Thursday, April 19, 2018

Road Trip to Scotland

With Easter fast approaching, it was time to make a plan. It had been a while since I had visited the west highlands of Scotland so I joined some folk from Liverpool Canoe Club on their Easter break based in Kinlochleven.

Photo: Dawn Brankley
Once over the border it was time to stock up on supplies... it is always better to buy local produce where possible. By the time we reached the bunkhouse it was nearly midnight but there was still time for a bite to eat for supper and couple of beers.

Kinlochleven is a small village about 7 miles from Glencoe. It is conveniently located close to excellent walking, river kayaking, skiing and sea kayaking.

Photo: Kathy Morton
Our first day was a sea kayaking trip from Arisaig to Mallaig. This is a stunning stretch of rocky coast with skerries and a few sandy beaches. The view out to the west is a perfect backdrop made up or the Ardnamurchan peninsula and the islands or Eigg and Rum. We took our time exploring along the way until we reached Mallaig harbour where we took shelter in the Fishermans Mission. The coffee and cake made for excellent refreshment before heading back to Arisiaig in near-perfect conditions.

The following day was due to be a little more breezy so we chose to have a shorter day in and around Port Appin. It was windier that we expected and bitterly cold. Our windy paddle came to an early end rounded off nicely with a few drinks in the Pier House.

Having had two tiring days on the water, it was time to venture out on foot. The original plan was to explore the upper reaches of Glen Coe but we were enticed by some white water kayaking action on the river Etive. There were a couple of groups paddling a series of steep drops and waterfalls. The best fun was the final drop called 'Right-angle Falls'. Many of the paddlers clambered back up the rocks for a repeat run. Some even took the 4 metre plunge without their boat.

Photo: Dawn Brankley
The sunshine and settled weather had been kind but the forecast for the coming days was for strong winds, sleet and snow. The decision to head back south wasn't taken lightly but it was the best thing to do. As ever with my trips to Scotland, I'm always left wanting to go back for more.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Frozen Storm Gathering

The 9th UK Storm Gathering was held in North Pembrokeshire on the weekend of March 16-18th near to St Davids. The idea of Storm Gathering is to bring together like-minded paddlers wanting to develop their skills and to network with others seeking to improve their sea kayaking.

I arrived late on the Friday evening through sleet and snow showers just as the first day was drawing to a close. It was bitterly cold! The next morning I settled in with a group of paddlers who were wanting to improve their rescue skills. With low temperatures and wind from the East, we decided to focus the workshop on towing skills and staying dry! Other groups went in search of more challenging waters and to the edge of their comfort zones.

Photo: Tavi Murray
We found a suitably sheltered stretch of coast at Pwllgwaelod and along the western side of Dinas Head. During the morning session we explored the different methods of contact towing. In shelter at first, then later in more challenging conditions. At Lunchtime we were lucky enough to be warmed by a rare spell of sunshine whilst preparing ourselves for an afternoon of rope work and towlines.

We experimented with towing in confined spaces, rough water, in twos and threes and then more until the whole group was 'husky towing' two fortunate slackers back to Pwllgwaelod beach.

As we landed the wind chill bit hard. It had been 7 Celsius when we launched. It was 4 degrees when we landed and once again it had begun to snow.

Photo: James Pigdon
After the evening meal I began to prepare for the evening's entertainment. It was to be a quiz based on expedition kayaking. Just before kick off I ventured outside for a breath of fresh air. I found myself in a winter wonderland. Snow drifts had begun to form around the buildings and along the lanes. The quiz led to an entertaining evening of long drinks and tall stories that went on late into the night. 

There was little appetite for paddling in the morning with sub-zero temperatures and strong winds. One group went out. Others opted for indoor based expedition planning and navigation workshops. My challenge was to get home through rural mid-wales whilst trying to avoid snow drifts and road closures.

This was by far the coldest Storm Gathering I have ever attended. Mother nature always provides special challenges at these extraordinary events.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

In the Autumn you'll need a Jersey!

Earlier in the year I met Kevin and Nicky Mansell from Jersey Canoe Club. Whilst we were washing patatas bravas down with San Miguel after hot day of sea kayaking on the Costa Brava. They invited me and a few friends to paddle with them around their back waters.

We assembled a team of nine paddlers from Manchester Canoe Club and flew out to the Channel Islands on a Thursday in Mid-September. Kevin and Nicky met us at the airport and showed us to a pleasant campsite close to the Jersey Canoe Club Base on the East side of the Island.

We were greeted by the the worst weather imaginable for setting up camp. Persistent rain made the ground unpleasantly squidgy for putting up our tents. Later in the afternoon, as the weather began to clear we headed for St Brelade's Bay where Kevin had arranged a short trip with sit-on-top kayaks. As we made our way beneath the southern cliffs and through the pink granite rock-gardens, we stopped every now and then for some sport! Kevin would clamber up onto one of the more prominent rocks... and jump into the deep water below, and eventually re-surface. Some of us brave fools followed his lead. As the sun sank low in the sky beyond Corbiere Lighthouse, we headed back to St Brelade's for beer and banter.

Friday morning was our first day in sea kayaks. Jersey Canoe Club have a generous stack of Tiderace Vortex kayaks so there were enough to go around. We headed out of St Catherine's Bay, past the breakwater and along the north coast. The strong tidal stream whisked up past deep bays, promontories and tall cliffs until this impressive coastline led us into Bon Nuit Bay. We stopped for lunch in the sunshine before beginning our return journey. The highlights of the return journey was playing in the tide race at L'Etacquerel and meeting a pod of bottle-nosed dolphins near to Rozel.

We were fortunate enough to have timed our visit to Jersey Canoe Club with their annual barbecue. The festivities began soon after we landed with cold beers, greasy burgers and seared chicken wings.

It would be difficult to do better on Saturday. However, this time we headed south from St Catherine's aiming for the Gorey Castle. The trip was (yet again) jaw-dropping. The castle commands a high position on the top of a huge cliff that overlooks the harbour. We stopped for lunch admiring the paragliders before setting off back to St Catherine's for a well-earned rest.

Our final paddling day was on the north-east corner of Jersey. We joined the Jersey Canoe Club for their Sunday paddle. On this occasion it was from Greve de Lecq to Sorel Point and back. There was plenty of swell creating some challenging dumping surf on the beach. The reward for survivors was to witness the powerful three metre swell breaking explosively on the reefs and cliffs of Jersey's north-east corner.

Before catching the evening flight home on Monday evening we spend some time sightseeing in St Helier. Thanks to Kevin and Nicky Mansell and the rest of the lovely folk from Jersey Canoe Club. Their hospitality was tremendous. We will be back!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Midsummer in Iceland

I love the time of midsummer. The dark blue colour of the northern late evening sky is so captivating. I have noticed that I tend to head north during the summer for cooler climes rather than the hotter shores of the Mediteranean. As I write this, the UK is only just being released from a major heatwave. I'm glad to have escaped that.

I met Magnus at the offices of Arctic Adventures to get an idea of what I had let myself in for. Arctic Adventures is a huge company that offers a range of adventurous activities in Iceland including sea kayaking. The first task would be to guide 12 teenagers from the USA on a two day sea kayaking trip with a night of camping on a wild and remote island near to the fishing village of Stykkisholmur. At times it was like herding cats but actually they were a great bunch and Iceland's cold, drizzly weather was like water off an eider duck's back to them.

Over the following few days we ran a couple shorter trips in a huge fjord called Hvalfjordur (Whale Fjord) and another 2 day trip from Stykkisholmur with guests from Germany, Italy, Switzerland and China. The variety in the weather was stunning. Apart from plenty of soggy grey weather we got sunny weather that made it uncomfortably warm to wear a drysuit and a screaming gale through which we needed to tow 2 novice paddlers.

On my days off I took the time to stroll around the parks, coastline and city streets of Reykjavik. It is a delightful city. There are very few tall buildings giving Reykjavik an open and airy feel with big skies. The parks are well-kept and well used. Wildlife is everywhere. Lupins were introduced in the 1940s to improve the thin, gritty Arctic soils but have now gone a bit out of control.

One of my favourite birds here is the redwing; a winter visitor to the UK but breeding here in Iceland. They dart between digging for worms in the grass to foraging for grubs and berries in the bushes and undergrowth.

In just a few days now I will be heading back home to 'old blighty'. In the meantime, I have another day trip in Reykjavik and one more overnighter from Stykkisholmur to keep me busy.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A tale of two rivers

There are always so many things to do so I'm glad I could make the Conwy Ascent Race this year. It's the only sea kayak race I'll be able to manage this time round. Its always so pleasing to meet the regular sea kayak race goers.

The turnout was a little less than in past years, which may have been due to the forecast of thunderstorms. The prospect of lightning and all those carbon paddles is daunting. The race was slow-going and choppy in places with a difficult southerly headwind. A couple of K2 crews succumbed to the briny in Conwy Harbour just as the Pirate Day celebrations unleashed a resounding volley from town's defensive cannons!

After the finish in Dolgarrog, I joined a few other competitors for a paddle back down to Conwy. With the ebbing tide and the wind at our backs, it was an easy, mellow an fitting end to the day.

Afterwards I headed over to Shrewsbury to meet up with my friend Amy who showed me around town by means of the River Severn and a Canoe.

We packed up more than enough kit for our overnight camp but that's what you do, when you have a canoe!

It seemed to take forever to escape the meanders that have protected Shrewsbury from invaders (like me) throughout the ages. Eventually we found ourselves in the lush green countryside of Shropshire. Suburban gardens, wooded banks and farmland led us to Atcham and the Mytton and Mermaid Hotel. As this was a warm sunny day, we decided make the most of this opportunity to re-hydrate.

Back on the river, later in the afternoon we discovered some sandstone caves in amongst woodland. We stopped to explore for a while, made a cup of tea, explored some more, then decided that this was the perfect place to camp for the night.

The overnight rain gave way to a chilly drizzly breeze. Such a stark contrast to the sunny weather the day before. The sight of the chimneys and cooling towers at Ironbridge was a comfort because they looked so close. However, the meandering river kept repeatedly taking us away from the town before bringing us tantalizingly closer with each looping bend.

Eventually we made it to Dale End Park where we hurried indoors to the cafe for a well-earned cup of tea and a below average, inappropriately greasy pasty.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Pagaia Sea Kayak Symposium

The Pagaia club is a sea kayaking club based in Costa Brava. Every two years it hosts the biggest sea kayaking symposium in Europe with around 250 paddlers attending the week-long event.

Last January I was invited to coach at the symposium  and the first thing I was asked to do was to make a short video to help promote the event.

The flight into Barcelona was spectacular. The weather was clear and there were spectacular views over the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. Next was a two hour drive along the coast to Llança where the symposium is based.

The first three days of the event are spent doing workshops in specific skills like rolling, forward paddling and boat handling. I teamed up with my friend Rick to coach rock-hopping and incident management.

After the first day a banquet was held for all 250 participants. The seafood paella was made and served up by volunteers from the Pagaia Club. The evening was rounded of with a warm rum drink, which is traditional among fishermen and sailors from this region.

The rest of the week was spent helping out with guided trips of the region. This is an opportunity to put the skills learned during the weekend workshops into practice. We even started some of our trips in Port Lligat which is famously overlooked by the house of Salvador Dali.

For the most part we were very lucky with the weather and sea conditions. There was only one day with any significant swell. On that day many paddlers felt 'tested' in the two-metre swell with awkward choppy clapotis.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the Pagaia Club de Caiac Cap de Creus for inviting me, and for making me feel so welcome. I hope to be back in two years time.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Blowing the Cobwebs Away

The team of Manchester Canoe Club sea kayak leaders has been on Anglesey riding winter waves, practicing rescues and brushing up on navigation.

The choppy waters of Trearddur Bay looked challenging. The force 5 wind was onshore giving us the required safety net. If anything went badly wrong, we would just be washed ashore. There are numerous coves for shelter as well as treacherous jagged reefs that must be avoided at all costs! We started by working our way gradually to the eastern edge of the bay. This brought us to Raven’s point where the swell was reaching close to 3 metres. With some of these waves beginning to break we didn’t stay for long.

After lunch we indulged in some incident management in amongst the reefs. The increasing wind made rigging towlines difficult, but the experience will be worthwhile in the long run. The same goes for the various deep-water rescues and rolling puzzles we set about.

After tea and cakes at the Anglesey OutdoorCentre we set off for The Menai Straits. The shelter of the northern section was perfect for an introduction to night navigation. Each leader took it in turn to manage the group and navigate by compass bearing, timing and map reading. The exercise went well and we were back at the centre in time for food and beer in The Paddlers Return Bar.

The objective on Sunday was to reach ‘The Skerries’ which is a group of small rocky islands off the north west point of Anglesey. There are strong tidal streams here and timing is crucial. On this occasion, it meant getting out of bed at 6.30am! There was barely enough time to have a brew and a biscuit before driving to Cemlyn Bay and getting on the water soon after 8am. A chilly breeze, swirling mists and howling grey seals greeted our arrival. The Skerries fog horn sounded as we finished our breakfast. As the fog closed in, we found our navigation skills all in order for the return journey.

We look forward to the program of trips and events in the Manchester Canoe Club sea kayaking calendar for the coming year. Come and join us.