The Elusive Atlantic Islands

By Paul McNeill
 
Islands West of the Hebrides –
The Monachs, The Flannan Ises & St. Kilda
 
 

 Why call them Atlantic Islands when the Monachs, Flannans, and St.Kilda are 5, 15 and 43 miles west of the nearest point on the Outer Hebrides? If you could launch a fast inflatable from the nearest beach on the Western Isles you could be there in a jiffy. There are however very few days in the year when you could take off from an Atlantic beach and have a flat water passage to these islands.

 

 For the cruising yachtsman the Monach Isles are 35 miles from Eriskay or Northbay via the Sound of Barra or 30 miles from Loch Maddy via the Sound of Harris. If conditions favour an overnight anchorage at the west end of the Sound of Harris, the distance to the Monachs could be reduced to about 20 miles. The commitment is not as great as that required for St.Kilda, and there is a choice of anchorages marked on the sailing directions. I would urge caution with the anchorage in the south bay as it is surrounded with rocks and requires a very careful approach, even in settled weather. If the wind is favourable go for Croic Harbour on the NE side of Ceann Iar. The Monachs are best enjoyed in settled weather. A bad weather escape to the north or west of the Monachs would involve dodging various outlying reefs. There is no detailed chart available for the Monach Isles but copies of a survey by Captain H.C.Otter dated 1860 can be obtained from the National Library of Scotland for a very modest sum. The attention to detail is amazing with the magnetic variation at 27-5 degrees west in 1861 decreasing 6-5 degrees annually!

 For the Cruising yachtsman the Flannan Isles are only 15 miles west of Gallan Head which is fine if you are departing from Loch Roag. From Stornoway, over the top of the Butt of Lewis the distance is 70 miles and from Loch Maddy via the Sound of Harris it is 45 miles. The accompanying photos clearly illustrate that there is considerable risk in going ashore in anything other than very settled conditions. The bottom is rocky making it unwise to leave a yacht unattended, even in the best conditions. Given suitable conditions, a visit to this historic place (where 3 lighthouse keepers disappeared in 1933) is very worthwhile.

 

Soay sheep

For the cruising yachtsman it is the St.Kilda group of islands which have the greatest attraction. I believe it is a combination of their remoteness, their history and the sheer physical grandeur of the highest sea cliffs in Britain which draws us so far west. Add to this the drama of the sea stacks and the colonies of birds and we run out of excuses for not going. It is however not so easy to get there. It is more difficult to get there and to spend time ashore. It is much more difficult to get there, to spend time ashore and to get back to the east side of the Outer Hebrides in comfort.

 

There is only one good anchorage which is in Village Bay on the main and only inhabited island of Hirta. This anchorage is open to swell from the southwest to northeast and as the sailing directions wisely tell us, we need to be prepared to clear out at short notice. Some thought should be given to what clearing out of St.Kilda actually means. If the wind is NE it is unlikely that we shall make the 45 miles to the Sound of Harris in one tack so we may decide to reach the 60 miles to the Sound of Barra. Depending on our E.T.A. at the Sound of Barra we may have to stand off until dawn or put in an extra 25 miles to take us safely round the bottom of Barra Head and up into Vatersay or Castlebay. This may be a piece of cake if we have a strong team of competent helmsmen on board but if we are shorthanded and have spent 12 hours getting to St.Kilda we need a rest when we get there. We may not get a rest if a change in wind direction dictates that we clear out of Village Bay.

 

If a southerly wind dictates that we clear out we can make the Sound of Harris in one tack but what about a southeasterly? We may be comfortable in Village Bay in rising winds from the SW to N but as we rest from our outward passage then spend time ashore the Atlantic swell has been increasing. We may have a following wind for our return passage but will it be safe to enter the Sound of Harris as a lee shore even in good visibility? Will we be forced to run 75 miles to either end of the Outer Hebrides plus a further 15 down to Stornoway or 12 up to Castlebay? How much offing should we give the Butt of Lewis or Barra Head?

There is one possible alternative to clearing out of St.Kilda but it is not without its own risks. Glen Bay is on the opposite side of Hirta to Village Bay. It is deep for anchoring except for very close to the shore and the quality of the ground is doubtful. A line ashore could be set up as the wind funnels down the hillside overlooking this bay and would hold the yacht offshore. The risk is that the wind might change direction and put the yacht ashore. There are 2 possible precautions against this risk. An angel could be lowered from the stern and the line brought forward to the bow so that the line would not snag on the rudder or keel. (My own preference would be to drop the line from the bow.) A second precaution would be for an anchor watch if a change of wind direction is anticipated. Another consideration is that Glen Bay puts us outwith VHF coverage in an emergency but faced with a long return passage a few hours rest for a tired crew can make a difference.

I would suggest that a minimum of 48 hours settled weather is needed for all but the strongest crews. It’s a great pity to rush out to St.Kilda and to have to rush back again. A sail around the islands, especially between Stac Lee and Boreray is something that will be remembered for a life time. I have been running teaching cruises of the Outer Hebrides in July and August for several years and passages to St.Kilda have been attempted on about 50% of these cruises. Before people sign up for these teaching cruises I emphasise that they are cruises of the Outer Hebrides and getting to St.Kilda should be regarded as a bonus. The perfect wind for getting there, for resting there and for returning would be a light to moderate northerly wind assuming a departure from the Sound of Harris. For a departure from Barra a light to moderate southwesterly would be great providing it veers while we are there and stays west to north for our return. This, of course, is a dream world. Reality is different. We juggle time, distance, weather with accurate and not so accurate forecasts, crew strength, reserves of water and fuel…….and sometimes we go for it, sometimes we don’t. There are a few occasions when it all fits perfectly into place and we are left rejoicing on the western edge of the Western Isles. The best way to conclude these 4 articles about the Outer Hebrides is to leave you with the log of one such occasion.

 
Paul McNeill is a Yachtmaster Instructor and Principal of Westbound Adventures Sailing School which operates on the Clyde and in the Scottish Hebrides during the summer months. Paul is also a member of the Royal Institute of Navigation.