Taming the Tay

John tells the tale…

Yep, the title is ironic. Paraphrasing the iconic words of The Clash… “I fought the Tay and the Tay won” There are many phrases, emojis and abbreviations I could use for my experience today on the Tay… : ‘OMG’; ‘WT*’; ‘WT*WT’ and ‘You can’t be serious!’. Yes, it was a cracker and my toughest and most humbling test yet! The swimming pool is such a nice peaceful, safe place but it could not prepare me for where the real action is…on the water. We had swims, rock encounters, fights with tree branches, holes and strange fungi! But more to that later in the report. Let’s start at the beginning….

It was a fabulous sunny date when we met up at Thistlebrigg car park. Six eager paddlers (Joan, Andy, Dougie, Len, Stevie, Stevie J) and me. Even the relatively early start couldn’t dampen Andy’s morning mood as the group started to put me at my ease with talk of the Dragon’s tooth, Hell Hole, the Chicken Run and all the ‘interesting’ adventures that were about to unfold. As an aside, for all my fellow beginners. When one of this lot tells you, something is ‘interesting’ please refer to the definitions below:

EKCCC Definitions of ‘Interesting’:
1. “an event, encounter, river, or feature on a river that may result in single or multiple swims”.
2. “a really scary big river trip where we know you will be writing the trip report”.
3. “say your prayers fish-bait!”.

Even Stevie J tried to put me at ease by telling me he only had 4 swims on his first trip on the Tay but it was running a lot lower and slower that time! Buoyed by those tales and full of confidence we headed up to our ‘put in’ at Stanley. When I saw how fast the water was running I was tempted to break out my packed lunch there and then and have a little laze about in the sunshine.

Not sure if this is a record, but within the first 5 minutes I had taken my first swim. Who makes one river flow into another at a 90-degree angle anyway! At least this one was close to the bank and with the help of Len and Dougie I was ready for my next swim…sorry my next ‘interesting’ river experience. Thankfully, I didn’t have to follow the three brave souls into the main flow and the falls of Campsie Linn. The river was actually flowing upstream and downstream at the same time (now that was ‘interesting’). Andy, Stevie and Stevie J seemed to be having a great time in the surf while Joan and I did some eddy breaking and ferrying under the supervision of Len and Dougie. Then it was back into the heaving body of the Tay! I was very thankful to the training Billy had given us on Friday at the pool as I managed to pull off a nice low brace and stay upright. But not for too long. I can’t remember much about swim number 2 except that I actually made it into an eddy and then fell in! Again, my fellow paddlers came to my rescue. But I was not finished there!

We headed downstream and soon came to the weir… my ‘friends in kayaks’ had some other scary name for it but I quickly blocked that out! After getting out to have a look (big mistake for me), Andy pointed out what looked like the smallest section of glassy water over the weir and said, “just hit that and you will be fine”. “Just keep paddling” said Dougie and Len chipped in with “It’s actually worse when you get through the weir John”. By that time, I was not listening, just trying to keep my dry suit dry on the inside!

We got across to the other side of the river in one piece and then we let the two Stevies set off first… no doubt to rescue me when I went in, although nobody said that out loud. Stevie did a bit of showboating with a nice little roll as he went over the weir. Very impressive stuff. Thankfully, I was facing upstream at that point and only found out later. I followed Len next. You guessed it, I missed the nice glassy water going over the weir and went for my third, and most exciting swim. This was a real experience and I can’t remember how far I went in the water, but I had one or two encounters with some ‘interesting’ features…rocks. Len went after my paddle, Stevie my boat and Andy came to my rescue. We went through a couple of rapids and over to the bank. It seemed to take me ages to get a hold of a branch and pull myself to shore while Andy used his boat to prevent me from taking swim 4. Stevie had my boat, but he also had some trouble with a branch as well, getting a nasty whack in the eye and kayaking the rest of the trip only able to see out of one eye! Another trip to A&E for Stevie. Meanwhile Stevie J and Joan were going great guns with no hitches. Both had great paddles while I was having my ‘mare’! Hats off to both of you. I must admit to a twinge of guilt for poor Stevie…owe him one for taking that hit while saving my boat! Andy and I then encountered the strangest white and orange fungus that transferred itself onto our hands and Andy’s boat and water bottle. If we start glowing in the dark or sprouting any strange protrusions, we will let everyone know. We may need scrubbed down with the boats on Friday before we get in the pool though!

At this stage it took a lot of willpower to get back in the boat…so I climbed the hill and let Andy tow my empty kayak to the lunch spot a few hundred yards further downstream. My excuse was that I had no paddle! Stevie J asked me if I was hungry and strangely enough I wasn’t. I was too busy looking at where we had to ‘put in’ next! I had probably psyched myself up for swim 4 before I was even in my kayak. We did have a laugh over lunch and nothing like Haribo to take your mind of your troubles…thanks Stevie. Although Dougie giving out his ‘fingers of fudge’ and recalling when they cost 6p made me feel rather old and my mind went back to the Tay. He also asked why I was paddle waving going over the weir…. paddle about two feet above my head before swim 4!
We set off again and I actually made it into the next eddy. Bit of confidence coming back, and Dougie gave me a nice little pep talk…then I went for swim number 4. I don’t even know how it happened, but it was bang in the middle of the river. Len was right there to help me and then he wasn’t. Another pang of guilt as he hit a hole with me still holding onto the back of his boat. At least I had some company in the water this time…my bag that one Len. Next thing I knew I was off downstream not caring where my boat and paddle were. Didn’t realise I could swim that fast. I should have been on the Gold Coast! Andy was there quickly and started to tow me to the riverbank. I must admit I told a wee white lie when he asked, “are you kicking your legs” (maybe not as politely as that!). Sorry Andy I wasn’t. I was knackered. I couldn’t feel my legs at that point. That was the moment when I really appreciated having a buoyancy aid…and Andy!

I must admit, at that point, I felt as if I had been 9 rounds with Connor McGregor, with no mini-bus for protection. Again, the team were all around me on the bank giving me support and encouragement…. they knew I was pretty much done but had one more ‘interesting’ section to paddle before we got out. So, in true EKKCC style they ‘took the rip’ out of me for 5 minutes to settle my nerves. The final run to the ‘get out’ was pretty bouncy but I was so pleased I didn’t have a swim 5 in me. Getting through that brought back some confidence. I did take a we dip getting out the kayak on jelly legs but that doesn’t count as it was like falling into a puddle at that point and I didn’t need rescued. I did think they may have had to tie a rope to me and haul me up the steps the same way we did with the kayaks!

What a trip. Despite being knackered, battered and bruised, this was a brilliant experience and at least I know I can swim (very loose use of the word) in white water. I can’t thank the others enough for their support and I hope they appreciated the opportunity I gave them to practice those white water rescues. I never felt in any danger despite the swims, and there was always someone to rescue me and give me a pep talk to keep me right. They really make sure you are ok and safe before they ‘take the rip’ out of you. That actually helps, and I had some great laughs on this trip. Would I do it again…definitely,as it was a real test at the stage I am at and I now have a level to aim for. Plenty to practice in the pool though and this was a great leveller for me. May need a few weeks for my body to recover before the next trip!