A sad day

DolphinsI think I would be safe in saying that most of us sea kayakers love the sea and the creatures in it. Nothing is more thrilling than witnessing wildlife up close from your kayak and I have had the privilege of seeing everything from otters to basking sharks to seals to starfish. It is one of the main reasons that I love kayaking. Unlike some lucky folks, I have yet to be accompanied by dolphins whilst out on the water, a dream that I hope to realise in time.

Many humans feel a special affinity with dolphins. This may be in part due to a recognition of, and connection with, their consciousness and levels of intelligence which are not far removed from (and may even exceed) our own. Scientists have recently concluded that dolphins should be considered “non-human persons”. Quoting from the linked article:

“The studies show how dolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and can think about the future.”

“What Marino and her colleagues found was that the cerebral cortex and neocortex of bottlenose dolphins were so large that “the anatomical ratios that assess cognitive capacity place it second only to the human brain”.”

With this in mind, it is with horror that I learn today that the massacre of dolphins that occurs annually in Taiji, Japan (as documented in the film, “The Cove“) is proceeding apace, with 52 bottlenose dolphins and 6 risso dolphins butchered within an hour in the last day. As anyone who is familiar with the film will know, this is an act of utterly depraved barbarism. As dolphin families who have been herded into the cove struggle to stay together against the hatcheting inflicted by their brutal captors, mothers are separated from their babies, and all are mercilessly hacked to death. Some are left on the quayside in the throes of agony, gasping their last breaths.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is one of the few organisations who bear witness to this atrocity and I am grateful to them for keeping the world informed and refusing to allow the Japanese to hide this shameful “tradition”. And on that note, the pitiful argument of upholding tradition is soon refuted by the knowledge that there are many human traditions that have thankfully largely been abandoned (such as slavery) as intolerable and morally corrupt.

We must not forget, of course, what makes this annual capture and butchery especially lucrative is the marine aquariums who select and pay for captive animals who are then taken to the likes of Sea World for a life of confinement in chlorinated tanks, reduced to performing tricks for “captive” audiences of tourists. The proceeds from the actual slaughter pale in comparison. Indeed, it is hard to believe that there is much of an appetite for mercury-laden dolphin meat, and certainly not much outside of Japan.

If, like me, you feel sickened by this butchery, there are a few things you can do:

  • Contact the Japanese ambassador/consulate general for your country, detailed here.
    The Consulate General for Japan in Edinburgh’s details are:
    Consulate General of Japan in Edinburgh
    2 Melville Crescent Edinburgh EH3 7HW
    Tel: +44 (0)131 225 4777
    Fax: +44 (0)131 225 4828
  • Boycott all marine aquariums
  • Contact the press and request that they cover this important news story
  • Support Sea Shepherd
  • Tell everyone you know.

One is not a great one because one defeats or harms other living beings. One is so called because one refrains from defeating or harming other living beings.”
~ The Buddha, Dhammapada

The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.”
– Douglas Adams , The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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

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.

Fake plastic seas

Julia and Pam off InnellanAs much as I’d like to post about numerous exciting paddling trips since I last blogged, I’m afraid such trips have been a little thin on the, er, water due to my succumbing to a cold bug which I have now generously passed on to Alan. I did manage to go out on a pioneering all-girl paddle with Julia last weekend, which consisted of a pleasant (albeit chilly) outing  in local waters. The promising conditions of the previous week had been replaced by something much more akin to November weather, where icy winds and rain prevailed. Nonetheless, we bravely soldiered through the elements (and the volcanic ash), Julia with her gammy knee and me with my sniffles. Alan was still off the water due to his injuries, but helped us with the kayaks at either end. Together, we are a team!

Julia off KirnJust when I’d thought that the little lightweight cold that I’d had nearly 2 weeks ago was history, it took some anabolic steroids and came back with a purpose. And so I have spent this week hacking and snuffling. Not only that, with the warnings of my MS nurse ringing faintly in my ears, I realised that my eye had gone a bit “wonky” again. Consulting with Dr Google, I have confirmed that the common cold can aggravate MS symptoms. I have certainly learned something. Hopefully, it will all go away soon.

Not being out on the water has left me with too much time on my hands to surf the Internet and come across the following stories. If you are in any way attached to the concept of saving the planet for future generations, then I warn you – they make difficult viewing:

I’m not going to lie to you – this depresses the bejesus out of me.

Why is  humanity the only species that is so intent on trashing its own nest? Not only that, we’re taking everyone else – all our fellow earthlings – down with us.

It’s all so overwhelming at times, it feels like our pathetic little gestures to help the environment are pointless. But are they? As I view the videos above, I’m tempted to conclude that picking up the odd plastic bag out of the sea is meaningless. If, however, by doing so I saved one animal’s life, it is definitely worth it. If it simply stopped garbage from washing up on a pristine Hebridean beach, it’s worth it. So, I will keep on plucking the plastic bags and bottles out of the sea when I come across them, I’ll refuse plastic bags at source (the supermarket), as well as the ubiquitous, all-pervading plastic bottles.  And, who knows – going out on a limb here – maybe if enough of us keep doing this, we could turn the plastic tide.

I’ve blogged before about the rubbish in our seas, and the situation will only get worse. Unless of course our ability to produce these insanely vast quantities of plastic junk is somehow limited. In the recent past, both the US Department of Energy (see p.8) and the US Joint Forces Command (and Richard Branson!) have warned that we are about to enter into an era of ever-diminishing availability of cheap oil. With plane-free skies courtesy of the (unpronounceable) Icelandic volcano, we were perhaps given a slight foretaste of the future in recent days. As much as our lack of planning for this inevitability will make it in many ways painful for humanity, Mother Earth may well breathe a small sigh of relief.

“And it wears me out, it wears me out.”
Fake Plastic Trees, The Bends, Radiohead

A freezing paddle around Great Cumbrae

cumbrae kayak preparation It seems I have a bit of catching up to do, so let’s begin with the small Ice Age recently endured by the UK, when “Arctic deep freeze” conditions were making daily headlines. That now famous satellite photo of a white and frozen Blighty was actually more than a little disturbing. It looked awfully like Greenland. I suppose this might explain why it seemed to have no negative impact upon the aspirations of my paddling pals, and may actually have served to encourage them. Indeed, I did try to keep in mind that using temperature (of -3°C that day) as an excuse for not going kayaking would not fly in Inuit circles. Not that I’m an Inuit, as I later confirmed.

And so, the put-in point was set for Largs with a view to a circumnavigation of at least one of the Cumbrae Islands. There was certainly a nip in the air as we exited the coffee shop at the Largs Marina and organised our gear on the shore. Enveloped in a drysuit, 3 interior layers, 2 pairs of socks, mukluks, pogies, a neck gaiter and fleece-lined cap, I felt sure I had (literally) covered all bases when it came to maximising my chances of staying warm.

Hungry robin

Hungry robin

A robin was quite gallusly hopping about our launch area and we concluded that, along with all the other birds and wildlife, he must have been hungry, being that a large portion of his regular food supply was presently frozen. I selflessly scattered a corner of my energy bar in his direction.

There wasn’t much in the way of wind as we headed over to Great Cumbrae. Heading southwards, we passed Millport and then the mountains of Arran came into view which, although a little clouded over, were nonetheless snowy and beautiful. Agreeing that we would not encompass Little Cumbrae in our journey this time around, we turned right at the Tan, at which point a friendly seal showed some moderate interest in Barrie’s and my whistling efforts.

Arran mountains

Arran mountains

I was feeling fairly happy in the awareness that, indeed, I was not experiencing much in the way of cold when we pulled in at Bell Bay on the west side of Great Cumbrae to enjoy lunch. I use the term “enjoy” loosely. To my surprise, another robin appeared to investigate our foodstuffs … or perhaps that energy bar had really worked wonders?! After imbibing various concoctions from our respective (thermos) flasks, it became apparent that there would be no further hanging about as a chill was descending rapidly. Sadly, footering about with flasks and snacks involves the removal of one’s pogies. I had brought neoprene gloves with me, but couldn’t even get them on as my hands were damp and numb with cold. I would have given my right arm for a pair of mittens! (Or, I suppose then I’d only need one mitten …). Not only that, I could feel the cold starting to seep through my various layers. So, with visions of hypothermia setting in, I began to PLF (Paddle Like – er, Fury) in order to generate some heat. I know that my companions wondered what it was that they’d said, or why I’d suddenly developed an inappropriately competitive streak, as I paddled off ahead of them without the merest thought towards group cohesion. This was a matter of survival! Alas, they could not see the tears of pain that I was shedding over my frostbitten fingers. Fortunately, my efforts worked and feeling and warmth gradually returned to my person.

Bell Bay, Cumbrae

Bell Bay, Cumbrae

We re-grouped before paddling eastwards back to Largs. It was a long slog back against the wind and there were moments when I could have sworn we were getting no closer to our destination. Upon arrival, the cold torture was not over, of course, as we then set about unpacking our kit, loading cars up etc. Once again, I cursed the absence of mittens, however, ever-thoughtful Julia produced a gel hand warmer for me to clutch in order to aid my hopeless efforts at knot-tying and general fumbling. This is the best invention ever! You can guess which section of the outdoor store I made a beeline for at the first opportunity.

It’s no surprise that during our excursions in the colder months, we are frequently interrogated by passersby, with comments ranging from the observant “Is it not cold out there?”, to the more judgemental “You must be insane” variety. I fear that our attempts to reassure everyone that we have a firm grasp of our sanity are not very effective – but they just don’t know what they’re missing!

Astronomical view of our tripUpon returning to the shores of Cowal, we discovered that (still injured, but now healing) Alan had been busy in our absence. Left to his own devices, the thought had occurred to him that the inventive use of one astronomical telescope and a camera might produce results. Indeed, he managed to locate us at the northern end of Great Cumbrae from a distance of 7 miles! This is quite a technological breakthrough, I feel and just goes to prove that, even when you think you’re not being watched, quite possibly you are!

Big Brother is watching you.
1984, George Orwell

Peace and reflection

It seems we’ve finally reached that point. Destinations have been arrived at (or not, dependent on the weather where you live), presents have been exchanged, food and drink are being consumed and Christmas is almost over. It’s therefore a good opportunity to think back on the year that’s passed by, both the good and the bad bits.

Let’s focus on the good bits. For me, there have been a lot of them, ranging from “routine” pleasures such as yoga class, reading good books, watching birds appear at the feeder etc, to special occurrences such as fully restored vision, no MS relapses and a clear c-spine MRI. As I ponder the past 12 months, however, one thing becomes evident – the really good bits, the ones that stand out the most, tend to involve kayaks and salt water.

Perhaps other paddlers are reaching the same realisation, and it’s interesting to consider why this is so. Of course, there are many positives to kayaking, including: excellent paddling pals, visiting beautiful places, getting up close and personal with the wildlife, gaining confidence from improved skills and so on. To me, however, there’s a little more to it. At risk of being labelled a sandal-wearing, granola-eating hippy, allow me to get a little “spiritual” on you for a moment.

In our technological age, we’ve largely parted company with our roots as nature-based people. In thousands of generations of humanity, only about the last six represent the Industrial Age, an era of technological advancement and consumption that has been accelerated by the abundance of petroleum products. We could view this as evolution, and of course it contains many positives, but we could consider how it has also produced barriers between us and the natural world, as evidenced by the damage to our environment.

At our core, we recognise that something essential and intuitive to us is now missing from our everyday lives. This is the reason why we thrill at natural beauty, at taking on the wind and the waves, at spending time amongst the non-human animals of the sea. It’s not so long ago that our ancestors were much more highly attuned to the ways of nature and the universe, and it’s not forgotten in our genes.

It’s no coincidence that the kayak is a vessel designed by the nature-based Inuit people thousands of years ago. Even although our modern-day versions may be technologically facilitated in terms of the design process and materials used, the fundamentals remain the same. In many ways, the kayak spans time and re-connects us with the elements of which we are a part. It returns to us that which has been lost and helps us to heal. You might say that it comes to us naturally.

So, as I sit here and count my blessings and look forward to a new decade, the thing that I am most grateful for is the ability to get out on the water and engage in the life-affirming and unforgettable experience of being immersed (in every sense!) in the natural world, for however long that opportunity exists. And working in harmony with the healing potential of nature, my intention is to make that opportunity last as long as possible.

The winter solstice has passed and the days are already getting longer. A year full of adventure awaits!

Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Decade!

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

A bit of a guilt trip

What some people will do to get out of housework

What some people will do to get out of housework

My principal paddling partner, Alan, is out of commission at the moment, having undergone hand surgery. Any notions we had that he might be swiftly back in action were dispelled upon his emergence from the operating theatre with a dirty great bandage on his right hand (well actually, it was clean) and a fistful of stitches. The bandage means serious business, announcing to the world that paddling excursions, along with working for a living, are presently on hold and that normal service won’t be resumed for a while. It was with a sense of despondency that I collected him from the hospital, a feeling that was not alleviated by the unnecessary (I felt) lecturing of the (male) nurse that Alan was on no account to be allowed to do housework.

And so I wondered what we would do instead of jumping in our kayaks at the weekend. Long hours of emptiness stretched ahead, until I received an invitation from Julia to ditch Alan and go paddling with some new friends. To be fair, the invitation had been extended to both of us, but obviously Alan was not in a position to accept. It was with some remorse that I therefore left him at home while I went kayaking without him for the first time ever. It seemed strange to only take one set of gear and one kayak and I stressed over the many opportunities that existed to forget something. Sometimes a second brain is handy.

Autumn day on Loch Long

Autumn day on Loch Long

But what a day! Departing from Ardentinny with various members of the Greenock club (or the Royal West of Scotland Amateur Boat Club, to give it its rather regal Sunday name), we were all in awe of the beautiful autumn hues that coloured the landscape. The sun was shining and the wind was absent, so a relaxed, scenic paddle was the order of the day.

As we progressed northwards on Loch Long, we continuously caught up with a small flock of nervous oystercatchers who repeatedly flew ahead of us, not having figured out that they could save energy by flying behind us. We then encountered some Heron Trees. These are evergreen trees that seem to sprout exotic Heron flowers at this time of year.

Exotic Heron Tree

Exotic Heron Trees

We took a left at Loch Goil and headed towards Carrick Castle where a lunch stop was enjoyed. It was especially enjoyed by the local goose who volunteered to consume some blueberry muffins that were going spare. We decided to continue on to Lochgoilhead. Upon its approach, 2 mutually attracting things happened. Firstly, a friendly seal popped up and decided to hang out with me for a little while at excellent photographic proximity. Secondly, my camera battery died. Of course, I was then in full anticipation of entire pods of dolphins and possibly the odd whale putting in an appearance thereafter. Not that I would have been disappointed per se. Instead, we found ourselves floating into the backdrop of a most picturesque and inviting venue, The Lodge, where a wedding was about to ensue. You will just have to visit the Website to see how nice it is.

Friendly seal, Loch Goil

Friendly seal, Loch Goil

A piper was up in the hugely impressive treehouse practising some tunes ahead of the big event, so it was all rather atmospheric. We engaged in some banter with the groom-to-be who came down to the shoreside to chat. (Or maybe he was just trying to ensure his wedding pics weren’t going to be spoiled by a motley collection of kayakers in the background!).

After this pleasant interlude, we decided to turn around and head back to Ardentinny. The occupants of a Police launch gave us a cheery wave as they passed us and it was nice to realise that there was no chance of being pulled over for speeding. There was a slight chop to the water on the last leg of the journey when a bit of wind emerged as if from nowhere (certainly not the forecast).

A great day out

A great day out

After a quick tea stop at Julia’s, I wended my way homewards, resolving to display some sensitivity upon returning and not to gush about the excellent day I’d just had. I fear that I may have failed. Fortunately, this has only served to make Alan all the more determined to heal quickly. Already, he’s making cups of tea, a sure sign of improvement.

Deja vu all over again at Loch Striven

Friday night’s pool training took on a new and interesting twist last week. Alan and I had been busying ourselves with our usual rolling drills when I became aware of something resembling “shenanigans” going on at the deep end. I tried to ignore this and look busy, but was spotted by coach Richard who bullied invited me to participate. I then found myself in a kayak with a rope tied to each end, a bit like some sort of mediaeval torture device really. Richard and Euan then pulled the kayak up and down the pool, encouraging me to brace to prevent capsize. I have to admit, I was starting to enjoy it. Upon inevitably capsizing, I then had the opportunity to roll in the “moving” water. It definitely simulated the sensation of battling opposing forces under the water and I got a lot out of it. Alan’s turn was next and I think that there’s the tiniest of chances that Richard and Euan set the bar slightly higher for him (this could be a guy thing).

Duly trained up, we were keen to get out on the real water at the weekend. The forecast made Saturday a complete non-starter as, despite Richard and Euan’s best efforts, our training hadn’t quite extended to simulations of 65 mph gusts (maybe just 35 mph), so we pinned our hopes on getting out on Sunday when conditions were predicted to be calmer. And indeed they were, so off we popped for an afternoon jaunt.

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

More often than not we find ourselves putting in at Toward shoreline and seeing where the fancy takes us. More often than not, it takes us to Bute. And then maybe back over to Loch Striven. Being creatures of habit, that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. Well, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely finished inspecting the Maersk ships anchored in the loch, especially as another one had been added to the “raft” since we were last there. I suppose I am slightly fascinated by ships. It must have something to do with growing up on the banks of the Clyde.

After a pleasant paddle over to Bute and then northwards up Loch Striven, we managed to get a little more up close and personal this time (with the ships, that is). There were no signs of life aboard the behemoth vessels as we paddled around them, although I believe they are still being “powered down”. It’s astonishing to think that there is no work for them (or hundreds of others like them around the world) for the foreseeable future. What were all those ships transporting previously that we are somehow managing to live without now?

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

We noted that one of them (the Sealand Performance) was registered in New York and was flying the Stars and Stripes, which seemed a little incongruous in wee, backwater Loch Striven. But I’m forgetting how recently nearby Holy Loch played host to those very colours.

Having satisfied ourselves that we’d seen enough, we were escorted off the premises by a friendly seal as we turned to head home. We noticed that the sea state was changing a little at this point. It was no longer calm, for a start. The tide was going out and meeting the incoming wind. There were no 65 mph gusts or anything, but it was definitely lively. Something very similar happened the last time we made this self same trip, so it was all getting a bit Groundhog Day-ish. By the time we reached the NATO refuelling depot, I declared to Alan that I wanted to head in for a short break. Alan appeared to be unfazed by the conditions, but I threw a small wobbly. I’m not sure why this is. I think I am naturally predisposed towards thinking the worst. Alan pointed out that the worst that could actually happen was:

  • I might capsize
  • My roll might fail
  • I’d simply be blown over to the nearby shore

Processed through the “Pam’s even worse, worst case scenario filter” however, this reads as:

  • I might capsize
  • I might become entangled in something (seaweed? fish farm paraphernalia? NATO pipelines?) and be unable to free myself
  • I might hit my head off a rock
  • My roll might indeed therefore fail
  • Conditions might deteriorate to gale force
  • That squall moving to the north of us might contain south-bound tornadoes*
  • I (and my kayak) might get smashed to little pieces along the shoreline

(*Before you ask, I have seen a tornado forming above a car park in Greenock).

Where does all of that come from? It does get tedious.

Sensing my discomfort, Alan swapped kayaks with me. He had been paddling his new Avocet, while I was in my Nordkapp LV. I must say that I’d rather liked this arrangement as it levelled the playing field in terms of our respective speeds. Alan, therefore, got a big dollop of his own medicine feel for paddling at a reduced pace. After the wind had made its presence known, however, I was inclined to jump into the Avocet to see how it compared. And yes, I did feel a little more “in control” in the smaller kayak. It was also interesting to note that, whilst the Nordkapp had tended to rear up and then slap down on the waves, the Avocet delivered several face-fulls of saltwater instead (no, I wasn’t crying!).

We chugged our way back, rounding the fish farm, where it became especially bouncy and confused. I summoned up my learnings from Lewis, Islay, Skye and the pool, all of which had involved considerably worse conditions (ok, except for the pool). In my mind, I can honestly say, I was mentally prepared to try rolling upon capsize, especially as most of the sea activity was on my “good” side. I no longer think that my only instinct would be to pull the deck’s grab loop, but it remains to be seen as, on this occasion, I (and Alan) did manage to stay upright.

I am leaning towards adopting another indispensable tip from coach Richard in the meantime, proven to help many a kayaker get through rough waters and also to engage their roll. So where can I order a smiley face sticker for my deck? 🙂

I want to be you – whenever I see you smilin’
Cause it’s easily one of the hardest things to do
Your worries and fears become your friends
And they end up smilin’ at you
Put on a smilin’ face

Smiley Faces, Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

Club trip to Glencoe and Loch Leven


Pap of Glencoe and Loch Leven

It was high time for a Garnock Canoe Club jamboree and one had duly been scheduled for last weekend. If I hadn’t known better, however, I would have wondered if the organisers weren’t trying to throw us off the scent in the communications leading up to our departure. The email entitled “Arisaig Trip” which informed us that the trip that had previously been moved from Arisaig to Oban had now been relocated to Glencoe, was especially confounding. Undaunted, we tracked everyone down to the Invercoe campsite in Glencoe on Friday evening. As various cars emptied out their occupants, something became apparent to me and that was a growing sense of being outnumbered. To explain: there was me, and then there were 10 chaps of the male persuasion. Which leads me to ask the question – oh, where were the women of Garnock? At least the conversation around the campfire didn’t resort to the usual stereotypical subject matter of football and cars (no, it was much worse than that).

Setting out on Loch Leven

Setting out on Loch Leven

I would like to say that I was up and about, bright and breezy on Saturday morning, but this was not the case at all. Unfortunately, Friday night had been claimed by the demons of insomnia from whom I receive occasional visitations. Once they appear, no amount of relaxation technique, yogic breathing, counting sheep or just plain wishing will get me to sleep. What starts as a small, nagging worry that I haven’t fallen asleep yet becomes a full-blown anxiety attack that I will be trapped in a torturous hell of sleep deprivation the following day, and, of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not to worry, I somehow managed to find myself sitting fully dressed in a drysuit and in a kayak on the waters of Loch Leven on Saturday morning. Not just any old kayak mind you, but a beautiful white Valley Avocet with black trim. After the very favourable impressions that had been made upon us during our week with Skyak Adventures, one thing had led to another and we were now taking a lovely, nippy wee day kayak out to play. Through the foggy haze (I refer to my sleepless state and not the weather conditions), I became aware of some truly astounding scenery as we paddled from our campsite eastwards to Kinlochleven. Majestic mountains prevailed, and it was wonderful to admire the Aonoch Eagach ridge from the water having climbed it some years ago. The conditions were most favourable, especially with the wind pushing us along.

Heading for the rocks at Kinlochleven

Heading for the rocks at Kinlochleven

Upon reaching Kinlochleven, the environment began to take on more of a feel of a river, as opposed to a sea loch, as indeed the loch effectively becomes the River Leven (or that might actually be the other way around). The water narrowed in on us and became “gushy” in places, and there were lots of rocks. You can tell from my description that I am not a river kayaker. There are reasons for this, mostly relating to sharp, pointy rocks (did I mention those?), icy cold, moving water – er, and unrelenting fear. Regardless, some members of our group saw this as an excellent opportunity to toss their kayaks about the rocks. I started to believe that my tired state was causing hallucinations when I then saw bodies floating down the river, but it seems that certain individuals had abandoned their vessels altogether in favour of engaging in a whole new sport the name of which eludes me (“unkayaking”? “drysuiting”?). Having no desire to scratch wreck our kayaks, or get icily cold, Alan and I sensibly decided to have some hot soup and pull up a chair to watch the other hardy souls from the sidelines.

Loch Leven

Garbh Bheinn, from Loch Leven

Whilst the rest of the group then embarked on an elaborate climbing exercise in order to consume their lunch on top of the riverbank, Alan and I, having dined already, decided to start heading back the way we’d come. Our progress was slowed by the wind which was now doing its best to place us in reverse gear. Around the half way point, my lower back was screaming for a rest and we pulled in to a pebbly beach. Here, a solo paddler in a Capella 163 came ashore and sat down with us for a chat. It seems that whenever I write about paddlers whom we happen to bump into on the water, to my delight they somehow later find my blog and make contact. Perhaps I will hear from this lady too. Anyway, let me just say, it was nice to enjoy the company of another female paddler.

Soon our group had caught up with us and quickly embarked on a challenging and manly survival exercise on the beach involving fire-building and slater-eating, in the manner of – I think I’m safe in saying – Ray Mears. I had dared to mention the name of Bear Grylls, which was greeted with snorts of derision from the guys. I wonder if female paddlers feel similarly? 😉

Making friends with guillemot

Making friends with a guillemot

At this point, Jordan graciously offered to swap kayaks with me in order for me to try out his Rockpool Isel. This is a relatively new Rockpool kayak, designed for the smaller paddler, and I have been very interested in learning more about it. To be able to try it out was an opportunity not to be missed. Well, let me just say – I like it very much! Whilst I cannot put a kayak through its paces in quite the way Jordan can, here’s what I did manage to observe:

  • What a great fit! Part of the trouble that I’ve had in assessing fit is that the majority of kayaks out there don’t fit the smaller person well – so how do you truly know what a good fit is until you actually encounter it? The Isel makes snug contact in all the places that matter, including the excellent thigh braces. I felt like the kayak fitted me, as opposed to me trying to fit it via outfitting (or eating pies).
  • After kayaking back the remaining half of the return journey, my back no longer hurt. The seat and lumbar support are exactly that, supportive.
  • My feet loved the footplate (versus foot pegs). I could feel the blood in my toes again. Such comfort.
  • The hard chines took me back to my Capella a little and edging seemed “stickier” than the Valley kayaks – obviously not an issue to the skilled paddler.
  • The Isel doesn’t turn quite as responsively (imho) as the Avocet, but it turns perfectly well nonetheless.
  • Despite tiredness to the extreme, a less than ideal set-up, and some gusty wind, I managed to roll the Isel. It wasn’t my prettiest roll ever due to the aforementioned, but the kayak simply has that feeling that suggests that you can rely on a roll even when conditions/you are less than perfect. I really like that feeling.

Meanwhile, it was fun to watch young Jordan making our Avocet dance in the water the way it was meant to. If kayaks had emotions, ours would have been very happy to have someone with such natural skill in charge.

Eilean Munda

Eilean Munde

Before returning to our campsite, we detoured over to Eilean Munde, the “Burial Island” of Loch Leven. We stepped ashore to explore its many gravesites. I hadn’t realised that they were so numerous and it was interesting to read the inscriptions and examine the symbology (to use a Dan Brown kind of term), as well as to view the graves’ seemingly random placement across the island. Many of the slate gravestones seemed as new, no doubt scoured clean by the prevailing elements.

It was a short trip back to Invercoe where a hot shower followed by dinner in the smirry rain awaited. In danger of falling asleep as we sheltered in the car, Alan and I turned in for the night not long after 9 pm. Sleep came upon me like an anaesthetic and I would have known nothing of the party in the neighbouring tipi but for the impressive amount of recyclable materials and marked lack of perkiness that emerged from it in the morning, combined with the run on Powerade in the campsite shop.

Eilean Munda

Eilean Munde

What with all the blustery wind and rain on Sunday morning, I was gutted to learn that no-one seemed keen to go and get soaked and freeze in the Falls of Lora as had been originally planned. But a consensus of reluctance had been reached and who was I to argue? So we packed up and made our way homewards. After having nearly lost our kayaks to the wind on the way over Rannoch Moor on the journey to Glencoe, we decided to take the less gusty route home via Oban. This took us past the said Falls of Lora where, to our surprise, we found other members of the Garnock club! Apparently, a second branch of the club had arrived for Sunday’s activities. As inviting as it was to get out and join them, Alan and I were in full “going home to cosy fireside” mode and, after stopping to chat briefly, proceeded on our way. I confess, however, that a slight pall hung over me as often occurs when left with the feeling of having missed out on something. Never mind, the cosy fireside was nice.

And so concluded a fun weekend in a beautiful location, in good company (despite there being gender disparities) … what more could you want? Apart from a good night’s sleep.

Loch Sween and the MacCormaig Isles

It was becoming apparent as the week went on that certain of the key elements contributing towards an ideal paddling outing were aligning into a perfect – not so much storm – as lull. First, a high pressure system was approaching and the forecast was therefore for clear skies, low winds and – get this – no rain. A proverbial Indian Summer, no less! Second, it was neap tides. And so we embarked on a frenzy of planning and decision making as to how to take full advantage of these freak conditions.

We’ve fancied a visit to Loch Sween for a while, having seen enticing photos and heard that it was a good sea kayaking spot in terms of scenery and wildlife. So it won out and we were on the road to Tayvallich first thing on Saturday morning. Upon arrival, another couple were putting in at the other side of the jetty from us and I tried not to make too obvious my glances over in their direction to compare gear (all in the interests of research, of course).

Leaving picturesque Tayvallich

Leaving picturesque Tayvallich

Strangely, Alan and I hadn’t even entered into the Great Wet Suit vs Drysuit Debate, before setting out. We’ve been doing so much immersion work lately that, combined with all the recent inclement weather, we’d become auto- programmed to pack our drysuits. As we set off from Tayvallich, I found myself longing not so much for my wetsuit as a swimsuit. I thought about rolling to cool off, but reckoned that trying to roll a fully laden kayak for the first time ever might result in some delay to our progress. I tried to ignore the fact that my neck seal appeared to be melting.

As we paddled south-west down Loch Sween, we were soon distracted by the beautiful scenery and mirror-like calm of the water. It was so calm, in fact, that we could easily see the many black starfish on the loch’s seabed. I still haven’t determined what they are all about, but have since been informed that they are only to be found in Loch Sween. We also saw several seals, including some of this year’s young.

Juvenile Common Seal, Loch Sween

Juvenile Common Seal, Loch Sween

It didn’t seem to take long to reach the Island of Danna, at which point we debated upon our course. As it was still fairly early in the afternoon, we thought about rounding Danna and heading up towards Carsaig Bay, but we felt that this might narrow our options for the following day. By continuing south-west instead, we would have the opportunity to explore the MacCormaig Isles, and to generally chill out. Rather than focusing on getting somewhere, it seemed like a nice idea to simply enjoy being somewhere instead.

And so we crossed the Sound of Jura to Eilean Ghamna. I say “crossed the Sound of Jura” because that reads better than “crossed a very small portion of the Sound of Jura”. Regardless, it felt like an achievement to be out on our own in the Sound, known for its powerful tides. The sea state even in such benign conditions made us realise just how challenging a location it must be in a bit more of a breeze. As we approached the islands, we encountered more seals and lots of Canada Geese who noisily flitted about – perhaps more of this year’s young practising flying.

St Cormac's Chapel, Eilean Mor

St Cormac's Chapel, Eilean Mor

We paddled west from Corr Eilean to Eilean Mor where we decided to set up camp. As we drew nearer, we could see the impact of wind against tide to the west of the island and decided to avoid that particular locale, paddling towards the anchorage bay instead. Eilean Mor is a popular spot for day visitors, being that it plays host to St Cormac’s 13th Century chapel, an early standing Celtic cross, a more recent Celtic cross, and St Cormac’s cave. St Cormac was a 7th Century Irish monk who apparently used the island as a retreat. It’s certainly away from it all, and perhaps its remoteness was the very reason that, showing no respect for heritage, the chapel was later used as an alehouse and for an illicit still (which goes to show that the conversion of former churches to nightclubs is not a modern phenomenon). There is even a little turf-roofed visitor’s bothy at the bay which anyone can enter and peruse the displays therein. As we erected our tent, 4 vessels stopping by for a quick visit. Only one group of passengers disembarked to explore further.

After that, we had the island to ourselves. Well, ourselves and the many, many little brown birds who squeaked about in colossal flocks. Their small size, generic brown-ness and complete inability to stay put made my attempts at identification a frustrating and unsuccessful exercise. Upon perusal of my bird books on returning home, however, I’ve determined that they may be twites. Then again, they may not.

Naturally, I was keen to get out of my dry suit, a process facilitated by the rending in two of my neck seal. It really had been melting! I’ve since learned that the probable culprit is sun tan lotion. Alan noticed that his neck seal was showing signs of perishing as well, as he gingerly removed his suit lest it should follow a similar fate. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about ventilation the following day.

Celtic Cross at Eilean Mor

Celtic Cross on summit of Eilean Mor

Just as we were preparing to climb up the hill to watch the splendid sunset, we noticed a large yacht at full sail on a course headed straight for us. I will confess here that my heart sank a little. For some reason, visions of gin-soaked deck parties into the wee hours filled my head. I do realise that this is yachtist and discriminatory, and the ongoing silence emanating from this sizeable vessel upon anchoring made me ashamed of my presumptions.

The laws of camping dictate that it is necessary for me to make the acquaintance of nature several times during the night. This had the advantage of affording me a view of the most spectacular, unpolluted night sky that I have seen in many years. Wow. I mean, just wow. As I wrestled with the tent zipper, I started thinking on how very tiny we are in the Grand Scheme of Things … and other deep thoughts.

Early morning, Sound of Jura

Early morning, Sound of Jura

We were up at dawn on Sunday morning and, after a quick breakfast, we packed up and were back on the water. We waved to the lone crewperson sitting out on the deck of the yacht and made our way back out on to the Sound. We were pleased to note that conditions hadn’t changed much at all from the day before. Regardless, we decided to head back to Loch Sween, even although travelling up the Sound to Carsaig would have been entirely do-able. It was simply the case that we wanted to explore scenic Loch Sween a bit more, including the Faery Isles at the northern end. Plus the car was parked in Tayvallich and a mile’s a long walk.

Breakfast time for otters

Breakfast time for otters

Against a magnificent backdrop of the Paps of Jura, we reached Corr Eilean and toyed with the idea of heading over to Eilean nan Leac. Instead we proceeded north-east back to Danna. This turned out to be a fortuitous choice as, upon cutting through the gap at Sgeir Dhonncha, up ahead we saw a small head in the water followed by a tail – an otter! We held back as he busily wrestled with his breakfast before hauling it ashore to devour. He seemed untroubled by our presence, although we were careful not to get too close. We were able to watch him for a good 10 minutes or so before he moved on to fishing grounds new.

Looking out to Jura from Loch Sween

Looking out to Jura from Loch Sween

As we paddled towards the eastern shore of Loch Sween, it occurred to me that early Sunday morning out on the water truly is the perfect time. It’s the time when it seems humanity is not quite awake yet and we have all of nature to ourselves. For that short period, nature is in charge and all is as it should be.

After a brief stop at Bagh na Doide, we continued northwards past the ruins of Castle Sween. As is usually the case, the return journey seemed longer than the outbound journey and, by the time we reached Eilean Loain, my injured shoulder was starting to hurt. It was nothing that a couple of ibuprofen couldn’t sort out and we were able to continue on to the Faery Isles whose beauty really was quite magical. It was very shallow in places which made me once again appreciate the benefits of being in a sea kayak with little draught.

Britney the coo

Britney the coo

After we’d finished our explorations, we turned south-west towards Tayvallich. One final treat awaited us as we entered the bay. On the north-western shore was a small herd of Highland cattle, several of whom were having a foot bath in the cool waters of the loch. We paddled over to them, fairly certain that they were not officially classified as “wildlife” and that it was therefore acceptable to get up a little closer for a photo opportunity. Indeed, they were unfazed by our approach and obligingly posed for our camera. It was at this time that I noticed that one “coo”, most fetchingly, had her hair in bunches! I kid you not. We could only surmise that she (for it must surely have been a female) had had some sort of vision problem which had been alleviated by the farmer, if not the local hairdresser.

I could scarcely believe that it was only approaching 3 pm when we stepped ashore and, as we headed back down the road to Cowal, I marvelled that it was only the previous day we’d left. Time is merely a vague concept when you are absorbed in each moment, and it’s only then that you are truly living.