Friday, April 27, 2007

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.


Lynn said...

Great Post! Almost as good as pics! You did a great job. You are so wonderful!!!

Andy said...

I'm thoroughly enjoying all the accounts of this adventure. Wish I were there and had the abilities you all display so I could enjoy it too.
It's obvious that Thom could use my navigation skills and perhaps even my GPS. He seems even more lost than usual (and that's saying a lot). I've checked every map and chart I could lay my hands on... but I haven't found the one that shows the Pacific Ocean being within a few miles of Northern Scotland as Thom describes. Perhaps a new, yet to be documented, northern passage?
Good luck to you Jen, and all of you for that matter. Can't wait for the stories in person.
- Andy