Right in the middle of some of Europe’s most treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth lay the islands of Stroma and its smaller sister Swona. They are our stepping stones between the mainland Scotland and the islands of Orkney.
We have already made the passage from mainland to Stroma. In order to get from Stroma to Swona, Alexander and I have to cross the notorious tidal race called ‘The Swelkie’ situated at the northern point of the island Stroma. The stories of old tell tales of unfortunate ships and crew that disappeared while passing the tidal race. Even nowadays ships avoid navigating the waters between the islands. When the tide calculation are off or if the weather changes while crossing the tidal race, ships might be in serious trouble.
‘The Swelkie’ is a sweet sounding Norse name which translated means ‘The Swallower’. Right, that sounds encouraging, knowing I will be crossing it by kayak.
Why would anyone voluntarily attempt to go there by kayak? That is looking for trouble! That is what most people might think. But no one learned anything by always playing it safe. We see this crossing as a test of our abilities in navigation- and kayaking skills. Never trust only on the tide calculations and the GPS alone, but look at the weather, read the water and its movements. At the same time, watch where we are going, how is the land is shifting through the landscape compared to the compass. It is all a game of variables. It is this intimate interaction with the natural elements that bring us here. Furthermore, there is also the human aspect of ‘feeling up to the task’. Dark thoughts are a hazard to any endeavour and the base for the passing to fail.
- The weather, wind force 3 south-west and some sun, check.
- The time, 14.00 hours, one hour before the changing of the tide, check.
- The tide, neap, check.
- The mood, tense but excited, Check.
I sit in the boat at exactly 14.00 hours. I’ve got this tingling feeling going on in my tummy. ‘You feel up to it?’, Alexander asks, relaxed as always as he puts the map on his deck. ‘Yes’, I answer, more determined than I feel. ’Ready as I’ll ever be’. I just hope his theory is in accordance with reality. If we get this wrong we might be tide swept, miles past the tiny island of Swona.
We leave the harbour of Stroma and paddle past a rusty shipwreck to the north side of the island. A stark reminder of the dangers this trip might hold. And there it is: ‘The Swelkie’, swirling around, racing water, small whitecaps in a circle pattern. I see water mushrooming to the surface, making bubbles. Bigger waves up ahead, I feel myself stiffening. Holding onto my paddle just a bit tighter.
‘Here we go’, I think. ‘Play with the waves, don’t fight them. Dance, it’s like a tango’.
In my head I start singing a song, ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’… Hardly a tango but singing does wonders to keep anxiety at bay.
My boat is caught by the fast flowing currents and I flow along with it. Moving my paddle left and right, in and out of the water. Suddenly, my watery dance partner takes over my kayak and I am swirling around in a circle, my boat is pointing towards the direction where I came from. Now I’m floating in a fast pass north while facing south! I try to find some support on the water to turn my boat around but ‘The Swilkie’ has too much fun moving me backwards and shaking my boat. I feel helpless and scared and call out to Alexander for help. ‘There will be a countercurrent!’, he yells back! But I hear the uncertainty in his voice. He is busy trying to manage the current as well. As rocky as the first one-hundred-and-eighty degrees went, so smooth went the second one-hundred-and-eighty. After this life-enhancing pirouette, I face north again. I feel relieved and my body relaxes, letting my held in breath go. Deflated, I paddle on. Into the bigger waves. ‘Ok, I can do this’, I feel more confident. The waves wash my face with salty seawater. I shake my head and taste the saltiness on my lips.
I have no time to talk to Alex, even though he paddles just five-meter distance next to me. I’m fully focused on my paddling. Just a brief eye contact is enough for communication. Yes, I’m okay.
Through my sea water washed sunglasses I can see Swona up ahead. The crossing is in a straight line just 5 km. The current sweeps us to the east. I check my compass, 40 degrees is towards Swona. ‘Keep the boat at zero zero zero degrees’, Alexander yells to me. He is only allowed to yell at me, in this commanding tone, during difficult navigation moments at sea.
I paddle my boat north and the tide pushes me towards the east. The GPS registers a speed of 14 km per hour, only half of that is our own effort, the rest is due to the currents. I need to keep my compass needle on 0 degrees and not look at the island. If I start looking at the island the boat will turn towards it and I won’t make it to Swona. ‘Go on girl, keep up the pace’, I encourage myself. I lean over a bit to keep my paddle blades moving in a short but fast rhythm. My boat cuts through the water and rides the waves beautifully. I look at Alexander: now I see him, now I don’t. The waves must be one meter high. Not too bad, we can handle that.
After fifteen minutes the sea becomes significantly calmer. I think we have passed the Swilkie. High five!! That does not mean we are out of the fast moving water. We have to keep going for another ten minutes. The sea is more structured now and easier to paddle. I relax a bit.
Even though my compass needle shows a course due north, I end up with ‘The tails of the Tarf’ right in front of me, it is the south tip of the island. I look at a rugged and rocky coastline with deep inlets and flat land on top.The cliffs are high enough to act as wave breakers for the frequent south-westerly storms.
We made it! I turn to look at Alexander with a ridiculous smile on my face. Alexander, relaxed as always, looks at me expectantly, not knowing how I feel after this rocky ride. I might be crying or cursing or screaming that I will not be doing this again.
‘Was that all ‘The Swelkie’ could throw at us?’ I ask, looking over my shoulder, feeling all tough again, forgotten all about the anxiety of the start.