Rolling in the last of the sun

More from the Cumbrae Sea Kayak Symposium

In this second part of the blog about the Cumbrae Sea Kayak Symposium, I’ll look at the event as a whole and why you should attend a symposium. No matter what level you are at as a paddler there should always be something to learn.

In part one of this blog I talked mostly about sea kayak sailing. This was the main reason I went to the symposium. This time I’ll talk about the other sessions, the Saturday night guest speaker and Cumbrae as a centre.

Entrance to Cumbrae Watersports centre
I did get my Delphin on the water (despite the temptation of demo boats from P&H) for a half-day rock hopping and surfing session. More on that, and another video, later…

The general atmosphere

If you have never attended symposium before, you might be put off by the prospect of ‘talking shop’ all weekend with strangers. While there is a lot of sea kayaking talk, there are no strangers for long. Everyone is there to learn and everyone has something to offer. Be it a story, an opinion on a piece of kit, a handy coaching tip or just conversation on the water.

While I was a little disappointed to see only about 15 people in attendance, it meant that getting to know everyone was much easier. This social side of a symposium is not something to be scared of. A small event such as Cumbrae’s is an ideal opportunity if you are new to these events (as I was).

The centre itself

The centre is ideally located right on the edge of the water and on the (generally) sheltered side of the island. There is unlikely to be any huge swell or massive rock gardens due to the Kintyre Peninsula and Isle of Bute sheltering the small island from strong westerlies and the Atlantic Ocean.

Although the island is easily accessible from the mainland by CalMac ferry from Largs, I’d consider going across as a foot passenger or even kayaking across next time. It is about five minutes walk from the ferry terminal or about 20 minutes paddle from Largs.

Having a great centre with comfortable accommodation, good food (and a bar), make the whole experience more relaxing and pleasurable. I’ve been to other National Centres quite a bit (Glenmore Lodge, Plas y Brenin, Plas Menai) and Cumbrae did not disappoint. Although significantly smaller than these other centres, it is easier to get around. It did take me a while to find the ‘wet’ route from the changing rooms to the dining area…

Cumbrae has all the facilities you’d expect including a large and effective drying room, a decent kit store of stuff you can borrow if you forget anything, and spacious changing rooms with showers.

Although my room was small, it was warm, comfortable and had an ensuite bathroom with shower. Considering how little time in spent in it, it was perfect for my needs. The one minute walk across to the main centre meant that getting soaked in the rain wasn’t a concern.

Demo boats

Another reason for going to a symposium is that there are usually demo boats available to try. If not, many sea kayakers are willing to let you try their kayaks for a short blast. If you are looking for your own kayak (which is a huge stepping stone to developing your paddling ability) then trying as many as possible is vital.

I’ve had my eye on a couple of possibilities recently to replace my P&H Outlander…

P&H Sea kayak demo fleet at Cumbrae
Having a range of sea kayaks available to try on the water gives you an opportunity to really get a feel for how well suited they are to you and your intended paddling.

Thankfully Matt Haydock of Rapid Development was one of the coaches over the weekend. He is a Team Pyranha paddler, did my Sea kayak Leader assessment and a calm and engaging coach. He had driven to Runcorn and back to collect a fleet of demo boats from P&H / Pyranha and bring them to the symposium.

This meant that I could try the various sizes of their Cetus, compare the Aries 155 to my plastic Delphin, feel the difference in weight between the carbon Cetus LV and standard construction MV (the LV was so much lighter) and also paddle many of these.

The result? I now have settled on the HV Cetus as being the boat I’d like for my personal paddling / expeditions. Reinforced carbon construction if I can afford it. This is one purchase that will have to wait for quite a while.

I also discovered that the Aries is essentially the same hull shape as the Delphin, therefore making the decision between a Cetus or Aries much easier.

In case you did not know, Pyranha is the parent company of P&H and Venture Kayaks / Canoes. They are also made in Britain and feature quite a lot of recycled kayaks in their new boats.

Pyranha kayak logo

P&H also support Otter Adventures and all my boats come from their UK manufacturing base in Runcorn. As the business develops, I hope to have a wider range of their kayaks available for people to try out. This will be useful as I aim to have ‘Learn to paddle’ weekends available in conjunction with Otterburn Bed and Breakfast next year.

The guest speaker

Generally at a symposium there will be a guest speaker on the Saturday evening. Usually after dinner and with a beer in hand, the guest speaker will recount stories of adventures and epic crossings to inspire your paddling.

At this symposium we had Giles Trussell from Glenmore Lodge to entertain us (and coach on the water over the weekend). After several years of planning and waiting for weather windows, he finally managed to sea kayak solo to St. Kilda (over 60 miles of open water) and back. And this was the theme for his illustrated talk.

With hilarity at how to pee in a kayak, surprise at how easy it looks and a little insight into the psychology behind such journeys (including talking to the birds) it was a very worthwhile hour.

In my experience, it is rare that there is nothing to learn or enjoy about guest speakers at these events.

The actual coaching sessions

Sea kayak coaching session in action
One of the main reasons for attending is to be on the water with likeminded people and great coaches whilst developing your skills and understanding.

With a full weekend and a range of sessions on offer, one of the hardest things can be deciding which ones to go on. There were full-day open water or navigation journeys as well as half-day sessions. Rockhopping was popular as was the sea kayak sailing. Incident management and safety ran twice on the Sunday. Efficient forward paddling, which I didn’t manage to do, was one that we all should attend as a matter of continual development.

The coaching from some of the leading coaches are the main reasons for attending.

Manoeuvring and handling

This session centred on edging and controlling the kayak. Turning in open water and in the wind was our principle focus, but we also looked at manoeuvring in tight spaces.

Matt Haydock of Rapid Development provided us with an acronym that I had not heard before; T.A.S.T.E.S.

  • Timing
  • Angle
  • Speed
  • Trim
  • Edge
  • Skeg

With many similarities to the principles of white water kayaking, it was quite easy to remember this and begin to use the subtleties of each to really make a difference. I cannot emphasise how important it is to be able to use edge and skeg to help turn a sea kayak (or keep it going in a straight line).


There wasn’t really the scope for what I had envisaged due to environment and weather conditions. I have been spoilt with rockhopping (paddling near, around and often over rocks whilst the sea rages around you) in Pembrokeshire and Cornwall since I added sea kayaking to my skillset. However, it was great to put learning from a previous session into action on a short trip round the north of Cumbrae.

Given the conditions, this turned into an impromptu surf session (paddling with the waves hoping it will push you towards the beach). Thankfully Gules was adaptable and flexible (and competent and confident) enough to allow this to happen after a brief safety chat.

I love surfing kayaks on rivers and on the sea. There is something magical about the water flowing past you. It always looks much faster than it actually is.

My first taste on the sea was back in 1989 I was working at an outdoor centre in Cornwall and surfing a Prijon T-Slalom in the surf. Whilst my P&H Delphin is about the same length, it behaves so much more appropriately. Having some edges (in the front section) lifts the kayak out of the wave in front of you and stops it diving. The increased rocker helps with turning.

I never managed to get my old Pyranha In-a-zone 232 into the surf on a beach. That had real potential for fun… I do remember paddling all the way out to ‘The Bitches’ (a large and fast tidal race) near St. Davids in Pembrokeshire, only to be told to paddle back as the senior instructor wasn’t happy out there…

Just do it…

Stealing a phrase from Nike, just book on the symposium, sort the accommodation (easy when they are based at outdoor centres) choose your courses and be prepared to see a rapid development in you knowledge and understanding that will inform your development. With all this new knowledge in mind, you’ll be able to self-coach over the coming months / years and really develop your paddling and enjoyment knowing that you are up to date and current.

A big thank you to everyone at Cumbrae (cooks and cleaners included) who makes these courses happen and contributes to their smooth running. I hope to see you next year.