WEATHER conditions facing Nick Ray on his 2,015 mile paddle around Scotland highlight why the work of the RNLI is so vital
For obvious reasons, persuading adventurers and extreme sportspeople to give interviews when they’re in the middle of major projects can be nigh-on impossible. Before? Fine. After? Fine. During? Not so much. Kayaker Nick Ray is currently paddling 2,015 miles around the coast of Scotland, from Kippford on the Solway Firth to Eyemouth in the Borders, to raise funds for the RNLI, so when I e-mailed him a few weeks back, asking if he might have time for a chat at some point during his voyage, it was more in hope than expectation. After a couple of false starts, though, we eventually caught up by phone as he was on South Ronaldsay, keeping a careful eye on the weather and preparing for the next leg of his voyage: a paddle west to the Longhope lifeboat station, before heading north towards Stromness, either along the west coast of Hoy or via Scapa Flow.
Ray’s “2015 for 2015” challenge, in which he plans to visit each of the 47 RNLI lifeboat stations around Scotland, would have been a serious undertaking if the weather had been kind. Even by the standards of the west coast of Scotland, however, so far this summer has been a nightmare. Not only have the past couple of months been uncharacteristically windy, but a lot of the time the wind has been from the wrong direction, so rather than being wafted gently up the coast by balmy south-westerlies, as he might reasonably have hoped, Ray has spent day after day (after day) battling into the teeth of bitter northerlies and north-westerlies.
“All the lifeboat crew I’ve been speaking to have said it’s been an exceptional summer from that point of view,” he says. “The guys in Leverburgh were saying they’ve never known anything like it in terms of the strength of the wind and the direction as well – mainly because it’s been from the north quite a bit.
“The cold is something I’ve got inured to really, and I’ve got used to paddling in quite strong conditions too. It’s been hard work but it’s added to the experience, I suppose. If it’d been calm all the way round I’d probably be close to finishing by now. It would’ve been a fantastic experience, but at least I’ve got some good stories to tell.”
Ray, who lives aboard a boat in Portavadie, set off from Kippford RNLI station on the Solway Firth on 1 May, and ran into challenging conditions almost straightaway. “The first few days in the Solway Firth were hard work,” he says. “I wasn’t paddle fit then and I wasn’t that confident – early trip nerves I think.” And there were more sketchy moments to come. “I paddled the Mull of Kintyre in the wee hours and it was quite dark so that was quite tricky,” he says. “And getting across from Lewis to the Shiant Isles was in quite a strong wind and with quite lumpy conditions.”
When he reached Cape Wrath, however, his luck finally changed, and from there to Thurso his journey along the north coast was a very different proposition.
“Cape Wrath has to be a highlight,” he says. “It was always a headland I was concerned about but on the day the conditions couldn’t have been more perfect so it was extra special. I was able to paddle through the great arch underneath the lighthouse there, and I was on my own as well so it felt like a pinnacle in my kayaking life really – and I’ve been paddling for about 25 years. The north coast from there to Thurso is just incredible and there were fairly calm conditions all the way along so I was able to get into the caves and through the arches and things like that.”
Ray has been joined by other paddlers from time to time, but for long stretches of the journey he has been on his own – a much tougher psychological challenge. “When I’m on my own my legs are very tense,” he says, “I’m able to cope but I begin to talk to myself a little bit.” The response of the RNLI teams around Scotland, though, has made it all worthwhile.
“They’ve been fantastic,” he says. “In Portree they came out to meet me with the lifeboat. The Barra lifeboat did the same and then Leverburgh did the same – so yes, definitely very warm and very welcoming.
“The great thing is they’re all ordinary folks, leading ordinary lives, but also very professional at what they do as volunteers.”
• To keep up with Nick Ray’s journey, or to donate, visit 2015in2015journey.blogspot.co.uk