Gino Watkins – “Northern Lights”

Numerous books have been written either about Gino Watkins or concerning his exploits in the 1920’s and early 1930’s prior to his untimely death in the waters of eastern Greenland, an area which very few modern paddlers complete with the equipment of the 21st Century venture into.  How much more demanding must have these travels been when undertaken in the equipment of the day?
Watkins is credited with being the first English man to be able to roll his kayak.  A  skill which he thought was essential to master if the aim was to supplement the food supplies with locally caught species.  It was this desire to live off the land which probably cost Watkins his life, although no body was ever found his kayak was recovered and is preserved today at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
The book, which is probably easiest to acquire today, is simply called “Gino Watkins” by J M Scott.  It seems that most second hand bookshops, which are searched, will reveal a copy of this book.
A less common title is “Northern Lights” by Spencer Chapman.  It was the official record of the expedition in the 1930’s, which was trying to find an air route from Europe to North America.  I had been looking for a copy for several years when, in the mid 1990’s, I came across a copy at a bookseller in London.  The fact that it was store in a locked glass cabinet should have been enough of a signal that this was a book, which was out of my price range, but curiosity got the better of me and I needed to see exactly what it was like.  Once I had regained my composure after seeing the price, it cost more than some of the cars I have bought in the past, I was able to savour the delights within.  It was a joy to behold and as I opened the covers it only got better.  The author Spencer Chapman had signed it, but more importantly it contained the original cutting from The London Times announcing the death of Watkins.  This was before the contents of the book were reached.  I knew that this was an important volume but one that I was unable to justify buying without discussing at home.  Marriages have probably fallen apart for a lesser sum!

Northern Lights

I reluctantly placed the book back in the hands of the shop assistant and left with his card in my hand and hope in my heart.  After discussion at home it was decided that there could be no better Christmas present for the paddling bibliophile than this particular volume, “Northern Lights”.  It was with some relief that I was able to order the book over the telephone a few days later.  Today it occupies pride of place on my paddling bookshelf.

Northern Lights
The inscription inside the front cover written by F. Spencer Chapman plus the cutting from The Times newspaper of the 7th September 1932.

Greenland Paddle

Anybody knows me is aware that I am totally lacking in any practical skills. My belief is that it is important to keep the artisan in work. So it was much to everyone’s surprise and some people’s disbelief that I decided to make a Greenland paddle.
Embarking on this journey I was completely thrown into unknown waters. I had managed to reach the ripe old of 60 and had never bought any wood in my life. It was with some trepidation that I entered the the timber yard and casually ordered two pieces of red cedar, as if it was something I did almost every day. The reality is that I wouldn’t have recognised cedar if it had hit me in the face.
One of the advantages of making your own paddle is cost.  Wood for two paddles cost £20 whereas commercially produced paddles are generally in the region of £200 or slightly higher.  The only problem is that I didn’t have any tools at all to work with so buying the necessary items cost just over £200.  So I have to make a few paddles if there is to be any return on the investment.
If you decide to make your own Greenland paddle there is plenty support out there.  I have used the really useful film that Matt Johnson has put on YouTube. Use the film in conjunction with the PDF written by Chuck Holst and available for download from Qajaq USA.
It has been a fascinating journey so far and my progress has certainly surprised some members of my family.

Greenland Paddle
No power tools for me just a good old fashion saw. It was fascinating how the sawing improved as the afternoon wore on.  Once I started with the saw there was no turning back.  I will either have a Greenland paddle or some expensive firewood!
Greenland Paddle
Markings which indicate how the shaft will emerge.
Greenland paddle
Markings for the end of the blade. The rounded edges were produced using a dinner plate.
Greenland Paddle
Quite amazingly a paddle shape is starting to emerge. A hand plane will be used to smooth the edges.

Read the Water

Read the Water

“Read the Water” is a small booklet written by respected South Wales sea kayak coach, Nige Robinson.  In full colour this is a useful addition to the library of an paddler who pursues their hobby on the sea.
The focus of the book is in helping sea kayakers acquire that almost indefinable quality described as a seamanship.  There are chapters covering such diverse topics such “Fundamentals”, “Observing the water”, “Change”, “Wind and weather”, “Surf”, and “Moving Water”.
The book has a pretty unique approach to instruction, not so much telling you what you need to know but prompting you to question what you see.  Encouraging you to try and make sense of what you are seeing and if possible to predict any possible changes.  Experienced paddlers are always assessing their environment, the interaction between the water, air and land and deciding what is an appropriate course of action.
What do these clouds mean, what is the consequence of tidal change on the water, interpreting colour to decide what the sea bed and sea shore consist of.  Once you have interpreted the data it is possible to make an informed judgement, as to whether the trip can continue or whether it should be amended or even abandoned.
In addition it encourages paddlers to use all their senses.  How often have you heard experienced paddlers say “The tide is against us here”.  They have developed a feel for what the water is doing and are able to come to a conclusion without being reliant on visual information.
This is a book to dip into on a regular basis, as opposed to just sitting down and reading it in one go.  Look at a few of the photographs, interpret what they are showing and then head out on to the water to put it into practice.  It is certainly a novel approach for a book but it is well worth pursuing.  A worthwhile investment.
The book is available by mail order for £10.99 from Nige at Sea Kayak Guides,.

North to Athabasca


In the summer of 2000 I took a group of young people from Jersey to paddle the Allagash Wilderness Waterway in northern Maine.  I remember sitting on the shore of one of the lakes watching a float plane come into land and drop off a solo paddler.  I made a note in my journal to the effect on the 23rd June.  Several years later I came across a book “Canoe Trip” by David Curran, in which he describes his solo trip down the Allagash after having been dropped off on Umsaskis Lake on the 23rd  June 2000.  Although we were clearly on the river at the same time, apart from that distant view I have no recollection of seeing a solo paddler again on that trip.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, so was pleased when towards the end of last year I came across a second book by the same author, “North to Athabasca”.  Once I sat down to read the book at the end of last week I quickly became  hooked and finished it in a couple of days.  With his friend Walter they decide to paddle a river, significantly more challenging than the Allagash.  Flying north into Saskatchewan their aim was to paddle the MacFarlane River, a rarely paddled river which flows into Lake Athabasca.
Actually getting to the launch site was a major undertaking and once on the river they were effectively in their own, although as is the case with many remote trips today they did carry a satellite phone.
The river flows through a pristine wilderness with all the challenges that traveling through such an area entails.  Through David’s writing we gain a flavour of what they experienced, ranging from the wildlife encountered to the physical challenges involved in paddling in the Canadian north.  They were clearly at home in such an area but I do have to say that I questioned their behaviour with one particular bear, if it had been me I would have been paddling flat out in the opposite direction.
At the end of the book, besides thinking I would always take a GPS with me, my overall feeling was one of envy.
It has been nearly 15 years since I last did a long canoe trip and reading “North to Athabasca” made me realize that it has been too long.  It is an easy book to read, the ideal scenario would be on an aircraft en route to a paddling trip.
Just be prepared to start planning your own adventures.

Adventuring Through France

Its not often that I come across a kayaking or canoeing  book that I haven’t already got so it was with some excitement that I found this little treasure in Canterbury, just before Christmas.  What attracted my attention was the author, Gabriel Seal, I had read one of his other books “Canoe Touring Abroad”. 
A quick perusal of the sleeve notes showed that it was about canoeing in France, so that was good enough for me to make a purchase, so in the bag it went.  It wasn’t until the other night that I had time to sit down and start to read the little volume.
What the book described was not just France of 50 years ago, but what is possibly a nations perception of what teenage boys should be doing in their spare time.  This is rip roaring yarn of two 15 year old boys convincing their woodwork teacher to help them build a two man canoe and their parents allowing them to head off to France in search of adventure.  No sitting at home staring at computer screens for them or heading off on a family trip for the sanitised adventure of a theme park.
This is a description of the school Easter holidays spent hitching a lift on a barge, being able to paddle through Paris, some underage drinking, breaking into an ancient chateau, discovering prehistoric cave paintings, hunting rabbits etc
It is a description of an earlier age, whether it is a true description on not is virtually irrelevant.  It is a work of fiction, although the description of the paddling is fairly accurate as the author had canoed extensively in France.  It was written for a teenage audience in the early 1960’s, when expectations were different.  It was still the Watch with Mother generation as opposed to the Sesame Street one.  Things took longer to develop, instant gratification wasn’t necessarily the order of the day.
I cannot think of any teenagers I know today who would enjoy this book even though it was written for their age range.   What I do know is, that as a young person from the 60’s and an active paddler today, I thoroughly enjoyed the couple of hours I spent reading the book.  So if you come across a copy and are a male over 50 who goes kayaking then don’t hesitate, buy it, everybody else would probably better off saving their hard earned cash.

Sea Kayaking Emergency bag

Virtually every time we go on the water we should carry some basic items of safety equipment.  Unfortunately, I am basically a disorganised person and finding small items of equipment from the chaos of the kayaking boxes was virtually an insurmountable problem.  So the solution was to put together a small emergency bag with all the essential items of kit.  It took about 3 months to source all of the things that I needed and it is true to stay that it still isn’t complete.  I still search diligently in yacht chandlers and outdoor shops for that elusive item of equipment, which may provide the final piece of the jigsaw.
The following items of equipment are contained within my waterproof bag:


Signal Mirror:  A small item, which could prove to be useful if you have an accident on a sunny day.  I found mine in a small French yacht chandlers.  It only cost 3.00 €, so it is worth the small financial outlay.
Spare Hatches: 
I carry the Reed hatch covers and have used them twice so they weren’t a waste of money.
Bungee Cords: 
Just one set and you never know when they will be needed.  Ideally for keeping some of the items in the bag wrapped up.
Multi-purpose Tool: 
There is the Leatherman and then there are cheaper ones.  For this emergency bag I have selected a cheaper one, as there is every chance that it will damaged by the seawater.  I paid 7€ for mine at a French DIY store.
Woollen Hat: 
I might swap this for a sun hat during the warmer summer months.
Plastic Sheet: 
Cut from a sparkling water bottle.  The thin plastic is ideal for helping to repair a relatively large hole in the kayak.
Repair Tape: 
Spinnaker tape, electrician’s tape and duck tape.  A selection, which should be able to sort out most needs, including repair kayaks, spray decks and tents.
Epoxy Resin: 
I use a French variety, partly for the challenge of translation, and partly because it is effective.  It will set under water and will repair most materials.
I have the loudest one that I could find.  The literature makes numerous extravagant claims about decibels etc, all I know is that if I blow it my ears hurt!
More like a blowtorch than a lighter.  An effective heat source and according to the publicity material it can’t be blown out by the wind.  Useful for a number of reasons.  Just in case the gas runs out I also have a box of waterproof matches.  (I also remove this from the bag before I fly anywhere)
Fire Lighters: 
Just a couple in case it is necessary to light a fire.
A small poncho, which is ideal if people are cold at lunchtime.
Exposure Bag: 
I don’t have the traditional orange exposure bag but one, which is made of the same material as the well-known space blanket.  The advantage is that it packs up very small.
Spare Food: 
Just a small amount.  I don’t plan on getting stranded for several days in the heart of what is in effect an urban area.  I normally take food, which I am not that keen on so I am not tempted to eat it. 

Money:  Just a small amount, stored in the inevitable film container that is if you can still find one.  Useful for telephones, cafes etc.
Spare Batteries: 
These are for both the GPS and the VHF radio.  A selection of cheaper batteries is better than the more expensive variety; they only have to last a couple of hours.
  Ideal for drawing attention to yourself at night.
Wet Wipes:
  Ideal for all sorts of uses.
First Aid Kit: 
Just a few small items.  Triangular bandage, skin closures, assorted plasters, wound dressing and safety pins.
When I open up the waterproof waist pack it always amazes me that all of the above fits inside such a relatively small container.  What it has enabled me to do is to always carry a basic level of safety equipment.  It can be customized to meet individual needs and because I am always on the look out for another useful item it remains a work in progress.

A Winter’s Paddle

I am an avid reader and collector of books related to sea kayaking and canoeing having read literally hundreds over the years.  When I have finished a book I can normally imagine myself taking part in a similar trip and start to mull over the logistics regardless whether it is a canoe trip in northern Canada or a kayaking trip in Europe.
There are very few books which when I put them down I think to myself this isn’t for me, this person is clearly operating on a different level to myself and to most other paddlers.
Paul Caffyn’s “The Dreamtime Voyage” is one such title and it is joined by “A Winter’s Paddle”.  Tara is clearly a highly motivated, technically competent paddler with a flowing descriptive writing style.  I read significant portions of the book each time I picked it up, eager to know what was going to happen next.
The winter circumnavigation of South Island New Zealand is a huge achievement but to complete some of the more committing sections solo takes the paddle onto a completely different level.
I did wander at times why they exposed themselves to such a significant challenge, the surf landings and the long periods of being storm bound all added up to create a trip that wasn’t for me but it did generate incredible respect  to Tara for seeing it through.
If you are a sea kayaker you will enjoy this book, partly because you will have some insight into the technical challenges it presented but also because of the way it describes the routine of life whilst on a long sea kayaking trip.  I don’t think it will be encouraging many people though, to pack their bags and follow in their wake by circumnavigating New Zealand in winter.
The book is available from Amazon and is well worth getting hold of.

Water to go – drinking bottle

I was fortunate enough to spend nearly 3 weeks in India with a group of school students a couple of years ago, which included an 8 day trek up to 4,000 metres in Himachal Pradesh.  Prior to departure there were several visits to the doctor for the inevitable innoculations, but what he spoke about most frequently was the inevitable upset stomach.  It seemed everybody I spoke to had stories of the unavoidable “Delhi belly.”
Now I am probably not the most hygienic camper so I thought I needed to be a bit more pro-active.  So I was ruthless in my use of hand sanitizer and purchased a “Water-to-Go” water bottle, which I used throughout my time in the country.  Success, I managed to leave India without the slightest hint of an upset stomach whilst other members of the group were not so fortunate.
I could write plenty about the science behind the Water-to-Go bottles and filters, a 3-in-1 system constructed using nano technology and how they reduce the contaminants in water by over 99.9% but if you are interested in this sort of thing I would recommend you pay their website a visit. 
What you really need to know is that they make water bottles in 2 sizes, 75cl which filters 200 litres of water and lasts 3 months and the 50cl bottle which will filter 130 litres and last 2 months.  Effectively this means that they will last for the duration of most paddlers sea kayaking holidays.
Water bottle

A heavily used “Water to Go” bottle against a background of useful kayaking books.

I can honestly say that I have taken this bottle with me on every trip since. Ensuring that I can drink safely from mountain streams or in some countries from the hotel taps.  It should be the end of plastic water bottles on your travels.  In our own way, also helping to reduce the awful proliferation of plastic pollution.  My only slight grumble is that at times I like to add fruit juice to my water and that adding juices etc to the water can result in the filters becoming inefficient, but that is a small price to pay for stable insides.
If you are looking for one really item of essential kit that won’t break the bank this could be it.
 Looking down on our high camp.  We were spending the night in the huts, which were used by the shepherds during the summer months.  We retreated from here due to an approaching storm.  Water at this camp was from a nearby stream.
 Observing some of the local birds in flight.  At this camp site a number of the group were hit by stomach problems.
In conditions like this you need a simple solution to your water needs.  I would have no problem recommending water bottles from Water-to-Go, they worked for me.

The A – Z of Sea Kayaking. An update.

A-Z of Sea Kayaking

The A – Z of Sea Kayaking was the first book that I published for the Kindle.  The concept was very simple, write down everything I knew or I could find out about sea kayaking.  It was a fascinating journey, which changed direction several times in its development.  At one time I was also going to include information on some classic paddling destinations. That idea was eventually put on hold but I did include information on such varied topics as coaching, skills, weather, navigation, personalities etc.
The finished product came out at just under 100,000 words and occupied several hundred pages on my Kindle, it is still the longest book I have completed.  The latest title “Coasteering: A Practical Guide” has just under 24,000 words, although it does have significantly more photographs.
Over the last week I have been revising the book and rather naively I thought it was going to be quite a simple exercise.  When I first published the title Sandy Robson was just setting out from Germany on a 5 year expedition tracing the route of Oskar Speck. Olly Hicks and George Bullard hadn’t even started to think about kayaking from Greenland to Scotland, something they achieved in 2016.  Sea Kayaker magazine was still in production, as were other paddling magazines, which have since disappeared.
Other changes have seen of one of the most respected governing bodies in the sport renamed.  The British Canoe Union has become British Canoeing.  Sadly a number of the most influential and prominent paddlers of the second part of the 20th century have passed away.
So far I have added another 5,000 words and appear to have only just scratched the surface of the significant number of changes, achievements and developments in the sport.  It is amazing to see just what has been achieved in the last six years, a true reflection of how dynamic modern sea kayaking is.
So what started as a simple project has grown significantly but the plan is still to have the new edition available before the end of the year.

Paddling to Jerusalem

A mid-life crisis can be handled in different ways, some people change their careers, others take a lover whilst David Aaronovitch decided to paddle around Britain.  Not an easy objective for somebody whose previous paddling experience was limited to a none to positive introduction to the sport on the Bedfordshire Ouse over Easter 1966.
The decision to paddle around England came to him whilst paddling a large green plastic canoe across a lake at Center Parc’s.  Possibly not the most stimulating environment but one which proved inspiring.  The description of David Aaronovitch is not one which inspires confidence as an able outdoors person.  His observations on the cliental of gyms are particularly wry.  If his description of the kayaking tuition he received is accurate then the future of the sport is not on very secure ground.
Against almost universal advice he decided to embark upon the journey and a route through the heart of England evolved.  He chose the Pyranha Orca sea kayak as his craft and the route linked the canals and major river systems of England.  The Thames, Trent and Severn plus the Grand Union, Leeds – Liverpool and Shropshire Union Canals provided the liquid highways.
To most paddlers this would appear to be a particularly drab choice of route if compared to more dramatic popular sea kayaking regions.  Numerous writers, from Defoe onwards, have for hundreds of year described the journeys they have undertaken though the heart of England.  Some have proved to be accurate observers of the state of the country and Aaronovitch is one of these.
Heading through some of the major cities of industrial England, by kayak, is not everybody’s idea of a classic paddle.  What it does allow though is a different perspective on life in Britain at the end of the 20thcentury.  He is looking at England through the backdoor, roads and footpaths tend to show the front of buildings, canals the rear.
His “camp” on the first night of the journey was the Hotel Ibis near Heathrow Airport, not on the main sea kayaking route, not a particularly auspicious start.  Another bleak moment was his arrival in Burnley, not many hotels in the world would have the temerity to place the following sign above a bed; “We respectfully request that you do not iron anything on the carpet, as it will melt.”
In contrast to these somewhat depressing descriptions there are numerous positive encounters.  Unfortunately his wrists didn’t last the pace and he was forced to abandon his paddle close to Gloucester and he had to finish his journey to the Millennium Dome at Greenwich on foot, following the tow path of the Thames as opposed to benefiting from the rivers free ride as it heads towards the sea.
Overall this is an optimistic book and it offers hope for all of us who will never see the younger side of 40 again.  In contrast to so many sea kayaking books which are written by paddlers hoping to be writers, this is a book which is written by a writer who is becoming a paddler. It is well written, informative and amusing.  He didn’t really get to paddle on the sea but the use of sea kayaks doesn’t have to be restricted to the salt water environment.  There are many miles of inland waters which are suitable for sea kayaks and this book will help open your eyes to some of the possibilities which exist.  A delightful book, well worth searching out.