I’m quite ashamed to admit this but until I started sea paddling 2 years ago, despite having lived in Scotland for 16 years, I’d never been any further north than Glasgow. This year Dave and I were off to the Outer Hebrides. Dave’s been there before but it was all new to me. We were going to base ourselves at Uist Outdoor Centre at Lochmaddy. Dave was taking the car up as he had more time off than me and I made excellent use of airmiles to meet him up there.
Sunday 14 Aug
Met up with Tony who had driven up from London
Benbecula from the air - lots of water!
Loch nam Madhadh (Loch Maddy) lies on the north east coast of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It’s complex topography was formed when the sea flooded an undulating landscape left by the retreating ice sheets about 15,000 years ago. It really is a paddlers paradise. A vast lacework of islands and small channels around which every corner is a hidden gem. On blowy days (and they do have quite a few of those in the Outer Hebrides) it is possible to find enough shelter from the elements to spend hours exploring the Loch – which is exactly what we did! If the wind was in the right direction we flew – when it wasn’t in the right direction we struggled to get to where we wanted.
That evening we adjourned to the pub to plan our expedition – which we were setting off on the next day.
Dave reckons that if we put the mast and sail half up we could maybe power up it. We go first - sail power alone is not enough but with a little helping hand from the paddle (used splits like a Canadian) we manage to make it up and pull in round the corner. Dave goes back to help Tony who is struggling to make it up under sail power alone. He shouts to him to use the paddle too for a bit of extra power and watches in dismay as half of Tony’s very expensive split paddle is torn from his hands by a combination of oily hands – due to sunscreen having been applied before we set off – and a rogue gust of wind. It then disappeared off at a rapid pace down the tidal race. Not a great start then!
We spent the next 2 hours sailing up and down Loch Houran searching for the lost paddle. We were all set to give up and were heading back to the Centre when Dave and I spotted something stuck in the seaweed. Yes – it was the lost half paddle. Relief all round!
We decided it was too late to start the expedition now so we adjourned to the pub with the intention of setting off early the next day. At least the boats were packed!
Leaving Loch Maddy
We reached Grimsay and started to look for a place to camp. We eventually found the perfect spot on the Rossinish headland. A lovely sandy bay with dunes at the back. Only drawback was the tidal range. It went out a long way! Still we managed to carry the boats up the beach, unload them and set up camp. So far so good – nobody has lost anything yet! Oops – spoke too soon – Dave’s leatherman had fallen off the boat when we were carrying it up the beach and then he got sidetracked and forgot about it. By the time he remembered the tide was coming in and there was no sign of it. Tony and I spent the evening watching him dig up a big section of the beach searching for it.
Leatherman divining - - -
I went for an explore of the area and found a ruined croft at the top of the hill. On further investigation a sheep had got its horns trapped under some debris and was unable to move. The animal rescue service kicked into action and we managed to get him free and out of the croft. It was very weak but at least it had a chance of recovery now.
Ok – it was now 4 o clock and the weather was starting to look a bit grey. Time for a rethink! We decided that we would take the sails down and paddle over to Wiay Island and camp there. Not the best of camp sites I have to say. Still – it was starting to get cold and attempting to rain. Dave dropped the s**t shovel in the water and forgot to retrieve it while unpacking the boat – luckily he remembered it the next morning and threw it onto the bank. Tony retrieved his last 2 bottles of wine from the deepest darkest recesses of his boat and we rigged a tarp, made tea and chilled for a while. An early night beckoned.
We unpacked the boats, rigged the tarp, got a wee fire going and Tony and I spent an hour watching Dave divine for his Leatherman before feeling guilty and taking a turn at divining ourselves. Sticks were no good but tent pegs seemed to fare a bit better. We still didn’t find it and by now Dave had realised that we didn’t have the s**t shovel either. I had left it on the grassy bank on Wiay! Ooops!
Plans for the next day were left open as they were weather dependant – but it had started to brighten up late afternoon. Another early night beckoned as we were all tired and we’d run out of drink! Not good planning!
One boat - one seal
Weather conditions were perfect for sailing so it wasn’t long before we stopped and put the rigs up. For once the wind was in our favour and the sea was calm with a nice swell. I was lulled into a false sense of security! This was great – I could sit and watch the scenery – not have to do much work – life was good! All too soon we made it to the mouth of Loch Maddy. We re-grouped in the lee of Maddy Mor and discussed options. General consensus was that conditions were favourable and we could make it to Berneray. Things were Ok for about 5 minutes – until we left the shelter of Maddy Mor and crossed the mouth of Loch Maddy. The water was choppy and confused and waves seemed to be coming from all directions.
It was a very interesting crossing! This was the first time we’d really sailed the boat in these conditions and once I’d got used to it really enjoyed myself. It was certainly exhilarating. We rounded the headland and sailed into the network of islands in the Sound of Harris. Again we had the wind in the right direction and fairly flew across to Berneray. Plan was to stay in the Black House Hostel. The rest of the journey was uneventful until we reached the sandbar just off Berneray and went the wrong way round it. We ended up 100 yards from where we wanted to be! Not a problem you would have thought – except that 100 yards was up a really strong tidal race which was running at about 7/8 knots. We should be OK with the sails says Dave. Hmmm … famous last words! We started off OK – got ½ way up the race and all of a sudden was propelled back at an un-godly speed and thrown up on the rocks. The boat ended up ¾ out of the water. Attempt was aborted and we paddled round to the slipway and hauled the boats out there. Wind was picking up quite a bit by now so we decided to spend the night in the hostel. Yippee! Showers, warmth, comfort.
We timed our arrival back perfectly as the wind had started to pick up quite a bit and a force 8 was predicted for that night. And it arrived! At 4am Dave and I were pinned in our tent (know what it’s like to be vacuum packed now!) and it was an hour before we could escape into the centre. The tent broke a pole and a guy rope! Loads of photos were taken of those tents that withstood the Force 8 gusting 10 winds! These were all hilleburgs and will no doubt appear on various websites soon!
Hmm - it was windy then?
Sound of Harris
S**t shovel retrieval day. Dave was determined he was going to find it so we drove to Peters Port and Dave and Tony paddled out to get it. Mission successful! We then went to Grimsay where the boys went for a paddle round and I found a nice wee exhibition on lobster pots through the ages and pictures of Grimsay Boats.
Coastguard exercises at the Symposium
All in all a fantastic 2 weeks. The paddling is out of this world. I would recommend tapping into as much local knowledge as you can as the tides there are laws unto themselves.
Helen McKenna signing off .. till next time …
The full picture set, including some not shown above, is here.
Click here to link to MultiMap.