After a fortnight of chilly north winds and a diminishing woodpile, today was one of those rare days in the Summer Isles (far northwest Scotland) where you could paddle pretty much where you liked in an IK. It was also a chance for me to try out my new skeg-wheel trolley which Jon, who was staying down the road, had made for me. With no boat of his own this time, we set off in mine to see what we might see.
Unbranded windsail update 2016: the 3mm-thick glass fibre rod snapped. I bought another length for a tenner. It felt more flexible but within a couple of days that broke in two places too. If I run 3mm rod doubled up I presume the bending forces will be the same, but if I run thicker rod I presume it won’t fold down three times to thecompact 30cm diametre disc. Looking again at the original WindPaddle, it does seem much of the cost is explained by the ‘proprietary’ composite rod they use, and there seem few easily found online reports of breakages. Prices seem to have dropped quite a lot too (as they have for the ebay knock offs). Could it be you get what you pay for after all? It’s a lesson so often learned here at IK&P!
The other evening I hooked my old home-made disc sail onto the Grabner’s bow (left and above) and took it out on a loch to remind myself that it wasn’t really that good. As before, I found it difficult to get a good run before it flapped out or otherwise lost its drive. My Pacific Action V-sail will work better, but fitting that to the Amigo may require more D-rings. I like the compactness and simplicity of a disc sail, but it was suggested that dishing like a bowl was the key to holding the wind and maintaining steady progress, even if it may be less effective tacking across the wind.
Sounds plausible and WindPaddles are clearly made like that for a reason. Since then it occurred to me that’s why classic ‘descending’ parachutes (‘reverse’ sails) are bowls and not flatter discs which would shoot across the sky. Before I set about recutting my disc into a bowl shape I checked WP prices on ebay and spotted what looked like a knock-off: ‘Canoe sail kayak sail wind sail‘, now just £15 delivered. Cheaper than sewing and at 115cm deployed, it was midway in size between WP’s Adventure which at the time was selling for no less than £155 in the UK (now about half that). Someone assure me that a WindPaddle costs even a fiver to make in China, but see top of the page.
And better still, the no-name windbag folds down into three hoops of just over a foot in diameter (above left). Plus there’s an elastic hoop to keep it like that and a carry bag for the long walk back to the van. Out of that bag, the only changes I made were to replace the too-short control strings with my tape off the red sail which I find easier to handle. I reassigned a sling to hook the sail’s base to a floor D-ring back from the bow (above left). That was already fitted and was the only adaption I needed to mount the sail to the Grabner.
The day before, with the visiting Nimbus family we’d paddled round the Ristol isles. Over lunch on Ristol beach I took my new sail for a burn up. First time out, not bad at all. I got a steady run and up to 3.9 mph on a breeze of no more than 15 mph and with very little faffing. The prospects were good. More wind was needed.
Incidentally, on the beach I noticed how very, very much unlike a sea kayak the Amigo really is. Alongside my old Incept, let alone the lethal Scorchio HV (right), the red boat looked like one of those inflatable kayaks you read about, except it happened to be made from bomb-proof hypalon and pumped up like a basketball.
Earlier on, coming round the southwest corner of Eilean Mullagrach, (left), the swell bouncing off the cliffs and crashing over outer reefs looked intimidating. Though we all managed fine, it was everyone for themselves. With heads bent to the task, the comparative speeds of our four boats was clear to see. Way out ahead and longer than your average four-door car: the cheddar-coloured P&H cheese cutter. No far behind, 12-year-old Boy Nimbus darted along in his 12-foot Carolina (later I GPS’d him at 6mph, same as the P&H). Further back Mama Nimbus and little Nima in the K40, all hands on deck. And out back the Grabner hypalon clog – splish-splosh, splish-splosh Slap. Checking the GPS data the speeds weren’t so bad, it’s just that in the rough the hardshells cut through some 30% quicker.
A few days later the Solar was stacked on the Amigo (right) and I realised it was only a foot or so longer than the Gumotex. In that case the Grabner does pretty well for a 12-foot four-, 31-inch kayak that hauls two paddlers. Back to the sailing. Next day winds were forecast at over 25 mph (right) but as it was warm and only a 5-minute drive to a Loch Vatachan, it was worth a crack.
A short pre-paddle suggested my cheapo windsail would probably get ripped off and blown away, or else see me roll off the back of the kayak as it shot away from under me liked a snatched tablecloth. Upwind I couldn’t exceed 2 mph (left), but skimmed downwind at up to 5.5 mph providing I kept the stern right on the wind. And while I was out here, side-on to the one-foot fetch the Amigo felt secure, so not a completely wasted outing. I’d never set out to paddle in such conditions normally (actually I did once), let alone try sailing (actually I had once) so I called it off. Later, Ardmair weather station confirmed the wind had been howling at a steady 35 and gusting to nearly 50 mph.
We all ‘yaked over to Tanera Mor one afternoon; three IKs and two SinKs. I realised I’d never actually walked up to the 124-m summit of Tanera Mor for a look around. Up on top a string of islets lead to the twin humps of Priest Island, 4.5 miles in a straight line (right). It was a ten-mile round trip I’ve mentioned earlier but may be beyond reach this time round.
Paddling back from the island, Mama Nim found my old Incept had picked up another pin-prick hole in the side. Wtf is happening to the K40? It’s a lot better than the armchair -wide Sevy they were borrowing before, but three holes in four outings? And it gets worse. On leaving the island the wind dropped to nothing so sailing was off. Instead, we were plagued by sea midges which rise from their lairs as soon as the wind turns its back. Another day and a healthy northerly forecast at 10mph on the BBC which might mean 15 in real terms. I set off with Nimbus in his Scorpio ‘PK’ (plastic coffin) for a look at Tanera Beg’s arch he’d missed on previous visits. It’s a nice arch; we passed it a couple of weeks back, two-up in the Amigo.
Once clear of Old Dornie I threw the sail out and trotted along at 3.5 mph which won’t be giving me any nosebleeds but I suppose must be classified as progress. At least I found a good way of stashing the sail. Seeing as it’s right out on the bow, refolding it down to three hoops isn’t practical on the water without help or taking risks. But I could just pull it back and tuck the squidged sail under my feet and between my legs (above). Down here there’s little risk of it self-deploying and jumping overboard to become a most unwelcome sea anchor, but it can be thrown up in a jiffy to catch a breeze, just as with the PA.
Once we got to the two Taneras’ In-Between islands the wind remained but the waves were blocked so I threw out the air bag and trickled along again at about 3.5mph again. Then it occurred to me I could hold the sail leash in my teeth and paddle. That worked well too, getting on for 5 mph but without the paddling effort to make that speed unaided. Plus it felt better than having the sail hooked to my pfd and stopped me talking unnecessarily.
Once past the In Betweens we crossed over to the arch but found we were a metre short of water. Still, high or low water it’s a great mini-destination some three miles out of Old Dornie. The easy part was over; it was going to be a solid old hack back into the wind for Old Dornie. As we turned we were a little perturbed by what looked like the Stornoway ferry heading right at us. I’m sure it never came this far north, was the captain asleep at the wheel or taking a deeper channel on the spring tide?
At the last minute the CalMac turned away and a calamity was averted. A few minutes later its wake rolled in, breaking a couple of feet high just as we passed a reef. It looked like a good picture so I sent Nimbus back for a shot (above) but by then the best of the surf had passed. If that was the swell kicked up by the ferry from a mile away and before it hit full speed in the Minch then I’m glad we keep our distance.
Time to put the camera away and knuckle down for an hour’s bow slapping to Old Dornie. As I’ve observed before in such conditions, Nimbus in his SinK paddled like he was stroking his favourite cat, gliding through the waves in a seemingly relaxed procession. Me? I was loading 16 tons and what did I get? Slipping back further and deeper in bilge. Still, not alone for a change was less unnerving and I quite like a good work-out on familiar terrain. You dial in the effort you know you can sustain for the duration and progress at whatever speed that delivers. From the graph below that added up to about 2.5 with occasional surges to 3 mph when my technique briefly hit form. The P&H PK seemed to hold a steady 3+mph without trying.
The wind had failed to live up to the forecast promise of dropping around 6pm and out in the mid-channel a few white tops developed; for me a warning sign it’s approaching IK limits. I will speculate that I shipped less water than I would have in the Sunny which is a similar type of IK. Partly because of the Amigo’s upsweptbow that front or rear, doesn’t seem to be as much of a wind catcher as it looks. And perhaps too because the boat doesn’t bend with the swell.
In fact it was fun slapping the fat bow against the oncoming waves as I slowly hauled my way closer to Dornie. Old Man Nimbus can read wind speeds like a Tubu hunter reads the sands. He estimated it was blowing at 8m/sec which in English translates to 20mph. I’d have guessed a bit less, as with the spring tide at full flow against it, it didn’t seem too much in an IK (as long as land appeared close by). As we neared the harbour a couple of other SinKs slinked by, tucked right under the shore, out of the wind. Get out here you cowards!
No Name wind sail My conclusion of the no-name wind sail? It’s a WindPaddle at the right price. Easy to fit to my boat and doubtless many others, easy to temporarily stash on the move and probably easy to repair. And easy to steer too; pull left to go left, usually. With the window pane it’s much better than my home-made flat disc, plus it’s less bulky and complex than a V-sail, even if a V will give you nearly 90° reach either side of the wind.
Surprisingly I haven’t found the lack of a rudder an impediment with the Grabner. Though there’s a bit less directional control, at the typical sub-4 mph speeds you can drag a hand or a paddle blade to bring the nose around. And interestingly, providing you’re close to the wind and holding a steady course, the sail worked pretty well when paddling with the leash in my teeth like the 3.30 line up at Cheltenham. I can’t say I ever managed paddling with the Pacific Action on the Incept for long before it flapped out. Plus there’s plenty of scope for hooking up some self-jamming cleats (more here) like I ran on the Incept. Above all, the no-name air scoop is great value for money for the performance it delivers. For thirty quid it wouldn’t be worth making your own. Next job: see how the little Alpacka handles when yanked along by the wind sail.
In 2011 I met Gael after he ran out of time and weather to complete the second stage of the Scottish Sea Kayak Trail he started in 2010 in his Grabner H2. According to the guy who wrote the guidebook, the SSKT is a 500-km run through the Inner Hebrides from the Isle of Gigha off the Kintyre peninsula to the Summer Isles, but with no shoreside infrastructure as such, most just follow their nose with the book’s help. In 2012 Gael returned to Skye for another go, now in the ex-demo Incept K40 be picked up from Sea Kayak Oban. In March that year Scotland experienced some very fine weather while England got the converse – a result of a misplaced jet stream (right). And so it was for Gael who managed a comparatively trouble-free run all the way to Ullapool where he rolled up his boat and bussed back to his car on Skye.
Day 1 – Kyleakin to Uags The trip began rather badly. I arrived around midnight in Kyleakin after an interminable drive from Paris with an exhausting final crossing through the Highlands mostly in the rain. I set up my tent quickly on the grass by the hostel’s backyard. Once in my sleeping bag, I fell asleep right away, lulled by the pounding of rain on the canvas and the rustle of leaves in the wind gusts. Early next morning I woke up with my feet feeling cold and wet; during my deep slumber I’d pushed them under the edge of the tent. Fortunately, my sleeping bag fill is synthetic and the nylon shell water repellent enough and with relief I found it was still dry inside. The ground all around was drenched and I could now test the effectiveness of my new Seal Skinz socks. It was still raining, so I donned my foul weather gear right away before proceeding with the usual pre-launch routine (inflate kayak, rig the accessories, sort food and equipment before closing the bags). Like last year I went to Kyle of Lochalsh Police Station to report my departure, then to the Co-op to stock up on McEwans in case I got shipwrecked.
Early in the afternoon, after a quick snack, I launched in Otter Pond by the Skye bridge. A fresh easterly was blowing out of the Loch against the flowing tide, raising the inevitable chop. I crossed the channel towards Kyle, then let myself be blown under the Skye bridge, leaving Eilean Ban to port. I paddled to Erbusaig Bay through the relatively sheltered Black Islands but decided not to proceed directly to Uags under the current crosswinds. Instead, I hugged the coast upwind towards An Dubh Aird from which the crossing would be much shorter. After vain attempts to take a picture of the two little otters which turned around me, I left the lee of An Dubh Aird and rushed towards the south coast of the Applecross peninsula. Two-thirds of the distance into the crossing I bore away and took a direct course to Uags, pushed at speed down the wind blowing along the axis of Loch Carron. Sadly I couldn’t surf the best waves though because the stern was too heavy with the beer. I landed around 6pm in Uags, and moved into the empty bothy.
Once installed, I hung my tent and sleeping bag to dry, then I rewarded myself this interesting first step with a hot tea and a thick slice of chocolate cake. Outside rain was still pounding.
Day 2 – Uags to Red Point I woke up at dawn feeling numb as my old foam sleeping pad had been of little comfort on the floorboards. The temperature was 5°C; so much for this jet stream. I went out to stretch my body and surprised a little doe grazing in the meadow below the ruined Uags hamlet. It scampered away before I could fetch my camera (this is a double entrendre called ‘lacking reflex’). But – it had stopped raining, the air was clear and visibility was excellent. The snow-capped peaks of the Cuillins stood out beautifully against the sky (below left) but the chill air from the northeast soon sent me back inside.
Once on the way from Uags an unexpected SE tailwind pushed me gently toward Sgeir Shalash but the breeze then turned NE, as expected. In the protected lee of the shore I paddled on north without difficulty, up to Camusteel, but when I reached the mouth of Applecross Bay, I had to fight against the wind. It funneled unhindered along the valley, whipping up the waters and raising an uncomfortable chop, until I reached some shelter in the lee of Rubha na Guailne. From there the long way north to Loch Torridon seemed a never-ending trudge. The wind had picked up to the point of pushing me hard offshore whenever I got 50 meters from the shore. I kept hugging the coast, despite the uncomfortable chop and the occasional breakers, because the wind was shifting SE, thus pushing me northward. When I eventually passed Rubha na Fearna I found myself facing the wind blowing right out of the Loch.
Loch Torridon greeted me with one of its customary gusts of which I’d had the humiliating experience the year before. I took shelter as soon as I could in a tiny cove hidden behind a natural breakwater. I badly needed a feed. After a snack and some rest, I pushed off to cross the Loch. I paddled a mile inland to gain an upwind margin of safety then I headed north. Wedged into the seat, with my legs holding tight on the thigh straps and squeezing the footrest, I blithely crossed the choppy zone, kept an eye on the most threatening peaking waves and checked off some landmarks in transit which I used to control my leeward drift with the other eye while admiring the spectacular scenery of the mountains towering over Loch Torridon (yes, all at once).
I returned to quiet water in the lee of the north shore, laid the paddle across the boat and started bailing. My open decked Incept kayak had ridden well on the waves but had shipped a fair share of water which was now swashing in the bilge. I pulled ashore in the early evening on a beautiful beach near Red Point.
The ebbing tide had just retreated beyond the tombolo that connects Eilean Tioram islet to the mainland, thus forming a placid lagoon. Some cows and sheep were grazing in the dunes undulating behind the beach. I pitched my tent in a hollow, barely sheltered from the chill NE breeze and crashed out.
Day 3 – Red Point to Slaggan Bay The night had been cold but the clear morning sky made me hope for a warmer day. When I shoved off I didn’t know that I was about to enjoy one of the most beautiful days of my paddling life. Passing Red Point I noticed with satisfaction there was almost no swell. For once I wouldn’t be shaken by the rebounding waves and could explore the nooks and crannies of this craggy coast.
The sky became overcast and the NE wind picked up as I approached Loch Gairloch. The temperature dropped rapidly and I paddled more vigorously towards Carn Deag in an attempt to stay warm. I made a brief stop on the beach at Big Sand (left) but the chill breeze urged me on. I passed downwind along Longa Island with the hope of discovering a sheltered cove for lunch but found none. I then went on across Caol Beag, passed Rubha Ban and kept paddling north with my stomach gurgling. The beauty of the coast was worth the inconvenience of being cold, numb and hungry; huge sections of sandstone cliffs that had fallen in the sea provided an extraordinary maze of narrow passages that I enjoyed threading through. Erosion had also cut multiple geos and caves also worth exploring (I didn’t know what a geo was before reading the SSKT guidebook). I eventually reached Seana Chamas beach, largely uncovered by the outgoing tide and where I landed and dragged my kayak a few yards on a carpet of seaweed.
The sea was empty except for birds and a view that stretched westward to the Outer Hebrides. The Shiant Islands were clearly visible, standing out like a motionless line of battleships. I finished my lunch just as the tide returned up to my boat. The sky began clearing as I left and when I got past Melvaig all around me glistened under the sun.
After half a mile of boulders the coast turned to sandstone crumbling cliffs again and I could resume prowling in and out of caves and geos under the bright light of this sunny afternoon. Quite suddenly behind another headland appeared – the dreaded Rubha Reidh and its striking white lighthouse. I felt the mid-tide current pick up as it dragged me over to the other side of the promontory. The whitecaps of a faster tide rip were visible out to sea but right under the lighthouse the sea was rippling gently against the reddish rocks. One of the most exposed stages on this route passed without event.
The NE wind that had been blowing since I left Kyleakin had dropped too, but there was still some swell from the north, preventing me from sneaking through the rocky labyrinth that stretched between Rubha Reidh and the beautiful beach of Camas Mor. Beyond Rubha Reid to the east the extraordinary snow-capped skyline of the Wester Ross mountain range rose from the horizon (left). Put in a trance by this sight, I carried on on an eastward course and arrived at Caolas an Fhuraidh. I took stock at the mouth of Loch Ewe before an exposed 4km crossing over to Slaggan Bay. To the SE lay Rubha nan Sasan still with it’s WWII bunkers and gun emplacements. At that time Loch Ewe had been the starting point for many Russia-bound convoys and a haven for Allied shipping. There’s still a NATO base there today. As I paddled to Ploc an t-Slagain I hoped I’d not be rammed by a nuclear submarine entering or leaving Loch Ewe; I’d read reports elsewhere in the Hebrides of these subs rising so fast the resulting wash tipped sea kayaks bow over stern. I reached Slaggan Bay at 7pm finding another perfect landing place, a crescent of fine sand surrounded by empty dunes.
Day 4 – Slaggan Bay to Isle Ristol Under ideal paddling conditions I hugged the coast towards Greenstone Point, the last critical passage of the SSKT. The Point was flat and bare and proved even less dramatic than Rubha Reidh, although its rocky shoreline was wild and beautiful. From Greenstone I paddled on to Rubha Beag. In the distance the conspicuous peak of Ben Mor Coigach was towering over the horizon and to the NW lay a scattering of islets; the long-expected Summer Isles.
I 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 emphasized 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.
Once I completed this circumnavigation I paddled back to a cove called Acairseid Eilean a Chleirich (it’s quite a challenge to try to explain to other people the places I visited) where I pulled ashore onto a tiny uninviting boulder beach (left). As the afternoon progressed I uneventfully hopped through the convenient chain of islets lying between Priest Island and Tanera Mor, the biggest of the Summer Isles. I had intended to land near Althandu as I needed some of the facilities of the Port a Bhaigh campground, mostly their electrical hookups to charge the batteries, freshwater and even a shower, why not? There was also a pub close by.
But as I paddled through Old Dornie harbour I came within sight of the campground and within earshot too. The place looked packed and was definitely too noisy. After four days of solitude with no other sounds than the sea and the birds, I couldn’t stand it. So much for the camera, shower and a beer. I swung my boat south towards the lovely nearby beach of Traigh an t-Sean Bhaile on Ristol. I pitched my tent on thick grass which promised a comfortable night and the chilly cold kept any irksome midges from hatching.
Day 5 – Exploring the Summer Isles I devoted this day to exploring the archipelago as all these islands offer the type of craggy shore most sea paddlers are looking for. The sea conditions were again at their best for squeezing through narrow channels between rocks, under arches or into caves with almost no swell and light winds. I proceeded anti-clockwise around Ristol, paddling along its west coast then circumnavigated Eilean Glas Mullagrach and Glas Leach Mor.
Shags had built their nests in the crevices of the cliffs overlooking the sea. They were not easy to spot as their colour merged with the cliff but their unmistakable angry squawks betrayed their presence above me whenever I got too close. From Glas Leach Mor (the ‘large green stone’ a good description actually) I crossed to Tanera Beag. Here I gave a wide berth to a skerry occupied by a large group of singing seals that I didn’t want to disturb. The haunting sound suited the scenery perfectly.
Tanera Beag is considered the most beautiful of the Summer Isles by the experts. Close to its SW corner is a cave deep enough for a tourist boat to get in and with a very high ceiling after which it’s called Cathedral Cave. Its SE corner is adorned with an elegant arch, which is another place of pilgrimage by all paddlers visiting the isles.
After completing the circumnavigation of Tanera Beag I pulled ashore for an overdue snack and a nap in a pretty little cove where the outgoing tide had left a broad sandy beach. Between Tanera Beag and Mor Eilean Fada I entered a kind of shallow lagoon of clear water. The tide was low and I saw my kayak’s shadow skip along the sandy bottom.
Later I landed in the Anchorage on Tanera Mor, a sheltered bay that opens to the east and filled with salmon pens. There is a floating dock for the tourist boat but the tea shop/post office where I’d intended to indulge in a brew and some piece of cake was closed. Tanera Mor (currently for sale) enjoys an offshore status which allows this tiny post office to issue its own stamps but no brew, no cake and no stamps for me today.
I hopped back in the boat and crossed the Anchorage diagonally and skirted Rubha Dubh, the east corner of the island. Here I entered a narrow cove choked with seaweed and backed with a pebble and boulder beach. High spring tides and gales had filled the depression beyond the beach thus forming a lovely pond, An Lochanach. I pulled ashore soon after two other kayakers. The guy didn’t look very happy to see me and curtly turned down my offer to help them to carry their heavily loaded sea kayaks. So I minded my own business, as I had just been advised to do. His wife came and offered remorsefully to give a hand, but I declined politely.
It had been a hot afternoon and I’d paddled without cag and without a cap for the first time in five days. But cold came back after 7pm and the Franco-Welsh relationships in the cove did not improve. Although our respective pitches were located 300 meters apart, each on one side of the beach, no invitation to share dinner was exchanged. It nice to be alone of course, but I like chatting with other paddlers too. Another time perhaps.
Day 6 – Tanera Mor to Ullapool On a beautiful sunny morning I headed SE towards Loch Broom and Ullapool. Sunny but cold, chilly indeed, so chilly that I had my breakfast in my sleeping bag.
In the meantime, the wind had shifted SE so I slogged against it all the way to Horse Island. I paddled through the tidal gap which divides this island from its northern tip, Meall nan Gabhar. Once through I pulled ashore and found a very convenient pitching spot. I regretted not having carried on to this place yesterday, instead of staying next to unsympathetic paddlers. So seemed to say the half-dozen seals romping about behind me. The sky was promising some fair weather that had been a long time coming. As the breeze didn’t abate I took shelter in the lee of Acheninver. But as soon as I got past Rubha Dubh Ard I fought the headwind again until I reached the base of Ben Mor Coigach.
Then I paddled below the sheer slope of the mountain until I got to what looked like the white sands of Camas Mor beach. Actually, it’s a pebble beach facing Isle Martin and the guidebook said amethysts can be found here, but I didn’t find any. By 2 o’clock clouds covered the sky and some chill air forced me back into my cold-weather gear.
I shoved off shortly after lunch and enjoyed passing the last natural monuments of the Trail. I rounded Rubha Cadail, addressed the last salute to Ben Mor Coigach and entered Loch Broom. The wind unexpectedly veered NW and pushed me gently towards Ullapool.
Once ashore I pitched my tent under the stares of some motorcyclists wondering where the hell I’d come from. A leather-clad fellow told me the owner was already gone and would return early next morning to collect the fee. Meanwhile, I washed the Incept to remove the grit scattered in the bilge, wiped it dry, deflated it, rolled it, and pushed it into my huge 160-l Ortlieb Kanurucksack. The K40 doesn’t fold as compactly as my good old hypalon H2 but I was relieved it crammed into the bag. I enjoyed dinner at the water’s edge overlooking at the now placid waters of Loch Broom, glowing in the satisfaction of my achievement. It has taken three years and two different boats, but I’d completed the SSKT in an inflatable sea kayak along with one of Europe’s most striking shorelines. Celebrations continued at the Ferry Boat Inn where I e-mailed friends and family, sipping some good beer, the sound of music replacing the soothing sound of the sea lapping the shore.
Ullapool to Kyleakin The weather was set to improve in the following days and I wondered whether to paddle north and round the Point of Stoer, take the ferry to Stornoway for a glimpse of the Outer Hebrides, or complete the exploration of Raasay and Rona that I’d started the year before. The first two options required maps that I was not sure to find in Ullapool. and I was also missing sailing directions.
So I packed all my gear in my three-bag travelling arrangement: boat and paddling gear in the 160l Kanurucksack, camping gear and clothes in the 59l XPlorer bag, food, cooking gear, books, maps, tools and all the rest in the 49l Rackpack. The result was portable but heavy and I had a half mile walk to the bus station by the ferry terminal. Luckily the owner came by for the fee and gave me a lift. Soon we were en route to Inverness by bus; an alternative would have been leaving the bus at Garve railway station, halfway to Inverness and hopping on a train to Kyle of Lochalsh.
Eventually, I decided to park up in Kyleakin on Skye and undertook a very enjoyable three-day tour around Raasay and Rona. The year before I’d experienced the charms of these islands despite the unsettled weather – this time conditions were ideal. Back at the pier three days later, I was giving the Incept a wash on the slipway when a Land Rover towing a trailer full of sea kayaks turned in. A party of men got out of the truck, unloaded the kayaks and started putting paddling gear on. As they carried the boat to water they came over to say hello and asked about my boat and my trip. They were attending a kayak class beginning this very day. Their first-day program was a shakedown paddle in sheltered waters before a guided multi-day run to Sandaig. The guide joined the conversation and yet again I endured the usual hardsheller’s drivel about IKs. Ten minutes later I watched the student awkwardly clambering in their kayaks; for some of the clumsier it took quite a while. I told them they were lucky modern kayaks had such larger cockpit coamings – but not as big as mine! By the time I got to my car the temperature inside was like an oven, despite the screen I’d fixed over the windshield. My chocolate bars had melted. In northwest Scotland? Whatever next.
The first stop of the day, for a snack and a bailing session … was on the beautiful little Isle Ristol, where the curve of a petite beach reached out to embrace the approaching kayak in a shingly grin. Here were the rudiments of rest and refreshment in a spirit of abundance without ceremony, from the free-spirited dreams to the always-islands which soften the horizon and bring comfort to the eye. It would have made a wonderful camp, but I had come only ten miles and was good for a few more yet, heading north, away from the sheltered jigsaw pattern of the Summer Isles.
‘Blazing Paddles’ (1988), Brian Wilson
Today was a bad day for sailing. But for everything else, including paddling, it was about as good as it gets up here. The skies were clear, the sea was still and the breeze barely rose above walking pace.
A day earlier I’d paddled off the beach 4km west over to Isle Ristol opposite Old Dornie anchorage. On that occasion, for the first time I actually sensed what must have been a helpful push from the outgoing 2-knot tide which was at its height at the time. Once at the island a lull presaged a change of wind direction and a light headwind rose up. So I popped into a small fissure for a look then sailed slowly back. With no rhythmic splish-spolsh, splish-spolsh, I realised how pleasant it was to be free of paddle noise and amused myself by shooting underwater vid with the rediscovered Go Pro. This ‘hands-free’ PA sail is still a novelty!
Today was going to require lots of splish and spolsh, but the tranquil conditions encouraged me to try something a little more daring: around Isle Ristol – all 4 or 5kms of it. It may not be Iceland or Tierra del Fuego, but there’s still a sense of accomplishment paddling out to- or right round an island.
And it’s always fun to paddle out of Old Dornie (left, and bottom of page) as by Scottish standards it’s quite picturesque. A few fishing and rec boats bob around and on a very low tide you can just about wade over to Ristol through the kelp. I set off at midday; an hour of so before low tide which (by pure coincidence) should have meant negligible currents swirling around between the isles. As it was a warm day and the K40 had been strapped on the car since yesterday, I took the trouble to re-temper the air pressure once on the cool water. The firm kayak responded by gliding swiftly away from the jetty and when I just paddled normally, I was doing just over 4mph.
Low tide also meant more land to paddle around and I was forced out around the spur off the north of Ristol by the beach, and out into the unknown. Over the horizon a band of pink clouds lay over the Outer Hebrides as I passed a lone gull (all white seabirds are ‘gulls’ to me) perched on a rock, guarding the way to the open sea. I had a print-out of Ristol on my lap to read each passing inlet if, for some reason I lost my nerve. But beyond the sentinel gull, conditions remained tame.
Encouraged, I headed in towards a tumbled cliff and the dark cleft of a sea cave, as wide as my boat is long. New to such probing and aware of the risks, last week while exploring the cliffs along the east side of Achnahaird Bay, I’d dared myself to paddle into a similar cave, catious but intrigued. As here, the over-amplified swell spooked me as it reverberated out from the dank base of the cave, and I was pleased to get out of there quick before some rogue wave came in and pinned me against the ceiling. It didn’t happen so, as with this whole game, you do something scary once and survive unscathed, you get used to it.
Back in the open and heading further out, I watched for the intimidating swells which never normally reach the lee of the Summer Isles where I usually paddle, but none came. Could it be so easy? I entered the 500-metre passage separating the back of Ristol with Eilean Mullagrach and decided the probability of making it across to that outer isle and back without ending up on the wrong end of an RNLI press release was really quite high. A few weeks ago we’d met some campervaners on Ben Mor Coigach mountain (above left), a great ridge walk that looks down on Loch Broom, Coigach and over to the Assynt. They were also packboaters and mentioned paddling their Advanced Elements double out to Eilean Mullagrach. Crikey, they’re braver than us I thought, as the weather was not so stable back then, but they explained they had a full complement of VHF, flares and all the rest. They’d mentioned an arch and a stack on Eilean Mullagrach which had intrigued me. I aimed across the passage towards a likely looking inlet of fallen rock, but as I neared it I pulled up, listening and watching the seabirds bobbing about like me, or taking a running paddle back into the air. It was nice to just kick back and relax at will instead of endlessly going somewhere before something bad happens; a common reaction to perceived exposure and anxiety, and not just when a mile offshore!
Fact is I’m morbidly fascinated and scared by the sea, which is partly why I was drawn to those two trans-Atlantic books. I’ve been reading a lot of other sea kayaking literature lately; back issues of OP magazine recounting unprecedented white-knuckle circumnavigations at record-breaking speeds, and just finished, Brian Wilson’s Blazing Paddles (quoted above). These yarns often sound like war memoirs; compelling and character-building experiences for sure, but not something I aspire to. Viewed from the outside, the UK scene seems to be one of testing yourself. Perhaps the prevalent conditions up here on the northwest coast demand it, because if you can handle it the reward is access to what must be one of the best sea kayaking locales in the world. But though I’m motivated by my own mini-challenges, such as reaching an island you could almost swim to, I’ve had my white-knuckle epics over the years doing other stuff.
At my age the appeal of sea kayaking is sedate touring which is what made Shark Bay such a memorable trip. Coast-hopping on calm, sunny days in warm water; what I’d class as ‘Mediterranean’ rather than Hebridean paddling. Like all the other means of transport I’ve used for more adventurous travels, a kayak is just the latest way of reaching and exploring wild places, rather than pitting myself against wild seas. Today, the edge of the Minch was more Aegean than Atlantic, and the calm conditions encouraged me to slow down and smell the sea breeze, nose around aimlessly or even just drift. For once no pressure to keep alert and moving in case an ill wind or foul tide called for the usual over-reaction.
As I turned into the inlet on Eilean Mullagrach, I saw the arch the campers had mentioned unfold before me (left), spanning 40 feet above the shore. At the top of the tide with the sea level 4 metres higher, it would be easy and fun to paddle under it in a low swell.
Pleased with my discovery I decided, heck let’s go crazy and carry on around Mullagrach too – or at least push out as far as I dare. I had no map for this island but knew it was about a quarter of the size of Big Ristol – 2 or 3 kms round – a lot less than an hour’s paddling, surely. As I rounded the southeast corner, there too was the stack I’d been told of, with the very same guardian gull on top, watching me like a beaky coastguard.
Again, at high water you could probably pass behind this stack; something to try for next time. I moved out west, into the dreaded Minch. With all land behind me, the light was suddenly much brighter, the pale blue sea stretching out to infinity. A light swell was breaking over some flooded skerries where a couple of cormorants looked out to the west as if waiting for something. Small jellyfish drifted past and I remebered how amazed I’d been to first encounter these exotic, dinner-plate sized blobs camping on the beaches of Arran in the mid-70s. Jellyfish? In Scotland? Whatever next – dolphins, harbour porpoises? We saw a pod playing out in the Bay one evening last week. Nice though it was to commune with nature, I was actually rather conscious of my exposure here and so paddled along briskly, keen to catch sight Reiff hamlet at the end of the Coigach peninsula, and the back of Isle Ristol soon after. At one point the swell got a little alarming and the boat squirrelled about, but I steadied my nerves – just keep paddling forward while avoiding the surf and rocks.
Coming round the north spur of Mullagrach where the low tide had annoyingly prolonged my excursion around another spur, what looked like a navy patrol boat came down from the north. What were they doing up here I wondered, and why were there people dressed as civilians on board? Perhaps it was something to do with the tall ships due into Loch Broom on the weekend, although the probable answer is right here.
By some geo-tectonic miracle, Isle Ristol turned up just where I’d left it less than an hour ago; with some relief my paddle past the edge of my known world was over. All that remained now was to dawdle back to Old Dornie, dipping in at an inlet or two along the way to see what I could find. At the back of one narrow chasm (left) among all the usual plastic detritus I picked out an odd buoy that looked like it was made of pewter (above left). Most probably it wasn’t a relic from the Mary Rose but merely corroded aluminium, but it struck me looking at it later it could be a circus bomb with a dangling fuse.
With it all at my doorstep and work that can wait, I’ve done some great paddling around the Coigach these past few months, but just as the weather’s settling it’s time to head back south. So, rounding the Isle I decided to head string things out and across to the ‘Wasp Factory’ bay where I’d had a memorable evening paddle when we first got here back in May. Today’s figure-of-eight tour of the Ristols had been a perfect climax to a short summer’s paddling in the Summer Isles. If you wait long enough, these days will come, even in northwest Scotland.