Category Archives: Travel Reports

Travelling with air boats

Seawave Rudder MkII tested

Gumotex Seawave main page
Rudder rationale discussed
Gumotex’s 2016 factory version
Making the prototype rudder
Testing the prototype
Update 2019:
I’ve not used my MYO rudder since I made it in 2016. Partly because I’ve only done day trips predicated on nice weather, but also it’s all just more faff and clutter, not least the lines and footboard. As explained earlier, for gumsee07multi-day trips where you must deal with the winds you’re given, it’s a good idea. But even then, you only notice your relative lack of speed alongside others. Alone, you’re as fast as you are.
Rudders are not about steering or tracking as they are on powered boats; in a kayak they’re about enabling a more efficient, balanced paddling effort on both arms by compensating for the boat’s deflection for side winds. In a way the simple stock skeg-shifter (right) will do as well with much less clutter and weight. Or, use this rudder, but locked in position as an ‘articulated skeg’ in place of the Gumotex skeg for shallows and beach parking. That is handy to avoid stressing the stock skeg, especially when the boat is loaded. 


While waiting for rudder bits to turn up, we went out for an evening paddle round Eilean Mullagrach. It was pretty calm but at no point did I think, ‘Darn, I wish I had a rudder’. When it came to turning corners we just paddled hard or dragged a blade and round we came.
But the Seawave rudder project carries on like a supertanker with a jammed… rudder, if for no other reason than it’s fun to experiment and a rudder can also work as an articulated skeg when locked out – something I may look into when it’s all done.rudderdyl
Ironing out the flaws with the prototype added up to attaching it more securely at the back and making the pedal board out of something more responsive and durable. By coincidence, all these components can be sawn from a single piece of 450 x 300 x 12mm LDPE chopping board (left) which costs from £8 on ebay in a range of colours. This is 50% thicker than the smaller board I used on the prototype plate so doesn’t need doubling up and gluing to make it rigid.
rudm211rudm21At the back I  slimmed the rudder plate right down to a simple strip of 65mm x 450mm, glued a block on the end to better support the gudgeon swivel pivot sleeve and added the crucial second fixing under the portaging handle (left). I also added a triangularish screw plate rudm23underneath (left, with red cord) so it all sits snug in the stern. With the hardware and saddle strap that now adds up to 306g (the rudder unit weighs 450g with its running lines). Even though it’s slimmer than the proto plate, it weighs about the same because it’s now 12 mil. But looks a whole lot neater.
rdd5The pedal board is from the same slab but uses stainless hinges, not zip ties. I’m reminded, you’re constantly making small adjustments as you paddle so pedals need to be as taut and responsive as possible. Once I’d trimmed the board and pedals a bit (left), with hinges it came in at 660g.
rudnee1The board and maybe the pedals could have been made from 8mm if there was some to spare – but an 8mm board wants to be ~450mm wide to sit snugly in the boat’s side channels. Like the rudder, the pedal board will be subject to strong forces in heavy seas so also needs to be solidly jammed in. Meanwhile, I noticed the floor-laminate prototype  board (right) gained nearly 15% in weight after getting wet – a sign it won’t last long. Still, it made a good template.
garbpedalsI do wonder if something like the Grabner rudder pedal bar (left, similar to Gael’s old H2) would be much lighter, as solid and as effective as my board. It costs €70 plus €30 for a pair of Zoelzer pedals.
I can’t really see how I could replicate that alloy footrest bar – out of copper tube filled with resin perhaps (like this motorbike rack)? It’s held securely in place without fittings by being jammed in the channel cavity between the floor and the sides (like my board), but a check with Gael advised me against it. As it happened, I’d pretty much decided the same mid test run (below). A sliding ally bar plus sea water isn’t a great combination and might bend or break, or the pedals snap. I know the ally backrest bar on my Amigo wasn’t up to it and Gael’s backrest broke (though it was ancient). My plastic version may weigh double but should be solid. Interestingly, just as a bag of clam cleats turned up make a quicker way of fine-tuning the rudder pedal lines from the cockpit, I see left that Grabner use them – a good sign.

rudhorserudm221The weather here’s about to crack and then we’re moving south, so in a rush I took the revised rudder plate out for a test with the creaky waterlogged pedal board. Heading towards Horse Island tidal passage, I didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew: from the WNW at about 12mph. Initially the boat needed constant small corrections to maintain a course, and there was some stiction, hopefully down to the zip ties on the soggy pedal board. I tried a few pedalotight turns and marvelled at the control and how sharply the boat swung round like a pedalo. The rudder plate is now as rock solid as anything fitted to an IK can be. Again, I consciously tried not to correct with my arms, just my feet, which were twitching regularly.
rudm24At Horse Island I was way too early to run the passage, but as it was probably my last paddle here till next year, I decided to head for Badentarbet. Turning north, closer into the wind the micro corrections were no longer needed and the boat ran as if on a skeg, but without arm corrections. I’m pretty sure paddling 20–30° off the wind would have required arm steering, but I just hacked away towards Rubha Dunan on the mainland as the wind increased. When I tried a bit of downwinding protracted rudder juggling was needed to keep the back-end in line.
rudgaprudm23I passed through a channel on the headland and the NW wind got steadily stronger so crossing the bay to the beach seemed to take ages of effort. By now the small corrections I’d been making were no longer necessary, perhaps something had bedded in, the knots had tightened up or like riding a bike I’d just got the knack of minimal rudder movement to keep the boat on track. But upwind paddling is comparatively easy so I tried across the wind, now running over 15mph, and a bit more downwinding which gave me that unsettling Ningaloo feeling. This must be the weak point of a buoyant, windprone IK (especially when unloaded), and maybe all kayaks and canoes too. The chop was only a foot high, but were there a swell of a metre or more, the rudder would be briefly lifting and the stern sliding. I wonder if in a such conditions a combination of rudder and skeg (which is always submerged) might be a way of limiting weathercocking? Or perhaps just more practice is required. There’s also another solution that might arrive here in time to try out.
rudruddAs I neared the beach the wind was hard in my face but I realised I was actually on good form, unlike on the Tanera run with the prototype. So I hammered away with all I had until my strake hissed onto the sands. Paddling hard is all helped by my brilliant, bent-shaft Werner Camano paddle, no less than ten years old this summer. It still clips rudaliotogether with a satisfyingly ‘clunk’ and has very little play. If it ever got lost or abducted by aliens I’d buy another without hesitation.
I was glad I’d got stuck into a longer test run than planned, and am now confident my MYO Seawave rudder is in the ball park. Hopefully the new pedal board will complete the job. 

  • Total weight: 300g rudder plate + 450g rudder + 660g pedal board + ~100g rigging = 1.51kg (3.3lbs), or < 10% of the boat’s weight
  • Total cost MkII version: £20 rudder + £15 rigging + £8 LDPE board + £10  hinges + £2 fittings = £55

rdd4rdd2For about £200 posted I could have installed a 2016 Seawave rudder kit, but from all the images I could find at the time it was unclear exactly how it secured at the back – there must be their version of an unseen triangular underplate, but even then it’s still a stressed-out single point attachment. My additional under-handle fixture eliminates pivoting. And the plywood Gumotex footboard (right) gumrud3appears to sit loose and seemingly will also pivot on that single strap. Production versions may differ and let’s not forget that adding all this complexity also adds a risk of breakage or damage. The simplest solution is usually the best, but the 160-g skeg will always be clipped in the boat as a back-up and a Seawave is controllable (if much slower) with no tracking aids at all. It’s worth remembering: a rudder isn’t about day-to-day tracking, it’s about maintaining a course when the boat gets pushed about in stronger winds. In such conditions a skeg is essential and a rudder is an improvement, as explained here.
rudstashrudderweightsOn the beach, prior to lugging the boat over seaweed-clad boulders, it took only 30 seconds to unclip the rudder mechanism from the plate to pre-empt stumbling and damaging it. Since then I changed the rudder plate mounts with tool-free knobs and an eyelet (left). When rolling the boat up it was best to pivot the rudder plate around the drain hole 90° to pack better.


Arisaig Overnighter

Seawave main page

airimapThe shell-sand skerries of Arisaig are a well-known sea kayaking destination so, blown out by the wrong sort of wind to complete our mission on Mull, we scooted over towards Morar on the warmest May day since Michael Fish was knee-high to an isobar.
Arriving late the night before at the sheltered glampsite at Camusdarach (5-star ablutions), I wasn’t quite sure where we were, but somewhere out there the easterlies were howling like banshees. Next morning at Arisaig all was calm as a small posse of schoolchildren trotted by in high-viz safety wear, a tribute perhaps to George Osbourne.
ari08We were at the wrong end of the tide to enjoy Arisaig’s famed aquamarine lagoons, so headed round the corner to some beaches Gael knew from previous visits. We lunched at one, set up camp at another then headed back to the archipelago in unloaded boats for low tide. For me it had become just too darn windy to enjoy a relaxing sea cruise. Even hopping onto one of the skerries, I could barely stand while grabbing a few shots of Gael (left).
Back at the camp, conditions were calmer for a quiet evening, but early next morning, as soon as I looked out the tent the northeasterly kicked off for the 90-minute headwind hack back to Arisaig. We arrived at the jetty just as the church bell tolled 9am. Nice touch – can’t say I’ve ever encountered church bells in Scotland.
ari14All that remained was a lift to Mallaig, a ferry to Armadale, a two-hour wait sun-baking outside the Ardvasar pub for the stealth bus to Broadford, then another hour for the big bus to gusty Kyle. An hour later the train left for the scenic line to Garve where the Mrs turned up right on time.
I’m staggered by Cal-Mac prices for walk-ons, even hauling a paddle and some packs. You couldn’t go two stops on a London bus for what it costs to cross over to Skye. Integrated local bus services? Less impressive but I got there in the end.

Kayaking Mull & Iona

Seawave main page

mull07mullmapIntrepid Scottish sea kayakeur Gael of the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail was taking it to Mull this year. I invited myself along for part of the tour. His plan: Oban > Kerrera > Mull then along the Ross of Mull to Iona, back east then north for mull01Ardmeanach, Inch K and Ulva. Then maybe Staffa, maybe the Treshnish, then handbrake turn and round the top to surf the tide back to Oban like the cats in Big Wednesday. He of course knew well that achieving half of that would be good going, but the forecast at least was for a sunny week with easterly winds. In the end he ferried the car over the Firth of Lorn to Craignure on Mull (we had a full-blown gale up here on that day) then gonflated his K40 and set off clockwise round Mull from Grass Point.

I Know Where We’re Going
mull04Hopefully he’d manage the 27km to Carsaig Bay, as that’s where we planned to meet up that evening, far beyond the reach of any mobile signal. As we drew in to the rendezvous the steep bumpy single track road passed the quaintly isolated Carsaig phone box. It looked so picturesque, right by a waterfall surrounded by dense forest – I wish I’d taken a photo. Seems I wasn’t the first to notice it’s photogenic qualities: it featured in the 1945 Powell/Pressburger Hebridean romance I Know Where I’m Going. It was down on the old jetty that Wendy Hiller (left) looked out towards a fictional ‘Kilkoan’ (Colonsay) where she thought her destiny lay before the spirit of the isles got the better of her. A more recent film is also set in the Bay: The Silent Storm refers we’re told to repressed resentments in an island preacher’s mission and marriage, but by all accounts is a turkey.

mull02mull03Carsaig is just a few scattered houses clinging to the wooded slopes, and some bothies by the jetty not built, we’re told, by French Napoleonic PoWs.
Twenty odd clicks to the southeast lay the Slate islands where Gael and I pulled off a successful tour two years ago. This time round I’d be happy to tick off Iona, Inch Kenneth and Ulva before scarpering, while Gael set out for the Treshnish. For my liking they were a bit too close to Tiree, home of the Hebrides’ most persistent winds.


mull06West with the Wind
Came the day, all was overcast with a stiff easterly and rains in the air. Full cags and batten down the hat. It’s not often you get an easterly up here and they eecan be a mixed blessing. They are of course offshore winds but as Gael explained, because they don’t kick up much of a fetch, they blow over invitingly flat seas. Warm, sunny, dry weather from the continent is also a feature, but in passing over fast-warming landmasses they get gusty and variable, swinging between NE to SE several times over a day while stuck in this barometric rut for days. Your prevailing, raid-sodden southwesterly is generally much more consistent. A gusting offshore wind from an unexpected direction isn’t what you want when trying to get back to shore at the end of a tough day.
Out on the bay I was initially freaked mull08out by the backwind, swell and exposure; it seems the 1000-foot mass of Beinn Chreagach was amplifying the rush. My loaded Seawave was far more composed, and together we bobbed and yawed towards the cave at Malcolm’s Point (actually an arch, left) with definite Staffaesque influences.
It’s almost certainly the same basaltic formation mull09that makes up Staffa’s famous Fingals Cave. Alongside is a more obvious arch that from the sea looks like the front edifice of a bombed-out building (great shoreside pic of both here). Moving into the adjacent bay, high above a herd of deer swept across the steep slope – descended perhaps from the mythical doudou of French folklore, according to Gael a mountain beast with two shorter legs on one side. The deer ran towards a flock of wild goats tiptoeing for the shore. They’re pictured here in the nearby Nun’s Cave, a Medieval ‘Naughty Step’ accessible along a coastal path from Carsaig.
mull12The huge waterfall icelandat the back of Traigh Cadh an Easa (‘Waterfall at Ravine Beach’, or some such) reminded me I’d needed to fill up. On the stony beach the usual flotsam suspects lay strewn at the high water line: rope, plastic, wood and the occasional fisherman’s Croc.
mull15Round the point the winds dropped, but murk prevailed; further falls tumbling from the cliffs, as well as basaltic intrusions, gave the scenery a distinctly Icelandic feel. We were now passing towards a flatter ragged shoreline of skerries and periodic beaches where I grabbed a snack on a cushy fishing net sofa.
It would have been a good day to have a sail up – I should have packed my compact  cheapo disc sail which I’ve not bothered trying on the Seawave. I have experimented with the whole business and, certainly without a rudder, managing the lines on the disc would have resulted in the usual unsatisfying spurts.
mull17West towards Uisken and through the skerries leading to the few dwellings at Ardalanish, the only car-accessible take-out before Fionnphort. Occasional showers rinsed the salt from our cags and after one stop my Seawave seemed to be pulling right, even though it’d handled fine in stronger backwinds earlier. I made do offsetting the paddle until the sandy isthmus by Eilean Mor where I hopped out and pulled off the kelp caught in the skeg. That’s more like it.
mull24How far had we come? Who knew, but this being my first full-day’s paddle this year, by now I was counting the miles to the turning point at Erraid on my newish Montana GPS with OS mapping. As I’d found using it in the States on a moto a few months back, you can’t beat the big picture of a paper map. But here, when it came to threading passages between the skerries, seeing your precise position on a proper OS map made it easier to find a way through and avoid dead ends.

As we crossed Port nan Ron bay the winds kicked up hard to the NNE. We were aiming to turn north up the narrow, tidal channel in the Sound of Erraid (also one of Enya’s unreleased albums enyerfrom her mordant ‘Scottish Widows’ phase), but the tide was only just turning back in and the wind would have been on us.
mull18So we parked up for the night inside a lovely clamshell cove hemmed in by pink granite crags below a broad grassy amphitheatre. As the predicted evening rain fell, we cooked up some delicious seawater pasta then roamed to a high point overlooking the Sound where Gael picked up a detailed forecast from his mate: warming up, drying up but still blowing up from the east.
Strong winds woke me in the night and I lay there wincing as the tent shook and flapped violently. This was its first stormy outing and it took me a while to just accept it, plug up the ears and fall back to sleep.


The Sound of Erraid
The morning blew in from the northeast and after breakfast mull19behind a knoll, Gael set out towing my yak while I fired off some shots from the headlands above and caught him up in the Sound.
It was an hour or two after high tide so we only just managed to scrape over the Shallows of Erraid and out into a wind-blasted mull21bay. As we crept northwest, Erraid island seemed to be developed out of kinapproportion to its size. Turns out it was a quarry for the nearby Torran Rocks lighthouse in the Stevenson era, and Stevenson fils set Kidnapped here. Now the former quarrymen’s cottages house a satellite community of the Findhorn Foundation, offering their alternative to the ecumenical retreats over the water on Iona.
mull11Gael’s big Ortlieb water bag had gone rogue, exuding a pungent iodine tang, so we put in near Fidden campsite to fill everything else with lovely sweet water. (I noted a 1.5L plastic bottle slotted neatly into my footrest tube). Out in the Sound it was way too windy to aim for the southern end of Iona as planned, but we figured with our added ballast we could work our way north between the skerries for a shorter, less exposed crossing of the mile-wide Iona Sound. From there set off for an anticlockwise loop instead.

Crossing to Iona
Somewhere just after Lalte Mor we made our dash for Iona, aiming for a beach just south of the ferry jetty, with two big buoys in between as markers. The wind had now veered to the mull27southeast and mid-channel it was all getting a bit lumpy but manageable but the Seawave tracked true. The quicker I paddled the sooner it’d be over. Gael yelled to err north towards the ferry line where we were being blown anyway. He realised the spring tide was in full retreat down the sound and we needed to compensate. With the green and yellow buoys and the beach, I was sure my track was good, but on the far side Gael explained my trajectory resembled a washing line due to the strong southerly ebb. Sure, I was pointed at the beach and the buoys remained to my left, but the sea was moving southwards beneath me.
mull26His tip on such crossings was to line two points (a buoy and the beach for example) to better monitor and compensate for any deflection. A day or two later I tried this while hacking into Arisaig Bay, lining up a distant tree and a gully, and was surprised how the unseen current or wind deflected me within seconds, while still making good headway.
It was a good lesson from the seamaster. Had we let the tide take us, our Iona Sound crossing might merely have ended up more westerly than northwesterly, but we’d still have reached the shore OK. But had we been aiming for Iona’s southern tip (as originally planned from Fidden), the stream may have pushed us out into the open sea, or at the very least extended the transit to reach the island. Add in the wind swinging back to the northeast and that’s how sea kayakers get in trouble.
mull25Little did we know that my Mrs, who’d spent the night on Iona in solemn retreat after dropping me off at Carsaig, was recording our progress from the ferry chugging back to Fionnphort. And even as the odd wave broke alongside me, I too was able to grab a few shots: clearly a sign that conditions were less epic than they felt.

The Treasures of Iona
chocWe beached the boats and went for a wander through Baile Mor towards the abbey. While backtracking, up ahead it seemed like the village idiot was bounding along towards us, waving enthusiastically. We reserved our judgements until it turned out to be the g-friend who’d hopped back onto the ferry to present me a chocolate doubloon (it was my birthday). What a nice surprise. Soon we were swept away in a whirlwind of anniversarian revelry and all headed to the village cafe for a slap up haddock, salad and chips (with a back up ice cream. And cake).
mull32Back in the boats, it was a short sidewind struggle up to Iona’s northern beaches before a calmer paddle on the island’s lee. With the weather warming up, post-lunch lethargy plus the fatigue from the nervy crossing and the interrupted night, we lost our momentum a bit.
At the back of our minds, neither was keen on the idea of shortly rounding Iona’s southern tip into the wind and then edging back up the windward mull35side. We crossed the big bay and nosed ambivalently past Sprouting Cave as far as Port Beul-Mhoe, a steep stony cove with an onerous portage before any tentable grass. bdayegI plucked a superb granite birthday egg from the shingle, then we backtracked to the big Camas ‘Bay at the Back of the Ocean’ and made an early camp to enjoy a warm, sunny evening. Next morning we’d see how we and the winds blew.

Outrun by the wind
mull37The plan had been to complete the Iona circuit, cross back to the Ross and head east into the mouth of Loch Scridain for the mountainous Ardmeanach peninsula where Gael has got windbound last year.
A glance out of the tent at 6.30 revealed blue skies, but an offshore breeze was already ruffling the sea – and this was the lee side of Iona. It didn’t bode well for the south end, let alone the 13-km leg into Loch Scridain and the exposed crossing to Ardmeanach, with gusts tearing down off the 3000-foot slopes of Ben Mor. I was all set to roll up my boat, stagger across the island and meet Gael at the mull33ferry, but he agreed the weather had outpaced our plans on Mull. We’d head back the way we’d come, cross to Fionnphort by paddle or ferry, then he’d retrieve his car from Craignure to deploy Plan B.

mull38We set off at the top of the tide. With the newfound sunshine and warmth it was a relief to forgo the sweaty, salt-caked cagwear. Back through the skerries and into the wind round the top of Iona. Ten clicks to the north, Staffa and Dutchman’s Cap hovered on the horizon, but any trippers heading there today may well come back with faces the colour of warm guacamole.
mull39The narrowest crossing back to Mull is near Eilean nam Ban, and when the time came it turned out to be a lot easier than yesterday, even contending with another southerly stream (left). mull40Gael decided later we must have caught a fortuitous lull in the wind-bashing, and once in the sheltered Bull Hole channel, we let the strongly ebbing tide swish us down towards Fionnphort.

mull30mull29Unloading on the jetty, hoards of tourist-pilgrims from the world over were making their way to Iona. Having spent a day there, the Mrs had confessed she’d been a bit disappointed. The recently rebuilt abbey lacked much Medieval aura, mull31and the achievements of Saint Columba and significance of Iona’s post-Druidic heyday were rather embellished compared to more objective sources.
For centuries the Lords of the Isles and Scottish kings (including Macbeth) had been buried here; the nearer the abbey the better, it was thought. I noticed the decorated headstone (right) of former Labour party leader John Smith who’d managed to squeeze in, though it turns out he’d no connection with Iona other than being raised in Argyll. Maybe there’s more to it, but as even some Iona-born fail get a plot here, it seemed a post-mortal vanity inconsistent with what I recall of Smith’s public image.
mull41Anyway – I stretched out with my Kindle on the old jetty and let the warming kayaks gently purge through their PRVs, while Gael strode boldly east up the A849. After a while I went up the road to make sure he wasn’t skiving behind some shed having a quick nap. The strong winds I met mull42underlined the fact that we were doing the right thing. Kayaking anywhere east of here would have been hard, paddle-creaking yakka.
Three hours later Gael returned to find me surrounded by empty crisp packets, ice cream wrappers and a succulent Curly Wurly embedded in my gob. We strapped the yaks to the roof and went to find somewhere else to play.


Back in the Isles ~ Seawave vs Grabner

Seawave main page

P1150052First paddle of the season, although it’s still far from spring-like. Last few days snow has been blanketing the Torridons (left), the Assynts and even BM Coigach (above). But after three days of howling, the winds abated and Jon and I went for a spin round Tanera Mor. I remember first time I did that in the new K40 it felt like an expedition. This time with two of us it was just a jaunt to get the old shoulders cranking again.
fpy161Tanera Mor kayak mapJon bought my previous IK, a Grabner Amigo, but had yet to use it, so this was a chance to compare it with my current Seawave. I sold the Amigo after a run out to Bottle Island when it dawned on me it literally wasn’t cut out to be a swift sea kayak. Still, I managed a pretty good tour of the Slate Islands that year with the Amigo.
fpy163Off Badentarbet beach heading for Rubha Dubh-Dubh, Jon was notably slower in the Grabner. For a moment I felt a bit bad – Jeez, did I really sell him such a dud? I’m sure it wasn’t that bad. It was only later when we swapped boats and were more of less evenly matched, that it transpired years of paddling trexslick, hydro-dynamically efficient hardshells had had a catastrophic effect on Jon’s pulling power. Either that, or a winter’s pushbike training had similarly atrophied his arms, giving him the physique of a T Rex.


Still, it was good to break the arms in gently, and before we knew it we were turning back northwest for the Tabera channel. With the tide bottomed out, we had lunch on a fish farm fpy166platform to the sound of salmon skimming and thrashing up non-existent rapids to their blue remembered breeding grounds. With that sort of daily exercise, at least they won’t end up like T Rexes.
From here I rowed the Amigo back. Sure, the flat nose was more snow plough than arrow-like bow, but you’ve got to admire the Grabner’s solid, no-nonsense build. PRVs? Kiss mein schkegg!
Proper seat and attachment points? Opzional, Freund. And compared to the slight flex I noticed in the Seawave – even at .25 bar all round – the 0.3 bar and 750-cm shorter Amigo was as stiff as a stretcher.

spey1304As before, the seat-bar mounts caught my fingers as I paddled, but Jon found similar protuberances on the Gumboat. The bomb-proof Amigo would make a great river touring boat: tough as nails, upswept ends to ride over whitewater and as stable as any IK – though the upswept stern might be a backwind catcher when running skeg-free, as I did on the shallow Spey one time (left).
fpy165All in all though, living as I occasionally do by better sea than big, boaty rivers, the Seawave works for me, even at just half an mph faster. The price new was about the same, but there were a lot more extras with the Gumotex, including a deck (I never use). I gave the OE seats away with the Amigo and made a lightweight and q/d seating arrangement which I’ve adopted on the Seawave: a packraft seat base, SoT backrest plus packraft thigh straps and my patented elasto-cantilevered drainpipe footrest (right). Read all about them here.



Walking with Sharks – kayaking Shark Bay

Looking for shark attacks? – go here
Sea kayaking on the Ningaloo?  It’s here
Packrafting the Fitzroy River – this way please
Originally written in 2010

Why doesn’t anyone paddle around Shark Bay, Jeff? It seems ideal for beginners like us.”

Name puts them off I reckon. It’s famous for big tiger sharks. National Geographic did a doco there once.”

Oh really?” I said. “I thought it was just a name…” and took a thoughtful sip from my coffee.

It was 2am in a roadhouse on the Coastal Highway north of Perth, Western Australia (WA). I’d flown in from London that evening with my boat-in-a-bag and together with Jeff’s girlfriend Sharon, we’d hit the road for the 1000-kilometre drive to Shark Bay.
Perth-based Jeff and Sharon were river paddlers and windsurfers and I’d done a couple of French rivers in my Gumotex Sunny as well as some coastal days, but the three of us were new to kayak touring at sea. All we wanted was a safe but inspiring introduction and despite the name, we were sure the shallow, sheltered waters of Shark Bay would fit the bill.
The Bay itself is really a stretch of the otherwise exposed WA coast on the Indian ocean, and the Shark Bay area is protected by two thin peninsulas which protrude north like elongated harbour walls for 200 kilometres. But at an average depth of only ten metres, Shark Bay is of little use to shipping and is best known for the daily dolphin visits at Monkey Mia beach. A regular tide of tourists flow in and out of the resort, but having made regular visits there myself as a guidebook writer covering WA, I’d long suspected there was much more to this ‘Australian Baja’ than beachside photo opportunities with Flipper and the family.
wss-sb-mapApart from anything else, Shark Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of only a handful to fulfil all four criteria, being an area of evolutionary significance; ongoing ecological processes; superlative natural phenomena and biological diversity. Actually it’s five once you factor in the presence of Jeff. With such impressive credentials we were sure its less-visited corners would be ideal for a mid-winter’s exploration in kayaks.
Once I established with the local parks service that paddling in such an exalted environment was permitted, I was surprised to find just one online account of a kayak tour of the Bay –  a quick visit by Australian canoeing legend Terry Bolland. Compared to Bolland’s adventures in the croc-ridden inlets of WA’s northern coast where ten-metre tides run like rivers, his Shark Bay excursion read like Lance Armstrong pedalling down to the shops to buy some milk.
Jetlag meant I was conveniently alert for the overnight drive and as the sky coloured with the dawn, we crossed the 26th parallel and passed a sign welcoming us to the fabled ‘Nor’ West’. We rolled into Denham, halfway up the Peron Peninsula and Shark Bay’s only settlement, populated by a mixture of snowbirds jammed into the caravan park, permanent retirees in pristine bungalows and some fishing and tourist operations. We parked outside the café and waited for it to open.
Our plan was not too ambitious. Paddle north from Denham about 60 kilometres to the tip of the Peron Peninsula, round Cape Peron to the east and cover the same distance south to Monkey Mia Dolphin Resort, a trip that might take up to a week. We aimed to take advantage of the prevailing southwesterlies on the exposed west side of the Peron and deal with the same as headwinds on the more sheltered southbound leg.
wss-stashThere was no fresh water on our route and even the townsfolk of Denham paid a premium for desalinated drinking water. So after breakfast we followed a network of 4WD tracks to the tip of Cape Peron, our halfway point, and buried a cache of water and snacks. Jeff and Sharon had a Perception Eco tandem kayak the size and weight of a taker but as I was about to find out, it didn’t take much to swap my Sunny Gumotex inflatable, even with a light load.

To the Big Lagoon
With our cache stashed under the paprika-red cliffs of Cape Peron, we set off from Denham at dawn the following day. The waters were soothingly calm and soon a reliable southwesterly saw Jeff hoist his Pacific Action sail.
Bye,” I said forlornly “see you later.” But they took pity on my kayak-shaped airbed and hooked me up for a tow to the first of many mostly unnamed capes by which we’d measure our progress on a marine chart.

These propitious conditions didn’t last long. Soon the wind swung to the northwest, obliging us to dig in for what was to be two and a half days of relentless battling. I actually enjoy getting my teeth into a headwind, buoyed up by sightings of the extraordinarily rich marine life that gives Shark Bay its special UNESCO status.
Sharon had chalked up a checklist of ‘must sees’: turtles, sharks, rays, dolphins and dugongs (sea cows). By our first beach break a green turtle had already passed beneath her bows and later, as we towed our boats through the knee-deep shallows up to half a mile off shore by way of a rest, startled manta rays submerged on the sandy seabed took flight as if shot from a bow. Strike two for Sharon.
Our destination that first day was the intriguing Big Lagoon which probed the peninsula’s flank like a tidal glove and promised a sheltered camp site. Twenty kilometres out to sea Dirk Hartog Island broke the horizon; Australia’s westernmost point. The eponymous Dutch seafarer recorded the first European landing there in 1616, nailing an inscribed pewter plate to a pole. What he saw of the newfound Terra Australis was uninspiring: flat, arid and dense with scrub. It was another 150 years before Captain Cook mapped Australia’s less harsh east coast and brought about British colonisation.
A less historic lone pole marked the mouth of Big Lagoon and as we rounded the entrance a mass of cormorants took flight, the air filling with the whiff of their oily wings. Though we’d snacked on some oysters during our afternoon wade, the day’s hard paddling had given us all an appetite so we pulled over among some mangroves for an overdue feed and a reappraisal. It was already 4 o’clock and with the tide and the wind were now against us we decided to leave the exploration of Big Lagoon for another day and scooted across the channel to the nearest sandy beach to make camp.


Walking with Sharks
Though only ranging around a metre, the tides in Shark Bay seem to have a mind of their own. Some days there are two as normal, but the following day there might be only one and a half, or even a single 13-hour high. This had caused Jeff some consternation with the tables, but dawn brought the tide right to our feet and once loaded up, we glided out across the mirrored lagoon. It was to be only a momentary pleasure watching our boats speed silently over the seabed; out in the open the northwesterly was hunched up and waiting for us. Heads down, we worked our way up the coastline, occasionally stopping to investigate an old pearl divers’ camp. Western Australia’s famous pearl industry had begun in Shark Bay in the mid-1800s and the corrugated iron stumps of the shacks around us, now brittle with rust, dated from that period.

Sharklet attack!

Tiny fishes skimming over the surface alerted us to the distinctive tail and dorsal fins which were chasing them. Soon metre-long sharks began darting between our boats, racing at us then veering off at the last-minute in a flurry of spray. We assumed the bulky silhouettes of our trailing kayaks kept the young sharks from attacking, a theory that gained credibility when Sharon ended up running towardsthe beach, screaming as the sharklets circled her menacingly, homing in for a nip.


Presently the waters cleared and we hopped back into the boats, steering out into the wind around sandbanks as a line of ochre-red cliffs many kilometres long passed by. As they ended we hauled the boats ashore to set up our beach camp and with daylight to spare, wandered off to explore the beach. I found a washed-up conch the size of a watermelon while Sharon and Jeff came across a midden of oyster shells left either by 19th- century pearlers or maybe the Yamatji Aboriginal people who’d occupied the Bay prior to colonisation.

To Cape Peron
Up with the sun again, but there was no calm put put-in this morning. It would be another tough haul to reach Cape Peron and our mouth-watering cache. By 9am Jeff estimated it was blowing at 20 knots.
What’s that in English!?” I yelled., although the answer was immaterial.
About 30 clicks!”

Was it possible to paddle against 30kph winds? My gumboat flexed with the swell as the sea surged over the sides. Now without the protection of Dirk Hartog Island the unfettered Indian Ocean was crashing against the shore. Still, every vicious headwind had has a silver lining and as we hacked at the water a pair of dolphins popped up to say hello. Less than 48 hours into our sea safari and only the elusive dugongs remained on Sharon’s checklist.
The seas were getting as big as I’d ever experienced, but I figured as long as the Eco did not disappear behind the swell it was not that bad. I still find the idea of sea kayaking intimidating, but two days of hard paddling had toned me up and I felt confident I could face the day’s toil. Partly this was because my Innova had the reassuring stability of a raft, even if that included comparable manoeuvrability and speed! It was something I appreciated when, after breaching a gnarly reef to grab another snack on the south end of Broadhurst Bight, we set off to cross the bay to the northern edge.
That turned into a punishing marathon with the confused seas barging at us from all sides. Tying on to Jeff’s stern I’d pump water out regularly while the distant shore inched steadily by. All around the once-comforting seabed was now an unfathomable inky blue abyss.
Two hours later we staggered onto the sandy headland, having covered just five kilometres. Our morning’s efforts had put us just a couple of clicks from the tip of Cape Peron and sure enough, just forty minutes later, with my boat swilling again with seawater, we managed to land on the sandy beach and retrieve our cache.
Stuffing our faces with jellies, sausage and now with plenty of water, we were keen to round the Cape because at last the wind would out of our face! We pushed out and once rafted up, Jeff hoisted his sail which filled instantly with a satisfying SLAP! Soon we were skimming along at two or three times our paddling speeds, water lapping over our bows, southeast into Herauld Bight.

Sailing with Dugongs
We were sitting back, our paddles over our knees and enjoying chatting without yelling when Sharon exclaimed “Dugongs!!” Several huge dun-coloured profiles emerged against the dark seagrass bank on which they’d been feeding, and before long we were right among a herd of twenty sea cows, caught unawares by our stealthy windborne raft. At times our bows nearly ran over them, the water ahead exploding as their powerful tail flukes blasted them out of range.


By dusk our unexpected run downwind had doubled our day’s mileage. Once ashore I foraged for firewood while Sharon and Jeff got cooking. As we wolfed down our food, wafts of a gorgeous aroma drifted over from the fire. Intrigued, I walked over and realised one especially large chunk or timber was precious sandalwood. A century ago WA had got rich quick supplying this raw material for incense to nearby Asia. Now the last reserves in WA were said to be in Shark Bay. We pulled the log off, finished off the meal and with the wind still blasting down the bight, retreated to our tents.

Across Hopeless Reach
By the time I’d dried out my tent after it blew into the sea following an overnight storm, the tide had come in to meet us again and under sail we windsurfed round into Hopeless Reach. Here, prophetically, the wind dropped and it was back to good old-fashioned paddling, albeit on much calmer seas. By mid-afternoon we could see Cape Rose a few kilometres from Monkey Mia resort and so strung out the day with fruitless fishing and exploring the scrubby cliff tops on foot

Shark Bay chartAs we approached Monkey Mia next morning bottle-nosed dolphins cruised past, soon followed by a tourist catamaran and all the commotion of the resort. We beached the boats one last time and while Jeff hitched back to Denham to get the van another ranger-led dolphin visitation ensued before a line of excited tourists. Sure it’s fun seeing a dolphin close up, but the three of us couldn’t help feeling rather smug about our thrilling encounters out in the Bay. The tourists were standing ankle deep with half-tame dolphins, but we’d worn the paint off our paddle shafts, sailed with sea cows and walked with sharks!

See also: Packrafting in northwest Australia ~ some ideas

The Secrets of Priest Island

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prstmapHigh pressure alert! No, my range of recreational leisurecraft weren’t about to blow, it’s the weather – and that’s not about to blow. Far from it. A high was about to lasso the north of Scotland with its concentric isobars. It may be mid-October but it’s been the sunniest and calmest spell up here for two months. Never mind Indian summer, this was turning into an Arapaho autumn. It all added up to good chance to make a break for that most troublesome and distant of the Summer Isles: Priest Island – or Eilean a’ Chleirich; ‘Island of Clerics’.


Whichever way you look at it Priest looks way out there for someone used to staying within a mile of the shore. Mainlandwise, it’s over six miles out of Old Dornie, nearly four miles off Mellon Udrigle on the other side, and a bit more from the end of the Scoraig peninsula. Far enough out to need the full length of a good day and someone for backup. Luckily Jon thought so too and rode up late Thursday night with his Peckett & McNabb Scorchio LV.

prst-02Friday, soon after dawn we were putting in at the top of the tide at Old Dornie. ETA Priest north shore: 2.5 hours. The forecast was a 6mph SE till late morning after which time it was set to drop right off to the southwest.
Once clear of the back of Tanera Beg’s lee I expected things to kick up a bit. But what a difference it is having someone else along for the ride to quell the usual neuroses. Jon agreed that he too would be nervous of taking a run out to Priest alone, and he was sea kayaking by the book: UHF, spare paddle, bluetooth bilge pump and the Semaphore Handbook in six languages, including Gaelic.
Of course this was all in a day’s work for someone like Gael A who was up here a couple of years ago in an Incept K40 at the end of his Scottish Sea Kayak Trail when he wrote.

J4-1 - Slaggan Bay to Priest IslandI headed towards the closest, Priest Island some 5km away. Halfway through the passage, the wind died off and the sea glassed over. The uncanny cries of the guillemots emphasised the eerie atmosphere; I felt like I was entering an unearthly space. From the SE tip of the Priest Island I carried on around the west side. It was another paddling paradise with endless features to explore in the good company of seabirds and seals.

prst-04Back to now and I was typically under-dressed, making a concession to the season with some Ron Hill leggings and my warmer pfd. It may have been mid-October but I knew I’d cook in my drysuit and as I guessed correctly, my high-waisted Kokotat overtrousers would complicate the inevitable pee breaks long before I got to set foot on Priest.
Good thing a calm was setting in then. As we left Old Dornie Jon asked me to pull down his jammy skeg, and in the ten seconds it took me to locate it, my arm went numb with cold. Falling in out there would really not bear thinking about. The cold shock would lock your lungs like a slamming safe door. As it was, once past the back of Tanera Beg the sideslap never got that unnerving and as we sploshed along I knew not to be concerned if the distant dark crags of Priest appeared not to grow any nearer.


Only 90 minutes in the marker of Glas Leac Beag (small green rock – above) came up on the right. I visited the bigger counterpart, Glas Leac Mor the other week, but Glas Leac Beag’s consolation in an emergency was purely hypothetical as the only way to get on it would be to leap from a boat like a frog.
prst-05Still, we were going quicker than I expected despite the chop and corrections against the sidewind. The skeg-rudder idea of fellow Gumotard, Jim, would have been handy here. Every once in a while I had to give a double haul on the right. Jon’s hardshell worked by balancing the variable drop of the skeg against the force of a sidewind which would otherwise push his stern round: more sidewind, more skeg, or something like that. In that sense skegs are more like optional rudders on hardshell cheesecutters which have no need of directional aids like windprone IK bloats.
prst-08Looking a Priest with the low sun in my face (above left) it was impossible to discern any perspective to the foreshore – it was all one long dark line of crags. The map lay right in my lap but who looks at maps once they’re on the move? I failed to recognise that the bouldered landing beach we were aiming for was further to the east, while we were heading down to the western end. Once I realised that, we changed course and passed the tip of Priest and an arch (not the needle-eye arch on the west end) which only Jon noticed. And as predicted, the wind dropped off to nothing.
prst-10We were searching for the cobble stoned beach created by the island’s NE/SW glacial gouging. We put in up a cleft (left) and staggered ashore, but it was all wrong – we had made the deadly mistake of pre-emption, scourge of the hasty navigator! If we wanted to spend any time on land, the dropping 12-foot tide would make getting back out of the cleft tricky.
PriestIslandBack into the boats on the slippery seaweed boulders – surely the most awkward and risky part of sea yaking, short of tackling a typhoon. Soon we got to the correct stony beach I’d clocked on Google. A stumbly 5-minute portage from here would have led to the glassy half-km-long Lochan prst-15Fada which cuts right to the heart of the island, one of nine freshwater sources on the Priest. But, great picture though it may have made, I was a bit pooped and more interested in ham butties.
We sat on a hill overlooking the still lochan when Jon noticed the back of a signboard at the other landing beach. It was a plea by the island’s RSPB owners for visitors to be careful not to crush the burrows and eggs of the 2000-strong colony of storm petrels which inhabit Priest Island.


As it happens that was made easier by a few paths leading from the two landing beaches. One led past the RSPB shed from where I carried on to the south side to check out the ‘prehistoric’ stone circles. The ones I saw (picture far below) looked more like rude shepherd shelters than mysterious Neolithic monuments (there’s more on Wiki), but to be fair I didn’t see the others just to the north. That was because it took a bit of reorienting to locate the island’s sole ruin, a substantial but roofless four-room bothy supposedly on the site of a sixth-century Christian chapel, suggesting an origin to the island’s name. I was curious to see this place as it’s said in 1975 a pair of unlikely criminals hid out here for a few months, on the run from a collapsing series of scams.millbell

pftpGoogle ‘Jim Miller and John Bellord, Southern Organs Scandal’ and you’ll soon find Geoff Green’s recent book: Paying for the Past. In it the author admits to falling under Miller’s mesmeric spell in the early sixties and eventually becoming one of the entrepreneurs’ close business associates. Along with many others, he was invited toalvis make a quick buck by investing into loans to supposedly supply churches with expensive electric organs, and was later drawn into a racy, high-profile lifestyle as the manager of Southern Organs’ GP sponsorship endeavour. Alvin Stardust (right) and other celebs were part of the gang, but then around 1975 the whole cosy investment scam which supported the racing sponsorship began to crumble.

millerbelordAlthough he knew nothing of the area, it was Green who came up with the idea for the pair to hide out on Priest Island. They jetted off on an long overdue holiday to Calais, sent postcards  back home saying they’d killed themselves, ferried back to Dover the same day where Green met them and drove up to Ullapool. He then RIB’ed over from Dundonnell to Priest, leaving them with provisions and an inadequate two-metre dinghy with an outboard.
I read the book curious to discover if this claim – that these urbane middle-aged gents (Miller lightly crippled with polio) could really have lived for ‘262 days’ on Priest Island, frying up storm petrel omelettes and brewing peat tea. Over eight months sounded far-fetched for two conmen fleeing a Rolls Royce-champagne-and-helicopter cjcjlifestyle before clumsily faking their suicides from Calais, like Reggie Perrin on telly, John Stonehouse the MP, Lucan and more recently, our hardshelled friend, Canoe Man. A desperate, ex-para axe murdering survivalist might have been able to hack Priest for that long. But with these two, insisting as they did on a chemical toilet, it all seemed improbable. Crofting on the mainland is hard enough. What chance on a 120-hectare island, even with half-a-dozen lochans? On their release they went on to explain in a BBC documentary:

… the island had reaffirmed our belief in the simple things and helped us to clear away a mass of valueless and extraneous paraphernalia with which we, like so many, has cluttered our lives.

greenPaying for the Past is a bit light on clerical details and dates as, after dropping them off on Priest one stormy September day (a slightly over-written episode with some implausible embellishments, IMO), the author (right) was never to see his friends again. It’s only towards the end of the book that Green suggests they may not have been on the island anywhere near as long as he claims, and once recovered to the mainland, probably used their well polished charm and remaining cash to secure local support in Ullapool, as explained in the book.
This video is part of a documentary that portrays the events from the point of view of a psychic detective who was hired by the Express, though it wasn’t shot on Priest Island. And for all our man’s alleged clairvoyance, it was simply the police tip-off from Geoff Green (under pressure from legions of debtors and with leniency guaranteed) that got the two arrested in Ullapool. Ironically though, it was Miller’s similar esoteric beliefs in radionics, among other ‘faith healing’ therapies, that founded and then funded what became the duo’s glamourous empire.
prst-19When I found the ruin in which they say they hid, it was clearly not your average Coigach crofter’s bothy, but a more substantial dwelling supposedly built on the site of an old chapel, either by a sixth-century monk on retreat, or a banished russellsheep rustler with a talent for masonry. As a sign (right) we saw on the Dundonnell Estate near Scoraig last week proves, ovine rustling is still an issue here in the wild nor’ west.
islandyearsThe way Green tells it, it was his auspicious discovery and reading of Frank Fraser Darling’s book Island Years, Island Farm (1943, left) which gave him the bright idea for the pair to hide out on Priest Island until it all blew over. Apparently Miller and Bellord had holidayed in Ullapool and were fond of the area – that was all it took. Any bushcraft savvy they could pick up along the way. Darling’s Island Years mostly deals with experimenting with sustainable crofting agriculture on Tanera Mor (left) tmordin the early 1940s (Island Farm), but he and his resilient family first tried to give a go for a few months on Priest Island a few years earlier. Having now read that book I wouldn’t say the account of Arctic-grade tents being torn to shreds would evoke a great place for a hideaway holiday, but as we know with northwest Scotland, when the weather is calm it’s brilliant, and when it’s not you just knuckle down. The Fraser Darling family went on to camp on the Treshnish even endured a spell on North Rona where the author had been funded to study grey seals and their effect on commercial fishing.
prst-18Miller and Bellord come across as an intriguing pair and you can see why their background, interests and activities captured the attention of the media, and why Geoff Green’s 2014 book has gone down well with readers.
In this video published by Green a couple of weeks ago he returns again to Priest Island, but in it he mistakes the hut circles I saw (left) for the bothy which appears on the 25k OS map shown on this page, and even more clearly on Google aerial imagery. It remains as intact as it was in the first, 1979 BBC Everyman documentary featured at the end of the video above, with a bit of unsightly plastic rubbish in the adjacent burn – a job for the next RSPB volunteer visit, or anyone with a bin bag and space.

PriestIslandAnyway. Enough true crime confessionals.  We returned to the boats and headed southeast across the big bay towards some interesting looking cliffs and clefts. One chasm led deep into the crag with promising daylight peaking out the far end. We edged in deeper, pushing off the sides, and between the swells got far enough through to see there was no way out at this point, halfway down the tide. We tried from the other end, slipping behind the outer stack visible on aerial images, but that too needed at least another foot of water to paddle through. Finally at Aird Glas, Priest’s eastern extremity, we managed to paddle behind a stack and commence our glide across the now mirrored water to Bottle Island.


prst-26It all seemed so effortless. We could have aimed at any Summer Isle we chose – over to Carn nan Sgeir even – and paddled straight there with ease. prst-30What was all the fuss about? On Bottle I was hoping to lead Jon through the southern passage I found last year, but as on Priest, the water was too low to pass through the narrower exit tunnel (right).
prst-33All that remained now was to follow the island chain over to nearby Carn Iar/Deas and from there pass over the sandy green channel of Caolas nan Sgeirean Glasa (I throw all these Gaelic names about like I didn’t just type them carefully off an OS map).
prst-32We pulled in for tea break on the jetty of Eilean Dubh, ahead of the final six-mile surge back to Old Dornie. I found this handy refuge last year and we agreed that a: the jetty was a bit short for the tidal span and b: even if it’s nice to have a secluded island cabin (right) well sheltered from the prevailing winds, it had a comparatively ordinary view back towards Achiltibuie and a chilly, sunless aspect this time of year.
prst-37The tide was on the turn now as we passed Tanera’s tidal lagoon and crossed Badetarbet Bay on home ground. I’d been asked to pick up some heavy bags of winkles somewhere on the north side of the bay prst-35on Rubhan na Buaile and drop them off at Old Dornie. But clambering along the grubby shore while Jon towed my boat, neither of use could find any trace of them. There was clearly a need for some CCTV surveillance round here, too.
prst-40We got back to Old Dornie just as everything was getting bathed in the same rosy-orange glow it has been when we set out, nine hours earlier. And after 30 clicks of sea paddling and very little similar exercise, I wasn’t as shagged as I’d expected to be, something that I’d partly put down to a lack of tension of not doing it alone.
The Bottle Island run last year was 22km but pushing the bow of the Amigo had been enough of a slog to make me buy the Seawave. I think there’s barely one kph in it, but that’s nearly 20%, and with the Seawave’s many other benefits not least  its sharper bow, I can conclude that, like the name suggests, it’s a better all-round sea boat, and also that Priest Island would be a great place to revisit.


At sea with the Seawave

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drumdoIt’s taken a few visits, adding up to over a year up here, but I do declare I am running out of new things to paddle in the Coigach and Summer Isles area. A seven mile run out to Priest Island – the very, very, very last of the Summer Isles – would be less edgy if not alone, while all the coasts from Lochinver round to Ullapool and up to the back of Loch Broom have been surveyed at least once. About a year ago that I did my (for me) epic run out to Bottle Island, just a stone’s throw from Priest.
dzeroSeptember does seem to be a reliably good month up here. Well, better than August – an old Highland truism. Another unexpected day of blue skies and light winds with the northwest pinned between a ‘Double Zero Low’, the sort of meteorological phenomenon that gives weatherpersons the munchies.
We decide to motor off the peninsula, along the Wee Mad Road (WMR) and past Lochinver to Clashnessiedrum-crua Norse word meaning ‘Battle of the Sea Monsters’. Here we paddled out towards the high arch before Point of Stoer and the beach at Culkein for lunch. Initially I had to deal with a mutinous crew – one of the perils of this type of close quarter marineering.
drum-arklFrom Culkein beach there was a clear view right across western Sutherland to the quartzite mountains of Arkle, Foinaven and the sea cliffs ending at Cape Wrath.
I thought about crossing the bay directly via the Eilean Chrona for Oldany Island channel. But it was a Spring tide going out so the flow may have been in our face by the time we reached the channel. Why wear yourself out on openish water? It would have added another 8 miles, ending with a rocky run back to the Clash of Nessies, just to explore a small area, and who knows what the weather might be doing by then.
drum-qooniSo we headed back to Nessie beach, letting the swell you so often notice in these north-oriented bays, lift the boat as it rolled inshore to crash against the rocks. Directly ahead was Quinaig mountain (left). I’ve said it before: it’s one of the best day’s hill walks here in the Assynt.
I’d long wanted to poke around the scattered skerries and islets between Oldany Island and Drumbeg. We drove up the Drumbeg road, where one time a mate and I had staggered against a gale, looking for the car after slackrafting the Lewisian barrens. Soon enough a small turn off led north to a ruined jetty at tiny Culkein Drumbeg.
Coming north, as soon as you get on the WMR you begin to see a different ecology. Hard to pin down what exactly: less bleak and peat sodden than Coigach. Perhaps it’s due to the Lewisian gneiss bedrock, because the Torridian sandstone was scraped off like an icky marzipan crust by the Ice Age and dumped into the Minch, to wash up on the beaches of the Western Isles just in time for Castaway. More birds dash about, the flora’s subtly different with a few more pockets of old growth trees which have been picked clean or long blown away on Coigach. Perhaps the Stoer headland protects Oldany a bit, but it feels more like Plockton than the blustery northwest.


drum-compWe set off for the hidden isthmus beach somewhere out here, scattering more seals as we went. Not bothering with the GPS to record moving averages, I’ve recently finally found a handy way to mount an easy-to-read compass on the Seawave, tucking it under the deck bar mount tabs. It was already proving handy to follow the NW bearing suggested by the map, out via the islets to the secret beach.
drum-siroAs we approached the sands we startled some hardy and doubtless Nordic skinnydippers with their parked up Sevy Sirocco. Once beached, we politely took off in the other direction until they had regained their modesty. Soon a couple of hardshellers rocked up too – kayak rush hour on Oldany Island beach. Perhaps it’s not such a secret after all.
A small bothy sits perched on the spit drum-yaksof grass which separates the two beaches. Hardshell man told me it was a private dwelling once rented to a local doctor by the Edinburgh owners, and even had a phone line installed in case someone’s baby was born early. It was another detailed ownership report the like of which you won’t find online.
Our busy beach made an altogether lovely prospect of sand, grass and the azure sea beyond, abob with skerries and distant peaks. Plus kayaks in red, blue, green and mango.


drumboatBack afloat, we took the long way back to the jetty, nipping round to the south to check out where the channel went. That could be a fun run at the right stage of a big ebbing tide.
In the car, we carried on clockwise round the coastal road. Even more than the WMR, this Drumbeg road is hardly level for a moment and would be a good work out on a pushbike. Back on the main road, in Unapool we stopped off for a brew at the Rock Stop Cafe. A retired couple there were trying to track down the rude Withnailian cottage they’d wnailhoneymooned at no less than half a century ago. They’d not been up to the northwest in 50 years and Rientraid, overlooking the Kylesku bridge, had rung a bell. We told them about The Kerracher Man book which was set nearby, but about a decade later.
knowmyschistIn the cafe there was Rocky Road in the cake cabinet and a geology map on the wall. Pink is your 3 billion-year-old under-icing of Lewisian gneiss; the orange is a creamy overlay of Torridian sandstone. Interestingly, the map showed Horse Island as the only Summer made of gneiss. Who’d have known? High time then to get your schist together and watch a geology lesson.

argonosunstWe’ve had some good here sunsets lately and even a green boreal glow a couple of weeks back. The other night the stormy orange clouds reminded me of the cover of Argonauts of the Western Isles – a great title for a lovely memoir by Robin Lloyd-Jones about sea kayaking on the west coast.
I’ve only just realised it’s a take on Brondo Malinowski’s seminal 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific which, unless I’m very much wiki-mistaken ‘redefined the ethnographic genre’.
Actually now I see the cover, it’s nothing like my photo, it’s much worse, though might have worked without that tilted horizon. But don’t let that put you off if you’ve not read it. It’s a wonderful tale that covers years of paddling up here, from post-war bathtubs and broomsticks to the start of the sea kayaking boom.

Gumotex Seawave in Venice

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gumboeveniI’ve had the Seawave a few months but paddling in Venice last week was my first proper outing. Venice lagoon was pretty calm on the day – there was more wash inside the Grand Canal from the vaporetti water taxis. It may have been calm but some 34kms without a river current and some tidal flow is still a pretty good outing.
It was an opportunity to try my high pressure modification. I’m running 35% more pressure in the side tubes (4.8psi as opposed to the advised 3.6) but have fitted PRVs (pressure release valves) rated at the higher pressure to prevent the boat getting damaged if it gets hot. Full story on how I did that here.
swine-01swine-04It took about 15 minutes to pump up the Gumotex with the compact K-Pump (left) but before we lowered it down to the canal (above) it went flat. Oh dear – did I do something wrong? Turns out one side-chamber inflation valve (not new PRV) was leaking. I unscrewed it, blew at it, put it back and it held all day. Probably just a bit of grit, though that’s never happened to me before.
swine-05My impression was the high pressure sides made the Seawave faster and more responsive – well it’s bound to isn’t it. Returning to the appartment I didn’t feel like I’d paddled 21 miles, though I can’t say I was full of beans next day and my hands were swollen from using my swine-084-piece paddle (easier on Easyjet) instead of my bent Camaro. I found it easy to keep up with my mate Steve in his Big yellow Kahuna and even found myself passing the odd hardshell sea kayak or double folders. gumbovenOn earlier trips in the Amigo I couldn’t catch the Kahuna. All those benefits might change in windy or choppy conditions, though there’s much to be said for an IK’s stability when things get gnarly.
swine-10So three cheers for my Seawave HP. The short terms gains of high pressure sides are not so elusive, of course. What remains to be seen is if running the boat 35% over the factory-advised pressure affects durability – ie; did I go too far choosing the PRV setting. I doubt it as poking the sides felt very much like my previous 2psi Gumo kayaks on a hot sunny day. The sides being less in the water will always be prone to getting warm and tight but have no I-beams to get stressed like the floor. Those boats never suffered so I’m sure the Seawave can hack it.


Paddling the Venice Vogalonga

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voga-67‘Viva La Vogalonga! Viva Venezia! VIVA SAN MARCO!’

With the above proclamation and a shot from a cannon the 41st Vogalonga, a huge paddling regatta, got underway. Fettuccini’s stirring aria, La Forcola boomed from the speakers and the colourful, hand-powered flotilla pulled away from of the east end of Venice’s Grand Canal opposite Piazza San Marco and set off alongside the classic Venetian vista.
veneziaNot that it was any kind of race, you understand – and it was pure coincidence we happened to be at the start on time. You took as long as you chose over the 30-odd kilometres up to Burano and back via Murano to re-enter Venice from the other end of the Grand Canal. There was no starting line or prizes for first place or wackiest outfit.
voga-07I flew in the night before and on the day Steve and I lowered our boats off his mate’s canal-side apartment balcony and set off to join the melee. Soon I realised I was in Italy not in a BCU training video: the official bibs were optional (included in the €20 entry fee along with a t-shirt, poster and certificate) and so were pfds. After all, who’s ever seen a rower or a gondolier in a pfd?
Around us was every type of paddle or oar boat under the sun, from 20-oar-power dragon boats paddling to a drum beat like in Ben Hur, four-up forward standing ‘frontelli‘ rowing skiffs, right down to inflatable SUP boards you could carry under your arm. Kayaks were probably the most numerous craft as this is one day you can cruise down the Grand Canal without getting terrorised by the vaporetti water taxis and their wake.
Dolomites aheadOut past San Elena point we dragged our left blades and pivoted north. The snow-clad Dolomites appeared on the horizon (left) which also sent in a light breeze giving us something to lean against. IKs and packboats of all shapes and sizes bobbed around me: Gumos, Kleppers and their klönes, Grabners, Feathercraft and Sevies. Passing islands or tidal mud flats became uninhibited pee stops as people joined in the paddle-powered cavalcade.
Turning round at Burano, the cooling effect of the breeze dropped off and the 5km open water haul to Murano was hot work. Three hours in and you could see all around the pace was flagging, not least when some tidal eddy made the last stretch into Murano a bit of an effort. It was here that Venice’s precious medieval glass industry flourished; I’ve come across Venetian glass beads in places as remote as Tichit in Mauritania.
voga-40Just two Sorbettos – only €15 – then we rocked up at the other end of the Grand Canal where a huge bottleneck of paddle boats had built up at the entrance. It turned out the narrow Ponte dei Tre Archi was the cause – it could only take one rowed boat at a time and with some 2000 boats to filter, the police voga-43where trying to keep some order. Dodging low flying oars and prodding prows, it was all a good-natured bundle back into the canal where things quickly eased up for the home run back to San Marco, passing the Grand’s iconic palazzos, well-wishers cheering from the ponti and the acclaimed waterside vistas of La Serenissima.
voga-52Within hours the vaporetti taxiboats had reclaimed the Canal from which it’s said kayaks and the like are excluded except to quickly nip across. But I see now that you can still have a great time paddling around Venice and the lagoon as long as you keep off the main canal and ferry channels, and out of the congested gondola tourist circuit between Ponte Rialto and the Bridge of Sighs. That still leaves plenty of quiet back canals to explore as well as the sheltered lagoon and its countless islands. Bring your packboat to the 42nd Vogalonga. If like me you’ve never been before, it’s a great way to tick off Venice.