Five days off Skye

Posted by Andy Waddington on 2015-09-29

The Black Cuillin is the heart of Skye. Photo: Andy Waddington
The Black Cuillin is the heart of Skye, but it is surrounded by fabulous paddling - here heading to Elgol. Photo: Andy Waddington

Andy, Mary and Sarah Waddington, with Ann Jones and Kim Ball, spent up to five days sea kayaking off the coast of Skye in September. A week and less out, the forecast looked bleak and we were fully expecting to be doing training exercises cowering in sheltered spots with easy road escapes. In fact, the weather forecast improved, and the actual conditions were pretty consistently better than forecast. From practising contact tow rescues in the tide race under the Skye Bridge we progressed to a trip round the Strathaird peninsula, visiting a big sea cave with better formations than we normally see on Caving Section trips, then more underground exploration under Wiay in Loch Bracadale. Dodging the crowds of seals in the sun was the issue in Loch Dunvegan, and we finished the trip with more caves and tide races, going east to west round Skye's most northerly headland, Rubha Hunish. Did I mention that the place is positively infested with Sea Eagles ? We saw seven, and that's assuming every one we saw within a few minutes was the same one that had gone out of sight earlier... There were definitely three at once at one stage. Overall a very fine place for a week of day tripping.

Tuesday

Staying at the Skye Boat Centre at Strollamus (a few miles beyond Broadford as you come form the mainland), we started out fairly local with a bit of navigation in sheltered water with tide movement - under the Skye bridge (which runs up to 3 knots at springs, which this was, although we were after the peak flow). The interesting feature of the tide here is that it runs at very different times depending on how close to springs, and can change by large margins with low pressure, heavy rain, or S/SW winds. We found it running pretty much to the schedule given by the Pilot which is as we'd expected given the calm weather. We soon found that we could use eddies behind the bridge pillars to get upstream, and ferry across to the mainland side. As the slight breeze was with the tide, everything was fairly calm and we played at various techniques for breaking in and out before the flow started to drop off. Various low-lying islands towards Plockton then provided a visually confusing environment to navigate, but we soon established the speed at which the group were paddling and used this to keep track of where we were, so arrived at the Black Islands pretty much where we expected to find them. Unfortunately, the sandy lunch beach was still below the waves, so we found a more shingly beach right below the railway on the mainland. On the return, we had a bit more breeze, but still found time to look about and spot various starfish and crabs below the water.

Underwater wildlife. Photo: Andy Waddington
Underwater wildlife. Photo: Andy Waddington

We met quite a stiff headwind as we headed back to the bridge, and as this was now opposing the tide heading into Loch Alsh, there were waves to surf. The tide was running maybe two knots under the bridge, so this seemed like an interesting place to practice some rescue techniques. We were soon paddling into the middle of the channel, catching a wave and then throwing away the paddle to await assistance. Three of us all got a go at being paddle-retriever, rescuer, and rescued, using a contact tow technique which is very quick to set up and works very well for the short distance out of the tide race.

Ann towing Mary. Photo: Andy Waddington
Ann Towing Mary towards the mainland shore. Photo: Andy Waddington

One thing that became apparent is that a rescuer in a long boat towing someone in a short boat has an easier job than vice versa, as less of the victim's bow is in the way of the rescuer paddling. With boats of the same length, you need to be careful not to get the pointy end bumping in to your paddling arm or shoulder - not a problem as the breeze dropped off again, but more of an issue if the water was rougher.

Mary towing Andy. Photo: Andy Waddington
With one hand on the deck line and one on the stern, the victim keeps the bow as close to the rescuer's cockpit as possible. Photo: Andy Waddington

Wednesday

Sarah has not done that much sea kayaking, so we were avoiding getting committed to any long distances - today we put in on the east side of the Strathaird peninsula to paddle round to Elgol on the west. On the way, we knew that there was a spectacular cave, but there are few landmarks and although buildings are marked on the map, these are hidden from below the cliffs, so we had to keep very careful track of where we were to be able to find it. I decided that as conditions were very benign, I would start out using a Greenland paddle. I'd struggled previously to get the angle of entry right and found the paddle would flutter under power, which is very disconcerting. However, Kim knew exactly how to grip the paddle to get the angle right without needing to watch it every stroke, and this proved to be the key to the paddle feeling quite natural and fairly efficient within just a few minutes. I was back to my usual rock-hopping within a short distance, though this did prove that the GP is perhaps not quite as robust as fibreglass - this would be why Inuits tipped the blades with bone to resist the rocks ! We found just enough landmarks to keep ourselves pinpointed, and found a very deep geo at just the right place. We landed here, and followed it 100m inland to where, hidden behind fern-draped man-made walls, the cave headed off left under the hillside. This would be quite a difficult place to reach from above since sheer walls guard all sides.

Inside, the cave was high enough that those without helmets were at no risk of hitting the roof, and to my surprise we quickly came to a great ramp of flowstone with microgours. This was a steep climb to quite a height, and very well decorated towards the top, where the roof was still very high, and water dripping from that height had created cave pearls in the gour pools.

Microgours and cave pearls in Spar Cave. Photo: Andy Waddington
Microgours and cave pearls in Spar Cave. Photo: Andy Waddington

A further climb went down to a deep clear pool, and more passage lay tantalisingly on the far side, receding beyond the range of even my photon cannon, which was, however, providing plenty of light for shooting UHD video. Having no rope for assistance, and mindful of the potential for embarrassment if unable to climb back up, we left the further reaches for a future visit. The climb down to return to the boats also looked more intimidating from the top, but, whilst flowstone can be slippery, microgours are actually pretty grippy, and much as for the improbable friction on Skye's gabbro mountains, walking down was possible pretty much without needing handholds. Perhaps we should have gone for the continuing passage...

Climbing back down. Photo: Andy Waddington
Climbing back down - this is a video frame, not a flash photo ! Photo: Andy Waddington

Back at the boats, sitting in the shade of the geo seemed a tad chilly on such a sunny day, so we headed a bit further to round the tip of the peninsula and find a warmer spot for lunch. Then round the island of Eilean na h-Airde it was just a short way to the slipway at Elgol where, by now, the tourist crowds had mostly dispersed, so we could get the cars down to the boats with relative ease.

Thursday

A somewhat longer drive took us to Loch Bracadale and Harlosh, where we put in for what would prove to be the dullest weather of the week, with a bit of drizzle at times, but very little wind. We headed out SSW, soon crossing to Harlosh Island, where we hugged the SE coast, finding various caves on the way. The plan was now to cross to Wiay, but visibility wasn't brilliant, so we carefully established the direction we needed to head, in case we should lose sight of the destination. We wanted a specific spot, to land for lunch, but aimed some way to the left, so if we hit the coast in a fog, we'd know to turn right to find our beach. As it worked out, the shower cleared away and visibility ahead got better rather than worse, and we were soon enough eating sandwiches on damp rocks at the back of Camas na Cille. From here, fortified, we set off anti-clockwise round the island, heading for the SW tip in a low swell. This can be quite an exposed bit of coast in typical southwesterlies, but today conditions proved almost ideal for poking into geos and caves. We explored both ends of what proved to be the same rift, which, in a few thousand years perhaps, will split off a new island at Rubha Garbh (rough headland). Further east the map had promising words like "Geodha nan Faochag" and "Natural Arch". I soon found that in the narrow recesses of a long cave, the swell rose up to form breaking waves, and was glad to have entered into the dark zone backwards, so I could see these coming...

Breaking wave in the dark zone. Photo: Andy Waddington
Breaking wave in the dark zone. Photo: Andy Waddington

More caves and geos were scattered along the south and east coasts, though we were distracted from these by the sight of sea eagles soaring above the cliffs, coming and going from sight. Tearing our eyes back to the paddling in hand, we found a particularly fine arch soon before we started our crossing back north.

Another fine arch on Wiay. Photo: Andy Waddington
Another fine arch on Wiay. Photo: Andy Waddington

We next headed to the southern tip of Tarner Island, as this offered a break in the crossing back towards Harlosh, and a bit of rock hopping up its west coast. We landed again on Harlosh Island for a quick snack before retracing our route up the coast back to Harlosh and the cars at Camas Ban.

Friday

Sarah now left us to do some photography and to have a day to recover before heading for the Wet West Paddlefest where she would meet Michael, Peely and a cast of thousands... We, meanwhile headed back on the same road as yesterday, but a bit further, to Loch Dunvegan. Far fewer cliffs and caves today, but this was made up for by the huge numbers of seals, all of whom were quite used to people in the vicinity as a tourist boat was bringing visitors past at regular intervals. We headed SW, away from our eventual destination of Stein, to cruise round in the sun, watching the wildlife. When we eventually crossed to the east, looking for a lunch stop, I found that breakfast had run out and had to stop and wrestle with the day hatch to gain chocolate. I struggled a bit to catch up and after lunch I elected to dawdle round the south end of Iosaigh looking for the abandoned village and doing some fishing whilst the others padded round the north end and back down to meet me. By this point I had recovered my energy and we set off briskly to cross past Sgeir nam Biast. About halfway across it became apparent that I had caught something, as my line went taut and the stern of the boat swung rapidly left. Whatever it was, it had a lot more pulling power than the Pollack we'd caught in Lofoten and I was looking forward to an impressive supper when the line went suddenly slack. Pulling it in, it became clear that my sea monster had the better of my monofilament, and had made off with my spinner, so that was the end of fishing for the day.

Saturday

The weather continued improbably good, and with Ann off to get to a concert on time, we had all the maps and books out looking for a grand finale. It soon became clear that we couldn't work the tides to paddle south past Neist Point to visit MacLeod's Maidens and Idrigill Point (quite a long day, and not enough daylight), but that a trip from Staffin Bay round Rubha Hunish would have almost perfect timing if we got an early start. As Pete had particularly recommended this bit of coast, this was definitely a result, since not in our wildest dreams had we expected conditions to be good enough to head west in the tide race off the northernmost tip of the Island in September. We drove up past Portree and below the spectacular Storr and Quiraing to find the tiny road down to the slipway at Staffin. The shuttle to Duntulm went pretty quickly, and we were on the water by 9:30, heading out past Rubha Ban on Staffin Island in a northeasterly swell. A crowd of smaller seabirds mobbing something huge indicated yet another sea eagle (our fourth or fifth). A kilometre and a half of open sea led towards big breaking waves on reefs, which protected our passage through the gap between Eilean Flodigarry and Sgeir na h-Eireann. Although we were expecting some tidal assistance going north, I had the distinct impression of a bit of flow against us, just in this channel.

We now picked a spot at the start of the cliffs on the main island, and crossed a kilometre or so, to find the first of many caves and geos. Our early start (three quarters of an hour earlier than recommended by the guidebook) meant we had plenty of time to explore, and to watch no less than three more sea eagles hanging on the updraft or clinging to ledges on the cliffs above us. The swell gave us scope to rockhop through gaps, whilst not being so big as to keep us out of the caves.

Mary catching a wave through a gap among the basalt pillars. Photo: Andy Waddington
Mary catching a wave through a gap among the basalt pillars. Photo: Andy Waddington

There were big caves, little caves and huge caves ...

Huge sea cave entrance. Photo: Andy Waddington
Huge sea cave entrance. Photo: Andy Waddington

Caves with one entrance, caves with two entrances, and caves with many entrances framing views of stacks and rocks galore. One in particular only became visible as we paddled into another big yawning geo to its south, but had quite a long through trip with the swell gently lifting us up and down by a metre or so.

An excellent through trip. Photo: Andy Waddington
An excellent through trip. Photo: Andy Waddington

We had a particular tidal "window" to hit, so we stopped for lunch at Kilmaluag Bay to be ready for the tide to turn at Rubha na h-Aiseig. As a lunch spot, this could hardly be bettered, offering not only a bit of shelter from the westerly breeze, but also magnificent views both of the coast we'd just paddled and, over Balmaqueen, to the inland cliffs and stacks of the Quiraing.

We now set off round first Rubha Bhenachain and then Rubha na h-Aiseig, where several folk were fishing in the tide as it started to set west, pinched between Skye and Eilean Trodday, a mile to the north in the Minch. Crossing another small bay, we immediately reached more cliffs, and cave openings beckoned on all sides. One went off through a very narrow section to daylight beyond, back towards the way we'd come, but we opted to skip this one in favour of a darker cave ahead. Another one with daylight ahead led me in, chasing a seal. This had a big roof opening, and a breach back to the sea on my left. In the further and darker reaches, a small window back to daylight was too small for a boat, and ahead, as I struggled to retrieve a head torch, I could hear waves crashing in the dark. A bit of light on the subject showed it to end in a few metres, with some rough water, so I backed out to let the others have a look. Now we could see the swell breaking on and between the rocks of Bodha Hunish, but there wasn't much tide movement in the bay between headlands. This soon changed as we started to give a wider berth to the crashing surf, and a lobster-pot buoy was trailing a wake as the race picked up. It was probably only up to two knots, and with wind more from the south than the west, didn't kick up too rough. As we rounded the headland, our cornering was slicker than the tides, and the race headed away from the cliffs leaving us calmer water inshore as we turned south across the bay. With a headwind, and perhaps a bit of an eddy, we slowed quite a bit and Sgeir nan Garbh seemed to take a long time to pass astern as we headed for the sheltered side of Tulm Island. A fight again as we got to the south end and made our way past Ru Meanish below Duntulm Castle, then head down for quite a struggle to reach the landing in the bay.

We were still quite early so didn't feel too pressured for the carry up the steep slippery cobble beach, and I walked up to the car, left a few hundred metres away where there was more parking space. Soon loaded and packed, and we headed back to Staffin to get Kim's car and transfer his boat and kit. Kim was off back tonight, whilst we would head off early Sunday morning, passing many whitewater boaters on their way to the Garry at Wet West. Home by late afternoon, and what a fantastic few days paddling !

This page is already too big to embed maps, but you can see the route of all these trips on this mapping page to which I'll be adding pop-up photos and tidal info as I get location data sorted. You can zoom in to see any trip in detail. There's a new Favourite trip page for Skye with loads of info about tides as well as the usual links to planning and safety resources. The Rubha Hunish trip also now has a video.

Andy Waddington

Article and photographs copyright © Andy Waddington 2015

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