As the seasons change and the days shrink, the weather seems to flip from one extreme to the other. A few nights ago it was howling from the east at over 60mph and began to sound a little scary in our exposed cottage. We’ve had 60 a few weeks ago but from the prevailing southwest. I have a theory that a less usual easterly gale is noisier because it blows against the wind-bent vegetation. I got up at 5am to check things out and found the bike blown over, even though it was hard against a wall. The kayak – that was gone, but being red I knew it would be easy enough to find in the daylight. Turns out it was nestling in a ditch not far away.
I’ve pondered on similar sound theories about high water on a spring tide. Assuming it’s not all drowned by the wind and waves, there’s a certain rushing and gurgling sound I’m not sure I’ve heard at other times. Again, I could only explain it by weathering: the higher and so less smoothed down parts of the rocky seashore are responding noisily to their fortnightly lapping. Sadly, a recent communiqué from Stockholm informs me that neither theory will be shortlisted for a Nobel Prize.
There’s also been talk of a blood moon lately. Not a theory but an astronomically accredited rosy-orange glow brought on by the fuzzy edge of the earth’s shadow. Though the recent one wasn’t visible in the UK as it was earlier this year, with the current calm conditions I figured a moonlight paddle would make a novel experience. On the beach about 8pm, the moon was just rising over Suilven to the northeast. An hour before high water, geometrically, the idea of the moon ‘pulling’ the water in towards it made perfect sense. And blow me down if it didn’t have an orangey hue (not caught by my camera), though I realise that’s just because it was rising.
Out on the water in the dark I thought it might be unnerving – part of this idea was a bit of a dare. But if anything it was all rather magical. For once the boat remained perfect still as I tried to take some pictures and just as the thought – ‘I wonder if there’s any phosphorescence [sic]’ – passed through my head, the bow and paddle blades revealed a light twinkling in their wake that definitely wasn’t reflected moonlight. Taking a picture was impossible, though later I did notice it didn’t require agitating the water to see luminescent entities darting about. In fact the correct word is bioluminescence. Is it an ordinary phenomenon up here? Do tides, moon, season and temperatures have any influence? Who knows.
The low moon reflecting on Badentarbet Bay reminded me of a bogus tourist event they have in Broome, northwestern Australia. A low tides the moon rising over the mudflats of Roebuck Bay creates a very similar stepped effect, all the excuse they need to add it to their packed events calendar and run a New Age-y beach market. It’s bogus because it not unique to Broome or anywhere, and in my guidebook writing days out there, my bullshit antennae had to remain tuned to a high pitch. Broome is a lovely spot and has many genuinely unique attractions, but you’ll see the same lunar effect 600km down the road in Port Hedland. And anyone who knows the difference between PH and Broome will understand why PH don’t crow about their staircase too much. As the tide topped out I was really rather cozy, wrapped up in my Anfibio drysuit and Gul fleece onesie – floating but not drifting between the moon and the stars and whatever was glittering below. This might be one of my last paddles in the Grabner and a new boat is on its way. I hope get a chance to take it for a spin before we migrate back south
Fellow IKer Gael proposed we meet up during his May visit to the Hebrides; his chance to get a closer look at places he’d passed on the SSKT. Once he’d done his own thing on Mull I suggested Coll and Tiree as a satisfying and remote offshore destination. Those two outer Inner Hebs may claim to be the sunniest places in the UK and looked interesting in Google sat, with many sandy coves. But it also became apparent that all that sunshine required unusually strong winds to blow away the clouds. Whatever’s blowing in the Inner isles on a given day, on Coll and Tiree you can bank on double. Sea Kayak Oban admitted that they’d only managed to run two tours there in six years.
When we met up in Oban Gael had already made contingency calculations, multiplying several locations by the state of the tide and then dividing the result by the 5-day forecast and subtracting our IKs’ average speed in knots. According to his complex computations, a three-day run out of Arduanie around the Slates would work out best for us.
After a brilliant seafeed at EE Usk on the waterfront (left) we squeezed my moto into Oban Backpackers’ storeroom and set off to Arduanie where a sleet shower pelted us while we loaded the boats. The rest of today was actually going to be OK weather, a bit windy. Tomorrow less bad but Friday might be a tent bound zip-in according to the forecast, so our Kindles were charged up.
I was snuggly wrapped in my new, lightweight Anfibio drysuit (tbr) as we set off for a late lunch on Shuna’s east shore before curving around into the wind to cross to Luing. From here we worked our way down to its southern tip then made a dash to Scarba, eyeing up the sinister and all too near Gulf of Corryvrecken which gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Gael had been told of a camp spot overlooking another tidal phenomenon, the Grey Dogs, and once pitched up on the moderately dry platform, we walked over to survey the Dogs where a metre-high standing wave rose up and collapsed every few seconds. Even though we were in neap tides it did this continuously all evening; only at 6am did I see the waters briefly still.
That night the rain closed in and pelted down. We huddled under a tarp – a good last-minute decision to take that – then made the delicate acrobatic contortions to get out of our gear and into our tents without spreading the wet.
Early next morning the Dogs dozed under clear skies, but by the time we were on the water they’d risen again from their submarine lair and water rushed along the channel’s shores like a river. Even Google sat snatched its picture with the Dogs in spate. In fact, during neaps, either side of the breaking waves looked flattish water, but who knew how a boat would react in there so I assumed we’d head directly north. But when Gael turned his K40 purposefully into the Dogs’ maw I gulped and bleated, ‘We’re not going in there are we?’ Too late, the current had caught me and the ride was on.
What looked like flat water between the boiling shore and the midstream surf zone was actually a rolling swell a metre or two high but easily manageable in an IK. Gael rode into the middle for a play – the picture right shows the turbid water between us – and soon we were flushed out into the Firth of Lorn on Lunga’s west shore where the sea state was more placid. What that place must be like to paddle in spring tides doesn’t bear thinking about, but obviously some lap it up. There’s probably less risk than tackling the same sort of white water on a river.
Strictly speaking, Scarba isn’t part of the Slate Islands to the north, but this whole area is well known to boaters for its convoluted tides and associated races. For a paddler, the water pushing up and pulling past the isles and channels creates all sorts of complexities in route planning, something which Gael grasped far better than me.
As we approached the lighthouse at Fladda he pointed out a cross-current where he advised we pieleffe. What was ‘pieleffe’, some kind of French nautical term? No: ‘paddle like fuck’. Oh, OK then. Now safely on Fladda’s slatey beach we took a tea break, me still a little frazzled after running [alongside] the Grey Dogs [in neaps] and not being torn limb from limb by clashing whirlpools.
Fladda had a big walled garden and similarly well-protected longhouse attached to the lighthouse. On the adjacent island of Belnahua the 19th-century ruins of quarrymen’s lodgings survived. Apparently, there was another island somewhere here which they’d excavated well below sea level until there was only a rim left. Then came a great storm and washed it all away.
We headed with the brisk tide over to Cullipool harbour on Lunga; the unusual jetty is built of vertically set drystone slates, not something I’ve seen before. From here it was up to the Cuan Sound as the sun began to creep out. Once inside we hit dogwater so that a proposed lunch at the pub by the bridge became overruled by our appetites. A grassy shore on Seil island did just as well and provided space to dry out the tent.
The channel narrowed and became lined with expensive-looking holiday homes which rather tainted our exposure, and as we neared the bridge we passed the only other paddlers we saw, a couple in a canoe letting the tide wash them south. At Telford’s late 18th-century [Clachan] Bridge over the Atlantic we swapped boats. While I shot ahead in the K40, against the current Gael’s impression of my Amigo wasn’t so amicable. Compared to my Grabner, his Incept is a good 20% faster (or less effort, if you like). A lot of the time on this trip Gael was coasting while I felt like I paddled non stop which may have explained my fatigue. I dozed off at lunch and slept like a log overnight, no matter what fits the tent was having. Near the top of Seil we pulled past some sailboats to the back of an inlet and pitched the tents with taut guys in preparation for windy Friday.
In fact, that day dawned fair; a cold front from the northwest brought in lovely clear air in which the Incept seemed to glow. Gael suggested we edge out to the outside of Seil to see if the sea was manageable to Easdale. We probed outward and while I’d not have gone on alone, by the time we were committed it was only two miles to Easdale. There were no actual whitecaps, just large waves that didn’t even swamp my boat but required momentum to maintain direction. A plastic coffin would have been in its element here, slicing the waves like Bruce Lee attacking a jelly.
Turning into Easdale port was a welcome relief but it had only taken me two nights out to find people annoying and the place suffering from what I perceived as tourism fatigue. Coaches pulled in and disgorged passengers who milled about for a few minutes then moved on. The so-called village shop looked like nothing more than a stockpile of porcelain and lace trinkets; I couldn’t wait to move on. What must locals think when their village becomes colonised like this? Make hay I suppose.
We decided to head back to the car, across the bay’s side waves, back through Cuan Sound then more dogwater and a grassy extended lunch by the big tree on Torsa island. Then it was back out into the sideslap across the mouth of Loch Melfort to Arduanie.
After some 33 miles of island hoping I’d caught enough sun to turn my head into a beetroot and we’d tackled a variety of easy sea conditions. It had been fun exploring the more commonly visited locales of Hebridean sea kayaking, all accessible and escapable, notwithstanding the complex tides. And a chance to do so with someone who grasped the concept of ‘3D’ sea kayak navigation was an added bonus – like a free course. Plenty more to see down here. Back at the jetty we lashed the boats to the roof and headed south to the Mull of Kintyre.
With a day to spare after our two-night run around the Slate Islands, Gael suggested we head down to Gigha off the Mull of Kintyre. I’ve always wanted to visit this Scottish appendage and for Gael, Gigha had a special resonance as the starting point of the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail which he completed two years ago. Quite an achievement alone in an IK.
First of all though, I was ravenous for food on a plate not mush in a bag. We pulled into a cafe in the pretty port of Tarbert for some 1980s decor and food to match (right), then marched over to the Co-Op to see what was going cheap. Whatever I’d been eating on the Slates, it hadn’t been enough
We camped opposite the island, then once the wind abated next morning, carried the boats onto the ferry. Once underway I came over all lethargic on account of the Slate paddle (or perhaps the gluttonous Tarbert episode). It wasn’t helped by pushing a headwind up to Gigha’s northern point on our anticlockwise lap. Finally we turned downwind, portaged the sandy isthmus at Eilean Garbh and moved on to the next sandy beach for a long lunch break and what had become my customary doze. Out on the northwest horizon pale blue humps marked the Paps of Jura. I read this short book partly about Jura recently (no so satisfying); among the Inner Hebrides Jura seems to have a certain allure.
Whether it was a pumped up seat, a good rest or the benefits of three days’ sea kayaking, I got belatedly reacquainted with my paddling mojo. I sat up straight, drew like a pro and soared across the waves like a surf ski, while Gael dabbled along the shore. The ocean side of this narrow island was a bit wilder, but for me lacked the features and interest of the far northwestern coast. Or maybe is was pre-doomed by the stigma of being too far south to be exotic.
We covered the 5.5 miles to Gigha’s southern tip in an hour thirty; a good pace for a pair of bloats. Back on the sandier mainland side we dipped about looking for a secluded wild camp but there were too many properties or not enough space. And with little wind now, the boathouse campground looked less inviting than a 3-mile scoot back to the mainland.
We set off, giving the day’s last ferry a wide berth by aiming for a big green buoy about halfway across. Once there and still feeling on form, I decided to PLF to the mainland jetty just to see if I could. Halfway there, with steam pouring from my drysuit’s vents and the tide pulling us south, Gael passed in the Incept without too much effort. I hammered away regardless as the jetty crept closer and touched down in 48 minutes, a minute after Gael. A good, end-of-tour burn up to clear out the cylinders. It was good to see some other islands and with easy access and escape routes, Gigha would make a great first circumnavigation for a beginner. But as always, the wilder isles to the north and west hold more intrigue.
Sadly my pics area bit ropey; camera was set on 640px…
We last did the Spey from Aviemore to the sea in 2007 when I still had the Sunny. This time round Michael was in Steve’s old, 19-foot Pouch double, Steve was in his Feathercraft Big Kahuna and I was in the Grabner.Levels were low again, if nor lower, it was the last week in the fishing season but at least the weather was looking good.
The first day is just 12 miles and not so interesting, with the best views behind you. With the hour-long assembly of the Pouch completed and the van stashed at Spey Bay, we set off about lunchtime. Strong backwinds made my skeg-less Amigo hard to handle and I found myself expending a lot of energy trying to stop the back end coming round. Or perhaps I was yet to learn the knack with the Amigo, having paddled it on the sea with a skeg all summer. After a few hours we arrived at the Boat of Balliefurth bankside camp field and paid our three quid. Dinner was a freeze dried mash up from stuff I’d had lying around for months, made easier to prepare and eat with Steve’s half-hoop Eureka annex tarp.
Next morning was another sunny, late-September day and we were relived to pass the point where one of the Kleppers got disemboweled last time by a submerged, mid-river fence post. On this occasion the boat-killing spike was visible a few inches out of the water. We’d thought about doing the river a week later, when the fishing season was over, but timing put us here now, with the fisherfolk getting their last casts in before closedown. The tension between rod and paddle is an old story in England, but up here is exacerbated by the fact that the tweed and wader-clad anglers are paying – who knows? – hundreds of pounds a day for the privilege of fishing the famous Spey. With that cost comes the use of the many ‘day huts’ we saw on the finely manicured banks, as well as optional instruction from a ghilie. And then three kayaks blunder right through the spot where you’re prize salmon is lurking, like it’s a right of way or something. We did our best to paddle round the back of the many anglers – some ignored us, some grumbled and a few lone ones appreciated it or were able to wave or indicate where they’d prefer you go. Struggling behind one bunch wading in the shallows, Steve got pushed across the current and flipped harmlessly while they just smirked and carried on casting.
Once free myself, I shot off downstream chasing what some said was Steve’s paddle, but within a mile another fisherman said he’d not seen it float past. I walked back wondering how we’d get out of this one, but soon came across Pouch and Kahunaman paddling along. Seems the paddle had got submerged right by the boat, so all was well bar a lost pair of shades. Luckily that morning Steve had fitted his FC ‘sea sock’ – a body bag attached to the cockpit rim which stops the whole boat getting flooded if it flips. It was about that time so once back at my boat we spread out for an early lunch, letting out dew-soaked tents dry as some canoers from last night’s camp passed by.
Aberlour was our destination that evening. We’d managed it last time, even with the ripped Klepper, but it seemed we were even further behind today. As we paddled on, the shallows and rapids piled up and the folding boats were getting a bashing, while I took on a couple of inches of water bouncing through the wave trains. Occasionally, if we misjudged the route we had to wade (left). The famous and actually straightforward Washing Machine rapid was only running a half-load that day, but nevertheless succeeded in giving the inside of my Grabner a full rinse which took a few minutes to pump out. More white-water followed, and still I have to say the Grabner didn’t seem to handle well, requiring vigorous paddle yanking to avoid rocks or get in the right spot. Even in the pools, it still took some concentration to track straight before pulling back repetitive bow draws or momentum-losing stern rudders to keep the nose downriver. I’m sure the very similar shaped Sunny wasn’t so bad.
Barely a mile went by without passing a fisherman. One grumbled that we should whistle as we came through, but that seemed like it would raise more antagonism, though passing them on the opposite bank may have been right on their target area. Trout were jumping for sure, but we never saw anyone actually catch anything. I’m not sure fly fishing is about that. After a while riding the bouncy wave trains lost its shine in the face of the after-pumping required, though the swamping was certainly less bad than the Sunny which was best drained by pulling over and standing the boat on end. The canoers we were leapfrogging were getting knocked about and hung up in some rapids too. Shallow rapid followed shallow rapid while we had the feeling that the ghilies, aware of where boats were late in the day, patrolled the banks to make sure we wouldn’t camp on their land.
The easy white water had kept us occupied so that round dusk the old Victorian foot bridge of Aderlour came into view. We camped on the bank right there, a long day of around 26 miles in about hours. The great thing with camping by the bridge is that toilets, the Mash Tun pub and a Co-op are all just a few minutes walk away.
Restocked next morning and off by 9am, it was a 20-miler to the North Sea, during which time the riverside scenery got a little more interesting, the rapids kept you guessing and so did the fishermen. With no other dramas the breakers of Spey Bay rocked up at around 4pm but, just like last time, no one had the energy to go out and mount the surf.
The old wooden-framed Pouch slipped through unscathed yet again and 70-year old Michael had handled the ungainly barge very well, helped by a rudder. The decks of Steve’s lower Kahuna were often swamped in the rapids but towards the end the Feathercraft sustained a bent alloy member (only $30) plus a small rip in the hull. The Amigo was of course immune to the knocks and easy to hop out of, but I’m again wondering about fitting an articulated skeg high on the stern. A bit like a fixed rudder that pivots up harmlessly as it scraps the river bed, and with a retractable and locking line (again, like a rudder) to pull it up out of the way when you don’t want the back pushed round in a sweeping current. I have an idea and it would be easy to fit.
It’s fun to paddle the 60-odd miles from Aviemore to the sea, but next time on the Spey I’d miss out day one, hope for higher water levels and do it out of the fishing season. It would also be fun to do the sporty Day 2 in the packraft with a skirt. They say the Spey is one of the best canoe paddles in the UK but that just shows how few good, long rivers there are here and why sea kayaking, or short-range hair boating are much more popular. The stony shore of Spey Bay is a bleak place the paddle, but the van was intact and there was a welcome cafe for a sit-down snack before piling the van up to the roof with our packboats and heading south.
My grand plans to try out my new packframe on a trek from Loch Maree back to the Summers got radically downsized to a day out from Inverpolly. Down at Boat Bay we pumped up the IKs and set off along a route I’d packrafted a couple of years ago.
Surrounded by the singular Assynt peaks, Sionasgaig loch is an amazing place to splash about in a paddle boat, but at kayak speeds that stage was over rather too quickly. Just as well though, as I was trying the Amigo without a skeg, and two-up it wasn’t working. Into the wind was possible with one paddling, but out on Sion with a side wind, even with one in control the lighter back kept swinging off the wind. We put a bag in the back, but at the Sluice Portage (above) we had to commandeer the skeg off Craig in the Solar who up to that point was loving his day out on the lochs. I assured him the Solar was manageable without a skeg as long as he applied appropriate levels of paddling finesse. This low level, almost sub-conscious correction to the tracking is something that’s difficult to achieve when two people are paddling one boat. It’s a shame that a skeg is such a vital accoutrement.
We’d all want them for the Enard Bay sea stage, so at the end of Loch Uidh Tarraigean, g-friend nipped back a couple of miles to the car where the forgotten skeg hopefully lay under a seat. By the time Craig and I had portaged over to little Loch na Dail, crossed it and walked up to the road, the car arrived with the errant skeg.
After lunch we rolled the boats up, coasted down to the fish hatchery on the River Polly and set off down the track towards Inverpolly Lodge and Polly Bay beyond. We’d crept up here on our bikes a few months back, to check out ‘Loch Sal’ bay north of the lodge. There’s boat ramp and fish pens there, which was good to know when I passed a while later on my Enard Bay paddle to Lochinver. First time there and Polly Bay glittered invitingly at low water. On with in the skegs, in with the air and out we go into the flat calm. While exploring a bay round the corner, Craig managed to spot an otter gnawing over its lunch at the back of a chasm.
We worked our way around the coastline fringed with kelp exposed by the very low tide. Further along, winkle pickers were at work at Garvie Point, but then cloud rolled in on an annoying north wind; that is why you want skegs at sea. The little Solar bobbed about on the waves, but Craig seemed to be managing fine. We edged round Camas a Bhothain bay – no seals at play today – and slipped through the reef into Achnahaird Bay.
It was now quite chilly and my proposal to form a holding pattern for three hours until the spring tide filled the bay was roundly vetoed. When Achnahaird Bay fills right up on spring tides, you can paddle up the Loch Raa outlet stream almost to the road junction car park, for the short portage to Raa. As it was, there was enough flow to tow the boats all the way up. We’d left a bike here so the Mrs cycled back over the hill to get the car, while Craig and I paddled across Loch Raa and then to the north side of Loch Vatachen. I did this bit without the skeg and was reassured to find that one up the Amigo tracked at least as well as the Sunny did in the same state. Perhaps it’s all down to more centred weight and the aforementioned correcting finesse. I’ll be on the River Spey in a couple of weeks where it’s good to know a skeg won’t be needed (it was).
On the north side of Loch Vatachen we aired down for the short but arduous slog up the hillside to the peat track that leads back to Polbain, a more direct route than following the road. Maybe it’s down to late summer growth, but the grassy tussocks and toe-dragging shrubbery made for an exceedingly tiresome, one-mph haul. Each step required lifting to knee height, and crossing the boggy stream course midway ingested one of Craig’s cherished flip-flops. Struggling a bit with his kayak in a shoulder bag, I was amazed it had managed to stay with him that far. My well-used Teva Omniums clung better to my feet if not the ground, and the heavily loaded packframe sat securely on my back, but I wouldn’t want to spend all day doing this. By the time we reached the peat track where locals periodically excavate their allocations, the sun was setting over the Assynt peaks to the northeast. From here it was a short downhill walk to the village and, after some 12 miles, attending to all the food that was fit to eat.
Another calm day, another island paddled around; a quick one to Horse Island which I visited last year. On that occasion the two islands of Horse and the smaller Meall nan Gabhar were separated by a stony, seaweed-drapped causeway. Today, leaving Badentarbet beach 40 minutes after HW, I expected to paddle between the two. On the way out I noticed that the way I’d clipped the new backrest was not so good, so at Runha Dunan point (map left) I pulled over to try something less bad (right). I definitely need to come up with something better, and for the rest of the trip avoided leaning against the strap for fear of damaging the lugs. That may have contributed to the fatigue, if not actual low speeds (see below). Expensive but stout Grabner D-rings and an SoT backrest are on the way. At 2.7 miles out a wide channel separated Horse from its northern neighbour (left). In the absence of distracting wind and at today’s tide (3.6m, max can be 4.7) I wanted to see if I could detect any currents in places like this channel. Maybe not yet only 1.5 hours after HW, but by the time I closed the loop a flow – I imagined against me from east to west – ought to be noticeable. Down the inland side of the Horse I passed the small seal colony (left) we spotted on our way to Ullapool last year. And at around 70 minutes and 4 miles out I turned around the south end of Horse Island (left) and experienced the slight turbulence I expected, possibly as the tide flowed round the point against a rising southwest breeze. Up the outside of the Island I felt a bit exposed so pressed on against the chop and as I returned to the gap from the south side the back end of the kayak kicked out a bit. A ha, something’s happening two hours after high water, getting through the gap may be a struggle. I felt the nose of the boat pull off course unless I kept straight on against an imagined current. But as the speed graph shows, I was actually going faster than an hour 20 minutes earlier and the seaweed below wasn’t showing any signs of flow, so if anything it was a light current pushing the back around. All very confusing. Perhaps the ebbing tide backing out of Loch Broom around the island creates a back eddy through Horse Channel. The fifty-minute paddle back to the beach turned into quite a haul, but that’s the way I like it sometimes and somewhere on this stage the GPS’s trip log (if not the track log, left) recorded the magical 5 mph! All up, 8.1 miles in 2 hours 20 at a moving average of 3.5 mph. About 10% faster than my other solo trips over the last week to Lochinver and around Rubha Coigach, but as a training run and without a proper back rest, the effort wore me out. As for tides and tidal movements, for the moment I remain baffled.
I set off from Achnahaird thinking I’ve left it a bit late. I must get to Rubha Coigach – the northern prow of the Coigach peninsula – by 11.40 BST or my kayak will turn into a sea pumpkin and my paddle into a wicker broomstick.
I was reversing Route #25 from the Scottish Sea Kayaking guidebook, a ‘Grade B’, (C being the hardest). And although spring tides were kicking off next day, the forecast was for very light winds and a warm sunny day; a good day to try and ‘turn the point’. Knowing that capes and headlands can be hairy places, I’d given this local ‘Cape Wrath’ a wide berth, but current conditions could not have been more benign. So for once I RTFM closely and decoded the perplexing tidal calculations of when not to be seen dead in a bloat at Rubha Coigach, the headland of Rubha Mor. The red period started at 11.40 which didn’t quite make sense in respect to slack water, but tidemaster and experienced NW Scottish sea kayaker Gael confirmed my calcs. I wasn’t going to argue.
It’s about 3.5 miles from Achnahaird northwest to the tip, and as I paddled along I tried to visualise possible scenarios. What unpredicted Corrywrecken-like horrors awaited me up there if I strayed into the red zone and got caught in a frothing maelstrom of lashing foam and bruised fish? A north-easterly breeze pressed in from the right and a gentle swell lifted the boat pleasantly. Up ahead white foam was periodically slapped off low rocky shelves, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle, and it was easy enough to turn back. I neared the jumbled cliffs which we’d walked to a few weeks earlier (some pics here from then), knowing that whatever it’s like now, it’ll be different once I got round the corner. And I was right.
On turning Rubha Coigach the chop dropped right away and I entered a windless Caribbean calm, divided by a hazy line far to the west blurring sea from sky. Lined up along a ledge to my left, a welcoming committee of seabirds nodded approvingly then waved me on with oily wings, pointing insistently at their watches. You don’t want to be here at 16.36 tomorrow, sunshine.
I could afford to take my foot off the pedal now, but cut across Faochag Bay anyway; up ahead what I thought was a cluster of bobbing gannets miraged into a party of a dozen sea kayaks (left), presumably being guided round to Achnahaird by one of the local outfitters. That was more kayakers than I’d seen here in six weeks or more. The amazing weekend weather had brought them all out likes midges.
Like yesterday across Enard Bay, the land kept what breeze there was off the sea making a surface as smooth as polished bronze. Beneath that, at least half a dozen varieties of jellyfish morphed and drifted weightlessly like organic spaceships. I’d never seen so many here; do jellyfish spawn? I was intending to keep going after Reiff where Route #25 started, so before I got there I turned in at Camas Eilean Ghilais bay and an unknown sandy beach. Unfortunately, a lone sunbathing couple sent out bad vibes, so knowing that feeling, I moved on following a quick look around. There were plenty more secluded spots I could reach that most couldn’t.
Just south of here are some crags popular with rock climbers and a few were out today. I also knew this was a great place to watch Atlantic storms beating against the same cliffs (left), although today was as calm as an atoll. The low reefs at Reiff which the SSK guidebook warned about were easy to miss and the sandy seabed off Reiff beach itself (below) maintained the tropical theme.
I was hoping to get up the tidal channel that led under the bridge into the Loch of Reiff. The loch holds water once the tide drops and I’ve been on the bridge at a spring tide with the water rushing in to top up the loch, making a fun-looking horizontal version of a Medway chute. But today I needed at least two more metres of water to get into the loch; a portage looked like too much work.
Just as I was thinking I must come back to shoot the chute in the packraft, one of the R-clips holding the Amigo’s backrest bar in place gave way and fell in the drink. So after lunch I wandered up to a sheep fence and broke off a bit of stray wire to replace the missing pin. That Grabner seat bar is reaching the end of its probation. I suppose the problem is I inadvertently treat it like a fabric IK seat, leaning back to pull out the thigh straps or adjust the seat base. Doing so bends the bar slightly and alloy can only be bent back so many times. Rigid objects attached to an IK (including a skeg) don’t work so well. I’ve a strap-based alternative in the works which will doubtless appear on the Grabner Mods page.
I trickled on down the unknown shoreline from Reiff to Althandu, nosing into geos crammed with yet more jellyfish, and then headed across to Old Dornie harbour. Other IK-ers and canoes were fanning out from the campsite, enjoying the sunny weekend, but by the time I got into the harbour with 10 miles behind me I was beginning to feel it. Over a forgotten Snickers bar I pondered over heading out to the Summers for a look around.
The breeze had now turned to the southwest, running with the incoming tide although it was still flat enough to roam. I headed out towards Tanera Beg, but about halfway across admitted that the anticipated sugar rush wasn’t happening. I’d had a great day out, ticked off the feared headland and found some nice places to revisit, so headed for Badentarbet. As I did so I noticed the occasional 10mph gust was pushing the back round; not quite enough to require double ‘correcting’ stroke, but noticeable. Add some swell, waves and more wind and the stern would get pushed offline for sure, but then that’s IKs for you. Not a suitable craft for very windy conditions at sea, although a deeper skeg (old-style Gumotex) and a full payload might minimise this weathercocking. To make up for my sloth and with a Cadbury’s power surge coming on, I had nothing to lose by hammering away at the last half mile, hoping to crack the 5 mph barrier. But that wasn’t happening either; 4.9 was the best I could wrench from my strangled paddles. Today’s tally: 13.1 miles in about 5 hours and a moving average of 3.2 mph. On the beach I hauled the Grabner over to the freshwater pool for a rinse and called in the taxi.
The heatwave which we hear has been tormenting the southerners finally crept onto the Coigach last weekend, like an overdue dog looking for its dinner. Warm, sunny and no wind. Hallelui-yay!
I planned to diligently hug the coast east round to Polly Bay were the Polly river drained Sionasgaig Loch, a fun stage which I packrafted last year. But once I actually got out on the water Green Island looked a doable 2km across mackerel-infested water rippled by an easterly breeze, so I took the direct line with wavelets slapping at my boat.
This was my first long solo run in the Amigo and initially, the usual neuroses bobbed to the surface: ‘must get a paddle leash’; ‘what if fish farm toxins have caused mackerel to mutate into piranhas’… and so on. In fact, the biggest problem was the heat. I’d put in already dripping from the walk to the beach and would stay like that for most of the day. They’d forecast a pleasant 21 but I’d guess it got well over 25.
By the time I pulled alongside Green Island I’d calmed down enough to spare time for a quick look around. Finding a place to get out elegantly without slithering across a web of slimy boulder-covered seaweed was tricky, so I jammed the Amigo up a barnacle-covered slot and stumbled ashore.
These tiny, uninhabited and unsheeped islands preserve a unique ecology, or at least a distinct botany that makes them look different to the mainland. I climbed over the sooty lichen rocks into the sweeping grass and wildflowers, causing an avian scramble, and a few minutes later planted a footprint on the 20-metre summit. I looked all around and as before, imagine Newfoundland was like this, a wild, windswept panorama under a pale northern sky with a surrounding coastline ground down by long-extinct ice caps. To the east was a sandy beach at Polly Bay – one for next time – with Suilven rising behind. In the other direction was Rubha Coigach which I was also eyeing up as a paddle during this calm spell. Heading back to the boat (‘what if it’s drifted off…?’) I came across a lone pink Croc flung into the grass during an especially violent winter storm.
I headed for the mainland, squeezing between an islet to what looked like a dormant fish farm above Rubha Phollaidgh (‘Dun’ on the map). We’d cycled to this point a couple of weeks ago, following the private road past Inverpolly Lodge which controls the freshwater loch fishing around here. Pushbiking seemed safely innocuous, but you’re never quite sure if some irate ghillie in a tartan strop will come after you. I’ve read of kayakers getting aggro for trying to put in at that bay.
As I left the bay something felt wrong, had I caught some weed in the skeg, was the boat going flat or a current suddenly against me? There was no sensation of speed as I clawed at the water although I was moving. I checked the GPS – 4mph, good enough. It seems the 4mph breeze was now directly behind me and I was paddling in a bubble of perfectly still air – never noticed that before. I became uncomfortably hot and soon began pouring with sweat; the insulating pfd didn’t help. On a day like today adapting the pfd to hold a 2-litre bladder loaded with Nuun tablets was a good idea, but it reminded me how much more satisfying it always felt paddling into a wind, even if you weren’t going so fast.
The single-track WMR comes right down to the sea at a bay known as Loch an Eisg Brachaigh. When driving or cycling by I’d long wanted an excuse to splash a paddle around here; it looked like a magical sheltered place. From the south the map showed a short cut into the bay over an isthmus linking the tidal isle of Rubha Bhrocaire. Had I arrived at high water I might just have scraped over with a few inches to spare. As it was, my timing was right off, but a wee portage (right) is always good for the legs and the bladder.
I plopped around the bay’s islets, scaring a seal that may have been a glistening mermaid just moments earlier. I seemed to be making better time than expected, too. Closer to the shore I was in the lee of the breeze and gliding over a flat calm. But it sure was hot and my eyes were permanently stinging with sweat which I presumed a sea wash would do little to alleviate. North of here the rocky, cove-riddled shore lead round to another deep inlet; the hamlet of Inverkirkaig on the WMR. A short, steep river ends here, running off Fionn Loch below Suilven and another great packrafting excursion, although the river itself seems usually too boney to packraft for more than a short distance.
Less than two-and-a-half hours from Garvie, I paddled in at low water where I found it was too much of an ankle-twisting bother to get to the distant shore and a bench. All around was manky seaweed so I satisfied myself with a desalinating rinse in the estuary and headed back out for lunch on a sandy beach on the north side. Refuelled, I decided sod this pfd, I’m as likely to drown in my own sweat and the RNLI would be stretched to the limit on a day like today. So I stripped off and cooled right down. At the rate I was going I was looking good to meet the Mrs passing through Lochinver at 3pm and turned Kirkaig Point for the final 2.5 miles into Lochinver seafront.
On the way in I got a striking view of Quinaig mountain (on the left) which rises over 800m like the rim of a crater behind Lochinver town. (A couple of days later we walked the three summits of Quinaig – definitely one of the best of the Assynt mountains.) And south of that was the reliable dome of Suilven behind Strathan hamlet, also a great climb as is well known. Past the harbour and marina and the baronial Victorian edifice of the Culag Hotel which had the misfortune to have an ugly fish factory built right in front of it. There are more nice old pics of Lochinver here.
So there we have it. Calm conditions or perhaps a pessimistic estimate meant I got to Lochinver at 2.10, just 4.5 hours from put in. The GPS logged 3.5 paddling hours and a 3.1 mph moving average over 11 miles. Peak speed was an unnoticed 4.6 coming in with the tide into Lochinver. In fact that compares well with the only other long run I’ve done here: Ullapool run, though that was into the wind at times and clocked up 15 miles.
Conditions this time couldn’t have been easier; it’s so often windy up here compared to just 60 miles down the coast in the vicinity of Skye. I felt like I could have paddled any open crossing that day and so Enard Bay proved a bit of an anticlimax. The Amigo didn’t feel especially slow or tiring to paddle just because it’s not a K40, and so now I have a better idea of what the Grabner can manage in a day.
Unlike my previous new IKs, out of the bag you don’t get much with a Grabner Amigo. In fact you don’t even get a bag. With Grabner IKs just about everything except the repair kit and air you pump in is an extra which undermines the otherwise striking 14kg weight. To make up for this dearth of equipment, in the catalogue they even list the specification label (right) as among the boat’s standard features! So my Amigo added up to the bare boat with carry loops at each end and two backrest bars. No seat, skeg, pump, lashing points (D-rings). On purchase, I ordered half a dozen D-rings and a pressure gauge. The rest I’ll work out myself. Having learned what’s needed over the years, that suits me fine.
With the high pressures an Amigo runs it’s great to finally have a pressure gauge that’s easy to use (left). There are no pressure release valves (PRVs) to stop an Amigo splitting a seam if left out in the hot sun, so it’ll be a quick way of keeping tabs on the boat’s pressure or ascertain it’s at full charge. I’ve added a marker in pink to easily line up with the Grabner’s rating of 0.3 bar (4.3 psi) – not 4.3 bar as I mistakenly did once (the old eyes are going…).
Before the Amigo even got wet I glued on a Gumotex skeg patch (left, £12) and thick plastic Gumo skeg (another £12). All up cheaper and stronger than Grabner’s similar slip-on €60 alloy version. I took a chance using MEK to wipe and Aquasure to glue the Nitrilon patch to the Grabner EPDM hull as I didn’t have proper two-part adhesive to hand. I figured it would work OK as a skeg isn’t under great strain like thigh- or footrest D-rings for example. Years later, no problems. Apply a thin film of Aquasure to both surfaces; wait half an hour, then bond with all you’ve got.
A fixed skeg is a pain in the shallows or when dragging a heavy-laden boat over the heather; that’s one thing I liked about the Incept’s hinged rudder, but I can’t think how to make an effective hinged skeg except the way Feathercraft do it on their self-bailing Java (it slips up and down through a slot in the self-bailing floor).
A slip-in skeg can’t be slipped off a fully pumped up boat, at least one like a high-pressure Amigo, though actually after a couple of months it’s less tight and can be done. Being able to do that is very handy for portages or grass-dragging, though the skeg itself looks pretty tough. Of course, an IK works without a skeg, but on coastal waters they’re a good idea. More on that topic here.
The Amigo uses more secure bayonet inflation valves which with the right adaptor (see inset below left) don’t pop out at the high pressures (0.3 bar/4.3psi) this boat requires.).
Pump hose-end bayonet adaptors are easily bought in the UK from RIB suppliers on ebay. Inset left, the black one is what Grabner sell with a fitted fibre sealing ring and steps in the bayonet to suit different valve depths. The ‘butterfly’ finger tabs make this easy to twist in place, too. The green one uses plastic spacers held in place behind a black rubber washer to get a good seal. You wouldn’t want to lose these push-on seals and it’s hard to twist in place, so for the moment I’d say the Grabner one is better. Write that down, quick!
A now almost extinct yellow-hosed Bravo foot pump that suits some Gumotex can’t manage Grabner pressures, at least not my aged Bravo which hisses from various leaks before you can get a full charge. I’m amazed it’s lasted as long as it has. I got myself a bulky 2-litre barrel pump (above left, £20) rated at over 11psi. As you can imagine, on a low-volume IK this works fast, not least because it pumps on up and down strokes. Like Bravo foot pumps, it also has a second port to suck out ever last dram of air – handy for compact packing at the end of a tour.
The Bravo barrel is bulky so I’ve got a K-PumpMini (right, review here) from i-canoe in Ireland who can import anything from the NRS catalog in the US, and without a huge mark up too (€80 delivered, not sold in the UK). My longer K-Pump 100 worked surprisingly well inflating the Incept; we’ll see how the Mini model performs on the Amigo. If nothing else it will be a handy top-up pump; Grabner cover themselves very comfortably by claiming that anything under a 20% pressure loss over a 24-hour period is not a warranty claim, though I’ve never owned an IK that lost that much air in weeks let alone a day. K-Pumps can’t suck out air like Bravo pumps, but using a loose hose with the bayonet fitting it can be done by lung.
Next, I glued on my half-dozen D-rings (right). Front and rear will hold down gear; the other four locate my cut down packraft seat as well as an adjustable footrest tube similar to what I made for the Solar last year. The seat and foot rings will also double up as thigh strap location points. I’ve not always been that successful at gluing on previous boats, so this time did it by the book: roughen with sandpaper, wipe clean with MEK or alcohol, apply glue to both surfaces thinly and wait half an hour, glue again and wait less, then apply and press down hard with the roller.
Doing this I had a feeling the two-part Polymarine 2990 adhesive (left) was more effective than whatever I used doing the same job on the slipperier PVC-U Incept a year or two ago. I suspect Hypalon/Nitrilon is easier to glue; ‘plastic’ PVC-U is more effectively heat welded.
Over the years I never really got into using the thigh straps on my Incept or Java – perhaps the need for ruddering the Incept made them more tricky to use, or perhaps I’m just an idle paddler. But with the Amigo, I want to have that option to help it shift. In any case, it’s worth persevering with thigh straps as this is one of the main things that separates IKs from hardshell kayaks in terms of boat control in rough conditions and optimal torso-centered paddling efficiency. Straps are not quite as effective as bracing your knees under the top deck of a hardshell, but they’re all you can do with an IK. Otherwise, you’re just sitting in a canoe or on a floating log. I’ve now got fully used to the straps on the Amigo and use them without thinking, just like I feel much more secure with the toe clips on my bike’s pedals.
In my opinion, you need some kind of footrest too, if a braced body is to make an efficient paddle sweep – it’s probably more important than thigh braces. Last year I improved this on the old Gumo Solar that’s occasionally used by the g-friend. The Gumotex footrest cushion (same as my old Sunny) was too far away for the 5-foot Mrs to use effectively and is squidgy at best. On the Amigo I was able to use the front thigh strap D-rings to hook up the 4-inch footrest pipe (above left) with an adjustable strap looped through. It works fine.
Seat At the other end I’ve separated the toilet-like seat base of my old Alpacka Denali packraft from the backrest section. It clips to the rear thigh strap hardware with mini snaplinks (left). This ultralight seat has already been repaired once by re-heat sealing the flat seam and another hard bounce may pop it again. It’s lasted the summer but if that happens I’ll come up with something better; any inflatable pad or IK seat base will do. The Incept seat was pretty good, so was the firm-backed Feathercraft Java seat which didn’t fold under strain. Right now, at about 50 grams, the cut-down Alpacka seat base is about as light as a kayak seat can be.
The hard plastic Grabner backrest was comfortable enough to lean on once I added a bit of karrimat, though it kept coming adrift from the lug holes when the bar pivoted down, usually when manhandling the boat, but occasionally on the water too. At sea it’s quite awkward to refit the bar into the black rubber lugs as the hull sides push apart. The only way I found was to face backwards in the boat, swing the legs out into the water and squeeze them against the hulls to repeg the seat bar.
To keep the bar in place while retaining a tool-free, quick detach element I hammered out the outer brass peg and replaced it with an R clip (above left). But that didn’t last too long – one clip bent and fell out and, as expected with footrests, the alloy bar was bending against the strain. I tried a blue seat strap instead (right), but hooking that to the rubber seatrest lugs looked like it put too much strain and distort them. Ripping those lugs off would be a pain. No way round it but to glue on another two D-rings as I did on the Solar; a 4.5-inch patch has four or five times the glued surface area of the seatbar lugs so ought to take the strain. D-ring prices seem high so I settled on what I knew – chunky Grabner items at €15 each (right). Grabner deliver fast from Austria.
The seat strap was a crude solution so I figured I may as well try a proper, full-height backrest off an SoT. On ebay the ‘heavy-duty‘ item (left) with long adjustment straps and even a back pocket went for £24 – less than the two D-rings which hold it in place. As far as I can tell the rear straps’ only purpose is to hold the backrest upright, but it’s proved very comfortable – like a proper seat and with no inflation required. I’ll keep the original seat bar for less frequent two-up paddling where I don’t have a footrest to put a strain on it. So after a couple of months use I have optimised my Amigo by completing the adaptions listed here, making a comfortable and more practical boat for coast hopping and river touring. The cost has been six D-rings £80; seat £24, glue £15, seat base and straps already had; Gumo skeg and patch £24, and two pumps, gauge and adapters £110.