Monday, 5 May 2014

Isle of Bute Circumnavigation - 3rd/4th May 2014

Getting a bit bored with my default destination of Anglesey, I was keen to investigate another area and see if it was possible as a weekend trip. Most of my trips to Scotland involve going into the highlands, so I don't normally think I've reached the best parts until I'm up alongside Loch Lomond or going over the Drumochter Pass, so it was rather different to be heading to a location south of Glasgow.

I'm fortunate to have a good friend, Annette, who lives in West Kilbride, and Rachael and I left Manchester after work on Friday planning to stay with her that night, then to paddle somewhere in the Clyde estuary for the Bank holiday weekend.

Leading up to the weekend the weather reports started off looking promising, but then gradually deteriorated. My original plan was to circumnavigate the Isle of Bute, but with the weather looking increasingly windy, I was thinking of plans B,C,D... Loch Lomond? Loch Fyne? Using ferries?... We spent a pleasant evening with Annette, but I was constantly staring at maps mulling over options and we went to bed without a definite plan deciding to wait and see what the weather was doing in the morning.

Rachael was up early and fairly excited that the sea conditions looked fairly calm - Annette's house has a wonderful view across the Clyde towards Arran, the Cumbraes and Bute - so seeing the forecast force 4-5 winds hadn't materialised (yet), we decided to risk going back to plan A - setting off from Largs Marina, and going clockwise round the Isle of Bute.

Rachael made up our lunch and we made our way over to Largs Marina to partake in the usual faff of working out what to take, what to leave, then how to pack it all into the boats. I was pleasantly surprised that my boat easily took all the kit I had planned to take and Rachael had no problems either, so around 10:20 we headed off on our planned 3 day adventure.

Annette was also paddling, but only for the day. So with less messing around to do, she had set off earlier with a friend to go around Great Cumbrae. We could see them in the distance ahead of us, and we followed their route across the channel to Great Cumbrae and down to Millport, but there our routes diverged. We headed diagonally across from Farland Point to the northern tip of Little Cumbrae, accompanied by a number of yachts that seemed to be on a similar itinerary to ours. We paddled down the west side of Little Cumbrae to just short of the lighthouse before our route took us across the Clyde to Bute. Yachts were still crossing our path, and a couple of times we were close enough to exchange pleasantries.

The route between the Cumbraes with Bute in the distance
We arrived on the shores of Bute at Rubh'an Eun after the short 2km crossing, grateful we hadn't seen any sign of the large ships and the occasional submarine that go up and down the Clyde. There was a bit of a breeze now, along with a small swell, so we were keen to push on and get round Garrock Head - the point I had identified as the "crux" of the day as it bears the brunt of any S-SW winds. We rounded it without incident, much to Rachael's relief, and now turned north west.

A relieved Rachael after rounding Garrock Head
With the change of direction, the small chop and swell was coming from behind and pushing us along the rocky shoreline.The sun was also trying to come out, so my spirits were fairly high as I enjoyed the wilder surroundings that compared favourably to the more populated and industrial Clyde. Unfortunately Rachael wasn't so happy - the occasional unintentional surf was requiring more concentration than she would have liked and by time we'd reached Dunagoil Bay she was keen to stop for lunch and have a breather.

Lunch stop (best weather of whole trip!)
After eating our wraps and a brew, we set off again passing rocky headlands and stony beaches. The wind was now whipping up small waves with the odd whitecap breaking over our boats and with the conditions taking away any of the enjoyment for Rachael we decided to call it a day and set up camp for the night. We'd paddled 22kms and it was around 2pm. The early stop gave us time to explore our environment and to go for a walk to view our route for the following day around Ardscalpsie Point and up the channel between the islands of Inchmarnock and Bute.

Looking out from Ardscalpsie Point
The weather forecast was for Sunday to be a better day, with lighter winds, but then Monday being windy again. Knowing this, I was a bit disappointed to have not pushed on further to potentially give us the option to go all around Bute and get back to Largs on Sunday. So again I was going through options in my head of where we could camp Sunday night, but then being faced with a wild crossing of the Clyde forcing us to cut short the circumnavigation and using ferries to get us back to the car. In the kit deliberations before setting off, we (I?) had decided not to take trolleys as I didn't like the room they took up, but this decision severely limited our options of easily using the ferry to get back to the mainland, and this was preying on my mind.

We spent a pleasant evening in our camp, enjoying good food around a small fire on the beach. Arran's rocky ridges were showing themselves as the clouds lifted every now and again, but it was not long before more persistent rain arrived and we turned in for the night. Both of us were woken during the night slightly concerned that the waves lapping on the beach were a bit too close for comfort, but after poking heads out of our tents we could see the tide wasn't as close as we feared.

Again Rachael was up bright and early - her young family means her body clock is set way earlier than mine! She called over to me in my tent to suggest I got up as the sea was totally calm with no wind. We broke camp and carried our kit down to the water (that had gone out a long way now) and set off just after 7:30. Our intention was to push on beyond Inchmarnock as soon as possible before any wind arrived to give us chance to get into the Kyles of Bute and the shelter they afforded.

Where's the water gone?
With the conditions so favourable, we toyed with the idea that there was a chance we could complete the circumnavigation that day and we decided that was the plan and we'd see how we got on.

The sea was dead calm, but a low mist meant the visibility was only about a kilometre, so once up the channel between Inchmarnock and the main island, we reached a point where we had no sight of land and navigated solely with the compass. Our route took us into the Kyles of Bute and we set a course to land at Clate Point to have a brew and some breakfast of instant oats enhanced with honey, blueberries and nutmeg.

Apparently the views into the mountains to the north of the Kyles are quite spectacular, but we were not afforded the privilege of experiencing them, however we were content with the eerie views of the houses and trees on the Cowal Peninsular on one side and the craggy hills of Bute on the other. The tide was now with us and we were making steady progress past Tighnabruaich and Port Driseach. As we broke up a raft that we had made for a quick jelly bean stop, Rachael accidentally caught me in the eye with her paddle. I tried to paddle on, but with blood dripping into my eye we had to rummage for first aid kits and Rachael apologetically patched me up - though somehow she found my sorry looking predicament rather funny!

Approaching Buttock Point
We rounded "Buttock Point" - the northern tip of Bute around midday and we could see the new "eco toilet" and shelter that has been built for overnighting kayakers that are increasingly using the area. We had no intention of stopping so soon, so we made our way through the narrow passage between Bute and the Burnt Isles. We'd timed our arrival just right with no tidal flow against us that could have hampered our progress and we entered the eastern Kyles of Bute and the ferry crossing route between Colintraive and Bute. On another day with more time to spare, we may have enjoyed the hospitality of the highly regarded hotel, but we had to press on.

With the eastern Kyles lying SE to NW, I was expecting the freshening winds to be funnelled down the channel against us, but luckily this wasn't happening and I was getting confident that we would make it back to Largs that evening.

Rachael's paddlesuit does not have latex wrist seals and water had been getting in and running down her arms and making her upper body wet, making her cold. So we stopped for lunch near Shalunt Cott to enable her to change into some dry clothes and to put on pogies (paddle mitts) that would keep the water off her wrists. Re-charged with plenty of food, we set off towards the crux of the day - whether we could get back safely across the Clyde.

With the East coast of Bute now bending around more to the South, we were more exposed to the wind and swell coming up the Clyde. As we passed Port Bannatyne and then crossing Rothesay Bay, the conditions were getting choppier and our progress slowed. We now had to decide whether to stay on Bute and sort ourselves out in the morning, or press on to make the crossing. Rachael was starting to tire, but gamely agreed to carry on, so we made our way down the East coast to Mount Stuart House where we planned to start the crossing over to Great Cumbrae. We started playing games to keep our minds off the slog into the wind and swell that was against us. I-spy didn't last much beyond "water" "cloud" "trees" and "waves", but a game of "guess who I am" gave us material till we were well out into the crossing.

The crossing was about 5km, but took us across the main shipping channel of the Clyde. We'd been warned that if we saw any ships in the channel in the distance they are soon on top of you, so like children nervously crossing a road we kept an eye in both directions. The swell and the wind meant that we had to aim off to the South of our intended destination, and we steadily made our way across in the now "lively" conditions. I thought the crossing would take us about 50 minutes, but it was just under the hour when we made landfall on the Northern tip of Great Cumbrae. The conditions had taken Rachael well out of her comfort zone, but she coped fine but very relieved when we had a short break on a beach. Just as we landed I told Rachael to not look behind her... she thought I was teasing her about how far off Bute looked... but when I then told her to look around she saw the massive tanker that was steaming down the Clyde through our crossing path. If we had seen that coming towards us while we were mid channel it would have increased the stress levels somewhat and given a difficult decision as to whether to wait, press on, or turn back.

Knowing we were pretty much home and dry, I called Annette to ask if we could kip at her place again. She was half expecting us to call, so it wasn't a problem, and we made the final short crossing back to Largs at a good pace in high spirits. We landed at the public slip around 6pm - 52kms from our starting point of the morning.

Not long after we were enjoying showers/baths and a lovely meal cooked by Annette.

It was an enjoyable trip in at times testing conditions. The experiences will stand us in good stead for the future - from what kit to take, food and importantly the sort of sea states that can be handled and the distances we can cover. It was a shame to not have more time to see/visit some of the sites of Bute, but undoubtedly we will return and hopefully the weather gods will be a bit kinder. I think for any subsequent circumnavigation I would use trolleys to take the kayaks on to the ferry, thus shortening the distance, give more options to return in bad weather and to remove the stress of crossing the Clyde.


Ian said...

Just found this post John, great stuff! Although the weather wasn't great it seems you had a super trip. Bute is a lovely island to paddle; I lived there for 10 years, and still have relatives on the island.

Have you thought of putting trolleys on the back deck of the boats? We stow ours there and as you've identified having them really improves your options

Kind regards

John Bunyan said...

Hi Ian, yes good trip despite the weather. Would be nice not to rush next time! We had trolleys and could have carried them OK, I just like the decks to be uncluttered and didn't think we'd need them.

Anonymous said...

Hi found this post while rummaging the net for wee stories of kayaking around bute, since I'm also fixing to give it a go around the 5th of august...that being said, as you well know's rather difficult to pick a random exact date to kayak in the the sea will be the one to dictate!
What I found myself thinking as I was about half way into reading your account of the trip, was how funny it would be if rachael had also wrote the same account bit by bit with the same talking points but from her perspective...especially the when she plonked your face with the paddle! Ha
Well I'm a writer so these are the things I imagine!
For my trip I'm going solo, and have allotted about 4 mellow days of paddling/camping exploring. I'll start at kilchattan bay where I'm staying for the summer and follow clockwise same as you I don't have to cross the tricky channel and my rig is a heavy duty well designed inflatable which seems to handle quite well in these waters....and offers the easy out clause, that if I get to perhaps, port bannatyne, and I've wearied...I can deflate and hop a bus back home to kilchattan!! But that's mutinous talk, I need to complete the mission!
Cheers kal
thanks for the post :)