Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Faster than the wind

I have been windsurfing since 1977. Like sea kayaking you can do it in a variety of conditions but I find that the two sports are highly complimentary and tend to windsurf when the wind is stronger.

Quite a lot of the time you can do both and a speed comparison is interesting. There was a 12 to 17 knot wind blowing straight down the bay to the sea. Paddling the mile across the bay at right angles to the wind, I averaged 2.9 knots.

Repeating the exercise on a light wind windsurfer with a 7.0m sail I averaged 25.1 knots. It is a great feeling flying along faster than the wind, with only the skeg in the water. I am surprised more sea kayakers do not windsurf.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Ocean Paddler

On July 13th 2007, the UK will get a new seakayaking magazine: Ocean Paddler. It is being launched by two friends of mine, Graeme "Bertie" Beckram and Richard Parkin.

Hopefully you might be able to read articles based on trips like this one.

I wish Bertie and Rich the very best in their exciting new venture.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A quiet weekend.

Alison and I had arranged to spend a week in Skye at the sea kayak symposium. I was due to give some illustrated talks. We had planned to meet up with lots of friends and I was going to paddle with Cailean and Wenley before the start of the Symposium. Things do not always go to plan. Alison has been having a lot of pain recently and we decided to have a quiet weekend at our caravan on the Solway instead. Gordon accepted my apology very graciously. An unexpected pleasure was meeting Kevin at Glasgow airport as he was on his way north to the symposium. Once at the caravan we relaxed and watched the tide come in and go out again.

On the Monday holiday Alison decided she would like to go for a short paddle. I had to help her into the kayak but it was so good to see a smile on her face again. It helped take her mind off more medical tests this week.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Through the Grey Dogs to the Garvellachs.

11th May 2006. Heading out from the Grey Dogs into the Firth of Lorn with Scarba on the port bow.

Crossing to Eileach an Naoimh (Isle of the Saints), the most southerly of the Garvellachs. We followed the great circle route used by trans Atlantic jets. We decided to stop before we got to Newfoundland.

The west side of Eileach an Naoimh under the new Garvellachs light. The light was established in 1904 and this one bas built in 2003. It has a white flash every 6 seconds. My friend Clark Fenton, who is a fully card carrying geologist, informs me that the rocks are composed of a Precambrian age [approx 1 billion years old] tillite (a metamorphosed glacial boulder clay) that contains large blocks of marble. The marble is a dolomite (a magnesium rather than calcium rich limestone) that has been recrystallised by heat and pressure.

Shadow and light under Precambrian cliffs of tillite.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Timed to perfection but nearly marooned on Luing!

This was 19:03 on 11th May 2006.

We had just successfully executed a remarkable sea kayaking day trip from Glasgow. The night before, I had noticed (as you do) that the tides were right for a trip out through the Grey Dogs to the Garvellachs then back to Scarba, round its south end, through the Corryvreckan and back up the Sound of Luing. The snag was that Mike and I were working the next day and David was meeting an ex vet student friend from South Africa for their 40th year reunion dinner. Her flight got into Glasgow airport at 21:30pm that night. The only way to do this was to drive from the mainland over the Bridge over the Atlantic, onto the Isle of Seil then take the ferry across the Cuan Sound onto Luing and drive to Black Mill Bay and launch there. A quick Google search for the ferry timetable brought up the Calmac website which showed regular sailings into the late evening.

We had aimed to get the 19:35 ferry and I was just congratulating myself on having half an hour to spare when an awful fact gradually invaded the euphoria of an amazing day. If you look closely at the photo above you will note that there is no ferry!

On our drive to the jetty I had noticed something that looked very like a ferry moored in a bay 1.5km to the south. Somehow I had managed to blot this unwelcome observation from my consciousness. Any sea kayaker that can work the tides through the Dogs and the Corry must be able to read a simple ferry timetable! I dug the Calmac printout out of my map case and we should have had another 3 ferries to choose from right up till 22:05. Something was not right and I soon found out it was when I walked over to the small waiting room. The Cuan Ferry is run by Argyll and Bute council and on their timetable (which was nailed to the wall) it was quite clear that the last boat ran at 1805.

David took it very well. Not only had I bashed his car getting off the ferry that morning, now I had got us marooned on Luing for the night and his friend would be stuck at the airport. A more highly strung party would have started arguing and shouting but not us. In the absence of a nearby sea kayaking hostelry, we cracked open three cans of Guinness from our emergency rations. Sitting on a grassy knoll in the spring evening sunshine, we pondered our options. First we found that our mobiles had no reception. Then we wondered if David should paddle across and try and hire a taxi to take him to the airport.

Then suitably refreshed, I decided to check out the waiting room. I noticed a small yellow notice.

"In case of medical emergency, call this number."

Well I'm a doctor. And it was an emergency! So I phoned it from the coin box phone outside. It turned out to be a call centre in Liverpool and the girl knew nothing about Luing or where it was. I asked her for the ferryman's number but she said

"I can't do that but I'll get him to ring you back."

I looked at the ancient rotating dial phone. There was no number.

"There must be a number." she said.

David cracked open another Guinness to assist in the search for the elusive digits but there were none to be found. Then the girl had a brainwave:

"Give me your mobile number..."

"There is no point", I said, "none of our three mobiles are getting a signal."

I could sense I was stretching her incredulity. This city girl had probably never been out of cell phone range since she had been born. Indeed, her developing brain may have been partly modelled by mobile microwaves.

Then I had a brainwave:

"Just tell him to phone the Luing call box"

"What's the point of that? He wont know the number, there must be thousands of call boxes on Luing."

"You don't know Luing! Please, just ask him to ring the call box, I am sure he will know the number."

About 5 minutes later the phone rang, it was the ferryman. I explained our situation and he agreed to come but he said he would need to call his mate who lived some distance away. He would then need to use a dinghy to get down to the ferry and fetch it back up to Seil, pick up his mate then come across and pick us up. (Then he would need to repeat the process to get the ferry back to the mooring.)

MV Grey Dog

We were ever so pleased as when he arrived. He knew all about the mistake in the Calmac timetable and said there would be no charge for the crossing. We had already resigned ourselves to finding bed and breakfast accommodation on Luing, which would have cost us about £20 each so we gave them £60 for their trouble. They were very reluctant to accept it but we insisted. They were obviously prepared (and pleased) to be able to help, for only a thank you in return.

Fortunately the 105 miles on the road to the airport were quiet and we pulled into the airport pickup area just as David's friend was exiting the arrivals hall.

What timing, it's amazing what you can cram into a day!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cuan ferry: passport to the Grey Dogs and Corryvreckan!

MV Belnahua

The tidal Cuan Sound (between the isles of Seil and Luing in the Firth of Lorn) runs at up to 15km/hr. The little ferry, the MV Belnahua, makes the short crossing several times a day. It is very instructive watching her ferry glide. The captain only ever crosses the main flow at right angles to save fuel. He then uses the slacker water and eddies at the sides to make his way back to the jetty.

MV Grey Dog

I have not been able to get out paddling recently so this photo is from last May. When we arrived we found that the Belnahua was off on its holidays, leaving the tiny MV Grey Dog in its place.

It was just big enough for David's car and my trailer and it lurched alarmingly as we drove on. There is no turntable so you need to reverse off. David did not fancy this so I had a go. I did pretty well until the last moment when I clipped the front bumper on the ramp sides.

It did not spoil our day, it allowed us to have a fantastic day trip from Glasgow out through the Grey Dogs tidal channel, round the Garvellachs, back to Scarba then home via the notorious Corryvreckan. We had tidal assistance all the way!

There is one point to note about the Cuan ferry. Although Calmac list the timetable, it is actually operated by Argyll and Bute council. Calmac state "We cannot be held responsible for any errors or omissions".

More about that another day....

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sammy the seagull.

Sammy the seagull likes following ferries
and although his daily diet varies,
he hopes you will throw him a crust,
of a sandwich, you really must.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The ramp of the Loch Ranza.

The MV Loch Ranza ferry serves the Isle of Gigha with ten return trips per day. On the mainland at Tayinloan, there is a large illuminated sign which tells when the next ferry is due.

On a recent trip to Gigha we had to use the ferry to recover my daughter who did not fancy the crossing in a force 5 to 6 wind against tide. As we approached Tayinloan on the return, we could see two cars and a trailer on the jetty and a RIB was in the water being loaded by a large group of campers all wearing camouflage gear. When I say campers, it should be noted that most of their equipment consisted of cases of beer cans.

They showed no signs of hurry or concern at the approach of the ferry. They appeared secure in their knowledge that the jetty was theirs. The ferry captain's response was not to sound his horn but simply to steam quietly and purposefully towards his usual berth on the jetty.

The important task of loading beer continued unabated.

Then the captain unleashed the ramp! It was like something out of Robot Wars! What indignation! What panic! The RIB was moved to the side of the jetty but of course the water was deep there and one of the beer loaders got very wet. Their dogs started barking but the ramp continued its relentless decent. The Loch Ranza took up the full width of the jetty and the RIB disappeared from our sight. The ramp now edged slowly up the jetty towards the still laden car and its trailer. One of the campers leaped in and the car kangarooed its way back up the jetty.

We enjoyed this entertainment very much. I suppose that, since these fellow water users could not read a ferry timetable, they might not be able to understand tide tables either. If they camped on Gigha, their RIB might then float off in the night. If so, they would need to come back by the ferry.

Having left our campsite on Gigha spic and span, I hope they brought their empty cans back.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The mills of Gigha

The old water mill, Port an Duin, Gigha.

The 21st century wind farm to the NE of Leim farm, Gigha.

The building of these mills on Gigha was separated by several centuries. The large watermill was for grinding grain produced by the fertile pastures of the island. It was driven by water from the Mill L0ch which is situated 22 metres above the height of the mill. Gigha was an exporter of grain and the skerries offshore allowed grain boats to land in shelter below the mill. Today the rusting wheel no longer turns and the millstones lie still. Due to its historic importance, the mill is a grade C listed building.

In contrast, the rotors of the "Three Dancing Ladies" of Gigha turn steadily in the breeze that near constantly blows over the isle. They form the only community wind farm in Scotland. 100% of the island's population voted for their installation. Construction was completed in December 2004. Since then they have produced about 2.1 gigawatt hours of electricity per year which is about two thirds of the Isle's annual needs.

The scale, economy and rationale are quite different from the same criteria of the proposed wind farm on Lewis.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The National Life Boat "David Hay".

The Tower, Balcary point.

During gales, the seas off Balcary point in the Solway Firth can be violent due to the strong tides and shallow water. The shelter provided in Auchencairn Bay has been welcomed by generations of Solway seafarers. After the wildness of the cliffs, home to tens of thousands of sea birds, the Tower is the first and most prominent sign of human habitation.

The Boathouse, Balcary Point.

But hidden away in the trees behind a narrow break in the rocks is the Boathouse. Although now a private house it was originally a lifeboat station. In the days before the RNLI, this was where the National Life Boat the "David Hay" was stationed between 1884 and 1914. She was a 35 foot self righting and self draining rowing boat. She was usually manned by a coxswain and 12 oarsmen. Eight rowed at a time while 4 rested. After she was replaced in 1914 the station remained open until 1928 when a motorised lifeboat was stationed at Kirkcudbright and the station finally closed.

The courageous crew of the NLB David Hay.

The David Hay's most notable action took place between the evening of Friday 16th November and the afternoon of Sunday 18th November 1888. A transcript of a contemporary newspaper report is condensed below.

Friday afternoon
A telegraph alarm was received from Kirkbean from where a large ship was spotted flying distress signals out in the middle of the Firth. A gale had been blowing for 24 hours.

Friday evening.
The David Hay was finally launched after nightfall after the tide came in to the slipway. She was manned by Captain Black and 11 men. She left the shelter of Balcary Point in clear moonlight and almost immediately she was nearly engulfed by steep breaking seas in the shallow water. During the night they rowed out into the middle of the Solway towards where the ship had been seen.

Friday 10:00pm
They found the 240 ton Glendalough with her rudder smashed and her sails in tatters. There were 5 men aboard and during the night Captain Black made several attempts to come alongside and get them off. Each time the waves threatened to smash the David Hay into the Glendalough.

Friday midnight
The David Hay stood off until dawn.

Saturday dawn.
In the daylight Captain Black made a further two unsuccessful attempts to come alongside. The gale was not abating and, as the tide was now coming back into the upper Solway ports, Captain Black decided to race downwind to Carsethorn and use the telegraph to summon a steam paddle tug from the docks at Silloth on the English side of the Solway. The crew of the David Hay rested for a few hours.

Saturday afternoon.
The steam tug reached the Glendalough but in huge seas was unable to get a line aboard. The captain decided to steam to Carsethorn and tow the lifeboat out to the Glendalough.

Saturday night.
The tug with the lifeboat in tow finally arrived back at the Glendalough. The tug to windward gave some protection to the David Hay and finally the lifeboat got a line aboard the Glendalogh.

Saturday midnight.
The steam tug with the Glendalough in tow headed back to Silloth. Captain Black and his men started the long row back upwind to the shelter of Balcary. The gale continued throughout the night and in the darkness she was twice rolled onto her beam ends.

Sunday morning.
The men stood by their oars and battled their way over countless Solway rollers until the dawn and long into the day.

Sunday afternoon.
The David Hay finally limped back the shelter of Balcarry. A huge crowd had gathered to recover the lifeboat and carry the exhausted volunteers to the Commercial Inn in Auchencairn.

What a heroic story. What seamanship. What bravery. What service to one's fellow man.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The wreck of the Kartli

The west coast of Gigha is a wild place. Southwesterly storms sweep in from the Atlantic, past the Mull of Oa on Islay, and dash their energy on the rocks of this fair isle.

The Kartli was a huge 240 foot Russian fish factory ship. During a storm on December 18th 1991 her wheelhouse was smashed and her engine room and generator flooded by a giant wave off the south of Islay. Four of her crew were killed and 15 were seriously injured. With no power or steerage, she rolled helplessly at the mercy of the wind and seas. Five helicopters were involved in a dramatic and successful rescue of all her surviving crew.

Her abandoned hulk drifted relentlessly downwind to her ultimate resting place on the rocks of Gigha where her plates were pounded asunder.

Even on a calm and sunny day, her rusting hulk remains as a reminder of the transient nature of man's dominion over the seas and the our fleeting existence on this earth.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The sad, sad story of Sammy, the lost and lovesick wandering albatross.

Yesterday the BBC reported the return of Sammy the albatross (other, less imaginative, commentators have called him Albert albatross) to the remote rocky outpost of Sula Sgeir that lies 87 kilometers to the northwest of Cape Wrath which is the most northwesterly point of the Scottish mainland.

Unfortunately his mating display is entirely in vain as the nearest female of his species is 13,000 kilometers away in the Falkland Islands in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sammy first arrived in Scottish waters in 1967 when he looked for a mate on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. He then moved to Shetland but has spent the last three springs on Sula Sgeir. Albatrosses live for about 70 years so he faces a further several decades of fruitless wandering round northern wastes in search of a life partner.

Sometimes life is good, sometimes it's sad, sometimes it's a bitch. The individual does not seem to matter in the great scheme of things. Tonight, shed a tear for Sammy and his ilk.

Collages by Jennifer Wilcox

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

White Port and the Cow's Snout

One of the great pleasures in sea kayaking is the satisfaction of battling round a headland in challenging conditions to find sanctuary and rest on a sheltered crescent of sand. Nothing was more welcome after rounding Balcary Point (no photos) than finding White Port which nestled in the shelter of Hestan Island and Almorness Point. We had a very pleasant luncheon here but decided we would need to press on rather than detour up the Firth to Kippford and the Anchor Hotel.

Looking east from White Port across the mouth of Rough Firth all looked calm but a roller coaster awaited until we cleared the rock formation called the Cow's Snout.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Anchor Hotel, Kippford

On our recent trip to the delightful Colvend coast of the Solway, one of our destinations was the Anchor Hotel at Kippford. Way points are an important feature of sea kayak navigation and what could be better than a way point which offers the prospect of liquid sustenance?

The Anchor Hotel is conveniently located by the sea wall which protects Kippford from winter storm surges. There is a handy public slipway about 100m further along the road. To avoid a muddy exit it would be best to time your arrival for about two and a half hours before and after HW.

The Anchor and the Whim Cottage, which is at right angles to the road, date from about 1780 and are the oldest surviving buildings in the village. Kippford was founded on paper making, quarrying, its port and shipbuilding for trade with Newfoundland. The shipwrights received two drams of whisky a day as part of their wages. One of the biggest ships launched in Kippford was the Balcary Lass, built in 1881. Unfortunately she was lost at sea in 1883 while carrying coal to St John's.

The 7 kilometer detour from the mouth of the Rough Firth up to Kippford would have meant we would have missed the favourable flood tide round the next set of headlands to Sandyhills Bay. The Solway has some of the strongest tides in UK waters and once the ebb started, the force 5 wind against tide conditions in the shallow water would have been horrendous. As it was, we found the headlands to be quite rough enough with the tide going with the wind!

So the intrepid test team had to forgo testing the Anchor Hotel straight from the kayak. We visited later, on the shuttle run back to the other car at Abbey Burn Foot. We therefore cannot comment on how the Anchor staff would react to sea kayaking wear but judging by the number of motor bikers, in a variety of colours of leathers, there should be no problem. An excellent array of beers, spirits and soft drinks was available, including my preferred quaff of chilled Guinness.

Tony and Billy examining the trip photos on my notebook.

We chose to sit outside and watch the world go by. Not only were there scores of motor bikers parading on the promenade, it was an open sailing regatta for RS200, Enterprise and National 12 dinghies. It was quite entertaining watching some of the asymmetric RS200 dinghies wobbling up the Firth on a dead run.

The Anchor also serves a variety of food. Where else but Scotland would "salmon fantasy" be on the menu?

All in all, the Anchor Hotel is another highly recommended sea kayaking pub!

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Dundrennan and Colvend coasts of the Solway

The Colvend coast: evening light on the sands revealed by a spring low tide. Hestan Island is in the distance. This steep road leads down to the hamlet of Port o' Warren.

The Dundrennan and Colvend coasts of Galloway on the Solway Firth can offer some challenging paddling conditions. At the weekend we took advantage of a spring flood tide to carry us up the coast from Abbey Burn Foot to Sandyhills. The spring tide set up overfalls at several of the headlands particularly from Lot's wife (a guano covered stack) to Balcary Point and between the monument and Cow's Snout. Shallow seas, clapotis from the sheer cliffs and a force 5 wind all contributed to a bumpy ride and I managed few photos.

Abbey Burn Foot is in the middle of the Dundrennan Range, a weapons firing range. The beach is often closed to visitors but was open this weekend so Tony, Billy and I took advantage.

The launch was a bit rough over boulders.

The weatheronline database recorded a force 5 southerly at the Dundrennan Range weather station.

Sandstone caves below Barlocco Heugh.

Castlehill Point was not as rough as some of the others.

The Needle's Eye arch on the Colvend Coast.

A stunning, remote, sandy cove just before Sandyhills Bay with its bank holiday crowds. We arrived at Sandyhills at high water. If we had been delayed and had to fight against the ebb, it would have been even rougher with breaking seas in the shallow wind against tide conditions.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Return from Gigha

The problem with paddling out to islands off Scotland's west coast is that quite often the forecast force 2 is exceeded, even in the middle of a high pressure system. Tony's flysheet blew off in the middle of the night and leaving the shelter of the lee of Gigha, it was apparent we would have a rough crossing.

Jennifer decided to take the ferry back but Tony and I were looking forward to a bracing crossing in the stiff north easterly.

Jennifer took these photos as we left the north of the island.

We left at 0845am to try try and catch the slack before the northerly flood built up against the NE wind.

Out in the Sound of Gigha steep waves were breaking and we frequently lost sight of each other. It was a very bracing crossing. Both Tony and I employed frequent low braces. It was a satisfying crossing at the end of a fantastic trip.