The New Mountaineering

Can bobbing around the ocean really be better than backpacking? Simon Willis tries sea kayaking, and likes it.

(First published in TGO Magazine, Sept 2004 - reproduced with permission from Simon)

 

 

Just as fashion devotees frequently opine that "brown is the new black", so I've recently heard sea kayaking described as "the new mountaineering". This was said tongue in cheek, but I understand the sentiment. In Scotland, Munro bagging has reached epidemic proportions; the faces of popular Welsh mountains are deeply scarred by countless boots; and the Lake District hills appear to have contracted some sort of super-bug that stubbornly prevents the wounds of erosion from healing. So rather than head for the hills, increasing numbers of us are taking to the sea.

Two hundred people turned up at the Sea Symposium in Scotland's National Outdoor Training Centre, Glenmore Lodge. Instructors there reckon demand for courses has increased each year for the last five years and a trade association estimate puts participation up 25% over the same period. Sales of kayaks and equipment have never been higher. According to Ian Miller of the Scottish Canoe Association, "almost all of the newer members have come from a mountaineering background".

Sea kayaking is backpacking as it used to be. There's that long-lost sensation of humility in the face of overwhelming natural forces. Overnight camps return to being special times in special places. You can carry the contents of a seventy-litre rucsac without hurting your back and best of all, you never follow a well-worn trail. It requires divine assistance to leave a footprint on a wave.

My girlfriend Liz and I booked ourselves on a one week course with Glenmore Lodge, and after a day training in their pool and on Loch Morlich, we found ourselves standing on a beach near Arisaig on Scotland's West Coast. As I'd been taught, I floated my boat, braced the paddle against the sand to stop it tipping, and slid into the cockpit. I stretched the spray deck to seal the hole, and before I knew it I was gliding through the water.

And here's the strangest thing; it felt completely natural. If I wanted to stop, I stopped. Don't ask me how I turned, turning just. . . happened. Compared to walking, bobbing around the ocean encased in yellow plastic should be utterly alien, and yet I felt completely at peace. We curved around a headland and our shallow draught allowed us to cut through a channel impassable to other boats. Bright, white sand slid beneath as we moved across the North Channel entrance to Arisaig harbour. We were heading for a maze of islands, skerries and beaches that cluster around the entrance to the harbour and are a haven for seals. A extended family looked up as we drew closer, then slipped off their respective rocks, the adults adopting cautious positions while the curious young came to investigate, as interested in us as we were in them. Once you've been buzzed by an inquisitive seal, you're sold on sea kayaking.

Scotland's west coast is World Class sea kayaking territory. The tourist authority Visit Scotland recently studied which adventure sports held the most potential for overseas visitors, and sea kayaking was in the top three. The Scottish Canoe Association receives a steady stream of e-mails from all over the world seeking information and Ian Miller, who used to be tasked with replying, explained the attraction. "You can kayak in Alaska or the Milford Sound and the scenery will be breathtaking, but the water will probably be flat". Scotland's unique combination of water, weather, wildlife and mountains gives it an adventurous, slightly dangerous edge.

Of course kayaking is emphatically not "new". The design of the boats has evolved from that of the Inuit, as opposed to the open birch-bark and dugout canoes of the North American Indians. The sport was popularised by a Scot, John MacGregor, whose first canoe was fifteen feet long, made from oak and cedar planks and christened 'Rob Roy'. In 1866 his best-selling book 'A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe on Rivers and Lakes of Europe' popularised the sport, and it grew around the touring ethos. In the early 1930's James Adam and Alastair Dunnett, later to be editor of 'The Scotsman', paddled from the Clyde past the Cuillins and wrote of their adventure in the excellent book, 'The Canoe Boys'. And I recently found an edition of The Great Outdoors from the 1980's in which Hamish Brown explained the appeal of canoeing to the mountaineer, particularly when it helps to reach remote mountains.

It seems most sea kayakers come from a mountaineering background, and our Glenmore Lodge instructor Doug Cooper was qualified to teach both sets of skills. In one week, we not only learnt how to control a kayak in different conditions but also how to safely plan a trip. Doug taught us how to calculate tides, and explained how they affect a journey. For example, you couldn't leave the mouth a sea loch through which the tide is entering at 10 knots if the fastest you can paddle is 8 knots. However, catch the tide when it's going out, and you get a free ride, popping out like a cork from a bottle.

If all this has you thinking, "Sea kayaking's for me", it'll also be dawning on you that you are currently missing a sea kayak. The shortest of these is around fifteen foot long, and the cheapest about 700, and that's before you buy a paddle, spray deck, personal floatation device, specialist cag, gloves, flares, waterproof radio, roof rack. . . the list goes on.

If you buy new, you'll receive little change from 1500 and could easily spend double. Oh, and you'll not only need a place to store all this, but also someone as daft as you to paddle with, since only a kamikaze novice kayaker takes to the sea alone. So unless, like me, you're fortunate enough to have a partner who is into this sort of thing, your first stop should be your local kayak club, which should be able to offer advice, instruction and possibly loan equipment.

Sea kayaking is growing exponentially. Frequently, when we come ashore at the end of trip, someone will aproach and ask us how he or she can find out more for themselves. I point them towards a club or one of the growing numbers of companies offering sea kayak holidays, and I always echo Ian Miller's warning about this sport's addictive properties. "When I started sea kayaking I had 30 Munros left to climb", Ian told me. "Fifteen years later, I think I've 28 still to go. "

More Scottish Sea Kayaking Photos from Simon's own website, at www.SimonWillis.co.uk

Scottish Instruction

Glenmore Lodge, Skyak Adventures

Getting Started

Courses and club details from Scottish Canoe Association, British Canoe Union, Welsh Canoeing Association, Canoe Association of Northern Ireland.

Simon Willis, 2004.

ADD YOUR OWN CONTRIBUTION