Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Psychology and commitment - the Point of Stoer

The thing is, I have a bit of an issue with big headlands - they intimidate me.

They're exposed, energetic places where wind, sea and tide are amplified and concentrated; they are nearly always challenging and for the solo sea kayaker they can be lonely and committing places.

My plan was to paddle around Point of Stoer, one of the six big mainland Scottish headlands (and one of the more exposed) not once but twice. I hoped to round the point and head south to Stoer Head lighthouse before returning back around the point.  The Imray Yachtsman's Pilot for this area notes that

 "Two of the headlands, Rubha Reidh and Point of Stoer, are notorious for heavy seas, caused mainly by their exposure and the strength of the tidal streams around them.  Seas around these headlands are particularly dangerous with wind against tide and they should be given a berth of several miles if it is necessary to pass them under such conditions"  

 Clearly this paddle isn't something to attempt on a whim!  I'd had the trip in mind for some time but the three factors I needed in my favour (wind, sea and tidal state) hadn't coincided neatly enough.

This time I had a chance. The wind was southerly at about F2 but was forecast to increase rapidly to F4-5 by late afternoon which gave me a window in which to work.  The swell was reasonably low at a metre from the north, which I felt I could manage.  The one nagging doubt was the state of the tidal stream.  In this area the ebb runs north and whichever way I planned it I'd be arriving at the point three hours after high water at Ullapool which would mean that it would be at the end of the strongest part of the stream.  At a day or so after Springs, the Admiralty Tidal Stream Atlas showed that the stream offshore would be 0.6kts.  Close in at the point this would be about 2kts.  Waiting for the tidal stream to slacken risked being caught by the strengthening wind and also the shorter day length.

As a precaution against my being able to get around the point but not back I had walking kit in the boat which would enable me to walk and hitch the miles back to either Lochinver or to my starting point of Culkein Drumbeg from where I could sort out recovery of my boat.  I'd done what I could; it was now a matter of whether the conditions would be suitable.

Imediately north from Bay of Culkein there's an arch set in the point of Rubh an Dunain (headland of the fort).  The point itself would give a hint as to conditions at the Point of Stoer, and it wasn't encouraging.  Clapotic water near the arch and a heavy swell running up the angled sandstone reefs below the point had me feeling very twitchy and uneasy.  In hindsight this was undoubtedly in part due to the tension in my head transmitting itself to my body and then through the boat; although the conditions here were pretty tricky.

Beyond Rubh an Dunain the sandstone cliffs get markedly higher.  There are no realistic landing places between Bay of Culkein and (probably) getting back to Bay of Culkein so I was as prepared as possible for a few hours without landing.

Passing along under these 80 metre cliffs I was in shelter from any wind but aware of the swell.  Normally I'd have been enjoying the proximity of the cliff scenery but today I was focused entirely on the potential difficulties ahead.  At Geodha na Leth-Roinn (Geo of the half-seal; perhaps Selkie?) I was just 600 metres from the point itself.  A good stretch out of muscles, then I put on the paddle leash (one less thing to think about if things went wrong), a check to make sure my VHF was on Channel 16 and set to high power (purely psychological), a drink of water and a biscuit.  Good to go.

400 metres, then 200 metres to the point and all looked well.  My inner "contract" stipulated that if conditions looked rough at the point, any breaking water in the tidal stream, it could wait for another day.  So far, so good and I began to feel that this might be OK.

The weather chose this moment to add some "interest" and a truly torrential downpour began as the Cloud Lever (TM) set itself to "fully closed".  For the 15 or so minutes it rained the dominant noise was a static hiss of rain on sea and the rather louder roar of rain on my hood.  At least I couldn't hear the breakers now! Once the rain passed, leaving the surface strangely calm and a complete absence of wind, I pressed forward.  50 metres, then.....

........I was level with the Point of Stoer.  The swell was large and powerful, but nothing was breaking outside the surf zone.  A clear line on the surface ahead showed where the tidal fun would begin.  Decision time - commit or back off.

This is where all the psychology of solo paddling is tested - at least it is for me.  Risk needs to be assessed against reward, a brutally honest assessment of one's abilities and weaknesses needs to be undertaken, reserves both mental and physical need to be brought forward and a big breath needs to be inhaled!  Using all this and some self-talk (thanks Gordon - it rarely fails!) gave a positive result.  I dug the paddle in and powered forward.  Approaching the line of tidal activity a strange cushion of water seemed to slightly lift the boat and suddenly twist it -  I was now both engaged and committed.

In truth, it wasn't as bad as I'd feared.  I could make ground easily through the turbulence around the point and although the swell was larger on the seaward side it was manageable.  And then suddenly, I was around......

...and to the south, beyond a line of bursting surf, one of the most distinctive of landmarks on the Scottish coast came into view.


  1. Exciting stuff cant wait tell the next instalment :)

  2. Agree! Please don't let us wait too long...

  3. "..the tension in my head transmitting itself to my body and then through the boat."

    I'm feeling it in my "chair" right now! A superb account, Ian, take us further! Duncan.

  4. Thank you Allison, Leif and Rolf - the continuation will be along shortly! :o)

    Kind regards

  5. Hi Duncan, just heading out to Stoer was causing me to tighten up in the boat; it's sometimes a real self-talk effort to relax and get on with it! :o)

    Best wishes to you both