A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned,… for he will be going out on a day he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.
John Millington Synge
We are on the beautiful island of Pabbay on the Barra-head island group. The sun is out but the wind is still a bit strong. On the beach, we watch the surf crashing on the sand. The seals play with the white-crested waves and a small group of teal duck bob up and down between the waves. We consider our options to leave the island. There is only one and a half day of food left in our kayaks. That is about the time we need to get to Castlebay on the island of Barra, to do some shopping.
The VHF forecast announced the wind was going to ease from 4 to 5 bfd to 3 to 4 bfd, but that showers would be likely. But when will the wind ease? VHF is not that precise. We have to observe that by ourselves.
We climb up on the hill overlooking the sea we have to cross to get to the other island. Too many whitecaps. We are not leaving just yet.
Time passes by and Alexander gets out his wind speed meter. He stands on the hill where the wind comes from and measures the wind. It is easing, the sea state becomes calmer, fewer whitecaps. But we also see raincloud developing. We decide to break up the tent and pack the boats before everything gets wet. When we are in our kayak gear the rain comes in the form of drizzle. We quickly cover yourself with a rain poncho. We have to wait until the wind eases a bit more and the tide comes in our favour.
We watch the seals as a pastime. One of the smaller seals climbs on the shore right behind our boats. Why is it doing that? Now we have to disturb it when we leave.
After 2 hours under the poncho developing a sore ass, the tide has changed and the wind eases a bit more. The sea looks like we can manage it, and we feel confident enough to paddle to the next island.
We push our kayaks in the water, apologize to the seals for the disturbance, and paddle away from the beach.
Coming around the island, the combination of big swell coming from the west colliding with the tidal waves coming from the east whips the waves up to a clapotis-like wave pattern of 4 meter high.
The word ‘Clapotis’ comes from the French language for ‘standing wave’. By definition, they are formed by a reflecting wave from the cliff shore meeting the wave of the swell and they crash into each other.
In our case, the clapotis is formed by two colliding wave patterns, one from the west and the other from the east. Resulting in a wave that is much higher and contains a lot of energy. After the collision, the wave collapses. When kayaking in these waves, the kayaker has to be skilful enough to brace at the right time, that is…. if he/she can find water to brace on…
After looking at the sea state while on top of a high wave we decided that, beyond the clapotis field there were too many whitecaps for a safe passage to the next island. Usually, I want to go forward because going back is more difficult. But you got to know when to stop and realise the state of the sea is beyond your skill level. We went back to the beach where we came from.
A clapotis wave pattern is bad if it is against you but worst if the wave comes from behind. There is no way I can see what is coming. Anxiety is creeping in and I feel myself stiffening up. There is only one solution to tame this fear. Singing loudly ‘My favourite things’ of the musical ‘ The sound of music’, I paddle back to where we left.
The entire endeavour took around 45 minutes and covered 3 km distance. Safe and sound though wet, we land back on the beach.
Upon arrival, the seals look a bit annoyed. ‘Back so soon?’
‘Sorry for trespassing again on your beach for another night’ I exclaim.
The next day the sea and weather were in perfect condition to paddle all the way to Castlebay. Isn’t it ironic?