by Adrian Pullin
(first published in an edited format in 'Canoe Focus')
Rob's note in the Mainstream news letter said "...a week of sea paddling in Scotland...". Rob knew that his copy of the newsletter was on the way because I phoned him to book a place. Plan A is to put in at Plockton, just east of Kyle of Loch Alsh and paddle across Loch Carron on Monday evening, then go up the coast to Applecross, over the Inner Sound to Raasay and down the sound of Raasay to Scalpay, then back to Plockton, camping rough for 5 nights.
A couple of weeks before the trip we do not have enough people to make it viable. There is a lot of interest but most can only do a few days, not a whole week. Plan B: north east coast of England, around the Farn Islands. A week before the trip a group of students from the Kingsway Centre want to go to Scotland so it's back to Plan A.
The weather has other ideas. The forecast is for force 5 South Easterly on Wednesday, which is when we should be crossing to Raasay. Rob decides that a 5 mile crossing in that wind plus following sea with a group who have all got 3 star but no sea experience is pushing our luck a bit. Also it looks like the wind would be in our face for the return to Plockton. Plan C: put in at Luib on Skye and paddle to Scalpay for the first night camp.
So nine of us met up at Carlisle motorway services, did a bit of rearrangement of seating (7 in a Trooper is a "friendly" fit!) and headed north in the Trooper and my "proper" Land Rover. We had Rob (leader, with more E numbers than a TV dinner), Helen (loads of sea paddling experience; you can tell a real sea paddler if they have spent an entire week storm bound), Adrian (me, E1 inland, T3 sea, building experience for coach 3 assessment) and 6 people doing 4 star sea.
We leave the cars at a black house museum in Luib (thanks). Everyone was paddling Prijon SeaYaks except for me in Peninsula Canoe Club's Skerry. Being something of an equipment freak, I will spend a lot of the week thinking, talking about and trying gear. The first thing that becomes obvious is that the Skerry's skeg is a great help in a quartering sea. All the 4 stars are having problems being turned up wind. I pull up the skeg to see what happens and immediately weathercock to point north.
Testing the Seayak on an uphill stretch.
Monday night's campsite on Scalpay is on what was once the front lawn of a crofter's cottage, now derelict. There is a lot of evidence of the highland clearings in this area. The site is great apart from the midges. We were doing the trip in mid June because the midges do not come out until July. No one told the midges. Still…added protein in the tea.
Tuesday dawns quite warm and almost flat calm. We take an easy paddle up the east coast of Raasay. The views over Torridon are great. We see some dolphins or porpoises. No one know how to tell the difference and we only get brief glimpses as they swim past anyway. Claire says "Oh! Wow!" lots. And lots! As the conditions are so good, the group spreads out a bit, the young guns heading off whilst the more mature (old?) paddlers take it a bit easier. This shows up how visible some colours are. One of the Yaks is purple and with a dark BA it is a lot harder to see than the yellow boats and brighter clothing. This leads to a debate on whether you want to be highly visible (safety etc.) or to blend in (no trace paddling, seeing wildlife etc.). There is no conclusion although we will later come across seals and another dolphin so the yellow boats do not seem that bad.
Lunch discussions are about tides and tidal constants. This is brought home when some of the group have to get up half way through to pull their boats up further. Food consists of Pita bread with pastes, fruit and cans of coke. Since most people are catering separately there is a range of menu designs. I am getting cold when out of the boat. Most of the others have worked in outdoor centres and have Buffalo type clothing which seems very effective. Yet more for the equipment nerd to think about. We decide to head for Rona. There is a likely looking site on the south west corner.
As we paddle up Caol Rona we meet seals who all come to have a look. They seem quite happy for us to be there but will not come too close. The seal camera detector is working very well so any attempt at a picture leads to a dive.
We cross Caol Rona and make for the campsite. Claire goes rock hopping and cave exploring. The group is fairly spread out again. "SWIMMER!" Obvious really. With everyone relaxed and getting tired, Claire's cave exploration results in being dumped as the swell lifts the kayak in a tight gully. With no room to roll, she swims out. She is not damaged at all, so the group gets to find out how hard it is to empty a loaded sea boat. The Yaks have Chimp pumps on the back deck, so we try turning it upright and pumping out. There is a lesson to learn here. Chimp pumps are very hard work and do not shift much water at a time. The design of the Yaks is such that the load bays are separate pods suspended in the hull. This means that there is a lot of space in the hull which is not sealed off. If you take a swim you ship a huge amount of water. Eventually, by a combination of H-I and pumping we get Claire back in her boat. Everyone resolves to practice rolling. Claire later discovered that her dry bags weren't. As the only veggie in the group, it looked like she would be going on a diet for the rest of the week.
The map showed a disused building. The building showed recent refurbishment and was definitely occupied. Rona is privately owned and the owner employs a resident caretaker and his wife. They have their own generator, a massive freezer, TV, VHF radio and a cell phone ("...but you have to go to the top of that wee hill to use it, mind..."). A boat comes to take them to Portree once a fortnight, weather permitting. The longest they have been cut off is 7 weeks. We are made very welcome. We can camp on their lawn, and use their loo! This saves digging cat holes for one day at least. The bay is used by sailing boats (photo).
Wednesday looks like being "interesting". We plan to cross Caol Rona and paddle down the west coast of Raasay. Caol Rona runs from north west to south east. There is a southeasterly force 5-6 blowing. People take a long time to get on the water this morning. There is a mixture of bravado (it's only a breeze), nerves (help!) and silence. We put a nose outside the bay and Rob decides we are going for it. According to the map there is a small island on the north west corner of Raasay, so we head for the channel in order to avoid rounding the headland. The straight-line distance is about 800m. By the time you ferry glide against the wind you end up doing about twice that. On arriving at the channel we find that it should be marked as drying at low tide (see photo). It is low tide. Rob goes east to check that we are in the right place. By the time he gets back we have discovered that a massive portage (say 50m) will get us to the other side. In the shelter of Raasay the going is easier. The young guns are revving up again. I do a bit of coaching (about time!) on proper body position and stroke for fast paddling. A coastal yacht comes into view, heading for Fladday Harbour under motor power. Why isn't he sailing in this wind? No one knows. The young guns match his speed for a time but find that even after expert tuition they have limits.
Bay on the SW side of Rona.
Lunch is taken on Eilean Fladday where we again find a drying causeway between Raasay and Fladday blocking our route. We knew about this one, honest! Adam talks about buoys and lights. We get him to do it because he does a lot of sailing and knows more than us. I talk about transits. Not that much to say about a van but still...
We split up after lunch. Rob's group goes round Loch Arnish whilst I take the other group straight across. This gives us time to set up camp and have a leisurely cup of tea. When Rob arrives he doesn't like our campsite (something about flat ground for his tent) and takes his group to the next bay. They came back to our bay for the campfire and we didn't have sheep ticks, but I'm saying nothing.
Thursday sees people voting for an easy day. The campsites are good and there are a number of small islands just west of Fladday which provide us with rock hoping (photo) and cave exploring. Claire even stayed upright in the caves. Graham takes the day off as he is not feeling well. He has been suffering from the midges and has not had much sleep. I try a SeaYak on the way back (photo). It is not as easy to handle as the Skerry, feeling sluggish in the water. It is definitely slower. Now everyone knows why I am having an easy time! I also try Helen's Lendel Nordkap paddle. I have decided that I need something much longer and lighter than my Schlagel for sea paddling. The Lendel is lighter and grips the water well but is still to short for my gorilla arms.
After a late lunch it's getting wet time. As most of the group are doing 4 star, they need to demonstrate rescues, rolls and anything else we can think of to make sure they are in the water for as long as possible. I roll the Skerry as an alternative to being thrown in. It rolls as easily as my Magic Bat. Everyone passes.
The Friday forecast says southerly. The Friday weather gave us a northerly about force 0.1. Plans are changed again (this is now about Plan X). We decide to head for Luib today so we can drive on to the mainland Friday night. We have a long way to go to get back to Luib. A gentle start with some coastal exploring and rock hoping means that we will have to go harder in the afternoon. As you go down the Sound of Raasay you can see the ferry terminal for ages. It never gets any closer! Lunch is taken in a sandy bay. A beach holiday at last! I am still getting cold. I finally realise that I can put on a dry thermal as we are getting off today. Instant warmth. Must check out Buffalo gear. We spend most of lunchtime trying to remember Tom Paxton's really well known song. Eventually by singing bits of it we get to the title. (This is left as an exercise for the reader.)
The afternoon consists of aiming for a point, getting spread out (young guns still going for it) and then gathering at the point to make sure everyone is OK. We are all making better progress than at the start of the week. The final run in from the ferry terminal to Luib doesn't look far but again it doesn't seem to get closer for ages. The group finally breaks up and makes their own time. For most of the way across the bay it looks like I can be first home (yes, I know, but the male ego...). However, being an old man, I run out of steam and am only second. Beaten by a young gun but only by a few yards.
We collect the cars and load up. An elderly couple in a camper is having a brew in the lay-by. They think we are either very adventurous or barking mad. I agree.
There are lots of stories in the Canoe magazines about epic trips round Cape Horn or to Nepal and I have always thought that they were fine for those who can do them but not for me. There is nothing stopping people having their own adventure. A trip like this one needs some time (a week off work) but little else. One person who knows where they are going is useful (thanks Rob). The trick is to plan within the limitations of the group. For some of us it was the first time on the sea, for others the first time rough camping. For all of us it was a great week. Go on. Go for it!
Spot the drying height.
Since this trip, I have bought most of the kit mentioned: Lendel Nordkapps, very long -225 I think, Buffalo clothes. Also my own sea kayak (P&R Capella RM). I've also got L3 sea, largely thanks to the experience of this trip.
Mainstream is the Association of Christian Canoeists. It is a nation wide club, which aims to provide training for people using canoeing at summer camps and in other Christian work.
The group consisted of:
Adam Hearn, Dave Thomas, Neil Barrett, Jonathan Bound, Graham Edwards (all from the Kingsway Centre), Clare Wagland (from Marrick Priory), Helen Clark, Rob Bianchi and Adrian Pullin.
By Adrian Pullin.