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.

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.

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

Home
Is this my home
Been starting over
Bathe in the water

Home, Engineers

The kayak chronicles

It has come to my attention that, at an average of 2 excursions on the water per week, my backlog of potential blog posts is growing at an alarming rate. The only way to fully catch up would be to stop paddling for a bit and do nothing but blog, but that is rather a Catch 22 situation and asking too much. As a compromise, I’ll share with you the highlights of the past month or so:

  • MV Captayannis wreck, River Clyde

    A visit to the “sugar boat” (the MV Captayannis) in the Clyde off Helensburgh. I recall the night it was wrecked, and it was all the talk of my primary school the next day. The ship itself dates back to the 1940s (it was wrecked somewhat later, I hasten to add) and is now the home (or at least perch) of sea birds and other marine critters, for whom it provides a “fragrant” environment. Being able to view an historic and personally meaningful shipwreck above water is quite a unique opportunity and beats having to don a diving suit!

  • PS Waverly and kayakers in Kyles of Bute

    PS Waverley and kayakers in Kyles of Bute

    A pleasant paddle in the Kyles of Bute culminating in our attendance at the Colintraive Fete immediately upon our emergence off the water. As we trailed our soggy presence through the crowds and stalls, many strange looks were cast our way. Apparently, wetsuits and cags are not de rigueur at a country fete. It was a relief to stumble upon a friendly and welcoming face – that of Andy, the chief burger flipper who, when he is not flipping venison burgers, is a fellow paddler.

  • Clyde Swim 2010

    Clyde Swim 2010

    A return journey across the Clyde in order to accompany swimmers participating in the cross-Clyde charity swim which was being supported, as per tradition, by the RWSABC. Each swimmer was appointed a kayaker to guide them across the river, and it was up to the kayaker to assess the best (and fastest) “line”. This introduced a slightly more competitive element to the kayaking proceedings than I had anticipated and the responsibility weighed heavily upon me, for a few seconds at least. I soon realised that the presence of slack water and the allocation of a fast swimmer reduced any need for strategic tidal planning on my part and my role reverted comfortably to that of security blanket, so to speak. Hats off to the swimmers that day for their sterling efforts which were quite inspiring (must get back to the pool and work on swimming fitness!).

  • Rolling practice is of course ongoing, mostly occurring along the shores of the Clyde or in Loch Eck. My on-side has been tested in a variety of kayaks now and is still “on” (hooray), while my offside has progressed from DOA to sporadically AWOL, with occasional bouts of FUBAR.

  • Surfing waves on Loch Fyne

    Surfing waves on Loch Fyne

    A windy weekend spent surfing (and a bit of slogging) on Loch Fyne, interspersed with refuelling stops in civilised tea/lunch establishments at Castle Lachlan and Inveraray. These outings were marked with some poignancy, being that Julia was about to go under the knife that Monday to have her knee ligaments reorganised. At least she managed to squeeze the very last droplet of saltwater out of the weekend.

  • Loch Caolisport, Knapdale, Argyll

    Loch Caolisport, Knapdale, Argyll

    A quiet and peaceful outing to Loch Caolisport. Whenever I mention this loch to anyone, I am greeted with a quizzical look – which might explain why we had the place entirely to ourselves (apart from one prawn fishing boat, some seals and seabirds). With beautiful views of Jura and Islay and a lovely lunch beach, it has a lot to offer. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that.

  • Paddling on Loch Linnhe

    Paddling on Loch Linnhe

    A day spent paddling around the north end of Lismore. This brought to mind our first ever kayaking trip of any significance, which took place at that location. It’s pleasing to reflect on how those first tentative paddlestrokes have led to something that’s now approaching a way of life. This is a scenically awesome area, and under 2 hours’ drive away from where we live. The wind reached F5 on our return journey to the Benderloch vicinity, resulting in quite an effort. “Rotation” was the order of the day, as I worked to engage my very toe muscles in assisting my rapidly tiring arms and shoulders in the battle against the wind. It was, however, definitely worth it.

As always, the many kayaking opportunities presented to us have been thanks to the availability of an ever-expanding array of amiable paddling companions whose company we have much appreciated. Not least of these of course is Julia who is now off the water momentarily whilst mending from her knee surgery.  Hopefully, it won’t be long before we see her return – better, stronger, faster than she was before! We wish her a full and speedy recovery.

Paddling on Loch Linnhe

North of Lismore

So take the photographs
And still frames in your mind
Hang it on a shelf
In good health and good time …

It’s something unpredictable
But in the end it’s right.
I hope we have the time of our lives.

Time of Your Life, Nimrod, Green Day

Shark tales

Looking for rocksNever ones to miss out on an opportunity for skills improvement, Alan and I signed up last weekend for a coaching session which had been kindly offered by our paddling chum (and able coach), Lewis. The venue was set as Maidens in Ayrshire and I can now officially say that I have visited South Ayrshire more times in the past few months than I had previously in my entire life.  Which is all good, as that area offers the sea kayaker many challenges and attractions, as I shall elaborate.

We were in full “business” mode as we put in at the rather muddy Maidens harbour. This outing was not, after all, a nice summer’s day trip – it was the serious matter of skills practice and general self-improvement, at least in relation to paddling. Not for us would there be scenic wonders or wildlife sightings – no, it would be all bow rudders, hanging draws and low braces on this day.

Training dayOur initial practice took place within the harbour. The gloom that has come to characterise July prevailed and lighting conditions were such that I thought we might need some torches to find our way about. Eventually, we did find the harbour exit and headed south. Winds were around F3 as we puttered about the rocky patches of coastline, and we were duly encouraged to engage in a spot of rockhopping. At this point, I know I am at high risk of acquiring a bit of a reputation, one that has nothing to do with skills and everything to do with avoidance. I understand the argument that kayaks are there to be used (and repaired), and I respect that rockhopping is an excellent means of honing one’s paddle technique, but am I really being “precious” to suggest that composite kayaks + barnacles + less than stellar skills are not the best mix? Just as Lewis was encouraging me to have a go, Alan helpfully illustrated the point and landed on a pinnacle of barnacles whilst emitting disturbing grinding sounds (the kayak, that is). Hours (or perhaps seconds) later, he did manage to get off of the rocks, and I was off the hook.

Shark in the water!

Shark in the water!

As we continued on, a sudden movement caught my eye just as Alan shouted urgently and pointed to my right. Upon sighting the tell-tale triangular dorsal fin and the following tail fin, we realised immediately that it was a basking shark. This was the first time we’d seen one, having heard about them from other paddlers’ reports. The basking shark is the world’s second largest shark, growing to lengths in excess of 20 feet. Fortunately, they are veritable vegetarians, only consuming plankton, and are no threat to humans, unless they unexpectedly breach under your kayak (a thought that did flit through my mind).  It zipped about the water near us with amazing agility before darting off and we were all thrilled to have seen one so close.

We paused for lunch next to the famous Turnberry golf course (once again). It seemed to be a busy day on the course, as I glanced over at the poor golfers with their backs to the sea.

Nick paddles into the sunset

Nick paddles into the sunset

Back on the water, as we stopped to engage in a bit of surf tuition (such as conditions would permit), we saw a lone kayaker approaching from the south. We broke off our discussions to greet him and, as he came nearer, Alan and I both realised that we knew him. This might not sound particularly astonishing, but this kayaker wasn’t exactly local. He had, in fact, paddled up from the south coast of England having set out in May! We had met Nick during our course at Skyak Adventures last August. It seems that he had really put his learnings to work. And here he was paddling just off the Ayrshire coast, at the exact same time as we were paddling just off the Ayrshire coast … what are the chances? It’s a little spooky.

Cue Jaws theme tune

Cue Jaws theme tune

Shortly after this most interesting encounter, we had yet another one – with more basking sharks! This time there were two, an adult and a smaller, probably juvenile, one.  For whatever reason, they appeared almost drawn to our presence and stayed within our locale for quite some time, obliging us with several photo-opportunities by swimming under our kayaks repeatedly. We were definitely in breach of the proximity to wildlife guidelines, but – in our defence – it was entirely of the sharks’ choosing.

As our training came to an end, I realised that we were only supposed to be doing skills practice off a coast not far from home, yet not only were we returning with improved skills, we also had unforgettable memories of an amazing wildlife encounter. It’s just another day at the office for a sea kayaker.

[Sharks reciting]: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself.”
Bruce, Anchor and Chum, “vegetarian” sharks, Finding Nemo

Claonaig to Lochranza and back again

Looking towards to Arran from SkipnessUnbelievably, it is midsummer already. I’ve barely adapted to the idea of not wearing my drysuit and fleece-wear, only recently having removed the pogies and handwarmers from my gear bag. Yet here we are passing the longest day of the year, when darkness is scarcely seen.  The settled weather prevails and this past weekend we decided to visit the beautiful island of Arran, aka “Scotland in miniature”. There are many ways to approach Arran, including from Ayrshire and from Bute, but we decided to depart from the Kintyre peninsula, and cross the Kilbrannan Sound from Claonaig to Lochranza.

Claonaig to Lochranza ferry

Claonaig to Lochranza ferry

Alan and I had been doing our best not to fixate on the weather forecast which was predicting gusts of up to 29 mph. On conferring with our friends, we agreed to play matters by ear and make an assessment once we reached Claonaig. Certainly, it was a little breezy and we could see the odd white cap out on the Sound. Some discussion ensued and, lured by the beautiful scenery before us, it was democratically decided (after some pouting from Barrie) that we would see if we couldn’t at least cross over to Lochranza and, if the gusts increased as predicted, we could take the ferry back.

Approaching Lochranza

Approaching Lochranza

We put in at the ferry terminal, departing just ahead of the ferry itself. As it turned out, the crossing over to Lochranza saw us being pushed along by a nice little breeze with nothing untoward in the way of gustiness. The scenery ahead – the Arran mountains, with quaint Lochranza nestled on the shore – was a joy to behold and, indeed, Lochranza became even quainter as we neared.

After just over an hour’s paddling, we landed on the beach and made our way to a nearby cafe for a leisurely lunch in the sun. Kirsty had spent a large portion of the outward journey hating getting acquainted with Julia’s Pintail. A small skeg fix had since changed her view of it considerably and what had been a source of frustration had become a thing of desire. Love is fickle, even for kayaks.

Into the wind

Into the wind

On the return crossing, we set a course for Skipness Castle, which was north-east of our starting point. The wind had increased a bit as the day wore on, and we were now paddling into it.  This made the going quite vigorous but I once again enjoyed having more interesting conditions to kayak in. This is becoming a trend.

Siesta time

Siesta time

Eventually, we reached the Kintyre shore and noticed that the water had started to turn a tropical turquoise as we approached the deserted sandy beach. We pulled our kayaks ashore and Alan and I started taking the obligatory kayaks-on-the-beach calendar shots, while certain of our number took the opportunity for a quick snooze or to work on their paddler’s tan. Fetchingly, this involves very brown hands and arms, with everything else a Scottish shade of white (and may yet ruin Kirsty’s forthcoming prom). It struck me as I viewed the kayaks arrayed along the beach that they really do seem like a part of the nature of things, resting on the shore in the manner of sea creatures – and not some motorised, pollution-belching atrocities, say.

Skipness Castle

Skipness Castle

We set off south-westwards and battled a very stiff wind back to the ferry jetty at Claonaig with Alan firstly taking the opportunity to show off practice his roll as we left the clear, balmy waters of the beach. I’ll confess that this segment of the journey became a bit of a slogfest, but I am pleased to note that I no longer develop wrist pain when paddling into the wind. The problem seems to have been cured by the advice of none other than Kirsty’s Dad (who’s quite a good paddler) who suggested I try a 60 degree feather. It works!

Heading home

Heading home

It wasn’t too long before we were re-encountering the ferry back at the jetty and a lone seal saw us off the water. With that, another day of beauty was etched into the memory banks.

Quite recently, I was in a hospital waiting room and I couldn’t help but eavesdrop overhear a conversation between 2 fellow patients. One was asking the other if he had any plans to go away on holiday this year. The person who’d been asked responded that he hadn’t been “away” on holiday in 12 years, adding, “I’m out in the boat, you see”.  And so it seems, every kayak trip is like a little holiday. It certainly beats queueing at airports.

Summertime, and the living is … busy

Paddling across the ClydeI think it might be a Scottish phenomenon but, when the weather improves, suddenly life gets very busy. What should be the lazy days of summer are filled with a mad compulsion to get out and make the most of the weather before it changes back to wind and rain (which, let’s face it, could happen any minute).  Indeed, it took me a few years of living in permanently sunny climes to resist this urge, to realise that it never rains in California and therefore there was no urgency to, say, complete all my outdoor activities in the space of 3 days.  Back in Scotland, however, we cannot take anything for granted, therefore, when a spell of good weather appears, one feels the need to cram in all gardening, kayaking, hiking, biking, house-painting, window-cleaning etc etc activities at once. Indoor activities, such as housework and working for a living, tend to get neglected. If you’re not careful, it can get stressful.

Of course, not getting out on the water during a spell of good weather, in particular an actual stable high pressure system is, I’m fairly certain, a criminal offence.  With this in mind, we have been hitting the sea on a regular basis by way of outings of varying locations, durations and companions.

Friendly porpoise

Friendly porpoise

Back and forth across the Clyde

A highly memorable trip was one undertaken by just Alan and myself. That statement is no reflection on our excellent paddling friends, but relates to the fact that it was our wedding anniversary and the conditions were, in all respects, perfect. We put in at the bottom of our street and headed across the Clyde to Inverkip. We were only a few minutes into our journey when we saw a couple of porpoises swimming nearby. I anticipated that, upon sensing our presence, they would hasten away as porpoises usually do. But these two were different, they proceeded to approach us, getting closer and closer until they were within a few feet of our kayaks. They were quite unperturbed and, I imagine, were probably intent on feeding on whatever delicacies abounded in that vicinity. I actually prefer, however, to imagine that they were saying “hello”. Anyway, it made my day.

Inverkip Power Station wildlife haven

Inverkip Power Station wildlife haven

Eventually, we parted company, bidding our porpoise friends farewell, and headed across the river. Towards the eastern coast, we came across the famous 78-foot yacht, Drum (formerly owned by Simon Le Bon and now Arnold Clark), looking very smart indeed. Upon reaching Inverkip power station, we rediscovered the little wildlife haven there, where we encountered eider ducks, nesting cormorants and starlings, shags, guillemots, masses of tiny moon jellyfish and more. We heard some clanking sounds and I understand that some dismantling work is now being conducted. It has been rumoured for some years now that the landmark chimney of the unused power station is to be taken down and that, indeed, the power station will be demolished to accommodate 800 new houses which will make the village of Inverkip a very busy place indeed. Of course, it remains to be seen.

Collecting rubbish ... could be here a while

Collecting rubbish ... could be here a while

Departing Inverkip, we made landfall on a quiet stretch of coast just ahead of Lunderston Bay where we had lunch. Being sensitive to such matters, we began to notice various bits of plastic on the beach. Alan then dug out rubbish bags and started his own one-man beach clean-up. After a short time, which involved delving into the undergrowth (mistake), it became clear that this could evolve into a task of mammoth proportions, requiring a small team of assistants and a bin lorry. Not having those on hand, he did what he could with some input from me. Every little helps.

Returning to Dunoon

Returning to Dunoon

We stopped briefly at the very busy Lunderston Bay in order to deposit the collected rubbish, before proceeding north to the Cloch Lighthouse which is always a photogenic stopping point. The sun had shone brightly all day and a bit of a breeze had got up as we paddled back across the Clyde to Dunoon. This made the conditions pleasantly interesting and we felt invigorated by the time we reached Dunoon for a tea-stop at the Yachtsman’s Cafe.  What better way to celebrate our anniversary!

Ailsa Craig must wait

After our recent sojourn on the South Ayrshire coast, the fire of ambition had been lit for a crossing to Ailsa Craig. And so it was planned that we should make an attempt during a continuing spell of settled weather. The day did not get off to a good start for me. Alan was away conducting a training course, and I had to undertake the arduous task of organising myself without a support crew (solo paddlers will have no sympathy, I know). I opened the curtains at 6 am that Sunday to find a small roe deer staring back at me having, I soon learned, consumed half of our garden already. OK, I exaggerate, but he had made significant inroads. Suffice to say, this summer’s roses and strawberries are now cancelled, but thankfully, the veggie plot remains intact. Who knows what apocalyptic scene would have greeted me if I’d got up at 7 am. In the process of chasing the deer, I lost a cat. (I spent the majority of the journey down to Ayrshire absorbed in frantic texting to Alan who co-ordinated communications with our neighbour and … well, to cut a long story short, the cat was behind the TV. Fortunately, I wasn’t driving).   I managed to turn my attention to paddling by the time we reached Lendalfoot.

Setting out for Ailsa Craig

Setting out for Ailsa Craig

A bit lumpy

A bit lumpy

At this point, we noted that it wasn’t quite the balmy, windless day that we’d hoped for. Nonetheless, we gamely set out for the unmissable lump of rock that dominated the scene.  I noted that conditions were not entirely calm and a small doubt crossed my mind – the all-too-familiar thought of, “Well, this is fine … but what if it gets worse?”. This was heightened by my awareness that 2 coaches in our number had taken up the rear and were having a bit of a conference. My spider senses anticipated a possible outcome and, indeed, Lewis called us to a meeting where he explained the realities of the conditions in which we found ourselves. Basically, the sea state suggested that there was more weather activity further south and local knowledge indicated that the wind would increase as the day went on, making the return crossing in particular a potential challenge. Being that the crossing is 2.5 hours long and fairly exposed, and not being in the mood for any epics, those words of wisdom were certainly good enough for me. Everyone else seemed to manage to hide their disappointment very well as we settled on a coastal paddle instead. As Dave said, Ailsa Craig isn’t going anywhere  – unless of course there’s a tectonic plate shift (hey – I’ve seen the putrid trash movie “2012”, you know).

Heading south

Heading south

We paddled northwards to Girvan and had lunch on the beach. Then, as we headed back south, the wind duly did get up and conditions became a bit more challenging, but in a very good way. Albeit that it was a long drive for a coastal paddle, it did provide us with some practice in bigger swell than one usually experiences further north on the Clyde. I always hugely appreciate the chance to broaden my abilities in the company of proficient potential rescuers good friends.

Alan adjusts my Isel

Alan adjusts my Rockpool Isel

A short hop to Bute

Alan was back on the scene last weekend, with the weather still holding, albeit a little breezy. We intended to go across to Bute on the Saturday, and even had the kayaks on the car roof, but the wind and a total lack of oomph on my part made us turn around. By Sunday, my energy levels had improved and, we thought, so had the wind. The crossing to Bute was very tranquil to the point of  – apart from the spectacular scenery – well, a tiny bit boring (did I just say that?). We paddled south along the Bute coast for a bit, then swapped kayaks and returned to Craigmore for a tea-stop. Alan had been coveting admiring my Isel and had requested a test drive. Even although its design is intended for a smaller person, he did manage to squeeze in and get a flavour of the delights of Isel ownership (of which I have raved extensively). Upon enjoying a cuppa in the tearoom, Alan, who was facing the window, noticed that the weather was changing in front of him. The flat calm had been replaced by a vigorous breeze. There was even some surf on the beach! Torn between waiting to see if it would settle, and making a run for it, we decided on the latter, just in case matters got worse. If we were going to do wind, I wanted my Isel back and Alan graciously obliged. We jumped into our kayaks, reversed into the surf and turned to face the elements.

Who ordered wind?

Who ordered wind?

The northwesterly breeze would be fairly described as a quartering wind and provided us with some decent waves to negotiate as we battered our way eastwards. We adopted a PLF (paddle like … fury) strategy, keeping close together and, before we knew it, we were in the shelter of the Toward shore. Being that Alan and I have not spent a lot of time in such conditions all on our own, our reaction was perhaps understandable – yes, high-fives and big grins all round! It felt like a small step forwards in our self-sufficient paddling evolution, and one that we really enjoyed.

And in between trips, we’ve been hopping over to the Royal West club in Greenock for practice evenings, the most recent one involving lots and lots of rescues: self-rescues, assisted rescues and rolls, including Alan’s first ever (and entirely unheralded) re-entry and roll.

So, to summarise, we’ve been busy spending the days paddling, and this is very much a good thing. With the news of the unending Gulf oil catastrophe which will affect us all one way or another (and which, especially as kayakers who love the sea, leads us to a place of deep despair), all we can do is turn our attention to what we have now, to moments filled with beauty and wind and saltwater and birds and porpoises.

“I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am ageing and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”
Annie Dillard

Say no to dirty coal at Hunterston

Some background info, courtesy of the RSPB:

“Developers are planning to build a huge coal-fired power station at Hunterston in North Ayrshire. If built, this would have a devastating impact on one of the best areas for wildlife on the Firth of Clyde and destroy a huge part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Inter-tidal habitats like this are vital for wading birds, such as redshank, and curlew. They also act as ‘service stations’ for thousands of ducks, which use them to top up on energy during their long migrations.

Coal power stations like this are the dinosaurs of the energy industry, because they pump massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The developer will have to fit technology to help capture and store these carbon emissions. But these technologies aren’t yet commercially or technically proven at this scale, and crucially, would only be required to deal with a small proportion of Hunterston’s emissions. Millions more tonnes of CO2 would be released – so much for Scotland’s ambitious targets to stop climate chaos.”

And think of all the lovely pollution!

If you object and would like your voice to be heard, click here to fill out and submit the RSPB’s prepared template.

I’d rather be kayaking …

Golf stuff
Guess where we were last weekend … the photo on the right is a clue. No, it wasn’t the Crazy Golf course on Dunoon shore front. It was somewhere even more famous. Yes, Turnberry. I know that even my farthest flung readers will have heard of that.

And what, might you ask, does this have to do with kayaking? Let me explain.

Ailsa Craig

Ailsa Craig, or Paddy's Milestone ... and paddler

A change of scenery had been scheduled for our latest paddling excursion, away from Argyll and Bute. Well, when I say a change of scenery, the predominant feature throughout the paddle can be seen from our front window. Perhaps a change of coastline is more accurate. We were headed for South Ayrshire to spend a day against a backdrop of Ailsa Craig, aka “Paddy’s Milestone”.

We set off from the quaint little harbour of Dunure, attracting various passersby who were interested in our preparations. It could well be that the shenanigans of one of our group, involving a piece of men’s outsized swimwear apparel (the memory of which I am working hard to purge) was causing some distress amongst the locals. One of them enquired, rather hopefully I felt,  if we were paddling to Ireland. Perhaps another day. The conditions were uncharacteristically calm for this part of the coast, I am assured.  I even broke out my summer wear and was paddling in short sleeves, partly by way of experimentation (to see if I could will it to be warmer).

Dunure Castle

Dunure Castle

We passed the ruins of Dunure castle (where an abbot was roasted back in the bad old days), heading south with Dave, who used to paddle this coastline regularly. He provided interesting insights into the various features of the land and seascape as we progressed. We could see the Irish coastline to the west, as well as the coast of Kintyre, including the Mull of Kintyre. It was a very different orientation from usual for us. Our voices echoed as we passed the caves before Culzean, and soon we were at the majestic Culzean Castle, obtaining one of the best views of it possible.

Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle

Castle Port Lighthouse

Castle Port Lighthouse

We continued on past the town of Maidens before reaching Castle Port lighthouse and the hallowed coastline of Turnberry Golf Course. Even I, who know virtually zero about golf, felt a sense of awe. This is the course where Very Famous Golfers golf – people like Jack Whatsisname, Tiger Thingmy, and that Tom guy. We could see the silhouettes of golfers (potentially Very Famous ones?) trundling their golf trolleys (sorry, whatever they’re called) along behind them. I saw one stop and take stock of our little group of kayakers and it occurred to me that he was quite possibly wondering what it must be like to be out on the sea instead of playing a round of golf. At that very same moment, I wondered what it would be like to be him wondering, being that I’m fairly convinced that – venerated golf course or not – we had the better deal. I sensed him sighing enviously, and I restrained myself from waving.

With a bit of skillful maneouvring, we pulled on to the rocky shore to eat lunch. An examination of our lunch spot revealed the presence of various golfing paraphernalia – an actual golf ball and several tees. Some tuts were uttered amongst our group at this inconsiderate littering of the shoreline by surely lesser skilled golfers. This was only assuaged by the realisation that the tees were made of wood and not the dreaded plastic.

The journey back

The journey back

After lunch we continued south for a short while, reaching Brest Rocks where we encountered several grey seals and a large cormorants’ nest atop the beacon (which initself resembled something out of The Wicker Man).

We retraced our paddle-strokes northwards and the clouds parted, creating interesting and photogenic skies. Eventually, we were back at Dunure and ready for the drive home.

Turnberry golfer

Forlorn golfer

We might not have had a 19th hole to visit, and there were no reflections on putts, eagles and holes-in-one in our group (although we had plenty of birdies), but out of the many ways to spend a pleasant Sunday in May, I know sea kayaking tops my list.

Around Inchmarnock

Heading to InchmarnockThe word was out that we would be going for a paddle around the island of Inchmarnock, which greatly pleased Alan and me as we’ve had had a notion of just such a trip for a while. Inchmarnock lies to the west of Bute and is south-east of Ardlamont Point on Cowal. In other words, it’s right in our back yard. The island has an interesting history and we studied up the night before by consulting with the trusty The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell Smith, and of course the Sea Kayak Photo Blog.

Our launch point was the appropriately named Carry Point in Kames, as we duly carried our kayaks to the water over the rocky beach exposed by the low tide. A couple of our number borrowed Julia’s robust C-Tug trolley to trundle their heavier vessels over the rocks, a feat that impressed me greatly (note to self: this trolley could be handy!). Overnight the Met Office had been busy removing the previously forecast gusts from their predictions and it was now set to be a calm day. This came as a disappointment to Dave who was testing out a Rockpool GT. Never mind, we stoically endured the tranquil conditions as we headed south to our destination.

Arran Mountains

Arran Mountains

The crossing to the island was set against the beautiful backdrop of the Arran mountains to the south-west, which always makes for good photos. After about an hour’s paddling, punctuated by some much-needed kayak adjustments for Dave, Inchmarnock finally increased in size and we became aware that the island is, in fact, inhabited, a fact that I’d failed to appreciate despite (or because of) my recent hasty studies.

The natives were nervous

The natives were nervous

The inhabitants appeared to be quite nervous and, as we landed on the pebbly beach and started digging out our respective lunches, we became conscious of being avidly watched. My approach to take photos was met with stumbling retreat and it became evident that our hosts were not accustomed to visitors, especially ones clad in bright yellow. Our audience was in fact a motley crew of Highland cattle and I have since established that they are residents of an organic farm on the island, themselves deemed to be “organic”. At least I hadn’t started giving them names …

Geese overhead

Geese overhead

After lunch, we proceeded down the east coast of the island and the wildife count began to increase at a great rate of knots. Seals were aplenty and my progress was slowed by my attempts to photograph them all. I have now established with some scientific certainty that the sound of a camera lens focusing, no matter how quiet, is audible to seals and is a signal to immediately dive.

Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea stop

Inchmarnock is popular with the greylag geese set and we saw many of them flying (and heard them honking) overhead, as well as on the water and on the island itself. There were lots of little goslings following their parents around and we were reminded that, despite the chilly temperature, it was well into breeding season. We also saw: oystercatchers, curlews, plovers and more, and lots and lots of herring gulls. I marvelled at the clarity of the water, with news of the horrific and ongoing massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico playing on my mind. My heart aches for the people and wildlife who will suffer as a result and it is to be hoped that it is somehow stopped soon and that it does not enter the Gulf Stream to make its way northwards. We can never take for granted the beauty that nature has gifted us.

A spot of hail

A spot of hail

Having rounded the island and paddled up the western side, we stopped for afternoon tea at an idyllic beachlet on the north-western edge before setting out on the crossing back to Cowal. During the journey back we saw our second porpoise of the day, a sight that is always a thrill. We went through a few different seasons during that crossing – from spring sunshine to winter hail and even some chilly gusts after all. And then we were back at Carry Point, the tide having come in and thus making it not so far to carry this time.

A spot of sunshine

A spot of sunshine

The thing that strikes me so often on such excellent local trips is that they are precisely that – local. When growing up in Scotland, my main ambition was to go travel and see the world. Certainly I’ve done a little of that and it’s been all very nice. But maybe it’s ironic that I now want nothing more than to explore my own country. And all I really need is a kayak … and maybe a trolley.

All the rusted signs we ignore throughout our lives
Choosing the shiny ones instead
I turned my back, now there’s no turning back
No matter how cold the winter, there’s a springtime ahead

Thumbing My Way, Pearl Jam, Riot Act

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.