There are so many elements to planning a sea kayaking trip, it's amazing we ever get anything done. Weather, tides, swell, time off, the right partner... the list goes on. The more challenging the trip, the rarer the opportunity.
Just occasionally though, it all falls into place, and dreams are realised. And so it was for me this week.
The island of Hoy is an advanced sea kayaker's dream. Within the Orkney Islands archipelago it is an oddity: mountainous and remote, with little of the low-lying land to be found elsewhere in those islands. It specialises in drama: the highest vertical sea cliffs in the UK at St John's Head, exposure to Atlantic swell and the fast, committing and complex tides of the Pentland Firth, no-landing zones of over 10km, the stunningly beautiful Rackwick Bay, and to top it all, one of the most iconic rock formations on the planet: the Old Man of Hoy.
Friend and colleague, Matt Haydock (Rapid Development Coaching) and I set off on Monday, planning a two day circumnavigation to beat the incoming South-East gales forecast for Wednesday. Paddling out into a glowering, mizzly Sound of Hoy I felt apprehensive: had we made the right call, choosing this trip? Was the weather on it's way in early? I doubted myself and the forecast... With the right paddling buddy though, teamwork and decision-making come easily: we would carry on with the plan. Was it really apprehension, or simply butterflies at the prospect of achieving a long-held dream?
Round - or should I say through- the Kame of Hoy and it's two large tunnels, and round the corner to our first view of St John's Head wearing a hat of cloud, and the Old Man. The sheer scale of the place is hard to comprehend, impossible to put into words. I try to photograph them, with disappointing results: they create a feeling images can't convey. A picture of Matt though, when I look at it later, reveals a smug grin. My thoughts exactly!
We camp at the stunningly beautiful Rackwick Bay, above a white sand beach and a steep bank of storm-worn, sea-tossed boulders, molded into stripey dinosaur eggs by the huge waves that crash here in the winter months. What little wind there is drops, and we both retire to our tents early, chased in by the notorious Hoy Midge.
We're up early next morning. Neither of us really do mornings, and the midges are fierce, so it's a handful of peanuts, some water and a snack bar for the buoyancy aid pocket for me, then midge net and drysuit on for the boat carrying & packing mission. Not many words are needed. We need to be on our way by 7am to catch the tide round the crux point of our trip: Tor Ness.
The entry in the Admiralty Pilot warns of death and destruction lurking beneath the waves at Tor Ness during the West-going tidal stream. We were choosing to travel anti-clockwise, so using the East-going flow- but could find no information on what we might find when we got there. Huge breaking waves? We didn't know: but we were confident that the plan would work, and we could deal with whatever the Pentland Firth decided to throw our way.
Onwards, past more enormous, vertical and impossibly smooth cliffs. We really are on our own down here: nowhere to escape should anything go wrong, and little chance of communication through VHF or mobile phone. An awe-inspiring sense of remoteness and commitment. We feel movement in the water- but is it doing what we expect? A kick to the west suggests a peculiar pattern, but we're shifting along... Looks like we've got it right.
Round Tor Ness, and... well, not a lot! A few breaking waves, with flow in a variety of directions: but all very satisfyingly within both of our comfort zones. Time for coffee!
Onwards... but now we're finding the tide flowing against us. That shouldn't be happening...? Do we stay close inshore and fight the tide through the eddies forming all along this stretch, or do we head out deeper into the Pentland Firth, where we might be pushed away from our objective and towards the mainland? We decided to go for the harder work, but safer option: stay inshore and knuckle down for a slower few miles.
The cliffs are lower lying now, but still impressive, and we're working out what we can see in the Firth around us. We both know the area a little having paddled, and been trained and assessed for various qualifications here. Memories are shared, stories told. Have I told you about the time when...?
Round Cantick Head, and we're heading north at last. We're both in need of a rest and food after our early start- then on towards Scapa Flow. Weaving a path through the islands, we pass evidence of the strategic importance of the place: the Martello Towers guarding the entrance the Long Hope, gun emplacements and lookout stations on the many headlands. Scapa Flow itself looms large, like a small sea enclosed by history. It's a busy place still, and as we cover the final few miles we cross paths with a ferry, fishing boats, pleasure boats and a yacht or two making the most of the light winds before tomorrow's forecast storm.
Tired but satisfied, we pull into the Bay of Houton... So what will the next adventure be?
I've always dreamed about being able to head out on an expedition longer than the standard 2-3 weeks that was available to me while working a 'normal' job. So inevitably, when I took the plunge into the freelance life, I set out making my dream happen.
Poring over Google Earth, I just kept coming back to my home country... And so the idea of Right Round Scotland was born.
Now for the preparations stages...
How long will it take?
Check out the tides & commit...
And finally... Pack!
Sounds simple, hey?!
I set off tomorrow, from Berwick upon Tweed, hoping (with a fair wind) to make it to the west coast in a week or so where we will start paddling. I'll post on here as often as possible, technology permitting.
I hope you'll follow the journey, and if you enjoy it, perhaps consider donating a little to Scottish Mountain Rescue through my Just Giving page.
Five Star Sea Kayak Leader is seen by some people as being an unachievable aim. For me it was the end of one long journey, taking me to extraordinary places with incredible people, and the start of another, passing on those experiences. I wanted to document a few of the most memorable moments on that journey, both to share the joy and wonder of them, and to show that the aim in itself is very achievable, with effort and determination.
In 2003 I went to Gordon Brown for a two day introductory sea kayak course, and after the second day Gordon gave me the perfect advice: Go and buy a boat, and go paddling.
I set off racking up the miles... Solo trips to begin with, until I found Mallaig Canoe Club and a few choice paddling buddies willing to do longer trips with me.
Over a thousand miles in the first year, and a trip to Barra and Mingulay in 2004, followed by a trip to Lewis. Befriending the Stornoway Canoe Club gang got me into all sorts of trouble...
Photo courtesy of Gordon Brown... This picture has come back to haunt me many times!
Moving south for work, and I discovered the sublime sea kayaking on Anglesey. Despite living in Bournemouth, wild horses couldn't keep me from that beautiful island, and I fled up there every other weekend for over a year. Tide races, surf, rockhopping and lots of fun just kept me returning.
Some longer trips took me to Ireland... Both the West coast, and the North coast of the Emerald Isle discovered, and later a longer trip up the west coast of Scotland.
My lowest ebb came with the need for outside assistance. A rescue on Anglesey, involving the RNLI & RAF Rescue helicopter. It was the toughest day of my paddling career, but we survived, and we learnt from the experience. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Photo taken by Maurice Hoare.
A visit to Shetland established the northern isles in my mind as my favourite paddling location in Britain, and I vowed to return as soon as I could. Little did I realise that a few years later I would be dreaming of taking clients to those fabulous islands.
Sea kayaking then took a back seat in my life for a while, and I concentrated my outdoor efforts on the hills and mountains. These things come in waves, so to speak.
In 2012, my passion was reignited by a friend's description of their trip to Greenland. I decided there and then, I wanted to go. A year later, I was stepping off the boat in Tasiilaq, joining a group led by Martin Rickard of Sea Kayak Adventures, and back at home, about to accept voluntary redundancy and step out into uncertainty.
Two weeks in my favourite environment, where I barely stopped smiling, taught me a lesson. I wanted to lead and coach people in the outdoors. To pass on my passion for the places I love most, to open them up for people and help them gain the skills and independence they need to go there themselves.
I knew I was capable of achieving that big ticket: Five Star. Simple words that had come to mean so much to me in recent months. I'd led people informally on the sea and in the mountains for years. But 2014 was a very different type of paddling year. Focussed, determined practice of the last few skills I needed to add to my paddling experience culminated in two trips. I returned to Anglesey with friends, to test ourselves in the races and surf of my favourite place South of the Scottish border. And Cape Wrath: well, you've already read about that.
Assessment weekend dawned windy. Very windy. I was nervous, but I gritted my teeth, and did my best to do what I do. Counted down the minutes to the magic words... "Congratulations, you've passed..." The sweetest ending to an amazing journey, and the beginning of the next.
I've been to some extraordinary places by kayak. Every once in a while though, an opportunity comes up to paddle, with the right conditions and company, in a place that is head and shoulders above the rest: a Holy Grail trip.
Last week, four of us ventured to the North Coast of Scotland, and with the weather looking good enough, and the Firing range silent for the day, we decided to take on one of Britain's most remote and committing sea kayaking trips, Cape Wrath.
This headland, whose name is Norse for 'Turning Point' but conjures up so much more, has been on my bucket list for almost ten years. I've cancelled attempts on it twice due to bad weather. So to finally get round was a huge achievement: there were smiling faces and whoops of delight as we rounded the Cape and glimpsed Am Buachaille in the distance.
Almost 40km of paddling, 6 hours in a boat with no possible landings, a couple of tide races, some large clapotis and four seasons in one day later, and we landed at Droman pier, with the sort of feeling of satisfaction only felt with an opportunity grasped with both hands.
This is my favourite cairn...
It sits at the top of the Fiacaill a Choire Chais in the Cairngorms, and is the point affectionately known as '1141'. Not exactly a romantic name...
But for me, it's a bit special. It's been the start and end of adventures, the beginning of a navigation leg on Summer Mountain Leader training, a spot where I've bumped into friends, a tiny haven of relative calm on a windy winter day, a place where I've had to shout to be heard over the wind and spindrift, considered crawling as I couldn't stand in the wind; and a place to linger in the sunshine. I've even done a university project studying the plants on the ridge leading to it. And when I moved to Aviemore, one of the first things I did was walk up to it.
It's just a pile of rocks. But the memories it evokes are worth so, so much more...
I've just returned from 5 fantastic weeks in Iceland and Greenland. The former the home of some of the world's newest rocks, a young landscape and and a very cool and efficient culture. The latter, home to some of the oldest rocks on Earth, and with a people who have had to develop from ancient to modern ways of life in a very few years.
The New: Iceland
We bathed in hot pools...
... trekked through other-worldly landscapes...
... forded rivers...
... and touched some of the newest rocks on the planet.
Greenland provides a different perspective on life. Seen from a sea kayak, the way inuit hunters have traditionally travelled, you feel a strong bond with the land and its inhabitants.
Ice is ever-present throughout the year.
Greenlandic people truly live life on the edge.
A stunning landscape, travelled through in traditional style, and in great company...
...with some very happy memories that will last a lifetime.
I've just come back from a wonderful 5 days kayaking around Barra, and visiting Mingulay, Pabbay, Berneray. Eriskay and the other sandy-beached, cliff-girt islands that make up the Outer Hebridean chain south of the Uists. It's a wonderland of remote beauty, only seen these days by climbers and kayakers, and day trippers to the islands when the weather is fine.
Mingulay is the jewel in the crown of this area for me, full of mystery and wonder which easily rivals its more famous lookalike, St Kilda. Inhabited into the twentieth century, the island is full of the ghosts of those who once lived here.
The picture above was taken a few days ago, and that below ten years ago. It's fascinating to see how the islands are very slowly changing over the years.
The island is now cared for by the National Trust for Scotland, and a warden is resident through the summer months. Visitor numbers are growing, and we shared the island with over thirty climbers, with another thirty or so on Pabbay in the same week. The good weather gave us all the opportunity to see such a special place without the dangers or hardships that must have been endured by those living here over a hundred years ago. Time moves on, people and places evolve, but we must take care of our history...