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!).


Lynn said...

Thank you, Jen and Jake, for taking such care of my man. I have missed him horribly but knew that he was having the time of his life in a way that only an Eagle Scout would enjoy..there are just some things a wife can not provide. However, I feel the bond of friendship all the way over here in cloudy San Diego and am ever grateful it has deepened. Have fun you guys! The writing on this one, Thom was amazing. Thank you for sharing such detail!!!!

raf said...

Jen,I'm glad to see you're living large over there in old blighty...I was bummed for you on the L5 but you at least got yourself to the level to take the assessment, cudo's to you and your crew of merriment over there! Russell.