There are so many elements to planning a sea kayaking trip, it's amazing we ever get anything done. Weather, tides, swell, time off, the right partner... the list goes on. The more challenging the trip, the rarer the opportunity.
Just occasionally though, it all falls into place, and dreams are realised. And so it was for me this week.
The island of Hoy is an advanced sea kayaker's dream. Within the Orkney Islands archipelago it is an oddity: mountainous and remote, with little of the low-lying land to be found elsewhere in those islands. It specialises in drama: the highest vertical sea cliffs in the UK at St John's Head, exposure to Atlantic swell and the fast, committing and complex tides of the Pentland Firth, no-landing zones of over 10km, the stunningly beautiful Rackwick Bay, and to top it all, one of the most iconic rock formations on the planet: the Old Man of Hoy.
Friend and colleague, Matt Haydock (Rapid Development Coaching) and I set off on Monday, planning a two day circumnavigation to beat the incoming South-East gales forecast for Wednesday. Paddling out into a glowering, mizzly Sound of Hoy I felt apprehensive: had we made the right call, choosing this trip? Was the weather on it's way in early? I doubted myself and the forecast... With the right paddling buddy though, teamwork and decision-making come easily: we would carry on with the plan. Was it really apprehension, or simply butterflies at the prospect of achieving a long-held dream?
Round - or should I say through- the Kame of Hoy and it's two large tunnels, and round the corner to our first view of St John's Head wearing a hat of cloud, and the Old Man. The sheer scale of the place is hard to comprehend, impossible to put into words. I try to photograph them, with disappointing results: they create a feeling images can't convey. A picture of Matt though, when I look at it later, reveals a smug grin. My thoughts exactly!
We camp at the stunningly beautiful Rackwick Bay, above a white sand beach and a steep bank of storm-worn, sea-tossed boulders, molded into stripey dinosaur eggs by the huge waves that crash here in the winter months. What little wind there is drops, and we both retire to our tents early, chased in by the notorious Hoy Midge.
We're up early next morning. Neither of us really do mornings, and the midges are fierce, so it's a handful of peanuts, some water and a snack bar for the buoyancy aid pocket for me, then midge net and drysuit on for the boat carrying & packing mission. Not many words are needed. We need to be on our way by 7am to catch the tide round the crux point of our trip: Tor Ness.
The entry in the Admiralty Pilot warns of death and destruction lurking beneath the waves at Tor Ness during the West-going tidal stream. We were choosing to travel anti-clockwise, so using the East-going flow- but could find no information on what we might find when we got there. Huge breaking waves? We didn't know: but we were confident that the plan would work, and we could deal with whatever the Pentland Firth decided to throw our way.
Onwards, past more enormous, vertical and impossibly smooth cliffs. We really are on our own down here: nowhere to escape should anything go wrong, and little chance of communication through VHF or mobile phone. An awe-inspiring sense of remoteness and commitment. We feel movement in the water- but is it doing what we expect? A kick to the west suggests a peculiar pattern, but we're shifting along... Looks like we've got it right.
Round Tor Ness, and... well, not a lot! A few breaking waves, with flow in a variety of directions: but all very satisfyingly within both of our comfort zones. Time for coffee!
Onwards... but now we're finding the tide flowing against us. That shouldn't be happening...? Do we stay close inshore and fight the tide through the eddies forming all along this stretch, or do we head out deeper into the Pentland Firth, where we might be pushed away from our objective and towards the mainland? We decided to go for the harder work, but safer option: stay inshore and knuckle down for a slower few miles.
The cliffs are lower lying now, but still impressive, and we're working out what we can see in the Firth around us. We both know the area a little having paddled, and been trained and assessed for various qualifications here. Memories are shared, stories told. Have I told you about the time when...?
Round Cantick Head, and we're heading north at last. We're both in need of a rest and food after our early start- then on towards Scapa Flow. Weaving a path through the islands, we pass evidence of the strategic importance of the place: the Martello Towers guarding the entrance the Long Hope, gun emplacements and lookout stations on the many headlands. Scapa Flow itself looms large, like a small sea enclosed by history. It's a busy place still, and as we cover the final few miles we cross paths with a ferry, fishing boats, pleasure boats and a yacht or two making the most of the light winds before tomorrow's forecast storm.
Tired but satisfied, we pull into the Bay of Houton... So what will the next adventure be?