West Coast Kayak Challenge – the movie

I bodged together a wee movie from the footage I’d collected on the challenge for the benefit of the audience at the SCA show (well it saved them from another 10 minutes of my chatter!).

Here it is for you all to enjoy, thanks again for supporting the project.


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Scottish Canoe Association Annual Show

It’s been a long time since the big paddle but it still feels fresh in my mind. If anyone is interested in hearing me drone on about the hardships of a month in a boat with very little interruption, then come along to the Scottish Canoe Association’s annual show at the Bells Sport Centre in Perth on the 23rd October.

The crux of this posting is that following the show the charity account at http://www.charitygiving.co.uk/westcoastpaddle will be wound up.

Its now six months since the West Coast Kayak Challenge was completed and I feel it is an appropriate farewell for it, to do one last talk in the vain hope of a few more donations.

If you’d like to come along and listen then please just bear a thought for the journey’s purpose. I hope to see you in Perth.


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The Big Chart

I came back from my week of contracting down south and Jill had got me a present to act as a permanent reminder.

It’s a belter.

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Kokatat Blog Post

The guys and gals at Kokatat put up my condensed trip report today with a selection of photos. You can see it here:



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Day 24 – Sing it Frank.

It was the final day, the weather was forecast as a SW F5, decreasing 3-4 later. Ideal. This was not my information, this was the information I got from Mark Stokes my late night GPS stalker from the Stornoway Canoe Club. When Mark swung by my tent last night I was quite emphatic that he should join me for my last days paddle. I’d not paddled with anyone for a lot of days, let me think……. na na na na nineteen to be precise.

I had plenty of food including potatoes left over so I knocked up a wee hearty breakfast of rosti, bacon and eggs while I broke camp. Mark paddled over from Lemreway’s slip and joined me at Campsite Carcass as I’ve dubbed this one.

The carcass was the remains of an old boat, its spine was the hull with its ribs a mix of wood and concrete ballast. The boats boiler stood proud showing that this was a once mighty craft now abandoned to the slow erosion of the sea. I’d love to find out what this boat was called and what it did, so if anyone finds out please let me know.

Mark and I left Lemreway and headed out and round Eilean Liubhaird at an undiagnosed time. I don’t know what the time was, I was too busy enjoying the company. It beats talking to yourself, which is something ‘we’ve’ become very good at. I didn’t even do a final Stornoway Coastguard call, which was a bit naughty.

We paddled headfirst into a blowy silvery sea and kept going south for a good while till we both exchanged excited nods and I offered up one of my eternally adolescent comments (these always surface when I am in a kayak). It was ‘lets ride these bad boys’. What a total fandango.

So we rode them bad boys all the way, I was insistent on trying to get as close to the shore at each headland, maybe to get a thrill, maybe to just try and take my chances one last time.

After a wee while the sea seemed to calm right down. The wind had died and we just cruised under the Lewisian cliffs, enjoying the grandeur. Mark seemed to have a freshness and a power in his paddling that I was only just managing to keep up with. No complaints though, the company was good fun.

One noticeable thing along this stretch of coast is the ability of the sea lochs to funnel the wind right out onto your beam. This was feeling harder than the glorious final day was meant to be, but it would only be while crossing these latitudinal clefts, wouldn’t it?

We paddled past Calbost where Mark pointed out a house he’d been interested but couldn’t get. It looked like a nice spot in the trees with a generous helping of southern aspect for warmth. The villages here are tiny and hidden in amongst a never ending maze of lochs of both fresh and salt water. I guess thats why the call it South Lochs.

I suggested to Mark that we take a break and he replied that there were a couple of nice beaches up ahead. Nice? We pulled up onto a beach that had an adhoc bench created from some driftwood planks propped up on a natural shelf with some additional boulders to level it. The seat faced south into the now warm spring sunshine, this was a seat you could spend a day in. I think we spent an hour. Aside from my break on the Shiants which, although warm was enforced by the necessity of tidal planning and timing, this break was probably the longest mid-paddle break I’d taken in the last three weeks. I didn’t need to keep moving, it wasn’t freaking freezing no more. Warm sunshine is good!

All I had to do now was get on the water and paddle for the last couple of hours up to Stornoway. We paddled out and across Loch Eireasort, the forecast wind, the decreasing 3-4 must have veered to the west. It was fully on our beams and it had a full 10 or more km to get itself going down the loch.

I found myself getting annoyed when the third cold drip in as many minutes found its way into my ear. Truth be told it was an indication of my slow and unavoidable deterioration from the fighter of this past few weeks into a limping weary man who was drained. The sight of the lighthouse that stands over Stornoway harbour was all my body needed to rebel against the constant pushing of my mind to just keep going. Now I could feel the ache in my muscles, the general fatigue throughout myself. I pictured a conversation between my body and my brain.

Mind – Just keep going.

Body – Yeah but I hurt all over.

Mind – Just keep going.

Body – You just bog off up there in your ivory tower, I am in more pain than you can possibly appreciate, I’ve hauled and twisted and lifted and pushed this last three weeks and all you’ve done is say, do more, so here, feel this pain you lazy grey lump.

As we got closer to Stornoway harbour it just got worse. Mark reckoned we’d been fighting the end of the tide, which was quite possible. I don’t think I’d have found it any easier though. But as done as I was when we paddled into the harbour I felt relieved. We had a quick 2 minute stop in behind the kelp before pushing over to the west side and its shelter under the gardens on the short cliffs. The last 200 metres of paddling into the wind was almost like an out of body experience. Technically I’d like to think I have never forward paddled so correctly. All rotation, all catch, push on the foot, pull on the blade and release. Then again, i have been practising a fair bit in recent weeks!

We cruised in the warm sheltered afternoon sun on a mirror calm pool along to the slipway under Stornoway Canoe Club’s boat shed. The tide was out so far that the end of the slip was a foot above the water. I stood up. We lifted the boats out the water.

I got out my dry suit, draped it over my boat and sat down in my much talked about brown suit. I don’t care what anyone says, this all in one Kokatat Polartec Power Stretch brown suit may not be seen in a collection by anyone other than the most daring designers of haute couture, but it has kept me warm through the last 22 days of winter. It has, to be fair, made me sweat during the first two days of spring, but that is not to detract from its awesomeness.

I lay on the slip a happy but weary man in a poo brown suit. I looked at the one man craft made from modern materials to an ancient design that had carried me the 313 planned miles from my hometown of Largs to my late pal’s hometown in the Outer Hebrides. I remembered the conversations with those of a nautical leaning that asked me if I’d heard of equinoctal tides and gales. I considered the wisdom of those that questioned why I did it in March.

For many reasons, March picked me. My head drifted, ‘We’ had done it.

We planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway.

And more, much more than this, We did it our way.

Right Frank, Sing it!

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Day 23 – I Shiant be staying for long

I got up at 5am with the plan of being afloat at 0600. Pascal, the ‘Frog in a kilt’ that manages the Flodigarry (very well) insisted on driving me to Port Gobhlaig under the Aird. The kindness of these guys considering it is early season and they could’ve fleeced me was nothing short of remarkable. I will go back for a family stay where I can enjoy the comfort and warmth of this hotel as a proper client rather than some sort of smelly aloof freeloader.

Pascal helped me lift the boat into the water and I hopped in and got the deck secured. Now it was 0615 and there was still a noticeable movement in the air offshore. What would the sea be like round the corner? It was, after all, only a few hours ago that a gale was thrashing its way across the island.

My plans, in order of likelihood in my mind were;

Plan A – I paddle round the corner, attempt a short tidal passage to Eilean Trodday, decide enough is enough and run back to Skye before I’ve missed breakfast time.

Plan B – I get to Trodday, attempt a passage to the Shiants but it’s too much and I run back to Skye before its lunchtime.

Plan C – I get to the Shiants but I am a physical and emotional wreck who goes native and starts running round naked and mental with the black rats.

So I nosed out from under the shelter of Skye, I could see Trodday’s low windswept profile and as I got closer I could feel more and more of the tide. The sea state was never desperate though. I don’t know if the high pressure weather system acted like a damper reducing the rebound of the sea from the previous days of stormy weather but it wasn’t like I expected.

I crossed the eddy line of the tidal stream and I was there, under the south coast of Trodday and cruising under its eastern cliffs. I needed a tinkle and there was nowhere to land. There was still a remnant of swell and these cliffs offered no easy out for the call of nature. I got round to the northern shore where I found the tidal stream just offshore looked a whole lot more manly than the one I’d just dealt with. If I go for the Shiants, I need to pee, I can’t hold this for another 3 plus hours and I don’t fancy trying to be uncouth and fumbling with a pee zip in my cockpit in the middle of the Minch, alone.

My only option was to attempt landing on some pretty big boulders that formed the only notion of a beach. The only problem was the surging swell. Not massively surging, but a couple of feet splashing on big round boulders is going to create the sound I hate most if I go for it. Gelcoat on rock.

I somehow managed to get out and lift the fully laden ends up bit by bit, did my bladders bidding and then tried to work out how to get back in the water. This actually went better than the egress a few minutes before, there were a few nasty noises that upset me but I appeared to be floating.

Next I strategised – punch the tidal stream, try to use the waves to surf out on a fairly acute angle to the flow, get clear of the white water and then set on a course of about 330 degrees to carry me to the Shiants. The plan worked. Now all I had to do was follow the course till the weather or the sea state caught me out and I had to turn tail and skidaddle.

Not even two hours later and I am past the point of no return, I am going to the Shiants, this was not in the plan.

Three hours arrives and I am past a transit with the Galtas that suggests I am 30 minutes ahead of schedule. This tells me one of two things, either my passage planning is total mince or I really was in the middle of a vast expanse of water with nobody near me and I’d shat it and paddled like a demon. The bearing was good so I consider the anxiety issue to be more realistic.

As you approach the Shiants the cliffs get big, very big.

A cluster of three small islands in the middle of a big chunk of tidal water is a welcoming sight. The sensation of either opposing tide or wind on approach is not. Then again I was early so it wasn’t quite slack water yet but I’d done the big chunk, I was here, all I had to do was get in under the cliffs and pootle along to the beach between Eilean an Taighe and Garbh Eilean.

I was on the Shiants and it wasn’t even elevenses, now that wasn’t the plan. I needed a new plan. Either I pitched up the tent, stayed in the salubrious accommodation that is the house (Adam the owner had assured me it’d be open) or continued off the island. I took a break to take stock and explored the immediate area including the house. The house wasn’t locked but I had to tap at the rusted bolt with a rock to free it up. Inside it is a bit of a one room affair split into two halves. The rats had obviously been busy throughout the winter, nibbling at the bedding, the guest book, in fact anything they could. There was poop everywhere. I’d read Adam’s book Sea Room and found it spellbinding. I really wanted to stay here and explore but I also knew I wanted to get the Minch done before the weather deteriorated. I left the house and closed it up with the idea of making a passage plan.

There was a nice rock shaped like an armchair on the west facing portion of the beach. The breeze was light and cool, not cold and the sun was warm for the first time this entire trip. I stripped my dry suit to my waist and sat down, went through my tidal information on my maps and chart and pondered. I could go for Scalpay right now, but that was into the breeze and not where I should be headed. I could wait for the tide to turn and may just make it to Lemreway for sunset. So I hung out on the Shiants for the day, I’d started before sunrise and may finish after sunset, if the weather holds I can go for it.

I climbed to the top of Garbh Eilean with my camera, straight up its steep south flank, which didn’t feel safe in the slightest. If you go there, walk around to the west a little, there is a gully that offers a safer route up the hill. I discovered this at the top.

The views up here are stunning, Skye looks very far away. I think because it is. I couldn’t see Lemreway though, so I had to walk the length of Garbh Eilean to the north to see where I should be headed. En route I saw a lump of black sheep poo move. Maybe it was a rat, but I didn’t get a chance to focus and all the other black objects were definitely poo.

At the north end of Garbh Eilean I looked down on Lewis and the sea and watched the overfalls in the stream of the blue men run to the south west. I remembered what I’d read about these guys. I’d better think of a good song to sing to them. I love music, I love a good song. All I could think of was ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet. I’d be drowning with the blue men for sure.

I walked around the top of Garbh Eilean, in an approximately clockwise direction, just to see how the shepherds bring their flock down from these giddy heights. The thing I can’t understand is how they get any of them down the steep slopes and off the island alive for market.

After my wander around the Minch’s pasture in the sky I returned to the beach and reclined on my sun lounger for a while.

This must have been the first day of spring-proper, it was certainly the first day of spring I’ve felt this year.

The day flew by and before I could practise with my vocal range it was time to get ready. I cooked up a quick dinner from my freeze dried range, Beef Bolognase, repacked my boat closer to the water (the tide was at the opposite end of the beach from when I landed) and got on the water.

I had about two hours till sunset and I’d need most of it to cross the tidal stream of the Sound of Shiant and then to find a camp spot in Lemreway. The passage was straight forward enough even though it was an equinoctal spring tide and my bearing was good for the entrance. I found a suitable camp spot at the second attempt, got pitched, climbed in and ate a snack. I thought I’d have a wee lie down before cooking a proper meal.

A voice outside my tent asked if I was awake, (it was 2230 and I was half asleep) instantly I thought I was being rumbled in the dark by a land owner for inappropriate pitching of a tent. So I replied ‘Yes’ and opened the tent door. The voice introduced himself as Mark and I replied, ‘Hi, I’m Bruce, is this your land?’. Mark’s response was ‘No I’m from the canoe club’. I never imagined a welcoming committee, never mind a house call.

I’ll leave you with more pictures from the Shiants, they really are a stunning place.

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Day 22 – Remember the ’45.

I’ve heard that the sense of smell is more key to the memory than even sight or sound, though those two are thought to be the most used senses. I agree, whether or not it is scientifically proven or even provable.

When I walked into the Flodigarry House the smell of the real fires was the first thing I noticed. It immediately made me feel at home, at ease and welcome.

Since then I have been at home, at ease and welcomed. The last day here, while the wind howls outside, has been a tonic. When I say howls, what I mean is; it rips through the trees, blasts in your face and hits the sea hard enough to cleave the surface into an aerosol.

Robin, the unbelievably octagenarian owner of the Flodigarry, was kind enough to take me up to Duntulm Castle to ‘enjoy’ the wild wind stirring the sea and rasping the grass over the exposed northern reaches of this very remote Scottish island.

I am very glad to be neither camping or paddling in this weather. We clocked the wind at 45 knots on an anemometer. Thats a big fat force 9. I am sure both the tent and the boat could handle it, it’s me that’s the weakest link.

The Flodigarry House was built next to the cottage where none other than Flora MacDonald sheltered the Bonnie Prince on his way into exile after the narrowly failed coup that ended in more than tears at Culloden. This warm Victorian house is a memorial to a period in Scotland’s history that is so easily forgotten in the modern world.

What has this to do with kayaking? Well, nothing at all. But it has everything to do with this project. I started this thing with the romantic notion that I would meet interesting people and discover stories while paddling my way to Stornoway. I have.

This place is a part of the story, being here has helped me remember what I am doing (it’s not just paddling) and why. I hope tomorrow brings a passage that helps me finish. In truth the weather window is looking small and unlikely to yield anything more than an excursion out and back with no result. Like the Bonnie Prince’s Jacobite rebellion I may well end tomorrow hiding on Skye. We shall see what happens early tomorrow morning.

Remember the ’45.

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Day 21 – The end of Skye.

The wind up here has been getting stronger and stronger, so today I was glad that I only had a short journey to do from Staffin Pier to a wee natural harbour called Port Gobhlaig that is about as far north as I can go without dealing with either the tides around the tip of Skye or the ever strengthening winds that would scare the merino wool socks off the most seasoned of expedition paddlers.

The good thing was that aside from a spraying and edging session crossing Staffin Bay I had, in the main, a gusty following breeze interspersed with calm patches under towering cliffs. Though I will admit to experiencing some laughably unpredictable lateral effects when some gusts arrived from above my head. Oh look we’re going right, no we’re going left this time. Very funny.

My brother was still chasing me up and down the coast with his obscenely decadent zoom lens. I reckon he does a sideline for the CIA or something, that lens must be suitable for targeting bunkers.

Progress was rapid, and as the passage was short I had plenty of time to explore so please enjoy the videos I cut showing the inside of some caves I explored. The colours and the strange light were captivating.

As I approached Port Gobhlaig I got my first glimpse of the Shiants, Eilean Sianta, and Lewis or Leodhas hugging the horizon behind. Now this is a big crossing. I observed them for a moment before leaving the shelter of the land and turning into the head wind that howled out of Port Gobhlaig, there is nowhere else for me to go, for a time.

Now on to the nitty gritty. The incoming weather for tonight and Monday is beyond being a bit windy. My camping options up here are limited to exposed, sodden or covered in a variety of animal poops. I am at the North of Skye and can’t do anything or go anywhere till the weather clears a bit. I have decided, and you can make of this what you will, to stay in a hotel. When this weather passes I’ll be off into the Minch and I really want to be firing on all cylinders, not crawling bleary eyed to my doom.

Just in case there are any knockers out there, I’d like to explain; I’ve been at this for 3 weeks and so far the weather has been cold, wet, windy, foggy, snowy, hail-filled, sleety nonsense. I have become tired, I miss my girls and I want the paddling to be a success, after all, the mission was to paddle to Stornoway and a lot of you kindly donated to the charities under that context. I feel better already knowing I don’t have to fight for the next 36 hours while this gale comes through.

So as I vowed to do this warts and all I am going to be completely honest here; I am now holed up out the wind in the closest hotel to my last stop, the Flodigarry Hotel.

It is a wonderful wee place that has a decidedly Jacobean feel. Even though it is in truth a Victorian celebration of these rebellious lands. It is run by a happy Frenchman, Pascal, who has taken pitty on me and given me a favourable rate for my short stay. The owner, Robin, has even offered me the use of his EPIRB, but I assured him that I already have one permanently in my PFD pocket.

All the staff here have been very considerate of my smellyness and even let me rinse out some of my kit and leave it hanging in the basement to dry. Aside from the Dog-Whelks that Pascal tried to feed me (of which I politely ate two) I have no complaints, in fact I owe them hugely for their understanding. And their humour.

Human kindness is an amazing thing, and so much more common up here in the wilds than in the urban environment.

I think in part because they live a daily dance with the weather, which always has the lead.

I think the other part is that it is, simply, the way of things. I like that.

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Day 20 – The closer I get, the further it feels.

South or South-West Force 5-7, decreasing 4 the Met-Office said. Thats sounds do-able if you are heading north. So out of Portree, turn left and go with the flow. Woooooof!

It was the rocketman all over again, I watched the coast fly by, or so it seemed. The waves weren’t too big, but the energy was in them, use it, pick them up and shoot along. I was glad I picked my big blades again today, it’s definitely easier to catch that energy when you’ve got a shovel to dig with rather than a trowel.

The coastline lent itself to the conditions on offer, it probably took the edge of the force of the wind but gave enough wee squalls to keep boosting the waves in my direction. I like running with the weather, its so much more satisfying than fighting it.

I hadn’t planned any breaks either, I just sort of got on and went till I needed to find a spot. My first wee break was a cracker. A waterfall, well a combination of a fall and slab slide came in off the cliff and onto ledge of harder rocks that formed a pool just above the high tide mark before running off in a couple of directions to find their way to the sea.

This was a very natural place to take a break. I wished it had been summer, it would have been a nice pace to take a dip, get the salt off and relax but I didn’t have to remind myself that it was March, I only had to touch the cascade to feel that this was no bathing spot, not this time of year anyway.

A little further up the coast, after passing cliffs and arches I pulled in out the wind, I was starting to feel a little tired from ruddering and correcting my posture. Its hard to stop yourself from leaning back and ‘body bracing’ when surfing the waves, but using the core and crunching forward is more effective, but tires the frame in its own way.

It was here, just past the point of the ‘brethren’ as it translates from Gaelic I think, that I met Kristina and Jakub, a young Czech couple who were enjoying their last week in Scotland before heading home. I don’t think they expected to meet a kayaker, let alone one who tried to engage in a poor form of pigeon Czech with them. I spent a bit of time in a previous life in Prague and tried to remember those little bits of polite conversation while I spoke with them. One thing was clear, my previously bad grasp of the Czech language has not improved.

After this I continued up to the big waterfall just before Kilt rock. Now here is a sight, a waterfall that turns to mist before it hits the ground, not because of its vertical drop, but because of the horizontal blast of the wind that wants to take it a lot further North.

My brother was perched high on the cliff at a viewpoint trying to get some snaps of me. He’d driven through from Aberdeen to Skye just to catch a glimpse of little old me with his camera. Say what you like about families, but they really do sometimes go that we bit extra for you.

As I passed the coast the wind just got stronger and stronger, this was not decreasing to a 4, this was ramping it up and up. Every squall felt more serious and it wasn’t fatigue, it was now blowing a hoolie. When I got to the slip just before Staffin Bay I spotted a wee red car with a paddlers roof rack on it, my Skye pal Janice had appeared to suggest a safe place to stash the boat, and not a moment too soon, the wind was now getting bonkers. Time to escape. It seems to me that the closer I get to the Minch, the further it feels like I am from being able to do it. The forecasts and the visible weather just don’t suggest a crossing anytime soon. Oh dear.

Decreasing 4? That was the stiffest 4 I’ve ever paddled through in my life. I must be getting really tired.

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Day 19 – Hidey holes

Campsite Sconser was excellent, right under a mountain that funneled the wind from both sides across a flat golf course and directly at my tent. What numpty pitched here?

To add to my woes I had a cold nights sleep with weird dreams fuelled by late night cheese intake. Another lesson that should have been learned a long time ago.

Each passing squall that came down off the mountains blasted the tent. Guy ropes popped free, pegs got lost in the deep grass and I hunkered down inside my tent waiting for the weather to clear a bit.

The tide went out of the wide shallow beach further and further. Eventually at low tide I was still hiding, now with my dry suit on, inside the shell of the tent with all my kit packed and ready to go. I can do this slick I kept telling myself. (I am notoriously slow at breaking camp and packing boat).

It was very very late when I saw a sunny break in the weather and went for it. Lumping the boat down across awkward boulders and seaweed with the wind trying to knock me off balance. I left it on a higher patch of sand conscious of the incoming tide.

Back up the beach grab the first load, back over boulders blah blah blah. I’d got the tent outer down, with much cursing at the snagging of the poles (always happens when in hurry eh?) but I could see that the water was almost at my boat. By the time I crossed the beach and got hatches on, split paddles on and bum in seat I was almost afloat. One man’s near miss is another man’s perfect timing.

I was off and crossing today’s Westerly toward the wee narrows at the bottom of the sound of Raasay.

A few days ago a friend asked me to say hello to Skye for them, which I dutifully did. Today it answered back. I paddled towards the rocks at the wee headland that juts out to form the narrows and a voice from the rocks said ‘Hello’.

What the who the bloody where?

This man, called Perry incidentally, was perched on a throne of rock, top to toe in effective camouflage gear spotting all the wildlife. He was an interesting guy, another one of life’s livers. He splits his time between what he needs to do and what he wants to do, which is sit on his stoney seat watching the wildlife doing what it does.

He knows his onions as well, he told me that I should keep my eyes peeled a wee bit up the coast and to keep my camera handy for the that elusive photo of a sea eagle that I missed on Mull. And you know what…..

After this I was treated to a couple of nice caves and a beautiful rainbow. All in all a good end to what had been a poorly started day.

I guess somethings are just meant to be the way they are meant to be. Whether good or bad, its just the way it goes.

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