Josephine’s cruise to St Kilda 1991

Josephine’s cruise to St Kilda in 1991 was not written up at the time. Only a few still photographs survive because I was using a video camera. The four pictures I have were taken by others. I wrote an article for the Scottish sailing magazine, Yachting Life, entitled “A bottle of wine and a basking shark”.

The cruise was an epic.

Blyth to St Kilda

We left Blyth with my brother Colin and Ed Chester as crew. Ed had planned a complicated pork supper. It took several hours to cook and used approximately half the paraffin we carry on board for cooking and lighting. I cannot vouch for its taste as a large wave dumped itself onto my plate and left my supper swimming in salt water. Around midnight we put into the anchorage at the Kettle on Inner Farne. Next morning we carried on North, rounded Rattray Head and sailed overnight in pouring rain to Wick. Colin had developed a sore neck so we checked him into a B&B for the night as well as taking him to the cottage hospital where he was kitted out with a neck brace.

The next morning we set off for the passage of the Pentland Firth. It is crucial to make this passage on the second half of the ebb when the Merry Men of May detach from St John’s Point on the mainland. Our timing was spot on and although there were standing waves inshore the breakers started a cable offshore. At Dunnet Head I tried to start the engine but the battery was flat. So our entrance into the harbour at Scrabster was done under sail. Given that I had never been there before, the crew made an excellent job of grabbing and tying up alongside a local yacht. Her owner provided invaluable assistance in getting the battery charged and I was able to order a new diode which regulated battery charging. I arranged for it to be delivered the following morning  by Datapost to Josephine of Hoo c/o The Harbourmaster, Scrabster. We had a supper of juicy steaks at the Upper Deck overlooking the harbour.

Next day Colin was put on lurking duty to collect our parcel from the Harbour Master. Ed collected the freshly charged battery.  By mid morning the Datapost parcel had not arrived so I telephoned the Post Office in Thurso to find out what was causing the delay. I spoke to a very defensive Post Office employee who agreed that my parcel had arrived at the airport a couple of hours ago, but until the train arrived with the general mail the Post Office vans would not be making their deliveries. “So when is the train due?” I asked. The answer was 1400. I asked what was preventing them putting my parcel in a taxi? “Of course, if you need the parcel in a hurry.”  If I didn’t want it in hurry why would I have had the parcel sent by Datapost? The parcel arrived by taxi, the part was fitted in minutes, and the engine fired up and the battery was charging strongly. So off we went past the nuclear power station at Dounreay. We were visited by a pod of dolphins who showed off their prowess at dodging our stem as they flicked in and out of our bow wave.

As night fell we anchored in Talmine Bay at the entrance to the Kyle of Tongue. It was already raining and during the night there were hours of torrential rain so much so that in the morning water was flowing off the low cliffs surrounding the bay. We left and sailed Westward heading for Cape Wrath, making Kinlochbervie for the night. Our only difficulty was in making out the entrance to Loch Inchard against the surrounding cliffs which have a magical pink colour enhanced by the setting sun.

The plan was to take the Sound of Handa between Handa and the mainland, but despite keeping an eye open we missed it and passed to seaward of Handa heading for the Summer Isles. We anchored for the night in the channel between Tanera Beg and Eilean Fada Mor. The tide whistled past, but the holding, on clean sand, was good. In the morning we left heading across the Minch to Scalpay at the entrance to East Loch Tarbert on Harris. The object was to take on stores before we crossed to St Kilda. I noticed there was a diesel tank on the pier, and asked one of the fishermen if I could have some. He said, “Aye”. I filled a 5 gallon jerrycan and asked, “How much?” The reply was a laconic, “It’s not my diesel”.

Colin and Ed’s trip ashore to the local shop had not fared as well. There were potatoes, but all the meats were tinned. Colin asked about spirits. “Don’t you know the island’s dry, but if it’s a need you have there’s always Jimmy over the hill.” Colin followed this lead and came back on board with a couple of bottles of what proved to be excellent whisky.

village bay
Josephine at anchor in Village Bay

We set out that evening to cross to Hirta, part of the St Kilda archipelago, taking the Leverburgh channel through the Sound of Harris. As light faded we gained the less rock girt waters of the Atlantic and settled down for the 40 mile passage to the St Kilda archipelago. We arrived at first light, anchored in Village Bay on Hirta, inflated the dinghy and went ashore.

Colin climbed to the top of the island. My right knee did not permit such a climb so I contented myself with videoing bonxies (great skuas) dive bombing my camera. The hillside is covered in cleitean, stone storage buildings unique to St Kilda.  While we were on the hills a cruise ship anchored in Village Bay and discharged its passengers ashore. Most of them were investigating the village. Ed and I discovered the cruise ship had set up afternoon tea on the jetty. A free cup of tea and sandwiches were most welcome. The steward who served us was curious about Josephine. He had previously worked in Whitby and he was sure he had seen a yacht of Josephine’s type in the harbour there. He wanted to know if there were many such yachts of this type in the UK. I assured him that as far as I knew there was only one, and it slowly dawned on him that the yacht he had seen in Whitby must be the one at anchor in Village Bay.

Boreray
Boreray

We returned to Josephine and motored out for a tour of the islands. We passed the cliffs on the southern shore of Hirta and then between Hirta and the island of Soay, the ancestral home of Soay sheep. There is a magnificent sea stack, Stac Biorrach, in the channel.

Then across to Stac Lee where we could see the ring the islanders used to climb out of their boats onto the rock. Stac Lee is a major gannetry but to my mind there are many more breeding pairs of gannets on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Perhaps these gannets were away at sea. From Stac Lee we motored over to Boreray before  returning to Village Bay.

St Kilda to Craobh Haven

Monach Islands
Monach Islands

The 0030 forecast predicted stronger winds in the outlook period, so we weighed anchor and headed for the Monach Isles to the west of North Uist, where we dropped anchor for a breakfast of bacon and baked beans. A couple of grey seals swam over to investigate us. We could see them against the sandy bottom. The islands are flat and sandy with a disused Stevenson lighthouse. When we were there the islands were unlit but subsequently in 1997, following the Braer oil tanker disaster, a new low light was installed.  But a review of aids to navigation said the range of the lighthouse should be increased and the old Stevenson lighthouse was re-instated in 2008 as a fully automated light.

By mid-morning the wind was freshening from the Southeast so we weighed anchor and sailed North to Berneray, North Uist, where we docked in the harbour for the night. We had lots of people, tourists and islanders, asking where we were from.

Berneray Harbour, North Uist
Berneray Harbour, North Uist

The next day we headed East from Berneray to take the Grey Horse Channel back to the Minch. It was not easy to find the Channel as the surrounding land is flat and not ideal for compass fixes. We entered a couple of hours after low water and immediately touched bottom, although only once. In the Minch we were able to sail again although it soon became apparent there was too much wind for full sail. In reefing the boom caught under the guard rail and pulled out the end fitting from the deck, leaving a circular hole roughly 2cm in diameter in the scuppers. The problem was that any water in the scuppers flowed directly below. Plainly a repair was urgent. I had an idea that a wine cork might possibly fit the hole. We didn’t have a cork, but we did have an unopened wine bottle. So we drank the wine for the sake of the cork to bung up the hole. The night was spent in the Wizard’s Pool, a sheltered anchorage in Loch Skipport on South Uist. There were strong winds and heavy rain overnight.

Our next destination was Castle Bay on Barra. The wind was now SW, veering NW and we sailed most of the way there. We picked up one of the moorings and were able to get ashore in the dinghy. There was more than a hint of rain in the air. We went to the hotel for baths, whisky and a decent meal, returning to Josephine around 2330. We were able to buy fresh stores from the overnight CalMac ferry delivery.

In the morning we set sail in a NW 4. With the spinnaker set we made good time. We passed through Gunna Sound between the islands of Coll and Tiree and suffered a heart stopping moment when we noticed a large basking shark lying in our path. If we had seen him earlier we  would have given him a wider berth but a basking shark is not easily visible from a sufficient distance to make a course alteration. We missed the shark, which no doubt carried on basking when we passed by. We sailed past Staffa in order to view the basaltic columns and the famous cave. We anchored off Iona for a while so that Colin and Ed could get a run ashore. I couldn’t walk far on account of my knee.

For the night we crossed the Sound of Iona intending to anchor in Tinker’s Hole on Erraid. It was full of yachts rafted up and in full party mode so I decided to anchor in the pool north of Tinker’s Hole. It is shown on the charts with nearly the same depths as Tinker’s Hole, but I did a quick tidal calculation to be sure. At this point a gentleman in a yachting cap detached himself from the party in Tinker’s Hole and rowed over to us in a dinghy. “I wouldn’t anchor there. You’ll be aground at low water.” Colin replied, “You see him,” pointing at me, “he’s the Commodore, and if he says we’ll float, we’ll float”. My pride was short-lived because I discovered I had neglected to bring a chart of the area where we were intending to sail on the following day.

It hardly needs telling, the next part of the trip was undertaken in thick fog. Even then the wiley navigator has something to offer. We adopted the Viking method of navigating by deliberate error, the idea being that when you find land you know which way to turn. We missed the Torran Rocks  and found the Garvellachs making Craobh Haven that evening. That was the break point in the holiday. I hired a car in Oban and drove back to Newcastle. Then with the caravan in tow behind our trusty Volvo we headed back to Scotland. We arrived a day early, but that did not matter. Our caravan site was at Benderloch just over the Connel Bridge from the Falls of Lora, a place my Grandparents used to go on holiday. On a beautifully sunny day we brought the boat up from Craobh and obtained a berth at Dunstaffnage Yacht Harbour.

Dunstaffnage to Blyth

Colin came up for the trip home which we undertook with my boys, Mark (13) and Graham (8). I had some difficulty starting Josephine’s engine but we got underway and passed the Royal Yacht Britannia and her two Naval Guardships heading down Loch Linnhe.  HM The Queen had been at Fort William the day before and when we got there we found a brand new pontoon berth outside the entrance to the Caledonian Canal installed especially for the Royal party. It proved useful for getting ashore but useless for getting back on board, because the walkway was under water. We made it with wet feet, and woke early to get going into the canal. Once again there was an agonizing 15 minutes of engine turning before it burst into life, but with rather a lot of smoke.

We made it up Neptune’s staircase alongside a prawner which meant we avoided starting and stopping the engine. It started OK at the top of the staircase, but we got into trouble at the Laggan road bridge. All the yachts in convoy slowed down waiting for the bridge to open, but our the engine died and would not restart. We hoisted the genoa, and just made it through the closing bridge, before grabbing some piling and coming to a stop on the other side. An engineer was summoned but he couldn’t start the engine. So the plan was to head for Inverness under sail.

Given we had a following (SW) wind we were able to transit the canal with just the foresail set. When we came to a lock or bridge closed against us if we couldn’t slow down we had the option of anchoring over the stern. What we didn’t want to have to do was turn in the canal. Our plans were tested at the first swing bridge we came to at the end of Loch Oich. It was supposed to open at 10.00. We arrived at 09.53, so were forced to deploy our anchor. Everything went well, and we slipped through the bridge under sail. The lock keepers were obviously phoning ahead about the engineless yacht transiting the canal and they reserved space alongside in the locks for us to secure to.

The downside of this plan was that to make space for us the lock keepers had to deny entry to the tripper boats until we arrived. Naturally they made the passage between locks faster than we did, but when we arrived they were all over the place in the canal and we had to play dodgems to get through. The great plus of a transit under sail is that our progress was near silent, so it did not disturb animals and birds on the canal side.  We had a great time pointing these out to the boys. Eventually we arrived at Fort Augustus, took the boys for a slap-up meal at the Lock Inn, followed by a peaceful night’s sleep.

The next day we escaped the canal into Loch Ness. We hoisted the mainsail, and attempted to hoist the spinnaker, but a snarl up developed and we lost one of the guys overboard. Apart from that the passage of the Loch was uneventful. When we entered the canal again, we pretty well lost the wind. I was anxious not to get swept over the Dochgarroch weir into the River Ness, should we loose the wind completely so I deliberately kept to the opposite side of the canal in a deliberate departure from the Collision Regulations. Eventually a charter yacht came to our rescue and rafted up alongside. We had one more lock to negotiate and did it within only one 15 inch gash in the varnish. Ironic that when sail powered we had not suffered a single scratch. The next stopping off point was Caley Marine, where we were assured our engine could be fixed.

We took the boys into Inverness for a pizza. They were not happy at the prospect of “sitting about” all day while Josephine was having her engine lifted out so I decided the best thing to do was to put them on a train home. They could do this with changes at Perth and Edinburgh. I gave them a string of instructions, £10 each pocket money and their tickets and off they went. Olivia collected them from Newcastle Central Station later in the day. They declared the trip had been “Brill”. The pocket money had all gone!

Colin and I oversaw the lifting out of the engine and followed the boys on the train journey home the following day.

Ten days later the repairs were done and I travelled north by train with David Bosomworth from RNYC to bring Josephine home.  We had a bit of clearing up to do. There was grease on the backstay which had to be removed. Caley Marine hoisted me up with their crane in my bosun’s chair so that I could reach it. I was relieved of £1,200, which turned out to be seriously bad value for money as the engine was totally condemned two years later, and I had to buy another one.

David and I sailed out of Clachnaharry and by nightfall we were well down the Banffshire coast. We rounded Rattray Head and sailed down to Stonehaven for the night. In the morning we set off to cross the Firth of Forth. The first couple of hours were bright and sunny, but then fog set in so the rest of the passage was undertaken by means of the Dinghy Decca I had installed that summer. We made for Dunbar and arrived with sufficient tide to get alongside and run a mast line ashore.

We had a peaceful night and in the morning the fog had been cleared away by a SW Force 5. We flew down the south shore of the Firth but on rounding St Abbs Head found ourselves on a beat with waves slowing our path. We held our tack well into Berwick Bay before rounding Emmanuel Head on Holy Island. We needed to replenish our main tank with diesel from the jerrycan, and since it would have been difficult at sea we put into North Sunderland (Seahouses) harbour. We were now in home waters so we carried on with some help from the engine arriving alongside our home port of Blyth in the early hours of the morning.