Sadly it looks like the amazing start to the summer may be over up here – or rather it’s back to normal. Since March it’s been one of the driest periods for years. June just gone was the driest ever while down south in places it was the wettest ever.
But the jet stream has flipped back into position and so it’s business as usual: the south is getting its overdue share of sunshine again while right now the wind howls periodically, it’s lashing down and I can barely see a mile across the bay.
It was the same deal last weekend, but midweek the winds dropped and so did the pressure of finishing the current job. So I slipped out one evening across Badentarbet Bay to try and thread a loop through Horse Island. Not having paddled for weeks, as usual I went through the usual neuroses as I parted with the shore (“Crikey, this water really looks dark and deep”. “I really must take a spare paddle.” etc, etc…) while cautiously tracking some low cloud or mist coming up with a southern breeze. Horse Island is actually further than it looks, about 5km from the pier, and once I decided I’d survive the crossing I planned to slip through the gap between Meall nan Gabhar (see map, above) and head back. The passage is no longer pictured right by Gael who passed that way a couple of months back in his Incept at the culmination of his epic run up the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail.
As I rounded the corner and frightened some seals with a splash, it turned out Meall (a ‘hill or mound’) is a separate island only during the top half of the tide. On my arrival with the tide bottomed out, a bank of seaweed-covered boulders rose two metres out of the sea (below), creating a broad causeway between Meall and Horse. No matter, it made getting out easy and as a seal popped up and eyed my movements, I scrambled up the knee-high heather and scrub for a look around Horse, finding a broad grassy platform with various sheltered nooks for a sheltered camp. It’s said local farmers periodically drop off their sheep here to graze, but the only presence was the high-pitched caw of a large bird of prey hovering over its nest up on the hill. The clouds parted briefly to shine onto Ben Mor (above) and pleased with my offshore excursion, I powered back to the pier.
See also this post as well as this post about using the PA in strong winds in Western Australia. There’s a video there too.
I’m pretty sure my 0.78m2 home-made disc sail is too small to push the 4-metre Incept along until wind conditions get beyond the pale. Recognising that, I tracked down a 1.5m Pacific Action for £175 instead of the usual £250 which is a bit much. As I mention here, you can easily make a V-sail yourself from bits of plastic piping and old trousers, but life is short and as I’ve experienced a PA in action in Shark Bay, I’ve treated myself. The nearest B&Q hardware store is half a day away.
They call it a ‘1.5m’ sail, but unless I am very much mistaken it’s more like 1.15m2 if you calculate the area of the Isosceles as 146cm across the top and 174 up the sides (graphic on right; or base x height of about 170 divided by 2). PA round those dimensions up on their website to 150cm and 180cm, but that still doesn’t add up to 1.5m2 or 16 square feet. Maybe I should chill out a bit; a Ducati 900SS is actually 864cc and so on. As you can see left, it’s about twice as big as my 0.78m2 disc sail and it certainly looks like a metre-and-a-half square, so perhaps my sums are wrong. And it’s bigger in the right area too: up high where it counts. Plus you can see where you’re going – always handy in busy traffic lanes.
The sail comes in a compact bag of less than a metre. Can’t weigh things here but they claim 1.9kg; could even be less. Inside you get the two, 3-part masts made of thick glass fibre, the sail, fittings and rigging or lines, plus adequate instructions* for what turns out to be a fairly straightforward task. These instructions and fittings are obviously aimed at hardshells, be they SinKs or SoTs. With an IK you have to improvise a little. It helped knowing that there’s a picture of a PA sail on the Incept website (right), as well as this Kiwi guy’s video (bottom of page). The supplied cleats (sliding cord locks) are tiny and I recall Jeff replacing them on his Perception tandem for Shark Bay, but see below. Because of the confusing instructions combined with my congenital density, I misunderstood their simply application. On my first go at sailing the PA I was holding and maneuvering the control string by hand, as I did with the disc sail.
Up front the snaplinks (right) I’ve used to mount the disc sail also happen to be ideal positions for the PA’s webbing loop. And the bow handle ring toggle is the just about the minimum 12 inches ahead of the mast feet to take the shock cord clip (left) with which the sail springs forward when you release it. If that’s not quite enough far forward (as I think may be the case), I can stick a D-ring patch a few inches further forward right on the nose of the boat (as left). This position/angle may be more important than just getting a good spring forward, but also affect the sail support. We’ll see.
In Australia a few months later we did see. Further forward was indeed better, but I suspect still not optimal. When you think about it, the front attachment for the elastic would be better if it was set higher that the level of the mast feet. That’s because when you’re reaching across the wind with the downwind mast almost horizontal with the hull (as pictured left), the angle of leverage to keep the upper mast up gets very low; at 5-10° the tensioned elastic is almost at the same angle and so the sail collapses as shown in this video at 1.16. This happened to me all the time in Australia as the sail was pulled low to cope with the strong sidewinds. If I go ahead with my nasal bowsprit idea as mentioned here, I’m now thinking it might also be an idea to raise it a bit; have an upcurved bowsprit so the sail is more readily held up when reaching (near-horizontal).
While in Australia I also pushed the snaplinks to mount the sail straps directly through the black lugs and not around them as pictured right. This was because the strong wind was pushing the sail mount (a plastic plate) forward, making it go slack, reducing the elastic tension and causing more problems with handling. But by the time I made all these adaptions we were locked into two days of headwinds so I never really had a chance to see if it made any great difference.
Back to the original mounting story set in Scotland in summer 2011. It all went together easily enough, until it became clear some fittings were missing from the pack which for some reason looked like it had done the rounds with a few previous customers. Most fittings were not needed for my IK, except the four ¾-inch self tappers with which you permanently fix the mast feet position in relation to your kayak’s deck angle and with the sail splayed. According to the instructions* and this picture I found on the web this is an ‘8g ¾-inch’ screw, but that seems way too long to have two from opposing sides – one alone would act more as a bolt than a self-tapper getting a bite, but that is what they recommend; the subtext is these screws are important to make a solid fixture. What’s not made clear (or is perhaps obvious) is that you ought to pre-drill guide holes deep into the plastic mast feet lugs for the screw can get right in there. Some hardshells will have a bevelled or convex foredeck which is why you must set the mast foot angle (MFA) specific to your boat for optimum operation. On my set up, the MFA is horizontal (flat) as I’m using a plastic chopping board idea as PA suggest to give the feet the all-important support and avoid wear on the PVC deck. The feet move around quite a lot under tension as you pull the sail this way and that but, as I found first time out, the angle of those feet against the mast (as well as the webbing tension) must be solid if the sail is to spring up and open or splay out.
The sail rolls down out of the way and doesn’t interfere with paddling, though it does mean yet more cordage hanging around; you could get in a right old muddle if you don’t keep on top of it. PA do advise paddling with a knife or a less pointy rope cutter. I have a quick-grab Benchmark one (left) attached to my PA.
It was gusting up to 40mph before the local weather station packed up, and at times the sea was covered in foam streaks and swell, so I went to a back loch for a spin. Typically by the time I’d crawled into a dry suit in case I fell out and got dragged along by the sail, the wind had just about died, but it gave me a chance to test it out in tame conditions. That evening my paddling speeds back into the wind were greater than anything I managed under sail, but I was getting the hang of it and even got the knack of running almost across the wind. The vid from that session isn’t worth uploading unless you’re having trouble sleeping; I hope to have another session when the wind returns and on a loch that’s longer to the wind. Lessons learned: need those self tappers to lock the feet, luckily the local store had some that may do the job. And I’ve since located that chopping board a bit better to the boat with some slots and zip ties until a better solution is required.
Rigging the sail-adjusting cleat Working out how to rig the control cord to alter the sail angle was actually rather simple once I put my mind to it. As mentioned, you get some small plastic cleats in the pack whose use is unclear. But digging around online for an alternative cleat (as other PA users tend to fit), I discovered what the PA comes with are very much like, if not exactly Clamcleat Line-Loks. Now I know what they are, their fitting and application is more clear. It’s not illustrated or explained in the PA instruction leaflet* I received; in fact I’d go as far as to say that the tiny yellow picture of the rigged Line-Lok in the PA leaflet is the wrong way round compared to what’s illustrated in the Clamcleat gif on the left. But even though (as I found) it does work crudely when rigged the wrong way round, I think I finally get it now. A Line-Loka nifty solution to tensioning a tent guy in the Arctic as the link shows, but as Clamcleat’s gif on the above right also illustrates, you need two hands to release it – not something that may be easily available in rough conditions while trying to grab your paddle and not spill your tea. But so far I’ve found in the light conditions I’ve been out in, one-handed works fine and if it’s a real panic you just pull the sail down in a jiffy. In fact, testing the correctly rigged locking cleat off a chair leg, it’s possible to achieve the release movement by spreading your fingers as long as it’s not too tightly jammed in the cleats, while adding tension (pulling the sail back/down) is certainly easy.
Having worked out how to string them up, the next question is where to attach them to the boat. By trial and error I found that cutting the supplied 4-5m line in half, rigging as above and then clipping the stainless steel clip to the K40 at the plastic lugs just behind the seat seems just right (left; it shares the left side lug with the rudder lifting line). Even though the Incept image with the red boat above seems to use the more forward points, fixed like this it puts the full sliding range of the locking cleat within arm’s reach while sat in the cockpit; or at least that’s how it looks on the lawn. I used the spring clips supplied to fix the control cord to the mast shackles, but at one point while sailing one unhooked itself from the shackle, so better to knot the cords securely to the shackle as PA recommend. To see how it sailed first time out, see this.
NB: A more recent set of fitting instructions were sent to me as a pdf from Pacific Action and are much clearer. As far as I could see it wasn’t to be found on their website.
Friday night Jon and I paddled over to the Summer Isles on an exceedingly calm evening. After a bit of dithering looking for a place to camp, we hacked through the seaweed to get onto Tanera Beag about 11pm where we set up for the night. As predicted, it got windy and flapping tents meant we didn’t get much sleep, although at one point a sudden lull at 3.30am did wake me up with a start. Out over Polbain the red sky was already presaging the dawn, just 80 degrees east from where the sun had set 5 hours earlier. Heading back later that morning into an F4, it was nice when that part was nearly over. Near the each I hooked around the and tried a bit of disc sailing – it works but I definitely need a bigger sail. A few days late but I got my midsummer’s mini adventure after all.
We parked up at Loch Raa where we’d tried umbrella sailing last year without much success. Initially G said we were nuts to go out in this wind, so we sat in the car and ate our butties like a semi-retired couple in a Peak District car park. But by the time I’d finished working out a way to attach my home-made sail to the Incept’s bow, she was already on the other side of the loch. This was my first time trying out my 0.78m2 sail on a kayak, but I’d recognised the value of sailing in Australia a few years ago with a mate hooked up to a Pacific Action (PA). Here in the UK I get the feeling sails on sea kayaks are seen as even less sportsmanlike than rudders – just not cricket, but an Incept IK is excused from such protocols. Anyway, in terms of efficiency my home-made jobbie wouldn’t be a patch on a proper PA, but I’m not planning on crossing the Indian Ocean just yet. Made from an old tent and with the ability to twist down to half the deployed size, my rag sail was a good way to experiment with the idea and techniques of sailing. If it came to it, I can buy a PA or Bic anytime.
The wind was still batting over Loch Raa (Ardmair recorded a max of 33mph today) so I hacked upwind, flat out at 2-3mph, drifted round and let my rag sail get a fill. Considering the paddling effort it took to get there, I wasn’t exactly ripped out of my seat, but that’s probably a good thing for a first go. I was concerned a side gust might catch me out and pull me over. I took a few downwind runs and found myself cruising at around 3.5mph, topping out at 4.3mph once I neared the downwind shore at the end of the fetch.
At around 4mph it begins to get fun, with the bow carving through the waves. Stability was great, I never felt out of control and would have like to have gone a bit faster. All I had to do was stash the paddle, hold onto the string and foot the rudder. In lulls I needed to support the sail with my paddle (left), but later found if I let it reach forward it stayed up. Set up for a packraft, my control string was a bit too short with the sail six feet ahead of me.
I did try to steer and travel off wind by twisting the sail and ruddering, but not sure I fully got the hang of that. Doing this takes two hands to pull one string back, but if I rigged a rigid handlebar into the string (a bit like a water skier), that might enable one-handed twisting, plus easier holding at other times. Or perhaps a cinchable attachment to the hull is the way to go, leaving yours hands free to who knows, add a little paddle power. Thing is, if I hacked into the wind at 2-3mph I could probably have paddled downwind at 4mph. I may try a proper downwind paddle v sail test next time, but as we all know, what downwind paddling gives you in push, you put in as tracking effort to avoid weathercocking, especially without a rudder.
At the wind speed that day, sailing wasn’t so much about going faster as saving effort. Plus it was more fun than I expected to surf along for free, mainly because it didn’t feel at all risky. But this was on a small loch with waves less than a foot high. Half an hour earlier on the sea the chop was a couple of feet; I imagine that would require more concentration and with less possible speed on the rougher surface.
Sailing downwind you don’t get the sensation of the wind in your hair, but the GPS and the splash off the bow tell the story. On one run we rafted up and the sail still pulled us along at over 3mph which was pretty good for two fat boats. As I approached the shore on my last run I lifted the rudder and straight away the back came round, as it seemed to do when I tried sailing in a pack raft. So it seems a rudder or at least a skeg is the key. To steer accurately with a paddle would be pretty tricky, but I may try that one time. Visibility wasn’t really a problem; to get a closer look just tug it back out of the way.
Having thought it all over, I have updated my hypothetical analysis of the £50 Bic Sail (left) on the main packboat sailing page with a couple of pics. For the couple of hours it took me to make my disc sail, I think fifty quid on something that has actually has some kayak-based testing and design put into it is not such bad value. I also tried out my thigh straps. Problem was one of my messy patches had half unglued so I couldn’t put any force on them. But they fit well, are comfy and easy to adjust, don’t feel like they might trap you, and are a definite improvement for either powering on or boat control in choppy water. The positions marked on the Incepts hull felt just right.
Gale warning 23 May 09:53 UTC Violent storm force 11 veering northwesterly imminent, decreasing gale force 8
That storm hit some 200 miles west of here in Rockall, but you get the picture; it’s kite-shredding weather round here right now. Friday afternoon Ardmair near Ullapool recorded nearly 100 kph (62 mph), while we sat at the window and watched the sound run with streaks of foam. The way it’s blowing now I’d not be surprised if it gets over a 100 this week. As it turns out, along with us, the weather station up the loch went down in a 4-hour power cut at the height of the storm, but by then I read it reached 100 mph (160 kph) on the other side of Scotland.
A week ago intrepid French IK sea kayaker Gael A. set off from Skye to complete the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail (SSKT) which he started last August and wrote up for this blog. At that time he managed a fair chunk of the route before the weather turned. This time he was far less lucky; after a record hot April in the UK, May is turning into a bonanza harvest for wind farmers. By last Tuesday Gael had crossed over from Rona island to the mouth of Loch Torridon (above left, midway on the 9km crossing) and got up as far as he could before the fierce wind forced him back to camp.
Next day he reached Sheildaig, at one point noting the spring tide flooding a patch of wildflowers. The forecast summaries I was texting him were not promising: days of F5-7 ahead. He was in a fix because from Torridon he had an exposed 45-km section past Gairloch to get around Rubha Reidh headland before turning east towards Loch Ewe, the Summer Isles and Ullapool, the finish line of the SSKT. Providing we could handle the conditions, Jon and I had hoped to meet him ‘after the scary bit’ somewhere around Loch Ewe and paddle for a couple of days together.
Gael is pretty experienced – 40 years sea yaking man and boy – so by Wednesday night he knew the game was up in the time he had left. Next day I drove down to pick him up and take him back to his car on Skye, if for no other reason than it’s a fabulous drive across Wester Ross that I’d not done before. There are scores of dramatic valleys like that up here and Loch Torridon itself is a fabulous spot I’d like to return to with my packboats. The whole of the northwest above Skye really is something else as the many touring bikers and pushbikers were no doubt finding out for themselves. The tiny hamlet of Sheildaig is a time-lost, lobster-pot fantasy tucked up an inlet. It didn’t take long to find Gael so we went over to his camp by the jetty, loaded the car and headed to Skye.
The Sound of Sleat off Kyleakin (left) was calm enough, but out beyond the bridge the sea had a bit of a head on it. We had a 1970s-era lunch, Gael checked out with the police in Lochalsh and decided to hang out up here on the off chance the weather improved and he or we could make a little tour of the Summer Isles. He was also keen to try out my Incept as his Grabner was showing the years. In fact is was he who last year pointed out that Incept K40 had evolved since I last checked it out. For me it was also a good chance to interrogate an experienced sea kayaker about the Ways of the Sea. Among the many skills I feel I lack is the judgement to know when it’s safe to got out and when I ought to turn back: interpreting clouds and wind changes, forecasts and sea states. It’s a lot of stuff to understand so we spent Friday chatting while refreshing various forecast websites: Saturday looked like a bit of a lull so Jon came up to for a paddling threesome.
We did the best we could on Saturday and set out from the campsite beach (left) to plant our flags on the calm side of Isle Ristol (which you can walk to at very low tide). Old Dornie was standing room only that day as a local skiff racing regatta was on, postponed from last weekend when Jon and I spent our time daring ourselves to do something and go somewhere.
Sat in the back of his aged H2 Grabner like a canoeist, Gael was far more confident than us – pushing out over some surf raised by a reef while we scurried away, appalled. We beached on Ristol for lunch then turned around into the wind blowing through Old Dornie harbour, dodging the skiffing crews (right) hauling out to a buoy and back to the cheers of the crowds until – to quote Gael – it got at least as ‘lively’ (below) as the previous weekend when we’d taken a while to get the hang of it all. Hauling against the wind the two clicks to the main Summer Isles looked a bit of a reach.
We turned back to the campsite launch as it filled with tooled-up sea kayakers who I fear were not going to have the great weekend’s paddling they’d come for. We headed over to Achnahaird Beach on the north side which ought to be either sheltered or with an offshore wind, depending on how you looked at it. Once in, I pointed to a Point and said let’s go there! but the Wise Old Man of the Sea advised we keep along the leeside cliffs in case the wind picked up as was predicted. The sea was flat enough between gusts but had a big, rolling swell which was an odd sensation I’ve not experienced before. I wasn’t sure if I should be anxious or just enjoy the ride.
Once in a while a series of bigger swells rolled by and churned around the outcrops, or crashed against the red sandstone cliffs, but without any real danger to a boater as there was no surf. We’ve all seen impressive sea kayaking long lens shots like that; relaxed yaker in profile with a backdrop of white-foam carnage. Even under skies which looked like they were about to collapse under their own weight (choose any pic nearby), it was a nice end to the day, running past the moss-clad cliffs and spooky caves from which pealed unrecognisable squawks. A lone seal popped up from a distance to check us out and to the east rose the naked spurs of Suilven, Cul Mor and Stac, carved out of the Assynt’s bedrock during the last Ice Age.
Jon glided along in his LV like he was on rails; you got to hand it to these hardshell SinKs, they may be a pain to carry on the Tube but they sure look good on the water – viewed from the stable-as-a-cow-pat perch of an IK, of course! Heck, it all felt like proper sea kayaking. Further up, around Rubha na Coigach headland I dare say it all gets pretty hairy, but it sure would be nice to cruise further along this coast with the Mrs some warm, calm and sunny evening.
And before the weekend was done, Gael got onto Sea Kayak Oban and bought their K40 test boat which I tried out last March. He got a great deal all things considered; I’d have bought it myself had I not already ordered my yellow boat. So that’s at least two K40s in action on the high seas; mine, his and maybe yours too soon.