Friday, August 28, 2009

Homecoming to St Kilda

2009 is the year of the Homecoming when Scotland encourages its diaspora to visit their homeland. Few visits can be as poignant as that of Mr Norman John Gillies who is the last living survivor of the community on St Kilda, which was evacuated in 1930.

Norman is a sprightly 84 year old who was 5 years old when St Kilda was evacuated.

His mother Mary Gillies developed appendicitis while she was pregnant and was taken to Glasgow by boat. Norman can still remember standing on the jetty and watching as his mother waved to him from the boat. It was the last time he saw her. By the time the boat got her to Glasgow she was so ill that she died. The final decision to evacuate St Kilda, was hastened by her death.

Norman John's return to his grandfather's cottage, No 10 St Kilda, will feature in a film which will be broadcast as part of a series of documentaries about St Kilda on BBC Alba tomorrow.

Sea kayak with Gordon Brown DVD preview

I have a drawer full of both inspirational and technique DVD's and videos from the windsurfing, mountain biking, snowboarding and sea kayaking worlds. Most, I have watched just once but I am now previewing one that will be watched many times and in different ways. It is Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown.

Gordon Brown is a highly respected Scottish kayak coach who runs Skyak Adventures on Skye with his wife Morag. He recently wrote the technique book “Sea Kayak”, published by Pesda Press. This has already been reprinted and has become a standard text for aspiring sea kayakers across the world. The one criticism of the book is that its many illustrations of sequences of strokes are, by necessity, small. Simon Willis of Sunart Media, and a keen amateur sea kayaker himself, has now teamed up with Gordon to produce a DVD to address this gap in the book. But this DVD is not just a technique DVD; it is a synthesis of technique demonstrations interspersed with an inspirational four day sea kayaking voyage along the west coast of the island of Skye off Scotland's west coast. I think this DVD has another unique feature, Gordon and Simon know each other well and this comes across in lots of ways, like a shared laugh, which makes this an involving DVD to watch. It really is like having Gordon as your personal coach, he is not just talking to an impassionate, professional cameraman. Simon is one of us!

The DVD can be watched right through ,with the journey being interspersed with the coaching at appropriate points e.g. linking steering strokes when rock hopping through the skerries and tidal paddling when rounding Neist Point etc. Alternatively, in the final production edition of the DVD, you will be able to watch just the journey or just the coaching or any individual chapter of either section.

The DVD is primarily intended for intermediate kayakers to improve their techniques in more challenging conditions but it is also intended to set beginners on the right track. Many who consider themselves experts will also see that there is still much too learn. The technique chapters don’t cover everything in the book but concentrate on body position, edging and paddle strokes, which will allow intermediate paddlers to develop their ability to handle their kayak when rock hopping, in rough water, in windy conditions, in following seas and in tidal waters.

How to paddle with your eyes shut!

There are six technique chapters. Chapter one, the foundations, covers body position, edging and leaning. Chapter two covers forward paddling. Chapter three, turning, looks at sweep strokes, bow rudder, cross bow rudder, braced turn and linking several turning strokes together. Chapter four, steering, looks at the stern rudder. Chapter five, rock hopping, introduces draw on the move, hanging draw and bow draw and shows how all previous strokes can be combined. Gordon also demonstrates how to read rough water. Chapter 6, tidal races, looks at breaking in and out, angle of approach and handling confused water. It also illustrates how many of the above strokes are used at different stages of crossing eddy lines. Gordon finishes by demonstrating a 720 degree pirouette on a fast eddy line, finishing back where he started, with his eyes shut!

As mentioned above, there are some omissions of material covered in the book and some basic stokes such as low and high braces are not given individual coverage. However, more advanced bracing is demonstrated as a component part of manoeuvres such as fast turns in rough water and crossing eddy lines. I think this is appropriate for a DVD which is primarily aimed at intermediates. Aspects of sea kayak handling, which are not covered, include: rolling, rescues, towing, landing and launching in surf and up tide eddy hopping. There is plenty to look forward to in a second DVD then!

I am not going to say too much about the journey section and let the viewer discover for themselves that it beautifully illustrates stunning Skye scenery, geology, natural history, archaeology, history and a group of people having fun in this wonderful environment. Two highlights, that I will mention, are Gordon singing a Jacobite rebel song deep within the recesses of huge sea cave and Jim, one of the paddlers, describing how sea kayaking is great for clearing all the pressures of work out of your head. His description is dubbed onto a clip of him paddling under a waterfall, with the spray bouncing off his head! The filming (shot in HD quality but edited in DVD quality) is superb, as is the editing. The on water filming is shot from the bow cockpit of an Aleut Sea II double kayak.

Cross bow rudder position demonstrated statically...


...and dynamically from on board camera.

The technique chapters are all shot from various heights and angles with camera locations on land, on another kayak and with Simon probably chest deep in water. This part of the DVD was also shot in HD but is complemented by lower resolution filming from high camera mounts on Gordon's bow and stern. Each technique is illustrated several times and from these several viewpoints. The blade positions are demonstrated statically then dynamically. This and the fact that Gordon's kayak and paddle are clearly labelled with red and green, port and starboard, stickers makes it very easy to follow what is going on. This was particularly useful when demonstrating turning strokes such as the cross bow rudder.

The sound quality, even in the rough weather sequences, is superb with very little wind noise. Gordon has a soft Scottish accent with good diction, which I find very relaxing, engaging and easy to follow. I cannot say how easy this will be for non native English speakers to follow. However, each technique is repeated about three times and Simon does a studio voice over on the last. Simon is a naturalised Scot from Northumberland, who has worked for the BBC. If you can't understand his diction, you can't speak English!

The editing has resulted in a very clear to follow film which is not rushed. Unlike some other technique videos, you will not wear out the pause, reverse and slow motion buttons on your remote control. A small price of this is occasional repetition but I think the editing has achieved a new standard for sports technique videos. It never becomes dry; at one of the rough water handling sections, when the camera lens is being drenched by spray, Gordon is nearly on the rocks, surrounded by crashing waves but just can't stop grinning and having fun! One criticism that might be made of the DVD is that Gordon is not wearing a helmet in this sequence. I know that the rock in question is just down from his house and that he has sat in the waves there countless times. In the book, Gordon describes a very pragmatic and sensible approach to helmet use.

Many sea kayakers use forward paddling strokes 99.9999% of the time. I think that they especially would benefit from watching this DVD. Many may question the need for other strokes but to watch Gordon is to open your mind to a whole new level of sea kayaking. After seeing Gordon perform 10 different, linked and flowing strokes in about as many seconds, while winding through a narrow rocky channel in the surf, you will realise that this is not just rock hopping but rock ballet! (Minus the pumps and tights of course, Gordon is a green Welly man!)

Watch Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown on DVD, broaden your horizons, improve your paddling and have more fun!

Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown trailer from Simon Willis on Vimeo.

Essential details:
Price: £19.95
Format: PAL DVD
Running time: 75 minutes plus 15minutes extras.
Purchase from: site live early October 2009.
Scottish Premier: SCA Paddle 09 in Perth at 11am Saturday 24/10/2009
Release date: 1/11/2009

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Self portrait in Smugglers' Cove.

Back in April, the weathermen promised a summer of endless barbecues; which proved to be their euphemism for wind and rain!

We went on a little jaunt out to Ardwall Island in the Solway Firth on a day which did seem to promise an endless summer..

We landed in Smugglers' Cove. Just above the beach there is a hole in the ground which was a hiding place for contraband spirits and wines from the Isle of Man.

Several people have emailed asking why there are few, if any, photos of me on this blog. Well it's very simple, I take the photos! I did like this one taken after we had polished off our own small supply of spirits!


Friday, August 21, 2009

Seakayaking in Brodick Bay, Arran

From Merkland Point below Goatfell on Arran, we ran before the wind for 4km across the wide mouth of Brodick Bay to Corrigills Point.

The NW wind was coming down out of the high corries in fierce squalls... we were quite thirsty by the time we arrived at the Brodick Pier for the ferry back to Ardrossan.

A fine little outing of 31km.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

A fair wind below Goatfell

We left Sannox Bay in glorious sunshine. The tight little low that had brought a front and SW/W winds had now passed to the east of us and the wind had veered to the NW.

This was just perfect for blowing us all the way down the NE coast of Arran. In the distance, Holy Island's Mullach Mor, 314m, rose above the eastern point of Arran

We made good speed under Arran's rocky ridges.

The ridges culminated in Goatfell, 874m, which is the highest peak on Arran.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A little swally of sublime Sannox water in the sunshine!

After an 11km crossing to Arran, we landed in Sannox Bay under leaden grey skies. It was clearly time to lift the spirits by opening the Wilcox Weather Window (TM). Not many know how this works but now you are about to find out how to do it (and where better than in the dark brooding glen of Sannox)!

David, Tony, Gavin, Alan, Phil and I gathered together before partaking of our luncheon. Out came our hip flasks, each freshly filled with nothing but Sannox water! Next we gave thanks for a safe, if somewhat rough, crossing before toasting the weather gods and enjoying a little swally of sublime Sannox water! Before our lips were even dry, the WWW opened and we were getting sunburned in March!

Here is the proof of the pudding as they say. We left Sannox Bay a better, sunnier place! Where next will the staff of bring the sunshine of their passing? Onwards!


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Crossing to a land sculpted by fire and ice

Once we were in the lee of the Cock of Arran and out of the main tidal stream the water flattened and we approached Glen Sannox under sombre grey skies..

The clouds also began to lift, revealing the mountains of Arran and its little neighbour, Holy Island.

Alan and Phil had both managed remarkably well given the conditions and their relatively recent introduction to sea kayaking. David, Gavin, Tony and I had a thoroughly enjoyable crossing.

Soon the exposure of the Sound of Bute was replaced by a feeling of enclosure as the great igneous mountains of Glen Sannox gathered round the mouth of Sannox Bay. These granite peaks are the eroded remains of a huge volcano which existed about 56 million years ago.

The U shaped valleys told of the gathering glaciers that had then gouged this great gorge in the grey granite of Arran's mountains.


Monday, August 17, 2009

And gurly grew the sea

Back in March, we had set off to Arran via the island of Bute. Despite a forecast of a force 5 westerly, we left Bute in a flat calm and a thick fog. Gradually the fog began to lift and we could see our destination, which lies 11km away across the Sound of Bute.

Despite the lack of wind, the sea had an uneasy oiliness. Suddenly, out of nowhere the wind hit. It was just as well we were expecting it. A force 5 wind against a full spring ebb on the Garroch Head tide race makes for interesting conditions. So interesting in fact that the next photo, taken just as the wind hit us, was the last until we got into the lee of the Cock of Arran.

They had not sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
When the lift grew dark, and the wind blew loud,
And gurly grew the sea.

The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens


Saturday, August 15, 2009

An island, a castle and a salty moat.

We slipped throuh the Tan and swept round the north end of Little Cumrae island in fine style.

We soon found ourselves in the lee of the island and lost sight of snow streaked ridges of Arran.

Little Cumbrae Castle and Castle Island have a profile not dissimilar to one of the nuclear submarines, which are also to be found in these waters.

The Castle's main defence is its moat, which in this case is salty water!
Photo J Wilcox

A fine 23km paddle for a short winter's day.


Friday, August 14, 2009

A cloud on the horizon...

From Glencallum Bay on Bute we set off across the Firth of Clyde for the Tan, the body of water which separates Great and Little Cumbrae islands.

Conditions were perfect for our crossing.

The quality of light lifted our spirits.

All to soon, we were approaching Little Cumbrae with its Stevenson lighthouse. In the distance a yacht sailed in front of the dark outline of Holy Island. On the horizon, clouds gathered. A front was approaching. It would be raining again the following day.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Two bays in the Clyde

Back in February we had a lot of windy wet weather but one day we had a light north westerly breeze. We took advantage and arranged a last minute trip from the red sands of West Kilbride Bay on the Firth of Clyde.

We were soon enjoying the fresh air with a view to the peaks of Arran out west.

We met up with Tony off Portencross Castle.

We decided to paddle past the end of the Little Cumbrae to Glencallum Bay at the south end of Bute.

Inside the bay we were sheltered from the NW breeze and it was quite warm in the low winter sunshine. We decided to take luncheon.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

P&H Cetus skeg system

The P&H Cetus is a superb sea kayak and I am very fortunate to have one on loan for a long term test (and I guess P&H might be hoping for a few photos of it in the magazines (watch out for it in Ocean Paddler #17)!

So far I have only paddled it in flat water conditions, so a full test will need to wait until later. One problem, that did mar its otherwise excellent performance, was ease of skeg adjustment. This was a brand new boat but, straight out the wrapper, the skeg adjuster was so stiff that my daughter could not use it. I managed to move it but it very nearly broke my thumb. It was almost impossible to raise the skeg from the fully down position, when the slider is right at the back of the adjustment slot. I know that this is not an isolated case as a quick Google search will confirm several other reports, also here, here and here.

P&H have developed an all new skeg adjustment system for their most recent kayaks. Previously P&H, like many manufacturers, used a wire cable to positively move the skeg both down and up. These work great but if a stone jams the skeg up and you force the cable down, it bends and kinks where it is exposed, either at the adjuster or above the skeg. P&H have attempted to circumvent this weakness of cable skegs by developing the old elastic/rope idea.

Basically the new system works with a piece of shock cord pulling the skeg down against a thin cord pulling it up. The cord is attached to a slider with a ratchet to stop it being pulled back down. To lower the skeg, you first press forward the ratchet release with your thumb and then allow the slider and the skeg to move back and down.

I told Tim at P&H about it and he said that they were aware of the problem and had just released an upgrade kit with a replacement thinner cord to reduce friction.

The detailed instructions looked pretty easy.

Basically cut the old cord at the slider then pull the skeg out of the box. Next tie the new thin cord onto the skeg in place of the old one then thread the cord up the outer skeg adjuster cable . This proved to be very difficult as the line is relatively flexible and the hole is at the top of the skeg box. I solved this problem by threading the line through an empty Biro pen casing, as a guide. I then removed the guide before I tied the line to the skeg.

Next you thread the line through the hole in the slider, pass it through the small plastic washer supplied in the kit and tie a knot in the line. Was this a cure? Well no, it might have been a little easier at the front of the track (left in the photo)...

...but when the slider is at the back of the track, the hole in the slider does not line up with the hole the cord emerges from and there is a lot of friction. I got back to Tim and was very pleased that the P&H development team had not only already discovered this too but had even developed a workaround: the white plastic widget. As you can see prevents the slider moving right to the back of the track. Tim sent one up the next day.

He also told me that recent production boats had been modified by adding a short vertical bar to stop the slider moving right back.

So was this a cure, resulting in a silky smooth action? Unfortunately not, my daughter was still not strong enough to move it despite a liberal application of silicone spray, as recommended in the instruction sheet.

As supplied, this Cetus came with a piece of 4mm shock cord 50cm long (shown in red). With the slider fully back (again as supplied) the skeg was pulled down by the elastic to about 80 degrees to the keel. This resulted in a huge tension in the shock cord and the attachment point of the blue uphaul cord on the skeg did not give enough leverage to overcome it. I replaced the shock cord with a piece 75cm long.

Next I tied the knot at the slider end of the blue cord a bit short, so that the skeg only came down to about 45 degrees to the keel. (The P&H upgrade kit instructions recommends this angle.) These two changes have resulted in much less tension in the shock cord when the skeg is down as far as it is allowed.

Simon Willis made a video with Doug Cooper describing the operation of the new skeg system for the P&H website. Tellingly, Doug starts off by saying "There's a definite knack to using it though".

There is a another video which shows the assembly and operation of the skeg system here.

So has this cured the problem? Well it is much better but I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of friction on the axle, about which the skeg rotates. If you look at the photo above, you will see a red plastic nut on either side of the skeg. These nuts screw into one another and as supplied they gripped the skeg quite tightly. I unscrewed half a turn and this loosened the skeg off and also resulted in the outer faces of the red nuts being a tighter fit in the skeg slot (previously there was a tendency for the axle end of the skeg to fall out of the slot).

Now I have a system that works well for me, but my daughter says it still hurts her thumb, especially when trying to move it forward from the fully down position. I am also concerned about how any sand might add friction to skeg rotation.

Taking my daughter's complaint seriously, I now dismantled the system again and checked everywhere for friction. I noticed that the slider is a very tight fit in its V channel and there was considerable scoring on both the upper and lower channel faces (remember this is a boat that has only seen 4 days use). I noticed that if you pushed the slider near its mid line (where the steel rod runs through )that it is easier to move than if you push it off centre where the ratchet release is. Again I contacted Tim and he told me that they were also aware of this and had now developed a new low friction slider but unfortunately it would not be possible to retrofit it to existing boats.
Tim told me that they were aware that the overall problem was caused in some kayaks by lots of little bits of friction, at different points in the system, adding up. He also told me that P&H were committed to getting the design right and I have every confidence that they will.
What are my conclusions? Well first of all P&H are to be congratulated on trying to develop a better system than the existing wire skeg control which can be nearly impossible to repair in the field. Secondly, they are to be congratulated on speedily working to develop solutions to problems that have developed in their new design. However, the skeg on my Quest still works much more smoothly than my now finely tuned Cetus skeg, which I have spent two days adjusting. This is more time than I have spent maintaining a Quest cable skeg over 7 seasons and a Quest LV cable skeg over three seasons. I am certainly not going to let this put me off the Cetus, which in 4 days paddling has so far proved to be an outstanding performer and I can't wait to get out in her again.

However, even with its skeg in a finely tuned state, well rinsed and then sprayed with silicone, my daughter says she would prefer to paddle her own boat. So it looks like for now, P&H will need to put up with photos of her in the Quest LV rather than the Cetus.