It is Saturday afternoon and we're sitting in glorious sunshine among the noisy bird life off the west coast of Mull. Probably won't make it to the Dutchman's Cap as we're going fishing instead.
The Highlander takes place this weekend based in Strathconon in the north of Scotland. A shoulder injury earlier this year prevented me doing enough training and I’m disappointed to be missing the first running of this new event. The legs are angry. They haven’t spoken to that shoulder for weeks, but that’s a different story.
The Original Mountain Marathon is the last event in the MM calendar. It’s still better known as the KIMM, the Karrimor, but even as the OMM it always takes place on the last weekend in October. Unfortunately, that’s the same weekend as the Scottish Canoe Association’s Perth Paddle-fest.
This year I’ve decided to go to Perth, partly to record podcasts for SeaKayakRoutes.com and also to promote a couple of radio programmes I’m making which involve an element of sea kayaking. The arms are happy, the legs are furious.
They’d also been looking forward to the LAMM in the middle of the year. It would be the first time I’d run this event, but now I find all my limbs will be heavily involved in recording radio programmes. And to add insult to injustice, the Scottish six-day orienteering events clash with our paddle trip to Norway.
So I am confronted with a leg rebellion. “What’s the point of pounding miles around the streets of Glasgow”, they demand to know, “when we're not entering an event?” My legs are very goal-oriented. “And why”, they ask, “must we put up with getting cold, wet and tired every weekend on the hills of Argyll? Do you think we think this is fun?” They’re considering a sit-down strike.
“There’s still the Saunders, the Capricorn and the Phoenix”, I reassure, encouraging them to slip into a pair of Inov-8's. They’re not listening. They’re going out to the pub, muttering something about getting legless….
Cross-over has always interested me. Solutions from one sphere of activity can often cross-over into entirely unrelated areas.
For example, I read recently about someone who uses a container for welding rods to store his flares. That's an excellent cross-over solution, although I think I have found a cheaper and possibly better one for flares - see below.
First, back to boxes. A Pelicase big enough for a compact camera costs £10.50. The above case cost £2.99 from Lakeland Plastics. Obviously it's not as strong, but it is just as waterproof.
I was also taken with the £3.99 box. The removable dividers make it a useful choice for a First-Aid case, or for stuff that could damage each other if allowed to roll around. The batteries in this compartment give a sense of size.
Now the bags. The PackMate Outdoor Sport Roll bags are proving to be a simple, reliable way to store parachute flares in the kayak cockpit. I've written about these bags before.
They're essentially big zip-lock bags, reinforced with nylon webbing, designed for long term storage of clothes. Parachute flares exactly fit across the medium size. Mine have been behind the cockpit seat on three outings so far, one of which involved a wet exit, and the inside has remained dry.
So there we are. Plastic boxes and bags. If I'm a sad person for writing about such things, remember who read it...
Liz and I were helping Cailean with a few photos for his new guide-book.
We were also taking a few of our own, and taking turns to try a Quest LV with a kevlar hull.
The lightness takes a bit of getting used to on the water, but it looks like I'll be able to hang onto it for a couple of weeks.
Carrying the thing is a doddle! I hitched it on one shoulder, the Ikea bag over the other, and strolled back to the car.
It was great to spend a couple of days with Cat & Cailean at our home up here.
The rough part came this morning.
It seems my 84 yr old Mum had a fall. She's OK but badly shaken.
She lives alone in Spain, having spent the last couple of months in an old-folks home there while a doctor tried to diagnose why her memory is going.
They haven't managed yet, so she's back at home with nursing cover. Turns out she is needing a lot of nursing cover, all of which we pay for, which I don't mind but I wonder how it's all going to work out.
A dark cloud in an otherwise blue sky.
I've worked out how to email a blog entry with a photo. The layout,
or rather the formatting, is still weird as you can see. I have no
idea where all those double spaces come from, I'm not typing them!
If you know how to get rid of them PLEASE tell me. But this is what
Open a free Flickr account, for which you need a free Yahoo address.
Go into your account settings, navigate to email, and you'll see it
allows two options. You can email photos directly to your Flickr
account, and you can also have them sent, along with text, to a
Blogger account. Flickr generates an email address to which you to
send them. There are a couple of bits of going back-and-forth
between them while they set up permissions for one to "talk" to the
other but it was astonishingly simple. Even for me.
Posted Friday, March 23, 2007
First some background; I’ve been sea kayaking for only a few years, but I’ve been making TV programmes for more than twenty. There are aspects to this production which are excellent and others I think could easily be improved. But none of these obscure the teaching points the production delivers.
Let’s start with its USP. Its unique selling point is that you can watch, over and over again, rescue techniques on calm water and rough water. The viewer is first talked through each technique in a calm bay, then shown the footage again in slow motion with freeze-frames and captions (written text) to emphasise the key points. Then it moves into rougher water and the process is repeated, with a full speed demonstration followed by a repeat with freeze frames and learning points. This is highly effective.
We’ve all attempted an x-rescue in a sheltered bay, only to discover it’s a very different experience when waves are breaking into the cockpit. On the DVD I watched techniques I’d never previously seen and refinements to ones I had. I thought the rough water camerawork outstanding, especially the sequences shot from a boat. I would have preferred each rescue to have its own chapter so I could find them faster to watch again.
The other sections of this DVD are quite different and mainly consist of a man talking straight to camera. The information is good but this is not riveting television.
A coastguard talks about the work he does and how it relates to sea kayaking; Leo Hoare talks us through towing systems; Olly Sanders discusses what to carry on a PFD; and an RNLI crewman explains how the organisations helps us.
Perhaps I’m being a little harsh. There are some interesting “overlay” pictures of a helicopter and life boat at work and the towing section is enlivened with an on-the-water presentation about how to rig a tow with examples of different towing systems in use. Once again, this is far more informative than photographs in a book. The producers could use various television techniques to make these more engaging because my overwhelming recollection of these chapters is of men talking at me.
It’s only fair to admit that most TV producers can pick faults in any production and with hindsight I suspect the producers of this DVD would be equally critical. They’re filming another DVD this summer, about kayaking in rough water, and I’m confident it will be even better. I stick with my original assessment; this DVD is worth buying.
This is a simple, cheap package, bought for about £9 in Maplin’s electronic store. It’s a small plastic box with a molded handle and a lid that is also a 7 volt solar panel.
At midnight tonight, throughout the Valencia region of Spain, giant cartoon statutes will be set on fire to mark the festival of San Jose, Saint Joseph. The photographs were taken last weekend in the town of Denia, while the article appeared in The Sunday Times in 2001.
Juan Llantada pulled a face, not unlike an iguana, and offered some advice; "During the ten minutes of the Mascaleta you must keep your mouth slightly open, like this" he said, repeating his reptilian contortion. "It will prevent the explosions damaging your inner ears".
The Mascaleta was psychological warfare. Before going into battle, the Arabs, who ruled much of Spain for centuries, shot powerful fireworks into the sky to intimidate their opponents, and those skills are still used at Fiesta time.
The first salvo panicked every pigeon in Valencia. The second volley flew lower but louder, and my hands instinctively clamped themselves over my ears. Around me, people were heeding Juan's advice and grimacing harder than a wall of demented gargoyles. The explosions merged into a sustained aural assault. Shockwave after shocking wave battered my body, fists of pure air pummelling my face and chest, until... absolutely nothing. Silence. And then a hundred thousand, temporarily deafened, people began to cheer, a little too loudly. A city sized crowd, invigorated by the power of their experience and quietly relieved it was finally all over. Until tomorrow.
For one week in March, the province of Valencia gives itself over to the most primal of urges and celebrates the secret of fire. Towns and tiny villages reverberate to an almost continuous cacophony of fire crackers and marching bands, all watched over by huge, cartoon-like effigies, specially built for this unique celebration. Then, at the very climax of the week long fiesta, these lovingly created monster models are set alight and completely destroyed in an orgy of flame.
Officially, the Fallas celebrate the day devoted to Christ's Father, Saint Joseph, and its roots lie in the Valencian wood working tradition. During long, dark winter nights, carpenters had to work by the dim glow of oil lamps which they hung from a pole with several arms. The word 'falla' comes form the Latin facula meaning torch. In Spring, the lamp stands were a waste of space and, since carpenters could easily build a new one, they were burnt along with piles of old wood shavings as part of the celebrations for the day of their Patron Saint. Local people started using the carpenters' bonfires to get rid of old clothes or unwanted junk. Then someone, with a typically Spanish eye to satire, sat a scarecrow on top, and dressed it to look like an important, but disliked, neighbor. This added to the fun of the fiesta, and the fallas began.
Today, different neighborhoods still compete to produce the best fallas, only now they commission specialist artists, sculptors and craftsmen to create, transport and erect the final statues. A small town of fallas engineers has grown just outside Valencia, providing employment for thousands of people. But modernisation has not diminished their power to puncture pomposity, to comment on social trends, or to poke fun. It must be a humbling experience for a politician to see himself go up in flames - a spitting image, spitting real fire.
I found my first falla by following a procession through the Costa Blanca town of Gandia, and the sight of it stopped me in my tracks. Towering thirty feet over head, looming as if about to pounce, was the soulful, bearded face of a wizened old man. Father Time clutched an immense candlestick in one hand and, in the other, raised aloft a ball from which a sprite stared down in fear and anger.
To one side was Old Spain; grey men, shrouded in cobwebs, ossified in their opinions. On the other rose an image of Gandia's latest industrial park, a dubious development including high rise flats, crowned by a Burger King. A skeletal horseman rode between old and new, apparently questioning the wisdom of such progress.
That was the central theme, but other tableaux were dotted around the base; an old man was slumped in a chair reading a book, while his grandchild sat on his knee, engrossed in a video game. A local politician, who I was told had recently introduced Gandia's confusing one-way traffic system, struggled under a pile of cartoon cars. Small local issues, global social trends, and the mortality of man juxtaposed with the infinite quality of time were all encompassed in one gaudy, magnificently monstrous sculpture. It was my first falla and it will always be the best. But I'd heard the really impressive ones were to be found in the big city of the Levantine plain.
For five days and nights, Valencia contracts amnesia. It forgets to be a bastion of business and focuses on fallas. While small towns may close a street or two, Valencia shuts its entire city centre, allowing only taxis, officials and emergency services to drive through the barriers. Wide open avenues are transformed from race tracks into vast pedestrian thorough fares, and it's difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the people's endeavor.
No fewer than three hundred and seventy fallas are dotted around the city, each a huge structure, each organised and paid for by a different district, and each erected in a different square, sometimes squeezed in so tightly they almost touch the surrounding buildings. It shows a powerful sense of local pride and willingness to work together which I cannot imagine happening anywhere else.
They save the best until last. The crema is the epic conclusion of the fiesta, and I decided to experience it in the second city of fallas, the town of Denia. Each falla is judged and, like a macabre Miss World pageant, they are ignited in reverse order.
This being Spain, no-one actually expected the fire to start on time, so no-one was disappointed when, by half past twelve, nothing had happened. The crowd pressed closer, willing, shouting, whistling and cheering for the man with the lighter to do his job.
Then suddenly all hell was let loose. Although I'd paid it little attention, a rope encircled the falla, about twelve feet from the ground and dangling from it, just overhead, were lots of small paper parcels. These now sprang into explosive life, as fire crackers and catherine wheels fired off a fusillade of flame and a shower of sparks. People screamed and ducked for cover from the scalding slivers. Crowd control by firework proved highly effective because in an instant, everyone had retreated to where the fire department, the bombers, had been asking them to stand all along. Barriers were dragged in front of the startled, smouldering audience, and the crema began.
At first there was barely a hint of a flame. I thought the fire had not caught hold. Then I realised the falla was burning from the inside. With a 'crack' one of the supports gave way and a ball of fire belched through the gap, silhouetting the huge caricature in an unholy orange glow.
With the flame came the heat, fantastic heat, radiating from the falla with a power ten times that of the explosions of the mascleta. Around me, people clamped their hands over their foreheads to protect the expanse of bare flesh. The following morning, I would discover that the skin on my brow had peeled, such was the intensity of the heat, but for now I hid behind my camera, struggling with exposure settings, trying to get close enough for a shot but being driven back by the blaze.
That night I watched three fallas rise in flames and fall into ashes. The build up to each ignition took longer and longer, as none could begin until the bombers arrived and this, not surprisingly, is their busiest night of the year. One falla, erected in a particularly narrow street, could only be lit after the neighbouring buildings had been doused with water to protect them, and a fire hose played across their balconies for the duration of the conflagration.
Six hours later, with the morning just starting to take shape, I stood at the same spot, staring at a pile of damp ashes and wondering. Why go to the expense of shutting down towns and cities along the Costa Blanca? Why build elaborate statues just to destroy them? Why risk life and property for a moment of incandescent madness?
It seems to me that this is not really about a Saint's day, or lampooning powerful people, or even using up carpenters' cast offs. Such things are part of it, but the fallas festival is far more fundamental, more elemental. It represents the eternal cycle of creation and destruction, of light and dark, of life and of death, and these truths still exert a powerful influence in Iberia.
The morning after the crema, the planning always starts again for next year, because the fallas is simply a spectacular part of an eternal cycle which can never be broken.
When to go: Saint Joseph's day is celebrated on 19th March. The Fallas festival runs for a week up to the weekend nearest this date.
Where to go: Valencia is the capital of Fallas, and the hotel prices reflect this. By contrast, Denia is big enough to have the atmosphere but small enough to watch almost every crema. Costa Blanca towns which have Fallas festivals include: Benidorm, Bunol, Calpe, Denia, Gandia, Oliva, Pego, Sueca, Valencia.
In the last Podcast we heard about sponsorship from a company’s viewpoint. Here Richard explains how he helped to secure sponsorship for this expedition as well as describing what promises to be an amazing adventure in 2007.
Listen and subscribe free here or download directly from the Podcast Library.
It was finding the New Zealand regulations which started me down this road. There have been some useful, but as yet inconclusive, comments on that post and on the UK Sea Kayak Guidebook forum.
I e-mailed the Department for Transport and today received a Word Document copy of its fact sheet. Sadly, it is also inconclusive.
ROAD VEHICLES (CONSTRUCTION AND USE) REGULATIONS 1986
REGULATION 82(7) - LOAD PROJECTIONS
If a load projects up to one metre, either forwards or backwards, no action is required.
If a load projects 1-2 metre forwards, no action is required.
If a load projects 1-2 metres backwards, "End must be made clearly visible. Para 4 Sch 12"
For details consult regulation 82 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986: SI 1986 No. 1078 as amended.
As most sea kayaks will project backwards 1-2 metres, then their "ends must be made clearly visible". What does that mean? High-viz markers like the Kari-tek one in the photo sent to me by Cailean? Lights at night?
I've e-mailed back to ask for a definition of "clearly visible"
You can listen and Subscribe free to the SeaKayakRoutes.com Podcasts here (it works best if you have iTunes). Or you'll be able to download this Podcast and many more from the Podcast Library. If you want to make sure you don’t miss one, but don’t want to subscribe, sign up to the RSS feed on the front page of the website SeaKayakRoutes.com
The boat has a curious provenance and might be one of the original Quests. The sticker in the cockpit calls it a “Capella Explorer” and the word "Explorer" is etched into the seat.
If I'm reading this correctly, in NZ if you have a kayak overhanging your car by more than one meter, you must put a flag of regulation size on the end of kayaks during the day and lights at night. This is how they illustrate that.
This is from the Kiwi Association of Sea Kayakers website
Legislation The New Zealand Land Transport Safety Authority states: "Loads which overhang the outside of the body or deck of the vehicle by more than one metre to the front or rear, or more than 200mm to the left or right side need to carry special warning devices attached to the overhanging end(s)…/ vehicles may carry loads which are higher, longer or wider than the dimensions of the vehicle itself provided that the vehicle doesn't exceed the maximum permitted dimensions for that class and type of vehicle."
During the hours of daylight, there must be either:
* a clean white, or fluorescent red, orange or yellow flag, at least 400 mm long by 300 mm wide, or
* a frangible hazard warning panel, at least 400 mm long by 300 mm wide showing an orange diagonal stripe (200 mm wide) against a yellow green background, facing forwards or rearwards.
During the hours of darkness, the flags or hazard panels must be replaced with lights attached to the load as follows:
* for loads over one metre wide and extending more than one metre from the rear of the vehicle, one red lamp (facing toward the rear) on each side of load
* for loads up to one metre wide and extending more than one metre from the rear of the vehicle, one red lamp (facing toward the rear) at the centre of load
* for loads over one metre wide and extending from the front of the vehicle, one white or amber lamp (facing toward the front) on each side of load
* for loads up to one metre wide and extending more than one metre from the front of the vehicle, one white or amber lamp (facing toward the front) at the centre of load
* for loads extending more than 200 mm beyond the side of the body of the vehicle, one red lamp (facing toward the rear) on each side of the load at the rear and one white or amber lamp (facing toward the front) on each side of the load at the front.
These lights need to be clearly visible in clear weather at a distance of at least 200 metres during the hours of darkness. This applies to all vehicles, no matter when they were first registered.
The summer before that trip, I took part in a test of ultra-light equipment for TGO Magazine (The Great Outdoors). The deputy editor John Manning carried his usual weekend backpacking sack of about 32lbs while I carried equipment that largely came from the company Chris Townsend, was the gear wasn’t then right for UK conditions.
Last October the same team decided to re-create that test with a three day walk through Moidart. Since 2001 John and I have, separately, walked the PCT and developed our interests in light-weight gear. I’ve also got into mountain marathons. The April issue of TGO Magazine is out now and Chris Townsend once again studies what’s changed. In short, there is now plenty of ultra-light gear suitable for UK conditions.
If you want to read exactly what gear each of us carried then I'm afraid you’ll have to buy the magazine (under £4 - bargain). John and I were invited to give our own assessment of what we took and our current attitude to hiking. I had to confess; sea-kayaking now dominates my sporting pass-time.
In the five years since our last ultra-light test, John has clearly shed more pounds from his pack than I have, but then he had many more to loose. Surprisingly, my shelter, waterproof jacket and pack were all heavier, but that’s because they’re far more suitable for UK conditions.
Shelter Using the GoLite tarp in our first test I was fortunate not to have been eaten alive my midges, so I reckon the extra 340g for the GoLite Trig 1 is a small additional weight to keep those beasts at bay.
Jacket The Squall jacket shrugged off June showers in 2001, but the Phantom is a much sturdier proposition for year-round heavy rain and only 188g heavier.
Pack The 2007 version of the OMM pack is 200g more than the discontinued GoLite Breeze but is simply the best ultra-light pack around. Light-weight gear is finally catching up with the demands of its users.
Trousers Some gear combinations proved particularly successful. Running shorts worn under the soft, waterproof fabric of the OMM Kamleka pants, even when it wasn’t raining.
Footwear Knee-length SealSkinz socks worn with Inov-8 shoes kept my feet dry, light, with excellent grip. I now regularly use this combination on winter hill walks below the snow line and, although my feet sometimes feel clammy, they stay dry.
Sleeping Bag Shivering in a 250g down sleeping bag as the temperature fell close to zero, I knew I’d pushed the ultra light approach a little too far. I use it on Mountain Marathons but this was different. And yet, Nietzsche’s philosophy of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” certainly applies to this sort of hiking - you only find your limits by pushing yourself to the edge. Hopefully stop and peer over, rather than plummet.
It’s obvious when you think about it. Two mountain marathon competitors, sharing a very small tent after a day spent running through the hills, radiate enough heat to melt lead. One person, rattling around inside a large tarp/tent after a day hill walking, cannot generate anything like the same wattage. Even a superb 250g down sleeping bag like the PHD Minimus, which is ideal in the first situation, is not going to be warm enough in the second. All this came to me in a flash of realisation as I pulled on every stitch of clothing and shivered as the mercury fell.
With hindsight, I’d have taken on this walk a GoLite Feather with 400g of down or a PHD Minim. That said, I was warm enough in the 250g down Minimus a few weeks later on the Original Mountain Marathon in Galloway.
When writing for magazine it’s easy to make oneself sound like the cool, experienced outdoorsman when the truth is, we all make mistakes.
I was doing what I’ve encouraged others to do, pushing myself to go a little lighter but with safety margins. I was walking with two other people; there were escape routes; it wasn’t going to snow; and I had plenty of gas if I really needed to warm myself. All this meant I could approach my comfort edge without dropping over it. I am genuinely delighted at the range of ultra light kit now available as there’s something suitable for almost all British conditions. What’s needed is the experience to choose the gear that’s right for you, where you’re going and what you’re doing.
You have to dare to find your edge.
Attitude to Backpacking
When backpacking, I used to feel like a contented snail. All I needed, I carried on my back and, although I moved fairly slowly through the world, I saw details many other people failed to notice. I could stop, start and journey when and wherever I pleased. For me, this was always the pure appeal of backpacking.
While being one of the world’s great backpacking challenges, completing the Pacific Crest Trail in part corrupted this purity in backpacking purpose. I was on a well-established trail, marched by hundreds of people before me. I was on a relatively tight schedule dictated by the availability of water in the desert, the clearing of snow in the Sierra, and the onset of winter. Hiking became a job. Once I completed the PCT, I rarely went backpacking for two years. Read our Journal.
Instead, I discovered sea kayaking. I found a form of escapism which backpacking seemed to have lost, for me. Scotland’s west coast is a world-class sea kayaking destination, yet there are no crowded summits or rutted footpaths.
No one ever left a footprint on a wave.
Involvement in Team TGO, to compete in the 2005 Hebridean Challenge adventure race, saw me shouldering a rucksack again. I’m slow, but I can navigate. I tried mountain marathons and took to them like a goat to rock. I've written about the 2006 Original Mountain Marathon before and after the event, and I recorded a Podcast for TGO-Magazine here.
So once again I found myself spending nights camped in the mountains. Except something had changed.
Now there was good, ultra light equipment, suitable for UK conditions, and I had the knowledge and confidence to use it. I’d always kept my pack-weight down, but suddenly it was halved. Sometimes I walked, sometimes I ran; my pack was light enough to allow me to choose. Our honeymoon was going to be a two-day walk and run from Glenfinnan to Loch Sunart but we moved so swiftly we completed it in one day.
My approach to Backpacking has definitely changed. Once my ultra-light pack is on my back, I now have even more freedom to go where I please, because I can move so easily and quickly. Lightening up isn’t a one-off event, it’s a continuous process which should respond to conditions, location, ability and available equipment.
The world’s wild places are a great place in which to learn.
Within an hour of writing that we intend to paddle in the Helgeland area of Norway I received an e-mail from Erik in Sweden. He has paddled there with his partner Pia and a group of friends and he sent me links to their trips.
They paddled here in 2004, 2005 and 2006
The text is in Swedish but as Erik told me, “the pictures are international I hope”. Erik also said “I'm not an expert on the area, but I love it!”
I can see why. I want to go right now!
I’ve reproduced a few of Erik’s photos here with his permission. You’ll find a lot more on his website http://www.kajak.nu./ which also appears to have a link to their own kayak t-shirt shop featuring Pia's designs.
Erling also reminded me about Grazie’s excellent Skoogle site where I found this interactive map of the area we’re going.
So, I repeat. I love the way the web works.
For some reason Norway seemed the next best choice, but that’s one heck of a coastline. Which bit should we paddle?
My original idea was to just wheel the boats onto the DFDS ferry, wheel them off in Bergen, plonk them in the water and paddle North. I’m still not sure why we rejected that plan, but Liz fancied somewhere else. And we’d need the car.
The Lofoten Islands are deservedly popular, but we didn’t fancy the twenty four hour drive and ferry to get there as it would eat into our two week holiday. I contacted someone in the Norwegian Sea Kayak Association who recommended Helgeland. It had hundreds of islands and was an undiscovered gem. Only problem was, it was a little too far North. Back to Google Earth.
Until a week ago we were planning to paddle from Songnefjord to Alesund, and I put a request on the UK Sea Kayak Guide Book to see if there was anyone with maps of this area they could be prepared to loan on sell me.
The response was terrific. I was e-mailed a set of Mapsource maps to the area (which I suspect are bootleg) and lots of offers of charts, but not for that area. Then I heard from Erling. In the nicest possible way he pointed out that our route would take us around “The Stadt”. He sent me the wave pattern below (black lines) and areas of confused, dangerous sea (red areas).
I’d spotted this prominent headland but hadn’t fully appreciated how serious an undertaking it could be. Erling asked a couple of questions on the Norwegian Sea Kayaking forum and passed the replies to me. We decided to pass on Stadt.
So were to go? For the second time, an experienced Norwegin sea kayaker came up with the same suggestion, Helgeland. It’s a long drive, at least fourteen hours behind the wheel, but the Google Earth images show a maze of tiny islands that look like being fun to paddle. We’ll cross the Arctic Circle in our boats and when we’ve gone as far North as we want to go, we can carry the kayaks onto the Hurtigruten coastal ferry and ride back to the car.
At least, that’s the plan for now.
There was a light Southerly breeze blowing across the islands of Eigg and Rum, as six of us eased out of Elgol and into one of the southern most jaws of the Isle of Skye, the one with the most vicious looking teeth. The jagged, broken rock of the Black Cuillin draws mountaineers from all over the world but, for the first time, I was heading into its heart with no rucksack on my back and no boots on my feet. Instead, I was wearing what looked like a sixteen foot long, bright yellow, plastic banana - a sea kayak.
The paddle from Elgol into the Cuillin is one of the best in Europe. The last time I'd walked to Coruisk I'd carried unappetising, dehydrated food and the bare minimum of equipment, just to cut the weight of my rucksack. Now as we glided across the water of Loch Scavaig, I had a roomy tent, an inflatable mattress and a selection of tasty meals all packed into the water-tight hatches of the sea kayak. Gordon Brown of Skyak Adventures, who guided our trip, estimated that they could hold the entire contents of a giant expedition rucksack and the sea, not my shoulders, would take the strain.
Listen to Gordon describe this and two other routes on skye in a Podcast
People like Gordon, who've been paddling for years, struggle to explain why, all of a sudden, so many people want to start this sport. Instructors at Glenmore Lodge, Scotland's National Training Centre, reckon demand for sea kayak instruction has increased every year for five years and a trade association estimate puts participation up 25% over the same period. Visit Scotland recently studied which adventure sports held the most potential for overseas visitors, and sea kayaking was in the top three. No-one really knows why, but its popularity growing fast.
"More women over the age of fifty are taking up sea kayaking than knitting", explained Ian Miller of the Scottish Canoe Association, "and what's more, they're usually good at it!" Now, I don't know where he found that statistic, and the seas certainly aren't full of frantically paddling mothers, but he makes an important point. Beginners love sea kayaking because it's so easy to get started. Provided you're not too fat to fit into a kayak, just about anyone can pick up a paddle and make progress. Trust me, it really is that easy. Of course, you quickly need to learn how to turn, stay upright and, when that fails, how to get back in your boat. But a good instructor can start you on a learning journey that will take a lifetime to complete. And the places you'll visit along the way are simply stunning.
Places like Coruisk, the “water corrie” of Skye. Man would struggle to design a more perfect harbour than this natural shelter. Fins of rock curve and intersect, shielding the bay from the worst of the southerly weather while leaving two cannels through which small boats can slip. We dragged our kayaks onto the gently sloping rock, set up camp and cooked as the sun dropped behind the Cuillin.
Being among these massive mountains is inspiring and, at the same time, a little intimidating.
Perhaps this helps to explain why sea kayaking is the new sport of choice for people who love Scotland’s wild open spaces. It feels like hill-walking as it used to be, before Munro bagging reached epidemic proportions. There's that long-lost sensation of humility in the face of powerful natural forces. Overnight camps return to being special times in isolated places. Best of all, you never follow a well-worn trail. No one ever left a footprint on a wave.
Grey domed heads rose slowly from the dark waters, the following morning, the black eyes of the seals swivelling to watch us leave their harbour home, heading for the island of Soay. Gavin Maxwell bought this island in 1945 to set up a shark fishing business. We ate lunch beside the rusting remains of a huge steam engine he’d used to render down the shark livers into a valuable oil, then picked our way around his crumbling factory and sheds, all of which are gradually being reclaimed by nature. It’s a sad place in a spectacular setting, and I was pleased to leave and paddle back to Elgol.
The west of Scotland is a "world class" destination for sea kayaking. Just think about that. Few people realise that a sporting resource of international calibre, one of the very best places in the world in which to practice this fast growing pastime, is right here on our doorstep. Adventure sports magazine in the United States regularly carry articles, written by Americans who've "discovered" the joys of sea kayaking in the Outer Hebrides, Skye or the Summer Isles. Ian Miller of the Scottish Canoe Association explained what made Scotland so special. "You can kayak in Alaska or the Milford Sound and the scenery will be breathtaking, but the water will probably be flat” he told me. “Scotland's combination of islands, sea conditions and weather gives it a uniquely adventurous edge." Perhaps that's why more of us are starting to discover it too.
That is (or was) a 'Queensferry', designed by John Marshall of Queensferry, and identical to the boat in which Seaumas Adam became the first person to paddle solo across the Minch in 1935. He was one of the two Canoe Boys who paddled from the Clyde to the Cuillin in 1934. I would know nothing about the boat were it not for the man in the picture.
He is, of course, Duncan Winning, Honorary President of the Scottish Canoe Club, and OBE for services to kayaking.
If a kayaking encyclopedia grew arms and legs it might look like Duncan Winning, but it wouldn't be able to talk anywhere near as well. I've recorded our conversations and, as soon as it's edited, it will make a compelling podcast.
Duncan also gave me some 35mm slides of the Queensferry in action, being paddled on Loch Lomond. they came to him through the Scottish Hostelling Canoe Club.
In those days sea-canoing was a summer sport. It kept mountaineers entertained while there was no snow on Scotland's hills. Without exception, sea canoe-ists came from a mountaineering background. Sound familiar? The current rise in popularity of sea kayaking also seems to be coming from those who've previously tramped the hills.
Back to the future.
Duncan agreed to show me the boat as part of the preliminary research for a project this summer. That's why I'll also be spending tomorrow afternoon back in the archive section of the Mitchell Library, which promises to be far less entertaining.
I'll write more about this project as it takes shape.