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.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Elemental Living

The life we live aboard our boat is not without it's challenges. Over the last week we have been contending with a series of strong gales that have been sweeping along the Scottish coastline. One of these was particularly severe and it caused plenty of damage to property and infrastructure up and down the country. Only now has power been restored to the worst affected areas a number of days afterwards.

Living on our yacht means that I am acutely aware of the impending gales through the myriad on-line weather forecasting services. This constant attention to the heavy weather forecast ensures that I do what I can to mitigate any potential damage to the boat or heaven forbid, find ourselves floating off across Oban Bay. Each day I have perused the forecasts with a sense of weary resignation knowing that we will be in for a rough time.

We are safely berthed in the marina and I have put extra lines out to make sure that there is no chance we will break our mooring. I have tethered all that needs to be firmly tied down, the foresail is secure and will not unfurl and the mainsail is tight on the boom. The halyards are set in such a way that they won't flog themselves on the mast and contribute with the resulting noise to a sleepless night. Inside the boat we prepare the saloon and galley by stowing all loose items so that they won't fly around and get smashed when the storm hits.

All preparations done, we wait.

I have noticed that there is little build up to a gale arriving - the wind suddenly increases in force and then almost without any warning, the tempest hits us. In a matter of minutes it seems the noise has substantially increased and the boat is heeling away from the blast. Secure on her lines, she is straining to break free and surges with every strong gust. Sometimes she shudders in a movement that I find difficult to fathom. At other times she jerks hard against the lines as a gust subsides for a second or two before slamming into us again. Inside we brace ourselves against whatever we can, stretching our legs out to prevent us sliding ignominiously onto the cabin sole. During the fiercest of gusts it can be difficult to move about without uncontrollable lurches, wildly grabbing for handholds to prevent ourselves crashing into the cooker or the saloon table. All we can do is sit it out. Conversation is difficult and trying to watch a film on the laptop is impossible - even with the hard of hearing subtitles enabled.

Karen tends to head early to our bunk in the for'ard cabin to snuggle herself down under the duvet for comfort and to alleviate any impending sea sickness. I choose to stay up because I cannot sleep. My ears are too alert to the slightest change in tone to the usual cacophony of rattles, bangs and thumps. The noise during a storm like this is incredible to behold. The wind literally roars - but it also roars in varying tones as it thunders over the hill behind us, thumps in a katabatic fashion into the marina below and moans, whistles and whines through the rigging, yanking at halyards and loose fittings, causing these to add to the din as they rattle discordantly against their various boats. The volume of this clamour rises and falls with the strength of each gust and all the while I am tuning in to the sounds that are important to me. Any significant changes to these and I am tempted to go out onto the deck to check them out.

The gales we have been experiencing recently have been unrelenting. Each time they sustain their strength and ferocity for a number of long hours. The force of the wind rarely dips and rises, it remains at a steady unremitting strength throughout the storm. At times, after a few hours of this, it is easy for me to become despondent and to begin to wish for a life ashore. These morose feelings do not linger as I keep myself busy with writing or reading. I get tired but only after the storm has passed. When it appears that the worst is over and there are subtle indications that the force of the gale is beginning to die away, I take myself to the bunk and attempt to find some elusive sleep.

It is a funny thing, but as similarly as it arrived, the gale usually disappears without a whimper. It is as if a switch on a fan has been thrown and all of a sudden there is stillness, The boat is still, The halyards are still. The sea is still. The noise has disappeared. It almost feels as if we have been toyed with and then abandoned, left alone at long last to our own devices, to emerge from our cabin to survey our world around us, checking for any damage.

Thankfully so far we have not sustained any damage to our boat. Each time after a storm I tighten and adjust the lines, also resetting any lashings on the sails. I may readjust the fenders that will have taken the brunt of the force of the boat against the pontoon, but that is really all I can do in preparation for the next storm.

This week we have been coping with a series of strong storms and at the moment there is a period of relative calm. On Wednesday night and through all day Thursday, we are faced with another tremendous storm with wind gusts of up to 69 knots! That is storm force twelve on the Beaufort scale. I sincerely intend to be able to write here that we continue to live unscathed aboard our wee boat and that she remains undamaged, but I am absolutely certain that for those twenty fours hours, all my senses will be finely tuned to the cacophony and the ferocious tumult around me.

This then is the intensely elemental nature of our life on the water and why I am so drawn to furthering my connection to the natural world with my sea kayak journey this summer.

Monday, 5 January 2015

A Little Bit of Background

As I write this a brisk south westerly wind is moaning through the rigging and is buffeting the boat. I am ready to reach out to grab the coffee pot on the stove should the uneven swell threaten to topple it. Our wee yacht tugs and strains on her lines and I notice that I adjust naturally to these movements, something I am well used to by now.

We have been living on our yacht since the beginning of 2012 having totally downsized and decluttered our combined 100 years worth of living. It both amazed and horrified me at how much 'stuff' we had accumulated and held onto simply because we could not bear to throw it all away. There were literally dozens of cardboard packing boxes filled to the brim with papers, books, keepsakes, photos, trinkets, school reports, children's drawings, old letters and so much more. There was the clutter of household furniture and the general accoutrements too, belongings that seem so important, so crucial for modern living. All of this had to go.

It took a couple of months of hard physical work to clear our home of all our belongings. This involved myriad runs to the local charity shops, car boot sales and sadly many visits to the council recycling centre. What worked best though was setting up a table by our garden gate where folks wandering past could help themselves to whatever we placed out there. This way we knew that many of our more treasured possessions were going on to to happy homes.

There was an emotional challenge to this process too. Many items that we parted with held deeper meanings for us and it was painful to let them go. We rationalised this sense of loss by accepting the reality that most, if not all the more intimate items we were letting go, had not actively featured in our lives for many years - they had merely lain where we had packed them in their relative boxes gathering dust. In fact by unearthing, rediscovering them and handling them before giving them away, we reconnected with their significance in a way that meant their memories would be carried on with us.

The huge task of downsizing complete, we finally closed the door on our old home at the beginning of January in 2012 and moved onto our 27' yacht. Immediately we felt a lightness and a sense of relief at having unburdened our lives of so many unneeded possessions. Our lives from that point on have been immeasurably simpler and unencumbered by 'stuff'. We live each day with what we need and if it is not needed we pass it on or recycle it. We no longer buy things because we are seduced by the marketing or the promise of an easier life. Instead we enjoy our saved income in other more fulfilling ways.

How does this fit in with the sea kayaking journey ahead of me? I think the connection here is the further exploration of my desire for simplicity in my life. One of the main draws for me in sea kayaking as a method of exploring the natural world is the aesthetically simple method of travel. It is about how I journey through the world with only what I can carry. Where all I need to be comfortable, safe and happy is with me in my kayak.

This is true of my life - our life - now, on our boat. All we have in our lives is all that we truly need - and this is not very much.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

It's 2015 - Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to you. I hope that the coming year is a truly wonderful one for you and your loved ones.

The turning of the year is always a time of promise and hope for me, more so this year. For many years I have held within me the desire to undertake a major sea kayaking expedition and suddenly it seems, the possibility to fulfill this ambition lies within my grasp in a few happy months time. 2015 is going to be the year when I set out on the most ambitious personal challenge in my life so far. I will embark on a 2015 mile circumnavigation of Scotland with the aim of visiting every one of the forty seven Royal National Lifeboat Institute stations dotted around the coast. This journey will include kayaking out and back to the Outer Hebrides, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands.

I intend to begin my expedition in mid-April when the settled Spring weather begins to take root in Scotland. This means that I have the following four months of high summer to complete the journey. Sitting here aboard the wee yacht I live on, which is bucking and dancing on her lines while a gale blows hard outside, it doesn't seem possible that I will encounter sufficient fair weather at all. However, being an experienced and seasoned sea kayaker up here in Scotland, I know full well that four months is ample time for me to succeed in my goal.

This is a solo undertaking which is what I have always intended. I want this to be a personal undertaking where the responsibilities for all aspects of the expedition lie with me. In many respects I view this as my rite of passage from my middle years to the senior quarter of my life. I am fifty one years old. There will be many opportunities for friends and acquaintances to kayak with me for short legs of the trip and I will certainly enjoy their company. I am hopeful too that I will meet many other folks around the varied coastline of Scotland.

 It goes without saying that a journey like this requires careful planning and preparation. I have the time to do this and I am looking forward to pouring over tidal information, nautical charts, OS Maps and researching every intricate detail of the route. This is one of the great pleasures of such an undertaking. If you have any words of advice you wish to offer then I am more than happy to receive them.

Thank you for visiting my blog and I hope that you return once and again in the months to come to see how I'm doing.