Sea kayaking around Ardnamurchan Point
Sea kayaking around Ardnamurchan Point is, occasionally, a calm affair and a trip to be savoured. Mostly it is a rough, wild place exposed to the ravages of the North Atlantic storms. Picking the right day to kayak around ‘The Point’ is crucial unless you like your paddling to be challenging! The exposed coastline combined with no easy egress points makes it a wild place in poor weather.
Ardnamurchan Point, or Àird nam Murchan in Gaelic (translates as ‘headland of the great seas’), juts out into the Atlantic with little around it except the Isle of Mull to the south, the Small Isles to the north-west and, in the distance, Coll and Tiree. Paddle westwards, miss these and the next stop would be Nova Scotia!
My son passed his fourteenth birthday in 2019 and has not paddled that much. I have however been loosely training him as an outdoor guide, not specifically a sea kayak guide though. Since sea kayaks enthuse him the most (apart from cycling), starting with that would be the most engaging for him. A few of you have had his company on trips during the summer holidays. I hope this year he may join in on more trips, but only if I feel he is ‘useful’ and able to look after himself as well as guests.
The seas and winds were at odds with each other for the first five kilometres as we sea kayaked out of Loch Sunart from Kilchoan. Although rougher than anticipated, we were pretty confident we would manage them and that they were going to be in our favour as we rounded the first main headland.
Those of you familiar with the shipping forecasts and inshore water forecasts will know that Ardnamurchan Point separates the forecasts to the south (to Mull of Kintyre) and north to Cape Wrath. It is also the most westerly point on mainland UK and steeped in tradition. It is said that sailors who were successful in completing a rounding of the point would place a sprig of white weather atop their mast – something we lack in our sea kayaks (unless you look at my previous post on sea kayak sailing)
These were the forecasts for 30/11/2019 issued at 05:05:
Malin: Easterly 4-6 occasionally 7 in S Rockall. Backing Northerly or NE 2-4 Showers. Good.Coastal station weather reports:
Tiree Automatic. SE. 4. 27 miles. 1021. Steady.Inshore waters:
Mull of Kintyre to Ardnamurchan Point: East or South East. 3 or 4 becoming variable 2 or less then north 2-4 later. Mainly Fair. Good.
Ardnamurchan Point to Cape Wrath: Variable 4 or less becoming NW 3-5. Showers. Good.
With a favourable forecast and the tidal streams working very much with us, we were looking at rounding the point approximately two hours after high water Dover. This would mean a 12:00 start and still having time for lunch on the way. Having the tidal flow going with us, slack water at the point and, soon after, the tidal stream working north-east towards Sanna Bay, we had everything going our way…
Except that I had used Friday’s tide times and not Saturday’s! This minor error meant around a 45-minute difference between the two days. With the sun setting around 16:00, we could not delay our start time and just accepted that there may be a gentle flow against us for the last few kilometres.
The actual adventure
Launching from the slipway by the Ferry Stores in Kilchoan (public toilets and showers available here) at 12:10, we were off to a perfect start. Except that the wind was blowing a little stronger than forecast and creating a slightly rougher sea than desired. It was certainly the roughest sea and trickiest conditions that Cameron, my son, had kayaked in. How long it would take us to get into the lee of the land and see the wave size drop. I was a little apprehensive for him at this point and hope that I did not show this in the questions I was asking and the conversations we were having.
Once past the last house in Kilchoan, these cliffs will become your company. With few landing points and even fewer egress points, it is a wild and remote location to be sea kayaking.
I had mentally given us until the end of the road and the most westerly house in Kilchoan to see how he was doing and use that as a decision point. Any further and we would have been paddling into wind and tide for significantly longer than it had taken us to get out. Thankfully, he was looking very comfortable and I saw little need to turn back, just a desire to keep close in case a capsize were to happen.
The cliffs got bigger and the landscape more remote and untouched. It was obvious that we were making great speed despite the waves coming across us and turning us towards Mull. The wind was also blowing us sideways towards the shoreline, so no danger of paddling out to Mull (or worse). In well under an hour we had covered over five kilometres, more than a third of the journey, and we were looking for a suitable beach to land on for a quick lunch break.
A little chat whilst paddling and I left Cameron to make the decisions on where and when. 13:00 was his choice of time; his choice of location a good one. A small bay that sheltered the landing spot from the waves and wind. The steep shoreline that consisted of large, rounded pebbles was the downside. It was certainly the best location available at that time. He had spotted the next headland and identified that he did not know what was around it or where the next landing point would be after that. I had chosen not to give him a map, so a quick check on mine together showed no other options for at least twenty minutes.
Lunch in the sun and out of the wind meant that the air temperature of just four degrees celsius felt reasonably comfortable. No need for any additional shelter – just a large flask of tea to share.
A small bay with a smaller entrance sheltered a stony beach very well and allowed us to get out of the kayaks and have some lunch in the sun. Launching back out was also pretty easy as the waves were outside the bay and we were back in our kayaks before we got anywhere near them.
The rest of the trip was easy going. Within ten minutes of launching, we rounded the corner and we were passing the bay of An Acairseid. Here the wave size diminished noticeably – and almost instantly. With little waves now behind us, the tide flowing with us and the wave size no longer of concern, we made incredible speed for little effort.
Passing inside Eileen nan Seachd Seisrichean we must have been making around 5 km/h without paddling! The island was flying by and we glided under the steep cliffs of Garbhlaich Mhor. Although 100 meters high, the White-tailed eagle Cameron spotted perched on the edge still looked huge. Just as we passed under it, it launched into the wind, spreading its ‘barn door’ wings and circled around us before heading off to the south. It, and us, in silence.
Kayaking rapidly towards Eileen nan Seachd Seisrichean (the little island just off the headland in the photo above) and the wave size had dropped off and the winds directly behind us.
Earning our white heather
Once past the bay of Port Garbh, and the cave – which we didn’t actually see – there is just one headland until the Point of Ardnamurchan and the Ardnamurchan Lighthouse come into view. This is actually the furthest west point on mainland UK, not the lighthouse itself.
Ardnamurchan Lighthouse appears quite late in the trip – just a few kilometres from the end. You could launch from north of here, paddle to the lighthouse and back again, but I doubt the sense of satisfaction of ’rounding Ardnamurchan Point’ would be as great.
After two and a half hours on the water, we rounded the headland and saw the lighthouse. With huge smiles growing across our faces it was time to congratulate each other on achieving our goal in rapid time.
With under three kilometres left to go and time to spare, we could ease back and let the tide and wind continue to push us along. We could also admire the views to our left and out to the Small Isles – Muck is one of our next destinations to head to!
Except that as we rounded Ardnamurchan Lighthouse the wind was funnelling down the small glen and into our faces. Not enough to make it hard work, but strong enough to make its presence felt and chill us a little as we stepped out of our kayaks onto the beach.
With Ardnamurchan Lighthouse on our right, we had views across to the Small Isle of Rhum, Eigg and muck to our left and could see the Isle of Skye to the North. Muck will hopefully be out next significant destination in 2020… With hindsight, we should have arranged to be met at Portuairk (or even Sanna if we had more daylight available). Whilst the carry would have been a little further as it was near low water, it would have avoided going through the ‘garden’ of a holiday caravan. The extra 1.5 – 2 km of sea kayaking would have been no hardship and the landing area more interesting since you need to enter a channel between rocks. There would also have an opportunity for some rock hopping in the bay to end the trip.
We had hoped to see some cetaceans (whales or dolphins), but only saw a couple of seals and a White-tailed Eagle. So Cameron did his best whale impersonation for us!
Aside from the achievement of rounding Ardnamurchan Point in sea kayaks, we had a great afternoon together and discussed life as much as sea kayaking. It just goes to show that with good planning even a remote and wild place such as this can be achievable for even relative novice kayakers. And that being outdoors away from ‘technology’ and social media can actually bring people closer together.
It is a pity that there are so few days where the wind and weather are in favour of making this trip. Tradition has it that sailors rounding Ardnamurchan Point can place luck white heather on their boats (or in their caps). I think we earned ours and will keep this ready for my next time circumnavigating Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.
Big smiles upon completing the trip and landing safely. Although there was still a carry up to the road and our lift home.
Exactly one week after making this trip Storm Atiyah hit the UK from the west. With winds over 40 mph battering Ardnamurchan Point, it was no wonder that large waves were crashing into the rocky shorelines. It certainly wasn’t a day for even the most experienced sea kayaker to round the point and served to prove that planning a sea kayak trip and knowing when not to go out is as important as actual paddling skills.