New Podcast - Shetland

I’ve a feeling that Shetland is going to become THE place to paddle over the next year or so. If it does, it’ll largely be due to the efforts of Tom Smith of who has written a guide to the islands for Pesda Press. Chris Jex has written the Orkney section of the same book.

In the first Podcast for March, Tom Smith talks us through the top three paddles in the area he knows so well. Listen and subscribe free here or download directly from the Podcast Library of

Apologies to those people who found the link from the Podcast Library reporting an error - it's now fixed.

The next podcast will go live on 10th March. Bob Campbell, the Marketing Director of P&H Sea Kayaks, will explain how to approach companies for sponsorship for your expedition - what you need to tell him and what he’ll want in return.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, let alone a free kayak.

Like stirring a void with a tea-spoon

According to today's Independent newspaper, the psychiatrist Anthony Clare once spent 45 minutes trying to get to the botton of Ran Fiennes for a radio programme and concluded that probing the explorer's psyche was "like stirring a void with a tea-spoon".

Sir Ran won't remember, but our paths cross many years ago. I had to interview him on a book tour and he had to endure yet another interviewer. I suspect we both left with a low opinion of one another.

Tomorrow, he's off to attempt the Eiger north face and is blogging and podcasting on his MySpace site, from which I've used the photo. He's also attempting to raise money for Marie Curie Cancer Care, the illness which killed his wife Ginny aged just 56.

He reckons there's nothing left to be done in polar exploration and he has already got to withing 300ft of Everest's summit, so once he's ticked the Eiger from his to-do list perhaps he should attempt an epic sea-kayak voyage?

I've invited him paddling. I'll bring the tea-spoon.

Mariner's Ailments

I'd like to think my shoulder injury was something related to the sport I enjoy so much. "Kayaker's Hunch" perhaps, from slouching forward while paddling. Well, the diagnosis from both doctor and chiropractor is posture related but has more to do with flying a desk than paddling a sea kayak. Both recommended more yoga. The cartoon below is more eloquent than me.

I heard about another mariner's ailment on Radio Scotland this morning. The UK's nuclear submarines are parked just down the Clyde from us at Faslane. Apparently, when submariners return from an extended tour of duty they're not allowed to drive for a couple of days because they suffer temporary myopia. With no horizon or distant object on which the eyes can focus, the eye muscle relaxes. So they come ashore temporarily short sighted.

Perhaps this explains the blurred image of Faslane on Google Earth? And I post the next photo without comment.

Shark Menace found in Library

I’ve been doing some research. For a change this didn’t mean clicking through eight million Google hits, but going to The Mitchell Library in Glasgow and working my way through microfilm of newspapers from the 1930’s.

The headline above caught my eye. Goodness knows how basking sharks could have been considered a “menace”. But reading the headlines and stories, it struck me how important the sea was to every day life back then. There was hardly a front page without some nautical story or other. It was usually bad news but then what changes?

I was also surprised that as early as 1933 there were numerous anti-Nazi stories. Of course these were probably true. But spinning through this first draft of history it felt almost as if the readers were being softened up for war.

That wouldn’t happen today. Would it?

Sea Names. Like Trail-names.

I’m gong to start with a question. By the time I finish, I think I’ll have answered it, but who knows?

Why don’t kayakers have "sea-names" in the same way that some hikers, especially in the US, have "trail-names"?

I’ve been nursing a shoulder injury for a few weeks now. That sounds like a leap, but please stay with me. I had been managing short runs, but was seized by a chest pain that whized around my body. I walked into the local NHS hospital and within minutes was connected to a ECG.

Turns out my heart is in great shape. However, my friendly chiropractor has to be more careful when he manipulates a rib, in the hope of alleviating my shoulder pain. The sudden chest pain was probably the rib pinging back into place. I'll mention this to him tomorrow.

This put me off running for at least ten days and I pulled out of the Highlander Mountain Marathon because I couldn’t get in the training miles. Yesterday I went out for a long-ish plod.

The GPS track is opposite - at about eleven miles, it was respectable enough for me at this stage. It was great to just cruise through the city and allow my mind to wander over issues small and smaller, which is how it alighted on the subject of "trail-names". See, we got there.

Trail-names are a phenomenon associated with the long distant trails of the USA. Perhaps in a desire to shake off the shackles of home-life, thru-hikers (as they’re known) frequently adopt an alias. When Liz and I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2002 people introduced themselves to us with these names. Most remarkably they would keep a straight face. We walked with Cheddar-head, Strawberry Girl, and Black Hawk to name but three.

So I re-read part our journal and from Monday 20th May found this:

We might have new Trail names. We'd joked that ever since I said to Liz one morning "hurry up, we'll be late", I ought to be called White Rabbit. I mean, late for what? Does Canada close? And since she doesn't crave the usual fast foods, but fresh salad, she should be "Lettuce". So, should we be called “White Rabbit” & “Lettuce”.

We were overheard discussing this by Eric, who rejoices in the Trail name “Skypilot”. He thought the new names appropriate, and a New Yorker called “Grasshopper”, agreed. I’m not convinced.

I’ve yet to meet the 43 year old Englishman who could introduce himself and his partner with the words, "Hello, we're White Rabbit & Lettuce".

In fact, shortly after this we started subverting the system. As we walked we’d invent increasingly bizare names names and use them with whoever we met. On Saturday 29th June, at someone’s home I wrote:

“Two thru-hikers were enjoying their hospitality, but I nearly laughed out loud when we introduced ourselves. Liz and I have not really got into this Trailname thing.

We jokingly invented new names for each other every few days, and after a bout of trail-food induced flatulence, I suggested the name “Restless Wind”.

Now here we were introducing ourselves to two hikers, and one of them said, “Hi. I’m Restless Wind”. I had to bite my pack-strap to stop myself from sniggering. And he seems like a decent bloke.”

So back to kayaking. Our boats have names. On the VHF Radio, we have call-signs, usually the boat name. So why not something like a trail name?

Or have I just answered my own question?

Home dehydrating food

Imagine you could reduce the weight and size of your tent by eighty percent while it was in your boat, then when you reached camp, plump it up to its original size, weight and shape. It sounds ludicrous, yet you can perform such astounding magic with what’s often the heaviest item in expedition - food.

If you find this useful, please click a few of the advert links, it really does help keep the site running.  Thank you!


Lundy Kayak-Taxi

Rob McIntyre of Sea Kayaking South West recorded one of the first Podcasts I posted. Rob must have missed my e-mail and hadn't realised the recording was 'live' until one of his clients told him they'd been listening to him talk passionately about kayaking in North Devon!

One of the routes Rob picked was Lundy Island which is a committing paddle for many people. Rob is delighted to have struck a deal with a charter boat operator who can carry 8 boats from Ifracombe to Lundy in less than an hour, so he can now offer a guided paddle around the island.

"The boat is a 12m cattermaran that'll do 28 knots", says Rob. "She's got a fly bridge that seats 8 which is great for spotting dolphin, wales and basking sharks, and the boat takes 12 clients +3 crew and 6/8 sea kayaks. The day trip will probably be; return boat trip, 3-4 hours sea kayaking and wildlife spotting, then 3-4 hours to explore the island. We'll also offer camping trips, probably 2 days".

Rob has recently redesigned him website through which he can be contacted for prices and dates. Or listen to him here.

Three Podcasts a Month

One week from today, on the 1st March, I've decided to step up this Podcasting thing. Instead of two and month, I'm going to increase the output to three full length interviews each and every month.


They'll appear on or close to the 1st, 10th and 20th. But you don't have to keep checking back. you can subscribe free here by clicking the Subscribe button. If that doesn't work, use the RSS feed on the main page. Or keep an eye on this blog.

Crumbs, three a month. Whatever will I have to talk about?

Well, on Saturday, I hope to speak to Tom Smith about the best routes on Shetland. He's just co-written a book for Pesda Press and it'll be available from 16th March. But you'll be able to hear what's in it from 1st March.

As thoughts turn to big summer trips, on 10th March I plan to publish a podcast with the marketing director of Pyranha / P&H Sea Kayaks about how to get sponsorship.

So that's the first two started. Any more ideas....?

Record Number of RNLI Rescues

According to the RNLI's annual figures, its crews saved a record number of people around the coast last year. Volunteers rescued 1,022 people in 2006 - the first time more than 1,000 people have been saved in a year - and equivalent to one rescue every eight-and-a-half hours!

When you read these numbers think souls, people, like you and me.

Scottish lifeboats launched 1,049 times last year, also a record in Scotland.

Scotlands'sTop Five Busiest Stations
1. Broughty Ferry near Dundee - 79 launches, 29 rescues
2. Troon in Ayrshire - 54 launches, 22 rescues
3. Kinghorn on the Forth near Edinburgh -54 launches, 28 rescues.
4. Oban, Argyll - 52 launches, 109 rescues
5. Queensferry on the Forth - 52 launches, 70 rescued

Since Oban is my local paddling area, this made me shudder. Oban's all-weather lifeboat rescued 109 people and that's the highest number of people rescued by any single rescue vessel in the whole of the RNLI!

Most RNLI rescues last year - a fifth of the total - involved sail boats. Next came people in the sea (17%), power boats and jet skis (16%) and fishing vessels (15%).

The busiest RNLI lifeboat station overall was Tower Pier on the River Thames, which launched 344 times and rescued 99 people.

1st Paddle Expedition Symposium, Plas Y Brenin

16-18th February 2007

It felt like the gathering of a strange, diverse clan. I came to sea kayaking from a mountaineering background so I don't hang out with other types of paddlers. Oh, I've chatted to river paddlers and I've seen open boaters pass with their craft on their car roofs, but unless they're on the water in a long, pointy boat, there’s rarely a chance to sit down and talk paddle-sport with them. It’s my loss, of course.

The first Expedition Symposium a Plas y Brenin demolished such barriers. It showed me what more all-round paddlers probably already knew; that we have more things which draw us together than push us apart. All praise to Pete Catterall, Senior Instructor at PYB, and all the team of speakers for delivering a symposium which could be all things to all paddlers.

The two days were broken into four sessions, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, with the same sessions running twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon of both days. I don’t think I’ve explained that too well, but the it meant there was four chances to attend almost every session. While this reduced the sensation of overwhelming choice which greeted me at my first sea symposium on Skye two years ago, but meant that there were only just enough sessions to keep me busy and interested.

Gear choice is central to expedition success, and the first session run by Ben Lawes consisted of him tipping out his dry bags and explaining what went into them and why. Since starting to paddle in dry-suits, Liz and I have wondered how appropriate they would be for an expedition, worn day after day for several weeks. We'd heard conflicting reports, but Ben had no doubts about their value. "For the first few days in Greenland we paddled with them rolled down", Ben said, "and we wondered if we'd done the right thing. But once the weather changed we were very pleased to have the dry suits". Olly Sanders, who was on the same Greeland trip later told me, "Providing you keep yourself clean you shouldn't suffer any worse rash in a dry suit". However, carried a separate set of lightweight waterproof jacket and trousers for around camp. You’ll soon be able to hear a Podcast with Olly about Noway, in particular rounding Nordkapp, the Lofoten Islands and the Fijord area.

Most sessions had a collegiate feel. The people giving the talks didn't assume they had all the knowledge so the delegates (if that's the word) could frequently contribute to the learning experience. Liz mentioned we dehydrated our own food for our 5-month PCT hike, and some was quick to pick her brains about recommended machines.

Remote first aid is always an issue which interests people who venture into wild situations. From the start Helen Barnard made it clear you don't have to be in deepest darkest wild-is-tan for the situation to be remote. The west coast of Scotland, out of VHF and mobile phone range, is wild enough. We ran through the DR-ABC basics with the 'Annie' torsos, but the upshot of that session was to leave Liz and I thinking we needed to go on a proper kayak specific course. The REC, Rescue Emergency Care courses which last 3 days, tailored for mountaineering or kayaking were recommended.

"If you've come looking for the box of free money, you're in the wrong place", was how Bob Campbell greeted us. He’s the marketing manager with P&H Sea Kayaks and Pyranha and gave an illuminating talk on how to go about getting expedition sponsorship. Given what the companies want in return, it left some wondering whether it's worth it! I've recorded a Podcast with Bob and together with a download fact sheet they'll be available on hopefully in March.

Greenland is currently THE place to sea kayak, and Olly Sanders whetted appetites with his Saturday night slide show. Olly runs Rock and Sea Adventures.

Dave Manby's talk about his “life as an expedition paddler” was, how shall I put this, less structured - yet highly entertaining. Dave was the youngest member of the 1976 Everest kayak expedition, when the team drove to Nepal, and he's been paddling ever since. Now 52, his mail still goes to his parents' address because he doesn't have a 'proper' house. After a life of shooting the world's wildest rivers and (I think) chairing the BCU Expedition Committee, no one is better placed to talk about expeditions. He hurled a guidebook across the lecture theatre with a flourish and declaimed, "If there's a guide book, it isn't an expedition!”

I was unable to confirm he was last seen in the early hours of Sunday morning, sliding down the artificial ski-slope on a tray. This was clearly a mis-identification.

Possibly the most popular sessions were those on camp and tarp craft, run by Steven Yates, which also ventured into the areas of fire starting and open cooking. Held under a giant parachute shelter, these were distinctly Ray Mears in flavour and something no "song of the paddle" devotees would miss. This is how Liz and I spent day 2. We’ll be buying a canoe next…

Now, I'm not one for carrying axes to whittle tent pegs. What's more, we have tried tarps and found them not to our style for use in Scottish hills. Yet Steve showed how one can be combined with a regular tent or used in conjunction with paddles and a kayak to create a quick shelter. When it came to our hands-on attempt, we seized on a GoLite tarp to use, largely because we have one at home and wanted to see whether we could use it in a sea kayak context. In the end we decided it was too small for kayaking, and somewhat over-designed for this purpose. We'll try to track down an Integral designs tarp instead.

Sunday afternoon we were back in the back woods. Learning how to make fire and then cook food on it is a useful skill for any sea kayaker. It was given all the more resonance by Olly Sander’s talk the previous night, in which he’d explained his team had been forced to cook on open fires for six days in Greeland when their MSR stove fell apart. It’s worth knowing how to do it.

First tip, for hanging a pot over a fire, was to use “sheethless Kevlar” cord bought from a chandlers. It doesn't burn, and is so strong a special knife is required to cut it.

Then we were out foraging for wood and scrapings of beech bark. Once back, we were handed a fire-steel each, and sparks were flying everywhere. If it didn't catch, an un-folded make-up remover pad placed underneath was a sure piece of tinder.

Best skill of all was learning how to make "fire sticks". Using a sharp knife, we curled shavings from a piece of wood but leaving the shaving attached. Once the whole stick was covered in these curly slivers it looked like a Christmas decoration but was a hugely effective piece of kindling, which caught fire easily and kept burning into the main wood.

The whole weekend was run with the relaxed professionalism always associated with Plas Y Brenin. Some of the speakers confided they weren’t sure they had it right because this was the first, but they’d fine tune it for next time. However, I'd be surprised if they wasn't swamped with praise as most folk I talked to had a great weekend and learned a lot.

Because although Liz and I have done a few expeditions, none have been in a kayak. So as Donald Rumsfeld might say, there were “unknown unknowns. That is to say, things we don't know we don't know." We found plenty, and while I'm sure there are more to discover, that’s the whole point of expeditions.

Lights on Paddles

A student doing a product design degree in Edinburgh wants to know whether incorporating some type of light in a paddle is a good idea.

He would value your opinion.

Please download the questionnaire Word file here and once completed, e-mail it back to him at the address on the bottom of the form. If you can circulate this to other paddlers as well he'd be very grateful. Or just comment here.

Podcast - Level Five Fairies

According to this man, Level Five coaches are fairies. "Top fairies", to be precise. No, I'm not sure why he said it either. Suggestions and comments, or even suggestive comments, are welcome.

I planned to run Douglas' excellent podcast about paddling in the Solway, but this interview is topical right now and has a short shelf life, so it has to go first.

The coaching structure of the British Canoe Union is in the process of being completely overhauled bringing it in line with UKCC. While this is happening, there has been some confusion and rumours about how it’ll all end up.

Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures is a director of the Scottish Canoe Association and one of the team working to devise and introduce the new coaching structure to UK.

Here he explains why the changes are happening, how it should all end up and what it means for you if you’re a qualified kayak coach. Listen and subscribe free here or download directly from the Podcast Library.

Anyone who is going to the Plas y Brenin Expedition Symposium this weekend, I'll see you there.

Dolphin with attitude

So what about this Nordkapp? Well in some ways it chose me rather than the other way around. We have history together, so to speak.

If you're looking for technical descriptions then look somewhere else. When people talk to me about chine, rocker, primary and secondary stability (and row about whether these last two actually exist) then my eyes glaze over. I'm not technical. I'm going to talk about feelings.

And my first feeling was unmitigated fear. Liz and I have done most of our training with Gordon Brown of Skyak who we knew prefers the Valley Nordkapp. That's enough of a reason, in my book, not to buy one as on the kayak evolutionary scale, if Gordon is an advanced primate I'm still swimming with amoeba.

In March 2005 I did one day of 4 star training and one day assessment with him. On the first day I left my much loved poly Capella on the roof rack and paddled a Nordkapp. This was (almost) the first composite boat I'd used and it was a revelation.

I felt like I was sitting astride a dolphin, whizzing through the waves, effortlessly making turns and .... Splash! We learnt about breaking in and out of tidal flows. "Which way do I edge"? "Try one side and see what happens", says Gordon, using his best discovery learning. Splash! Wrong side. It's not easy to ride a slippery dolphin.

Towards the end of the day I had to try a roll. Previously I'd rolled once in a pool and.. er, that was it. So it was with some trepidation I found myself not breathing water. The sudden experience of being upright again took me so much by surprise I almost capsized on the other side, a full three-sixty roll. Wow. Some dolphin.

Day two saw me on board a very different beast. A P&H Quest - now this felt safer. No unscheduled underwater views and no surprises. I passed and that same night, on the UKSeaKayakGuideBook, I saw Douglas Wilcox was selling a Quest. I bought it. Much later I discovered I'd become the third owner of the original Quest prototype, called a "Capella Explorer" on the cockpit sticker, which Mike Thompson had helped to name after naming this particular boat "Sea Quest".

It has been a superb sea kayak. We survived the Hebridean Challenge in July 2005 and it has always been a stable platform from which to take photos. It was exactly what I needed at my limited level of ability and would have served me well long into the future had I not wanted a challenge. Reliable, dependable and steady are all words I'd use to describe it.

But it's not a dolphin.

Liz is a better natural paddler than me. In 2006, after trying so many boats as to end up utterly confused, she bought one of the new Nordkapp LV boats. She called it Sanais Mara, 'Sea Whisper' (low volume - geddit!). She can't explain why, but what had been a difficult decision became simple the second time she sat in it. "It felt right", she told me.

It's Sunday morning. Gordon and I load his trailer with a few boats for me to try and we drive to Kylerhea just as the tide begins to ebb. Liz borrows an eye-poppingly yellow Nordkapp LV. In the Nordkapp Jubilee I immediately experience exactly the same feeling as Liz did last year. It feels right.

On Gordon's advice I find some still water and some moving water and practice turning strokes, noticing how easily the boat edges and how stable it feels. Then I swap boats, and do exactly the same again. Hmm, not as much difference as I expected. Back into the Nordkapp. Oh, there you go.... now I feel the difference. Good grief, the edging characteristics are completely different! I have water on my spray-deck it edges so easily. Three strokes and am I was facing the way I'd come.

I'm back on my dolphin. Only now I know a little more about hanging on.

"Why not paddle back to Camuscross?" asks Gordon. We eagerly accept and I spend the next two and a half hours in ideal demo-boat conditions. Calm wind, with slightly lumpy following, head and beam seas. It's never enough to throw me out but enough for the Nordkapp to hint at its potential. It can do much more when I'm good enough to handle it.

Later, Gordon warns "It will force you to do things the right way". A boat which automatically punishes sloppy paddling. An on-board coach. With a stick! Actually, that's just what I need.

Liz got it in one. "If you choose something else, you'd always wonder if you should have had a Nordkapp". It wouldn't work the other way around.

I know I'm setting myself up for some scary days at sea. There'll be times when I long for the stability of my Quest and I'll be in no rush to sell it. Not every one will agree with my approach but as of now, that's what I hope to do when I can afford it.

Now I have to find the Gaelic for "dolphin with attitude".

Pleasure and pain

It felt as if the thud would be heard across Scotland, but I think it only bounced around inside me.

It was the sickening bump of a harsh reality colliding with an otherwise pretty near perfect winter weekend. Away from the computer and news, I checked my blog reader when I returned and picked up so many strands of news about Andrew McAuley. I didn't know him, but I knew about his attempt to paddle the Tasman. I even feel strangely guilty that I could have a great day on the water when clearly things were going so badly on the opposite side of the planet.

Liz and I spent Saturday night with Gordon and Morag Brown on Skye, to chat, to record another podcast and to allow me to try a couple of boats.

As I suspected, the Valley Nordkapp is the one for me. I had planned to write about the characteristics in the craft which made me take to it so quickly, but it doesn't seem right to do so now.

Podcast Plans

If all goes to plan, and when does that ever happen, I should have three new podcasts recorded by this time next week.

Gordon Brown is going to record a piece explaining how the BCU/SCA coaching scheme is changing in 2007, hopefully without annoying any more Greenland style paddlers.

Eddie Palmer will record a podcast about his new Canoe book.

And Franco Ferrero will tell me all about his plans for Pesda Press to achieve world domination through publishing kayak books.

Hopefully they'll go better than the Oban-1 podcast which I published at the start of this month. David commented on this blog to say the end sounded odd. He's right - it's missing! What on earth was I thinking when I put that together last October after the Storm Gathering. I'll try to sort it out in the near future.

Next Podcast - Solway

February is turning into a Scottish podcast month. Not surprising really, given where I live.

Douglas Wilcox of SeaKayakPhoto is the next Podcaster, talking about the Solway. It's an area he knows well but which he reckons is frequently overlooked by paddlers heading for Scotland's more famous west coast.

Hear the best routes to paddle and where best to launch to cope with the huge tidal range when the podcast goes live on 15th February. Listen or subscribe to the Podcast feed here, subscribe to the update service here or just visit the Podcast Library and download directly.

Worth the wait

When it came, it was stunning. High pressure and dry, clear days have been distinctly lacking on the west coast of Scotland since last October but this weekend reminded us why we enjoy living here so much.

Friday saw us paddling on Loch Ailort, sticking our noses out from the shelter of the loch into the larger seas. The residual swell was being encouraged by a west wind and we had to remember how to handle the boats after several months enforced lay-off. I was hit by a boomer which seemed to come from nowhere but stayed upright despite the wave breaking on me.

Saturday was glass calm and we managed to get into the car by 7.30 (that's good for us!) and on the water in Oban harbour at 09.30 to head off around Kerrera. The photos speak for themselves.

On our way back up the Sound of Kerrera we met two paddlers, Colin McWilliamson and Jill (sorry, didn't catch the surname Jill) who told us a new kayak club has just started in Oban and promised to send details. We also met Tony of Sea Freedom Kayak by the side of the road, loading up after taking two people out for a paddle.

Sunday brought things crashing back to normality. Liz was rinsing our dry-suits in the bath when I realised we had a small flood outside the cottage. We spend the next five hours with drain rods, trowels and buckets un-blocking the drain to our septic tank. I've just washed my hands in water laced with detol and they still stink. But it can't spoil the first great paddle of 2007. If there are more like that, this will be a good year.

Oh, and it looks like Douglas has been having a pretty good time too. That man takes a damn fine photo! (Hear how he does it in his podcast)