Our friend is gone.
Our friend is gone.
I’ve gradually been working my way around Britain’s coast, paddling solo for a few weeks here and there when I have time free. I think that I’m now about three quarters of the way around (must check …).
Anyway, last summer I paddled 280 miles down Scotland’s east coast. This coast was all completely new to me, and clearly deserves to see far more sea kayakers than it currently does. I experienced some incredible coastal scenery and birdlife - indeed, the best yet, in Caithness – but also some persistently awful weather. For this reason it was a somewhat frustrating trip, with lots of stopping and starting, and lots of short days.
There is no such thing as a bad paddling trip however, as I hope that my photos make clear … enjoy.
Last summer, Heather and I spent a few weeks exploring the wild and wonderful Orkney Isles by sea kayak. Our trip did not cover much distance due to persistent poor weather, but this actually allowed us to explore the area in depth.
This vast area of islands is located off the northern tip of Scotland and is simply unique. The isles are fully exposed to swells from the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, and some of the strongest tidal flows in the world pass between them! The islands are part of Britain but pride themselves on their Nordic heritage. Wildlife is simply amazing, with huge bird and seal colonies common. The archaeological interest of the isles is simply staggering, with sites dating back 5000 years literally littering the place.
Below are notes that I penned about our trip for UKRGB …
It was certainly the most challenging sea trip we’ve done together, for various reasons.
We originally had planned to try the whole John O’Groats > Orkney > Shetland trip, but that had pretty much fallen by the wayside before we even met up to begin, as;
- the weather patterns indicated that the big crossings were not likely to be on for both of us.
- we had agreed that we wanted to prioritise exploring/visiting rather than pushing ahead whatever. The numerous bad weather days helped this aim, somewhat!
In the event, what we completed was a roundabout trip of only just c120 miles linking John O’Groats with the very northern tip of Orkney, North Ronaldsay. The route and pace was completely dictated by weather and tides, we hadn’t planned this! From North Ronaldsay we couldn’t face an extended return journey back into the face of all the continuing weather, so we took a series of ferries back south.
The paddling was not the picture postcard cruising experience, indeed it was usually relatively challenging. It tended to fall into one of two categories …
1. Biggish swells.
We paddled along much of Orkney’s exposed west and north coasts, which feature some incredible cliffs, caves and stacks. However we viewed it all from a distance of 500m to a mile offshore, as this paddling was always done in short hops from bay to bay, taking advantage of short gaps between periods of strong wind – hence we were always paddling through the tail end of some storm or other. Between Stromness and Bay of Skaill, the waves were exploding halfway up the cliffs. They are 200-300 foot high! However, we didn’t have to make any dodgy surf landings as we picked our spots carefully.
2. Crazily strong tides.
This we should have realised (it’s all there in the pilot and guidebook) but we still struggled on occasion. Mixed with unsettled weather, this created some pretty rough water. We were well aware of the strength of the Pentland Firth beforehand and (given that we were at Springs) planned our crossing carefully. It was only later in the trip that we appreciated just how lucky we had been to have a rare perfect day for this – even in these conditions we had to surf across lively tide races continuously for 3.5 hours – I dread to imagine what even a hint of swell or wind would have meant. What we didn’t properly grasp, was that the tides get extremely strong again, through Orkney’s north isles. In particular, the Westray Firth/Stronsay Firth gap which bisects the isles is every bit as strong and rough as the Pentland Firth – we blundered into this (at Springs) late one evening and hence had a minor epic which resulted in us stranded on a small midstream island with limited fresh water. The following day we planned properly and tried to cross again at time and conditions of our choosing, but still failed and had to retreat! Thankfully I was paddling with a strong WW paddler, or you would certainly have read about us on the news.
The Pesda guidebook
This guidebook is pretty good for Orkney, describing the coast and surrounding waters very clearly and accurately. It also gives lots of info that gives a ‘taste’ of what the isles are like ashore, which is of course the real reason that you are there. The limitations of the book are;
- A few small areas aren’t covered
- It’s written from a purely circumnavigation perspective, rather than an island hopping perspective – what I mean is, the tidal info is great for paddling around the isles, but sometimes unclear/incomplete for paddling between. This is one occasion where I’d recommend also shelling out £50 for the Admiralty Pilot (which we had).
- On a related note, there isn’t much (any?) advice on using the various ferries (see below).
- It doesn’t tell you where the services are on each island! This may sound like a silly point, but finding food can be a real issue. Each island usually turns out to have a single shop, invariably unmapped and many miles away from anything else (like the quay), opening at limited and obscure times.
- To supplement the guidebook, I recommend picking up ‘The Islands of Orkney’ a fantastic free publication detailed guide to every outlying island. It’s also online here …
Ferries and Flights
Unlike with CalMac and the west coast, kayaks were (surprisingly) a relative novelty to the ferry operatives and employees we dealt with. All were helpful and friendly. No company charged us for carrying boats, although each time we called ahead to check they had space. The interisland ferries (run by Orkney Ferries) often have to crane luggage aboard (including cars and cattle) due to lack of RoRo facilities on all isles, although our boats were wiggled aboard via a side hatch. Northlink is the ‘big’ ferry company running to Thurso, Aberdeen and Shetland. We trollied boats down their ramp into the car deck.
Another transport option is the insanely cheap subsidised flights. Kirkwall (‘capital’ of Orkney) to North Ronaldsay (most northerly isle, 35 miles away) = c£14 return. Cheaper than the ferry and more regular at three flights daily rather than two ferries weekly! It’s even half price for kids, the son of the Bird Observatory warden was flying to school in Kirkwall every day. They don’t carry sea kayaks, though …
We’ve just returned from a week north of the border. Firstly we visited the Scottish Canoe Assocation’s annual Show, ‘Paddle ’09′. I met up with various folk and delivered a talk on recent overseas whitewater expeditions.
Having done this, it was time for the real business of the week; catching up with friends and heading off to paddle. Plentiful rainfall meant that we were able to enjoy plenty of the fantastic rivers around Fort William, based from a rather nice rented house at Roybridge. All good.
The SCA Show
Simon Willis, who has released a coaching video.
Franco Ferrero, benign dictator of Pesda Press.
The River Coe gorge.
The River Orchy.