‘Journey to the edge of the world.’
By Andy Spink.
(Pic: Cailean Macleod / Seapaddler.co.uk)
Paddling around Ernsay on the last evening was a fitting climax to an epic voyage and sea kayaking expedition. In the sound of Harris lumps of wind and wave spat at us as we crossed from Leverbrough. The tide ran south kicking up fine seas against the force five gusts that challenged our forward paddling. On reaching this fine Hebridean beach we relaxed and had time to reflect on what we had achieved.
Only three days earlier we had reach St.Kilda and its immense stacks. We had paddled all the way around them, visited the Flannan islands and returned in true seas to the shelter of Loch Resort, with its fine views of sea eagles and so to the delights of the sound of Harris.
The north shore of Ernsay was kicking up a larger swell, manageable yet scarely fun. We picked our way along the coast, picked up the favourable tide and hurtled at maybe ten knots down the exposed coast. Surfing waves as we went, feeling at home on the wave face my wee ‘sea squirt’ had looked after me again.
Back on the MV Gaelic Rose, tiredness slowed us down; whilst scraping salt from my eyes it brought on the wonderful rush of satisfaction of succeeding in a long term ambition. The salt scratched my skin, tender from the sun and windburn of the previous four days adventures. A sensation that will jog my memory of this journey, a journey both physical and mental, an experience that will be hard to better.
I guess choosing any date would have been a gamble, but this would be the fourth time we have organised a trip out there and maybe luck would be on our side again. For our trip we needed near perfect conditions to maximise the potential of the complex and dramatic coastline. A rougher sea would have been exciting but would have hindered our experience and exploration, stronger winds would have curtailed much.
Frying on the boat’s metal roof whilst crossing to The Flannan islands we unexpectedly drank tea and ate fine cheese in glorious flat calm conditions. Our spirits were lifted even higher by the sunlight that reflected off the glassy sea. This unexpected bonus was almost too good to be true as this was the second week of fine settled weather. We were heading for the very remote and picturesque Flannan islands and its Gannet colonies, on which we felt like David Attenborough.
With the perfect atmosphere of isolation each team member found their own space on board and then on landing with thousands of puffins flying over head. We were mesmerised by our situation. The occasion growl from small borrows disturbed sleepy happiness as the little birds would stand their ground and shrug their wings in disbelief that we were there on their island. The shattered concrete steps and twisted railings spoke volumes of the prevailing weather conditions that would stop any voyage, let alone jumping off the cliffs into the calm waters or lying back in the summer haze.
Circular stone dwelling houses perched high on the hill sitting as monuments to survival and dedication to spiritual being. Standing defiant against the tangle of the sea the lighthouse, [automatic now] was home to many a reasourful keeper. Having swum ashore it was a fitting way to enter the serene landscape. The contrast from St.Kilda was felt by all, uninhabited and unspoilt by human prescence. It was as how St.Kilda would have been and maybe should be!
Some months earlier the delights of remote places and their dangers had drawn eleven members of the team together. Within twelve hours I had filled the berths on the sturdy and well founded MV Gaelic Rose. Skippered by the experienced, humorous and philosophical Bob Jones we had the making of a successful expedition.
Being hostage to fortune can be stressful, offering expeditions to St.Kilda are always risky for it is never certain. You may get there, but may not be able to land due to wind conditions or swell which is like seeing the summit but never standing on it.
So flexibility is called for, as is patience. We had both, but only required flexibility as we had too much choice over where we went and did! The conditions were just so good.
Our ultimate aim being to paddle around the whole archipelago of St.Kilda. . Not many have paddled all the way around and had the chance to explore every wee Geo, deep cave and through passage.
Some have paddled sections and even fewer have paddled out from the Hebrides. We had Mike Sullivan on board who had done just that a couple of years earlier and with his invaluable local knowledge we had an advantage
Expectation hummed around the saloon over breakfast as we had decided to go the evening before, the wind was light and from the north so we had to try. Sleep came with difficulty, child like enthusiasm mixed with apprehension and an adrenalin kick after one of the finest coastal paddles I and many of the others had ever had.
Our first days ‘shake down paddle’ would be from Eilean Mhealasta to Uig Sger liath and onto Bhaltos. The idea was for a gentle introduction to sea, boats and the team, how wrong could we have been! Being dropped off in sheltered waters was deceptive, even though the wind was light, as we reach the head land we were met by large swell and rough conditions. Rock hopping and surfing was the order of the day, our group split for excitement amongst clapotis and skerries and others opting for a wider berth further off the coast. Like school boys, Dhrue, Mike, Steve, and Kenny rose to Cailean’s challenge of find the ‘nastiest wave in a cave game’.
Finding it hard to resist stupidly I entered the arena and found the nastiest wave, barely controlling the confused water. Settled by Dhrue’s nervous smile I reached the other side of the channel and ran away to deeper water and the sensible team whom knew better. With a welcome break at ‘Geodh an Fhithich’ we wove through stacks which dominate scene like serial chess pieces.
Mangaster head rose steeply out of the powerful swell, the spray reached at least one hundred feet up the shear rock face, spraying the front of the bothy which nestles high on ledges that split the crag.
After turning Compass Point, we reached the ‘mother ship’ at anchor in calm waters thoroughly excited and drenched. ‘Compass point’ was named after a nasty swim and argument with a large wave and rock. Kenny’s pride bruised and a compass smashed it somehow added to the dramatic nature of the day, how we all didn’t get a ‘doing’ I don’t know. We all pushed our comfort zones and abilities and with confidence built in our own paddling and the strength of the group we returned to the Gaelic Rose, elated. The calm was welcome and the huge plate of langoustines in garlic butter was just superb. The largest prawns I have ever eaten, it was a fine prelude to a week of excellent eating on board. Greg our chef looked after us extremely well, with fresh and varied menus and portions to feed an army the one thing we’ll always remember is the food and company.
My mother always said “don’t go swimming after a big meal!” Well we proved her wrong no sooner had we finished our third course we were being dropped off at Eala Sheadha with its perfectly formed arches to adventure in’ the tidal impact zone’. Whilst half the group paddled around into the serene lagoon of Pabby Mor, we explored the swirling seas inside the arches. Wide eyed, Steve MacCreadie demonstrated his new launching technique based on Penguins. This radical ground breaking technique the ‘penguin launch’ has transformed our way of approaching swell lines off steeply shelving rocks and will be introduced at the ‘Third Scottish combined rock and water workshop’ in December. Our sport will never be the same again.
Darkened by wine and whiskey, red faces beamed across the galley table, whilst addictive laughter and enthusiastic chat echoed across the calm anchorage. Rory Stewart commented “that if day one was this good how we would top it?”
Optimism runs like water, it seeps into everywhere, on deciding to go it poured over mixing with a slight nervous anticipation.
We would have approximately ten hours of far horizons to contemplate the next stage of our journey and with twenty miles to go we caught our first glimpse of Boreray. I had remembered it like a sleeping dragon and as we approach closer the memory wash over me. The sleeping dragon seemed not to have moved since my last sailing trip in 1997.
Boreray stands powerfully guarded by its sentinels of Stack Armin and Stack Lee. Offering up the highest sea stacks in Britain with few landing palaces it begs to be paddled around. Sheltering under the Gannet ridden cliffs of the east coast we entered our small, insignificant craft and headed off along the south coast, passing Sgarbhstac.
Being ever drawn to the huge bulk of Stack Lee everything seems minute by it. The rock fin loomed above us and made for dizzy viewing from six inches off the seas surface. As we passed beneath, gannet colonies would leave there ledges and circle above our heads. Occasionally a skewer would dive bomb an unsuspecting bird and steal hard earned food. Taking photos was hard; the scale just drowned our presence yet again. I am not sure how everyone else felt but I felt very humble and privileged to be floating around in this seascape.
Heading north to Stack Armin just blows the mind; at 196 m it just defies imagination. The great overhanging prow hangs against the empty sky, whilst the noise and smell of gannets dominate the air and the white of birds dazzled us with the sunlight. Like an avalanche they spilled off the ledges seaward, wings tucked and in complete control, hitting the surface to dive deep for fish unseen.
We paddled south to Boreary's more sheltered east coast; lush steep pasture on its head lands dotted with sheep the scale, often difficult to comprehend from so far below. Time is required to soak these experiences up, it will be months and still images will appear to us, the kayaks were stowed and we motored off to Hirta, St.Kilda’s Main Island. We arrived to a calm evening, balmy with summer sun and ate well.
Mike, Kenny and Steve decided to paddle around Hirta that evening whilst we opted for an exploration ashore, which should never be missed. Watching the three paddles off through the Dun Gap was difficult, for I had made my choice and had to live with it, would I get to do it in the morning? Would the weather allow us to venture anywhere let alone right around?
We wondered through the Village and imagined how it must have been, caught glimpses of what I thought was a rare Wren and marvelled at the hundreds of Cleits scattered over the hill side.
From high above the lovers stone we spotted the intrepid three passing into the Geo Na h- Airde, on the north coast, enviously I watched them being swallowed up into the darkness. Next time we saw them they were turning the point back into Village bay, we could sense their excitement and achievement.
The ‘Puff Inn ‘was warm with evening light and the buzz of more people than I had ever seen out there. A glorious summers evening was enjoyed by all in such a unique place.
We woke to strong winds from the north, shifting the Gaelic Rose at her anchor chain. I was unsure of the effect on the north shore, was it early morning down drafts or consistent stronger winds? The weather forecast was good and breakfast huge, we needed to decide on the day’s adventure. Deciding is often easy but not then, the exposure of the island and my imagination ran riot. The majority opted to go, I remained unsure until the last minute. Then as the other three paddled off to complete their circumnavigation around Dun, I just had to commit to going. Thank goodness I did, missing out this time would have been a crime!
The tide in the Dun Gap was very low indeed, the rocks drying off in the sun barred our progress but with cunning and some rock dogging we made it through to the west side of Hirta. Writing about it seems nonsense really, as the vision is sublime in all ways. Giant caves, huge stacks which looked tiny against the cliffs and stacks that separated the peaceful channels. Calmer waters offer up challenges and adventures inside the caves hidden behind.
I settled down, as did the rest of the team and we marvelled at the nature and the committing nature of the paddling. Heading due north towards Soay, and its Sound we began to make plans of which way and where to land. No landing zones were the order of the day as either shear rock enters the sea or baby seals looked on at us with huge soft eyes from the large pebble caves.
Sinbad, Jason, his Argonauts and The Odyssey came to mind as we entered Soay sound. The titans of rock which are hemmed in by Hirta and Soay stand proud as gates to the other side. Expecting to see Neptune rise up out of the small one to two knots of tide which runs through here, we passed through the natural arch quickly and found a boulder beach to land on. This had to be the finest lunch place I have ever eaten a salty - soggy tuna sandwich and drank strong coffee on. The view back to Boreray just astonished us all, silence fell briefly upon us, it was becoming all a bit much to take in.
Decision time again, around Soay or head on? No difficulty of decision here, we had to go around.
The wind had picked up and the tide and was running quite strong along its North West corner, exciting paddling was had and the concentration on everyone’s faces said it all.
We reached the haven of Glen Bay on Hirta and explored all its caves, some of which were hundreds of feet deep, dark and cold. We spotted the others exploring the shore and they offered words of encouragement from high up on the grassy ramparts. It was good to know that we were being g watched and occasionally Gaelic Rose now in deeper water would appear to see what we were up to.
Paddling through the magnificent geo and natural arch was awe-inspiring, entreing the north east coast was scary and thought provoking. The wind had started to pick up and down drafts blasted down from Conachair summit 376m above. It is always disconcerting when this happens especially when your paddle is whipped out of your hand. Again heads went forward, shoulders stiffened somewhat and we pressed onto calmer bays away in our own worlds, yet conscious of where the rest of the team were.
Passing through ‘Mina Stac’, was the last real disturbed sea we experienced, gentle conditions remained beyond as we ventured into narrower caves with head torches on. The booms of swell beyond our beams seemed unsettling, as if monsters lay waiting. A strange mist hung over us in the caves, the temperature difference marked. The visibility was difficult and as the walls shone pink the sea appeared to fall off the edge of the world. Orpheus was waiting our misfortune.
Expecting nasty down drafts, we hugged the south shore before Village Bay came into sight, not until we passed the bays entrance did we feel it. Wham!
As quickly as it came it left us. We were left with hundreds of Puffins all just floating in the evening calm. I have never paddled through so many and until the whole of the team paddled through did they fly off, flying being a rough description of their efforts of take off. Comically they flopped upwards, why they don’t dive down I’ll never know?
All we had left now was the cathedral like natural arches of Dun, we passed through them with disbelief of the scale. We later found out in the pub that Mike etc had paddled through a whole cave and geo system, in which Kenny having been capsized by a rogue swell had performed a fine roll. So ‘Kenny’s Cave’ will need to be visited next year.
We were met by a lumpy sea and short slop under Duns ramparts, without much playing we ploughed on, we settled for reaching the Dun Gap. Turning under near perfect dry rock, to the flooded channel was so pleasurable. We could see the Gaelic Rose; we could smell the fine food and imagine the subtleties of fine island malts later on that night.
Leaning on the dingy watching everyone get back on board I welled up with emotion and pride. A dream had come true and we had all experienced it. Disbelief of such fine conditions and the confusion of such magnificent scenes whirled around my head. I smiled and tapped the deck of my boat and reckoned that it was the last ‘big journey for such a wee boat’, relieved and content tiredness hit in warmth of the cabin.
We returned to the ‘Inn’ for one last time, and as tradition would have it we wrote our names on the walls and left Cailean’s Tiree Surf Gathering t-shirt for their collection on the roof. Like at Canna it is bad luck to leave without writing on the harbour wall, we had had luck in bucket loads and this was not a place for it to run out, having reached the Flannan's we knew our luck had held. All I have to do now is replace Cailean’s t-shirt.
Loading up the cars and vans at Uig was strange, home beckoned and loved ones waited, yet such extraordinary experiences like these feel as though they should be stretched a little longer. The ‘Peter Pan’ in all of us wishing to journey more, to see round another headland and to spend more time together exploring beautiful and dramatic places.
Distances and timings are almost irrelevant. The whole experience was just mind blowing, the company and the paddling superb whilst the location offered up a combination of the finest sea kayaking you would find anywhere in the world and certainly the best anywhere in Britain.
All good things have to end, but they live on in memory and mine is full up at present. A few days later at work on Mull I stare out towards the Treshnish islands from Ulva, three kayakers pull in for the night somewhat battered from there crossing in the fresh South-Westerly, I count ourselves really lucky that we had perfect conditions and we had achieved so much. I day dream constantly, seeing the strange light that permeated the caves and hearing the laughter of the crew after each day’s adventures.
I would like to thank Bob and Greg, for their hospitality and in particular Bob for his invaluable experience and judgement. His advices on conditions were spot on and the Gaelic Rose ideal for such an expedition.
Thanks also to all the members of ‘the team’, their humour and company were superb. Their collective skills and experience was the deciding factor on our success, I hope to kayak with you again soon as i learnt so much.
The trip was organised by Hebridean Pursuits 01631710317.
Our support vessel was the MV Gaelic Rose.
Skipper Bob Jones. First mate and Chef, Greg.
The expedition members were ;
There will be another ‘Wild West Expedition’ running in May, 2005 - contact Hebridean Pursuits ltd for details.