Big 5 KC Exp. 9 - Unsupported Sea Kayak Crossing from Scotland to Ireland proved the biggest challenge yet
Sea kayaking from Scotland to Ireland without a support boat was planned as the 4th expedition from the Big 5 Kayak Challenge 2010. What is never possible at the planning stage or in fact on the day is to plan the weather! In addition when the team sat in the warm setting the route we could not have foreseen the problems that were to beset us which included our VW van gearbox failing and an injury to Rob on day 1.
Our plan seemed simple enough - head to Oban to start paddling down under the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’, through the Corryvreckan (third largest whirlpool in the world), down Jura and either crossing via Mull of Kintyre or Islay over to Northern Ireland.
We were about four hours from Oban on the drive up, in Kilwinning, when our satellite navigation device took us down a residential street. This coincided with the van gearbox failing (not great on a 3 year old van!). We called the VW recovery people who got on the case but of course they were not expecting to recover a vehicle on its way to an expedition, with 3 five metre kayaks on the roof and a tight schedule. We knocked on the door of a local family to use their facilities and they proved legend - making us tea and inviting us in.
About an hour later our ‘wounded van’ was on a recovery truck and we were heading for the local VW dealership in Ayr. A hotel was booked and maps were studied as to what we would do. It became apparent the route would need to change so we opted to start our paddle at Prestwick and paddle straight across to the Isle of Arran. By the time we sorted the kit and the van on the Monday it was mid afternoon and we were running out of time. The local taxi company came to our rescue with a LWB van to transport the kayaks to the waterfront (This was beyond VW’s muscle it seemed).
We hurriedly packed our kayaks and were ready for the off just after 3pm. The 3 musketeers on this adventure were myself, Ollie Jay and Rob Bates. The weather was not ideal - it was gusting Force 6 -7, but the good news being it was a following sea. In fact the local ferry was cancelled on the Monday due to the weather and not being able to dock easily. The crossing was tough going as the wind and waves pushed us about a fair bit and the 21 miles (estimated) took us almost 5 hours of paddling. We arrived into Brodick as it was getting dark and landed on the sea front adjacent the ferry terminal.
Food was the first order of the night and we decided to treat ourselves after the crossing and went off to find an eating establishment. As luck would have it the local hotel runs a Chinese restaurant so we were soon being fed despite our soggy attire. The heavens by now had opened and we were treated to a constant downpour that was to last all night. We awoke to the continued drum of the rain on our tents and the noise of waves beating on the shore. It was grey, raining and windy. Joy! Rob surfaced the following morning complaining of lack of sleep and a reoccurrence of an old shoulder injury. We went for breakfast to see if it would loosen up and because we were hungry.
Over a full cooked, yes we were still in calorie credit, Rob decided he was not going to continue and we were down to just the two of us, Ollie and I. Not ones for big ceremonies we watched Rob head off with his kayak on his trolley to make the ferry whilst we got ready to take to the water. There can be nothing better than putting on damp kit. We were soon paddling North skirting around the Eastern edge of the Isle of Arran. It was beautiful, moody and great paddling. To our right we spotted the best rainbow ever, no doubt. It hung low in the sky beneath rain clouds and waited long enough for us to get the money shots.
We pushed on heading for the Cock of Arran and then a 6 mile crossing to Mull of Kintyre, a large peninsula, a and then up to Tarbert.
The Mull of Kintyre Test was said to be used by the British Board of Film Classification to determine whether a penis was too erect on film and if so, it would be censored. A map of Scotland shows a very phallic Mull of Kintyre. If the member in question was higher than the land mass in that map, it was unacceptable.
Scottish weather remained true to form with showers and then glorious sunshine as someone somewhere was messing with our outlook! We stopped for lunch on a small river feeding into the sea next to a forestry commission site. We were visited by several walkers who seemed pleased with our endeavours. After lunch we headed out through small breaking waves to continue North and on to Tarbert.
The late afternoon treated us to some small waves we were able to ride on the final push to Tarbert and although tired we soon found our competitive streaks. Then we saw something completely different. A young fox wandered along the rocks and stopped to watch us, bemused by our orange and green Prijon Sea kayaks. We arrived into Tarbert pleased with our progress and delighted with the picturesque setting of the natural harbour and traditional Scottish loch Village. Tarbert is famed for the Viking Portage and legend of King Magnus
(The Gaelic word Tairbeart meaning isthmus or, literally, "draw-boat". The valley or portage between Tarbert Loch Fyne and West Loch Tarbert is fairly low lying and was used as a portage route for boats: and in 1263 Viking raiders dragged their longships between the two to allow them to plunder along the shores of Loch Lomond)
The Legend of King Magnus
The legend of Magnus Barefoot is very well known locally and a story associated with Tarbert and how he came to claim the land on Kintyre.
In the Orkneyinga Saga (which is the history of the Earls of Orkney, written in Iceland in the 13th Century and is an important historical source) there is a detailed account of his expedition of 1093.
Whilst travelling north alongside the Scottish coast messengers arrived from then King, Malcolm of Scotland offering King Magnus a settlement letting him have all the islands off of the west coast of Scotland separated by water and navigable by a ship. The legend tells of Magnus reaching Kintyre, where he sat at the helm of his skiff which he had hauled across the narrow isthmus between the now, East Loch and West Loch, Tarbert, and as the skiff and its crew had navigated this, the peninsula of Kintyre was won. It was thought that Kintyre was far more valuable than the best of the Hebridean islands.
We decided to stash our boats at Tarbert Loch Fyne Sailing Club following advice from a local (thanks to them although they probably never saw us arrive or depart). Landing was plagued by a vicious greeting from the local midge population. We changed and scooted off into town for food and lodgings. The drawback of coming ashore in built up areas is that it is tricky to know what to do with kayaks and expensive kit and also where to camp. We circumnavigated this problem by booking into the Islay Frigate Hotel for 25 squids a night. Next stop was food and we struggled with the usual problem that our arrival time coincided with the closure of bar food. We opted for the chipper and scoffed fish and chips before heading to the pub. Believe me we had earned it.
Scotland was playing football that evening so there was plenty of emotion in the air. By the skin of their teeth, 7 minutes into injury time, Scotland grabbed the winner and life could then continue. We enjoyed some banter with James, who works on the rigs. He is also a keen mountain biker and a man with a new mission, to kayak round the Knoydart Peninsula – we of course thought this was a first rate idea. Soon it was sleep time accompanied by the warm glow of a couple of single malts and a Guiness or two.
The morning brought a different type of physical work-out with the portage to West Loch Tarbert. It is only about 1.6 miles but with boats weighing about 60-70 kgs this was hard graft. The warm summer sun added to the task and we were sweating buckets as cars ripped past us on the busy road. Despite a wrong turning we made the small lane to the quay but eventually decided that dragging the kayaks over a small patch of mud was the best option rather than going the long way around. This whole process took about 1.5 hours and we were exhausted, and had still not travelled far. Fair play to our Eckla trolleys for withstanding the abuse.
We got onto the water (more like mud), and set off paddling along West Loch Tarbert into deeper water. We lunched just past the Carmac Ferry port for Islay. Whilst eating lunch in warm sunshine a stiff breeze developed which of course was in our faces. We paddled out of the Loch and away from the Mull of Kintyre and headed for Islay via the small strip island of Gigha and crossed the Sound of Jura. We arrived for a quick feed stop on Gigha at 5pm aware that our schedule meant we could not stop long or we would be paddling in darkness. It was a glorious evening and as we took to the water again we passed a few bemused fishermen who quite clearly thought we were mad.
The final third of the crossing was quite lumpy with wind against tide picking up the swell and waves. We approached Islay as dusk arrived. In the gloomy fading light we just made out lights, a small beach and the headland. We opted for a landing spot that looked like it might be more sheltered and bingo we hit the jackpot with a small beach hidden behind a headland. We landed and again Scottish weather got the better of us with heavy rain arriving as we pitched our tents. We quickly put up our tarp over a small grassy hummock to provide a place to cook and eat out of the downpour.
We laughed lots and lightened the load in Ollie’s sea kayak by consuming a glass of wine with our Be-Well Expedition Foods! Despite the cats and dogs rain we were in good spirits. This had to be one of the best campsites in the world. In the morning we woke to the sound of cows being herded across the adjacent stream by the local farmer, on quad bikes! It is like a modern day twist on the classic Western Series Bonanza.. Yehaw! We saddled up our kayaks and headed to the water determined to paddle to the tip of Islay as quickly as possible. In particular we wanted to get to Port Ellen and get an updated weather forecast.
We passed lots of seal colonies en route and enjoyed the standard game of cat and mouse trying to get a picture. There are also plenty of big distilleries on Islay including Ardbeg and Laphroig, but we had no time to stop sadly. We reached Port Ellen which is another beautiful Scottish village and landed, determined to find an all-day café. We were in luck - there is a community run cyber café which serves amazing food. We ate and then grabbed an updated forecast and then our next lot of problems emerged.
The forecast clearly spelled out that the next day, 10th September, would be Force 6 and wind against tide for the crossing. We were to be unsupported for the 20 miles and this seemed too risky. The conditions for that evening were perfect but it was late in the day with the time about 3.30pm. We decided to push down the 4-5 miles to the tip of Islay and make a decision although we both knew we needed to try and go for it. As we reached the tip of Islay it was clear that Rathlin Island was only just about visible, and a long way in the distance. Without the need for much conversation we both started paddling out into the void. Nothing needed to be said - it needed to be done now.
It should be noted that we are both experienced paddlers, having kayaked all our lives, and with lots of training and right kit. But this was still a risky decision. In deciding to make the crossing at 4.30pm we knew we would end up paddling in darkness some 4-5 hours later. We also knew we were pushing or breaking some of our own rules about what we would or wouldn’t do on expedition. Certainly I had the words of Rev Bob, who we met in Wrangle, Alaska, ringing in my ears “its airline tickets and schedules that kill people” What ensued was more adventure and tougher conditions than we anticipated. I am very proud of what we achieved but I would not do it this way again, nor recommend it.
Most of the crossing went well. Initially Rathlin Island disappeared from view as a rain front passed over Ireland, but this didn’t matter as we were on a compass bearing. We pushed on in good conditions. The view behind us of Islay basking in the summer sun was amazing. About half way across we spotted the splash of a dolphin or two passing us. Another natural high and benefit of being out sea kayaking. By this stage Rathlin Island was becoming more visible with high cliffs on the Northern End facing us. On the North West tip was a red flashing light that was to be our guide when it got dark.
A medium sized freighter then passed us as dusk set in and we were heading into the shipping lanes to the North of Rathlin. It was a timely reminder of just how small and vulnerable you can feel at sea. We were getting closer - lights could be seen on the Irish mainland plus our faithful red light was lighting a path. It was now dark. As we approached Rathlin Island the water became far more confused as we paddled into a tide race off the island. The main tide race we hit is not marked on the chart although locals know it as a tough place to be in small craft (it should be noted that charts are primarily designed for navigation by larger boats and ships rather than human powered kayaks, and so currents this close to the shore are not always marked).
As we headed for the light it became clear we were losing height as by this stage we were caught in a 3-4 mph flow against us and were feeling knackered. By this stage we had been on the water for 4-5 hours on this crossing and 3 ½ hours earlier that day. What we didn’t know was that we would struggle to make it past the point and into the channel inside Rathlin despite a further 3 ½ hours of paddling.
We suffered a few other set-backs, I lost my torch overboard when reaching into my deckbag. My spare torch, despite having new batteries and being waterproof, chose that time to be on the blink. Ollie’s spare torch was a wind-up which was not ideal. The tide race and swell was about 1 ½ m and we had waves breaking as we surfed down the face of others in pitch black. Communications in the wind and dark was difficult so we tried to stay close and get through the race to safety and a well earned rest. We kept getting closer to the shore but I was exhausted. Eventually I explained to Ollie that I needed to eat something now or risk everything going wrong. We rafted up in the race and I devoured some food. This was now our third time trying to get across. We flew backwards at between 3 and 4 mph which was dutifully recorded on our Garmin GPS. Conditions were difficult and it took support strokes at different times to stop us capsizing in the big swell and waves. It was emotionally exhausting and there was a real tension as we battled with the elements.
We knew we were struggling despite being strong paddlers - fatigue was playing a part. It was now nearly 11.30 pm. We had been close to the cliffs previously and had heard breaking waves but knew we needed to try something. We had a very surreal conversation at one point that went something like “Well what do we do now? What choice do we have? We need to do something? Paddle Harder? I cant!”, all this whilst being thrown around by rough seas. . Despite having VHF radio’s, McMurdo Marine Fastfind Beacons and flares we were pretty determined that we did not want to add to the rescue statistics or worse. We decided the only practical option was to risk trying to find a place to land. We paddled towards the sound of breaking waves - now so close to that blasted red light that we could almost touch it.
In darkness we found a gap between two towers and found a storm beach guarded by large slippery boulders. Somehow we managed to land and hauled our kayaks up 7-8 metres above the sea level which was no mean feat given the weed and slime. I was 12.15am. Conversation by this stage was limited as we were intent on one thing - getting some rest. I opted for my bivvy bag just wanting to shut my eyes and Ollie put up his tent. Our summary of the events that had just taken place were - “It has been emotional” – Rich , “that’s my first real adventure in a sea kayak” – Ollie. We slept well on a bed of lush grass. The morning brought the big seas and the worsening conditions predicted in the previous days forecast.
We decided to climb the cliff path to get a bird’s eye view of the tide race and the final crossing to Ballycastle on the north coast of Northern Ireland. The wind was fierce and we took some aerial shots of the storm beach, and the tide race and landing site from the night before. It was sad to find so much rubbish and plastic strewn across this remote beach..I am sure it does not get visited often and you have to wonder how long some of this rubbish will remain here. I counted and photographed 82 pieces of plastic debris in a 5 x 5 metre square. It made me more determined to raise the profile of the Marine Conservation our chosen charity. It also made me realise how much we need to educate those using the sea and coast and those throwing rubbish into our rivers. Here was evidence of the where it ends up.
It was not over and we were aware we still needed to get through the 2m swell and breaking waves round the headland. Instead of improving, conditions continued to deteriorate so we decided to get on the water for 11am. Paddling back out into the race and swell made for a challenging and bumpy ride. I was glad we had filmed this section to demonstrate what we had survived!
I am proud of what we achieved. Hindsight is a great thing of course and knowing now what we experienced, we would not have made the crossing to Rathlin Island when we did. I am truly grateful to have had Ollie as a buddy as we make a great team even in tough times. I am not sure if I have used up one of my 9 lives but it definitely will be something I remember as a near miss and something to learn from. When we set the Big 5 in motion we always knew we would push ourselves to the edge and I guess this was definitely well outside my comfort zone. In Dave Bamboo Gordon’s speak it was an “armchair moment” [Armchair moment – where you would give anything in the world to be safely back in your armchair]
Home for a quick rest and then onwards to London to Marrakesh
Total Expedition distance 110 miles
Crossing from Prestwick to Isle of Arran 21 miles
Crossing from Mull of Kintyre to Gigha to Islay 18 miles
Crossing from Islay to Rathlin Island 20 miles (4 hours in total darkness in big swell)
Update! From Expedition...Thursday 9/09/2010
The start of our latest expedition took a turn for the worst when our van gearbox failed on route. We had got as far as kilwinning near Ayr and had to be recovered. This of course is not a simple task when you also have three 6 metre kayaks with you. In the end we arrived at the Ayr sea front by a local taxi.
The weather on Monday 6th was stormy, even the ferry was cancelled.We braced the lumpy seas and kayaked from Ayr to Brodick on the Isle Of Arran, taking 4.5 hours and getting there just before dark.
We camped overnight in the pouring rain. Unfortunately Rob had been struggling with a bad shoulder and in the morning had to leave the expedition, returning by ferry.
We made our way to tarbert where we tackled the portage in reverse, Kayaks weighing too much for the trolleys. This took a long 1.5 hours after which we were knackered. We decided to launch across a load of mud for direct access to the water. After paddling down tarbet inlet for 2.5 hours (at around 5.30pm) we took the decision to make the 2.5 hour crossing to Gigha, arriving at the island just before dark.
Thursday morning and we have paddled to Port Ellen. We hope tomorow to be able to cross to Rathlin Island - we will wait and see what the Scottish weather of rain and then shine does!
Update! From Expedition...Friday 10/09/2010
Well we made it. Toughest yet and pretty scary. Decided to make crossing to Ireland last night because of poor weather today. Took 4 hours and arrived back in the dark! Then spent 3.5 hours battling to get across a tidal race off Rathlin Island in pitch black, very rough. Arrived 00:15, exhausted. Slept on a stormy beach and then trickle paddle this morning to make it to the finish in rough seas.
It was emotional!