"It’s just so good to be back out on the water"
Kristian Cooper and his friend Peter are strapping the sea kayaks onto their car roofs at the Brough of Birsay, on the west coast of the Orkney’s Mainland.
It’s after eleven o’clock at night, and yet we’re still in the ‘grimleens’ – that magical half-light that extends beyond midnight on a summer’s evening in these high latitudes. There’s a low rumble of tide and swell and the sharp cry of oystercatchers echoes around low-lying cliffs. It’s the first time the pair have been on the water since Scotland’s first lockdown restrictions began to ease, and it’s clear how much they’ve both enjoyed the experience.
A release, after so much time living within confinement.
Launching any new business venture in the midst of a pandemic is a challenge, launching one which is largely tourism-based must be terrifying, but Kristian isn’t one to be easily deterred. "People are starting to find out what’s on their doorstep. It’s got so much to offer," he says.
And that’s an attitude which is very much in-tune with the current mood-music. ‘Holiday-at-home’, ‘staycation’, ‘slow tourism’, call it what you will, but the idea of exploring the wonders of our more immediate world has become the key message for the Scottish tourism industry. And what better way to do that than at sea level.
Sea Kayak 59° North is an idea that Kristian has had in his head for years, offering the chance for even the most inexperienced would-be kayaker to explore Orkney’s rich and varied coastline. A builder by trade, he’s a reassuring presence as a guide – powerfully-built and with an Orcadian’s traditionally quiet and unassuming manner.
And the salt, it seems, is in the blood. "Most of my family were into all things sea-orientated," he says. "My grandfather was a fisherman and my father has sailed boats and dinghies his whole life."
But his father didn’t quite share Kristian’s enthusiasm for the paddle. "He built a frame and double-skin kayak when he was a teenager in Westray. He very quickly realised he wasn’t a kayaker, so he put a mast on it and went and hauled creels," he laughs.
Raised around boats, Kristian’s love affair with kayaking has been more of a long-term relationship than his father’s.
"You feel a lot closer to everything that’s going on and are really part of the landscape. The birds and the wildlife don’t really bother with you because you’ve not got an engine running and it can be really peaceful and quiet."
With many of us looking for socially-distanced ways of enjoying our surroundings, it’s hard to imagine a better way to see Orkney.
Earlier in the day Kristian takes us to explore the blockships, wrecks which lie in shallow water alongside the Churchill Barriers. Sunk in the First and Second World Wars, they were an attempt to block the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow prior to the construction of the causeways. Launching from a gentle, sandy beach, he’s soon paddling through turquoise waters before darting among the great rusting wrecks – now a haven for a wealth of wildlife. With its wartime history and occasional traffic passing on the barriers, it’s in stark contrast to the wilder west coast at Birsay. And this is one of Orkney’s great attractions.
"It’s world-class really, and you’ve got shelter from every direction," says Kristian. "Orkney’s got a lot of variety for kayaking. You’ve got this big, exposed west coast that’s full of cliffs, nesting seabirds and caves. If there’s westerly swell you can go into Scapa Flow or Kirkwall Bay. Exploring the Churchill barriers by kayak is fantastic. If you go at low tide you can get right inside the old blockships. There’s the North Isles to explore too - there’s very few places in the UK that’s got so much variety."
Kristian is a British Canoeing Coastal Sea Kayak Award provider, a Moderate Water Coach and an Advanced Sea Kayak Leader. Sea Kayak 59 North can take small groups or individuals and he offers courses ranging from Introduction to Sea Kayaking to Skills Development and wildlife tours, as well as more advanced subjects like Expedition and Leadership.
As Peter and Kristian paddle confidently between skerries on a gently lifting swell, it’s clear that lockdown hasn’t left them too out of condition. Dodging in and out of geos on the Birsay shoreline they obviously know what they’re doing. But Kristian says he’s keen to make the experience as inclusive as possible.
"You don’t need to go far and you don’t need to be super-experienced. In fact, that’s the whole idea of what I’m doing - you can have never sat in a kayak before and I can take you into a World War One blockship and really get up close to things," he says.
Peter tightens the straps on his roof-rack, says his goodbyes with a smile and is gone. There’s work to be done in the morning. But Kristian’s in no great hurry. He sparks the camp-stove into life and brews up a coffee. There’s always time to linger a little longer, listening to the muted sounds of an Orkney twilight, an ache in the limbs to remind you of an evening well-spent.
"On a night like this there’s nothing better really than just going out there and drifting along," says Kristian, as he gazes out over the Atlantic.
The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.