What can we say? It was AWESOME. It was so awesome that this report can only really give you a flavour. Next time – be there!
We went to Shetland. Only a few days earlier, with the weather forecast looking unfavourable with a large storm predicted followed two days later by another storm, a non-Shetland Plan C was in place. We delayed the final decision on where to go whilst the forecast twisted and changed, and changed again. As our departure date drew closer, the forecast became more certain and it became clear that the first storm would pass before we arrived, allowing two good paddling days before the next front swept in. Our awesome trip leaders, Misha and Graham, decided two good days in Shetland would be worth the journey. In fact, the DCKC awesome sea paddling week yielded seven days of Shetland paddling and it has taken me a good week to recover.
We paddled the most northerly part of Shetland (Muckle Flugga), the most southerly part of Shetland (Sumburgh Head), on the west coast (Papa Stour) and on the east coast (Nesting, Noss and Mousa).
We had delayed the decision on where to go so late that there was no room for the vehicles on the passenger ferry to Lerwick, but NorthLink ferries offered the option of taking the vehicles on the goods ferry, which left Aberdeen 2 hours earlier, at 5pm, whilst the paddlers crossed on the passenger ferry at 7pm. We therefore rendez vous’d in Aberdeen sometime between 3-4pm – there was some slight confusion as the earlier cars had already been loaded onto the ferry by the time the van arrived, but Bev was finally reassured that the others had left their vehicles in the correct location and could relax and have a beer in Danny’s old student haunt.
We returned in good time for the passenger ferry and whilst Angus booked into his cabin and the others looked at their pods, Bev and Marcus inspected the floor of the cinema – it certainly looked comfy. With the weather predicted to be poor, dinner was taken early, and then the books and maps came out for an impromptu planning session. There was mention of Muckle Flugga. There was ambitious talk of Papa Stour, of Eshaness, of Sumburgh Head. The planning session deteriorated into beers at the bar, until bed.
The next morning we were in no hurry to disembark, the vehicles not arriving until 2 hours later. So there was time for breakfast on the boat, and then a leisurely walk into Lerwick to find a café, where there was opportunity for breakfast (for those who hadn’t eaten on the boat). Some exploration of Lerwick followed, including finding Jimmy Perres’ house and the little beach next to it (Bain’s beach). The vehicles now disembarked and picked up by the drivers, we set off to drive up to the north of Shetland, crossing to Yell and then to Unst. We camped at the Gardiesfauld Hostel, with a brisk wind blowing and rain threatening. With the afternoon free, we set off to explore the island, with some looking at the Viking longship and longhouse and other opting to walk or run (!) along the Herma Ness peninsula to get our first view of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse. We rendez vous’d at Saxa Vord, described as a “resort” but looking as if it had survived a nuclear holocaust. The barman was kind enough to provide hot water for tea though and the bar had a pool table to allow Danny to beat Graham, so not all was bad. Cooking was sociable in the hostel kitchen and dining room, and we were invited to a campfire on the beach by some of the other residents.
Muckle Flugga: Sunday
We launched from Nor Wick, which is a small bay off Unst, the most northerly of Shetland’s islands, where the continental crust and the oceanic crust meet. We stood on the beach with a foot on two different crusts of the earth. The wind was westerly, F2-3, gusting F4 and the swell was larger than most of us had experienced, being about 2m. However conditions were calm when we set off, eager to get paddling. The weather was fine and the coastline made interesting paddling. We rounded the headland of Lamba Ness, across the Wick of Shaw and then inside the Holm of Shaw to come along the north coast of Unst, where the wind was felt more keenly. However, Muckle Flugga was in sight the whole way to encourage us on. We were entertained along the way by the antics of the bonxies (great skuas) attacking the gannets to force them to give up their catch. We watched as two or three bonxies would group up against a gannet and chase them down onto the water, sometimes pecking them mid-flight or catching their tails. Once on the water, the gannets were bullied into regurgitated their catch before being allowed to fly off. Lunch was quite late, taken on a small stony beach on the NE coast of Burra Firth. After lunch, paddling out of the bay we noticed a cave, which on closer inspection proved to be a passageway through the small headland. We went through it and back, delighted with our find. It was a relatively short passage from the lunch stop out to Muckle Flugga. We explored to see whether a landing would be possible, but the number of paddlers in the group decided against it – the options were limited, though we did note a yellow plastic sea kayak tied up above the steps of the lighthouse. We were assured that the tide should be slack and passed round the northerly tip of Muckle Flugga, intent on paddling down its westerly side. Having been encouraged by Misha to give it our absolute best, we stuck in, doing our best to paddle strongly in the confused waves assailing us from all sides and now in a definite wind. Twenty minutes of determined paddling saw us progress perhaps 20m and it was with some relief that we turned around, now zipping effortlessly back into the relative shelter of the east of the small island. So instead, we paddled down the west side of Muckle Flugga, and then back via Burra Firth to the take out at Shore Station.
Campsite – Brae
Papa Stour (2 days): Monday – Tuesday
The launch site was at Melby. If anything the weather was more favourable, with the weather fair and wind F3-4. The swell was westerly but had dropped to about 0.8m. We circumnavigated Papa Stour clockwise, exploring caves along the way with lunch on beach at Sholma Wick. Progress was slow due to the number of caves requiring our exploration, some so deep that even head torches were insufficient. The colours in the caves were fantastic, all pinks, and browns and greens. We found passages through headlands that could be paddled right through from one side to another and at one point two of these passages sat side-by-side. Having passed through one of the passages, Pat set out to explore the other, whilst others of us – less adventurous – paddled carefully back through the first passage. Slightly surprised not to see Pat on the other side, we returned only to find that Pat had still not emerged. With some concern Misha was dispatched to check she was OK, and eventually the two of them returned, Pat having decided that a self-rescue in a cave would be a good challenge, whilst allowing Misha to practise his rescue technique in the cave in order to empty her boat faster. Undaunted, further cave exploration still followed with the absolute highlight being the two passages right through the Lyra Skerry stack, which meet in the middle in a cross-roads. Rounding the skerries on the north west corner of the island provided a more challenging paddling conditions. We landed at Housa Voe, camping by the ferry terminal, which allowed some exploration of the island, including a stofa (traditional house) belonging to Duke Hakon of Norway, as well as the little church. A large flat stone was located to form a campsite hearth, comfortably close to the tents and with Marcus in charge of chairs we were very comfortably provided for. We sampled three different single malts and enjoyed the sight of Misha drying his “waterproof” notebook in the fire (amazing what can be done with a tent peg and bulldog clip).
The following morning we were up early and packing away the tents, with the weather due to deteriorate rapidly during the day and noticeably more wind. There was some further exploration of caves and stacks along the east coast of Papa Stour, including the impressive Maiden Stack. We crossed the Sound of Papa, somewhat reluctantly coming back into Melby. With this having been only a short paddle, Graham determined that a coaching session was due and we started to learn more about turning in the wind – with a “lightbulb” moment for Angus on the benefits of edging. Further coaching on moving sideways followed, with plenty of opportunity to practise draw strokes on the move and an excellent (involuntary) demonstration of low brace recovery from Misha.
Campsite – Braewick café and campsite – but most of us opted to stay in wigwams due to the forecast torrential rain and F8 wind, only the hardy (Angus and Misha) in tents! Graham and Danny’s wigwam was designated the “party” venue (perhaps explaining why Angus opted for his tent!).
The launch spot was Vassa Voe, which was memorable for the trailers of plastic sea kayaks on trailers across the road and for a large sow mooching her way along the road. Once on the water, we were pleasantly blown down Cat Firth with very little effort. The wind was F4-5 westerly, but only a little swell being experienced on the east side of the island. At this stage, the wind had been so favourable that we had scarcely had to put a paddle in the water. With such a leisurely start, we had opportunity for more coaching from Graham on the effect of skeg. (Inevitably, both Pat and Bev immediately developed skeg issues.) Out past the promontory, we paddled inside of the South Isle of Gletness, with more coaching en route and the opportunity to practise turning in a much stronger wind. We paddled across to Moul of Eswick, with noticeably more waves, and only the occasional cave spot to explore. Marcus and Misha found otters just off Moul of Eswick. With Marcus having been ahead of the group, round the headland, he advised that the inside passage off Hevda ferry was a good option. He and Bev set off through only for a large breaking wave to come crashing towards them at peak critical time. Both edged and braced with determination, only for a larger breaking wave to follow. With Graham shouting instructions, it then dawned on them that they might be in trouble but further edging and bracing saved the day. The rest of the group followed rather more circumspectly – Pat came through without difficulties only to be caught by a rogue wave at a later stage. As her kayak turned onto its edge, being swept towards rocks, a capsize in a nasty location seemed to be inevitable. But with graceful aplomb Pat swept and braced and hipflicked her way back to upright – the groups’ cheers of encouragement were interrupted by Graham directing an urgent back-paddle as the rocks loomed closer. Fortunately Pat had enough presence of mind to comply with these instructions and all was well. Lunch was taken on a beach at Es Wick, but required a determined paddle into a head wind, which left some of us happy for the break. The paddle across South Nesting bay seemed to be never-ending, again with a cross wind and some waves – Alan practised rolling whilst Angus steamed off into the distance. The coast was followed along, with Whalsay island being in view. Despite half the group being apparently intent on a longer paddle, we reached the slipway at Billister, where the cars were located.
Sumburgh Head: Thursday
We determined to launch locally on the inviting sandy beach at Levenwick. Just as the van arrived, Misha spotted a friend of his. Jean lived in the house right at the end of the beach where we were launching. Despite the rest of the motley crew arriving shortly afterwards, Jean gallantly offered to host us for the evening and to provide food. Graham opted for skeg-sorting duty whilst the shuttle was set up and demonstrated why electrical tape and cable ties should form an essential part of everyone’s repair kit.
With skegs mended and the happy thought of home cooking to sustain us we set off down the east coast of the mainland. We were mostly sheltered from the westerly wind and swell, but here was enough activity to encourage our learner rock hoppers to have a go. Despite Graham’s comments on a “paddling plan”, we all passed Drooping Point with energy to continue. There was a good sprinkling of caves to explore, including one filled with annoyed seals whose calls were interpreted as an invitation to leave them be! Or it might have been that Bev, thinking she had found a buoy lost from a boat discovered the space hopper, bright green and in near pristine condition, and decided that it couldn’t be left to float around lost on the high seas until it fell apart to be eaten by confused wildlife. Fortunately the lunch stop was not too far away, and the space hopper could be more firmly secured to the back deck where is sat happily, rather like an enormous green pea.
From lunch we had about 6km to go, and the plan had been to put in at Grutness to decide whether we were all up for actually paddling around the head. But as we approached, it was clear that no one wanted to be left out and instead we simply paddled past Looss Leward and onto the head itself. The tide was due to be slack at about 6pm, but we reached the head early and had some tide with us (but wind against us) as we paddled around the tip of the head. It is possible to dodge inside some skerries at the head, but there was the option to paddle around also. Whilst this was challenging paddling, compared to the conditions at Muckle Flugga, it was relatively straightforward and the west coast was soon reached, with a concomitant drop in the wave height and a noticeably more regular direction of wave. We tried surfing along (with emphasis on the “trying”) and reached the beach at Jarlshof. Whilst the drivers sauntered happily off to pick up the vehicles, the remainder of the group had the challenge of carrying the boats up a steep flight of stairs, but after the first couple of attempts we perfected out technique of passing the boats through the railings and then up onto the grass.
The space-hopper (probably the only one ever to be paddled round Sumburgh Head) was donated to the children’s club at the Levenwick Community Hall – though not before some of the team had tried it out.
We had a fabulous evening at Jean’s, who also provided photos taken from the cliff tops of us paddling, and well fed walked up to the campsite in the full dark (no street lights), allowing the night sky to be seen in all its magnificence.
We travelled up to Lerwick in the morning to catch the local ferry over to Bressay. It was then a short drive across Bressay to Setter, which was our launch point. We paddled down the Voe of Cullingsburgh and out to Loder on the east coast of Bressay before turning south. At some point along this stretch of coastline a stranded sheep was noted, bleating unhappily from its position half way down a seemingly impossible cliff. This caused a bit of consternation within the group, but Angus – ever organised – determined to phone the local constabulary to advise them of the unhappy ovine victim. Graham provided the grid reference required to locate the stranded animal. The tide was southerly, taking us down through Noss Sound and the coast became gradually more interesting as we went, with caves and stacks abounding together with more rock-hopping practice opportunities. Eventually, we had to turn away from Bressay to cut across to the island of Noss, aiming at the headland. We reached Noss and the sea birds became ever more numerous, the air filled with gannets diving into the sea. Misha and Graham paddled through the Cradle Holm, whilst the rest of us opted to admire the sculpted cliffs, every nook and cranny filled with gannets. Lunch was taken on a small rocky incline, with the sun coming out, and we had a splendid view of the wheeling gannets, folding their wings to plummet spectacularly from dizzying heights into the sea. At this point Alan queried the message left by Angus on his ansaphone – somehow the phone message about the stranded sheep had been received by him and not the local police! (Ed: this just goes to show how hard it is to communicate by mobile phone whilst in a kayak. Something for the 4* group to practice?) We paddled on, with more caves and cliffs to explore, enjoying the cliffs, the sea birds and the paddling, finally returning to our put-in point before loading the cars and driving back across Bressay for the ferry.
This was to be Misha’s last day paddling with group – with a mountaineering adventure beckoning he had to return a day early to connect with his flight to Georgia, and the paddle had been selected in part to allow easy transfer of Misha onto the Aberdeen ferry. However, there seemed to be no rush so first we opted for a convivial coffee and cake stop in Lerwick, before the van made its way to the ferry terminal to deposit Misha and rucksack ready for boarding, with the rest of the team heading off to Sumburgh Head to explore the lighthouse on foot. No sooner had the van reached to outskirts of Lerwick when the message came through. Misha had missed the ferry. Apparently he had arrived in the ferry terminal only to see the ferry starting to pull away. The van did a quick 360 turn round a roundabout and headed back to pick him up whilst the rest of the team – someway up the road – started exploring other options. As we drove along the length of Shetland, the road afforded us a good view of the ferry, progressing sedately back to Aberdeen. The prospect of travelling as a passenger on a goods ferry having been firmly ruled out, the possibilities of flights was mooted. With the wonders of modern technology it was established that there was a flight to Glasgow – and it didn’t leave for another hour and half. Marcus urged the van onwards whilst further in front the other members of the team put their foot down to the airport to try and obtain a ticket for Misha. In the ensuing WhatsApp exchanges, Misha’s personal data was shared freely and Danny’s credit card offered and gratefully accepted. A ticket was secured and now it remained only for the van to deliver Misha in good time. At last the van roared round the airport at Sumburgh, across the level crossing transecting the runway and onto the taxi rank at the airport. Misha grabbed his rucksack, complete with tent, helmet and ice axe strapped to the outside and went to try and check-in. The young lady responsible for checking in the baggage (apart from being amazed that anyone could miss the ferry) was not at all impressed and Graham was dispatched to find Misha’s big yellow hold-all. The rucksack and external items were packed within it and Misha – plus team – went to make sure he could check-in this time. The young lady’s nose wrinkled, but her eyes twinkled. The baggage was overweight … but she would let us off this time – as long as the rest of us ‘cleared off’! We waved Misha through to security with a stern warning not to miss the flight and with a sigh of relief went to explore the lighthouse at Sumburgh Head – including Marcus conquering the orca – and then onto the amazingly varied ruins at Jarlshof.
This was our last day, and we were up early to strike the tents and pack. The wind was a brisk F4, rising to F5. Our put in was at Sandsayre, and the conditions looked sufficiently brisk that there was some doubt about whether the trip should proceed at all, particularly as the return leg would be straight into the wind. Danny and Angus opted for a more relaxed last day, but the rest of the group – tempted by the promise of the best preserved Iron Age broch on Mousa – set off. Marcus took a soaking almost before he launched, somehow tangling his paddle in a fishing line or deck line. We crossed to the northern most tip of Mousa, but decided to paddle along the west side, now paddling with a following sea, with the wind firmly behind us. Landing close to the broch is discouraged due to the nesting of storm petrels, so we landed at West Ham and set off on foot along the way marked path. The path crosses 60°N and this point is marked by a bench, so we stopped for the obligatory photo. The broch was amazing and well worth the visit; it is believed to have had five floors, and the twin external walls hold a set of steps built inbetween them which are still passable now, 6000 years after the broch was built. As we explored the roof and admired the view over Mousa Sound, the sun came out. We headed back to the boats to find Marcus had arrived ahead of us and was drying himself and his kit out in the sun. We stopped long enough for elevenses, noting that the waves were now white topped in the sound. Back in the boats, we nosed carefully out of the small harbour and immediately felt the wind on our faces. Graham suggested that we should cross diagonally over to Sandsayre but it became clear that this was going to be a challenge. Whilst some of us gritted out teeth and dug deep to make progress, Marcus zapped ahead, his early dunking having worked wonders for his paddling. At last the relative shelter of Sandsayre was reached, Alan and Graham stopping for rolling and self-rescue practise on the way.
A brief summary of the highlights:
Best Paddle of the Week? Papa Stour
2nd Best Paddle of the Week? Muckle Flugga/ Nestings/Sumburgh Head/Noss (depending on who you asked)
Best cave of the Week? The crossroads in the Lyra Skerry stack off Papa Stour
Best campsite of the Week? Papa Stour
Best Quote of Week? “That was great, but it’s not Papa Stour”
Wildlife spotted: Otters, seals, gannets, otters, bonxies (great skuas), artic terns, Shetland ponies, sheep, otters, “orca” (OK, not a real one, but Marcus did ride it).
Needless to say, this week couldn’t have happened without the superb organisation and leadership of Graham and Misha. But also the whole team contributed in their individual ways to the awesomeness of the trip – here are the highlights:
Alan: for his rolls at Muckle Flugga and Sumburgh Head.
Pat: for the best low brace of the week and the cave self-rescue.
Angus: best coordination of sheep rescue and the ansaphone message to Alan.
Marcus: for the back-to-front trousers, seating at the campfire and for conquering the orca.
Me: for the cave-capture of the space hopper (and the trip-report epic).
Misha: for having friends prepared to feed the whole team and for drinking coffee instead of catching a ferry.
Danny: for whipping out his credit card to pay for Misha’s flight home.
Graham: Coaching, coaching, coaching – oh, and bouncing on the space hopper.
Thanks guys and I’ll see you on the DCKC Awesome Sea Paddling Week 2019!