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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 20 October 2012

SIMON Willis’s book, The Scottish Sea Kayak Trail, gives me what I call the risk versus reward shivers. It’s the feeling I get when I see a picture of a surfer riding a giant, perfect wave, or of a skier about to leap off a cornice into a steep, deep, powder run. Half of me is screaming: “I want to be there – now!” while the other half yells: “Think of all the things that could go wrong!” The net result of all this internal conflict? Goosebumps, sweaty palms and the occasional adrenaline-induced shudder.

The book is part-travelogue, part-instruction manual, and contains the blueprints for an epic, 500km voyage along Scotland’s island-studded west coast. Starting at Tayinloan on the Mull of Kintyre, Willis’s route winds its way northwards past Crinan and Oban, northwest along the Sound of Mull, around the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and then on to Arisaig, Mallaig, Applecross, Gairloch and, finally, Ullapool. Some parts of his journey – exploring the sea caves and arches of the Summer Isles, for example – sound idyllic; some of his more challenging encounters, however, such as battling boiling seas and a Force Five headwind on the way from Kerera to Mull – not so much.

Willis and his wife Liz have paddled every inch of the trail themselves, so they know it can be done, but Willis is keen to stress it should only be attempted by seasoned kayakers.

“The Scottish Canoe Association and the British Canoe Union have a personal award system,” he says, “and you’d really want to be a four-star paddler before you do this by yourself. But it’s not just about a bit of paper that says you can do x, y or z. The thing about sea kayaking is knowing when not to go. You need to be able to push yourself, but you need to be able to push yourself in an environment where you can get out of it if it goes wrong, and you only get that through experience.”

Willis will give an illustrated talk at the George Square Theatre in Edinburgh next Sunday, as part of this year’s Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival. Entitled The Accidental Sea Kayaker – a nod to the fact that he got into the sport by accident rather than design – it is intended to have the same effect as his book, namely to give people the urge to drop everything, jump in a kayak and paddle for the horizon. “I’m not sure who my audience is going to be,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m going to have sea paddlers, river paddlers or just outdoorsy people who are interested, so I’m looking at this as doing missionary work – I’m going to proselytise for sea kayaking.”

Willis’s love affair with kayaking began in 2003 when, having completed the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada with Liz, the couple decided they had “bought the bloody T-shirt” as far as hiking was concerned, and needed a new sport. Some people they had met on the trail offered to take them sea kayaking near Seattle, and something “just sort of clicked”. When Willis, a former presenter on BBC Scotland’s Newsnight programme, was offered voluntary redundancy a few years later, he jumped at the chance to turn his hobby into a job, moved to a cottage on the Ardnamurchan peninsula and set up a video production company called Sunart Media.

Initially he expected most of his work would come from corporate clients, and making films about kayaking would be a sideline. Instead he found a surprising level of demand for adventure-based material. In addition to making regular contributions to The Adventure Show, he has made two instructional sea kayaking films with one of his former instructors, 
Gordon Brown – a man he describes as “a Jedi master of sea kayaking”. The second of these was named Best Sea Kayaking Film of 2012 at the Reel Paddling Film Festival, and shows Brown and fellow paddlers exploring the jaw-dropping sea-stacks, arches and caves of St Kilda. Willis has also made a film about Hamish Gow, who, with his wife Anne, was the first person to paddle to St Kilda in 1965. Clearly, then, he has a real treasure trove of inspiring footage to draw on for his EMFF lecture – so, if you’re going, sit back, relax and prepare to be converted.

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