My friend Ray applied to work on the remote island of St Kilda when he was just 17 year old. He never got a reply, and although he still holds a slight grudge, it didn’t mean his interest in the islands would wane. He has watched all the old film clips and read all the books about this unique archipelago. Indeed when we were returning from Iceland several years ago, we planned to stop off at St Kilda. However, the island’s anchorage is exposed to winds from the North East through to the South, and as we were sailing in a strong North Easterly it clearly wasn’t going to happen.
When I phoned Ray earlier this year to ask if he fancied another bash at a landfall there was an instant and very big “Yes”. So our summer holiday was to have a single focus – get to St Kilda no matter what. I mentioned the plan to my friend Tim from Ullapool, with whom I share the RCC Tilman Medal, and he thought it would be a splendid place to rendezvous to swap the gong. Tim honeymooned on the island, arriving in their engineless Folkboat!
I decided to arrive in Scotland a week early to knock off a few tasks around the boat. As it happens, when I’m left alone with no distractions, the job list gets quickly depleted and soon Sumara was fit to sail. Ray’s son Tam and his girlfriend Virginia were camping in the area and came to visit on the Wednesday evening. This was a good move because they were great company onboard and, as Dunstaffnage Marina currently lacks any form of bar or cafe, it can be a fairly dull place to while away an evening. There seems to be lots of changes happening at the marina – but let’s not go there!
It is in a rather isolated position so the loss of the “Wide Mouthed Frog” results in having to walk to the Dunbeg Stores to buy a couple of beers to be supped in isolation in ones cabin. Hopefully a new tenant for the pub/cafe will be found soon so everyone can socialise again.
Having finished all the jobs and my guests having departed, I decided to best thing was to do was to head for the fleshpots of Oban, so on Thursday morning I waited for the mist to rise and chugged out of the bay towards Oban Transit Marina. I was slightly surprised to see that, although the mist had risen at Dunstaffnage, it certainly had not risen over Oban and the whole area was blanketed in dense white fog. I chugged slowly at 1 knot and very, very gradually the fog disappeared and I moored in the relatively new transit marina. I soon found the laundry up the side road by the museum (£10.00 for a service wash) and made use of the spacious marina facilities which had to close at 20:00 due to Covid, what a strange thing this Covid is! I found time to shop for a few essentials too
The good news was that I had just received a text to say that the Good Ship Brimble was heading north having transited the Crinan Canal. They called in at Craobh Marina but decided to push on once the tide had turned fair. So John, Selma and daughter Ella arrived on Friday evening and then there was some jiggery-pokery with crew comings and goings until we eventually ended up with a quorum at the Spice World Indian Restaurant above Superdrug on the main drag. Strangely we were the only people there which is not usually a good sign, but apparently there was an important football match being played so that may account for the lack of punters. Certainly my food was very good and from what I can remember the evening was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. Of course the logistics were all organised by Ella.
So now that Ray was onboard, we decided it was time to push off to Tobermory to stock up on some fresh food before heading off to the Outer Hebrides. After a bit of chugging there was eventually a light wind just enough to give us a few knots up the sound of Mull.
Tobermory is a favourite. It has been my landfall port when returning from the Arctic when it seems like an absolute haven of civilisation. There are showers and shops and pleasant wooded walks out of the wind, together with ice cream and fish and chips. OK it is maybe a bit touristy but sometimes that is just what you need. We queued at the Coop (as you do in these Covid times) and bought some milk and fresh meat and veg. We topped up the water and checked the weather forecast. Brimble was still with us but soon to depart to Mallaig and Canna – which John raves about.
Castlebay in the Outer Hebrides was to be our next port. It is a 54 nm sail, course 289 T, with a forecast of Cyclonic 3-5 with fog patches, so pretty much anything could happen. I decided it would be best to sail through the night so we would be assured of arriving in daylight. We left on Monday 5th July and, sods law, it rained all night! With a mix of sailing and motor sailing we arrived at 06:30 in the morning and found a berth on the pontoons. We logged 55 nm on the through hull log. These night passages over relatively short distances don’t really allow for a decent watch system to be set up. We went for 2 hour watches but felt fairly knackered on arrival.
Now, just as Ray had a lifetime aim to visit St Kilda, I had a lifetime aim to visit the Isle of Barra. It is the home to the McNeil’s and although I am generally regarded as English, in fact my mother was Welsh and my father was Scottish and indeed he was a McNeil – Alexander McNeil Flint – known as Neil. The Isle of Barra is the ancestral home to the McNeil’s and that castle is indeed their castle. It is now owned by an American McNeil who also owns the bank and a chunk of the island. I suppose owning a castle and a bank means you have succeeded in life although I always felt you have never quite made it until you own an escalator.
We couldn’t visit the castle because it is currently closed (due to Covid probably?) but normally it is open on Wednesdays? The Kisimul Restaurant, “Indian: Italian: Local Seafood”, was actually open but it is so popular that we couldn’t get in. The thought of monkfish masala still lingers. Take down that phone number and phone while offshore, ah, now there lies a bit of a problem.
I couldn’t get a phone signal at all which is rather a blessing to be honest. However, the internet is handy for weather information, especially when heading offshore, so there is WiFi available, but only on a small stone near the Harbourmaster’s office. This is such a wonderful idea that I think it should be taken up worldwide. It concentrates the mind sitting on a stone browsing your smart phone, especially if there is a little queue of Raggies all waiting to see what Windy is saying. So the routine was a quick visit to the magic stone to check the weather and make sure World War Three hasn’t started, then you could just turn the phone off and enjoy the delights of this wonderful island.
On arrival you may well be greeted by Asty, the Harbourmaster, and what a fine greeting it will be. Asty seems to be permanently cheerful which is somewhat surprising as he is also a Taxi Driver. As I normally dwell in London I am fully aware that cheery Taxi Drivers are very few and far between. However, this is the Isle of Barra where everyone is happy. As you walk along the road you will note a passing Bus Driver will give a little wave, so you look behind to see who he is waving at, and there is no one there. He was actually waving at ME! Gradually you get used to this, the drivers raise the palm of their hand as they pass. If they were to raise their whole hand within a short period of time they would become muscle bound due to the frequency of their greetings, so the raised palm is just fine.
We decided to hire a couple of bikes to tour the island but after waiting for about an hour for the bikes to arrive we decided it would be quicker to walk. I suppose the fact that the Tourist Office referred to the owner of the bike hire company as “The Lesser Spotted Tony” was perhaps a clue that we should have picked up on.
So we jumped on a local bus for a trip around the island and were very jammy to actually see this plane land on the beach as we arrived. Barra Airport is the only airport in the world that has its runway on a tidal beach, hence the plane times will not necessarily correspond to the bus times, which are not tidal.
Vesteray is an “Island” joined to Barra by a causeway. It is a couple of hours walk from Castlebay and worth the effort. The beach has to be the finest on the East Coast of the Outer Hebrides and it is a pretty secure anchorage too. Next time I shall anchor here and laze around on the beach for a couple of days – probably in my thermals and Beerenberg pullover!
There would be plenty of things to do on the Isle of Barra. Hiring a Sea Kayak would be on the list, but let’s not forget that we were on a mission. St Kilda or bust. A wise yachtsman said to me:
“There have been more cruises to the Outer Hebrides ruined by the obsession of getting to St Kilda than anything else”
I see can the truth in that. There is plenty of very fine cruising to be had in the Outer Hebrides without the need to trek another 72 nm offshore to the remote St Kilda. However, St Kilda was our obsession and conquered it must be.
Ray would be the first to admit he isn’t the world’s best sailor but apart from being eminently practical onboard, Ray is a very sociable person indeed. It would be nigh on impossible to visit a pub without him striking up a conversation with someone. On the night of the Euro Finals it was to be a Policeman from Sunderland and his girlfriend. They were duly invited back to the boat for a nightcap as is the long tradition. People not accustomed to small boats are usually rather amazed at the strange vessel that we cross oceans in.
Before we were to set off, Brimble duly arrived in Castlebay extoling the virtues of a stop at Canna. John had arranged a crew change from the ferry on the Sunday which would make it very tight to leg it out to St Kilda and return his boat to Troon via various ports en route. He had pretty much decided to give it a miss but, of course, it was never his main objective of his cruise. Crew changes can sometimes be problematical. I have decided to try to avoid them as best as I can for my Greenland trip next year.
The weather wasn’t looking too good for St Kilda with north east and easterly winds forecast. The pilot books say the bay is untenable in easterly winds. At least it should be an easy sail to get there….
but would we be able to land?