All at sea
There are white horses dancing on the waves as we push our heavily-loaded kayaks out into the bay. Yesterday, we were beginners. Today, we are explorers. My excitement is tempered with anxiety as the wind whips tendrils of hair into my eyes and carries away the words of the expedition leader before I’ve heard them.
Six capsizes, I remind myself, as I straddle the boat and slide my bottom into the cockpit. That’s the grand total Mike Arkley’s company, Mountain and Sea Guides, has had to contend with in 11 years of sea kayaking expeditions. I don’t intend to make it seven and concentrate hard on facing the bow of the kayak directly into the wind, where it’s most stable, and keeping a safe distance from the rest of the boats to avoid a pile-up.
We’re heading out of Applecross Bay towards the Inner Sound, a stretch of water in the Wester Ross region, sandwiched between the north-west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Skye. It’s reputedly one of the best sea kayaking locations in Britain – an inland passage with little tidal flow and an abundance of marine wildlife. The plan, hatched this morning with the aid of copious mugs of coffee, nautical maps, tidal guides and the latest weather forecast, is to paddle south for about 5km before setting up camp on a secluded coral beach, Ard Ban (which means ‘white point of land’ in Gaelic).
I certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of embarking on such an adventure without Arkley’s expert guidance, but still, it seems incredible that only yesterday, my boyfriend Jeff and I were two of a group of six novices learning how to get into the boat without tipping it over, and which way up to hold the paddle (kayaking uses a double-bladed paddle, canoeing a single-bladed one).
‘Everything that instinct tells you is right will probably be wrong once you get in the boat,’ instructor Paul McGarey had told us, as we lugged our 17-foot long, 23kg kayaks down to the water’s edge for our crash course in basic kayaking. ‘Taking your legs out of the equation shifts your centre of gravity completely.’
He is right. I sit rigid as the boat rocks and wobbles, resigning myself to a watery introduction to this latest sporting endeavour. ‘Try to relax,’ McGarey calls. ‘Let your body move with the boat.’ I instantly feel better when he shows me how to sit correctly, adopting a slight forward lean, bracing my knees against the sides of the boat and pressing my feet down on the foot pegs.
Now I just need to learn how to move. Paddling power, it materialises, comes not from the arms, but from the trunk. ‘While you can paddle using sheer force, you’ll tire quickly, and for kayak touring, you need to have the stamina to carry on for long periods at a time,’ McGarey explains.
By mid-morning, I feel pretty confident – even more so when I paddle back to shore for a quick loo break and manage to get out of the boat without capsizing. I look back and take in the view. Applecross village perches at the edge of the horse-shoe shaped bay, huddled below a cluster of pine-clad, cloud-capped hills. The eerie cry of a curlew pierces the silence. I hurry back down to the beach and board my kayak enthusiastically, anxious not to miss anything. Almost as a warning not to get too cocky, too soon, the boat unceremoniously dumps me in 12 inches of water. Everyone sees.
Later that day, we don wetsuits for some deliberate capsizing, in order to learn how to get back in the boat – and rescue each other - in deep water. The golden rule, Arkley tells us, is never to swim. ‘If you’re swimming, then you’ve let go of your boat and if you do that in the open sea, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to get back.’ It makes perfect sense. But the minute I plunge in and upturn my kayak, as instructed, my aqua shoes float off in the other direction. I immediately let go of the boat in hot pursuit, forcing my husband Jeff to rescue not only me but my kayak, too.
As we head for the open sea, the importance of such drills becomes apparent. Winds of 12mph are forecast, increasing throughout the afternoon. To add to the challenge, Jeff and I have now been issued with a tandem kayak. The double feels cumbersome and wide compared to the singles, and at first, we can’t seem to get into the swing of paddling in tandem. Arkley sails by as I shout bossy instructions to Jeff, who is sitting behind me. ‘You know, they call those boats marriage wreckers in north America,’ he grins. I can see why. Every time I turn around to see if Jeff has heard my latest instruction, he appears to be sitting idle with his paddle.
We stay close to the shoreline, as Arkley orders, but not too close, as there are hidden rocks below the surface. To our left, the rocky coastline rises and falls. Ahead, the jagged peaks of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye are faintly visible through a film of sea mist. A group of seals on the small island of Eilean nan Naomh slide reluctantly into the water as we approach. I’m disappointed not to seem them more closely, but seconds later, they pop up in the water all around us, and one begins leaping out the water, dolphin-like, to get a better view.
When we arrive at Ard Ban, a blister is just beginning to form on my palm, just below my little finger. My forearms are aching and I’m getting chilly. That evening, the promise of a warm sleeping bag lures me away from campfire chat and drams of whisky, and I lie listening to the sound of the water not so much rippling as rushing to shore.
The following day, we wake up to rain beating down on the tent. I peep out and see the others zipping up waterproofs and getting on with the day’s tasks. But the dismal weather doesn’t completely spoil the lushness of waking up on a sandy beach, with no one else for miles. And matters look up when someone passes in mugs of steaming tea.
Jeff and I had always planned to head home today, but adverse weather curtails the whole group’s plan to continue southwards, so kayaks packed, we set off for Applecross. It’s the same distance, of course, but this time, the waves are at our backs, and we race along in companionable silence. When we turn into the bay, I can’t believe how long ago it seems since we set off. My brush with nature has left me feeling different somehow, renewed. I swear I can still taste salt on my cheeks days later, on the long drive south.