Trials of an Armchair Sea Kayaker

Setting out from Elgol.jpg
Starting off from Elgol with Loch Coruisk ahead and the Cuillin Ridge.

Often the designation ‘armchair’ is prefixed to the description ‘paddler’, ‘mountaineer’ or the more generic ‘explorer’ with an intention of scorn on the part of the writer; it is written with the corner of the mouth curling in derision. Personally I like armchairs. They are often very comfortable to sit in, are usually situated in warm, benign, environments and, in my experience, it is very difficult to be drowned, avalanched, or even to get lost while sitting in one. And I have never heard of one capsizing, which is probably just as well as I think they would be very difficult to roll back up! I have been proud to be an armchair sea kayaker for some years now and I have comfortably and safely paddled the wild waters of Alaska down to the Sea of Cortez in my imagination as well as circumnavigation's of the Scottish Isles and Ireland in the company of the esteemed Brian Wilson or Chris Duff. An added bonus on these epic adventures has been the possibility of consuming large quantities of food and beer while, as it were, underway.

It was therefore with some surprise that I found myself one fine day writing a cheque for a sea kayak expedition organised by my local outdoor Education Centre to paddle and wild camp for six days off the west coast of Scotland in a real sea kayak on the actual sea, venue to be decided.

And now back in the comfort and safety of my armchair that adventure seems implausible and remote. The sea appears to have cast a certain insubstantiality to my memories which fade with each passing day, with the ebbing of each tide.

This is how it was. Fear curdles in the pit of my stomach as the day approaches, fear laced with a liberal dose of excitement.

Me?  I am 44 in round years. My hair recedes relentlessly. I am the manager of a large Cancer Charity, possibly labouring under the illusion that I am important, pivotal, valuable, even, dare I say it, indispensable! I am about to learn a series of valuable lessons.  Things like:

  • You are not your job.
  • You are a tiny mote in the limitless expanse of the infinite.
  • You must practice to be counter-intuitive.
  • You do not HAVE a body-you ARE a body!
  • The sea has no interest in your dreams.
  • A paddle is an outrigger in it's inner nature.  Likewise life!
  • Bacon butties become more essential with every passing mile from home.
  • Squeezy cheese, salami, oatcakes, nuts, dried fruit, Soreen Malt Loaf,  much water.
  • A good tent!  I use a Hilleborg. A thermarest with chair kit is essential for loftily surveying from your tent door.
  • A Tarp is essential and a hammock just might be.
  • A Leatherman Multi-Tool-I use the Ti Charge in Camo style.
  • Use a firesteel with a bushcraft knife for fires.  Keep some back up marine matches in a waterproof case.
  • Wine boxes with the box removed are made for kayaks.
  • Apart from sex, a leisurely crap in the dome of the Coruisk and a good arse wash in it's freezing bidet is the greatest way to start a day bar none.
  • Huge wild shit like basking sharks may not want to eat you!  They may just be going about their business.
  • Sea Eagles are so huge they could pluck you out of your boat-illegally rendition you to their eyrie-and feed you to their offspring!  Keep away and don't look at them!
  • Seals look like they have a sense of humour-Don't be fooled!
  • Toilet paper and wet wipes combined make for happy bottoms.
  • Some cream for chafe.  Anusol in case.  Yes you must have fungal cream for your bits.
  • A good stove is hard to find.  I have used MSR stoves for years but now recommend wood burning stoves with the MSR pot to put it all in.  But I still pack an MSR Pocket Rocket as a back-up.

As for my physical challenges my paunch extends downwards over my trousers defeating my earnest efforts to restrain it, augmented as it is by that very same force that stirs the restless tides to action. The tides that I shall soon make acquaintance with. Though I try to run and cycle the odd time I am often frustrated by the fact that work seems to get in the way of any planned training program. Work and of course the needs of two young sons aged 7 and 11.

The result is a sedentary lifestyle, a lot of thinking, a lot of time in the head. The result is a lack of relationship with my body that I am about to be reintroduced to in a very powerful way.

So, as I say,  here it is:

Many had thought that the opening of the Skye bridge would spell the death knell for Lochalsh but it seems a thriving little town. A good place to stock up on provisions or grab a relaxing beer before or after an expedition on the islands. In addition the town possesses one of the grandest and friendliest loos to be found anywhere. Indeed, a plaque proudly proclaims that these very facilities have won the Loo of the Year Award for two years running. The addition of spotlessly clean shower facilities are an added bonus for post-expedition cheesy sea kayakers.

A local scout hut provided a camping barn experience for the first night though I judged that my snoring had been bad when I noticed the eyes of my comrades streaming with red road-mapped hatred during breakfast. Later we newbies strolled down to the harbour to practice some wet exiting and rescues. I still consider that being suspended upside down and banging on the upturned hull of your kayak is hardly a sensible thing to do at sea, or indeed, anywhere, it has that flapping of the hands quality, it's silly, I will not do it.  I'd rather drown than be that uncool.

I was shocked to feel how tippy the kayak seemed whilst being assured that the plastic Valley Avocet was actually quite stable among sea kayaks. Here for the first time I noticed that I seemed to be sitting in the kayak whereas those with the requisite skill seem to wear their boats like a well made suit responding to an esoteric mix of foot, hip, paddle stroke and the all important trunk rotation.

The price of tippiness for a beginner is tension and it is impossible to handle a kayak well in a state of tension. Indeed it is difficult to do anything well in a state of tension. Pulling our kayaks out of the water after the practice session I was hustled urgently by an American woman on a coach trip from Miami ‘You came over the sea in that?’ she exclaimed looking at me with a mix of incomprehension, admiration and yes...awe. I liked it and readily agreed to the requisite photo opportunity. Little did she know that I was not the grizzled adventurer she would no doubt dream about in the months ahead, negatively comparing her soulless yet dutiful husband to this sunburned kayaking buccaneer, knife strapped to his neoprene loincloth...Oh God stop it Tony!

The packing of a sea kayak for several days afloat is in itself a mysterious art. Fortunately I had invested in some sealine dry bags for which I was regularly to feel grateful for over the next few days. We loaded the semi-packed boats onto the trailer and headed out for our point of departure at Elgol on the South West coast of Skye.

Paddling out from Elgol into a strong headwind and a force 5 chop was a revelation. I was terrified and passing the bay of Camas Fhionnairigh the waves came abeam rocking the boat perilously and causing me to grip the paddle with white knuckles.
“Are you ok?” shouted one of the instructors. I nodded but stared at the incoming waves with wide eyed terror.
“Your mouth is telling me you’re ok but your eyes are saying something different!” he shouted back.
The entrance to Loch Coruisk was a smooth as milk but after a paddle of only 3 km I was trashed and the perfection of the Cuillin ridge painted against a blood red sky was somewhat lost on me. A saw toothed blade held against a sky of blood. The ridge itself has long beckoned me and was to be a constant presence throughout the trip. In the lovely bay at Coruisk a yacht bobbed at anchor, it’s Captain frowning at our approach.

The next day dawned cold and after a restless night populated with vivid dreams of death by drowning I emerged from my tent scared, tired and intent on withdrawal from the expedition. One of the group leaders approached me to ask if I was ok and I felt I should be sincere and honest so told him no I was not ok. My fitness level was clearly below everyone else's. I had never sat in a sea kayak before and if I had known what was involved I would never have signed up. No I did not want to continue and would he please leave me here and pick me up on the way back? He was clearly taken aback and his comment that no they would not be returning this way so I could not be abandoned left me with the sick acknowledgement that I was to continue this torture for another day.
I paddled out to sea feeling surprisingly comfortable. Soay Island lay to windward, a mild force 2 or 3 aided the journey and the short crossing led us to the impressive sea cliffs of Soay and a delightful circumnavigation of this fascinating place. Soay is the place where Gavin Maxwell and the improbable Tex Geddes set up a whaling station that hunted out the last of the great basking sharks in the area. We pulled up well beyond the houses for a lunch stop and I was hooked. Still a little scared but this is no bad thing in anyone who ventures out to sea. It’s the ones who aren’t scared who get drownded.

The kayak is a glorious craft that can go where few others might, carry all your needs for a self contained journey of a week and is only limited by the skill and knowledge of the paddler.
Some skerries lay at the northern end of Soay and we paddled from there across the break into Loch na h-Airde where we hit a strong beam wind and once again it was head down and battle into the waves that crashed over the deck, paddles low but this time a little more relaxed, a little less scared.
One of the delights of sea time is landfall. Delightful coves beckon, hidden caves, secret beaches and the Scottish Islands are replete with such magical places. As I tucked into my dried veggie curry staring over to the beckoning outline of Rum I thought how magical a world we can find ourselves in by paddling a boat a few miles.

In the morning there was little time to sit and admire the view and soon we were packed and heading across Loch Brittle and up the coast. Extraordinary sea caves and eroded columns of rock sculpted by the waves into fantastic shapes line the entire coastline here. If you are lucky you might see a sea eagle flying low over the waves or otters bickering among the seaweed strewn shore. And you might paddle a couple of hundred metres into rock passageways that open out into great granite cathedrals where gulliemots squabble and caw.
Secret beaches of golden sand delight the eye and the paddler repeatedly is thinking ‘I’ll come back one day and look at that again.’ Something in our nature makes us want to share such beauty with those we love.
Across the mouth of Loch Eynort where again a beam wind breathed upon us as we paddled in to Sgeir Bheag a beautiful cove of white stone almost like bone in the sunlight. Once the boats were secure we struggled up a rock passageway to emerge on a grassy plateau with views of the Hebrides emerging ghostlike out of the distance. Inaccessible by road, surrounded by mountains with the Cuillin Ridge to the east it was without a doubt the best campsite in the world.

The final following day we travelled further up this magnificent coastline investigating countless caves and passageways and paddling madly through the famous arch of Stac a Mheadais which acted as a kind of wind tunnel. Lunch was had in the perfect horseshoe of Talisker Bay and as we paddled into the bay’s mirror calm I sat panting in the boat feeling completely trashed. Just then a jellyfish puffed past my cockpit paddling its own mass with a strange delicate beauty, milky white at the edges it blended to a irridescent saphire blue at its centre.
Talisker Bay is beautiful and I welcomed the feel of land where we ate our usual lunch of squeezy cheese, malt loaf and sticks of salami. I was by this time heartily sick of dried food and dreaming of the simple things in life like a bacon buttie.

Ever onwards we paddled out of the glassy calm of Talisker bay into the most awful confused sea with waves coming from all directions in a kind of boiling froth. This is called clapotis and results from a mix of sea bed coastline and weather conditions and all beginners can do is paddle like hell through it.
About five kilometres further up the coastline veers gently to the east and in our case that meant into a headwind as we headed for Ardtreck Point lighthouse
and the last leg of our trip. A small chop with some white horses was visible from the point which would be hitting us abeam as we paddled into Loch Beag so I geared up mentally for another determined paddle.
Off across the stretch of water the wind hits with surprising ferocity. I grip the paddle and brace reflexively and then without thinking too much about it the skill of paddle and wave starts to come together and I am no longer simply stopping from capsizing but am in control. Against all instinct I am sticking my paddle in to the wave leaning into it with my hips and the boat automatically stabilises with the paddle acting as a kind of outrigger. The size of wave doesn’t really matter because the skilled paddler uses the wave itself as energy. For the first time I am not in the boat I am the boat.
As we paddle into the gentle harbour at Loch Beag I am filled with many emotions. Grateful as all sea venturers must be at landfall yet wanting this new world to continue, to continue paddling coastlines for ever. To live on the land simply and in contact with true reality and not what passes for such in the other world. But I am also dreaming of hot showers and fish and chips and pubs. It will take me months I realise, to integrate the experience.
Some weeks after the trip I was walking past a church billboard and noticed a quote that left me chuckling quietly.
‘A ship is safe in harbour but that is not what a ship is for.’ Likewise!

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