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Kayak Kings

Published: The Scotsman (TSMAG) 31 May 2008

There’s an unwritten rule among the sea kayakers of the Western Isles – show no fear.

IT WAS A BIT LUMPY OUT THERE today,” says sea kayak guide Tim Pickering, a suggestion of irony in the hint of a raised brow. Ah yes, the art of the understatement. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered this phenomenon on the Isle of Lewis.

In 2006 I interviewed one of the founding fathers of the island’s surf scene, Derek MacLeod, a former fisherman with a reputation for fearlessness in serious seas. Deadpan, he described the experience of negotiating 20ft waves as “a bit hectic”.

It seems to be an unwritten rule among the watermen of the Western Isles that no matter how big the waves get or how hard the wind blows, you can never appear to be even remotely bothered by it. Shrugging in the face of impending catastrophe is acceptable; screaming in terror and waving your arms around is exceedingly bad form.

Of course, paddling a kayak doesn’t have to be some sort of death-defying trial by hurricane. Pickering, who runs a sea kayaking company called 58 Degrees North out of Stornoway, reckons he can find conditions to suit anyone – even when it’s blowing a hoolie.

“For beginners, I’d usually say half a day’s a good taster,” he says. “I’d take them somewhere nice and quiet. Stornoway harbour’s fantastic – I guarantee seals in the harbour.

“With other people we might go out for a day from Bhaltos on the west coast: white-sand beaches, caves, basking sharks. And I could easily lose a week in the Sound of Harris. But I would always try and do a few days in one place and a few days somewhere else, just to give that variety, because there’s such a huge difference between the two sides of the island.”

I’m on Lewis for only two days so will spend one day on the east coast and one on the west. And Pickering’s right: from a sea kayaker’s point of view, the difference between the two sides could hardly be more marked.

On the first day, we paddle a stunning ten-mile route along the east coast of Harris, starting at Miabhaig, stopping for a bite to eat on a tiny, uninhabited island and then exploring a series of sea caves before finishing up at the picturesque little harbour at Stocinis. The sun is out, there’s barely any wind and we cruise along at a leisurely pace, working on our tans – it’s hard to imagine a more relaxing day on the water.

Day two, however, is a very different proposition. The sun has gone in, the wind has come up and there’s a solid north swell battering Lewis’s rugged west coast. At their biggest, the waves are about 8ft from trough to peak. Not too bad if you know what you’re doing, but this is only my fifth day in a sea kayak and only my third day in a sea kayak actually on the sea. Pickering starts off by saying that if I want to turn back at any point during the day that’s exactly what we’ll do, no questions asked. He’s such an obviously capable guy, though, and so enthusiastic about the day ahead, that thoughts of backing out soon evaporate.

A big swell has all sorts of implications for the sea kayaker, not least in terms of navigation. You can paddle directly into oncoming waves (at least that way you can see what’s coming) or you can paddle with them, surfing down the bigger ones if you know how. Try paddling side-on to the swell, however, and unless you have the balance of a cat you’re going to find yourself the wrong way up.

This leads to kayakers trying to avoid leaving themselves at right-angles to an oncoming swell for more than a few seconds at a time. For the purposes of our trip – a circumnavigation of the island of Little Bernera – this means covering a lot more water than we would have, had the sea been flat calm.

We start our day at Bostadh, launching our boats from a sheltered slipway and heading east, with Little Bernera to our left and the mainland to our right. Pickering and I are joined by members of Stornoway Canoe Club, Mike Sullivan and Tim Cheeseman, and later, Murdie Campbell – a legendary sea kayaker with several open ocean crossings to his name, and the cox on the Lewis lifeboat. No pressure, then.

Rounding the south-eastern tip of the island and bearing north, we face our first obstacle: a narrow channel between two spurs of rock with surf booming at the far end. From a distance it looks impassable, but as we get closer it’s possible to see a way through. As we reach the mouth of the channel, big breakers are unloading onto rocky outcrops to our right and left, but between these mini-maelstroms the water is deeper, so while the waves here rear up precariously they don’t actually break.

Before making a dash for it, there is a pause. At the time, I assume it’s just a chance for everyone to catch their breath but later, when we’re safely on dry land, Pickering explains that the wait was so he and the others could plan what to do if I capsized.

“Had you gone in we would have needed to act very quickly,” he says. “As soon as we started rescuing you your boat would have been clipped on and somebody would have been towing it to keep it off the rocks.”

Blissfully unaware of all this, when my turn comes I follow Pickering out through the keyhole. Fortunately, there’s a break in the waves as we pass through so there are no emergency rescues, and ten minutes later we’re sitting on a beautiful beach on the north shore of Little Bernera, with Pickering cooking up a storm on a Primus stove he’s brought with him. “So how scared were you back then,” asks Campbell, “on a scale of one to ten?”

“Oooh, about a seven or an eight,” I say, as casually as I can, although in my head I’m screaming: “ELEVEN! ”

“Well,” grins Campbell, “in that case this next bit will be a ten for you.”

He’s not wrong. After lunch we paddle north towards the island of Campay. The plan was to paddle to the other side of the island to explore a cave there, but conditions are deemed too ferocious – for me, anyway – so the decision is made to head back to the mainland.

With the swell really starting to pick up, however, this means a paddle of a couple of miles to the north-west – into the middle of the ocean, which is the last place I want to be – and then, once we’re almost level with the north-western tip of Little Bernera, a quick flip around and a tricky paddle back in with the swell lumping in behind us.

Pickering is the only thing keeping me out of the water. When there’s a lull, he lets me know so I can make some ground and when there’s a big wave about to hit he yells “Support stroke!” so I know to lay my paddle blade flat on the water for maximum stability.

Just before completing our lap of the island, the others find a little skerry to surf, and I get a ringside seat as they launch themselves into waves crashing onto an almost dry reef. I may be some way outside my comfort zone, but the elite of the Lewis kayak community are clearly still well within theirs.

Factfile ISLE OF LEWIS

How to get there

n Caledonian MacBrayne run a daily ferry service from Ullapool to Stornoway. Tel: 0800 066 5000 or visit www.calmac.co.uk

WHERE TO STAY

n The four-star Jannel B&B in Stornoway, has single rooms from GBP 30. Tel: 01851 705324, or visit www.hebrides-selfcatering.co.uk

AND THERE’S MORE

  • Visit www.canoehebrides.com for more on 58 Degrees North. You can book Tim Pickering either as a teacher or guide, tel: 01851 820726.
  • No trip to Lewis would be complete without a visit to the standing stones at Callanish. To contact the visitor centre, tel: 01851 621422.
  • Scotsman Reader Holidays offers a five-day Benbecula and the Blackhouses of Lewis break, from GBP 475 per person, departing on 28 June and 23 August. For details, e-mail scotsman@brightwaterholidays.com

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