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Sea kayaking: Tides, navigation and self-rescue

Written by Fiona June 05 2012

The G-Force and I have sea kayaked before. We loved it. So we started thinking about sea kayaking on our own. But in Scotland there are a few factors to take into account, such as wind, tides and navigation. So, for his 40th birthday last year I signed us both up to a National Kayak School wind, tides and navigation two-day course. Having kayaked with the Kayak School before we knew they would be ace!

Luckily for us the chosen weekend was one of the most gloriously sunny of the past decade! Based in Oban, the Kayak School is perfectly located for a wide choice of sea and sea lochs to kayak, but for a tides and navigation course there needs to be a few examples of, well, wind, tides and navigation.

Day one on a tides and navigation sea kayak course

Day one was fairly windy and the chosen destination was the waters around the Falls of Lora. Located six miles NE of Oban, the falls are generated when the tide level in the Firth of Lorn drops below the level of the water in Loch Etive. On the ebb tide, the water in Loch Etive pours out through the narrows, which are spanned by Connel Bridge. During flood tide, the currents and waves create an exciting and frothy place for paddling a sea kayak.

Lizzie, our instructor, carefully explained how wind and tide combine and how to check tide timetables and sailing navigation books to ensure that when kayaking you’re making the most of the wind at your back and the tide flowing with you – or, at least, avoiding the worst of a headwind and a tide flowing against you.

This kayak expedition planning will take some practice and will change according to the time of the year, but it makes a great deal of sense.

And, so, for much of the day of kayaking we enjoyed a tail wind and easy going tide flow. The conditions were also favourable for teaching such practical skills as side paddling, preventing a fall-in, ferry gliding falling in and rescuing each other, as well as self-rescue. The former is for when you’re paddling as a group and need to help someone who has fallen in to get back into their boat. The latter is for solo kayakers to help themselves to get back into the kayak if they fall in. The former is much easier than the latter!

While our small group each managed to easily rescue each other, when it came to self-rescue the G-Force gave a good example of how tough this technique is to master. (An alternative is to learn to Eskimo Roll in a boat.)

Check out this video of the G-Force attempting a sea kayak self-rescue. It made me laugh. A lot!


The day was rounded off with an exciting paddle down the very frothy Falls of Lora. I am still surprised that none of us fell in!

Day two on a tides and navigation sea kayak course

The second day proved to be hot, sunny and extremely still. Our guide for the day was Stuart, the founder of the National Kayak School and a paddler with a huge amount of experience. As a group, we decided we’d like to plan a route taking account of tides and winds (not much wind to be honest but enough to make a wee bit of a difference to paddle speed). Stuart chose Loch Feochan, south of Oban, as our destination and we looked at tide timetables and sailing guides to make sure we’d catch the flow of the water to our advantage. It is fairly complicated what with GMT to adjust, high tides and low tides, ebbs and flows, wind direction and weather forecasts to take into account, but it’s not too much of enigma and with experience I can see how self-guided sea kayaking adventures could be well within the realm of the G-Force and I.

The route planned and we could relax and paddle sea waters of utter gorgeous-ness. Clear turquoise and blue waters dazzled as we paddled along the edge of an ever-changing coastline. Seals came out to play and we even spotted a peregrine falcon. This was sea kayaking in Scotland at its very best and utterly attractive. I do hope we’ve not been spoilt because it would be very difficult to beat the amazing weekend of sea kayaking! I bet we’ll give it a try in the coming months, though!

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