Right now the skies are slate grey while white horses gallop across the sound and the washing hangs horizontally. Ardmair just recorded 49mph. But as often happens up here, Sunday was forecasted as sunny with winds of just 4-5mph; a perfect day to paddle the 15-odd miles to Ullapool.
Come the morning the predictions had inched up to 6-7mph, still manageable. Even the three-metre tide was with us, turning as we set off from the awkwardly rocky shore below my place (below right) for a run that we figured would span the six hours until high water at Ullapool.
Six of seven mph winds don’t sound much, but coming right at us from the SSE it was enough to raise a chop of up to a foot over which my K40 slapped like a RIB. Jon’s Scorchio LV cut stealthily through the wavelets like a blacked-out commando with a knife in his teeth. You got to hand it to these proper sea kayaks, they look as good as they go, until you need to hop in or out of one or carry it on your head. As it was in the conditions we had we were pretty evenly matched.
An hour later we were abreast of Horse Island and heading out into mare incognita. But not before I’d lost half my paddle. I was just thinking I really must get a leash for this thing for windier days, even if it means yet more entangleable cordage lying across the cockpit. As I made this vow I decided to wipe the sweaty right grip in the crook of my elbow, and in doing do, popped the button and flung half the paddle over the side. Mayday-mayday! Jon took a while to manoeuvre his 17-foot cheese-cutter into position, although I probably could have retrieved it using the single paddle. Must remember not to do that again.
As we entered Horse Sound the wind rose into double figures and white caps formed so we bowed our heads towards the point at Rubha Dubh Ard opposite the guillemot-clad skerry of Iolla Beag (see map). We then passed the last of the dwellings around Culnacraig and edged towards the 2400-foot mass of Ben Mor Coigach which tops out just a mile from the shore. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the steepest summit-to-sea gradient in the UK. Slip up there and you’d roll uninterrupted straight down into the sea with a huge splash.
Two hours hard work on deck and it was high time for a refuel, so we set our sights on a beach formed by the creek which runs off the back of Ben Mor. But with more slip, slap and slop over the waves, it took twice as long as it looked to get actually there (left). It’s since occurred to me why. In this pic the ordinary-looking mountain seems quite near, but its actually an unusually big 2400-foot (730m) mountain far away. Or we were just slow.
After the spell of fairly intense paddling, walking on the stony shore took some adjustment, but it was good to unbend. Up above a lone walker was pacing the thin path which runs along this steep, exposed coast east towards Ardmair. During a snack I kicked about among the usual enigmatic flotsam: a giant tennis ball, a baby elephant’s welly and a Filipino flip flop. I picked up a bit of old rope to sell on ebay later while Jon pinched some nice stones for his giant aquarium back home.
During our break the wind had abated a little and as we set off again through a seal patrol, Isle Martin helpfully blocked the wind-borne fetch from the southeast. The creased, folded and weathered sandstone of guano-covered red cliffs drifted by, suggesting a second visit on a calmer day, but it was after 2 o’clock so we decided to save our energy and clipped the edge of the Isle. We didn’t want to leave it too late and end up paddling tired up the narrow part of Loch Broom on a turning tide and a headwind.
As it was I was hoping to snatch a quick sail (left) as we turned briefly southwest towards Rubha Cadail lighthouse, but while I did creep forward perceptibly, it was hardly worth it; bad angle and too much lee off the point. Still, the good thing with the Pacific Action sail is that it’s light, lies out of the way and is no effort to flick up on the off chance of a breeze.
Rounding the stumpy lighthouse near Rhue, (below right), we could look back across outer Loch Broom to Polbain and the Summer Isles – maybe we should have planned the day in the opposite direction. Whatever, now it was time for the final 3.5-mile stomp into the wind to Ullapool jetty, hoping that the afternoon ferry from Stornoway wouldn’t sneak up from behind and wash us into the middle of next week.
I observed that Jon typically cruised at four strokes for my five and put it down to the superior glide of his hip-wide LV. In fact he was deploying a textbook exemplification of PPT or ‘proper paddling technique’, instilled by his personal paddling trainer (also PPT). I’d read about this technique in books: put blade in by your feet while turning torso and pull back by re-pivoting the torso, not just pulling on the arms like an ape climbing a vine. It worked; I was a bit faster but it all felt a bit stilted and robotic, not the way I naturally paddle, for better or for worse.
However you do it – ape-vine or PPT – it’s fun to paddle a little kayak into a port used to big boats coming and going from who knows where. Ullapool sea front milled lightly with late-summer tourists and it’s possible to interpret one’s arrival as faintly heroic in their eyes, at least compared to a gannet floating beak-down in an oil slick.
Sunburned, crusted with wind-dried salt and not a little stiff, we pulled our boats ashore just over six hours after leaving Polbain. With probably five hours of actual paddling to cover what was indeed only 15 miles but felt more, that’s a fairly ordinary 3mph moving average. Not something to get Ullapool’s summertime bunting in a flutter. Had the headwind been stronger it would have turned into a right old slog, but always with the option of a take-out and ice cream at Ardmair then an a hour’s walk to the car.
We did wonder what it must be like doing this day after day out here as say, Gael has done lately. We celebrated with a creamy cappucho and a slab of buttered fruitcake at the Ceilidh Place (as good as it gets in Ullapool). Recharged and with the anatomical creaks re-oiled, we reckoned we could have pushed on for another three hours if we really had to. But we didn’t so we popped into Tescos for more saccharine tucker and drove home.