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!