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

Author: Will Copestake

Stac Mhic Aonghais

Over the upcoming months and likely into our next summer season, I’ve decided to pursue a project around what is, in a way, what I call ‘my office’. As we are now drawing toward the end of a fourth season operating Kayak Summer Isles, in the north west of Scotland, I’ve spent many hundreds of days getting to know, sharing, and exploring these islands. It’s safe to say I know them well.

I figure the next step of really embedding myself into the islands is to spend a night on them.

Some of which I do on a regular basis with our guests, but many others (the rocks and skerries) I’ve not even landed on yet. By my count there are 17 ‘proper’ islands and 15 rocks and skerries big enough to safely camp and land on, making a total of 32 nights in the archipelago.

I won’t make them all in a season, as some will mean waiting until the bird colonies move off in winter so I won’t disturb them. What ones I can do now I hope to tackle in ‘evening blasts’ after work and before starting the next day’s guiding.

What better way to start than the iconic and rugged skerry that is Stac Mhic Aonghais.

Local legend has it, that the name comes from a man who was laid prisoner on this lonely and desolate rock. Purportedly having had ‘intimate relations’ with a laird’s daughter, he was rowed out and abandoned as a ‘time out and think about what you’ve done’. Ahh, young love.

By day 3 Angus’s captors must have felt guilty, as they then rowed out to check on him. Upon landing they were surprised to discover that Angus had gone!

Combing the island, they strayed further from their boat and with a sudden race, Angus leapt from a crevice in the rocks, hopped aboard and dis-embarked, waving cheery farewell as his captors became the captives.

Some accounts say he rowed, whilst others claim he had no oars and set adrift. Either way, he landed on Stoer Head some 30km north and survived.

The boat still remains with Angus’s relatives, and there’s been bad blood between the two families ever since . . . apparently.

I wonder if he ever managed to meet the laird’s daughter ever again?

Kayaking out in the evening, I set off from shore around 7.30 pm, with little over an hours light left in the day. I was tired from a day’s guiding but equally excited to disappear for a night’s vagabond adventure, following in Angus’s footsteps for a night on his rock.

The island is 1km south of Tanera Beag and even with the wind in favour and using the tidal eddies to my advantage, the journey took an hour from Old Dornie Harbour. The light was waning.

I’d taken my ultra-lightweight kevlar/carbon infusion Aries, as I figured it’d be easier to haul up the rocks on my shoulders fully laden with camp and cookware, but in hind-sight maybe a plastic boat that I could have dragged may have been a wiser move. Arriving at high tide, I found a crevice without swell on the eastern shore and set about navigating the 40º sloped sides with the boat on my shoulder. Delicate footsteps and my free hand scrambling brought me up to a ledge where I could at last anchor the kayak.

By necessity, I needed to return early the next morning, meaning leaving at the low tide. Before setting camp, I scouted about and picked my exit route as my prior access would be untenable at the lower tidal state. A scramble, toss, and a leap seemed likely.

The stac was largely rock, with a bristling hair of lichens adorned across the top. Around the corner, on the wind-battered western cliffs, I could hear a bird colony, out of sight but not out of sound.

Many, if not all of the possible flat spots were waterlogged with bright green algal pools. To my delight on the summit, a single large flat slab presented a near-perfect bed. Surrounded on all sides by a small rocky lip, it cradled the sense of security atop the island and granted a fantastic view. Darkness was fast approaching.

Bivi bag out on the rock, I scoffed a quick dinner, took a few photos and then settled into bed. The sound of the low swell pounding below me, and the occasional whoosh of birds flying past lulled a sense of calm. The air was warm, and as hoped for a breeze kept any midges at bay.

By 2 am, the full moon had risen, bathing the island in a silvery light, enough to see without a head-torch. 20km to my east, I could see the lights of Ullapool, home, in the distance.

The breeze had dropped, as had the swell, leaving the island eerily calm. Below me, I could hear a pshhht coming from some form of cetacean nearby, most likely a porpoise, but I liked to imagine a whale.

My alarm wasn’t necessary. As it turns out seagulls also wake with the first hint of dawn, and their calls as they fledged their roosts around the corner was sufficient to wake me. A faint orange glow was rising as I re-packed my kayak and carefully carried it down the rocks, thankful for the barnacles to give some grip.

Clipped to my kayak, I tossed it into the gentle swell and leapt aboard under head-torch. Once decked on, I turned my light off, preferring to navigate by the dawn glow. It was 5 am.

Returned to Ullapool before the day begun, I arrived home, showered and packed, ready to re-pack and head back on the water with guests. I felt satisfied like I’d stolen a secret adventure through the night, unseen and unknown until dawn. Most of all however I was thankful not to leave the island and drift north to Stoer, wondering if I’d ever return again.

If you’d like to share my island adventures as I try to camp on each follow me on @willcopestake (Instagram and YouTube) and via #summerislessleeps, or better still, join me through

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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