Over the last five years on the West Coast of Scotland sea kayaking has seen a huge increase in numbers, mainly adult and mainly beginners.
In one year the Oban canoe club had 50 new adult members and most of them took to sea kayaking like ducks to water.
The till’s of the two outdoor retailers in Oban must have been busy because beyond the sea kayak itself the list of must-have accessories is endless, especially where safety equipment is concerned. Modern buoyancy aids have a multitude of pockets and attachments for distress flares, VHF radios, strobes and night lights, the list goes on and on.
To complement the equipment, we have the courses.
Most are short, a day or two at a time, generally run by qualified club members and aimed at giving people the tools to deal with simple emergencies like a capsize in deep water or towing a tired kayaker back to shore.
With modern clothing hardy sea kayakers will be ‘paddling’ all year round. Today’s drysuits are made with comfort in mind, being both breathable and non-constrictive. Ending up in the sea in winter is mainly no longer life threatening but just a bit uncomfortable on the hands.
As we move in to spring and the weather warms, the choice between drysuit and summer apparel is always a tricky one. Although the air temperature may be 20 degrees plus, the sea won’t warm up until well into July, so the question is, which do I dress for, staying upright in my kayak or the possibility of ending up in the drink?
To put this in to context, as late as June the sea temperature will be as low as 10 degrees. Even though there could be a heat wave, as we have seen a few weeks ago, you will become unconscious in as little as 40 minutes at that temperature.
As sea kayakers become more experienced some will venture out on their own which, as you would imagine, comes with greater dangers.
Even in summer conditions, the need to be able to roll a sea kayak is a must. Other forms of self rescue must also be practiced and it goes without saying that all the safety equipment mentioned above, and more, is another MUST.
Added to this, the ‘what ifs’ should be at the forefront of your mind. When solo sea kayaking, small and simple mistakes soon develop into big problems. You can always bet that when in a group if one member has forgotten a piece of equipment then another member will have it. Obviously this is not so when on your own.
I always have a tick list, for it’s inevitable that on a bright clear sunny day when you haven’t taken your map that some sea fog will comes rolling in. Quickly the land disappears. Do you sit and wait? What if it doesn’t clear? ‘Damn, I should have taken a sighted bearing when I had the chance, now what???”
Many people here on the west coast have some form of kayak in their garden or garage. Some never see the water from one year to the next, but more than likely when we see such fantastic weather as we’ve had in the last few weeks people will take to the water, very often clad for 25 degrees of heat, not the 10 that I’ve mentioned above.
Sadly in the last few years around the Firth of Lorne we’ve seen several fatalities. This is in no means a criticism but the occasional sea kayaker generally doesn’t feel the need to carry the extensive safety equipment that a more frequent paddler would; and lets face it, the equipment is not cheap.
A waterproof floating VHF radio will set you back £150; and on a hot sunny day when the sea is like a mill pond that will be the last thing on your mind. I’ve been sea kayaking for 25 years and have paddled in some of the most hostile and remote parts of the world but, now and again when ‘just out for an evening stretch of the arms’ on a gorgeous sunny day, I’ve thought, ‘No. Won’t need the spare clothing, only be out for a couple of hours’. It’s easily done.
Having now lived so close to the sea for the last 5 years, I can see how its all to easy to become complacent, especially when blessed with good weather and very calm waters.
At those times I always try to cast my mind back to the rare occasions that I have to drive down south on a frighteningly busy motorway with cars screaming past me at 90 miles per hour while I’m crawling along at 60. When it’s there every day you get so, so used to it and there’s no fear or anxiety. It’s the everyday norm, it’s all relative.
Some food for thought
For a little as £15 you can join a canoe club and pick up some simple and potentially life saving skills and information. You don’t necessarily have to stay within the club environment. Many people join and meet like minded individuals and then get out on the water in small groups; or just go off and do their own thing.
This may sound a little mercenary but you can take from the club what you need and not get too involved.
If at the end of the day all you have gained – and I’m sure club coaches and leaders up and down the country would agree, is some knowledge that gets you or others out of a difficult or life threatening situation, then it’s well worth it.
- For a canoe club in your area visit the Scottish Canoe Association website.
- In the north of Argyll visit Oban Canoe Club website
If you really don’t want to go anywhere near a club, there are many kayaking course providers across Scotland and here in Argyll. They can offer a full range of safety courses both river and sea kayaking, a day or weekend is the norm.
Julian Penny will be writing a monthly column on sea kayaking for us, supporting a sport with great potential to take advantage of Argyll’s fabulous coastal, wildlife and seascape resources.
Note: The photograph above – of kayakers surfing in the Falls of Lora at the entrance to Loch Etive – is by Chris Nicolson and is reproduced here under the Creative Commons licence.