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  • Phil Keetley

Orkney Sea Kayak Symposium

I am just back from coaching at the Orkney Sea Kayak Symposium, and thought that I would share my impressions of the event, and indeed the Orkney Isles themselves.

The symposium is a bi-annual event, aimed at supporting local paddlers as well as bringing new people to this amazing archipelago of islands. It is small, relaxed, very friendly and welcoming. I very much liked the tone set by the ever industrious organiser Nick Blowfield: it was personal, welcoming and relaxed - without any macho nonsense. Nick runs the symposium in an unusual way, in that the clients chose whichever course or trip they want, and then Nick will allocate sufficient coaches to deliver it. This somewhat novel approach is brilliant in that you are guaranteed to get the trip/ workshop that you want (and it keeps the coaches on their toes!)

Take off! Advanced rock hopping day

The offerings this year were very varied, from Incident Management, big trips to the Old Man of Hoy, introduction to navigation, rock hopping basic and advanced, rough water handling and even some forward paddling technique; there was certainly something for everyone.

Moody skies and dumping surf on Burray

Orkney is an amazing place to paddle, and enormously varied. One of the world's great sheltered harbours, Scapa Flow offers shelter, historical interest and plenty of harbour porpoises. The rugged and exposed west coast has enormous cliffs and a remote feel with long extended coastlines without landing, replete with caves galore. The east coast also has plenty of rocky headlands, caves and tunnels, as well as glorious white sandy beaches. In between all of this is the ever present tide, sometimes flowing at 9.5 knots, it is ever present and always requiring careful consideration! Such variety guarantees that there is always paddling available somewhere on the islands.

I ran the incident management training on the first day, practising rescues, cave and gully rescues, injured paddler rescues and rocky landings. We were hugely lucky to have the Longhope lifeboat from the RNLI come out to play. The team did not know it was coming and were more than a little surprised when their simulated MAYDAY call resulted in a lifeboat arriving. We practiced lifting conscious and unconscious casualties in to the lifeboat, as well as lifting a casualty from the water. Brilliant fun, and excellent learning for us and the crew. As ever, we all appreciated the 365 days a year support that the RNLI offers.

On the Sunday, I led a group of paddlers out for some Advanced Rock Hopping. The 2-3 foot easterly swell created some playful conditions, and we ran down the coastline exploring features, caves, geos, gullies and even a long tunnel. We discussed some personal skills tactics, thinking about pivot points and maintaining speed and momentum through stroke choice, as well as some leadership principles in the impact zone.

Saturday night saw all the paddlers eating together in the rugby club, and being entertained with some sea kayaking talks, as well as a local ceilidh band - all topped off with a dram from one of the local distilleries, a lovely Highland Park. Orkney is a super friendly place, and this dining together helped create a very warm feeling amongst the paddlers and coaches.

The symposium is ideal for intermediate paddlers looking to push themselves. It is hugely popular though, so do book early! Many of the coaches also ran trips either before or after the event, so there is always the option of extending the weekend to make the most of the journey. I took four clients on five day trips prior to the event, and they were super varied. We paddled the remote west coast through some fast tides, went around much of South Ronaldsay, and even took a leisurely paddle on the inland sea lochs. Orkney is special, and I shall certainly be heading back.


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