The Ultimate Adventure Vehicle

The sea kayak is the ultimate adventure vehicle. You can carry it on your shoulder, tie it on your car and fit all your camping gear inside. The possibilities of linking land and sea are vast, particularly in the Outer Hebrides. Here I recount such an adventure from July 2018.

Ollie was up on the Isle of Lewis for a few weeks over summer, and as my regular running partner it was only appropriate to see who was faster. My long runs across North Harris gave me an edge in the hills but Ollie’s flat canal miles through Glasgow had put some speed in his legs. Thus, the undulating Two Islands Half Marathon on Berneray and North Uist offered an intriguing battleground.

From Leverburgh, it’s about 9 km across the Sound of Harris to Berneray. On a calm day it’s a beautiful and benign stretch of water, but when the westerly winds pick up and spring tides race between the islands, it can be a formidable place. The Calmac ferry goes back and forth four times a day and takes a circuitous route to the south to avoid the shallows, whereas the sea kayaker can take a direct line, stopping off at the sandy beaches of Ensay and Killegray enroute. With the forecast looking settled for the weekend, we launched the kayaks on Friday night from the ferry slip and paddled west into the sunset.

The Sound of Harris. We paddled from Leverburgh to Berneray and back for the 2 Islands Half Marathon, camping on Ensay on the way over.

Our plan had been to camp overnight on Killegray, the southernmost of the two big islands, but as we rounded the southern tip of its neighbour Ensay, the glassy slow-moving current could be seen developing into significant overfalls in the Caolas Sgairidh – the narrow channel in between. These standing waves are formed as tidal flows squeeze between land masses, and are exacerbated by wind travelling in the opposite direction (‘wind over tide’), as we were witnessing that evening. Feeling slightly intimidated, we pitched up on Ensay and enjoyed a hearty dinner looking out on the waves.

Our pitch on Ensay, looking south towards Killegray and Skye.

In order to time our paddle to Berneray with slack water (high or low tide, when the water is stationary), we broke camp early and set off at 7 a.m. The wind had picked up significantly and it was exciting to see each other briefly disappear in the troughs between the waves as Killegray disappeared behind us. In spite of land being visible at all times (the biggest stretch of open water is about 4 km), there was strong sense of remoteness – a 15 foot boat feels very small on the rolling Atlantic swell. One’s consciousness is heightened in knowing that the water and the weather are very much in charge.

That said, Ollie’s primary concern seemed to be his bladder, and we landed on the beach next to the the beautiful Gatliff Trust Hostel just in time. After a complete change of attire from wetsuit to running kit, Ollie and I lined up alongside twenty or so other runners on the line. The starting gun put a swift end to the trash talk, and we leapfrogged each other for much of the race, neither man willing to let the other go. My final push on mile 13 wasn’t enough to get away, and infuriatingly I was overtaken in a sprint finish and pipped on the line.

Changing from Run to Kayak mode.

As Ollie collected the third place trophy at prize-giving, I swallowed my pride, and with it a great deal of pasta and tomato sauce courtesy of Hamersay House, the event sponsor. A kind fellow runner whisked us back to Berneray and we packed up the boats for the paddle home. The wind had eased and a gentle breeze on our backs nudged us back across the sound.

Whilst recreational paddling is enjoyable, aiming for a particular destination provides a satisfying sense of purpose to any kayak trip. The objective adds another dimension; one is forced to continuously make decisions about how best to attain it. Which way is the tide going? Do we have time to get there before dark? Is everybody in the group comfortable in these conditions? I love the idea of packing your life into a piece of fibreglass, sticking it on the water and propelling it to some far away bit of land. The fusion of camp-craft and seamanship requires careful planning, particularly in the amphitheatre of these wild Hebridean islands, but done well it makes for a fine adventure.

In keeping with this theme, I am planning a paddle from Tarbert to Stornoway in April 2019; a 50 minute, 37 mile drive by road, but a four day kayak-and-camp wilderness expedition by sea. Towering cliffs interspersed with broad sea lochs and few settlements in between is sure to make for a challenging adventure.

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