Island of Muck Sea Kayak Coaching Experience August 2021
Introduction by Mike Sunderland
The sea kayak coaching week was a bit of an experiment/pilot for Cumbria Canoeists - combining the usual intro-mediate paddler series of monthly workshops, into one intensive week, rather than spreading them out over the summer.
Mac, Cedric and Mike made the connections with the Island the previous year, on a 10 day, wild camping sea kayak tour of the “Small Isles” and they decided that we should try something different, based from the amazing island of Muck, supported by the island owners – Laird Laurence and his family.
So after a June reschedule and deposits taken, cancelled places and refunds, we confirmed an August Team of participants (9) and coach/leaders (4). Followe3d by a series of planning details, Kit lists, emails, zooms etc. we all met up at the Ferry terminal at Mallaig.
"Having a base at the bunkhouse on Muck was excellent - it gave us the opportunity to really get to know the coast of the island under different conditions and enjoy the hospitality of the local community."
"One of the satisfying things having a development week was seeing the improvements across the group in the week. Swell that felt lumpy to paddle on day one became a spot for practicing rolls and rescues, rock hopping gaps which felt a tight squeeze seemed to get bigger through the week and anxieties of open water crossings transformed into quiet confidence."
"Personal highlights for me were our camping spot on the Isle of Eigg circumnavigation, watching a pair of Scottish eagles play in the wind and taking the local kids of Muck out for an evening paddle."
By Mike Sunderland – organiser and Team Leader/Coach
At long last here we all were, well the majority of the party anyway….8 or so ‘improvers’ and 3 of the 4 leaders sitting on the quayside at Mallaig in sunshine (yes sunshine!) munching lunch from the new cosmopolitan village bakehouse, a bright array of neatly packed and provisioned kayaks beside us, awaiting the call to be trolleyed down into the hold of the ferry. Cars and vans parked at a distance, along with the stresses of daily life, we were off for a week of clean living on Muck.
During the sunny ferry ‘cruise’ of a lifetime (couldn’t fault the cost at £4.60) from Rum to Canna to Muck in perfect conditions, complete with exciting wildlife sightings, each participant was given an opportunity to chat with the leaders (the M&Ms), Mike, Marie and Mike (and a day later Mac), about our aspirations, worries and goals for the week ahead, which was very reassuring. It felt as though the week was being given individual tailoring to suit the needs and ability levels of the eight lucky “improvers”.
Arriving at Port Mor on Muck and towing our laden boats up the slipway, we were given the most Muckian of warm welcomes by the locals, a 4x4 appeared to lug our huge food boxes to the bunkhouse a few hundred metres away, while we trolleyed our boats. How refreshing not to have a vehicle to worry about. The bunkhouse was in the most idyllic setting, a kayak’s length from the water in a lovely bay very sheltered on the east side if the island from the prevailing weather, a convenient moment’s walk to the cute little stone café /shop. All very comfortable accommodation – with the option to camp outside, bunk rooms for two, a seating area for whisky and jigsaws, plenty of hot water and somewhere, somehow, we managed not to squabble all week about who cooked when in the compact and bijou kitchen.
First half of the week
Having taken time to get to know us, and having paddled with a few of us before, the leaders had already put us into ability groups, and the general format for each day was to (try to) be ready at an agreed time complete with packed lunch, and then to set off in a direction appropriate to the weather and wind conditions. I was probably the least experienced paddler in the group, and my team began with “back to basics” in our sheltered bay, which was a reassuring start, given that I had had relatively little time in/on the sea (this was my second season of owning and paddling a sea kayak, which didn’t amount to much experience given covid restrictions for most of that time).
Focussing on sitting position, basic paddle strokes and brushing the cobwebs off our technique, Marie soon felt we were ready to venture out beyond the confines of our sheltered bay. The week certainly didn’t bless us with perfect sunshine and calm winds, but we all agreed that the best way to learn was to face more challenging conditions with the guidance of leaders. Conditions which unnerved me on Day One were fairly easily manageable by the middle of the week, which was immensely satisfying. We could all feel we were making good progress, and the advantage of a residential week is that you can build on your skills from day to day without returning home and forgetting it all.
The island and its coastline gave huge scope for exploring – lots of bays, inlets, rocks to work in and around ‘hop’, headlands (always with more challenging water), and beaches for collapsing on and eating lunch. On the Wednesday morning we took a little time off the water and made the pilgrimage to the highest point of the island on foot, from where you look across to Arisaig and Ardnamurchan lighthouse, visiting beautiful shell beaches on the way. Muck is a small family-owned island, only a 30-minute walk from one end to the other, and before the trip many of us had read an account of island life on Muck called “A Drop in the Ocean”, all about Lawrence MacEwan, the laird of the island and his close-knit community. An unexpected highlight of the week was an evening spent with the children of the school (14 in total!) and their families, giving them a kayak taster, which consisted of various hilarious games on the water. We came back next day to find delicious curries and cake, made for us as a thank you – it was really memorable to have been able to join in with community life.
Wild Camp Expedition (and culmination of the week)
The planned and dream ending for the week was to be an expedition with a 4km crossing over to the isle of Eigg with two nights camping and a return on the Friday, all requiring favourable conditions. As the week progressed it seemed the weather gods were on our side, but on Wednesday morning it then looked more likely we would have to wait a day longer. Nevertheless, we packed for the objective and set out using the shelter of the island to be in a position to make the crossing if conditions improved during the day.
However, without the conditions and unable to commit to the crossing we landed at Camas Na Cairidh bay on Muck, and this gave variable options that were taken for the night, a fire on the beach and night under canvas or an easy walk back to the bunk house for a little more comfort.
Thursday dawned with beautiful conditions and we were off, heading initially out to the skerry Godag where we said farewell to Marie and then steady away over and across to Eigg. After rock-hopping along the south coast and stopping to explore the Massacre Cave we reached Galmisdale, in blue sky and flat calm where half the party landed to camp across the bay from the ferry pier. The remaining contingent electing to paddle around the northern tip of Eigg and camp on the west coast. Both parties were rewarded with a serene afternoon of paddling and wild camping in idyllic locations. Unable to resist the grandeur of Eigg some then climbed to the top of An Sgurr and were not disappointed by the views.
Always at the back of all our minds for the return trip on Friday was a forecast of winds increasing through the day. Both parties consequently made early starts to gain the best conditions and eschew the back-up option of the Calmac ferry. Although the sea was much choppier on the return trip, I think I can say we all now felt at ease with the conditions, and this was due to the fantastic tuition and all we had learnt over the preceding week. As such it provided a testing but very satisfying kayaking conclusion to our week.
A celebratory meal out in the café followed that evening as a fitting conclusion to a wonderful week. And on Saturday, with new and renewed friendships, just to make sure that we vowed to return to these beautiful Small Isles, we were again treated to a lovely crossing back to the mainland seeing whales and porpoise along the way.
Big thanks to Mike, Mac, Mike and Marie (the x4 M’s) for their coaching, energy and support, plus all the other paddlers for their lovely company!
Nic and Steve Hartley – participants