Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Loch Roag and Loch Roag Beag - 16th June 2016

This was the final paddle of our St Kilda trip. We had left the Monach Islands on the wednesday evening, motoring into an increasing NE wind. We spent the night in the bay on the east side of Taransay, and then on the following day we spent a while on shore exploring this wonderful island. It was too wild to paddle, so we returned to the Cuma and carried on north, past Scarpa to anchor for the last night in the shelter of Loch Tamnabhaigh on the west coast of Lewis.

Conditions were pretty wild on the Friday morning as we completed the final leg of our trip and rounded Gallan Head and back into the calmer waters of Loch Roag. We launched the kayaks from the Cuma and explored Pabaigh Mor, entering the hidden lagoon on the northern end of the island. We comtemplated leaving the lagoon on the NE side, but wisely we opted to return down the SW side and made our way south down through Loch Roag to enter the long, thin Loch Roag Beag.

Motoring north towards Loch Roag

Pabaigh Mor lagoon
The strong wind from the north were making conditions pretty choppy, but we didn't necessarily seek shelter. We swung out into the loch to enable us to get a better downwind run into Loch Roag Beag. So we surfed our way down the loch and completed our week's adventures at the Giosla power station.

About 20km paddled. Thanks to Gordon, Rowland, Murdo and the gang for a great holiday.
Gordon Brown
Rowland Woollven
Murdo MacDonald

Skyak Adventures - http://www.skyakadventures.com/
Island Cruising - http://www.island-cruising.com/

Monach Islands - 14th June 2016

The forecast for the next few days was for strong North Easterly winds, so we reluctantly bade farewell to St. Kilda and headed east towards the Monach Islands. Situated off the west coast of North Uist and Benbecula the Monach Islands are a stark contrast to the geology of St. Kilda. Low-lying and windswept, they are made up of two main islands and then a number of skerries. Joined together by sandy beaches they create a wildlife haven for seals and numerous sea birds.

We had motored over during the night to moor up in a sandy bay on the west side of Ceann Ear. We awoke to calm but overcast conditions. The lack of wind suprised me since the boat had been rocking a lot overnight, but this was due to the atlantic swell and not the local conditions.

After the usual hearty breakfast, we launched from the Cuma and headed off on a clockwise circumnavigation of the islands. It was not long before we found a mainly submerged skerry that was creating an interesting wave break and a teasing challenge to paddle over. Gordon demonstrated the correct approach and timing - to get pretty close and then time your take-off on top of a wave avoiding being surfed on the front of the wave over the exposed rocks. As the wave washed over the rocks it provided enough depth to safely paddle over them. We all then took turns in repeating the manoeuvre, with varying degrees of success and dignity.

Photo credit: Rowland Woollven

We carried on in a similar manner, finding interesting rock features to play with until we reached the lighthouse on the small island of Siolaigh. One advantage that the Monachs have over St Kilda is that it is easy to land for a pee!... so we stopped for a comfort break and a quick snack. Care had to be taken to not step on the eggs of the nesting birds.

Resuming our paddle we were increasingly surrounded by the large number of seals that make the islands their home. Always keeping a small distance, they kept an inquisitive eye on us.

The sky brightened and cleared as we continued playing and surfing as we made our way round Ceann Iar. We stopped for lunch in the wide sheltered bay of Croic, lounging in the sun.

Photo credit: Gordon Brown
Photo credit: Gordon Brown
Setting off again, now in bright sunshine, we crossed over to Ceann Ear enjoying the wonderful sandy beaches and dunes. As we rounded the southern end of the island we turned back into an increasing wind, a sign of the conditions to come. A couple of us headed off in front to find the Cuma... but it wasn't where I thought it was! In order to save some time, Murdo had taken the Cuma round to the north side of the island ready to continue our journey back towards Harris and Lewis. Luckily Rowland had been listening on his radio and picked up a call from Murdo to say where the boat was.

So it was a bit of a slog heading into the wind in the channel between Ciann Iar and Ciann Ear and in choppy conditions we reloaded the Cuma after another great paddle.

About 20km paddled.

Monday, 27 June 2016

St Kilda: Morning paddle around Dun and departure - 13th June 2016

This was the second paddle of the St Kilda trip with Gordon Brown on the Cuma.

The day dawned bright with fairly light winds, so the prospects were for a good day. The plan for the morning was to explore Dun, the island off the southern tip of Hirta, with the two islands only separated by a small channel.

Dun seen from Hirta
This guy wasn't expecting visitors - fast asleep!
There can't be many places where you can pack so much adventurous and dramatic paddling into such a small area. The narrow island of Dun is breached by the sea in a number of places leaving spectacular through caves. Some of these are obvious arches, others are hidden requiring prior knowledge to find them or an adventurous spirit!

We practiced the protocol for how to navigate through the caves - one person goes through to check it out, if they survive and come back in one piece, we then determine if it is safe to go through one at a time! We navigated a few caves like this. One cave involved negotiating an awkward sloping roof that didn't leave much room to paddle that then opened out into a big pool. At right angles to the route in, another exit from the pool's cavern was out to the open sea on the west side. This looked far too intimidating to take on, so we reversed our route back to the calm of the east side of the island, but not before Matthew got trashed in the pool by a couple of big waves and had to roll a couple of times.

Entrance to the slanting through cave
Me negotiating the slanting cave - photo credit Gordon Brown
We carried on up the east side of Dun till we got to the large arch. The swell was making this look interesting, and a few of us paddled through it to the turbulent west side. Gordon paddled through and a couple of us then went down the west side of the island towards the gap between Dun and Hirta, the rest of the party decided not to venture through and turned around on the east side.

I'm inspecting the large arch - photo credit Bob Grose
The gap has a number of large rocks in it, and with the breaking waves pushing water through the channels it again created "interesting" conditions. Gordon led us through to show the route and I followed. Once Bob also joined us we re-grouped with the others to determine what to do next. I had a bit of a headache (and also needed a pee - a constant problem on St Kilda with no easy landings!) so I returned to the Cuma that was moored in the bay, but the others were coached by Gordon and persuaded to go through the gap and to return again which led to some excitement.

Approaching the Dun gap - photo credit Gordon Brown
Me negotiating Dun gap - photo credit Gordon Brown

Playing in the Dun gap - photo credit Gordon Brown
Tiff going through the gap - photo credit Gordon Brown
We then had lunch on the Cuma and discussed plans. The weather window was closing, and it looked as though the weather would break the following day with strong north easterly winds. Based on this forecast we all decided that we would like to spend the afternoon exploring Hirta on foot, and then we would have to leave St Kilda that evening to motor over to the more sheltered islands of the Outer Hebrides.

A pleasant few hours were spent exploring Hirta - looking at the old village and a hike up to the highest point that is a fantastic viewpoint. We experienced the plight of the Gannets when we were subject to attacks by the Great Skuas (Bonxies).

One of the unique St Kilda storage Cleats
Boreray from Hirta - the route paddled the previous day
Bonxie attacks!
Soay in the distance
Dun in the distance
Restored village houses
We left St Kilda by a small detour around the west side of Hirta to enable us to get a view of the spectacular west coast. We motored up through the channel between Soay and Hirta and were treated to a wildlife spectacular of birds, a basking shark and a minke whale. It was sad to leave St Kilda after such a short stay, but we managed to pack a lot in and maybe I'll be back one day.

St Kilda: Hirta to Boreray - 12th June 2016

First paddle of a trip out to St Kilda, a remote archipelago 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. This was a guided trip organised through Gordon Brown and Skyak Adventures on board the Cuma.

Five of us met up on the Saturday morning to travel with Gordon and the other guide Rowland Woollven across Skye and onto the Uig to Tarbet ferry. After the early start it was nice to avail ourselves of the Calmac restaurant and tuck into a traditional Scottish breakfast.

Once on Harris, we drove the van north up to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis to meet another paddler who was arriving as a foot passenger on the Ullapool ferry. We visited the Stornoway Co-op to stock up on last minute necessities... which mainly consisted of various cheeses and alcohol.

We then drove over to the west coast of Lewis to meet the rest of the group and to board our home for the next six nights, the motor vessel Cuma. The Cuma is a converted trawler that has bunks and catering facilities for 12 plus crew. The boat is skippered by Murdo MacDonald who has many years experience fishing the waters off the west coast of the Outer Hebrides, and on this trip his crew consisted of Michaela and Amy who organised the catering.

Up until this time, the weather in north west Scotland had been fantastic for the last three weeks, however it was now starting to break down and it looked as though reasonable weather was only going to hold on for a few more days and then strong winds from the north and east were due to set in. Based on this forecast, the plan was to load up as soon as possible and motor out to St Kilda that evening.

So around 5pm we set off from Miavaig and motored out of Loch Roag, past Gallan Head and set course for St Kilda. There was a moderate wind and some swell, so the boat was rolling a fair bit on the crossing. I started off admiring the scenery and the wonderful birdlife but gradually I was feeling more queezy, so retired to the comfort of lying down on a bench. Around 10:30 I was rudely awakened by my excited companions as the stacks and cliffs of St Kilda suddenly appeared, their tops truncated by low cloud and an eerie atmosphere in the dusky light. I took a quick glance, groaned and rolled over back to lie down. Not exactly the most exciting first view of these islands!

We carried on round at anchored in Village Bay and around 11:30 dinner was served. Apparently I was looking rather green, so wisely I declined dinner and went straight to bed.

I awoke the following morning feeling fine, and everyone was up early and enjoying the view as the day dawned much brighter and we got our first proper view of the main island of Hirta. The only decent anchorage in the whole island chain is in Village Bay that is relatively sheltered facing south east. In the bay the abandoned village has been taken over by volunteers that monitor the wildlife and the military personnel that operate the small base.

With the relatively settled weather, the plan for the day was to paddle out of Village Bay and then make the 7km crossing over to Boreray and its impressive sea stacks. We launched the kayaks from the Cuma - a process that takes a bit of time lowering them into the water alongside the Cuma's inflatable tender that is moored alongside. The paddler gets into the tender, then into their boat. This took about 45 minutes the first time we did it, but this improved as the week went on and we got used to the routine.

Once we left Village Bay and around the south eastern tip of Hirta, we caught our first sight of Boreray in the distance. The crossing wasn't too difficult - mild swell, with a small chop, but as you approach Boreray you forget the paddling and are just awestruck with dramatic scenery and the increasing density of Gannets heading to and from the colony on Stac Lee. This is the largest Gannet colony in Europe that also attracts a rather nasty bully in the form of the Great Skua.

You can't but feel sorry for the Gannets that get picked on by gangs of Skuas - the Gannets have been roaming for many miles fishing and keeping the food in their stomachs to regurgitate for their chicks. Just as they near their nest a gang of maybe four or five Skuas attack a Gannet and force it to regurgitate its food for their consumption. The poor Gannet then sits on the sea looking forlorn.

We circumnavigated Boreray anticlockwise, passing under enormous cliffs that disappeared into a cloud cap that had formed on the island. We paddled around Stac an Armin and then in the lee of the cliffs on the west side of Boreray we made a rendezvous with the Cuma for lunch - how civilised! With no anchorage, the Cuma was put in a slow circle as we re-boarded and left the kayaks tied up on the tender.

After lunch we explored some of the caves on the west side of Boreray and played in some of the rock features. The swell made some passages interesting, requiring correct timing to negotiate small gaps or to cover ledges. Gordon gave plenty of opportunity for people to get into trouble after he made it look so easy himself. Luckily I didn't get into any awkward situations (unlike some).

We paddled around Stac Lee with the constant company of thousands of Gannets circling overhead. Other birds also nest on Boreray, so there were also many Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars and to a lesser extent Puffins.

We then plotted a course back to Hirta and the return crossing was a bit calmer. We headed for Mina Stac and then paddled west, exploring more caves. A strange wailing noise came from some of the caves and it was accompanied by a pungent odour. These caves were the ones with small beaches or ledges in the back of them and were the home of the island's small seal population, and it was the pups calling out that we could hear.

Carrying on we had another rendezvous with the Cuma in Glen Bay. A few decided to catch a lift back with the Cuma to Village Bay, but for those of us who still hadn't had enough paddled back round the east side back into Village Bay.

We landed by the pier with the plan to leave the kayaks up on the pier to save the hassle of loading and unloading them from the boat. It was strange to walk on solid ground again. Murdo came and picked us up in the tender to take us back to the Cuma and another hearty dinner.

Approximately 30km distance.