Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Ready For The Off

The moment has arrived and in just three days I will be embarking on the biggest challenge of my life. I will be travelling down to Kippford on Thursday in preparation for my departure from there on Friday morning. The tides are fair and even the weather promises to be kind to me for my big moment.

In many respects I cannot really believe that this moment has arrived. I have been immersed in other pressing matters namely the servicing of our yacht and a move from Oban down to Crinan. Now that we are settled here on our new berth I have finally been able to focus my attention on the important tasks at hand. These being finalising the items of kit I will be taking with me, final details of route planning and preparation, buying my food for the first week or so and getting to grips with the various technical gadgets I will be using on my journey. As is so often the case with me, as the hours ebb away, so the sense of panic rises within me as I realise that I have not much time left before my departure. I have this awful feeling that I am forgetting something crucial!

The moment we pull away from the car park here in Crinan will be the moment that there is little more that I can do. It will be then that I will begin to relax and look forward with a sense of true anticipation to my adventure ahead. My wife Karen will be driving me to the Solway coast but sadly will not be able to stay to wave me off the next day. My departure will not be a lonely affair though, folks who have been following me on Twitter have said they will come along to wish me well which will be lovely.

I am raising funds for the R.N.L.I. and appreciate any support you may wish to show this amazing charity by making a donation on my fund raising page here. Thank you.

It is my intention to maintain this blog as best I can through my journey so please keep dropping by and of course you can follow my actual hour by hour progress here.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A Winter Paddle

The forecast looked excellent. Light winds, good weather and settled conditions for a number of days. There seemed little reason not to head away for a few days kayaking. I hastily contacted my sea kayaking friend and colleague Ben who lives on the Isle of Barra to see if he was keen to join me on a trip. What started out as an intention to sedately explore the coastline of the Isle of Lismore soon became the ambitious plan that was highlighted in my previous blog post.

Ben arrived on the afternoon ferry from Barra with his kayak in tow and after a hasty grocery shop, we packed on the beach in front of the promenade and set off. Our first night destination was the lighthouse at the southern tip of Lismore, a place that we both had wanted to camp. The lighthouse is a handsomely conspicuous landmark for the countless ferry passengers heading to and from the Hebrides to admire and photograph.We arrived as dusk was falling and in a matter of minutes we set up camp.

The next morning the day dawned still and fair. We were away early on a strong ebb tide heading south down the Firth of Lorne and along the rugged coastline of the Isle of Mull. Apart from the CalMac ferries we had the seas to ourselves. Pushed along by the spring ebb tide we made good progress. We allowed ourselves the pleasure of playing amongst the crevices of the shoreline rocks where the lazy swell surged in and out. This seven mile stretch of coastline is predominantly uninhabited except for the Eagles, Red Deer and the plethora of other wildlife that live on Mull. We paddled past two impassively huge White Tailed Eagles who watched us with from their lofty perches on the rocks above us only deciding it seems, to lazily flap away with heavy wing beats on their huge wings just to show us how mighty they were. We were joined a little while later by a mighty Golden Eagle who delighted us by soaring low across our heads before effortlessly finding an invisible updraught that swiftly lifted it up onto the crags high above us. A fine twelve point stag snorted and rounded up his harem as we silently paddled past. A couple of common seals followed us, keeping at a safe distance, disappearing with a violent splash any time that we glanced at them over our shoulders.

We took lunch on the western side of Loch Buie before continuing on our way to Carsaig and then further under the immensely impressive cliffs the uniquely shaped Carsig Arches where we pulled ashore for our second night camp. This has to be one of the finest camping locations that I have ever had the pleasure to spend the night. The cliffs loomed over us, providing a sense of safe security and privacy from the hectic world we felt we had left behind. Across an expanse of rippled Hebridean sea the low lying island of Colonsay seemed temptingly close. While we cooked our dinner beside a camp fire on the rocky beach, we were treated to a glorious sunset. The magnificent full moon lifted over the larger of the arches into a clear and star studded sky. As we supped our drams by the crackling fire and chatted late into the night, we couldn't avoid appreciating the stunning beauty and the sense of deep peace at this particular moment of our lives.

In the early hours of dawn we wandered over to the magnificent arches to watch the sun rise. These prehistoric rock formations present an air of a landscape more fitting of Utah than the southern coastline of Mull. The wild goats begrudgingly moved aside to allow us to wander under the main arch to watch the sun rise over the low lying hills on Jura. Not wanting to linger we were soon on our way again exploring the indented coastline of the Ross of Mull where every wee headland we rounded presented us with a golden beach or secret cove. It was not long before we were rounding the island of Erraid where the fictional character of John Balfour from the book Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson was shipwrecked. A steady tide pushed us up through the Sound of Iona to the northern end of this iconic Hebridean island. We made camp just above the shoreline glad of the opportunity to get warm after what had been a cold days paddling.

The next morning we chose to wander around the village and visit the early Christian monuments that Iona is famous for. St Columba established a monastery here in 563AD which soon became a prominent centre for the Christian Faith in Scotland and is where many early Scottish Kings are buried. Indeed there did seem to be a reverent air to the place as we wandered around - a true sense of of peace and tranquillity.

In the afternoon we packed and were on our way over to the island of Staffa, a short crossing of six miles. The sea was lumpy and the wind threatened to rise to send us scuttering back to Iona. However, by the time we arrived at the island the conditions were just about perfect. Staffa is owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland and is where visitors flock in their thousands to look at the renowned Fingal's Cave. The island is famous for the incredible basalt columns that give it the appearance of having been carefully constructed by humans of a bygone age. Fingal's cave is a mighty hollow that seems to cut into the heart of the island and is a sea kayaker's dream to paddle into. I had last paddled here in 1995 and being here again was a tremendous experience for me. There is a definite thrill to paddling into caves - the boom of the sea on the cliffs is amplified, the rise and fall of the swell is accentuated and the colour of the water is heightened by the refracted light. We were wary of the lazy but not insignificant swell that washed in and out of the cave while we were there. A couple of times we beat a retreat when a particularly big set threatened to wash us up into the dark confines of the back of the cave where it was easy for us to imagine where Fingal, the giant, was lurking!

When we felt we had enjoyed as much as we could we paddled around to find a suitable landing spot and chose a magnificent site for our nights camping. That night we were treated to one of the finest Hebridean sunsets that I have ever had the privilege to experience. We sat on the high point of the island, wrapped up from the chill winter air to watch the golden orb disappear beyond the horizon and then the sky light up in myriad hues of warm yellows, golds, reds and pinks. Thus calmed by the tranquil setting we enjoyed an early night. The next morning we were presented with a dramatic dawn as the clouds swept in from the west, almost it seemed, in haste to conceal the peak of Ben More on the Mull mainland from our view.

This was to be our last full day of paddling and we decided to head across to the Isle of Coll via the Treshnish Isles, a total crossing of seventeen miles. The clouds that had swept in during the morning had now lowered to sea level considerably reducing the visibility, so much so that we had to use a compass bearing to reach the Treshnish island of Lunga. As we crossed the Fulmars swept by us, casually checking us out, their wing tips almost cutting the surface of the sea. As we arrived we disturbed a mighty Sea Eagle that was feasting on a freshly caught sea gull. Picking our way through the skerries and islets of the Treshnish was a delightful experience. The Grey Seals were singing to each other and when happened a little too close to their perches on their favourite rocks, they slipped into the water with a snort and a splash, surfacing not far behind us to give us an inquisitively disdainful stare.

We enjoyed a quick lunch on Fladda before heading across the final nine mile stretch to the Isle of Coll. The conditions were misty and we had to use a compass bearing for most of the crossing. However we were treated to some incredible fog-bows, the watery almost spectral halos of light cause by the sun shining onto the fog. We arrived on Coll in good time and set up camp next to the road close to the ferry port. Our trip at an end, the last thing we had to do was celebrate with a couple of pints in the Isle of Coll hotel.

The next day we packed our kayaks for the final time and carried them down to the ferry port for our three hour journey back to Oban on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry. Sitting in the observation lounge of the MV Lord of the Isles we reflected on what had been a wonderful opportunistic kayaking trip. Although we had not achieved what we had hoped to, we had thoroughly enjoyed every moment. It had been wonderful to kayak and camp in the midst of winter and to enjoy the incredible landscape devoid of others.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Making the Most of the Forecast

The weather forecast for the next seven days looks fantastic. After the strong winds and gales that seem to have been hammering us over the last month or so, this is an opportunity too good to dismiss. A hasty phone call to my kayaking pal Ben and the genesis of an adventurous seven day, 140 mile kayak trip emerged.

Ben (a.k.a. Big Ben) and I have worked together as guides for Clearwater Paddling leading many wonderful trips around the isles and coastline of the Outer Hebrides and mainland Scotland. However we have not yet shared time kayaking together without clients to care for. We have spoken many times of paddling together, exploring coastline that is new for both of us and undertaking big adventures.

Mingulay crew 2013

With such a wonderfully settled weather forecast we have formulated a plan to kayak from Oban out to Castlebay on the Isle of Barra via Mull, Tiree and Mingulay. What started out as a discussion about a sedate exploration of the island of Lismore soon metamorphosed into this ambitious route.

It is a kayak journey that is well within our ability but we will have to be on our toes with our planning and decision making. It will be crucial to keep a close eye on the forecast - any hint of it changing with stronger winds making an appearance, we will amend our plans immediately. In a way this trip has been conceived on a whim but it provides me with excellent training for my planning processes. Ben informed me with delight that he expects me to have all the tidal information sorted with all the variances that this entails.

If we decide not to make the committing thirty two mile crossing across the Minch from Tiree to Mingulay we will revert to another plan that we discussed and this is to complete a circumnavigation of the island of Mull. This is an attractive option for me too - I have always wanted to kayak around this iconic Scottish island, exploring the myriad lochs, bays and wee inlets. I am therefore sanguine about the forecast, very happy that it is good enough for us to enjoy seven days of kayaking, but not so dependent on its stability.

I am looking forward to meeting the crucial decision making challenges that this trip will present because these will undoubtedly help my confidence for the larger challenges that lie ahead of me this summer.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Training - So Far

Living on the sea I am but a step away from the water. Even better now I have my kayak lying faithfully on the pontoon beside our boat. All I have to do is dress myself warmly in my kayaking clothes, collect my kit together and launch the kayak into the sea. It couldn't be any easier.

So far since the New Year I have managed seven paddling days which, given the gales and the strong winds we have been experiencing, has not been too bad. It has been truly wonderful to be in my kayak again, feeling the water beneath me, responding to the movement of the sea and travelling along the wonderful coastline that we have around here. There were a couple of days when the weather was absolutely superb offering me wonderful views up and down the Firth of Lorne. On one of these days I paddled north to Connel and was presented with a snowy mountain backdrop that took quite my breath away.

On another day I paddled south to the island of Seil, joined to the mainland by the famous 'Bridge Over the Atlantic', a picturesque high arched stone bridge over the narrow Clachan Sound. Unfortunately the low spring tide scuppered any chance of me reaching the bridge so I had to admire it from afar. However, I enjoyed exploring the skerries that surround Puilladobhrain, the popular and sheltered yachting anchorage that can be jam packed in the summer months. I had the place to myself and enjoyed the peaceful solitude as I slowly kayaked past grass topped rocky islets keeping my eyes peeled for Otters and Seals.

Not all days have been as wonderfully calm as these two. In fact I am very aware that I need to move away from being a fair weather kayaker. Much of my training this month has in truth been more psychological in nature than physical. I have been overcoming my innate reluctance to kayak in the winter when the weather is not ideal. Being African born I believe my blood to be very thin and it takes some personal coercion to get out into my kayak and onto the water. I am pleased with my efforts in this regard so far. In fact I have paddled on days that have been far from ideal when the wind was blowing a steady force five with accompanying sleet and rain.

The Isle of Kerrera is a delight to explore. The circumnavigation is twelve miles and usually takes me just under four hours to complete. I tend to take a little longer because I like to play amongst the rocks and explore the nooks and corners. I stop too for a leg stretch which is practising good discipline for me - to take rest when I need it rather than keep paddling non stop. I can be lazy when it comes to pulling ashore for a comfort break.

Between now and my departure I will be kayaking as often as I am able to. My intention is to build my fitness and possibly more importantly, keep myself loose and limbered for the challenge ahead. My body is not as supple as it used to be. In addition it is going to be important that I test myself technically so that I am confident that I am able to meet any eventuality that may arise. I am a skilled paddler, there is no doubt about that, but it has been some time since I have placed myself in positions where I have had to recover myself from possible harm or serious difficulty. I am referring to rolling after a capsize, re-entering my kayak and rolling in the event of coming out of my boat, coping with fast tidal water, and forced landings on inhospitable coastline.

There is plenty of time for me to brush up on my skills but this will require me to tenaciously hold on to my new found determination to get out onto the sea whatever the weather holds.

Want to join me?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

It's Not Always About Sea Kayaking

What do I do when I'm ashore during a long sea kayak expedition? Apart from the usual chores of cooking, eating and planning for the next day, there is often plenty of time to walk, explore and be creative - make art.

Landscape art is one of my passions. In particular I find the work of Andy Goldsworthy a wonderful inspiration for me. I am not a trained artist but I love to dabble with water colour landscape painting and I like to create pieces of landscape art whenever I can. This usually involves arranging foliage, items I have found on the beach or forming stones and rocks into spirals and patterns. I also love to collect sea glass - the broken pieces of old glass bottles that have been tumbled by the waves so they end up smooth and rounded - and for a few years I made these into jewellery that I sold.

Sea glass, Cromarty beach
Hand made silver wire sea glass bracelet.

Experiencing the natural world as I do, I cannot help but be inspired to express myself when I'm exploring my camp environs on a long summer evening. I find the process to be thought provoking and in some ways restorative. Even if no one else will see what I create, I feel that I have expressed my thoughts and feelings of the moment and that I may have soothed a worry or a concern. Indeed in years gone by I offered the opportunity to create art out in nature as a facilitative tool in my outdoor personal development and therapeutic work. It often evoked powerful insights for the people I was guiding.

Created by Donja, Pabbay, 2013
Pabbay, natures art
Being an advocate of leave no trace, the philosophy and practice of passing through the landscape with as minimum an impact as possible, I always dismantle any piece of land art that I have created, or leave it in the certain knowledge that the next high tide will do this work for me. This way I know that what I have made is not a permanent fixture, but simply an expression of an important and unique moment in my life as I journey through the wild world that I love.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Bite Sized Chunks

One of the more common cautionary observations made about my trip is the enormity of the distance I will be covering - two thousand and fifteen miles. Indeed, if I were to head north west from Oban out into the Atlantic, the same distance away I would reach Saint Lunaire-Griquet on the Canadian Island of Newfoundland. Viewing the trip in this context I realise with a start what kind of distance I am undertaking. The thought of kayaking this summer the equivalent distance of an Atlantic crossing is indeed pretty daunting.

How do you eat an Elephant? Well, one bite at a time of course.

The oldies are the goldies but the wisdom is sound. I can only travel the distance I am able to each day and each day's mileage will contribute to my eventual goal. I aim to cover daily distances that are well within my means and which will allow me time to explore the coastline I am traversing. I have never been one for putting my head down and eating away the miles to get from A to B. I generally amble along a little faster than walking pace - roughly 3.5 miles an hour. Given that I am normally on the water for seven to eight hours a day this equates to anything between twenty four and twenty eight miles a day. Taking the top estimate, this means that it will take me seventy two days to complete my journey.

There are days when I will have to up my game and paddle considerably harder to cover further distances. There are some open water crossings that require me to put my head down and keep going. There are also a few coastal stretches that are quite far. However, there are no days where I will be travelling further than thirty four miles.

Undoubtedly the weather and other factors will conspire to keep me off the water for quite a few days. I also plan to take frequent rest days where I can explore the landscape and communities around and about. All these will add up and this is why I have chosen to estimate the time to complete my journey as four months. I am comfortable with this and in fact I'm looking forward to taking my time exploring the Scottish coastline, meeting new people and spending some time chatting with the crew of the Lifeboats that I will be visiting.

When viewed like this, as an ambling journey from place to place, travelling at the pace of nature, the two thousand and fifteen miles ahead of me do not seem daunting at all.

This would be a different prospect though if I were kayaking to Newfoundland.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

I Choose To Sea Kayak

I choose to sea kayak because....

If I were to ask my many sea kayak friends and acquaintances to complete this statement, I am sure it is unlikely that there would be a universal reply. Of course this is not a surprising assumption given that we are all individuals and we view our world from our uniquely personal perspectives.

There is of course no right or wrong way to view the sea kayaking experience and it is one of the joys I experience when paddling with others, the variances in why we choose to be there. In the photo below I have come up with the words that I associate with my experience of sea kayaking - why I choose to be passionate about this pastime.

Sea kayaking for me over the many years has been a recreational outdoor activity and also a means of employment. My introduction to it was in 1986 when I borrowed an Anus Acuta kayak from a colleague at Outward Bound Wales to lead a group of young people on a kayaking expedition along the coastline of the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. It wasn't until ten years later that I bought my first sea kayak and so began my deeper connection to what I consider to be a truly wonderful method of travelling along our coastal landscapes.

Until then I was an inveterate white water kayaker running rivers like a dinosaur - with a long neck and a small brain. One day while running a river with friends in mid-Wales we were accosted by a land owner about our right to be on the water. It was in that confrontationally unpleasant moment that I decided to move away from the inland waters to the open sea, where there are far fewer restrictions based on ownership and disputed rights. Within a few months I found myself kayaking along the Scottish coastline around the island of Ulva off the Isle of Mull, camping on a close cropped grassy headland, cooking beside a beach fire and generally being overwhelmed by the myriad natural experiences I was encountering. I have not looked back since then.

That was eighteen years ago. Today I am probably more passionate about sea kayaking than I was back then. I think as my sea kayak experience grows so does a deeper level of understanding of the benefits I gain from this remarkable activity. I think too as I grow older, my self awareness is enhanced and I am far more aware of the responses I am having to my various sea kayaking experiences. I am learning more about myself and the world that I live in.

Sea kayaking appeals to me in so many ways and at so many levels. I love the sense of journey, the exploration, the packing for multi-day trips, carrying everything I require and choosing where to camp along the wild and rugged Scottish coastline. I enjoy the fun to be had, taking the kayak into caves, through arches, around boulders, under cliffs and generally into any form of moving water. The ability to move silently and approach closely to wildlife is a huge draw for me. Having Seals swim up to me in my kayak to check me out, Dolphins and Porpoises breathing their fishy breath almost within reach, Puffins gaily bobbing on the surface of a mirror calm sea, the lazy flick and wash of a massive Basking Shark as it gulps its way around my boat and the wheeling sea bird cacophony above me as I paddle past.

It is the simplicity of life on the open water that is a strong attraction too - living with only what I can carry, eating within my means, paddling as far as I can, sleeping where I pitch my tent - the life of an maritime hobo. Then there is the landscape - the beauty, the grandeur, the immense skies, the island studded horizons and the mountain fringed sea lochs. I am fascinated by our human connection to this landscape and so I find the material remains of our ancestors enigmatically alluring. I can lose myself for ages wandering the landscape around my camp site searching for chambered cairns, hut circles, duns and other indelible remains hidden in the bracken and heather. I allow myself to fancifully wonder about the people who have trodden the land before me - who have lived and loved where I have arrived so easily in my kayak.

Above all, sea kayaking allows me to travel and live at the pace of nature. My life when kayaking is governed by the tides, the wind, the waves and the daylight hours. I normally travel slightly faster than walking pace and given the right conditions can cover thirty miles a day. I tend not to choose to push myself on my trips, preferring to fully immerse myself in the coastal landscape I am traversing. However, there are many times when the vagaries of the Scottish weather conspire to make some days a significant challenge where I have to draw on my resources of stamina and mental determination to reach a chosen destination.

Much of the time I choose to kayak on my own. Solitude sits well with me and I am comfortable with my own company. This 'solo' time provides me the space to think, to dream and to be creative. The process of paddling through the sea can be a meditative movement and I have found that it is a wonderful way with which to resolve conundrums I may be facing. Equally though I thoroughly enjoy paddling with other folks. There is a distinctly different quality to the experience but it is equally as rich for me. When kayaking with friends I am afforded the opportunity to spend absolute quality time with them, reconnecting with them and their lives. When kayaking with people I have not known before, I find that we soon break through the normal social conventions of shallow small talk to reach far more intimate and satisfying conversations. A sea kayak journey brings everyone to a universal level where the shared experience creates a strong bond that remains long beyond the trip itself.

My forthcoming journey around Scotland is going to an incredibly rich experience for me. I will encounter so many wonderful experiences that will undoubtedly enhance every aspect of my life. I am certain that from the moment I set off from the shore at Kippford my life will never be the same again. This is a good thing.