Tuesday, 26 May 2015

An Angus congregation

May 2015 was an untypically windy, cool and unsettled month.  Opportunities for sea kayaking on the north sea coasts of Scotland were more limited than usual.  So when a decent day's weather coincided with our availability, it was too good a chance to pass up.

We came from the south (Duncan and Joan), the west (Douglas, Mike, Phil and Maurice) and the north (Ian) to meet at Auchmithie in Angus.  Given the calling of two of our little group, the term "congregation" seemed most appropriate!

The harbour here is in a pretty delapidated state, the walls broken by winter storms and no boats operate from its shelter any more.  But this was once a thriving fishing harbour and is famed as the birthplace of a Scottish culinary speciality - the "Smokie", a dried haddock smoked over a fire of beech and oak chips, traditionally the fire is contained within a half whisky barrel - you don't get much more Scottish than that!  Nowadays known as "Arbroath Smokies", the whole tradition started at the tiny village of Auchmithie.

The morning was warm and sunny with light winds - just perfect.  Some of the trips on this blog can be followed in "Sea Kayak Stereovision" by also reading Douglas' blog, but this particular paddle is available in "Sea Kayaking TriVision" by checking out Duncan and Joan's blog starting here :o)

Straight out of the harbour our senses were assailed by colour, vibrance and noise - the red of the sandstone cliffs fairly "zinging" in the clear air against a blue sea and the emerald green of the grasses.

We headed south; quickly arriving at Lud Castle, a sandstone outcrop once crowned by a promontory fort.Perhaps this fort once resounded to the clamour of armed men, but today as when the fort was in use the clamour in Spring and Summer is primarily avian, a cacophony of seabirds.

Every space on the ledges of the headland is crammed with nesting birds- Guillemots, Razorbills and Kiitiwakes - and we were treated to a great experience in sight, sound and smell.  But this wasn't the closest we got to the birds.....

...the birds here seem to be very confiding and unfazed by the presence of sea kayaks.  We moved slowly among blizzards of flying birds and squadrons of birds on the sea.  At times they were too close to focus our cameras on......

...but gave truly memorable views......

...of these ocean dwelling birds, thirled to the land for a few short weeks.  We were spellbound by their confiding nature and our pace dropped to a crawl....

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

A seabird spectacle at Fowlsheugh

In spring and early summer the cliffs of north east Scotland are home to some of the largest concentrations of seabirds in Europe.  The sheer number of birds, the clamour and the smell of the cliff nesting colonies is one of nature's real spectacles whether viewed from land or from the sea.  On a day of sunshine and blustery showers we visited the RSPB's Fowlsheugh bird reserve, at Crawton a short distance to the south of  Stonehaven.

The cliffs here are indented by a couple of deep geos which give great views right into the heart of the seabird colonies. The air is a blizzard of wheeling birds at this time of year; dazzling black-and-white against a blue sea.....

...with colourful wildflowers and lichens adding splashes of brilliance to the green of the clifftops. 

The path along the cliffs starts with short rise to a viewpoint looking across to a cliff where Guillemots (Uria aalge), Kiitiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) and Razorbills (Alca torda) jostle for position.  These three species in that order are the most numerous of Fowlsheugh's estimated 130,000 pairs of seabirds - and this is just on one small 2.5 kilometre cliff along a coast with many hundreds of kilometres of cliff nesting sites.

The shallow and productive North Sea is a rich feeding ground for the birds but all of these species and indeed most seabirds are in decline here for a variety of reasons such as declining fish stocks, the stormy weather of recent years and the gradual effect of climate change.

As we walked further along the cliff path there were fresh assaults on the senses around every corner.  The updraught brought us the screaming cacophony from the crowds below - and also the very distinctive smell of a seabird colony! In this geo we were able to clearly see birds diving from the surface and swimming down through the clear water.

Below us, every conceivable ledge and outcrop was absolutely crammed with nesting birds.  Guillemots and Razorbills are well adapted for this high-rise life; they lay eggs which are very sharply pointed at one end so that if one is accidentally kicked as a bird lands or takes off it will roll in a very tight circle and reduce the chances of it falling off the ledge.

That's not the only risk to the eggs and chicks though; predatory gulls and crows patrol the cliffs waiting for a chance to raid unguarded nests. The empty shells on the cliff path tell their own tale of loss for one bird being gain for another.

We were able to get really close views of birds which spend most of their lives well out at sea - it's even tricky to get close views like this from a kayak as the birds dive readily when approached.  The great advantage of reserves like Fowlsheugh is the chance to get close to the birds and share a part of their world.

There are fewer Razorbills but they still number into the thousands of pairs.  Blacker and stockier than the Guillemots, their strikingly marked bills make them easy to pick out in the crowd.

The predominant noise is the onomatopoeic calls of the Kiitwakes, a gentle looking bird with a raucous voice.  We were also privileged to watch a Fulmar laying her egg, picking at the Thrift flowers to place under her as she did so.

Among the hundreds of thousands of seabirds here, there are a tiny number who attract birdwatchers more than any of the other species; Fowlsheugh (the name means simply "bird cliff") is home to a few pairs of Puffins (Fratercula arctica) who nest on a slope on the cliff conveniently close to a good viewpoint.  As Puffins are burrow nesting birds they need a good layer of earth which is in short supply on the conglomerate cliffs of Fowlsheugh.  We were lucky to spot two of these characterful little birds - just two little birds among the many hundreds of thousands of other cliff residents but a great sight all the same.

Looking back along the cliff from the end of the RSPB reserve, the full height of one of the cliffs is seen to good effect. This isn't really a place to bring small children unless they're very well marshalled!

Looking north towards Stonehaven, Aberdeen and beyond, the cliffs go striding into the distance, many of them with their own seabird "cities" waiting to be explored.

A clifftop walk is rewarding at any time of the year, but in Spring it can be really special.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Equipment Review - Kayak Carrier Systems Expedition Trolley

A trolley is one of the most useful sea kayaking accessories, the ability to move a kayak on a trolley can both reduce strain on the body and extend the flexibility of expeditions, offering additional route options.  There are two broad scenarios in which a trolley may be most useful; moving a kayak from a car to the launch site and to carry inside or on the deck of a kayak during an expedition.

In the first scenario a trolley is really useful if the launch site is any distance from the car, or if the tide goes out any sort of distance at your paddling venue.  If you are paddling solo then the advantage of a trolley should not be underestimated to save the effort of carrying even an empty kayak. 

In the second scenario a trolley can be used to portage the boat across land barriers, past difficult sections of water or canal locks, and of course, on and off ferries.  The ability to get a boat on and off a ferry extends the available route options and allows escape in deteriorating weather.  In my opinion, a trolley is pretty much essential kit if making a solo journey by kayak.

Some years ago I was on the point of purchasing a Kayak Carrier Systems (KCS) trolley from Mike Thomson at Scottish Paddler Supplies.  Following Mike's untimely death in 2008 the KCS trolley (which was designed and manufactured for Mike by Ronnie Weir) ceased production as Ronnie couldn't at that time take on the retail aspect of the business.  I was delighted to hear recently that Ronnie had restarted production and would retail direct via his website at Kayak Carrier Systems.  Even better, following comments from Douglas Wilcox and a couple of other folk, Ronnie had designed a new version of the trolley in which the original version had been widened and lowered, manufactured to an even more rugged standard and now featured an inbuilt stand to aid solo loading.  The redesigned trolley would be marketed as the "Expedition Trolley" to reflect its intended use.

The review below is a first impression report of the KCS Expedition Trolley - I intend to follow up with an extended use review after using it over several expeditions and a range of day paddles.

Conflict of interest statement:  I purchased a KCS Expedition trolley at full retail price.  I have had a small input in providing feedback in order that a couple of small design tweaks could be made but have no connection with KCS other than being a customer/reviewer.

The KCS Expedition Trolley is designed to be strong, light and durable - a difficult set of conflicting qualities to achieve.  It is designed to carry the weight of a fully laden sea kayak (or open canoe) over smooth or rough ground and to be easy to assemble/disassemble in order to transport it inside or on the deck of a kayak.

At present KCS products are sold directly via the website, and trolleys are available to demo at Glenuig Inn on Scotland's west coast and at Seaborne in Devon in the south west of England.


On opening the packaging the quality of the components used is immediately obvious.  The axle is high quality aluminium and fittings are either brass or stainless steel.  The legs are manufactured from the best available grade of polypropylene and have pads of closed cell foam to protect the hull of the kayak.

A real plus point is the spare parts kit supplied with the trolley.  Parts which might be misplaced in use such as T-Grips, a wheel retaining pin and the knurled locking handwheel are supplied as spares.  The spares kit is a thoughtful addition by a designer who is a paddler himself, and ties in with the "expedition ready" design brief.

A set of assembly and maintenance instructions, a securing strap and a strong drybag in which to store and transport the trolley completes the package.

Assembly is very straightforward; the pads (backed with strong polypropylene) secure to the frames with threaded T-Grips.

The axle is pushed through the frames and nylon spacers placed at each end. 

The frames are secured together with the knurled handwheel and the wheels can then be fitted and held in place with stainless steel gate-pins.  The wheels are the tried-and-tested 10 inch (25cm) wheels of the type found on many trollies and have pneumatic tyres fitted with Schraeder valves.  In use I've found it best not to fully inflate the tyres in order to give a balance between flotation and ease of pulling.  The single leg stand folds down from one side of the frame and makes solo loading of a kayak straightforward, the stand folds back up alongside the frame once the kayak is secured.

The trolley fits in an oval rear hatch with ease if the axle is removed.  Breaking it down further means that it can be fitted into a surprisingly small space (see the image on the KCS website which shows just how neatly the parts can fit together for stowage).  The wheels won't fit into a 20cm round kayak hatch, but fit into an oval hatch easily enough.

When journeying with a fully packed kayak the trolley can be broken down into two frames/axle/wheels and stowed in a storage bag strapped to the back deck.  The total weight of 3kg makes no discernable difference to stability on a loaded boat, but rear deck re-entry techniques may need to be adapted to take account of this or any deck cargo.

The optimum position for the trolley underneath the kayak will vary slightly from model to model and will be affected by kayak loading, but in general terms just aft of the cockpit gives a good balance.  Do take some time to practice securing the boat before heading out, it will be time well spent.

To secure a trolley I use the straps from my roof carrying bars which are longer than most.  The strap originally supplied with the Expedition trolley was slightly too short to comfortably secure a boat - when this was fed back to KCS a longer strap was immediately supplied and this is now standard.  A second strap running from the cenre of the frame of the trolley and up around the front of the cockpit rim will prevent any rearward movement of a trolley on soft sand or rough ground.

Following some trips with the Expedition trolley, the only criticism that Douglas and I could find was an occasional instance of the trolley rotating forwards under the boat on extremely rough ground or in very soft sand.  This could be mitigated by careful use of straps, but Douglas suggested a small rear extension for use on really tough terrain.  Ronnie came up with a design solution which has been successfully tested by Douglas on the trolley-eating portage across Jura and found to work very well in preventing any forward rotation.

The keel extension resembles a small aircraft tailplane and is now supplied as standard with the Expedition trolley.  It may not be required on most types of portage but underlines the expedition focused design and the willingness of Ronnie to adapt and improve an already good design.

Image by Douglas Wilcox

My first multi-day trip with the KCS Expedition Trolley included a portage with a heavily loaded kayak from the River Shiel to the sea at Moidart and took in a stretch of tarmac road....

.....and a bumpy estate track with some muddy sections.  It has also been used when day paddling to move a lightly laden boat across a variety of terrain.  In all situations so far it has performed faultlessly and has been easy to assemble and load in the field.

In my opinion the KCS Expedition trolley is a very high quality product and is unrivalled as a trolley for use on kayak (or canoe) expeditions. The quality of materials used make for a product which feels absolutely bombproof in use looks to be very durable.  The lower, wider design and subsequent small improvements make this the perfect trolley,and the addition of a single leg stand makes it particularly suitable for a solo user. In fact it is difficult to think of any way in which it could be further improved.

The current retail price is on the KCS website and is competitive when compared with other high quality trollies; the price also includes free UK delivery.

There will be an update to this review after I've had the opportunity to use the Expedition trolley as intended, on extended journeys which include rough and challenging terrain.  I have little doubt that it will prove as rugged and durable as the Scottish landscape itself!

For now, if you are looking for the best sea kayak trolley available  - look no further than this one.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Blasting back to Morar

I'd previously only paddle sailed in open water, but now we threaded our way through the maze of channels in the Airsaig skerries under power from the wind.  A new experience but very rewarding and great practice for me; my 40-years-ago dinghy sailing skills were slowly recalled and put to use as we went from beam reach to dead run to broad reach around the rocky islands.

Turning out of one rocky channel we were about to pass a tiny sandy beach backed with a rocky shelf.  Too good to miss, time for second - or perhaps third - luncheon.  Our sails remained hoisted as we were sheltered from the breeze in the lee of the rocks.  It's not so easy to see but there are three different versions of the Flat Earth Kayak Sail (FEKS) on display here - the biggest difference can be seen at the head of the sails where they meet the roach (the rear part of the sail away from the mast).

We were soon back on the water and heading out through the last of the Arisaig skerries towards the open water beyond Eilean Ighe.  Our route down from Morar had been entirely against a steady southwesterly breeze and had at times been quite hard work, but all that effort was about to be repaid.....

Image by Douglas Wilcox

......as we were simply blasted back northwards along the Morar coast.  The wind was at the bottom end of F4 and relatively steady in direction and speed, just perfect for sea kayak sailing.  We made excellent time, covering the 7km run from the north end of the Airisaig skerries to the mouth of the River Morar in a shade over 45 minutes, giving an approximate speed of around 10km/h, or double "normal" paddling speed.

I'd already pretty much decided that I'd be getting my own sail, all my sailing until this point having been done using a rig borrowed from Douglas.  This superb run just confirmed things - a sail is on order :o)

The major thing for me when considering whether or not to take up sea kayak sailing was that the advantage had to outweigh the faff of rigging a sail and the extra clutter on deck. As a professional seafarer, loose bights of line really trigger my OCD! Safe to say, the advantage (and sheer fun) most definitely does outweigh the faff/clutter. Oh, and don't listen to anyone claiming that sea-kayak sailing is somehow "cheating" (cheating what exactly?!) - these will likely be the same folk who buy a kayak with hull speed as a major consideration.....

All too soon we turned the corner back into the estuary of the River Morar and into the shelter of high ground.  As we paddled back up to our starting point in serene sonditions and in a light rain we reflected on not only what a great day we'd had, but what an outstanding trip it had been, starting at Glenfinnan and journeying to the head of Loch Ailort (taking in a solar eclipse en route) before tagging on this super day trip.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Tough stuff and rough stuff in the Arisaig skerries

We continued south down the Morar coast and entered the maze of the Arisaig skerries.  One could paddle here a hundred times and not take the same route twice, it's a great place to sea kayak!

Another beach, another brief rest stop, though rather than sand this beach on Luinga Beag was composed of......

....shells and coral.  The coral is actually the calcareous skeletons of a red algae and it's quite tough stuff. We left this beach and paddled out around the outside of Luinga Mor, a short piece of coastline which, despite having paddled the Arisaig skerries many times, I'd not paddled.  It proved to be fun.....

.....in a bouncy way!  This is the best image I could get in the choppy, clapotic conditions.  Reassuringly, the P & H Cetus MV handles this rough stuff with absolutely no drama.

As soon as we turned the corner at the south west of Luinga Mor we entered much more sheltered water,  protection from the prevailing southwesterly weather is one of the great advantages of paddling at Arisaig.  Since leaving the River Morar some four hours earlier we had been paddling steadily into a southerly wind but now we had the wind at our backs......time to hoist the sails......