view from Stroma over the Swilkie
This is what a tidal race looks like. You are looking at The Swilkie at the northern tip of Stroma.

I feel the drizzle on my naked back as I try to wiggle into my wetsuit. I want to put this thing on as quickly as possible but on wet skin and in a hurry, it just never slides on easily. Now my toe gets stuck in the seams of my wetsuit and I almost lose balance. Finally, jacket on, hat on, sunglasses desalted and on, OK, ready to go.
On today’s trip, we only paddle a small 14-kilometre hop from Stroma to Swona. But the extra feature of the crossing is the fastest flowing tide race in Europe to navigate.

We’re ready just in time for the tide, for now, only a slow current moves eastwards. We paddle 6 kilometres from the big harbour on the south side to the sheltered east side of Stroma. When we arrive in the small harbour on the eastside, we see Swona disappear into low clouds of drizzle. What a bummer, now we can not cross between the two islands! We planned to cross to Swona on the slack tide. Any time later and the tide will be too strong for us and we will be tide-swept way past Swona. We want to sneak through a small window of slack-tide when the water changes its direction and the currents are slowest. This will give us a safe crossing. Alexander gets all tense up because this rain will narrow our small window of opportunity significantly. Now we might have to stay on Stroma and try again tomorrow.

Waiting for the clouds to lift on the northern point of Stroma.

Hoping for the clouds to lift we slide the kayaks in the water and paddle to the northern tip of Stroma, waiting for the slack tide to be just right. We need good visibility during this crossing. I see the clouds lifting from the west. We see Swona appearing again, puffff, a sigh of relief. Just in time! Because once we start our crossing there is no going back, we are committed.

drawing of the crossing from Stoma to Swona
Alexander made a drawing of the crossing from Stroma to Swona. Just to give you an idea on what the kayak trip looked like.

Here we go, 30 degrees on the boat compass. We see a big container ship and a fishing boat heading into the Pentland Firth, crossing our path in the 5 kilometre stretch between the two islands. We can’t stop but neither can this big huge ship! We paddle 10 kilometres per hour on the currents. The carrier goes much faster. It crosses right in front of us, totally oblivious of our presence in our tiny boats in this treacherous bit of water. But the water looks calm. This 5-kilometre crossing feels like an easy stroll. I start to think we aren’t in the Pentland Firth at all, the water appears so smooth and calm!

GPS indicates we paddle 15 degrees centigrade. That is just a bit more towards Swona than intended. It’s not far anymore, just a kilometre or so. Suddenly the water changes from smooth to choppy, the tide changed, nothing to worry about yet. We move a bit closer to the island. And all of a sudden, like someone pushed a button, we’re in the middle of a tidal race. Kayak speed falls from 8 to 6 to 4 to 0 kilometre per hour. Alexander yells to me to start paddling towards the island, out of the overfall. Bigger waves start shaking my boat around. The currents move the kayak in al kind of directions like a toy, I’m only a passenger and there is little I can do about it. The only thing I can do is keep up the speed and hope the currents are willing to let me go. Slowly, slowly we manage to paddle into calmer water. But it is clear, the tide changed against us. It changed to a west-flowing tide which whirls around Swona. We crawl up the coastline by diving in and out of eddies.

The tide is really strong between the shore and a stack just a bit offshore. This is a test of how fit and strong we are. Alex passes with some effort but I need to gather all my strength to push through. Oh my God, this is tough! Now it’s not only a physical test but also a mental one! If I start thinking ‘This to too hard’ I will not make it against the current. And where is that going to leave me? In rough waves between Swona and Stroma. If I believe I will make it, I will win. Mind over matter. Go girl!
‘Who is gonna win? I’m gonna win!’, I repeat this mantra out loud as I grind my teeth and do some serious paddling. Stroke by stroke I crawl up against the current. With a supreme effort, I win. All my abs are shredded and my arms feel like jelly, but I made it. No time to relax now, I still need to land somewhere!

We turn the corner up the eastside of Swona and we’re tide swept up the coast with a speed of 12 kilometres per hour. Just in time, we recognize the small inlet which makes a natural harbour of Swona. The haven looks so small and insignificant, we almost pass it completely. We land on a rocky beach as we see the tide speeding up. A fishing buoy is dragged under the fast-moving current which wasn’t like that 5 minutes ago. It is the strong tides around this island that make it so inaccessible. I look at Alexander and laugh a bit, I know we are here in this harbour just in time. There was no room for a time error in this passage.

But if we hadn’t made the crossing and we were tide-swept, we would have ended up on Hoy. That would have been a long paddle but luckily not somewhere on the Atlantic ocean. So don’t worry!

On trips like this, you realise that you can’t do this type of holiday’s, physically untrained and without any navigation skills. Equally important is that when you are out there on the water, you can ‘read’ the tide, weather and landscape. More on navigation skills in future stories.

We pulled the kayaks high up in the harbour of Swona. As you see, not much of a harbour.

Charlotte Gannet

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6 Comments

  1. The Cedar Journal on 23rd December 2019 at 18:04

    Wow… nail biting and stomach churning stuff! No way my nerves would let me do what you guys do! Maybe if I was 20 but not at my age. I bet your arms and core were burning and your legs felt shaky when you exited the kayak.

    • Charlotte on 27th December 2019 at 20:14

      I think that is why we don’t see a lot of kayakers passing the Pentland Firth. After 19 years of paddling around Scotland, we know the water and what it can do. But there are still moments I have to start singing to keep the fear at a distance. And there are moments when the going gets tough, the tough get going. You have to pull out your inner Arnold Schwarzenegger. After moments like this, I usually become very quiet. Mind you, this year I turned 50 and I can feel it….

      • The Cedar Journal on 28th December 2019 at 08:57

        We know what you mean! Although we say “We aren’t 20 anymore..”. Each year that first paddle out is always one that you think “I should have worked out better over the winter.” I really admire what you guys do as it takes incredible core strength. What do you guys have planned for 2020?

        • Charlotte on 30th December 2019 at 19:41

          I think it is going to be Arran and round the Mull of Kintyre, crossover to Jura and around Isla back to Jura. Through the Coryvreckan to Oban and back underneath Atlantic Bridge to the Crinan Canal. I think that will be our trip for 2020. I keep up the kayak training during the winter twice a week and cycling. Otherwise, I can not keep up with the summer trips. That would be bad.

  2. Elly on 21st December 2019 at 21:25

    I knew you would make it! I’m proud of you!! Ik 💪😘

    • Charlotte on 22nd December 2019 at 11:12

      Thank you! As you know, stubbornness is my middle name. I’m just not letting currents win over me!

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