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Canoe to St Kilda – and back!

We were going far too slow and at this rate we could find ourselves adrift in no mans land. Illness, sea sickness, and overheating had all taken their toll. only 20 miles done, over 20 to go and not a sight of St Kilda, just a landless, moody horizon, lost every few seconds to the swell.  A hard decision had to be made, do we turn around and head back or carry on?  I ran through the options with Katrina “What do you think Kat?”  She lifted her head off the bow and said determinedly….”Carry on”

St Kilda, a small archipelago of rugged, wind-swept islands, lies in the Atlantic Ocean, around 42 miles west of North Uist and 102 miles from the Scottish Mainland.  The last remaining occupants of the only inhabited island, Hirta, were evacuated in 1930 after living a life of extreme hardship, eking an existence through meagre farming and the collection of seabirds and their eggs.  Now owned by NTS (National Trust Scotland), the island remains a memorial to its former occupants; their houses on “Village Street” much as they were the day they left.

The seas surrounding the island are intimidating, there is usually a big swell, weather systems in Iceland and farther afield can have a major impact on the local sea state.  The crossing is remote with no escape points apart from Heskeir Island 10 miles west of Uist,  after this you are totally committed.  For us to make this crossing we would have to follow the weather patterns and wait for a stable high.

During the first few days of June, Katrina was on the River Spey paddling with friends while I was at home looking after business and keeping a close eye on the weather forecasts.  The weather was perfect on the West Coast and it looked like a blocking high pressure was going to be on the scene for a couple of weeks. I sent Katrina a text message “St Kilda is on!”

We had considered to paddle across to the Western Isles from Skye but thought that we would have more options of our start point if we were to take a ferry across to Uist.  Our basic plan was to catch a ferry across to Uist on Thursday and paddle across to St Kilda on the Friday.  Saturday would be a rest day on the island and we would paddle back to Uist on the Sunday.  This would mean 2 nights camping on St Kilda.

On Thursday morning Katrina was ill with an upset stomach, vomiting and just wanting to sleep.  As we made our journey to North Uist, we were both worried that she would not be able to paddle the following day.  However, Friday morning came and Katrina was feeling much better.  At 06.30am we set off in our 17.5ft Swift Temagami from the jetty at Giminish, surrounded by a dense swarm of midges as there was not a breath of wind despite a good F4 forecast.

Soon we could see the faint outline of the island of Heskeir in the distance, although the swell was such that it was very much a case of “now you see it, now you don’t” and Katrina was starting to feel unwell with no steady horizon to focus on.

With very little to no wind, we were three hours into our journey and we hadn’t even made it to Heskeir before Katrina was leaning over the side of the boat being sick. She was in a bad way and I assured her that she would be ok once she had got it out of her system and we carried on. Katrina was giving it all she had.  She would paddle for 10 minutes then sit with her paddle across the gunwales and her head down resting on the paddle for the next 5 minutes. This pattern continued for the next 15 miles or so.  Only later did she tell me that she had felt as though she could faint at any minute.

With 22 miles to go, I too was leaning over the side of the boat being seasick and had overheated due to paddling too hard.  I was seriously contemplating whether we should continue or turn around as our progress was really slow.  There was still no wind and the GPS showed our estimated time of arrival at St Kilda as 01:00hrs the following morning!  There was an option of going back to Heskeir camping for the night and continuing with the crossing the following day. We decided to press on.

Suddenly Katrina pointed out to sea and shouted to me “something just surfaced out there, there’s a shark or a whale or something”.  I couldn’t see anything at first, but then there it was –  a dorsal fin!  It’s amazing how the sight of a Minke Whale within 20 feet of your canoe can lift your spirits.  We watched it gracefully breach the surface another two or three times before it disappeared from sight and we continued to paddle.

After a few hours I became aware that Katrina had perked up.  She was paddling hard and continuously.  We still had no wind but with both of us paddling we had a better chance of getting there.

Out of nowhere, the wind picked up.  We had 15 miles to go and we were getting a good push.  We could still only just see the shape of St Kilda in the distance through the haze, but we had both the main sail and the mizzen up and we were able to stop paddling.  The GPS told us that we were travelling at 4 – 6 knots.  That would do!

As we got closer to St Kilda the wind got stronger and we had to drop the mizzen through risk of capsize, but we continued to sail with the main sail up until we finally reached Village Bay on the island of Hirta.  It was 9.30pm, 15 hours since we had left Griminish.

As we pulled onto the slipway, we were met by Peter, the St Kilda Ranger.  He couldn’t have been more helpful.  He helped us carry our gear to the campsite, let us use the phone to inform the coastguard of our arrival and offered us cups of tea.  There were a few other “workers” there too, who were also extremely kind and helpful, but in all honesty, we just wanted to put our tent up and go to sleep!

The next morning as we walked from the campsite to the toilet block, we were greeted by a number of people who all asked “Are you the guys who kayaked for 15 hours?” Word travels fast on St Kilda!  I didn’t like to tell them that it’s not a kayak, so we just smiled and said “Yes”.   Even the tourists who had arrived by cruise ship that morning were stopping us to ask about our journey!

As well as a few paid NTS staff, St Kilda also has a ‘working party’ made up of ‘volunteers’ who pay for the privilege of going to St Kilda for two weeks to do whatever maintenance work needs doing around the place.  They had all heard about our arrival and they even invited us to join them for a meal that evening, which we gratefully accepted.

We spent the day exploring the island, saying hello to some of the locals and avoiding being attacked by the Great Skuas (Bonksies) which I dubbed the “thugs of the sky”.

St Kilda is home to some of the largest bird colonies in the UK, including Gannets and Shearwater.  We even came across a lone Siskin which seemed almost to be tame as Katrina got the lens of her camera just inches away from it as it searched for seeds amongst the grass.

On Sunday morning we got up at 05.00am and we were back in our canoe ready for the return journey at 06.00am.  Peter and a handful of the working party had got up early to say goodbye and to wave us off as we left the island.

There was no wind to start with, and we both anticipated another long, slow, hot journey back to North Uist.

Within 5 miles or so, we were visited by a couple of porpoises who popped up to say hello as we paddled past them.  It is always good for the soul to see wildlife while at sea.

Sometime later a steady westerly wind picked up and we were able to raise the sails.  We continued to paddle sail for the majority of the journey which was far less eventful than the outward journey apart from the very welcome appearance of more porpoises and dolphins.

We landed back at the jetty at Griminish at 7.00pm, 13 hours after leaving St Kilda.  It was a relief to be back, but there were no regrets about this trip.

Katrina and I would both love to go back to St Kilda – with canoes, rather than by canoe – to explore the islands some more, but for now we are left with some great memories of an epic journey.

5 Responses
  1. Fantastic trip, only you guys would dare to go there in an open canoe, as you described, even in near perfect conditions it was clearly a physical and mental challenge. The encounters with cetaceans must have been magical, in the middle of the North Atlantic!!

    Superb.

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