Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Retreat from Islay, the mysterious case of the disappearing headland.

I slept poorly, partly due to the pain in my knee and partly due to unease about the day to come. I awoke early to the crash of surf on the offshore reefs. It sounded so close that I feared for the kayaks but when I stuck my head out of the tent there were only small waves making it onto our beach and the kayaks were safe. It was a relief to retreat from the chill, grey light of dawn back to the warm sleeping bag.

The morning was dull with thick low cloud. We planned to take the south going tide down the west coast of Islay and either camp at Lossit Bay or carry on round the Rhinns of Islay (at slack water) and into Loch Indaal, if there was too much surf to risk landing at Lossit.

At first there was only a gentle rise and fall over the small swell that made it past the reefs. Our first destination, Ton Mhor, dominated the horizon to the south west. It marked the start of the Rhinns of Islay.

 As we emerged from the shelter of the reefs the swell began to increase...

...until even the great bulk of Ton Mhor disappeared when we were in the troughs. From the crests I could see the spray hanging heavy in the air above the surf beaches at Sanaigmore and Ton Mhor. They were on the sheltered side of the Rhinns, so I knew it was pointless to go on. I had checked the Magicseaweed surf report for Machir Bay before we left and it was predicting 4 foot surf. Later forecasts had updated the prediction to 9 foot surf but we were not to to know that. 

At first Phil was surprised when I said we should turn back. After all, there was hardly a breath of wind in the air. However, he understood completely when I told him what a landing in large surf would be like. I made my decision early because the tide was pushing us strongly towards Ton Mhor. We had been paddling for only one hour when we turned back. Against the tide, it took considerably longer to get back to where we had camped the night before. If I had left the decision too late, the tide would have swept us round Ton Mhor and we would have been committed to paddling down the west coast of the Rhinns and the uncertainty of finding anywhere to land. 

Instead, we were soon back within the shelter of the reefs and looking for somewhere to enjoy a second breakfast. Yes, I am first to admit it, we practice seakayaking lite!

A time for reflection on Ardnave Point.

We enjoyed the view as the low sun's warm light illuminated the north shore of Islay, all the way to Rubha Bholsa, round which we had recently come. As the sun set, the temperature began to drop so we decided to make our way back down to the beach and light a fire. No sooner had I started descending the steep dune than I experienced a severe pain in my knee and my leg buckled under me. I broke out into a cold sweat. It was exactly a year since my accident on Gunna, while descending a similar steep sand dune. The painful events of my last year then all came flooding back, the slow recovery from the accident, the death of my father, the death of my good friend Jim, who had helped me back from Gunna, the inevitable major surgery on my knee and the hard months of rehabilitation afterwards. But despite all these setbacks, I was here and life felt really good. I paused for a little while more, then I felt a hand on my elbow, it was Phil. He helped me down to the shore.

Phil had found a large wooden pallet at the far end of the beach and dragged and carried it all the way back. We lit it with some smaller sticks I found nearby.

We soon had a warming blaze going and we toasted the memory of those we could no longer share our lives with. We felt so lucky to be alive and able to be here in this wonderful spot.

I planned to write an article of our trip for Ocean Paddler magazine (published in issue #25). I had this photo in my mind's eye, with the smoke drifting towards the kayaks. Phil helped me back up the dune,s then he went down again to sit by the fire but the wind kept changing direction.  Phil patiently carried both kayaks, backwards and forward along the beach several times, till I got this photo. Ocean Paddler used it as a double page spread and I hope you think Phil's efforts were worthwhile. Thank you Phil! He then helped me back down to the fire.

As the smoke drifted this way and that, we chatted long into the summer night about places we had been to, places we wanted to go to and about those who had been with us. Suddenly a lump came my throat and tear caught my eye. Maybe it was the smoke, maybe it was for those we have lost...