Monday, June 28, 2010

Made in Scotland from girders and glaciers.

We now entered the outer part of Loch Etive. The loch stretches away for 30km into the mountains, where it becomes the most fjord like of the Scottish sea lochs. It was cut by a massive glacier that gouged a U shaped trench through the mountains and was flooded by the sea when the glacier melted.

At the Connel narrows the view is dominated by the Connel bridge. It was built in 1903 to take the railway from Oban to Ballachuilish and its slate quarries.

In 1914 a roadway was added, which allowed vehicles to cross when no trains were on the line. The railway was closed in 1966 and since then it has been used only for road traffic. A one way system controlled by traffic lights is required as the bridge is not wide enough for two lanes. When it was built in 1903, no one could have expected the explosion in road traffic, even in this relatively remote part of Scotland.

As we approached the bridge it looked as if a light plane was going to try and land on it, but it was on its final approach to the small airfield just north of the bridge.

The Connel narrows formed where the glacier met the warmer sea and melted. As a result the narrows are very shallow and if the sea level was only a few feet lower, Loch Etive would have been a fresh water loch like Loch Lomond, Loch Shiel and Loch Morar.

The bridge is of cantilever construction and like irn bru was made in Scotland from girders, not to be drunk but to last!

We drifted under the bridge just an hour before HW slack and there was hardly a ripple to disturb the surface. However, there is a shallow sill, just below the ducks, over which the spring ebb tide pours as the Falls of Lora. A series of standing waves creates a very testing playground for play boaters. Tony Hammock of Seafreedomkayak has produced an excellent guide to kayaking the Falls of Lora.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

All quiet at Dunstaffnage

Leaving Ganavan Bay the conglomerate rocks of Ganavan Hill tumble steeply into the sea. Silver birch cling to the steep slopes and survive on ground that is too steep for sheep to get at their seedlings.

Rounding a headland a strip of low lying ground links Ganavan Hill to an isolated hill called Chapel Hill which was once probably an island. On the flat ground, the modern buildings of the Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory of the Scottish Association for Marine Science are being extended with the construction of a new teaching building.

We had now reached the point in our voyage where we turned east through the gap between Rhuba Garbh to the north end of Chapel Hill and the island of Eilean Mor. In the distance the snow covered slopes of the Benderloch mountains rose into patches of drifting cumulus clouds.

Through the trees, at the back of a delightful gravel beach, we could just make out the grim curtain walls and towers of Dunstaffnage Castle . The name has mixed Gaelic and Norse origins, Dun means fort in Gaelic and staffnage is derived from "stafr nis", staff headland in Norse.

There has been a fortification for at least 1500 years. In the days of sea communication, this site, at the junction of Loch Etive, the Firth of Lorn, the Sound of Mull and Loch Linnhe, had incredible strategic importance and the castle walls would not have been hidden away in trees. They would have dominated the landscape from every direction. Dunstaffnage was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada, which was founded by the Scots, who came to this coastline from Ireland. They brought with them the Stone of Destiny, upon which their Kings sat to be crowned. The stone reputedly came from the Holy Land via Ireland and Iona to Dunstaffnage. It was moved inland to Scone Palace in 843 with the advent of Viking raiders.

Most of the current castle was built in the early 1200's by the McDougall clan, who paid homage to King Hakon IV of Norway. In 1249 Alexander the II of Scotland assembled a fleet in Oban in order to seize Dunstaffnage as part of a campaign to regain control of the Western Isles from the Vikings and their allies. He died unexpectedly on the island of Kerrera and the attack was aborted. Unfortunately for the MacDougall's the respite was short lived. Dunstaffnage was captured after a siege by King Robert the Bruce in 1309, after the MacDougalls had backed his rival John Balliol. In 1470 it was transferred from the Royal estate to the Cambell clan.

A little further round, we could see the more modern addition to the castle, the Gatehouse, which is still the occasional private residence of the Captain of Dunstaffnage. The rest of the castle is open to the public for a small charge to Historic Scotland who now care for it.

Nowadays Dunstaffnage is a quiet backwater and we drifted past the castle in peace, to enter Loch Etive.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Trouble in the Isles

The Scottish tourist board have been hoping for a record breaking tourist season. What with the recession, volcano dust interrupting plane flights and the exceptionally dry June here in Scotland, things were looking promising....

This is the MV Clansman, she is one of the hardest working ferries in the Calmac fleet. It is 0743am and she is steaming out through the Sound of Mull towards Coll, Tiree then back to Coll. After visiting the islands she will return to Oban for a mere 40 minutes before heading back through the Sound of Mull and out to Castlebay in Barra! She is known as the loudest vessel in the Calmac fleet. We were camping at the SE entrance to the Sound of Mull but woke up when she started her engines 18km away in Oban! Sadly she has suffered a catastrophic engine failure and the life line she provides to Coll, Tiree, Barra and South Uist has been disrupted.

To maintain service, Calmac have transferred the MV Hebridean Isles, which normally does the Kintyre, Islay, Colonsay, Oban run, to help cover the Clansman's normal routes.

The MV Isle of Mull, which normally does the Oban to Mull run has also been drafted in to help cover the Clansman. The effect of this is that services to Islay, Colonsay, Mull, Coll, Tiree, Barra and South Uist are all affected. To make matters worse, the Scottish school holidays have just started.

If this was not enough, the record dry June has left reservoirs depleted in what are some of the wettest parts of the world! We now have an almost unbelievable situation where Mull is having to import water at a time when the ferries have restricted sailings!

As we say in Scotland, "It never rains but it pours!"

Friday, June 25, 2010

A welcome break at Ganavan.

We followed the Argyll coast across the sweep of Ganavan Bay and landed at its NE end.

The other end of the beach has beautiful sands but was crowded with walkers from Oban enjoying the first sunny day of the year. We chose to land at the quiet end and did not mind the cobbles.

We were rather hot and parched because we were all in dry suits, with multiple thermals underneath.

So it was a great excuse to stop for second luncheon. Jim W's kayak is a Sea King. The low winter sun showed off her fine lines and chines.

Jim produced orange slices while Phil got the stove an for tea but as it was afternoon, it was appropriate for a variety of malt whiskies to be sampled. On this occasion we had Bruichladdich Rocks, an 18 year old Glenfiddich and a 10 year old Springbank. I am sure there was another one but for the life of me I cannot remember what it was!

We enjoyed the thin winter sun in this beautiful spot. Recently a new housing development has been built on the site of a former RAF sea plane base in the SW corner of the bay. In a way it is a pity that such a development has taken place in such a beautiful spot. However, access is certainly a lot easier now. The owners of the previous holiday village of chalets, which was there from about 2004 to 2009, used to charge to launch from the beach, in addition to parking.

At our end of the bay, all was natural and wild. The view extended across the blue waters of the Lynn of Lorn to low lying Lismore, then to the mountains of Morvern beyond.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The skies cleared over the Firth of Lorn.

We left Oban harbour under cloudy, grey skies...

...but no sooner had we entered the Firth of Lorn...

...than a remarkable meteorological transformation took place...

...and the clouds parted above us.

We continued our voyage up the Firth of Lorn under welcome winter sunlight.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Waving goodbye to Oban.

Oban harbour is a busy place. MV Isle of Cumbrae was heading out to Lismore while...

MV Lord of the Isles was making her way in from Mull.

The harbour has a very narrow entrance and the basic rule is that sea kayaks keep right out of the way.

The ferries make an announcement on channel 16 just before they enter the narrows...

...which gives just enough time to position yourself ready to surf their bow waves!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

P&H Cetus LV test and long term review

About the test: paddling conditions and paddlers.Having paddled and enjoyed the P&H Cetus for over a year now I was really looking forward to paddling its lower volume sibling, the Cetus LV. This test took place during the period May 2009 till March 2010. It is based on paddling it for over 330km in a wide variety of waters off the west coast of Scotland: the Solway, the North Channel, the Clyde, the Firth of Lorn, Loch Creran, Skye and finally round the Mull of Oa on Islay. It has been tested in winds from force 0 to 7 and in flat water, wind blown chop, tide races moving at 15km/hour and in surf on exposed Atlantic beaches. It has also been paddled by three other paddlers weighing from 60 to 92kg.

It was paddled alongside a Cetus, two Alaw Bachs, Nordkapp LV and several Quests.

Manufacturer’s summary

“If you are a smaller or lighter paddler then you really require a sea kayak that has been designed with your stature in mind. With the Cetus LV we began hand-shaping a body that would ensure you have the same experience with full control of the boat out there on the water as everybody else. The Cetus LV is a sleek and elegant performer that really utilises the available space to balance the volume creating a highly manoeuvrable and versatile British sea kayak.”


This is a low, sleek kayak of a similar overall form to the Cetus and like it, the Cetus LV is of swede form, with the wide point behind the cockpit. The rear of the hull forms a drawn out inbuilt skeg. This gives a long waterline length for speed when the boat is upright but disengages from the water for manoeuvrability when the kayak is edged. Moving forward, a wide, flattish bottom with a slight V at the keel under the cockpit runs into a rounder section towards the bow, with no hard chines between the sides and the bottom.

Construction, finish, fittings and ergonomics
I have used five separate 2009/2010 P&H Cetus/LV kayaks and all, including this one, have shown a superb quality of finish in respect of lamination and assembly of the hull, deck and bulkheads. The GRP bulkheads are fitted with a rubber bung with a relief valve to prevent implosion/explosion of hatch covers in extreme temperature conditions. There were no faults in the fitting of components and accessories. The Cetus LV on test was very smart with a white hull, yellow deck and orange seam and cockpit rim.

The long keyhole cockpit makes this one of the easiest kayaks to get in and out of, especially if you suffer from hip or knee problems. For 2010 P&H are now fitting the plastic seat lower in the cockpit and this allowed me at 92kg to fit snugly without removing the padded seat cover, (which I previously had to do in May 2009). For those that like to paddle without a seat cover, the seat base is comfortable and supportive with just the right amount of rise at the front. The seat back was supportive, not too high for layback rolls and resistant to folding forward under your bum during wet re-entries. Its tension adjusts effectively using a belt and two corrosion resistant D buckles. Smaller paddlers should stick some foam hip pads to the sides of the seat to ensure good contact for edge control. The thigh braces were not so aggressive and supportive as the Alaw Bach’s but were more pronounced than a Nordkapp LV’s. They allowed a comfortable range of thigh positions from relaxed cruising to full “brace in a tide race” mode! They come fitted with a 3mm layer of closed cell foam.

The footrests fitted to this particular kayak were the long serving Yakima models with alloy tracks and small plastic pedals. Several paddlers paddling the Cetus LV back to back with the Alaw Bach commented that the pedals felt less comfortable than the Rockpool’s footplate. However, the Cetus LV normally comes supplied with P&H’s own adjustable footrests that have exceptionally large and comfortable pedals. They slide on twist/lock “paddles” which come back to just behind your knees. A 90 degree twist (while you are still seated) allows the footrest to be slid forward or back with the paddles for a perfect fit. They remained firmly in place in all four kayaks I tried with them despite many rolls and wet exits.

I paddle in size 10 boots and despite the kayak’s low profile; there was enough room for daylong comfort. The pod of the fore deck hatch is shorter than on the full size Cetus and that allowed my toes more room, as they extended beyond the pod and could be swung into the midline for a change of position. The fore deck hatch is so very convenient for such things as small flares, sun tan oil, head torch, energy bars etc.

End toggles (secured by elastics), deck lines and elastics, compass recess and security/tow line bar were of the usual high P&H standard fitting and function. Behind the cockpit there is a transverse recess designed to take a paddle shaft while launching and landing. Personally, I like to keep my nice carbon fibre paddles well out of the way of my bum. However, there is no doubt that the moulding adds to deck rigidity and I do like to sit on the rear deck while getting my legs in and out of the cockpit. A large rubber oval rear deck hatch was partnered by a smaller round one towards the bow.

The day hatch and fore hatch were lighter covers with plastic centres. All covers were tethered. Tent poles need to be removed from a tent bag to bend it through the round forward hatch.

In five P&H Cetus and Cetus LV kayaks I tried, all compartments remained dry, despite some extended wet work. In terms of carrying capacity, the Cetus LV is significantly smaller than the Alaw Bach, which is in turn smaller than the Nordkapp LV. Extended expedition space will be at a premium in this kayak but with a lightweight tent and compact down sleeping bag, there should be no problem for week long trips. The relatively narrow bow together with the shape of the foredeck means it is easy to get the paddle entry well forward and close to the hull for efficient paddling. The decals are quality items and not cheap transfers. They are 3D items and I particularly liked the bow logo, which looks like an eye.

The new P&H skeg system has run into development problems in some 2009 kayaks. It is an ingenious skeg slider with a ratchet that pulls the skeg up, and holds it up, against a shock cord that pulls the skeg down. When it works, the system results in an extremely light and effective skeg control and it does not have the risk of kinking a wire cable as in many other systems. Over the last year, I have paddled five P&H kayaks with this system. Two worked perfectly, one was a bit stiff and two became so stiff that the skegs were unusable. P&H have recognised the problem and have put a great deal of effort into developing components of the system to find a solution and to supporting those customers who were affected. The P&H website has a skeg system help link from its homepage. This link will guide you through a couple of self diagnostic tests before giving you contact details. I tried following this and was contacted by P&H the same day. A day later I found myself talking to their chief development engineer and also the boss of the parent company, Pyranha. I am impressed by how P&H are committed to supporting their affected customers and I would have every confidence in buying a further P&H kayak. The most recent (2010) P&H kayaks I have seen have skeg which works faultlessly. The skeg blade is a high aspect design, which is rather flexible.


Having been surprised by the manoeuvrability of the full size Cetus on edge, I was expecting a great deal from the Cetus LV. However, I found that with my 92 kg weight, it was not much more manoeuvrable than the Cetus. Investigating this, I found that when I edge the Cetus LV, the long built in skeg does not disengage, and shorten waterline length as happens on the Cetus.

Lighter paddlers of the Cetus LV experience greater manoeuvrability, because the skeg disengages. The Cetus LV is really for smaller paddlers who want a decent fit and handling, rather than for big paddlers, wanting more manoeuvrability. What P&H have done with the Cetus/LV/MV is to create a series of boats that allow people of different weights to experience the same handling characteristics, as long as they choose the appropriate kayak for their size. You should make sure that when you demo a Cetus/LV/MV, you choose the size that allows the waterline to shorten as you edge. A satisfying gurgle from the stern during an edged turn should be a clue that you are in the right kayak.

Threading through rock gardens on the Mull of Logan and the Mull of Oa, the Cetus LV proved at least as manoeuvrable as the Alaw Bach with heavier paddlers and with a lightweight paddler, was probably more manoeuvrable. It was also more manoeuvrable than the Nordkapp LV.

My experience of the Cetus LV will be what a light paddler might experience when loaded for an expedition, albeit I will have lighter ends! Lighter paddlers thought the stability at rest was superb though I found its primary stability to be less than the Cetus, a little less than the Alaw Bach and more than the Nordkapp LV. It is superbly stable on edge and Jim, an experienced paddler, commented that he couldn’t think of a finer kayak to learn about edge control and turning. My daughter’s first day in the Cetus LV included a nonstop, 24km winter night crossing of the mouth of the Firth of Lorn, from Loch Buie in Mull to Seil. There was a force 4 wind from 45 degrees to the bow, with an adverse 1 knot tide. We couldn’t see the waves, we could only feel and taste them! Her comment was that the Cetus LV behaved so well that it inspired great confidence during this challenging crossing.

Having such a low profile means that this is a wetter boat than the Alaw Bach or the Nordkapp LV. However, the trade off is that in force 6-7 winds, the Cetus LV is able to be turned, bow through the wind, more easily than the Alaw Bach. The kayak can be used without a skeg, as it is so responsive to edging. However, on a long crossing, I much prefer to use the skeg. On the model on test, the skeg was too stiff for my daughter to operate. I found the Cetus LV skeg more sensitive to small adjustments than that of the Cetus. The Cetus skeg has an “on or off” feel, so we were not able to finely titrate the amount of skeg to the wind strength and direction as the paddlers in Quests were doing.

Tony, who is an Alaw Bach paddler, commented that the Cetus LV accelerated faster and had a higher top speed than the Alaw Bach, which tended to dig its stern into the water, increasing drag as it approached its top speed. In small to medium following seas, the Alaw Bach picked the waves up with much less paddler input than the Cetus LV. However, the acceleration of the Cetus LV helped a determined kayaker catch even the most unpromising swell. Once on the swell, the Cetus LV was steerable by edging, especially if you stayed well up on the wave. It was much less likely to broach than the full sized Cetus but was more likely to broach than either the Alaw Bach or Nordkapp LV. The broaching could be controlled by deploying the skeg, except in steep following seas. It was effective until a certain point and I wonder if the skeg’s flexibility contributed to the stern suddenly giving way.

We did not test the Cetus LV on full sized surf landings but it proved very easy to control when landing in 3’ surf on the west of Islay. Ultimately, like all sea kayaks in surf, it broached but was very stable when braced in the broached position. It was also very controllable through the surf zone on the approach. A great deal of this controllability was due to its quick acceleration, allowing you to slow down, let a big, threatening swell through, then accelerate for a more manageable wave, to carry you into the shore.

Just looking at its fine bow sections, we all felt there was a risk that the Cetus LV might be at risk of pearling in steep following seas. However, there is a distinct upward curve in the sheer line from the front hatch forward. On test, pearling was not a problem, even in a tide race with a 92kg paddler and steep 1m waves. The bow of the Alaw Bach was more buoyant in these conditions but this kayak tended to slam more when the bow dropped into a trough. The Cetus LV also stays remarkably flat when paddling into waves. The Alaw Bach and Nordkapp LV threw their bows higher and the Quest tended to dip its bow lower. Overall, the Cetus LV inspired confidence, giving a very smooth passage through difficult, rough water conditions.

We gave the Cetus LV a good test in spring tidal conditions on the Solway, the Mull of Logan in the North Channel and the Mull of Oa on Islay. Not only did the Cetus LV handle the unpredictable waves in the races in a secure manner but it seemed to be remarkably unaffected when crossing sharp eddy lines. Due to the conditions and lack of landing opportunities it was not possible to swap kayaks over and paddle the same sections in different kayaks. However, all who paddled the Cetus LV felt its performance in tide races and eddy lines matched and probably exceeded the best of the other kayaks.

The Cetus LV proved easy to both roll, and to renter and roll. For an all round kayak, its relatively low back rest and rear deck made lay back rolls easy (though this is not a Greenland style roller!) Once up, it tended to settle upright unlike the Nordkapp LV, which usually required a quick brace to stop it going over on the other side again.

DimensionsStandard construction, weight: 24.4kg (the test kayak did not have the optional keel strip fitted), length: 531cm, breadth: 53cm, cockpit length: 80cm, breadth: 41.5cm, height at front: 29.5cm, rear of seat base to front of cockpit: 69cm. Price £2149.

After a thorough test, in a variety of challenging Scottish conditions, we found that the P&H Cetus LV is another significant step forward for British form sea kayaks. It is part of an outstanding family of boats that allow paddlers (of a wide range of sizes and abilities) to experience a versatile kayak that is stable, fast, manoeuvrable, comfortable and well built. The beauty of the Cetus family is that this performance applies to both loaded and unloaded use. I, like many of my enthusiastic sea kayaking friends, have ended up buying two kayaks; one for expeditions and one for day use. With the introduction of the Cetus family, this is now looking like an unnecessary luxury. Some 2009 kayaks have developed skeg problems but the way that P&H have responded and are supporting affected customers must give a great deal of confidence to potential buyers. One of the four main testers in this report has now bought a full size Cetus and another is considering the Cetus LV. Another would like to buy the Cetus LV, if she had enough money!