Saturday, September 23, 2023

ABC 1 - Sailing to St Kilda

The first of what may be an occasional series for "ABC" the Magazine of the  parishes of Chesterton, Little Chesterton, Middleton Stoney and Wendlebury, October 2023 edition with larger and additional pictures.

Although few get there, many cruising types have St Kilda on their “Bucket List”, partly the attraction is the landscape and the wildlife including unique species, one of the world’s largest Gannet colonies and the largest colonies of Fulmars and Puffins in Great Britain, all sadly now depleted by Bird Flu.

But mainly it is the challenge of getting there. First, it is a long way, especially for those of us sailing small boats solo from the south coast; then there is the weather and the rough seas.

The Sounds of Barra and Harris are the only way through the islands. Both are torturous with strong unpredictable tides and get dangerous in stronger winds that are frequent in the area, and in such conditions the ways round to the north or south don’t bare thinking about so, with few places of shelter on the west coast, a rare period of settled weather is needed to get to St Kilda. 

The NW part of the Stanton Channel through the Sound of Harris
The route from my anchorage to the Stanton 
Channel, the route from the south east is not
as complicated.
Then there is the island itself, 40 miles further out in the Atlantic at 57 Degrees 50 minutes North, it is subject to swell that can come from the Arctic or Canada or both at the same time. This can quickly make Village Bay, the only serious anchorage, untenable as can any easterly wind. To get there you therefore need an extended period of good weather over a wide area as did the original inhabitants of St Kilda who were frequently cut off for many months at a time.

In 2021 I hoped to include St Kilda in my second solo circumnavigation of GB but reaching Stornoway under time pressure to get to a sailing event in Wales, I skipped St Kilda and still missed the event. In 2022 I made a more determined effort, it took 39 days, to reach South Uist but weather systems developing in the Atlantic could have trapped me there for weeks, so I went to Plockton on the mainland (where the TV series Hamish Macbeth was filmed) and after 3 weeks, with no prospect of improvement I gave up and got home after 89 days.

In 2023 I set off again and made better time getting to Tobermory on Mull in 32 days. Prospects looked good so on the 19th May I crossed the Sea of the Hebrides to Vatersay at the southern end of the Western Isles.

Scottish waters are always good for seeing marine mammals, but this leg was exceptional; in 58 nautical miles I had 3 sightings of Minke Whales, more than in the previous 5 years together, there were Dolphins most of the way over and at least 200 in one super pod northwest of Coll, a pod of Killer Whales [fortunately, unlike their Iberian cousins, without a taste for boat rudders], a Basking Shark and Seals as I arrived in Vatersay Bay. 

A Minke Whale, this one in the Firth of Lorn on my return, it
was a good year for seeing whales, there were also many in the
sound of Harris (pics on the blog, link below)

With a weather window possibly opening the next week I headed north to The Sound of Harris via Barra, South and North Uist. Then I was off to St Kilda.

Arriving at the Village Bay anchorage, Hirta (St Kilda).
Hirta (aka St Kilda) is the largest of four islands and several stacks in the dual World Heritage Site and the only one to be inhabited. It is around 1,300 acres, about 78% of the total area of the archipelago. Initially inhabited at least 4,000 years ago, at the peak there were up to 180 people there, by 1851 it was down to 112 and the last 36 left in 1930 largely because of repeated illnesses brought on by increased external contact. Ironically, they were resettled to work with the Scottish Forestry Commission when some would never have seen a tree.  

One of the more accessible cleitean.
Life was extremely hard, fishing was limited by the lack of a harbour, rough seas and deep water locally also farming could produce little, so the main foods were sea birds and their eggs gathered swinging from ropes on sheer sea cliffs up to 1,400ft, the highest in UK. 

Food was stored in over a 1,300 “cleitean” unique small stone storage structures that litter the steep hill sides.

Some not so accessible Cleitean . Part of the ruined village and
accommodation for the contractors manning the tracking
station for the nearby missile firing range.
The trip took 76 days and covered 1,885 nautical miles (2,173 statute) and although it was generally cold until day 58, I only lost 11 days to the weather.

2023 Taransay to St Kilda
Slide show of pictures arriving and at St Kilda.

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