Friday, 25 November 2016

Cape Wrath Confessional: Crisis & Cure on Winter Seas

November began with a wonderful few days at Faclan, the Hebridean book festival; it ended with perhaps the most spectacular rough water kayak I’ve ever done. The journey in between took me from Durness, round Cape Wrath, and along a hundred & twenty miles of dark, bare coastline towards Ullapool. Besides a few spells of sunshine, the weather was gloomy, wet, blustery and, for all its dramas, hardly friendly to photography. (For that reason, and because I've had some problems with a very damp camera this month, there won't be quite so many photos as usual). Yet moments of sunshine, or times when high cloud was weakly backlit, were enormously atmospheric. The second of these photos was taken not at dawn or dusk but around midday.
The 'crisis' in this post's title was a kayaking crisis, but it wasn't part of the journey (it happened several hundred miles off route). During November’s travel I had to head south for a few appointments. In those few days, Llinos & I picked up her new Romany sea kayak from Anglesey & took it on its first trip. I’m still absolutely mortified about what happened on that paddle, and I was very tempted not to write about it at all - thinking that mentioning it could only make people worry (I might not tell my mum about this post...). But I decided it’d be inappropriate, even unethical, to recount at length everything that goes right at sea but go full-on ostrich on the one thing to have gone wrong. 

This incident was both ironic & grimly instructive. Over four months I'd kayaked hundreds of miles along all the Atlantic coasts of Shetland, Orkney, the Outer Hebrides & the far-north-west of Scotland, often in vicious conditions, but without any problems. Then, within two miles of a busy seaside town, on a relatively innocuous stretch of Welsh coast with a tame weather forecast, every kayaker's horror scenario took place. The event ended up on facebook (though not in any way that could be connected to me) and one reason I decided to write about it here was that the facebook comments made all sorts of assumptions about who the person this happened to must have been (someone who couldn't roll a kayak, had no ability to self-rescue & who shouldn't have been out in winter in anything but flat calm) and about what that person must have done wrong (not checked the forecast, etc). I'm not criticising any of the individual commenters, but in combination they gave the impression that a mishap at sea can only happen to the inexperienced or the chronically foolish: if I didn't write something here, I felt I'd be conspiring with that misapprehension. Anyway, that moment - mid-way through the month - will appear in due course.

Faclan - An Lanntair's book festival in Stornoway at the start of November - was the richest possible of literary feasts. And, themed around the North Atlantic, it couldn’t have been any more pertinent or timely for the writing of The Frayed Atlantic Edge. Almost everyone who has been publishing on this littoral – from Madeleine Bunting to Philip Hoare – was part of the epic three day programme, and all were really generous with time & ideas. It’s difficult to imagine any other circumstance that could have offered such intense discussion of North Atlantic cultures & ecologies with people with such a range of expertise. 

I’d got hold of a van to stay in during the festival & one highlight of the visit was a road trip around the sites of Atlantic Lewis with Amy Liptrot, Malachy Tallack & James MacDonald Lockhart. Here's me, Amy & Malachy with the road-trip van, then a few spots on the tour:
We bumped into Philip Hoare among the Callanish stones, before Amy, James & Philip went sea swimming, while Malachy & I hunted spoots (a.k.a. razor clams) along the shore.

Once the festival was over I arranged to visit people who've written about Lewis's history & coasts, but on the nights between these appointments I decided to abandon the van & chose some island haunts with views across coasts I'd kayaked. First was An Clisham, where I slept in my waterproof sleeping bag inside a small cave at the summit. From here, the moon illuminated a night of snow flurries, and hoarse, echoing ravens accompanied both sunset & dawn.
Here's my night's shelter:
While doing this, I was slowly building up the courage to kayak Cape Wrath: a prospect as daunting as any of the major challenges of the last four months (whether Foula, Hoy or Mingulay). But as with most of those, I was spectacularly fortunate with weather. I had two days of force 2/3 wind (ranging from 7 to 12mph) in which to clear the most exposed coastline. On the first morning, I set out through surf from Balnakeil (just west of Durness) where the gaelic poet Rob Donn is buried. This paddle took me beneath wintry hills...
...under clear skies that were constantly crossed by birds such as whooper swans & great northern divers...
Even in this day’s blue calm, the Atlantic was spectacular. Its ferocity in other weathers was all too easy to imagine.
When the light was good, early on, I spent too long taking photos, enjoying trying to capture the rich blue swell, and the ocean rocks that sometimes looked strangely astronomical - like Europa, Ganymede or another moon of Jupiter... 
...but I couldn't afford to do this for long especially once out in open water where taking even one hand off the paddle would be a gamble. For the first time ever, I didn't even attempt to photograph porpoises - surrounded by them in the messy seas west of An Garbh-Eilean (that Jupiter-moon skerry).

Cloud & rain soon arrived from the south west and, by 1pm, daylight seemed to be over. Keeping warm with constant paddling was my only answer to bedragglement. After a dour night’s rest at Kearvaig - where the bothy is the site of the grim events surrounding the death by starvation of the artist Margaret Davies in 2002 - I set out in early gloom & drizzle to wrestle my way round the most fearsome corner of mainland Britain. Cape Wrath is named not for its ferocity, but from the Norse hvarf meaning 'turning point'; as a confluence of vast tidal streams, it isn't just ships that turn here but the Atlantic itself. Taking a long line out at sea, I could barely see the famous lighthouse through the thin rain, and the westerly swell rose far higher than I'd have guessed from my traverse of the northern coastline. I rolled & rolled again as the combined influence of tide & waves pulled my bow in unexpected directions. But - as at every stage of the last four months' kayaking - each manoeuvre went as planned. This stretch of drenched winter kayaking seemed to last forever. But the rain stopped before I was out from beneath the cliffs, in time for me to look back towards the Cape & the skerry of Am Balg. Suddenly beautiful light broke over the cliffs behind me and clag lifted a little from the hills; I searched for a place sheltered enough to put down my paddle & get the camera out:
…the dark set in fast, and swell still pummelled any headland without shelter, climbing high over the rocks of Eilean an Roin Mor, so it was time to find a place to land:
The next few days combined similar mixes of bleakness & beauty, although my paddling was certainly more carefree having passed the biggest obstacle on this stage of the journey. With cloud often veiling the mountains & the wind blowing souwesterly, swell was high & landward views limited, so I often wandered offshore where the only creatures were winter-plumaged guillemots & tysties. It was always a surprise when other humans emerged suddenly from deep valleys between waves:
Yet some of the onshore evenings & mornings were simply beautiful, with Assynt’s austere mountains beneath a blanket of low cloud. The cloud shrouded the day-time sun but in the golden hours could seem to be igniting from below. 
As last month, eagles were a frequent presence. This is a young sea eagle that was being fed by two parents before it decided to investigate the kayak:
On shifting seas they were almost impossible to photograph. But the oddest encounter came when I was sat looking out to sea from a sheltered gully south of Loch Inchard. I suddenly became aware of a movement nearby & looked up to find a deer calf ambling up:
It came closer & closer, very deliberately, pausing to assess me every few steps:
Until it was barely more than an arm’s length away:
After a while the calf turned and, throwing back its head, trotted off. I wandered uphill to see if I could see the herd it had come from, concerned that its strangely needy behaviour might be due to abandonment. But there were no deer to be seen – even the little calf had somehow disappeared (if it wasn't for the photos I might almost have convinced myself I'd imagined it).

Most of the seascape as I travelled south was low shores of knock & lochan backed by hills with a thin covering of snow. Only when I reached Handa Island did the coast rise to cliffs again. This was a glorious spell of paddling. Even under the weakest of suns, the sea was bright & wild, while the coastline was brooding & utterly majestic: 
(...what a house:)
The water was full of flocks of shag – not quite so atmospheric as last month’s vast forests of eider, but still welcome company:
More eagles investigated the kayak through the gloom, one drawing the attention of a pair of ravens... 
And soon I'd rounded the fierce western headland to turn south towards Scourie, from where I could catch my lift back to Durness.

I was amazed while travelling this coastline how many of the small bays & islets had names & associations from stories I'd read while in the Western Isles. In particular, the sixteenth-century tales of feuds & betrayals among the clans of Atlantic Lewis - the Morisons of Ness, the Macaulays of Uig, and the Macleods - stretched to each corner of this northern Scottish coastline. After the murder of the Macleod chief, Torquil Dubh, betrayed by John Morison, Brieve of Lewis, the Ness Morisons fled to the coastline of Assynt south of Cape Wrath. It was a Macleod who lived on Handa Island, John mac Dhomhnuill mhic Uisdein who, at Inverkirkaig, took revenge on the Brieve. When men from Ness arrived to return the Brieve's body to Lewis, sudden winds & treacherous seas trapped them in Edrachillis Bay, south of Handa. They were forced to bury the rotting innards of the Brieve on one of the many Edrachillis islands. Towards the end of November, I sought this island out on a drizzly afternoon: it's still named after that moment - Eilean a' Bhritheimh (the Brieve's Island) - and is now, in late November at least, a bleak place with just enough sward to feed the few barnacle geese that looked down at me from its low tussocks. It's rare to find any tales of these regions' early-modern clans that don't take place across hundreds of miles of ocean-interrupted landscapes: ships & stories filled the sea roads. 

This had been an epic few days in the boat - almost as imposing as the North Isles of Shetland. It had drawn on all my paddle skills & every kind of self-sufficient safety procedure: I’d rolled twice (and was becoming pretty complacent about my roll, which has improved beyond recognition over the last four months). But then, in the fiercest stretch round Handa I’d failed to roll for the first time on this journey. I came out of the boat & swam clear of the worst conditions; I clambered back onboard, pumped the water from the cockpit & paddled on - unfazed, but glad I didn’t have too much longer at sea. Later, I began to feel mildly concerned by my failed roll & spent much of the drive back going over what had happened. I wonder whether overthinking the action in that way contributed to what happened next.

A few days later, Llinos & I picked up her lovely new boat - an SKUK Romany - on Anglesey. I was feeling distinctly under-the-weather: tired, cold & headachy. I'd decided I wouldn’t go out, so she was going to just paddle round Llandudno Bay to test her new gear. At the last minute I resolved to pull myself together so we could head round the Great Orme & give her kayak a proper run out. The forecast was for decreasing winds all day: force 5 first thing, down to force 4 by mid morning & force 3 in the afternoon. Storm Angus was mentioned in weather reports, but as something impinging on the south coast of England, not North Wales. 

We set out through pleasant chunky swell, thinking what ideal conditions these were to test a boat’s handling. But, just as we turned to come back, a breeze picked up & the surface of the sea burst into action. The swell reared up & its peaks began to foam. This was still very tame compared to the conditions I’d faced alone off Unst, Hoy or round the Butt of Lewis. But suddenly I found myself surfing a long way on an unexpectedly large wave & moving closer than was comfortable to a rocky headland where hefty seas were breaking. Allowing that wave to take me was perhaps my biggest mistake, but the response required to stop it would've had to be instantaneous & I didn't think I was in danger. To make things worse, while I knew I needed agility to stay safe, my skeg was jammed down, refusing to lift so I could turn quickly. The next wave threw me over while I was fighting with my skeg and – caught totally offbalance – I was out of the kayak before I'd managed to roll. 

I swam with the boat against the breaking swell & got myself into safer waters, at which point Llinos could come close & guide me somewhere (slightly) calmer. She was absolutely in her element in these conditions, enjoying every minute of cut & thrust through agitated water. And, of course, she expected me to just climb back into the boat as I've done a hundred times before. But something was strangely wrong. I was reacting differently to the cold sea from how I usually do – it was somehow muddying my focus – and the very short span of time between peaks of these tightly-packed waves meant that every time I straddled the boat & prepared myself to slide back into my seat I’d be hit sideways into the water (even when my bow was held for T-rescue). Somehow, I was in the sea for forty minutes before I managed to get back onboard. I wasn't in a dry suit (something I'll never resort to: for me their heat retention makes high-energy paddling more or less impossible) but just my usual thin rashy & cag with 3mm wetsuit trousers

Once in the boat, things still weren’t as they should be. My paddle felt like it was made of lead, while my arms behaved liked cooked spaghetti. The headache I’d had earlier was now intense. I hadn’t felt cold while in the water, but as soon as I was out of it, shivering set in. Both of us started paddling back round the Great Orme headland, but my confidence was shot: the conditions were rough, but far, far less challenging than Cape Wrath or even Handa just a few days before. Sights & sounds that had been exhilarating & utterly joyous then, now felt so imposing as to be beyond my capabilities. Simple, everyday manoeuvres felt complex; instinct & muscle memory seemed to count for nothing. I was having to think each individual movement independently: I felt almost like I’d never kayaked before. 

At any other time I would’ve felt pure embarrassment to be in my boat & see a small RNLI rib appear round the headland. Here I was no less embarrassed but it was also a relief. There was no way we would’ve called them ourselves – we’d have attempted to limp back to Llandudno. But whoever did call them from the cliff road definitely did the right thing. The conditions were rough at the final headland as the lifeboat escorted us round. Llinos was, of course, absolutely fine – there was little risk of her getting into any trouble, and there shouldn’t have been risk for me. But in my strange unfocussed state I went over again in the worst water & the lifeboat crew took me onboard. I might've been fine – self-rescue might've proved easier here – but I was glad not to have to find out. 

It was utterly mortifying to need the aid of the RNLI volunteers & to have been the reason they had to launch. Over two decades of journeys in mountains & at sea, very often alone & travelling in sub-zero temperatures for days at a time, I’ve never been in a situation where I wasn’t entirely self-sufficient. I’ve never needed assistance. And getting out of tricky situations by my own initiative has been one of the greatest pleasures of the outdoors: happiness & risk are codependent. I never entertained the idea I'd need a lifeboat on a relatively undramatic stretch of North-Wales coast. The RNLI crew couldn't have been more professional – entirely non-judgemental & deeply brilliant at what they were doing. The coastguard who met us onshore was equally wonderful: he went far beyond the call of duty in making sure we were ok. And Llinos had been typically astonishing throughout – utterly calm & comfortable in conditions that somehow, excrutiatingly embarrassingly, had got the better of me. 

We gave the RNLI the biggest donation we've ever made and also set up a monthly direct debit to them (it’s absolutely staggering that the lifeboats don't receive more official support, but equally amazing that their running cost of £460,000 per day is met by donations). But hopefully we’ll never again find ourselves using their resources. Here's the link to donate, should anyone else want to do so:

Back in Llandudno I chain-drank hot chocolates & ate an enormous calzone, my body demanding sugar & fat in industrial measures. Slowly, I stopped shivering & turned a normal colour. We looked at UK weather maps, seeing how a shred of rough - a splinter spinning north from Angus - had shaved a coastline which in forecasts had been undisturbed. No-one had been hurt & nothing had been damaged: everything was ok. But my frailties had been horribly exposed: the limits to what I can deal with had been shown to be more inconsistent than I thought. And, worse than that - far worse than that - my failings had caused problems for others. I’d never considered kayaking to be like those sports where players go through barren spells where nothing goes right for them (the striker in a goal drought who suddenly skies everything, or the tennis player who tightens up & fills their game with double faults) but I seemed to have hit such a slump, which made even the everyday seem difficult. Would I, I wondered, dare kayak Cape Wrath alone if I needed to do it next week?

Fortunately I only had a few days more kayaking to do before the December leg of my journey, which will be a circuitous mountain route from Ullapool to Shieldaig. But I had to restore my confidence fast: I have some big journeys to do in the next few months, and need to believe I can handle them. When I headed back north, I persuaded Llinos to join me for a couple of days. We spent hours practicing our rolls in the shelter of a small bay south of Inverkirkaig. Then, as a brief front of chaotic weather approached, we decided it was time to jump back on the raging ocean - to restore some confidence with a truly life-affirming leap into the sea. Exposed stretches of coast were spectacular:
We made sure to launch from a long sandy beach where we’d be aided ashore by the weather, rather than taken anywhere unpredictable. Then, for several glorious hours, we played the stormy sea. Only occasionally – when things were so calm that there were no breakers in sight – did I dare put my paddle down & get the camera out. But even then, the scale of the conditions was imposing. There's something magical about realising that the waves you're in, were they stopped still, might be evident on OS maps:   
I started that paddle full of trepidation: confronting breakers as threats that had to be faced down. But very gradually I began to enjoy myself, not bracing against waves but using them to weave patterns through the water. Exhilaration & escapist joy slowly replaced, or at least surpressed & surpassed, the fear. Later, sat back onshore with my boat beside me, breathing heavily & warm with ocean adrenaline, I felt like I’d made a breakthrough to restoring my composure & conviction.

Anyway – I’m glad to be turning from travel to research for the rest of my time on the Sutherland/Assynt/Coigach coastline, then to be swapping sea for mountains for the last blogpost of the year & chapter 5 of the book. In the meantime, I'll also be trying to think of something else I can do to show appreciation for the RNLI...     

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