One of my goals for 2017 is to become a more experienced sea kayaker and to – literally – dip my toes into the water to see if this is something I want to take up more seriously. Last weekend was the first of three planned trips away this year and really helped develop my paddling skills.
Truth be told, I’m pretty much a novice paddler just now. I’ve messed around with my own inflatable touring kayak, taking it wild camping in Loch Moidart and along Loch Hourn to climb a remote munro on Knoydart, and also had a day’s solo instruction on Loch Leven near Ballachulish. But last weekend I went away for two days’ instruction with Kenny Lacey of Sea Kayak Scotland. I was in good hands: Kenny’s a Level 5 Sea Kayak Coach as well as being an International Mountain Leader, just the kind of knowledgeable expert to make sure I have a good grasp of the basics. I’d highly recommend him.
Friday night saw me driving westwards to camp at Seaview Campsite at Benderloch, just north of Oban. It’s a really good site (I stayed there cycling LEJOG in 2015) and much more preferable to the busy C&CC site at North Ledaig just nearby where I’ve also stayed. And don’t be put off by the ‘sparse’ website … just take my word for the fact that it’s clean, well run and in a great location.
So my brief to Kenny was this: I’d like to learn the paddling skills to become more confident and safe on the water; experience a variety of smooth/rougher conditions; learn safety and rescue skills; and get an introduction to sea kayak navigation and tide planning. He delivered on all counts – and then some!
I got a crash course in navigation, currents and tidal planning at Kenny’s house on the Saturday morning and then we loaded up the boats and equipment for the short drive to the launch spot. Kenny’s based on the Isle of Seil, to the south of Oban, and luckily for him lives just a five minute drive from an excellent launch spot at Cuan Sound. Known locally as “Michael’s Place”, there’s a bunk house, wigwams, parking, toilets and showers, all just recently created for sea kayakers. You can even stay in a converted lifeboat!
We paddled south along the coast of the island of Luing before heading across a stretch of open water to another island, Balnahua, famed for its slate industry. In its heyday during the 19th Century it was home to 200 people but has been uninhabited since WW1. Its industrial past is still very much in evidence in its water-filled quarries and former workers’ cottages. It’s slap bang in the middle of the Sound of Luing, giving great views to more than 20 islands including Mull, Seil, Luing, Scarba, the Garvallachs, Jura, Colonsay and Islay.
The currents in the Sound of Luing are notoriously strong and with Kenny’s expert planning we were confident that we would be paddling with the current on our way from Balnahua south, back towards Luing. This was a real eye-opener for someone with limited experience of the effects of currents. It meant that without putting much effort at all into our paddling we were still travelling at around 7 km/h. Just imagine if we’d got this wrong and were paddling against the current … what a difference …
By this point I was getting some great experience of open water crossings in force 3 conditions and waves of up to 60cm. The sun had come out, it was nearing 5pm and it was time to find a campsite for the night. We pulled up at Mary’s Bay (unnamed on maps) and dragged the kayaks ashore.
We kicked back, put the tents up and explored our little patch of wildness, with only a few cows and timid sheep for company. The sunshine made all the difference, transforming what might have been a wet and windy camp into a lazy, outdoor evening.
I took a walk along the coast to collect firewood for our beachside fire that evening. Sea thrift waved in the breeze as the sun slowly dipped towards the islands out west. Kenny pointed out a series of strange, pointed mounds dotted around the bay. They ranged in size from smaller grassy stumps right up to pointed peaks of 50cm or so. There was no real pattern to their location other than they all sit on raised ground overlooking the sea. Kenny had previously done some research and thought they might be places where Wheatear like to sit, with their droppings accumulating over many decades to build up these mounds. It certainly sounds a plausible theory given these birds do like to perch on mounds – but please let me know if you have a different explanation.
We were just packing out tents up the next morning when the rain started … and didn’t let up until early-afternoon. Given a favourable wind direction we decided to go on a little paddling adventure and take a look at the Grey Dogs. In paddling and sailing circles the short gap between the islands of Lunga and Scarba is very well known, where fast-flowing tidal currents give rise to a tide race with waves of (sometimes) up to several metres. Just take a look at the aerial view from Google Maps to see the currents moving from east to west in this image. Today, the tidal range was only 1.4m and the wind was blowing a force 3-4 and so the waves looked to be 1 – 1.5m high. We took a look, keeping out of the current that could easily draw us in, and decided to leave it for another time (I was an improving paddler but not that good yet!)
We got carried with the current north this time along the east coast of Lunga, exploring inlets and spotting seals and Canada geese. As the rain got heavier we once again paddled the 2km open water crossing from Lunga eastwards to Luing, getting carried about 2km north with the strong current! I found this pretty tough, paddling through waves of up to 60cm and paddling hard so as not to collide with the passing yachts.
After stopping for lunch we practiced rescue and more paddling techniques before heading back to Cuan Sound. I feel seasick in larger boats and unfortunately as we escaped the relative shelter of the islands out towards the west the swell picked up and I started to feel a little unwell. It’s strange that waves don’t make me ill at all but the slow up-and-down of the swell is much more uncomfortable.
In spite of this last short section I’d had a fantastic weekend’s adventure in the company of an expert coach and guide. New experiences, wild places, sunshine and wild camping … what a great recipe!