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

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.