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Peer Paddle: Lybster to Wick (22nd August 2015)

Organizer: Margaret Matthews

Started Lybster 10:50
Lunch (Whaligoe): 14:00 -14:55
Coffee Break (The Haven): 16:20 - 16:45
Arrived Wick: 19:00
Distance : 25km (plus)

Nineteen ICC paddlers (plus a guest) met on Friday evening at Wick campsite. The weather forecast for the next day promised a very warm day (25 to 26 degree), some wind and rain. From the map it was obvious there would not be many escape routes along the way.

On Saturday morning a shuttle down to Lybster was organized, 14miles along the A99. Graham Bull was already waiting in Lybster so we had a group of 20 altogether. All but two cars had to return to Wick to be at the end of the paddle, so it was nearly 11am before we eventually launched.

After a slightly dull morning it was now glorious sunshine and, owing to the heat, one or two stripped off their upper half down to the BA!Some others however, who didn't have a wetsuit or 2piece wore drysuits (or rather ‘boilersuits’ in this weather!). The beach was quite a steep shingle beach and the sea welcomed us with a gentle, but recognizable swell.

It was decided to paddle in a big group but for safety reasons, 3 leaders and sub groups were appointed, (though in actual fact, the whole group stayed pretty well together).   Such a tactic however, avoids the leaders having to always stay at the back counting up to 20! Not long after the launch the first arch approached, followed by some easy rock hopping, paddling along below high cliffs, deserted by the birds which were nesting here in big numbers just a few weeks ago.

After half an hour paddling, a sheltered bay was used to adjust clothing where necessary and for some to cool down. This bay, with a little beach, was the last easy landing opportunity for the next 2.5hours.

Our lunch spot was Whaligoe Steps, about 11km north of Lybster. Eleven kilometers of stunning coastline, lots of stacks, geos (inlets) and skerries. A seakayakers playground and paradise, with the swell from the strong winds two days previously offering challenges to everyone who wanted to choose a line close to the cliffs and rocks.

Caves were everyone’s favourite and congestion before the cave entrances (or other narrow gaps) was a common sight! One of my favourites was the one-way-system cave.   We entered on the right hand side, in single file, penetrated into the twilight before reaching the shingle beach at the end of the cave, where a turn around a rock added an extra little challenge, as the cave was just 1 or 2 feet longer the boats, which were bobbing up and down in the swell that got stronger at the end of the cave as it narrowed.   We then paddled out on the left hand side. It worked perfectly.

The gentle swell became rather choppy approaching Clythness Lighthouse, and so no one tackled the "standing" breaking wave which built up over the submerged skerry. It became even more difficult to take photos with a straight horizon, as there was too much movement.  I am glad I have a user-friendly photo editor or the water would flow out of every photo!

Now the really challenging stretch began. The swell had more power, there were more rocky features just under the surface and more obstacles so there was a lot of white water close to the cliffs. However, there was still plenty of choice of line: stay out and away or take on the challenge and get the timing right. As always, at least one of the leaders in the group went for the challenging line and went first to show the way. They then waited at the exit so there was always someone keeping a reassuring eye on you, ready to intervene if something happened. (Something? Capsize!).

Half the group tackled what we called Hole of Hell. It is a long arch more than 50m long. It varied in width too and the swell built up in it. Paddling against the swell was tricky as it was sucking you sometimes from left to right then right to left, close to the rocks. Timing was like gambling.The best tactic was to get up a bit of speed before entering. Everyone who went through regretted that no-one had a GoPro or similar camera mounted on the boat as the water movement and the sound were just so impressive.

There had been a lot of excitement and eventually we got to the lunch spot at Whaligoe Steps three hours after launching.It must be one of the longest legs of a journey during a club paddle that has ever been made! The average speed was slow (less than 2.5km per hour) but we were playing around such a lot and having great fun!

There wasn’t much room in the geo for 20 boats to land: two tiny, shingle beaches and the tide was coming in. Half the group went up a few steps picnicking on the grassy platform while others stayed on the rocks to keep an eye on the boats, ready to save them from floating off.The sun was now hidden behind clouds so cags or at least shirts were freed out of the hatches and put on before we continued on after nearly an hour.

We encountered some other coastal explorers, though they were in a power boat. We almost overlooked the fact that we had got ourselves between their RIB and a skerry with Grey Seals, which were now already in the water.

Shortly after relaunch we had another instance of congestion in front of a narrow passage between big rocks. The passage was not long, but very committing with 1-1.5m high walls of water surging through irregularly. Timing and technique were again crucial. Here we had the first capsize of the day. Fortunately no head hit the rocks and the paddler was flushed back to the start where Justin was still waiting. A speedy rescue was executed and the trip went on. Only 1.5 hours after lunch did we stop for our coffee break at The Haven, the last proper landing spot before Wick.

Shortly after relaunch for the final leg of the journey, we had the second swimmer of the day, followed by a nearly perfect deep water rescue in pretty rough conditions. Too close to rocks, swell and wrong timing (and tiredness creeping in?) were all possible reasons for the capsize. However, no harm was done.

At nearly half past 5 a small group wanted to end the playtime and opted for the express paddle to Wick, so we split into an explorer group of 14 and 6 went on to Wick without further distraction.
Although we had now been on the water quite a long time, the features along the coast were still tempting and some of us hadn't had enough excitement yet! We got a real treat paddling through a rocky island. A cave went through from one end to the other (over 100m) and had the ceiling missing in the middle. It was so impressive, some folks just had to go through it again, even though they seemed to have to paddle uphill. It was just great fun.   
With one last mile to Wick harbour to go, it was time to lower the adrenalin level. It could be said it was even slightly boring, especially as the swell in the harbour was minimal.  For some it was even a bit of a slog as we were all pretty tired. We finally beached just below the carpark at 7pm, happy that it had been such an amazing 25km (plus) coastline paddle.

The paddle for Sunday was cancelled because of high wind. It was sunny, but with 25mph winds blowing and gusting over 40mp from the south-east, there was no chance of a relaxing paddle.

The club will come back next June to paddle here again to see the Puffins and other nesting birds.

More pictures here

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