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Meeting the monster of Loch Ness

By Ivan Lawler, who is a multiple world marathon kayak champion, a great surfski paddler and a kayak coach. He is also a sports commentator at various international surfski and kayaking events. You could follow his articles at

What price are you prepared to pay for a result in an event?

So many of us plan for our desired outcome without really considering the consequences of our decisions.

This is a quick recap of a series of events and decisions that very nearly cost me dearly and I hope by writing this short piece that you will make the changes I have now done to my decision making!

I had entered a surfski race in not so sunny Scotland which took me the 60 miles from the west to the east coast, the journey included some of Scotlands finest scenery, some flat calm canals and one of the worlds most famous stretches of water, Loch Ness.

The background issue here was not actually the result I was hoping for, I had long given up the idea that winning was important, the issue, ironically that led to my decision making that day was self preservation! I had done little to no training and my only hope of making the distance with any degree of comfort was to get a ride on the wash of a surfski double also competing from my home club.

We had done a few warm up paddles back home and I have reached the decision it was easier to keep up in the faster of the surfskis available to me. With theoretical speed, as we all know comes a lack of stability but I have been canoeing for a long time now and stability was not really my prime concern.

I valued speed over security.

(I was not so stupid that I didn’t take my back up surfski in case things were excessively rough so I felt I had covered all the options.)

The race started on the flat water of the canals in the west of Scotland, the snow was falling heavily, it was about 5am, dark and cold. I chose my outfit as I always have with the emphasis on being able to perform well rather than for an emergency situation, probably the one decision that saved the day though was I decided against a last minute change to lycra leggings instead of the neoprene trousers I was wearing. The wind was a following one and to be fair I wouldn’t have started the race had it not been, my fitness was not up to a 60 mile headwind!

This is what a downwind at Loch Ness looks like - similar (but warmer) conditions on a different day. Video credit (paddler): Michael Surmon

A few miles into the race and we were in the first of several Lochs we were to paddle through, the ski I chose was awesome, sat beautifully on the double ski wash and I was finding the runs beautifully. 30 miles and 4 hours later we finally reached Loch Ness. 25 miles of open water with hills either side funneling the wind directly along the Loch. 5 minutes in the waves were already 30cm high, when I chose my ski I was planning on nothing over 90cm! Still I was flying! I had actually never felt more competent in my ski, I had hit a beautiful rhythm with the waves and as they built up to around 1.5m I was smiling from ear to ear. This 25 miles was going to be the best 25 of the event.

Suddenly things turned, boom, I was in the water!

I don’t even know what happened, I had been rock solid, then I was upside down in the ice cold water of the deepest loch in Scotland, with the snow falling, in race kit not survival clothing and I was on my own. A hopeful glance round looking for a safety boat was fruitless so it was a quick remount and off again…or at least that was the plan.

The problem was that with hands that cold and a body that was 7 hrs into an event, combined with an over ambitious ski choice, meant that my first few remounts were unsuccessful, energy was running low and I made a decision to swim (with the ski) the 300m or so to the edge of the loch and get in again there. It was a long swim! By the time I reached safety I was cold, properly cold! I needed to get moving again but even holding the paddle was a challenge, I was in a sheltered bay but knew I had to get out to the rough stuff again to get back to where anyone would be able to pick me up. I took my time getting settled in the surfski and tried to convince myself I was ready to go, I certainly could not just sit and wait!

Setting off with no feeling in my hands or feet was a little unnerving but set off I did, back out into the rough stuff, it was the only way home. I could see the end of the Loch about 1000m away, how hard could it be? I was to find out...

2 minutes later I was back in the water, it was no warmer this time!

My swim was shorter, maybe only 100m but felt longer, holding onto the boat with numb hands had its own challenges, as did trying to stand on the rocks with waves crashing in and no feeling in my feet. This time getting into the surfski was a real challenge, I just couldn’t seem to coordinate the simple movements I needed to make. I had just 500m to the safety of the canal exiting from the Loch but it was side on to the waves that were already winning the fight. I had no choice but to take them on, I knew I was too cold to sit and wait. Back in the surfski finally, I set off.

I was in a strange trance like state, almost like being drunk. I could see the navigation buoy at the exit where I would be safe but couldn’t focus properly on it, the worst part was that I knew that were I to swim one more time I would not make it to safety, it was somehow not frightening, it was just the reality that faced me.

Get to that buoy or face not getting to anywhere.   

I needed to get home and it was that thought that somehow triggered the memory from one of the drills we worked on down in the warm friendly waters of Tarifa at the Surf Ski Centre. Boyan, who runs the centre had walked us through his “get me home drill” “two strokes and a support brace..two strokes and a support brace….two strokes and a support brace…………” I could almost hear his voice repeating.

Boyan giving safety instructions during downwind paddle in Tarifa.

It was one simple instruction that my failing brain was capable of holding, it became my mantra for the next 5 minutes, my progress across the Loch was painfully slow but it was safe, the buoy slowly came closer and though I was now struggling to focus on it at all I was aware I was getting there.

After what seemed an eternity the buoy was on my left and my bow had reached the flat water of the canal, I began to paddle again over the next 10 minutes slowly regained some feeling in my body and some clarity of thought. By the time I reached the next portage where my support crew were I had decided that carrying on was going to get me warmer more quickly that stopping and getting changed on the river bank so against their advice I got back into the boat. 20 minutes later the finish line appeared and I felt almost normal. The cup of tea offered at the end was possibly one of the best cuppas ever!

It was an experience I would never want to get close to repeating and has shaken my nerve a little, it was almost 7 months before I went in my surfski again, it was not a conscious decision but it just didn’t appeal to me. I had been very lucky and deep down I knew it.

I had chosen everything based on what I expected to happen, not what could have happened, it turned out to be an unfortunate idea. My one saving grace was the education I had received in Tarifa, without that to fall back on I would have been in serious trouble.

Were I to approach the same set of circumstances again I would choose a more stable ski, everything else would then have been ok.

However facing the circumstances I faced the fact that I had a fall back method of getting to safety was the best bit of instruction I could possibly have had, and the time we spent going through it in Tarifa was time well spent. Things don't always pan out how you would like them to and having a back up strategy to deal with the unexpected is priceless when the time comes!!

Thanks to Boyan the story will be told many times, without his instruction it may never have been told at all.

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