A few pictures from a 5-hour, 22-km paddle round the Summer Isles on a rare day of near-zero wind and hot, sunny skies. From Badenscallie I went south past Horse Island and Iolla Mhor to Carn nan Sgeir, a quick loop around Meall nan Caolach, just a mile from the south side of Loch Broom, then right across to Tanera Beg to revive the legs with a walk up to the summit, and finally back to Badentarbet. Noticeable is the lack of fatigue when there’s no wind or waves to cut through. I’d have been more tired walking the same distance. A few days and a bit more wind later, I did a 14-km lap round Tanera Beg and was pooped.
High pressure alert!No, my range of recreational leisurecraft weren’t about to blow, it’s the weather – and that’s not about to blow. Far from it. A high was about to lasso the north of Scotland with its concentric isobars. It may be mid-October but it’s been the sunniest and calmest spell up here for two months. Never mind Indian summer, this was turning into an Arapaho autumn. It all added up to good chance to make a break for that most troublesome and distant of the Summer Isles: Priest Island – or Eilean a’ Chleirich; ‘Island of Clerics’.
Whichever way you look at it Priest looks way out there for someone used to staying within a mile of the shore. Mainlandwise, it’s over six miles out of Old Dornie, nearly four miles off Mellon Udrigle on the other side, and a bit more from the end of the Scoraig peninsula. Far enough out to need the full length of a good day and someone for backup. Luckily Jon thought so too and rode up late Thursday night with his Peckett & McNabb Scorchio LV.
Friday, soon after dawn we were putting in at the top of the tide at Old Dornie. ETA Priest north shore: 2.5 hours. The forecast was a 6mph SE till late morning after which time it was set to drop right off to the southwest. Once clear of the back of Tanera Beg’s lee I expected things to kick up a bit. But what a difference it is having someone else along for the ride to quell the usual neuroses. Jon agreed that he too would be nervous of taking a run out to Priest alone, and he was sea kayaking by the book: UHF, spare paddle, bluetooth bilge pump and the Semaphore Handbook in six languages, including Gaelic. Of course, this was all in a day’s work for someone like Gael A who was up here a couple of years ago in an Incept K40 at the end of his Scottish Sea Kayak Trail when he wrote.
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 emphasised the eerie atmosphere; I felt like I was entering an unearthly space. From the SE tip of the Priest Island I carried on around the west side. It was another paddling paradise with endless features to explore in the good company of seabirds and seals.
Back to now and I was typically under-dressed, making a concession to the season with some Ron Hill leggings and my warmer pfd. It may have been mid-October but I knew I’d cook in my drysuit and as I guessed correctly, my high-waisted Kokotat overtrousers would complicate the inevitable pee breaks long before I got to set foot on Priest. Good thing a calm was setting in then. As we left Old Dornie Jon asked me to pull down his jammy skeg, and in the ten seconds it took me to locate it, my arm went numb with cold. Falling in out there would really not bear thinking about. The cold shock would lock your lungs like a slamming safe door. As it was, once past the back of Tanera Beg the sideslap never got that unnerving and as we sploshed along I knew not to be concerned if the distant dark crags of Priest appeared not to grow any nearer.
Only 90 minutes in the marker of Glas Leac Beag (small green rock – above) came up on the right. I visited the bigger counterpart, Glas Leac Mor the other week, but Glas Leac Beag’s consolation in an emergency was purely hypothetical as the only way to get on it would be to leap from a boat like a frog. Still, we were going quicker than I expected despite the chop and corrections against the sidewind. The skeg-rudder idea of fellow Gumotard, Jim, would have been handy here. Every once in a while I had to give a double haul on the right. Jon’s hardshell worked by balancing the variable drop of the skeg against the force of a sidewind which would otherwise push his stern round: more sidewind, more skeg, or something like that. In that sense skegs are more like optional rudders on hardshell cheesecutters which have no need of directional aids like windprone IK bloats.
Looking a Priest with the low sun in my face (above left) it was impossible to discern any perspective to the foreshore – it was all one long dark line of crags. The map lay right in my lap but who looks at maps once they’re on the move? I failed to recognise that the bouldered landing beach we were aiming for was further to the east, while we were heading down to the western end. Once I realised that, we changed course and passed the tip of Priest and an arch (not the needle-eye arch on the west end) which only Jon noticed. And as predicted, the wind dropped off to nothing.
We were searching for the cobble stoned beach created by the island’s NE/SW glacial gouging. We put in up a cleft (left) and staggered ashore, but it was all wrong – we had made the deadly mistake of pre-emption: scourge of the hasty navigator! If we wanted to spend any time on land, the dropping 12-foot tide would make getting back out of the cleft tricky.
Back into the boats on the slippery seaweed boulders – surely the most awkward and risky part of sea yaking, short of tackling a typhoon. Soon we got to the correct stony beach I’d clocked on Google. A stumbly 5-minute portage from here would have led to the glassy half-km-long Lochan Fada which cuts right to the heart of the island, one of nine freshwater sources on the Priest. But, great picture though it may have made, I was a bit pooped and more interested in ham butties. We sat on a hill overlooking the still lochan when Jon noticed the back of a signboard at the other landing beach. It was a plea by the island’s RSPB owners for visitors to be careful not to crush the burrows and eggs of the 2000-strong colony of storm petrels that inhabit Priest Island.
As it happens that was made easier by a few paths leading from the two landing beaches. One led past the RSPB shed from where I carried on to the south side to check out the ‘prehistoric’ stone circles. The ones I saw (picture far below) looked more like rude shepherd shelters than mysterious Neolithic monuments (there’s more on Wiki), but to be fair, I didn’t see the others just to the north. That was because it took a bit of reorienting to locate the island’s sole ruin, a substantial but roofless four-room bothy supposedly on the site of a sixth-century Christian chapel, suggesting an origin to the island’s name. I was curious to see this place as it’s said in 1975 a pair of unlikely criminals hid out here for a few months, on the run from a collapsing series of scams.
Google ‘Jim Miller and John Bellord, Southern Organs Scandal’ and you’ll soon find Geoff Green’s recent book: Paying for the Past. In it the author admits to falling under Miller’s mesmeric spell in the early sixties and eventually becoming one of the entrepreneurs’ close business associates. Along with many others, he was invited to make a quick buck by investing in loans to supposedly supply churches with expensive electric organs, and was later drawn into a racy, high-profile lifestyle as the manager of Southern Organs’ GP sponsorship endeavour. Alvin Stardust (right) and other celebs were part of the gang, but then around 1975 the whole cosy investment scam which supported the racing sponsorship began to crumble.
Although he knew nothing of the area, it was Green who came up with the idea for the pair to hide out on Priest Island. They jetted off on a long-overdue holiday to Calais, sent postcards back home saying they’d killed themselves, ferried back to Dover the same day where Green met them and drove up to Ullapool. He then RIB’ed over from Dundonnell to Priest, leaving them with provisions and an inadequate two-metre dinghy with an outboard.
I read the book curious to discover if this claim – that these urbane middle-aged gents (Miller lightly crippled with polio) could really have lived for ‘262 days’ on Priest Island, frying up storm petrel omelettes and brewing peat tea. Over eight months sounded far-fetched for two conmen fleeing a Rolls Royce-champagne-and-helicopter lifestyle before clumsily faking their suicides from Calais, like Reggie Perrin on telly, John Stonehouse the MP, Lucan and more recently, our hardshelled friend, Canoe Man. A desperate, ex-para axe-murdering survivalist might have been able to hack Priest for that long. But with these two, insisting as they did on a chemical toilet, it all seemed improbable. Crofting on the mainland is hard enough. What chance on a 120-hectare island, even with half-a-dozen lochans? On their release they went on to explain in a BBC documentary:
… the island had reaffirmed our belief in the simple things and helped us to clear away a mass of valueless and extraneous paraphernalia with which we, like so many, has cluttered our lives.
Paying for the Past is a bit light on clerical details and dates as, after dropping them off on Priest one stormy September day (a slightly over-written episode with some implausible embellishments, IMO), the author (left) was never to see his friends again. It’s only towards the end of the book that Green suggests they may not have been on the island anywhere near as long as he claims, and once recovered to the mainland, probably used their well-polished charm and remaining cash to secure local support in Ullapool, as explained in the book.
This video is part of a documentary that portrays the events from the point of view of a psychic detective who was hired by the Express, though it wasn’t shot on Priest Island. And for all our man’s alleged clairvoyance, it was simply the police tip-off from Geoff Green (under pressure from legions of debtors and with leniency guaranteed) that got the two arrested in Ullapool. Ironically though, it was Miller’s similar esoteric beliefs in radionics, among other ‘faith healing’ therapies, that founded and then funded what became the duo’s glamourous empire.
When I found the ruin in which they say they hid, it was clearly not your average Coigach crofter’s bothy, but a more substantial dwelling supposedly built on the site of an old chapel, either by a sixth-century monk on retreat, or a banished sheep rustler with a talent for masonry. As a sign (right) we saw on the Dundonnell Estate near Scoraig last week proves, ovine rustling is still an issue here in the wild nor’ west.
The way Green tells it, it was his auspicious discovery and reading of Frank Fraser Darling’s book Island Years, Island Farm (1943, left) which gave him the bright idea for the pair to hide out on Priest Island until it all blew over. Apparently, Miller and Bellord had holidayed in Ullapool and were fond of the area – that was all it took. Any bushcraft savvy they could pick up along the way. Darling’s Island Years mostly deals with experimenting with sustainable crofting agriculture on Tanera Mor (left) in the early 1940s (Island Farm), but he and his resilient family first tried to give a go for a few months on Priest Island a few years earlier. Having now read that book I wouldn’t say the account of Arctic-grade tents being torn to shreds would evoke a great place for a hideaway holiday, but as we know with northwest Scotland, when the weather is calm it’s brilliant, and when it’s not you just knuckle down.
The Fraser Darling family went on to camp on the Treshnish even endured a spell on North Rona where the author had been funded to study grey seals and their effect on commercial fishing.
Miller and Bellord come across as an intriguing pair and you can see why their background, interests and activities captured the attention of the media, and why Geoff Green’s 2014 book has gone down well with readers.
In this video published by Green a couple of weeks ago he returns again to Priest Island, but in it he mistakes the hut circles I saw (left) for the bothy which appears on the 25k OS map shown on this page, and even more clearly on Google aerial imagery. It remains as intact as it was in the first, 1979 BBC Everyman documentary featured at the end of the video above, with a bit of unsightly plastic rubbish in the adjacent burn – a job for the next RSPB volunteer visit, or anyone with a bin bag and space.
Anyway. Enough true crime confessionals. We returned to the boats and headed southeast across the big bay towards some interesting looking cliffs and clefts. One chasm led deep into the crag with promising daylight peaking out the far end. We edged in deeper, pushing off the sides, and between the swells got far enough through to see there was no way out at this point, halfway down the tide. We tried from the other end, slipping behind the outer stack visible on aerial images, but that too needed at least another foot of water to paddle through. Finally at Aird Glas, Priest’s eastern extremity, we managed to paddle behind a stack and commence our glide across the now mirrored water to Bottle Island.
It all seemed so effortless. We could have aimed at any Summer Isle we chose – over to Carn nan Sgeir even – and paddled straight there with ease. What was all the fuss about? On Bottle I was hoping to lead Jon through the southern passage I found last year, but as on Priest, the water was too low to pass through the narrower exit tunnel (right).
All that remained now was to follow the island chain over to nearby Carn Iar/Deas and from there pass over the sandy green channel of Caolas nan Sgeirean Glasa (I throw all these Gaelic names about like I didn’t just type them carefully off an OS map). We pulled in for tea break on the jetty of Eilean Dubh, ahead of the final six-mile surge back to Old Dornie. I found this handy refuge last year and we agreed that a: the jetty was a bit short for the tidal span and b: even if it’s nice to have a secluded island cabin (right) well sheltered from the prevailing winds, it had a comparatively ordinary view back towards Achiltibuie and a chilly, sunless aspect this time of year.
The tide was on the turn now as we passed Tanera’s tidal lagoon and crossed Badetarbet Bay on home ground. I’d been asked to pick up some heavy bags of winkles somewhere on the north side of the bay on Rubhan na Buaile and drop them off at Old Dornie. But clambering along the grubby shore while Jon towed my boat, neither of use could find any trace of them. There was clearly a need for some CCTV surveillance around here, too.
We got back to Old Dornie just as everything was getting bathed in the same rosy-orange glow it has been when we set out, nine hours earlier. And after 30 clicks of sea paddling and very little similar exercise, I wasn’t as shagged as I’d expected to be, something that I’d partly put down to a lack of tension of not doing it alone.
The Bottle Island run last year was 22km but pushing the bow of the Amigo had been enough of a slog to make me buy the Seawave. I think there’s barely one kph in it, but that’s nearly 20%, and with the Seawave’s many other benefits not least its sharper bow, I can conclude that, like the name suggests, it’s a better all-round sea boat, and also that Priest Island would be a great place to revisit.
It’s taken a few visits, adding up to over a year up here, but I do declare I am running out of new things to paddle in the Coigach and Summer Isles area. A seven-mile run out to Priest Island – the very, very, very last of the Summer Isles – would be less edgy if not alone, while all the coasts from Lochinver round to Ullapool and up to the back of Loch Broom have been surveyed at least once. About a year ago that I did my (for me) epic run out to Bottle Island, just a stone’s throw from Priest.
September does seem to be a reliably good month up here. Well, better than August – an old Highland truism. Another unexpected day of blue skies and light winds with the northwest pinned between a ‘Double Zero Low’, the sort of meteorological phenomenon that gives weatherpersons the munchies.
We decide to motor off the peninsula, along the Wee Mad Road (WMR) and past Lochinver to Clashnessie – a Norse word meaning ‘Battle of the Sea Monsters’. Here we paddled out towards the high arch before Point of Stoer and the beach at Culkein for lunch..
From Culkein beach there was a clear view right across western Sutherland to the quartzite mountains of Arkle, Foinaven, and the sea cliffs ending at Cape Wrath. I thought about crossing the bay directly via the Eilean Chrona for Oldany Island channel. But it was a Spring tide going out so the flow may have been in our face by the time we reached the channel. Why wear yourself out on openish water? It would have added another 8 miles, ending with a rocky run back to the Clash of Nessies, just to explore a small area, and who knows what the weather might be doing by then.
So we headed back to Nessie beach, letting the swell you so often notice in these north-oriented bays, lift the boat as it rolled inshore to crash against the rocks. Directly ahead was Quinaig mountain (left). I’ve said it before: it’s one of the best day’s hill walks here in the Assynt. I’d long wanted to poke around the scattered skerries and islets between Oldany Island and Drumbeg. We drove up the Drumbeg road, where one time a mate and I had staggered against a gale, looking for the car after slackrafting the Lewisian barrens. Soon enough a small turn off led north to a ruined jetty at tiny Culkein Drumbeg.
Coming north, as soon as you get on the WMR you begin to see a different ecology. Hard to pin down what exactly: less bleak and peat sodden than Coigach. Perhaps it’s due to the Lewisian gneiss bedrock, because the Torridian sandstone was scraped off like an icky marzipan crust by the Ice Age and dumped into the Minch, to wash up on the beaches of the Western Isles just in time for Castaway. More birds dash about, the flora’s subtly different with a few more pockets of old-growth trees which have been picked clean or long blown away on Coigach. Perhaps the Stoer headland protects Oldany a bit, but it feels more like Plockton than the blustery northwest.
We set off for the hidden isthmus beach somewhere out here, scattering more seals as we went. Not bothering with the GPS to record moving averages, I’ve recently finally found a handy way to mount an easy-to-read compass on the Seawave, tucking it under the deck bar mount tabs. It was already proving handy to follow the NW bearing suggested by the map, out via the islets to the secret beach.
As we approached the sands we startled some hardy and doubtless Nordic skinny-dippers with their parked up Sevy Sirocco. Once beached, we politely took off in the other direction until they had regained their modesty. Soon a couple of hardshellers rocked up too – kayak rush hour on Oldany Island beach. Perhaps it’s not such a secret after all.
A small bothy sits perched on the spit of grass which separates the two beaches. Hardshell man told me it was a private dwelling once rented to a local doctor by the Edinburgh owners, and even had a phone line installed in case someone’s baby was born early. It was another detailed ownership report the like of which you won’t find online. Our busy beach made an altogether lovely prospect of sand, grass and the azure sea beyond, abob with skerries and distant peaks. Plus kayaks in red, blue, green and mango.
Back afloat, we took the long way back to the jetty, nipping round to the south to check out where the channel went. That could be a fun run at the right stage of a big ebbing tide. In the car, we carried on clockwise around the coastal road. Even more than the WMR, this Drumbeg road is hardly level for a moment and would be a good work out on a pushbike. Back on the main road, in Unapool we stopped off for a brew at the Rock Stop Cafe. A retired couple there were trying to track down the rude Withnailian cottage they’d honeymooned at no less than half a century ago. They’d not been up to the northwest in 50 years and Rientraid, overlooking the Kylesku bridge, had rung a bell. We told them about The Kerracher Man book which was set nearby, but about a decade later.
In the cafe there was Rocky Road in the cake cabinet and a geology map on the wall. Pink is your 3 billion-year-old under-icing of Lewisian gneiss; the orange is a creamy overlay of Torridian sandstone. Interestingly, the map showed Horse Island as the only Summer made of gneiss. Who’d have known? High time then to get your schist together and watch a geology lesson.
We’ve had some good here sunsets lately and even a green boreal glow a couple of weeks back. The other night the stormy orange clouds reminded me of the cover of Argonauts of the Western Isles – a great title for a lovely memoir by Robin Lloyd-Jones about sea kayaking on the west coast. I’ve only just realised it’s a take on Brondo Malinowski’s seminal 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific which, unless I’m very much wiki-mistaken ‘redefined the ethnographic genre’.
Actually now I see the cover, it’s nothing like my photo, it’s much worse, though might have worked without that tilted horizon. But don’t let that put you off if you’ve not read it. It’s a wonderful tale that covers years of paddling up here, from post-war bathtubs and broomsticks to the start of the sea kayaking boom.
Stuck out in outer Loch Broom, the little hoof-print shaped island of Carn nan Sgeir (above) lies midway between Horse Island and the Scoraig peninsula on the southern mainland. Some call it Bird Island and four times a day the CalMac ferry passes close by, sometimes to the north, sometimes to the south. Nearly a mile-and-a-half from land, I figured getting to Carn would be a good simulation of a more exposed run out to Priest Island (marked below). Plus on the sat image it looked like an unusual place, separated at all but the highest tides by a single, shingle isthmus.
I came across this Summer Isles sea kayaking report by some intrepid members of the Braintree Canoe Club. In a week out of Ardmair they managed to do what’s taken me years, and that included two days windbound below Ben Mor mountain and an overnight on Carn nan Sgeir where, from their gallery, it looks like they saw a great sunset. And here another more recent report from the area with pics and maps: Gruinard Bay (Mellon, below) up past Stoer and Handa Island.
Mid-August but sometimes it feels like autumn has already arrived up here. Compared to a few weeks ago the light is thinner and there’s a chill in the air. Jon turned up, not having used his orange Scorpio LV since our outings here last year. On the day the weather wasn’t great so we set off from Badenscallie Beach opposite Horse Island for a splash about. Dark clouds pressed down on the steely swell and a westerly F4 made for a bouncy ride (above) until we got into the lee of Horse. The tide was up so we headed for the flooded gap between Horse and Meall nan Gabhar just to assure ourselves we didn’t want to go through it and out into the open.
Instead, we tracked down the lee side of Horse to the southern point where we again pushed out into the winds. At times the front third of Jon’s long LV was launching off the crests, but considering he’d not paddled it for ages, he was managing fine. Perhaps these plastic coffins can be mastered after all? From any direction the Amigo handled it all too, with a brief squirt from Jon’s handy bilge pump by way of a rest.
We mucked around alongside the surf breaking over the skerry of Iolla Mor and eyed up Carn nan Sgeir, some 2km away. We could make a run and probably make it, or we could play it safe. With the forecast set to worsen, we settled for a loop round Iolla, scattering some seals, then dithered again over making a break for Carn. Discretion prevailed again, so instead we landed on Horse Island and hacked through the chest-high bracken to the 60-metre summit cairn. As the disturbed birds wheeled over our heads, we looked over to isolated horseshoe of Carn and the thick clouds swathing the Torridons beyond.
A couple of days later all looked calm out the window towards Tanera, but that was because the hill behind us was sheltering the northwest wind. I didn’t notice that until leaving Badenscallie, and very soon the Grabner felt oddly squirrelly, pivoting left on each crest. Approaching Iolla Mor again and now in the lee of Horse, things flattened off but I knew once past that point the 4-5 mile fetch building up from Badentarbet Bay might get a bit much. And so it did, pushing the boat around as it started to white cap. By the time a wave flopped over the side I’d scaled down my plans to tap Carn with the paddle and shoot back. I pressed on for a bit with that in mind but the seas seemed to be rising and it could be a nerve-wracking hour getting back. Less than ten minutes from the Carn, I turned around and scurried back to Badenscallie.
A period of calm, that’s what I needed to enjoy a relaxed paddled and look around Carn, rather than making it into a hurried dare. That afternoon came, but it didn’t stop me paddling out from Badenscallie at full steam, knowing that in a couple of hours it may all change. In the rush I’d forgotten map, GPS and watch, but I knew the way and with the clock in the camera I timed the 3 miles to the north tip of Carn nan Sgeir at just over 40 minutes. By that point sweat was wringing in my eyes, but the way the Amigo tracked in such unusually flat conditions was quite an eye opener.
As I neared the shore of Carn, numerous seals slipped into the water and soon no less than forty of them were bobbing all around, eyeing me up. I’ve never seen so many seals up here. They followed me like a fleet of U-boats as I paddled around to the stony isthmus, and were still watching as I walked from the boat.
Getting to Carn’s high point took three minutes but doing so set off the dozing midges. As I reached the pole and rag marking the summit, the ferry was coming in from Stornaway, today passing south of the island. Midges made further exploration a misery, so I took a quick look at the grassier and less infested north isle then headed back to Badenscallie at a more relaxed pace. By now the wind had dropped right off and I stopped a few times to enjoy the silence, broken only by the splash of a seal or a distant guillemot flapping off the water. I couldn’t get over it, there seemed something uncanny about how well the boat was tracking, perhaps I’d not yet paddled in such a calm. As a test I closed my eyes and paddled on for a minute; two times out of three I remained bang on target for the beach – the other time I was off at 90 degrees. As I neared the beach a light north breeze started up, just as predicted, and in a couple of hours the sun would emerge below the cloud ceiling’s western edge to make for another sunny evening. As I’d found a few weeks ago when I paddled to Lochinver, and then around Rubha Coigach, when it’s calm up here you feel you can almost walk across the water to anywhere you like.
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.
The calm continued and with it the paddling. Today we tried the Grabner Amigo two-up around Tanera Beg island out of Old Dornie. I’d <a class="wp-gallery mceItem" style="color: #000000;" title="Summer Isles Overnighter camped on the island with Jon one time but have never been right round it. For some reason I assumed better the greater weight of me in the back and half-my-weight Mrs out front. But looking at the seating positions (image below right), back is quite far back and full frontal is only a little more forward than the solo position. So the heavier person out front centres the mass a little better on the boat which must be better for control and response.
We set off me in the back, but suggestions on improving the forward operator’s poor technique and asymmetric delivery led to discord and erratic progress, as the speed recordings below testify. To be fair the g is way out of practice and also hadn’t had two hard days of paddling to tone up. However, claims that her inability to paddle straight was due to my diet and general girthlyness in the stern will have to be settled in due course by BCU lawyers.
Meanwhile, in the narrower back it was a tight squeeze for my (allegedly fat) arse and soon my legs – like my ears – were going numb. I’d initially perched on a spare Gumotex thwart but that felt unstable. It was better sat on the floor, jammed in. In this position my feet were against the back of the gf, so there’s only just enough room for my legs. As we passed between the two Taneras where a fishing boat was checking pots, I spotted an easy portage over Eilean Fada Mor, an island between the two Taneras. It gave a bit of a short-cut, but more usefully a chance to restore circulation in my legs.
We swapped places here too, although one lean back on my new q/d back strap arrangement (left, a replacement for the alloy Grabner bar which bends too easily) broke the black plastic clip. I fed a spare krab through the seat strap and tied off the other end with some cord so that clip wouldn’t break too. I was expecting such issues and anyway, big karabiners are easier to use when swapping seats (see Grabner Mods). With the force on the Grabner rubber mounting lugs now coming from an unintended angle rather than directly back when using the seat bar, I’m trying to spread and articulate the loads with cord. But with only 3 square inches of contact, even if the lugs were factory glued, I feel I ought to glue on some 4.5-inch ø D-rings instead (as on the Solar; over 15 square inches of contact). Whether it’s just my clumsiness or all this weight I hear about, it’s clear that the strain on seat mounts is greater than I thought, especially with footrests to push back off. As it was, with no footrests in the full-forward position I couldn’t rest fully against the prototype back strap, but as I noticed before, proper paddling is much easier out front as the boat narrows towards the bow. That’s another thing with big, single sidetube IKs: they’re over wide for good paddling. As it happens, should I want a footrest tube I do have a D-ring glued on the front floor in about the right place.
Back to the story. We were now back in paddling harmony and heading into mare incognita, the southeast corner of Tanera Beg where I’d heard there was an arch. And there it was – a very nice one too that could be paddled right through (this was 90 mins after spring HW). Its exposed position made the roof deeply scalloped by storms and weathering, reminding me of the similarly carved limestone walls of northwest Australia’s Geikie Gorge which we packrafted a year or two back. Amazingly, out here on the ocean-side of the Summers there was barely a swell or a breeze to disturb our composure. Though an hour’s paddle away, Priest Island looked enticingly near. And from Priest it’s less than 5 miles to Mellon Udrigle beach at the top of Gruinard Bay on the south side of Loch Broom. Or from either Tanera island you can take a 10-mile loop south to Priest and back north via the smaller Eilean Dubh and a few other ‘Outer Summers’. One for the next calm day and a paddling chum for back up.
We felt like we were making good speed across the south side of Tanera Beg, although rarely got over 4mph. At the southeast corner was a huge cave – big enough to break the GPS signal. With a small window at the back this will become another full arch by around AD6565. This whole exposed side of the island has deeply weathered Torridon sandstone cliffs full of interestingly rounded cracks and fissures. Tanera Beg, like the bigger Mor has the same ‘waisted’ kidney shape presumably carved by the icecap along existing fault lines. Like mountain col, the ‘waists’ usually correspond with bays backed with a handy stony beach though flat camping needs a bit more of a walk. Had the Ice Age been a bit longer (or when the polar ice caps are gone) there’ll be a few more Summer Isles to go round.
We then paddled below the 20-m cliffs on the north edge of the island (left). On a stormy day they reflect the brunt of the swells and throw up plumes of white spray over the cliffs themselves which can be visible from the road, miles away. Today, all we had to worry about was the peak of the ebbing spring tide in an hour’s time. Who knows if it mattered, but I’d deliberately circumnavigated Tanera Beg clockwise so as not to be in the inter-island channel where the current ebbing against us might have been more noticeable.
Heading back to Old Dornie the speeds indeed seemed to drop, even though we were going as fast as possible in an effort to catch the weekly fish van down in Achiltibuie. At one point the kayak slowed right down as it passed over some unseen current or eddy thrown out by Isle Ristol. But that soon passed and with a quick turnaround in Old Dornie, it’ll be fresh local halibut for dinner. So, closely analysing the data in the speed graph it seems that two-up doesn’t make the Amigo much faster than solo after all – perhaps it’s the same with tandems? I suppose the additionally weighted hull can only be pushed through the water so fast and then an IK’s unsophisticated hydrodynamics come against a wall. Instead, two-up enables greater potential duration as the paddling load is shared – and let’s not overlook the companionable element of two in a boat, as long as everyone is sitting in the right place and on form.
A couple of years ago I did a speed test on my then-new Incept K40 over three and a bit miles from Old Dornie to Badentarbet beach via Tanera Mor island.
I recall setting out flat-out on a cool, calm evening, cruising hard close to 5mph at times, with a burst after a rest up to 5.2, after which my energy levels tailed right off because I was well and truly pooped. I recently decided to replicate that route in similarly calm conditions and see how my new Grabner compared.
Prior to that we were out yesterday in windier and choppier conditions when, with a 10-15mph back wind I averaged about 4mph with a burst up to 5.3. Coming back into the wind we decided to try the Amigo two-up, as it only requires the front backrest moving forward. Towing the Solar together we managed a steady and sustainable 3mph with a burst of 3.8 into the stiff breeze. And on a quick spell downwind we got up to 4.8mph. It’ll be interesting to see what we can manage two-up when not towing a kayak
Though twice the weight of the g’f, I sat in the front and got pretty wet from the chop, but up here found the Amigo’s narrowed beam and lack of annoying finger-snagging seat lugs made paddling easier, even without a footrest to brace off. We seemed to clash paddles less than the last time we did two-up in the Sunny on the Vezere in France. Perhaps there’s more space between the seats in the Amigo even though it’s overall 10cm shorter than a Sunny.
As it happens once back on the beach, a French couple in a motorhome were drying off their Gumotex Solar 410C. They’d also been put off from exploring the Summer Isles by the offshore wind. They set out this morning and I see that the two seats do look quite close (ropey photo at max zoom on the right). I mention this because, as a reminder, I rate my discontinued Grabner Amigo as very similar to Gumo’s Solar 410C (see table below). Main difference is more pressure in my Amigo make it a stiffer and probably faster boat – but at twice the price of the Solar while you can still buy it. Back to the speed comparison test. Today was a calm day with a light wind from the southwest and when I set off the tide just beginning to ebb.
I’m getting accustomed to the thigh straps and the homemade footrest is great. Pulling inwards with the knees to brace off the straps and so transmit more power in the stroke isn’t something I could do for too long, I decided. I think the straps are more useful for last-ditch bracing against tipping in rough seas or rapids. But even then, allied with the footrest they do help connect you as well as you can be in an open-decked IK. Yesterday I’d found the backrest made my back hurt, perhaps because I have those footrests to push off. I’m still not convinced by this rigid backrest arrangement anyway. The cut-down packraft seat is fine (while it lasts) but that bar keeps disengaging from the rubber lugs (since fixed) and I think I’ve already bent it just be leaning too hard while moving about. It won’t be too hard to either get a thicker-gauge backrest bar made or dispense with it altogether and fit something like an Incept blow-up seat using the current lugs (although I see from what I thought here that maybe that’s not the answer). And as mentioned, those forward lugs painfully snag my fingers every once in a while.
Anyway, with barely a break I belted across to Tanera as fast as I could, leaning on a bit of karrimat taped to the seat back which did the trick. I averaged just under 4mph where the Incept had managed about 4.6. That’s also the top speed I clocked in a flat-out burst in the Grabner just before reaching the island, although on both occasions this sort of effort was not sustainable.
On the second leg back to the beach I had a light wind behind me but as I neared the pier I thought I could feel the pull of the outgoing tide. Unlike in the Incept, my energy and speed didn’t drop off much as I approached the beach and I got across at what felt like an all-day sustainable 3.8, with some spells recorded at up to 4.5mph without trying.
What the heck does it all mean? Well, it’s the not-so-startling revelation that the slimmer and two-foot longer Incept K40 was indeed a faster IK than the Grabner (two tracks overlaid on the left). Overall the Grabner is around 20% slower than the Incept.
At times at sea or on near-still rivers I do feel like I’m pushing the wide-nosed Grabner like a packraft. That’s another benefit of twin-side tubes, I now realise: a sharper bow is formed, as found on Grabner’s Holiday models too. On the right you can see that’s more plough than bow and must add up to a more effort over a long day, limiting compatibility with hard-shells for full-day runs like this.
And look at that wake I recall forming a similar conjecture (picture) about how the Sunny ruffled the water when compared to a hardshell’s sculpted bow. Or indeed look again at the Incept’s moderate wake at the top of the page. But then this is all for flatwater operations. In a swift river like those of the <a class="wp-gallery mceItem" style="color: #000000;" title="Kayaking and packrafting in southern France Massif I’m sure the shorter Amigo will be easier to handle than a K40 and so the compromise stands. It’s just that up here the best paddling is in the sea. Surprisingly I don’t miss the Incept’s rudder, having spent years in skeg-only IKs before getting the Incept.
Right now the skies are slate grey while white horses gallop across the sound and the washing hangs horizontally. Ardmair just recorded 49mph. But as often happens up here, Sunday was forecasted as sunny with winds of just 4-5mph; a perfect day to paddle the 15-odd miles to Ullapool. Come the morning the predictions had inched up to 6-7mph, still manageable. Even the three-metre tide was with us, turning as we set off from the awkwardly rocky shore below my place (below right) for a run that we figured would span the six hours until high water at Ullapool.
Six of seven mph winds don’t sound much, but coming right at us from the SSE it was enough to raise a chop of up to a foot over which my K40 slapped like a RIB. Jon’s Scorchio LV cut stealthily through the wavelets like a blacked-out commando with a knife in his teeth. You got to hand it to these proper sea kayaks, they look as good as they go, until you need to hop in or out of one or carry it on your head. As it was in the conditions we had we were pretty evenly matched.
An hour later we were abreast of Horse Island and heading out into mare incognita. But not before I’d lost half my paddle. I was just thinking I really must get a leash for this thing for windier days, even if it means yet more entangleable cordage lying across the cockpit. As I made this vow I decided to wipe the sweaty right grip in the crook of my elbow, and in doing do, popped the button and flung half the paddle over the side. Mayday-mayday! Jon took a while to manoeuvre his 17-foot cheese-cutter into position, although I probably could have retrieved it using the single paddle. Must remember not to do that again. As we entered Horse Sound the wind rose into double figures and white caps formed so we bowed our heads towards the point at Rubha Dubh Ard opposite the guillemot-clad skerry of Iolla Beag (see map). We then passed the last of the dwellings around Culnacraig and edged towards the 2400-foot mass of Ben Mor Coigach which tops out just a mile from the shore. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the steepest summit-to-sea gradient in the UK. Slip up there and you’d roll uninterrupted straight down into the sea with a huge splash.
Two hours hard work on deck and it was high time for a refuel, so we set our sights on a beach formed by the creek which runs off the back of Ben Mor. But with more slip, slap and slop over the waves, it took twice as long as it looked to get actually there (left). It’s since occurred to me why. In this pic the ordinary-looking mountain seems quite near, but its actually an unusually big 2400-foot (730m) mountain far away. Or we were just slow.
After the spell of fairly intense paddling, walking on the stony shore took some adjustment, but it was good to unbend. Up above a lone walker was pacing the thin path which runs along this steep, exposed coast east towards Ardmair.Duringa snack I kicked about among the usual enigmatic flotsam: a giant tennis ball, a baby elephant’s welly and a Filipino flip flop. I picked up a bit of old rope to sell on ebay later while Jon pinched some nice stones for his giant aquarium back home. During our break the wind had abated a little and as we set off again through a seal patrol, Isle Martin helpfully blocked the wind-borne fetch from the southeast. The creased, folded and weathered sandstone of guano-covered red cliffs drifted by, suggesting a second visit on a calmer day, but it was after 2 o’clock so we decided to save our energy and clipped the edge of the Isle. We didn’t want to leave it too late and end up paddling tired up the narrow part of Loch Broom on a turning tide and a headwind.
As it was I was hoping to snatch a quick sail (left) as we turned briefly southwest towards Rubha Cadail lighthouse, but while I did creep forward perceptibly, it was hardly worth it; bad angle and too much lee off the point. Still, the good thing with the Pacific Action sail is that it’s light, lies out of the way and is no effort to flick up on the off chance of a breeze. Rounding the stumpy lighthouse near Rhue, (below right), we could look back across outer Loch Broom to Polbain and the Summer Isles – maybe we should have planned the day in the opposite direction. Whatever, now it was time for the final 3.5-mile stomp into the wind to Ullapool jetty, hoping that the afternoon ferry from Stornoway wouldn’t sneak up from behind and wash us into the middle of next week.
I observed that Jon typically cruised at four strokes for my five and put it down to the superior glide of his hip-wide LV. In fact he was deploying a textbook exemplification of PPT or ‘proper paddling technique’, instilled by his personal paddling trainer (also PPT). I’d read about this technique in books: put blade in by your feet while turning torso and pull back by re-pivoting the torso, not just pulling on the arms like an ape climbing a vine. It worked; I was a bit faster but it all felt a bit stilted and robotic, not the way I naturally paddle, for better or for worse.
However you do it – ape-vine or PPT – it’s fun to paddle a little kayak into a port used to big boats coming and going from who knows where. Ullapool sea front milled lightly with late-summer tourists and it’s possible to interpret one’s arrival as faintly heroic in their eyes, at least compared to a gannet floating beak-down in an oil slick. Sunburned, crusted with wind-dried salt and not a little stiff, we pulled our boats ashore just over six hours after leaving Polbain. With probably five hours of actual paddling to cover what was indeed only 15 miles but felt more, that’s a fairly ordinary 3mph moving average. Not something to get Ullapool’s summertime bunting in a flutter. Had the headwind been stronger it would have turned into a right old slog, but always with the option of a take-out and ice cream at Ardmair then an a hour’s walk to the car.
We did wonder what it must be like doing this day after day out here as say, Gael has done lately. We celebrated with a creamy cappucho and a slab of buttered fruitcake at the Ceilidh Place (as good as it gets in Ullapool). Recharged and with the anatomical creaks re-oiled, we reckoned we could have pushed on for another three hours if we really had to. But we didn’t so we popped into Tescos for more saccharine tucker and drove home.