A group of fourteen paddlers signed up for a week’s sea kayaking in the North East of Scotland, we were holding off making decisions about the final destination in the hope that the winds would ease sufficiently for us to head for Orkney or Shetland. We conceded a night or two ahead of departure and converged instead on the Old Brewery Hostel in Cromarty on the Black Isle. The Hostel was a treat – and we nearly had it all to ourselves.
Day 1 Saturday
Rosemarkie to Cromarty 25km 5 hours
Conditions: Dry, light wind, flat calm initially F2 later in day
We launched from the beach at Rosemarkie Bay tucked in behind Chanonry Pont, and paddled out to the Point then directly across to Fort George. We had a lunch stop at the atmospheric Eathie salmon station – and learned a thing or two about the salmon fishing industry over the past 2 centuries. As we approached Sutors Stacks, the coastline revealed a few caves and rock formations but it was as we rounded into the mouth of the Cromarty Firth that the swell and waves gave opportunity for a bit of fun close to the cliffs between the rocks. We had a short break on Cromarty beach before paddling off to explore a couple of the oilrigs moored in the firth – we were surprised how close we could get to the rigs, before we realized we were under the watchful eye of a patrol boat.
We were joined that night by Angus and Jonathan. We made for the Royal Hotel and many of the party indulged in a Happy Chappie or two.
Day 2 Sunday
Portmahomach to Balintore via Tarbat Ness 22km 5 hours
Conditions: started off a windy day, F5 at least at Portmahomack, the intended launch site. We motored on to the lighthouse at Tabart Ness to check out likely sea conditions we’d encounter later in the paddle and gave the trip a cautious thumbs up. By time of put-in, it had dropped to F3-4 with choppy seas and a small swell, all settling after lunch
We paddled round to a small beach below the lighthouse for lunch, a good effort, with no opportunity for get out on the way (2nd largest lighthouse in UK mainland with a red stripe yellow top). Onwards, the coastline was low lying and rocky with some rock hopping opportunities along the way. We sighted dolphins just off the landing site at Balintore.
A broad beach landing with small surf to whet the appetite. Bev got her first inkling of a tummy upset that was to have her miss two days paddling to recover and Leigh uncovered extensive bruising on her foot to accompany her limp which later turned out to be a fractured small bone. She pushed on through regardless.
Kayaks loaded and on our way, most of the crew stopped off for fish and chips in Tain. En route, Graham and Misha checked the forecast for the next few days and then Graham was on the phone setting up our campsite for the night, at Greenfield near Brora. It was indeed a green field with a few basic amenities to boot. Bev, wiped out, headed off with Marcus to a B&B.
Day 3 Monday
Helmsdale to Latheron Wheel 25km 6 hours
This marked the start of a 4-day, 3-night expedition from Helmsdale to Sinclair Bay, North of Wick. I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for just how rich an experience it would turn out to be.
Conditions: Calm day no wind or swell
Launch site: we loaded up the boats for the expediton at Helmsdale and waved goodbye to Bev and Marcus, who were charged with checking out the wild camping facilities further up the coast. It didn’t take long after launching before the coastline began to reveal its riches.So many caves (we were in them all) and stacks (we were round them all), and rock strata that had us convinced we were paddling uphill through huge arches. We found precipitous waterfalls to shower under.
And all before lunch! Berriesdale is a beautiful bay with a row of white washed cottages (now holiday lets) and a suspension rope bridge. We lunched then went for a stroll and met fellow paddler and coach, Mat Haydock.
Onwards to Dunbeath past a dramatic newly renovated castle with its own cave below. Met Bev and Marcus on headland and elected to paddle on to Latheron Wheel – a lovely old harbour with a mowed area nearby for camping. And all before the rain started, in earnest! A campfire on beach, one of Misha’s signatures, was a fitting end to an awesome day’s paddle.
Day 4 Tuesday
Latheron Wheel to Haven 22km 6 hours
Pancakes for breakfast with flasks of hot water – this has got to be a first!! One local star just delivered the tray of goodies to the campsite. Scoffed the lot.
Conditions: Calm seas no wind. Bright day. Launched by 09.30
More caves, stacks, arches, waterfalls and geos – a jaw dropping array were explored, some in complete darkness, others turned out to be tunnels, connected caves, blow holes, We heard seal song in some caves, disturbed birds in others (with apologies to both). We stopped for lunch at Lybster, and enjoyed the Cafe facility – especially when the rains came down. In the afternoon, we provided our own thrills as Misha was swept up by a wave and left high and dry, balanced between two rocks for at least a minute til next big wave dislodged him. The assembled paddlers were powerless to help and anyway, in stitches of laughter. Then Leigh capsized and scrambled onto rocks as Misha extricated himself from a ledge. He towed her boat out from the rocks and Leigh swam out to re-enter. Phew!! Enough already!!
Onwards to climb Whaligoe steps, all 330 of them, following the path of the ‘fishwives’ as they carried the herring from fishing boats in the natural harbour up to the village. By 8pm, we paddled into the sheltered bay of Haven. There was no wind so we climbed to the headland overlooking the setting sun, the full moon, and the wind farm.
Day 5 Wednesday
Haven to Sinclair Bay 20km 6 hours
Conditions: another calm day. Afternoon wind up to F3. On water by 09.30
We were grateful to Marcus who was shuttling the van and scouting the next campsite. There were fewer caves but our favourite was huge with 4 entrances and a long tunnel returning to the main cave. There were impressive stacks, tunnels and geo features. We rescued a couple of buoys in a hidden bay
We turned into Wick old harbour slipway by the Laundry. Lunch was heaven – as some of us lined up by the hot air extractor fans on the external wall – now a must-have accessory for any kayak trip. Toilets in the nightclub – we are very well connected! All thanks to the wonderful staff member at the laundry. Onward to more impressive caves by Noss lighthouse, we limbo’d under arches and ultimately rounded into Sinclair bay past a very impressive Sinclair castle. By early evening we were pitched on a strip of grass at the south end of bay west of Ackergillshore.
Misha and Danny built a campfire on beach with seating and sea views. And the party continued into the evening as rain set in. Graham, Angus and Misha were all involved in rescuing boats as the tide came in. Now there’s a lesson.
Day 6 Thursday
Sinclair Bay 3km 2 hours
Conditions: F5 gusting 6 initially then fairly consistent F6, wind quartering then beam. Choppy sea state 3, confused
Set off as one group but quickly we were unable to sustain this. One group had more difficulty making progress but tow resulted in Hannahs capsize and a tricky landing by pier in Ackergillshore. Jonathan and Emily landed on beach nearby and third group made slow progress across bay to get out with a couple capsizes for Angus and Pat along the way.
We were rewarded by a fabulous BBQ in the shelter on the beach thanks to Bev where we had a debrief and a well earned rest. Then followed a long reverse shuttle to Helmsdale with a quick refreshment at the Golf Club bar for the boat handlers left behind. The long drive South was interrupted by a stop off at Tain chippy then on to Hopeman where we arrived at 2200. Graham had spent the 3 hour car journey on the phone sussing out the weather forecast and arranging a campsite so was not impressed by the grumpy reception on arrival.
Day 7 Friday
Portessie to Sandend via Bow Fiddle Rock 15km 4 hours
Conditions: Pouring in morning we were up and out before 0900 to full breakfast menu in Lossiemouth and plan the day. Wind F3/4 til late afternoon then settled. On water by 3.30pm
We had a very useful session practicing turning in wind before setting off down the rocky coastline to Bow Fiddle Rock. We checked out Findochty harbour then had a gentle surf landing on Cullen beach. It was a pleasant paddle with some rock hopping on the way to the get out at Sandend. Long portage up beach to cars.
We camped at Strathlene campsite by 2030 at Portessie and treated ourselves to a Chinese buffet In Buckie
Day 8 Saturday
Sandend habour to Whitehills 13km 4 hours
Conditions: following F3 wind though forecast suggested stronger F4-5. On water before 1200
A focus on rock hopping and rescue practice, we saw a seal colony on the beach, bonxies attacking arctic terns and a few dolphins. We lunched in Portsoy harbor and had calm waters thereafter as we paddled past castle ruins and onto small unmarked harbour round Whitehills headland, by caravan park children’s play area. The day was rounded off with ice cream courtesy of Hannah.
Farewell to Misha, Leigh and Emily. The remaining paddlers went back to the campsite for a night out in Buckie at Old Coach House Hotel run by very efficient and able teenagers.
Day 9 Sunday
Decamp and set off after breakfast
This was indeed an AWESOME Paddle. We had a fantastic time. A few things were key to this. A huge thanks to Misha and Graham for the degree of organisation that was required and their ‘can-do’ attitude, for being responsive to the forecast, for phoning ahead on the day for suitable campsites (this took hours). Thanks too, to all those involved in the shuttle– it just wouldn’t have been possible without you. The decision to split into two groups worked well and all group members were signed up to stay connected – especially important with all cave/tunnel exploration. It was a great trip. Here’s to all our future ventures!