In May 1995 six sea gull eating kayakers were explored the waters of South West Mull. This is their tale (all characters are fictional and any similarity to real persons is entirely coincidental).
Tuesday…….We are booked onto a week long sea kayaking camping trip with kayaking legend Nigel Foster. Introductions are made. Disagreement after 5 minutes! It's 4pm and raining. There is split opinion on when to start. Nigel lets the group decide. John and I want to pack and set off this evening even if only round the next headland. We are out voted 3 to 2 and end up eating fish and chips in the Pennygael Hotel (no handpump beer or Guinness!) instead of Seagull Al Fresco
Wednesday…….SW 5 to 7 gusting 8 is forecast. We pack in the rain. It is cold, wet and miserable. Leave the cars at Pennygael. Haven't seen Ben More since I arrived on the island and it is only on the other side of the loch. Pass Killuhaig heading west and begin to see merit in warm dry places like houses. I have packed the boat all wrong so wish I had a Canadian paddle since I am paddling on the left all the time.
Bill pulls into shelter and does some warm up exercises whilst in the boat. At lunch, I am nearly too cold to sit and eat. Do some warm up exercises then improve the trim of the kayak by moving my water supply to the stern. 2 oval hatches on the Legend are bliss for packing. Back on the water and the boat feels a lot better.
I am warmer, the rain has stopped and we had 10 seconds of diluted sunshine. I am now enjoying myself. The battle against the wind is fun and the Legend is handling well. Decide I have masochistic tendencies. Spot 2 perigrines chasing away a buzzard from their spot on the cliff. Reach potential campsite. Hmmm those look like dumpers to me. We look at an alternative but too rocky. There is a line through which avoids the worst of the surf. Camp on a plateau above the beach at Traigh na Margaidh: a 12 mile day.
Thursday..... 5.52am zzzzz 5.53am alarm 5.55am Malin Force 5 to 6 SW gusting 8 rain, 6am zzzz.... 7am rain.... 3pm go for a walk in the rain and wind. 4pm Eh ? blue skies and sunshine, race back to camp.
The plan is to do an evening trip to Fionaport and back. Launch 5pm. 5.10pm Bill has turned turtle in his Sea Tiger after being followed into a peaceful looking narrow passage by a heavy swell. It looks nasty for a moment as the boat is bashed against rocks in a white foaming sea. Bill does well to hold onto paddle and boat. John rescues but the boat is holed below the waterline. Temporary repairs and Bill returns to base.
We continue on an excellent paddle round to Fionaport and practice surfing on following waves on the way back. On our return John impressively gives the Sea Tiger a full fibreglass repair using only the contents of a medium BDH. He promises to send us a 'contents list' on his return to the Netherlands. The forecast for tomorrow is Force 6 gusting 9!
Friday… Clear skies in the morning but the sand is being blown down the beach and capillary (wind to the non nerdies) waves are moving at speed. Nigel is not keen to move until the strong wind blows over. John leaves today to travel back to Rotterdam. Although only on the trip for 4 days he had already spent 4 days in North Wales with Nigel and wanted to return in time for an important archery competition! Nigel takes John part the way back to the car and when he returns the wind has dropped. All systems pack up and go.
On the water the wind had dropped and the swell has increased. The paddling up the Sound of Iona is superb, heading into some large waves amid cries of delight after a frustrating shorebound day. We turn into Fidden at the south end of the sound after too short a time but it is getting late and we need to pitch camp.
Saturday... The plan is a return trip to Iona Abbey staying in the sheltered Sound. On the water Nigel decides the sea conditions will allow us to paddle round the island. I sweat up remembering the ashen faces and blank distant stare of the Fife SK club as they recalled their paddle on the exposed side of Iona last Sunday.
We cross the Sound quite comfortably but eyes are fixed firmly on a fence of white seas at the south end of the island. We near the south end and the sea is getting "interesting", lots of white foaming water and calapotis ahead. Nigel lands on a small surf beach. I miss time it and execute a brace on the surf and bongo onto the. Must be learning as I would usually lean "downstream" and get wet (it’s opposite way round on sea and river folks).
Nigel explains it is St.Columba's beach. We search for Mermaids tears, translucent pebbles with green slivers in them. I spend more time looking at the translucent surf which we will soon be paddling in/on/under/through (take your pick). The surf breaks in my face on the way out but I drive through. We paddle on and soon find ourselves in the middle of all the white foam I had been looking at.
Nigel keeps an eye on us for the first time in the trip. I soon realise I am enjoying this. I look across at Bill and Jean who have huge grins on their faces and start laughing too. I relax and let the boat move with the sea. Sometimes the sea seems to lift the kayak up and rush off leaving the kayak in mid air. Brilliant!
We continue round and up the west coast of the island in a large and regular following swell. The seas at the north end are a lovely turquoise colour due to shallow water and a sandy bottom. We jump out to visit the Abbey and have a short walk in the village. The abbey looks out across the sound to Mull and to Staffa and the Inner Hebridies to the north. By chance Bill, Jean and I stop to look at the graveyard beside the abbey. A fortnight later to the day John Smith would be buried here in a private funeral. Picturing the ceremony with the views and isolation combined with 2 haunting laments on the bagpipes now sends a shiver through my body.
Sunday .... Through the tent walls I hear Nigel say to Bill. "Forecast is force 4 to 5, but I think we should go". This was the green light we had been waiting for. An open crossing from Iona to the Treshnish Isles via Staffa. At 14 miles only 2 miles further than the day before but an exposed open crossing and no getting out of the boat.
With the wind at our backs we seemed to reach Staffa quite quickly. Another day of sunshine gave magnificent views across to the mainland, the Treshnish islands and the small isles. No chance of a landing on Staffa but we had our photo session (Rock formations the same as Giant's Causeway) and then lunch on the water. We arrive at Lunga, the middle Treshnish island, in time for a spot of sunbathing.
A walk round the island revealed a guillemot colony, puffin burrows on cliff tops and, from the hill top, a view of a galaxy of islands....Coll, Tiree, Fladda, Rhum, Eigg, Muck, Canna, Skye, Mull, Iona, The Dutchman's Cap to name a few. At night we stay up to listen for Storm Petrels returning to their burrows but it is too early in the season. Nigel goes for a walk after the 12.30am forecast and tapes the cries of Shearwaters.
Monday ... I get up at 6.30 to have another walk round the island. It is a marvellous island but Nigel wants to leave by 10am to catch the best of the tides and make the crossing back to Mull before a forecast force 6 arrives.
On the water on time for once, Nigel's sense of urgency having penetrated through to us despite the clear skies and warm sunshine. We make the crossing with the odd look over our shoulders. A cloud formation arrives heralding a warm front. We reach Gometra and follow the coast round to Ulva before crossing Loch Na Keal to Ardmeanach.
After 5 hours paddling I am hungry and the energy is low. But so is the tide and any potential landing spot is covered with Storm boulders. It is now cold and windy and I am regretting not putting on my cag and wetsuit. We follow the coast round to the exposed side and eventually find a spot to jump out but the tide is now rising and licks at the sterns of the kayaks that are as far up an ankle breaking beach as we dare take them.
Putting on a cag and wetsuit with one hand and having lunch with the other I eat as much as I can before the kayaks float off.. Back on the water and round the awesome cliffs of Ardmeanach before paddling down Loch Scriden and steaks all round at Pennygael Hotel. An 18 mile day and in the saddle from 10am to 6.40pm with only a 15 minute break. After dinner we drive round to Fidden to give ourselves the opportunity of a morning paddle the next day before heading our separate ways.
Tuesday .... The forecast weather change has arrived. Grey, cold and windy. We do a short trip round Erraid and out to the south coast of the Ross of Mull. The winds are strong and the paddling hard going. Easily the most tippy conditions of the week. Back to camp, say our good-byes and rush off to catch the Oban ferry. I sit down in the ferry and realise I am exhausted!