Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Night Paddle

I’m going to take a detour from the Icelandic narrative with this posting to tell you about what I did last night.   After a fairly lengthy dry spell (moving house, going on holiday, and so on) I finally returned to the sea last night, on a company outing.  

12 of us had put our names down for a company-subsidized excursion in sea kayaks.  The twist was that this particular paddle would begin about sunset – and so be mostly in the dark. We met at the appointed hour a few miles to the west of The Beach, in a small cove.  After a safety briefing, we kitted up for the trip.  I wore / carried:

1 x wetsuit (brought my own – full body once piece – the kayak rental company provided sleeveless ones, cooler for the paddling)

1 x kag (provided by the rental company, this is a wind and water-proof jacket that further reduces heat loss

1 x buoyancy aid (quite large, with a very useful zip pocket on the front panel

1 x spray deck (used to provide a watertight seal around the connection between paddler and kayak)

1 x compass (my own, “just in case”)

1 x torch (a diving model, able to cope with deep water if necessary)

1 x glow stick (provided by the rental company, so they don’t lose their customers in the darkness)

Pushing off, one of the instructors used the last of the light to demonstrate turning techniques, and we moved off.  This was my first time in a true sea kayak, and I really enjoyed the sleek efficiency of it – a few good strokes and the boat knifes through water, sharply streamlined hull giving very little resistance.  The downside of the knife-like hull seemed to be poorer turning, which might explain why the boats were fitted with rudders (although we didn’t use them).  It was around the time of launching that someone (actually the man who organized the trip) tried to snatch my paddle – I was too quick for him, but I marked him down for vengeance, when the darkness should be more complete…

After mucking about in a creek (half the group ran aground with the last ebbing of that tide, a fate I only just avoided by punting rapidly seawards with both hands), we reversed our course and nosed out into the open water at the mouth of the cove.  Surf could be seen and heard breaking close by against reefs and sea cliffs.  The safe route led south west, inside a protective reef: screams from the some of the ladies (and men) as they ran themselves onto the rocks and found the water full of seaweed (which one described as feeling “like a drowned woman’s hair).  With half the group apparently on the verge of shipwreck, the lead instructor decided she would rather not lead our clumsy dozen along an exposed lee shore, so we turned back to the shelter of an island that divides and protects the inner cove.  It was about this time that the would-be paddle thief got his come-uppance.  Busy splashing (trying to capsize?) a pretty young thing, his attention was in precisely the wrong quarter as his nemesis slid silently towards him from astern… a moment later, a lap-full of sea-weed engulfed him and his co-villain (he was in a two-man boat) in a kind of algal blizzard.  By the time my slimy vengeance fell upon them, I was already back-paddling into the darkness.  A two-man boat turns even more slowly than a one-man… a perfectly anonymous victory.

Although we weren’t making much progress in terms of distance covered, we were having fun. Our paddle was timed to coincide with a fairly full moon – but heavy overcast reduced the moonlight to a diffuse glow, just strong enough to make out the shapes of the headlands and the outlines of the boats.  The glow sticks, green and red, gave just enough light to show hull colours and an outline of the kayaker.  Otherwise, the scene was very dark: except that, every time a paddle struck the sea, green “sparks” of phosphorescence appeared.  Clean strokes entered the sea almost without effect, but splashy, messy paddling produced exploding galaxies of light.  I paddled quicker, and my bow threw off a luminous green wave to either side.  Trailing my fingers in the water, sparks seemed to fall from them.  Each spark is a tiny animal – plankton.  Why do they glow?  Fear?  Hopes of romance? I paddled backwards for a while, to watch my light-wake.

We moved seaward again, this time downwind of the island, out from the flat water to where we could feel the swell lift us.  I thought my boat felt more “alive” as it began to move with the motion of vast waters and the horizon opened up before us as a lighter shade of night.

Our group was turned again. I sat where I was, paddle idle, just happy to be on open water again.  Eventually, the instructor who was back marker for our group rounded up the stragglers (a colleague and myself) and we returned to our launching beach.  It was around this time that it drizzled for a little while – and our night-adjusted eyes saw each raindrop strike a light for a moment as it hit the water.

After carrying my share of kayaks up the slipway, I decided this was a perfect chance for a dip.  I’ve been wanting to do a night-snorkel or a night dive for some time, so I dropped the lifejacket and the compass, slipped on the fins and mask that I always carry “just in case”, and slid back in.  

I swam into darkness – except that the plankton which in daylight would be invisible now sparked as they glanced off my mask.  Trailing fingers ahead, I saw the same thing – likewise, when I glanced back at my fins.  

Turning on my diver’s torch, I used it as a spotlight on the seabed beneath me, spotlighting crabs like a police helicopter chasing runaways.  I soon discovered that while the light frightened them, it also held their attention – so while they watched that sinister torch, held in my outstretched arm, they missed the dark bulk of head approaching on their flank.  If I had been hungry, it wouldn’t have been for long!

My instinct is always to head for the deeps, but this time I saw most in the shallows, maybe because I wasn’t moving so quickly, and because my torch was closer to the subjects.  I came upon two flatfish – one, I distracted so effectively with torch and glow stick that I got almost close enough to swallow it up.  A crab I found stood his ground – then decided discretion was the better part of valor, and used his broad, paddle-like legs to dig into the sand, until the only remaining protrusions were his eye stalks – amazing.

Further in, I was about to stand up and walk out, when I saw a sea shell get up and run from the light – hermit crab!  Then another, and another – there must have been 3 or 4 to every square foot, tiny legs running madly beneath their borrowed shells.  Eventually, I switched off the torch – and saw the plankton-sparks again, lighting up each sea-weed covered stone with every passing wave.  

Walking back to my car, I had one more surprise – a crab wandering along the rocks, a good three feet above the nearest water.  I’ve not seen that before, at least on these particular shores.

What was the most amazing thing about that night?  That so few people ever see what we saw.

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