Dave Shannon, Aberdeen

Dave Shannon’s day job in the Aberdeen Field Chemistry team often puts him in contact with Scotland’s water environment. But after work, Dave reveals another passion for the waters around Scotland  – exploring the coastline by sea-kayak. 

Dave’s club, Integrate Paddling, meets for a couple of hours every Thursday evening, with longer explorations at the weekend. This week, the club members are assembling at Cove harbour on a tranquil spring evening. Though the sun’s beginning to dip, there’s a warmth in the air, a welcome change from what has been a turbulent start to the season. A few of the regulars swap stories of last week’s battle with bruising currents and punishing winds. Someone’s brought home-made muffins for a pre-paddle energy boost.

It’s been a while since we came out here,” Dave tells me. “We tend to go from a different place every week, just to vary it. Sometimes we’ll go from Stonehaven, sometimes Collieston or Catterline.”

The club was set up by Karen Darke, a geology student who became paralysed from the waist down at the age of 21 after a climbing accident on the sea cliffs near Aberdeen. Darke is now a Paralympic medallist, winning silver in the road hand-cycle time trial in 2012, and a paratriathlon world champion. She gives motivational talks all over the world and still maintains contact with the club.

“The idea was to integrate able and disabled people, so we occasionally get people with disabilities coming out with us on the water.”

Newcomers like myself are often given an introductory experience of paddling as the front half of a two-person kayak. I’m dressed head to toe in borrowed club kit: wetsuit and boots, waterproof top and lifejacket and a spraydeck which fits snugly around the aperture of the kayak to prevent sea water from getting in. It’s a tight fit, but not uncomfortable.

After we set off, it takes us a few attempts to synchronise our paddle stroke. Ten minutes later, hitting our stride, we round a corner and a nook reveals itself. Dave has a hunch there might be a cave here.

Sure enough, a cave mouth opens up in front of us and we paddle our way towards the entrance, watched silently by the birds gathered on the cliffs above. “The birds over there,” says Dave, “they’re guillemots. That black and white one’s a razorbill.”

We paddle inside as far as the light extends and execute the kayaking equivalent of a three-point turn. Outside, the razorbills are gathered as if they’re conducting a town council meeting. It seems like a very well cared for coastline. The only visible sign of litter you see out here is bird litter – feathers and assorted detritus from the cliff-face.

There’s a stillness in the water this evening, the North Sea like a boating pond. The gently rhythmic splashing of paddles is more hypnotic than strenuous. The calls of seabirds are relaxing, and only the occasional lowing of a ship’s horn reminds you that you’re on a busy, working part of coastline, not a tourist nature spot.

“If it’s not too windy, you could probably cover about 30 kilometers in a day,” says Dave. “With a good tide behind you, you could do maybe somewhere between 30 and 60k, depending what the wind’s doing, what the tide’s doing, and how you feel.”

“When you go on a long trip, when you go away for a week or more, you really get into a rhythm. You start to forget about things, just concentrate on paddling, enjoying the scenery, looking forward to the next campsite. On that kind of holiday you find yourself in the more remote places. We’ve been out in the Outer Hebrides, South Uist, and as far south as Barra – it’s like a different world.”

It certainly is a different world. The sounds, the rhythms, your sense of orientation, what’s around you. It’s beyond appreciation – that just seems like a passive, aesthetic thing in the way that you ‘appreciate’ a painting or you ‘appreciate’ a plate of well-cooked food. There’s a level of knowledge and understanding that comes from spending time like this with the sea.

“And respect,” says Dave. “You can’t get too rose-tinted about it. We’ve not been struck by the sea this evening, but if you don’t respect it you will get into serious trouble.”

The warmth of the early evening spring sunshine makes it easy to forget that, in Billy Connolly’s observation about paddling in the waters around Aberdeen, ‘That’s the North Pole round there!’ It’s also easy to be seduced by the calm and tranquillity of the sea when it’s like this. But as gentle as this sport may seem right now, it is not without its dangers. “Things can suddenly change and it can all go pear-shaped really quickly,” says Dave.

The senior club members take it in turns to supervise the session each week. They make detailed notes about the weather, the tides, potential hazards and a list of who’s coming out and whether there are novices who might need pairing up with more experienced kayakers – it’s a lot like a workplace health and safety risk assessment. They also look for potential ‘get-out points’, safe access places along the mainland where they can go to if there’s a problem with one of the kayaks or someone becomes unwell and needs assistance.

“Cases of seasickness are quite common,” says Dave. “You can be miles from your get-out point and somebody gets seasick. It’s totally debilitating. They’re puking and getting worse and can’t really do anything else, sometimes they just give up. You eventually end up having to tow them. When things like that go wrong, it can totally destroy the trip.”

Your priorities change at sea. What if you get sick? What happens if you get too tired? You don’t normally think about these things on dry land – you outsource all that stuff to somebody else. You call an ambulance, phone a taxi. In a kayak there is a greater reliance on your own initiative, your own savvy, and well-maintained equipment – and on your team mates.

It makes me realise that even though we live in a country with over 18,000 kilometers of coastline, many of us who spend all our time on land don’t really have much of a relationship with the sea. It’s something that happens elsewhere, something far away from our daily reality. If we’re aware of the coastline it’s perhaps too often in an abstract or limited sense as something glimpsed from the seashore, on the beach or a cliff-top.

But to be out in it – to be out in it’s the thing.