This week is kindly sponsored by Natalia Grubba
Natalia is a friend from the University of Stirling Mountaineering Club
I woke to an intense heat, it was the fourth day in a row that the morning sun had turned my literally “green house” into an oven. But today something was different.
There was no whistling across the guy lines, no frantic flapping of fabric, my socks hung lifeless and calm over my head. The wait was over the winds had at last subsided. Today I could tackle the infamous tides around the Mull of Galloway.
For four days I had sat on East Tarbert bay, four days dwelling and anticipating the fearsome race of water, a tide which surged fast and violent below towering cliffs just a stones throw from my camp. Looking out to sea all was calm, the sea gently lapped at rounded pebbles on the beach and reflected dancing patterns on an old lifeboat slipway nearby. Despite the tranquility I was nervous.
I aimed to round the Mull at exactly 10am, one hour and thirty minutes before high water Dover, even then I would face a substantial force of water flowing out to sea. Grinding the fully laden boat off the slipway I felt anxious butterflies flutter in the pit of my stomach. I would cling as close as I could to the side of the cliffs, scraping paddle blades along the walls if needed. This would be the calmest window of opportunity and my best chance for success.
What I had not planned for was the bank holiday, it would seem all of newcastle emigrates fishing rods in hand to the Mull of Galloway whenever the sun appears. Droves of Jordies sat on every conceivable perch along the approaching crags. As the tide begun to push me forward I had to weave, duck and dodge between numerous fishing lines, at their end a perplexed looking fisherman.
I was sucked onto the main artery of the current, a long tongue of turbulent water the sea boiled and turned upon itself as it shot out past the headland and out to the open ocean. This was the crucial moment, already moving at 15km/h I paddled as hard as I could to angle the boat across the race. I did not aim to fight it, simply track across and fight for the calm eddy circulating the very base of the mighty cliff face, if taken wrong or if heaven forbid I capsized I was on a one way express ride to the Isle of Man.
My heart raced almost as fast as the tide itself, my arms screamed with the burning effort to drive deep strokes of the blade into the surge. It felt at moments as if I was paddling uphill, punching the bow through a standing wave I spun into the calm.
Drops of salt splashed from the waves ran down my already sun kissed cheeks, I was heaving for breath and red in the face. I had made it to safety for now, exiting the current was so fast it was as if it were simply turned off.
Looking up and panting I gazed at the spectacular cliffs above.
Fighting the Mull of Galloway Tide Race (Much more powerful than it looks)
Paddling gently I enjoyed soaking in the incredible towering face that was the Mull itself, sandstone rocks jutted at incredible angles each with individual characteristic splendour. There were rocks sculpted by the wind, others shattered by the sea and painted orange with lichen, green with algae or white with guano. Nestled into every crevice hundreds upon hundreds of Razorbills, Guillemots, Puffins and Gulls bellowed a cacophony of calls. As I paddled closer they took fright and flight with a deafening batter of wingbeats. Some birds which too full of fish to fly plummeted with a splash into the ocean before bobbing to the surface looking confused, I had to duck as many of these came close to colliding with my craft.
Watching birds take flight from perches above
Rounding the decommissioned fog horn I knew I couldn’t relax quite yet, I was still largely at mercy of the currents. Hopping from calm eddy lines behind jagged rocky outcrops I was close to reaching West Tarbert Bay, from there I would be with the tide and could ride it with pleasure all the way North.
To my surprise I found myself staring at an opposing surge ahead, it flowed fast enough to leave a visible line across the rock it past, “I cant fight that” I thought with hesitation.
Behind the rock it was shooting past I could see just 10m upstream an escapable calm shelter. Thinking as a river paddler more than a sea kayaker I edged the boat forward, nosing the bow into the upstream current and with a lurch drove my paddle hard into the water and paddled straight out into the rip.
The boat veered sharply, listing heavily into the current, I braced hard and paddled. At a very acute angle t0 the tide and fast travelling backward I paddled furiously out to sea. About 30m out I performed a bow turn into the current and paddled hard upstream of the sheltered refuge. Would I make it before being swept backward to where I came?
The boat raced into the eddy with only a few meters to spare, panting hard I sighed in huge relief. I was safe.
A brief and very relieved rest in West Tarbert Bay later I continued paddling into the now very favourable tidal race.
I was at last headed North!
With a more stable direction the tide lost its turbulence, if it wasn’t for the 10km/h reading (twice normal paddle speed) on the GPS I would never have known I was riding its powerful stream.
Only again at Crammag head did the sea rear once more, this time the water appeared to bend into a glassy smooth tongue which curled in a gentle sweep before breaking into a series of small rapids and waves, turbulent enough to provide an adrenaline kick but not enough to feel dangerous.
With the help of the tide I was in Port Logan in just over an hour
Port Logan in high winds a few days before arrival
With the benefit of the tides I stopped only briefly to stretch my legs on the warm golden sands of Port Logan Bay and to take bite of an apple. I still had 20km to reach Portpatrick that evening, which I calculated to be four hours paddle from where I sat.
Once more I was racing with the tidal stream past spectacular sandstone cliffs, this time averaging 8-9km/h as the tide lessened. From the towering faces hidden bays appeared and dark caves lurked behind lichens and moss. Each offered the promise of an emergency refuge should the weather change against me.
Unlike the Mull of Galloway there were no droves of fishermen here, I was alone with the birds and my boat.
With the assistance of the tide I arrived an hour ahead of time into Portpatrick, to avoid the sun I had liberally coated my face in zinc and resemble a weird salty mime artist. Landing onto a beach full of sun-bathers I found myself suddenly surrounded by children armed with buckets and nets. Their perplexed and inquisitive expressions said “Who is this strange painted man from the sea, and why is he here.” I re-set the map and deciding this was no place to camp chatted to some locals for advice, I was directed to a small grassy hill by the lifeboat station.
Beaching the boat at the base of the hill I wandered onto the grass and straight into a wedding photo-shoot, to the couple with the wedding photos containing a weird zinc covered man in bug eyed glacier goggles I do apologise. Amidst some laughter I quickly parted shouting “just off to get my tuxedo” to an amused cheer and rounded the headland.
As it would happen this turned out to be a remarkable stroke of luck, landing a kilometre around the corner at Port Mora Bay I was delighted to find the small sandy inlet had a great campsite, there was even a curtain of water glistening in the sun as it fell over the mouth of a cave. . . a free shower!!
I wasn’t alone, in the best camping spot two couples were having a barbecue, the smell was incredibly enticing. They were quite happy to let me haul my kit up the bay and set camp beside them, although no help was offered in carrying kit as I emerged changed and dry I was instantly offered a large plate of meat.
“We cooked to much mate, do you want some?”
Devouring a burger, chicken wings, kebab and even a beer I chatted to Gary, Ross, Rienelle and Coutrney. They were here on holiday staying at the local campsite over the hill. It was great to share company with people my own age bracket, it seldom happens when landing on random beaches here there and everywhere. As evening approached they parted ways and left a few cans of Fosters to last the evening, with the invitation of joining in Portpatrick for a football match at a local pub they left with “maybe see you later’.
Once more I was alone.
Spot the tent: Camped in Port Mora near Portpatrick
Wandering into Portpatrick for the evening I hunted through numerous pubs crammed with noisy football fans, with no sign of the others I decided instead to enjoy the golden glow of the falling sun by walking around the quiet streets. It was an obviously popular holiday destination for those looking for an idilic escape to a seaside retreat, the streets had a happy and lively buzz about them and a very positive atmosphere. It acted as the perfect end to a long and exiting day.
* * *
The next morning I set of early to catch the tidal train north once more, I would round the last of the cliff lined shores of the Galloway peninsula before heading east to Ayrshire. Unlike the day before the sun was shy, dark clouds hung ominously and a stiff breeze blew from the south at my stern.
With a steep 2ft fetch rolling from the exposed sea from whence it came it was a tricky paddle. It was made more enjoyable with a tall yet gently rolling ocean swell which rose my boat to high vantage points before lowing into the depths the waves trough, at the base I could see nothing but ocean.
Occasional showers drifted past in curtains of rain which were often followed by hopeful glimpses of the sun behind the cloud. For two hours I paddled with my hood up in a blinkered state, I was lost entirely to the depths of my own thought and paddled in a mindless autonomous rhythm. Ahead on the horizon a cylindrical column of rock stood alone just south of Corsewall point where I would turn east. At first I wondered if it might be Ailsa Craig but quickly realised it was Craig Laggan pinnacle, it was so perfectly vertical and geometric I wondered for some time if it was a man made mark.
Rounding the headland at Corsewall Pojnt
Grabbing the opportunity I briefly landed on a small island which offered a sheltered beach against the rolling swell. Quickly getting cold I stretched my legs and retrieved my VHF radio from a dry bag in anticipation of crossing the busy shipping lane of Loch Ryan.
As I rounded Corsewall Point itself I was for the first time in my journey paddling east, to my port side I gazed out to the spectacular landmark of Ailsa Craig which dominated the horizon. I was now paddling along the roof of the Galloway peninsula. At the entrance to Loch Ryan I sat in the lee of the wind, I watched with nervous anticipation as a huge P&O ferry roared past on its journey to Ireland, for their size they moved very fast. All morning I had given little thought to the crossing, I had seen no ferry all day and had started to feel it wasn’t as bad as the hype.
I now sat and watched four large ferries and a tanker speeding through the narrow sound, I felt very small and very vulnerable.
Crossing Loch Ryan’s busy shipping lane quickly (GoPro Screenshot)
As a set of large wake waves rolled past from the last tanker I saw a clearing, craning my neck left and right like crossing the road with the “green cross code” I put on my game face and drove hard into the sea with my blade.I would paddle with every inch of effort to cross as fast as I could.
About 100m out my attention switched focus, perhaps I should have payed as close attention to the exposed fetch rolling from the south as I had to the ships. The winds roared down the sound to rear white capped waves in steep succession, these were the largest I had ridden in quite some time. Normally I would slow my pace and focus on bracing, but I could see a seacat ferry bearing down from the horizon, I knew they moved very fast indeed. Instead I continued hell for leather across the sound. I was forced to aim more southerly than directly west (the shortest passage) to allow a faster pace. My bow drove deep through the waves which threw a bucket load of freezing water into my face each time. I was half way, right in the “danger zone.”
A larger than average wave forced a heavy brace, it crashed over my deck and ripped my map case clean from its chord, somehow I caught it mid manoeuvre. With no time to reattach it I clasped it firmly between my teeth and paddled on into the unrelenting wind. The taste of salt in my mouth burned my heaving lungs, my arms were on fire and face freezing cold under the deluge of waves, “Just keep paddling, Just keep paddling” I repeated over and over in my head to the rhythm of my strokes.
Just 100m out of the far side of the channel the Seacat rumbled past, its speed was alarming as its powerful engines jetted an enormous column of water far into the air at its stern.As it passed I knew I was safe at last. All I had to do was find a safe lull in the wind to turn the boat across the fetch and head downwind to a camp.
The forecast was to get windier, but as I rounded the eastern shore I found myself largely in the lee from the worst gusts. With lots of bracing and sculling I turned the boat across the wind, pointed toward Ballantrae and paddled on with the fetch at my stern.
The wind was becoming difficult to manage by the time I reached a beach, just 1km before reaching Ballantrae I decided to seek refuge on a storm bay. Paddling ashore between sets of waves I surfed at great speed onto the rocks. BANG!!
A wave which I had not seen lifted the boat and dumped it hard onto the shingle below, my paddle caught my skeg mechanism and with a mighty rip tore the wire clean out of the housing. Swearing loudly I quickly hauled the boat up the beach, the impact of the dump had not damaged anything else but had forced many pebbles into the skeg slot jamming it tightly shut. For the immediate moment however I was cold, tired and needed to rest. Under the setting sun I hauled the kit over a rise in the shingle and nestled into a grassy hollow.
Escaping the surf at Ballantrae: (Film screen shot) Ailsa craig dominates the Horizon
A storm was approaching as I set camp. Changed and dry I quickly set off across the fields to explore the town and collect provisions from the local store. It was also a great opportunity to indulge in my weekly “Grease feast” calorie kick in the form of a fish and chips.
The following morning delivered high winds, I wasn’t going anywhere far. Having realised with a pang of guilt that my refuge was smack bang in the middle of a Nature reserve for nesting birds I avoided staying at camp. Instead I returned to Ballantrae and sought shelter from the driving rain in the Kings Arms hotel. With a warm fire and radio blaring out “Highway to the Danger Zone” at full volume I sat contently sipping tea and writing my diary with a longing urge to sport Top-Gun aviator glasses and a tight white vest.
In the evening as I returned to my tent carefully watching for any nests between the blinkered vision of my hood. I was suddenly alarmed by a loud and menacing HISS.
Pulling back the hood of my jacket I looked up through the rain, a goose with wings outstretched like a bat out of hell had engaged in a fearsome battle charge moving straight toward me. I looked down and saw just ahead of my feet a small puff of yellow grey fluff, its chicks. “Ah!”
“BOO!!” I shouted loudly in an effort to scare it off (also partly because i’ve always wanted to actually say boo to a goose). It didn’t work. Plan B! I turned tail and fled for the nearest gate, it was hot on my heels. Leaping a fence the goose abruptly backed off and wings still outstretched returned to its young, it looked like it was going to give them a running hug. . . sorry mother goose!
Back at the tent to my amusement a crowd of cows stood in a circle staring confused at this strange green thing that wasn’t grass. They were quite friendly and after a quick pat and feeding them some fresh greenery I ushered them onward before nestling into the comfort of my sleeping bag.
* * *
It took an hour the next morning to ‘repair’ the skeg. The wire was now back in but with a kink, something I could not fix. With a degree of forcing and jiggling back and forth it was possible to operate, this was good enough for the time being. I was more concerned about the imminent task of performing my first big surf exit in the fully laden boat. I have practiced these before but never in a full craft. Making a mistake could easily result in a broken boat or heaven forbid being knocked unconscious on the seabed below. Needless to say I was quite afraid.
Pulling my jacket over my thermals I sat in the cockpit and waited. A calm set would appear and I would go. It wasn’t more than a few minutes before my opportunity arose, the swell died and I sprung into life. Heaving the boat over the shingle I plunged forward and bounced with a crash over the first of the broken waves. White breakers half a meter in height rose the bow with a colossal surge of water and launched me upward in my seat. The sensation was terrifyingly exhilarating, adrenaline pumped viciously across my body, the next wave loomed, BOOM, SPLASH, CRASH… I broke through and paddled hard before the next.
Breaking through (GoPro Screenshot)
The water was suddenly calm, all seemed clear between I and the open sea, but I hadn’t cleared the break zone yet. I struggled to keep the boat on track, with a dodgy skeg which I had not managed to deploy the boat veered with currents and the wind. Fighting hard I pointed straight into the break zone and paddled with all my might. I could see a huge wave rearing ahead, and I was exactly where it would break.
Fast approaching a wall of water swallowed the skyline, silent as the grave it towered above my bow, adrenaline surged through my veins. “THIS IS NOT GOOD!!!” driving the paddle in frantic desperation I reared up onto the face of the wave, surely it would collapse and take me with it. Time slowed. . . I could hear the roar of water, the thud of my heart in my ears, I expected at any moment the cold dark silence that followed capsizing into the freezing sea. The bow rose further pointing upward high into the sky, it broke the crest of the wave. To my left and right air filled the space around my blades where water should be, would I backflip? I braced hard and reaching over the lip of the wave drove a final powerful stroke behind the crest. To the cockpit I was suddenly airborne and a millisecond of total silence cut through the roar. With a whoop and an almighty crash the boat returned to the sea which parted around the hull with a colossal splash. I was shaking with adrenaline, what a rush! With the kick of energy I launched forward and escaped the break zone.
It took a full five minutes for the heaving and panting to subside, I was wet, shivering with both adrenaline and cold and had never felt more alive!
Breaking through the crest at an alarming angle
Airborne: Bow to the sky as I escape the waves peak
As the rush subsided the tedious task of a long paddle into a stiff force three headwind in bitter fresh rain swam into reality. Without tides to push my progress forward I seemed to creep agonisingly slowly along the coast. I was already exhausted, cold and found little inspiration in the industrial coastline. I recognised I had hit a “low day.”
Passing Girvan about a kilometer off shore I paddled straight into a long stretch of thick green sludge which reeked of rotting meat and farmyard waste, it seemed to be stemming from a nearby factory in Dipple but was hard to tell for sure. I held my breath and paddled on.
Rounding Turnberry Point in the driving rain the spectacular Culzean castle swam into view. From the sea was a novel angle to view the imposing building for the first time, dungeons lined the base of the cliffs below its tall walls. I can only imagine the terrible history which may have taken place in their dark, dank confines.
As I passed through shallow sandy bays I watched in awe as a huge salmon leapt ahead of my bow with a great splash. It circled and swam directly under my boat, had I not been so wet and cold I might have deployed the fishing line. Instead I opted to paddle further toward Dunure. However as I passed through some seaweed I suddenly found immense difficulty in moving forward. Little did I know but my skeg had detached from its housing and was now trailing behind beneath the hull perpendicular to the boat, the perfect sea anchor it would seem.
Approaching Culzean Castle in the Rain
Abandoning hope of reaching Dunure I landed into knee deep seaweed washed onto the sandy shore, hauled the boat to the top of the bay and wandered into the thick woodland at the head of the beach. A small muddy clearing at the base of a steep rocky crag seemed the best option to camp for the night.
In the humid afternoon air an overpowering scent of wild garlic punched above all other senses, the luscious green sycamore, birch and alder with a thick undergrowth of garlic and ferns gave a distinctly tropical jungle atmosphere to the area. I sipped from a small tannin brown stream which gurgled beneath garlic leaves before clambering into the tent. An hour later I was cosy, dry and warm once more. With an excess of water I boiled large cups of steaming tea and a full litre mug of cheesy noodle slop a la’ freshly picked garlic leaves. . . Beat that Gordon Ramsey.
Luscious campsite with wild garlic everywhere
Undercover camping in the woods below Culzean castle
* * *
The next morning I emerged to an entirely new world. The rainforest from night before was bathed in the glow of a scorching sun, dappled light glistened over the forest floor leaving a small haze of steam as the ground dried out. Out at sea a high wind blew, white horses persuaded me that it was best to explore the shore rather than paddle out to sea.
Strolling through swathes of bluebell and garlic, I scrambled up a steep muddy bank, over tree trunks and leapt across a narrow but deep ravine. Blackbirds darted through the undergrowth and pheasants rushed along the sides of streams in a flash of orange. Emerging from a thick bush I suddenly found myself standing on a meticulously manicured lawn, a large sign read “KEEP OFF THE GRASS.”
Picking twigs from my hair I stumbled into a car park filled with bus loads of tourists. Culzean castle (Pronounced Cul-een) towered mighty and majestically over a beautifully sculpted walled garden. The perfectly regal manor was dotted with vibrant exotic trees and shrubs with eager tourists wandering aimlessly between.
Despite its size Culzean castle is carried in the handbags and pockets of Scottish people all over the country, often causes annoyance behind many a shop counter in England and is probably subconsciously viewed several times a week by everyone in Scotland. If you don’t believe me just take a glance at the back of the next Scottish £5 note you happen to hold.
By mid-day the wind had entirely disappeared. The sea was flat calm, I rushed back to my tent packed and loaded the boat. By 2.15pm I was on the water. A late start perhaps but progress is progress.
With perfect glassy conditions I pointed straight for the Heads of Ayr, with any luck I may even make Troon before dark.
As I rounded the headland the humidity of the evening became stifling, the cool sea seemed deceptively inviting.Still mirror calm I set out to sea directly for Troon as an open crossing.
Air so humid even the camera was struggling (GoPro) 10km off Ayr
Rigging my radio onto the top deck I blared out radio 4 over the silent calm waters. An hours paddle later and 7km off the coast of Troon the radio was interrupted with a deafening roar, it seemed to shake the air around me giving me an incredible fright. Heart racing from the unexpected sound I gazed around, was that thunder?
All became clear as a jumbo jet reared from the cloud at Prestwick Airport nearby,”phew”.
As I recovered from the startle I paddled onward, no more than 100m further on I spotted a huge fin silently glide out of the water ahead. Behind it in a tell tale sweeping motion a second tail fin weaved through the sea. My first Basking shark!
Creeping towards it in hope of a better look the creature slipped silently back into the depths of the sea, it didn’t return. Although harmless to humans and a plankton feeder I was suddenly very aware that there were creatures below my thin hull and felt strangely anxious for a good 10 minutes after the sighting.
Passing Lady Island I was nearly there, the wind had re-appeared and again in my face. I battled against it to reach Troon harbour. I raced to meet a St Ayles Skiff which rowed into the breeze but with no luck, they were far to quick.
I did however meet a second skiff as I rounded the harbour wall, I was tired and more hungry than I have been in a long time. They directed me onward a further kilometre to camp at the border of Barassie which was safer. We agreed to meet again in July in Ullapool for the Skiff world championships and parted ways.
Upon landing in Barassie the first thing I did was tear off the lid of a jar of peanut butter (the first food I uncovered) and ate half the jar with my hands. I was so hungry I needed anything edible, needless to say I got a stomach ache shortly after.
Setting the tent beside a sewage plant covered in graffiti I sat and listened to the deafening rumbles of nearby planes circling Prestwick Airport. Every 20 minutes or so huge industrial trains clattered past on tracks only a few hundred meters away, perhaps not the most wild nor quiet camp I had experienced so far. The sunset however did make up for the scene with spectacular rays of light beaming over the Arran mountains.
Not the best of camps but better than nothing
The morning saw quick progress toward Ardrossan as I paddled along the last of several long open sandy beaches. The open expanse was beautiful but posed a difficult landing in surf, instead I pressed onward to strop briefly at West Kilbride just north of Ardrossan Harbour.
A quick apple on the beach later I headed out toward Gull Point. Looking west toward Arran it was strange to think that only a month prior I had been atop those mountains with the unbeatable company of great friends as part of the University of Stirling Mountaineering Clubs annual dinner meet. Recalling happy memories of scrambles, bonfires and camp side antics helped ease the effort of paddling into the wind which stiffened as I crossed toward Little Cumbrae Island.
With the wind having risen to a force three or four it was a relief to have a brief stretch of the legs on Little Cumbrae. Landing to re-set my map in the sun I balanced on a rocky crag as I couldn’t find a suitable beach. A chorus erupted from hundreds of seagulls as I spooked them from their crevices high on the cliffs above.
Perched on the rocks at Little Cumbrae Island
Returning to battle the winds I aimed off into the Clyde toward Garroch Head. The wind was steadily increasing and white horses begun to appear on the caps of a steep fetch. It was a bouncy crossing but paddled confidently with a smile. I scanned the shore ahead looking for a suitable sheltered inlet to refuge for the night.
By the time I rounded Garroch Head the wind was gusting to force five and rising, out at sea I could see the occasional whisp of spindrift spiral into the sky. Each time I stopped the wind drove the boat backward, my shoulders and forearms were burning just pushing to push paddle against the wind. To add to the fetch a heavy clapotis clapped against the jagged shoreline which rose the sea in every direction around me. Slowly I moved forward, I had to find a landing soon!
Paddling to match the pace of rolling waves I surfed into Dunagoil bay at speed, with more luck than skill I guided the boat between lone rocks which loomed out of the surf as I soared toward the shore. It was a very exposed bay in the northerly wind but a great campsite never the less. I took little time to strip and change in the stiff breeze.
Windy Campsite at Dunagoil Bay
In an effort to relieve painful pressure sores which were developing on my knees I took a gentle evening amble inland toward a nearby hill, what better way to depart Ayrshire than one last look at the coastline in the evening light.
Walking along winding country roads I enjoyed the warmth of the sun, it cast long shadows behind satisfied looking cattle grazing on fertile green fields. A skylark chirped a melodic song above the rustling leaves of birch and alder woods.
Heading for a stroll up local peak to have a last look at Ayr
After speaking to a welcoming and friendly farmer about my campsite I felt I was back in the country once more, how different it was to my urban camp in Barassie the night before.
At the top of a small un-named hill I peered back toward the beautiful Ayrshire coast, I could see where I had paddled over the last three days, the horizon was satisfyingly distant.
The next morning brought settled seas once more, the forecast was due to return to gales that evening so I quickly set about packing and getting back on the water. Within the first hour I had rounded Ardscalpsie Point and was headed for the northern end of Inchmarnock Island. I paddled fast afraid I would be caught by the wind before reaching the next peninsula. I paddled with aim to reach Portavadie which I had heard rumour was home to free shower facilities.
Resting but not leaving my kayak I drifted at the northern end of Inchmarnock Island to eat a soggy pack of oatcakes whilst being investigated by an inquisitive gang of common seal pups. A breeze had started to build from the north, I pressed on.
Half way between Inchmarnock and Ardlamont Point the wind had risen from a force one to a force four. Paddling in just my neoprene shirt each splash shocked a sharp breath from the cold. Reaching Arlamont point the wind had risen to a force 5. Steep fetch and white horses now crashed over the bow at every wave, I was hauling with every ounce of strength to move the boat forward. Each wave threw a large bucket of water into my face but with the effort of moving forward I was no longer cold. Moving at just 2km/h I said aloud “Warm showers, dry clothes” over and over through gritted teeth. Salt ran down my face, into my eyes and mouth I was heaving for breath and burning with strain, the sea was now the wildest I had paddled so far. Progress to the peninsula just a few kilometres seemed endless but I could not stop even for a second.
An hour passed, I was starting to lag, every stroke took effort to drive into the waves. I was shivering.
Around the point two kilometres remained between Portavadie and I, it was much more exposed to the wind and fetch and I would paddle beam onto the wind. I had two options.
Option A: risk rounding the headland at Eilean Aoidhe into a greater exposure and stronger winds hoping could survive a risky paddle to Portavadie.
Option B: Land where I could find shelter and walk to my shower in safety.
The choice was not hard.
Better safe than sorry I landed into the deceptive shelter of Asgog bay. Here the wind barely touched a force one, the sun warmed the sand and no evidence of the gales just around the corner seemed to even drift into the sheltered inlet. Watching a spin drift whirl past the point it clearly remained strong to the north. The entire bay seemed trapped in a peaceful bubble of tranquility.
Dragging the boat to the top of the sand I carried my kit into a clearing in the woods. A very Tolkeinesk glade with jagged rocks dotted with ferns and a huge warped oak tree it seemed a great place to camp. A previous passer by had even rigged a fishing net hammock in a nearby branch.
Spot the tent: Magical campsite in Asgog Bay
I had forgotten just one thing. This was now the North West and home of Scotland’s least favourite native.
I think Alistair Bruce put it best:
“There are two stages of a midge attack, in the first you think your going to die, in the second you worry you might not”
Running around camp battering droves of midges I took little time in changing before running in the direction of Portavadie for my first shower in almost three weeks, perhaps if I was cleaner the midges would be less veracious.
Portavadie as it turned out was a very plush marina. Originally built by the M.O.D to house an Oil-rig (*Cough* Trident Submarine *Cough*) the area had been redeveloped with crisp white buildings clad in wood and lots of glass. The showers were some of the best I have ever seen for free public use, and not just because they were the first in weeks.
I stopped for a quick cup of tea as an excuse to collapse into a comfortable sofa.
“Hey Look its Harry Potter!…Hey you!’
I realized the comment was directed at me. Somewhat surprised I found myself suddenly invited to a large group of rather merry visitors. Convinced I looked like the boy who lived I then was known as “Harry” for the rest of the evening. From Lithuania, America and Scotland the group were part of a wedding crowd and seemed intent on buying everyone who came close enough a pint. It seemed rude not to accept an ale. Very aware I had an hours walk to camp as I watched a rapidly setting evening sun and sipped quicker than normal at my beverage, little did I know it would be the first of many.
The group were fantastic company and very amusing to chat with, before I finished my glass I found the next one sitting expectantly beside it. This continued to amount to four pints more, not the best introduction to an empty stomach.
The wedding party at Portavadie: Great company for the evening
Having accepted I wasn’t going to escape before dark I relaxed and settled into joining the general banter. In a thick Scottish accent the eldest chap was gleefully trying to learn basic sentences in Lithuanian. From then on each person who entered the pub for the entire night was greeted with
“Are you from Lithuania. . . no?. . . Damn.”
Eventually I stumbled somewhat tipsy along the road toward camp. With a degree of luck I hitched a lift most of the way with a passing car. Needless to say I had forgotten about the midges and crashed straight into the tent to sleep.
* * *
In the morning I awoke somewhat worse for wear. However a friend from university who lived in Tarbert had promised a free breakfast at her parents cafe, just four kilometres from my camp it was the perfect motivation to drag my hungover and very midge bite ridden self into wet clothes and paddle out across the loch.
Despite Katie being back at University to sort the final post graduation tasks her parents were fantastic company. Treated to a bacon, sausage and egg roll, strawberry tart and several coffees I felt completely restored. As a shower passed over I returned at 1pm in the afternoon to the kayak. Leaving Fletchers cafe behind I set off into Loch Fyne.
The very welcoming Fletchers Cafe
Paddling the coastline of Loch Fyne was one of the most pleasurable paddles I have experienced so far, crystal clear waters revealed sea urchins and starfish clinging to kelp beds below, above hazel, birch and Scots pine trees curled over the water and rustled soothingly in the gentle breeze. The wind was light and although often against me offered a refreshing breeze in the afternoon heat.
Happy paddling in Loch Fyne
Two hours of paddling simply floated past, I found myself singing folk songs aloud. Thankfully no one was around to hear.
Only once was the sunshine broken with a monsoon like rain shower which for 10 minutes poured huge volumes of water which danced across the smooth sea all around me.
By mid afternoon I reached the entrance to the Crinan canal. I had finally left what I deemed “Scotland’s Southern Coast.”
I met with a contact of my fathers, David Payne and family appeared in a van. Still elated from the great afternoons paddle the promise of a warm home for the evening and a warm meal was the cream on the cake. First however I we to get the boat up four locks I had to paddle the last kilometre to David’s house.
Hauling with great effort David and I heaved the fully laden boat up to the top of the first lock. Travelling in 50m stages we slowly moved the boat along the side of the canal. The children helped carry the paddles and some of the smaller pieces of kit along beside us.
Lifting the boat across the locks
After an initial difficulty in putting the kayak back into the canal I quickly emptied its contents into David’s van. They drove back to the house and I was once again left alone to paddle the kilometre or so further along to meet them.
Paddling an empty boat on the glassy water felt as if I was in control of a whole new beast. Each stroke drove Sula forward at incredible pace with ease, it was like lifting a weight off my shoulders. Paddling became all of a sudden wonderfully easy.
Easy paddling in an empty boat on the Crinan Canal
A short while later I met back with David at Oak Bridge. Leaving the boat with Charlie the lock keeper we drove up to David’s house. I was left to set my tent in the garden and change into clean clothes. It felt great to enjoy a quick shower and become fresh once more.
Sitting in the warmth next to a fire we chatted into the evening about all things outdoors. David used to work in the outdoor industry and had many fantastic tales and anecdotes of both wilderness work and play. I learnt that his young daughter Martha was the talented author of “Never Seconds” a fantastic blog about school meals which after going viral raised thousands of pounds for the charity Mary’s Meals. With David they have since produced a popular book under the same title.
The blog can be found here. . . http://www.neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk
An enormous dinner with the whole family followed by a few beers by the fire was more than enough to send me into a deep sleep back in my tent. I was touched with how welcome I felt in their home as a total stranger.
* * *
In the morning I woke early, the family were off on a holiday so I joined the chaos of last minute packing and wolfed down a huge breakfast of porridge and toast, in no time was being shuttled to the canal in the van.
Thanking David one last time I was left at a pontoon with my boat, bags and wonderfully clean dry clothes. David had also lent me his kayak trailer.
I took plenty of time in packing the boat, no need to rush in the morning sun. I had planned a short day. With only the 6.5 mile crossing of the Crinan canal to complete I knew I could afford a lot of time in portaging the boat past locks.
It wasn’t until 9.30am before I set off from the pontoon and paddled under Oak Bridge with a last wave to Charlie the lock keep.
Slowly exploring the edges of the canal I relished the gentle sounds of bird calls in the morning sun, it was calm, tranquil and most importantly I felt no danger or urge to push hard to beat wind or tide. I could truly relax and take my time. It was great to be able wave and say hello to various dog walkers, amblers and cyclists as I paddled along beside the tow path.
I nestled the nose of the boat into every small inlet and river which joined the meandering canal along its path.
Peeking into the hidden wonders along the Crinan Canal
After a couple of kilometres of easy paddling I reached the locks.
“This is where it gets difficult”
Landing on a steep grassy bank I nosed the bow toward the shore in front of a small Iron pillar for tying up boats. With a piece of spare rope stashed behind my seat I fashioned a make shift pulley system to extract the kayak on my own.
With a tremendous heave, I pulled with all my might. Sula slid up the bank. I had to reset the pulley three times but it proved remarkably effective and soon the boat was on the towpath out of the canal. The next challenge was to get it onto the trailer.
Hauling a fully laden Sula from the Canal
I could not lift the kayak alone. Instead I enlisted a sailor who was scrubbing his decks nearby, ‘Colin’ happily obliged before returning to his boat. I was set to go, the kayak was easy to pull on the trailer. A young lad with a strimmer offered assistance but by now I felt I had it under control.
I made it 100m down the road before hitting a pothole and dropping the boat with a sickening crack onto the tarmac. Thankfully no damage occurred.
I sheepishly returned to the lad with the strimmer for help. Introducing himself as Shaun he happily helped pull the boat all the way to the top of the 5 locks.
“Its a fairly cushy job this, you either work your self to the bone or skive off completely, I prefer to do the former most days”
Shaun was fantastically helpful and seemed in no rush, he soon helped lower the boat into the water and with a wave returned to strimming back the hedges.
Paddling on I was disappointed to find the next set of 5 locks just half a kilometre further down the canal.
Ducking low to paddle under a low bridge beside the top lock I drifted out of the canal and into a small lochan. Here a low grassy slope at a gentle angle made extracting the boat easy, even without a pulley system. I sat on the deck eating crackers and cheese and waited for a passer by to help lift it onto the trailer.
Soon enough a birdwatcher appeared and with a few seconds, a heave and a lift was on his way. Loaded up and ready to go I again set forth with the kayak alone. This time I took it slowly and with great care as I wound down the road to the base of the locks.
Towing the kayak on David’s trailer
Back on the water I had a long stretch of paddling between my launch and the last two locks. I was on the home run.
For the next hour and a half I paddled unhindered, no boat passed me either way. It was I, the insects and the birds in tranquility and silence. Water gently lapped the sides of the boat as I effortlessly passed along the banks of the canal. I enjoyed being sunk low to the ground, it seemed a strange and novel perspective to view the world as I glided past.
The forest and rock faces suddenly gave way to open sky and plains to my east, the Moine Mhor had arrived, I was close to Crinan now.
To my delight I found a boat fender in the reeds, I had been looking for one of these for weeks to help roll my boat over rocks.
I rounded a final cliff and suddenly civilization appeared. The last two locks before freedom, I assumed would be easy.
There was no bank to exit.
A couple were smiling as I sat looking confused in the middle of the canal behind the lock, they were standing atop the nearest bridge looking up the canal. “Do you want a hand” one called. I was delighted not to have to ask.
Using the recently aquired fender to pad the concrete edge of a low pontoon we hauled with great care sula’s bow from the water. I was quite afraid of resting the boat on the sharp edge lest it crack under its own weight, thankfully my helpers were strong and we hauled the boat from the water and up a grassy bank with relative ease.
“Michael and Laura” were sailing the opposite direction along the Crinan but had stopped here to repair a leak in their boat. They helped rolling the boat around the locks before leaving me to hunt for somewhere to put it into the sea. Yet again there were no places at all,
“Come back if you find one, we will help” they offered.
Eventually it dawned that to get the kayak to the sea would require lifting it across a lock, loading it onto the trailer and then towing several hundred meters across town to a nearby boat yard. I returned to Michael and Laura’s yacht for help.
Before the portage I was offered a tea and slice of fruit cake, yachts are much more civilised than kayaks I have since decided.
We heaved Sula over the lock and lifted her over the wooden beam on the far side. Slowly and steadily Michael and I rolled the boat down the road and through the town, Laura would help catch the boat if the trailer popped out and helped to guide our direction. By the time we reached the boat yard my forearms were tiring, a steep hill to the beach proved difficult.
For the last 20m we abandoned the trailer and carried the boat into the water, I said thank you and they returned to their boat. I returned David’s trailer to the Canal office to be sent back to Oak Bridge.
The helping hands on the Crinan Canal
* * *
Back in the kayak I set out once again into the west coast sea. The wind was negligible and I aimed off toward a collection of small islands in hope of a camp site close to the infamous Dorus Mor tide race. I would tackle it at 8am sharp the next morning.
The first headland was realtively uninspiring, my second option was an island which proved un-landable. Now somewhat at the mercy of a strong tidal current I angled inland to the next nearest island, this time with success. A small bay at the inland edge proved a great landing spot with promise of a good camp on the top of the island itself.
Dragging the boat over the seaweed to the nearest grass I emptied the tent and necessary food to set camp right on the top, I wanted to make the best of the light breeze and avoid the midges. It was a fantastic camp.
It was 4pm, with an easy day behind me I had energy, I decided to try fishing for the first time this trip. Alone on the island I stripped to my underwear to let my clothes dry while I sat in the kayak yet again.
From my camp I had noticed a steep shelf just below me so decided to try there. 10 minutes past, I was bored already and with a tent peg as an improvised (rather useless) weight I convinced myself this was probably a futile attempt. I was none the less enjoying the midge free sun bathe. Just 5 minutes later my line twitched…
Expecting to have caught some seaweed I reeled in a little. A violent jerk, A FISH!! The jerks were powerful, I started to worry if I had caught one of the many seals on the island. The boat was difficult to control while simultaneously reeling in the hand line. With a heavy lean to one side I caught the first glimpse of my bounty.
A large pollock appeared on the end on the line, but how do I get it out without impaling myself with a hook or rolling over? Thankfully I had brought my salvaged bamboo bag carrying pole, using my paddle to direct the fish toward my foredeck I walloped it on the head. At least now it wasn’t swimming away.
Triumphant at my Island Camp dinner in hand
I quickly gutted, and with great effort filleted it. My knife was far to short and blunt to do so neatly, it could not pierce the skin and I eventually resorted to tearing at it instead with the blunt blade rather than smoothly cut.
From sea to plate in less than an hour
Fuelled on sprigs of heather I soon cooked the fillets to a tasty meal while simultaneously boiling tea, all with my little kelly kettle. It was all the more tasty knowing it was caught just below where I sat less than an hour before.
Cooking dinner on the wood burner
Setting in for the night I gazed out at the infamous Gulf of Corryvreckan behind the Dorus Mor, two tide races feared and respected by many mariners, they are some of the most powerful in Scotland. In the morning I would paddle the later.
I woke to a thick fog in the morning. I could barely see the Dorus mor ahead in the 6am light. After packing a soaking wet tent in the morning dew I quickly crammed my gear back into the kayak before dragging it back down across the seaweed with the fender.
It was 7.45am and for the kilometre stretch to the Dorus Mor I paddled hard aiming to reach the calmest tide at 8am. As I got closer a low roar of moving water drifted through the fog. In many respects the currents of the Dorus Mor were far more violent than those at the Mull of Galloway. I fought hard to keep the boat on track through the short but bouncy passage, standing waves crashed over the deck.
A large whirlpool spun out from the main current directly toward me, I couldn’t escape it and braced hard with the paddle. The kayak begun to quickly spin, I turned 180º and still spun, totally out of control I focused hard on staying upright. The whirlpool took me 360º before spitting the kayak out into an eddy. Relieved to still be upright AND in the right direction I paddled forward heart racing.
As quickly as I entered the Dorus Mor I left its currents behind. As with the Mull of Galloway I now drifted with their powerful surge in the right direction. All was favorable.
For several hours I paddled along the eastern edge of Shuna Island in the fog. Jagged cliffs and Islands lurked from the mist at my side in an eerie silence.
As I entered the Seil sound a sea eagle bounced from a nearby branch, sitting behind the boat I marveled at its size. Akin to a flying ironing board it amazed me that this was clearly only a juvenile.
Grey slate rocks in the Seil sound contrasted sharply with the wonderful deep greens of trees, grass and moss. As I moved forward the loch narrowed to little more than the width of a river. All I had to do now was find Sue Fenton’s home. “The one with big windows and a kayak outside” I was amused to find almost all of the houses fit this description.
Thankfully as I approached Sue appeared at the balcony waving.
Approaching Sue Fenton’s House on Seil Island (Photo Credit, Sue Fenton)
***Sue is the Author of the fantastic SCENES newsletter***
For the next three nights I was treated to superb hospitality, I immediately felt at home and comfortable, and plied with fantastic dinners, wine and lots of cups of tea I feel refreshed and ready to set forth to the North once more.
With even more delight the forecast is flat calm for the foreseeable future.
XC weather looking very promising indeed
Great to read. The hammock at Asgog bay was put there by my mate Tim, whose wife’s family own the little hut overlooking the bay. He has a nice solar powered shower at the hut and mains water. And I know where the key is, tee-hee!