Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Canadian canoeing on Loch Maree

The weekend brought news of a canoeing accident on Loch Maree that claimed the lives of a father and son. This got me thinking about the sport, about its risks and its rewards.
Canadian canoeing has grown in popularity in recent years due to the ready availability of affordable plastic boats. I have been a keen open canoeist for some time and love getting out on the water to enjoy the wildlife, catch fish and just generally chill out. Canoeing is best saved for the rare, windless occasions when it is a joy to slide effortlessly over the water's mirror-like surface. It is a particularly magical experience at sunset, while enveloped in swirling mists or under the light of a full moon.

It is easy to underestimate the seriousness of canoeing, especially in apparently benign freshwater lochs. However, if conditions change and a wind gets up, big waves can appear very suddenly, particularly if they have a long run over which to build. Where a loch narrows the waves can become magnified as they squeeze through the gap. In lochs with lots of islands the formation of interference patterns can lead to unexpectedly large waves.

It isn't absurd to compare open canoeing with climbing. Both demand accurate assessment of the conditions, have little margin for error and the consequences of making a mistake may be dire. The big difference between canoeing and climbing is the perception that the participants have of the risks involved. There can't be many people who don't accept that climbing carries with it a risk of severe injury or death, yet the same cannot be said of canoeing. After all, some canoes have built in fishing rod and beer can holders – even a cool box under the seat.

I was pretty blasé when I started canoeing but after a few scrapes I developed a healthy respect for the pastime. The first such adventure took place on Loch Maree. We had used the canoe to shorten our approach to the crags of Fisherfield, camping overnight on the northern shore before marching in for a day's rock climbing.


On the return journey the wind built steadily, and when we emerged from the shelter provided by the islands in the centre of the loch the situation became deeply uncomfortable. We were some distance from shore and it was a constant fight to keep the boat from going side on to the waves and being capsized or swamped. It was impossible to paddle directly to where I wanted to go, instead I had to maintain a zig zag course, keeping the bow facing predominately into or away from the waves. Changing tack was nerve-wracking. Timing was everything, for the boat became extremely vulnerable when turned momentarily broadside to the waves.

The consequence of a capsize in the middle of a loch would have been extremely serious. Lochs are generally very cold and it the righting of a capsized canoe is far from trivial. Even with a bouyancy aid it is debatable whether or not we would have been able to swim to shore before hypothermia set in. In the end we made it to shore, excited and unharmed. I recall someone posting on ukclimbing.com about a similar trip, again on Loch Maree, during which two boats containing six people capsized. Only one of the occupants didn't need airlifted to Raigmore.



I don't know details of the accident that occurred at the weekend, but it is likely that they were simply caught out by changing conditions; an exciting adventure turned to tragedy. 

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3 Comments:

Blogger Erik said...

a terrible tragic accident indeed. Our large fresh water lochs are often underestimated, Ive done it myself! steeper wave frequencies than the sea can appear in minutes once the wind gets up not helped by the fact the lochs tend to 'point' in the general direction of our prevailing winds. Open style canoes are inherently dangerous on our lochs IMO, no doubt about it. Stick to the small sheltered lochs or rivers unless flat calm water is guaranteed (or invest in closed style kayaks)

My thoughts also go out to the family and friends of the deceased

26 August 2009 at 16:25  
Anonymous Robert Craig said...

Yikes! I'm canoeing the Caledonian canal this weekend (after the Inverness Book Fest) from Neptune's staircase to Fort Augustus, never been on a canoe before so trepidatious!

Right, I'm going to stop commenting on your blog now and get back to work...

6 October 2009 at 11:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always thought it very useful to have had some sailing experience before attempting
to cross wide expanses of water in an open canoe. Even with that, I would always try and avoid it, and never without wearing a full
wet or drysuit. I love my open canoe ­ she’s a 16 foot Apache ­ very responsive, very manoevrable, but when I see some of the plastic bathtubs around, and people not wearing pfds's I’m not surprised that there aren’t more accidents and they are always tragic.

31 January 2010 at 19:25  

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