Chapter 10 – Northern Scotland
“It is by understanding and being able to predict the conditions and risks that you are likely to encounter that you can plan the day and be mentally prepared.”
Working my way up the many eddies between the jagged skerries the northerly swell pulsed suddenly, turning the interface of rock and sea into a seething confusion of foam as if Neptune himself had stirred from his slumber. I paddled into the narrow gully that led to a slipway once used by the lighthouse tender MV Pharos before the light was automated in 1998. Checking out the bothy that Ian and I had found shelter in during a typical stormy night on Cape Wrath during our Roof of Britain Kayak Expedition, memories of the following morning’s paddle came flooding back. It was a truly epic day and perhaps one of the most dangerous situations I had ever encountered.
We were blasted out of the gully. I shouted at Ian to hug the cliffs. The sea was essentially flat but sheets of spray were being torn from the surface and whisked out to sea by the frequent gusts. The swell offshore was just visible through the murk. Horsetails of spume suggested a valiant struggle as the waves attempted to make headway against the wind. Ian described the scene later in his diary:
“The thing that struck me was the noise. The roar of the wind on the cliffs and the waves breaking on the huge stone slabs were deafening, any conversation was minimal. We could do nothing else but run with the wind and try and enjoy the ride but I really wasn’t happy. It was a case of hang on to the paddles and try to angle the wing blade so as to offer the least resistance to the wind, otherwise the force was either too much to hold onto or the paddle was forced across the boat making the kayak unstable. It was a blessing having the rudders, we could just let the wind blow us and steer the best course we could. As we were being pushed along eastward, our bodies buffeted by massive gusts, our paddles felt like they were trying to tear themselves from our hands, we both looked at each other and tried to take in the enormity of the situation. I have been caught in gales aboard yachts and Sean has paddled off the Devon and Cornwall coast in some big winds. We were both of the opinion that this was a Force 9 gale. We were committed; it was just too strong for us to paddle back to the safety of our jetty”.
We made rapid progress in the relative lee of the cliffs to the small bay of Kervaig. Then we saw it! A shark’s tooth stack perhaps 150 feet high, wreathed in a swirling vortex of spray. Between it and the towering cliffs of Clo Mor was a narrow gap, just twenty feet wide – a raging cauldron of white water. Katabatic winds were descending the peaks of Beinn Dearg, Fashven and Sgribhis-bheinn, accelerating down the Kearvaig River valley so that when they hit the surface of the bay they were gusting in excess of Force 9. The stack stood boldly in the wind’s path and as if enraged by its defiance the wind screamed around the rock tearing water from its base sending it spiralling upwards. Neither of us had seen anything like it before.
We had no choice. Although we were only a couple of hundred yards from shore there was no way we could paddle against the wind to reach the sanctuary of beach. To go outside of the stack risked being blown out to sea. We had to go for the gap – into the eye of the whirlwind! It would have been out of the question if there had been any swell. We were blown directly into the melee, neither of us could paddle and it took all my strength to maintain a grip on my paddle shaft. I fought with my tiller bar to prevent the kayak from hitting the rocks. We were blasted through the gap, out of control. I was slightly ahead of Ian. Trying to back paddle to keep us together, I caught a glimpse of his face. He did not look at all happy. With each gust I was being pushed flat onto the front deck of my kayak. My wing paddles were trying to live up to their name. They whipped about, trying to take off like some wild bird making a frantic fight for freedom. All around us water was being sent skywards. There was no distinction between land, sea and sky, it was all one tumultuous, chaotic mess and we were right in the middle of it! Ian’s account is not disimilar:
“We had to go for the gap. Sean was quite excited by the prospect. I was very aware that we were on the edge of ability and strength of kit and I knew that there was no chance of any rescue should it go wrong. As we entered the gap the noise was deafening and the spray was stinging my face so hard it felt like I was being pelted with gravel. Waves seemed to come from all angles, the clapotis throwing the boat from one side to the other. I held onto my paddles with all my strength as they were being twisted about, the wind trying to throw them across the kayak. My body was being slammed from behind pushing my torso involuntarily forward onto the cockpit rim. I could see Sean just in front getting the same battering. I was just concentrating hard just to keep myself upright and in a straight line, low-bracing and slap-supporting every time I got control of my blades”.
Strangely enough, I was enjoying the experience. This was nature at its most raw. This is what I had come to the North Coast for. This was ‘Extreme Sea Kayaking’. I was confident in our abilities and did not allow myself to contemplate the consequences if things went wrong. We passed through the gap unscathed but there were more stacks ahead. Much taller, these megaliths blocked our path to shelter. We braced ourselves as we rushed towards them. As we roared past I began laughing to myself, a crazy, manic laugh of someone on the edge. I loved it! We were close to catastrophe but I loved it.
Ian, fighting to maintain his balance, brought me back to reality:
“It is fair to say I was scared, perhaps I have had too many near misses in my life and want a bit of space in my ability to fall back on, but paddling under these conditions I felt there was no margin for error. Rafting together I looked at Sean and exclaimed,
“I WANT OUT!”
I immediately realised what a stupid thing I had said, as if right there and then Sean could have done anything about it. He looked at me and said very calmly,
“If I could get you out of this I would”.
Fair enough, at least he was being honest.”
The look on Ian’s face served to remind me of the seriousness of our situation and I felt guilty about placing him in this predicament. Although he’d never said as much I’d known he hadn’t wanted to paddle that morning and in retrospect he had been right. There had been no margin for error whatsoever. Eventually we passed the last stack and the wind dropped. Stopping to catch our breath we reflected briefly on what we had just experienced. Ian had clearly been shaken by the experience and I was careful in my choice of words. Yes, we had been out of control, but even if the worst had happened and one of us had capsized and failed to roll……we would have coped wouldn’t we? Ian was unconvinced and I promised to listen more carefully to Ian in the future. If we were ever in two minds about whether to paddle we would err on the side of caution.
That episode taught me a huge amount about mine and others attitude to risk and that is why I choose to paddle alone. Not because I am a better paddler, but perhaps I am willing to accept more risk and it is unfair to subject others to my perceived margin for safety.
I stopped to take some photos of this memorable bit of rock to show Ian what it looked like in more benign conditions. It was without doubt the most extreme weather I have ever witnessed and I was keen not to repeat the experience on this trip. After a bit to eat and feeling quite pleased with myself having ‘done the Cape’ I still had a full afternoon of favourable tide which would shortly be turning and flooding eastwards. The plan had been to reach Durness but I was confident I could get as far as Strathan near the Kyle of Tongue and thus nibble back some more lost time from my schedule.
And so a long afternoon saw me traversing the north coast, admiring the views inland beyond the cliffs and deserted beaches to the mountain and bog of the ‘Flow Country’. I crossed the two deep inlets of the Kyle of Durness and Loch Eriboll (nicknamed Loch Orrible by the servicemen stationed there during World War II to protect passing Russsian convoys), past the unusually white rocks and fine rock needles of Whiten Head to arrive finally in the sheltered inlet of Strathan where I knew there was a good campsite. I found the spot overlooking the tan coloured burn running gently down to the crescent of golden sand.
Predictably there was no mobile signal in such a remote spot and I walked up to the same croft that Ian and I had called at last time to see if I could use the phone. The woman who answered the door remembered me and since her husband was the local HM Coastguard Station Officer she was more than happy for me to use the phone to ring Aberdeen MSRC to advise them of my safe arrival. It was fairly late and almost dark by the time I had eaten, and I slept satisfied in the knowledge that another big obstacle had been overcome on my journey north.
The following morning whilst I sat having breakfast I knew that if I was to capitalise on the gains made the previous day I needed to reach Scrabster by the end of play. I would have to negotiate the major headland of Strathy Point against the tide that morning to have the flood tide with me in the afternoon, as I made my way east along the CaithnessCoast. There was a brisk westerly breeze which should help me paddle against the flow but that was likely to kick up a choppy sea. It is by understanding and being able to predict the conditions that you are likely to encounter that assists you to plan the day and be mentally prepared. I was away early and the breeze was already evident, with just enough north in it to make life difficult. Even with the rudder, the C-Trek wanted to head up-wind and I had to crab along the coast, fighting to keep her straight. The hole in the plastic stock of the rudder where the pin passed through had become worn and the rudder was now sticking out behind the kayak at an angle thus reducing its effectiveness. I had asked Kirton Kayaks to give Linda a new stock which she could bring with her since she was due to travel north to meet me in just a few weeks time but I knew the long term solution was to fit an aluminium bush into the hole to reduce wear. Another job that needed doing was to reinforce the hull where my heels after two and half thousand miles of paddling had worn through the inner Kevlar laminate and were threatening to penetrate the outer skin of the hull. I had protected the area with heavy duty tape but that had become unstuck several weeks ago and it now needed urgent action. As well as the kayak needing some TLC I was also finding the going fairly tough. I knew I was pushing out big mileage, but at what cost? How long could I sustain it? My body was feeling strong; it was my brain that was starting to get tired. Perhaps it was the knowledge that I knew I would soon be approaching the crux of the whole challenge, the journey out around Orkney and Shetland with numerous open crossings and a great deal of exposure. I was having difficulty “getting my head round it” and struggling to overcome negative thoughts.
It was particularly choppy as I approached Strathy Point, reflected waves off every reef lined cliff face producing a confusion of breaking waves to plough through. Eventually I tucked into the shelter of Garbh-eilean, a small islet right at the tip of Strathy Point, beneath the rather grubby looking lighthouse. I shared a moments rest with a couple of grey seals basking in the bright sunshine that punctuated the heavy showers. From the sheltered water in the lee of the islet I could assess what was going on off the Point. I had expected a big tide race in the wind against tide conditions but it was all happening offshore so just like every other major headland I hugged tight and sneaked through on the inside of all the big waves, sprinting across the fast flowing bits and diving into the next eddy. The tide was indeed running fast, a permanent north-going eddy along the east side of the headland but the speed of the C-Trek was more than a match for it and now out of the wind, the sea was calm and the eddylines clear and defined. I passed some strange net arrangements set to catch unwary kayakers and the odd fish. With the nearest proper harbour some distance away fishermen have constructed a fishing station above a natural cleft in the rock by the ingenious use of an aerial cableway to haul their catch up to the top of the cliff and a winch to drag their boats up a rudimentary slip way. It all looked like hard work – I hope the fishing is worth it.
I stopped for lunch on bank of the River Strathy where its brown peaty water mixed with the clear turquoise blue sea. Out of the wind in the heat of the midday sun I had a very pleasant quarter of an hour listening to the conversation between a pair of fulmars nesting just a few feet above me on the low cliff. A half mile of perfect sand curved gently to the east, totally devoid of human activity but busy with oystercatchers and squabbling arctic terns. The next shower cloud soon obliterated the sun and with a shiver I got back in my kayak and continued east. The tremendous variety of coastal scenery found on the northern edge of Britain continued with the first section of sheer cliffs of Caithness flagstone, its bedding plane angled into the sea with one particularly precariously balanced stack just waiting to slide down the forty five degree slab it stood on. Beyond the surf beach of Melvich Bay and the beautiful red rock cliffs of Red Point I paddled into SandsideBay discovering a gorgeous little old harbour a relic of the once prosperous herring fishery, the remains of the lock gates that would have once protected it from winter storms still evident. It was so tranquil compared to mile after mile of wind-driven chop that I was very tempted to call it a day and received a friendly wave from one of the inhabitants of the fishermens cottages nestled by the harbourside. I was determined to reach Scrabster though and once more put thoughts of comfort and rest aside and paddled back out to sea.
Dounreay nuclear power station contaminated the view to the east. The surreal collection of stark domes and chimney stacks is a visual eyesore in a landscape where man has otherwise had very little impact. I passed a beach that had been closed by the landowner because several ‘hotspots’ of radiation had been found. Cynics have suggested that this might have had more to do with seeking compensation than any concern for public health. Despite its three fast-breeder reactors being decommissioned in 1994 it remains a major employer in the area and its legacy which includes a leukaemia cluster, will remain for decades to come. It is perhaps not suprising that there is a fishing ban within a five mile radius of the power plant but it does make you wonder what on earth we have done and continue to do to our fragile planet. There is a rather pathetic attempt at a wind farm with just two turbines (only one of which was working despite a really strong breeze) a couple of miles further along the coast. Can someone explain to me why there are not more? The place is always windy and there can be no concerns for aesthetics with the massive bulk of the nuclear power plant right next door. There are some of the strongest tides in the world flowing right past and into the Pentland Firth and this coast is almost constantly battered by large swell. When is the government going to accept the inevitable and get on with harnessing these alternative energy sources? I did hear on the news that the Scottish Executive has produced a report recommending much greater investment in research into marine energy. This is good news – get on with it!
The last stretch of coast from Dounreay to Scrabster is fairly inhospitable with just one potential get out just before Brimms Ness, a line of low reef that extends out to sea for a quarter of a mile or more which always produces some exciting waves and broken water. The tide was with me now though and I swept past untroubled. The wall of rock now extended unbroken for over five miles to Holborn Head a sentinel guarding the western flank of ThursoBay. It was a committing paddle, the F6 tail wind and flooding tide assisting my progress but the backwash from the cliffs producing some alarmingly steep waves. The constant sound of thunder, the “Thwump!” as waves exploded against the rock, the sudden release of compressed air sending shockwaves through my body, all increased the sense of exposure and it was difficult not to be intimidated.
But at last my back could rest from the twisting and turning as I glided into the calm waters of Thurso Bay and sought refuge in Scrabster Harbour. Scrabster is a busy commercial fishing and ferry port servicing the Orkney Islands. Last time Ian and I had been offered hospitality by the Assistant Harbourmaster and had stayed in the very smart conference room of the new Harbour Office. I thought it would be a bit cheeky to try that one again and in any case, the forecast for the following day wasn’t great and I had some jobs to do so I planned to be there for a couple of nights. I paddled past the harbour entrance and found a slip way that lead to the Pentland Firth Sailing Club. I found a postage stamp sized patch of grass with my name on it and set up home. I soon became the point of curiosity for a couple of local boys who had been kicking a ball about on the beach. Nice kids, they warned me that the area was frequented by drunken sailors and ‘down and outs’ so I would have to be on my guard. Welcome back to civilisation! I needn’t have worried though; everyone I met during my time at Scrabster couldn’t have been more welcoming. Many passer’s by had seen me on Grampian TV the previous evening and I soon felt like a bit of a celebrity with lots of people coming down to see the mad kayaking policeman!
One particular chap, KC Mackay had spent much of the evening trying to establish my whereabouts. He had been following my progress on the internet and being a paddler (a former member of the Scottish kayak surfing team no less), he took it upon himself to come and find me to see if there was anything he could do for me. A fireman at Dounreay, KC was the sort of canoeist that would give you his last ‘Helly’ and expect nothing in return. I discussed the problem I had with the worn rudder and you could see him working out a solution. He went back home to his young family promising to return the following morning. Another chap who had been walking his dog on the beach came up to shake my hand and asked if there was anything I wanted. He saw my eyes light up when he mentioned fish and chips and would not accept payment when he returned later with the deliciously hot grub. Whilst my surroundings were not the most attractive, tucked away in a scruffy corner of the harbour, the welcome I had received made all the difference.
The forecast for the following day was marginal enough for me to declare a rest day and an early morning shower of rain confirmed my decision. KC turned up on his motorbike with two Scotch pies, still warm, for my breakfast. He had offered to take my rudder to work but foolishly I reassured him it would be okay. The day turned pleasantly warm and I was able to dry all my kit out and puddle some Araldite into the holes created by my heels in the hull of my kayak. I covered the glue with tape, satisfied that it would do as a temporary repair until Linda arrived with a proper repair kit. I paid a visit to the lifeboat station and received valuable advice on crossing the Pentland Firth from the retired coxswain and then went to the Fishermen’s Mission and pigged out on hot bacon butties. I met some visiting sailors, one of whom was a German lad who was circumnavigating mainland Great Britain in a twenty two foot yacht with his father. They were leaving that afternoon to cross the Firth to Stromness themselves and I was tempted to join them thinking safety in numbers but I stuck with my plan to rest and let the sea calm down a bit.
KC arrived having worked a half day. He insisted on helping me sort my rudder and spent the next couple of hours going to and fro from home and succeeded in inserting an aluminium bush in the stock. He brought me down some fruit and fresh filled rolls too which were delicious! It was extremely kind of him; we had only just met but I am honoured to consider him a friend.
My final extravagance for the day was a beef lasagne and chips in the “Popeye” bar on the harbour side. It was delicious and a pint of lager was enough to send me off to sleep despite the prospect of crossing the most notorious seaway in British waters the following day.