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).


Lynn said... took me four readings to realize it was you posting. My gawd! You went in the did not talk about the horrificness of it. I tried calling to hug you and help you stay warm...what happened?

Jon B said...

Great job Thom, Jake, and Jen. A wee dram is definitely in order after Day 1. I am now getting a better feel for those mysterious UK conditions.

Jon B

toni said...

jen!!! i can't wait to read the rest! this is so exciting!! -cousin toni

Anonymous said...

Awesome combat rescues!

By the way, which Nigel are we talking about, Foster or Dennis?

Andy said...

Awesome guys. Thom, you never cease to amaze me with how well you stay calm and collected in trying situations.
Jen, I can't wait to hear more from you on your experiences.