Surfing in the Hebrides

Classic scene in Northern Scotland

A curse and blessing of our times is the speed at which we can move about the planet.  I often think it must be terribly hard for our guests to negotiate the distances and logistics required to get to the boat, then get their mind in a place where they can actually really BE on the boat rather than thinking about work, children, pets, bills and all the distractions and nuances of daily life.  Then suddenly just as they are getting into the groove, just as those layers of “home” are wearing off and the need to fire up the blackberry or Iphone are beginning to fade they find themselves at the airport and it all comes rushing back in, like a spinning tempest.   In no time they are back at work and their trip begins to grey and diminish, cloistered in that unreliable region of our brains in charge of memory.  All of this ties into the damnable paradox we all find ourselves these days.  As technology gets better and everything gets faster, with the promise of saving us time, we all find that in fact we have less and less of it.


The Skipper contemplating more than the weather

There have been only a handful of times in the last five years that I’ve even left the boat.  In theory I should be immune to these pressures and paradoxes.  I should be firmly “in the groove” all the time.  But technology these days doesn’t draw a line at the cities or the suburbs.  It reaches everywhere.  When we are offshore I can get online and check into Facebook.  I can tweet.  It would cost a fortune so I don’t- but I could.  But as soon as we are within cell range there is no escape.  It is not uncommon on Discovery to be anchored in some beautiful bay, the smell of Bobby’s cookies wafting up from the galley, the sun easing behind the horizon and instead of lazing around on the decks taking it all in, there’s everyone banging away on their computers and PDA’s.  Hurry hurry, before the signal is lost!  The problem is we’ve been trained into thinking that to be efficient; to succeed in today’s world this is what we’ve got to do.  And doing it is often insanely fun, so we are caught up in this elaborate web where escape is not impossible- but is certainly very difficult.  We were anchored in Stornoway, at the north end of the Outer Hebrides watching the Red Bull X-Alps, a paragliding event that is the flying version of an Ironman and the Tour De France with a huge dose of insanity LIVE, in real time on Google Earth.  A few days later we got to see infamous Teahupoo in Tahiti going off with one of the biggest swells in history, all in real time while in the main salon of our boat.  Better than the movies, better than TV!  But the problem then becomes a constant grapple with that old adage “the grass is always greener”.  Let’s go there!  Even while “here” is perfect.


Paragliding Outer Hebrides

Bruce Marks paragliding in the Outer Hebrides on SLOW TIME

Meanwhile off our bow was a place with some of the oldest geological rock on Earth.  A place people have been living for well over 5,000 years, since before the time of the Pyramids.  Of course things have changed much since the Neolithic, but it isn’t very apparent in the scenery.  It’s a place that encourages taking a look around.  It’s a place that on the surface at least has escaped the gloss and glitter façade of “progress”. If you remove the odd ferry and fishing boat by sea things are almost certainly as they have been for thousands of years.  We’d sailed across Cape Wrath and the north coast of Scotland to explore a bit of the Orkneys; fantasized about flying the cliffs of Hoy; drank scotch at the Highland Park distillery; sat near a peat fire listening to stories of myth and legend (ie the way we used to communicate); and we did it all at a pace that was very “old world”.  I prefer this pace.  I want to return to this pace.  I could have sworn this was the pace I grew up in. Could have sworn this was the pace I lived for most of my life.  Is it all a construct of a fallible memory, do I want to just believe that I used to be capable of slow living?


Kitesurfing Orkney islands

A view of Tom Chidgey through the window of an ancient dwelling in Skara Brae, Orkney Islands

We returned to the Outer Hebrides on the last trip of the season.  Back across Cape Wrath, down the Big Minch, across to the western shores where there are tiny towns, no boats, and very little in the way of company other than seals and birds.  A big low-pressure system hit us hard for a few days with loads of rain and winds upwards of 40 knots.  At the same time the first big swell of the season bashed in from the west and I tried to position Discovery in a protected spot, but close enough that we could possibly ride some of the waves.

Hyperflex wetsuits

Plenty of rubber


On the day the wind and swell peaked I found myself incapable of being smart and staying put.  My role is to keep people on our boat safe, and that includes me.  To kite to where the waves were I’d have to ride downwind 10 miles, all of it dead offshore.  Which means if something were to happen to me or my gear I’d be in a desperate situation: offshore, alone, in big seas and furious winds pushing me further away from land.  I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I now understand the reason I decided to go out that day, even though every fibre of my inner soul screamed “STOP!” was because of this hidden guillotine that was chopping up my time and marginalizing my world.  I wanted to feel adrenaline.  I wanted to feel fear.  I didn’t want to read about it on Google or in the headlines of the local paper.  The world these days, especially right now is awfully scary, and much of that is SURPRISE!, due to technology of course, but that’s not the kind of fear I’m talking about.   I’m talking about raw fear, doing something that is possibly and probably beyond your limits.  But for many days I hadn’t been able to paraglide, hadn’t been able to kite, hadn’t been able to surf.  Calmer people, more together, grounded people don’t go crazy like I do.  They read books, they play games, they find companionship, they internet.  I like to think that before technology gave us all this “time” I was more together too, but that’s probably just my memory failing me again.


kitelaunching from a boat

This was NOT the bad day!

So I went offshore.  Long after Discovery was eclipsed by distance and rain and wind and long after I was truly alone and had no chance of rescue my kite could no longer withstand the gusts, which I guessed were near 50 knots (93 kilometers per hour).  It started buckling and twitching uncontrollably and in no time I was completely out of control, racing across steep swells just trying to hang on.  Then I crashed.  I took one look at the shoreline and instantly pulled the release on my kite, knowing I had no chance of making land with a busted kite unless I started swimming immediately.  I watched my gear blow out into the Atlantic for a brief moment and suddenly got everything I unconsciously craved.  A healthy dose of raw fear.  At 59 degrees north the Atlantic was 11 degrees celcius.  The wind was 40 knots right in my face.  The seas were a mess of steep, short duration waves that hammered down on me relentlessly.  I took a breath and began to swim, taking it easy knowing that if I got a cramp I was a goner.  Don’t panic.  After 30 minutes I couldn’t tell if I was making any progress, the shoreline was still a tiny glimmer on my unsteady horizon.  Just keep swimming, stay positive, curse yourself for being so stupid, don’t think about sharks.  I don’t know how long I was out there but eventually I could make out that land was getting closer.  I made it back to Discovery 5 hours later.  Much of that time was spent swimming, and much was spent on land in a sandstorm just trying to find my way back.  It was a search that I now realize was more involved than just finding the boat.  And while my lungs burned and my legs ached and my eyes watered through most of it I know I was smiling.  I was having fun, the kind of fun that technology always promises, but never delivers.


The Skipper, trying to slow down

You remember these days.  These are the experiences that shape a person’s life.  These are the times when time slows way way down.  Everything gets sharp.  Everything is in focus.  There are no distractions, there is nothing else going on at the periphery.  The moment is pure and unfiltered.  I wasn’t thinking of our next social marketing move.  I wasn’t trying to figure out how to increase our website hits.  I wasn’t trying to figure out “what’s next” at all.

Which is exactly what I’m back to doing now.


The hardest thing in the world to do is to simplify your life.  It’s so easy to make it complex.”  — Yvonne Chouinard, founder of Patagonia


Landscape Kiting by Tom Chidgey


  1. Bonjour Gavin et Jody,
    Nous avons suivi avec beaucoup d’intéret et de passion votre tour du monde merveilleux. Nous aimons votre philosophie et nous avons la certitude en vous lisant que la Polynésie et notre petite île de Huahine reste un paradis sur terre.
    Je suis un peu d’accord avec vous, la technologie nous rattrape et il faut savoir éteindre complètement son téléphone ou sa connexion internet! Vos photos des Hebrides sont magnifiques!
    On souhaite que vous reveniez faire un tour vers chez nous un de ces jours.
    Xavier et Falai

  2. great fotos of this area – one of my favorites – pass this along to my children – hey to jan – bet she had a blast with her son sailing the world.

  3. I lived on North Uist for three years when I was a kid. It was such a brilliant place for a child to explore. Now back on the mainland and have never been back. Would be nice to get back to “island time”…

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