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Mr & Mrs Halpin go to sea

By Dr Amy Jane Beer

Shetland has what has to be some of the best sea paddling in the world, and this was one of the reasons we chose to go there on our honeymoon. After a few days rather luxurious chilling out we booked ourselves a couple of boats and a guide to show us some of the coastal highlights.

Tom Smith operates Sea Kayaks Shetland out of the new outdoor centre he helps run at Bridge End on the island of Burra near Scalloway.There is plenty of sheltered water there and Tom spends a lot of time introducing newbies to the sport. We had said we were after something a bit more challenging, and he seemed very happy for the opportunity to explore a bit further afield.  As we prepared for the first day out, I was remembering the carnage that ensued off Lindesfarne last time York Canoe Club took to the sea (a good story if you havent heard it suffice to say it involved me swimming to shore and HM Coastguard being summoned to help locate our erstwhile Club Chairman). With this track record I was hoping we Toms expectations of us werent going to be too high!


Day one began with a long paddle down the calm waters of West Voe, before embarking on an open crossing of a mile so to the abandoned island of South Havra. Out in the sound we started to feel a bit more at sea. The waves rolled by and to our delight there was a school of porpoises feeding. People always expect porpoises to be like dolphins, but they are really quite different much smaller about four feet long, and normally extremely shy they tend to keep their distance from boats and spend very little time at the surface. The best you can normally hope for watching porpoises is a glimpse of dorsal fin rolling by. But kayaks didnt seem to bother these guys, they carried on feeding, rolling past us within 10 metres or so and announcing each pass with a blast of breath from the blowhole. I could have watched them for hours, but the middle of the tidal sound wasnt really the place for hanging about so we pressed on.

The north coats of South Havra boasts some impressive high cliffs, on which kittiwakes and shags and fulmars were still nesting.

The rocks at the base of the cliffs were used as haul outs by harbour seals, which heaved into the water as we approached clearly they were more comfortable inspecting us from the water, where they are so at home. Tom guided us around the island to a deep bay with a narrow pebble beach the only decent landing spot on the island.

We scrambled up onto the islands grassy top and crossed to the south side where a cluster of half a dozen ruined stone houses invited exploration. These, Tom told us, were home to a tiny fishing community until the 1920s. Before then it was possible to make a living from a small boat, which could be hauled up onto the beach. But as fishing became industrialised, small boat could no longer compete and there was nowhere on the island to safely anchor larger vessels. So the last few families left, leaving this little ghost village, a well and a tiny school house standing empty. The roofs are gone, and the doors and glass from the windows but the stone walls are sound. Now the island is apparently only used for grazing. It would be a great place for a bivvy

After lunch we set off back across the sound to a stretch of coast Tom had not yet explored, and to his delight we found some impressive natural arches and caves these were spooky and impressive but my memory of them was eclipsed by those we saw the following day.

Day two took us north, to Ronas Voe, a long skinny fjord running east west, flanked by steep cliffs. The theory was that here we would be sheltered from the strong southerly winds forecast for the day. The cliffs also happen to have some of the best caves, stacks and arches and other formations on the islands. Exploration of these depends on the tides some you can only get to in high water, others are only accessible at low tide either way there is plenty to see and explore, including some caves lit only by turquoise sunlight filtering in from below the waterline.

Most of the caves were deep vertical fissures too narrow a the back for paddles to be any use. The surge of waves has a tendency to carry you in getting out has to be backwards and can be easier said than done. All in all, these were pretty intimidating places very dark and very noisy, with sudden surges of water carrying you deeper into the cliffs.Kayaking really is one ofthose skills that opens amazing new worlds these places are simple not accessible any other way, and it is a thrill and a privileged to experience them. In places we could place a hand on each side of the narrow caves. The force of the waves crashing at the back was so powerful I half expected to feel the walls vibrating with it. Of course they werent they were utterly solid, but pressing against them it was hard not to think about the weight of the rock above and around. I found there was something very disconcerting about being underneath a landscape rather than in it – I dont think Ive ever felt so small and physically inconsequential – a microbe floating in a cold capillary in the cold, stony skin of the planet.

After a couple of hours investigating these otherwordly nooks and crannies, Tom lead us out across the Voe, past flotillas of bobbing puffins.

At the mouth of the Voe we rounded the Roodrans another dramatic formation including a huge natural arch. By now we were being pushed by strong winds that had sprung up unexpectedly from the east – so much for the weather forecast! It was possible to blast through the surf under the arch by holding our blades out of the water as sails no paddling required. All good fun, but I couldnt help wondering how we were going to get back the homeward trip was going to be against the wind all the way. We lunched on Lang Ayre, the Long Beach, completely inaccessible except by boat. After eating we made a brief trip around the bay, Tom pointing out skerries and islets of toothy rock with welcoming names like The Cleaver The Hog and The Stab.

By now, the wind was getting pretty fierce and I think even Tom was beginning to fret a little over the return. Paddling back along Lang Ayre, sudden broadside gusts were more than strong enough to capsize a boat. As we approached the Roodrans again he warned us that paddling round them was likely to be a bit of a battle. In fact it only took a couple of minutes, but it was 120 seconds of paddling like stink to stop for a moment would have meant being blown back to square one. Once back in Ronas Voe we were heading into headwind this meant we had to keep working hard, but at least the boats were stable it was just as case of plugging away, head down against the spray whipped off the surface, and blessing Lews 3 star training for my new improved Ninja forward paddling technique!

Its a long way to Shetland an expensive trip compared to anything else you might do within the UK but well worth considering if you fancy something a bit different.

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All pictures copyright Amy Jane Beer