Tuesday 26 July 2011

Did you hear about the Scotsman, the Yorkshireman and the Lancastrian who went to Loch Etive?

I'm currently awaiting minor surgery which will entail a period of convalescence. During this time I'm unlikely to be able to get out canoeing much so I've been determined to try to make the most of my time off beforehand.
I knew I had a long weekend off the second last weekend in July so I asked Stephen,  Shuzzy and Pat if they fancied doing anything. Stephen had to pick up the wood for his McGregor canoe project, Shuzz was on call (the mobile phone network would surely fail immediately if he ever changed jobs!) and Pat was working as well so I was a little stumped, it looked like I'd have to do something alone.
I was determined to get a bit further afield this time (without wanting to travel too far with the ridiculous price of fuel) so I started reading bloggs on Song Of the Paddle canoe forum for inspiration. I'd not really considered Loch Etive before but all the trip reviews I read praised the place highly as a destination and it's only an hour and a half drive from home for me. I studied my OS map and the Scottish Canoe Touring guide and decided that I'd put in at the old ferry jetty at Taynuilt and attempt to reach the head of the loch from there. The forecast was looking great in terms of sunshine but not so promising in terms of wind but I'm keenly aware of how conditions can vary from the forecast on Scottish lochs which are surrounded by mountains.
 The thought of doing the trip solo was a little daunting but needs must.... I also decided to post an invitation on SOTP and on the OCSG Facebook page in a last ditch attempt to rustle up some company.
On Wednesday Graham phoned me and said that due to his boss double booking his leave he wouldn't be able to make the OCSG meet in Norfolk that he had planned to attend at the end of the month but as a consolation he could get a long weekend off beforehand so asked if he could join me. Of course I was delighted by this turn of events and was far happier about attempting the trip with some company. We arranged to meet at Taynuilt on Friday morning but Graham said he'd text me to finalise our plans on Thursday night. I was on night shift on Thursday so when Graham texted to say he was dossing in his car near Tyndrum I realised I was going to be in for a little sleep deprivation! At this point it also dawned on me to text Ramsay and ask if he wanted to come (in his sea kayak).
I got in from work at 6:15am on Friday morning, packed my kit, threw the canoe on the van and said cheerio to my long suffering wife before hitting the road around 8:45. I was a bit worried about the drive after not having been to bed for twenty four hours but I felt okay and I knew I'd be fine once I was out in the fresh air. I arrived at Taynuilt at 10:15 to find Graham fishing from the old jetty.
He was having no luck fishing and had spent a torrid night trying to sleep in the car (alternating between being claustrophobic with the windows closed and eaten alive by midgies with the windows open!) At least we were both in a similar situation as far as being tired was concerned then!
The launching possibilities looked okay to me but Graham wasn't so sure so we briefly toyed with putting in at the cruise trip jetty a little way back down the road . I managed to persuade him we'd be okay at the ferry jetty so we set about getting ready.
Pretty soon our boats were assembled and ready to go at the water's edge.

We posed for a quick photo before setting off into the Bonawe narrows. The tide was running fairly strongly through the narrows which helped us on our way but there was no wind so we paddled north past the  quarry workings, fish farms and mussel farms at the southern end of the loch. After a while a few riffles appeared and we could at least paddle sail which made things a little easier but I was seriously wondering how far up the loch we'd be able to get at this rate.

As we worked our way slowly up the loch the wind started to freshen from the north and we were able to stow the paddles and start sailing properly. The weather was great, the views incredible and spirits were high now that we could make decent progress.

As we sailed along my phone rang, it was Ramsay who'd just got my text after finishing work. He was keen to join us but said he'd be late arriving by the time he'd sorted his gear and driven up. I said I'd phone him back when we stopped for lunch so that I could check the map and discuss campsite options with Graham and let him know our plans.

Around this time the loch started to get quite choppy although the wind was still only a steady F2/3, this was as a result of the length of the loch and the fact that the wind was blowing straight down it allowing the waves to build up. It was a bit sobering and made me realise just how serious this place would be in the wrong conditions. Graham checked that I was happy enough coping with the conditions (I was enjoying myself) and we plodded on northwards relishing the views.

Eventually Graham shouted asking if I felt like stopping for some food so we headed into a sheltered cove at Port an Dobrhain on the east shore. We landed and made some food and brewed up and I phoned Rambo back to discuss options. He recommended a spot near Dail on the west shore but we weren't certain how far we'd get. I settled on texting him to let him know our campsite (if I could get a phone signal) or failing that we'd leave our sails up so that he'd be able to find us.
After lunch we set off again, the loch seemed to have calmed down a bit and the wind had dropped again as we sailed out the bay.
Although the wind had dropped it had also swung round so we were able to head directly up the loch instead of having to tack, the views really started to open up with Ben Cruachan and Ben Starav prominent. I began to understand why people had raved about Loch Etive in the bloggs I'd read, it really is a stunning place.

We decided to land at Dail and have a look for somewhere to camp. There was a nice pebble beach and some flat grass and a river behind it.
It also offered stunning views over to Ben Cruachan which I'd climbed many years before with my dad and sister.

After humming and hahhing we decided to push on a bit further, we could see what looked like a sandy beach a bit further north at Rubha Bharr which we wanted to check out and we figured we could always come back if it wasn't as good. This proved to be a good decision as the bay at Rubha Bharr did indeed have a lovely sandy beach and a perfect large flat meadow for camping on (as well as a stream).
We started setting up camp and I texted Rambo to let him know where we were. Once the tents were up Graham went out fishing again and I decided to have a sail about but almost immediately the wind dropped so after Graham returned empty handed we set about cooking dinner. I made pasta with red pesto and smoked salmon for us then Graham made delicious pancakes with home made raspberry jam for desert.
I thought I spotted Ramsay approaching but it turned out to be a couple from Lancashire in another Nova Craft Pal (but in an inferior green colour). They set up camp as well as there was loads of space. Eventually Rambo texted saying he'd arrive around 10pm so we waited and chatted and fed the fire with driftwood that littered the beach. The sun started to set and Ben Cruachan was lit by a pink alpenglow, it was really beautiful.
At 10pm Rambo paddled into view as he'd predicted, I think Graham had been a little concerned about him but I knew Ramsay was an accomplished paddler and would be fine.
He soon had his tent up and his dinner on and after we chatted by the fire until quite late. Eventually I admitted defeat and after 36 hours finally went to bed for a well earned sleep!
 Saturday dawned as a lovely day and we breakfasted on the beach on Graham's apricot bannock and my breakfast burritos (bacon, eggs and mushrooms in a deli wrap) which was all delicious.

The plan was to aim for the head of the loch and with the wind blowing a good Force3 straight down the loch we knew it'd take a while. Ramsay decided to paddle south and explore a bit before turning back north to catch us up and join us in our trip to the top end.
Graham and I headed north in blazing sunshine and a lovely steady wind, perfect conditions.
We passed the remote stalking cottages at Barrs and headed up towards Ben Starav and Beinn Trilleachan.
A few times Graham got well ahead of me and stopped to fish while I caught up again and then Rambo caught us too so we stopped for lunch near Rubha Doire Larach with great views of the Trilleachan slabs where I done some rock climbing routes years ago.
 We set off again after eating and continued to tack up the loch, it was taking ages as the wind was blowing straight down the length of the loch. Eventually the wind shifted a little and we could get longer starboard tacks in and make better progress.  At last we could see the head of the loch with the mountains of Glen Etive and Glencoe beyond.

Our destination, the head of Loch Etive and the outflow of the River Etive.
The view south back down the loch. 
After a brief stop to take the pictures we set off south again. We'd hoped to be able to have an easy sail back with the wind behind us and at first this was the case but inevitably the wind dropped off steadily until the water turned glassy calm and we had to resort to paddling!                                                                                          
 Thankfully we'd managed to get a decent distance before the wind dropped and we managed the return leg more quickly. Miraculously just as we neared home the wind came back and we sailed the last section back to camp.                                 
Ramsay went back out for a try in Graham's and my boats (his first go in a sailing canoe, although he's a very experienced yachtsman so no stranger to sailing).    
 We shared dinner again, I cooked chickpea curry and rice while Ramsay made homemade venison burgers and venison sausages which he barbequed.   
We sat around the fire listening to Seth Lakeman, chatting and sharing the odd beer  while trying to deal with sporadic outbreaks of midgies when the breeze died!
We also hatched a plan for Sunday. The forecast was for 5-7mph northwesterly winds which would give Graham and I an easy sail back with a tail wind pushing us. Graham wanted to be back at the cars around 2pm as he had to drive back to Preston so Ramsay decided to leave early and paddle to Oban, Graham and I would sail back to Taynuilt where Graham would head home while I would drive to Oban and pick up Ramsay. Simple! Well it should have been!                    
 I awoke to hear Graham saying cheerio to Rambo at around 8am, I opened my tent  door to clouds of midgies so decided to go back to sleep and wait for the sun to heat up and drive the wee beasties away. Once I finally got up Graham and I ate breakfast, packed up and got ready to leave on schedule.

The wind however was blowing from the southwest, a headwind for us. It was quite light at that stage and once again it was a lovely sunny morning. We set off tacking south down the loch.

The wind slowly started to build and pretty soon the loch was getting a bit choppy. I had a scary moment when the wind shifted unexpectedly and caught me on the wrong side of my canoe, I almost capsized and it gave me a bit of a fright. We could see a mass of white horses blowing up the loch towards us and I decided to land and put my dry cag on in case I ended up in the water. I flattened my sail on Grahams suggestion at this point which helped to make it more controllable and we set off again. Things suddenly seemed much more serious  than they had the day before but I was happier after putting my cag on and started to enjoy the stronger wind, sitting out on the gunwales balancing the canoe and driving it through the squalls was exciting. The wind kept switching directions which made sailing tricky but it did allow us to make better progress than when it had been blowing straight in our faces and we sailed on. I heard my phone ringing and knew it'd be Ramsay calling to arrange his pick up but I was far too busy trying to stay upright to answer. We made it to near Port na Mine and I shouted to Graham that I needed to stop to answer the call of nature and phone Rambo back so we landed. Graham recomended reefing the sails here as we were now subject to pretty strong winds ( a good F4/5), constant white horses and waves that were breaking over the gunwales into the canoes. I didn't take much persuading. I phoned Ramsay and explained that things weren't going to plan and we would be delayed significantly now we'd had to reef. He took this news in his stride thankfully and said no rush. We set off again and Graham suggested staying close to the lee shore so that if we capsized and were unable to get back in our boats we'd be blown ashore to safety very quickly. This seemed sensible but it did result in lots of short tacks slowing us still further. My sail was now reefed down to a paltry 20sq ft and although it sails well reefed I could have done with the power of the full sail to punch through the waves. It was slow progress but at least it was progress and it didn't feel too extreme once I'd got used to things. Slowly but surely we worked our way down the loch, tacking inside the mussel farm buoys. Eventually we could see the cars glinting in the sunlight at Taynuilt and we started extending our tacks as the windspeed dropped a little (although the gusts were still strong). The final tack took us right across to the quarries at Bonawe where the wind was funneling through the narrows and increasing it's ferocity once more. From there we managed an exhilarating close reach back to our put in point. Graham managed to sail serenely onto the beach but I suffered the ignominy of running aground on a reef and having to wade ashore pulling my canoe, an inauspicious end to a fantastic trip!                                                                                                               
We packed up our gear and got changed before having a quick final brew and picnic in the shelter of my van. This was the only photo I took on Sunday and you can draw your own conclusions from that fact!                                           
We said our farewells and Graham started out on his long drive home while I nipped round to Oban to get Rambo four hours later than planned!           
It was a fantastic trip with stunning scenery, great weather and varied sailing conditions. Thanks to Graham and Ramsay for being such good company on such a memorable expedition and thanks to Graham for the pictures of me. Roll on the next trip!                                                           


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