Five days previously, Davis, my 23 year old nephew from County Clare Ireland, had next to zero canoeing experience. However, in the few days leading up to our adventure, Greg Spencer and his family joined us in Strontian and put Davis through some intense training on Loch Sunart. Over 4 days, Davis spent around 20 hours in a boat. Greg really put him through his paces, practicing solo paddling, canoe sailing and many, many self-rescues in F5-6 conditions.
It has to be said that Davis was a natural in a canoe. That, coupled with his extensive mountaineering background and fitness as a triathlete, I had no doubts about his ability to cope with our planned adventure.
Davis and I set off at 11:15am on Thursday 23rd July 2015 from just west of the Skye Bridge in our 17’ Old Town Penobscot. Our aim was to circumnavigate the Island of Skye. The weather window allowing favourable conditions was small, so to increase our chances of success we decided to go fast and light.
We set of on the Thursday into a F4+ westerly wind and headed out under the Skye Bridge across Loch Alsh towards Kyle Rhea. We timed it so that we would miss the tide race at the southern end. Unfortunately, as we turned into Kyle Rhea the wind picked up to a good F5, and to add insult to injury it also changed direction so it was blowing straight into our faces. With heavily reefed sails we tacked down to the exit and just managed to avoid the worst of the tide race.
The conditions were such that we were constantly swamping, despite the full spraydeck that my wife had made, and Davis working furiously with the bilge pump in the front of the boat. (The pump became known as “The Ejaculator”).
We continued to swamp, so we decided to take shelter and let the winds calm down. They did, and we set off again about 7pm and paddled / sailed into the dark until we reached the bay of Camus Croise, where we bivied.
We rose at 5am and were back on the water for 6am. Conditions were calm and we paddled down the sound of Sleat. We rounded the Point of Sleat and found a sheltered bay to stop for lunch. After a quick snack, Davis took the helm and we continued past some fantastic scenery before stopping again at Sgair Mhor for tea. The view of the Cullins dominating the small freshwater loch was stunning.
I replenished our water from a burn and we continued to a small bay past Loch Brittle. This was our midge plagued bivi for the night. At night we slept with midge nets on and no part of our skin was exposed……it was a bit like sleeping in a shark cage.
Our tactic to avoid the midges was to eat early afternoon (less midges than evening) and carry on paddle after eating. I always carried a midge net, small lightweight gloves and a buff that could be pulled up over my face. Any sign of heavy midge activity these would be quickly deployed.
We didn’t eat breakfast in the morning. We just packed and left. We would eat and drink on the go. So, another early start and we began another fabulous sail and paddle north west. The wildlife and scenery together more than compensated for the unhelpful winds.
We stopped at Neist Point for an early lunch. An hour later we set off again, paddling against the tide aiming for Ardmore bay. We paddled through dusk into the night. The backdrop of the Western Isles in moonlight was simply stunning. We reached the bay about 1am and bivied.
The following morning we had a much deserved lie in and set off at 10am. The wind was blowing F3. Up to this point the weather updates from the coastguard had been favourable, but as I listened it was clear that conditions could change; but for now things were in our favour (except the wind direction).
We continued sailing through a small tide race and onto another with a further crossing. The winds continued to blow against us and the seas started to pick up. We tacked across to Bornesketaig where we stopped for a short while and then continued north to the final headland of Rubha Hunish. We sailed through a challenging race and headed round to the last leg of our trip.
The swell had really picked up and as we passed kilt rock there was considerable rebound of the waves from the cliffs. However, the wind was now in our favour and I was able to sail on a broad reach. As we came to land a few meters from a small bay at Culnacnoc, we were taken by surprise as a rogue breaking wave knocked us over. We quickly recovered and set up camp.
This was the only occasion we used the tent, for two reasons:
1. My sleeping bag had a soaking in the capsize (schoolboy error) and I wanted the extra warmth.
2. We’d been getting conflicting weather forecasts for the following day and I was anticipating a day or so waiting for a break in the weather where we could resume our journey.
What was in our favour was that by now we were in the shelter of Rona and Raasay
Our alarms went off at 5am. It would have been so easy to just turn them off and go back to sleep. It was raining and didn’t sound too promising, but I got up to check things out. There was a swell but it was definitely paddlable. It was forecast for F3-5 winds. At 6am we were off. For the first time in our trip the wind was light and in our favour as it took us past Portree. Here, Davis brewed up in the front of the boat while I continued to sail, and made sweet black tea. We were spending a lot of time in the boat and we both peed in a bailing bucket to avoid having to stop.
Eventually after 8 hours of paddle sailing the Skye Bridge came into sight as we sailed through some choppy waters. “The Ejaculator” proved its worth once again!
Just as we came into more sheltered waters, the wind turned against us as did the tide. We started to tack and 2½ hours later, (having noticed a better beach to land on shortly after setting off on day 1) we crossed under the Skye Bridge for the second time and landed at Kyleleakin; 5 days and 153 miles (minus the tacking) after setting off.
This had been a brilliant, rewarding but hard trip. For four out of the five days the wind had been against us and, on occasions so had the tide. The sea at times carried a big swell and we paddled, sailed and paddled sailed, often for long periods, without much sleep.
Not bad for Davis’s first canoeing adventure!