The full complement of 30 participants in this paddlefest, centred on Bute’s timeless Ettrick Bay, were on the water today.
One group did a half navigation of the island, starting at Ascog on the east coast and paddling south, across Kilchattan Bay, round Garroch Head, along Stravannan Bay, looking directly across to the high mountains on the Isle of Arran, then through between the historic Inchmarnock Island and the sandy beach at Straad, with the run in to Ettrick Bay, beaching below the Ettrick Bay Tearoom, a useful landing marker from the sea.
They set off from Ascog at 9.30am and were coming ashore at Ettrick Bay at around 4.30pm. Tomorrow (Sunday 22nd July), weather permitting, they’ll complete the circumnavigation.
A second group worked in the waters of Ettrick Bay itself – on capasize and rescue skills – of which more later.
To the north, out in the ‘hinge’ of the two Kyles of Bute, around the entrance to Loch Riddon, was a third group, working on a series of boat handling skills. Roddy McDowell of Kayak Bute, organisers of the entire event, drove to Rhubodach and we walked to a viewpoint over this section of the Kyles but didn’t see them. However, later, driving on to the ferry over to Colintraive on the way back, we caught a glimpse – and got a shot (above) – of them getting their kayaks out of the water beside the ferry slip and onto roof racks in the car park above.
So what is it about sea kayaking?
One group here had been paddling away in the water for around seven hours. Another had spent as much time in the water as on it; and the third, whatever they were doing, were the last to get back to base and had clearly had a long and busy day.
Every one of them came off the water with a glow and big happy smiles. Whatever other worlds they each inhabit at other times, they were all living in the moment on the waters of Bute.
Why an event specifically for women paddlers? These are becoming very popular – and Kayak Bute’s festival filled its complement of 30 places quickly, with five paddlers coming from the New Forest, others from Aberdeen and north Wales.
Some women who have paddled before and, for career and family reasons, have lost touch with the sport for a while, may prefer to make their return to it in less competitive circumstances than would be the case with a mixed gender group.
Some of this ‘competition’ is, of course, more talk than anything else. Roddy McDowell has a great phrase to describe those talking endlessly of the height of the waves they’ve surfed. He calls them ‘Forum paddlers’.
If indeed women coming back to paddling – or simply wanting to keep skills in good order – are finding that events for women provide the circumstances they’re looking for at particular times, this does not mean that these events operate at a domestic level.
Some of the participants and coaches in Bute today have completed awesome journeys – the Faroes, the north Russian coast, a circumnavigation of Tierra del Fuego…
They don’t need to talk up these achievements and indeed they do the opposite. Mention the Tierra del Fuego challenge to coach Justine Curgenven (above) and all she’ll say is: ‘Yeah, I’ve been there’ and maybe how lovely the fjord-like stretch of coast there was. Now, if she was a bloke… Check out her (great) website – Cackle TV – if you want to get a sense of the reality of all that stuff she doesn’t need to mention.
Another of the coaches at Bute, Sarah Outen, has just been rescued from a typhoon in the Pacific. And Lorna from Inverclyde, one of the participants and in a lovely old Nordkapp kayak, shipped it to the Faroes with three others and they took on that numbingly stunning seascape.
Today’s part-circumnavigation group found the Sound of Bute, between the island and Arran, unusually flat calm and had more leisure than they’d expected to appreciate that breathtaking landscape, opening up when you come through the narrows at the Cumbraes and turn right.
This is one of the huge draws about this sport – the unrivalled access it offers to places and perspectives you could experience no other way – that and the very close proximity to the sea, with which you learn to negotiate respectfully and joyously.
And you see giant starfish – this one, evidently not a regular at Ettrick Bay, must have had a diameter of around 9″.
Roddy McDowell, owner of Kayak Bute and a man who looks as if he and his life are together in exactly the right place and time, organised this event and ran down a fleet of first rate women coaches. These appear to be a very scarce commodity and getting five of them free for the same dates is quite an achievement.
Roddy was playing it all very cool this afternoon, keeping out of it, leaving it to the coaches he’d commissioned and keen not to look as if he was hanging around keeping an eye on things – and he wasn’t.
Obviously a good teacher as well as a good paddler, his career path to where he is today is an unexpected one.
An education specialist, he is a former head teacher (with Jura a fondly remember charge – and not just because its on the south shore of the Corryvreckan whirlpool that is something of a playground for experienced paddlers); and a former head of service in Argyll and Bute’s education department.
Then he got to a point where he wanted more from his life and, with his kayaking increasingly important to him, left,. did some management consulting in education and then set up Kayak Bute.
It’s three years old now, with almost two trading years behind it. They will advise on kit and they sell the Tiderace series of sea kayaks they believe in and use themselves. Today, we found one of the participants, Pam Forsyth from Innellan on the east coast of Cowal, getting hold of a pair of scissors to open a parcel. This was some parcel – a kayak-sized parcel delivered to Ettrick Bay for her by Roddy.
It’s hard to think of anything to do with kayaking – tuition, developing skills and competence award levels, training to coach, expeditions, guided trips, events – that Kayak Bute can’t deliver. Food for thought – and we’re thinking.
People who have the rare capacity to reinvent themselves at will are the true inhabitants of Tír na nÓg. It’s obvious that this left field change of direction was a fundamentally fulfilling decision and one that could be made only by this sort of independent spirit.
Way to go.
Ettrick bay and insights into paddling
Most of the paddlers at this Women’s Scottish Sea Kayak Festival are at the campsite owned by the Ettrick Bay tearoom – only paddlers have seen better than the view from its windows and it is one of Bute’s star resources (even better if they did a coffee as good as their food and their baking).
The campsite is an ordered mix of tents of all shapes and colours and kayaks of as many hues. It all looks fun.
A major advantage of Ettrick Bay for Kayak Bute is the topography of its sea floor. The beach shelves at the very start and then levels out, making for shallow water perfect for learning capsize and rescue drills safely and with confidence.
It makes for some surreal images, though. Today, Sally, who was instructing and is a serious sailor of significant experience in racing as well as cruising, was leading the session on recovery and rescue skills. She was able to stand well out frm shore, chest-high in the water beside her dunking flotilla, and offer physical as well as verbal guidance – and a reassuringly stable presence.
With kayaking, what everybody first asks about about is capsizing – so we paid particular attention to being able to report on what was going on.
The first surprise was the myth of an eskimo roll being a 360 degree jobbie requiring complete inversion. No doubt that comes into it at some point but the main event seems to be a 90 degree capsize, with the paddler unable to get back upright and, in some circumstances, the kayak taking in water.
What is being demonstrated in the photograph above, is the second kayak, the upright one, assisting the recovery by positioning its bow where the capsized paddler can reach to it and use it to leverage the righting of the kayak.
We saw kayaks roll to that level, with the capsized paddlers and the rescue paddlers both talked through what to do and with the capsized craft quickly coming upright. Hip swivelling is important and can also be used to prevent a capsize, as can using the flat of the paddle as a counter lever against the push of water.
Part of the rescue routine – where one paddler is secure in their kayak, with a colleague in the water, is (as above) lifting the bow of the capsized kayak onto the bow of the upright canoe, to be able to turn it to spill as much as possible of the water that has flooded it.
The big thing here is that kayakers need to be capably self-sufficient – not only to look after themselves but in successfully assisting fellow paddlers in difficulties.
A large group of paddlers leaving or coming ashore together is an image very reminiscent of that glorious moment when tri-athletes hurl themselves into the water for the swimming leg.
Either way its seems a manically hyperactive flail. In one case it’s a forest of flying arms. In this one it’s rearing paddles. You could watch it for ever.
When they come ashore they have different methods of dismounting, although most seem to involve a quick wriggle that leaves them astride the kayak for the last few yards.
When Sally’s stand-up coaching on recovery and rescue skills was over, she hitched a lift in to the shore and rode pillion.
This is a three day event. Today was the first and it finishes on Monday. The programme of talks off the water is as mouthwatering as the challenges on it. The dinners tonight and tomorrow night are being catered by the Ettrick Bay Tearoom. All made in Bute.
There were kayakers and former kayakers amongst the visitors to the bay today – and they couldn’t keep their eyes off what was happening. Nostalgia and nerve-end memory ruled.
Now for next year’s event.
Note: Julian Penney, an expert paddler, is covering sea kayaking for For Argyll on a regular basis – with an occasional side menu of inexpert but interested observation from the rest of us.