Venture Cruises To Iceland - Part Four
Today was the day we were leaving for the legendary St. Kilda. The weather gods had smiled on us and provided a window, which - if the forecasts were correct - would allow us to anchor for a couple of nights in Village Bay.
We were underway by 06:00. The sky was overcast and there were showers but it was the strength and direction of the wind which was most important to us. We first had to go a few miles north from our anchorage in Loch Maddy on the island of North Uist before turning west through the Sound of Harris. There were a number of islets and skerries in the Sound but the passage was well marked. We passed the small town of Leverburgh on South Harris but there are no amenities for yachts. Overhead the skies looked quite ominous with dark clouds and heavy rain showers.
As soon as we were into the Sound the speed of the current picked up - fortunately it was in our favour - but this meant it was in opposition to the swells coming from the Atlantic. The next major landmass to the west was Labrador so they had a pretty good fetch. We cleared the sound at 08:45 and, out in the Atlantic, the wind gusted to 25 knots and, being from the west, was pretty well on the nose . The seas were three to four feet and confused but Venture handled them well. The 40-mile passage to St. Kilda took us four hours and we were overtaken along the way by a couple of bright red charter boats taking visitors to the islands. One of them, Orca II - operated by Kilda Cruises - is purpose-built especially for this run. Despite limited visibility we spotted the main island of Hirta when still ten miles away. We pulled into Village Bay just after one o'clock. Being sheltered from the wind, the bay was blissfully calm with just a slight ground swell.
The old village houses, built of rough natural stone, blended into the landscape. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the structures built since the villagers left and it seems that very little thought had been given to the placing or design of the later buildings. It is quite a challenge to take photos without getting some alien structure or a bright blue container in the picture.
There was a small stone jetty with stone steps where passengers can be landed but it is not suitable for leaving a tender especially as the steps needed to be left accessible for other boats. It was spitting with rain and conditions were not ideal for photography so I ran Chris and Christine ashore and returned to VENTURE to catch up on some writing.
During the night the wind dropped completely which allowed the boat to swing around parallel to the swells so it was a little uncomfortable.
There is no space here to go into the story of St Kilda in any detail but it has a fascinating history. It is believed that the islands have been inhabited for around 4,000 years and it was only as recently as 1930 that the remaining islanders were evacuated at their own request. Their whole way of life revolved around the millions of birds that breed on the islands and sea stacks that comprise the St. Kilda group. This involved perilous climbs up and down the precipitous cliffs to collect huge numbers of birds and eggs. Almost nothing in the way of sustenance was taken directly from the sea itself. The island group represented the entire world for its inhabitants for thousands of years and it was only when they started to interact with the outside, in even the most tenuous manner, that their way of life began to unravel.
The slopes and fields which surround Village Bay like an amphitheatre are a rich green which is reflected by the clear water so it seems almost as if you are viewing the scene through a green filter. From the village side the hills appeared to be rounded, but in fact they have no backs to them and plummet sheer into the sea. It was overcast but otherwise fine when Chris ferried Christine and myself ashore at 08:30 the following morning. We were met at the top of the slipway by the Warden who had only arrived the previous day. He was here for just one week. A couple of years ago he had spent six months on the island which is the normal period of service. They have not been able to find anyone to stay for an extended period this year. He was very helpful and offered to lend us a map.
There are sheep everywhere and you have to be careful where you are stepping. These are a very ancient breed of Soay sheep that come in a variety of colours including brown, and they are left to take care of themselves. Many were shedding their winter coats and looked woefully disheveled with great masses of tangled wool falling off by itself.
Christine and I walked through the village and over the first ridge where there is a cluster of ancient stone enclosures. From here we could see a diminutive VENTURE swinging at her anchor in the distant bay. We continued hiking to the top of the saddle between the mountains of Conachair and Oiseval. On the way up, Christine was dive bombed by a skua and I found the boggy ground and tussock grass quite hard going: but the climb was well worth the effort. When we reached the ridgeline the land dropped vertically into the sea about 700ft below while fulmars wheeled overhead. We lay on our stomachs peering over the edge of the cliff and watched the waves explode against the jagged rocks far below. The air was filled with noise of the surf and the cries of a thousand birds. Nesting fulmars were tucked into every nook and cranny on the jagged cliffs. Amazingly, there were a few of the brown Soay sheep grazing on seemingly inaccessible ledges partway down the cliff. How they got there and back without tumbling to their destruction is a mystery - although there are plenty of tales about sheep being blown over the edge in the frequent gales. In the distance, we could see the rocky spires of Boreray and the intervening sea appeared to be a lot calmer than yesterday. It was hard to tear ourselves away from this amazing scene but a light drizzle generated by the wind passing over Conachair encouraged us to seek shelter.
As we descended from the ridge we marveled at the number of stone storage structures, called cleits, which dotted the hillsides. These were used to store harvested birds and eggs and can be seen all over the island from remote hilltops to within the village itself. According to the guidebook there are 1260 of them and they vary in condition from as good as new ('new' being a relative term) to just piles of stones.
After lunch the weather greatly improved and we decided to take advantage of the conditions to cruise VENTURE around the archipelago. We started by going around the southwestern side of Hirta to get a seaward view of the cliffs we had peered down from in the morning. At 430 metres (1,400 ft) the cliffs of Conachair are the highest in the British isles and present an awe-inspiring sight.
We passed the island of Soay where the islanders kept sheep and across the four miles to the precipitous crags of Boreray and the adjacent stacks of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin which collectively provide the worlds largest breeding colony of gannets. The huge crags soared skywards with every ledge and crevice white, not just with guano, but with millions of individual birds. The conditions were perfect and it was an amazing spectacle.
We returned to the anchorage in Village Bay for a rather restless night as the wind began to increase with gusts to 30 knots. In the morning, a look at the horizon through binoculars showed it to be a very bumpy line indicated that the smooth conditions we had encountered yesterday had gone and we could expect rough seas for our return journey to the Outer Hebrides. A couple of sailing yachts had come into the anchorage since we had arrived and one was preparing to get underway as we raised the anchor and said farewell to this isolated and historic island.
The strong northerly wind was on the beam for the return journey which, with stabilizers, meant that we had a comfortable ride even though the seas were 3 to 6 ft. Stabilizers are much more effective when the waves are on the beam.
We reached the Sound of Harris around lunchtime and the seas immediately calmed but increased to a short chop when we turned north into the Little Minch with the wind still 25 knots from north. It was a beautiful sunny day with puffy white clouds. We turned into East Loch Tarbert and, after a couple of failed attempts at anchoring in various spots due to a rocky bottom, finally got the anchor to hold in a beautiful little bay - quiet and peaceful but no amenities, of course, and no way of getting ashore.
We awoke to another beautiful morning with not a cloud in the sky. Very slight wind and much warmer than of late. What a contrast to yesterday!
The cruising guide had not been very encouraging about being able to find a suitable place to leave the boat in Stornoway, which would allow us to make day trips around this most northerly island in the Outer Hebrides. As soon as we had cell phone coverage, we called the harbour master who told us that it should be no problem to accommodate us. We had smooth cruise in almost flat water with Isle of Lewis to port and distant mainland mountains as a faint silhouette to starboard. The Lewis landscape was relatively flat and completely treeless but interesting cliffs dropped sheer into the sea.
We arrived in Stornoway at 1300 and were directed to tie up alongside a fixed pier, which meant we would rise and fall with the 10-foot tide. We deployed our fender boards for the first time and the harbour shore crew, dressed in bright orange jump suits, were very helpful. One told me that the cargo freighter moored across from us rolled so badly in a seaway that it spent most of her time in port and had been christened "The Olympic Flame" because she never went out!
Chris and Christine went to the Harbour Master's office to check if there was anywhere to tie up where we wouldn't have to keep tending the lines with the tide. They returned with the welcome news that we could move to a floating pontoon intended for landing cruise ship passengers but we would have to be off the pontoon on Friday when the next ship was due. Today being Monday this suited us admirably and we immediately moved the boat to the new location right across from the car ferry pier.
Over the next few days we were able to rent a car and drive over the entire island, the northern two thirds of which is called Lewis while the southern third is called Harris.
We saw stunning beaches with miles of dazzling white sand lapped by water of iridescent blues and greens, which you would swear were tropical if not for the temperature. We visited the Callanish Standing Stones which date from 3,000 BC, making them more ancient than Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids. Parts of the landscape - especially in the south - encompassed huge mountains and small isolated communities linked by a winding single-track road that went by the name of The Golden Road due to its construction cost. Other areas further north were relatively flat where the abiding impression was of bare, rocky landscape interspersed with peat bogs and numerous tarns or lochans. Trees were very few and far between and usually only around villages or individual sheltered houses. The land comes to an abrupt end at the Butt of Lewis where there is an impressively tall lighthouse. Except for the remote island of North Rona and an isolated sea stack there is nothing between here and the Faroes, which will be our next destination.