Overnight from Orkney the weather really started to deteriorate. This shouldn’t have mattered, as our itinerary showed us heading north to calmer waters, before turning south-west on a course for the remote island of St Kilda. However, for reasons known only to himself, the ship’s captain decided to cut the corner by sailing through the Pentland Firth. For those of you who don’t know it, this is a notorious stretch of water between Orkney and the northern tip of mainland Scotland, where Atlantic and North Sea currents meet with violent consequences. It’s bad enough in flat calm conditions. We tackled it in a Force 8 gale. With no working stabilisers.
To say things got uncomfortable is an understatement. Dave and I are usually excellent sailors but the weird cork-screwing motion got to both of us. Dave succumbed to sea-sickness quite early on and even I felt queasy, and so shivery that I had to retreat to bed fully dressed. And there we lay, for hour after unpleasant hour, as the ship pitched, tossed, rolled and yawed its way west, and books, glasses and even a couple of full, 2-litre bottles of mineral water slammed around the cabin like missiles.
By the next morning we’d reached Village Bay on St Kilda and the sun had come out. There was still a wicked swell, though, and knowing that only one in four trips leads to a successful landing on the island, we were all set to be told we couldn’t go ashore. Once again, though, the captain had other ideas. He sent a tender (ship’s boat) off to check, and informed us that although there was a one-metre swell, it was possible for the fit and healthy to go ashore. There would be a regular, half-hourly tender service back and forth and we could come back to the ship at any time. Reassured, we decided to go.
We last visited St Kilda four years ago and were lucky enough to get ashore then as well, so we knew what to expect in terms of beauty but also sheer wildness. There are no permanent residents now, just a few National Trust for Scotland rangers who stay during the summer months, and the occupants of a small military base. To all intents and purposes though, there’s no food or water available, so we made sure to take a bottle of the latter with us.
Getting off the ship onto a swinging, rocking tender wasn’t easy, but we managed, and spent a wonderful couple of hours strolling around the old settlement on the main island of Hirta, in and out of the ruined cottages and ‘cleits’ (small, turf-roofed storage buildings), and amongst the birds and famous Soay sheep that dot the landscape. Finally, we trotted back to the harbour ready for the eleven thirty tender to take us back to the ship for lunch.
This is when the problems really started. We arrived to be told by the NTS member of staff on duty that the tide had gone out. So much so, it was impossible to get the tenders alongside the quay because the water wasn’t deep enough for them. ‘Half past twelve’, they said. ‘It’ll be okay by then’. So we stood around, kicking our heels, on the quayside, until half past twelve. The water had barely moved. Hardly surprising when we discovered that the 11 o’clock tender hadn’t been able to get ashore, and low water wasn’t until midday. By our reckoning, that meant at least 1 pm before conditions were suitable again.
One o’clock came and went. By now we were starting to get hungry, and a fair queue of passengers had built up, all wanting to get back to the ship. Half past one came and went, and with it good news – one of the tenders, bouncing its way from the ship. It tried, manfully, to tie up at the quayside, on a one-metre swell on a rising tide. And failed. The lack of decent fenders didn’t help, meaning that every time the helmsman got close, the boat was slamming up against the harbour wall. Nor did the old-fashioned twisted ropes, too thick to fit easily through the quay’s rings and impossible to tie once they got wet. The crew worked and worked, but didn’t seem to gel together as a team. They eventually managed to get about six passengers off, but the extra weight meant they were dangerously close to scraping the sea-bed and they had to return to the ship.
Another lengthy wait; another tender. This one couldn’t get tied up at all, in spite of the efforts of a senior officer sent over from the ship. They worked and worked, snapped two ropes, worked some more, and eventually had to give up.
By now we were starting to panic. It was about quarter to two, we’d had nothing to eat since about 7.30 in the morning, and lunch on board stops at two pm. Many of the passengers didn’t even have water, and there’s only one working toilet on the island, which was having to be shared between anything up to 200 people. And conditions weren’t improving, and there was no sign we would ever get back on board.
At this point a local tour boat came to the rescue (literally), offering its dinghy to ferry food and water from the ship. The NTS staff helped, and by just before 2pm we finally got a bottle of water, a sandwich, and a piece of fruit each. And then the second tender came back for another go, and the tide must have risen just enough to make things possible again.
It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t nice. It took six crew members to get each passenger off the quayside onto a bucking bronco of a boat, and even sitting on that we were thrown around like peas in a sack. I collided with part of the wheelhouse and bruised my arm, and we were lucky there were no worse injuries than that.
Finally they got around 50 passengers onto the boat and headed back to the ship. We made it on board at quarter past two, almost three hours late, shattered, bruised, and slightly scared. The ship’s crew had at least extended lunch for us, so we got food after all, but it was a bit nerve-wracking to realise that those same tenders, and the inexperienced crews who were working them, would have formed the ship’s lifeboats in case of an emergency. And very sobering to realise that the captain had apparently made the decision to go ashore, in poorly equipped and poorly-manned boats, without checking the local tide timetables first.
On the bright side, St Kilda was every bit as wild, beautiful and fascinating as it was four years ago. Sadly, we’ll remember our second trip to the island for very different reasons to those.