The years are slipping by since I took on the Great Glen Paddle in March 2014, but the memories are still vivid. Here is the story of how the event unfolded…
The forecast wasn’t great, in fact it was awful; snow, sleet, rain, gusty strong winds and temperatures hovering above freezing. The only positive we could take was that the wind would mostly be behind us, but as it turns out that was itself to become a problem. Still, we steeled ourselves for the challenge, it was never meant to be easy, and set our alarms for 0330…
You see, Roy and I were about to take on a significant test piece; Great Glen Paddle. A non-stop 57 mile paddle from Fort William to Inverness via canal, river and lochs. Starting in the wee hours of the morning we would face paddling in the dark, portages, changing water conditions and whatever the weather threw at us.
We at least could feel assured that we had done the training. Since deciding we would enter the event we each spent in the region of 100 hours training in our boats, by day and night, in rain, sleet, wind and freezing conditions, putting in the mileage to condition ourselves for the challenge. Off the water we put in further hours of running, biking and strength training to cross train and improve our overall conditioning for the rigours of the event. It is fair to say that on many nights our wives suffered the company of tired, irritable, achey men collapsed on the sofa.
We had arrived in Fort William for the Great Glen Paddle on Thursday night and spent the following day scouting the whole route, checking all the portages and making some key decisions about our tactics. You see, we had made a conscious effort to take a low tech and low cost approach. We could have thrown thousands of pounds at fast, light boats but instead opted to paddle heavier, slower Pyranha Speeders (I already owned a Speeder as a training/touring boat and Roy picked a used one up for £250 on eBay!). After a bit of training and using winged blades, our one concession to racing specific kit, we were able to cruise at about 5mph at sustainable effort levels and really enjoyed paddling these versatile boats. But seeing the wind churn up Loch Lochy and knowing our boats would not cope well with those conditions we decided to start at 0500 instead of 0200 to prevent us from dicing with the choppy waves in the dark.
We checked the river section which was running high but judged we could probably cope with that and the risk was worth the potential speed gain; after all, the Speeder is a whitewater racer hybrid so what could possibly go wrong? We discussed with our support the vital matter of when and where we would need tea and sandwiches and despite the fact that the van heater needed to be on full throughout the day we started to feel confident about the event and headed to the event brief. This brought good news in the form of useful extra information for navigating Loch Lochy but bad news that for safety reasons the river section was closed and all competitors must stick to the canal. Sad to be missing the only section of the course for which the Speeders were optimised, we completed our final kit preparations in the rain and headed off to try and find something remotely healthy to eat in Fort William i.e. not deep fried.
The light of our head torches made the falling snowflakes appear like an incoming asteroid storm as we carried our boats up Neptune’s Staircase to the start. The pace of our movements under the weight of the boats helped keep us warm until we could get our spraydecks on and get underway. The excitement of starting the challenge helped us ignore the awful conditions but didn’t stop an inch of snow settling on our boats, helmets and even the shafts of our paddles! We hadn’t paddled in conditions like these before but covered the first 6 miles of canal quickly enough and after a short, snowy portage found ourselves heading out into Loch Lochy.
We were relieved to be facing the challenges of the loch in daylight. The wind built in strength as we headed out onto the open water and soon we were wrestling with waves as we progressed towards the next portage; paddle, paddle, surf, wheeeee, edge, edge, no, arghhh, brace, turn, damn, start again. We were not the only ones struggling with the conditions and a couple of K2s needed to beach and empty their boats before walking around a particularly tricky headland. We didn’t need to take such drastic action but had used an alarming amount of energy to control the boats in the choppy waves.
…if you just keep paddling the horizon slowly comes towards you…
We’d already paddled for over 3 hours so were pleased to see John with some welcome hot drinks and a couple of snacks before heading off towards Loch Oich. There was an undeniable erosion of energy reserves and morale as the conditions took their toll but steady progress was made and the subsequent combinations of canal and loch passed uneventfully; if you just keep paddling the horizon slowly comes towards you. However, it was still close to freezing and blustery sleet showers continued to batter us so we were delighted to reach Fort Augustus, roughly half way, ready for another break.
After a warm drink and food stop in The Dub it was make or break time for our ‘One Day’ attempt; if Loch Ness conditions were good we could still do it, if Loch Ness was similar to Loch Lochy then we weren’t going to make it. A couple of miles into Loch Ness we found ourselves wide eyed, surfing ragged 3 ft waves in boats unsuited to the task, a mile from shore in freezing waters suffering uncomfortably high adrenaline levels as we all too often relied on hefty bracing rudders with our winged blades – it was clear which way things were heading.
…a mile from shore in freezing waters suffering uncomfortably high adrenaline levels as we all too often relied on hefty bracing rudders with our winged blades…
After almost two hours on Loch Ness we found enough shelter to get close enough to converse and take stock (this conversation has been sanitised somewhat, there may have been some swearing…);
Me: ‘If anything, the following wind and swell is making us slower and just beating us up in these boats’.
Roy: ‘We are not going to make it at this rate, let’s make a call at the next checkpoint’.
After another 20 mins or so we reached the checkpoint and it was quickly clear we were now in the Two Day event. A mix of disappointment and relief rushed over us as we carried our boats up the steep bank. We had completed 35 miles in just over 8 hours and would be back the next day to finish this; we were not beaten, just regrouping…
We had completed 35 miles in just over 8 hours and would be back the next day to finish this; we were not beaten, just regrouping…
The next morning we arrived back with a few aches and pains but in high spirits. The conditions on the Loch had changed dramatically, the sun was out and we knew that it was now just a matter of getting on the water and tapping out a steady tempo to the finish line. It was still a long way and we were anything but fresh physically, but we were driven and knew we could complete the remaining 21 miles.
It wasn’t all plain sailing as some blustery sleet showers drifted into our path as they headed down the glen but we had experienced worse and endured and prevailed. Loch Ness is a long paddle in its own right and was quite frankly a bit dull in places as the view changes so slowly at less than 5mph, but eventually land loomed on the horizon and we entered the final stretch of canal to Inverness. When we finally saw the finish line we found the energy to burst into a sprint before getting out of the boat for the final time and starting to process what we had just achieved.
Some very big grins were permanently plastered on our faces for the rest of the day. We had cracked it, met our objectives, completed the Great Glen Paddle and raised money for Cancer Research in the process. On top of that, we later found out that we were the fastest paddlers in the Two Day event. What a fantastic weekend!
…we later found out that we were the fastest paddlers in the Two Day event. What a fantastic weekend!
The event now runs in the same format, but has been retitled the Great Glen Challenge . So if the above has inspired you to considering entering you might benefit from some of the observations below:
– We were physically ready for the challenge and the training had paid off but some more ‘worst case scenario’ bad weather and open water sessions would have better prepared us for the conditions on the day, especially handling your craft in windy, choppy waters.
– The Pyranha Speeder is not a bad boat for this event but does struggle when the conditions get tough; it likes to weather cock and does not enjoy confused 2-3ft waves and swell. In hindsight I am certain we would have comfortably completed the event in one day in performance sea kayaks, and if I go back I’d ensure that I was paddling something suited to those conditions.
– We had fabulous support from Peak UK whose kit proved itself in demanding conditions. The paddle mits were invaluable, warm even with snow settled on them, the thermal rashies performed impressively in the low temperatures and the other kit was all solid too. Think very carefully about your gear, it may be tested to the limit.
– Support is vital when things get tough. We could not have completed the challenge without the solid support of our mutual friend John MacColl who was a superstar all weekend. It also helped massively to have The Dub as the support vehicle giving somewhere to change layers, make hot drinks or simply hide from the conditions.