Thursday, 22 July 2010

On An Odyssey of Tides

The Farne Islands

To boldy go...

There is an old adage in seafaring circles that says the sea will always give the test before it thinks to give the lesson... and so it was on a recent trip to the Farne Islands. Sat just off the shore of the north east coast, these iconic islands have long been in the distant gaze. Impossibly close, yet impossibly far.

One of a thousand seals

At this time of year, they are the preserve of a million sea birds, nesting where there are no natural predators. It has to be said, this was a spring tide: the largest of the year, and few self-respecting kayakers of mediocre skill levels would venture to the Farnes knowing that the moon was in full swing. Here, the tides leap with some severity over the slabs of dolerite beneath the water to sudden waves, haystacked together. We should have known better, of course, but somehow, in the race to make the most of the good weather, the full moon slipped us by.

The racing tides around Megstone

With a Force 4 forecast we opted for a day of coastal pottering on the trip between Boulmer and Beadnell. The guide to kayaking off the coast here said there were no tides to speak of, so that was good. The faint waft of kippers rose on zephyrs of wind at the lunch stop of Craster and we resisted the urge to have an ice cream.
Sue approaching the Inner Farnes

Pressing on northwards, the wind picked up and something tide-like was running under the boats in the opposite direction to the wind. Wind against tide always creates a confused sea, but it was about to get worse. Much worse.

I was beginning to wish I'd had that ice cream.

On the horizon, there were hills of sea. Haystacks in the water. I casually asked Stu what he made of them, white heaps jumping erratically up into the froth. It conspired that the tide was racing onto a spur of dolerite extending from Dunstanburgh Castle out to sea. The haystacks were huge, and quite unpredictable. Before I could say 'I don't like the look of that', Stu had got sucked through it, fending off the white foam heaps the size of tractors with an alarming set of white water manoevres.

After a long afternoon involving a variety of transport methods, we were all back together, safe and capable of laughing about it.

The Farnes themselves presented us with some of the most unpredictable, beguiling seas imaginable. From the Kettle, flat, turquoise and bath-like amid the families of Arctic Terns, to the house-sized, crackling waves that leapt in a straight line from flat calm to immense in a single beat as we traversed the North Sea. A quixotic, alarming think-on-your-feet sort of place.

But this of course is only half the story. Having retrospectively learnt that lesson the sea threw casually sideways, there is one thing I know. I'll be back for another go. But next time, perhaps not on a spring tide...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Lismore by Kayak

A while back now, we spent a weekend with the Scottish Canoe Association circling the limestone isle of Lismore.

Nigel and his new boat

Sue on a graceful turn

The weekend was billed as a lazy trip around the isle, and with summer suddenly arriving all at once, it was hot, sultry and still.

Achanduin Castle

Lismore is tucked neatly at the mouth of Loch Linnhe where the back end of Mull starts to reverse into the mainland. For some on the trip, this was their back garden. And for us, it was another chance to experience the mingling of pasts with present, with landscape and forgetting that is to journey on the sea.

Camped near the southern tip of the island, the light was breathtaking

Gentle tidal smudging of the water at the southern tip of Lismore

Alison and the Kilcheran Isles

Shia, a ship's cat

Several of the people on the trip had moved from the city to live by these waters, to shape their lives around the daily tides. Undoubtedly, there are untold sacrifices in leaving behind the steady income of a city life, but it's a lesson to us all when people have the courage to follow their dreams. Mooring at one such home, one of the cats, Shia, joined us for the last leg of the journey. While we ferried boats from the water to the road, he checked the boats out, sniffed things and generally got to know everyone. I've undoubtedly spelt his name wrong, but roughly translated from the Gaelic, it means something like 'gentleman of the fairy grotto'.