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Practice makes perfect on a roll in the kayak

By John Davidson

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Dreaming of warmer days on some calm kayaking adventures around Caithness

Beach near Dunbeath Castle.
Beach near Dunbeath Castle.

Even when ice is drifting down the River Thurso, you’ll often see surfers out in sub-zero conditions.

I wish I was that tough. When the temperature falls below 10C my keenness for sea-kayaking starts to evaporate and it gets really hard below zero.

It’s not so much the paddling, more the business of changing and getting the boat sorted in the cold and wet with numb hands; I remember once my bare wet feet sticking to the frozen promenade. What I need is a warm house on the sea-shore!

It is, however, good outdoor exercise permitted by the Covid regulations, moreover with an advanced kayaking course planned for early May I must get some practice in. So a few short trips have been made on calmer days.

On my first outing for several months, from Dwarwick pier in February, I could hardly remember which way round to sit in the boat… but after a few minutes began to feel more at home in the slightly choppy sea.

It was a lovely sunny morning with a fresh, cold off-shore wind and a little surf coming into the Dunnet Sands. I headed straight across to Castletown, enjoying the freedom and the sighting of a few long tailed ducks, strange-looking black and white birds with long forked tails and a striking call.

Sea cave near Dunbeath.
Sea cave near Dunbeath.

Next a landing through small surf on the beach then paddling out again through the breaking waves. Finally a brave rounding of Dwarwick Head to look at the Peedie Sands and deciding I didn’t want to risk getting wet trying to land through bigger waves.

The sun now had some warmth so packing up at the harbour was not too bad, and I could enjoy a flask of tea at the picnic bench.

Latheronwheel harbour is another good place to launch the boat and on a fine day it’s a nice beginner’s paddle down to Dunbeath and back. There are plenty of caves, stacks and beaches to explore as well as the long narrow passage right under Dunbeath Castle – but swell breaking on the beach at the far end deterred me from landing to explore further.

The coast onwards to Berriedale is even more dramatic but I didn’t trust my level of fitness to continue. Back at Latheronwheel the sun was shining and there was no good excuse for not attempting a couple of rolls – the water was not quite as cold as I’d feared. I’ve not yet plucked up the courage to try anywhere else.

Dunbars Stack.
Dunbars Stack.

A couple of days later it was still calm, I had an early appointment at the Thurso clinic so decided to combine this with a paddle across the bay to Holburn Head. That wind was indeed cold, and once round the headland the swell was breaking a fair way up the cliffs.

I didn’t fancy attempting to go round the Clett Rock, even if in theory I should be able to lead a group through that narrow gap between the stack and the cliffs and it would only take the lifeboat five minutes to get to me… So just an exploration of the very familiar coast back to the lighthouse, there was too much swell again to attempt a long dark passage which links to two different cave entrances.

After a brief landing on Scrabster beach it was back to Thurso for a bitterly cold change and pack up.

There’s an equally good short paddle from Wick past the Castle of Old Wick to the Brough. I like to launch at the Camps even though a flood barrier now makes this harder.

The Brough (Scorries Island).
The Brough (Scorries Island).

It was grey with gleams of sun and a lot of very cold water coming down the river after rain. Although there was no wind it was choppier than expected with a swell of one to two metres – I should have believed the forecast for slight to moderate seas.

Swell was breaking in the 200-metre tunnel though the Brough, not to be attempted on my own, but it was possible to land just beyond at the old Hempriggs fishing station.

I carried on round to Dunbars Stack but there was too much swell to get in close and I turned back, crossing to North Head before paddling round the rocks back to the Camps.

Thick grey cloud and heavy drizzle had set in for the afternoon. All the cafés were shut. The offices were shut. Wick was as bleak as it could be.

But I’d enjoyed a good paddle to some very special places. Kayaking, though, is one activity where I’d really prefer some warmer weather!

The Brough (Scorries Island).
The Brough (Scorries Island).

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