Jo tries sea kayaking in north-west Scotland
A friend, Jo, was inspired to try sea kayaking on Scotland’s west coast. She signed up for a course with Sea Kayak Plockton and enjoyed two days on the Learn to Sea Kayak course. The course was led by Sea Kayak Plockton owner Ali French.
Sea Kayak Plockton offers kayaking for all levels, from absolute beginners to those who are more experienced paddlers and would like to gain qualifications or become a kayak trainer themselves.
Ali said: “We believe in giving people confidence so that they can learn and develop paddling skills and enjoy the breath-taking beauty of the Scottish Highlands from a totally different perspective.
“Plockton is simply once of the best places to do this and to learn to kayak. We also lead trips for more experienced paddlers to other places, such as the islands of Skye and St Kilda.
“We’re also famous for our Sea Kayak Plockton ‘elevenses’: Homemade flapjack made to a secret recipe, eaten while sitting in your kayak.”
Jo’s beginner sea kayak course
This is Jo’s experience in her words.
I was inspired by a friend’s photos of stunning Scottish vistas accessed by sea kayak – think turquoise water lapping vast white sandy shores – and was reassured by Ali that despite being an absolute beginner I would be fine to join her two-day course.
I was very fortunate with the weather in April and the day dawned like a jewel, with the landscape bathed in the sort of brilliant sunshine that is never taken for granted on the west coast of Scotland.
I set off early from my accommodation in Applecross with views from Bealach na Ba over the water to the splendour of the Island of Skye and the might Cuillin mountains. I could tell it was going to be an absolute corker of a day and my anticipation built as I drove on to Plockton.
The Highlands village itself is picturesque and achieved notoriety as the setting for the TV drama Hamish Macbeth. It is a natural harbour with many little inlets and points of interest.
Our small group met at 10am and I was introduced to Mervyn, from Hexham, and Hugh, from the Black Isle. Ali handed us our dry bags containing kit selected for each person based on height and weight details given in advance. I thought this attention to detail was good because it dispensed with the need to wade through a load of kit at the expense of time on the water.
We changed in the (immaculate) local toilets. Essentially, we wore a wetsuit without arms, a fleece over that, then a windbreaker waterproof jacket on top with a spray deck around the waist. We were given neoprene boots for the feet and a buoyancy aid on top.
On other days you might need a woolly hat and pogies (kayaking mitts) but this was a rare sun-cap-and-sunglasses day.
We unloaded the kayaks from Ali’s trailer and then there was some dry land fitting and adjustment with the footrests and some explanation from Ali about correct posture and position in the kayak. Before long we were all safely ensconced in our kayaks and on the water.
I was initially quite unstable and Ali spent time reassuring me and getting me to relax and find confidence and, with it hopefully, stability. We paddled as a group to various points, including a buoy, the end of a jetty etc to get the feel for paddling and manoeuvring the kayaks in the water.
The bay was sheltered and we were still close to the shore so it was the perfect place for gaining confidence.
After a short group paddle along the shoreline and under a bridge, Ali announced it was time “elevenses” and broke out some homemade flapjacks, which were delicious.
We made use of the flat water here to learn some techniques, such as “edging”, which enables you to steer while paddling. We did a bit of “follow the leader” with Ali in front and the three of us trying to use our new-found techniques to imitate (with varying success) her swerves to the right and left.
Our next short outing was across to the opposite shore and beyond Plockton to a little pebbly beach where we got out and ate our lunch in the sun.
It felt so incredible to be surrounded by a stunning amphitheatre of mountains, not least the Torridonian mountains beyond with a dusting of snow on the tops that sparkled in the sun for added dramatic effect.
Ali commented that I couldn’t stop smiling while paddling that morning – and it was true. I love the beauty of the west coast of Scotland.
After lunch, we paddled around some islands, practised more edging and learned other paddling techniques. On the far side of the islands it was a bit choppy and I was quite unstable in my boat. Ali quickly saw this and clipped me on to her kayak until we were past the choppy bit.
Once past the chop, I was released into the wild again and we paddled back to shore. We changed back into our own clothes – the wet stuff went back with Ali and she had it all cleaned and dried for us the next day.
Day 2 of Sea Kayak Plockton course
On the second day we met at Dornie on the Kyle of Lochalsh and we were joined by Jose. He had all his own kit and has clearly fallen in love with sea kayaking. He currently works as a restaurant manager but he hopes to qualify and go on to teach sea kayaking for a living.
Conditions were cloudy and sombre but it was relatively windless and not raining. I felt as though the gloomy weather perfectly suited the atmospheric castle setting.
Ali had decided I should paddle a wider boat and it felt a lot more stable, which came as a relief.
We got into Loch Long by a small slipway and paddled under the road bridge and over to Eilan Donan Castle, which is so iconically Scottish. We revised the techniques from yesterday and while the basic structure of the day was the same as the first we explored new locations and were taught new techniques as we paddled.
It was a true delight, too, to spot an array of wildlife including numerous herons and oyster catchers and, for me the real highlight, an otter playing in the water.
Day two ended with capsize drill, which was optional but I think it’s good to embrace new learning experiences and it’s part of the requirement to attain the BCU 1 star award.
I discovered it’s actually quite fun to capsize, get out of the boat and swim for the shore.
I had such a wonderful experience learning sea kayaking with Ali and I’m hungry to do more. It’s great to have a new hobby to explore and to see the west coast from the sea, rather than the land.
A few words about instructor Ali
Besides being a great instructor, Ali struck me as an inspirational lady. Beneath her calm and personable exterior there was clearly a lot of thought going on. I think even from the outset she had quietly assessed the build and flexibility of each of us, and how suited we were to our various vessels.
She was quickly able to assess our relative abilities and contextualise this against the conditions each day (tides, wind direction, chop) in order to discretely risk assess and plan a day that would deliver maximum enjoyment and learning with minimal chance of hazard.
Ali originates from England and was drawn to this landscape many years ago with a fledgling idea to set up a sea kayaking business. The business has flourished (she now employs other instructors and arranges expeditions), although she comments that the Highlands economy is seasonal and fragile.
She has combined all of this with raising her two children, now young adults, who are high achievers themselves. Her daughter is studying medicine at Edinburgh University and her son is in Italy training with the British Cycling elite squad.
All of this information was gleaned through conversation, as she is a fairly understated and modest person.
There were plenty of things I would have liked to ask her about all of this, but to be honest all my energy was focused on trying to kayak in a straight line. Maybe I’ll ask her more on my next course.
Find out more at Sea Kayak Plockton.