A few shots from our first visit to the Summer Isles in 2006 with my original Gumotex Sunny and Mk1 Safari and when it seems the weather was unusually good for August. One day we paddled out as far as Tanera Mor and Tanera Beg, as well as Achnahaird and Loch Sionascaig and Osgaig and thought it was all a huge adventure.
Don’t get excited, we’re talking a few hundred metres of Class 1.1, but that’s as good as it gets around here. We’ve had a lot of rain in the last week, enough to make the only paddleable river – the short Osgaig – worth a poke with a paddle. I was here with the Yak last year at slightly lower levels, so this time was expecting a smoother run in the Solar (now with an improved seat-foot set up), followed immediately by a comparison run in the Alpacka Yak.
Gumotex Solar IK The good thing with the Solar is it’s old, worth next to nothing but tough, so can be dragged like a hardshell with the Yak in the back. I considered jury rigging some thigh straps; it could be done now through the new footrest pipe and around the seat mounts, but looking at the river as I drove up, it wasn’t really worth it. Thigh straps are what makes any deckless boat – air-filled or hard-shelled – much more controllable when things get choppy. Even WW packrafters insist straps are the way to go.
With the skeg off, it’s easy to seal launch off a grassy bank and into the scrum just below the waterfall which looks a bit complicated so was no less inviting this year. As I spilled over the first little step I tried surfing like people do. But the Solar wasn’t especially dynamic or there wasn’t a strong enough recirculation going on to make it feel interesting. So I swung round and set off. Even at full flow, the Osgaig is a shallow, bony river better suited to an injection-molded TNP ‘spaddle’, not 220 quid’s worth of carbon-light Werner Corry which was picking up new scrapes as I jabbed at the water to keep the boat on line. It was really quite effortful with the Solar, at 3m or nearly 10 feet it’s perhaps a bit long for this sort of thing. I hit the one or two rapids full face, kicking up a satisfying splash and remembering that ‘bring it on’ exhilaration when trying an IK and white watering for the very first time on the Salmon River in Idaho all those years ago.
The river branched near the Loch; left looked all froth but too shallow so I swung right but again scrapped and shoved from one bar to the next. I was hoping to make it all the way to Loch Osgaig but up ahead I saw the tree strainer I recalled from last year so, stuck on another rock and by now steaming out of the ears in my heavy drysuit, I stepped out and walked back upriver.
Alpacka Yak Packraft A few minutes later I hopped into the snug Yak, spun round and slipped over the first drop. Spinning back, I tried to surf as I’d just done in the Sunny but it wasn’t happening. I guess the Yak is just too wide, light and too much drag to fight the flow. Off I went downstream, trying to avoid getting snagged while lining up to take the peak of what waves there were. Jammed in the yellow tub, sat lower and with higher sides, it felt much more responsive than the longer Solar and so was less effort to ride. Perhaps part of it was that a good line is less vital; most of the rapids I could have taken backwards and that added up to more fun. So there it is: a tight-fitting packraft is more fun on easy white water than a 3-metre IK. When I got snagged towards the end, I just stepped out, threw the boat ashore, and staggered out over the slimy boulders.
I’ve had Alpackas a couple of years now but I’ve been a bit slow about trying out bikerafting. I like pushbiking, walking or packrafting in the wilds and combining walking with paddling = packrafting to me and is well suited to northwest Scotland. But add a bike and any off-roading becomes marginal; most of the time you’ll be pushing or carrying, especially with an overnight load. No MTB is really rideable on the footpaths up here (plus cycling on footpaths is bad form). Off the footpaths at times you can barely walk, let alone ride a bike.
I like the simplicity of walking with paddling – you can traverse both surfaces most anywhere you like. A pushbike requires rideable terrain and on an Alpacka gobbles up payload, space and buoyancy, requiring you to design routes that combine flat water with ridable terrain or even roads to make the most of the configuration. Then you got the faff of securing the bike reliably to the boat (or so I thought); the last thing you want mid-loch is 15 kilos of Cro-Mo steel slipping off and turning into an anchor just as the wind kicks up.
But let’s give it a try. The winds had backed down to a forecast 15mph (yesterday it was three times that) so we nipped out with the Gumotex Solar for a scoot around Loch Oscaig. I hadn’t tried it before, but with the front wheel off, strapping the bike on was actually pretty easy. The four Alpacka loops line up just right and two short straps plus the boat’s bow line were enough to secure the load without even a smear of chain grease. A loop of inner tube was handy to hook the handlebars around the top tube to stop one end dragging in the water. Once on the water, my arrangement was by chance correctly balanced, too.
My bike’s at the time was a single-speed Marin with hydraulic brakes so there were no cables to worry about rusting, but on the move it was clear the back wheel got in the way of a full stroke on the left, making for unbalanced paddling. I got used to it but for a longer stage it would be better removed, even if it leaves the chain flapping around. To me it’s a light bike, but the Marin probably weighs 30lbs, about the same as overnight loads I’ve carried. The good thing is, such a weight on the front of the Yak only improves the tracking by reducing yawing.
The wind got up while we were out and at the downwind end of the loch it got a little choppy with splash coming over the sides, but the Yak bobbed over it. Here the Mrs set off against the wind for the two clicks back to the boathouse, while I hopped out, unloaded, aired down, rolled up and rode back along the road.
Having now tried it I’m a bit less sceptical about bikerafting. On the boat it was less of an encumbrance than I thought. I’m not sure it would work well up here in the Assynt without contriving a route, but maybe all packraft trips are contrived to a certain extent, and anyway the motorable roads here are very quiet.
I suppose the real advantage of a bike with a raft over walking is that, providing the terrain is amenable, greater distances can be covered off the water which extends your range. But combining a multi-day trip with a bike away from roads gets challenging. I’m thinking of something like the 2008 Lost Coast bikerafting trip in Alaska I read about a few years ago, which ran northwest from Yakutat. Roman Dial, Erik Parsons (from ’08) and a couple of other guys did a similar route last year, but heading southeast towards Glacier Bay this time. Check out their superb vid below or Roman’s blog post and pics. The vid doesn’t not show much rafting but look at the route maps: they sure put in the days on the water.
Windy but warm and dry thanks for asking – a good afternoon to take the IK out sailing. I’ve not done that since Ningaloo last September (left) when I was blown away so to speak, but not in a good way. Even before then I can’t say I’d got the hang of the Pacific Action V-sail which should add up to either hurtling from crest to crest with all hands on deck – or kicking back and getting a free ride while looking around at 3mph. Both are good fun but neither scenario seems to last more than a minute for me.
Remounting the V-sail to the K40 was easy. I clipped the front ‘sail-hoisting’ bungie about 8 inches further forward, right out on the boat’s nose using a loop of string and tape (right) as opposed to using the boat’s lift handle-ring. Fixed here it ought to help keep the sail up when pulled down low to one side by increasing the angle and distance from the sail’s feet. It’s an idea we came up with in Australia in an effort to make the K40 controllable in the strong winds.
Winds today (left, from 3pm) weren’t quite as strong as WA but were getting there. And anyway, I was out on small lochs with no rudder-lifting ocean swell to deal with – another reason we thought the K40 got squirrely in strong winds out in WA. The K40s large draught but low weight acted like a sail of it’s own, weathercocking the boat. To reacquaint myself, I first took a spin on the smaller Loch Raa. I’m never really sure what I’m doing so just try various angles and approaches until the kayak catches the wind. I’m told that sailing directly downwind with the sail fully upright is less efficient (or is that with regular, fixed-mast sails?). With the PA you can get a good speed for a while, but soon the sail starts rocking violently from side to side as it sheds the excess blast – my strong recollection from Ningaloo. I assume that’s just a sign of the sail exceeding it’s speed limit, though I think Jeff’s hardshell did it less.
Off the wind about 45° and up to 90- or even 100° (ie; slightly upwind) seems more stable but slower, with the sail cranked down low to one side. But even then a consistent speed or direction seems hard to maintain for long. Is it my poor technique, the design of the sail when applied to my IK, or just an aspect of gusting and shifting wind? As it was I felt the unloaded boat was rather light, though in Ozzie last September 20+ kilos of ballast didn’t help much either.
Big sailboats and windsurfers seem to manage OK, but it seems hard to get a smooth, steady run while sat back with the cleated-off sail doing the work. Usually I’m yanking hard on the rudder to get in line, or have handfuls of lines trying to trim the sail for best effect. The tiny ‘finger-and-thumb’ cleats are just too fiddly to use in a hurry or mild panic, and often require two hands to release the jam. I wonder if hand-sized cleats exist for the thin cord, or some better device all round? Something like a sliding tube you could grab, but with a release button, a bit like a mountaineering jumar (left).
Even then, on seeing the speed readings (above), it surprised me how fast I could hack into the wind at 2.5–3mph, admittedly with some effort (needed to keep the kayak pointed ahead). Coming back with the big sail I only got over 5mph a couple of times, and often moved barely more than upwind, although using much less energy of course.
After crisscrossing Loch Raa a few times (above right), I went around the corner onto Loch Osgaig. Out in the open and with the wind bouncing off nearby Stac mountain, there should be room enough to get some speed up, providing I could hold on.
I set off and sliced the waves as best I could and stuck at it until I got opposite the small plantation. Here I stowed the paddle securely, got blown round and unfurled the v-sail, ready to snatch it back down should it all be more than I could handle. In fact, there were only a couple of hairy moments As you can see from the speed graph (right), my paddle out was pretty steady and straight, but under sail, speeds and direction were all over the place. A couple of times either a gust or the optimal line saw the boat fly at along at over 5mph (left), but it never lasted.
It does make me wonder what the PA sail is good for on my K40. In winds of over 15mph it seems hard work to maintain. Is it an inherent flaw of a lose, articulated mast – and one whose feet are not pressing directly onto a solid hardshell hull (I use a plastic dinner plate to spread the load/reduce wear). The fact is, Jeff managed fine on Ningaloo (right), ripping along in a boat that was four times heavier than the Incept. And in Shark Bay a few years earlier in the same tandem tanker, he was towing me in my Gumboat.
A 10-15 mph breeze does often correspond to a nice steady sail, but that does seem a rather narrow margin of operation – something I recall someone else saying to me about V sails. I think it’s a combination of more practice required, hampered by the fact I’m in a light, buoyant, flaccid-chined IK. It makes me wonder if the WindPaddle is worth another look (it was and I did), though I’m fairly sure the PA V-sail is more versatile; I doubt you could ride at 90°+ to the wind with the deeply dished WindPaddle. Another good thing about the PA is that it’s out of the way when down but dead easy and fast to deploy or stash. Just throw it up and see if it takes to the wind. Out this time I also felt that the thigh straps were particularly useful when edging the boat against the gusts.