Monday, November 19, 2007

It's over!

I'm tremendously relieved the assessment is over and very pleased, of course, to have passed. Having failed to reach any Americans by phone to tell them the good news (it being 6am or so), I next phoned Rowland Woollven who is a good friend and who we visited at his house near the Falls of Lora on Tuesday. He was thrilled for me and made the hour long drive north to have dinner and celebrate. About 30 seconds after getting off the phone with Rowland, Fiona called to congratulate. Fiona has been my 'tutor' and mentor for the past couple of years and her support and friendship has been awesome. Rowland arrived bearing gifts from both of them - champagne, whiskey, and an exquisite model of an inuit kayak that he made last spring for my first assessment (it's been waiting on his shelf for me to get it right)!

It's really amazing to have friends who are willing to trek so far around the globe to a cold, dark, wet place to help me do this. I can't thank Thom and Lynn enough for supporting this endeavour not once, but twice!!! Brian was a perfect long term student and I owe him big time. Jake made the first trip so much fun and such an adventure. Thanks, guys.

We're all disappointed for Steve, but it's certainly not the end of the road. He's been so generous to us and has made this trip very easy. We spent the whole week chauffeured about (we offered to drive - don't know why he wouldn't let us) in a very large van with a very fine fleet of kayaks in tow. Even in his disappointment, he's funny and entertaining and happy for me. A class act, for sure.

Off to pack. See you all soon!


Let me Introduce America’s FIRST BCU LEVEL 5 SEA KAYAK COACH.

Above is the exact moment (well OK just 10 seconds later) that Jen was informed by Gordon that she had passed.

Jen then calls mom with the news. Jake might have gotten the first call, however, we all knew he was sitting up and a tree hunting deer and wouldn't answer his phone anyway!
I just couldn’t save that news to the end of the day’s diary. You want to know it and Jen wants to celebrate her success with each of you. Throughout the first BCU attempt in Thurso and this one Jen has repeatedly mentioned how much the support of her extensive kayak community (both local and nationwide) has meant to her and brought her to this achievement.

So back to our day with Jen. Once again we were out early to meet up and pickup Andy (the same assessor Bryan and I were with yesterday but new to Jen). Unlike Steve, Jen didn’t waste any time getting on the water. We moved gear and kayaks to our transport for the day and were off to the Falls of Lora. But this time we were going to play in the flood tide (still at neaps).

It is about an hour’s drive down the coast towards Oban and we were on the water by 10AM. Naturally we had researched tide and current times and expected good currents and eddy lines to work with but no significant standing waves… and that’s what we got. The perfect environment for Jen to show her stuff! She did a fantastic job keeping Bryan and I busy, often pursuing different tasks on the same venue. Ferry forward and reverse, at different speeds, edging, surfing small waves in current, rolling (Brian) and sculling braces (Thom) in moving water. We got wet, we had fun, Jen did great!

Brian doing a great job sitting in a small tidal race at the Falls of Lora
Note: I don’t want to come home to discussions about the usefulness of a sculling brace. It was challenging and built up my confidence. That alone makes it useful in this instance.

Shortly after we returned to the Assessment center Gordon gave Jen the good word.
Unfortunately Steve did not pass. I have hesitated to ask him directly regarding the Assessors feedback but hope to hear more over the next few days.

That’s it from Scotland. Monday morning we head back to Oxenholm, Tuesday were headed back home to San Diego.

Regards – Thom

p.s. A special thanks to my wife, Lynn, for supporting Jen’s quest and allowing me to spend the time (and money) supporting Jen.

Whew - At Last Saturday is Here!

Thom here…

This morning we were all business and out the door at 8AM, hooked up the trailer, and off to Orich to meet up with all the Assessors, Assessees, and Long Term Students (that’s Brian and myself among many others). The parking lot was chock full of cars covered with canoes, white water kayaks and then just a few sea kayaks. We were in a minority.

After the usual disorientation, trying to establishing where we were meeting, sitting down, then being told we needed to split up - students were on the other end of the complex, being grilled whether we knew, had paddled or been coached by the Assessee whom we were being paired with (that would be Steve whatever his name is!), then back to the original meeting place, and paired up with our Assessor and Assessee (finally).

I cannot speak for Jen’s day (at least not directly) as she went off with Steve2 and Sue not to be seen again till the end of the day.

Brian in the bivy shelter

Steve, however, did a great job. In his usual thorough manner he oriented us, explored our experience and strengths as well as our goals for the day and then offered a plan. Since we had an interest in his personal and group kits (that’s British for gear), leadership, coaching and paddling skills as well as navigation, he suggested we return to our chateau and spend a few hours there.

Steve discussing forward paddling with a demonstration video on the computer.

Time flew by as we discussed the contents of pfd pockets, different flare types, emergency shelters, vhf radios, deck mounted tow lines, contact tow lines, watched video of the British Olympic champion paddler and so much more. Indeed, as we broke for tea (I slipped in a sandwich) we realized that we had not yet covered navigation and needed to get down the road to Ballachulish to fit in a few hours paddling before dark. So we threw on our dry suits and gear and off we went into the rain and wind.

Our launch spot at Ballachulish (the launch ramp is behind me). Brian jumped in the picture and looked like a road worker in his dry suit.

We launched off a boat ramp in front of the Ballachulish Hotel and played in the narrows underneath the bridge. The natural topography protected from the full blast of the wind and the narrows had an ebb current that was surprisingly lively for a neap tide. If we let ourselves be swept down into the open parts of the loch there were significant wind waves built up by the fetch from over miles of open water in which to play.

The underlying theme of my work was leadership skills while Brian’s interest was in developing his coaching skills. While on the water we worked on paddling technique and boat handling, but it was good to have each exercise in context. Steve has an engaging teaching methodology that I find challenging, effective and beneficial. Generally he supports your process of coming up with answers with his guidance.

Once off the water we dropped Andy, our Assessor, of at Assessor Headquarters (he had to get back for a dinner) and returned to our chateau to pick up on navigation. Though exhausted, Steve had us plan a theoretical trip around the south end of Islay taking into account the tides, high water, and currents to navigate the tidal races. I found the exercise intellectually challenging; for Bryan it was a ‘piece of cake’ and he was soon bored and thinking of dinner.

Looking south towards Port Appin Left coast behind the castle. The islands on the right are where Jen and crew paddled to (and back).
Jen, with Steve2 and Sue returned to our chateau during our navigation exercise and informed us that they had gone south towards Oban and launched at Port Appin. There the winds were blowing at force 5 gusting to 6 so they worked for the first few hours with paddling exercises tucked in behind the ferry launch ramp, popping out in the wind and waves for skill building then returning to the protected area for instruction. They then set out across the channel to the island of Lismore, rounding the north end to play in the rocks on the west side. From their description I wished I had been along.

Talking about our day with each other in the kitchen

As you might imagine we had a raucous dinner this evening with endless stories about the day and, of course, the usual British / US English language barrier humor. Soon though, we were back at planning tomorrow, where to go, what are the expected tide times, current flows, what about the weather (gale force winds at 6AM are predicted on BBC radio), what we students wanted to experience and learn and what would be the best venue that would integrate all that and show off the Assessees skills best? Soon we were all slipping off to bed, hopefully sleeping better than last night, and ready for another exciting day.

Steve2 and Sue returning from their day with Jen

Sorry – no photos on the water today as it seemed as though it might be inappropriate during an assessment. I might ask tomorrow to see if it would be OK.

Regards - Thom

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Let Me Introduce to you...

America's First BCU Level 5 Sea Kayak Coach

Jen Kleck

Unfortunately that's all I can give you for now (but I was sure you would want to know).

The only Internet connection for ~20 miles is here in the Clachaig Inn and has a phone modem connection. Worse it has prevented me from inserting a USB thumb drive to transfer three days of journal writings and a plethora of photos. I promise to do that once we get back to Steve's house Monday evening.

Unfortunately Steve did not pass and that has been the focus of much discussion at our chateau. Additionally none of the canoe Assessees passed, white water Assessees had not yet returned to the center before we left so we didn't get their results.

So look for lots of text and pictures in 24 hours. See you back in San Diego late Tuesday.

Regards - Thom

Friday, November 16, 2007

Pictures from throught the week

Thom here...
This being the first Internet access time for a few days I thought I would catch you up with pictures...

Jen the Falls of Lora

Steve at the Falls of Lora

Steve's Birthday party

Jen working with Brian at the Falls of Lora

Have you seen our home base yet?

Well tomorrow the Assessment starts. Wish them luck.

Regards - Thom


Thom here on Thursday…

Another glorious day paddling on mirror smooth Scottish waters. Each day now moves us closer to full neap tide so strong currents and tidal races become harder to find. The temperature dropped a bit from yesterday and the sky was covered with low clouds. We rarely saw the sun. Nonetheless, paddling conditions were great for exploring the coastline as wind was nearly nonexistent and aside from a mild ebb tide, the day and the loch were ours.

We rose early once again and headed off to paddle Loch Sunart which is essentially an hour and a half southwest of Ft. William. To save driving 50 miles each way we jumped a ferry across Loch Linne at Corran then drove west to our launch point at Glennborrodale. As always the scenery on the drive was spectacular taking us along several lochs and over a low pass as we proceeded out the Ardnamurchan peninsula (the most western point on the British mainland).

Just a bit of a portage from our parking spot and we had our kayaks sitting on seaweed ready to launch. After dallying just a bit in Glennborrodale harbor we set out east along the coast, practicing strokes and setting up a ferry angle to cross Loch Sunart to Carna, an island on the opposite side. Our plan was to circumnavigate Carna, then hopefully continue west and on around the west end of the island of Oronsay, which is exposed to the sea and likely to have a rugged west coast along with some swell to play in. Because of neaps the current was running a mere 2+ knots and crossing was easy. We quickly rounded the east end of Carna and stopped for lunch.

After lunch we passed along the narrow eastern channel looking for sea otters and other sea life and practicing strokes whenever we found interesting currents and eddy lines. Once we turned west the ebb tide in the channel carried us towards Oronsay. But alas, we had tarried too long and the entrance to the backside of Oronsay was blocked by the receding tide. A ~200 yard portage across the seaweed and mud was an option, however, time was running short and the better decision was to turn north and head back across Loch Sunart to our original launch location.

Another lesson learned (over and over)… pay attention to the tides. Had we launched earlier, or possibly inverted the direction of the trip we may have squeezed through. Nevertheless, we had another great day on the water and are once again ensconced in our lodging looking forward to a rest day and preparing for the Assessment beginning this coming Saturday. Thanks for following along and think good thoughts for Jen.

Regards - Thom


Thom here on Wednesday….First let me apologize from all of us for the sporadic postings. There is no Internet access here in our lodging (as glorious as it is) and finding Internet access in small towns around rural Scotland can be daunting. As a consequence postings may be days apart and ‘lumped’ together. Additionally Steve is the only insured driver so we can’t simply stop at the end of a tiring day to find the ‘magical connection’ to the world. Nonetheless, we hope to get pictures up with this posting… but we will see.

Today we drove west of Fort William to the Sound of Airsaig to paddle Loch Nan Uamh. As always we were scouting out venues for Jen and Steve. Often finding a great location is not only about great paddling but includes nailing down a good launch point and getting there at the right time to take advantage of the tides and currents. Thanks to Steve and Jen we made that happen once again.

While we had to carry our kayaks a few hundred yards this morning we had an easy launch onto mirror smooth waters. There was no appreciable wind and only low clouds that were hugging the mountain tops as we paddled down the loch. While the ambient temperature was cool, the sun and our paddling kept us plenty warm. We hopped from island to island, playing in the rocks, taking advantage of the noticeable but manageable swell coming in from the sea. We found one particular spot that provided exciting rides for each of us and lingered there before moving on to yet another island.

I think all of us were tired this evening as we headed home. A quick pizza and the evening opened up to further theoretical preparation for the upcoming (geez it’s only two days away now) assessment and how to take best advantage of these two remaining days. Should we go to Cuan to check out the tidal race in neaps or spend our time at more locally? All agreed that Friday needs to be local (researching launching spots, locations sheltered from the expected storm, etc.) and get back to the house with plenty of time for Jen and Steve to get their ‘kit’ together for an early start on Saturday while Brian and Thom rest up.

Well I’m pooped and off to bed. As I mentioned earlier we hope to get this posted with pictures for you ASAP.
Regards - Thom

Hot and Cold

Brian here, welcome to virtual Scotland. Have your mittens handy, ‘tis a wee bit nippy’. We’ve been blessed with nice weather for the last couple of days, with the sun poking through and the wind and rain taking a rest. I didn’t expect to see glassy water but I’ll take it.

Without the wind the water is quite clear and you can see just how much kelp and seaweed grows here. There isn’t an overwhelming abundance of sea life, but we have seen a variety of seabirds (cormorants, shags, oyster-catchers and a few more whose name I don’t know) and a few seals and otters.

Paddling here is reminiscent of the Northwest, with steep slopes and rocky shores and lots of pines. Take that image and then imagine those hills being shorn of their trees with just a few patches here and there. The hills and mountains out here in the Western Highlands have a massiveness to them that is quite different than I’ve seen before. They are tremendously steep and yet rounded at the top, as if someone had thrown a wool blanket over an elephant and fastened it tight back to the ground. They almost look like they’re about to awake and move on.

One new experience paddling here is being both overheated and bloody cold at the same time. Wearing a dry suit with layers of fleece and thermals gets you quite toasty, and those suckers don’t breathe too well, so the heat stays in. Then feel the wind and water on your face and neck, and your hands are wet from the drip. It gets a little chaotic.

So I got my arse handed to me on our first day on the water. Mind you we decided to head straight for the Falls of Lora and get into some tidal races. The water wasn’t flowing at full bore, but still about 5 knots. Makes for some fun eddies and moving water. Rather new to me, but I definitely gained some new knowledge. Like don’t try a stern pry on the upstream side. Felt like a mermaid grabbed the paddle blade and just pulled me right over. Steve said I had a couple of seconds before I went over, but it felt instantaneous. I’d like to say I rolled right back up, but…

That’s all for now. Enjoy the pictures.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What a Start to our Paddling in Scotland

Thom here...

We headed south towards Oban today to start our scouting and hopefully our kayaking. The weather was cold (though not below freezing) with intermittent rain and occasional strong gusts of wind.

As we proceeded south scouting here and there, evaluating water access, training possibilities and general desirability of the paddling experience we crossed over the bridge under which run the Falls of Lora (sp). Jen couldn't contain herself and even though we are headed towards neap tide we happened (I think in retrospect she had this all planned) to be at full ebb tide. The falls were running strong (at least strong enough to intimidate Brian and myself).

Jen, on the other hand, was already half in her dry suit before we had parked to get a look at the scene. While we were getting dressed, she was already unstrapping the kayaks on the trailer and getting gear down to the water. She was well on her way up the coastline as we were still getting our foot pegs adjusted. Suffice to say she has a 'gung ho' style of coaching!

At the Falls one launches on the opposite side of the narrows, paddle up the eddy, then ferry across to the mongo tide race you have all seen in This is the Sea. I don't want to you think the Falls were going off as you saw in the flick, however, they certainly had me warmed up quickly and immediately confronting all my kayak fears. But once we had all crossed over (Jen had been on the opposite side playing for some time by then), Jen started her coaching, encouraging and coaxing us deeper and deeper into various waves and races. After an hour or so of playing, both Bryan and I became more adventurous and were rewarded with exciting rides and confidence.

Soon we grew physically tired and ferried back across the race, loaded the kayaks and went in to Oban, where we visited... what do you think??? A Chandlery (chart/map shop), a kayak shop, and, of course, the Oban Distillery (Brian's one demand for the trip).

I'll work on some picture processing tonight and hopefully get them posted tomorrow.

Regards - Thom

It's Snowing in the Highlands!

Thom here...

Today we drove from Oxenholm to Glencoe which is 17 miles up the road from Ft. William. Those technogeeks among you can actually follow along on our journey as Jen attached the EPERB unit to the top bar of the trailer. More important to those of us along on the trip Jen did a masterful job at locating lodging… but first the journey.

Steve drove the van as he is the only one insured to get behind the wheel. Brian kept him awake while Jen and I sat in the next seat back napping and fending off the cold. And I do mean cold! As we crossed the Highlands it started to snow. Not just fluffy little flakes – but big globby ones, each one falling with determination, seizing the opportunity to make a difference as they hurtled towards the earth. Fortunately as we descended into Glencoe and back towards sea level the ambient temperature warmed just above freezing and snow turned back to rain. The mountains should be pretty in the morning.

What about the house, you ask? River view, lots of parking for the van and trailer, three bedrooms, three baths, sleeping for six, three eating areas including a sunroom, a huge well equipped kitchen, and a living room with a fireplace (well OK it is fake but the chairs are all over stuffed) and heat! At this point we aren’t sure we will go back outside!

After arriving around 5PM (well after dark) we unloaded the van recovered from our shock regarding our new living situation and headed on in to Ft. William to buy groceries at Morrisons. And buy groceries we did. All four of us went separate directions (now we did prepare a list before our shopping trip), occasionally meeting up on one isle, then , and filled our grocery cart to the brim. At the checkout counter we looked at each other dumbfounded and in disbelief that we were buying so much food (and drink). I was sure our bill would exceed 200 pounds, but low and behold it totaled to just a bit less than 130 pounds. On our journey home we congratulated ourselves at how shrewd we had been, saving all that money we would have spent eating out the balance of the week (except Steve who seemed appalled at our consumptive American habits).

So we whiled away the evening as Jen cooked dinner and the rest of us helped in our own way. The evening floated away with us and soon it was leaning on 11 PM and we drifted off to bed, our thoughts of Scotland, and blessed sleep - or is that sheep (which Steve calls Meadow Maggots). Tomorrow, we promise, we will get outside as we head down to Oban and begin scouting the area for Jen’s upcoming assessment (brrrrr…).

Regards - Thom

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Jen and Brian arrive

Jen reporting from the UK - midnight GMT:

Brian and I had different philosophies about conquering jetlag. He swore that all you have to do is set your clocks and watches to your new time zone and you can literally trick your brain into believing the new time. Yeah, right. My method has been painstakingly developed and well tested: to induce in-flight coma, stay up all night before leaving, then drink 2 bloody mary's at airport (repeat as necessary on layovers). I awoke on the tarmac in Manchester refreshed and rarin' to go. Brian's been in bed for hours. Looks like I'll be collecting on that bet!
The team has finally assembled at Steve's house in England's Lake District. We've loaded our kayaks and kit, had a great meal in the local pub, and will head off tomorrow for Scotland. There is frost on the kayaks out on the trailer and kayaking in Scotland in November is seeming like an odd idea at best. To make it seem like a better idea, I booked us into a lovely house (appropriately with a 5 star rating) on the water north of Oban for the week. I'll spare no expense for my loyal team! It's going to be important to have a comfortable place to hang out since the days are so short.

I've brought my new SPOT satellite messenger and am having fun playing with it. You can see our progress (sometimes in real time) at Click 'my account' and Log on: user name: jenkleck password: kayak. If you click on 'messages', then 'select all' and 'show on map', you can see where we are. Use the satellite view - it's cool. I'll use the tracking mode when it's interesting and you'll be able to watch our travels. There's a lot of info about this amazing little device on the findmespot website. If you want one, Aqua Adventures Kayak Center is well stocked - they cost just $150!!
Brian (who is in the UK for the first time), had heard all the usual warnings about terrible British food. He was very impressed by his first pub meal and took this photo to prove the nay-sayers wrong. There was hardly a crumb left. Just wait 'til he tries haggis!

This is Steve, our gracious host, wondering how he's going to survive a week with 3 Americans! Steve nearly killed himself river kayaking a couple of weeks ago - hit his head very hard on a rock - and is still suffering from neck pain and numbness in his arms. He's taking some serious pain medication and acts a little strange from drinking Guinness out of a wine glass!? We suggested that beer might not interact well with the meds, so he poured himself a scotch.
Internet access uncertain this next week, but we'll find our way to internet cafes whenever possible!

Meeting up in Oxenholm

Thom here... literally here in Oxenholm at Steve Bank's home waiting for Jen and Brian to arrive early this Sunday afternoon. My training regimen has gone well; arriving a day early, sleeping, hydrating at the local pub, ending the evening with a wee dram of scotch, then more sleep (much more sleep). I feel great.

Once Jen and Brian arrive the plan for the afternoon is to head down to Dallum Outdoor Center, pack up the transport van and load up kayaks on the trailer. After that we'll head back to Steve's place and decide if we want to jump directly into a 6 hour drive to Oban or have dinner, sleep at Steve's and head up in the morning.

The current weather is cold and calm. A high pressure area is moving into the Oban/Mull area and as we progress towards this weekend we will be having neep tides. Generally that would mean we should expect minimal tidal currents and mild winds (less fetch), on and off rain is likely according to the current weather models. While that should make for easy paddling it may make the assessment harder as there will be less 'nature' (extreme water conditions) for Jen and Brian to work with.

That's it for now... Jen is landed and on the train headed north towards us.

Regards - Thom

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Travels and travails

We've been busy paddling on Anglesey, hanging out with good friends, and far from wireless internet connections, so we apologise for falling off the map a bit!

Jake and I drove late into the night after parting ways with Thom. We finally slept at a gas station for a few hours and I started driving again at about 4am or so, right on target to be pulling into Holy Head at 9am to reunite Justine with her van, and Nigel with his Romany which was desperately needed for his symposium. All was going so well, and then an ominous *clunk*. I immediately pulled over on the motorway and stopped. My heart racing, I tried to start the engine again - no go. We poked under the hood - oil, check, belts, check, wait, what's that? Timing belt busted through it's housing. So, we walked to a payphone and called the British version of AAA who came to collect us. Nope, can't fix it today - could be pretty easy, or could be a big problem - could be expensive. UGH! Our only viable option seemed to be to tow the sucker 120 miles to Holy Head. When we finally met up with Justine again, we found out the van wasn't worth much more than the towing, but at least everything was back where it was meant to be. I still don't know if Justine has deceided to fix it or not - we feel awful! We're just so glad that it happened on our way home and as close as we were! It could have been far worse!

Anglesey has been great fun and Jake is currently on a 5 Star training course. I've gotten to do some coaching and have some fun. We'll be leaving for home soon and will see you guys all soon!


Friday, May 4, 2007

Off To the Races


We awoke to Skye being renamed Eilean a’ Cheo and dense fog. At 5:30 AM I couldn’t even see the Hebridian seashore just below our bluff. Confident it would clear we went about our morning routine of coffee (something to wake Jen up), oatmeal (Jakes morning specialty) and preparing to get on the water. While we ate the fog lifted a bit turning into low cloud cover for the balance of the paddle with cooler conditions than we have had all week (but still not cold by Scottish standards). There was a mild wind from the northwest chopping up the waters surface and causing fetch that built in size as we proceeded through the day and became more exposed to the open sea.

Today’s paddle required a shuttle. Fortunately we had the time to check out our launch harbor at Staffin Island the evening before to orient ourselves. The finish would be just below our campsite on a boulder beach. We left the car, jumped in the van and headed to Staffin hitting the water at 8:30 AM. Timing was important today. If planned and executed properly we would ride a gentle 1+ knot ebb current north along the east side of the Trotternish peninsula turning west to catch the tidal race at Rubha na h-Aiseig (at full spring tidal flow) followed by a second race as we rounded Rubha Hunish and turned south towards our landing. The full paddle was projected to take about 4-5 hours.

We started by swinging east of Staffin Island to warm up and catch a glimpse of the many bird colonies then back to the northwest getting a light push from the current up to Eilean Flodigarry Island. Eilean Flodigarry is split by a narrow channel, the western island having a vertical face of huge, often crumbling basalt columns. This was a birds world as they soared far above us. The channel provided a short respite from the choppy seas.

Upon exiting the inter-island channel we turned west towards the coast and began exploring caves and arches. Our first cave had four access points joining at the center in a ‘T’. But having been inured to only the best caves over the past few days we moved on quickly. Soon we discovered there were far too many to explore so we only entered those that were promising and indeed there were many. Inside caves the swell mellowed, the sound of the wind and the sea turned to a whisper and the cave would occasionally growl. Some opened to the sky as you passed inside, some narrowed requiring one to creep along with your hands, some required a flashlight. We proceeded along the coast stopping for lunch at Kilmaluag Bay, our last opportunity to land prior to rounding Rubha na h-Aiseig, the first race.

The low clouds covered the sun, the wind was cool and still blowing from the north. We were anxious to round Rubha na h-Aiseig to see what awaited us and so were back on the water more quickly than usual (no nap for Jen). After paddling not more than 5 minutes we rounded the edge of the bay into large sea swells. At least I thought they were large swells until I looked further than the front of my kayak and realized we had dropped directly into the Rubha na h-Aiseig tidal race! I immediately swung into an eddy to get settled, Jen and Jake were already playing. The race is squeezed into a channel between the headlands and an island, making it big. The waves at the top of the race were surfable and we all were soon at it. For me the unique attribute of this race was that it kept pushing me out the top. I kept dropping down along the side, would ferry in, and moments later my position was back at the beginning of the race. It was a if I wasn’t being drawn along with the flow of the water at all! My usual experience of a race involves efforting to catch a wave and also prevent oneself from being swept down through the race. After playing for a bit Jen suggested we turn into the race and run down through bow first.

Now this race was ~1 mile long, big, and exposed to incoming westerly swells. Playtime for Jen and Jake but stretching my limits! Nonetheless, this was an opportunity to see if I had learned anything from my wet exit day earlier in the week when I was paddling forward through the Duncansby Head race (trying to assist with Ian’s rescue). I reasoned I hadn’t been hurt, I had survived, and who better to rescue me today if needed than Jen and Jake? From my first experience I had observed that I needed to keep powering forward through the race, keep my paddle deep in the water with each stroke (in these steep high frequency waves a shallow stroke may find nothing but air throwing one off balance), and be ready to low brace instantly when hit by side swell. The ride through the race was an adrenalin pumping riot moving us along at a combined speed of ~10 miles/hour, smashing through waves and slamming down their backs, bracing into peaks arising from any side at any moment. After what at the same time seemed endless and yet only momentary we pulled into calmer water at Lub a Sgiathain bay and explored yet more caves while we rested from the chaos of the race.

Soon we were approaching the race at Rubha Hunish. As we approached it initially didn’t appear to me to be as big or as powerful as the previous race at Rubha na h-Aiseig. It was different too inasmuch as the waves were not surfable and more chaotic than I had seen before. Indeed, by this time we had the wind to our backs, a 3-4 foot swell coming in of the Hebridean sea from the NW, we had a 6-8 mile an hour current and the race is set up as the ebb tide runs directly along the Rubha Hunish cliffs (~200 feet to our left) causing reflection waves from the crossing swell. Wow! Jen again suggested we drop down through the center and off we went. It was like dropping into a monstrous washing machine. Waves and reflection waves slammed together at your bow while the race is forcing you straight up the wave peak, then off down the other side as a side swell slams over your deck. This race didn’t’ give up but curved right around Rubha Hunnish and pointed us south towards our destination finally letting us loose in Loch Hunish

It was only another mile to our destination and I for one was happy to ride a gentle current combined with mild back swells to our landing beach where we slipped, slid and pulled our kayaks up a boulder beach (the tide was nearly at full ebb by now), then up a grass slope to our camp below Duntulm. Jen and I shuttled back to get the van while Jake scampered off to get a closer look at the dilapidated Duntulm castle overlooking the bay.

As we packed up the van I reflected on the last week. My personal successes, lessons learned, bonds saturated with challenges and intimate common experiences (but not that intimate!). Friends supporting each other in big and little ways, the laughter, the tears, the triumph over fears. All contributed to a unique and unforgettable experience and fostered personal growth. Jen and Jake were off to Wales for the Kayak Symposium; I off to Perth for a Gemmological conference. It was difficult to say goodbye. Indeed we followed one another on the main road across Skye before eventually being separated.

I extend a big thank you to Jen for inviting me to participate in preparing for and taking her BCU 5 Star Instructor exams. Her focus and devotion to reaching that lofty goal lifted the quality of my paddling far beyond my usual confidence and extended my paddling experiences to places I previously had only dreamed of. I remain committed to her success. Jake, is a paddler I have come to trust implicitly, always cheerful, always helpful, both on and off the water. I can’t recall laughing so hard for so long! They shared their space with me seamlessly; paddling, sightseeing, cooking, cleaning, driving, sleeping, just sitting and contemplating.

As I am sure Jen suspects I’m now back to my old ways, lodged for the night halfway to Perth at the Invergarry Hotel (Jake – it’s a fishing and hunting lodge as it turns out –, shaved and cleaned up, kayak gear rinsed, dried and packed away, sated by a bacon wrapped scallop dinner, a gemmologist once again. I look forward to seeing all of you back on the water in San Diego (but only after spending days and precious hours with my supremely supportive wife Lynn).

p.s. It turns out there has been such an uproar with the name of Skye being changed to Eilean a’ Cheo that the politicians have backed down and Skye is now Eilean a’ Cheo only on election day (which was today). So don’t panic… you can still get over here and paddle Skye (just not on election day!).

A Day for Tides and Currents


Today we got an early start for a launch at the ferry landing of An t-Ob on the Sound of Harris. The Sound separates Harris from the Hebridean islands to the south (starting with North Uist). Our plan was to paddle around the islands called Easaigh and Ceileagraigh which are situated approximately in the center of the Harris Sound, then return to our launch spot at the ferry landing.

Tides and currents were critical to our success as the channels we had to cross have currents up to 5 knots during the spring tides which are now occurring. So we were up early, fed and on the road at 7AM. We launched to catch the ebb tide (in this case the Hebridean sea emptying into the Atlantic), setting a ferry angle over to the east side of Easaigh, zipping down the coast with the current and wind at our backs and swinging around the Atlantic exposed north side then using the eddies to sneak up the west side setting up a ferry angle across Caolas Sdairidh channel to Ceileagraigh.

Even though Caolas Sdairidh channel had more current than I expected we had left a big margin of safety and made the crossing with no problems swinging then around the west side of Ceileagraigh, stopping on a broad sandy beach for lunch, and again sneaking up along the eddies on the south side to clear the east end and set up for a crossing back to our starting point. We had timed it well and rode the last of the ebb tide down the channel crossing (~2 miles) with the wind to our backs on a mirror smooth water surface under a bright cloudless sky.

The whole trip took ~4 hours and got us off the water in time to get back up to An Tairbeart to catch the 4 PM ferry over to Uig on Skye. It was luxury to have a few extra hours to write and relax but once again maddening not to have internet access. Now on the ferry we have reviewed our plans for Thursday’s paddle around the exposed north end of Skye from Staffin Island to Duntulm, one of the classic paddles in Scotland.

But will we be paddling Skye or Eilean a’ Cheo?

Regards - Thom

A Five Star Paddling Experience


Tides and current were not dominant with our planned paddle of Great Bearnaraigh today so we relaxed a bit in the morning sun (can you believe that!) and once underway visited the remains of a large Broch (essentially a very old, round, cone shaped structure having double walls with stairs in-between. Then we stopped at the Calanais Standing Stones similar to Stone Henge but with more stones and in the form of a cross) and finally on to paddle.

We chose today’s paddle by happenstance, no books, no referrals, no current info… just looked good on our map. Great Bearnaraigh faces the Atlantic and we launched at a small harbor near Balasaigh. The fishermen there were most kind, confirming our suspicions that current wasn’t a big issue but suggesting that crossing the channel to the island of Pabaigh Mor would be more interesting than our original planned path.

Wow! There’s nothing like local knowledge.

At the end of the Great Bearnaraigh, rather than explore further we set up the crossing to Pabaigh Mor (~1-1/2 miles) and we found the suggested narrow entrance to a horseshoe shaped cove with entrances on either side of the point but protected from direct exposure to the Atlantic. The cove had broad sweeping sandy beaches, turquoise water and a large tidal pool with drainage cascading down a seaweed lined slide. This could have been the Caribbean except for the very cold water. We entered at low tide and luxuriated with the sun, out of the wind, ate our lunch and… well napped. As we rested the tide started rising rapidly and eliminating the beaches around us. That gave us the opportunity to slip up the tidal pool slide in our kayaks (Jen was creative and started pulling herself up with the seaweed), explore and then slide back down (the seaweed protecting the kayaks from the rocks).

As we returned to the open sea we rounded the exposed point of the island to find a huge heart shaped arch (which required higher tide level to paddle through) and others that allowed safe passage. Continuing down the west side of Pabaigh Mor along a channel we encountered cave after cave after… Not just any cave but caves going back several hundred feet; some wide, some too narrow to use your paddle, some requiring a flashlight. Coves, arches, and caves any one of which would make for a 5 star paddling day all on one island that it appears only the local fishermen know about. We also happened upon a large sea otter.

Done exploring we island hopped down the west side of Bacsaigh and ferried (lots of that here in the Hebredis) across An Caolas channel with side swell (occasional deck wash) and force 4+ winds. Once again Jake did a masterful job of navigating and I followed.

After landing we headed south to Harris island (though it’s connected to Lewis it still seems to be considered separate) about 1+ hours drive. Hoping to continue camping we stopped at the Tourist Bureau and were advised that we have the right to camp pretty much wherever we want (it’s polite to ask if a house is near) and further that ~20 minutes south of town was a fantastic beach. Before leaving town we loading up on food at the local grocer (closed at 6PM but open again from 8 to 9PM – go figure).

We were very excited to see a sign that the grocer had free wireless internet… but alas even with the help of the proprietor (a retired Cisco geek) we could not get online. Internet connection has been a real problem since we left Thurso and our secret O’Neil ‘surfer’ connection at the Royal Hotel bar. The one time we did find a connected computer in Ullapool Jen consumed the time (prior to catching the ferry) researching St. Kilda possibilities and we never got to post anything before jumping on the ferry.

To finish up the day we found the beach and set up camp on a grassy bluff overlooking a huge sandy bay opening into the Atlantic. As we watched the full moon rise the tide began to empty the entire bay setting up tidal/surf race at least 1 mile out. Essentially the beach front moves 1+ miles with each tide shift!

We Made The Ferry But…

At last! I have a connection. You will find the last four days posted individually below.

Regards - Thom


…we are headed for the Hebrides. The ferry days and times we originally found online for the Shetlands turned out to be incorrect. The accurate days (the ferry essentially runs one direction each day) simply wouldn’t work for us as I have to be in Perth by 2PM on Friday to lead a workshop and Jake and Jen have to get back to Wales for the Kayak Symposium by Friday night.

We were disappointed and vacillated about our possibilities. Should we go over to the Orkney Islands for the day… maybe for several days, then head south (geez that would add an extra travel day); should we make a beeline to the Isle of Skye (to be officially renamed in traditional Gaelic this coming Thursday as Eilean a’ Cheo) and maybe get a climb of Ben Nevis in; is there any way going to the Shetlands could make sense (we were still attached)?

In the end we decided (with some helpful advice from our B&B hostess, Antoinette) to take a rest day and drive the North & West Highland Scenic Highway to Ullapool and catch the ferry to the Isle of Lewis, the northern island of the Outer Hebrides. The Scenic highway took as past our launch spot of the previous day, through Durness, across the Cape Wrath peninsula, then down through Kylestrome to Ullapool. The drive was ~150 miles on mostly single track. Fortunately the tourist season hasn’t started yet so the road was mostly empty, particularly in the northern section.

The scenery was exceptional and the weather even better than previous days. I know Lynn won’t believe this but I drove the entire distance with my window down and dressed in just a T shirt (well I did have pants on as well!). We have checked and are hoping that the weather will hold for the next three days (that is the prediction). It’s so nice we even discussed the wisdom of sharing certain photos we have on this blog as the beaches and sunny skies make it look like Santa Barbara. We are concerned you won’t believe we even came to Scotland!

Tonight we are camping on the west side of Lewis just a few hundred yards from the wide open Atlantic. Tomorrow we will set up a shuttle and paddle around the great Bernera peninsula. We have an accurate map but no other details regarding currents and exact tides so it should be an adventure. Jen hopes that Jake and I will learn to feel the currents (I think she may be asking too much).

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Haven't heard from me in a while

Hi everyone,

Thom and Jen have been doing a great job of telling all that's been going on so I haven't had a whole lot to add, or much time to add it as we've been busy organizing our travel and paddling plans the last few days.

Jen and I were thinking about it while we drove south toward Anglesey after parting ways with Thom this afternoon. We've paddled 9 of the last 10 days and in that time I think I've logged 4 of the best paddles I've ever been on. The coast of Scotland is incredibly beautiful and we've been blessed with amazing weather allowing us to experience more of it more intimately than one normally could in a two week visit. There were numerous moments throughout the week that I could only think, "This is why we do this. This is why we practice, study, and learn all we can about handling our little boats in a very large and powerful ocean. To experience moments like we've seen this week." Scotland is more magnificent than I could have ever imagined and I recommend it to anyone who puts blade to water and has the drive to learn what it takes to be able to handle a kayak in these waters.

We're just starting our travel south but I already miss Scotland and am already looking forward to returning. Yet there is more to come in Wales and I can't wait to see the tide races down there.

Until then,


Last few days catch up

Standing stones on the Outer Hebrides
An amazing structure from about 1000 BC!!!
The trio in the pub in Thurso. We were staring to feel like locals. A photographer working for the surfing contest gave us the password for free internet, so this was a nightly scene. Note the chursh steeple out the window. It's probably 9pm and still so light!
The drysuit seemed more than a little out of place here. The water just beckoned you to swim, but it's still close to frozen!
The caves and arches were numerous and varied - towering arches and narrow slots. Just fantastic!

Well, the ferry schedule didn't work out to the Shetlands with our schedule, so we went to the outer Hebrides, and then to Skye. Thom left us today and Jake and I are on our way back to Anglesey where I'm looking forward to spending some time with some good friends!

We had an absolutely fantastic couple of days. I moped for a day over the assessment and the disappointment that we didn't get to the Shetlands, and then went paddling and got over it. We've seen beaches that you just couldn't believe are in Scotland, awesome caves and arches (Santa Cruz has nothing on the British Isles), otter, eagles, gillamots, razor bills, fulmar, kitty wakes, grey seals, puffins (my favorites!), and so much more. We camped along the coast and were treated to warm weather and breathtaking sunsets (at 10pm!!!). It just couldn't have been any more perfect.

Thom will post tonight when he settles into a B&B and he'll fill you in on all the details. Jake and I are going to push on through the night so we can return Justine's van! I'm sure she's wondering where it is.

Thanks so much for all the great comments!

Sunday, April 29, 2007


Thom's written more, but just a quick note to give you guys the results....
I did not pass. I'm disappointed, of course, but not devestated. I got lots of great feedback and know what I need to do for the next try. I think my assessors were more torn up than I was. Mike said it was one of his hardest decisions, so I was close. I'd rather pass with flying colors than squeak by and I know I will be that much better because I'll have to work hard for the next try, rather than resting on my laurels.

We're off the the Shetland Islands tomorrow, so no time to feel sorry for myself. Thanks everyone so much for your support! Don't quit reading just yet, there could be some good posts from the Shetlands!

From Thom

Triple Arch
Snack break
Ben Hope in the background - the northern most Monroe
Fish arch. Fisherman used to dry fish under this arch - too much rain - but not today!

Today started early, very early… Theresa, Jane, Jon… you would have been proud of me for getting up this early for kayaking! Admittedly Lynn is not here so getting out of bed early is easier. I was up at 5:00 AM and luring Jen out of bed at 5:30 with a cup of coffee (now that’s a miracle!) so we could get our planned final test day in.

Today we took a risk and decided to go ~1-1/2 hours west to Eilean Nan Ron and Neve Islands. It meant an early start because we had to get our assessor (Doug) back by 2 PM to meet with the other assessors give the thumbs up (or thumbs down) for each aspirant. So off we went into a cloudy and windy horizon.

Today was Jen’s day to demonstrate her teaching techniques and acumen, and our day to be stellar students. The launching spot was an easy protected beach at Skerray (a harbor so surf launch was not an issue). After warming up we did a small bit of playing in the local harbor reef rocks, then off to Neve Island for more serious rock gardening with swells and timing. After some play we rounded the exposed side of the island and were greeted with today’s full wind of ~15 mph gusting to 20 mph. Not so bad, however, the water was broken up with small swells and lots of chop. We had hoped to pass through an arch that is quite famous, however, the tide was too low causing a overfall that simply wasn’t navigable. Nonetheless, we had plenty of rocks to play in, one which Jake and Jen slid through smoothly, I sat in front of for some time (my inner voice saying ‘not today’) and chose to paddle round. Then we headed for Eilean Nan Ron, the larger of the two, islands we planned to circumnavigate for the day.

This required a ~1 mile crossing with following wind and swell off our right stern. We didn’t have to consider current as much today but nonetheless, Jake once again did a masterful job at researching tide times and current speeds (~1 to 2 knots). Oddly the current was running right to left when we started the crossing, then shifted form left to right in the middle of the channel. Slight adjustments made for a smooth crossing and with the wind and waves we had a bit of surfing fun as well.

Once we reached Eilean Nan Ron we paddled into a natural harbor and were introduced to a low natural arch which looked impassable but if you laid you paddle on your deck and used your hands on the roof rock it allowed you to slip through and voila you were in a small harbor pool with room enough for just our 5 kayaks. It was sweet. Then off to circumnavigate Eilean Nan Ron as we had a strict timetable to keep.

The exposed side of the island was a tall cliff of sedimentary rock and we hugged the cliff side riding the swells and addressing the wind. This island too had great caves (one we all paddled in together) and arches. Soon we turned the corner and dropped through a slot that passed along the west end of the island providing a calm paddle with yet another cave after which we stopped on a pebble for a stretch and a snack.

After the break we headed out for the crossing ferrying against the wind, along the coast and into our harbor of safety. Our assessors headed back for their session and we layed up to load the kayaks and have lunch.

Jen’s test results were close… but no go. According to the assessors she needs more work on multitasking with multiple students during a simultaneous session (apparently this is a big thing with BCU folks). Of course, Jake and I didn’t agree – but we didn’t get a vote. Jen is taking the results well and plans to come back ASAP to get this done. It is unlikely we would return to Thurso and much more unlikely that the weather would ever be this good again.

Jen may get logged on tonight and post or not. She is currently researching weather and ferries for the Shetland Islands. If the ducks fall in a row we have decided that we may never get this far north again and plan to head first across to the Orkney’s for a day then catch the overnight ferry to the Shetlands for a few days of paddling. We would be returning probably on Thursday allowing all of us to get to our obligations on Friday. If you don’t hear from us for a few days it’s because we can’t get an internet connection wherever we are. We will catch you up whenever we get connected.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Sunny But Wet Day

We had a great breakfast this morning and were off… well not at the crack of dawn (that’s about 4:30 AM) but at the Thurso Youth Hostel (BCU headquarters) before 9. Jaz (the BCU director for this event) did a short presentation regarding the structure for the day and we were given our instructor examinee assignments (Jake and I got Ian from Inverness). After some conferencing with each group off in corners by themselves it turned out we had all decided to head to Scirza and round Duncansby head (once again for Jake and I). Everyone had a laugh at that and off we went.

While some of us prepared to get on the water – others set up the shuttle to John O’Groats. After warm-ups and some orientation we were on the water heading up the North Sea coast. We stopped for a bit at a low rock outcrop to work on strokes and swells so Ian could get a sense of our paddling ability. Then we were on to the tidal race off Duncansby Head (been there / done that). After some consultation we chose to drop into the race today at a higher angle, then into the first eddy. Ian was very communicative and we discussed tidal race technique before jumping in.

The upper end of the race was running stronger today (~6-8 knots), felt more powerful, but was not as clean as yesterday. Nonetheless, we were having fun and cycled in and out several times before assessing our next move. We had all noticed a second race that looked like it had more potential but was further off the point beyond the immediate one that we had just played on. So we discussed the idea of ferrying through the first race to reach that outer race and the consequences if we failed to return back to tuck in behind the ‘Knee’. Satisfied we had secured a safe plan we set off.

Indeed the outer race was bigger and better formed. One of our concerns (certainly mine) was that there would be no eddy to drop into for a break. That was answered by a big boil eddy right smack in the middle of the race. Tired – just slip a bit to the side and float for a while with roaring water and waves on both sides of you. After playing for some while we were ready to drop backwards down the race ferrying back to the Knee eddy. The current through this section was strong enough to have buried a crab trap float completely underwater. Jake, who was leading, slipped into the eddy. And then…

You guessed it, Ian, our 5 star instructor examinee went over and failing to roll after sever tries did a wet exit. I was still faced into the race but Jake noticed Ian. At first Jake thought Ian was just testing us but within seconds decided to raise the alarm. Nigel (our assessor) who was above me in the race but faced into it took off like a bullet to begin the rescue as Jake dived in as well. I proceeded to turn my boat in the race and also headed straight towards Ian (as he was quickly floating off into the North Sea). The path took me straight into the roughest part of the race which I though I could power through. But alas the waves were very close to one another and very steep and my stern got sucked into a whirlpool pulling me off balance. I went into a high brace, however, was clearly loosing that battle as my boat continued to slip under. Sensing defeat I took a deep breath and tucked my paddle hoping to roll. That too was stymied as my boat then went sideways on the wave presenting me with the water motion preventing any effective role. My offside being weak a wet exit was my final move. Now we had two of four paddlers in the water racing off into the North Sea.

I oriented myself to my paddle and kayak (Lost another Tully hat), grabbed the whistle on my vest to notify the others I was in the water and blew it as loud as I could. I have now come to realize that nothing is very audible in a large tidal race. Concluding that I was for the moment on my own I decided a self rescue was called for so I flipped my boat, slipped up on the back (a Valley Avocet I had borrowed for the day thank goodness), layed low on the stern and started paddling across the race towards the eddy along the cliffs. By this time Jake had become aware of my predicament and once Ian was secured came to assist me with a T rescue. All in all, even though Ian and I were separated by ~200 feet we were in the water for less than 3 minutes. Boy was I glad to be in a dry suite today!

No worse for wear we slipped into a geo (a sort of Scottish slot canyon), reviewed the events of the past few minutes, patted ourselves on the back for a job well done and went off around the head to a smooth beach landing, lunch and studies of tides, currents, tow ropes and races. While we were there the tide was supposed to slack and change directions, however, the race never seemed to loose intensity as we observed it over a period of ~1 hour. After we re-launched Nigel paddled out to the race and to our amazement (Jake and I) the direction of the race had shifted directions 180degrees and was moving at full speed with no apparent slack time in between. There was wind (which had increased in intensity) against swell that helped with this shift – but still amazing.

After practicing landing on rocks (nice flat ones) in swell we then paddled off to John O’Groats and landed. Tomorrow we are hoping for Rabbit Islands ~1-1/2 hours west of Thurso. It will require an early start as the assessor needs to be back for wrap up by 2PM.

Sorry – no pictures today. My camera chip really did bite the big one and couldn’t even be reformatted. Jen wanted to keep her camera with her to take pictures of her students (But never pulled it out).

First day over! One more to go!

Thom is going to put up a proper post. I don't have a lot to say other than I had a really good day. I had fun, paddled in a beautiful place with a couple of great people, thoroughly enjoyed myself and my students seemed to as well. The day wasn't 100% perfect, but it was a really rewarding coaching day. One of my students, Sue (wouldn't you know it, Thom and Lynn paddled with her in Skye 2 years ago!!!!), began the day telling me that she'd lost her roll and I shouldn't be surprised if she swam. Just before we got off the water at the end of the day, she asked me to spot a roll and she banged it off beautifully - a sure sign that her head was in a really good place! So I know I did something right. But did I do ENOUGH right.? The assessor who accompanied me today isn't allowed to comment at all until the assessment is over. I have an entirely new assessor tomorrow and a whole new chance to screw things up. I just need to keep the energy up through tomorrow and then, regardless of the outcome, I'll feel good about the experience.

For those non-paddlers among you, "lost her roll" does NOT mean that she misplaced her sausage roll. It means that she once could Eskimo roll her kayak after a capsize, but recently has not been able to. This is a mental thing - fear and doubt cause you to do the wrong things and you fail. Her success today was really good for me!

Ok, off to get some sleep so we can do it again tomorrow!
Thanks so much for following our progress and checking in on us - it's nice to know you're there!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Some photos!

There are many caves and slots along this stretch of coast. Very impressive! The temperature in the sun was quite warm, but in these slots, you could see your breath. Terrific numbers of birds on the cliffs too: Guillimots, razor bills, shags (like cormorants), fulmar, and a few puffins. Grey seals are common too (but lower down).
You just can't tell how big this is - you really could fit a freight train in it!

This is the tidal race that Thom talks about. The tidal swing is still within the smaller part of its range and there's no wind. In other words, this is the smallest and friendliest one is likely to find it!
Sottish highland cows. Too cool.

Another post from Jake

Once again at the Royal Bar with the surfers, spread out in the corner table as usual, with a couple pints of Guiness and a ginger beer. I think I could get used to this kind of life.

Sticking to my quest to experience the local culture, I ordered ham and eggs with french fries for dinner. That's not at all what the meal was called on the menu but that IS what they brought me. Ham, eggs, and french-fries individually - not exotic - but together one one plate for dinner - now that's culture.

Our Stroma island circumnavigation yesterday was amazing. In one day we saw warm sunshine, glassy smooth water, sea caves, a pleasant nap on an island, abundant sea life, ocean swell crashing headlong into sheer cliffs, fast moving tidal currents, and boat flipping whirlpools (thank god my roll works in the North Atlantic too). It all combined to create one of the best days of paddling I've ever had. Most definitely a day I won't soon forget.

Today we had a short but fantastic day on the water as we took Thom out to let him get acquainted with his kayak and get a taste of the local waters. We were only out for two hours or so but around here that's all you need to have an unforgettable paddle. We launched again by Ronnie's house at Skirza and headed north to Duncansby Head exploring the lofty sea caves and "slot canyons" along the way. The tide race by "The Knee" as going strong when we arrived and we had a great time getting long rides on the smooth face of the front wave of the race. The play time ended too soon for me, but we had a lot to get done before the first day of the assessment tomorrow so we finally turned and ran with the tide over to Thom's waiting car at John O' Groats Hotel. I was reluctant to get off the water on such a beautiful day but the promise of a long hot shower at the B&B sounded great to me.

Only hours remaining until the beginning of the assessment and Jen seems ready, I think she's going to do great.

See you later,


Rounding Duncansby Head

Well I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is we are still alive and had a great run around Duncansby Head today. The bad news is that Jen’s camera lens was fogged over (from the inside) so was left in the van to hopefully dry out and my camera memory chip went sideways after taking pictures all day, loosing… well everything. We promise to try again tomorrow. Today I’ll try to make up for the lost photos with words.

Our paddling day was relatively short, caused by the tide times and Jen’s need to prepare herself for the BCU test beginning tomorrow. We were on the water for about 3 hours. The day was sunny beginning with only a mild wind from the southeast (at our backs). The wind picked up once we rounded the Head, however, only to ~ Force 3 and still only from the side. The air temperature was mild, the water is still very cold. We launched at 11 AM starting at Skirza ~3-1/2 miles south of Duncansby Head and followed the coastline north exploring cliffs and caves. Just as Jen stated in an earlier posting; there were caves you could drive a train through and yet another just meters away so narrow you could not paddle but had to ride the swell through (about 150 feet long). They both ended in the same large open chamber with the sun streaming in.

Next we moved on to the tidal race just off Duncansby Head. With the east flowing tide the North Sea flows rapidly around the Head, through the Pentland Firth, on into the Atlantic ocean which is just a few miles away. Thanks to Jake’s planning (part of his 5 star training) we hit the race at peak flow (~6+ knots). Duncansby Head is extended by large two vertical rocks, the second one called the ‘knee’. Due to reef and lower water level the passage inside the first rock was impassable so we rounded the first rock, stopping behind it in the nice clean eddy, then ferried out and played in the ‘upper’ part of the race. The race was the best I have ever been in with very nice clean waves at the upper edge providing long smooth rides requiring only stern rudder for control. We played there for a bit occasionally dropping in the eddy for a rest, then out into the race for more fun.

Next we shot down between the ‘knee’ and the Head and indeed it seemed like the North Sea was trying to fit all of itself through this little slot. A strong side current bouncing to the inside of the knee forced you to track the lesser current running along the cliff edge. The meeting of those two currents produced a narrow width of explosive rolling waves (this is where Jake rolled yesterday) that we powered through then tucked into the ‘boiling’ eddy behind the knee. This positioned us to play in the lower race. The lower race had considerably bigger and suddenly breaking waves that were much more chaotic, not providing great rides but definitely producing adrenaline. I, myself ferried in for about 5 minutes, fatigued myself (I also don’t fit too well in the Romeny and am petitioning for a new boat tomorrow) and then pulled back into the eddy. Jake and Jen played out there for much longer; Jake in particular letting his ‘little kid’ out, repeatedly ferrying into the biggest and baddest sections. Towards the end of this bit, while Jan and I were sitting in the eddy talking and waiting for Jake to work out his ‘jones’, the birds on the cliffs above us all decided to take off at once. One barreled down over my shoulder landing just between us exploding into the water like a bowling ball and continued straight down into the depths. What a surprise that was!

After sating our adrenaline needs we rounded Duncansby Head and landed at John O’Groates which is considered the northern most point of contiguous Britain (even though Dunnet Head which is just a few miles west clearly reaches a bit further north). Regardless, Jake and I shuttled back to get the van, returning to load the kayaks, then visited a small maritime museum (mostly full of war time memorabilia and photos of wrecked ships in the Pentland Firth). Just as we were about to enter a souvenir shop we were asked by an older couple with hiking packs if we would mind taking their picture. It turned out that they had, just at that moment, finished walking up from Lands End which is ~1,000 miles south on the other end of Britain. They were delightful and seemed more interested in our exploits and plans than talking about their own just completed achievement.

Also arriving while we were loading up at John O’Groates was another BCU paddling crew up from England and also preparing for tomorrows test. We helped them unload their boats and talked only a short while as they planned to dash across Pentland Firth to Stroma island and back again – all during slack tide. One quickly understands that all boating plans are intricately tied to the tides and winds here. If you miss your ‘window’ you simply don’t go because you will never get there!

Jen and Jake are now ensconced with me in the Valley View B&B and have yet to come down from their room (is it the shower, the bed, room enough to stretch out your arms or lay out your clothes?). If they ever come down our plans are to run over to the Thurso Youth Hostel (the headquarters for the BCU event) to meet up with arriving paddlers and get the ‘lay of the land (or is it the sea?) for tomorrows start. We will also grab a bite to eat most likely at the hotel because that is the only place in town with a wireless internet connection (if you know the secret surfer password) to download this posting.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Finally in Thurso

It was a quick drive up from Edinburgh (~5-1/2 hours). The the second half of the drive runs along the North Sea often rising high above sea level with curvy roads that reminded me of Big Sur (but with rounded green scenery). The road finally turns east going up and over the moor to Thurso. Thurso is actually a small city but with an unusually small downtown. What I haven't seen mentioned yet is the fact that even this early in the year it stays light till nearly 10PM... and quite honestly it's not that cold (well at least today and it's only getting dark now).

I'm looking forward to getting on the water tomorrow and promise some photos. We have finalized our plans after studying the tide tables and have decided to start on the North Sea side at Skirza and run around Duncansby Head along the coastline pulling out at John O'Groats. A short, but I am told, spectacular paddle. Now that we have two vehicles a shuttle is possible. This will get us off the water early so Jen can get herself psyched up for her testing starting the next morning.

Regards - Thom

Thom arrives!

A beautiful sunny day heralded Thom's arrival in Thurso today. Jake and I caught up with him at about 6:30pm after a fantastic day on the water. We had a bit of a play in a tidal race, then circumnavigated Stroma. A strong current stopped us dead in our tracks heading north along the island so we stopped for lunch by an ancient cemetary. There was a small building in the cemetary - empty now, but maybe once a tomb? The date carved into a corner stone was 1677. I hope to download some kayaking photos tomorrow.