11th to 18th September 2004
Early Saturday morning, a keen posse consisting of Mike Southway, Clive Merrifield, Colin Sands, Russell Blackmore, Sid Dawes, and Ian Sedgebeer, left the comfort of their own homes, looking forward a sea kayaking week on the Isle of Skye (rest and relaxation, you know what I mean!). The weather for the previous two weeks, having been fine and warm (you will remember if you were at the Pete Collins Polo the week before!!) had taken a decided turn for the worse! Any way, I packed the suntan cream just in case. On our journey to Skye the wind had increased to such a point that just keeping the boats on the roof of the cars was an achievement – accompanying these winds was very heavy rain. After a 12 hour journey, we arrived at 10pm, only to find the hotel we had intended to drink in no longer had a bar!! We quickly moved on to the next hotel, only to find that this hotel had a band playing music so loud, we left half an hour later with our ears ringing! Unfortunately for us, this bar was about 6 miles from our accommodation across the wilds of Southern Skye!
Sunday 12th September – Weather – Just Wet!
We awoke to similar weather to the previous day, but still managed to get occasional glimpses of the amazing Cullin Mountains through the mist and the rain. As the weather was not conducive to sea kayaking, so we went for a wet walk instead down the coast to an old castle. Later that afternoon, Clive and I decided to go for a paddle just along the loch in front of the house, giving us our first experience of Scottish winds at sea!, whilst Sid and the others experimented with the coffee maker!. We were only out for an hour or so, and managed to get a sight of our first seal. Clive tried a bit of fishing, but true to form, caught nothing – not surprising really, as the seal was probably better equipped than Clive at catching fish! When we turned for home, he followed us – probably laughing at our fishing prowess.
Monday 13th September – Weather – Wet and Windy!
Our first encounter with Gordon Brown, legendary sea kayaking guru of Skye (BCU Level 5 coach, who trains and has trained many of the UK’s and the Army’s top Sea paddelers etc!). We spent the first 2 hours in his warm office, discussing various aspect of theory and planning. We eventually gathered the courage to leave this warm haven, and get wet. A free-lance journalist called Robin (look out for the report in the Canoeist) joined us. Gordon assured us we would now all be famous! Our time on the water was spent practising and exercising basic skills, paddling very close to rocks where the waves were breaking against them. This even involved ateamwork exercise with one paddler paddling with his eyes closed, with the other paddler verbally guiding him around rocks, and through a gap in the middle of them (did he say pick a piece of sea weed with your teath?). Paddling with my eyes closed was something I had not done before, but everyone agreed at the end of the day that our confidence levels had increased enormously. At the end of this day after some great Sea Kayak surfing, more seals at close quarters and another mug of hot black tea, Gordon set us some homework to plan a day trip around the point of Sleat. As with all good plans, this was hatched in the pub and finished with a glass of nectar.
A Wet And Windy Lesson
Tuesday 14th September – Weather – Wet and Windy.!
We met up with Gordon and were pleased to find that our plan received his approval. After a bit of shuttling of cars, we were on the water by 11.30ish. We paddled out of Tarskavaig Bay into a 4-5 foot swell, stopping for a short while to surf on the skerries, then turned south for the point of Sleat, everyone confident in their ability and their boats. Gordon suggested that we should try surfing some of the waves that were coming across us. As the morning progressed, the wind became stronger, and the waves bigger (much bigger!). Gordon had realised that the weather was deteriorating (as was becoming acutely obvious to us as well) , and told us to buddy up in pairs for physical and moral support, and head for the Point of Sleat. With Sid as my buddy, we paddled or should I say more of a controlled blow, towards our destination, occasionally catching glimpses of the rest of our party. It was a bit like a roller coaster ride, but with fantastic views of the rugged coastline of ske and the island of Rum. It was possible to achieve a speed of 4 knots with just a low brace and no forward strokes, the problem being if you lifted your paddles, you stood a very good chance of losing them. We reached our lunch spot tucked in around the end of the Point of Sleat, exhilarated, buzzing but sore. Our weary body parts had experienced some of the roughest sea conditions yet paddled! . Gordon paddled in, towing Robin (the journalist) who had capsized but been successfully Eskimo rescued by the ever vocal Ian, but was then struggling. Gordons assessment of the conditions were waves with 12 foot faces with the tops breaking, wind blowing force 8 and gusting stronger. (He said if this was a BCU Level 5 assessment, it would have been cancelled, as it was far too rough!). The afternoon’s paddle northwards, was in the shelter of the land, and was a pleasant 2.5-hour coastal exploration, but with aching bones after the morning’s experiences! We finished the day at Armadale, from where we had paddled the day before. The ‘paddle in’ was quite different from the day before. What a difference a day makes! Once we returned to Gordon, we discussed our plans for our expedition over the next three days with him, and got his ‘seal of approval’.
Lunch on Tuesday, look at the affect the mornings paddling had taken on our brave boys!
Five Men, One Map, Two Boats??
Wednesday 15th September – Weather – Light Breeze, Sunny!
This was the weather we had come to Skye for! We loaded the boats (and the sun cream) with enough kit for a 2-night expedition, although our plans were to possibly come back after one night. We spent a pleasant morning paddling in only thermals, along our planned route, being followed by seals and various sea birds. The coastline was very dramatic. As we neared our lunch stop, we got the first close up views of the awesome Black Cullin Mountain range.
View of the Cullins from Deck level
We stopped at Elgol for lunch, and then paddled through Loch Scavig to the base of the Cullins (Loch na Cuilce), and made camp there for the night. Although the wind had started to pick up, this was not an issue. As we sat and ate our evening meal, two deer joined us, eventually coming to within 6 foot of us, not to be friendly, but to try and steal our food! After a while around the campfire, and the despatching of half a bottle of Bruichladdich between the 6 of us, we retired. Unfortunately the wind was now increasing and had changed direction. We spent a very uncomfortable night, nobody getting more than a couple of hours sleep due to the wind and the rain, and the noise of the deer clattering through our pots and pans looking for scraps of food.
What’s for Dinner ?
Thursday 16th September – Weather – Wet and Windy.
Up early to face the elements, we attempted to paddle out of lock Scavig, but unfortunately the strength and direction of the wind made forward progress impossible. Having spent an hour making little forward progress, we returned to where we had camped, hoping for the weather to abate. There was an excellent bothy (Coruisk Memorial Hut), but unfortunately this was locked and bolted, and the key nowhere to be found. It soon became obvious that the weather had no intention of improving and we had to decide whether to camp another night, hoping for better weather, or to risk a 10k scramble in our canoeing gear, leaving our boats behind.
With no radio or phone signal at our location to provide an update, we decided to walk. This walk out involved crossing two rivers (one by using a Kayak for transport, employing all those techniques previously taught but thought you would never have to use!), seriously swollen by the recent rain, and a scramble around the infamous “Bad Step” (or in our case, under it up to your waist in sea water!). It took 5 hours to complete our walk to the main road, everybody completed knackered. Just as we hit the road, we were fortunate to find a passing bus (not that he would have got past Sid who would have led across the road if he had not stopped), the driver of which arranged for a taxi from the next bus stop to our house. Upon our return, we consulted with Gordon, to arrange a boat to collect our canoes.
Friday 17th September – Weather – Wet and Windy.
Unfortunately, the weather did not abate, and we were not able to persuade any of the fishing boats to attempt a rescue mission! We then had the situation of walking back to our boats to collect all our camping and canoeing gear that was stored in the boats, and carrying it all back. Carrying the boats was never considered to be an option, due to the distance and terrain. Coordinating our activities with the tide (yes that step again) we made good progress out. Retrieved our valued bits of equipment , amazing how much it all ways when you got to carry it, then walked out again. We arrived back at the cars some 8 hours later, each of us carrying as much gear as possible, now completely knackered! However, there was still hope that a fishing boat could go in for the rescue on Saturday morning, if the weather allowed.
Saturday 18th September – Weather – Wet and Windy.
Visited Gordon again (who had leant Ian a boat prior to the trip and therefore also had a vested interested in retrieving the boats). Unfortunately, still no chance of a rescue. We decided to head for home, after reassurance from Gordon that the boats would be rescued at the earliest opportunity. It was a sad day, having to say good bye to our boats, even more for Clive after we had discussed the possibility of using his for firewood whilst stuck at the end of Loch Coruisk – only Joking Clive! But we were left with no choice – at least we all got back with no casualties and much the wiser for it! The crux of the problem lay with the rapidly changing weather and wind conditions, brought on partly as a result of the severe storms and tornados in the United States. We had relied on a one-day old weather forecast believing we would get updated information via the VHF radio, which unfortunately had no reception at the base of the Cullin Mountains! Realistically, with weather changing rapidly, we would have needed a 12 hourly update to show the wind changing from NW to SW.
We have all lived and learned. With hindsight, we should have phoned the Coastguard at our lunch stop at Elgol, to check the up to date weather forecast.
At the time of writing, we have still no confirmation that our boats have been rescued.
If anyone is considering sea kayaking, I cannot speak highly enough of the expertise and willing assistance of Gordon Brown. His website address ishttp://www.skyakadventures.com/
If you fancy sea kayaking, we intend to continue our adventures, as soon as we get our boats back. We have learnt valuable skills, lessons and grown in confidence from this trip, but are acutely aware there is, as with any canoe sport, so much more to learn. Please feel free to contact either myself of Clive, to find out what trips are being planned for the future.