Monday, 1 June 2009

Point to Point

After a cold clear night we woke to heavy dew and another fine day in prospect with sunshine and light winds.

The temperature rose rapidly as soon as the sun appeared round the headland and we were sweating hard by the time we'd moved the boats down and packed them.

We put on just after 8.30am and were more that a little sad to leave Neave Island. Having had a look around the night before it looks like a great place to explore by boat.

With it being so hot we dispensed with the cags and headed across Torrisdale Bay to Farr Point and then on to Kirtomy Point and Ardmore. As we approached this last one the wind began to pick up from the East which given that we were already working against the tide was an added pain.

Heading across the bay to Aultivillin the wind speed increased steadily to F4. As we crossed the bay we spotted our second Minke whale of the trip.

After something of a tussle we pulled into Port Allt a Mhuilinn, a hidden cove that is probably only ever visited by kayakers. Today it was a sun trap out of the freshening wind; however we didn't linger long as the E going tide at Strathy Head was due to start running shortly and we wanted to be sure that we got around before it did so, particularly given the strengthening wind which would be pushing against it.

With cags now donned again we headed for the next significant point on the trip. We reached it only a few minutes later than planned to be greeted by some pretty rough and chaotic seas. They were however manageable we decided so we pressed on round the point before things could build any further.

The passage across to Portskerra was rough and hard going. In addition the wind seemed to have stiffened still further. Faced with a further 16km of paddling to the next possible campsite (Sandside Bay not making it onto the list for well documented reasons) we decided to call it a day at Melvich Bay instead.

After a chat with the local Ghillie we were granted permission to use a fine spot on a bend in the river.

As we paddled the boats up steam to the agreed spot we were greeted by a group of local nursery age youngsters who we enjoying the sun and splashing in the river under the supervision of a couple of the mums. As soon as they spotted us their attention shifted to these strange folk from the sea. We were asked, politely, for shots in our boats and the two of us took it in turns to tow the around the pool on the river. Eventually they tired of this game but no sooner had we got the tent up than it was taken over by them delighted to be getting a shot at 'camping' as well! Not that it mattered to us, we had plenty of time to spare so we lay back in the sunshine and left them to their fun.

Once they had headed home for tea we set about making camp proper, washing many days worth of salt out of our kit and relaxing in the sun.

Distance travelled today: 29km
Total distance travelled: 341km
Midgee ferrocity: AM 3/5 hoods recommended. PM Nil - too windy for flying.

Sun Sun Sun

We woke at 6am to yet another sunny day with light winds, plus yesterdays swell had eased considerably. Perfect paddling conditions!

After a leisurely start we headed off in time to catch the start of the E going stream at Faraid Head. A lovely headland with an intresting array of stacks and outliers.

From there we crossed the bay at Durness and took advantage of the relatively calm conditions to paddle up to Smoo Cave for a breather and to have a closer look. An impressive feature and suprisingly busy given its remote location. However we declined the option of a guided tour in a rubber dingy.

We then headed across the mouth of Loch Eriboll to Whiten Head as the E going tide started to pick up pace there, although aside from a short section of tide race off the W corner there was little evidence of the conveyor that would takes us steadily Eastwards.

As headlands go Whiten is pretty impresive. 6km of continous cliffs rising in places to over 200m. The sheer scale of the place is very humbling.

Glancing over our shoulders as we passed Bodach Dearg we noted a fog bank rolling in from the west was wrapping its cold damp blanket around Faraid Head. By the time we reached the massive bulk of Cleit an t Seabhaig, 2km further on, it had reached the headland. Fortunately its Eastward passage slowed at that point and we were able to enjoy the trip down the rest of the headland in good visibility before it finally caught up with us.

We swung into the sandy bay at Strathan, which was still in the sun, and set about sorting out a late lunch. After we'd eaten the fog was still lingering off-shore but starting to thin so we decided to extend our stay a while on this lovely beach in the hopes that it would clear. Had this been the Med a place like this would have been over run but here it was empty. In time the fog duely cleared and we went back afloat for the final leg of the day.

The wind stiffened a little to WNW F3 as we crossed Tongue Bay just N of Rabbit Island and passed through Caol Raineach and Caol Beag to a superb campsite on Neave Island.

Distance travelled today: 39km
Total distance travelled: 312km
Midgee ferrocity: 2/5

Cape Wrath

now that I have a signal:

We were up just after 6am to be greeted by another sunny day with F3 SE winds. The surf in the bay though was still running at4-5'. There was no rush to be off though as we'd concluded that a 10.30am start was what was required to get us around the Cape.

Instead we used the time for a spot of Shetland portaging. Having spent a bit of time watching the break we'd concluded that the chances of getting past it in fully laden boats without a soaking were slim. There was however a small bay just next door that wasn't catching any swell which we had decided against using the previous evening due to its rocky nature; however on closer inspection an area of it had been cleared at some point, no doubt for a fishing boat. Half an hours hard labour saw the boats successfully relocated and by 10.30am we were afloat.

Having checked in with Stornoway Coastguard for the last time we headed N up the coast.

The first bit of excitement came as we squeezed round the back of Eilean an Roin Mor where the N going tide was already moving a pace into a heavy swell.

From there up to Am Buachaille was pretty bouncy with a 2-3m ground swell creating a lot of clapotis. However by now the wind had dropped to a F2, but at the same time the sun disappeared.

Once past The Shepherd we moved further out to reduce the effects of the swell. Having passed the two main tidal pinch points in the early stages of the N going stream we had time to kill before arriving at Cape Wrath so as to be there in the final stages of the E going steam.

Looking into Sandwood Bay it was clear that a landing there should be reserved for emergencies only thanks to the size of the break. Instead we rafted up and allowed ourselves to drift N with the tide admiring the dramatic cliffs of this last section of the West coast and discussing final tactics for the Cape. In the end we concluded, given the size of the swell, that we would be better off keeping out and skirting around the outside of the area of overfalls.

And so to the Cape.

It can only be coincidence that the Norse word for 'turning point' carries such forboding in English. However it is well named in both languages. It is certainly a very serious and commiting section of coast with its combination of tidal streams, exposure to Atlantic swells and lack of landing options, and it is very definitely a turning point.

Our plan worked out and we found ourselves looking along the massive cliffs of the N coast. There was one moment of anxiety when we realised that the tide was pushing us straight towards Eilean Duslik which given the swell was one big turquoise and white cauldron. Definitely not a place we wanted to be so some 'brisk' paddling was put in to ensure that we were swept clear of it.

As we swung East the swell picked up even more, with the big sets running at perhaps 4-5m we reckoned, although it is pretty hard to tell for sure, but at least it was all going in the same direction unlike the leg up to the Cape and the sun was now back with us again.

We had considered stopping at the pier or Kearvaig for a break but given the sea state decided not to try. Instead we pressed on through the MoD firing range and past some of the biggest cliffs either of us had ever seen.

The number of sea birds increased dramatically along this section. Clearly the regular pounding of An Garbh Eliean and surrounding countryside by the MoD has done little to deter them. At one point an entire squadron of Fulmars decided to buzz us, an interesting departure from the usual solo 'bombing' runs with birds coming towards is from all directions..

We made the next tidal 'squeeze' point at Stack Clo Kearvaig with the tidal still working for us, but the final one in the narrows between An Garbh Eilean and the mainland had started to turn by the time we got there and required a bit of extra effort on our part.

Once past An Garbh Eilean the sea state eased a little and eventually we swung round the corner into Balnakeil Bay and clambered ashore, 6 hours and 36km after putting on at Oldshore Mor. The longest either of us had ever spent in a boat in one sitting and not something we'll be rushing to repeat.

Safely off the water for the night we checked in with Aberdeen Coastguard for the first time.

All in all it had been a petty tough day and certainly the most serious, commiting and at times intimidating section of coast that either of us had ever paddled.
Distance travelled today: 36km
Total distance travelled: 273km
Midgee ferrocity: 1/5