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Sea kayak assessment adds new pressure to perform

By Ben MacGregor

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Neave Island Beach.
Neave Island Beach.

I’ve never found Tesco so relaxing. As the rain cascaded outside, how nice just to wander round the aisles, picking the odd item from the shelves, smiling behind my mask at the other shoppers.

What on earth has happened to Ralph?

Two days of sea-kayak leadership training followed by the stress of a two-day assessment, that’s what.

Using the same ‘field of play bubble’ rules under which football matches can be held, it had been possible to organise this training, bringing up two inspiring coaches – Calum McNicol and Bruce Joliffe – for four days of outdoor sessions in the waters around the far north.

Seven of us honed our leadership skills for two days under skies which were mostly cold, grey and laden with rain. The sea at this time of year is relatively warm and sea-kayakers always dress for the cold and wet, there were plenty of waves and no gales so everybody was happy.

I’m sure the Skerray folk thought we were all crazy as we practised our tows, rolls and rescues in the sheeting rain and choppy waters around Neave Island.

Four of us went on to take our two-day sea leadership assessments, helped by a group of keen ‘mock-students’ who would act as guinea pigs on our trips. The first day was, for a change, beautifully clear and sunny, but with a strong south-east wind which would tax our abilities around the Rabbit Isles in the Kyle of Tongue.

This day was largely a question of planning and leading a trip, showing we could keep the group safe and under good control while giving the paddlers an enjoyable day out.

The next day was to be much tougher. Two groups of paddlers headed out from Ackergill pier into the rain and swell off Noss Head. Each group had one assessor and two candidates who would take turns at leading. We knew that that there were going to be quite a few incidents.

First, one of the paddlers was suddenly very cold and then lapsed unconscious. Keep him warm, set up a rafted tow back towards the harbour, contact the coastguard. After a rapid recovery, the next incident was for me to deal with, a capsize near the cliffs. Help him back into his boat, meanwhile setting up a tow to keep us off the rocks.

Noss Head rocks.
Noss Head rocks.

On the VHF came a gale warning for waters further south and the swell was steadily getting bigger. Perform a self-rescue – fall into the sea then get back into the kayak unaided.

It was then my job to safely land the party on slabby rocks under the cliffs, then the other leader’s task to launch us again into the breaking waves. There came more tows and more capsizes. My tow rope became tangled, the clip came off the other boat, but I managed to recover and keep the tow going.

Then came the one I’d really been dreading. To pass the assessment you had to demonstrate a roll in choppy water. I can usually – but not always – manage to roll, especially in places like the friendly surf of Thurso beach.

But it’s daunting under the eyes of an assessor in the grey waters off Noss Head. I made it. Definitely the best moment of the day! But what was still in store for us?

The final exercise was almost my nemesis. The lost hatch cover. I’d invested in a full set of emergency hatch covers and then found that none of them fitted the largest hatch size. It was of course this size of cover that was lost.

I fiddled around for ages with a bit of bungee and an old dry bag which was not quite big enough, meanwhile failing to notice that we were drifting dangerously towards a big breaking swell. Eventually the cover was kind of on, but this could easily fail me.

Wind and sunshine on the Rabbit Isles.
Wind and sunshine on the Rabbit Isles.

Now we paddled back towards the harbour as ever-bigger swells rolled in from the side. I was geared up for whatever the next task might be but the assessment was over. All we had to do was land through the breaking waves at the pier, not a difficult task for any of us well used to Thurso bay.

In downpours worthy of Lochaber, we carried the boats up from the beach, changed in our various vehicles and awaited the verdicts.

We’d all passed. The only shame is that in these Covid days there can be no celebration get-together.

And so, car filled with a muddle of soaking wet gear and clothes, it was time for a spot of therapeutic shopping!

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