Gale warning 23 May 09:53 UTC
Violent storm force 11 veering northwesterly imminent, decreasing gale force 8
That storm hit some 200 miles west of here in Rockall, but you get the picture; it’s kite-shredding weather round here right now. Friday afternoon Ardmair near Ullapool recorded nearly 100 kph (62 mph), while we sat at the window and watched the sound run with streaks of foam. The way it’s blowing now I’d not be surprised if it gets over a 100 this week. As it turns out, along with us, the weather station up the loch went down in a 4-hour power cut at the height of the storm, but by then I read it reached 100 mph (160 kph) on the other side of Scotland.
A week ago intrepid French IK sea kayaker Gael A. set off from Skye to complete the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail (SSKT) which he started last August and wrote up for this blog. At that time he managed a fair chunk of the route before the weather turned. This time he was far less lucky; after a record hot April in the UK, May is turning into a bonanza harvest for wind farmers. By last Tuesday Gael had crossed over from Rona island to the mouth of Loch Torridon (above left, midway on the 9km crossing) and got up as far as he could before the fierce wind forced him back to camp.
Next day he reached Sheildaig, at one point noting the spring tide flooding a patch of wildflowers. The forecast summaries I was texting him were not promising: days of F5-7 ahead. He was in a fix because from Torridon he had an exposed 45-km section past Gairloch to get around Rubha Reidh headland before turning east towards Loch Ewe, the Summer Isles and Ullapool, the finish line of the SSKT. Providing we could handle the conditions, Jon and I had hoped to meet him ‘after the scary bit’ somewhere around Loch Ewe and paddle for a couple of days together.
Gael is pretty experienced – 40 years sea yaking man and boy – so by Wednesday night he knew the game was up in the time he had left. Next day I drove down to pick him up and take him back to his car on Skye, if for no other reason than it’s a fabulous drive across Wester Ross that I’d not done before. There are scores of dramatic valleys like that up here and Loch Torridon itself is a fabulous spot I’d like to return to with my packboats. The whole of the northwest above Skye really is something else as the many touring bikers and pushbikers were no doubt finding out for themselves. The tiny hamlet of Sheildaig is a time-lost, lobster-pot fantasy tucked up an inlet. It didn’t take long to find Gael so we went over to his camp by the jetty, loaded the car and headed to Skye.
The Sound of Sleat off Kyleakin (left) was calm enough, but out beyond the bridge the sea had a bit of a head on it. We had a 1970s-era lunch, Gael checked out with the police in Lochalsh and decided to hang out up here on the off chance the weather improved and he or we could make a little tour of the Summer Isles. He was also keen to try out my Incept as his Grabner was showing the years. In fact is was he who last year pointed out that Incept K40 had evolved since I last checked it out. For me it was also a good chance to interrogate an experienced sea kayaker about the Ways of the Sea. Among the many skills I feel I lack is the judgement to know when it’s safe to got out and when I ought to turn back: interpreting clouds and wind changes, forecasts and sea states. It’s a lot of stuff to understand so we spent Friday chatting while refreshing various forecast websites: Saturday looked like a bit of a lull so Jon came up to for a paddling threesome.
We did the best we could on Saturday and set out from the campsite beach (left) to plant our flags on the calm side of Isle Ristol (which you can walk to at very low tide). Old Dornie was standing room only that day as a local skiff racing regatta was on, postponed from last weekend when Jon and I spent our time daring ourselves to do something and go somewhere.
Sat in the back of his aged H2 Grabner like a canoeist, Gael was far more confident than us – pushing out over some surf raised by a reef while we scurried away, appalled. We beached on Ristol for lunch then turned around into the wind blowing through Old Dornie harbour, dodging the skiffing crews (right) hauling out to a buoy and back to the cheers of the crowds until – to quote Gael – it got at least as ‘lively’ (below) as the previous weekend when we’d taken a while to get the hang of it all. Hauling against the wind the two clicks to the main Summer Isles looked a bit of a reach.
We turned back to the campsite launch as it filled with tooled-up sea kayakers who I fear were not going to have the great weekend’s paddling they’d come for. We headed over to Achnahaird Beach on the north side which ought to be either sheltered or with an offshore wind, depending on how you looked at it. Once in, I pointed to a Point and said let’s go there! but the Wise Old Man of the Sea advised we keep along the leeside cliffs in case the wind picked up as was predicted. The sea was flat enough between gusts but had a big, rolling swell which was an odd sensation I’ve not experienced before. I wasn’t sure if I should be anxious or just enjoy the ride.
Once in a while a series of bigger swells rolled by and churned around the outcrops, or crashed against the red sandstone cliffs, but without any real danger to a boater as there was no surf. We’ve all seen impressive sea kayaking long lens shots like that; relaxed yaker in profile with a backdrop of white-foam carnage. Even under skies which looked like they were about to collapse under their own weight (choose any pic nearby), it was a nice end to the day, running past the moss-clad cliffs and spooky caves from which pealed unrecognisable squawks. A lone seal popped up from a distance to check us out and to the east rose the naked spurs of Suilven, Cul Mor and Stac, carved out of the Assynt’s bedrock during the last Ice Age.
Jon glided along in his LV like he was on rails; you got to hand it to these hardshell SinKs, they may be a pain to carry on the Tube but they sure look good on the water – viewed from the stable-as-a-cow-pat perch of an IK, of course! Heck, it all felt like proper sea kayaking. Further up, around Rubha na Coigach headland I dare say it all gets pretty hairy, but it sure would be nice to cruise further along this coast with the Mrs some warm, calm and sunny evening.
And before the weekend was done, Gael got onto Sea Kayak Oban and bought their K40 test boat which I tried out last March. He got a great deal all things considered; I’d have bought it myself had I not already ordered my yellow boat. So that’s at least two K40s in action on the high seas; mine, his and maybe yours too soon.