2010 Expedition Blog by guest writer Steve Robinson

This was written as a blog by our friend Steve on our recent trip. His latest post is at the top of the page whilst his first is at the bottom. To make sense of it please read it from the bottom of this page and follow the article in chronological order,(Dave)

May 21st- Reflections

As we left Dana yesterday afternoon the sea was mirror calm, and I resigned myself to a couple of hours hard paddling to reach the cars at the head of Loch Sween. This pessimism proved to be unfounded however, and it wasn't long before a gentle breeze was carrying us towards Tayvallich. The easy sailing conditions prompted me to think back over the trip, and consider what we had learnt along the way.

As we venture onto more exposed shores launching through surf is becoming more common. The small (18" to 24") surf gave us a few problems on this trip - although I believe that these problems stemmed more from the users rather than from the boats themselves. Wading on the seaward side of the boat with the bow facing the surf seems to be a good default setting.

The new trimarans fared well, the seaworthness and high sailing performance was no surprise, although I was surprised by how well they could be paddled by one person. Although we proved that they can tackle a difficult portage, I think that the Shearwater, at half the weight of a trimaran is still a superior one person expedition boat. The weight is less of an issue with two crew however, and I think that a trimaran would be my first choice as a two person expedition boat, providing I had access to a trailer (or at least a very sturdy car) to transport it.

The Shearwaters continued to impress, being remarkably seaworthy, great fun to sail, and having plenty of dry storage space for gear.

The other new idea we have tried out on the trip was blogging. As the expedition is now over this will be my last blog entry, although I am trying to persuade Dave Stubbs to take up the mantle by writing a workshop blog.

Expedition members Dave, Dave and Gavin will be at the Beal Park Boat Show from the 4th - 6th June, along with two of the boats used on this trip. If you would like to come along and talk about our adventures on the west coast, or indeed about canoe sailing in general, then you would be very welcome.


May 20th- Fog

sailing canoes in fog,sound of Jurasailing canoes, isle of dannaWe awoke this morning to thick fog. Although fog has been an unusual occurrence on our previous West Coast trips the situation was not entirely unexpected, as the two ladies living in the light house on Islay had mentioned that fog was forecast when Jeff and Gavin visited them earlier in the week.

The fog led to some hasty GPS programming, as we all plugged in the coordinates for our destination of Dana. The functionality of GPS never ceases to amaze me, and it was great to see our exact destination appear from the fog after an hour and a half of sailing. GPS can get a bad press sometimes, with the detractors of GPS citing the increased efficiency offered by dead reckoning when making long crossings across fluctuating tidal streams. Despite the received wisdom being that dead reckoning is superior, I think that this view should be balanced against our experience that the variable and unpredictable speed of small sailing boats can make dead reckoning itself a far from efficient system. One definite disadvantage of GPS that we have experienced is the possibility of user error or equipment failure, but we find that these issues can be largely solved by having a separate GPS unit in each canoe.

With the benefit of hindsight I think it is fair to say that we have wondered whether this mornings crossing of the Sound of Jura was really such a good idea. Although we took precautions, carrying collision flairs, staying in a tightly packed group and carrying VHF radios, I think it could be argued that a more sensible response to the risks posed by collision with a large ship might have been to stay on the beach. I have a vague memory that Margaret Dye's book on dinghy cruising specifies a minimum height at which a radar reflector hung from a boat is effective, but I can't remember how this relates to the height of our masts - although given the rarity of fog on the West Coast of Scotland, I wonder if it would be better to not carry a radar reflector, and just accept that crossings should be avoided in fog. (Edit I checked when I got home, Dye specifies 15', which is more or less the height of our masts).

At present we are sitting on the beach on Dana (NR688775), waiting for the tide to change so we can make our way into the mouth of Loch Sween. It looks like we could be eating in the pub in Tayvallich tonight!


May 19th- The Portage

sailing canoe on portageIn the event the portage was all over and done with in two hours. We made two trips, and I would even go so far as to say that I enjoyed it. Much of the misery of portages can come from inadequate trolleys that break or fold up on themselves, with this in mind I am constantly impressed by the fibreglass Solway Dory trolley that I use for my Avocet. Although the trolley does not fold up, it is compact enough to fit into the cockpit of my boat, and I believe that the non folding design was the key to success on today's portage, which I am told has a reputation amongst sea kayakers for destroying trolleys. This evening we are camped at Tarbet (NR608819), trying not to notice the flat calm sea that would have been ideal for a trip through the Corryvreckan on this evening's slack tide.


May 19th- West Loch Tarbet

sailing canoe, west loch tarbetThis morning as force 5 winds rattled the tents we began to be concerned that the forecast lighter winds wre not going to arrive in time for our trip through the Corryvreckan. Getting stormbound at the top of Jura could have given us a problem getting back to work on time, so we switched to our plan B and set sail for West Loch Tarbet and the dreaded portage. Any regrets that I had about cutting our trip short were soon banished by the fantastic sailing in West Loch Tarbet. Reaching along the narrow strip of water, surrounded by the rugged grandeur of Jura's moorland gave us the best sailing of the trip so far. Further up the loch I was reminded of our trip to the Stockholm Archipelago as I sailed at full tilt towards a seemingly impenetrable rock wall, trusing the map and GPS that an opening would appear at the last minute.

The wind died as we reached the impressive rock gorges at the head of the loch, and we were overtaken by a group of sea kayakers from Mallaig (they were kind enough to tell us that they had tried to catch up with us earlier in the week but had been unable too).

We shared a lunch stop with the sea kayakers and when we told them that we were going to portage the boats over the landrover track to Tarbet I got the impression that they thought us a little mad, but were too polite to say, I have to say that at the time I was wondering if they might be right.


May 18th- Islay

Wild campsite on IslayTonight's beach features white sand, rock arches, otters, soft grass for camping and driftwood for a fire... Sound familiar? It does to me too as tonight we are on the same beach as we were last night. As we set off into the surf this morning Jeff broke the rudder on his home made plywood canoe. We returned to the beach, and Jeff effected a very ingenious repair using a metal strap eye as a rudder gudgeon, but by this point the inshore forecast had changed and was referring to a Force 7. Not surprisingly we decided not to set out, and instead we stayed on the beach, watching the whirlwind sandstorms filling the boats with sand. In such a beautiful place it was not hard to find ways to amuse ourselves, I bouldered, Dave beach combed (he found a message in a bottle) and Jeff and Gavin went for a walk to the lighthouse.


May 17th- Islay

sailing canoe on Islay Will this blog become boring if I constantly eulogise about the fantastic beaches on Scotland's west coast? Today we sailed through the Sound of Islay, and we have now set up camp on a fantastic beach on the northern end of Islay (NR411789). The tidal sailing in the Sound of Islay was great, close hauled at 9 knots, with the sun bouncing off the water. Tonight's beach features white sand, rock arches, otters, soft grass for camping and driftwood for a fire. The interesting thing for me about a blog, as opposed to a more traditional expedition account, is that I'm writing this not knowing what the outcome of the trip will be. The forecast looks good for a complete circumnavigation of Jura though, so that's still plan A.


May 16th- Jura

shearwater sailing canoecamping on JuraThis afternoon saw us sailing down the coast of Jura on the kind of 6 knot reach that reminds me while canoe sailing is my favourite sort of canoeing. The sun shone and Jura's paps appeared from out of the clouds.

The fantastic afternoon was made all the more pleasurable by the contrast to the morning which had seen us beating into a force 4/5 as we sailed across the Sound of Jura after launching from Carsaig (NR734878). The wind was blowing against the tide which made for some tough conditions to test out the prototype trimarans that Dave and Dave are sailing. Dave had mentioned to me in the car the previous day that he had some concerns that although he had made the fittings on the trimarans stronger than on a normal sailing canoe, they might still not be strong enough to cope with the very high strains that the lack of healing in a trimaran imposes on the mast, outrigger beams and foils. In the event the new boats coped admirably, even better than the tried and tested Shearwater design in fact.

As I write we are sitting on a fantastic sandy beach camp site on Jura (NR543710). Tomorrow we are setting off for the Sound of Islay.



May 15th- We've Arrived

trimaran with expedition gearWe are here on the West Coast, and we are spending tonight on a commercial camp site in Tayvallich (NR745875). We have arranged with the campsite owner that we will leave the cars on the camp site for the duration of the trip. Setting up camp provided an opportunity to see the gear that everyone had chosen to bring with them. One of the nice things about canoe expeditions is that you can carry a little more gear than you could get away with on a backpacking trip. It is wise not to get too carried away however as too much luxury can result in a slow heavy boat and difficulties if we need to portage.

Jeff's regime is the most austere as he will be carrying no chair or pillow. Dave Stubbs and I sit (on the floor) in the middle as we have a pillow but no chair, while Dave Poskitt sits regally as he has both a pillow and a chair. I am unable to report on Gavin as he has gone to a bike shop to try to get a puncture repaired in the wheel of his portage trolley.



May 13th- Maps

Canoe sailing trips are a tough environment for maps, I have tried map cases and transpaseal, but I have often found that these solutions were found wanting when subjected to the occasional wave washing across the deck.

This will be the first trip on which I have used commercially laminated maps. I've known about the existence of laminated 1:50k OS maps for some time, but this year I was pleased to discover that "Above and Beyond" are also laminating 1:250k OS maps. I find that these 1:250k maps are superb for using on crossings, although I still use 1:50k maps for coastal navigation and spotting camp sites. Unfortunately the OS have stopped producing 1:250k maps, so if you want one it might be best to not wait too long before purchasing one.

The OS maps, together with a yachtie's pilot and a tide table will provide my main source of navigation info. I will also take laminated charts and a tidal steam atlas, but I find that in practice I refer to these items a lot less than the maps and pilot.

For navigational equipment I will mainly use a cheap Etrex H GPS, with a mountaineering compass as a back up. I have used "proper" gimballed compasses when sea kayaking, but I have not as yet felt the need for one when canoe sailing. The Etrex H is pretty low tech compared to some GPS units I have used, but I find it adequate as I often navigate by using just one half of a grid reference to locate my position along a shore line. Additionally, if I do need to enter a waypoint for a crossing, I like the ease with which the Etrek H can be programmed one handed while sailing.

This will be the last blog post published for a while as I am starting my journey north tommorrow. I will continue writing the blog with pen and paper, and start to publish these hand written accounts when we return from the trip.



May 12th- Food

I just got back from a trip to Tesco to buy my food for the trip. Dave Stubbs' wife is a Home Ec. teacher, I remember once packing up my expedition food in her living room, and witnessing her horror as she noticed that my shopping consisted almost entirely of fat, simple sugars and processed food. My excuse is that as I'm relatively skinny I struggle to carry enough food to see me through the twelve hour sailing days that are sometimes a feature of these trips.

I learnt when I was a teenager that when I'm in the outdoors I quickly start to suffer if I don't keep shoving in the calories, so I've spent a long time getting my expedition food perfected.

A typical day includes..

  • 2 cereal bars
  • half a bag of sweets and half a malt loaf
  • half a pack of Hovis crackers and half a tube of Primula
  • half a bag of peanuts and half a pack of biscuits
  • a tin of veggie curry and a pack of pre cooked rice

(3600 Kcal)

Other evening meal options include two tins of sausage and beans or two packs of pasta and sauce mixed with olives. I don't make much use of dehydrated food on canoe sailing trips, as we tend to carry all the water for the trip with us, so dehydrated food does not offer any weight advantage.

As you can see from the list I try to take food which is precooked so that I can get an instant lift at the end of a long day. Some people enjoy camp cooking, but I tend to see it as an obstacle to working out the next day's tides or gathering driftwood for the camp fire.

The processed food and lack of vitamins in my shopping trolley does lead to me hoping that the check out girl does not think that I eat like that all the time, but then again there is usually someone in the queue in front of me buying nothing but cat food and vodka, so I guess everything's relative.



May 11th– Trimarans on Windermere


solway dory trimaransolway dory trimaranI spent the weekend in the Lakes with Dave, Dave and Jan from Solway Dory. As well as providing an opportunity to study tide tables and discuss plans for the trip, I was also able to get out on the water and see the new Solway Dory Trimarans undergoing their “sea trials” on Windermere.


The new trimarans are markedly different to previous Solway Dory canoes, they are true two person boats, rather than being solo or “solo plus a passenger” canoes. The increased size gives the boats a very different feel as they are noticeably less twitchy than a normal sailing canoe. When I got to sail one the overall feel was reminiscent of sailing a Wayfarer sized dinghy.


The sail area is 88 square feet, which in light winds gave a two person performance that was comparable to the performance of my Shearwater being sailed solo. Given our previous experience with the earlier Osprey trimarans I suspect that in stronger winds the new trimarans would be considerably faster than a Shearwater.


Like everything in sailing boats there are compromises in the designs of the new trimarans, while not as heavy to get off the water as the aforementioned Wayfarer, the new Trimarans are noticeably heavier than a Shearwater when they are being moved around. To make another dinghy comparison I would say that wheeling them around felt similar to moving a Laser 2, although the trimarans have the advantage of being able to conveniently carry the launching trolley with them when they are on the water.

The two new trimarans will be coming on the trip with us, so it will be interesting to see how they fare.



May 7th- Cold Feet


With one week to go until the trip I've started the ritual of regularly checking the weather forecast. My rational brain tells me that weather forecasts are rarely accurate more than two days in advance, but still I check. I can't help it.


At present the forecasts are predicting a cold northerly air stream. Maximum temperatures of 5 °C, temperatures of mostly 1 to 2 °C. We usually do this trip in the first week in June, I usually come back with a sun tan.


In my former incarnation as a river paddler I did quite a lot of multi day trips in the depths of winter. Paddlers do that sort of thing. Something I learnt paddling ice fringed rapids was the importance of keeping your feet warm, not even the screaming hot aches caused by circulation returning to frozen hands can compete with the misery of cold wet feet.


The day I discovered drysuits and dry salopettes with built in socks was a revelation. Suddenly it was possible to do a whole trip with warm dry feet. These waterproof socks come pre fitted to some garments, or you can send clothing with ankle seals to companies like Trident UK to have them retrofitted. No more squeezing your feet into wetsuit socks and sodden wellies. I'd vote for that.


May 5th- Anchoring


testing bruce anchorWith 9 days to go until we start the trip we are starting to think about what gear we should use. Some decisions are very simple, I have used a gas converted Trangia stove and a Solway Dory Bermudan rig on every canoe sailing trip I have been on since 2002, and both bits of gear work so well that I can't imagine not taking them. Other gear decisions are less simple however.


On the first west coast trip I went on in 2002 not everyone carried an anchor. Things have moved on and anchors have become more popular in recent years. "Trolleying" a number of heavy boats up the beach at each lunch stop requires quite a lot of energy, and now that most people sail in drysuits or dry salopettes, attaching an anchor to the painter and wading ashore from shallow water has become a more attractive option. We still aim to haul the boats out when stopping over night, but I have heard tales of a couple of incidents where sailors returned to their canoes to find that the tide had risen further than anticipated and the boats were disappearing into the distance! The potential seriousness of these incidents is enough to make sure that I always attach an anchor to my painter whenever I am leaving the boat unattended on a beach.


Anchors can also prove usefull when encountering difficult situations. If night falls and no beach can be found a reliable anchor on a long rode can provide a solution (we once used this approach when we waded ashore on Skye). If I don't want to wade out through the surf, then paddling out and anchoring can provide an alternative means of sailing away from a lee shore.


On recent trips I have used a lightweight fisherman's anchor shackled to a length of chain. Although this arrangement has not failed me thus far, experimentation on the beach during the Mull trip proved that the holding power of this arrangement was worryingly low. Articles on the ‘net suggest that the principal of using a chain to introduce a catenary curve to the anchor rode falls down in strong winds, as the anchor rode pulls bar tight, destroying the catenary curve and breaking out the anchor. Following this line of thought it would seem sensible to ditch the chain and reinvest the weight saved in a heavier anchor. In the experiments we performed on the beach on Mull, Jeff's 2kg Bruce anchor performed well. I ordered one for myself over the weekend, and I believe Dave Stubbs is in the process of ordering one as well.


May 4th- Where shall we go?


Expedition blogging has become something of a phenomenon in the world of outdoor sports. Mountaineers type regular reports on their progress from Everest base camp and an American author has recently gone one step further, updating his blog via a lap top and satellite phone which he carries in a rucksack while undertaking multi day ski tours.


We know from people we meet that canoe sailors who look at the Solway Dory website enjoy reading expedition accounts, so this year I am going to attempt to "blog" our (almost) annual pilgrimage to the fantastic canoe cruising grounds on the West Coast of Scotland. Satellite phones and waterproof laptops are a bit beyond the budget of Solway Dory HQ (buy more boats please!) so we have decided to cheat and publish the accounts with a 7 day time delay. I did consider a subterfuge, but I thought we might get caught out if we didn't admit to the time delay and blogged about glorious sunshine when the west coast was entombed in clag.


So where will we be going on our expedition this year? We have decided to put off making a decision until the last minute, this will hopefully ensure that we sail in an area where the winds are the most favourable, rather than the more traditional approach of picking an area and hoping for a favourable wind direction. We employed this "wait and see" approach on our Mull circumnavigation last year and it paid off, so fingers crossed that the approach works again this year.


Choosing to not make a decision has not stopped us speculating on where we might possibly go. Some speculation has centred on how far we should aim to travel in a week and specifically whether a circumnavigation of Islay would be feasible in the time available. Although we have had some fantastic days in the past, like the day when we covered 30 miles (including 3.5 miles of portage!), analysis of previous trips shows that 17.5 miles per day is a more feasible average given some time waiting for suitable tides and weather. An Islay circumnavigation would be 115 miles, so that's probably a bit too far in a week, but at 65 miles a Jura circumnavigation should be feasible ...