About six months ago, Hairyaker told me that his friend was planning to cycle from Inverness to John o’ Groats, to paddle across the Pentland Firth and then to run to Kirkwall to raise funds for the British Heart Foundation and Orkney Heart Support Group. So 120 miles on a bike, 7 miles in a boat and 20 miles on foot. Oh and did we mention that the Pentland Firth is probably the most tidal bit of water in the UK and that Rambo had never kayaked before?
To his credit, Hairyaker got Rambo along to the club pool sessions and gradually over the summer got him competent in a boat, and so it was that we were all up at 2.15am on Saturday morning to paddle with him over the Pentland Firth.
Rambo arrived in John o’ Groats at about 3.30am, having left Inverness at 7pm the previous evening and having cycled through the night. After a very brief rest, it was time for us to set off, as time and tide wait for no man!
The crossing had been brought forward by 24 hours as a big front was due to hit Orkney later on Saturday. The timing of its arrival had been a question all week, with Hairyaker desperately trying to find a way for the crossing to happen in suitable conditions. As someone said the other day, you just don’t f*** with the Firth. Anyway, by Thursday and Friday it seemed that the front was coming in later in the day on Saturday which meant the 4am Saturday crossing was on! I felt quite honoured to escort Rambo’s kayak on the foot passenger ferry to John o’ Groats on Friday night!
Because of the time of the tide, we set off in the pitch dark, making the experience and anticipation all that greater. Because Rambo is new to kayaking and this was the Pentland Firth, we also had a couple of support boats with us. This was a new experience for me, especially as one turned up part way across and I thought it was a fishing boat about to run us down!
Being dark, we were obviously able to navigate using the lights of the Firth, heading first towards Stroma and the large eddy that forms behind it on the flood.
The conditions really could not have been more perfect, although we were aware that change was in the air and that we were almost racing the weather. Between the mainland and Stroma, we hit the flow which kicked up a few interesting waves made even more exciting in the dark! As we continued, we realised that the eddy was pulling us too far north and that the flow seemed to be running for longer than anticipated. We changed course, aiming for Old Head on South Ronaldsay, planning for the ebb tide to then take us back up to Burwick.
As it go lighter we carried on on an easterly course until Mike and Hairyaker thought we had gone far enough east to then ferryglide into Burwick. Mistime the ebb and you end up having to land at Sandwick….
About 3/4 of the way across, after 2 hours of solid paddling and ferrygliding, it was clear that Rambo was tiring a bit. There was a long section where it felt like we were getting no where because we were ferrygliding the tide, although Mike (with the chart plotter) said we were making reasonable progress. After a quick rest and bite to eat, Rambo (and us) carried on and after another 10 minutes or so, all of a sudden we picked up the north flowing ebb and shot up towards Burwick. Phew!
Once the breakwater at Burwick came into sight, we knew we were on the home straight. Rambo was pretty knackered by this point and we had to keep telling him different things to head for so he could just put his head down and paddle. By the end of the crossing it was clear he was running on pure determination and brute strength (and we were having trouble keeping up!).
At almost 7am we landed after a 9.4 mile paddle lasting 2 hours and 43 minutes. Rambo was clearly exhausted but got himself out of the boat and up to the van to change. Even before I had sorted my paddling kit, he had set off on his 20 mile run to Kirkwall. Impressive!
Sometime later, after what seemed to me a whole day, we gathered outside the Cathedral in anticipation of Rambo’s arrival. Hairyaker and I were really pleased that the weather had changed and the evil front had indeed come in vindicating the change of plan!
Hairyaker holds onto a Guiness for Rambo’s arrival
As Rambo rounded the corner, it was obvious he was completely drained and barely able to walk or run any further. It was a very emotional sight as he crossed the finishing line. I think there were a few tears in the crowd.
Radio Orkney interviewed Rambo not long after he arrived in Kirkwall. Fast forward to about 2 minutes 35 seconds to hear him recount his experience.All I can say is, bloody well done. What an achievement.