Luing at a good few licks

Posted by Alan

Sunset over Mull from north end of Luing

Sunset over Mull from north end of Luing

With summer waning (wow, where did it go to? I must have blinked!), it was time to grab a camping trip before we ran out of season. Fortunately a friend had suggested a weekend trip around the Isle of Luing which is a small island located about 16 miles south of the west of Scotland tourist mecca, Oban.

After stopping off to camp on Friday night in the very pleasantly located and well equipped Gallanachmore Farm campground (just a mile or two south of Oban), we set off early on the Saturday to arrive at Ellenabeich on Seil (near Easdale) at about 8 am.

The trip was coincidental with spring tides, and this part of the west of Scotland is renowned for being an epicentre of significant tidal flows which continuously ebb and flow their way around the many islands at rates topping 8 knots in places. As a result, good tidal planning was a necessity unless we wanted to find ourselves visiting somewhere completely different from that intended!

By starting early we planned to catch the tail end of the ebb tide down from Easdale towards Luing, which also involves crossing the highly tidal Cuan Sound, the west of which is an area known for significant turbulence under certain wind and tide conditions.

Heading towards Cuan Sound

Heading towards Cuan Sound

When we looked on Friday, the forecast had been for F2 winds from the south for most of the weekend but, as we unpacked our cars and readied our kayaks and camping gear, glances to the south revealed quite a few white caps between us and Cuan Sound. An anemometer reading showed 13 mph winds (gusting to 20 mph) from SW.

We eased out of Easdale Sound and headed south, quickly encountering the south-westerly wind on the last of the ebb tide which kicked up some nice chop for us to plough into as we approached Cuan Sound.

Cuan Sound is a narrow gap (200m) between the south end of Seil and the north end of Luing, and the Sound is rarely not in motion. Indeed, it is inactive for only one hour in every 6 or so and even then it shows evidence of moving water. At peak flow, it hits 7 knots in either direction. A ferry crosses the Sound to service the local communities on Luing.

Entering Cuan Sound

As we rounded the corner in an active sea into the Sound, the north end of Luing provided shelter from the prevailing southwesterly winds and the sea state lessened. The flow was due to reduce too, but was still running east when we arrived. We targeted a bay on the northern coast of the island and ferry glided over the Sound towards it.

I then did a quick weather check by phoning  home to “Weather Station Pam” whilst trying to avoid being sucked back into the flow out of the bay. During this act of juggling the phone, phone bag and paddle, I nearly dropped the phone but somehow didn’t. The outer waterproof phone bag took a swim, however, and was soaking for the rest of the trip. Just as well I double bag the mobile!

Weather Station Pam revealed that 13 mph gusting to 25 mph southerlies were now appearing in the forecast and that they would eventually die out as the day progressed. This was a change from the previous forecast we had of F3-F4 SW later in the day. It looked like it had blown up a bit earlier than expected.

Cuan Sound

It was interesting to note the extreme lack of mobile reception in this part of the world. I frequently experienced signal dropout, and the maximum signal I had all weekend was a single ‘notch’,  obtained while standing on a hillside! The learning to take from this is that, if you are kayaking in this area, it may not be a good idea to rely on just your mobile phone for emergencies. A VHF radio (which I also carry) is useful, but it is only a line-of-site device and can potentially be limited with all the hills around. There also wasn’t a whole lot of shipping in the vicinity to radio to if required. So it did raise the valid question of what else should I be carrying for emergency communication around here? A PLB? An EPIRB?

We had intended heading down the west of Luing first then coming up the eastern side to complete the circumnavigation, but the conditions between Easdale and the Cuan Sound coupled with the wind forecast for the earlier afternoon made the option to head down the eastern side first seem more appealing.

Narrows at island of Torsa

We proceeded eastwards and the conditions calmed as we turned to explore the narrows between the islands of Torsa and Luing, which are, indeed, quite narrow – 15 feet in places and shallow,  and hence are not navigable in much other than a kayak. After heading through, the views opened out to the eastern side of  Luing as well as to the mainland, and south to the island of Shuna.

An hour or so later, we arrived at the small and rather picturesque hamlet of Toberonochy. As you arrive in Toberonochy you are immediately reminded of the heritage of the islands in this area as you are surrounded by slate.

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy Harbour

 

A lot of the islands in this locale are referred to as the ‘Slate Islands’ , which relates to their previous historical importance within the slate industry. This includes Easdale, Seil, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua. Slate, as you are probably aware, is used for roofing on buildings, and Easdale was the main hub for the industry for the best part of 3 centuries. In its heyday, slate from this part of the world roofed buildings such as Glasgow University, Glasgow Cathedral, Iona Abbey and was even exported as far away as Canada before business came to a halt in the 1950s as different and cheaper roofing methods became the norm.

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy Harbour

Toberonochy harbour had a pier made of slate, and a surrounding beach of crushed slate, as could be found on other parts of the island. There was an old fishing vessel ‘Crystal Waters’, lying in ruin at the harbour which, even although not relating to slate, added to the historical character of the place.

After having a very relaxed lunch break and enjoying some sun rays and ever increasing blue skies, we reluctantly departed and headed further south.

The coastline at the bottom of Luing is rather unremarkable, mainly grassy hills with the odd small pocket of trees breaking the horizon. The breeze we were paddling into was the only sign of what lay round the end of the island.

Rounding the south end of Luing

Rounding the south end of Luing

We gradually approached the south of the island and, as we rounded it, the views over to north Jura and Scarba opened out. We could see  the tide race off the south end of Luing in action, and passed though the tip of it.  For the next few kilometres, we had a south-westerly F3/4 wind giving us some beam waves and the sea was once again quite lively. The sun was out, the views were stunning and we all had smiles on our faces as we headed north. During a very brief break at a small inlet, the winds suddenly dropped by a couple of levels and the seas calmed down. I was amazed at how quickly weather can change!

Cullipool, Luing

Cullipool, Luing

We headed north up Luing at a good few licks, greatly assisted by the flood tide (sometimes whizzing along at 4-5 knots), and soon arrived in Luing’s main village, Cullipool, which as chance would have it is also home to the island’s only shop. With the sun now blazing down on us, we used the opportunity to buy a few chilled drinks and ices and enjoy the sights.

Leaving Cullipool, we resumed a northerly passage and, as it was getting late, we resolved to find somewhere to set up our camp.

Dave spotted a likely campsite on the north end of the island just a couple of kilometres from Cuan Sound, but with some breaking surf onto yet another slate beach. He selflessly went in and scoped it out before signalling to us all to go in. The surf wasn’t big, but it was there and the beach was very steep with slate so it made for a nervy landing.

Elevated view of camp spot on north end of Luing

Elevated view of camp spot on north end of Luing

After we were all off the water, kayaks unpacked, tents pitched and bellies filled, we were treated to a lovely sunset stretching out to the west over the Garvellachs and the Isle of Mull.  We watched the sun roll down until it dropped over the horizon and gradually turned the sky an array of pastel hues. All this whilst listening to the gentle crash of waves over the beach – what a pleasant  end to a fantastic day!

We left our camp at about 11 am the following morning with a slightly awkward surf launch (teamwork was required!) and headed back north, once again keeping a careful eye on the tidal timing to take in Cuan Sound in order to complete the  circumnavigation. We then made our way north along Seil’s coastline which had some nice gentle, breaking swell to play in for a while.

Pastel Hues over the Garvellachs, Mull and beyond

Pastel Hues over the Garvellachs, Mull and beyond

Strangely, for a few minutes the Coastguard helicopter appeared and flew over us before setting off elsewhere. Maybe they were looking for someone? Or maybe they were just admiring the wonderful kayaking scene below them.

One other highlight for me was that I used a new Greenland paddle for the entire trip – one that I had made myself. More on that later, but I was very pleased that I had done this and was happy with the performance of the stick. There is something very satisfying about using something you have made yourself for propulsion!

Using my self made Greenland stick

Using my self made Greenland stick

Arriving back in Easdale Sound  I decided to do a couple of rolls, not for any applause, but mainly because I’d never rolled a fully laden sea kayak before. I especially wanted to try those well rehearsed Greenland rolls we have been working on for so long! I firstly used a side scull recovery, then did a full reverse sweep. Both rolls worked well, but the main difference with the laden kayak was the greater inertia of the kayak as it rotated in the water. Indeed I had to do a little extra pry just to get the kayak to fully turn round before doing the actual recovery sweep and  pry. I’m just glad that it worked with a full load, and this just adds to the importance of practising rolls in real life scenarios. I maybe need to try rolling it loaded in some chop next!

Sunset from north Luing looking west

Sunset from north Luing looking west

We all arrived back on shore at Ellenabeich with enough time to spare for a late lunch , which concluded an extremely pleasant weekend trip in superlative scenery and excellent company.

It’s just a ride

Greenland skills on Loch EckSpending time with other kayakers, I realise that there is often quite a contrast of opposites being balanced in our lives. The opposites might manifest as: sitting in an office versus going out in a kayak; wearing a business suit versus a drysuit; cubicle walls and striplights versus undulating seas and vast, changing skies; counting down the hours versus losing track of time; numbing our senses versus heightening them … etc. In the “normal” world, we are engulfed by the trappings of civilisation – electronics, home comforts, entertainment and so on. It’s all quite nice, but somehow it’s not enough. On the sea, we set out with our kayaks, whatever we can stash in our hatches and the skills we have worked to acquire. Yet we return with so much more, all of which can be placed firmly in the “Money Can’t Buy” category –  things like perspective, self-confidence, creativity and connection. Importantly, we get out to play!

So, why is there often a little soupcon of guilt lacing our pleasure, especially if we have the audacity to go out playing during what might not be strictly considered as our spare time? Is it some puritanical streak in our culture that views play as merely a luxury or indulgence that we are only “allowed” after we’ve finished the important business of work (a bit like no dessert without first eating vegetables?). The culture many of us were raised in programs us to believe that we can’t afford to be too frivolous, we must conform to a schedule. Our worth is rooted in devoting our time to earning a living which, in today’s society, justifies our right to exist.

After some rolling practiceYet could it be that play is something quite natural? We might more readily associate it with children, yet it’s very much how children learn and create, explore their limits, engage with their environment and let go of boundaries. Is that such a bad thing for adults to do?  Can anyone argue that humanity has become ever so slightly disengaged from “the environment” (which is over there somewhere), from nature (as seen on TV), indeed from itself ? Perhaps this isn’t working out so well – just read the papers! (Of course, I’m not including non-creative  imitations of play in this discussion, such as computer games and entertainment, where we rely on others to create experiences for us to consume).

A great rideSome days, I look out on the water and there is simply a need to connect with it, to bounce around on the waves and whoop, to see what I can do with my kayak, to get a little ecstatic and a little scared, to chat to the seals, to “waste” time, to be an unbroken spirit. It doesn’t earn me a living.  Instead perhaps – to put it grandly – I get to feel like I’m a part of the universe’s creative force, as opposed to a cog in a human-made machine.

Does that mean that we kayakers should just spend all our time out having fun on the water then? Well, unless you have a particularly fortuitous job, most of us have to come ashore and stare at a computer screen for a while. Ray Mears programmes and veggie gardens aside, it is still necessary to participate in the world and work within its structures (at least to some extent) in order to eat, amongst other things. The trick is not to be numbed or betrayed by it. At the end of the day, it’s just a ride – and we can change it any time we want.

The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while.

Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they’ve begun to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’, and other people have remembered, and they’ve come back to us and they say, ‘Hey, don’t worry. Don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ and we KILL THOSE PEOPLE.

“Shut him up! We have a lot invested in this ride! SHUT HIM UP! Look at my furrows of worry. Look at my big bank account, and my family. This just has to be real.”

It’s just a ride.

But we always kill those good guys who try and tell us that. You ever noticed that? And let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because … It’s just a ride.

And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. A choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead see all of us as one.”

— Bill Hicks (1961 – 1994)

When you’re smiling …

Happy in a Tiderace Xcite SI recently wrote up a little article that’s been published on Kayak Bute‘s blog, all about my experience of buying a new Tiderace Xcite S kayak from them.  You can find it here.

I am definitely one happy customer!

Scottish Women’s Sea Kayak Festival, Isle of Bute

Heading south

Heading south

A few weeks back, Roddy of Kayak Bute issued an invitation to attend the Scottish Women’s Sea Kayak Festival on Bute.  I’d also agreed to assist Mackayak (or, as I like to call her, Lesley) with teaching some traditional skills on the Monday. I thought it could possibly be fun, which turned out to be quite a serious under-estimation of my experience.

The programme of events contained various skills coaching sessions including forward strokes, close quartering and rescues, as well as a a circumnavigation of Bute, a trip to the Cumbraes and the said traditional skills class. I signed up for the round-Bute trip over Saturday and Sunday. Even although the Isle of Bute is very near my home and I do frequent its shores, I’d never gone all the way around it – a bit of a glaring omission in my paddling resume.

The base for the weekend was the campsite and tea-room at the lovely Ettrick Bay. After arriving there early on Saturday, we proceeded by car to Kerrycroy Bay to commence the round-island paddle.

Justine explains the course

Justine explains the course

Keeping land on our right …

The conditions were flat calm for most of Saturday, and this was conducive with chatting to fellow paddlers and coaches. This seems to be my year for meeting famous kayakers, the stars of (watery) stage and screen. First it was Cheri and Turner of Kayak Ways in May, and now it was adventurer and film-maker, Justine Curgenven, whose DVDs and global travels have been a source of inspiration to me since my early paddling days. It’s hard not to be a little bit star-stuck! But Justine’s affable company gave lie to notions of celebrity. The trip was also led by senior coach, Morag Brown of Skyak Adventures, who it was nice to finally meet. We were certainly in good hands. Paddlers came from as far north as Orkney, the south coast of England, and many points in between. It was interesting to learn about  the differences in the typical paddling environment of each participant and I pondered what type of kayaker I would be now if I lived in an area of big tides and ocean swell, if a typical paddling trip over to a nearby island meant the Isle of Wight as opposed to the Isle of Bute.

Arran mountains ... and new friends

Arran mountains ... and new friends

Travelling down the eastern coast of Bute, we were accompanied by several inquisitive grey seals, flocks of oystercatchers and kamikaze gannets before encountering porpoises as we approached the bottom of the island. It was with some personal amusement that we reached the southernmost point of Bute, an area that has little hazard signs flashing in my head, to find barely a ripple.  Turning the corner, we were greeted with the ever beautiful vista of the Arran mountains. The sea did become a little more textured after we passed Inchmarnock and neared Ettrick Bay when the breeze picked up, but I tried not to fixate on the rather nasty looking forecast I’d seen for the following day and only called Alan 3 or 4 times for an update.

Just some of the kayak fleet

Just some of the kayak fleet

I certainly had something to entice me back to the campsite in a hurry and that was the anticipation of my beautiful new Tiderace Xcite S kayak being there waiting for me. Sure enough, Kayak Bute did not disappoint and a very special package with my name on it was sitting on their trailer. Just as I’d started to feverishly tear off the packaging, I was called away to retrieve my car from the day’s starting point – a  cruel tease, really! Not to worry, I was soon back and was greeted by a friend informing me that she really loved my new kayak. What?! My eyes had not been the first to behold it! I did manage to forgive Roddy for unwrapping my Xcite S in my absence as – who can blame him – it really is too beautiful to remain smothered in bubble-wrap. I fought my way through the crowd of appreciative admirers and then joined them in oohing and awing over my new black and red baby. There was a substantial number of  Kayak Bute’s fleet of Tiderace kayaks adorning the campsite throughout the weekend. Those attendees who had not brought their own vessels could pick and choose which shiny new kayak to try out – a fantastic opportunity, although I’m not sure how Roddy kept track of them all! Presumably he has counted them all back in.

On Saturday evening, a buffet dinner of culinary delights was supplied by the team at Ettrick Bay tea room, after which we listened to two very interesting talks. The first was an amusing review by Alice McInnes (aka Alice Tiderace) which traced the history of women’s outdoor attire through the ages, from the tweed skirts of yesteryear (whose “blowing up” potential was a substantial danger), to modern, hi-tech kit and apparel. Next was a presentation by Justine about her circumnavigation (with Barry Shaw) of Tierra del Fuego, the videos and slides from which had everyone riveted. It certainly put my own small paddling anxieties into perspective! I’m very much looking forward to seeing the entire film when it’s released.

A nice day for a launch

Ettrick Bay

Ettrick Bay

Come Sunday, we were set to resume our circumnavigation with Justine again, along with another top coach, Kate Duffus. We departed from Ettrick Bay into a stiff southerly breeze and a rather more interesting sea state.  This would be a good test of my comfort level in the Xcite S (which I’ll be writing more about soon). Suffice to say, I was a very happy camper (in every sense). Passing Tighnabruaich, we rounded the northern end of Bute and approached the Burnt Islands. Many remarks were made about this being the most scenically beautiful part of the journey – which says a lot considering we were shrouded in damp mist! I wished I could show everyone how lovely it is in sunshine, but they’ll just have to take my word for it. We were then sheltered in the Kyles and crossed over to stop for lunch on the shore at Colintraive beside the ferry.

Approaching Kames Bay

Approaching Kames Bay

Crossing back over to Bute and rounding Ardmaleish Point, the sea state immediately became more exciting and it doesn’t get much better than to find myself enjoying every minute of it in my new kayak, with my Greenland paddle, and in the company of a great group of capable kayakers. Some of us ended our journey at Kames Bay where the omnipresent Kayak Bute van and trailer awaited, but Justine and Kate invited anyone who still felt energetic to continue on to complete the circumnavigation. I decided that, having paddled that part of the coast previously, my rounding of Bute was complete (and, no, that’s not cheating!).

After an excellent and much relished dinner at the tea room (I’m still not sure how it’s humanly possible to produce such a variety of desserts – I think elves may have been involved), we listened to a talk given by coach Sally Gregory on weather and tides. Sally’s presentation was succinct and informative, such that my sluggish brain could cope (and, besides, we got notes to take home). Next up was a very special highlight. Global adventurer, Sarah Outen, the first woman to row solo across the Indian Ocean, had arrived to deliver a presentation about her latest “London to London via the World” expedition. I had read Sarah’s book, A Dip in the Ocean: Rowing Solo Across the Indian Ocean, and followed her progress online, so it was an unexpected treat to meet her in person. Her account of her recent rescue after being battered by a typhoon whilst rowing across the Pacific was nothing short of sobering.  I think we all felt a bit of the emotion that lay behind her reflection on that experience and wished her every success as she takes fresh bearings to continue her adventure.

An ancient tradition

It's yoga, Jim - but not as we know it

It's yoga, Jim - but not as we know it (Photo courtesy Ruth Clark)

By Monday, the weather had decided to put a very damp stake in the ground just as we were unstaking our tents. Packing up a sopping wet tent is always a joy, only to be surpassed by trying to keep track of kit (there aren’t enough Ikea bags in the world …). Being that the ultimate objective of Greenland skills training is to get wet, however, the rain was no impediment to our eager band of students. We started out with familiarisation with skinny sticks, reviewing a collection of various types of wooden and carbon (Northern Light Paddlesports) versions. We went on to discuss the history of traditional Greenland kayaking, and the equipment and attire used. This was followed by a spot of stretching, combining 2 ancient traditions by using selected yoga poses  to prepare for the body movements of Greenland rolling. I can honestly say it’s the first time I’ve ever done yoga in a drysuit in a deluge of rain. Slipping into a tuilik, I embraced the role of “glamorous assistant” while Lesley prepared to perform some special Greenlandic magic.

Lesley demonstrates

Lesley demonstrates

The group was introduced to Lesley’s sleek, black Tahe Greenland kayak which she went on to skilfully and  gracefully roll, explaining each move knowledgeably. It was then everyone else’s turn to try out for themselves a bit of balance bracing, rolling and forward paddling and several firsts were achieved and rolls were polished up. The “Green virus” (as Turner calls it) was duly spread, and I believe that there may now be a small uptick in sales of Justine’s “This Is The Roll” DVD.

I am inspired

Scottish Women's Sea Kayak FestivalParticipants were asked what they liked best about the Festival and, without hesitation, my response was the inspiration it provided me. I don’t mean to get into a discussion on the merits of a women’s event other than to say that perhaps, being a woman, I relate particularly well to the experience of other women.  The enthusiasm and willingness to share skills displayed by the coaches present (Justine Curgenven, Morag Brown, Kate Duffus, Carol Lang, Sally Gregory and Lesley Mackay) were a source of encouragement and motivation in themselves.  There were also the attendees with their varied backgrounds and experiences of sea kayaking and, indeed, of life – from the skilled northern and southern coasters, to those who were sharpening up abilities after some absence (undeterred by a bit of wind), to those who have endured significant injury and illness. Lesley, of course, with her beautiful Greenland expertise and solid insights, has been of great help to me for some time now, and it was especially enjoyable to work and share with her. And Sarah’s courageous adventures are enough to grip anyone in the force-field of her determination and positivity.

Participants were also asked what they thought could be improved. I’m not sure if my request for a little more sunshine is reasonable. At least there were no midgies.

Thank you!

A big thanks goes out to everyone who made the Festival such a great success, including all the participants. In particular, Roddy and Sally of Kayak Bute, and Alice of Tiderace Kayaks, who were the engine room of the event. I was seriously impressed by their ability to manage the formidable logistics.  The fact that profits were going to the RNLI made it all the more worthwhile.

The word “Festival” is synonymous with “celebration” and it truly did feel like I spent the weekend celebrating with others how very fortunate we are to be sea kayakers.

See Photo Gallery

The House of Flying Norsaqs

Mutant ninja midgies

Ninja moves ... don't work on midgies

Duly inspired after our training weekend with Kayak Ways, we’ve been busy working on our Greenland skills, averaging a couple of rolling sessions a week and/or paddling exclusively with sticks. Our dedication is now sufficient to withstand torrential rain, thunderstorms, cold water and – worst of all – tuilik-piercing midgies.

It occurred to me that keeping existing skills intact whilst acquiring new ones is a lot like spinning plates. For me, the flow has gone something like this:

  1. Master the balance brace.
  2. Work on layback rolls: Standard Greenland, butterfly, norsaq, hand.
  3. Start work on forward finishing rolls: chest scull/reverse sweep and continuous storm.
  4. Investigate disappearance of hand roll. Go back to 2.
  5. Throw in a few new layback rolls: shotgun, elbow crook.
  6. Address ongoing neglect of offside. Go back to 1.
  7. Reverse Sweep set-upWork on storm roll.
  8. Keep working on storm roll.
  9. Work some more on storm roll.
  10. Hand roll has gone again. Back to 2
  11. Discover offside storm roll is several light years behind onside. Back to 7.
  12. Try all rolls in full paddling gear (with BA/PFD). Back to 1.
  13. Move on to more advanced layback rolls, starting with the elbow roll. Back to 1 and 2.
  14. Try all rolls in a different kayak. Back to 1.
  15. And so on.

I’m certainly never bored. And this is all very good for me. No longer do I descend into a tantrum of frustration when a roll fails, although norsaqs have been thrown. With Greenland skills, failure and success are like sunshine and shadows – you can’t expect only sunshine. Although, it’s actually all sunshine.

Chest sculling

Alan chest sculls with the Olympic torch

For research purposes, we recently attended a Kayak Bute demo day at Loch Lomond. I can well recommend going along to one of these if you’re in the area. It’s a great opportunity to not only drool over some beautiful, state-of-the-art Tiderace kayaks, but to try them out and have some fun. Typical of our “summer” now (after Kayak Ways took the much more desirable weather experienced during their visit away with them), it was a pretty dreich and murky day. What better thing to do than embrace the dampness and try rolling a few of the Tiderace fleet. Roddy and Alice joined in and tried out their Greenland skills too. Indeed, fun was had! And, as seems to happen with such sessions, I’ve no idea where the time went. Afterwards, a very kind onlooker took the trouble to tell me how much she had enjoyed watching our practice. This certainly helps me to finally move beyond my silly “people are  looking” hang-ups. It now seems quite feasible that not everyone is pointing and laughing.

Despite at times feeling a little isolated in what might be called a more niche area of kayaking, our skills development benefits greatly from the help of others, many of whom are in far-flung places and we know them only virtually. This assistance manifests in the circulation of photos, videos, advice and encouraging comments. We’re a strange little group and there’s nothing we love more than to watch each other’s clips, whether it be an expert’s well-executed rolls, or a beginner’s first attempt, it’s all good – even the flying norsaqs.

Upside down, and round and round

Balance bracePool sessions have been very beneficial in reviving our Greenland rolling skills after a winter break but – even better – we have also been practising those skills outside again. This makes us happy! The weather threw a complete wobbly (of the good kind) last week and we were hurtled straight into summer – in March.  It was actually a bit strange and disorienting but, all troubling thoughts of climate change and weather modification aside, we decided to make the most of it. I should add that, before everyone gets too weirded out, it’s now snowing and blowing a gale.

As soon as the temperature edges above, say, 12°C in Scotland and the sun comes out, everyone is dressed in their shorts and tee-shirts (and the glare off of white skin can be seen from space). So, at 20°C, it did seem a bit odd to be layering up for immersion, but the water temperature confirmed that this was quite necessary. After a couple of standard Greenland rolls, it became apparent that the layering system was effective and that the water’s iciness was not penetrating much at all. I moved on to butterfly, then norsaq then hand rolls and realised that the contrast with the zero buoyancy at the pool was huge. It almost felt like cheating – so much so, that I took my BA off and have now consigned it to the “not required while rolling” gear bag. This is progress and has made the struggling in the pool worthwhile. It’s true that failure is a stepping stone to success.

We’ve started working on forward finishing rolls and have made some inroads. After watching Maligiaq and Dubside’s DVD, we are going through the “progression” steps and Alan is off and running on his own, whilst I need someone to hold my hand/paddle as I fumble about trying to get my head around this whole new technique. If ever there was a roll that would benefit from yoga (paschimottanasana in particular), it’s this one. Working our way through all of the official Greenland rolls is going to take a while, but we’ve been working on a few more now, including the elbow crook, shotgun and paddle-behind-the-head (presently aka stuck-under-the-kayak) roll.

It’s interesting to note that we both feel real improvement in our Euro rolls. The nuances of blade angle are less important and now it feels like we have a big blade surface to help (versus impede) us.

As we count down towards our much anticipated training with Kayak Ways, we are not short of resources to help us learn. Any day now, 2 DVDs will be released:  as already mentioned, Justine Curgenven (of the excellent “This Is the Sea” series) has produced “This Is The Roll“, featuring none other than Kayak Ways’ Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson. Christopher Crowhurst (of “Qajaq Rolls” fame) has produced a “Rolling With Sticks” DVD to accompany his very handy book of the same name. We are getting spoiled!

For the past several days, it so happens that I’ve had a tab open in my browser window directed to the “Buy now” page for a Brooks tuilik. I’m not sure how that happened – I mean, I am coping without a tuilik. Although, I do feel a little restricted when rotating. And maybe it would allow me to ditch a fleece or two. And I don’t mind whatsoever being compared to a seal (in fact, I’d be flattered). I don’t want to be impulsive … but I am open to persuasion.

Greenland comes to Scotland

Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson

Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson of Kayak Ways

Before I started paddling, my only association with Greenland was flying over that country and marvelling at its Arctic beauty from high above. I’ve still never been there, however, slowly but surely, we are pulling more and more bits of Greenland over to Scotland. Not the actual icy bits, but some of the traditions, craft and skills of the Inuit people. We have kayaks and paddles, and now we are going to be learning skills from 2 of the best-known traditional paddlers in the world, Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson of Kayak Ways. They aren’t actually from Greenland (at least not in this life), but their status as traditional skills experts is recognised both in that country and throughout the world. You can imagine my excitement to be booked on to a weekend course with them when they come to Scotland in late May. What a privilege! (You can pre-order their “This is the Roll” DVD here, by the way).

Greenland paddlingNow that Spring is springing, my thoughts are turning to rolling in the sea again and I’m looking forward to sharpening up existing skills so as to not look like a numpty have a good foundation to work on when Cheri and Turner arrive. We have had the good fortune of attending pool sessions lately and I’m having fun playing with my Greenland stick there. Gone are the days of spending the entire evening stressing over that one perfect Euro roll.

My only concern is from witnessing where this Greenland path leads, as demonstrated by Mackayak in Orkney. She started out in a colourful drysuit and an Isel (which sounds awfully familiar), but can now be found in a tuilik and a shiny, black beauty of a kayak. I am feeling a bit gaudy …

Life in balance

Yoga balanceIt started off with yoga class. Each week, our teacher designs a sequence of asanas to address a specific focus, for example: back bends, forward bends, hip openers, twists or, as was the case last week, balance. When Jude informed us that we were about to embark upon a balancing adventure (or words to that effect), I readied myself for the voyage of inward discovery that this usually entails.

The thing about balance is that it is not a given. It could go either way. It takes effort and concentration and, as our teacher pointed out to us, when you are balancing – be it in tree pose or crow or eagle or whatever – you are not thinking about anything else. After arriving at yoga class with a head full of chatter, stress and judgements, it is no bad thing to empty it all out whilst tottering on one’s tippy toes (or hands) and quite possibly, in the process, discovering previously unknown capabilities. Even so, the prospect can cause some pre-asana anxiety, perhaps because we aren’t very good at handling uncertainty and balancing is, in a way, a state of sustained uncertainty.

With this in mind, the following day I set off to do some rolling practice. I’ve recently been working quite diligently on norsaq and hand rolls, but on my previous outing, I lost my hand roll completely and my norsaq roll seemed a bit of a struggle. This left me with a sense of unfinished business which is quite a distortion really. I mean, if I were to get hung up on unfinished things, there would be rather an endless list to ponder (the other 30+ Greenland rolls, learning to speak French, the housework …). But still, the thought of having lost my hand roll  irritated me like velcro underwear, and I had to address it.

Balance BraceAt some deeper level, I intuited that there was a missing link in my versions of those rolls that don’t involve a paddle. I’ve mentioned before how a Greenland paddle acts as a teacher and, certainly, rolling with this ancient technology is a bit like grasping a hand from the past. When the paddle is there, I have found that it can guide you through the water and allow you to position your body appropriately, without struggle,  if you let it. Without the paddle, the rolls were all down to me and seemed to require a lot more exertion and striving. After starting off badly, oomphing my way through yet another failed attempt, I reminded myself of the advice given to me by Mackayak in Orkney which was to focus first and foremost on the balance brace. I also recalled being inspired by this particular video which clearly demonstrates effortless hand rolling up into, indeed, a balance brace. I had only ever experienced this before with the help of my paddle as part of a butterfly roll. I therefore realised that it’s not all about desperately competing for success on the back deck, so much as simply reaching a state of  balance.

I proceeded to practice slipping on and off of the deck of my kayak with the aid of my paddle, then letting go of the paddle whilst maintaining the brace. I then focused on getting back on to the back deck in one swift move as this essentially constitutes the last part of the roll. Next up, I tried a full norsaq roll. For the first time, I did not aim for glorious success in one movement, but rather I sought to simply reach the surface of the water and stay there. To my delight, it was a quite achievable thing, and then purely a case of getting from there to the back deck as I’d practised. Next, I tried it with my webbed rolling mitts, with the same result. A breakthrough!

Just like in yoga, balancing in Greenland rolling is all about clearing out distracting thoughts (of anxiety, success, failure, unfinished housework) and simply concentrating on holding a steady bearing right in this very moment. In many respects, it is a Middle Way, a path of moderation and equilibrium between the extremes of hopeless defeatism and questionable triumph. Perhaps in times of uncertainty, it’s the best path to take.

Rolling With Sticks

Rolling With Sticks

Rolling With Sticks book at the ready

As Alan and I go out to practice our Greenland rolling, a scenario unfolds that might resonate with other paddlers of the skinny stick variety. Picture the scene: you have arrived at your favourite rolling spot, you go through the repertoire of rolls that you’ve mastered then you proceed to the ones that you are working on. One of two things happens then – you can’t quite get it right and can’t remember all the tips you tried to memorise from the DVDs and videos you’ve watched previously. Or, you nail it and are ready to try out a new roll, but can’t think which one or where to begin.

Sadly, out on the water, it’s not possible to take along a laptop, or even to readily fire up a mobile device, so it can leave one at a loss as to how to proceed. At worst, one could inadvertently start using bad technique which could lead to injury.

Rolling With Sticks

So that's how it's meant to be done!

Some of you might already be familiar with the Qajaq Rolls Website, which has been carefully put together by rolling aficionado Christopher Crowhurst in the US. It is a terrific free resource, documenting all the Greenland rolls (and others) in video and text, as well as employing useful stick figure diagrams. Branching out from this, Christopher has now created a book containing a first volume of rolls illustrated by said stick figures and accompanied by descriptive text. The book is called “Rolling With Sticks” (what else!) and is published on “Xerox premium NeverTear water resistant polyester paper.” In other words, it’s bombproof (just like your roll will be).

Alan and I received our copy last week and took it out to test in saltwater. Firstly, I can confirm, it really is waterproof. It’s difficult to imagine anything “paper” that wouldn’t become a soggy, mushy mess in saltwater, but it truly doesn’t. It’s hard to tell it’s even wet! And so, we were happily flipping through the contents and rolling with the book under our decklines. I was working on my hand roll and Alan on his storm roll and it was extremely useful (and somehow comforting) to have a handy reference right in front of us. It also acts as inspiration to get started on a new roll that we might not even have considered before. The stick figures work well as a quick visual reference (and I appreciated that they are smiling, reminding us to have fun!).

Rollign With Sticks

Alan looks up something new to try ...

This is quite a pioneering  book, being that the very nature of Greenland rolling is such that the skills have been passed down via elders and mentors, and have not been committed to paper to any large extent. Even although the activity is growing in popularity, it has still been quite niche. Skills sharing in this digital age has occurred via Internet sites and videos (as well as elders and mentors, of course), but I have not come across a lot in the way of guidebooks, and certainly not waterproof ones – a definite first!

I do have a tiny criticism. In the instructions for at least one roll (hand roll, forward to aft), we are guided to look up at the “sunlight”. This did throw me, being that the West of Scotland hasn’t seen sunlight for most of the “summer”. Perhaps “sky” would be a better word for us sun-deprived folks. But now I’m just being bitter picky.

To get your copy of Volume 1, go to the Rolling With Sticks Website. You won’t be disappointed!

Finding your rolling mojo

If someone posted an article online about sea kayak rolling a couple of years ago, I’d have found it before Google did. It was around then that I was putting in enough research on kayak rolling that, in another field, it could have warranted the discovery of the Higgs Bosun particle, or the mapping of the human genome perhaps.   After many hours of YouTube videos, reams of articles, much experimentation and observation, guidance from coaches and friends, as well as DVDs and books, you might think that I would have determined the definitive technique for a bombproof roll. Well, it’s not that simple. There are so many variables in the rolling equation, including the paddler, that it is impossible to provide a one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, what I can do is share some of the discoveries that helped me in the hope that they might tip someone else over (so to speak) into the realms of success.

Euro blade sweep roll

I’m assuming a certain foundation of knowledge such as – you’re familiar with “eskimo rescues” (wherein you capsize, thump the bottom of your kayak and then use the bow of your assistant’s kayak to right yourself). Thereafter, you’ve perhaps managed to roll all the way around to the other side of your kayak and used a float or a person to work your way to an upright position. You’ve probably learned the basics of “hip flicks” and body and head positioning . And, if you’ve got that far, you might even have inserted a paddle into the mix.

If you are pursuing a sweep roll (as I did), it’s around now that things start to get a little more tricky. You are probably using a “Euro” blade (as opposed to a Greenland “skinny stick” paddle) and that’s when you might become intimately familiar with the concept of blade angle. It has been my personal experience that blade angle can make or break a Euro blade roll. An angle that is, say, 30 degrees or more off of flat can make the blade dive or climb. Never mind head positioning, sweeping or watching the blade, your roll is DOA and all the heaving in the world won’t save it (but may injure your shoulder!). Blade angle can also be affected by the particular paddle you are using (in relation to blade size, feather, crank shaft etc), your buoyancy (buoyancy aid, dry suit etc), and the type/size of kayak you are rolling.

All I can say is that, having a death grip on your paddle does not help. In other words, loosen your grip sufficiently to allow the paddle to find flatness on the water. In the past, I have tended to draw up elaborate mental formulae for wrist angle that only lacked a protractor for accuracy, but this was easily thrown out of whack by so much as a change of dry suit. Another idea is to capsize, set up and then get someone to adjust your paddle to be flat on the water. That was, in fact, the final step that got me rolling in the first place.

You might wonder whether you should try to progress on both sides equally. A coach once told me to make one side bombproof before working on the other as you can transfer your awareness and learnings over readily. I would agree with this approach. Apart from anything else, it is a psychological boost to have a strong roll on one side as opposed to a weak roll on both sides.

I would also recommend having a go at rolling with an extended Greenland paddle. As I’ve mentioned before, the Greenland paddle is your friend. It will scarcely allow you to fail. If you can get hold of a copy, watch Helen Wilson’s “Simplifying the Roll” DVD where you will learn about torso movement and keeping the eyebrows under the water, among other things.  Whilst this type of layback roll differs from the standard Euro paddle sweep roll, it will give you a feel for the importance of body and head positioning, as well as confidence that you can get yourself back up. This goes a long way to removing the fear of capsizing that can hinder practice. Once you’ve gained that confidence, you can then transfer your awareness and experiment with an extended Euro paddle perhaps, before refining your sweep roll. As one thing leads to another, you may then find yourself pursuing some of the other Greenland rolls and, before you know it, you’ll start looking forward to capsizing. At the very least, you will have diminished any inherent aversion to spending time underwater.

Of course, you never finish learning in sea kayaking, and this includes rolling. No sooner than you’ve finished celebrating your first successful pool roll, you must work on rolling your sea kayak in salt water. Then you have to try it out in chop. Then in even rougher water. Then with “unexpected” capsizes where you haven’t set up beforehand. Then with a kayak full of water. Then with half a paddle. And so on.

One piece of advice that I can offer is to always adopt “beginner’s mind” when approaching rolling. Be open to all the possibilities, including failure – and success, of course. Don’t assume that just because you were rolling like Maligiaq one day that you will never again have an off day. And just because you didn’t nail that roll today, the effort is never wasted. You have built more “knowledge” into muscle memory than you realise.

In fact, thinking about it all, I’m going to amend what I said at the start. I do have the secret to rolling success, and I can sum it up in one word – practice!

Next kayakacrossthewater article will focus on debugging a faulty roll.