Here’s an account of my crossing to the island of Islay this summer, which was previously posted and discussed on UKRGB.
Several ways to end your days – an ill advised open crossing
Just thought I’d relate an interesting experience I had earlier in the summer – my crossing from the mainland to the island of Islay. Although this should have been straightforward, it proved to be my toughest ever crossing physically and more pertinently, most dangerous. I’ll summarise what happened and allow folk to draw their own conclusions as to why it was such a poor showing on my behalf.
The distance was about 14 miles (I think I did 16+ in the end), which I personally saw as no issue – I have done many much longer crossings, sometimes involving strong tides, which were not present here. However, I’d only been in a boat a handful of times in the previous month and certainly not paddled any distance.
My wife was taking the ferry across but dropped me off at my launch point, the Gigha ferry, patiently allowed me to get sorted, then left to catch the boat with little time spare. I did give Mrs R clear info on where I intended to land and when, and at what point I should be considered ‘overdue’ and the CG contacted.
I would be paddling W mostly. Forecast was NW 3-4, but there were only light breezes and ripples on the sea. As soon as Mrs R left, the wind increased notably – blowing from the NW. I considered calling her back, but this would have meant her/ us missing the ferry which had been booked months before.
I launched and paddled the first leg, 4 miles to the south end of Gigha island. The wind kept increasing and slowed me down, it was probably 5 by the time I reached the south point. I have no idea whether it got any stronger than this, but it was enough already to cause me big problems.
I was now looking at more than ten miles of open water with a much bigger fetch – steep close-spaced waves were breaking against the exposed side of Gigha. I have no doubt that at this point I would normally have turned back to the mainland, but of course I was ‘committed’ to my crossing in certain senses; e.g. I was supposed to be meeting Mrs R on the far side. At this point I also realised that I was not carrying any clothes other than those I was wearing, let alone a sleeping bag or tent. So plan #B – hop ashore onto Gigha and try again in the morning – was not an option. I also considered going ashore on Gigha and finding a BnB. But I wasn’t even carrying my wallet.
I made the decision to ‘dip my toe’ – paddle half an hour out from Gigha and see how it went, with the option of turning around and begging a bed on Gigha. However (and I have no idea why), I’m pretty sure that once I had turned my back on Gigha, I never for a moment gave turning around even a moment’s thought.
In the first half mile, several waves broke clean over me, somewhat disconcerting. However, things calmed down as I got into deeper water and I settled into a rhythm. I could not paddle on the intended bearing, it was simply too close to the wind and thus too wet – it meant hitting the windblown waves from the NW repeatedly and making no progress. I aimed further south, but still pointing at Islay.
After an hour, I checked the GPS – I normally hate using this gadget for navigation, but on this occasion I wanted to be sure. I had progressed 1.7 miles, paddling flat out with no breaks, and I was already exhausted. My normal relaxed cruising speed is 4 mph.
That’s it, really. I thrashed on, making slow progress and seriously worried about how long I’d be able to maintain the effort needed to keep making progress. I got pretty cold (suppose another thermal might have been a good idea under the cag) but did not break full-effort paddling for more than a quick mouthful of chocolate at any point. I looked up at one point and saw the ferry some miles to the north of me, and felt quite jealous of all onboard (Mrs R tells me it was a really smooth crossing and the sea looked quite pleasant from the decks!). Other than that it was all head-down paddling, non-stop, and I really wasn’t fit for this.
About 4 miles out from the coast of Islay, I was able to reassure myself that I was going to live through this. I am fully aware of how hyperbolic/ ridiculous that sounds, but it’s exactly what I told myself then, and for a couple of hours beforehand, I was really not sure how things were going to pan out. I was happier now because the swell had receded as I closed the fetch distance between land and myself, and the paddling was much easier/ smoother/ quicker. I was now able to turn more into the wind and regain some of the ground I’d lost off course.
A mile out from Islay, the sea was smooth, the sun was shining and seals came to see me from the reefs. Seeing this gorgeous evening, it was hard to believe what I’d just been out in. I had a relaxed chat with Mrs R on the VHF (just on the cusp of my ‘overdue’ cut-off time), then paddled in and joined her, wobbling quite a bit as I climbed out. I think I’d been paddling for over five hours.
Good news was, the curry house in Port Ellen was still open.