Kayaking the Last of the Summer Isles

bot01With the heather turning purple, mushrooms all over the lawn and a chill in the air, I thought it was all over for this season. But this week we’ve had a reprieve. Sat between isobars so far apart they’re in different time zones, today the Summer Isles are getting one final spell of calm, summery conditions. It could be my one and only chance to tick off the last of the Summer Isles.
botmapYesterday we nipped out from Old Dornie to Glas-Leac Mor (map left), another as-yet unvisited isle less than two miles out. Paddling 2-up took a bit of ‘readjustment’ and isn’t half as comfortable for me as my fuly-braced DIY solo set-up. But following a short cruise alongside Glas Mor, we were fully synched for the long way back between Ristol and Eilean Mullagrach.
Local internet chatter talked of helicopters dropping equipment to build a dwelling on Eilean Mullagrach, which we could see on the south side. Apparently professional castaway and Lego brand ambassador, Ben Fogle, tried to buy Mullagrach ten Benfogyears ago, but bid too low, perhaps to the owner who’s developing to now. (Had he bought it, he could have named the 46-metre-high summit ‘Ben Fogle’). With no easy sea access that I’ve seen, you do wonder how they’re going to get to that house. As we paddled through the sound, a little dolphin popped up, huffing and puffing, and some colourful kayaks were taking a guided tour around the isles.
bot02The following day’s forecast was for similarly light winds, so I dropped the kayak off at Badentarbat jetty and next morning walked down with my gear.
You don’t need a flat calm to visit the inner Summer Isles: the Taneras, ‘Ristols’ and Horse Island. But alone in an IK the outer Summers can feel like a bit of a reach. Priest Island is the most distant and adds up to an 18-mile tour via all the other outer isles, even though you need never be more than a mile or so from an island or inaccessible skerry of some sort. I settled on Bottle Island at the end of a cluster of isles and a 14-mile round trip from Badentarbat jetty. That’s about the same as our run to Ullapool a couple of years ago, but more open water than coastal hop.
The winds would be barely a factor until the afternoon, but a spring tide was at its 5.5-metre peak. I asked tidemaster Gael whether there was anything to consider on my route: he advised the books and charts didn’t list any dodgy currents. I was expecting a bit of flow through channels or around points at peak ebb around 11am, but could always find another way round.
bot03The pier at Badentarbet is condemned and blocked off with a barrier, but locals clamber round for a spot of fishing. I dropped the boat over the barrier, carried it down the steps to the water (right) and was on my way at 9.30, an hour after very high tide. Forty minutes later, I turned the east corner of Tanera Mor (still for sale, btw. Currently under £2m), rubbed the sweat from my eyes and bot05clocked Eilean Dubh, nearly 2.5 miles ahead. Coming round Tanera put me back in a cooling breeze and the boat slid silently across the water as if on rails. To the southeast was Horse Island and Carn nan Sgeir, a remote skerry I visited last year and now floating on the glassy surface like a jellyfish with gout.
An hour before peak flow, at one point I was convinced I was being pulled west on the outgoing tide. I stopped to try and read any drift on the GPS, but couldn’t determine a direction. Turned out later I was drifting at 1mph east or inland with the breeze. So much for the impression of deadly currents. It was a lesson for the day: what you feel is happening (drift, current, ‘wind-in-the-face’ velocity) doesn’t always match the unassailable facts of the GPS. But alone on an all-day run it’s important to know what’s going on: is it ‘me’ or is it due to the conditions – so you can judge how much you have left in the tank.
bot07As I neared Eilean Dubh I saw what looked like a chalet in a tiny north facing bay. A couple of years ago I’d heard about a house in an outer Summer somewhere, but couldn’t find it on Google. This must be it (left). With no boat moored at the jetty, I diverting for a closer look. It was certainly the protected setting to build a dwelling: small stony beach for access; sheltered northeast aspect and a burn trickling down for water. Once ashore, the chalet reeked of lovely warm creosote and there was even a palm tree among the firs and other trees. Up the hill in the heather was little shed /painting studio. It didn’t look like anyone had been here for months.

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Back on the water and coming round onto the east side of Eilean Dubh, I expected to be paddling against the ebb spilling southwestwards round either end of the island. And that’s how it felt, though again the GPS showed I was doing a normal speed or even faster, briefly hitting 4mph. It’s all in the mind. But when I came through a gap into the channel between Sgeirean Glasa and Carn Deas, I was definitely fighting against something, so moved away for the shores. Just as I did so a Tornado ripped past low overhead, close enough to see the undercarriage.
bot15Up ahead, Bottle Island was now only a kilometre away. So far so good: I got there in two hours from the pier after deducting 25 mins nosing around on Eilean Dubh: 3.5mph cruising average. Here I nosed about some more, this time deep into a slotted geo on the south side bot18of the island, where plinky-plonk drips and splashes echoed in the cleft. On the back of the cave the minerals in the Torridon sandstone looked like a gaudy, modern art mural (right) – or maybe petrified viscera.
bot20There was just enough room to turn around in there, when an incoming swell revealed another way out. In a corner was a chasm under another arch with an even narrower tunnel leading back out to sea (right). I inched in to see if it was wide enough and safe, then stowed the paddle and pushed through bot22off the walls back out into the open. A double arch sea cave (left) – who would have known!
Two clicks to the west Priest Island looked far enough away to stay that way for now. It’s nice to leave something for next time (aka: ‘hold back to give an impression of calculated caution’).
bot23So I turned back north and on the way tried and cut east between Bottle and Carn Iar to get to Carn’s beach for lunch. I didn’t want to eat in the boat if I could help it. But the flow between the islands felt too strong and I didn’t want to burn up energy I might need later. Instead, I got to the north side of that stony isthmus beach that links Carn Iar to Carn Deas, very similar to the ones on Carn nan Sgeir or Horse Island. To get onto it I just about scraped over a rock and seaweed bar into a sandy pool (left), knowing I wouldn’t get back out without a portage. But I wanted to get out of the boat, walk around a bit then have a sit down.
bot24Up on the grass and heather I ate and drank just about everything I had while down below a gang of seals quietly observed (right). As I’ve noticed before, these sheep-free islands have a verdant and varied vegetation all of their own. I took a doze on a lovely machair sofa, then packed up and waded across the pool to tackle the ankle-breaking portage back out to the sea which has dropped half a metre in the meantime.
bot34Now for the long haul back: 3 miles out in the open to Tanera Sound. I should have dozed in that machair sofa a bit longer: the big feed has taken out my energy and I found myself counting the strokes towards Sgeir Ribhinn skerry, pushing into a light northwest breeze that rippled the surface. After the glassy morning conditions, even waves a few inches high give a noticeable resistance, and for a moment I wondered if the east side of Tanera Mor might be easier. But the speeds later showed I was doing as well as ever at around 3.5 mph – it’s more likely I was unfit for all-day paddling, not having done any since we got here. Again, it makes me think that a speedo (or legible GPS readout) is a good idea as you can verify you’re going better than you feel, despite the impressions of currents and wind. It’s not like moving on land.
Alone out here, too far to swim to even the nearest skerry, you can’t help thinking ‘what if’. What if I somehow caught a stinging jellyfish with the paddle and it landed slap in my face? But the most likely ‘what if’ isn’t that or a sustained swordfish attack, but getting separated from your boat. That’s easily done when thrown out of an IK in an F5, but on a day like today it’s hard to come up with a plausible disaster scenario that would raise the slightest bit of interest in Hollywood. That’s why I ventured right out to Bottle Island.
bot27By Low Water I was right in the middle of Tanera Sound. You see new things when the tide is very low: some pendulous orange sponges tucked under an exposed overhang. And on a tidal skerry visible from our window, a prickly urchin of some kind. Don’t want to ram that with my IK.
I can see our isolated house on the headland and with only a mile to go, I lie back and drift with the incoming tide drift for a bit. Then it’s back to the pier where the sea is at least 3 metres lower than it was this morning, exposing lower beams encrusted with mussels.
bot31Fourteen miles and 5.5 hours; moving average (not always cruising): 3mph. On a long trip like this I have to say I miss the old Incept’s effortless glide (compare this Incept speed graph with the one below – or read this comparison post). I miss the speed not because the Incept was a bit faster,bot32 but because you definitely feel the effort required to push the wider and half-metre shorter Amigo along. The Amigo is even shorter (though much more rigid) than my old Sunny: the shortest IK on my IK comparison table.
evanscompoI was discussing boat speeds with Tim Evans who built a 10lb folding/inflatable kayak and who also uses packrafts. He was evaluating his real world, all-day cruising speeds and came up with the figures on the left. His IK is about as long as an Incept but a third of the weight and probably narrower. The speed differences seem tiny but percentage wise are significant. My Amigo and old Incept would fit between an Alpacka and Tim’s DIY boat, at around 3.5 and 4 mph, with Gael’s H2 between my two.
bathtubAll things being equal, that extra bit of speed can enable you to go further or get back quicker. But let’s face it, it’s always a compromise: there are days for fast boats and days for fun boats. I’m here and still breathing. My Amigo is an easy boat to live with – and a lot better than pushing a bathtub around on a trolley.

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