Familiarity breeds content

Paddling against the windWhile the rest of the northern hemisphere basks in summer sunshine, we have been soaking up all the rain, wind and cool temperatures that only Scotland can provide in July. Theoretically this might sound like a miserable prospect, but as the wise and ancient adage goes – when life hands you lemons, add some salt and tequila! And the same applies for the weather. We could choose to spend the rainy, windy days indoors playing dominoes, or we could go out and paddle anyway. And so we have been squirting those lemons right back in life’s eye. Who wants sunshine and balmy conditions anyway?

I know what you’re thinking: who is this and what have you done with Pam? The fact is that lately I have, through a process of gradual coercion immersion (the type that hasn’t involved too much capsizing, fortunately), become increasingly familiar with conditions that lie in the F4/5 slot on the Beaufort Scale.

After our exciting day out off Cumbrae, we went along to practice night at the RWSABC when the wind was making a direct hit on the bay and veritable breakers were rolling ashore. A few deep breaths and out I went into the fray. It wasn’t long before (what felt like) a rather large wave caught my stern and powered me forwards with such speed that I thought that it might see me hurtled into the club bar to get in an early round of ginger beers. A little shaken, I landed and collected my nerves before heading back out, by which time the waves had subsided a tiny bit.

A lovely summer's day out on the PS Waverley

A lovely summer's day out on the PS Waverley (I'd rather be paddling!)

Last Saturday was yet another grey and windy day, so we decided that it wasn’t worth venturing too far away. Launching at Lazaretto Point, it had all the feel of one of our winter’s day paddles, and we headed east out of the Holy Loch. It took us about 10 minutes to reach Kilcreggan – well, I exaggerate, but with the F4-5 westerly wind behind us, we scooted along as if engine-powered, scarcely requiring a paddle stroke. As much as this was all very pleasurable, our enjoyment was tempered by the realisation that this could only mean one thing for the return journey.

Scooting along

Scooting along

We fortified ourselves at the cafe on the waterfront of Kilcreggan, another establishment that is kind to sodden paddlers and doesn’t mind saltwater puddles forming on the floor. Soon, we were back on the water experiencing the full-frontal force of the wind. There’s no denying it, this was quite a slog. I made a concerted effort not to gauge my progress against any landmarks as I knew this would only result in depression. On the bright side, it proved an excellent opportunity to work on maximum forward stroke efficiency, focusing on rotation and paddle grip in particular. I explored the fine line between lessening my grip on the paddle so as to prevent raging tendinitis, and having the paddle whipped from my hands. The gusts were sufficient to bring us to a halt on occasion and we contemplated a shore stop at Cove before deciding to plough ahead regardless. There were some moments of respite, but the gusts experienced upon reaching the Holy Loch were some of the most fearsome of the day.

Rescue "practice"

Rescue "practice"

A few feet from the shore, my wind-ravaged senses became aware of some wobbling going on to my left. Almost in slow motion, I observed Alan inelegantly capsizing in what looked like a most unintended way. As Alan floundered about in the water, my finely honed rescue skills immediately kicked in, but I discarded them in favour of a fit of the giggles. The official story regarding this embarrassing debacle (avidly watched/photographed by our fellow paddlers and various pedestrians on the shore-side) was that Alan was paddling Julia’s Pintail and, due to a lack of practice at emerging from that particular kayak, he managed to tip himself over whilst doing some sort of yoga pose in the cockpit. Actually, he tells me that he was in fact trying to disengage his foot from the kayak in preparation for landing. What resulted was a fiasco hybrid between a self-rescue and an assisted rescue. I will share some key learnings:

  • The rescuer should not giggle at the rescuee. It is considered bad form.
  • The rescuee should not shout at the rescuer.
  • The rescuee should follow the rescuer’s instructions, even if the rescuer is his wife.
  • The rescuer should refrain from saying “I told you so” afterwards, no matter how tempting.

One thing for sure is that paddling into F4/5 wind provides an excellent workout, although I confess to moving a bit like a turtle the next day, until I’d done some yoga at least.

Happy place, despite the weather

Happy place, despite the weather

Aside from the practical benefits to be gained from increased familiarity with rougher conditions, there are some considerable psychological ones too. With more windy weather under my belt, I am no longer hitting “Refresh” on the Met Office website weekend forecast on a Wednesday. Gone is the nervous anxiety created by predicted gusts that only a few weeks ago would have seen me bailing out of a trip. And all told, it serves to increase the number of available paddling opportunities, which can’t ever be a bad thing. Living in Scotland, it’s not as if we can hold off and wait for summer to arrive.

Failure is an option

After several weeks at the Riverside pool in Dunoon, the newly re-formed Cowal Kayak Club has transferred its Friday night activities to Loch Eck. The sea kayakers are presently outnumbered by the river kayakers, but hopefuly in time, as word gets out, this imbalance may be rectified. Already we have formed the expected “us versus them”/sea versus river cliques. We sea folks remain dubious of any ostentatious displays of kayak acrobatics by the river guys, and they in turn have watched with derision fascination as we practice our wet exits and re-entries. Cruising around in our sea kayaks amongst the river boats is a bit like being a whale surrounded by lots of little fishies.

It has come to my attention that Loch Eck is rather cold, actually Baltic, to use the vernacular. This has made me less than enthusiastic to plunge myself into its freezing depths, despite wearing a drysuit. Bracing practice for me has been a rather muted affair, and I have rarely surpassed a “2” (out of 3) on the edging scale. Rolling is out of the question quite frankly, as I’m not sure my noggin could handle the shock. Alan, on the other hand, has been throwing himself into our various practice drills with gusto and is accelerating past me on the learning curve. I plan to catch up just as soon as the loch warms up – even if that is only for one week in July.

Nonetheless, I did manage to chuck myself out of my kayak for a bit of self-rescue practice. I confess to not having attempted this for quite some time, for similar temperature-related excuses reasons. And it showed. After about 15 attempts to climb on top of my kayak, during which time Alan had been deftly demonstrating correct technique to a rapt audience of river folks, he noticed that I was positioned at the wrong spot. My memory had dimmed since the last time I’d practiced – but it is now seared on my mind that the correct place is precisely where my “Nordkapp” logo is located. Unfortunately, after all those failed attempts I couldn’t succeed in completing the rescue due to having run out of “oomph” and having lost all sensation in my (by now blue) hands.

Following on from that, I sensed the commencement of what I’ve come to know as the “Friday night funk”. No I didn’t immediately head for the night clubs, instead I observed my mind descending down the spiral of negative thought. It goes something like this:

  • I am a failure and will never learn to (insert desired skill here)
  • (Insert name of person) can do it so much better than I can
  • Everyone must think I’m a loser
  • Everyone must be laughing at me
  • If I can’t (insert skill) soon, I will have to give up kayaking for good

Of course, you can see a common theme here. The frequency of references to “I” and “me” gives it away. Yes, that old culprit – the ego. It doesn’t like when it’s been given a bit of a battering and can tend to exact its revenge by undermining any consoling thoughts that one might happen to muster. Conversely, I confess to having allowed my ego to enjoy a little inflating in the recent past. For example, when I learned to roll in the pool, I definitely permitted myself more than one happy dance (much to Alan’s nauseation). But that only serves to create a bigger fall when the next setback occurs.

As we drove home, it occurred to me: I can let this encroaching gloom engulf me, or I can … not. It is like the Cherokee legend about the two wolves. One is angry, envious, greedy, self-piteous, proud and arrogant, the other is joyful, peaceful, loving, hopeful, serene and kind. The question is, which wolf survives? The answer is, the one you feed.

In kayaking, as in yoga, as in life, failure is not a defeat, it is a learning experience. We never stop practising and we never stop learning.