Sunday, November 20, 2016

Autumn Colours

The beginning of Autumn was a seemingly endless string of dazzling sunny days and warm evenings and many of us made the most of an extended summer. Soon enough we see the sun setting earlier, rising later and the leaves beginning to change colour.

This years wet spring and summer followed by dry, warm and sunny autumn days but cool nights provide the right conditions for the kind of vivid colours that we have this year. It helps that we haven't really had much in the way of strong winds to prematurely tear the leaves from their branches.

There are so many signs along the river bank that nature's beasts are making a final effort to stock up and prepare for leaner times ahead.

I've been making the most of good paddling conditions as ever. This included attending the Tyne Tour hosted by the Hexham Canoe Club. This event has a little bit for everyone. Scenic river paddling, excellent social scene and a wonderful firework display.

Now that many of the leaves have fallen from the trees, the silver birches are taking centre stage in the late afternoon sunshine. This evenings plummeting temperatures tell me that winter is just around the corner. Time to look for my hat and gloves!

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Wild Camping on the Anglesey Coast

The ultimate attraction of sea kayaking is ending a perfect day of paddling with a camp on a deserted beach. This timeless form of adventure brings an overwhelming sense of freedom.

On the first of the trips with Manchester Canoe Club I was joined by Diane, Andrew, Holly and Dez. We launched onto the Menai Strait heading for the isolated beaches and dunes on the south west corner of Anglesey. Blue skies and warm sun could not distract us from the freshening southwesterly breeze. The increasing wind made our progress tough. We rested in the shelter of some trees near to Port Dinorwic and later again in the shadow of Caernarfon Castle. The final leg took us through rough water and strong currents. Having been battered by waves over 4 feet high we finally found a suitable place to camp with good shelter from the wind among the dunes.

There was plenty of driftwood for a fire and we picked mussels fresh from the shore. Beer and wine flowed with stories and jokes until the embers faded.

By morning, the wind had dropped and our journey back to Menai Bridge was uneventful; possibly overshadowed by last nights revelry around the fire.

The second trip started at the northern east tip of Anglesey. This time I was joined by Amanda, Andy, Frances and another Andy. We took a trip around Puffin Island and marveled at the inquisitive inhabitants of the seal colony at its northeastern tip. Soon afterwards the tide race in Puffin Strait gave a few emotional moments. When we landed on the pebbly beach beside the Trwyn Du Lighthouse, tea and cake was soon on order at the nearby café.

After our refreshments it was time to head out west and look for somewhere to camp. After a few kilometres of surfing down wind we found a steep pebbly beach with an abandoned quarry. The flat areas on the beach and the grassy quarry floor made for good camping with excellent views from out tents. We even gathered enough driftwood for a fire that lasted well into the night. As the evening rain came in we sheltered under a tarpaulin. It wasn't long before the sound of distant thunder rolled across the sea. This was just the beginning of a terrific storm with continuous thunder and lightning with hours of torrential rain. An amazing experience.


The storm abated in the early hours and the rain stopped in time for breakfast. However, there were streams running through the quarry and it was lucky that some tents didn’t get washed away.

The paddle out was atmospheric along a damp, misty coastline with waterfalls cascading over the rocks. The final blessing was a spell of warm sunshine, which arrived neatly in time for us to get changed and pack up.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Farewell to Shetland - a few more paddles

After the high energy of the Shetland Sea Kayak Symposium, many of the paddlers headed north to The Voter Centre near to Brae. On the Monday morning, after 7 days of paddling I decided to take a day off to go for a few short walks.

I started off by driving to Esha Ness to take a look at the cliffs and stacks. I parked up beside the lighthouse but after a few minutes a thick mist descended. It quickly became cold and drizzly, and the views along the coast became obliterated. Down at Strenness the conditions were much more pleasant and I spotted some paddlers heading for Dore Holm. This 36 metre high rock stack has a spectacular rock arch. When viewed from certain angles it is not surprising that this feature is nick-named 'The Drinking Horse'.

I’d heard all about how the coastal architecture in Ronas Voe is special but I could never have been prepared for what I experienced that day. We started on a small sand beach next to a shingle spit called ‘The Blade’ and followed the rocky shore northwest. After about a kilometre of sparse rock-hopping we paddled round an ordinary looking corner and found a grand looking arch, then a cave another and then more…

I openly declared, “It’s started!”

The coastline grew into labyrinth after labyrinth. Arches, caves, and timeless deep mysterious gullies led from one to the next. It was easy to forget where we were. Occasionally we would emerge into a broad bay with a beach. Just for the novelty we would stop to stretch our legs and grab a bite to eat.
As we approached the northern tip of this stretch we saw the effects of the strong south-westerly winds. There were huge breaking waves crashing past a headland called ‘The Faither’. We braved the intimidating swell and rounded Gatli Stack before running back for cover and winding our way back around, along and beneath the shore that we had already explored. 


After all the excitement in the vote a short easy but fun trip with rock-hopping was on the menu. The rocky coast of Cunningsburgh was an easy choice and it was conveniently close to Lerwick for the boys from Orkney to catch their ferry home later that day.

Evening discussions continued late into the night in the Voxter Centre and as a result, a trip around  Muckle Roe was inevitable. We set off from the marina at Roe Sound. After heading south for the first four kilometres the coastline took on a grand stature so typical of Shetland's exposed shores.

Our exploring took us to a narrow opening that led into a huge cavern. In turn, this led out into a cove, a bay and another place. We later discovered this to be the Hole of Hellier.

Our subterranean adventures continued with passages at Harri Stack and Little Ness giving us moments of complete bewilderment, and quotes like, "How the heck did we end up here?" The final 3 kilometres were a welcome wind down. This had been a day of intense adventure.

I took it easy on the last couple of days. I made a final pilgrimage to Mousa and did some sightseeing around Lerwick. I drove onto the ferry and settled down for a coffee and only half heard the announcement that we would be taking the northern route past the towering cliffs and Gannet colonies of Noss. This was a perfect end to two weeks of adventure on Shetland. I have seen so much but there is still so much to see. I must return soon.


Friday, August 12, 2016

The Shetland Sea Kayak Symposium

Sid Sinfield arrived on Shetland by air. His bags arrived some while later. This was a relief to us all 3 of us. To celebrate, we sat down to a lard laden fried breakfast and strong coffee whilst making our paddling plan for the day.

The island of Mousa and the Noness peninsula lie a little over 16 kilometres south of Lerwick.  The island has a good selection of arches, caves, geos and reefs that we had seen out west, but here they are smaller in scale. However, at 13 metres high, the Broch of Mousa is Scotland's most impressive and best surviving Iron Age tower. 

We spent our mid-afternoon break exploring this amazing structure right the way to the top from where there was a terrific view across Mousa Sound to Noness. We finished off by paddling around Noness into Sandwick. The afternoon sunshine glittered in the spray as the rolling swell exploded at the foot of the cliffs.

Paddlers began to arrive at the Bridge End Outdoor Centre early on Friday morning. Although the symposium didn’t begin until Saturday Kate, Sid, me along with a few others organised some informal guided trips. My choice of a 20 kilometre circumnavigation of West Burra was perfect! There was plenty of entertainment along the way with no shortage of spectacular rock architecture.

On Saturday I ran a workshop in practical navigation. I chose to return to the island of Mousa which has some great coastal landmarks and the tidal stream in the sound changed during our time there.
In the evening we feasted on a food buffet delivered by the local Chinese restaurant. This was followed by an excellent talk on the wildlife and geology of Shetland. The evening was rounded off with plenty of traditional Sheltand fiddle music and washed down with plenty of wine and beer!

Fuzzy heads on Sunday morning slowly gave way to a day of Rockhopping. We found our way to Skelda Voe and set about revising some of the basic moves. Stern rudder, low brace turns and sweep strokes were duly brushed up. Before we knew it the group was getting in amongst it all. Close to Roe Ness we found an entertaining cave system with a right-angled turn and before heading back to Easter Skeld we scratched Johnny Sinclair’s Nose.

It was a happy day out but to add to the euphoria the organisers of the Skeld Regatta welcomed us ashore with some delicious leftover Cakes! This would have been something to brag about if it wasn’t for Sid’s group being entertained by Orcas at the end of their trip a short way along the coast.


For the final week, we would be travelling north to the Voxter Centre close to Brae. 


Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Shetland's Wild West

The isles of Shetland occupy a part of the ocean that seems to get everything thrown at it the mother nature has invented. The coastline is as varied as the weather here. Sure there are intriguing rock gardens and smooth sandy beaches, but what paddlers come here for is the rock architecture.

Me and my long-standing friend Kate Duffs arrived on the overnight ferry from Aberdeen and by lunchtime we were exploring the misty cliffs between Walls and Sandness. This wild coastline has towering cliffs with deep inlets, natural arches and sea stacks like drowning rock spires. Much of this scenery was out of bounds with the powerful swell crashing explosively on the rocks. We paddled on open mouthed.

A reduction in the forecast swell height and kinder weather tempted us to visit the island of Papa Stour. Our journey started on the sheltered east side with a morning of gullies, arches, caves and extended subterranean passages. However, the ultimate drama was waiting for us at the northern tip of the island. We were presented with a huge vertical east-facing cliff. We knew that the entrance to a long passage leading to the other side was hereabouts but there were 4 entrances! We started to investigate from left to right. The first entrance led to nothing, the second led entertainingly into the third. Finally, the fourth showed promise. Could this be the 'Hole of Bordie'? As we paddled into the darkness there was more sea state and a steady breeze. The sound of the waves crashing in the enclosed darkness was deafening. I was scared. At last I caught a glimmer of light on Kate's kayak ahead. I paddled on. Into the light. As we approached the exit were greeted by a lively ocean and visibility less than 200 metres.

The west side was littered with more to explore but the mist and the heavy swell limited our enthusiasm to get intimate with many of the arches and stacks. They will be here for another day on another visit.

Strong south-westerlies made the island of Vementry and obvious choice for the third day. We started our journey from West Burrafirth so that we could enjoy the cliffs and skerries of the Neans peninsula before exploring Vementry's spiky, jagged coastline. The north tip of the island has the remains of a gun emplacement from the first world war. The views from this promontory to Muckle Roe and across St Magnus Bay to Esha Ness are breathtaking.

The rest of the day was divided between battling strong winds and exploring sheltered bays and geos. Afterwards we began to prepare to move south for the Shetland Sea Kayak Symposium at the Bridge End Outdoor Centre at Burra.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Summer Sea Races

These events at Ravenglass, Coquet Island, Conwy and Hilbre Island are becoming a well-established series of sea kayak races in England and Wales during the early part of the summer.

It all kicks off with the Ravenglass Seaquest which is run by Copeland Canoe Club. This event was inspired by the original Seaquest which is usually held in September on the Wyre Estuary at Fleetwood. It's an orienteering challenge on the tidal waters of the estuaries of the Irt, Mite and Esk. The start and finish is on the beach in Ravenglass where all three estuaries meet. Competitors need to visit as many controls as possible within a 3 hour time limit. It's an event for everyone with everything from racing K1 and performance sea kayaks to sit-on-tops and Canadian canoes.

The following weekend I met some members of Manchester Canoe Club for a weekend in Northumberland. On the Saturday we capitalised on the favourable weather and explored the Farne Islands. On the Sunday we headed south to Amble and the Coquet Island Race. The course begins in the estuary of the river Coquet. Paddlers then race out through Amble harbour, round Coquet Island then back into the estuary to finish at the Coquet Canoe Club Shorebase. The winds were really light but it was so misty that the island could not be seen from the harbour entrance. The race went ahead anyway without too many navigational difficulties, although one of the surf-ski racers finished unexpectedly late because he paddled round the island twice!

There was a gentle following wind for the Conwy Ascent race which was perfect for fast times. The main excitement was from racing past the booming cannons being fired from the pirate festival on Conwy Quay. It turns out that the winning K2 team broke a long-established course record.

Photo: Kathy Morton
Liverpool Canoe Club have been running a race in their local waters for the last 10 years. Its a challenging course on shallow choppy waters loaded with awkward currents. For the most part, competitors have to paddle against the tide. Its a great event with competitiveness taking second place to light hearted Scouse banter.

Photo: Kathy Morton
I always enjoy these races and in spite of the fact that I know I'll never win, I always look forward to the next one!



Monday, July 04, 2016

That's why Jim's gone to Iceland!

Reykjavik is the gateway to the frozen shores on my trips to East Greenland and I have spent many happy days wandering around the beautiful city. On each of my visits I become more and more curious about the paddling this intriguing country has to offer.

I was invited by Magnus Sigurjonsson to help him out with some guided sea kayaking trips offered by Arctic Adventures.

The first trip was started in the sleepy fishing town called Stikkisholmur. Our team was a group of American school children. Most of them had not paddled before and some had never been camping. We paddled to a remote island, and made camp whilst Magnus' partner, Ellen cooked a huge pot tasty stew with beef and pasta. Later, I sat on a north-facing cliff to watch the sun go down. It such a long time that I went to bed before sunset.

After our overnighter, we said goodbye to our American friends and the brief spell of good weather. Heavy rain and strong winds tugged at the trailer as we made our way back to Reykjavik. We didn't see the sun for another three days...

In the meantime, we took a group of tourists on a short paddle in a sheltered Fjord called Hvalfjordur. This is a deep fjord gouged out by glaciers during the las ice-age. Tabletop mountains rise from the sea to over 1000 metres. The misty, drizzle weather gave this place a haunted and mysterious feel.


The next day the weather showed signs of improving so we made the most of the day off by doing some tourism of our own. We did what is known as 'The Golden Circle. Spreading tectonic plates at
Þingvellir, spectacular eruptions of boiling water at Geysir and the thundering waterfalls at Gullfoss kept us entertained all day. We finished off with a visit to the deep, flooded volcanic crater at Kerið.

On my final day Magnus, Ellen and me visited the place where the local paddling club have their base. Kayakklubburinn is on an isthmus beach just to the north of Reykjavik. We paddled from there around the nearby island of Viðey. The bird life and scenery was amazing with Eider, redshank, oystercatchers and terns.

It was a fantastic week full of adventures. Many thanks to Magnus and Ellen for their lovely company, delicious food and for making me so welcome in their homes. I'll definitely be back very soon.