8 Lessons From a Bungled Expedition

My first solo sea kayak trip taught me a number of important lessons. I had a fantastic time and built a huge amount of confidence, but ultimately came up short. Here I reflect on where it went wrong and what I’d change for next time.

It’s been nineteen days since I landed at Bharcasaig on the Isle of Skye. My first solo expedition in the kayak had been cut short after 100 miles of paddling, 60 or so miles short of its objective. The tendons in my fingers had objected as I carried bags from my overnight camp to the kayak 48 hours earlier, but I’d subdued the thought that my body was trying to tell me something. At that point, on the Isle of Eigg, I had little option but to continue. But as I passed Talisker Bay on Skye, I was faced with the agonising decision to press on up the west coast or call it a day and paddle into Loch Bracadale and await pick up. After lengthy deliberation, the decision was made startlingly obvious to me as I manhandled the stove on the island of Wiay. Pain shot through my wrist and I knew it was time to quit. The next day I was on the ferry to Harris, wistfully gazing out across the Minch and contemplating what a fine evening it would have been for crossing in a kayak.

Day 2, paddling up the Sound of Mull. Ben More, Scotland’s only (true) island Munro, in the background.

The complete shutdown of the tourism industry due to COVID 19 had me dreaming of a six week solo kayak trip around the west coast of Scotland, but with the initial opening-up scheduled for the 15th July, my attention turned back to earning some money with Roam Outer Hebrides. A compromise was duly found – I’d paddle from Oban (where I’d been living over winter) back to Harris over 1-2 weeks and get back to work on my arrival. It looked like summer was saved; my days would be purposeful and productive once more and the daze of lockdown would be banished into distant memory. My expectations sky-rocketed, but it wasn’t long until I was having to agonisingly downgrade them as self-inflicted injury dictated play. 

Camping at Bloody Bay at the north end of the Sound of Mull.

Having arrived on Harris, I spent much time emailing, rearranging and postponing trips with the belief that ‘It’ll just need a little bit longer’. Ten days after I’d stepped out of the boat on Skye I met my first customers of the year, and knew that I shouldn’t have been there. Even connecting the kayak trailer to the tow bar of the car had been a painful experience, but I didn’t have the heart to cancel at the last minute. That evening, I resolved to take a whole week off, but as the days drew on there was little improvement. I spoke to the GP who prescribed anti-inflammatory tablets and gel, and spent a significant amount of time with my lower arms wrapped in ice packs. But eventually, around the end of July, the realisation dawned on me. Running any trips this season was going to risk severe and/or long term damage, and with a degree of disbelief and a lot of anger, I cancelled all scheduled trips. 

The magnificent Sanna Bay, and the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.

How had it come to this? Was I just not up to putting in big days in the kayak? Why had I been so stupid as to squander a lucrative and timely opportunity to earn some money? Perhaps another week would do it? I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on things, and have taken solace in the lessons learned from a bad outcome. As with many a bungle, it arose from an accumulation of a number of seemingly insignificant bad decisions and haste combined with a lack of planning. 

Camping on Muck, looking across to Rum.
  1. Don’t subject an expedition to time pressure: There had been a direct incentive to get back to Harris in less time, so that I could start work again. Rather than methodically plan daily progress and factor in contingency for bad weather days, I thought I’d just crack on; the sooner I got back, the better. It engendered an underlying, almost subconscious inclination to ‘press on’ – not good for unconditioned wrists. 
  1. Take more care of kit: A month or so earlier, I’d borrowed an expensive split paddle from a friend, Pat. A benefit of these is that the angle between the blades can be adjusted, so the repetitive motion of each wrist can be altered. Carelessly, I’d left the paddle on a bin by the slipway when we landed, and having assumed he’d picked it up thought nothing of its absence until a week later. By that time, it was too late and the paddle was never to be seen again. This resulted in my reluctance to borrow another one (and indeed of Pat to lend one!), meaning I used a fixed shaft paddle for the duration of the trip. 
  1. Don’t cut corners with equipment: Since I already had my own split paddle back on Harris, I didn’t want to invest in another one, so decided that I could make do with what I had. With hindsight, an investment earlier would (in part) have prevented a significant loss (in business revenue) later.
  1. Listen to those with experience: Pat had advised me on the merits of using a split paddle to avoid the exact problem that had befell me. In spite of his own record of multiple audacious sea kayak expeditions, I chose not to heed his advice. 
  1. Don’t listen to those with experience: Pat had also suggested that a week was plenty of time to get to Harris, and thus such an idea was implanted in my head. What I failed to take into account was both his propensity for enormous days and the physical condition he had developed from his previous expeditions. Physically, I was not capable of delivering such speedy progress, and should have already known this following the capitulation of my stomach muscles at the end of a 50 km paddle to Jura two months previous.
  1. Plan better: Ultimately, I didn’t spend enough time considering what I was personally capable of. I hadn’t set myself even a rough daily limit on mileage, and with long summer days and good conditions, it is only natural to get back in the boat and keep paddling unless there’s a good reason not to. I hadn’t figured out those reasons.
  1. Organise food supplies more carefully: Rather than work out how much I’d eat a day and multiply it by the number of days, I went for the ‘enough’ approach. What looked like an enormous quantity on day 1 had me wondering how long it would last by day 4. This approach works for anything up to 4-5 days, but beyond that a degree of calculation is certainly advisable. This only added to the pressure to ‘press on’ in the latter stages. 
  1. When your body says stop, stop: This becomes ever more important with age because things take longer and longer to heal. I spent many an hour in the boat weighing up the decision of stopping versus carrying on. The decision has to be made as soon as the initial pain or discomfort is felt, almost automatically. Stop, eat, camp, rest and reconsider the benefits and consequences of a decision to ‘press on’. In almost all circumstances (regardless of bodily injury or not), if there is doubt, one should stop. If not in the long term, definitely in the short term. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve continued (in the mountains or on the sea) when I’ve ignored the voice in my head telling me to reconsider.
The P&H Sirius that I’d borrowed from Pat for the trip. All my boats were stored up on Harris during the winter.

The critical point ultimately came at Sanna Bay on day 3. I’d left Mull at 5 am to get around Ardnamurchan Point before the wind picked up, and landed on the white sandy beach at 8 am. Content that a day of paddling had already been done, I brewed tea and spent many hours wandering about what is an incredibly scenic spot. Come 2pm, the allure of Muck in the distance was too much, and feeling rejuvenated after multiple lunches I decided to make the crossing and eventually pitched up at 8pm after another fairly arduous three hours. 

A premium camp spot on Harlost Island in Loch Bracadale, West Skye.

Unbeknown to me at the time, the crossing, as exhilarating as it was, had sown the seeds of destruction. 80 km in two days was too much, too soon. Even a short paddle to Eigg the following day did not offer sufficient time for recovery, and thus the toll on my body started to manifest. 

I’ve been at a complete loss as to what to do for the last few days. Even writing and typing have been off the cards as the dexterous movements of the fingers seem to aggravate the tendons. I’ve consoled myself with some long runs in the hills, lots of reading and a good few episodes of ‘Friends’ on TV. I’ve berated myself for wasting my time, but have been unable to find a ‘productive’ use for it. I’m slowly coming to accept what’s happened, and have tried to keep one eye on the big picture and the frankly fantastic opportunities I have to do these things in the first place. But, it’s not always been easy.

With my phone dead, my Coastguard compatriot appeared on the opposite headland waving his VHF radio. We were thus able to make arrangements for the following morning. Thanks Kyle!

They say you learn more from failure than success, and in the fullness of time I hope to look back on what has happened in the past few weeks and agree. As of yesterday, I’ve cut my losses, booked my ferry off the island and am heading home to spend a few weeks with my parents. Ideas are already forming for the next major sea kayak expedition, and I have no doubt that the lessons from this trip will stand me in much better stead for the next one. Onward and upward…

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