Allegedly, Misha had suggested to Graham a couple of days paddling on Islay. Ever enthusiastic, Graham’s response led to the pair of them organising and leading a full-on club trip to the island. Thus, on the evening of Friday 4th August, a number of club members and their vehicles joined the queue at Kennacraig ferry terminal on West Loch Tarbert to board the 6pm sailing to Port Askaig on Islay. After a two hour crossing that included a meal on board we disembarked for a quick drive across the island to the scenic Machir bay on the west coast where wild camping behind the sand dunes had been proposed as our luxury accommodation for the weekend. On arriving in the Bay we were met by the advance party consisting of Pat, Graham and the Starship Enterprise, aka Pat’s motorhome, who’d all caught the earlier ferry to Port Ellen on the south of the island. After pitching tents, a camp fire was lit using wood that Misha and his partners in crime had cunningly stockpiled in his van prior to departing the mainland. Cheered by the fire and suitable beverages, a plan was hatched to paddle around the southeast coast of the island from Claggain Bay to Port Ellen. The trip would not only pass some stunning scenery but, more importantly, the distilleries at Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig. For some the evening concluded around 11pm while others supposedly saw fit to keep the fire going until around 3.30am.
As an early start had been suggested by our leader at the previous evening’s planning meeting, the next morning we all awoke promptly, so that we’d be ready for departure around 8.30am. The weather was a bit overcast but this didn’t appear to dampen peoples’ enthusiasm and we duly assembled by the vehicles at 8.30am ready to load boats and kit and plan the shuttle. With Jo and Michael arriving overnight the full party consisted of a further 12 paddlers: Bev, Celia, David, Emily, Graham, Ian, Joe, Malcolm, Marcus, Misha, Pat and Richard along with one walker, Zoe, was fully quorate. Almost. One vital ingredient was found to be missing – our leader was absent. Graham hurried off into the dunes and a short while later Misha appeared – still wearing his head torch with its LEDs brightly ablaze, seemingly serving as an indication of how well he had slept. After organising the shuttle we set off towards the put-in at Claggain Bay with the Wheel family (Bev, Marcus and Zoe) setting off first. The trip rapidly turned more interesting on the A846 between Bowmore and Port Ellen. There was a sudden shout of “slow down” in the lead vehicle which was fortunately ignored. Then, an instant later, three boats still strapped to the Karitek were all mysteriously deposited very neatly on the grass verge at the side of the road. Later reconstruction revealed that the roof bar feet on the right hand side had snapped, the whole rack plus boats had pivoted through 360 degrees to the left, landing sunny-side up on the verge. Fortunately the following vehicle was out of sight some way behind and was safely flagged down along with the rest of the shuttle convoy. A quick survey of the catastrophic damage anticipated to both boats and car revealed that: both plastic boats were unscathed, the gel coat on Bev’s kayak had been slightly blistered in two spots; the Karitek rack was undamaged (though 2 roof rack feet were snapped apart) and the car had a small scuff mark on the rear, the latter being promptly removed by Ian McGie with his sleeve. With a level of efficiency usually associated with a military operation the three boats were loaded onto other vehicles while the Karitek rack remnants were stored in Misha’s van and we were swiftly on our way once more.
On arriving at Claggain Bay and a quick application of some duct tape to Bev’s boat we were ready to launch which ensued without further incident. An extremely pleasant paddle followed, on relatively flat water, down the coast and passing some minor offshore islands on which the usual seals were resident. Alas no otters for Pat. As we progressed, the weather brightened, the sun came out and sunglasses and sun cream became de rigueur. After a couple of hours or so of paddling came the big navigational decision: which of the three distilleries to stop off at for lunch? Impatience obviously dominated so we landed at Ardbeg, the first of the trio en route, where we were met by Zoe who’d arrived a few minutes beforehand having walked along the coast. A number of the party then went to the visitors’ café for a wee drink although everyone opted for tea or coffee rather than a sample of the distillery’s finest produce. Graham, however, sacrificed himself by staying outside to look after the boats.
Setting off once more from Ardbeg some further decision making resulted in the group splitting in to two with Group 1 paddling out to nearby Texa island and Group 2 paddling directly to the finish at Port Ellen. Group 1 experienced a slight increase in waves, paddling across the wind, but reached the shelter of Texa without incident. Paddling around the back of the island wild goats were spotted. We landed on a small beach and set off to explore the island and to find the ruined chapel. The journey back was slightly more challenging as the wind had picked up and we were headed more into the wind. For Group 2, this stage of the journey involved paddling westward, now into a very bright sun and a decidedly noticeable F3, gusting F4, westerly breeze. The navigational challenge for Group 2 involved verifying their position when passing the distilleries at Lagavulin and Laphroaig. On coming ashore at Port Ellen Graham once again volunteered to look after the boats, this time from the vantage point of the hotel beer garden where he was assisted by Ian and Zoe while the first stage of the shuttle was being run. The Group 2 team duly landed and, after loading the boats, we returned to the campsite at Machir Bay where sorting out some food became the priority for everyone. Once we’d all eaten, another campfire was successfully lit – this time overlooking the bay – and without requiring the intervention of our leader’s new cordless inflator, acquired from Lidl and without known purpose. Another planning meeting then followed and with slightly stronger southerly winds and with rain forecast, the decision was taken that we should paddle northwards from Machir Bay the next day. This option also offered the benefit of a more leisurely start.
Sunday dawned decidedly grey with rain looking imminent but fortunately most people managed to have breakfast and pack their camping gear away before it set in properly. The shuttle involved taking all the vehicles to our final destination, Sanaigmore Bay on the north of the island, thereby committing us to the completing the trip. Unfortunately the Starship Enterprise’s teleportation facilities didn’t appear to work in the Hebrides on a Sunday so Pat had to drive us back to the departure point where those remaining behind had managed to get all the boats down to the beach on which the wind, rain and surf had all become decidedly interesting. As a result of our extremely efficient organisation and teamwork Graham suggested that there was enough time for people to practice surf launching and recovery prior to setting out on the trip. Most went along with this suggestion, although Joe and Marcus decided that launching only required one practice and went and sat out in the Bay whilst the others played around in the surf. The inevitable plethora of capsizes followed. Eventually everyone launched successfully and we gathered in the Bay before departure for a final briefing, the main instruction being to stay in close formation.
The wind was now blowing F4 to F5 (as confirmed by later online analysis of the Met Office weather station at Islay airport which had recorded a steady 18mph gusting to 29mph around midday). Fortunately, this weather was on our backs as we turned northward to commence the trip. What followed was a rather bouncy and exciting paddle with plenty of opportunity for downwind surfing on the waves, the crests of which were predominantly white. The first major obstacle came at a small offshore reef off Coul Point, where the first couple of boats paddled through the gap between the reef and the headland without incident. Pat followed and was picked up by a huge wave, providing those behind with the daunting view of the rear of her boat pointing out of a wall of green water as the wave broke over her. The cry of “Paddle!” was obviously heeded and she emerged on the other side of the gap unscathed. Seeing this, Graham with Ian in tow made a late call for others to follow him around the outside of the reef which for some proved to be nearly as spectacular as Pat’s experience. Since nobody went swimming we quickly regrouped and continued on our way.
Our next challenge was to stop for lunch in Saligo Bay. From a distance, conditions on the beach appeared fairly benign but as we got closer it became more obvious that the surf was up here as well. Joe led the way in with a very stylish paddle between the breaking waves and onto the beach, giving the rest of us some confidence to proceed. What followed was noteworthy: usually an informal list of those who capsize is compiled. However, on this occasion it would have been easier to compile the very much shorter alternative list noting those who didn’t capsize! Eventually, with some assistance from those who’d already landed, everyone made it to shore where we all then partook in some lunch in the pouring rain. This challenged the ad hoc sandwich making arrangements of some of the group. Somewhat unexpectedly getting off the beach after lunch proved to be almost incident free, except that Marcus decided now was good time to roll a sea kayak for the first time – alas that his second go was unsuccessful. As we continued on our way the rain relented and the sun seemed to suggest that it might make an appearance.
After a while another offshore reef presented itself and this time the safe line was deemed to be the gap between the reef and the headland. Joe again led the way – making it look easy – and the rest followed individually, some more apprehensively than others. In practice the line through the gap was no worse than a grade 1 or 2 rapid on a river and everyone emerged on the other side of the reef without difficulty. On paddling a little further we were greeted with what must be the wildlife highlight of the weekend – a pod of half a dozen or so dolphins surfaced in front of our kayak flotilla. They then disappeared briefly only to remerge on our seaward side. As we paddled on they swam alongside us for a good while with the pod swelling to a dozen or more individuals and the whole pod raced us a couple of times by surfing in the waves – their bodies perfectly curved to the wave crest. Needless to say, the dolphins won every time. Their proximity was sufficiently close that their breathing could be clearly heard over the sound of the wind and waves. Eventually we reached the point where we turned eastward and entered Sanaigmore Bay where conditions were much more benign.
A short paddle across the Bay on flat water provided the conclusion to the trip. Another smooth portage of the boats off the beach and up a grassy hill to the waiting vehicles then followed. A speedy change into some dry clothes and a quick loading of the boats left us enough time to drive back across the island to Port Askaig where the majority were due to catch the 6pm ferry back to the mainland. The weekend concluded with those on the ferry indulging in a celebratory meal during the return passage.
Many thanks to Graham and Misha for organising and leading the trip and also to everyone on the trip in making what was a very sociable and entertaining weekend. Special thanks to those who helped with transport of the Wheel boats and rack following the flying roof rack incident.