The Sting in the Tay - Seal

Day 41 – Dunbar to Arbroath – 30th June – 34.6 nm

Yesterday afternoon we took time out to visit Floors Castle near Kelso. Dad and M drove up to meet us and deliver a parcel of bits and pieces that we couldn't get hold of whilst ‘on the road’.  It was nice to be out of the trip world for a few hours, as we drank tea, ate cake and chatted of non-canoeing matters. But thoughts of tides, plans, weather and dodgy days skulked not far away in the background. Soon we had to return to the campsite, to get on with the job once again.

It’s an 18 nm crossing to Fife Ness but the wind doesn't want to play the game; once again it’s blowing strong – not so strong to rule out the day instantly and completely, but at the same time it’s strong enough to put valid doubts into mind.

I don’t like these days, the decision making buck stops with me of course and I feel the pressure grow – each day I wonder if I’ll get it wrong, in a nasty way. You are aware that you are tired and keen to progress, there is pressure – real and imagined – just how good is that decision making? As the trip progresses I find these days are wearing me down.

Paradoxically the sunny morning doesn't help, in the bay below it is breezy but under blue skies and the warmth it feels refreshing and looks appealing. But... the decision has to be made for the conditions 18 nm and 4 hours away, conditions that cannot be seen. The little machine shows the wind bouncing between 20 and 30+ mph - here.

If in doubt - faff.

We sit around; kit dries nicely in the sunny breeze (clouds and silver linings etc.) and the plan is re-jigged as the hours tick by.

Eventually the wind eases enough, the faff is over and the boat is hauled back through the jungle to the water’s edge on Magnolia Sands.  Good trolley that...

The breeze quickly pushes me out into the Firth, the wind delay means that the tide plan has all gone to bollocks now and it’s a big ferry glide from the start. But if I'm lucky this might work to my favour later I hope.

It’s getting a little choppy and I'm just wondering if admin stops are going to be feasible as I sneak into the shelter behind a conveniently anchored tanker. As I emerge from behind the tanker the conditions have surprisingly eased. Ours not to reason why and all that, this will do.
I continue across to the Isle of May where a brief pee break is interrupted by a curious seal – can a man not get a minutes peace, I ask you?

The tide is indeed working in my favour now and I make good progress across the increasingly smooth waters towards Fife Ness. I arrive in the bay to meet the Team Manager. We sit on the beach and she tells me of the pod of Dolphins she watched, as they frolicked just off the shore before I arrived – nature is putting on a bit of a show for us today it seems. Smiles all around.

I snooze on the edge of the sand under suspicious glares from the golf club behind. Soon it’s time to go again, it will be a late finish today, but it’s flat calm out there now – a 10 mph max following breeze and only a gentle, slight swell – almost perfect. Arbroath here we come!
I forget to start the GPS as I set out again, there’s the first mile missing from the diary then. There’s nothing to see out here, its grey with a little haze. Hills loom in the distance but they can’t be made out with any definition.

Then the wind suddenly changes, it goes through 180 degrees instantly and goes to high teens mph. This last for a matter of minutes and then just as suddenly it’s a following 10 mph again. The boat speed drops too. This happens again, and then again – strange. I realise that each time the wind changes the flow goes against me too, and this is becoming more frequent as I move across the bay.

I figure it must be some sort of gusts working their way down the Tay valley from the distant hills, linked with the exiting flow from the river – we are on the ebb now. Just as I'm reflecting on the previous lessons of paddling on the ebb against swell I realise things are changing. The small swell isn’t any more. Things change disarmingly quickly, the swell soon is above head height and breaking - they roll in long, ominously silent bands, all around. I'm nearly 5 nm from the mouth of the Tay, the swell was virtually insignificant and the wind similar – surely this cannot be the effect of the river emptying out here? Whatever - the reasoning can wait ‘til later.

7 hours on the go now, tired of course, and there isn’t a way around this lot by the look of things. It gets too steep for me, and I have to start running diagonally to lengthen the wavelength a little. It’s not really where I want to be heading but at the moment let’s just go somewhere a little flatter and sort out the final destination later.
Lights start to switch on along the coast in the distance, the impending arrival of dusk doesn't really lighten my outlook greatly as I hang in amongst the rollers – not a happy bunny.
But eventually I work my way through it all and things settle a little. The tide starts to go against me now – whatever... at least that will settle things further.
It is a late finish as Team Manager guides me in to the landing spot using a torch. I'm knackered and my eyes are just starting to retreat back from their stalks brought on by the Tay.

So what happened?
Well... looking at the chart later you can see that the there is an area of shallow water off the mouth of the Tay, no surprise there. But I didn't think it was particular shallow when I did my plan - 5m or more generally. What is probably more significant is the sudden change in depth. From 13-16m to 5m – quickly and right under my track, this could stack the SE swell. The swell at Fife Ness was 0-2ft, 2-4 ft further out in the bay – but always slow and lazy, there was no chop. This was all barely noticeable further out, but at the edge of the shallows the water depth quickly decreased by 2/3rds. Work this sudden depth change against the water ebbing from the Tay estuary and to some extent I guess, the katabatic wind, and it changed fairly flat conditions to unpleasant in a very short time.

I think the sudden wind and flow changes earlier on were large eddies or surges running along the edge of the main flow out of the Tay. I know that other tidal rivers and straits have regular flow surges within them, something like these perhaps? During the trip we were definitely starting to see a link forming between wind and flow changing together.

So what did I learn?
 The effect of the ebbing flow from rivers etc can stretch much further out than I gave it credit for – nearly 5 nm in this case for example. There had been hints of this earlier in the trip, but today brought things home – for the remainder of the trip it would get much more respect.

Pay attention to detail – see what is actually out there, in the plan, in the forecast and on the water – not what you want to be there. An old lesson, re-learnt once again.

Don’t get complacent. Another old lesson. Later in the trip, I learnt to assume that there would be a sting in the tail each day, and it would always be in the tail...