Operation: Menorca – Part 2, The Problem With Tarps

It was as I watched the girls putting the finishing touches to their tarps in the fading light that I realised I’d fucked up…

My new Alpkit Rig 7 tarp looked great, but the fact that it required the addition of poles, guy-lines, and tent pegs in order to be of any use had completely escaped me; luckily, Cress helped me to make inventive use of the P&H Kayak Sail Mast (with the attached stays acting as guy-lines), and it wasn’t long before I was fighting with the mosquito net, which also needed tent pegs to keep it in its optimal position, i.e. actually covering any part of my body.

The girls found my ordeal rather amusing, but eventually we all managed to settle down for the night, despite the awful smell coming from what must have been a nearby sewage runoff; it was just as we were drifting off to sleep (or perhaps being overcome by the fumes) that I heard the shuffling of feet on the beach, and then the thud of several clumps of sand hitting our tarps followed by the mischievous laughter of the local teens who had thrown them; it appears that wherever you go in the world, you can always rely on the presence of chavs.

I was suddenly aware that we were camped on a beach that was more or less in the centre of a small town, and that camping on the beaches was reportedly forbidden; the evening was also chillier than I’d anticipated, so sleep didn’t come easy, but I must have managed to drift off eventually as the next thing I knew, I was waking up to the sounds of the girls packing their boats.

The evening before our departure from the UK I’d essentially thrown everything I owned that was even vaguely related to kayaking and/or the outdoors into the car, so most of the morning was spent deciding what I actually needed and loading it into the kayak, being careful to avoid the same situation as last time I’d paddled with Sonja and Erin (I’d packed, rather generously, for what I though was a 5 day expedition, but was actually only a 3 day trip).

Eventually we were paddling out across the bay, and everything was exactly as I’d anticipated; the weather was warm, the water was topaz-esque in both colour and clarity, and perfectly still… until we left the shelter of the headland that is!

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Cress, on the Cress-t of a Wave

I found myself paddling side-on to waves larger than anything I’d envisioned at any point after the words ‘no tides’ had been used during planning; my bearings fluctuated between turning to run with the waves, then turning perpendicular to them again to avoid being carried towards the jagged rocks and cliff face to my right.

I was paddling so frantically that I’d raced away from the others, despite my erratically zig-zagged course, so it was a great relief when a short while later (although it didn’t feel that short) we regrouped in a small, sheltered spot. The nerves still had me feeling unstable, but being one of the more experienced paddlers in the group, I knew we’d certainly be figuring out a way to cut this day short and it wouldn’t be long before I’d be on dry land again.

That wasn’t the case; everyone else seemed to be having a great time!

Pride got the better of me, and I kept my nerves under wraps as we peeled out and carried on, I raced ahead once again, eager to get to within site of somewhere to land; it’s amazing how isolated you can feel just a few metres off the coast when all you can see is cliffs, and waves which you occasionally catch glimpses of your expedition buddies over.

Eventually we reached a relatively sheltered bay, and jumped out of the kayaks to allow one group member who was suffering from sea sickness to recoup. They were resolute to continue but I, however, had decided that enough was enough…

 

Operation: Menorca – Part 1, The Mysterious Banging Noise

This was not the trip I was expecting…

First of all, there was absolutely no drama in strapping 5 P&H Sea Kayaks (four Scorpio MKIIs and a Delphin) to the roof of my car, they just seemed to magically fit; this may be a misconception due to the fact that Tim kindly did the actual loading of the kayaks for us though!

Once the gear (including a beautiful selection of VE sea kayak paddles, and a box packed with shorts, t-shirts and sunglasses from the wonderful people at Dewerstone) had also been loaded up, Sonja, Anna, and I set off to Menorca, waved off by a small group of slightly-over-enthusiastic individuals holding hand-drawn signs (seriously, I work with a group of complete nutters; maybe that’s why I fit in so well?)

Our journey from Pyranha HQ consisted of a medium-sized drive to Dover, a quick ferry to Calais, and an epic mission through France and in to Spain, getting as far as a service station just outside Barcelona before we decided to investigate the ever-increasing volume of the persistent banging noise coming from the car roof; two minutes of fidgeting later, and I’d made absolutely, one hundred percent sure that the front edge of the driver’s side roof rail was no longer attached to the car… damn.

We formulated a plan (and I had a bit of a sulk) in a Spanish Burger King with free WiFi, and after some mildly-excessive use of the spare roof rack straps to secure the kayaks, we set off for a Volkswagen dealership in Barcelona, enlisting a Spanish-speaking friend en route to warn the garage in advance, avoiding us trying to explain the issue in loud, excessively deliberate English garnished with a generous sprinkling of hand gestures.

The lady at the VW dealership was lovely, and spoke immaculate English, but she couldn’t help us; she sent us on our way with the details of two other garages on Menorca, which we had every intention of taking the car to…

The next task at hand was successfully negotiating the maze that was Barcelona’s road network, after which my mood was instantly rectified by the discovery of a harbour-side sushi restaurant, and the following eight and a half hours of sleep on the ferry to Mahon were also incredibly welcome.

We arrived in Mahon ready for breakfast, where a small café with friendly staff offered us ‘tostada’ and were even kind enough to share their knowledge of the local garages, but as most were closed (it was a Sunday), and the issue had become much less pressing now we had made it to the island, the draw of fulfilling the role of stereotypical tourists won out.

Setting about exploring Menorca on foot, it wasn’t long before we were met by Sonja’s equally wonderful mum, Maureen, who by sheer chance had booked her own little Menorcan adventure that coincided with ours!

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Maureen and Sonja at the port of Mahon.

After racking up another 3 café visits (including a spot of Tapas… I could get used to this!), we parted ways with Maureen (for now at least), meeting team member number 4, Cressida, before heading for Es Grau to meet Erin, who completed the Operation: Menorca group.

Quite suddenly, I realised the expedition Sonja and I had first discussed during an alarmingly stressful spa visit months earlier (that’s a story for another day) was now becoming reality…

The five of us (Erin, Cress, Anna, Sonja, and myself) then paid a visit to Menorca en Kayak, whose staff were immensely generous with their extensive knowledge of what Menorca has to offer for sea kayakers, going as far as to give us a set of laminated maps marking various points of interest, potential campsites, and places to restock our supplies, as well as promising to keep an eye on the car whilst we were away.

With all the important stuff behind us (at least for today, excluding all that ‘actually-doing-the-expedition’ business that was to come), we settled in to a waterfront restaurant for (supposedly) our last taste of luxury before we began our expedition; Cressida, who I had only previously met via Skype during the aforementioned spa visit, quickly united us all in giggles by ordering a duo of seafood dishes which can only be described as relentless (and that’s coming from me, possibly the greatest seafood lover there is!)

Our final task of the day was to choose our spots on the beach, and set up camp for the night…

To Be Continued.

Immersion Research 7Figure Dry Top Review

I’ll be completely honest, I bought my Methyl Blue 7Figure Dry Top because I already had a 7Figure Dry Suit in Lime Green and couldn’t quite convince myself it was a good idea to have two dry suits just because I couldn’t decide which colour I liked best.

Flying Start

Photo: Kirstie Macmillan, Paddler: Mathew Wilkinson, River: Tryweryn

I didn’t really need a cag, as my 7Figure Dry Suit isn’t too heavy to wear in the Autumn (even though it’s nice and toasty in the Winter), and my Rival Shorty Cag is pretty effective at keeping me comfortable even when the Summer sun starts to fade away.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve had several moments of rational thought on the subject since buying my 7Figure Dry Top though, and I still don’t regret the purchase; it’s great having that extra flexibility in my gear selection for those days where the weather could go either way, or it’s right in-between the perfect temperature for a shorty cag or a dry suit.

The 7Figure Dry Top also isn’t just half of the dry suit; it shares many of the same benefits, like super comfy yet highly durable material, surprisingly high levels of dryness that are yet to fade and a great fit, but it also adds in fuss free neoprene over-cuffs at the wrists.

I gave the dry suit 5 stars, so this probably deserves 5 and a half – it certainly blows any other dry cag I’ve ever owned out of the water, and in the water is exactly where I want to be (or preferably on it)!

Immersion Research 7Figure Drysuit Review

This thing is UNBELIEVABLY comfortable, and I don’t just mean the super silky material that feels almost like it’s flowing through your hands when you first unwrap it!

Not-so-Low Force

Kayaking becomes somewhat of a spectator sport when you’ve lost your boat, but at least I was dry! Photo by Martin-In-Teasdale.

I’ve had drysuits from several brands that have either been way too snug (even when I’m not being overly optimistic with my size choice), or make me look like MC Hammer and thwart my efforts to gracefully traverse even the lowest of fallen trees; the IR 7Figure Suit has no such issues, so I spend much less time squeezing air out of it and barely notice it’s there when I’m moving about on/around/in the river.

I’m probably the definition of an average paddler, so in the 12 months I’ve been using this suit it has seen several rough swims, a few hacks through dense undergrowth and plenty of clumsy moments getting into and out of kayaks, and it’s still bone dry and going strong.

I could complain about the neoprene over cuff of the neck being a little loose or say that the rear entry zip could be slightly better placed, but compared to the other dry suits on the market right now, that would be like saying my gold bars are a little too heavy, or my new Ferrari isn’t quite the right shade of red… This suit is great, and so is the price, so go buy one!

(P.S. I also love the unobtrusive neoprene waistband that keeps the suit up when you’ve taken off the top half, and the bright colours are beautiful!)

Don’t Lose Your Kit, Label It!

I’ve scrawled my contact details (and some funky designs) on to various items of paddling kit using many different implements over the years; Paint Markers, Sharpies and even Radiator Paint have been previous favourites, but I’ve been introduced to a better solution…

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2 Sheets of Toughtags and some offcuts of other colours they were kind enough to send me for a purpose you’ll see later…

Toughtags are fantastic! They don’t scratch, crack or rub off and it doesn’t matter how bad your handwriting might be, as they’re printed in an easily readable font!

It can often be difficult to write legibly on smaller items of kit too, which is another advantage of Toughtags, as even the smaller font sizes are still clear.

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Two labelled carabiners, and one in progress; Toughtags were originally designed for climbing gear so are perfect for this!

If you’re on a safety course, or dealing with a real life whitewater rescue situation, it can often be a pain in the bum to work out whose carabiners and pulleys are whose after everything has calmed down again; labelling them with Toughtags is a great way to make yours immediately identifiable.

For us kayaking types, Toughtags even offer an extra-long tag that will wrap around any size of paddle shaft (probably one of the most lost items when on the river!) – just send them an email asking for the longer tags!

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Comparison of the regular sized Toughtags (top) and extra-long Toughtags (bottom).

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Labelling my Werner Sho-Guns with the extra-long Toughtags.

Labelling your kit doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it back, but with no real GPS tracking option that is compact, waterproof, affordable and has a long-lasting battery, it’s the best chance you’ve got; it’s even mandatory at places like Lee Valley (so they know who to blame when a stray item jams the pumps!)

Make sure you include an email address and phone number (with international dialling code), so that whoever finds your kit has plenty of options to get in touch with you. If you have any specific medical needs you could even have these printed on Toughtags to stick on your helmet incase you’re unable to communicate those needs to the emergency services after an incident.

The strong, waterproof glue and durable material of Toughtags isn’t just great for kayaking kit, the offcuts shown in the image at the top of this article were used to replace the tattered colour coding labels on my tent poles, and they’re still going strong too!

 

P.S. I felt a strong sense of irony when completing this article, as I’ve recently lost my own, unlabelled kayak – should have followed my own advice!

If it Ain’t Broke, Make Sure You Have a Repair Kit Handy for When it is!

Until recently, I’ve never carried a repair kit whilst on the river, under the assumption that if I broke any of my equipment I’d either just deal with it or get off the river.

As Chris Brain pointed out to me on a 4* White Water Leader Assessment though, it isn’t always that simple; the toolbox in your car might be incredibly comprehensive, but it’s no use when you’re miles away in a remote gorge with a loose seat and 6km of grade IV to negotiate before the nearest egress.

Bits and Bobs for All Sorts of Jobs

Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Paracord, Butane Welding Pen, Tenacious Tape, Dental Floss + Needle, Footrest Nuts, Miscellaneous Bolts & Nuts, Waterproof Repair Patches, Pocket Tool, Cable Ties, Permanent Marker, Zip Lube, Waterproof Glue, Spare Bung, Duct Tape, Container, Security Torx Bit, Plumber’s Mait, Plastic Welding Rods, Nylon Nuts, Sandpaper + Stanley Knife Blade.

So, I got to putting together a kit to fix the most common issues whilst kayaking, and here’s what it consists of (I won’t go into too much detail with every item, as most have several, fairly obvious and straightforward uses that would take forever to list, but I will pick out some key pieces and give a little more info on them):

A Durable, Water Resistant Container

I’m generally quite picky with my gear choices, and as soon as I started thinking about putting my repair kit together I had a very clear picture of what sort of container I wanted to use – unfortunately, I had no idea if it actually existed!

What I was looking for was a flexible, transparent, pouch style semi-dry container so I could stuff plenty of bits inside without it taking up too much room in my Ocoee Bag. Initially I was looking at pencil cases and document pouches, but nothing I found had a zip that looked like it’d stand up to any abuse – then I walked in to Tamarack Outdoors and saw the perfect solution, the Exped A6 Sized Vista Organiser.

Duct Tape, Paracord and Cable Ties

Plastic Welding Kit

A boat split is probably one of the worst kit breakages you could have on the river, so it’s worth having something with you to repair it; a plastic weld is the neatest and strongest way to do this.

Some people will just carry a lighter and a teaspoon or similar item to smooth the surrounding plastic over the split, but as usual I’ve gone the whole hog and got an Antex Gascat 60 Butane Torch Kit and some Plastic Welding Rods. I chose the Gascat as the lighter is handily built into the lid, and it’s necessary to buy the kit so you get the flame attachment (I don’t carry the other bits with me). I also have some Sandpaper and a Stanley Knife Blade to neaten up the split before and after a weld.

Pocket Tool

The Leatherman Piranha 2 is very compact, and has a screwdriver and various spanner sizes to suit most brands of kayak. I swapped out the additional screwdriver bits for Allen Key ones, and I also carry a Security Torx bit, as these fit the best kayaks in the world (Pyranha, of course!).

Spare Bung and Footrest Nuts, plus Miscellaneous Bolts & Bits

Plumber’s Mait

This stuff is fantastic for quick repairs of boat splits, or for awkward cracks that can’t be welded easily; it’s a putty-like material which is available from most DIY stores and will set solid, even when wet!

Some people will also carry a strip of flash bang for quick split repairs, but this is very difficult to remove afterwards and I’ve decided that I have enough repair options with the plumber’s mait and plastic welding kit.

Items for Quick Dry Gear Fixes

No one wants to paddle for a long period with a leak in their cag, and it could even be quite dangerous if the rip is big enough to cause any of your kit to fill with water; McNett make Tenacious Tape™ and Patches that can be used to do bombproof repairs on small holes or seams and bigger tears.

Drysuit Zip Lube

Spraydeck Repair Gear

A ripped spraydeck can mean anything from distracting drips on your legs to having to stop and empty your boat every couple of hundred metres, but sewing it back up with cotton thread will only last for a short time before the cotton deteriorates and breaks; instead, it’s best to sew a deck using dental floss and a strong sewing needle, then seal the repair with Waterproof Glue.

I’ve still never had to use any of the above (touch wood), but I now feel more confident knowing they’re always on the river with me.

What’s in your repair kit?

My Manbag is Better Than Yours

Several months ago, I bought myself a Watershed® Ocoee Dry Duffel Bag from Go Kayaking North West, and I honestly think it’s the best step forwards in equipment I’ve made since I moved from separates to a drysuit; here’s why:

Everything is Now in One Place*

Coaches say this all the time on Rescue courses, but it really does help to have all your emergency kit in one, easily accessible place – now if anything happens on the river, I can just grab my Ocoee and have my First Aid Kit, Small Group Shelter, Phone, Simple Repair Kit, Warm Hat, Survival Bag, Head Torch, Snacks, Warm Drink and Car Keys on me for whatever the situation is.

Better still, if I’m not near my boat or I’ve already got my hands full (metaphorically or literally), I can just ask someone else to ‘go grab the orange bag from the back of my boat’ – no long lists, no confusion, no faff.

(*My more ‘immediate’ rescue kit like a Knife, Whistle, Sling, Pin Kit and Throwline are usually even closer to hand in my BA pockets or elsewhere on my person.)

It’s INCREDIBLY Dry

During a canoeing trip on the Spey, I had my Ocoee under the seat with Waterproofs, Suncream, Lunch, Drinks, a Camera, Snacks and a few other bits in; despite plenty of splashes, some rain, being left outside overnight and a fair few hasty closures before hitting a bigger rapid and getting swamped, there wasn’t once a single hint of moisture inside the bag over the whole 3 days.

There’s a great story on Watershed’s blog about an Ocoee that was lost in a river for 3 months, you’ll be amazed at the ending…

The Build Quality is Reassuringly Reliable

The bag fits snugly under the seat in an open boat, and even though it’s been dragged in and out of there many times against the gritty bottom of the canoe, as well as regularly being stuffed in the back of my kayak and yanked out again by one of the straps, there isn’t even a hint of wear or weakness.

The US Military use these too, so I’m sure there’s plenty more than just canoeing and kayaking that it’ll withstand! Much better than worrying about your bag being plagued with miniature holes if you treat it roughly.

It’s Just the Right Size

Being duffel style, the opening of the bag (measuring around 33cm) is along it’s longest side, so it’s super easy to see exactly what’s inside and get to the bigger items without having to take everything else out too. The Ocoee is also an ideal size to carry all the essentials and still fit in the back of your kayak (it’s around 15L capacity and measures roughly 23 x 41 x 20cm), so you don’t have to fuss with lots of smaller bags or part-fill a bigger bag and then struggle with hundreds of folds on the closure and having to squeeze out loads of excess air.

Watershed also do a bigger Chattooga Dry Duffel, and an even bigger Yukon Dry Duffel, as well as loads of other cool things like Padded Dry Duffels for Cameras and Kayak Airbags that double as Storage Bags.

It’s Really Easy to Carry

The integrated carry handle feels strong and is super comfy to hold, which is great as the bag could get heavy if fully loaded with camera kit. The bag itself only weighs a little over half a kilogram, which isn’t unreasonable compared to other ‘heavy-duty’ duffels.

If you’re filling the Ocoee full of heavy equipment, carrying it for long distances or need your hands free, you can purchase a separate Shoulder Strap which is a great addition!

Plenty of attachment points on the bag mean you can easily mount the shoulder strap where you like, or attach the bag to something else you’re carrying, as well as being able to easily secure the bag in your boat so it won’t float off during a swim or if you get swamped.

It’s Highly Visible

Ok, this may not be an exclusive feature of Watershed bags alone, but it’s still good to know that if I put it down anywhere and forget where it is, the light fades or worse still it floats off, it won’t be too hard to find again thanks to the bright orange colour.

You can also get the Ocoee in Blue and Clear, or if you don’t want to be seen, it comes in Camo, Black or Brown too!

It’s Easy to Use

The ZipDry® Closure is really quick and simple to seal, but incredibly effective; it does need lubing regularly though to make sure it closes fully. This type of closure is much more reassuring than a fold closure, and you can fold it down too for extra peace of mind; it’s also easier to leave a little gap for squeezing air out.

Better still, you can get the Ocoee with an inflate/purge valve, so you can get all the air out to make fitting the bag in the back of a kayak easier, or so you can ensure you have enough air in the bag for it to float if you’re canoeing or rafting.

Also…

Another thing that really impressed me about Watershed’s products was the option to order them without packaging, which not only saves you money, but is also even more environmentally friendly than recycled packaging.

Lunch on my Own Private Island

The flask peeks out to check if the coast is clear, little does it know that Mat is watching, and thirsty!

The Watershed Ocoee is absolutely amazing for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, general outdoors use or anything; it might look a little like a handbag, but with all the advantages it brings, I couldn’t care less!

Have you ever used one?

A Different Kind of Horizon Line

Horizon lines are described to us early on in kayaking as a point downstream where, from a distance, it becomes difficult to see how the river transitions from a high elevation to a lower one.

At present, I feel like I’ve just paddled over a horizon line of sorts in my personal paddling…

Freefall

Praying for a pencil and not a splat.

My time in Manchester University Canoe Club was fantastic for the development of my skills; at the start I was regularly paddling new rivers with new people giving me tips, and then I was leading on those same rivers and seeing them in an entirely different way whilst really enjoying helping others progress in the sport. Towards the end however, I began to feel like I was stuck in a rut of paddling the same rivers over and over again.

After a while of this stagnation, I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t capable of paddling anything above Grade III, and the thought of paddling IVs made me quite nervous. Those nerves made me wobbly even on the rivers I knew well, and that’s when I decided I had to move on and do new things.

Much the same as a literal horizon line, at first I had no idea of what was up ahead or how difficult it may be, but with each new river I’ve paddled recently, I’ve gotten closer to the horizon line and the whole thing has become clearer.

I’ve now paddled a handful of new Grade IVs and realised that I am up to it, and that the previous Grade IV runs I know and love aren’t unusually easy, which makes me feel confident about doing more in the future!

Any suggestions?

Huck It and See: The Modern Approach to Whitewater Kayaking

I remember the first time I ever kayaked on a river; it was a Wednesday evening around half way through 2004 on a section of the Irwell that runs through Bury, known locally as ‘The Burrs’. I was lucky enough for this to be one of my school sports lessons, and despite being reluctant to take part in almost any other sport, I was more than happy to be sat in a Pyranha H2 on a cold English evening about to paddle my first section of whitewater.

At the time, I was oblivious to the features of a river or the risks they bring with them, so I can’t honestly say that I was scared, but I felt more than comfortable being supervised by one of the school’s outdoor pursuits leaders. Now knowing the relative calmness of The Burrs compared to other rivers, the venue for my first stint on moving water had clearly been well thought out, and the instructors were well-equipped and ready to deal with any situation; I can say this with confidence, as I actually neglected to pack any kit for myself and ended up wearing a mish-mash of spare kit!

Over the next few years of school, college and university, I paddled with various groups of people, but the constant during these trips was the sense of inclusion when we were on a river which made it unlike other sports; there was none of the constant one-upmanship, none of the petty arguments over who was the best, and regardless of your ability there was always something new to learn and someone willing to teach you.

The real beauty of kayaking to me was that there was something for everyone, whether you wanted to push yourself hard and become the next big thing or just relax and enjoy a day on the water. Most of all, there was no pressure to run things you weren’t comfortable with.

One Down

A cold day on the Upper Tees.

Recently however, things seem to have changed…

There’s a new disregard for how much control you have on a rapid, and a tendency for some groups to get rowdy about throwing themselves down things they have no business even standing next to.

Pushing your limits is another part of what makes kayaking what it is, but ignorance of the need to weigh up the risks of running a rapid against the rewards is just foolish. Worse still is the culture of mocking people for not ‘manning up’ and running something they aren’t ready for; to me, it’s far more embarrassing to pinball down a rapid or run it on my face than it is to walk around it.

Kayaking isn’t like football or rugby; the game doesn’t stop as soon as someone gets injured, the river will keep thundering over the rocks and the only people around will be those you are boating with (or even those who just happen to be nearby), and they are the people who will have to put their lives at risk to save yours.

This isn’t the only problem though; people outside of the kayaking community who encounter groups being reckless will assume that all kayakers are the same, giving us a bad reputation and strengthening arguments against us in terms of access so that they can keep us off the rivers ‘for our own protection’.

I once saw a DVD in my local paddling shop called ‘Whitewater Self Defense’ and that, I feel, is a perfect title; kayaking should use the awesome power of the river and turn it against itself for your benefit, using disciplined, carefully developed but powerful skills to find that smooth, controlled line through the chaos.

What do you think?