Articles - Eating Well From a Sea Kayak

Apré paddling snack anyone?
Apré paddling snack anyone?
Jackie Warburton - Posted on 14 Mar 2009

Gourmet Food on the Beach

I have never been one for roughing it, I like my home comforts too much, so when the call came from a friend asking me to join her for a week’s self-sufficient sea kayaking off the West Coast of Scotland I was understandably in two minds.
    I wasn’t too worried about my lack of experience as the well known Outdoor Education Centre on the Yorkshire Coast running the trip had stated in their blurb ‘inland kayak experience useful but no need to have paddled a sea kayak before’. It was the ‘camping on isolated islands… Carry a week’s food… Cook on the beach…’ Bits that rang alarm bells!

I had disturbing flashbacks to teenaged backpacking expeditions with other aspirant D of E students lugging around heavy stoves, bottles of fuel and worst of all, endless packets of tasteless, freeze-dried ready meals; lightweight admittedly, but not deserving to be called ‘real food’, that was my memory of self-sufficiency cooking and eating and how I thought it had to be… How wrong I was.
    My first trip led by the staff from East Barnby OEC back in May 2000 was a revelation for many reasons and has led to me returning every Whit holiday since. Over the past five years we have explored the wonderful coasts of Mull, Skye, and the Firth of Lorn; braved the races of Cuan Sound and the Grey Dogs and circumnavigated Raasay and Jura. Wonderful trips all, but very similar to those regularly described eloquently in the pages of this magazine.
    But what has been very different to other expeditions I have heard and read about has been the culinary arrangements. In a nutshell the food has been fantastic and as different to the traditional backpacking fare as you could imagine. This has been possible for three reasons.
    Firstly, weight and space are not an issue; unlike rucksacks, the mass of a sea kayak is supported by the water so there is no need to go for lightweight, freeze-dried foods, and most modern expedition boats have ample storage space for six days worth of bulky food.
Most sea paddlers have realised this and many load their boats with tinned meals of every variety, alright if you like that sort of thing but not necessary because, and here comes the second reason.     A sea kayak is effectively a floating fridge. Because it spends most of the (hopefully) warm day sat in cold water the temperature under the hatches remains low enough to store fresh food safely for a few days.
    Thirdly, although it is all well and good to have a boat packed to the gunwales with the contents of an average delicatessen, every trip needs an Angela or equivalent. She of course is the genius who plans the menu, writes the food list for minions to buy and on the best weeks of all comes along and cooks it all for the rest of us
    So much for food quality issues; the practicalities of catering for ten people to eat together at the same time on a beach in possible poor weather are another matter. Thank goodness for the teams’ ‘Mother Ship’; the Valley Aleut double sea kayak has a huge central hatch big enough to carry a dining room roof sized tarpaulin, two very big pans, a metal cooking griddle and a double-ring cooking stove.  The latter is only a backup to be used in the absence of dry driftwood of course
    The best way for me to explain how all this fits into a day’s paddling is to quote from my own journal.

Monday 26th May, Torsa, Garbh Eileach. A 15km day, HW.  16.40, Weather – SW backing SE 4-5, occ 6, rain.

‘We love our switched on catering lady’, was the cry from all tents at ten to eight this morning when hot mugs of steaming beverage arrived in everyone’s awnings. Our first camp breakfast of the trip, chorizo and potato omelette followed by raisen and cinnamon bread, was consumed and Clyde coastguard radioed to inform of plans and scrounge a weather forecast from. Their promised rain definitely threatened, but we managed to stay dry right through the boat packing process, always a welcome start to the day.
    By 10am the fleet was ready to go through the narrow gap between the islands of Seil and Luing called Cuan Sound. The tidal streams atlas (whirly arrows sheet) reckoned that at five hours after HW Oban (now), the North going tide was flowing through the sound fast… And it certainly was! We flew through, past violent whirls and eddies at the Torsa end and were popped out of the other end like seven corks from the bottles neck. The group gathered in a big eddy at the Luing side of the channel musing on the fact that today was a neap tide and we are not even seeing this tide’s main flow… Hmmm?
    The next two hours were spent sneaking down the West side of Luing against the North going tide trying to use any eddies we could find. This technique worked OK past the ugly houses of Cullipool and into the harbour at Fladda, but we had a real struggle getting past the three long thin islands beyond.
    A dinner and breather stop was eventually made at the derelict jetty marked on the map as a disused slate quarry, opposite the small island affectionately known as ‘Full Condom Island’ due to its unfortunate shape, but more properly named Eilean Mhic Chiarain. We grazed on cheese and olive bread, pepperami, and home made brownies as we lounged amongst the Flag Iris and Lousewort, basking in a rare bit of sunshine and watching Eider Ducks and Red Breasted Mergansers cope better than us in the tide that was still racing between every islet and skerray.
    There was now a choice placed before us; to creep up the coast to visit ‘Cobblers of Lorn’ because it has such a good name, or to ferry glide a couple of kilometres or so across the Sound of Luing to the next little group of islands. We took the sensible option seeing guillemots and arctic terns en route to Rubha Fiola, the most Northerly of the archipelago. Just South of an outdoor centres ‘roughing it’ site there was another group of kayakers portaging the dry channel between the Fiolas, so we headed down to the other gap next to Lunga itself, hoping it was passable. It was, just! We were now on the Western side and looking at the next stepping-stone, and intended campsite, the Black Isles (Dubh Mor and Dubh Beag) so off we went. The remembered decent camp beach was passed without being noticed, so can’t have been that good, and we made the decision to continue westwards, this time to the Garvellachs. Another two kilometre crossing followed, this time feeling distinctly like the high seas with a noticeable ocean ground swell, but before long we had arrived at the NE corner of Garbh Eileach itself. What looked like a good campsite from a distance wasn’t, so tired arms kept going along the island looking for somewhere better. We found it at the obvious, if awkward, landing place in the middle of the island, complete with tarmac jetty, house, dun and burial ground!
    The house turned out to be the Bothy we had heard so much about and its front garden made a great tent field. Martyn came up with an innovative tarp design involving a full-length ladder where brews and food were prepared as efficiently as usual. As tea cooked some exploring took place; the dun was a bare hilltop with a good view and the 100m high hill at the back had VHF and phone reception to report in to all concerned. The limestone rocks of the island supported lush woodland vegetation and a few of us spotted the small resident herd of red deer; we thought we had done well to get this far out to sea on only the second day’s paddling but they must have swam here, much more impressive!
    What would become a familiar routine followed; tarp and tents erected, Kelly Kettle a-bubblin’ and Ange on with tea preparation. ‘Meal of the Day’ turned out to be Chicken and Stilton Roulade (cheesy chicken kebabs to the riff-raff) and was of the high quality we have all come to expect from the queen of camp cooking. An evening fire was lit and banana naughties roasted for pudding before the seals were cracked on everyone’s weekly tipples and we drank to the lack of both rain and midges.
    This log entry describes just one of many blissful expedition days of fresh air, good company and the amazing journeying experience of sea kayaking – truly stress-busting. Although these particular trips have the added appeal of four star catering, the flavour is immeasurably enhanced by the extra ingredient that no food shop could ever supply, our ever changing dining room almost always has a breathtakingly stunning view. Plus of course, the week’s highly calorific food and drink fest is completely guilt free because we work it off all day by paddling … sorted!

Top Catering Tips
•    Check on special diets before buying food
•    Sort food into labelled group meal packs (double bagged)  eg ‘Tues Tea’ and also label the inside of the hatch cover it is in. Keep a list of who’s got what
•    Collect kindling during dry times and keep in dry deck bag
•    Aim for beaches with good driftwood supplies
•    A good meal takes a while to cook. Have landing snacks and hot drink making capability available.  Kelly kettles are good and quick
•    Freeze meat before the trip and use chicken on the first day, lamb next and beef later in the week
•    Cooking foil is useful, either straight on the fire to cook or to keep things warm
•    Remember to keep your fire environmentally friendly; not above the splash zone, only on sand or rock and using just the wood you find on the beach. If you manage to keep the embers of your whisky drinking fire going until the morning bacon grilling can be that much quicker.

Fancy testing your cooking skills? Conjour up your gourmet on one of the Great Six Sea Kayaking Destinations

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