I do like a good storm. On the left today’s coastal forecast for the Minch. You might call it the first big storm of the autumn. Some 250 miles to the north, out on the Faeroes and towards Norway it’s blowing at Force 10 with 40-foot waves, like something out of the Perfect Storm movie before it gets really scary.
What can it be like to paddle a packraft against a wind gusting up to 50mph, I wonder? Is it even possible? Many times I’ve surprised myself how fast an IK can move – 2-3mph – into a headwind of around 25mph. You can’t sustain that all day, but last year I managed to plough along like that for an hour or two when I gave up on the Ningaloo Reef and turned back into the wind. Seeing as gale-force is the only paddling available for the next few days, I rolled up the Alpacka and went to find out.
Sorry to disappoint you but heading out to sea alone, even on the beach with the onshore wind felt too risky. I figured there was a good chance of a gust flipping the back-heavy Yak in a kind of ‘frontal bandersnatch’ as it crested a wave. Better to stick to my ‘play-loch’, site of many paddling experiments and where there’s just wind and not much wave to deal with.
In the given conditions inflating the Alpacka in the back of the car was effortless; it took just six bagfuls to fill up the boat, instead of the usual ten. Getting my yellow windsock onto the water was less easy, so once I slapped it down I jumped in quick, clipped the raft to myself via the paddle and tried to leave the shore at the downwind end of Loch Raa.
There was no fetch to speak of and using my large-bladed but light Werner Corrywrecken paddle, I jabbed at the water head down, trying to make headway. The waves rushing by gave the impression I was flying but a sideways glance to the shore showed the raft was barely creeping along. And when a gust hit, it didn’t actually move at all despite my huffing and puffing.
Even though I’d probably missed the peak of the day’s winds, not surprisingly I’ve never experienced a paddling effort like it. It felt like some sort of horizontal pull-up machine in a gym set on ’10’ and my hands gripped way out on the ends of the shaft to increase the leverage. Soon any ideas about paddling to the far shore, only 700 metres away, were surrendered. From a video’s timeline it seems it took me 8 minutes of flat-out effort to cover 250 metres – just over 1mph with brief rests every couple of minutes.
I felt safe in the Yak; the gust-borne waves weren’t even a foot high and it was actually a good little workout. Once I’d had enough, I swung round and shot back to shore at what turned out to be 4mph, but felt like sitting still while the wind blew past from behind. Interestingly the raft was easy to handle; no weathercocking.
Walking the empty Yak to shore, it took off like a kite. Had I not been strung onto that thing it would have been on it’s way to Inverness quicker than the RAF Tornadoes which tear across the skies hereabouts on a fine day.
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