The missing kayaker

With an empty kayak shelf the Octane expedition bothy is far from fit for purpose, its time to buy two more sea kayaks.

The island has no roads to get kayaks in and the neighbouring island likewise. The two boats Octane purchased are located at Sea Kayak Oban, a shop some sixty nautical miles distance from the expedition bothy, there is no other option but to paddle them the distance.

I have roped a compadre into bringing up the rear in the second boat. That having been said he spends much time in the gym working on his guns and it is likely I will be expedition tail gunner but the end result will remain the same – two kayaks added to the Octane expedition equipment list.

Caledonian MacBrayne allow those with kayaks to travel as foot passengers and they generously charge no extra for the boats so, having collected the kayaks, we set off on the ferry our pockets surprisingly not much lighter.

This route saves an eleven-mile paddle up the exposed Sound of Mull, across open water and through tidal races. As I sit in the ferry bar drinking a hot cup of tea I watch the tidal race pass by and think of the fun we are missing but am grateful for the shortened route.

Setting off

As we dock at Craignure I notice the wind is a gentle 7-10 knot southwesterly breeze and, if we continue up the sound, we will remain in lee of Benmore. This route precludes us from seeing the Ross of Mull along the south coast, passing between Fionnphort, world famous Iona and the dramatic Ardmeanach peninsula. However, the wind is gusting and the forecast shows no sign of change.

We have barely put a mile behind us when the wind changes to north westerly directly down The Sound coming over our bows, into our faces and a moderate Force 4 corrals cresting waves by way of a true Highland greeting.

We shore as the heavens open and work together putting up the tarp tent kayak shelter in torrential rain: a sea kayak is laid upwind on its side to make the camp back-wall wind break and a tarp, wrapped around the underside of the boat, comes off the top edge of the kayak and protrudes to make the roof, held up with paddles and made taught with guy ropes.

Five star

The wind picks up, the cloud descends to obscure Benmore sitting to one side of The Sound. We must have had the camp erected in ten minutes and it feels wonderful to watch the weather close in around us, confident the shelter will keep us dry, sheltered and warm. There is plenty more room under a tarp than in a tent, the air moves, it never gets stuffy and the views are spectacular.

We sit under tarp in the protected lee of the kayak watching the storm move in, the mist and the rain envelopes the mountains around us one by one. It is a terrifying show of force, pure theatre and great accompaniment to a cup of tea only those on an expedition truly appreciate.

We rise the next day to find the mist cleared. We are  camped neatly on the ninth hole of an immaculately groomed golf course – despite clear blue skies and calm seas the Bannock bread and fresh coffee tastes distinctly suburban.

We set off again and in no time are making good progress, covering a mile every half hour. We pass the fish farms at Garmony, the logging pier between Corrynachenchy and Pennygown and soon we reach the pier at Salen. We have covered eleven miles in a morning and still my travelling compadre refuses to stop for a cup of tea.

Portage

In Salen we start to portage to Knock on the west side of Mull at the end of Loch Na Keal – the seven mile walk will save 20 miles paddling past Tobermory, round the north side of Mull and across an open water stretch at the mouth of Loch Tuath.

We have kayak trolleys, the boats are fully laden and it isn’t going to be a stroll but our legs are fresh and our arms are aching so it seems like an obvious choice. As the portage gets underway we meet a scallop diver who offers us a tow and, once the kayaks are secured to his sheep trailer, we’re swapping stories in no time.

Regular Jacques Cousteau

He tells us how he has explored the seas around Mull for many years. He dived for scallops in the sixties when scuba technology was in its infancy – these were the days of Jacques Cousteau and scuba equipment was new technology prohibitively expensive. He converted disused compressed air cylinders from abandoned Second World War bombers and toyed with valve set ups so they gave air on request enabling him to walk the sea bed, dragging his row boat behind him on the surface, in his search for wild scallops.

I wonder what hill walkers must have thought of a distant empty rowboat making slow but steady progress against the tide and wind along the Sound of Mull and, with every story he tells, I am grateful of the feeling slowly returning to my arms.

He drops us and our boats off on the south side of Loch Na Keal and we set off in the boats again on a flat water. During a quiet paddle across the loch to the north side we discuss spending the night on Eorsa (‘Snake Island’), lying in the centre of Loch Na Keal. It will make for the perfect over night pit stop. It has been a long day, we have covered 21 miles and I want that cup of tea my compadre is still refusing to stop for.

As we set camp the weather descends again – a strong wind gets up and, just as the shelter is made, the wind direction changes and threatens to blow the whole construction across the loch.

We brake camp, relocate, change aspect and reset. The tarp tent kayak shelter design, although light weight for long journeys, is only secure with the wind coming over the boat side and is susceptible to having the wind get under it from the open side turning the whole thing into a nautical windsock.

As I doze off my thoughts are of waking in the night staring at stars with the tarp tent flying off on a one way ticket across the Atlantic and into the Ulu.

Stranded

We wake in the morning and the wind has intensified. It is an offshore westerly Force 6 blowing down the loch and out to sea. Neither of us are in the mood to do battle with winds of such strength with our kayaks fully laden with bothy destined equipment. We are not in a hurry and we have factored a down day into the schedule.

Our next stop is to be the loch’s north shore and the wind Force 6 would be across our sides possibly gusting a force higher with a risk of swamping our already heavy and low lying boats.

We decide to spend some time fishing in the lee of the island’s west side and this will give us the opportunity to judge the true downwind size of the waves. Waves always seem deceivingly larger when looking into wind.

Making a break

By morning the wind has eased, we estimate Force 4 and make our move. The wind and cresting waves continue to come perpendicular to our direct route to destination so we first head out east and into wind and off the rocks. Making our turn a hundred metres out we use a following sea to take us all the way to Ulva, a charming cafe in a bothy called The Boathouse, fresh lobster, cold beer and the long awaited cup of tea.

The weather clears and, not wanting to miss the prospect of paddling calm seas, we head out for the last leg. The best of the weather has been saved to last, a spell of high pressure is now sitting over the Inner Hebrides and our boats slip quietly through the smooth water which is like a dark and silent moving slick. The landscape going west is more spectacular with each paddle stroke and the water glistens all the way west to the low setting sun.

The coastline has stretches of basalt colonnades, an archipelago of small islands, sheltered coves and inlets of sheltered waters with white coral sands and numerous historical black house ruins in remarkable condition. It is one of the least inhabited stretches of Scottish coastline I know with one infrequently occupied bothy in a six-mile stretch along the entire length.

Only once have I seen the tiny croft occupied – a scientist from Glasgow University, studying the impact of grazing upon the island’s flora, told me it was so quiet he looked forward to the weekly nine-mile walk to the Salen store for provisions and conversation.

Playful seals

We paddle slowly in the day’s last hours, surrounded by playful seals who surface and jump to monitor our intrusion. Humans are a predatory race and seals know it, they see we have eyes at the front of our heads facing our prey – herbivores, less predatory and less intimidating, have eyes on the side of their heads to see their hunters. With this in mind, and if a close encounter is sought, act bashful, look away and seals feel less like they might end up on your plate. They come within six feet of the boats, diving every time we turn our heads.

I drop a line for the evening meal and a simple jig with some feathers produce four decent sized mackerel in the first cast, we must be sitting on a shoal, which accounts for the seal party we have crashed.

The next morning a southwesterly wind prevents us from completing our expedition via the island’s lee side. Having missed the high tide we make another arduous portage but once out of the causeway it is the home run.

On time

We have paddled for five days, completed a 49 mile journey, encountered squalls, portaged, been island shore-bound for 24 hours and yet we have arrived at 7pm, the very hour of ETA I have given the RNLI a week previously.

Whilst we are busy congratulating ourselves an animated farmer appears on a quad visibly filled with relief – telling us we have been reported missing for twenty-four hours. Hill walkers, shepherds, farmers, crofters have all had their eyes peeled for us. It transpires that, unknown to myself, my kayaking compadre has had an agreement with his wife to text home every day during the expedition.

Quite predictably we had paddled through an area without cellular coverage and a daily message had not got through. His wife had called the lifeguard and we were now officially missing.

Lessons learnt

The lesson is never to allow expedition members to have private contact agreements during a trip and always to make a generous financial donation to the RNLI if your name is even whispered in their control room.

Nonetheless, it will be some time before I am known locally by any other name than ‘the missing kayaker’.

 

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