It's the Wet Highland Way – by sea kayak
Published Date: 04 October 2009
By Mark Smith
THE first sea kayak trail has been created to meet the booming demand for the adventure sport in Scotland, and rival anything on offer to hikers and hill walkers.
The new Scottish Kayak Trail is a 300-mile-long trip up the west coast running from the Isle of Gigha, off the Kintyre peninsula, to the Summer Isles near Ullapool.
Based on a guidebook by author Simon Willis, the trail is expected to attract sea-borne tourists to spectacular coastal locations to brave fierce tides, whirlpools and rocky headlands.
Advice on how to negotiate the trail includes how to tackle tricky passages, read dangerous tidal flows and find places to shelter from storms when the going – as it almost inevitably will – gets rough.
The advice pulls no punches, saying kayaking is an "inherently dangerous" sport that has claimed the lives of the unprepared. It urges kayakers to sail some stretches – such as Dorus Mor (Gaelic for gate) just north of the Crinan Canal – at "slack water, unless you are seeking excitement" as the tides there spurt at 10 miles per hour. Get it wrong and "you might be propelled in the direction of the whirlpool in the Gulf of Corryvreckan".
The sport, which uses a boat with a closed-deck and two-sided paddle, is experiencing an upsurge in interest, with thrill-seekers flocking from around the world to kayak in Scottish waters.
Companies hiring out kayaks on the west coast have reported a doubling in trade and Glenmore Lodge, the national outdoor training centre, has reported a doubling in the numbers of people seeking training courses in sea kayaking.
Gordon Brown, director of the Scottish Canoe Association, said the new trail was a big leap forward for the sport. He said: "Sea kayaking is enjoying a boom and has been getting more and more popular in recent years.
"At one time, I knew just about everybody who was kayaking in Scotland. Now there are hundreds doing it up and down the coast every weekend.
"The establishment of the Scottish Kayak Trail is a very big step for the sport and we are supporting it very strongly. For the first time, there is a trail that anybody with a bit of training can try. It's one of the best sea kayak routes in the world and it's right on our doorstep."
Scott Armstrong, VisitScotland Regional Director, said: "I'm delighted that this kayaking route is being developed in this way and will help visiting enthusiasts make the most of the experience."
Willis said the idea for the trail crystallised after he took up the sport five years ago. "There are so many places to explore up Scotland's west coast, but many of them you can't get to by road," he said.
"This is a way to see Scotland from a completely different angle and get a feel for the history and geography of the area.
"There's a massive potential here for the trail to operate like the West Highland Way for walkers. You could get businesses taking people's bags from one spot to the next, or carrying boats for people. It could be a whole new industry for the west coast."
One obstacle facing kayakers off Scotland is the dreaded Corryvreckan whirlpool – a raging tidal maelstrom which sits between the northern tip of Jura and neighbouring Scarba.
Willis said: "Visiting sea kayakers are scared witless by the Corryvreckan, and I know really good paddlers from places like Norway who're worried to paddle here because we have such fast tides. So the guidebook tells people how to kayak the coast safely."
The route has been devised by Willis, 50, and his wife Liz, 46, who live in Strontian, Lochaber. They paddled the whole trail themselves with light camping equipment on board – allowing them to spend the night in spots previously known only to seals.
"There are no sign posts, and we're not telling people where to camp," Willis insisted. "We don't want to concentrate kayakers on a few beaches. We hope this trail will spread the impact of sea kayaking along the entire coast."
The guide also highlights out of the way places, such as ruined castles, that kayakers can visit. "Scotland's west coast is one of the best recreational sea-kayaking environments in the world, which is why people have been paddling there for 140 years," said Willis.
• The guide-book to the Scottish Kayak Trail has been published by kayaking specialists Pesda Press.