North Uist to St Kilda, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.
In the early 1990s my father gave me a book about St Kilda. (The archipelago of St Kilda is situated approximately 70km west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, out in the Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Scotland and is the most remote part of the British Isles.)
After reading the amazing story of the island; how a tiny population, (just over 100 people at its’ peak, to less than 40 at its’ lowest count), had lived there for over 1,000 years, how they had made their living by clambering around some of the UKs’ highest sea cliffs hunting birds, and were eventually evacuated in 1930, I decided this was somewhere I had to visit.
In 2009, along with Patrick Winterton, I had hoped to kayak to St Kilda, but the weather was against us – see Sea Kayaking – Western Isles
Then in 2014 I bought my first stand up paddle-board, (SUP), and whilst planning other SUP adventures, St Kilda came back to mind.
In 2016, Patrick and I started to discuss the St Kilda option and began making plans.
At 5pm on the 3rd of July, 2017, we launched our crafts, (me on my inflatable 14’ Red Paddle Race SUP and Patrick in his large Tiderace Xplore sea kayak) and paddled out from a small fishing boat quay at Griminish, on North Uist.
Within 30 minutes of leaving Griminish we were hitting waves of between 10 and 12 feet high, forcing me to kneel down on my board. (I spend at least 95% of my SUP time on lochs and lakes, so I’m not that used to big waves.) Although the Race is an awesome piece of kit, in this sort of water, and with my limited sea skills, there was no way that I could even think about standing up on this 26” wide paddleboard.
As I would crest a wave, I would spot Patrick in his massive sea kayak leaving the trough in front of me and start climbing up the next wave. As I hit the bottom of my trough, Patrick would be over the next wave and out of sight.
Fortunately the sun was still high enough to see over the waves, so Patrick told me to keep a bearing of 5 degrees to the right of the sun. I may be registered blind, but I still can see the sun.
(Somebody once asked me about my sight. He asked if I could see the sun. When I told him I could, he said “well how much farther do you want to see!”)
We paddled like this for the next 2 hours until we got close to Haskeir. This was to be our overnight stopping place, and this was where my disability really came to be a problem.
As we arrived at Haskeir, Patrick was in front of me. As the sun was now behind the island, the high rocks cast a shadow on to the water and I soon lost sight of Patrick. Now, with the sound of the waves crashing like thunder against the rocks and Patrick no longer in sight, I started to get a tad anxious. Patrick had already told me that landing on Haskeir would not be easy, and with this running through my head my anxiety began to build.
I called for Patrick and got a location on his voice. He told me to wait where I was while he went to search out a possible landing spot.
As the sun was now behind Haskeir I couldn’t see a thing, add that to the sound of crashing waves, and now the feeling of being totally alone, things began to build.
Eventually Patrick returned and told me to follow him. As I couldn’t see him, this wasn’t very easy, and on several occasions I had to shout for his location.
Patrick led me into a tiny, slightly sheltered gap in the rocks and told me that the only way on to Haskeir, would be for me to step off my board, onto his kayak, then climb up the cliff next to his boat. It was only 5 or 6 foot so wasn’t too bad. Once up there I was to try and help Patrick get out of his kayak, where we then unloaded the kit and lifted the 2 craft up on to the rocks. As we did this, the local residents, (Fulmars and Puffins), were swooping down around us, calling to each other. Between the sound of the birds and the crashing waves, I couldn’t hear very much at all.
From here, Patrick led me up to a flat section of rock, where I could get changed out of my wet kit and into some warm dry clothes. Due to us being in the shade of the cliffs, I was pretty much blind and any independence I had had on the water was completely gone.
For the next couple of hours I pretty much stood still while Patrick sorted out our food, and then located a place to sleep.
Our bed for the night would be on a tiny bit of grass that Patrick had found between the rocks. It was almost vertical, with a small rock for me to sit on, and another for me to wedge my feet against. If I lost my footing, I could slip off the cliff. We had a large sheet shelter to cover us, and keep the majority of the rain off us. Sleep didn’t look likely.
Surprisingly I got around 2 and a half hours sleep that night and when we got ready the next day I felt amazingly well rested.
The forecast had been for the swell to drop down the previous evening. Sure enough, as we left Haskeir, from its’ eastern side, the water was much calmer and I was back up on my feet. However, as we paddled around the north end of the island the swell was back up to around 8-10 foot, with lots of backwash from the waves hitting the rocks. Time to get back down on my knees!
About an hour later we were far enough from Haskeir that a paddle routine could be put in place. We had 55km to paddle that day. Our routine would be to paddle for 55 minutes, then stop for 5 minutes to refuel. In that hour we would aim to paddle at least 5.5km. This pace was maintained for 9 out of the 10 hours.
Fortunately, (or maybe unfortunately as Patrick later explained), St Kilda was visible to Patrick from Uist, so he could see where we were heading from the very start. The down side to this was that St Kilda didn’t seem to get any bigger until the last few hours.
Obviously I couldn’t see St Kilda, so we worked on a whistle guidance system. When Patrick blew one blast, I would go to my right, 2 blasts would mean go left, a load of short blasts meant I was on target, and 1 long blast meant **** off, I’ve had enough!
This system worked well for me, but as we were using the Palm Fox whistle, which is extremely loud, Patricks’ hearing took a hammering every time he blew it. (We had tried other whistles, but this was the only one that could be heard clearly above the wind and waves.)
Trying to paddle in a straight line when you can’t see where you’re going is extremely difficult. Patrick would set me up on course, I’d be paddling along happily thinking I was holding the course, when all of a sudden I’d get 2 blasts. OK, so I’ve gone off a tad. I’d correct my course slightly, then get another 2 blasts, and again I would set myself up, only to get 2 more blasts. Sometimes I would think either I have gone around 90 degrees off course, or Patrick was taking the mickey.
I started to make out St Kilda when we were about 10km from i, (Patrick had spotted it from over 70km), and this meant that Patrick could take a break from the guiding.
The wind was still a real problem. Although the air temperature was supposed to be around 13 degrees, with the wind constantly blowing I never seemed to build up a sweat. Normally at that sort of temperature I’d be stripped to the waist, wearing shorts and in bare feet. However, I was wearing my 6mm Attan booties, Palm Blaze trousers and Itunda rash vest and never felt like I was wearing too much.
When I arrived at St Kilda I thought I had some bird shit on my right shoulder. Then when I started taking my kit off I soon discovered that I was completely white down my right side. The wind had been so strong, that I had been soaked then dried down my whole right side, and all that was left now was dried in salt!
As we paddled ashore we were met by the wonderful Vivi from the National Trust for Scotland. She had been informed of our paddle and was there to greet us as we arrived.
She was later to show me further kindness when she saw the size of the tiny tent that Patrick and I were about to share and offered me a bed in the feather store. This is not something that they normally offer, but I guess she took one look at me and decided I was a “special” case. (As my good friend Rachel says, “I’m a special person, with special needs”. With friends like that…)
That afternoon I caught the Kilda Cruise boat to Harris, and was well looked after by Angus and his crew.
I was met at Leverburgh harbour by Ruari Beaton, one of Patrick’s friends. I thought the plan was for him to drop me off at his bunkhouse, (Am Bothan) and I would then have to fend for myself, until I heard that Patrick was ready to kayak back from St Kilda. Instead, Ruari invited me to stay in his home, and I spent the next 48 hours being treated like a king – eating his steak and drinking his whisky and wine!
From there we were then off to North Uist, where another of Patrick’s friends, Beccs, fed us and put us up.
A big thank you goes out to Vivi, Angus and his crew, Ruari, and Beccs for their kindness. But, I hope they don’t mind, I reserve the biggest thank you for the man who made this whole trip possible, my very good friend, and paddling machine, the awesome Patrick Winterton.
I’m not sure if my adventure counts truly as the first person to stand up paddleboard out to St Kilda, as I did the majority of it sitting or kneeling. However, I am pretty sure that I can say I am the first person to “paddle” a SUP from North Uist to St Kilda, and if anyone fancies trying the trip without sitting or kneeling, I wish them all the very best! I’m sure it can be done!