For one reason and another, plans with my mate Phil for sea kayaking haven’t coincided too well this year and I was starting to feel frustrated when seeing some great photos on the UK rivers guidebook
web site of peoples sea kayaking trips on the West coast of Scotland. To cut a long story short a climbing trip to Zermatt looked doubtful as another close friend was taking time to commit and so I decided to get myself some coaching with Gordon Brown based on the Isle of Skye. Gordon (not the prime minister) Brown is one of only three doubly qualified level 5 coaches (Sea & Inland kayak) in Scotland. This is the highest coach award achievable in the UK. He wrote the chapter on sea kayaking in the BCU handbook and has since wrote a manual for intermediate and advanced kayakers simply titled "Sea Kayak". He owns and runs skyakadventures.com
based on Sleat and is a thoroughly nice guy.
I took a weekend to slowly drive the 520 miles to Isle Ornsay, Skye. My plan was to climb a few peaks along the way and generally settle into "the groove". Friday night was a long haul from the Midlands up to Arrochar near Loch Lomond where I bivied down at the side of the road for the night. Unfortunately the weather didn’t play ball. My planned hike up Ben Arthur (The Cobbler) didn’t appeal in torrential rain so Saturday was spent in and around Oban just taking in the atmosphere. I took a look at the falls of Lora, the outfall of Loch Etive, which feature heavily on the DVD "This is the sea 3"
. They look pretty awesome.
Usually happy to rough it in a tent or bunkhouse it’s been over 20 years since I last stopped in a B&B, but I thought it would be a more comfortable option while on the course. I duly arrived on Skye late on Sunday; passing the familiar sight of Eilean Donan Castle near the Kyle of Loch Alsh along the way. I left my heart somewhere along the A87 many years ago and just feel content whenever I make my way back there. Mrs. MacKay was there to greet me as I pulled onto the driveway of her B&B and she invited me into her home as one of her family. I think she enjoyed "mothering" me all week !
I slept like a log and when Monday morning arrived I assembled with the other "pupils" next door at Gordon’s home. The old croft house has been converted with a small meeting room, drying and kit room, etc. and outside he has almost 60 different sea kayaks from different manufacturers available for use. Some time was spent introducing ourselves and talking about what we wanted to gain from a weeks coaching. Gordon tailors his courses to meet clients needs and there are no set rules …apart from that you must smile! There were 5 of us on the course plus one girl "shadowing" Gordon for more experience towards her 3* coaching qualification. Between us we suggested items we’d like to cover ; efficient strokes, deepwater rescue, towing, navigation, tidal races, surf landings, etc and this formed the basis for the weeks fun.
The first day was spent at Armadale. The wind was blowing force 6 ! We spent some time playing under the small pier, weaving in and around it’s pylons while the sea swell lifted us up and down. I guess Gordon then assessed our different levels of competence. Nearby are a few small islands. They gave us shelter in the lee of the wind and the opportunity to push the comfort zone in small doses. A few hours were spent here just circling around, getting dumped on by surf crashing over the reef and surviving. It really was an adrenaline fueled day! Gordon just inspires confidence to get on and push your own limits. This comes from over 300 days on the water every year.
Our second day was spent near Kyleakin. We paddled under the bridge and caught a few eddy lines. There were seals to see and a flock of around 16 herons took off from a nearby island as we came in for lunch. Some navigation was done as was time calculation and strokes paddled against distance and all around is always the fantastic backdrop of wonderful scenery.
Each evening was spent in the pub grabbing some of the local cuisine and chatting with others on the course about the days events and dreams of adventure for the future. Wednesday saw us paddling at Kyle Rhea where the ferry comes in from the mainland. It’s through these narrows that waters of Loch Alsh and the Sound of Sleat drain back and forth every 6 hours with the turning of the tide. The spring tide can flow at around 10 Knots and according to Gordon the waves can be "as big as houses". Fortunately (for us) we were close to neap tide which runs at about half that rate. We spent the day improving turning strokes, catching eddies, we saw the rule of thirds in action and did a bit of surfing on some standing waves as the tide turned.
Scenery wise, Thursday was the best day of the week and undoubtedly a dream come true. I had long wanted to paddle up Loch Scavaig and into the back of the Cuillin mountains. The day dawned and there was not a cloud in the sky. We were joined by two guys from Tasmania and set off from Elgol for a day that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Lunch was spent on the beach at the head of Loch Scavaig where I went for a swim. After lunch we took the short walk up to Loch Coruisk which lies at the heart of the Cuillin. The pictures tell more than I can ever describe…
Our last day with Gordon was again spent at Kyle Rhea. Getting closer to spring tide now the flow was greater and the waves bigger. We practiced rolls : with splits taken apart, with only one half of the paddle – always variation on a theme to reinforce the learning. A salmon trawler came through the straights and the waves really kicked up. We played on the tide race and had some great fun. I lost it at one point, capsized and knowing the rest of the party were at least 200m away – rolled first time, just when I needed it!
…and so a week of paddling was over. Probably one of the best holidays I’ve ever taken. The icing on the cake was that Gordon awarded a 3* (sea) to several of us, which was never the intention for me doing the course in the first place. Would I do the course again ? try and stop me! I learned loads and it reinforced a lot of what I had already learnt from pool sessions with BCC
and sea trips with NWSK
. Above all it’s given me confidence in planning and executing my own sea trips and I hope that I’ll be able to spend some time and move up another level with Skyak Adventures
again next year.
With the paddling finished I headed for the Cuillin on Saturday. I had my sights on a solo of the inaccessible pinnacle
. The weather played ball this time and I hiked my way into Coire Lagan with the history of Scottish Mountaineering surrounding me. A false start scrambling on An Stac had self doubt raising in my mind but when I backed off and found a better alternative route things went fine. I reached the summit of the In-Pin just as a guide was setting up to lower off his two clients. Yes, I had feeling of smug satisfaction that I’d soled the route that they had just paid good money to be lead up and I must have been grinning from ear to ear.
I gave my camera to the guide and he took a few snaps as I abseiled off. Lunch together and then I set off along the ridge eventually to finish on the summit of Sgur Alasdair, the highest peak on Skye and a fitting end to a brilliant week.