Monday, June 30, 2008

Anchors aweigh for St Kilda!

On the morning of 2nd June the day had dawned fair and Murdani, the Cuma's skipper weighed anchor for St Kilda!

Soon the low lying dunes of the Monachs were slipping over the horizon astern and only the lighthouse marked their location.

Ahead of the Cuma lay 66km of the open Atlantic Ocean before she would make landfall at St Kilda. Unlike the low lying Monach Islands we had just left, the soaring cliffs and stacks of the St Kilda archipelago form the highest and most stunning sea cliffs in the British Isles.

Even today it is one of the most difficult parts of the British Isles to reach. Although it was midsummer there was no guarantee we would get there. We knew this only too well. Almost exactly two years ago we had had to turn back. We were aboard a 70 foot converted trawler, the MV Dundarg. A force 9 storm swept in off the Atlantic, forcing us to take shelter in Loch Reasort on the west coast of Lewis. The wind was so strong, Dundarg dragged her anchor all night.

Amazingly, despite the difficulty getting there, St Kilda was inhabited for about 3,500 years, until the islanders abandoned her in the 1930's. St Kilda captures the imagination not just because of its unique location and geology but because of the indomitable human spirit of the generations of islanders that survived on her remote and windswept slopes.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mysterious Mirror of the Monachs

Long after the Monach Islands were abandoned by their inhabitants, fishermen from North Uist and other islands in the Outer Hebrides have returned to lay their lobster pots. They have built rough bothies like this one to stay temporarily on the islands.

As you can see, only the bare necessities of life make it this far. The hand of a woman is nowhere in sight.

But wait, what's that in the right corner? Why it's a full length mirror!! Every bothy should have one! I wonder what the well dressed lobster man is wearing this season?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Grimsay boats.

On the morning of 2/6/2008 we were awoken by the "put put" of a single cylinder diesel engine puttering round the turquoise waters of the Monach Islands. When we came up on deck our spirits were raised by the start of a fine day, this was the day we hoped to reach and paddle round the shores of St Kilda but at first we could not see the source of the sound.

Then a lobster boat took shape as she emerged from the burning reflection of the early morning sun. This was no ordinary GRP lobster boat. This was a Grimsay boat. The Grimsay boat is to the Outer Hebrides what the Model T Ford was to the rest of the World. These boats proved to be versatile for both transport and fishing throughout the isles. Since the 1840's it is estimated that over 1000 Grimsay boats were built by the Stewart family until their last full time builder died in 1994.

It was a joy to see this Grimsay boat being handled by Donald Brady from North Uist as he checked his lobster pots on the Monach islands. The Grimsay boats were of wooden clinker construction but with an exceptionally deep and fine keel. This allowed them to handle the Atlantic swell and surf found on the west coast of the Outer Hebrides. Due to the lack of harbours on the west coast, these boats were built in sizes of 10 to 28 feet. This allowed them to slip through tidal channels between the islands to sheltered anchorages on the east coast.

In 1928 the Grimsay yard launched the Morning Star. She was the link between the mainland of North Uist and the isolated community on the Monach Islands. She carried passengers, supplies and the mail. In recent years she had lain in disrepair in a mud berth in a creek of Loch Maddy in North Uist. She was restored and relaunched in 2007 by apprentices working at the Boatshed in Grimsay.


We had seen other other Grimsay boats in various stages of restoration at Bhaltos when we first arrived on Lewis.


Friday, June 27, 2008

Sunset over the Monach Islands

As we paddled round the remote Monach Islands, which lie to the West of the outer Hebrides, the mid summer sun began its journey to set in the far north west.

As Cuma swung gently at her anchor, we watched the sunset in appreciative silence. Like the mythical Avalon, St Kilda lay far beyond the western horizon, where the sun met the sea in blaze of crimson fire. We could only hope that the red sky at night bade well, for a settled spell of weather, to reach those long abandoned isles.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mike Thomson

My friend Mike Thomson of Scottish Paddler Supplies has died.

He became unwell while driving back to Scotland with a load of new sea kayaks. I can hardly believe what I am writing, as Mike was a larger than life character who was so full of life and seemed such a permanent part of Scottish paddling life. Who can forget his deep sonorous voice "Hello, this is Scottish Paddler Supplies" when he picked up the phone? His voice sounded like a wonderful deep and liquid sound from the back of some distant sea cave.

When I say he was my friend, I am not claiming any exclusivity, he was a warm hearted and open man who made friends with all his customers. He was most certainly not a "box shifter". He liked to get to know his customers' needs before he would sell anything. He would also lend gear to make sure it was what you really wanted. Afterwards, his customer support, if there was a problem with gear, was quite exceptional in my experience of any retail field.

He also took particular care with newcomers to sea kayaking. He would spend a great deal of time giving advice about any aspect of sea kayaking. I was a complete newcomer when I first contacted Mike and I have no doubt that his sound advice helped me safely on my way. As a result of his approachfullness, he built up a loyal band of customers not just in Scotland but in many other countries across the world.

As a retailer, he was a familiar sight with demo boats and stands at symposia such as the Skye Sea Kayaking Symposium and also shows such as the Perth Paddle Show. Of course Mike was not just a retailer, he also designed and manufactured sea kayaking accessories such as J bars for roof racks and kayak trolleys. These are made of such high quality materials that no doubt they will be dug up and puzzled over by future archaeologists! I tested a group of trolleys on the portage over the rough track from Tarbert on Jura for Ocean Paddler magazine. Mike was so pleased when only his trolley made it over unscathed. In fact, it needed to return to the summit to rescue another boat whose trolley had completely broken! I can still remember Mike's hearty chuckle as he read the article. Mike was always looking for ways to improve his designs and he asked if I had any suggestions for the trolley. He was working on a modification when we last spoke, just before he died.

Mike walks over a Coll beach towards an early Quest prototype. Photo by Ronnie Weir.

He was also involved in tests of two P&H prototypes called project X (later to resurface as the Bahiya) and project Y, one of which would be chosen as their new expedition boat. He particularly liked project Y and said it was the one for his customers. He took delivery of one of the first production models which P&H called the the "Cappela Explorer".

Mike named this individual boat "Sea Quest" but told P&H that the name "Capella Explorer" was just confusing customers because of the existing "Capella" in the range. He suggested they should change the name. The y did and the "Quest" was born! Mike's enthusiasm for this boat did much to ensure the success of the Quest and there can hardly be a Scottish beach that has not been graced by several.

He had a great sense of humour and I can still remember his deep HO HO HOs when we shared a joke. One such joke was Brace-a-Float and remarkably he was still getting enquiries about these as recently as last month!

He started his own paddling career with Fife Sea Kayak Club and over the years he had written articles about their exploits for many magazines. Recently he had written several humorous and lively articles about his trips for Ocean Paddler magazine. He hadn't taken photographs at the time but I had followed in his wake and was honoured when he asked if I could supply some photos to go with his articles.

He was also a volunteer trip organiser for the Scottish Canoe Association and in March this year had organised one of the first ever kayaking trips on Loch Katrine after it had been opened to public access for the first time.

Mike loved all aspects of the outdoors but particularly the sea (he was also a sailor). He passed his sense of respect for the sea and of looking after the countryside to all those whom he came across. He played a great role in the expansion of sea kayaking in Scotland but he was always concerned that people should start off feeling respect for the outdoors. He felt that the environment would not be harmed by growing numbers if participants shared this respect. He was not an evangelist though, he simply showed newcomers his own obvious enjoyment of the outdoors.

The world is a better place because of people like Mike Thomson and it is poorer with his passing. However, Mike helped so many people on the way to enjoying their sea kayaking adventures that his joy of life and the outdoors will live on through them for many years to come. I count myself lucky for being one who knew him.

My condolences to all those who have lost with his passing, especially his family and close friends.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Odarum rock and the wreck of the Vanstabel.

Making our way round the north end of Siolaigh in the Monach Islands, we decided to cut inside the gap between the island and the Odarum rock.

This saved a detour of over 1.5km around the reefs that extend to the NE.

Once we landed we were able to watch the swells marching through the gap which we had just traversed. This small flock of black face sheep kept close together while they circled us inquisitively.

On the shore, high above high water we noticed the rusting remains of an iron ship. She was the Vanstabel a French ship registered in Dunkirk. In 1903 she was driven onto the Odarum rock where she broke up with the loss of all her crew of 21 souls.

As we walked towards the lighthouse we came across more wreckage from the Vanstabel.

It was far from the shore and high above sea level. It is impossible to imagine the ferocity with which that Atlantic storm had dashed her asunder and thrown the pieces so far inland.

Some of her internal timbers had survived for 105 years on the Monachs.

Delicate thrift contrasted with her rusting plates and rivets. Photo Jennifer Wilcox.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Monach Lighthouse and 60 years' of pigeon shit!

Paddling round the SW coast of Siolaigh in the Monach Islands we became aware that there are actually two lighthouses.

The original light was established in 1864 after it had been built by David and Thomas Stevenson. It is a 41m red brick tower but it was switched off in WW2 and abandoned in 1948.

It was replaced by a fully automatic minor light in 1997.

It is powered by solar cells.

We found a party of NLB workmen restoring the Stevenson tower. They lived on the Orkney Islands but were spending the summer here. The old light is shortly to be reestablished as oil tankers from the North Sea are going to be rerouted from the Minch on the east side of the Outer Hebrides to pass by their west coast. Three months of hard labour were required to shovel 60 years of pigeon shit from the tower's interior. The shit bags are piled up outside the lighthouse walls.

We were lucky enough to be escorted to the top of the tower by one of the Orcadians. This is the view to the NW and we were excited to see the tops of the islands of the St Kilda archipelago 64 km distant

The view to the SE extends over the Caolas Siolaigh to Cean Iar and the distant hills of North Uist and South Uist. On the 15th November 1936 two lighthouse keepers were drowned rowing back across the Caolas from the post office in the village.

The view to the NE extends from the distant hills of Harris to the hills of North Uist.

We were very grateful to our Orcadian friend for the privilege of seeing the view from the tower. It was his 22 ascent of the tower that day! Under the green sheeting, the new light and lens were already rotating.

This post should have appeared a few years ago but for some reason I saved it as a draft and forgot! 01/06/2008

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Monach Islands

The Monach Islands are little more than low dunes that are swept over by Atlantic storms. In the distance are the mountains of South Uist.

The whole area is fringed with reefs but Siolaigh is the most western of the more substantial isles. It is dominated by a large brick built lighthouse that has been disused since the 1940s.

Cuma anchored in the lagoon on the south side of Shibhinis and Ceann Ear.

We made our way along the south side of the islands.

We crossed Caolas Siolaigh still sheltered by offshore reefs but on rounding Siolaigh we were exposed to the full strength of the Atlantic swells.

Siolaigh was covered with a carpet of thrift. On the horizon we could just see the peaks of the St Kilda archipelago.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

These are the voyages of the MV Cuma, day 2, sausage logistics.

On day two of the St Kilda trip there were force 6 to 7 E winds forecast. This would make it impossible to anchor securely in Village Bay, Hirta, which is exposed to the E. That morning a decision was taken to motor 68km to the Monach Isles (off North Uist) where a sheltered anchorage could be found and from where it was only 65 km to the NW and St Kilda!

However, the sharp eyed will have noticed a detour which was made to the west coast of Harris. The crew of the Cuma are used to supplying needy passengers with sausages. However, Murdani and his crew were completely unprepared for the gannet like breakfast demands of hungry sea kayakers. I have to confess, even I was rather surprised at the extent of the breakfast order that went in the evening before. Murdani was however, completely nonplussed. Early in the morning he phoned his son in law who proceeded to make a 262 km round trip from Uig to Stornoway then through the fastnesses between Lewis to the coast of Harris and back. The purpose of this incredible journey was to resupply the sausage needs of Cuma's hungry sea kayakers.

As Clark and Fiona F enjoyed the early morning sunshine, Murdani nudged the Cuma close inshore and launched the RIB to make a sausage rendezvous.

The sausage supply situation was resolved before we, the guests, even knew what was happening. Here, Nancy, Fiona B, Lena, Andy and Murty sit digesting their multiple breakfast sausages, somewhat unaware of the complexities of the logistics of Stornoway sausage resupply. So hospitable were our hosts, it would be unseemly of them to mention the true purpose of the visit to Harris. They just hoped we had enjoyed our view of Harris's wonderful beaches.

I think it would be fair to say that day two had started with a banger (or several)!


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Afloat on Hebridean seas

On our first morning we awoke to find that Cuma was anchored in 6 fathoms of water. The seas round Taransay are so clear that we could see right to the bottom. There had been little wind overnight and the Cuma's chain lay criss-crossed over itself on the sea bed following the path which she had drifted overnight.

Looking over the side, the water was full of slowly pulsating moon jellyfish.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Sunset surfing on the Corran Ra spit, Taransay.

Clark and Douglas at the Corran Ra wave. Photo Jennifer Wilcox.

Like many of the smaller Western Hebridean Isles such as Pabbay, the Atlantic swell wraps round both sides of the island of Taransay. Where the swells meet a sand bar is created. You can surf in on a wave then meet another wave coming in the opposite direction. Where they meet... Kapowwww! There was considerable testing of rolls, rescues and dry suits! Andy broke his paddle on a vigourous stern rudder. He made several vigourous attempts at bracing with half a paddle but ultimately enjoyed a taste of salt water. Fortunately he carried splits.

Tony on Corran Ra, Taransay

We surfed till long after sunset....

..... and returned to MV Cuma at 11pm.

Our first day's paddle had covered only 11km at Taransay. However, Tony, Jennifer and I had already covered 11km that morning in Loch Roag.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Taransay Saturday sashay.

After an excellent dinner,we embarked from the Cuma at 8 pm using her RIB as a launching platform. Photo Jennifer Wilcox.

Nancy, Clark, Fiona B, John, Murty, Alan and Andy enjoying the long summer evening light on the south coast of Taransay.

This beach on Taransay is one of my favourite viewpoints.

The mixture of white shell sand, dark grey rocks and turquoise waters backed by distant mountains of Harris makes a fine view regardless of the weather conditions.

The shifting sand dunes of Taransay reveal all sorts of ancient buildings.