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It's easy... if you get weather and tide right

By Alan Hendry

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH Timing is crucial when exploring the amazing coast around Duncansby Head by kayak

Landing near the Stacks of Duncansby.
Landing near the Stacks of Duncansby.

One person’s great adventure is just somebody else’s journey to work. The creel fishermen who work out of John O'Groats sail round Duncansby Head and the stacks every day. Sea-kayakers from the south find this far north-east corner of the mainland a daunting place. For local paddlers, well, it’s relatively easy if you get the weather and the tide right.

Of course weather and tide are rarely right. You really want a good neap, giving plenty of time at slack water to explore the caves and geos. You also need a day of little wind, and with little swell so you can get in close.

On the first day when I set out from Freswick the winds were light and the tide was indeed a neap, but the timing was wrong and the flooding tide would be against me at the headland. Even at neaps, it would be far too strong to paddle against. So I aimed just to paddle as far as the stacks and turn back before the region of strong tides.

Conditions off Skirza Head are often a gentler version of what might be expected at Duncansby and can be very rough, especially if wind is against tide. The winds had dropped and for the first time in days it was only a little choppy. Under the cliffs are some good caves and arches, but rarely is it calm enough to explore easily. The colonies of cliff-nesting birds had now mostly departed; there was just the occasional late kittiwake calling but, as always, long lines of shags on low, slabby rocks. This is quite an austere bit of coast with nowhere to land. A little further on a boulder shore stretches north under the high cliffs where you could get in if you had to.

Wife Geo, with its huge stack and several long tunnels reaching right through the headland, is the highlight of this bit of coast. There was, though, too much swell to attempt all but the largest cave on my own. It’s then a straightforward paddle up to the Duncansby Stacks, another amazing place to explore on a good day.

Unless you know what you are doing, resist the temptation to go beyond the end of the long boulder beach. There are good places to land on the rocks at Thirle Door or at the north end of the beach. Enjoy a break amid wonderful scenery of rock and sea – until the midges arrive.

With wind and tide from behind it was an easy, if choppy, paddle back to Freswick. The fulmars were keeping me company, gliding low over the sea towards me before veering off to the right or the left.

A couple of days later the winds and tides were still good. An early start from John O'Groats would let me paddle round the headland on the last of the east-going tide, then come back round as the tide started to flow westward.

Duncansby Geo, sheltered from wind and tide.
Duncansby Geo, sheltered from wind and tide.

Launching at Groats can be awkward in summer with crowds heading for Orkney, but with no ferry this year the harbour was strangely quiet as I paddled out. It was calm and grey with just a gentle swell, and the Boars of Duncansby were hardly showing. Keeping quite close to the shore avoided any rougher water round the Ness. I could see diggers and dumpers working up near the lighthouse – perhaps a campervan deterrent!

Beyond the sandy Bay of Sannick I was soon rounding the higher cliffs and the deep geos were opening up. I just went in a little way as it has to be exceptionally calm to easily explore here. Surprisingly soon the lighthouse appears and just round the corner is the long Duncansby Geo. Paddle through the arch at the end and you are quickly into water sheltered from wind and tide. Even when the seabirds have gone it is a very spectacular place. For the brave there are caves to explore, going in quite a long way at the far end.

Beyond are two stacks where the tide can reach a ferocious 20 knots. I’d timed it for still water and could explore the huge, cathedral-like caves which nobody on the cliff-tops suspects are underneath them. A little further on was the spot I’d reached two days earlier; after a brief stop I turned back north. Just on cue the tide started picking up as I passed the lighthouse, carrying me with it as on a gentle river.

Groats was crowded now. Remember that for some tourists it is their great adventure to reach this far-flung corner of the UK. Even if it is just your journey to work.

More from Ralph

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