Petestack Blog

19 December 2021

December paddling

Filed under: Paddling — admin @ 2:35 pm

Something I hadn’t been that aware of before starting to get into kayaking is its year-round potential, but it now seems that most of my paddling friends paddle all year. Of course you’ve got colder air and colder water in winter, but look at sea-temperature graphs for anywhere in the British Isles and you might be surprised at when it’s coldest if you don’t already know; the answer is basically March, with the November sea as ‘warm’ as June in many places and March at the bottom of the curve between. Of course you’re going to dress differently for November air temperature than June and need to be mindful of sea temperature if you’re going to fall in on a nice spring day, but the kayaks don’t have to get laid up with the yachts to wait for next season. (Yes, I know some folk keep their boats afloat and sail through the winter, but I don’t want to!)

Knowing you can go paddling in December and finding the right day(s) are two different things, and I’d waited three weeks since my last November outing for the combination of weather and tides Friday brought to get my last unpaddled section of Loch Leven between Eilean Choinneich and the Ballachulish Bridge. When considering days and tides, my first thought had been to put in at one of the old Ballachulish ferry slips and head eastwards to Eilean Choinneich before rejecting that idea because there’d be almost no tides allowing me to head both east and west of such a start in the same trip. So I put in at the back pier (there’s really nowhere closer on either side of the loch) to head west on the last of the ebb and back on the flood. The original plan was just to head through the bridge and turn at about St Bride’s church, but it was such a nice day to be out that I soon found myself on a spontaneous bonus tour of Ballachulish Bay:

I’d have liked to go inside Currachd Liath (south shore of Ballachulish Bay) and An Dùnan (west side of Bishop’s Bay) but they were both still joined to the shore! The sharp turn close to shore in Bishop’s Bay is because I went round the mooring that used to be mine and on which I kept four boats over the years till I moved Fly to GBC:

Aware that every photo showing my kayaks on the water I’ve taken and posted so far has been a still shot from a still boat because I’ve needed to stop paddling to handle the camera, I had the spur-of-the-moment and totally unprepared idea of trying to grab some videos while actually paddling. And of course I didn’t get everything right (e.g. focus) with the camera balanced on a bag in the bottom of the boat, but they are what they are! This is on Ballachulish Bay heading eastwards towards the Ballachulish Bridge and Loch Leven:

And this is the back entrance/exit to Bishop’s Bay:

But I also have a few of the ‘normal’ still shots showing the start at the back pier, view from the bay towards Beinn a’ Bheithir with Sgorr a’ Chaolais prominent centre and same ‘back door’ to Bishop’s Bay as the second video:

Two more things to say about the Safari before I move on to yesterday’s Appin sea kayak trip: I’ve got the footrest working even better now by wedging between the side tubes rather than sitting down under them (which is pretty well the only way the Twist’s smaller and less useful footrest will sit), and moved it back to the longest setting (position 4). But I want to talk about yesterday now…

Amanda lives about 180m up the road and Ruth lives right in between (a neat 90m from either of us). Amanda’s a Sea Kayak Leader and Coach who’s keen to do some sailing where I’m a lifelong sailor getting into kayaking, so Ruth suggested we could help each other. What a good idea!

So we’d discussed the same fine December conditions that saw me out on Friday and planned a sea kayaking trip for yesterday (Saturday); Amanda suggested a few possible venues and the one that just grabbed me was Appin, where I’ve sailed so often but hadn’t yet paddled. And here’s our track… what looks like crossing the road top right is just a misplaced arrow from my mapping software, and the wavy bits just north of Port Ramsay are probably me playing with edging and turns, which I was doing about there:

Now, I got to paddle Amanda’s Cetus because we didn’t think I’d get my legs and feet into Mal’s (her partner’s) Atlantic, but trying it afterwards suggests the fit differs from the other Northshore boats I’ve tried (polyethylene Atlantic and composite Voyager) and I might if we moved the pegs, but it’s nothing like as comfortable! Having taken Fly to Port Ramsay on her late season mini cruise just a couple of months ago, I hadn’t expected to be back this year, but here we are. And Amanda fancies my new Peak UK jacket because it matches her Cetus perfectly!

As well as enjoying the nice day’s journey in Amanda’s lovely boat, I was able to benefit from her experienced coaching eye in making significant improvements to my forward stroke. And, while I’d already looked at this with Mark at Sea Kayak Oban and we’re aware of further refinements still to be made after working so hard at it, I think we’re both agreed it’s now more even, efficient and (dare I say it?) elegant. Whether I have to continue adjusting for my broader inflatables is another matter, but I’m hoping to keep as much as possible to my ‘sea kayak’ stroke so that’s what gets ingrained. One interesting factor here is paddle length; my current Lomo paddle adjusts from 215 to 225cm but I’m obviously wanting something a little shorter for sea kayaks. We swapped between Amanda’s two good paddles (cranked Werner Shuna 215cm and cranked Werner Cypress 205cm) and she thought the shorter one actually suited me better. This might surprise some given my 180cm height, but remember I’ve got long legs and correspondingly shorter body for that. The two paddles I’ve tried at SKO were a cranked 210cm and straight 215cm, so perhaps 210cm might be my sweet spot for sea kayaking, but it’s something I’m keen to get right when it has such a tangible effect on stroke and style.

To get back to the photos (for which that last paragraph was necessary preamble), my wee trip from Eilean Ramsay to the buoy and back was supposed to be for Amanda to video my stroke, but something happened to her videos from my camera and the stills we’re left with are significantly better. There’s also no GPS track for this bit because I’d put my stuff ashore, and I don’t lounge back like that last pic when paddling!

Just before stopping at Eilean Ramsay, we’d met a group of four kayakers from the Oban club we’d seen ahead of us off the north end of Shuna and were enjoying a similar outing, but didn’t see them again after this. We stopped again for lunch on Eilean nan Caorach, where Amanda sensibly started eating her lunch while I wandered round taking photos of the old lime kilns etc.:

And that’s most of what there is to tell when we enjoyed a nice paddle back to our starting point but I have no more photos. While it was never sunny like the forecast we’d planned on a few days ago suggested, it was very pleasant out and we discovered when we got back that the morning’s frost in Kinlochleven had never thawed! So just such a satisfying day overall for the combination of development and a proper journey. :-)

25 November 2021

Safari 330

Filed under: Paddling — admin @ 7:48 pm

Here we have the Gumotex Safari 330… ordered in June, delivered yesterday morning and taken straight out to try before Friday and Saturday’s wind warnings take effect! The seat’s in the ‘wrong’ way round with the backrest valve on the front, but I sorted that later:

So how does it feel compared to the Twist 1? Predictably both familiar and different. Takes a bit more pumping because it’s a bit bigger, but still just minutes from bag to boat. The more substantial backrest seems a more integrated part of the inflated boat when it’s held tightly in position by both attachment points (which double as anchors for the thigh straps) and its own bulk, and the footrest also benefits from more contact with the side tubes. The self-bailing holes targeted at use in whitewater and surf are effective and keep the water below seat level for someone of my weight when it’s draining faster than it’s coming over the top, but will cause a wetter ride on flat water for heavier paddlers and/or loads. Haven’t really sussed out how to use the thigh straps effectively yet because they don’t respond quite like the thigh braces of a rigid sit-in, but still like getting that connection to the boat. And perhaps it doesn’t spin quite so quickly when you stop paddling, but these things are going to be relative when it’s still quite a short boat at 3.3 metres.

While my first thought was another wee outing from the Seagulls Island lay-by, I changed my mind to head from Glencoe Boat Club to the Caolas nan Con narrows and back, thus linking with previous Twist forays between there and the River Leven and needing just the short section between Eilean Choinneich and the Ballachulish Bridge to complete my kayak coverage of the loch. I was against the remains of the tide and with the wind on the way up, then against the wind and through the turn of the tide on the way back, but just once really had to consider whether (temporarily) increasing wind might suggest turning short of Caolas nan Con. The photos are from the calmer spells when I was more prepared to stop paddling and dig out the camera:

While the main purpose of the outing was to try the Safari, I also wanted to look at my forward stroke and some of the other techniques I’d covered with Mark at Sea Kayak Oban last week. No question my basic stroke pulls from toes to hips in this boat, so who knows what happened to it in the sea kayak for Mark to pick me up on it? And, while there’s still logic behind higher-angle strokes for the shorter, fatter inflatable, I am at least watching where my top hand’s getting to as well as trying to keep left and right heights matched. Also set my paddle to 225cm (the longest it goes where I’ve mostly been using 220cm for the Twist), practised with both inline blades and a 30° feather, made good use of the stern rudder and tried the sculling draw a couple of times, but meaningful exploration of thigh strap control will have to wait for another time.

My height sits on the boundary between Gumotex’s suggested positions 3 and 4 for the footrest, so I chose 4 for my leg length before moving it back to 3 for better engagement with the thigh straps. Then couldn’t get into them when I tested the fit again at home later (perhaps because it’s not quite the same on dry land?), so need to check that next time I’m afloat:

Quarter of an hour after getting back and starting to get cold standing talking to a friend who’d arrived by car as I landed, the rain came on so I retrieved my camera from the pontoon where I’d dumped it after the previous shot to take one more before a cold pack-up and partial change of clothes. While I’d stayed warm enough paddling bar slightly chilly lower legs towards the end, it just doesn’t take long to start shivering in 5°C air temperature once you stop and the main culprits here were those uncovered lower legs and the fingerless gloves I’d worn for handling the camera:

So that’s the Safari I’ve been eagerly anticipating for months. Did I like it? Absolutely, yes! Does that mean it’s perfect in every way? Well, no, but nothing ever is for me! While it’s as solidly put together as you’d expect from Gumotex, I noticed after bringing it home and rinsing it off that the self-bailing holes could, shall we say, be more tidily aligned. But that’s a largely aesthetic concern at least partially mollified by finding images/videos suggesting mine’s not unique in this respect. I’ve also considered whether these drain holes being cut through the overlapped joints between lower side and bottom tubes could compromise the integrity of these tubes at all, but can only conclude not really when they’ve sold plenty of these boats to folk who’re giving them a harder life than I will and I’ve never heard of a problem here. It’s a good boat and perhaps the biggest problem is cold November days with strong wind warnings leaving too much time to ponder concerns that just getting out and using it should dispel!

16 November 2021

What I don’t know about sea kayaking

Filed under: Paddling — admin @ 4:33 pm

From the title, it should be a long post. Thousands of pages long except that I don’t know how to fill them yet. The word ‘sea’ is ultimately superfluous when I’m just getting started with kayaks and have even less experience of, for instance, rivers and whitewater, but what I want to talk about because it’s where I’m currently wanting to go. So let’s start with what I’m learning so far and why what I still don’t know matters so much…

I’d booked a Sea Kayak Experience Day with Sea Kayak Oban and joined a family of four with instructor Erin for that on Thursday. We paddled out to the north side of Kerrera for lunch before returning to town, seeing an apparently well-known otter amongst other wildlife and features Erin drew our attention to. It was a great fun day, but I was still keen to start getting a feel for some more technique this side of winter and knew a one-to-one day now would be money well spent, so booked that for yesterday (Monday). But there are two more things I need to say about Thursday first:

  1. It started with a surprise in finding the boat I wanted to try most (North Shore Atlantic) after sitting in them the previous week in socks was not going to be the most comfortable fit in neoprene boots, so I took the P&H Virgo that first caught my attention and now at least know this one works for me on the water (I liked it a lot but obviously still need to try more).
  2. Before we went out, we practised removing spraydecks. Hands on head, down to the cockpit coaming, feel round to the tab and push up. Repeat a couple of times with eyes closed. I said I could probably find the tab without doing all that, but Erin countered with perhaps sitting here but how about upside down in the water? I’ll come back to that later!

Time to talk about yesterday now and there’s so much to say here, but of course you’re free to skim through it or simply stop when I’m setting it down primarily to consolidate my own learning and provide an accessible reminder of that for myself. My instructor for the day was Mark and we started by discussing what we hoped to cover. I’d jotted down a list which looked something like this without the bullet points:

  • Fit (again)!
  • Sweeps
  • Draws
  • Edging
  • Braces
  • Wet exit/reentry (if possible)

But we started with a discussion about maps, charts, wind, tides, sources of weather/tide information and planning the journey aspect of the day, where some things were obviously familiar to an experienced sailor and mountaineer, but others more kayak-specific, and I did note a couple of extra useful sources of weather info.

So what about fit? I’d think even most beginners know the importance of fitting the boat, but I was doubly concerned about finding a fit when my size, weight etc. says I should be in a medium volume boat, but my legs are so darn long and you don’t want to go high volume just for leg length when the boat’s likely to be otherwise too big. So we’re really looking for a medium volume boat that can take my legs, and thought we’d found three (P&H Virgo, P&H Leo, North Shore Atlantic) two Thursdays ago except that I was asked to remove my shoes to try them indoors, which turned out not to tell me everything I needed to know! So Mark had me (dressed to go this time) try these further boats to look at fit:

  1. His own composite North Shore Voyager 17.2, which fits different from the polyethylene Atlantic I’d tried, but still just didn’t work for me when I can’t get both feet on the pegs at the same time in boots… on which note he checked by looking inside with a torch.
  2. Zegul Arrow Play MV. This was another composite boat, but has a direct PE equivalent and was comfortable apart from the pegs meeting the arches rather than balls of my feet. So this might or might not work, but we didn’t take that one yesterday.
  3. P&H Scorpio MV, which a couple of friends have been pushing me to try and is certainly still a possibility, though this time with the pegs pretty well behind my toes and no obvious room to lift my feet.
  4. P&H Volan, which is a composite boat with no direct PE equivalent (Mark said the nearest thing would be the Virgo) but was the best fit of all. So he said something like ‘You’re paying for a day of private instruction, so might as well take the most expensive boat’ and we did!

Now, before we get to the actual paddling, I need to talk about spraydecks again. What we’d used on Thursday were ‘loose, nylon spraydecks which keep out the wind and water but will not trap you in the boat’, and Mark offered me the choice of one of these again or a standard, tighter neoprene type. So I thought for a moment, said I’d like to try the ‘proper’ one, he said good choice and I’ll, well, come back to that later! (Can you see where this is heading?) Then off we went…

The first thing needing attention was my forward stroke, where I’ve found good reasons to adopt a high-angle stroke for my Gumotex Twist but perhaps been overdoing it as shown by the Colonsay photos from my previous blog. So what we worked on was where the catch and release should be happening and when maximum power’s being delivered (early in the stroke) as well as keeping the top hand down and a tendency for the paddle to move off-centre in my hands that I already knew about and could also see in those photos. Then the next thing Mark taught me as we ended up off the north of Kerrera again was the stern rudder, which wasn’t on my list but I quickly found to be a very useful stroke. I had asked about draws and we moved on to these, but think that might have been after edging etc. which memory says we might have done next. While what happened in what order is already testing my recollection, I’ve not lost the key takeaways yet, so here they are before I forget:

  1. Bracing. By the time I specifically asked to look at bracing, Mark had already cleverly prepared the ground by having us holding on to each other’s boats, leaning the kayak over and bringing it back up… the key to doing so under control being ‘boat, body, head’ where the head’s the last thing to come back up and he also had me try bringing my head up first to feel the difference. Also reminding myself here that ‘boat’ is initiated by the lower thigh (the lower leg being known as the ‘water leg’) and the two further things I really want to remember about the low brace are bringing the paddle shaft close to my body and the sound of smacking the water truly flat with the blade.
  2. Edging. Mark talked about edge 1, 2 and 3 and we did edge 1 and 2. Edge 1 uses just lower butt cheek whereas edge 2 involves a ‘power triangle’ of lower butt cheek, upper thigh and lower foot, with the body kept upright through a combination of awareness, sighting the bow, squishing your upper side etc. And then there’s holding the edge, where I was surprised how much I had to work to get it and hold it, but never felt threatened by the kind of instability that comes with a simple lean. And turning while edging, where I already knew you can use either outside or inside edge, found I could do both but not adequately describe what I was doing differently for the inside edge, and Mark said he’s not going to tell me because he wants me to work it out for myself!
  3. Draws. On my list as something I’d tried and not found necessary for a 2.6m inflatable, but knew to be part of the essential sea kayak repertoire. But Mark surprised me by moving straight to the sculling draw, which he wanted to teach for the associated paddle awareness. So what have I got to remember here? 1. Hold the paddle at arms’ length across the boat. 2. Rotate my body so the paddle’s lined up alongside. 3. Slice the paddle vertically into the water. Then start to make the (pendulum) strokes before angling the blade to use the power and back faces… do this right or you’re pushing the boat away from the paddle instead of pulling it towards it (which Mark gave a name I’ve already forgotten), match the blade angles and get the elbow in the right place so you’re pulling sideways without added forward or backward movement, keep the movements small (‘less is more’) and keep your body rotated/looking in the direction you want to go.

Now there’s already so much to think about there when all these skills ultimately need to become instinctive if you’re going to be able to deploy them just like that without stopping to break them down, but surely being able to depend on the right reaction becomes most important of all when you could drown if you can’t, and this brings us onto wet exit and that spraydeck. So we’re just west of Rubh’ a’ Bhearnaig at the north end of Kerrera with both kayaks afloat in a bit of a chop, and Mark says let’s do this here because it’s a realistic situation to stress the importance of the message, so I tip the boat up on cue but forget what Erin taught me about locating the spraydeck tab, can’t find it, unaccountably just stop looking, start relying on Mark to get me back up instead and, well, what a horribly valuable experience! To me, I’m upside down for ages (say 30 seconds) thinking I could be drowning today and why is Mark taking so long to get to me, whereas Mark says I was down for more like six seconds, my head was mostly above water and he was right there. So I screwed up completely, but now find myself oddly thankful for that scary experience because I’ll never let myself make the same mistake(s) again!

Having made such a mess of the exit that never was, it was important to try again and get it right, but this time we headed into the sheltered bay just east of the point, Mark put his boat ashore, waded back out not quite chest-deep to direct and got me to tip the boat twice with the spraydeck off before reminding me how to locate the tab and making me do it one more time with the deck on. And it just wasn’t a problem when I did it right; he also told me I’d have come out of the boat first time with the nylon spraydecks we’d used on Thursday, but I’m thinking I might have have missed my most important takeaway of the day without that unforgettable lesson in self-inflicted entrapment.

Time was moving on and we still had to get back to our starting point in town, so that was basically it and learning to get back in the boat after coming out of it will have to wait for another time. But I was already planning to book a two-day spring course, and have confirmed that I can now reasonably target the ‘Confidence Builder’ rather than ‘Introduction’ course. As we paddled back through Oban Bay I also asked about the availability of pool sessions and got some info about Oban Canoe Club, who I’ve since checked out on Facebook and their website as well as finding Nevis Canoe Club for myself. So I have people to meet and potential help both an hour south and half an hour north, and yet more to consider there.

To wrap things up for now, while I was always aware that sit-in sea kayaks present quite different challenges to open inflatables and what happens when you tip them up or fall out can define the difference between living or dying, we may consider that awareness now appropriately reinforced. While I know some suitably experienced sea kayakers sometimes paddle alone, they must be pretty darn sure they can deal with these things before their risk assessment squares. I didn’t need yesterday to tell me that, already knew that my kayak journey’s just beginning and fully understood the need for company for however long it takes, which could very well be always. For my inflatables, I see things slightly differently. If I choose to paddle one sensibly alone in a sensible place in sensible conditions at a sensible time, my risk assessment doesn’t have to be radically different from that of rowing my inflatable dinghy out to Fly. But I’m stressing ‘sensible’ where that’s informed by a lifetime’s experience of wind and water in other small boats, and not doing stupid things like heading for whitewater rivers or miles of open sea. So let’s just leave this blog where it started; while there are thousands of pages to be written on ‘what I don’t know about (sea) kayaking’, please rest assured that at least I know I don’t know it!

1 November 2021

New ‘paddling’ category

Filed under: Paddling — admin @ 7:12 pm

No, this isn’t about walking through ankle-deep water, but about paddling boats!

Having tried kayaking many years ago and been actively considering buying a kayak for the past few years, I suddenly find myself with the prospect of owning several paddling boats not so long after getting my first in June. But how and why?

Well, for a start, I wanted a high-quality inflatable but couldn’t get my first choice (a Gumotex Safari 330), so got the tiny Twist 1 to try as just about the only available Gumotex while simultaneously keeping the Safari on pre-order with thoughts of later either selling the Twist or keeping it as a packraft substitute. But then decided I’m just not going to carry even a 9kg boat to paddle mountain lochans etc. when I could be carrying a 3kg boat, so ordered an Alpacka packraft. But none of these boats (great fun though they are) are really going to take you anywhere fast and I’d also like something capable of covering more sea miles quicker, so am going to Sea Kayak Oban on Thursday to discuss hardshell boats and courses. So probably won’t really ‘need’ the Twist and might yet end up selling it, but it’s still such a great wee boat for spontaneous fun as well as potentially worth carrying along with the Safari and a dinghy on Fly when cruising two or more up. Extravagant, perhaps, but you could pay the same for a single high-end kayak as several good ones when boats and what I want to do with them form a core part of the retirement I hope to enjoy and, hell, I’ve only got one bicycle when some folk have multiple kayaks and bicycles!

Enough of that anyway and time to talk about what I’ve done with the wee Twist so far, which includes multiple outings on my ‘home ground’ of Loch Leven, one on upper Loch Creran down to and through the Creagan Bridge and one at Kiloran Bay on Colonsay after carrying it over on the ferry. Some have been pretty calm and some more ‘interesting’ where this wee boat’s proved it can cope with more than you might think if you’re sensible with it, but still just isn’t going to take you anywhere fast. So here we are on Kiloran Bay in September, where I went out round the rocks to the left of the first photo in more swell than you can see, then most of the way across the bay till the swell started to get bigger than I was then prepared to handle. And I’ve since got a kayak-specific buoyancy aid to replace that old orange one as well as some more kayak-specific clothing with autumn and spring paddling in mind:

Yes, my top hand’s way high in the first of this sequence and the paddle’s moved so my hands are different distances from the blades, but I at least had reasons for the angle of the stroke in this boat and will return to this in my next blog:

Now, talking of autumn, I’ve had three Loch Leven kayak outings (as well as another boat trip taking Fly down to Loch Creran to get lifted for the winter) over the past eight days, heading through the Caolas nan Con narrows and back in some interesting wind-over-tide conditions last Monday, followed by a truly flat-water trip back up the Loch including a landing on Eilean nam Ban/Seagulls Island (defended by hordes of noisy gulls when I previously went round this summer!) on Friday and return to the island with camera today. And, yes, it was breezy, but sheltered inside the island, so I took the chance to head across with the hills looking terrific then paddled once round for fun!

I brought the golf ball home (wondering whether it had simply got washed up or someone hit it from the lay-by!) but not the broken piece of ‘DANGER’ sign:

The Twist 1’s not an easy boat to take composed photos from because it spins round so quickly when you stop paddling, but I was quite pleased with these for both capturing more or less what I wanted and showing the difference inside and outside of the island:

And that’s all for now except to say I’ve created the ‘paddling’ category here expecting to use it again! :-)

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