Sea Kayak expedition Training – Isle of Mull by Alan Peachment

Background

I know it doesn’t appeal to everyone but one of my goals has always been to do an expedition in my sea kayak. My introduction came earlier in the year with a weeklong trip wild camping on Mull.

Other than the simple pleasure of escaping and paddling for a week, I had a number of objectives:

  • To experience wild camping: I have done the standard stuff in a field with a shower block but never anything like turning up on a beach and pitching a tent.
  • To understand the challenges of extended trips: I have plenty of one day trips and paddled every day for a week but always with luxury of catering on hand and a readymade bed.
  • To understand how to look after myself / protect my body on trips. I know how I feel sometimes after a hard day’s paddle, so how would I feel after a week of it… and wild camping.
  • To develop / refine my paddling skills. I paddle reasonably regularly but it can have a habit of being in fits and starts and I feel I have stagnated somewhat in my development as a paddler.
  • ….. and to enjoy myself. There is no point in doing something like this and not enjoying it.

Preparation

There is no way I could just turn up and paddle for a week; so big part of my preparation involved exercise and building up my fitness and stamina. In addition to additional paddles on my local river, there was swimming and trips to the gym.

I thought I had a lot of gear but when I got Pete Thomas’ packing list I was surprised at how much I didn’t have. A few trips to Runcorn and Go Camping and eBay purchases sorted that and left me a few quid poorer. My preference is to ‘stalk’ items on eBay and buy at a price to suit me; this means leaving enough time and not being forced to buy everything last minute.

Having never fully loaded a boat before, a trial pack was essential. It quickly demonstrated that you can never have too many dry bags and the need to label what is in which bags. The distribution of bags to balance the weight (and hence trim) and order in which bags go into a hatch is also important. It is also best not to put metallic items next to your deck compass.

I would have like to done a trial paddle in a fully loaded boat but ran out of time.

 

The Trip

Oban is a long way, especially when they close the road into Oban and you get stuck in a queue.  It took 9ish hours to get there.  I took the direct route past Loch Lomond on the way up.  Nice route but you have to concentrate and there are some bottlenecks.  I came back via Stirling and it was quicker – how much is difficult to judge.  Stirling castle is spectacular as you approach it; it would be good to spend some time there if I had had a little more time.

The paddle itself started at the Eastern end of Loch Scridain. From there we paddled West along the North side of the Ross of Mull down past Iona round to the South of coast of Mull to Ardchiavaig. After that, we relocated to Ulva Ferry (note: kayaks not particularly welcome, esp if you plan to leave your car there for several days) and spent the next few days paddling around Ulva with an attempt to cross to the Treshnish Isles. The final night was spent on Inch Kenneth.

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Contemplating the day ahead.

What strikes you about Mull is the emptiness and the silence; though the owner of the campsite did comment on how over-crowded the island can get in the Summer.  On the first day we were sat eating lunch and, other than the call of the birds, there was nothing.  When you are paddling around the coast down here you are never really far from anything.  You see people on the shore.  You see boats on the water.  You hear traffic.  With a couple of exceptions (i.e. around Iona and Ulva Ferry), the coast was empty and there was very little traffic on the water.  The occasional other kayak but not the numbers I expected for what, I thought, is paddling Mecca.

The other thing which I found odd was the ability to just turn up somewhere and, as long as it wasn’t someone’s garden, to be able to pitch a tent. The first few nights I had the feeling that someone would come along in the night and ask us to move on but they don’t. It’s a pity that we don’t have the right to roam South of the border.

I expected it to rain but it didn’t rain once!  I had expected at least one day and some pretty iffy weather but there was nothing but wall-to-wall sunshine.  The obvious benefits of fine weather aside, I have a relatively small tunnel tent and wasn’t quite sure how I would cope with putting it up in the rain, when to get out of my drysuit; how to dry off; etc.  I can imagine that this aspect of weather can be a bit difficult to cope with and I still have the joys of getting weather bound to look forward to on a future trip.  I suppose you just accept that you are going nowhere, get the book out and make the most of the rest.  If you are on a timeline this is probably more easier said than done.  Like I said, a learning experience for the future.

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A regular home from home

Paddling Improvements

The trip itself was organised by Venture-7. Due to some last minute drop-outs, I effectively had 1-2-1 coaching for the best part of a week; fantastic.   Helen is an excellent coach; nice relaxed style and clearly very skilled and capable with good communication skills.

I know how to paddle and do all of the types of turns, etc. but a lot of it is either self-taught or taught in limited bursts without really breaking things down or explaining it in sufficient detail (since put right by prepping for and taking my Level 1 coaching qualification).  So, obviously, one of my objectives was to correct a lot of my small errors and to learn how to do things properly.  For example, the importance of each component of a turn: the clean edge to the boat, the initiation of the turn with a sweep stroke, driving through the feet, the follow-up bow rudder and doing things slowly in a more controlled manner.  I have habit of relying on strength to overcome poor technique so it was really good to strip moves right back to basics and find how much easier and more effective things are when you do it correctly.  It also feels more rewarding, more relaxed and more natural.

I paddle too fast.  I can keep up the pace for long periods but over an extended trip it would have taken its toll.  One of the things I wanted to learn was how to protect my body and sustain myself for paddling day-in day-out.  The first step is obviously to find a pace your body can sustain and, for me, this means slowing down.  As a result I relaxed my body more and let waves move under me.

Another thing I changed is the angle of feather on my blade.  Over the years I have reduced and reduced it.  At the start of the trip, I was down to 15 degrees.  This has resulted in me dropping the angle of my blade and, while not quite adopting a low-angle style with a high-angle paddle, it has become too low for a good technique.  I have now gone back up to 60 degrees and it naturally makes me paddle at a higher angle and, in particular, makes sprints flow more.

I struggle a bit with paddling across waves while at an angle to the wind.  I have obviously paddled on edge many times before and use the skeg but I tried a number of other techniques. The canoeist reading this will obviously be familiar with varying the trim of a boat; you can do the same by leaning backwards for a following wind in a sea kayak.  I also tried shifting the paddle in my hands so one side was longer than the other. This simulates the effect of a sweep stroke which means that I could maintain a cleaner / flowing stroke rather than putting in regular sweep strokes.

Lessons Relating to Kit

Let’s start with what I viewed as ‘my luxury item’: a lightweight folding chair. I really didn’t fancy spending a week sat on the ground, so I invested in an Alite chair. It did the job perfectly; it was light, easy to assemble and comfortable.

The temptation is to pack lots of spare clothes like t-shirts as you are going to sweat a lot. More clothes equals more weight, so I followed the advice of some seasoned explorers and invested in a couple of ‘technical’ Rab t-shirts. Helen may disagree but I think these stayed fresh for several days.

I have a drysuit and zips have a habit of attracting dirt and sand and can become very stiff. Remember your zip lube to ensure operation remains smooth. I also found an old tooth brush came in really handy for getting grit out of the zip’s teeth and ensuring it didn’t jam. I can’t imagine anything worse than not being able to get out of your drysuit at the end of a long paddle.

There were some things I didn’t use. I have a tarp which I didn’t use because the weather was too good; I would probably take this again. Amazingly for Scotland in the Summer, I didn’t use my mossi net; I would definitely take this again. We didn’t stray too far from base in the evenings so a small rucksack and walking shoes weren’t required; but I would take my shoes again.

A Jetboil is fantastic for boiling water. If you don’t have the correct pan, cooking porridge is a skill which, in my case, took several days to perfect. Burnt porridge is a pig to clean off and it doesn’t taste particularly nice either. I took marvel powdered milk and honey for my porridge but I have since had condensed milk in a tube recommended.

There were a few things I should have taken. In the spirit of ‘leave no trace’, I should have taken a trowel for digging a ‘latrine’; a hole in the sand works but you may not be on a sandy beach. You will be amazed at how much ‘spare time’ you get; another book to read would have been nice as well.

The End of the Trip

By the end of a trip you crave a shower and, in my case, fish and chips!

Washing in streams is fine – when there is stream to wash in and no midges – but nothing beats a long soak in a hot shower.  The last night was spent on the camp site next to ferry terminal and it definitely had showers.

I am a reasonable cook and understand enough about nutrition, etc. to have a balanced diet with the required calories, etc. but maybe it is the psychology of knowing you can’t have something.  I don’t eat much in the way of take-outs but the first shop I headed for was the fish and chip shop in Oban.  You know how you build up to something and then it doesn’t quite live up to the billing / your expectations?  Sadly the chips had cooled and the fish was still too hot to eat.  Ah well, can’t have everything.

Summary

Did this trip meet my objectives? Undoubtedly. Did I really really enjoy it? Yes. Would I like to do it again? Of course.