Imagine you are at the edge of the sea on a day when it is difficult to say where the land ends and the sea begins and where the sea ends and the sky begins. Sea kayaking lets you explore these and your own boundaries and broadens your horizons. Sea kayaking is the new mountaineering.
After our blast up the West Kyle of Bute, we were looking forward to a luncheon in the Kames Hotel...
...we ordered beef and veggie burgers with pints of frothy sports recovery drinks. We had got chatting to a great bunch of guys from Ayrshire who had been in the bar watching our crossing. After a while they disappeared only to...
...reappear with guitars and an accordion.
My goodness we were in for a treat. They played traditional Scots...
...and Irish songs...
..along with more recent songs from James Taylor and ...
...this one from Tom Waits....Long Way Home.
Sports recovery drinks were flowing and we knew we were getting into a perilous situation, any longer and we would have been there all night!
So we beat a hasty retreat while we still could and made a run for it up the West Kyle of Bute. This is sea kayaking.
From Lenihuline on the Island of Bute we launched or sails and set off on a wonderful downwind blast to...
...Kames on the mainland Cowal coast of the West Kyle. The wind had got up to a good F5 but the water...
...was nice and flat due to the enclosed nature of the Kyle. I was regularly hitting 14 to 15km/hr but fell back from Phil and Ian as David had twisted his sail and was not travelling as fast as the rest of us.
Our destination was the Kames Hotel. This was a "skills" outing and this week we were practising navigation. Some sea kayakers spend hours honing their skills with charts, maps and plotters.
We of course simply read the large sign...
...and in no time made landfall on the little beach below the hotel.
David clearly had a drouth on him as he had managed to partially untwist his sail and came spanking in just a minute later than the rest of us.
We unanimously decided to head to the pub for lunch but first we had to put another skill into practice...
..this time it was tidal planning. Just how high up the beach should we carry the kayaks?
I had not been well for seven weeks and had missed the sea. A plan was hatched for a short trip in the shelter of the West Kyle of Bute. We arrived at the broad expanse of Ettrick Bay, where the forecast SE F4-5 wind had already picked up.
We had left our cars at Rhubodach at the north end of the Kyles of Bute so we were all set to enjoy a downwind blast.
Out little party consisted of David,...
...Ian and myself.
We made rapid progress and soon had Kames on the Cowal mainland in sight.
We stopped on the shore below the South Wood of Lenihuline to adjust Ian's seat. This was not an official luncheon stop but David whipped out his flask...
...and asked "Would anyone like a hot drink?"
...it turned out to be hot mulled wine and despite the early hour,...
...who among us could refuse such a welcome liquid libation of warming liquor on the shore of Lenihuline?
This morning dark low clouds obscured the skies above Glenuig. The fresh wind was blowing from the NW where the skies over Eigg and Rum appeared lighter. In order to try and see the eclipse we paddled out into the Sound of Arisaig. This photo was taken at was taken at 09:28. Unfortunately the clouds were too thick to see the sun and moon at maximum eclipse which was at 09:34.
But at 09:56 the clouds thinned, just for a moment. I whipped the 5D mk3 out and got three quick shots. It was a tad tricky getting a non waterproof full size DSLR out in the water conditions.
I now have three eclipses burned on my right retina, I just need to close my eye and I see them so clearly...who needs photos?
My Kokatat GORE-TEX® Expedition Dry Suit is probably my most used bit of kayaking kit. In the West of Scotland I use it from October until June. I bought from Sea Kayak Oban in October 2008 so it is six and a half years old. Though since I was disabled for several months last winter, it has seen just over 6 years use. I bought it after owning three other dry suits which proved not breathable enough, too stiff to paddle in comfortably or leaked (or all three!). In a blog in December 2011 I did a 3+ year review and since I still use it I thought it was time for an update. I also did a long term review for the last issue of Ocean Paddler magazine (#45) but given publishing schedules, that was actually written some time ago. Since then I have returned the suit to System X for a service with interesting results and I now include those findings here.
The Kokatat Expedition has a front entry zip metal toothed zip which runs from right shoulder across and down to the left hip. I initially found it a bit awkward to start at the right shoulder but I soon got the hang of that. A friend bought a medium and found he could not do the zip himself and after several seasons gave it to his daughter and bought a large. He now has no trouble operating the zip himself, so this is something to bear in mind when choosing a size. The male relief zip is worth every penny spent on it. There is also a female drop seat version.
There are handy zipped pockets on either shoulder with a security loop inside each. These pockets will hold a small Aquapac and I keep my car remote key in one and a small mobile phone in the other. There is another small pocket high on the left chest. There is a spray skirt tunnel that I never bother to use when sea kayaking. The gaskets are protected from UV by being covered by cuffs at the wrists and neck.
There is a GORE-TEX PacLite hood which is very well articulated so you can turn round without losing vision. I don't use it often as I usually use a Lowe-Alpine Mountain cap in cold weather but it is really good in heavy rain or hail, even on top of the alpine cap! If the hood is rolled and secured by its velcro strap it does not get in the way of rolling (but I would not use a suit like this in a grade 3+ WW river environment). If the hood is unsecured it does not particularly impede a lay back roll but it does fill with water and make forward finishing rolls difficult.
The socks are also GORE-TEX and I get changed on a foam mat to avoid puncturing them on sharp grit underfoot. I use Lomo Aquaboots with this dry suit as they have a gusset behind the zip which prevents sharp sand sand and fine grit (which might puncture the socks) from entering the boot. The body of the suit is made of GORE-TEX reinforced in places such as the seat, knees etc. with cordura. The GORE-TEX material is thinner, softer and much more flexible than breathable laminate materials I have used in other suits. It's even available in a choice of colours. You can have mango like mine or radish! A real feature of this suit is that it is not made in China in a factory powered by coal, it is made in the USA in an environmentally sound factory.
I rinse the suit, inside and outside, with fresh water after every use making sure I give the latex a good wipe then peg it upside down to drip dry in the shade. After about an hour I hang it up the right way in a well ventilated garage. I find that the suit is so breathable that I do not need to turn it inside out to let the inside dry like my other "breatheable" suits. About every 5 to 10 uses I cold machine wash the suit using Nikwax Tech Wash followed by Nikwax TX direct wash in proofer. I give the suit a cool iron (with a cotton cloth between the suit and the iron) to reactivate the water resistant finish. I then wipe the latex seals with 303 Aerospace protectant, as recommended by Kokatat. I keep the zip well lubed with zip lubricant.
Wear and tear.
The only fault this suit has developed is that the stitching on the little security loops in the shoulder pockets has become undone. The first loop parted company after 6 months, the second after four years. The only apparent wear points on the suit are two small abraded areas on the inside of the upper arms where the suit has been rubbing on my Kokatat MSFit Tour BA (I know this is the female version of the OutFit Tour but the latter has the radio pocket in the middle and I don't like the aerial up my nose).
The latex gaskets lasted 5 years before they began to show first signs of perishing. The rubber became sticky and stuck to itself especially at rolled edges. At 5.5 years old, I had the seals replaced by "The Rubberman". I sent him the suit on Tuesday and got it back on the Friday of the same week. He also pressure tested the suit and found only one small leak under one of the abraded areas on the inner arm. He fixed this with a small rubber patch on the inside.) The suit has faded a little but not as quickly as some of my other items of sea kayak clothing or my other dry suits.
At six and a half years old my suit was still bone dry in normal paddling but I did notice that if I waded into the water to take photos there was some localised dampness on the front of my thighs although my bum and feet remained dry. I returned my suit to System X for pressure testing.
System X found approximately 75 pin hole leaks most of which were clustered on the front of the thighs. Each leak is repaired with GORE-TEX approved patching material. They even removed and replaced the rubber patch which the Rubberman had used the year before. I suspect that The Rubberman had only repaired the largest leak and missed many of these smaller pinholes. System X charge £40 for pressure testing a suit, up to 100 patches and that even includes postage back to you!
I think that it is remarkable that a six and a half year old dry suit can be made completely waterproof again. It is a lot cheaper than buying a new suit! I fully expect to write an even longer term review of this suit in another three years and who knows after that...?. The only thing that System X could not do was replace the two missing security loops in the arm pockets of the dry suit.
It is interesting to see where the majority of pin hole leaks occurred on this 2008 dry suit and also my 2005 Whirlpool bib, which I had serviced at the same time.
In both garments, they were clustered on the front of the upper thighs, above the area of cordura reinforcement at the knee. The pinholes have occurred in the area where the suit is in contact with the thigh braces in my kayaks: Cetus MV, Aries 155, Delphin 155, Quest LV, Nordkapp LV and Rockpool Alaw Bach.
Perhaps Kokatat should consider extending the cordura further up the thigh?
On (and in!) the water.
The GORE-TEX material of the Kokatat suit is the most breathable I have worn on the water. This means that I can use it in warmer air conditions than friends who have non GORE-TEX suits. In fact, I even use it in rough conditions in the Scottish early summer, when the water temperature is still cold. In June 2011 we went for an evening paddle along the SW coast of Dun in the remote St Kilda archipelago. I wore the Kokatat, a friend wore a two piece and swam after a rogue swell broke over a reef. The water temperature was 9C and the resulting hypothermia drew that trip to an end. Interestingly, the paddler did have a dry suit on board the mother ship, a heavy non breathable suit, but did not wear it because it was too hot!
In the west of Scotland the sea temperature does not get much above 10-11C until the end of June...after the longest day!!! Falling into water that cold can kill so having a dry suit that you can continue to wear later in the season is a great safety benefit. Last year I accidental capsized on the way back from Ailsa Craig (which lies 14 kilometres offshore). It was the 21st of April, a lovely sunny spring day. On land the air temperature was 20C but the water temperature was only 7C. It was my first long paddle after my knee operation and my knee was agony. I put my paddle down and used my hands on the cockpit rim to lift my bum off the seat to stretch my leg out. A rogue wave came along and with my high centre of gravity... sploosh I was in! As I could not find the paddle I could not roll (and did I say I had the sail up?) Anyway a quick assisted recovery and I was on my way as if nothing had happened. That is what dressing for immersion means.
A week earlier on another sunny day with water temperature of 7C (but with a F4 wind) Mike and I met an "experienced" solo paddler wearing only a T shirt ( he was probably a member of the Darwin Kayaking Cub). We of course were wearing our Kokatat Expedition suits.
Paddling in winter a dry suit might keep you dry but it won't keep you warm on its own. You need to wear thermal insulation underneath. I use combinations of Kokatat merino and Fourth Element fleece of various thicknesses depending on the season. Even after energetic paddling this combination of fleece and GORE-TEX means that the fleece and socks never get wet with sweat. At the end of a session I can remove the suit and pack away my kayak and stuff just wearing the near dry fleece. I tend to use plain cotton boxer shorts under the fleece layers. At the end of a long day's paddle these are still dry. I could not use cotton shorts under the fleece in a non GORE-TEX suit as they would become soaked in sweat.
The cut of the Kokatat suit is so unrestrictive that I hardly notice I am wearing it, even when paddling hard. After practising rescues, my Kokatat is still bone dry. Because I have two very painful and unstable knee joints, which limit my mobility, I like having the added security of a dry suit. It might take me a bit longer to rescue/self rescue if I fluff a roll. Falling in to cold water is a real danger while sea kayaking and wearing a dry suit is a great backup if things go wrong.
In January this year we enjoyed a four day winter sea kayaking trip to Loch Leven, a sea loch that bites deep into the highest mountains in Scotland. In winter, the sun never rises above the mountains at the head of the loch. In the mornings the temperature was minus 12C and sea water was freezing to our paddle shafts. Despite the extreme cold, the Kokatat material remained flexible. Mike and I remained warm and dry in our Kokatat Expedition suits. Ian's non GORE-TEX suit was noticeably stiff and cumbersome in comparison and he was very cold. He had especially cold, wet feet caused by perspiration (not leaks as his suit was watertight if not breathable).
Ian ordered a new Kokatat Expedition on his return and as you can see, he is delighted with it.
On my most recent winter day on the water I was able to make a very useful comparison between the Kokatat and a popular competitor’s ‘breathable’ suit. I forgot my Kokatat drysuit but fortunately Ian still had his old suit in his car and lent it to me. I wore the same undersuit I usually do and although Ian's suit was not leaking, my undersuit and socks ended up wet with sweat and I felt very uncomfortable and cold, especially when we stopped. My feet were frozen. Unlike Ian who had never been more comfortable!
The borrowed suit was noticeably more restrictive than the Kokatat suit and I found it difficult reaching forward to my camera bag. Also, I could not plant my paddle blade as far forward as I usually do. I ended up with rashes under both arms. The suit I borrowed is very affordable but for serious winter paddling it just could not compete with the Kokatat for freedom of movement and comfort.
Value for money.
The Kokatat Expedition (currently £1,000) costs an arm and a leg but I think it has been one of the best sea kayaking purchases I have ever made. It represents true value for money and when it eventually wears out, which I do not think will be soon, I will replace it with another. That would hopefully last long enough to see me out! Two of my previous brands/models of drysuit currently cost in the order of £600. Both required replacement of panels within the the first twelve month guarantee period due to delamination. Each lasted three years until they became unusable due to extensive leaks caused by further delamination of the material at the seams. Both proved uneconomic to repair. I fully expect that my serviced six and a half year old Kokatat suit will last at least another 3 years for a current cost of £1000 + £40. I will let you do the sums and decide for yourself which represents better value for money. But it's not just about cost, the Kokatat's performance and comfort is noticeably superior to cheaper suits.
The Kokatat Expedition dry suit is an unparalleled blend of freedom of movement, comfort, breatheability, dryness, durability and long term value for money.
Score 12/10. It would have been 13/10 but for the security loops in the pockets coming undone!
I really rate Kokatat GORE-TEX paddling gear. The combination of suppleness, breathability and longevity is hard to beat and though the purchase price is high, the annual cost ends up costing less than cheaper products. However, latex seals need replacing throughout the garment's lifetime and leaks do appear. Unlike non GORE-TEX breathable garments, I have never known GORE-TEX garments to delaminate. This is pretty terminal if more than one or two panels need replaced as repair costs quickly escalate. Previous leaks in my GORE-TEX paddling wear have been caused by pinholes. While you don't end up with soaking wet feet, pinholes definitely lead to localised dampness.
I have been unwell for the last 5 weeks so I decided to use my off the water time constructively and send my paddling wear to System X for some maintenance. I have a 5 pieces of Kokatat GORE-TEX wear that all needed some TLC:
October 2005 Tec-Tour cag Damp Patches Pressure test, new wrist latex gaskets
October 2005 Whirlpool Bib Damp patches, damp feet Pressure test
October 2008 Expedition dry suit Minor damp patches Pressure test
February 2011 Tec-Tour cag Apparently dry Pressure test
February 2011 Whirlpool Bib Apparently dry Pressure test
I sent off a box from our local post office at 16:00 on Thursday 19/2/2015 and I received the items back at 11:00 on Wednesday 4th March I thought this was a very reasonable turn around, given the size of the job. The first thing I noticed was the very neat job of the wrist gasket replacement. The old ones had been completely removed rather than just cut off, leaving a ring of old latex stuck to the sleeve.
Patches on the inside of the 2005 Bib.
October 2005 Tec-Tour cag 10 patches, new wrist gaskets
October 2005 Whirlpool Bib ~60 patches (photo above)
October 2008 Expedition dry suit ~75 patches
February 2011 Tec-Tour cag 0 patches
February 2011 Whirlpool Bib 0 patches
In retrospect perhaps it was unnecessary to have the 2011 two piece tested as it was apparently dry. However, given I was already sending a large box and as I was not paddling, it seemed a good idea to get everything checked!
I think it is remarkable that a 4 year old 2 piece had no leaks. I also think that it is remarkable that a 10 year old suit can be made waterproof again. Now my daughter and I can look forward to having dry feet. What does this cost? To pressure test and patch a suit with up to 100 patches costs £40, (a cag or trousers cost £20) wrist gaskets are £30 per pair and a neck gasket is £30. All a lot cheaper than buying a new suit! The only thing that System X could not do was replace the two security loops in the arm pockets of the dry suit.
Previous repairs by other companies on my Kokatat gear have used rubber patches and never been so thorough at picking all the pinholes. Neck and wrist gasket replacements have not been so neat as System X, who also removed previous rubber repair patches. This is a superb service from System X. I will certainly use them for all my future Kokatak repairs. It definitely deserves 10/10!
From Moidart we still had 4km to go till we got back to our setting off point at Samalan Bay near Glenuig. It would have been lovely to watch the sunset over Ardnamurchan from the beach at Port Achadh an Aonaich but it was getting cold and I began to feel rather unwell. I thought it was because I was feeling sick about my camera not working but...
There are many skerries and submerged reefs on the coast up to Smirisary but the swell and wind had both died away and we reached the headland at...
...to get this view of Ian and the setting sun which was heading for the open Atlantic, beyond the tip of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
We arrived at Samalaman in the gathering darkness to find the ladies of the Mallaig and District Canoe Club loading up after their outing in these beautiful waters. They were also staying at the Glenuig Inn and told Steve Macfarlane of our arrival. Steve kindly drove along with his trailer which was much easier to load than our cars!
Unfortunately I became very ill that night and was not even able to finish a delicious plate of prawns. I had developed 'flu which is still hanging over me 4 weeks later! Unfortunately I was not able to join Ian and Allan on the next two days paddling so you will need to read about them over on Ian's blog.
I was actually too ill to be upset at missing more paddling, anyway I had just enjoyed one of the most varied and best winter days ever! We might only have covered 26.5km but the scenery was stunning.