Kayaking in Scotland

“Remember you’re an upside-down turtle!” shouts Duncan, who has noticed my kayak wobble perilously as I try to land. The technique may lack dignity – thrust your backside into the cockpit with legs flailed skywards before completing the manoeuvre with a “back-to-front” press-up to bring yourself to a standing position astride the vessel (just do in reverse to get back in) – but it’s a surefire way to avoid a dunking. When afloat, the kayaks are so stable that capsizes are rare. Like flying, it’s the take-off and landing that are the most hazardous moments. Slithering around calf deep in seaweed, now ashore, I regret my choice of flimsy neoprene footwear. Next year I’m bringing wellies.   

I’m on a five-day sea-kayaking taster and we’re spending the afternoon on Shieldaig, a sea loch on the western Highlands coast, mastering basic navigation skills, in order to prevent us drifting off towards Ireland when we venture further afield. The polite introductions at Inverness railway station have developed into collective camaraderie, peppered with the odd expletive, as we rescue dropped paddles, carry boats off and onto dry land, and struggle with fitting spraydecks over the cockpit – a feat not unlike stretching a fitted, single-bed sheet onto a king-size mattress.

The introductory course is, admittedly, more a watersport version of glamping than a remote expedition. Cafetieres, luxury biscuits and camping stoves are all stowed in hatches for morning coffee breaks, and we return each evening to a cosy bunkhouse by upper Loch Torridon. People who sign up tend to have little, if any, seafaring experience and Duncan explains that several hours on the water, combined with a hot shower at the end of the day, is sufficiently adventurous for most beginners.  

Comforts aside, the meticulous planning that Duncan and his co-guide Lisa put into the daily itinerary means we clock up miles of coastline on seal watch, learning precisely when it’s time to drop our skegs. Is that the colloquialism for “trousers”, someone asks, cheekily. We are even rewarded with a glimpse of Tarka the Otter’s descendant basking on driftwood – a first for many of us.

While the heatwave is, of course, a bonus, our guides’ enthusiasm is so infectious that a good time would still be likely in the pouring rain. Having changed careers to become outdoor instructors, the pair, who plan to marry in the autumn, show that pipedreams can work out if you are prepared to put in the graft.

In only a few days everyone has overcome the nervous-paddler syndrome and feels ready for a Helen Skelton-esque adventure down the Amazon, until two porpoises effortlessly overtake the boats, just to remind us novices how it’s done.

A line-up of our rainbow-coloured kayaks, with the Cuillin mountain range providing a majestic backdrop, sums up the trip. “Bet that’ll be on your screensavers in the office on Monday morning,” Duncan says. There is no need for him to point out we’ve spent the week bobbing about in his.

THE JUDGE, Guardian travel writer Dixe Wills, says: “I enjoyed the way Emma thrust us straight into the action of her sea-kayaking course. From then on, she captured the essence of the holiday so well that I almost felt I’d been paddling alongside her – a sure sign of a good piece of travel writing.”

First published in The Guardian, 22 Nov 2013. Thanks to Wilderness Scotland and Duncan and Lisa from Greene Adventures for a memorable trip!