thought of as a bit choppy when we started out, was now a welcome patch of (relative) calm. This is why opportunities such as these are so good for anyone who wants to become a more self-confident paddler. I read a commentary recently about how a fear of dying can become a fear of living. Likewise, in the world of sea kayaking, a fear of conditions can, if one is not careful, become a fear of learning.

Seeing as I wrote this on July 4th, I don’t mind declaring my interdependence on, and appreciation of, a group of friends who happen to be rather good at paddling. It has made all the difference to Alan and me to be able to push ourselves and, judging by that grin that’s still on Alan’s face, I have a feeling those goalposts aren’t going to stay put for long.

And I, I don’t want no money from you
I don’t want promises that you’ll be true
You can do anything you wanna do
All I ask is that you … you push me to my breaking point …

The Breaking Point, Shooter Jennings and Hierophant, Black Ribbons

Failure is the path of least persistence

Avocet at poolHaving learned that sea kayaks are allowed in the Riverside Leisure Centre pool (as long as they’ve been thoroughly washed), we decided to bring one along to practice some “real” rolling at the Club session on Friday night.  Of course, I was keen to take my Rockpool Isel, but this was not conducive to letting other folks have a shot, being that the Isel’s footplate takes a bit more work to adjust than foot pegs. And so, we took along Alan’s Valley Avocet. This choice caused me a little trepidation as my history of rolling the Avocet has not exactly been one filled with glowing accomplishment. I have had the odd moment of success, but it’s been exactly that – odd. And, of course, after the arrival of my Isel, I was in no rush to go back and engage in further self-torture. I managed, however, to delude myself into thinking that I had been making decent progress in improving my skills in the pool boats, so perhaps rolling the Avocet would be a scoosh now. Or perhaps not …

The moment of truth arrived. Alan jumped in and rolled in his usual style, with grace and poise. Next up, it was my turn. After a particularly ugly roll, I then went for a little swim. This was followed by a couple more laboured efforts and some more swimming. Sigh …

Meantime, various other members of the Cowal Kayak Club (mostly river paddlers) jumped in for a go, and each one of them rolled the Avocet with ease.  By the end of the evening, it was as if my ego had imbibed a shrinking potion and  promptly jumped down the rabbit hole into a distorted wonderland of neurosis and despair. Through the haze of blind rage chlorine, I heard a coach’s voice advise something about giving it more “oomph”, fixing my hand position … oooh and look at how good Terry’s (first ever) roll in a sea kayak is … it’s so good, he doesn’t even know how good it is … yada yada yada (I hate Terry …*).

We did of course bring along a camera and I have now reviewed the video evidence.

Readers who are bored senseless at this stage can skip.

For the remaining 2 of you, I give you Exhibits A and B (and C and D):

Alan at set-up

Alan at set-up, note that kayak has started to rotate already

Pam at set-up

Pam at set-up, note that kayak is not rotating at all

Alan rolling up

Paddle at 90 degrees, and Alan's well on his way

Pam not rolling

Paddle at 90 degrees and kayak only just starting to rotate

So, what’s up with that? Yes, yes, I know what you’re all thinking – HIP FLICK! But I swear I can’t get it going any sooner in the Avocet.  Is this a connectivity issue (with thanks to Julia for supplying that technical term), or am I just rubbish?  My most successful roll was the one that involved an absence of noseclip which resulted in a degree of urgency, or “oomph”. I am now inclined to learn a C-to-C roll for those kayaks with which I have difficulty, being that the first half of my sweep isn’t achieving anything anyway.

Fast forward to Saturday and I awoke to a disinclination to go anywhere near a kayak. The prospect of sulking at home all day, however, was even less appealing, and so we trundled along to meet up with our friends and then made our way to Strachur.

Hebridean Princess

Hebridean Princess

It was a pleasure not to be warding off frostbite as we got our gear ready for going on the water, and we were soon heading south towards Strathlachlan, with some slight wind coming from the northwest. There were few other vessels on Loch Fyne, and we were passed by the Hebridean Princess (HM The Queen was not on board). Alan took a photo of her (the ship) with me in the foreground and said he was going to label it “Hebridean Princess and cruise ship”.  I simpered obligingly.

Castle Lachlan

Castle Lachlan

We stopped for lunch at the Inver Cottage Restaurant, whose welcoming fireside is always appreciated.

Upon departure, I took the opportunity to surreptitiously dip my hands in the loch to test the temperature. It wasn’t exactly bath-like, but I speculated that I could perhaps handle a little dunking as long as I kept my drysuit on. In other words, I needed to regain my rolling mojo. I read a book recently that dealt with how the brain attaches to negative associations, being that primitive peoples had to place great focus on matters such as not being killed or starving to death, versus the more positive matters of finding a mate, or a flat-screen telly.  And so we are hard-wired to attach to negativity. The book recommended that, when something negative occurs, you should immediately replace it in your mind with something positive and, in so doing, you can effectively rewire your brain.  My intention, therefore, was to replace the painful associations of the previous evening, with the memory of a perfect, effortless roll in my Isel.

Loch Fyne

Loch Fyne

It didn’t work out exactly as planned. No sooner had I capsized than I became aware of a complete inability to surface. Convinced that I’d been snagged by the Loch Fyne Monster (or at least an especially vicious piece of kelp), I went for yet another frantic swim. On my next attempt, Alan pinpointed the problem. My drysuit was full of air and I was resembling the Michelin Woman upon immersion. Lesson No. 1: always make sure to fully purge your drysuit. Alan helped me deflate by hugging me (which Julia mistook for a romantic gesture – as if!).  Finally, I nailed the roll and it felt exactly as it should – effortless. I love my Isel.

I cheered heartily, however, not as heartily as Alan did. I’m sure I heard some utterances about finally getting some peace. Well, I can take a hint.

Now, I wonder if I should take my Isel into the pool next week …

* With apologies to Terry, it was the chlorine talking

Getting warmer

Karitek Demo Day at FairlieAfter a weekend off from kayaking (other than the pool), it was back to normal last weekend as a group of us rendezvoused at Fairlie on Saturday. This was in order to coincide with the Karitek demo day being held there as we were all anxious to fondle the lovely range of Rockpool, P&H and UKSK kayaks on display. Of course, Alan and I are not in the market for another kayak, but it’s always nice to look at the latest offerings regardless. Hopefully the good people of Karitek didn’t notice mind one chap testing out Alan’s Nordkapp.  We bumped into quite a few “well kent” faces from the paddling world and it was only after Alan had launched my kayak without me in it that I took the hint, stopped chatting and  jumped in. Apart from anything else, I didn’t want it to be inadvertently taken out for a demo and returned to Karitek!

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

We headed over to Little (or Wee) Cumbrae and stopped there for lunch. The island is under new management in the form of the Patanjali Yog Peeth Trust. As a yoga student myself, I am of course pleased that the island will be used as a centre for yoga and the promotion of ayurvedic wellbeing and non-harming – a much more favourable prospect than the potential shooting and quad biking options that were advertised on the prior “for sale” listing (somewhat oxymoronically alongside birdwatching). I have it on good authority that the owners are welcoming to sea kayakers, merely requesting that visitors respect the island’s ethos, although disappointingly allegedly, it is not necessary to swear an oath of vegetarianism in order to land (but don’t quote me on that).

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

We consumed lunch beside the square Castle remains and did a bit of exploration both inside and outside. Sufficiently fortified (us, not the Castle), we were back in our kayaks to cross over to Millport on Great Cumbrae for further sustenance in the form of a hot beverage in the Ritz Cafe. Following that, we hopped back to Fairlie, passing Hunterston’s terminal where a bulk carrier all the way from China was now berthed. Landing back at the beach should have been an uneventful affair, had it not been for Alan’s back going into a spasm which found him writhing about on the ground emitting “man groans” (akin to “man flu” in terms of the immensity of suffering involved). Not only that, my efforts to assist my fellow paddlers went horribly awry when I tripped over a stone and promptly dropped my end of Henrik’s kayak.  Henrik was very gracious about it and I didn’t even see him applying the duct-tape before putting his kayak back on the car roof.

Heading to Millport

Heading to Millport

One thing had become apparent during our outing and that was the almost, but not quite, spring-like quality to the day. In fact, we almost, but not quite, entirely dispensed with our pogies, neck gaiters and hats. At least I thought about it. Any weekend  now, I reckon.

And speaking of getting warmer, we’ve been trundling along to the pool each Friday evening to diligently work on skills improvement. A week ago on Friday, I jumped in, capsized and had the mental equivalent of a computer’s “blue screen”. The rolling program in my mind did not start and all that was left in my head was a blinking cursor.

Action shot

Action shot

There was no-one more surprised than I was about this. But it was actually a good thing as it caused me to have a total “reboot” (I won’t say where). I took myself (and Alan) back up to the shallow end and got right back to basics, once again building up what I consider to be the 2 core elements: sweep and head position. A bit of video replay had revealed a virtual absence of both which I soon corrected and was back feeling more confident by the end of the evening. In retrospect, I’d known that something wasn’t quite right the week beforehand and that my rolls were pretty laboured, but I hadn’t been able to fix it. So sometimes it’s better to utterly fail in order to deconstruct then reconstruct. The key is not to self-destruct, and that initself is a skill.

“You’re the only one who knows when you’re using things to protect yourself and keep your ego together and when you’re opening and letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is – working with it rather than struggling against it. You’re the only one who knows.”
Ani Pema Chödrön

Never too much of a good thing

There is a Zen saying that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” I have come to realise a slightly adapted version of this, which is: “When the kayaker is ready, the paddling opportunities will come.” This has certainly been the way of things lately. When Alan and I started out, we didn’t know any other kayakers.  We then made friends down at Garnock and, now, we find similarly minded folks right on our very doorstep, providing no shortage of opportunity to get out on the water. It’s a truly wonderful thing.

Misty Holy Loch

Last weekend saw several of those folks stranded on the “wrong” side of the water. Those of us on the Cowal side had intended to meet our friends at Kilcreggan, however, a thick, pea-souper of a fog had descended upon Greenock. Not possessing any suicidal tendencies, our friends quite sensibly abandoned any plans to cross the Clyde shipping channel. Sadly, therefore, they missed out on the beautiful sunny window that had opened over the Cowal Peninsula. We gazed over at the fog-enshrouded gloom in disappointment, which was only assuaged by blue skies, sunshine and beautiful scenery as we made our way from the Holy Loch to Dunoon and a hot cuppa at the Yachtsman’s Cafe.

Heading for the Kyles

Paddling in the Kyles

This weekend saw everyone gathered on the “right” side of the water where more blue skies and sunshine, if not exactly balmy temperatures, beckoned us out for a paddle from Toward to the East Kyles of Bute. After a great deal of deliberation, Alan decided that this would be the day of his “official” return to the world of sea kayaking after a nearly 4 months’ absence due to injury (give or take a couple of short practice outings). It was really excellent to have him back. Also a little strange. I confess to having become a bit “precious” about organising my kit, and I did try not to show my irritation upon discovering bits of his kit appearing in “my” Ikea bag. On the other hand, it’s awfully nice to have someone help you tug your mukluks off (paddlers will understand) at the end of a day’s exertions.

Taxi for Alan

Taxi for Alan

The wind was coming from the NNW  at about 20 kph as we headed straight into it on the way up the Kyles. Fortunately, the sun was out sufficient to keep us from freezing, despite the 3°C temperature and, indeed, my hands became quite sweaty in my pogies. I watched Alan with some concern, hoping that he wasn’t at risk of undoing all the hard physio work he’d undertaken in order to heal, but he assured me that he was feeling fine.  It seemed like the wind was picking up a bit as we pulled into shore for a spot of lunch. Most conveniently, our lunch site sported a rope swing, the temptation of which was too great to resist. Several of us let loose with our inner child and were soon flying through the air in a state of reckless abandon.

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Returning was a quite different experience, with the wind now behind us. We soon established that, at the rate we were being pushed along, we were acquiring 2-3 knots of wind and tidal assistance. It took me all my time not to pull out a newspaper and make a cup of tea as we coasted along. As the waters exiting the Kyles met up with their relations exiting Loch Striven, however, things became a little livelier and required a return of all hands on paddles as we negotiated a bit of F4 chop. The optimists within our party had anticipated that it might be possible to not have to skirt around the fish farm at the southern end of Loch Striven, however, such hopes were obliterated upon meeting up with the rather chunky cables and pipes inconsiderately placed between the shore and the fish cages.  And so we laboured through the chop all the way around the fish farm. Suddenly Alan was making excellent progress as, momentarily distracted from his injury, he had hit the “turbocharger” button on his kayak (a well-known bonus feature of the Nordkapp). I continued to enjoy and appreciate my Rockpool Isel, which took the turbulence in its stride.

A January roll

A January roll

Soon we were back in the calmer waters of Toward. As we approached our destination slipway, not happy with a successful day’s paddling, Alan decided to test out his roll. I am pleased to report that it was present and correct, thus motivating the rest of us to duly pat him on the back and declare him mad (but in a good way).

And, speaking of resurfacing, the Cowal Kayak Club is now providing yet more opportunities to paddle. The Friday night pool sessions have re-started and future trips are in the works. If I’m not careful, this paddling thing could become a bit of an obsession …

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

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.

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.

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.