click to see through Dean’s eyes: sight switch – Loch Awe SUP

April 2016

Loch Awesome

By Dean Dunbar, – April, 2016.

We were off to Argyll Chalets on Loch Awe, (Scotland’s longest freshwater loch), and I was planning to SUP the full 40km. This may not sound that special, but I am registered blind, and I hoped to do it without a sighted guide. What could possibly go wrong?

The forecast said there would be severe weather warnings for most of the week, but that there would be an 8 hour gap on Tuesday the 8th, between 7am and 3pm. That would be my only window.

On Sunday we did a recce of my put-in point at Torran Bay. The small jetty was hidden under the water, due to the recent flooding, as was a nearby barbed wire fence, (not good for my inflatable 12 6 Red Paddle Race board).

Rhona also found half a dozen spots along the loch where she would be able to see me, and if necessary would be able to direct me ashore. We worked out my ETA between each point, and this would help Rho know if I was on target.

I couldn’t see any of these points from the water, but Rho did tell me about a castle on an island around 10km south of our chalet. That would be a good landmark for me.

On Tuesday morning, just after 8am, and still dark, Rhona pointed me in the right direction and I was off, paddling over several marker buoys on the way.

I had planned to paddle up the east shore so Rhona could see me, but as soon as I left the shelter of Torran Bay, I was blown west. The 15-20mph wind was too strong to paddle against, so I paddled to my 1 o’clock for the next 90 minutes, paddling only on one side, until I finally got across.

As well as the wind and the waves it created, I had to try to sus out where I was going. When I paddle up lochs, I tend to use my “sweet spot” system.

When loch paddling I can only see 3 coloured layers. The top layer is white, and is the sky. The next layer down is black, and is the mountains either side of me. The bottom layer is white again, and this is the loch. I like to think of the middle layer as a pair of legs. They are wide, and high, either side of me, but as I look off into the distance they thin out, until they meet in the middle. This meeting point is usually where the loch ends. This is my target, and I call this my “sweet spot”.

For the next 40km, all I would be thinking about was hitting that sweet spot.

Normally when I paddle on a loch, I don’t wear a PFD, and I travel with a small deck bag, with only the essentials. As this was a bigger solo paddle, I wore my Palm PFD and went big on the spare kit, carrying lots of spare neoprene, dry clothes, bivvy bag, and plenty of food.

My paddles in Perthshire in November had all been done in temperatures between 3 degrees and just below freezing and meant that I needed to wear my thick canyoning long-johns, gloves, etc. Over on Loch Awe, the temperature was a tropical 5-7 degrees, so I could go back to my much more comfortable Palm Kaituna ¾ length trousers, and Mistral cag, and no gloves!

During the paddle I passed several islands, which suddenly appeared in front of me, and entered several flooded fields.

I eventually passed the island castle, and this was my first landmark. I knew that it was around 10km from here to our chalet, so I gave myself a target of under 90 minutes. 70 minutes later I passed the chalet, as Rho cheered me on.

Not long after passing the chalet my sweet spot vanished. Instead of a nice clean V shape, there was a very wide, flat patch. I now had no clear direction.

I spent the next hour going in and out of the shore, not really sure where I was going. Then I heard Rho shouting from the shore.

She told me that I only had about 6km to go. With the current strong winds, that should take me around 40 minutes, so I knew I should start looking for Kilchurn Castle in 30 minutes time.

20 minutes later I got caught in a severe hail and sleet storm. I did up the Velcro neck of my Mistral cag to stop the sleet running down my neck, but a hood would have been nice! Trying to look for clues, I thought I saw the castle on my left, which meant I was heading into the wee bay next to it. Perfect!

In the stormy conditions, I arrived at the head of the bay much quicker than expected, but instead of a landing, I was hurled into a mass of thorn bushes. (Not good for my inflatable Red Paddle board, nor my arms and legs which soon got entangled.)

I got off my board and dragged it through a gap. If I was where I thought I was I had done the 40km paddle in just over 5 hours.

In front of me I saw a steep banking. On top of this should be the train track, and on the other side of that would be the car park, and Rhona.

I scrambled up the very slippery, leaf covered banking, and found… no train track. Bugger, where the hell am I?

Rho and I had a cheap pair of walkie talkie radios with us. They only had a limited range – 3km in a clear line and 1km in the hills). They were only to be used in an emergency.

The storm was howling, the sky was getting darker, and I didn’t have a clue where I was. I reckoned this could be classed as an emergency.

Whilst standing on the banking, I hoped that this extra 3m height may help me get a signal.

Bingo, we made contact, albeit very crackly. I tried to explain my situation to Rho, but she had trouble hearing me, and I couldn’t really make her out. All she did hear was that I was “lost”.

As we had made contact, I knew we were less than 3km apart. Rho was in the car park near the castle, so I was almost there.

I fought my way back out through the thorns, and paddled back up the loch to get out of the bay. The wind was blowing at well over 20mph, so the only way I could make any headway was to stay kneeling down and lean into the wind.

The short 100m paddle took me almost 30 minutes, but once I rounded the end of the bay I turned my board to face downwind, stood up, and off I went.

10 minutes later Rho’s voice came over my radio to say that she could see me, and I was only 100m away from Kilchurn Castle.

I finished my paddle by paddling down to the end of the correct bay.

The whole paddle had taken around 6½ hours, and I had lost almost an hour in the wrong bay. I’ve been asking around, and it looks like not only am I the first registered blind person to SUP the full length of Loch Awe, in one go, but possibly the first “normal” person too!

6½ hours is better than I had planned for, but I know I can do even better. So Loch Awe in 2016 “I’ll be back!”

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