The Roof of Britain Ultra

Dates: 4th August 2018 to 23rd August 2018
Location: Fort William to Fort William, Scotland
Total Miles completed: 620
Total islands Landed: 12
Number of open water crossings above 5 Nautical miles: 8
Total number of rest days: 2

Paddlers:

Tom Thorpe
Boat: SKUK Quantum
Paddles: VE wing

Steve Bowens
Boat: Rockpool Taran 18
Paddles: VE Wing

Summary:
The roof of Britain Ultra is an extension of an existing route which was set by Sean Morley and Ian Wilson in 1999
The standard roof of Britain is 508 miles and took Sean and Ian 12 days and 10hours to complete.
The Roof of Britain Ultra links Islands and involves open water crossings. During August 2018 myself and Steve took the ‘Inner Route’, traveling up through the inner Hebrides via Coll, Canna, Skye and the Shiants, this was because of a prolonged period of strong (F5/6) westerly winds, meaning we were unable to reach Mingulay from Tiree. From Mingulay we planned to head up the outside of the outer Hebrides (The Outer route).

Why pick this route?
I have wanted to link a lot of the Scottish islands for some time and it seemed logical to me to link the islands and combine them with an established challenge/route, this created an alternative route, adding just over 120 miles. We named the route ‘the roof of Britain ultra’ and I hoped this challenge would appeal to other paddlers in the future. When myself and Steve began to plan the trip it became clear that linking the Hebrides and the headlands in the north of Scotland was a very natural and logical kayaking route, the distances worked well and could be split into days easily. Not only would we get to see some of the most beautiful places in the UK but the roof of Britain ultra would be a serious physical and navigational challenge.
I come from a climbing background and setting a new route is always exciting and whilst most of the sections and crossings on the inner route have been completed, it was still great to link them all together, within a good time.

The actual event:

Throughout this article I have talked about individual days but some days are linked due to similarities and distances covered. I have tried to focus on the learning points and most exciting sections.

Arriving in Scotland in boardies, having driven from Cornwall always feels a tad odd and I’m always quick to find the belay jacket and the trousers. It always amazes me how just a few degrees north alters the temperature so much.
We set off from Fort William at around 10 am on the fourth of August. Unfortunately a force four headwind was blowing strong and would be for the whole day, this was our warm up day and we eventually arrived on the Isle of Mull, 34 miles later and made camp next to castle Duart. We were happy to have made a good distance and we felt confident that we could cover a similar distance each day.
We sat at the campsite that evening, although feeling strong and on form, we analysed some things such as; Boat weight, Seating positions, layering and average speeds.
For me, my boat was clearly too heavy, I have done a lot of challenges and longer paddles and I pack light and try and take bivvy gear and lightweight food. For this extended amount of time I had packed full camping gear and over a weeks worth of food, physically I could paddle my kayak but my average speed dropped from a standard 4.5knots to around 3.6knots. This was frustrating but we accepted the speeds and progression and pushed on the next day.
We headed around the south of Mull to camp on Iona, this stretch of coast was amazing and the western headlands of Mull stand out to me as a seriously beautiful place, pink granite above white sand, Id love to explore this area more and maybe climb there. We were pleased to reach Iona, we camped on a lovely sandy beach and we were really excited that we would get to camp in some top locations, each campsite we got to throughout the whole trip Id say “This has gotta be the best one yet!”

From Iona we had a crossing to Tiree, the crossing was 25 nautical miles from Headland to beach with 19 miles of open water. The tides in this area are not so strong being under 0.5 knots, but we had a force four crosswind against tide for the whole crossing and there was a significant swell, this made it tricky to settle into an efficient rhythm. We arrived on Tiree having spent a few hours at sea dealing with sizable peaks and troughs, I was very happy that the planning was bang on and our GPS track was very straight, this would be the case throughout the whole 19 days. Tiree was our first planned rest day and It was a nice feeling to be able to relax and let our bodies recover after the initial three days of conditioning and working with laden boats.

Steve knows a few folk on Tiree so we got in touch with Willy and Kirsty Maclean of Wild Diamond, a local water sports company. To our amazement they very kindly provided us with a truck, breakfast, accommodation and a guide to the island. We spent the day exploring and eating and I spent a couple of hours adjusting my seating position in the Quantum and planning the next stages. The Quantum Kayak responds to trim and I needed to move my seat forward a couple of inches so I could pack the boat in a more effective and practical way. The forecast wasn’t great, windguru and XCweather were saying F5/6 westerlies and we debated for two or three hours as to whether we should wait for a weather window to cross to Mingulay, or move with the winds and tides as they were forecasted and move north up through the inner route.
We met with Andy Spink, one of Scotland’s top mountain guides. Andy cooked us a Curry and we drank a beer of two. After further discussion I accepted the fact that moving with conditions was more efficient and logical. Waiting for a minimum of four days for a weather window which may not appear is not time smart and we could make up a lot of ground in that time.

So the next day, launching in the same place, we moved up to the north of Coll and made plans to move across to Canna and Western Skye. From the Campsite on the north of Coll we watched the cloud systems develop over Rhum and at times we could not see Rhum and Eigg at all. Having paddled around Rhum in 2017, I knew that the weather could change really fast here.
We were working with a forecast that changed every six hours and we were pleasantly surprised to find that there was good signal throughout the islands, so we could check the forecasts most mornings and evenings. We quickly realised that the forecasts were just a rough guide and the western Isles, being mountainous, create their own weather and there are micro-climates, Storms, squalls and sunny/settled patches will appear from time to time. Reading the clouds and keeping a check on wind speeds and temperature was the only real reliable tactic to use. We got really good at understanding the weather to the point that we could actually predict the minutes that a squall would hit us, allowing us to adjust our layers.

The crossing to Canna went well, despite having a force 4/5 wind on our beam with lots of spray, this meant that we had our hoods up for most of this crossing.
When we arrived on Canna we took advantage of the Café and we met a lovely woman called Fiona who runs Tighard guesthouse, she kindly offered us showers and a bed. Sadly we had to decline due to a small weather window presenting itself and the crossing to Skye being in perfect condition, this is where we headed to camp.
Throughout the whole trip I was navigating from sea charts which covered large areas, when we got to Skye we had to paddle an extra two miles to find a campsite because we weren’t able to see the land in detail on the chart, we were happy make camp and eat some dinner.
Planning the routes that evening I was happy to be heading north and I could see some real progression. Checking the tidal diamonds on the charts I was keen to make the outer Hebrides but it was looking very tricky with the unsettled weather so I prepared myself mentally for the fact that we may not reach Harris and Lewis. Our ethos of moving with the conditions and moving with haste would not accommodate waiting for good weather, especially with unreliable forecasting.

The next day we made the 44NM journey to Uig on the north of Skye, the weather was completely different to the forecast and we made some good time, we were against tide for two thirds of the day but we still maintained a high average speed. As we were about to head around Waternish point I had my first energy crash, my speed dropped off and my arm cramped up. I knew that my energy and nutrition would be a challenge and I had expected to get stages of low blood sugar. Being Vegan means that I cannot just order anything off of a menu and buying food in a supermarket takes more time and consideration. I had packed high-energy foods and tried to hydrate and take on calories as much as I could, as I had not been able to put on weight before the trip.
I had sought advice from other active folk and athletes committed to a plant-based diet however most of the advice I had received was from people who did body building and short burst type exercise. This type of kayaking was about endurance and sustained activity.
On a trip like this the paddler burns around 6500+ calories a day, so I learnt quickly that I had to just eat as much as I could, every hour throughout the day, saving high sugar foods for the last two to three hours so I didn’t get a crash. Once I crashed once it was harder to stabilise my blood sugar levels. For me it was an interesting physical and mental journey and I really enjoyed the nutrition aspect. Towards the end of the trip my systems had developed and fatigue wasn’t an issue, of course this was down to body conditioning as well.
We sat in Uig that evening, ate chips and drank beer, we checked the forecast and the tides and it was clear to us that we could make a crossing to Harris via the Shiant Isles the following day, this perked us both up, we could get to the outer Hebrides after all!! The crossings and additional distance would not add any more time if the conditions stayed as they were.
We had great conditions for the crossing even though we would be paddling against the tide off of Rubha Hunish for two to three hours. The Shiants were very beautiful and there were thousands of puffins everywhere, too fat to fly, skimming across the surface of the water. Staying on the Island were some volunteers from the RSPB, monitoring the birds and the environment. Unfortunately when we were on the Shiants we checked the weather and the forecast had changed significantly, there were big winds on their way and we toyed with idea of crossing back to mainland that eve, a crossing of twenty two nautical miles, after already having paddled around twenty. We settled down and committed to crossing to Harris, if we had to wait for the good weather, we would just have to, there was nothing we could do. We headed for Stornoway and stopped to camp in a sea loch with sea eagle flying overhead.
The weather forecast wasn’t wrong, the wind had increased and we would now enjoy some strong easterlies. Paddling the ten miles to Stornoway was tricky for me, I suffer from blistering and friction burns on my lower back and bum and when we arrived in Stornoway I was in real pain. Being in pain is very counter productive, it stops me settling into a rhythm and I cannot find my flow. I was in a pretty bad mood and landing in Stornoway next the ferry was too tempting. Luckly, a falafel burger, some lemonade and a phone call home sorted me out and after adjusting the boat and having a word with myself I was back on top form and we paddled to the east of the Eye peninsular ready to cross the minch again to the mainland and Stoer head.
The forecast was for strong southerlies and we decided that we would sit there for as long as it takes or we would just go for it. The saying “it is what it is” became a standard thing to hear and we’d say that for the rest of the trip “Its Scotland, it is what it is, we just have to go”.

We set off on the 26 nautical mile crossing and we couldn’t see much, viz was low and the southerly/beam wind was coming up through the Minch, we pushed on, sticking to our bearing. Amazingly, about two thirds of the way across the cloud lifted and the wind dropped right off. It was glassy, our mood and speed increased and we managed to get even further to an amazing little Island called Handa. Handa is a beautiful island, there were Dolphins jumping in the bay, Skua and red footed diver cruising around, the water was crystal clear and it was a great little campsite. We ate lots of food and planned our journey around cape wrath and the top of Scotland.
At this point or food situation was more sensible, we made the choice to only re stock for three days and minimise our boat weights. Up to this point I had been giving stuff away to locals just to get all of the non-essentials out of my boat and bring my weight down. We were cruising well and I really started to think about my stroke in regards to efficiency and power.

The next day was great, it’s the first time we had had conditions with us and we downwind paddled all the way around cape wrath maintaining a speed well over six knots and the following day we downwind paddled all the way to Sandside, a harbour just west of Thurso. Getting some speed under the hulls was so satisfying. Luckily for us, the wind switched southerly and the next day was another down-winder to Hoy, part of the Orkney islands.
The crossing to Hoy was amazing, we paddled downwind for around 10 miles until the wind switched westerly. At one time, Steve clocked over ten knots on his GPS. That’s fast!
It was swelly, at times I couldn’t see Steve and of course the other way around. A large fishing boat came along side and offered us assistance, we of course declined and thanked them. Closer to Hoy, near the old man, conditions were very bumpy, big surging waves were breaking over us regularly and at times the boat would spin or we would take a hit in the low brace position. We pushed on, moving together, communicating via signals. We found a lovely sandy bay on the lee side of Hoy and gave each other a high five. “That crossing was sic!”

We were aware at this point that a Storm was coming, the forecast suggested 45knot winds that would be coming in the evening of the next day. We planned the next day, with the aim being to get Kirkwall and book into a hostel and shelter. Waking up that morning we had f5 westerlies which were already blowing across the bay, we knew at that point the storm was coming in early and we made haste to get to Kirkwall and shelter. We were met and helped by a great chap called Christian, he let us store our boats securely and he gave us a lift to town, he gave us some advice on Orkney and pointed us in the right direction.
All of the hostels were full so we prepared to camp. At the last minute we were offered a place to stay at Deerness, just east of Kirkwall. Through the power of Facebook a fellow paddler name John had got in touch with some friends, we met Dennis and Marilyn, they invited us into their home, gave us a bed and a shower and let myself and Steve loose on their veg patch. This was the best meal we had eaten throughout the whole trip. Fresh food and local beer! I am so grateful for their hospitality and kindness.

Having had a forced rest day and having eaten lots of great food we got back on the water with lots of energy, we crossed to John O’Groats from Orkney in a really fast time and travelled down the East coast. We took full advantage of the tides and calm conditions and we managed to get to Loch Ness in three days. From there the Caladonian canal/the great glen provided us with lots of head wind and lots of portaging. We made it back to fort William in 19 days and the coffee and beans on toast tasted so good.

Objectives:

For this trip I had set myself some objectives and I was please to say that I had ticked them off.
-Develop an efficient and powerful stroke which can be maintained over distance
My stroke developed rapidly and I am very happy with all aspects of my stroke now, I am able to switch up and down through the gears and understand the differences in power transfer and power levels and body position. We covered 25 to 45 nautical miles per day on this trip and our average speed was just under four knots. Average speed includes breaks.
-Fully test the Quantum Kayak in all conditions when laden
-Understand nutrition and how my body responds to prolonged physical exercise on a plant based diet
-Think about my equipment and weights carried
I have done a lot of climbing and hiking and whenever I am moving in the mountains I carry a small pack and have minimal weights, it is clear to me now that when paddling FSK on expedition, the same ethos is needed. Every small thing adds up and even losing 0.1 of a knot is a big deal when paddling for that long, over extended distances.
-Get my seating position sorted to minimise pain
This is a standard issue for me in any kayak, when seated for more than four hours. I learnt that it was not just down to outfitting but also down to stroke efficiency. SKUK work hard to provide ergonomic and comfortable seats.
-Understand speed, distance and time in regards to a laden boat and paddling an FSK over an extended distance
-Hone my skills on the crossings. Relating navigation and planning to wind, tide, visibility, moving together

With Thanks:

NRS Equipment.
NRS equipment provide me with some of the best equipment in the world, my PFD, Cags and drybags are all supplied by NRS and it feels so good to able to rely on top quality gear.

SKUK
The SKUK quantum proved itself to be a top quality, fast boat capable of travelling in some of the UKs most challenging environments. I believe that globally, the Quantum is a serious go-to boat for long distance fast trips.

VE PADDLES
VE paddles have supported me for a few years now. Stu at VE is a super star and he is always looking at developing his products to be the best in the world. VE supplied the wings and they are amazing paddles, at no point on this trip did I feel the need to switch to a Euro blade.

British Sea Kayaks
Rick continues to provide equipment and moral support. British Sea Kayaks is the Dealer for SKUK in the south west. British Sea Kayaks provided me with the spot device we used to pin our camp locations, each night an ‘OK’ message was sent out to loved ones.

Southern Sea Kayaks
Steve Jones went to great lengths to get kit to me at the last minute before I left for Scotland. Southern Sea Kayaks (Steve) deals SKUK boats in the south of England.

Steve Bowens
I could not have asked for a better paddling partner. Steve is an amazing boater and has such a good mentality. We moved together and got along absolutely fine for the whole trip. Hopefully Steve will be up for doing some big trips in the future.

We raised £670 throughout this trip. The money will go towards helping disadvantaged young folk in Cornwall. BF Adventure is a charity near Falmouth which provide programmes and alternative/active education. Thank you to all who donated!