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PICTURES: Cold comfort of paddling the Caithness coast under cover of darkness

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: An advanced sea kayaking leadership course offers our intrepid explorer an insight into its many challenges

Huna harbour.
Huna harbour.

One might have hoped for slightly warmer weather at the beginning of May. As the wind picked up, the sleety rain turned to big white flakes of snow, building up on the walls and fields.

You could only feel for those in the midst of lambing. But this time the following night I was due to be bobbing about in the middle of Dunnet Bay on a night navigation exercise…

To be honest, I knew that an advanced sea leadership course would be stretching my sea-kayaking abilities.

A number of years ago my heart had to be taken apart and put together again, with one valve repaired and two replaced. The heart works pretty well but the efficiency is down by at least 30 per cent, which means I’ll never have the speed and power needed to look after a group in rough seas.

But a course taking place locally run by an excellent coach was too good an opportunity to miss.

Stroma harbour.
Stroma harbour.

The first day’s forecast might reasonably have been expected in mid-winter. Both wind (from the north) and temperature were to be between five and six.

None of us would have chosen to go out in the sea in such conditions. The best option seemed to be to paddle between Dunbeath and Latheronwheel, there would be some shelter under the cliffs but a sizeable swell and a constant danger of being blown out to sea with little to stop you short of Buckie.

Merry Men of Mey.
Merry Men of Mey.

It was bright with big shower-clouds threatening gusty winds and hail. The car thermometer read three degrees on the Causewaymire and a bitter wind howled down Dunbeath Strath and out over the harbour.

Once on the sea you soon warm up, but I was going to do my best to keep dry. Rescues and rolls I could practice in warmer weather.

We reached Latheronwheel for a late lunch then set off back, dodging waves and swell among the skerries. Even a short confab had us rapidly blown out to sea, with a hard paddle against the wind to get back to safety.

You can see big gusts coming in darker, more flattened water. Some keen folk practised rescues in the harbour but I was just glad to get my boat back on the car roof without getting too frozen.

The next day gave practice in big waves and swells, as well as landing and launching through surf – at least this was one skill, coming from Thurso, that I was reasonably familiar with.

Then as dusk fell around 10pm we headed out from Dunnet Sands into the choppy waters of the bay. Navigation and group control are the two most difficult things when paddling in the dark, and you have to be good at reacting to waves by feel alone.

For about 10 minutes, as we paddled back along the shore towards the beach, you could appreciate the appeal of night paddling under a starry sky to the sound of breaking waves. But it was a long way from the seashore back to the cars, and a very cold midnight task of loading the boats and getting changed.

Setting out in winter weather in May.
Setting out in winter weather in May.

The last day was bright but no warmer, and there had only been time for a few hours’ sleep ahead of an early start.

You need to be competent in strong tides, so a round trip to Stroma from Huna had been planned. However, there would be no time to spend on the island as we needed to be back before the ebb (west-going) tide picked up too much or there would be very rough conditions with a force four to five north-west wind.

One of the group led the trip across, a hard paddle into the wind and east-going tide. If you’d aimed straight for Stroma harbour you’d have ended up in the Boars of Duncansby. Instead, aim well to the west and, although you never seem to heading towards the harbour, it draws ever closer.

There was just time for a quick landing before heading off again, I was helping to lead this leg and chose to aim to the west thinking the wind would blow us eastward. However, as the tide picked up it carried us further west in increasingly choppy seas – the route could have been better chosen but we did make it back to Huna.

The Merry Men of Mey off St John’s Point were starting to get very merry!

It had been a good three days and we’d all survived the course. However, unlike the others, I’ll not be going on for the advanced sea leader assessment!

Stroma from Huna.
Stroma from Huna.

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