Monday, 27 June 2016

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.

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