I had randomly decided that the Sound of Barra was the route to go, despite it being described as “tortuous” in the pilot books. I then succeeded in muddling up the incoming tide with the outgoing one which I luckily picked up on when John showed me some fancy app on his iPad. In any case, after all the toing and froing it transpires that it doesn’t really matter when you go through the sound because the tide seems to meet in the middle – and thanks to Rob for pointing that out! So in the end it was decided we should leave after we had a sandwich together at the local cafe. Not very technical but far more sociable.
St Kilda is 72.5 nm away so at 3 kn it would take 24 hours or just 18 hours at 4 kn. The weather looked favourable for the sail but maybe not ideal for the anchorage with a NE wind forecast to turn easterly on Saturday. We left the mooring under power and motored through the “tortuous” Sound of Barra in flat calm and not finding it very tortuous at all. Once clear we set a course of 329 T which took us across the “Breaks Heavily” patch on the chart. By 19:00 GMT we were sailing under full main, stay and Yankee at 4 kn. Amazingly at 19:38 we could already see St Kilda which was over 38 nm away. The wind picked up a little and by midnight we were zooming along at over 5 kn. At 05:00 we anchored in Village Bay in 11 m with 35 m of chain. The anchor dug in instantly and, even though the bay was open to the wind, it was pretty calm in my books but there again anything seems calm after the Jan Mayen “anchorage”.
The voyage had taken 17 hours at an average speed of 4.26 kn.
Tim and his daughter Megan hadn’t arrived yet but a small yacht sailed into the bay soon after us. It transpired that this yacht was skippered by Joe who was a friend of Tim’s and he had spontaneously decided to sail to St Kilda after a beer with Tim in the pub the night before! More about Joe later.
The pilot books advise that you get ashore as soon as you possibly can in case the weather suddenly turns nasty and you have to scarper double quick. We took their advice, pumped up the dinghy, rowed ashore and were greeted by Peter, the National Trust Warden. Peter was on three weeks holiday relief cover but had worked at the island many times before. He kindly explained all the do’s and don’ts and left us to explore. As we were pretty tired after the long night sail, we planned just a short walk out to the old ruined St Brianan’s Chapel, situated about a mile around the bay followed by a mooch around the village. Well, one thing led to another, and we ended up climbing up to see the Mistress Stone, then walking along the cliff edge to the “Lovers Stone”. The Lover’s Stone takes its name because the prospective St Kildan bridegroom had to stand on one leg with his heel on the edge of the rock before he could take his bride. St Kildans had to have a very good sense of balance because they survived the winter by climbing dangerous cliffs cliffs, lassoing puffins and gathering fulmar eggs.
You can see by the photos that we were blessed with good weather. Low cloud could have easily put pay to any views from the highest cliffs in the UK.
These primitive sheep are unique to St Kilda. Originally they survived on the small island of Soay just to the north west of Hirta but during the island’s evacuation some were transferred to Hirta where they now run completely wild. The island also boasts an endemic wren and field mice which are twice the size of mainland mice.
It was time to round off our day and as we walked back towards the yacht we spotted Tim and Megan walking down from Conachair, the islands highest peek at 376 m. We met up and agreed to meet in the cockpit of Thembi for a celebration mug of champagne.
By shear fluke, according to Tim, it was exactly ten years to the day when we scaled Beerenberg, the world’s most northerly volcano, so it was a very fitting day to swap the medal which was awarded jointly to Tim and myself.
We agreed to meet ashore at 09:30 in the morning and departed back to Sumara for super and some much needed rest in our comfy sleeping bags.
The following day we decided to walk out to Glen Bay in the north coast of the island. This is described as a possible anchorage if Village Bay is untenable. However, it is very steep-to, has a rocky bottom and the wind would howl down the valley. Sometimes fishing boats shelter here but only by motoring slowly all day and night until the storm passes. Tim optimistically took 500 m of “twine” in case he needed to hang off a rock. The concept was to send his 16 year old daughter ashore in the dinghy to carry out the operation and I have no doubt she would have carried out the dastardly task perfectly and at great speed. Ray always referred to Megan as “The Gazelle”.
We saw several pieces of the remains of a Short Sunderland Flying Boat which flew from Oban on 7th June 1944 and crashed on Hirta around midnight. Most of the pieces were in the gulley leading down to Glen Bay, presumably blown there in high winds. There was a surprising amount of spruce timber surviving inside the wing structure. Tim announced that the Baby Blake toilet onboard Thembi was the “lightweight” flying boat version. I can’t imaging Blakes making anything lightweight. There followed a short discussion about using a Baby Blake in the air which came to an abrupt halt when Megan rightly pointed out there would be no water to flush it.
We mooched onwards to the north west tip of Hirta to see Soay, the original home of the Soay sheep. After admiring these fabulous cliffs, it was time to return towards Village Bay via the Lovers Stone.
The 36 people who lived on the island were eventually evacuated in 1930. Their tale is a long and fascinating story about a group of people who were virtually isolated from the mainland and managed to survive in a totally unique way. Tom Steel’s book “The Life and Death of St Kilda” is probably the best way to find out more about the islands history. The remains of the village still exist. Where we were sitting on the wall could have been where the islanders would have had their daily parliament discussing the tasks that needed doing that day. Often the discussions would continue after lunch until there was no more time to do any work. But the Islanders were certainly no shirkers, they must have been very tough indeed to survive the winters.
Ironically, when they were evacuated, the men were given jobs with the forestry commission, but they had never seen a tree before in their lives!
The newer houses were built for them by the Victorians but the Islanders hated them. They didn’t want windows looking onto the sea and preferred the well ventilated old dry stone houses.
Which brings me onto the “Cleits”. These stone buildings, like so many things, are unique to St Kilda. There are over 1,000 on Hirta plus more on the outlying islands. They were made of stone with a turf roof and were used to dry and store food. The random placing of the stones was deliberate to allow the wind to whistle through. As there was little salt to preserve the meat and no timber to smoke it, wind drying must have been the logical way to save food for the winter. Quite why they needed so many was causing us to speculate all sorts of wild ideas.
There’s a lot more that could be said about this amazing wild place but we had better move along.
We all met up aboard Sumara in the early evening. Joe joined us. Now Joe is the kind of person you meet when you are with Tim. Tim is pretty much as hardy as they come, but Joe has to be a strong contender for the hardiness cup. For instance, he sailed out to St Kilda spontaneously single-handed and on arrival just politely asked if anyone had any teabags. Obviously the lack of teabags was troubling him more than any worries about making this offshore voyage regarded as the Holy Grail to some yachtsmen and women. This morning, while we were having a relaxing breafast, we spotted him clambering up a peak besides a crumbling wall regarded as a slightly dodgy area, then he sailed off around Boreray, returned to the bay, pumped up his dinghy again, went ashore, then visited Sumara knowing he had to get up at 04:00 in the morning to get through the Sound of Harris on a fair tide. So it came as no real surprise that we discovered he was also best buddies with Will Stirling who is another one of the extremely hardy types who sails dinghies around offshore lighthouses and moors his yacht to an ice sheet while exploring a remote island off Greenland, unarmed, only to find a polar bear asleep on the summit. Not to mention young Megan. It’s a real pleasure knowing these fearless people!
Once the boat was depleted of alcohol, most of which was brought over by the guests, it was time for everyone to depart. Tim, Megan and Joe would need to grab some sleep before their early departure which was necessary to get through the Sound of Harris on a fair tide. I took the lazy option and decided to sail around the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides thus avoiding any need to get up early. Besides, we fancied sailing around the nearby island of Boreray before leaving the area.
St Kilda is a paradise for bird enthusiasts. We saw a Peregrine Falcon, Skuas, Gannets, Fulmars, Wheat Tails, Puffins and a Leach’s Storm Petrel (well Megan saw it). We didn’t see the Snowy Owl, but there is one on the island. On Boreray alone there is the world’s largest colony of Gannets with 60,000 pairs**. St Kilda also has 140,000 pairs of Puffins and the largest colony of Fulmars in Britain. All in all, around a million birds live here making it the most important breeding station in Northwest Europe. Must be a sod counting the birds as they keep flying around.
You can sail between Stac Lee and Boreray but don’t try the tempting gap between Stac an Armin and the mainland which is intriguingly described on the chart as “no passage – even for boats“.
After enjoying our little circumnavigation of the islands we set course of 164 C for the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides. It would be a 121 nm journey back to Mull so we settled into 3 hour watches. We had some good pleasant sailing with a north easterly wind of about force 3 or 4 until the early hours when it dropped off and we needed to motor.
While on watch I noticed the cockpit was rather dirty so I set about cleaning it, wondering where all the black grit had arrived from as the beach on St Kilda was clean white sand. A few hours later I was cleaning it again. Then I was sweeping up below with a dustpan and brush soon filling the pan full with green-black dust. This was becoming a a real mystery so I kept some in a glass jar.
At one point there was a big pile of grit on the companionway stairs.
The only possible explanation is that we were covered in meteor dust or star dust! Well that is a first for me.
We moored in Tobermory at 17:15 GMT having logged 145 nm with an average speed of 4.26 kn. which was exactly the same as the outward journey.
The following day we sailed over to Loch Drumbuie where we anchored in the little bay on the south side of Oronsay in 32 ft. It was a wonderful quiet spot to wind down after a successful cruise.
On 16th July we were moored back at Dunstaffnage only to go hard aground trying to sneak around the inner pontoon. It wasn’t an unexpected grounding, I had been warned, so we made use of the hour stuck in the mud packing away the sails and putting on the covers.
The holiday was over but fond memories of St Kilda will remain!
** Although I was reliably informed that Boreray has the world’s largest colony of gannets, I have just been sorting through my old charts of Iceland and spotted a pencil note alongside the little island of Eldey off the Reykjanes Penisular saying:
“Good to see. Largest gannet colony in the world”.
Maybe I can circumnavigate the island on my way back from Greenland in 2022 and check it out. Mind you I’ve been to lots of “Tallest Cliffs in Europe” including St Kilda, Faroes, and the Horn of Iceland and quite a few “Oldest Pubs in London” etc.