|8. John O'Groats to the Orkney Isles|
Orkney Isles Expedition provides stunning weather and scenery for the Big 5 Kayak Challenge Team
Background press release
Exposed, vast, stunning, tricky, challenging are some of the superlatives used by members of the Big 5 Kayak Challenge Team about paddling the Pentland Firth and round parts of the Orkney Islands. The team made two unsupported crossings of the notorious Firth, from Gill Bay across via Stroma Island to South Ronaldsay and later in the week back from the Southern Tip of Hoy across the tide race ‘The Merry Men of Mey’ and back to Gill Bay. In between the small team, Richard Harpham, Ollie Jay and Dan Burbridge paddled round parts of South Ronaldsay, over to Flotta, and then round most of the island of Hoy.
Despite a few challenges the team are well aware that they were blessed with great weather and conditions for the trip without which they might not have been able to complete the preferred route. The team carried all their kit with them which meant that the boats were heavy in some interesting sea conditions, particularly down the West side of Hoy which is open to the full force of the Atlantic. Despite having kayaked and canoed over 2,200 miles to date this expedition captured the hearts of the team with a true experience of what sea kayaking is about. Whilst paddling they enjoyed breathtaking cliffs, explored caves deep into the cliffs and experienced a wide range of marine life and sea birds.
They also surfed some waves and tide races and battled with the swirling and fast currents of the Pentland Firth. Richard commented “ Despite having clocked up some miles in the last year and half, this expedition offered so much and raised the bar!! Paddling past the Old Man of Hoy was a real highlight and then playing in the cave systems and Geos off Duncansby Head was the icing on the cake. I loved every second of it”. New boy to sea kayaking but experienced paddler Dan echoed these comments and added, “Anyone who is searching for big water and wilderness kayaking in Britain should certainly consider sea kayaking. I was totally awestruck by the remoteness of the cliffs and coastline and amazed by the tidal flows we encountered. I will definitely be getting back in a sea kayak as there is a lifetimes worth of paddling around our coastline“.
The team enjoyed wild camping for the duration of the trip except a well-earned night in the excellent bunkhouse on St Margarets. The paddle across to Hoy saw them cross Scapa Flow, such a historic site for maritime history with the tragic loss of life during the War with the sinking of several battleships. Evidence of military defences litter the islands highlighting the important role they played for Britain. Thanks to Prijon Sea Kayaks for providing the team with our boats and other major kit sponsors including Aquabound Paddles, Typhoon Drysuits, Trangia Stoves, Olympus Cameras, Vango Force 10 tents and Paramo clothing, all of which stood up to this stern challenge well.
The team filmed and photographed their expedition for their website www.big5kayakchallenge.com . They continue to raise awareness for the River Access Campaign (allowing access to rivers in England and Wales www.riversaccess.org ) and also for the Marine Conservation Society who they are also fundraising for. (www.mcsuk.org)
Day 1 – Gills Bay via Stroma Island to the Stacks on South Ronaldsay
We pulled up to the porta-cabins and harbour that make up Gills Bay ferry terminal and scanned the horizon. In front of us was Stroma Island a couple of miles out and then in the distance were some of the other islands that comprise the Orkneys. We concluded we would go for a paddle and see how things were looking, and how we were feeling. (We also had Dan with us who was the new boy to sea kayaking, but experienced river paddler, so we thought we would also see how he fared – this was part of our risk management strategy to avoid getting into trouble). The boats were untied and placed next to the van for the tricky task of packing food, rations and kit for a week away. To add to this was the need for the small Eckla trailers for the kayaks for ground transport and in case we needed the ferry. One of the things I have noticed is that the ‘What if’ kit takes up a fair amount of space such as tarps, spare paddles, the wheels, bivvy bags etc. Before long our boats were packed and we manoeuvred them to the top of the slope with plenty of huffing and puffing. We told the lady from the ferry company we would most likely be taking the 7.30 pm ferry.
We launched and headed West to make some headway against the main flow we predicted once we got into the channel. We started to paddle towards the Western end of Hoy keeping Stroma on our right with a big ferry glide. As we pushed across the Firth it became clear that the current was sufficiently strong that we should allow it to take us to the East of Stroma and then across to South Ronaldsay. This at least avoided us working almost flat out against a large ‘treadmill ‘ of a flow for little gain. We paddled through the slight tide race off Mell Head, and as there was no wind against tide and we were just coming off neaps, it was lower and slower than it otherwise might have been.
As we skirted the East side of Stroma we witnessed so many crofts, now abandoned and lonely perched on the hill top. We were joined by an island hopping ferry crammed with sight seeing tourists. We proved something of an attraction for quite a few cameras, crazy paddlers in the middle of the Pentland Firth. By now we had been paddling for a couple of hours. To our right on the far East of the Firth was Muckle Skerries with its lighthouse, and guess what it never seemed to move. After about 30 minutes we realised we were in fact not moving; It was difficult to sort out Transits as we were in the middle of the channel. We switched on the GPS and monitored our progress in different directions. With a change of course towards Swona, we were back making headway. It was interesting to note that the micro currents were quite different to the tidal arrows marked on the charts. I guess it is not known as one of the most erratic and difficult tides in Britain without reason. (It seemed that Scapa Flow was emptying out past South Ronaldsay creating a current off the headland which is what we spent some time paddling against.)
It was good to see the coast finally start to get closer as South Ronaldsay came within our grasp. We were all pleased to have made it, 4 hours and 15 minutes of unsupported crossing! We skirted along the coastline of rugged cliffs searching for a campsite to make our home for the night. We spotted one although Dan initially only rated it as 3/5, something that was later upgraded to a 4 in keeping with the consensus. The campsite consisted of a stony beach guarded by two large stone stacks. The cliffs and stacks were home to a large number of nesting gulls. We pitched our Vango Force 10 tents, heated water for dinner and lit a fire ready for the evening. The scene was stunning, dusk with large stacks positioned in front of us, and then a warm and inviting glow from embers and flames as we sipped some of the ships rations of red wine(yes we know that adds to the weight of the kayaks but you got to have some vices). My evening ended falling asleep in front of the fire. Abandoned by my ship mates!
Day 2 – South Ronaldsay via Flotta to St Margarets
We slept soundly and Ollie signalled reveille with the offer of bacon rolls which had been giving off lovely smells slowly cooking on the Trangia before we surfaced. As is Ollie’s way he set a little competition for Dan and I, first one up and out gets the first roll and coffee. I let Dan win of course. In fact I decided before leaving my little sleeping space I would pack up my sleeping bag and camp mat. A stitch in time saves…nothing in this instance! On that note it is certainly worth extolling the virtues of a Vango (double thickness) adventure mat, it may take up space but when you are wild camping it means a good nights sleep when bedding down on rocks.
Our breakfast was deafened by cries of young fluffy chicks nestled in the cliffs waiting for parents to return with food. It proved to be a mission to get moving that morning. The slippery rocks didn’t help along with man handling heavy sea kayaks. I had managed to poleaxe myself the day before much to the amusement of my team. (Note to self buy some wellies for sea kayaking, as flip flops on slippery rocks are not the answer!)
The cliffs and caves that morning were stunning, lots of little nooks and crannies to play in. Ollie and I reverted to our old fun and games with little ‘gauntlets being thrown down’ and challenges for each other. There were a few tight scrapes but nothing serious. We found one great play spot with a passage and some caves between the rocks with waves (mainly swell) forcing through. We played there for while. The best bit was next to this with a little cave, archway and pool getting pounded by waves and swell where the shags(sea birds) were swimming and playing in the surf. It was great to watch and they seem to be having plenty of fun.
We paddled on, our destination was St Margarets; the luxury of a bunk house and hopefully some pub grub. We had plenty of time so decided to island-hop over to Flotta and see the Southern end of that island. We paddled across the entrance to Scapa called the Sound of Hoxa, towards an old military base on the hill overlooking Flotta. We paddled into a slight breeze meaning a wet ride for the 3 miles due to the heavily laden kayaks. We landed on some rocks below a slight cliff which looked OK to scramble up. It was covered in grass and although a little slippery there were plants to hold onto.
Once on the cliff top the view of the Orkney Islands was stunning, Scapa to our left, South Ronaldsay looking different from this new perspective, and the Pentland Firth away to our right. We headed off to inspect and explore the old military base. On top of the hill was an old scrap yard for cars which was a little surprising and also slightly sad with so much rubbish and debris everywhere. Next came an old quarry that we skirted around to get to the hill top base. It consisted of a series of buildings and then one main block with a large tower. Sadly the spiral staircase inside had long since collapsed so there was no way to reach the viewing deck without some serious mountaineering. There was also an old air raid shelter and various other bits of history.
Back to the boats we decided to head for St Margarets and claim our bunkhouse in case some others got there first. The Sound of Hoxa was now a following sea so some surfing was done in the waves (my helmet washed round on the deck line straps in a wave so I had an interesting time catching up with the others with this drogue anchor effect!!) We headed round into Water Sound and found the main FastCat ferry just loading. We waited for ages to see it leave wondering if they would let us paddle under the twin hulls (no chance, seems too silly to ask!).
We beached at St Margarets and a landing party headed off to find the bunk house. It was not far so we hauled the kayaks, 3 to a boat, up from the beach to the road and then utilised our trolleys. A little while later it was all sorted with our kayaks safely in the courtyard of the bunkhouse and us making plans for food, showers and other home comforts. We met a couple of teachers who were cycling round parts of the island which was good to see. After some chat and a spruce up we head off next door to the fine drinking establishment for food and some pool. After Ollie thrashed us at pool he insisted on darts to repeat the humiliation!
Day 3 – St Margarets across Scapa Flow to Borra Sound, Hoy
Morning brought more sunshine, seriously we were riding our luck. I headed next door to liberate some breakfast supplies for the team and a few extra goodies. With breakfast out of the way we loaded our kayaks and balanced them on our trollies ready for the 250m walk back to the launch point (it was like a NASA operation!).
We launched and headed out from St Margarets to the ferry pier where the Pentalonia had just docked. It was now or never so bad boy Dan paddled under the twin hulls of the ferry for the money shot. We paddled off around the corner heading into Scapa Flow and into a stiff breeze. We were in good spirits and paddling well. As we crossed Scapa Flow I couldn’t help but wonder about the history lying beneath these dark and eerie waters. The Germans had of course scuppered their fleet here during the First World War. Then during the Second World War it was a key base for the allied forces who suffered terrible losses when part of the fleet was torpedoed. War graves such as the Royal Oak lie beneath the waves; over 1200 sailors lost their lives with her sinking.
We headed for the north end of Flotta to break the journey up and by the time we got there we decided that a stretch was in order to stop Olly from seizing up. Revived, we paddled on across the bay. On our left was the refinery on Flotta with large tanks and pipes. A flare stack burned like a giant candle over the refinery site and proved something of a landmark. The next island coincided with the arrival of bad weather and a slight sea mist and rain. We decided it was time for lunch before the next island hop, this time we will make Hoy. Lunch was under the watchful eye of some of the resident seals as we ate tuna mayo rolls, happy days.
Hoy loomed as a large mass on the horizon particularly as it is actually one the highest hills on the Orkney Isles, with Ward Hill standing at 479 m of elevation. The North side of Hoy is home to a large number of impressive Geo’s and cliffs running for a few miles. We paddled alongside them with stiff necks from looking upwards. The colours (vibrant green) of the cliffs with amazing shades in the rocks were stunning and we posed for pictures as scores more shags and the occasional puffin dived from the cliffs. The stunning Geos took on a more mythical nature when we realised that they have interesting names such as Red Geo, Candle of the Sale, White Breast and Lyre Geo.
Ollie and I kick-started an impromptu race across the bay for no reason we could fathom. We arrived at the local ferry pier ‘blowing like steam trains’ having worked hard for the previous 30 minutes in slight chop against a headwind. We pulled up on a sandy beach on the Bay of Creekland to enjoy the warm summer’s sun of a beautiful evening. To our North East we saw waves breaking on the Middle Skerries which guard the channel. Two or three seal colonies inhabit the area who chose to make plenty of noise.
Day 4 – Borra Sound to South Hoy
I slept badly as a small army of sand hoppers found their way into my tent throughout the night. The remainder seemed to be scratching and partying right next to my ear through the groundsheet as I tried to sleep on top of their home, on the sand dunes. I was pleased to wake up from my broken sleep and get on with the next day. That day we were paddling around the North West and West side of Hoy, with its high cliffs and waves from across the Atlantic.
We had a treat for breakfast with sausage sandwiches. We set the Trangia up on the deck of the abandoned and rotting old passanger ferry lying at an angle on the beach. With coffee and sausage rolls inside us we were ready for the day. We loaded our kit, trying desperately hard not to fill every crevice of the boat with sand. Too late! We launched in the shallow waters and headed out past the Middle Skerry seal colony on the north side of Hoy. We were cheered on by growling and groaning seals.
The north-west tip of Hoy provides an interesting reef break so we decided to paddle an inside channel in the rocks before heading out through the breaking surf. Whilst waiting I drifted into the breaking zone and ended up getting a bit wet and losing my Sanyo Xaacti video overboard. Thank goodness for leashes and the waterproof rugged casing of the camera itself. Once past the initial reef we were faced with stunning high cliffs for many miles of the coastline. (These are listed as the most vertical cliffs in Great Britain). The clouds and mist hanging over the hills on Hoy began to clear as it became a beautiful sunny day.
We were all waiting for the first glimpse of the Old Man of Hoy, the infamous haunt of so many great climbers. Before long we spotted it in the distance and were not disappointed with his majesty, sticking up proud against the Atlantic waves and winds. We posed for some more photos and even waved at some tiny dots (other tourists), on the cliff top there to view this amazing natural spectacle. Decades ago The Old Man allegedly used to be a land bridge
We pushed on along the coastline keen for lunch at the first and only real get out, Rack Wick Bay. This little remote community was bathed in sunshine nestled in between hills and cliffs and was very picturesque. There was a beach to the right hand side guarded by some blue curling surf waves. We surfed in tentatively due to our heavily laden boats which were not as responsive as usual. A few minutes later and we are all safely beached on golden sands and start to plan for lunch on the go.
A cat-nap in the warm summer sun followed suit. We were jolted back to life by Ollie who reminded us we only have a couple of hours of tide left in our favour. No one fancied paddling against the tide so we loaded up and picked our lines in the surf. Ollie and Dan launched quickly and powered through the surf whilst I filmed them. By the time I was ready to head out things had changed. I didn’t bother to check the set (waves come in sets and get bigger on the 5th and 6th wave) and headed out. I got munched repeatedly all the way out. I ate wave for about 4 of the set and even lost my hat off my head. Whilst fishing it off my back deck on my helmet I got the next wave, Oh well, c’est la vie. Dan was sitting just outside the breaking zone and captured me on film powering out through the last few waves laughing to myself at my trashing.
We had about 8 miles down the west side of Hoy to get back to more sheltered bays. We had the current with us and sped past the high cliffs and arches and storm beaches. There was a small race at Tor Ness (not really working in the tide conditions) on the southern tip and then a reef break before the first beach for landing became available to us. Being the masters of planning we studied the map and determined that if we paddled slightly further we would have a shorter walk to the local pub.
We rounded the final corner and headed up a small loch at Brims Ness, home to the old lifeboat and a small fishing community. We beached in the corner finding a small grassy strip above the beach to camp. The road to the pub was close by which was also good news. Kit was quickly unpacked as were aware of the potential torture of missing last food orders. We made ourselves more presentable and scrambled across the hedgerow into the road as a car passes. Ollie flicked out his thumb quicker than a ‘Wild West gun slinger’ and the car stopped. Two lovely ladies allowed us smelly types to scramble into the back of their car and in 2 shakes we were at the local hotel bar.
No food being served came the reply. Spirits dropped and our faces must have been a picture. The landlord was a legend and said “Would you be happy with scampi and chips” (deal or no deal was implied). You can guess our response. I didn’t want to push our luck and ask for peas but I needn’t have worried; the landlord knew the score and they appeared anyway. We enjoyed the local brew and Ollie handed out some more pool lessons (misspent youth that boy!!!).
We left as it got dark (later up north of course), walked the two miles back to the kayaks and got some sleep.
Day 5 – South Hoy across the Pentland Firth to Gills Bay
The concept of waking up early and catching the early tide simply did not materialise. It had nothing to do with the ‘couple of sherberts’ we had consumed in the hotel bar the night before. We had camped on the banks of the small loch on the South Side of Hoy. Ollie and I had taken to our bivvi bags to ‘share the love’ with the local midges!
Launching with the ebbing tide proved interesting with a slippery carry over the seaweed and rockpools. After much slipping, puffing and panting we were ready to go. We skirted the South Side of the Island in the back eddy making ground against the prevailing current and aware that we had a big ferry glide back to the mainland.
We took the opportunity to play in a few more caves, small surges and pour-overs. We always seemed intent on finding new problems and features to play on. [There is always of course a dilemma as to whether to lead or follow. Usually the leader risks ‘biting off more than they can chew’ but also gets the chance to time their move. The person following gets to witness a test pilot and potentially pick a different line but usually if we are hurrying gets less chance to time their run. I am usually following Ollie and can confirm that my bullish approach leads to a few hair raising moments].
Eventually with Swona Island ahead of us and Stroma far on our right we decided to start our crossing. We were of course crossing a relatively busy shipping lane in some of the most treacherous currents in UK waters. During the spring tides in Pentland Firth the current can reach speeds of 12 knots and of course with wind against tide the tidal races can become a real handful. We made good progress and then crossed into the area of the tidal race, The Merry Men of Mey. Almost immediately the swell picked up into 2-3 m waves and our progress seemed to stop. Getting a transit (point of reference) in the middle of open water proved tricky.
Despite this being our second crossing we weren’t feeling complacent and there was still a sense of respect for this testing water. This was coupled with utter frustration with the swirling and ever-changing currents. We changed direction slightly at different stages and finally seemed to make headway. The tide charts do not have the level of detail for such a complicated flow pattern to identify exact rates, directions and times of the flows. We were all secretly relieved to be making progress. By this stage I was bursting for a pee and consequently we pushed for a series of storm beaches to the North West of Gill Bay (the closest point).
As we approached we located a small abandoned harbour and beach there to grab lunch tucked out of the wind behind the wall. We had done it, and there was a real sense of achievement. The crossing had not been easy and certainly would not be for everyone. After lunch we tested our Typhoon drysuits by jumping off the harbour wall. The final task of the day was a mile or two ‘push’ paddling back to our starting destination of Gill Bay, the Fastcat ferry terminal. By now it was blowing a good Force 4 so we were made to work hard for every metre.
We unloaded our kit on the slipway and packed up as quickly as possible determined to find a B&B or bunkhouse before the stampede for accommodation took over. We drove 4 miles from Gill Bay to Sea View Hotel just outside John O Groats and checked in for hot showers and then a small banquet.
We slept well that night, pleased with our efforts.
Day 6 – Duncansby Head and the long haul to Berwick
I was not convinced that I wanted to put back on my damp kayaking kit and thermals and head out again, pure inertia I guess. It just shows you as it turned out to be our most exciting and dramatic day of sea kayaking with amazing stacks, linked caves, arches and geos. Also we grabbed some fantastic pictures to capture the moment, and a little bit of drama to spice things up. This is of course one of the Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) that the new legislation is working towards so it was truly fitting as we are championing the work of the Marine Conservation Society.
We found some of the biggest caves, storm beaches and secret coves of the trip stretching deep into the high cliffs. The decent swell which pounded onto the rocks, ledges and slabs made it all the more special. We explored slowly and deliberately enjoying every nook, cranny and secret opening. There were a few moments where we let our boats get too close to rocks and each other, in a series of tight turns and moves, all in a 6m long kayak in swell.
We paddled for several miles and found ‘The Knee’ a large, interestingly shaped stack and two further triangular stacks and spent some time grabbing the obligatory shots for our website and sponsors. We then headed back to find the tide race outside the stacks was working. A little bit of surfing and breaking in and out ensued to pass the time. I then claimed the trashing of the trip with a slightly too close inspection of a reef. Ollie had been holding station off the reef to the North of one of the big stacks and I followed him in to see what we might be able to play on.
Anyway as you might guess I was being followed by a bigger wave and the current pushed me into the breaking zone. It drove me onto the rock ledge and only a desperate support stroke prevented me inspecting it with the top of my head. I was now on the reef sideways with the next big wave coming in. Despite a brace I grounded on the rock and was unceremoniously flipped. My deck half popped in the process and a half roll later proved a futile exercise and I was swimming. Bad form. The current pushed me off the slab with my boat and paddle in tow. My first thought was of course where is the Olympus Waterproof housing and camera that has been between my legs. Sure enough it was floating by my foot pedals.
A quick rescue later and we were on the move. I of course endured the banter and scorn of my fellow paddlers. The only disappointment was that none of the team’s cameras were running to capture my look of panic as I bounced onto the reef upside down! We surfed the tide race back and then paddled round the headland to John O’Groats. Our paddling of course, whilst a worthy effort, seemed to pale into insignificance when compared to the hoards of cyclists arriving at John O’Groats after 1,000 miles in the saddle. Fair play to them!
Day 7 – Berwick to Bedford, ‘Home James’
Dan and I shared the driving in the Venga Bus back to Bedford. The original plan to kayak surf the morning was replaced by a lazy start and admin for the website due to a lack of waves.