Sunday, 10 August 2014

Voyage to St Kilda

Between Autumn 2005 and Autumn 2007 I took up sea kayaking and did a reasonable amount during that time, enough to get the star awards necessary to compete in the Hebridean Challenge “The Heb” adventure race, however the kayaking distances were so large in this race that we opted to get a “real” kayaker for our team. In hindsight that was a good decision. After 2007 I gave up kayaking due to severe tendonitis in both elbows which completely removed all pleasure from the sport. The problem was particularly pronounced after kayaking in strong winds or tides and although strapping both elbows heavily and taking horse sized doses of anti-inflammatories seemed to help a bit i concluded that despite loving it, kayaking was not the sport for me, after all my typical runners build and typical runners lack of arm and core body strength was always going to be a handicap. Ever so often though i would get a hankering to try again and in the last 7 years my kayaking total was 6 days. Not a great average really.

Fast forward 7 years and there I was paddling around St Kilda.

I like this boat...I wonder if Gordon will let me keep it...
On my first meeting with the legendary Gordon Brown of Skyak in 2013 I had explained my kayaking woes. He asked me what type of kayak and paddle i had been using, looked me up and down and simply said “wrong paddle” and “that boat is too big for you” and handed me various appropriate (Louise sized) bits of kit. On that trip last June I had no problems at all with my elbows but I was aware that the glorious weather conditions were quite unusual and that this was possibly not the best test. A year on I had another trip with Gordon, this time in another small boat but with the same paddle and all was well. Good thing too as somewhere along the line I seemed to have managed to sign up for a kayaking trip to St Kilda. I wasn’t quite sure how to break the news to Simon though… “Darling, im treating you to a luxury cruise”…

Home for the week was the MV Cuma

After crossing the finish line of the Harris half marathon we sped off to Miavaig to meet the boat which was to be home for the week. The MV Cuma was formerly a research boat and its crew of Skipper Murdo, Cathy (creator of fabulous meals) and Michaela (photographer extrordinaire) were superb and we really couldn’t have wanted for anything. On first sight of the boat I was a little concerned as to how we would all fit in but at no point did it feel crowded and the cabins were lovely and snug. The food was fantastic, tasty and plentiful from a cooked breakfast, packed lunch, tea and cakes on finishing the days paddling to a fantastic home cooked dinner…and the best bit…pudding!
Angus and Gordon getting the tarpaulin rain shelter up...
Post kayaking tea and cakes!
Dividing up the left over pudding was serious business
Say Cheese
Route planning
Lindsay preparing to be "launched"
It was a bit wet
In fact it was VERY wet...

The plan was to sail down the coast of Lewis and stay overnight near the island of Scarp before heading out to St Kilda the following morning but it was not to be and the sail down the coast of Lewis was a taster of what was to come (and not just metaphorically) as I was the first to start throwing up over the side. The weather meant that we were to stay in Loch Resort overnight. I would like to say that the next morning dawned fair and clear…but it didn’t so the crossing to St Kilda was not going to happen today. Instead we got into the kayaks and headed into Loch resort and then towards Scarp. It was in pretty wet and windy conditions that we paddled that day and I was intensely nervous of the conditions, terrified that my elbows would flare up even before we got to St Kilda and that would be the end of my kayaking that week, particularly at the point at which the wind started to push me backwards. When I say tendonitis, I don’t mean that my elbows used to get a bit sore, I mean it was at the point that I had to ask for help in taking putting on clothes and taking them off. Today was to be a real test and although cutting the trip short by about 1/2km I survived the test and, happily, so did my elbows

I was particularly proud of kayaking through a relatively narrow gap between the shore and a big rock where there was very rough water although I did have an instant fleeting thought that Gordon had gone insane when he told me to paddle through it. However Gordon is the type of person who can make you believe that you can do anything so I was even more proud when it became apparent that the main group following on behind had avoided paddling through the gap. Ok ok, it was probably my only impressive kayaking feat of the entire week but, hey, it’s got mileage. 

I paddled through the rough bit!!

It was quickly apparent to be that I was by far the weakest paddler on the trip and this was a source of concern but fortunately the trip was set up so that you could do as much or as little paddling as you were comfortable with and so it meant that I didn’t hold proceedings up…well, not too much anyway. Although Simon has less kayaking experience than I have he was able to make up for that with sheer strength from years of gym work and weights and determination (despite his amazing ability to fall in every so often, especially in flat calm water)
Over the course of the next few days I was to become increasingly grateful to my “minders” Richard and Les whose quiet advice was invaluable and who managed to impart that advice without making me feel like an idiot. Les certainly had his work cut out looking after both me and Simon. During the week I took the time to study the kayaking styles and skills of the various group members. Both Gordon and Ali looked as though they had been born in kayak, they paddled with an ease and confidence that looked so natural. Tania looked also looked impressive with a textbook perfect stroke obviously developed through a lot of practice.

Another thing that quickly became apparent was that everyone else had pretty decent kit and their own kayaks, especially drysuits. I got wet during that first day and by lunchtime I was both wet and cold and so I was immensely grateful to Tania who kindly lent me her spare drysuit top for the rest of the trip. Just this one item of kit made everything so much easier as being cold and wet all day is pretty exhausting. Thanks Tania!  Every kayaking trip I have ever done has left me at the mercy of using borrowed kit including one particularly memorable trip in Wales where the kayak was the size of a bath tub and another where the drysuit was so large it didn't actually seal at the wrists of the neck. At least with Gordon I knew that the kit that I borrowed would be appropriate for me.

Next day was the 6 hour chunder fest that was the crossing to St Kilda. Was I ill or what... Usually I am fairly ok with boats but this time I really did suffer and sadly I wasn’t the only one. In fact it got so grim fellow suffer Ali and I were giving each other high fives every time we threw up. Even the native basking sharks found in these waters were re-christened “barfing sharks”. Important lesson learned for someone with long hair - always carry a hair bobble with you on voyages otherwise you spend the evening picking diced carrot out of your hair. It’s not a good look. I was frozen to the spot at the back of the boat, so much so I had to hand my camera over to Angus who kindly took some photos and film for me as I was completely incapable by this point.
Ominous dark clouds

Crossing to St Kilda from the mainland is one of the iconic sea kayak expeditions but personally right then I really wasn’t finding the idea of that an attractive day out. Each to their own.
Location of St Kilda (c
Eyes fixed on the horizon
First sight of St Kilda
The Approach past Boreray and the Stacs

I suggested to him that the weather was character building...
Sunset over Village Bay
Eventually we made it to St Kilda. Unlike last year’s crossing where we made a beeline for village Bay, Murdo took us to Boreray and the stacs before heading to Hirta.  These islands were incredibly atmospheric under the brooding grey skies, the best imaginable approach to St Kilda. It is one of the most stunning places on the planet. I wrote about St Kilda last year when i went there (
 but staying on a boat moored in the harbour means that you wake up in village bay and get to witness the sunrise over the hillsides, and the shadows fall in the evening, though at that time of year it is never properly dark. It also meant that I could go for a run on the island, and I bet not a lot of people can say that.
Me on the skyline. Believe it or not i managed to overshoot the cleit. Yes, that one. Yes, it is obvious isnt it....
 Unfortunately I managed to make a mess of my route finding and so I didn’t manage the Chimney run up the very steep gulley to the cleit on the skyline and in my panic to find the right cleat I disturbed several nesting skuas. For those who don’t know skuas are basically gigantic brown sea gulls with attitude. Their method of attack is to fly straight at your head with legs out stretched so that all you see is a very large pair of webbed feet coming straight at your eyeballs. More than once I found myself spread eagled in fits of giggles on the hillside having dived out of the way of an attack. I was furious with myself for screwing up what from the harbour looked like a bloody obvious route but on the plus side it means a third trip to St Kilda is on the cards…ssshhh, don’t tell Simon!
Caves are for exploring...

If I was to do one kayaking trip when I was there it had to be the crossing between the two groups of islands, this had caught my imagination in a big way. These islands are all part of the same volcano crater which was flooded some 18000 years ago leaving only the high rocky outcrops visible today. The first group contains Hirta or main island, Soay and Dun and the second group some 5 miles away contains Boreray, Stac Lee and Stac an Armin (there is also one outlier, Levenish, some 3 miles east of Hirta which only Richard and Les tackled)
St Kilda - we kayaked between the groups of Islands (c Google Earth)
We set off from Village Bay and set of along the coast of Hirta before re-grouping then heading directly NE towards Boreray. It dawned on me that I was actually paddling in the Atlantic Ocean which was some thought. Better make sure I don’t lose sight of the group or goodness knows where I’ll end up! Just as I was feeling very smug about my ocean paddling I looked across at Richard who, clearly finding my paddling speed a bit pedestrian, was taking the opportunity to do some fishing en route.Talk about deflating!
Richard catching our tea
These were made into an amazing fish pie by Cathy
 As we neared the islands we were greeted by the sight and sound of many thousands of sea birds on the stacs, on the water in front of us and circling as if in a mad dance above us. It is worth mentioning at this point that wearing a hat is a good idea otherwise that dreaded sound of “Kerplunk…splatter, splatter, splatter” really does get a bit close to home. These critters have a remarkably accurate aim.
Getting up close to a Gannet

It was not without a sense of trepidation that I set off

Look who we met near Boreray!

Boreray is a very intimidating looking island

We kayaked alongside the forbidding cliffs of the island of Boreray whose cliffs and summits create its own weather system and is frequently shrouded in mist, but today it was perfectly clear. We kayaked around Stac an Armin and found a blowhole which provided enormous entertainment. While the others were playing in the blowhole I took some time to sit back and really take in my surroundings, and where we were. It was truly stunning. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is but there is something almost, well, prehistoric about it. Those gannets could just as easily have been pterodactyls.

Puffins bobbing around

There is only one landing spot in Boreray (but even then, only in certain weather and sea conditions and there's one hell of a climb up a rock face to get on the island) and some of the more experienced kayakers took turns in rock hopping over it. Richard and Gordon managed to execute perfect manoeuvres but both Edith and Dave came to grief although Dave did manage to “land” his kayak on Boreray so I guess not many people can say that…although he stayed upright for all of about 5 seconds. As Edith is a very good kayaker I was very glad that I had politely declined Gordon’s suggestion that I have a go. Actually I don’t think I was that polite.

After watching the puffins bobbing about on the water and watching the others explore some caves it was time to head home. Gordon and I had paddled on ahead while others did more exploring. I was thinking that the sea here was surprisingly benign until Gordon pointed out a ship in the distance. This ship had a tall mast and Gordon told me to watch it, which I did. All of a sudden the ship and all but the top of the mast disappeared from view. That was all the explanation that I needed regarding the amount of swell on the ocean that day!
Simon, true to form, didn’t like the idea of me getting back to the boat first and paddled like mad to catch me up earning himself the new nickname of the “Duracell bunny” in the process. Rather apt, I thought. By the time we had reached village bay after the longest paddling trip I have managed to date my arms had ceased to function but I was so happy that this was through tiredness and not injury. My longest day out on the water ever and my elbows did not hurt at all.

It was great to meet fellow HBT member Nixon out in his kayak here too. Nixon had been the “real” kayaker for the team in both of the years that I had done “The Heb” and he was talking about kayaking back to Harris from St Kilda. I’ve yet to hear if he managed this although the second time I spotted him that week he was dancing a highland fling on top of a boat.

It was weird but for some reason the sense of isolation didn’t feel quite so pronounced this time. Maybe it was because we were in a large lively group for a week. Both of us had concerns over this to start with as neither of us are really the sociable sort but the group were great, it was such a fun week and in particular the group meal times were a real laugh.
Lindsay's first aid kit caused much amusement...
Although we both had reservations about the “dares” and “forfeits” (I’m not a great fan of “organised fun”) there was not too much of that so as to detract from the trip and there was plenty of opportunity to opt in and out of any group activities should you want to.
Maybe the feeling of not being so isolated was because we met someone we knew from the same running club on another boat with a similar itinerary to ours, (it’s a small world etc etc..) or maybe it was because being moored in Village Bay gave me the chance to see boats and visitors coming and going and it actually seemed to be a busy little place. At one point a helicopter even arrived, rumour suggesting that it was transporting the Queens baton for this stage of the pre-Commonwealth Games relay, I’ve no idea if this was true though. The flurry of activity on the island was no doubt partly due to the fantastic weather creating a bit of a false illusion.  I’m sure the visitors don’t appear quite so readily when the boats can’t sail to St Kilda in bad weather and the isolation is far more obvious, especially through the winter months. If we had been in Village Bay on the Sunday or Monday of that week I’m sure I would have felt differently.

Because the conditions were so favourable for kayaking we only managed a couple of hours on the island and so it means there are still areas of the island that I haven’t seen…maybe there’s a third trip to St Kilda on the cards…shhhh, don’t tell Simon!  Last year we climbed the gap and watched the sea birds from there so this year Simon and I took the opportunity to go round to the summit of Ruaival which turned out to be the perfect viewpoint over Dun and the sheer cliffs on the south of the island. On the way back we were able to watch Murdo and Michaela in the dingy following a large basking (barfing?) shark around the bay.

It was clear enough to sea the hills of Uist and Harris beyond Levenish
The birdlife is the reason for going to St Kilda and the list of species here is extensive – a few stars to spot are below (all of these pictures are from wikipedia as my attempts were a little blurry!) The bird populations survived the annual massacres and continue to populate the cliffs and Stacs today, it is the people who are no longer resident on the island. Sadly though legend has it that the last Great Auk ever to have lived was killed by the St Kildans and this species went the way of the Dodo.
Great Skua







One of the most impressive sights which all had us scrambling for our cameras was the way in which the Skuas attack gannets to steal their catches of food, battering the gannets down into the water. Skuas really are the bullies of St Kilda!

Skuas attacking a Gannet

And again...

Happily the journey back to Lewis from St Kilda was flat calm so much so we were even able to have dinner during the voyage as well as a few wee drinks out on deck. The flat calm water meant that we were able to spot a Minke whale – the best way ever to end a holiday in the Hebrides.
Minke Whale
 The nice thing about being able to both kayak during the week as well as travel around the islands on the MV Cuma was that you get two completely different perspectives, for instance although I had paddled around the coast of Hirta only 2 days earlier when I viewed the very same cliffs from the MV Cuma it seemed unrecognisably different. From the Cuma I could see Soay sheep balanced precariously on the treacherously steep slopes above the cliffs and the prehistoric settlement of Glen Bay which predates the settlement at village bay by a millennia. If I’d tried to look up at the cliffs from the kayak I would have got severe neck strain (and probably have fallen out of my kayak). From a kayak you see the detail whereas from the boat you see the overall picture.
On board the MV Cuma

We left St Kilda on a stunning day

Into the distance
This was an incredible trip with some amazing people and I would love to go back and do more kayaking around St Kilda, my only reservation would be that we are unlikely to be able to replicate those fantastic conditions, how lucky and privileged are we? 

Gin and tonics on deck!

The role of honour
Until he recovered he was a lousy dinner date...
I would also like to be much fitter and more skilled for kayaking so that I can do far more in terms of exploring close to the rock faces without worrying. At times I was so furious with myself almost to the point of tears at being so rubbish but I had to accept that Simon and I were not experienced to the degree that the others were although Simon was certainly able to “wing it” a lot better than I was. At times I could sense Simon’s frustration, he was obviously wanting to go and explore more caves as was I but he was hanging back, staying well clear of the cliff faces, for fear that his kayaking skills would let him down. Although it was tough at the time I can’t say I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for and looking back now I think on balance Simon and I didn’t do too badly overall. I did as much as I felt I could without hindering others on the trip and I count myself extremely lucky that I have the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business. Most importantly for me is that I seem now to be able to be tendonitis free when I kayak through using a smaller boat and specific type of paddle and some top notch coaching so this trip has whetted my appetite, more kayak courses have been booked and I’ve been looking at other potential kayaking adventures and the best places all seem to be very cold northern ones, Alaska, Canada and Greenland for example. Suffice to say I have the obtained a brochure for kayaking drysuits, AND theres a nice shop in Oban that sells kayaks but… sshhh, don’t tell Simon!!
The Master
And his apprentice.

No comments:

Post a Comment