After convincing a friend to drop me off in Leverburgh on the south coast of Harris on the Saturday, I started with a paddle to the island of Easaigh. My plan was simple: visit some islands in the Sound of Harris, find new hidden swim spots, take photos and cruise up the coast over the next day and a half. The board could take me where swimming alone could not, and open up new possibilities.
I used the Red Paddle Co 13’2 board, which is ideal for expeditions: I’d loaded my tent, sleeping bag, food and clothes into dry bags and off I set. The board seemed to barely notice the extra weight and cruised through the water. In the standing position you can become like a sail; headwinds are unmanageable at times. Conversely, find yourself travelling on a downwinder and you can fly over the water. The position of being above the water yet fully mobile is also a dream for a swimmer: you can jump straight in to explore the water, connected by a leash then jump back aboard without having to dock on land. I occasionally swim and tow the board: it acts like a giant tow float, or moveable pontoon! You could leave out a picnic on top and graze whilst you swim.
This idea was soon re-evaluated with the gusting winds of 20mph from the south east – my direction of travel! I’d make Easaigh but not without difficulty. An hour and a half of paddling exclusively on my right to counteract the wind and I was there. But this was a SUP, a stand up paddleboard and I’d had to fight the wind on my knees. It was a relief once arrived to strip off my wetsuit and buoyancy aid and swim in the sheltered, clear water of the bay. Another long beach, Tràigh Mhànais on the north-west of the island also offers swimming and occasional surf.
To me, islands are the most fascinating places. Each island I visit leaves me with a story, and Easaigh was no different. A large old house dominates the bay, still standing yet now inhabited only in summer. My friend Angus kayaked from Loch nam Madadh in Uist and joined me, crossing the Sound of Harris from the south, and we were then invited in by the occupiers for a fry-up and drinks and gladly accepted: we know how to live on a Saturday night! The walls inside showed signs of age, each year sections fall off, and each year they patch it up, living in the house without electricity for several weeks each summer.
After a morning dip, I paddled solo to the island of Scalpay, 32km north of me. My route took me along the Bays of Harris: the rocky, moon-like east coast of the island. I stopped often to gaze at the land, visit abandoned houses, snorkel and swim. The North Harris Snorkel Trail was on my route and many sheltered bays offered forests of seaweed to explore.
I decided on a portage at Scadabay: save myself from the longer paddle around the coast. The map showed a body of water not far away which then connected into a freshwater loch and the sea: ideal! After scrambling across the slippery seaweed-covered beach and along a ditch, I found the body of water…a bog! Reeds grew tall. I suppose there was water there; just under the myriad of plants! I swore loudly at the sheep who stared at me without care. A long drag of my gear and I had completed the portage. At least I had learned: even the map can mislead.
Paddling Loch an Tairbeart to Scalpay was near-euphoric, gliding in the late evening light. The light that does not disappear in a Hebridean summer. Standing on the board, islands and skerries all round, birds diving, otters playing. I felt at home. In that moment I wanted to spend a lifetime exploring the coasts of these islands. My heart yearned for memories it does not yet know.
The coast is not uninhabited, many hamlets are dotted around the Bays of Harris, yet despite seeing houses, I saw but one lone fisherman and three kayakers all day. More common was the wildlife: gulls, divers, shags, even the occasional puffin. Porpoises slipped silently by in the distance, seals snorted as they inspected my craft, shoals of small fish darted from my shadow.
And the jellyfish! I saw hundreds, maybe thousands of them. Shoals of moon jellyfish, the occasional bottle and some adrenaline-inducing Lions Manes. Some had heads larger than dinner plates, one had tentacles stretched out wide, at least ten feet across, like a goalkeeper in a world cup shootout, hoping to catch his prey as it attempted to pass. For once, I was quite happy to be out of the water, and admiring them from above.
Rising early on Monday, I paddled under the Scalpay Bridge: a beautiful (to my mind!) concrete span linking Harris to Scalpay. I ate breakfast as I floated underneath, drifting in the wind. Then I continued up Loch Seaforth, a fjord-like loch. People were in small supply, but industry abounds here. Two large fish farms in the middle of the loch, workers starting their day. I passed a lone house; it had a small railway line to take goods from their small pier! The wind today was westerly and I tucked into the hill to shield myself as I continued to Aird a’ Mhulaidh.
I reached land and I deflated the board and packed up my gear to walk it up to the road, I realised that I hadn’t spoken to another person for a day and half. I’d paddled silently, the only words from my mouth in wonder at my surroundings, and occasional swears during my struggles. And you know what? I loved it.