Sea Kayaking for Beginners
Lately, I have been telling you a lot about the unpredictability of the Scottish weather and how to get used to it. Ironically, I was proven wrong consecutive sunshine, but no way to enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing outside in the sun – just I could not do that, all tangled up in end of term deadlines and library sessions. I could not wait to finish my essays and hit the road again! Naturally the hand-in of my final assignment and the purchase of a train ticket up north lay a mere few celebratory pints apart. Soon I was en route to Oban and a weekend of sea kayaking with the National Kayak School.
Oban is a small town on Scotland’s west coast and is best known for its ferry terminal. Many visitors merely pass through to catch a ferry to the Hebrides islands, like the Isle of Mull. But actually, Oban is worth a visit of its own. The beautiful pier invites for an extended stroll on a sunny day. Starting at the ferry terminal, past the picturesque central esplanade and all the way to the Dunollie Castle ruin north of town. On the way back stop for a drink in Markie Dans‘ sunny pub beergarden, or a local brew at Cuan Mor. And of course Oban would not be complete without its very own whiskey distillery. As Scotland’s self-proclaimed “Seafood Capital” the local restaurants and chips shops serve the freshest fish available and self-caterers can purchase the daily catch directly at the harbour.
Along the pier innumerable skippers offer mainly one hour boat trips to nearby seal colonies. However nice these trips might be, they certainly don’t do justice to the beautiful shorelines of Oban and its surrounding areas. To explore them accordingly you will have to change perspective and get aboard a sea kayak. The National Kayak School organises kayaking courses and guided tours which vary in length from 1/2-day to several days including B&B accommodation or wild camping. If you are a beginner like myself, the best way to get started is a 2 day introduction course where you spend two individual days on the water and learn the basic skills of sea kayaking. The maximum instructor-to-students ratio is 1:6 which makes for a personal teaching environment and a perfect-sized group to enjoy your time.
The small islands around Oban form a scenic archipelago with plenty of destinations for day trips. As the school is literally just across the town’s pier many tours start directly from there. I stowed away my belongings in a set of dry bags and fought my way into a complex kayaking outfit composed of a chunky dry suit, tight buoyancy aid and squishy neoprene boots. All equipment is included in the course, so I was sure to stay dry. After a brief fitting of the kayak’s foot pedals we carried our boats to the shoreline and got right into it. With the experienced advice of our instructor Chris we soon discovered the most efficient paddle techniques and were good to leave the protected bay area. The tour took us across the Sound of Kerrera (watch out for the big ferries crossing!) over to the island of the same name. Throughout the day we learnt how to improve our paddle stroke, when to activate the kayak’s fold-out fin in the back and had to battle the wind without capsizing.
The sea can quickly turn into a dangerous place, if you are ill-prepared. Wind forecasts, current patterns and tidal times are crucial factors when planning a day out on the ocean. The introduction course includes daily sessions on where to get this information and how to interpret it. The last thing you would want to happen is to end up in a strong current and drift off into the distance. Like any skill sea kayaking navigation takes practice and experience, so beginners should rely on the advice of instructors and refrain from risky open sea crossings.
For the second day Chris had planned a very special route. The sun was greeting us and we took the school’s minivan to the Western tip of the Isle of Seil. After exploring Seil’s beautiful cliffs, we crossed over to circumnavigate the islands Irnsh and Easdale. Passing numerous water birds and sunbathing seals we arrived at a calm, sheltered beach for lunch break and enjoyed the views of Seil in the front and Mull in the back. The final training session was dedicated to edging – which means tilting the kayak onto its edge with your bodyweight in order to assist the turning movement of the boat – and the subsequent rescue of capsized boats and kayakers. We learnt several rescue techniques and went overboard at least once – some voluntarily, some less so.
The course presented a great introduction to sea kayaking on our own. Chris covered everything from technique to safety and gave advice on future single and multiple day trips. The school offers many sea kayaking holidays around Oban and the Hebrides. Summer has only just started and whether you want to book a guided tour or simply rent a couple of kayaks and explore on your own – Oban is waiting for you!
This experience was made possible by the National Kayak School, and several friendly Scots picking up a hitchhiking Travelette on her way up north. Thank you!
All photographs by Kathi Kamleitner