Saturday 30 May 2015

Narrow places - exploring the geos of the Angus coast

The delights of the Angus coast from Auchmithie to Arbroath weren't over by any means.  We left the beach on which we'd taken luncheon and almost immediately passed the prominent sandstone stack known as the Deil's Heid (Devil's Head).

There are some great rockhopping opportunities here too, and with the sun high in the sky the pools inside the geos we paddled were lit with a lovely and luminous light; almost as if the light was shining from below rather than above.

There's a perception that the North Sea is always grey and devoid of the colours of the west coast, but this is a long way from the truth; in fact the red sandstone against the water on this part of the coast is one of the most colourful sights anywhere.

In the calm conditions we were able to thread some narrow channels which wouldn't be advisable with any swell running......

...including one which narrowed to just about shoulder width and required us to propel ourselves through using hands on the rock.  The slant of the rock and the narrow nature of this particular slot put Douglas and I in mind of the angled sea cave which cuts through beneath the island of Dun in St Kilda, except here there was light from above!

Next comes Dickmont's Den, a geo formed by an enormous cave collapse which will be the eventual fate of Gaylet Pot further north.  It's possible to paddle around a central ridge of rock here, so several of the party did a couple of laps , one each way :o)

The rock architecture continues almost to the edge of the town of Arbroath itself, ending suddenly as the bay is reached; guarded by shelves of rock which make it a long way from the low tide mark to the seafront promenade near Whiting Ness.  This has its attractions too in the shape of an ice-cream van which we took full advantage of!

Whilst eating our ice creams we heard a call to Aberdeen Coastguard from a yacht which had become entangled on a creel float line.   Douglas and I spoke to the yacht skipper and established that we could see him about  a mile offshore.  We offered to try and help by either passing the rope up or, if we couldn't manage that, to cut it away.  We headed out but were overtaken by the Arbroath Lifeboat on its way to the yacht - the RNLI lifeboatmen are much better trained and equipped for the job than we are, so we were very happy to see how quickly they had responded; only 10 minutes from the original VHF call.

As our group reconvened on the water it was clear that the weather had (as forecast) come up a couple of notches.  A wind swell against the tide was being complicated by clapotis from the cliffs and the combined effect made for a jopply sea and an engaging paddle back up to Auchmithie.  We were certainly glad that we'd fully explored all the great rock architecture on the way south as the narrow channels and caves would have been a very different on the way back!

We rounded our day off having fun with some balance exercises, rolls and self-rescue practice just outside Auchmithie harbour, the chilly water reminding us that summer is not quite here yet.

Once again the Angus coast had given us a day of superb sea kayaking; and its noticeable that our paddling group grows a little every time we visit - the word is out!

You can follow this trip in "Sea kayaking TriVision" by reading Duncan & Joan's blog here and here and Douglas' blog here

Thursday 28 May 2015

Luncheon in a lost world

After enjoying the passage of Gaylet Pot we emerged back into the bright sunshine and continued south, following the shore around Carlingheugh Bay. Whilst not quite as dramatic a coast as the cliffs and caves to both north and south, there are some great rock formations along the shore of the bay; definitely not a place to paddle "headland to headland"!

Image by Joan Barwise

Duncan knew of a  good luncheon spot, a pebble beach which could be approached by a channel through rocky skerries and shelves.  We lingered over first luncheon, just enjoying the place, the welcome sunshine and the company - why rush on a day like this?!  

The grassy slope at the back of the beach was awash with wildflowers; Spring's flourish on the coast.  Prominent amongst the flowers were Red Campion (Silene dioica), a favourite of mine to the point of having planted some in my garden.  It's reliable and colourful ground-cover with hairy stems which catch the morning and evening light wonderfully, but it does tend to spread quite profusely in a garden!

Our corner of the bay was sheltered and would be quite tricky to access from inland; it felt a little apart from the world.  We explored a bit of the shore on foot and what a marvellous place it is....

Image by Douglas Wilcox

Douglas took this stunning image which captures the colourful scene to perfection, from the vibrant green of the shoreline weed to the pale pebble beach, the startling red of the sandstone cliffs and the flawless blue of a Spring sky - a real riot of colour.

The geology of the Angus coast is complex and fascinating.  A great little trail guide leaflet about the geology and features of the coast between Arbroath and Auchmithie can be downloaded from here 


Looking a bit closer at the sandstone reveals a record of a very different world of some 400 million years ago, when this part of Scotland lay south of the equator in a desert belt.  Periodic and catastrophic floods caused two river systems to deposit huge quantities of waterworn pebbles carried from an ancient mountain range.  The rocks are classified as Devonian Sandstones, and both Upper and Lower Devonian are represented along the coast in close contact.  The dry periods can be clearly made out in the rock together with the flood deposits. 

Subsequent tectonic movement and severe weathering have resulted in desert rocks appearing here at the northwest of Europe, leaving marvellous rock formations and a window to a lost world, as well as the fertile red soils of the Mearns farmland.

You can even hold a part of this lost world - some of the material carried from high mountains and down across a desert landscape by a raging river are loosely embedded. This is the first time this pebble has been free from the sandstone in nearly 400 million years.....

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Sea kayaking under the farmland of Angus

Immediately south of Lud Castle there are a couple of large caves; the first has a dog-leg entrance which opens into a large interior.........

...which contains seven sea kayakers with ease. A rake of light from the side of the cave indicated a second entrance.......

......which opened out on the southern side and enabled us to paddle right through underneath the headland itself.

The most spectacular of the caves hereabouts is Gaylet Pot.  The seaward entrance to the cave is square-cut and lowers towards a chink of light at the back.  Appearances are deceptive though, once inside the cave is the size of a church and some 150 metres long.

On one of our previous visits to Gaylet Pot we were at the point where the cave narrows towards the back when two slightly larger swells arrived.  The swells ramped up alarmingly as they passed along the constricting tunnel - by the time they reached us there was a metre and a half of snarling white water breaking at the crest.  Both Douglas and I "enjoyed" some impromtu air-time as we paddled hard into the oncoming water.

On this occasion things were a little more predictable and we were able to land on the beach of coloured pebbles at the back of the cave.  Landing and moving the boats up the beach required a bit of coordination, but what a truly brilliant place to land!  There's no flash in use in this image, because despite being some 150 metres in from the entrance of the cave we were in bright sunlight...... the base of a huge "gloup" or collapsed cave.  This aerial image shows the extent of the collapse, caused by hydraulic pressure from storm swells filling the cave and exerting unimaginable forces along the faultlines of the comparatively soft red rock.  Eventually the explosive force tore away sufficient rock from the roof to cause a complete collapse leaving a huge crater over 40 metres in diameter and some 30 metres deep.  Incongruously, the gloup is located within a field containing crops - usually Brussel Sprouts - and so access from landward is often not possible.

It's a really impressive place to visit  and one of those unique situations which sea kayaking occasionally offers.  Caution is needed here though; any slight swell from seaward is greatly magnified in the length of the cave - indeed during winter storms the sea can sometimes "blow" into the air from the inner entrance.

Launching from the steep pebble beach required a bit of teamwork but we were soon safely afloat and heading back out to open water.  These were the first caves one member of our group had paddled in - and they'll be hard to better!

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.