Sea Kayaking Articles from P&H Staff, Team Paddlers, and Friends

Month: September 2020

The Summer Isles

Having spent much of lockdown reminiscing on past adventures and planning exciting new adventures (the shelf of guidebooks has had to bear the burden of a few new additions since March), we were ready to make the most of the easing of restrictions. One of the new additions to our guidebook collection was Doug Cooper’s Skye and North West Highlands Sea Kayaking. In hindsight, it seems remarkable that it wasn’t already an established and well-thumbed favourite.

With kayaking, adventures, and overnight stays more than 5 miles from home all back on the cards, a plan was forming. It seemed that high pressure was going to dominate the North Coast for at least a few days, and after our enforced time away from the water we wanted a series of day trips with the option of an overnight camp or two.

“A week could easily be spent exploring this area, let alone the islands further south.”
– Doug Cooper on the northern-most of the Summer Isles.

Our plan for a few day trips around the Summer Isles and an overnight camp now formed, the P&H Virgo seemed like the perfect choice: In CoreLite X it would be light for daily lifting on/off the roof of the van; rugged for lots of rocky landings and if the swell picked up some rock hopping; big enough to accommodate our camping kit; maneuverable to allow us to explore the tightest of gaps.

The first few days were spent making day trips in Loch Ewe and around the Summer Isles. Rocky coastlines with imposing cliffs, white sandy beaches, small bays and inlets, crossings up to 8km all with a beautiful mountainous backdrop, crystal clear water and wildlife aplenty. Midway through the afternoon on our second day, as we emerged from the mist and confirmed that we had followed our bearing correctly, found a sheltered cove for a rest and bite to eat, it became clear that our lives were to become richer in two ways. Firstly the Virgo, and secondly the North West coastline that we had been exploring.

Having covered nearly 100km in the first 3 days, it was time for a slower pace for a few days. Boats loaded with overnight gear we set out from Achnahaird beach to explore the coast of Enard Bay, following the rugged coastline as far north as the Bay of Stoer. With a brisk wind blowing offshore we slowly made our way north, in and out of the countless smaller bays and between the smaller islands. Our Virgos continued to impress us, never feeling as cumbersome as some larger boats do when carrying enough chocolate spread, cheese, and biscuits to see us through. Having spent time getting up close and personal with the many seals on Soyea Island on the outward journey we took a break on islands of Fraochlan and Eilean Mor, the perfect vantage point to watch the large pod of dolphins leaping in the middle of the bay.

Local knowledge and advice often provides for the most memorable experiences and with Oldany Island coming highly recommended by Will Copestake of Kayak Summer Isles, it was the natural way to spend our last day in the area. Paddling out from the pristine beach at Clashnessie to the exposed outside of Oldany Island, with views back towards the Point of Stoer, we were soon rising and falling on the powerful swell with the crashing of the sea against the rocks adding a sense of exposure. As we rounded the island we again found ourselves engulfed in mist, adding to the atmosphere and creating a sense of isolation. With the disorientating mist and distraction of dozens of curious seals, we were soon lost in the maze of small islands, finding ourselves paddling into several dead ends before regaining the narrow channel separating Oldany Island from the mainland. The final few km along the coastline to Clashnessie provided plenty of interest and a magnificent archway to paddle under.

After a week of good fortune our weather window was closing and it was time for us to return home, our need for adventure sated for now, but with plans already forming for a return to explore more of this beautiful and dramatic coastline.

Day One: Loch Ewe
Day Two: Southern Summer Isles
Day Three: Northern Summer Isles
Days Four & Five: Achnahaird to Bay of Stoer and return
Day Six: Clashnessie & Oldany Island

Like an Expedition

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

I never thought I’d be comparing Earnest Shackleton’s famous advert to sitting at home on my sofa, yet here we are. I am locked down behind my keyboard in the times of a global pandemic. In a strange twist of fate, his recruitment to arguably the last great adventure in the golden age of exploration was posted just a few years before the previous global pandemic, the Spanish flu.

Low wages, tick.

Long hours in complete (emotional) darkness, tick.

Safe return (to normality) doubtful, tick.

Honour and recognition in event of success… thank you, key workers!

Bitter cold hasn’t come yet, but it’s entirely likely if nothing changes that come winter, many people won’t be able to afford their heating bill, so I’ll hold my breath on that one for now.

As phase 1 has arrived in Scotland and the wider UK is starting to take tentative first steps into a new normal, I can’t help but reflect on the parallels between lockdown and traditional adventure.

Can you remember the last time you watched a TV survivalist program? Bear Grylls, Stafford, Mears, or one of those survivor challenges like the Island or Naked and Afraid. Personally, I’ve binged on a few on Netflix in the last few weeks. I always seem to find myself comparing and analysing, wondering how I might fare in the same circumstances. Boom… 2020 happened.

We are now all thrown into our own survival challenge. Like the TV premised, unaware and unprepared, but less a camera crew. Some of us are in teams, while others are going solo. Some have a cushion to rest on, while others have a real struggle to survive. In this new challenge, we are not all on the same ship, but all of us are weathering the same storm in our own way.

Personally, I’ve coped by pretending lockdown was an expedition. This was largely because around the date lockdown was announced, I was supposed to be on one, paddling some 800km to Cape Horn and back in 35 days. To say the least, coming directly out of a full season of Patagonian kayak guiding to sitting on my sofa watching Netflix was quite a culture shock.

Will with his brand new Lightweight Kevlar/Carbon Infusion Aries 150, which arrived just in time for lockdown easement in Scotland!

I’ll premise this to say that compared to the many who have very real problems to tackle, my personal situation is and has been relatively comfortable. I am at home with my parents and my partner, everyone is in good health, and my business will survive to re-open when the time comes. But I’m also human and, as I’m sure many of you have too, I’ve felt at times a little lost, like I’m without a paddle, although not yet floating down s**t creek.

So how is lockdown like an expedition?

Like an expedition, our food shopping is back to a planned routine. No more ‘popping to the shops’. Instead, there are detailed meal plans to last the week, the assumption that anything not on the list is forgotten until the next available re-supply. Albeit our rations are quite a lot fresher and tastier than 35 days in a kayak, no eating butter with a spoon quite yet!

Like an expedition, our contact with the outside world is limited. Those phone calls and Zooms with family and friends become all the more important and treasured in the absence of regular visits. Meanwhile my partner and I, just like my friend and I when on an expedition, are now almost developing our own language of in-jokes and mad musing. I look forward to seeing friends more than anything else when this is all over…

I wonder if we will have separation anxiety?

Like an expedition, teamwork is essential. Those of us living with families or friends throughout this will already know this, without good communication and compromise, arguments happen.

Like an expedition, routine is everything. Regular exercise within our allocated time and distance, a structured day, making new plans and goals, filling the time. A mind with purpose is a mind of pleasure. Allowing rest and recuperation as part of the urge to achieve is just as important in a healthy routine.

Like an expedition, dressing has become a little easier. I’m essentially rotating through a couple of sets of joggers and t-shirts on a loop. At least, unlike my kayak expeditions, they get properly washed in between with more than the odd wave. Bathing is at least still a thing.

Like an expedition, there is a huge unknown. No matter how well-planned things are, there are broadsides. This is the definition of adventure. Experience is found in the gaps of planning and with each new stage comes new learning opportunities.

I’m sure there are more comparisons to be made. What would yours be?

I’ll finish by paraphrasing Shackleton’s diary from the same expedition he advertised for. This time from his bleakest moments where hope was waning and a good future seemed impossible,

‘A person must shape them-self to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground’

i.e. When situations degrade and seem too tough to bare, Keep Calm and Carry On.

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