Sea kayak crossings: St Kilda archipelago

In 2011 I spent two weeks exploring the Outer Hebridean islands of Barra, South Uist and Benbecula with my mate Barry. Our dreams of a sea kayak crossing to the St Kilda archipelago were dashed by a combination of poor weather, injury and the sands of time. We left for home after a great paddling adventure, keenly aware that our hopes of such an exposed sea kayak crossing would depend upon organisation, commitment – and plenty of luck.

Three years later, a fresh opportunity arrived and we returned to the outer Hebrides with renewed optimism. Alone in the north Atlantic at 58 degrees north and 40 miles NW of Uist, the St Kilda archipelago is an isolated and exposed place in the world. It represents an exceptional challenge to kayak to this most remote UK island group. The rewards, however, are immense: rising steeply from the sea, these cliff-bound islands have an end-of-the-world aura, exerting a powerful magnetism on would-be visitors. With a two-millennia history of human habitation, only broken in 1930 with the evacuation of the last islanders, there remains an impressive number of black houses and cleits, remnants of another world. The archipelago is Europe’s most important sea bird breeding-ground with the world’s largest gannet colony, the UK’s largest colony of fulmars and over a quarter of a million puffins. The sheer cliff-bound islands are also a sea kayaker’s paradise, the attraction enhanced by their inaccessibility. I had dreamed for many years of kayaking to the islands; now, only 36 miles of open water and a favourable forecast lay between us and our destination.

The Crossing

With bad weather on the horizon, we spent several days exploring the island group in the far south of the outer Hebrides, from Barra Sound to Berneray. A worthy destination in its own right, this wonderful archipelago offered us magical encounters with towering sea cliffs, a rich cultural history, immense sea caves and thousands of nesting puffins, guillemots and razorbills. We returned to South Uist as wind and rain set in, and awaited our elusive weather window.

In mixed conditions and a westerly airstream, we continued our explorations with a few days of paddling around the Sound of Harris and Taransay. Battling back to North Uist against a fresh SW breeze, and with half our available time now gone, it felt that the chance to cross to St Kilda was slipping through our fingers. We relocated to the North Uist Outdoor Centre, to relax and regroup. Upon arrival, a fresh forecast offered a tantalising opportunity: two days of light SE winds, a new low pressure system and then settled weather once again. It seemed that we could possibly cross to St Kilda, ride out a couple of bad weather days and then paddle home again in more favourable conditions. We agreed to the plan and hastened to complete our preparations.

That evening we camped at Scolpaig, under cloudless skies as a light westerly wind rippled the surface of the bay. On the horizon, the peaks of Hirta and Boreray beckoned enticingly, appearing far closer than their true distance of 36 miles. We slept soundly, content that the forecast was ideal for our crossing. The following day, a persistent sea breeze kept us ashore as we waited for the perfectly calm conditions that we sought for the crossing. At last – at 7pm – we launched our kayaks and headed WNW towards the still-visible distant islands. The last of the breeze died away as the first two hours took us out past the barren rocky islands of Heskeir, riding a gentle swell upon which our boats rose and fell. Surrounded by silence, with no sign of any other craft, we felt alone in the world on this empty expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

During mid-summer at these latitudes nightfall is a protracted affair, with a dim glow to the south and a constant sense that the sun’s absence is only short-lived. As our kayaks cut through the glassy ocean, the light and ambience created a magical atmosphere that heightened our sense of wonder, as the St Kilda archipelago grew in size on the horizon. Hours passed, our unbroken paddling rhythm became meditative; we lost ourselves in the experience. Stac Levenish appeared to our left and we shaped a course across the flooding tide, crossing the final two miles to Village Bay on Hirta – the only reliable landing in the entire archipelago. Beaching our kayaks at 4.15am as the arrival of dawn began to light our surroundings, we sat quietly on the grassy slopes and soaked up the intense sensations of our successful crossing. Never had an ocean passage felt so magical.

The Islands

After a few hours sleep we watched as the small groups of boat-based visitors prepared for departure. The imminent arrival of a new low pressure system was clearly triggering a fresh evacuation of the island; we would soon be among the the last remaining inhabitants of the archipelago. Seizing the chance to enjoy the remaining settled conditions, we relaunched for an afternoon of exploration around the main island group of Hirta and Soay. Departing Village Bay through a narrow rocky cleft, we were delivered into a magical sea kayaking nirvana: huge sea cliffs rose above, a gentle swell provided a constant rock garden challenge, innumerable sea birds wheeled overhead and the unfolding coastal scenery revealed ever more spectacular perspectives. At the north end of Hirta we passed under an enormous sea stack as the remarkable sight of Boreray’s huge rocky mass came into view. Humbled by our surroundings, we quietly paddled back to Village Bay, completing our circumnavigation of the main island.

The following two days brought the anticipated low pressure system, its saturated air wreathing the islands in mist and drizzle. Remaining ashore, we hiked the island to explore the remnants of habitations that were home for the St Kildan islanders. Flocks of Soay sheep continue to roam the island, while Great Skua soar the upper slopes, swooping menacingly at our arrival. At almost 500 metres altitude, the views from the summit of Hirta are exceptional, with lower-lying Soay extending into the Atlantic to the west and Boreray’s Jurassic appearance to the north east. With the outer Hebridean islands lost below the eastern horizon, the sense of isolation on this remote and dramatic rocky outcrop was palpable. We returned to the shelter of Village Bay and waited on the forecast improvement in conditions.

Sailing Home

During our third day on the island an impressive square-rigged ship arrived in Village Bay. The ‘Lady of Avenel’ was paying a brief visit to the archipelago with its clients; its skipper, Stefan, was keen to meet the owners of the sea kayaks that he found at the top of Hirta’s slipway. Sharing our experiences of the crossing, Stefan inquired after our ‘Plan B’, should conditions be unfavourable for a return crossing. Suddenly, we found ourselves the recipients of an invitation to stowaway on his 100ft converted Russian trawler, for a free ride back to the Sound of Harris. Stefan’s offer triggered mixed emotions in us; having arrived at St Kilda under our own power, it felt almost necessary for us to return home via the same propulsion. We thanked Stefan for his offered help, and retired to consider our options.

Rising the next day at 4am, we hiked back to the summit of Hirta and gazed out at the expanse of ocean to the east. Weighing up our options, the temptation of a tall ship experience proved too great; we scampered back to the bay, contacted Stefan and soon found ourselves aboard the wonderful vessel that would be our home for the next twelve hours. Threading between the cliffs of Boreray before finally setting sail for Harris, we marvelled at our good fortune and settled down to an unexpected voyage of luxury. At 10pm we finally jumped ship in the Sound of Harris, bade farewell to our sailing buddies, and paddled through the darkness back to North Uist. Our St Kilda adventure, a remarkable experience filled with challenge and unexpected opportunity, was over.


Swim around Anglesey: Part 4

The Swim Day 4: Llanddwyn Island to Rhoscolyn

Met Office Inshore Waters Forecast: light S winds in the morning, becoming SW 4-5 in the afternoon

The start of our fourth – and hopefully final – day was bright and clear and as we hiked out across the sand towards Llanddwyn Island (cut off from the rest of Anglesey only on top of the biggest tides), John and Matt talked confidently of our early arrival in Rhoscolyn. While happy to go along with the upbeat atmosphere, I privately felt that the day might produce a few extra challenges along the way. Although we were ready to swim by 0800, it was clear to me that the final 18km, in the weakest tidal streams of the entire Anglesey coastline, might be hard won. If had known what was in store for us later in the day, I might not even have got in the water.

We had tried to ignore the issue of our damaged necks as we climbed back into our wetsuits but as we set off across the mouth of Malltraeth Bay towards Pen y Parc, I was dismayed to discover that my neck was now painful with every stroke. I was sure that John was suffering more than me, but there was nothing for it but to get the job done. Matt was our only support kayaker on this morning and it felt somehow fitting that just the three of us, having started together 75 hours earlier, were setting out together to complete our circumnavigation of Anglesey. The weather was cooperating, with a light southerly breeze barely raising a few small ripples in Caernarfon Bay. With only Matt to support us we were careful to choose the same targets, regularly checked our distances from each other and focused on making the distance as efficiently as possible.

We completed the 3km crossing of Malltraeth Bay in an hour of steady effort, past the green lateral mark and on towards the still-distant outline of Rhoscolyn. For a while we enjoyed a weak favourable tide over the half-tide rocks of Carreg-Trai, past Church Bay and north west along the coast to Ynys Meibion. We reached this halfway point after three hours of swimming, less than 10km of distance now separating us from the finish line. Passing the Ty Croes race track, we shaped a course between the island and the Anglesey shore, where we encountered a weak tidal stream across our course as the inshore eddy stream of Cymyran Bay spilled out to the south. Forced to swim away from the land, it was clear to me that, tired as I was, John’s shoulder injury and exhaustion was taking a greater toll on him. Our speed over the ground dipped to around 2km/h.

I paused to discuss the situation with Matt. He shared my concerns about John and we agreed a plan for the end of the morning swim session. Abandoning the direct route to Rhoscolyn, we began to shape a course towards Rhosneigr, the white outlines of the beachfront houses now clearly visible. This choice added 2km to our overall distance, but allowed us to swim much closer to the shore. I was worried that our weakened condition would prevent us reaching Rhoscolyn in one push and knew that we needed to get to the beach, to regroup and consider our options. We were also now close to local high water and were concerned that the ebbing tide would hinder our progress across Cymyran Bay. As we toiled the final kilometres towards the town, it felt for the first time that the swim plan for our Anglesey circumnavigation was beginning to unravel. Exhaustion was setting in for both of us.

Matt paddled alongside John, shared the new route plan and encouraged him to rediscover the good swim technique that had carried him so far around the island. His speed increased again as we gradually passed Cable Bay and Broad Beach to our right. After five hours of constant swimming, we eventually washed up on the shore about 1km south of Rhosneigr. Exiting the water, I realised that our condition had worsened during the morning. Tired beyond speech, cold and hungry without appetite, we hid from the increasing wind inside our group shelter and tried to ignore the nagging pain from our lacerated necks. John appeared to be dozing, while I unzipped my suit in an attempt to relieve the pressure on the damaged areas of my body.

As Matt prepared to run into town to obtain more food, I heard the sound of Barry’s voice. He had launched from Rhoscolyn and paddled the 6km to our beach in search of us. His cheerful grin appeared through a gap in the shelter, the smile fading as he surveyed our condition. I could see that he recognised what we felt, but would not admit; our exhaustion was beginning to take its toll, the chances of our reaching Rhoscolyn this day diminishing as we shivered in the worsening weather.

Barry’s suggestion that he return to his vehicle to collect us from this beach seemed to galvanise us into action. We stood up, threw off the group shelter and announced our intention to swim on. I asked Barry to stay with us, feeling that safety concerns now demanded a support kayaker for each swimmer. As we waded into the water John, in a moment of good sense, grabbed me and questioned the wisdom of our decision. Shaking in the cold wind, as the waves began to roll in to Rhosneigr Bay, it seemed risky to continue – but then the entire swim around Anglesey had never been a sensible idea! We almost quit, and then reached a compromise. We would swim a kilometre along the shore to the next bay, review our progress and either continue or stop.

We plunged into the waves and struck out for the rocky reef that guards the south entrance to Rhosneigr, John dealing with the cold by launching into a high-tempo routine. I ploughed on after him, trying to warm up. We swam to the reef and across to the next cluster of rocks, where we agreed to go on, to the rocky island at the north west end of Rhosneigr Bay. As we crossed the bay, the increasing south west wind produced noticeably steeper waves and I realised that the ebbing tide was creating wind against tide conditions, lifting us further offshore. We swam in an arc towards the island, hoping to escape this unhelpful tidal stream. The beach seemed quite distant away to our right and I began to feel very committed. The safety margin that had depended for the entire journey upon our ability to maintain a steady swim speed of around 3km/h was now seriously compromised. I looked back to see John 100m behind me, Matt shadowing him, and realised that our speed through the water had slowed to a crawl. I put on a faster burst to reach the sheltering water next to the rocks and discussed our options with Barry. We agreed that, depending on John’s condition, we might swim downwind, hand railing the islands until we reached the beach. There we would stop for the day and would return the next morning to complete the final 3km. I was torn; I wanted to stop, but viewed it as some kind of failure. My need to continue was greater and I hoped that John felt the same way.

As he arrived, it was as if he had overheard our conversation, announcing his intention to stay in the water ‘until it’s finished’. He refused point blank to quit for the day, insisted he was able to swim on and convinced us to continue. Looking across to Rhoscolyn, I could understand his desire. We could now make out individual houses on the headland and the familiar outline of the islands appeared close enough to touch. My one certainty was that I simply could not face the prospect of returning the next day to climb back into our wetsuits for a fifth time. We had to finish the job now.

We swam downwind to the inshore end of the island, to bring us a little closer to the land and to slightly reduce the risk of our final open crossing. We felt we needed to be reasonably close to shore in case we simply ran out of energy before reaching Rhoscolyn. We were also unsure of the exact tidal streams in the north end of Cymyran Bay and at our low swimming speed were keen to avoid any issues with an outgoing current. Targeting the headland just east of Borth Wen, we headed back into the waves and focused on ticking off the final 3km. We had ceased measuring our progress in terms of hours and minutes, but could see that we were making steady speed across the bay. Silver Bay became clearly visible to my right, and I finally became convinced that we would soon cross the finish line.

John struggled on, his injured shoulder now badly affecting his stroke. Exhausted as I felt, I was keenly aware of his plight and was impressed at his ability to grind out these last minutes in the water. He simply didn’t lift his head, and although I was a little faster than him at this point, he seemed to swim as if he would never stop. John later told me that as we left the island, he recognised that the remaining distance to Rhoscolyn was just about the length of the lake at Llanberis where he had spent so many training sessions. Not only did he know that he could complete that distance, he actually imagined himself passing familiar waypoints in the lake. Elephant Rock, Halfway Station, The Boat House, The Lagoons; he visualised each goal as he ate up the distance to our final landing.

Remembering his speed on the first day, and my struggle to maintain the pace, I knew that I had been waiting for the tables to be turned. But I felt no satisfaction – just respect for his battle against injury. So instead, as Matt urged John to ever greater efforts, I swam happily towards Borth Wen, Barry kayaking alongside me. I took time to savour the moment as the entrance to the bay came within reach and remembered how anxious and uncertain I had been as we swam out of the same bay four days earlier. Success tasted very sweet right now. Richard’s advice came back to me and I laughed as I swam through the waves: ‘I’m a dolphin!’

Suddenly everything came into focus – I was swimming along the low cliffs east of Borth Wen, avoiding breaking waves over submerged rocks. The island guarding the entrance to the bay approached on our left and the old lifeboat slip seemed close enough to touch. Turning towards the beach, the wind began to blow me home – I could float on my back and still complete the swim! I wanted to wait a minute for John, to arrive together, so I drifted along, mindful of the important reasons that had driven him to take on this challenge. I was aware of how this moment might affect him and wanted to leave some space for him to take in the knowledge that he had set a huge challenge, been true to his word and had seen it through to completion. He soon arrived next to me, too tired to speak much and we swam the final hundred metres together to the beach. Matt dashed ahead to film the arrival, while Barry stayed alongside us to enjoy the celebrations. We staggered out onto a cold, windswept beach, a few hardy holiday makers huddled behind bits of striped fabric. We later learned that we were a couple of hours too late for our supporters, who had concluded that our day had ended at Rhosneigr and had headed home. Just the four of us, we congratulated each other with disbelief, exchanged hugs, then grabbed our clothes bags and headed for the car park. It was 1700. After 8 hours in the water, nine hours and 20km after leaving Llanddwyn, we were home.

The need to remove our wetsuits was overwhelming and as the air reached our bodies, the now-infected holes in our necks seemed to catch fire, bringing a burning pain as the salt water began to dry in the exposed cracks in our skin. As a dampener to the celebrations, it was pretty effective. John in particular appeared to be in real distress, shaking silently in the shelter of the toilet block, speechless and near-dead on his feet. We bundled into Barry’s van, and headed back towards Newborough to collect my vehicle. We had done it. It was all over.

After the Swim:
We drove back to Newborough, where Matt and I switched to my van for the short journey back to Felinheli. John had been silent throughout the 30-minute drive and Barry was keen to take him home as quickly as possible. We later discovered that the pain of John’s damaged neck had been almost unbearable for him. This had combined with his exhaustion and shoulder injury to produce a deeply uncomfortable experience for him. A shower, barrier cream, clean clothes and cup of tea helped a little, although by the time Matt and I reached the house John was already heading for bed. We spent the rest of the evening checking on him periodically, a task we dubbed ‘John Watch’.

For my part, I was sure I was no less fatigued than John, although I had the big advantage of a less injured body. I was also later to discover that the damaged areas of my neck were far less infected than John’s. As a result, elation and relief quickly overcame my weariness, a hot shower reinvigorated me and, in the tradition of all disciplined athletes, Matt and I commenced our celebrations with a takeaway Chinese meal, washed down with a steady supply of alcohol. Post-exercise recovery could wait a few more hours.

Medical Issues:
The following day John and I took stock of our condition and wasted no time in visiting both the hospital and our GPs, for advice and diagnosis. Not only were our necks clearly in need of professional attention, four days’ immersion in sea water had given us painful mouth ulcers that my post-swim celebrations had done nothing to improve. Combined with a variety of sores and blisters on various parts of our bodies and, in John’s case, a clearly damaged shoulder joint, we were in a pretty sorry state. The GP immediately diagnosed the infections and we were sent away clutching handfuls of antibiotics, painkillers and lotions.

As our necks began the healing process, the resulting limited mobility was an occasionally amusing inconvenience. For a few days we were a serious liability on the roads, entirely unable to look over our shoulders at junctions. After a week, with a new layer of healthy pink skin on my neck, a pain-free mouth and an infection-free body, I felt almost completely recovered. I was quickly back to work where I noticed a lingering slight fatigue that persisted for a couple of weeks after the swim. In John’s case, his sense of weariness seemed deeper than mine, no doubt a consequence of his additional injuries.

What has remained however, is an even deeper sense of satisfaction at the successful completion of our challenge. Looking back at the achievement of our goals, the efforts required each day and the challenges we faced, I am struck by how uncertain and adventurous the whole project really was. Without a serious swimming background, neither John nor I fully comprehended the implications of attempting to swim for over 26 hours across four days, to a series of tidal deadlines, with limited sleep and rest (especially during the first two days) and in open sea conditions. How naive of us to set off so optimistically from Rhoscolyn, aiming for a slick and trouble-free 120km circumnavigation of Anglesey! As Barry pointed out to me, there was nothing stylish about our final two hours in the water on the last day, but in another sense we had styled it, meeting all our goals, covering impressive distances each day and, when it really mattered, grinding it out to the finish line. It really was a journey into the unknown, towards an uncertain outcome, and we were delighted at how well it had all come out.

The Weather Gods:
Of course, we needed to benefit from a generous helping of good fortune. When we first planned the swim, we knew we had to select a specific set of dates, months in advance. We chose the end of August, to give us the whole summer for open water swim training. Work commitments also meant that I could not set aside an entire free week until this time. We were under no illusions that the weather would dictate the feasibility of the project, with windy conditions no doubt scuppering any hopes of circumnavigating the island. We are both confident rough water swimmers, but also appreciated that the reduced swim speed and increased energy cost would end any chance of transiting the island in a fast time. Moreover, Anglesey’s exposed coastline can produce extremely rough conditions – especially on spring tides – with sea states that no swimmer or kayaker would venture into. On the other hand, we could also get a perfect high pressure weather system for the entire duration of the swim. In any event, such matters lay outside our control – so we cracked on with the training and tried not to worry about it.

As it happened, we did not get the hoped-for high pressure and flat seas. On the eve of our swim, a strong NW wind was creating a challenging sea state throughout the entire coastline of our planned first day. Thankfully, there was a forecast lull in conditions, the wind dying away overnight before filling in as a SW wind later in the following day. Thus, we enjoyed light winds all the way from Rhoscolyn to Cemlyn and the SW wind, when it did arrive, only assisted our progress along the north coast evening. Despite this, conditions in the tide races of Anglesey’s west coast gave us quite enough of a challenge.

On the second day, we were even more fortunate. Tide times demanded an early start, which coincided with a period of light winds on the east coast of Anglesey. For the first half of our crossing from Point Lynas to Penmon we had calm conditions, followed by a relatively light SW wind for the last two hours of the swim. A couple of hours after we had reached Penmon, however, it was blowing over 20 knots, a wind strength that would have eliminated any chance of the direct, open crossing of the east coast. Thankfully, we were finished for the day and on our way home by the time the wind arrived.

On day three, the light NW wind barely raised a ripple in the Menai Strait and even the last 6km to Llanddwyn Island took us through only slight seas. In all, perfect conditions for the swim session. On the final day, the weather once again cooperated for the first few hours, before – as if feeling the need to deliver one final challenge – building from the SW to produce difficult steep waves from Rhosneigr to Rhoscolyn. It felt like a fitting end to the journey. Had the precise timing of the weather patterns we experienced been only slightly different, or had the tidal timings demanded different swim times, we would not have completed the swim in four days, if at all. We felt fortunate indeed.

Tidal Factors:
The waters around the Anglesey coastline are notable for the speed and scale of their tidal movements. The tide rises and falls twice each day, as it does throughout the UK. What sets this island apart from most other locations, however, is the river-like effect on this vast volume of water as it flows around its headlands, cliffs, bays and beaches. This tidal movement would be the key to our success in swimming around Anglesey in four day but would also, we knew, add challenges and difficulties to overcome.

The rising (or flooding) tide in this part of the Irish Sea flows in a northerly direction from the St.Georges Channel into the huge basin of Liverpool Bay. Anglesey sits as an obstruction to this flow, constricting and accelerating the water around its coastline and creating areas of powerful tidal races off its major headlands. We would have to swim through all these areas during the 4-day challenge and would be exposed to the full power of the Irish Sea for much of our planned swim route. Good timing and a careful consideration of weather conditions would be essential for safety and for the overall success of the project.

We had also chosen a period when the twice-monthly pattern of larger tidal movements would be at its peak. These ‘spring tides’ would create a tidal stream of flow of up to 6 knots (11 km/h) off the major headlands, but would also markedly increase the likelihood of encountering rough water. It was therefore even more important to have relatively settled weather conditions for the swim.

It was clear to us to us that a 120km 4-day swim in non-tidal waters was out of the question; neither John nor I had the capacity to swim 30km per day for four consecutive days. Even maintaining our best cruising speed of 3km/h, this would demand swim durations of minimum 10 hours per day, with the likelihood of increased overall distances adding to the total swim time. We could not hope to achieve this kind of speed and endurance. Moreover, our plan to cross the major bays directly, reducing overall distance to 120km, demanded swim distances of up to 11 nautical miles (20km) – the success of such crossings would be dependent upon making best use of the tidal movements each day. Good planning was essential.

We therefore planned to make best use of the flooding (rising) tide, swimming around the island from Rhoscolyn to Beaumaris (days 1-2 and the start of day 3). From Beaumaris (on day 3), the ebbing (dropping) tide would carry us down the Menai Strait to Llanddwyn Island. The final section of coastline, from Llanddwyn to Rhoscolyn is exposed to the weakest tidal streams, with only limited assistance on a flooding tide.

With good timings, and a commitment to constant effort during our swim sessions, we substantially achieved our goals in terms of tidal assistance.