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Paddling an easier stretch of coast from Latheronwheel

By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Taking it easy with a gentle outing in the sea kayak on a journey that can be idyllic on a calm day

Landing to explore.
Landing to explore.

Sea-kayaking is one of those activities where, once you have the skills and the gear, a whole new world opens up for exploration.

But you do need to invest a certain amount of time in gaining knowledge and experience, as well as money in equipment, before you can safely venture out.

Some folk progress into long expeditions, or paddling hard and fast for hours, maybe seeking out increasingly gnarly conditions. But you do not need to. I enjoy most a gentle paddle along a short stretch of our spectacular coastline, or perhaps a visit to an offshore island on a fine day.

Sometimes I do join a group paddling hard on a long trip, but I much prefer to potter along, in and out of the caves, geos and skerries and landing to explore the rocky bays under the cliffs.

The coast between Latheronwheel and Dunbeath is a favourite of many. It’s ideal for a fine, calm day, there are lots of caves, stacks and arches to explore with several fascinating bays to visit which are very difficult to reach otherwise.

All the cliff-nesting birds will be seen and heard, there’s a puffin colony or two, there will always be seals raising their heads out of the water and very likely otters. It is certainly not a stretch of coast to race along and back without hardly stopping.

With an experienced leader, this is an ideal trip to inspire beginners, especially if a shuttle has been arranged to take paddlers back to the start. Indeed this was one of the first sea trips I made on my own.

When the wind and waves pick up this is not, though, an easy bit of coast. There are exposed stretches under high cliffs and a breaking swell makes it impossible to get in close to explore. I came here last year on a training course, it was grey and blowing force five with snow showers and that friendliness you find on a calm day in the sunshine was entirely absent!

The long stony bay east of Latheron.
The long stony bay east of Latheron.

Recovering from some bug and feeling a bit slow, I thought this trip would be about right. However, at Dunbeath the sea was quite choppy with a significant swell, there would be no possibility of landing or exploring close in. So I returned to Latheronwheel for an even easier stretch of coast to the east.

From Latheronwheel to Lybster is another relatively easy trip but the last stretch under the cliffs to Lybster is often exposed and rough. If you just go as far as Forse it’s easier, there are many stony beaches where you can land to explore and only a few exposed bits.

The day was grey and cold with light easterly winds. I’d just potter along and see how far I got.

The harbour slip gives for relatively easy launching and landing, though you’ll likely be watched and approached by the NC500 tourists. Show off with a practice roll in the harbour, if you are brave (I’m not).

Small waves breaking onto the rocks and stones meant care was needed in choosing landing spots – the first beach where I managed to get in was just east of Latheron. Most of these places can be reached from land, but it’s much easier (and more fun) to come in from the sea.

The grassy slopes above the stones were spangled yellow with spring primroses while a bright clump of yellow daffodils beckoned further along. On a tiny sign made from a piece of driftwood is enscribed: "Mary Shearer, 1.7.15". I hope whoever planted the bulbs comes to see the flowers at their best.

Memorial daffodils near Latheron.
Memorial daffodils near Latheron.

Driftwood and even drift plastic, if not in too great quantities, always adds interest to these remoter bays and provides habitats for all kinds of creatures. Don’t clean it all away! I found a length of good rope and stowed it in the hatch to take to the log cabin.

A lone walker on the John O'Groats Trail and a small creel boat from Lybster watched as I carried on through breaking waves between skerries and cliffs to the next bay, and on to the next, before rounding the point under a small cliff of guillemots and crying kittiwakes.

Here now was the big semi-circular bay under the old Forse Castle, a sheltered landing was easy, a good spot to stop for lunch.

That would be far enough for today, the wind was picking up as forecast but would be behind me for the paddle back to Latheronwheel. Stopping, of course, on a beach or two on the way.

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