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