Oban sea trip, 15,16 August 2009

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Oban sea trip with GCK, Scotland – 16/17 August 2009 by Alastair Ferrar

A trip in Scotland through the eyes of a recently graduated BCU 2* on his first ever sea kayak experience. One that he will certainly never forget!

Early Saturday morning after arriving late the previous night we met our fellow Scottish paddlers at the headquarters of the Glasgow Kayak Club (GCK). Despite Sean’s military itinerary, we had somehow managed to keep our hosts waiting on the roadside in the pouring rain with our GCK kayaks – Sean’s military precision turned out to be 30 point zero zero minutes out. Anyway, after our humble apologies and after the kayaks were safely stowed on the roof of Sean’s trusty estate we made our way up north from Glasgow to Oban, a two hour drive. The group making our way north include: Alastair, Rob and Sean from London THCC; Muir, Iain, Andy and Neil from GKC.

On arrival not too far south of Oban in a little bay called Gallanachbeg, we met Lewis, a 5* sea kayaker; so with Lewis, Sean and Muir at the helm we knew we were in safe hands. The whole idea of this excursion was to introduce real sea conditions to keen and eager but relatively inexperienced paddlers and within our group of 8, three of us had never paddled before in the open sea. Lewes and Muir briefed us on what sort of conditions to expect and to be fair, at that point I don’t think even they knew the extent of what we were heading in to. Our plan was to cross the Sound and circumnavigate Kerrera in a clockwise direction, starting with the tide but against the wind. By the time we had prepared our boats ready to go, it was after midday and time was already against us.

Crossing the Sound was a bit like crossing a very wide version of the Thames but far more choppy and without much in the way of fast moving traffic, just the odd sailing vessels. The waves were barely half a metre in height and already my eyes were like saucepans and my heart thumping. We were heading into the wind and into short and sharp waves and I watched with big eyes as the front of my kayak started crashing off the edge of these waves into the water and every now and then my paddle simply missed the target and swiped fresh air. After 20 minutes, we had safely reached the banks of Kerrera, sheltered from the gradually increasing winds …and that was beginners Sea Kayaking 101… brace yourself for the next instalment!

Our leaders grouped us up and asked us if any of us felt nervous or ‘outside our comfort zone’ to which I answered no, not terribly nervous, but yes somewhat outside my comfort zone …but I wanted to go on. The less accomplished of us (me included of course) were asked to do a ‘test’ of our abilities in trailing seas – we were asked to paddle to the next sheltered bay and in pairs, turn around and return to the same point. It was an interesting experience with choppy half metre waves attacking the back end and surprisingly different to paddling facing the waves, the kayak seemed less stable and far more difficult to control with constant nudging from behind twisting the boat every other way but straight. I felt perhaps the sudden realisation that I needed to be very awake at all times, but none the less, we all managed this task without too much trouble. I have to say it was a valuable little coaching session in preparation for what was lying in wait ahead.

The beautiful and rugged coastline stretched south as far as the eye could see, with the rain soaked green mountainous terrain of the mainland disappearing into the east. I remember thinking how fantastically privileged I felt; the rocky and jagged shore was alive with crashing waves and foaming surf – my eyes fixed on the dramatic scenes and finding myself being easily drawn towards it, with Sean firmly reminding me to keep my distance from the rocks. I don’t think I blinked once from this point on.

We now started making our way towards the southern tip of Kerrera (the danger point as I understood it to be) and the group was slowly finding itself splitting in two with slower paddlers behind no longer in sight. Sean and I and two other Scots in the front group suddenly found ourselves in what I can only described as ‘very big sea’. We had been in constant force 6 winds (measured by Lewis with his little hand held device) and the swell was consistently in excess 4m from crest to trough. Waiting for the trailing group had started to become a bit of a trial in these conditions so we had to slowly push forward.

I remember the rain making an occasional unwelcome appearance, sometimes getting quite strong and stinging my face to the point that I could hardly keep my eyes open but that was the very very least of my concerns. I had much bigger things to think about. We had now passed the southern most point of the island, Rubha Seanach and had to take a wide berth to ensure we didn’t find ourselves thrown onto the rocks of the ’ach.

While we were deliberately making slow progress in wait for the other group, seeming to take an extraordinarily long time, we spotted what could only be a shark fin carving oh so gently through the water between our boats. It headed briefly away from us and then turned. We figured it had to be a shark of sorts. We figured this out even though in the howling gale I heard nothing from others, call it sign language. I could not believe what I was witnessing! The huge animal turned and headed directly towards me. Yes, towards little old me in my little plastic tub with my little heart in my little mouth. I saw its massive shadow as its fin disappeared into the water merely an arms length away from me. IT SWAM RIGHT UNDER ME!!! I expected almost certainly to be nudged in, but I felt nothing against the hull! Is all this happening to me right here right now all at once…? I thought.

I found myself multitasking like never before!! We had officially passed the point of no return. Sean had taken the decision to continue and not wait for the other group. We needed to make progress and cross the southern weather stricken edge of the island to find shelter before we all got too tired. So now we needed to get moving and even though I had found myself in a frame of mind that nothing much more could surprise me, the waves were getting even bigger and the wind even stronger. Our estimates found the waves now to be consistently 6m from crest to trough with wind gusting occasionally to Force 8. The mountains on the mainland would disappear and then reappear, I could not hear anyone or anything, just howling wind in my ears and sea spray in my face – all I focused on was the next wave, face it front on if it’s frothing or curling at the top, and take every opportunity to ferry-glide west.

Low and behold, dolphins (or porpoises) started diving in and out of the waves just in front of us, four five six… or more! And then some more! It was like I was a character in a story book suddenly gripped in the wild wonders of a faraway place! It was strangely like paradise. I saw another fin of a basking shark (yawn) and more dolphins and within this stage set, utterly exhausted without really knowing it, and steadily making progress to the point where Sean had instructed us to go.

Our group of four had now split into two pairs. I was with Andy and we were on target and making good progress in the wild sea, tiredness was setting in so we chose to raft together in the big swells and rest while we looked behind for Sean and Iain. There they were in the distance also rafted up, I felt a huge relief to see them. We waited there while they made their way towards us and eventually we were reunited and rafting as four. The waves could come… we were safe in our formation. Sean made sure we all had our wits together and briefed us on the next bit. The wind and waves were steadily pushing us back onto the rocks so we had to make our move and Sean gave us clear instruction to break raft one by one and head north, angled across a trailing sea. We had crossed the southern face of the island.

Heading north with the wind and sea was not nearly as big an experience as we had just left behind us, but strangely difficult. Our instruction was to NOT surf any waves under any circumstances. The seriousness in Sean’s voice made me nervous, but every now and again despite my efforts a wave caught me and pushed me forward and I found myself constantly bracing to stay upright and straight, pulling myself back and allowing the waves to pass. The pain in my forearms was hard to bear. It was not about paddling anymore, it was simply about keeping myself from falling in! The sea and wind was keeping me moving at a fair old pace. I had three very close encounters one of which I cannot quite fathom how I remained upright, I very nearly lost my paddle and I did loose my hat!! My confidence was waning!

After a well deserved lunch break in the sheltered bay of Port Phadruig on the western side of Kerrera the four of us got going again and made quick progress with a quartering sea and strong tailwind. Confidence partially restored. When we reached the northern tip of Kerrera in record time an hour or so later, Sean finally managed to make contact with the other group by radio for the first time since we split. As we had assumed, that they had chosen to turn back soon after the seas got to 5m swell and chose not to cross the southern face of the island. They had experienced their own share of howling trailing seas as they were blown back up the Sound to Gallanachbeg. They were waiting for us, Rob, Muir, Lewis and Neil in the bay of Oban with the vehicles, knowing full well where we would be hoping they would be, knowing we would not be in the mood to paddle the last 5km into the wind southwards down the Sound to the point where we had launched earlier in the day. And they were right; they were a sight for sore eyes!!

We celebrated in the restaurant that night (not ‘til too late I have to say) and chose to take Sunday a little more leisurely, just nattering in the breakfast bar ‘til midday! One for the log book I have yet to get!

Pictures of the calmer moments can be found here [1].

More trips like this comming in 2010......