It’s called a “boomer”, and depending on whether you’re prepared it can be fun or fatal. A vertical wall of water suddenly rears up in front of your kayak, hangs in space, then crashes down, battering your head, body, boat and paddle.
Fighting through an upright lump of collapsing ocean gives a huge adrenalin rush, and provided you know what you’re doing it’s a wild ride.
If you don’t, you can end up like the solo Dutch kayaker who, earlier this year, was found clinging to a rock surrounded by shattered pieces of his broken boat.
I imagine his first words to the lifeboat crew which plucked him to safety were, “What was that?” Don’t worry, I’ll tell you before the end. Continues
Scotland’s west coast is a world-class destination for this sport. The Inner and Outer Hebrides are to sea kayaking what Colorado is to skiing or the Red Sea is to diving. And the scattering of skerries and islands off Arisaig is one of the most perfect places on earth to paddle. This was the place I was introduced to sea kayaking in what looked like a giant plastic banana. Sat in the sixteen foot long, bright yellow boat, I placed one end of the paddle in the water and pulled. The boat eased forward. I dipped the other end of the paddle in the water and pulled again. I was sea kayaking.
Our group glided into a maze of tiny islands, whose number changes by the minute depending upon the state of the tide. Pure white beaches slipped from land into sea, reflecting the summer sun through the shallow water, turning it a shade of blue I’d previously seen only in the Caribbean. Inquisitive seals shot under the kayak like agile torpedoes, breaking the surface only to cast curious glances at the interlopers. Now I was hooked.
That was four years ago, yet only last month I experienced the same full-body thrill as I was buzzed by what the ancients would call a “sea monster”. We were kayaking off Iona when a basking shark cruised alongside. Longer and wider than my boat, its dorsal fin swept to within touching distance; the gentle giant was clearly as interested in us as we were in it. These special moments in special places reach to the very soul of sea kayaking, and for those who know, Scotland is a sweet spot on the planet.
It really is that easy to start, as hundreds of people discover every year. An instruction manual, published last December, was expected to sell seven hundred copies in its first year, but three thousand went in only six months. Its author is Gordon Brown, who runs Skyak Adventures on the Isle of Skye, but even he can’t explain why the sport has suddenly rocketed in popularity. “It’s all about freedom”, Gordon explained, “and no paths. I’ve had clients on the same piece of water three days this week and each time it was a completely different experience”.
Like me, many kayaking converts were hill walkers looking for new way to explore wild places. Fed up with crowded cairns and congested car parks at the top and bottom of Munros, there’s a palpable appeal to a sport where it’s impossible to leave a footprint. The ever changing sea means each trip is a fresh adventure. And since kayaks carry a lot more than rucksacks, camping can be almost a luxurious affair with wine, good food and open fires in fantastically remote locations. With the price of kayaks falling, it’s easy to see why so many people are hanging up their boots and picking up paddles.
However, there seems to be a deadly equation at work here. More people plus cheaper gear might equal more accidents. There have been four sea kayak-related deaths in Scottish waters this year, that’s more than most kayakers can remember in the last two decades, and an alarmingly high number for a sport which takes pride in its safety record. While not speculating about the circumstances of those individual tragedies, there are generalised concerns about the influx of newcomers to the sport.
“In skilled hands, a sea kayak is safe but in untrained hands may well prove lethal”, says Tony Hammock, a coach who runs Seafreedom Kayak from his home at Connel. He was speaking generally when he told me, “in the past, people came to sea kayaking via clubs, centres and through coaches. Kayaks were bought from specialists who themselves were expert paddlers. But now people with no experience are renting or buying kayaks from retail staff who may themselves understand little of the risks. People are heading for the sea with little idea of the situations that can arise and how to avoid them."
Then there’s e-bay. Rather than leave an old boat lying in the shed, an experienced kayaker can now sell it to a bargain hunter, who may only be looking for something cheap to mess about in on holiday. He won’t spend hours practicing rescue drills, learn about tides or carry flares. He won’t know what a “boomer” is until it reaches out of the sea and sucks him under. (I’ll tell you soon). To the authorities it’ll be another ‘kayaking tragedy’.
A few winters ago, an unusually high number of climbers were killed on the Scottish mountains. These deaths prompted calls for compulsory insurance until the rescue teams squashed the idea. Now there are fears that more sea kayaking accidents could bring similar demands to this sport, such as mandatory qualifications. The governing body, the Scottish Canoe Association (SCA), is trying to head off any problem with a voluntary solution.
“First point of contact with a potential sea kayaker is usually a shop”, says Dave Rossetter of the SCA, who also runs Stirling Canoes and Nevis Canoes. “Whether someone buys a boat on e-bay or through us, they eventually end up in a kayaking shop for some bits and pieces. That’s where we have to reach them and get information into their hands”. Dave is putting the finishing touches to an SCA leaflet which will give beginners sound “best practice advice” about how and where to get training.
But it will only be advice. Gordon Brown is a director of the SCA and told me, ““I cannot honestly tell people they must have training before they go paddling, because the truth is I had none,” he confessed. “I learnt as I kayaked. And I was lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’re a statistic”.
So what’s a boomer? Gordon Brown describes it like this, "When an isolated rock or reef has an occasional dumping wave break onto it, it is known as a ‘ boomer’. What happens is that the water pulls away from the reef, exposing the top then the next wave arrives and the crest explodes onto the bare rock. This is probably the worst place you could be with your kayak." Seen from kayak level, it’s like the Neptune’s hand thrusting out of the waves, then hurtling down to swat you in the face.
Sea kayaking is a seductively easy sport. Photographs are usually taken in the most benign conditions, because when its rough, both hands are on the paddle. While it’s easy to get started, its even easier to become complacent or take the sea for granted. It’s a mistake some people only make once.