Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The sad disappearance of Sammy seal.

Tonight on BBC Radio Scotland Rab Harrower, a safety inspector on the Forth Rail Bridge, reported that Sammy the seal (who frequented the rocks below the bridge and was a favorite with bridge men) has not been seen for eight days.

Large populations of grey seals breed on the shores of the Firth of Forth.

Looking SW up the Firth of Forth to the Rail Bridge.

Forth orca, photo by Rab Harrower

Rab expressed concern in case the arrival of a pod of 8 to 10 orcas in the upper Firth of Forth was, in some small way, connected with Sammy's absence. Rab managed to photograph one of the cetaceans from a boat. Others have seen the orcas gorging on young grey seal pups. These were born at the end of last year and are now learning to fend for themselves (somewhat unsuccessfully in some cases). Orcas have been seen in the Outer Forth at the Isle of May but never before so far up the Firth as the bridges.

The Isle of May on the horizon, from St Monans, Fife

It is possible that it is the same pod of orcas that were last year spotted devouring a flock of eider duck in Scotland's Northern Isles. In fact, orcas eat near anything that swims. Notwithstanding that recent orca video on Wendy's blog, orcas have not been reported as consuming many sea kayakers. However, the recent trend to black boats and black sea kayaking garb (courtesy of Reed) has me worried. Frankly, orcas scare the Willys out of me.

In my desire to appear as unseal-like as possible, I will stick to my all white boat, complete with Haida (Canadian native art) orca bow talismans and lucky orca vertebra mounted in the vertebra holder that P&H thoughtfully mould into their fore decks. I trust these will ward of the hungry orca: Lord of the Undersea World, Chief of the Ocean People. The Ocean People live in towns deep under the sea, they capsize the canoes of sea travellers and drag both canoes and occupants into the depths.

Poor Sammy. Please post any sightings of Sammy here and I will forward them to Rab and his team.

As a PS, the Firth of Forth is a great sea kayaking destination. On the Fife shore there are attractive harbour villages such as Crail and on the south shore there are dramatic coastal features leading to Bass Rock and St Abbs Head.

Crail harbour, Fife.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Of light and time and relative dimensions in space.

Next to castles, my favourite maritime buildings are lighthouses. On Saturday we paddled past the Rubh an Eun light (NS114526) on the east side of Glencallum Bay which is on the south of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. It has a red flash every six seconds. It was opened in 1911 and, although automated, it still looks like a proper lighthouse. Many of the smaller Scottish lights are being replaced by standard, square, prefabricated towers which look much like a TARDIS which has landed somewhat off course. A few stones at the head of Glencallum Bay are all that remain of a once bustling community that even had an inn. Time has all but erased evidence of former occupation of this now lonley spot. We shared it only with a seal and some eider ducks.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A long hard paddle to Bute.

It seems like ages since we have been out on the water, then last week's blue skies and light winds were so tempting. Unfortunately, a very busy week at work meant no possibility of taking a day off. The weather forecast for yesterday was "Wind: northwest 4 or 5 backing west 5 or 6, occasionally 7 later."

We were so desperate we decided to go anyway. We thought we could paddle out in the lee of some islands in the Clyde and so decided to head out to Bute, hopping there in the wind shadow of Little Cumbrae. Driving north past our usual launch site, the sandy bay at West Kilbride, there were white horses all the way to the horizon. We decided to continue to Tony's secret launch spot at the Hunterston nuclear power stations. This was nearer the Little Cumbrae and in its wind shadow.

There is no beach you just carry your boat down greasy rock ledges and away you go. Another slight drawback for those of a nervous disposition is the speedy arrival of the police to check you out. They seemed satisfied we were not terrorists and that our gear did not contain explosives. Mind you they did not find our parachute flares. Neither power station is producing electricity at the moment but the windmills on the hills above were birling round in the breeze. Further up the coast, the huge stack of the Inverkip oil powered power station has been smokeless for years.

The weather was characterised by great squalls passing through and in them, the west wind was 5 to 6 and the nearby Prestwick Airport METAR data showed gusts up to 30 mph. However, we got occasional blinks of sun when the wind dropped and it became quite pleasant. Once we were in the lee of the walls of the Little Cumbrae castle we could relax and enjoy the scenery. The castle was built in 1527 and is one of the best preserved keeps in Scotland. It has a renovated stair well and roof. The new owner of Little Cumbrae has a welcoming attitude and has painted out the former Keep Off signs. We enjoyed a great view from the top of the castle.

Still in the lee of the land, we approached Gull Point, the southern tip of Little Cumbrae. The basalt cliffs stand well back from the present shore line above a raised beach. Ahead lay the wind line and white horses. Rounding the point was quite bumpy then it was nearly straight into a force 5-6 wind for over 4 kilometers to Glencallum Bay on Bute.

The wind only eased for a few minutes between squalls. This was about half way across. Garroch Head on Bute is on the horizon. I was so out of condition and tired that if it had been just 100m more, I doubt if I would have made it. The worst bit was the last kilometer. Although the water flattened the wind increased as it accelerated down of the hills of Bute.

We had a very leisurely lunch and I got the Kelly Kettle on for a nice cup of tea. We then enjoyed a real blast down wind, at speeds of up to 12 km/hour, this time passing the north end of Little Cumbrae. There were lots of eider duck, guillemots and black guillemots we also saw several grey seals and a couple of youngsters who had moulted out of their white juvenile coats. The landing at Hunterston was rocky and damaging to gel coat. Tony wished he still had his poly Cappella! A great day out, given the forecast, neither of us would have gone on our own.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Winter sunset, Loch Etive

After what seems like three months of solid wind and rain, today, Blue Monday (supposedly the most depressing day of the year), dawned clear and bright in the West of Scotland. Yesterday was not very pleasant and today was a work day! It was a day just like the beautiful day we enjoyed in Loch Etive exactly a two years ago. After Jennifer paddled past me into the setting sun, I was dazzled by the beauty of droplets of water dropping off her paddle and landing on the surface of the sea. They stayed intact for a few moments, floating on the surface of the sea, until their surface tension broke and released them.

In this photo I was trying to get nice sharp drops coming off the paddle with a blurred background. I used the zoom at 150mm, set the lens at its maximum aperture of f3.2 and used a film speed of ISO 100 to get as little grain as possible. The drops did not really come out. I should have used a shorter shutter speed by setting film speed to ISO 200 or 400. Sometimes (quite often actually) the shot in your mind just does not come out. But you can always try!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Kelly Kettle Karrier

An apparently normal Quest on a Berneray beach in the Sound of Harris hides a secret. From outside my Quest looks completely standard... Well here is a shot of inside the cockpit...

OK so now you all know I am a fan of the Kelly Kettle and this is my Kelly Kettle Karrier. Cut from a block of ethafoam and glued in with contact adhesive, it has a piece of shockcord with one of those clever little red plastic shockcord cleats. I normally keep it in a thin nylon drybag and keep the centre full of kindling.

Kelly Kettle in action.

Time for a cuppa!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Quick brew stoves: high tech versus low cunning.

A version of this test first appeared in UK Paddles magazine in June 2005.


Increasingly sea kayaking is seen as a 4-season activity. Although in the coldest weather most trips are single day, kayakers venture into remote exposed areas. Last spring on a sunny day, I learned first hand how important it is to have means of making a quick brew on such trips. One of us fell out of the boat trying to land on a steeply shelving rocky beach. Another two slipped in above their waterproof trousers trying to recover hapless kayaker and boat. The water was freezing.

There was much laughter and we soon changed into dry clothes but the biting north wind had chilled us to the bone. Lunch had been early that day and our flasks were now empty. But fortunately my main camping stove and pans were still in my boat from a camping trip. We soon had piping hot drinks which not only physically warmed us, but did much to restore morale for the exposed 15 kilometre crossing ahead.

I resolved always to carry means of making multiple quick brews and began to look at the alternatives to full size cooking equipment more suitable for preparing full meals. I looked at 4 very different solutions: a traditional stainless steel flask by Aladdin; a gas mini stove/ mini cook set combination by OutdoorDesigns/MSR; a combined gas burner/boiler/cup by Jetboil and finally, a wild card entry, the wood burning Kelly Kettle.

The tests:

This test was carried out on a variety of trips including an extremely cold (frozen sea water) January trip to Loch Etive, a sunny but cold January trip to the Solway, a very windy and cold February surf trip to Doonfoot on the Clyde, a sunny but cold February trip to Loch Stornoway, a very cold and windy 5* assessment (as a guinea pig!) March weekend on Skye and finally, another windy cold March camping trip to Loch Bracadale, Skye. This tester’s call of duty extends far beyond a “back garden” test!

1. Aladdin Adventurer Vacuum Flask

Aladdin 0.75ml stainless steel flask. £9 from John Lewis.
Not all stainless steel flasks are the same. Some do not keep liquids hot for more than a couple of hours and some have an annoyingly complex push button spout that will not pour thick drinks and invariably unscrews itself into two pieces when you try to remove it. This flask is different. Unopened it will keep drinks hot for a full day’s paddling (8 hours) and it has a simple one piece screw cap which is easy to remove to pour thick soups. It is remarkably cheap but obviously has limited capacity and if only half the drink is used, the rest cools down quite quickly.

2. Mini stove/mini cook set/windshield

OutdoorDesigns mini gas stove. £30 (£15 in sale!); Cotswold Outdoor. (MSR do a similar design: the Pocket Rocket.)
MSR Duralite cookset 1.0l and 1.5l pans. £40; Tiso.
MSR Duralite frying pan. £19; Tiso.
HiGear folding aluminium windshield. £7; Tiso
Coleman self sealing screw fit butane/propane gas cylinders: range from 100g £2.50 to 500g £5.00; Tiso

The OutdoorDesigns mini gas stove fits on 100g or 500g screw on gas cylinders. It arrives in a neat plastic case and its 4 support arms fold out easily. It has a piezoelectric igniter that worked even in the coldest weather. The burner is a good size and the control valve allows a decent simmer with out burning. There is no built in windshield. Overall, this is a highly effective product and using the above combination, it boils a pint of water very quickly; see results for comparison.

MSR mini cook set with Kelly kettle base.

If you have not used MSR Duralite (hard anodised aluminium) pans yet, you really should try them. They conduct heat extremely efficiently and it is possible to cook thick drinks/food like soup and porridge easily and without burning. The effective non-stick means that they are easy to wipe clean. The stove and handle fit inside the smaller pan. The accessory frying pan adds versatility (bacon sandwiches, yum!) and fits the base of the pans for carrying in the supplied mesh bag. The whole fits a Quest sized day hatch cover.

The HiGear aluminium windshield is very light and folds flat for storage. It is large enough to shield not only the burner but also small pans, even when the burner is on top of a 500g gas cylinder. Unfolded into a “U” shape, it is self-supporting and it also has two sliding wire pegs that can be pushed into turf or sand for additional stability. This is highly recommended, not just for day trips but all camp cooking.

3. JetBoil

JetBoil burner/heat exchanger/cup. £65; Cotswold
As soon as I saw one of these, the “techie” in me just had to have one! It is made of first class materials and is of a unique design. The cooking pot/drinking cup is made of anodised aluminium and has a heat exchanger/wind shield permanently fixed to its base. A removable insulating neoprene sleeve with a sewn on holding strap covers the pot. There is a plastic lid with a drinking hole and a plastic cover to shield the base unit when the burner unit is removed after heating.

The burner unit attaches by a system of twist on lugs and slots but I had to use a file on the slots to get a good fit. The unit is designed to be self contained and the burner unit, with a 100g gas cylinder, fits inside the pot. If you store it this way, it is best to put the burner in a poly bag before putting it in the pot. Residual soup and or salt/sand from the base of the cylinder will set up an electrolytic reaction between the aluminium of the pot and the steel of the cylinder.

The combination of gas cylinder/, burner and pot is quite tall and the 100g cartridge is very narrow which makes the whole unstable. It is very easy to hold the top of the pot as the heat exchanger is so efficient but 500g cartridges would be more stable to use on a longer camping trip. Accessory pots are an (expensive) option which might be useful on a trip with more than one person, but an Aladdin insulated mug (£3.50 from John Lewis) is more than ten times cheaper! Another problem with drinking from the pot is that soup dribbles down the fabric cover of the neoprene jacket which is difficult to clean and would be rather unhygienic on a longer trip.

The JetBoil has piezo ignition that works well in temperate conditions but which failed to work in cold conditions, even when the OutdoorDesigns stove successfully ignited. A match soon had the JetBoil going but there is very little control over the flame and each time I attempted to cook soup it burned on the base. The pot proved very difficult to clean, as there is no non-stick. However, the unit was highly effective at boiling water. Even on a windswept, wave soaked reef, during the 5* rescue of a “casualty”, the JetBoil came up with a several hot drinks in a matter of minutes. This was very impressive. I noticed a problem with 100g cylinders, particularly when full and in colder conditions. Once lit, the burner tended to flare as liquid gas came through the burner. This burned the neoprene jacket and my fingers and the control valve was not adjustable enough to stop it.

4. Kelly Kettle

Kelly Kettle. £32; Scottish Paddler Supplies.

This wood-burning stove, of cunning design, is totally different from anything else. The kettle and the fire tray are made from aluminium. The centre of the kettle is a hollow, conical chimney that narrows from the base so most of the water is at the hotter top. It carries a pint of water retained by a large cork secured by a chain (remember to remove the cork before boiling.) The kettle on test did not leak but a friend’s dribbles a little through the cork so he carries the water separately. Only water can be boiled so if you want hot soup or porridge you will need to use a dried packet or one of the quick varieties of oats you can pour boiling water over, stir and eat.

Although it will burn anything, even damp wood, I have found carrying a small amount of finely split dried kindling to be very effective. Enough kindling and firelighters for 3 fires can be carried inside the chimney. The kettle smells strongly of smoke after use so I carry it in a heavy poly bag.

In use, a rocket of flame spouts from the top of the kettle and is very impressive and morale raising in windy conditions. With dried kindling no sparks escaped so it should not set the countryside alight! Within minutes you have a rolling boil and you can lift the kettle off the fire tray using the wooden handle and pour using the cork and chain to tip the kettle. You soon judge the exact amount of wood to achieve a boil and leave just a few embers that can either be doused or used to start another fire. It is very cheap to run and can be used to produce plentiful hot water for washing on a longer trip.

Last year on islands to the north and west of North Uist, we ran low on gas. A Kelly Kettle would have been a boon, as it will burn almost anything though damp wood does produce a lot of smoke. It also works extremely well in high wind conditions. My friend fell out his boat during a surf landing in force 5 conditions on a March camping trip to an island off the west coast of Skye. He was soaked and frozen and it was getting late. The Kelly Kettle produced a pint of boiling water for two drinks within minutes, in an exposed position that the gas stoves struggled in.

Results: boiling times.

If you do a Google search on these stoves, you will discover lots of web pages with pseudo scientific tests which measure heating times in great detail. In this test, on a sheltered beach in the Solway, from unpacking to boiling time, the mini stove/pan/windshield combination, the JetBoil and the Kelly Kettle all produced boiling water within 20 seconds of one another.

On an exposed island in force 4 to 5 winds, the Kelly Kettle really came into its own boiling a pint in a third of the time of the gas stoves. On a wet reef with no level ground to set a stove on, the hand held JetBoil boiled a pint in conditions where it was not possible to set either of the other stoves up.

The Scores:


For a quick cup of soup, the flask is hard to beat but once you have drunk it, that’s it has limited application for an emergency quick brew. It also lacks the psychological boost of actually creating a hot drink, from a cold start, in hostile conditions.

The OutdoorDesigns mini stove/ MSR mini cook set/ windbreak combination proved the most versatile. Not only would it boil as quickly as the others you could also use it to cook soup or even a bacon sandwich (solid food is out with the remit of this test).

The JetBoil is very high tech, worked in moderate winds without a windshield and, uniquely, could boil when hand held (not recommended by the manufacturer). However, it has several design flaws, outlined above, and was not very good cooking thick liquids.

The Kelly Kettle proved its ability to boil water in any conditions that you can find a small level base for it. It seems impervious to wind and is cheap to run, burning almost anything.

So which one did I buy? Well they all have strong points so I ended up buying all four! Which one do I like best? Well if I have to choose, the Kelly Kettle has to be the overall test winner, a case of low cunning beats high tech!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Highland cow at Loch Shieldaig, Torridon

This is for Michael who liked the highland cow in my recent Loch Lomond photo. This is an Applecross highland cow. By and large they are docile beasts which is why they are not dehorned. However you need to be very careful in their presence. There has been a tourist death caused by highland cow near Plockton. A man got between a cow and her calf.

The photo was taken on the little single track road that leads round the remote Applecross peninsula. The viewpoint is looking across Loch Shieldaig to Shieldaig village and the old red sandstone hills of Torridon beyond. Loch Shieldaig opens out onto Loch Torridon and both make superb sea kayaking venues.

The highland cow is a hardy beast and remains out on the hill all year round. This amazing photograph of a young highland cow up to its neck in snow at Carronbridge was taken by Andrew Millian on 18/1/07. It appeared in several Scottish newspapers yesterday.

AP Photo/Andrew Millian/PA

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Fingal's Cave, Staffa

Until 1829 this great sea cave on the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides was known by its Gaelic name, Uamh-Binn or Cave of Melody in English.

Approaching Staffa, you are struck by its three layered structure. The lowest is a layer of tuff (or compressed volcanic ash). The amazing mid layer is composed of dark basaltic hexagonal columns. These formed as a layer of lava from the Mull eruption slowly cooled. The top layer is another layer of lava which has cooled to form a uniform layer of basalt.

On the day of our visit a boat load of tourists landed as we approached the island. But by the time we pulled our kayaks up on the little beach beside the jetty, the tourists had all “done” the cave and made their way onto Staffa’s summit plateau. We made our way round to the now deserted Fingal’s Cave and slowly entered, our eyes adjusting to the darkness into which soaring basalt columns disappeared like the pillars supporting the vault of a great mediaeval cathedral. Our ears were filled with the gentle surge of the surf and our thoughts naturally turned to Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Symphony, which had been inspired by this natural music of the cave.

Then it started, out of the darkness came the most beautiful singing of Handel’s Messiah. The Glorias rose as a duet to the roof of the cave then echoed round till a whole chorus of harmonies filled our ears. The hair prickled on the back of our necks and we were captivated by the sound as we stood silent in the darkness. When the singing stopped, two German music teachers emerged from the gloom of the cave. It was a reminder of how Mankind’s own works can sometimes challenge even the most remarkable of Nature’s wonders. We congratulated them and were delighted when they asked if they could stay and watch while we brought our kayaks round to paddle inside the cave!

Then in 1829, Mendelssohn subtitled his manuscript for Hebridean Overture "Fingal's Cave" after the mythical Scottish/Irish Giant. The name has stuck.

PS added 21/1/07

This was a perfect day and at its end, we enjoyed a perfect sunset from the summit of Lunga in the Treshnish Isles looking over Coll in the Inner Hebrides to the distant mountains of Barra and South Uist.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A national Marine Park for Scotland.


Staffa is an island of volcanic origin with its basalt colums and melodious Fingal's cave, which inspired Mendelssohn to write Hebridean Overture. It is now at the heart of an area proposed for Scotland's first National Marine Park: the Argyll Islands and Coast.

Proposed area of the Argyll Islands and Coast National Marine Park.

If you ever get stuck in a pub with a a bunch of Scots, and they guess from your accent that you come from elsewhere, they will soon tell you that Scots invented just about anything of importance in the world: modern economics, steam engine, iron ships, anaesthetics, antibiotics, medical ultrasound, telephone, TV, IrnBru and most other things besides, including conservation of wild places. Conservation of wild places? Well The Sierra Club, the world's first environmental protection organisation, was founded in San Fransisco in 1892 by a Scot, John Muir.

Unfortunately Muir's homeland was less receptive to his ideas and the John Muir Trust charity was not established until 1983. Scotland's first National Park, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, was set up as recently as 2002.

Loch Lomond National Park

I think Muir would have been disappointed not only by the long delay in its establishment but in the direction it has taken. I stand to be corrected, but many people see it restricting established residents who want to put a dormer window in their roof whilst encouraging big businesses to build golf courses, hotels and timeshares that few locals can afford. While they have been busy doing that they have done nothing but encourage that essential component of any national park: the jet ski. It is hardly surprising then that the Argyll fishermen and crofters are concerned in case a Marine Park is imposed upon them. Ian MacKinnon, a local fisherman, said on BBC Scotland tonight "The local referendum we are seeking is not to block the National Park, it's to make sure that the National Park goes ahead in the right place. A place where the community, who will have to live with it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, support it." Ian is a born diplomat, what a polite way of saying "get stuffed!"

Don't get me wrong, I am all for a National Marine Park. One that has the interests of the environment, the locals and visitors to the fore. Let's just leave big business, golf courses and time shares out of the equation.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Winter sun, Loch Etive

One reason I like photography is that it lets you remember good times. This photo was taken 2 years ago in Loch Etive. Its head waters cut deep into the Scottish west coast, almost reaching the mountains of Glen Coe. It can be accessed either from its head or nearer its origin in the Firth of Lorn. Personally I like paddling into its head and feeling the winter mountains drawing round me, cutting me off from the open sea. Truly I have entered the interface between mountain and sea. I dream on....

Monday, January 15, 2007

P&H Quest LV test.

A version of this test first appeared in the December 2006 issue of UK Paddles magazine.

I first saw the new P&H Quest LV at the Birmingham show in March 2006. Under the spotlights it looked fantastic and being a fan of the original Quest, I knew I had to try it!

Three months later Mike Thomson from Scottish Paddler supplies delivered his brand new demo Quest LV. The test was carried out over a 10 day unsupported trip to the Outer Hebrides and 20 days of day paddling on the West and Solway coasts of Scotland. The Quest LV was used by 12 paddlers with a wide range of weights and abilities. The conditions encompassed the full range expected when paddling in tidal waters in winds from flat calm up to force 6. The Quest LV was paddled alongside and compared with P&H Quests, Rockpool Alaw Bachs, Valley Nordkapp LV’s, Valley Aquanauts, a Valley Nordkapp, a Valley Nordkapp RM, a Valley Skerray and a Point 65 XP.

For those of you who have an impatient nature and seek the bottom line, I will save you the effort of looking further down the page. I absolutely love this boat and I know that it will appeal to a very broad range of sea kayakers.

Lewis west coast.

Lewis west coast

Well loaded off Berneray

Rounding Bennane Head in the Firth of Clyde.

Solway rock arch.

As you take in the fine lines of this new boat the first thing that strikes the eye is that it is much closer in size to its parent Quest than the Nordkapp LV is to the Nordkapp. Despite being stripped by only a centimetre or two here and there, it looked so much sleeker (I must try this myself!) than the Quest. Ignoring the figures in the brochure, I got the measuring tape out. The length and breadth of the two boats are exactly the same! With the boats sitting on a level surface the bows of the Quest and Quest LV were the same height above ground as were their sterns. Since the seam line has been lowered, this suggests the rocker line of either the deck or the keel has been increased. The cockpit has been dropped by 2 cm. The cockpit length and width in both boats is the same.

The Quest LV beside a Nordkapp LV. Despite the same LV designation, these are not comparable boats, the Quest LV is substantially larger.

Construction, finish, fittings and ergonomicsThe finish on this demo boat was absolutely immaculate, Hatch covers were the excellent Kayaksport heavy rubber items fore and aft and the lighter plastic centred one for the day hatch. This is easy to remove and replace while on the water. The round fore hatch is not so easy for loading long items like tents as the oval VCP hatches on the Nordkapp LV but the Quest LV’s huge oval stern hatch gives excellent access. No covers leaked during the test despite some heavy surf and lots of wet sessions. For 2006, the usual P&H security/tow mount, deck fittings and lines have been augmented by two extra fittings with elastics to tension the end toggles. There are now roughened moulded areas on the deck, just behind the cockpit, which prevent your hands slipping on a wet surface when getting in and out. The demo boat was supplied with a keel strip, which had been very neatly finished. The skeg is controlled by a sliding cable. Unlike the Valley system, it is not supported by a stainless steel sleeve where the cable is exposed at the deck slider. The skeg on the demo Quest LV worked faultlessly but two of the 2005 Quests had evidence of kinked cables at the slider.

Kayaksport plastic centred day hatch.

Silva compass deck recess makes an ideal pilot whale vertebra holder.

Tensioned end toggles.

Skeg cable slider lacks the reinforcing stainless steel sleeve round the cable as found on the Valley Nordkapp LV.

The Quest LV bulkheads were shaped from flat sheets of GRP and bonded to the hull at right angles with glass mat. (In comparison, the 2006 Valley bulkheads are made from a shaped piece of GRP, which has dished edges and is pushed into the narrowing hull before being bonded in place. The idea of this is to spread the load on the hull and prevent cracking of the gel coat.) One of the 2004 Quests did have some minor gel coat cracking under the bulkheads, as did two of the 2005 Alaw Bachs. The Rockpool website says they “plan to develop dished bulkheads in future”. One of the 2006 Nordkapp LVs was leaking at its dished bulkhead. (Personal experience of both Valley and P&H warranty support for leaks has been excellent.) The Quest LV’s traditional bulkheads remained watertight.

The cockpit had plenty clearance between its lip and the deck to allow easy fitting of heavy-duty neoprene spray decks. In comparison, the Rockpool Alaw Bach had little clearance and it made fitting some decks very fiddly. The Quest LV cockpit was not quite so easy to get in and out of as the Nordkapp LV, which was 5 cm longer and 2.5cm lower. The Yakima footrests are mounted on alloy tracks. These worked well when clean but after a surf session with several wet exits, both tracks became jammed with sand. The relationship between the lowered underside of the cockpit with its moulded knee/thigh braces is very comfortable for a wide range of paddler sizes. The security given by the Quest LV braces is midway between the very secure but aggressively curved Rockpool braces and that of the Nordkapp LV cockpit which lacks moulded braces.

The Quest LV came with the padded plastic seat with ratchet belt adjustable back band. There is an (no cost) alternative GRP seat. The first thing to note about the padded seat is that it is extremely comfortable for 99% of the time. However, if you are the type of sea kayaker that likes to practice wet re-entries, you will become frustrated as the seat back folds forward under your bum as you re-enter the boat. The second thing to note is that the seat fitted high in the boat. In comparison, the Rockpool seat could not have been fitted any lower and I am sure that the resulting low centre of gravity contributes to that boat’s outstanding stability in rough conditions. At first we did not notice any adverse effect of the high seat position, but we were laden with gear and provisions for a 10 day unsupported trip. Once the boat was unloaded, it felt less stable and for the remainder of the Hebridean trip it was paddled with rocks to load it on day paddles.

This is not a problem unique to the Quest LV. Two of the Quests had high mounted plastic seats and two had low mounted GRP seats. Swapping these boats between us showed that when unloaded all owners felt more stable with the low seats. All three Nordkapp LV owners had also found their plastic seats to be mounted too high. All had removed the thick pad and refitted their seats as low as possible. On return from the Hebrides, The Quest LV seat was lowered (with Mike Thomson’s permission) and the seat back secured with some ties to the rear cockpit bulkhead. What a transformation! The boat felt much more secure and stable in a wide variety of conditions. One paddler who tried the boat before and after, is saving for a Quest LV with the low GRP seat and Mike Thomson was so impressed by the transformation that he ordered a second demo boat with the optional GRP seat.

The seat supplied with the demo Quest was the same as this one fitted to a poly Capella. We removed it and fitted a smaller plastic seat from a Nordkapp LV. Muzz from Highland Mist has posted two excellent articles on lowering the same seat in a P&H Sirius here and here.

There are two final comments about the Quest LV seat. The ratchet buckle started to rust on day five. The Quest LV seat is the same width as the Quest seat, so slimmer paddlers must be prepared to pad it out with hip pads to give proper control of the boat.

Corrosioin on the back band buckle.

This is possibly one of the most versatile sea kayaks on the market. From its measurements, I was not expecting much difference in performance from its parent Quest. How wrong I was. This boat is so more manoeuvrable than the Quest. Its turning response to edging is completely different. Once on edge it can be held over much more easily and stably than the Quest. Even a 65kg tester had no difficulty edging the Quest LV. She felt swamped in a Quest. The Quest LV is not as manoeuvrable as the Alaw Bach or the Nordkapp LV but it is not far behind and it even feels as manoeuvrable as the superb Aquanaut which until now has been one of the most manoeuvrable of full size expedition boats. Unlike the Quest, the Quest LV is very responsive to steering in confined spaces using bow rudder strokes.

Although the Quest LV has gained manoeuvrability it has not lost any speed. It achieves the same sprint speed as the Quest: On the one windless day at slack water, the following boats’ maximum sprint speeds were measured using a Garmin GPSmap76cs (with WAAS/EGNOS enabled giving 2m accuracy: Quest LV: 10.6km/hr, Quest: 10.6km/hr, Nordkapp RM 9.9km/hr, Nordkapp LV: 11.5km/hr, Alaw Bach: 10.1km/hr. Unladen, the Quest LV accelerates well but not so easily as the Nordkapp LV. It rolls very easily and as long as the seat back is secured, it is very easy to re-enter and re-enter roll. With the low seat position it makes a stable platform for photography, using binoculars and fishing. It is a good boat to use for towing rescues. It also makes an exceptionally stable platform from which to rescue others, even in rough water.

I have always liked paddling the Quest off the wind with a following sea, fortunately the Quest LV has lost nothing in this respect and I think the chines at the stern help to pick up waves. It does not surf so easily as the exceptional Alaw Bach but it revels in long open windy crossings when the Alaw Bach will require more skill and effort to keep it on track. It remains very controllable as the swell approaches the shore and ramps up into surf. I think it is a bit easier to keep on line and resist broaching than the Quest. Once broached and you are bracing off the wave, it gives a very stable ride into the shore. The Aquanaut, the Nordkapp and especially the Nordkapp LV are easier to keep from broaching. On flatter water there can be few boats that trim to the skeg in a wind so well as the Quest LV and give such relaxed and balanced paddling downwind.

Going upwind in the Quest (about 45 degrees to the wind), I have always been annoyed by the way certain waves splash up over the deck about level with the foot pegs and blow back right into my face. Despite the apparent similarity in hull shape, I did not notice this with the Quest LV! Paddling into short steep waves exposes significant differences in the way current sea kayaks behave. The Point 65 XP (when unloaded) seems to keep on the most even of keels. Bigger Valley boats seem to throw their bows high over the wave. The Quest seems to nod its head into the wave, taking water over the bow. The water washes off well before the cockpit and the Quest does seem easier than the Valley boats to hold its speed in these conditions. Given its lower volume, I expected the Quest LV to be wetter than the Quest in these conditions but again I was wrong. It behaved in a way midway between the Point 65 XP and the Quest.

On expeditions the Quest LV can take substantially more gear than the Nordkapp LV. This was very apparent on our 10 day trip as one Nordkapp LV paddler; known for her minimal approach to packing, was saying she missed the space in her previous Nordkapp Jubilee. Even when the Quest LV is fully loaded with gear, heavy weight paddlers of 90kg or so floated with freeboard to spare.

As measured rather than quoted: Length 536cm, breadth 55cm, cockpit 73cm x 42.5cm, height of cockpit front 33.5cm, weight standard construction with keel strip 25.5kg.

Hull plan shapes.

Conclusion.On first appearance, the Quest LV is only a subtle development of the Quest. Only on the water does the true scale of its leap forward in terms of performance and versatility become apparent. Development and fine tuning of an existing design has paid off for P&H. This is a boat that has something to offer beginners and advanced paddlers, heavy and light paddlers, day trippers, weekenders and hardened expeditioners. It is fast, manoeuvrable, forgiving, comfortable and well built. Only the heaviest and largest of paddlers should consider the Quest before it. It is possibly the best all round boat on the market. I recommend you add it to your demo list.

Yes, if you want a playboat for the sea, go for a Rockpool Alaw/Bach. Yes, if you want a fast, responsive tourer for shorter trips, go for the Valley Nordkapp LV. But for a huge group of sea kayakers, who want one boat to do it all, the P&H Quest LV is the boat they should try. 2006 has proved a vintage year for new UK sea kayaks. Like the Nordkapp LV before it, I award the P&H Quest (with the GRPseat) 12/10!