Five men in a boat
JIM, WHO IS GREAT AT FIXING anything mechanical, has seduced Mark with tales from his 40 or more years of diving trips to Scotland’s Western Isles and St Kilda. Stunning visibility, big scenery, caves, marine life, wrecks and island pubs that never close.
The answer, concludes Mark, is to take Wandrin’ Star, his 15m steel charter-boat, from Fishguard up to Scotland for a holiday.
It’s a beautiful Monday morning when we gather in south-west Wales. The sort of perfect conditions that get you in the right mood for an extended trip on what is really a big day-boat with some bunks in the hold.
Setting off takes time, as more than a tonne of marine diesel is pumped on board, the water tanks are topped up, and the deck fills with piles of dive kit, general luggage, food and beer. Lots of beer.
As Jim had been in charge of the food, I had brought a couple of boxes of beer with me, and everyone else had thought similarly, except for Bob the builder, who regularly crews for Mark and is teetotal.
The final member of our crew of five is Cen, pronounced Ken (it’s a Welsh thing). Among other businesses, Cen runs a breaker’s yard, and his years of shifting bits of trucks come in useful when we manoeuvre the last part of the diving puzzle on board – the mobile compressor.
Mobile compressors are notoriously fickle things, and even running it up before loading had been a problem because, when we looked closely, there was a hole where the pressure gauge should have been fitted.
It had been sitting in Mark’s shed for a few years, and there is no sign of the missing gauge in the shed, the workshop or anywhere else.
In the end, Bob cannibalises the gauge from his cylinder checker which, fortunately, has the right thread.
ONCE ALL THE FAFF is out of the way, we finally leave the harbour mid-afternoon and head north for Anglesey, a gentle force 3-4 behind us.
Mark has his usual broad taste in music playing, anything from punk rock to a collection of Italian film music. The autohelm steers the boat, and we all laze about in deck-chairs, reading books and drinking the odd can. Wandrin’ Star makes a few knots over the usual 7 with the tide behind us, then slows right down when it turns.
Jim had proposed diving a North Wales wreck on the way to Scotland, an idea attractive for me, as there are not that many wrecks in the Western Isles.
To do so would involve cutting the corner through the Menai Strait, so we call the Coastguard for advice.
The Coastguard operator wants to be helpful, but doesn’t seem to understand what we are asking about, or even North Wales geography. We are given the time of high water for the Skerries off Holyhead.
We dine on deck while discussing the threat of cuts centralising the Coastguard and all requests for information being so useless. Thirty minutes later, we are called back by a more knowledgeable Coastguard officer. He understands exactly what we want to do, and explains procedures and tides for the Menai.
I do some sums and conclude that diving a North Wales wreck just won’t work. After waiting for the Menai tide we would then be waiting most of the next day for slack water. A couple of hours on the way would be OK, but not a 24-hour delay when we could be heading north through the night.
The others take bunks in the hold while I unroll my bivvy bag on deck. It’s a beautiful night, and after rising for a spell on watch I finally crawl out to another fine day with the Isle of Man in sight. The deck-chairs, punk rock, books and beer continues as Wandrin’ Star heads on through the North Channel.
A MORNING LATER, I wake to a rolling boat. The wind has picked up to a south-westerly 6, and getting out of my bivvy bag as spray comes over the beam is a delicate exercise.
We had been planning simply to keep on going to St Kilda, but instead change course for the shelter of Castle Bay on Barra, where a friendly boatman suggests that we tie up at the ferry pier, though we will have to clear out when tomorrow’s ferry arrives.
After two nights in the hold, Mark, Cen and Bob can’t wait to spend the night in a B&B. Jim and I stay on board.
We have already run out of bread, and so has the local shop when Jim buys up the last of its meagre supply.
The rest of the day we spend looking for the wreck of the Seniority, a 2892-ton steamship that ran aground in 1950.
We have the Admiralty numbers, and among the massive supply of guide-books Jim and I have with us, we find a short mention from a services expedition.
Not that we find the wreck. A helpful local phones Mark with news that the official numbers are wrong, and we are searching off the wrong rock.
By phone and binoculars he guides us to another reef where, after more searching, we still fail to find the wreck but have a quick dive anyway.
It’s a case of a miss is as good as a mile. The sand off the reef is scattered with coal from the wreck, spread by scallop-dredgers.
We catch a following tide through Barra Sound and point the bow to St Kilda. I have already written about that in DIVER, so won’t go into details, except to say that for a day we had some incredible diving.
But it all comes to an end when the wind picks up from the south-east, and Wandrin’ Star starts dragging anchor towards the shore of Village Bay.
That’s the trouble with St Kilda. There is nowhere to hide. All our plans of diving are called short as, after Jim and Cen fix a failed bilge pump, we point the bow into a force 6-7 and head for the Outer Hebrides, making a long tack southward to avoid taking the sea on
By the time we are in the lee of North Uist, the sun is out and it’s a beautiful evening. Jim has fitted a water-heater and shower to the back of the cabin. Rigging a screen has not been easy the last few days, so I just get naked.
At the helm, Mark has a stressful time navigating the obstacle-strewn Sound of Harris while the plotter intermittently goes AWOL for a few minutes at a time.
We enter Loch Rodel in fading daylight and drop anchor by the wreck of the Stassa. The late-night shipping forecast gives an 8-10 in Rockall and 8 in the Hebrides. With periodic rain, I move my bed into the galley.
I am awoken at dawn by the anchor alarm. The wind has changed and we have swung right round. I wake Mark, who says the anchor is OK and to go back to sleep.
At 6am I wake him again. We are definitely dragging closer to the rocks.
It takes three tries to get the anchor hooked in firmly over the wreck as it slides along the keel and off the bow.
With the wind getting noticeably worse, we take our time to dive the wreck while enjoying the shelter of the loch. Since I dived this 1685-ton ship for Wreck Tour 6 it has noticeably deteriorated, with the funnel and parts of the wheelhouse now on the seabed.
For lunch Jim cooks a full fried breakfast, including the last of the bread. With our fresh food supplies just about exhausted, the immediate plan becomes a mission to find somewhere with a good pub for Sunday dinner.
Again Mark has to take a big tack to get us 20 miles along the coast to Tarbert. The intermittent plotter is getting worse, as is phone coverage. A few phone calls later, Mark has a B&B booked and we tie up to the ferry pier for the night, before spending the evening in the Harris Inn.
After the stress of the last couple of days at the helm, Mark can barely stagger along the road for the B&B he has booked, escorted by Cen and Jim, who have consumed considerably less alcohol.
A couple of hours later they are back on board. The B&B wasn’t there and turns out, after another phone call, to be in a different Tarbert, well over 100 miles away.
Google has let us down badly, as it even put a pin on the map for the B&B at the Tarbert at which we are tied up.
AT LEAST EVERYONE IS ON BOARD when we cast off to make room for the morning ferry, Jim at the helm and Mark now on large quantities of aspirin.
With wind still 6 gusting 7, we are harbour-bound for the day. We spend the time looking at charts and thinking about where to go next. Maybe we can head north round the Butt of Lewis to the Flannan Isles
But then we catch the next shipping forecast, and realise that with one day of clear weather ahead of us, we will be lucky to get as far as Skye.
Jim fixes the plotter. It turns out that the connector has been damaged by CDs piled up behind it. The Best of Motorhead seems to have been the last straw. I would have preferred to blame it on the Italian elevator music.
The wind is still building when we cast off again to make way for the afternoon ferry. The port navigation light is playing up, so Cen climbs on the cabin roof to have a look, to be struck on the face as the wind generator swings. There is a massive amount of blood, and I am surprised he can climb down again.
I soak a towel in cold water and, back at the jetty, get a bag of ice from the pub.
With the blood out of the way his eye appears undamaged, but the gash in his cheek may need stitches. A helpful member of the ferry terminal staff drives him to the doctor.
It turns out that he will survive without stitches. The cold water and ice have made all the difference, though he has a swollen black eye and the prospect of a duelling scar. Cen seems hardly bothered. I think I was more shaken by the whole thing than he was.
Another evening in the Harris Inn is more moderate. I wake again at dawn with the boat listing hard to starboard. The ropes are too short, and we are hung on them.
After some fruitless bashing and levering with a pry bar, Mark pokes his head out of the hold and tells me to stop making all that noise as there isn’t anything to be done about it. We are almost at low water, so I go back to bed.
FINALLY WE HAVE A DAY OF GOOD WEATHER and head across the Minch for the north-west corner of Skye and the wreck of the motor ship Apollo.
Jim has dived it in his youth, soon after it was wrecked in 1971, when the masts stood out of the water. Various guide-books provide little detail, so Jim, Cen and Mark have a dive on what turns out to be a ridge covered with weed, not a section of hull.
The 1976 wreck of the motor ship Nordhuk at first appears equally elusive, but we eventually find it by swimming transits at 5m intervals.
Staffin Bay provides an easy and safe anchorage for the night. A new day dawns with continued perfect diving weather. The Sound of Raasay is the deepest water in Britain. It’s one of those dives that has to be ticked off in our logbooks, even if we only get 10% of the way to the bottom.
It is also a submarine sonar test range. We arrive to intense pinging that can be heard from the surface. A fleet tender and helicopter appear to be patrolling the middle of the sound.
Mark contacts range control and most of the others try fishing while waiting for the exercise to finish. Without success; a fisherman’s explanation would be that the sonar scared the fish off.
OUR EVENTUAL PREPARATIONS to dive are interrupted by Mark’s inability to find his socks. Eventually they turn up in the forepeak, beneath a bag he had moved to get the fishing rods out.
The weather is picking up again, so we head for Portree, breaking the journey with a quick dive beneath Prince Charlie’s Cave.
The seabed is a silty bank with protruding sections of rock and short walls. Before entering harbour I grab another alfresco shower, as I am unsure when the next opportunity will arise.
In Portree we are berthed among the local fishing fleet. A family of otters climb on board each boat in turn and look for fish hidden beneath benches.
Fishermen tell us that they deliberately hide the fish for the otters to stop the seagulls getting at them first.
After a night on the town, the morning starts with rain. Mark and Cen put their laundry in. The weather clears by lunchtime, but we are harbour-bound because the laundry is on a 24-hour service. At least Portree has lots to see, and for the first time on the trip we have plenty of fresh bread.
The good weather continues through the night, but has broken by lunchtime when the laundry is available.
We leave harbour hugging the coast and make our way to Lochalsh for a late dive on the HMS Port Napier. This is a mine-layer that caught fire, exploded and sank with the port side breaking the surface and, as I wrote in the May issue, is one for your bucket-list.
The Kyle of Lochalsh is the only place we visit where the harbour master is unhelpful. Yet in a storm he can’t refuse us a berth, especially as payment is already covered by a ticket we bought in Portree. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t want us.
We struggle on to Mallaig in a force 7 from the south-west, so gain some shelter from the coast for the first half of the journey. Now two weeks into the trip, I have made only nine dives.
Planning is now more concerned with getting back to Fishguard than with exploring. If lucky, we can get in a dive or two on the way.
HARBOUR-BOUND FOR ANOTHER DAY of force 8, the crew of a big yacht moored up outside of us invite us on board for drinks and we get to see how the other half live, even though it wouldn’t be a good vessel from which to dive.
We have little choice now but to head south past Ardnamurchan and down the Sound of Mull. Fortunately the wind drops to a force 5.
This could be the last chance for a dive, so Mark, Bob and Cen have a look at the Rondo. With all the wrecks in the Sound of Mull the choice is easy. We are passing it when the water is slack enough and it is on the sheltered side.
Jim and I just can’t work up the enthusiasm. It’s a great wreck, but we have both dived it countless times before in much better conditions.
Still at the helm as we pass Oban, I narrowly miss a rock because I have not checked the plotter at maximum zoom (it just goes to show why paper charts are still worthwhile).
We take the sheltered route overnight inside Jura, then have another three days of pounding into heavy seas to get home, pausing for one night ashore in Strangford Loch, where I get Strangford and Portaferry mixed up and navigate Mark into the wrong harbour.
Apart from a few dives, it has been one of the worst dive trips I have been on for a long time. Even for Scotland, the weather has been unseasonably bad, but somehow, now I look back, those few dives sort of made it all worthwhile.
I’ve learnt a lesson. Next time, I’ll drive to Oban and get a boat from there.
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