I’m not sure if it was a brave or foolhardy thing to do. With hindsight and success I found it exhilarating and got a fantastic sense of achievement. Things might well have gone differently. What did I do? I paddled across the Minch, the long way, from Lochmaddy to Uig by myself, a total of 48km or 30NM.
I spent a long time beforehand weighing up the likely ‘what ifs’.
-what if I fall in?
-what if I get too tired?
-what if I get injured?
-what if it gets foggy?
-what if I get run over by the ferry?
Most of these I was happy I could solve, but I did realise that I was dependant on the ferry having a good lookout. Finally I had no more excuses. I had just another three days before I was due to leave North Uist after a summer season working at Uist Outdoor Centre. I studied the various weather forecasts ad nauseum. I didn’t just need light wind and good visibility; I needed to know that it would last all day, with no nasty surprises just when I was getting tired.
As time was running out, a possible weather window appeared. While England was experiencing whole months worth of rainfall in a single day, and homeowners were baling out their living rooms, I was setting off from Lochmaddy in glorious sunshine.
The water was not the flat calm that I wanted. The plan was to paddle out into the Minch and see what conditions were like. I kept telling myself that I could always turn back if I didn’t like it. The centre was quiet and deserted. No one saw me leave and this added to the sense of isolation I felt later. I left a note of my intended journey for the others to find when they got to work. With a cheery ‘Good Luck’ from the coastguard I set off.
Four kilometres paddling got me to Madadh Beag, or ‘Little Hound’, one of three sea stacks that guard the mouth of Lochmaddy and give the loch and village their names. At Madadh Beag I was disappointed to find out that the wind, about a force three was going to be on my starboard bow at just enough of an angle to make me think about steering all the way.
I set the GOTO function on my GPS for Waternish Point on Skye, picked a landmark on the skyline and set off. It quickly became apparent that in order to keep the bearing (intended direction) and track (actual direction) figures the same I would have to paddle a giant ferry glide to allow for the wind. With a new landmark to aim for, I set off.
The time of day that I set off was determined not by the tides but by the timetable of the CalMac ferry that was to be the return leg of my journey. I hoped to do the crossing in six hours in flat calm conditions, but had to rapidly extend this estimate in light of the unfavourable wind. Just to be on the safe side I set off with ten hours before the return ferry was due to leave. As luck would have it, my weather window occurred on neap tides, so I was expecting a maximum flow of just 0.4 knots at mid tide. Even better, the first leg of the journey was going to be either side of low water slack. My plan to keep my track the same as the bearing on the GPS would deal with the effects of wind and tide, keeping me on the shortest route.
My plan was to paddle out into the Minch for ten kilometres and then make a decision whether to continue or not. I thought at that point I could easily return if I didn’t like the conditions. I tried to be disciplined enough not to keep on looking at my distance paddled, hoping that this way the numbers would seem to increase more quickly. It didn’t work. I held out for as long as I could, and then when I was sure I must have paddled at least ten kilometres, I took a look. How disappointed could I get? I had covered just four kilometres.
Going back was not really an option. I didn’t want to fail. I had set myself up to paddle the Minch and this was exactly what I was going to do. I gritted my teeth and carried on.
One possible problem that I hadn’t considered was that of boredom. It took me five hours to reach Waternish, and all the time the view barely changed. I tried singing to myself. This worked for a short time until I couldn’t remember any more words. I tried counting paddle strokes, working out how many strokes I did in 100metres, and hence how many in one kilometre. I then tested this out by counting strokes for several more kilometres. At this point I was wishing I had a waterproof ipod. A bit of music would have been a good distraction. I did get a couple of things to break the monotony though. A harbour porpoise came to say hello, arching alongside my boat close enough that I could almost touch it. It didn’t stay long, but was great to see. The second distraction was the ferry, leaving Uig and sailing to Lochmaddy, the exact opposite of my route. I could see it coming, but could it see me? I got my compass out and measured the collision angle on a number of occasions. The angle stayed the same, indicating a collision course. I changed direction, but could my slow speed compared with the ferry make any difference at all? Eventually the ferry appeared to make a slight alteration in course. This was enough to tell me that someone had seen me. I could relax a bit. In the end we passed close enough that I could make out figures on the bridge and in the passenger lounge.
By now, I was starting to make out features on the Waternish peninsula. Small white blobs surrounded by grass which I had previously thought were sheep turned out to be the houses of a village. How wrong can you get? Eventually the white spot on the headland revealed itself to be a lighthouse, and a short while later, the black blob beside it became a lone walker, stopping for lunch. I was pretty keen to land by now. I hadn’t had anything to eat since setting off as I made the mistake of putting my food in my day hatch, blindly assuming that conditions would be flat enough for me to retrieve it en route. Wrong again! I found a sheltered spot to land just east of the point. I was ashore for just twenty minutes before the midges found me. Just long enough to stuff a bit of food down, change my fleece and attend to natures call. I felt revived as I got back in my boat. The last five kilometres had been very hard and I really felt that I was running on empty fuel tanks.
For the first part of the next leg I had a coastline to follow. It made such a difference to have a changing view and an obvious clue that I was making progress. I guess I was getting distracted by the novelty of cliffs and the shoreline when I was brought back to earth with a jolt, or rather, a spine jarring scrunch as I failed to notice the gelcoat splitting rocks just below the surface. I winced as I thought of the scrapes on the hull and started to pay a bit more attention.
The Ascrib islands quickly got closer, and I was able to make out an impressive looking house on the Southern most Island. The sea was soon dotted with hundreds of inquisitive
heads all pointing in my direction. I had disturbed a seal colony as they lay hauled out on the rocks of a nearby skerry.
The final leg of the journey to Uig seemed endless. I could see my target but it wasn’t getting any bigger. I guess when I reached Waternish I had switched off, feeling that the crossing was over. In fact at Waternish I was just a bit over half way to Uig. By now my arms really felt like they were about to drop off. My paddle felt like lead and every bit of me hurt. The jolt back to reality came when I tried to lift my boat from the rocky spot where I landed up to the pier, a distance of about fifty metres. It took me forever. At last, with the boat on the pier, I went to the CalMac office to get a return ticket. On the ferry, I bought the biggest meal the canteen could offer and then fell asleep for the rest of the crossing. At Lochmaddy, my boat was carried from the ferry for me by a couple of crew members who had last seen me in the middle of the Minch.
All that remained to do was drink a celebratory dram with my boss. It was well earned.
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