The Wild West Sea Kayaking Expedition to St.Kilda 2005.
May 29th to June 3rd 2005.
Organised by Hebridean Pursuits ltd.
Saturday. Steamed Oban to loch Sunart. Paddled to Oransay via loch Teacus.
Sunday. Tobermory to Taransay. Paddled along Taransay coast.
Monday. Taransay to St.Kilda, via Boreray. To village Bay. Paddled village Bay, through Dun Gap and along west coast of Hirta.
Tuesday. Paddled West Coast of Hirta to Soay and its Stacks. Coast-eered and jumped off Stack Dona. Steamed to Carbost, Skye.
Wednesday. Gales, loch bound.
Thursday. Paddled around Wiay. Steamed to Oban visit Canna.
Friday. Paddled in forth of Lorne and NW coast of Lismore.
"A Gentle Trip"
Andy Spink - Photos: Andy Spink Collection.
Di Waddell with Boreray behind, by Earle Wilson.
To have paddled around St.Kilda and all the stacks in 2004 was just amazing and I am still high as a kite over the whole experience. To organise another expedition was risky and being a ‘hostage to fortune’ is even riskier hence a ‘wild west trip’! And as the whole crew were realistically optimistic and philosophical over destinations and aims, it was for me, a huge relief. Although I was quietly confident of good luck and in our Skipper and the Dundarg, the pressure was still on.
It would be excellent to be the first sea kayakers out there this year; the sense of achievement would be enormous. Even after five trips out there arrival is marvellous feeling as memories of previous trips flood back.
Friday evening brought forecasts of strong easterlies and doubts started to filter in a little, the main goal might not be achievable. As easterlies are impossible out there, no landings, no anchorages for vessels, the window would be tight.
Friday evening saw a small band of diverse, chilled out, yet enthusiastic group of paddlers gather in Oban on the north pier. Expectations were fuelled by ambitions of reaching this mythical land so far away. As with all expeditions finding the balance of challenge is tricky, when you complicate it with two queuing low pressure systems it made life even more uncertain.
After unloading shed loads of gear, stowing it on Dundarg and having our first beer, relaxation hit as the boat rolled happily on the pier, you would not have thought any wind was out there. An early departure was planed and sleep came fitfully as excitement grew.
Saturday morning brought gales from the north east and a swell to match. Two boats ploughed out into the teeth of it, crews and skippers alike taking the battering, we opted for the known shelter of loch Sunart and its fine wee islands and picturesque coastline. This turned out to be a sensible decision, even though the other dive boats had reached the Outer Hebrides, they were feeling very sorry for themselves. We were only five hours behind, comfortable, and had a great paddle down Sunart, exploring Oronsay and hidden cuts in the many islands.
An evening in Tobermory always goes down well, a sheltered haven it was as welcoming as ever; however minds weren’t really on the pub but the next day and conditions. Still a little to close to home to really relax, the next day would see us out beyond Harris, and then we were getting there.
An easing forecast and developing high pressure system lifted spirits and calmed our (and especially my) nerves. To reach and get through the sound of Harris seemed the best option and then we had choices of where to head, as there is so much scope up the west coast of Harris and Lewis as alternatives not just poor substitutes.
Taransay glimmered in the evening sunlight; golden beaches washed by emerald seas beckoned us ashore. We had a great time on an unusual refracting wave off a sand bar, small waves rolled over the shallow bar, and for a while provided us with entertainment and surf practice in more uncertain conditions. Landing on unspoilt beaches is always a wonderful occasion, Richard produced fine claret, nibbles and a huge grin, which spoke volumes. With uplifted spirits a sense of optimism was surging through the team, lady luck was with us.
Taransay - and the team.
Back on board we again were subjected to huge plates of wonderful home cooking but begging Liz to reduce portions sizes had no effect, we just gave in and succumbed to weight increase and a training regime once home again. Ten red sunburnt faces and the warmth of the galley conspired to a heavy sleep sensations and with the buzz of a possible run out and back to the edge of the world the evening was complete with a classic sunset.
We anchored for the night off this now famous jewel of an island. Rocked to sleep by gentle slop and role of the almost silent waves on the hull. Abruptly awaken by the thud of the generator at 0530 we set sail for St.Kilda, forty five miles away on the edge of the world lay our goal.
If the gods favoured our little red ship then we would stay there - if not we would leave and run back to shelter. Either way we were going out and the excitement grew rapidly.
Gannets indicated land, skuas eyed up our enormous lunches and the occasional puffin struggled to keep up. Thirty five miles off, we had our first sighting. Boreray always seen first, closely followed by Hirta and the stacks. Yet thirty five miles away is along time to get excited over a paddle in one of the most dramatic settings anywhere in the world and as the reality dawned that we were going to paddle there, thoughts were now moved to where and how long?
Ten foot swell trains rolled us beam on and doubt started to filter in, NE swell ran off over the horizon line, not powerful but long travelled; would it be wrapping into village bay? Would we be able to stay? Would we be able to paddle?
As we approached Boreray it was evident to that we weren’t going any where off the stacks as huge swell lines exploded in the deep caves that litter the vertical coast lines. Deceptive in scale, these waves were filling very large holes!
We could have paddled along the west side, a short “done it” paddle would have been the result, emphasising to me just how blessed we were the year before to have paddled right around. Familiarity breeds, but out there it keeps you firmly on the boat! But this ‘done it attitude’ would have not been satisfying, time is needed out here to view and soak up the sublime scenes. Village bay would offer this and possibilities of hidden calm.
Village bay was smooth with a slight wave rolling in, three other boats were anchored and radio chat confirmed our stay would be short lived. Snatching any thing out there is a bonus; to paddle beneath the cliffs and through its geo's a chance of a lifetime.
The nature of the place creates an added rush and seriousness of making the right desicions. The scale drowns out small shore waves, what looks like small slop may end up being large surging water. In Village Bay options were limited, as the north and east coast were a non starter but the shelter of the ‘remoter’ and wildest west coast would be feasible?
Access to the west coast of Hirta and Dun comes in three ways. The awesome Geo’s or the Dun Gap. These ‘saw cuts’ are like doors into another world, they bar entry to most, either by swell or by tide levels. Once through a barrier of cliff appears, grander than any other scene in Britain.
The Dun Gap
Earle Wilson in the Dun Gap
Increasing ENE swell ploughed into the bay, having paddled over and decided that the swell might not allow us back again and as it smacked through the boulders we headed off for the SE tip of Hirta through flocks of puffins, thousands of them all quizzically watching us and only escaping under water at the very last minute in comical disgust.
Rounding the point changed the atmosphere, deep troughs appeared and kayakers disappeared! A taste of this was fine, like fine whiskey you only need a small amount to be happy. 4 miles off, Boreray seemed to fall off the world, a couple of glances at each other confirmed an explore ashore for some of the team.
Whilst I, Earle and Richard paddled back over to the geo’s for another look, would they be passable? No, no way! One wrong timed wave and we would have been crushed against steep cut walls. However after deciding not to go through the Dun Gap we managed to sneak through and into a paradise of calm, clear water. Two hours of paddling and exploring the gigantic caves was enough to fuel the adrenalin and plan for the next day.
If the weather held we would be back there very early in the morning before the next front came through we, to miss this opportunity would be so unfair for the shore party.
The ubiquitous visit to the out of place ‘Puffinn’ is always obligatory, but only after a walk ashore and over the hill to watch the sunset over Soay does it feel allowed. The need to escape the intrusion of modern life is absolute; to sit quietly and soak up the atmosphere of such remote places is a privilege. The sun set gently over Soay and with it came a cold breeze from the north, fortune cut into the skin.
The most risky part of the expedition was to come, climbing the ladder. Back down in the Puffinn. we signed the roof and proudly hung up a t- shirt signed by all the crew high up above the chatting visitors. As the ladder seems to get more rickety each year, I might take one out for the bar next year.
The a crisp early morning followed with a freshening breeze out of the sea and anticipation of another trip along the west coast to Soay ran through our nervous systems. Being vessel supported we had our ride to the far side, to a calm and promised seascape. Having not been there the crew was blown away by the sheer scale of the cliffs, dumfounded by scale and drama. Having walked along the cliff tops and standing by the lover’s stone looking down only amplifies the difficulty of working out scale here and just how exposed it is, emphasised by lack of sea birds nesting.
Clarity of sound and sea’s surface reflecting the rising sun added to the contrasting pinks of the deep caves. clearer than the previous trips, inside the cauldrons were less hazy, less cold and no mist as we entered the cathedral like space, each in our own imaginations of the past and present. Insignificant here amongst the grandeur.
Exploring everything takes time, and time really does go so fast when you’re excited and ever so slightly tense. It does this to you out there, the situation is so intense, and I know no other place quite like it for atmosphere and there no other place that humbles you quite as much either.
Soay loomed beyond, but having been there before the speed of the stacks appearing shocked me. The sentinels, as last year captivated our vision. These towering gates to the other side of the archipelago, to the north and east coasts barred our passage comfortably. Two and half knots of tide and a howling NE wind hungrily waited beyond. We happily remained on the west content to watch the maelstrom beyond, from glassed waters.
Di Waddell in Saoy Sound
One of our objectives for this trip was to Coast-eer and if possible do some Cliff jumping off the mighty stacks. I have to admit it was the most awesome place I have ever jumped off a sea cliff. The tide pulling towards Soay sound combined with the rush of the waves under the stacks created a natural but unusual sense of fear! Earle and I dived off the boat and swam for the safety of the rock walls, only then did we realise the loneliness of our position.
Luckily easy egress onto the stack was found and perched 30 feet above the sea with the whole of Boreray behind just added to the sense of place, of sensation and adrenalin. Seems silly really, such a theoretically easy thing to do creating such an emotion of excitement, I am still whirling with the experience.
Slipping away from this archipelago left us wanting more, more time, more paddling, and more adventures. For such a short distance of paddling the whole experience feels so huge, the distance paling into insignificance compared to the drama of the location. John the skipper confirmed that only approximately one in five times can you even be on the west coast of Hirta let alone journey in sea kayaks or dive. I crashed out content that everyone had been and paddled and explored and smiled. I slept well as everyone was safe and well.
Above - two pics of the West Coast of Hirta
On the roof of the wheel house in the sunshine before drifting off, I caught a glimpse of James looking back to Boreray.This was, especially for him, a chance of a lifetime, having never sea kayaked before he had achieved what a lot only dream of and only a few ever will!
The second half of our journey was beginning, eight hours of steaming saw us back into the ‘Cope passage’ and heading for Loch Maddy, however the lump of weather we had been waiting for, was upon us. “The plan is there is no plan!” seemed to be the philosophy of the trip and plans change at sea rapidly, without a flexible approach disappointment could be as huge as the escape itself.
Skye beckoned and the shelter of Carbost pier. When fishing boats come in for the day and stay for the night you know you need to stay in also. Weathered faces peered from small salt encrusted windows, cigarettes in hand and the thousand mile stares of too much boozing and too little sleep spoke silent knowledge. The expressions of graft is etched on diesel covered skin, carefully we took the unwritten suggestion and explored Talisker distillery, warmed up in the pub and ate even more!
The following morning the forecast favoured a short paddle in loch Bracadale and around Wiay. This fine wee island with high cliffs and caves to venture into sheltered us for the most part from strong south west winds. In the lee summer rain bounced gently off a glassy sea, as we rounded the southern point it was a different matter, only force 4 yet shallow reefs kicked up an arwkard sea. Everyone enjoyed the chop but especially James, as it was his first paddle in conditions so rough, his eyes firmly fixed on the destination of our starting point.
The maidens took on a totally different personality from the calm of the evening before. Skye’s Cullin occasionally appeared through the mist and the fresh water burns rushed off the sea pink covered grass covered with rock rose, which contrasted against the grey sky like a Monet painting. Monet would have been confused by the changing character of light and conditions we experienced through out the week. Photos hardly do it justice, painting might capture it and the memory holds it as best it can.
Expeditions come to an end and often are emotional times. We had say farewell to folk in Oban as responsibilities and commitments beckoned. The four of us left spent Friday being blown up the north shore of Lismore at 11 kilometres an hour, a fast yet strangely calm paddle echoing the trips feel.
Unloading is always a sad period, but memories of the experience flood back masking the inevitable end to amazing adventures. It took months for it sink in last year, I hope everyone will catch glimpses every so often of their favourite moments out there.
I would like to thank Dundarg’s skipper John and crew Brain, and to Liz for fantastic food and our increased waist lines. The paddling crew for their patience, support and understanding of flexibility in such changeable conditions, I learnt allot in a gentle way on a gentle trip.
Andy Spink - 2005
(Andy also runs the Tiree Surf Gathering - here is some info for the 2005 Gathering.)