Jennie, a wreck in a cave

The bow of Puffer Jennie, in her last resting place.

Partly due to the weather the light is already dimming out. We had an early start and some rest on the southwestern tip of Arisaig. But then late in the afternoon, we started a long crossing in some formidable waves and a strong wind. Now we move along the lee side of Isle of Eigg and everything is calm again. However, it is hard to make landfall on the rocky beaches and the grassy slopes are to steep for a tent. We keep pushing on and around 20:00h we approach the northeast point of Eigg and the Sound of Rhum. Sgorr Sgaileach, which appropriately translates from Gaelic as the Shady Hills. Here the cliffs that fall straight into the sea. Before we can circumnavigate the point we pass a cave, in it the skeletal remains of the bow of a ship. The force of the sea has the rusty corpse firmly wedged in the dark chamber. Where the hull is riveted together the heavy metal plates are not jet corroded, leaving a rough but picturesque trellis. Fascinated by the scene, I snap a few pictures with my small digital and waterproof camera. Unfortunately, the camera is already signing that it is too dark or that I am too shaky.

Back home there are two issues, a burning curiosity and some blurry pictures. The later is solved by some drawings and watercolour and results in the image above. To satisfy my curiosity, I start normally at the Canmore site (https://canmore.org.uk). The site contains information about archaeological sites, buildings, industry and maritime heritage across the whole of Scotland. By starting on the map page you can normally find the smallest cairn or mitten by just zooming in. Just get the right location on the map.

In this case, I discovered, it was the Clyde Puffer “Jennie”. She sank in February 1954 when she hit Sgorr Sgaileach. The tragedy worsened when int the spring of 1954 the Puffer “Lythe” tried to salvage cargo from the wreck of the “Jennie”. The “Lythe” did strike her and ended up on the bottom of the Sound of Rhum herself.

The Clyde Puffer VIC32 at the Crinan Canal

Puffers are stumpy little coal-fired steamboats. They were the workhorses of the Hebridean. Transporting cargo between Glasgow, through the canals and on to the islands. This “Jennie” was built in 1902. We did see one of the last two seagoing Puffers, the VIC32.

Alexander Gannet

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The waves are alive with the sound of singing.

An example of a rough sea at Mealista. Charlotte is not in her boat
Rough sea at Mealista. Definetly waves where you should sing in.

Throw mindfulness out of the window! We should all be singing when fear gets to us.

Anyway, that is what I do when the waves are just a bit too high. Or when bigger waves are coming from the back and I can’t see them coming. When I’m not singing, fear will take over and I will start stiffening in the kayak. The paddling strokes become careful and tense. I try to find support on the waves by bracing. The entire flow and energy are gone as is my speed. Totally exhausted I wash up on the beach with aching muscles and close to crying. Not a nice state to be in. Fear takes too much energy.

Do you recognise this state? The best medicine for this is Singing!

I will tell you why.

I read a book written by Timothy Gallwey called ‘The inner game of tennis’, he has written also one about work, golf or any other field except kayaking.

In short, the theory is that there are two selves: Self 1, which is analytical and ego-driven, prone to worrying and ruminating, and Self 2, which is more unconscious, intuitive and physical.

The secret to the Inner Game is to get Self 1 out of the way, to stop being so self-critical and anxious, and simply let your body play the game, without being too outcome-oriented. You can get Self 1 out of the way by training your attention on each point, for example, or on the sound of the ball (in tennis) – giving your Self 1 some activity to keep it busy so it can let Self 2 do the work.

Alexander and Charlotte Gannet in big waves, I’m sure I am singing here although you can’t hear me. Which is a good thing.

Translating this theory to kayaking, my Self 1 judges the waves and my own skill set in paddling bigger waves, this will lead to thoughts of fear which results in stiffening up and paddling with laboured strokes, ending up in exhaustion.

My Self 2 is not bothered by the fear and knows exactly what it must do in order to stay afloat.

The problem is that my Self 1 is dominant over my Self 2.

So, what to do?

According to the theory, the best thing to do is to put my conscious Self 1 to work. To Sing. Let it be busy with remembering the lyrics of the song. With big waves, I sing out loud with smaller waves I sing inside my head. In the meantime, my Self 2 will do the paddling and be excel at it. It hasn’t failed me yet!

To be honest, I have to bring myself to start with singing, usually, fear is sitting right on top of my head. First I start singing hesitantly, I notice it helps a bit, then I sing a bit louder and try to sing more convincingly, Yes, I definitely feel the benefits. And then there is no holding back. I sing aloud and I don’t care what the birds think of the quality of my singing.

Alexander en Charlotte Gannet in a big sea, Charlotte must be singing to paddle her boat.
O yes, must be singing here!!

My preferred songs are from ‘The Sound of Music’. This movie has a special place in my heart because it was the first movie I ever saw in a cinema when I was around 10 years old. I cycled all the way to The Hague with my mother and sister to see it and it was magic. I have this totally useless gift of remembering the lyrics of a song after hearing it only once and remembering them forever. It is a family thing, both my sisters suffer from the same affliction.

So after TSoM I go on with lyrics from the movie ‘Grease’ and then Aretha Franklin with ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’.

There are more benefits to singing, it boosts your immune system, it lowers stress and is a natural antidepressant. I wonder why people are not singing all day? Wouldn’t the world be a better place?

Try it next time you come into a scary situation like paddling higher waves that you are used to. Of course, you can create your own playlist of favourite things, euh, songs…

Charlotte Gannet

The naked lady on the beach

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Look just a bit behind the set of teeth, the naked lady is on the beach!!

Travelling by kayak involves a lot of changing from one outfit to another. Usually, I have a dry set of clothes on land and a wetsuit when paddling on the water. This means that I have to be ready to change outfits anywhere. Since it is unlikely to find changing rooms or toilets in sight, I will stand in my naked backside in towns, parking lots, along roads and public beaches…everywhere,for the whole world to see…

Oh noooo, it’s so embarrassing!!  On a wet skin nothing goes on easily, clothes are always inside out and because I want to dress fast, I put my shirt on the other way around. I am quite conscious of my body shape. I just know that everyone will see me and have an opinion about my body. Off course I have a six pack! But it is well hidden underneath some other layers of body tissue.

I can sympathise with people who change their clothes underneath a towel but I have not enough room in my kayak to carry a towel that size. On the other hand, the towel thing is such a hassle, I can guarantee everyone will be watching. Looking for the moment the towel drops at the most inconvenient time. That will stir up some laughs.

My husband is always angrily commenting: ‘Stop acting ridiculous, nobody’s watching’. But then again, every time I have to change my clothes, even when it is in the middle of a forest and haven’t seen anyone for an hour, on the most awkward moment, someone passes with a dog, trying not to look.

Once I had an entire Tiree tourist boat passing by while I was changing into my wetsuit, never saw them coming. Arriving on the island of Tiree I heard I had quite a reputation for being ‘The naked lady on the beach’. That is too much of a coincidence, I think I attract it. Just think about all those holiday pictures the people on the boat made of me and my naked ass.

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During the years I got a bit fed up with being so stressed out about it every time. Was my husband right? Is nobody watching? Is it all in my head, the negative thoughts, the panic? So I tried to relax a bit more and change quickly and efficiently without the stress, and just mind my own business instead. I must say, I felt a lot better.

Today when we arrived at Inver Tote on Skye there were a lot of people visiting the derelict dynamite factory and the beautiful waterfall. Not all tourists came down to see the factory close up and were using binoculars. Coming out of the sea, naturally, I had to change into my land outfit. So I did, without even thinking about all the tourists. Only realising it when I heard a lot of whistling and cheering.

This only enforces my reputation of ‘The naked lady on the beach’ and I am proud of it! I have come a long way. Nowadays I am happy to make somebody’s day when I change my clothes.

Wayfinding; get lost in the art of navigation.

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If you can read the ocean, you’ll never be lost.
                                                            — Mau Piailug*

Navigation may be defined as the science of managing the route of a ship, or kayak in our case, in a systematic manner from here to there. It’s a matter of position, distance and direction while avoiding natural hazards. There are many articles and books about the knowledge or science required for navigation, this will be not one of them. I would like to make an argument for the wider scope of wayfinding. It is the art or profound skill that add to safe seafaring and at the same time will connect you on a deeper level with nature and your surroundings. This article is about the difference between the art and the science side of navigation and my journey of shifting towards a better balance.

Modern navigation in a way is a specific subset of wayfinding, where wayfinding is all the means people use to find their way around in the environment. But let me define my idea of this modern westernised navigation concept first; it is all very objective, where, we use compass, clocks and, more recently, global positioning system (GPS), in combination with nautical charts, tidal atlases and tide tables. In essence, we created an abstract concept of the world around us, in numbers, shapes and coordinates to journey around in a real one.

This is a relatively recent concept, only from the 15th or 16th century onwards, where seafaring might be as old as 55,000 years. There has always been an ocean separating Asia and Australia and Australia’s oldest archaeological site is dated in that timeframe. In the Scottish history, we see evidence of extensive seafaring skills from before this modern navigation era. Think of Saint Columba and Saint Brendan for example, both well-known sailing abbots. I just finished reading “The Brendan Voyage” by Tim Severin, who sailed across the Atlantic in a leather boat. Using the 1,200-year-old Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot) he followed in the footsteps of Brendan the Navigator, an Irish Saint who lived from 484 to 577, to find “the Promised Land”. They must have known what they were doing because in the written and oral tradition there are numerously documented journeys by them over the sea and they still reached the age of 80. As far back as the Mesolithic (between 7500 and 5500 BCE), prehistoric people were travelling by boat along the coastlines of the British Isles to collect Arran pitchstone and Rhum Bloodstone for their tools at home.

So people must have used other ways to navigate successfully over the sea. Those people were closer to nature, and understood the art or intuitive side of “navigation by sense”. They used the sight, sound, motion, smell and even taste to find their destinations. We know that traditional way finders used the stars, the Sun, the Moon, ocean swells, sightings of whale and bird species and other natural signs for clues to the direction and location of a vessel at sea or the change of weather.

So let’s return to my personal journey. When you navigate the tidal waters of the Wadden in the Netherlands, every bit of water is meticulously documented, mapped and well-stocked with navigational aids. So in the tradition of our Dutch Canoe Union instructors, I would open Excel and create a punctilious plan to cross the open stretches of water from buoy to buoy. On the water, I had very little fun because navigation became like painting by numbers. By bringing your attention to the artificial marks, and even worse, technology like GPS, your focus shifts from an open non-judgemental awareness to your environment to a rigid and disconnected scheme.

The first thing we noticed in Scotland was that there are was a lack of detailed information about tides and currents and an almost complete absence of navigational aids. So there was more guesswork, we had to figure it out as we were going. Also, the rigid time planning lacked the time for what we started to call “Dolphin time”. As soon as you are in awe of the beauty of the landscape or the passing of a pot of dolphins and stop to enjoy the sight, the planning could be thrown overboard. So “planning” became soon writing the times of the turn of tide down and estimating on the way if he would reach the destination with the tide.

On our very first day, we did read about every submerged rock described in the pilot. We very soon realised, that in our kayaks, “submerged rocks” is our environment and we stopped reading the book on that aspect and started reading the water. Reading the water, I must say, is one of the most important skills. Not only to avoid dangerous rocks but also to read the eddies and flows around prominent points in the coastline. The eddies will help you to pedal against the tide, but more deliciously the eddy lines provide good spots for fishing to supplement our diet.

I still do carry a GPS, because I consider it an important tool for safety purposes. But I use it quite differently now from when we started. In the beginning, I would enter waypoints, especially for difficult trips. Our first rounding of the Ardnamurchan peninsula followed eight waypoints. It gave us a sense of security. 10 years later I would use only waypoints for the larger crossings. I don’t discard the GPS as a very good tool to learn to estimate the boat speed and the interference of tide, waves and wind. But now I rather use transits, based on rocks and mountains to get a sense of boat speed or drift by the tide. Distances, the other useful feature of GPS can also be replaced with observations. By the virtue of the curvature of the Earth, the sight of breaking waves against the rocky shore at the point of arrival means another 20 to 30 minutes peddling. Humans are good to estimate distances up to 1.5 km and buildings with windows are good indicators for distances up to 5 km.

In 2008, a friendly neighbour with a big moustache gave me an old anemometer. It is still one with the red line numbers, as usually found on 80s equipment. It reads the wind speed which can be useful, but the instrument had no waterproof qualities. So I used it on land, and soon it became a game of guessing the wind speed in knots. You close your eyes and focus on the movement of the hairs of your eyebrows, the sensation of your cheeks and sound of the wind playing around the helix of your ear. And before you know it, you can call out the numbers without looking on the anemometer.

The feel of waves is another useful sense. The differences in motion can be translated into the different kind of causes and actions. You can feel the reflections against the cliffs and note that there is little you can do. You recognise the waves breaking over a shallow seabed and push through them into the comfortable water behind. There could be subtle changes in both the wind waves and swell, which could make it difficult to land or mean a change in the wind.

The last one I would like to point out is time, I hardly use a watch. “Oh, you might use the sun”, you would say, but that can be a problem in Scotland. No, my real watch is the colour and species of seaweeds. You almost always know the time of the low and high water and the seaweeds are neatly stratified in time bands. If you see the kelp stalks bend, its low, if the Bladderwrack is hitting the water it half tide, if the pink flowers of the Sea Thrift are floating, it’s both high water and spring tide. Last year is started running, back to the bothy, where I knew I would find an annoyed Charlotte. The barnacles started to get wet and I knew I was too late for dinner. I still lose time when browsing the seashore or finding a Minke whale skeleton.

So next time, when you have done your homework, collecting your maps and travel plan, remember to use your intuition besides your cognitive navigation skills. Quiet your mind and pay attention to your surroundings. You’re given five senses (Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching) that you always carry. On the water practice your observational skills, watch nature pass by in a mode of non-judgemental open awareness. Traditional navigation was rooted in profound skill. In a sense, navigation is a fundamental and deep interaction with nature. It will make the journey and even life more fascinating and richer. I have no ancestral tradition that teaches me the ropes, like St Brendan and Micronesian master navigators probably had. So I’m not claiming to be an expert in this natural type of navigation. But I have noticed that there is a shift in the approach and to me, it is fun and gives me a lot of satisfaction.

I used the term “navigation by sense”, or intuitive navigation, which might suggest that navigation is something, which anyone can do intuitively. But I would like to warn you, it is a skilled performance where the perception has been fine-tuned through previous experiences. On the other hand, if you rely too much on the use of GPS, it could undermine our natural sense of direction as you surrender to the little arrow on your screen. If the GPS fails, however, and we trusted it too much, no mental map has been created and we might find ourselves lost. Very lost. So find yourself the right balance.

 

*Mau Piailug, Micronesian who sailed by navigating sun and stars

In 1976, Mr Piailug made international headlines when — using nothing but nature’s clues and the lessons he’d learned from his grandfather, a master navigator schooled in traditional Micronesian wayfaring — he steered a traditional sailing canoe more than 3,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti.

When is the book coming out?

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‘Did you come far today?’
‘You’re my hero!’, ‘Are you sane?’
‘In my next life, I want to join you!’
‘That’s not a holiday!’

These are some quotes from the conversations we have with people along the way. People, who are fascinated when we come from this vast expanse of ocean and step out of our feeble kayaks. The reactions to our self-supporting cruises range from curiosity to wonder, to scepticism and downright rejection. Of course, people ask if they are willing to let go of all their comforts and have a holiday like this. People like to think in terms of all inclusive cruises, with loads of luxuries foods, entertainment and especially do-nothingness. We are exclusive of quite a few comforts in their eyes but for us our kayak cruises lead to very exclusive experiences, enriching our lives.

So after 17 years around the Scottish coast. Returning every year to navigate the sea and ocean. In total we kayaked over 9000 kilometres. Visiting 245 islands and islets in about 600 days. Days of exploring and learning, days of meeting interesting and inspiring people but especially days of creating fascinating stories and fabulous memories. We decided that we are ready to share our stories, adventures and observations through this blog.

So here I am, out of my comfort zone, again. Starting a new adventure, in writing this time. To me this is daring greatly, I feel so apprehensive and inadequate, very few stories of mine reached the paper. I guess I would rather be in a big sea at the moment than behind my keyboard. I know it will be a learning process, improving my English but especially the storytelling and writing skills. Let’s say “The bird who dares to fall, is the bird who learns to fly”. So we hope you will enjoy our stories and help us grow and share.

Charlotte Gannet