St Kilda, Scotland
All aboard the Bessie Ellen! Help sail one of the last wooden trading ketches on a journey to the British Isles’ remotest outpost – St Kilda – just watch out for its divebombing skuas!
For centuries, people lived on Britain’s remotest isle of St Kilda. Now the chance to battle the elements and sail there on a wooden ketch shows just how unique their lives were…
The flying jib connects to the cleat, here’s the sheet for the main sail; to tail it, you have to coil it – clockwise and at least three times. Then there’s the halyards...” Stood on the deck of the sailing ketch known as Bessie Ellen, listening to the words of skipper Nikki, never before had I felt so out of my depth.
Though only leaving the harbour in Oban, on Scotland’s west coast, it was as if I’d been released into a parallel universe; one where everyone still spoke English but, for some reason, I didn’t understand a single word of it. All the while the Atlantic air breezed through the weak spots in my clothing, permeating every stitch.
I always knew getting to St Kilda, the remotest of the British Isles – flung out into the North Atlantic over 64km west of the nearest Outer Hebridean isle of North Uist – was going to be challenging, but when I signed up for a sailing trip to try and make it there on what would be my fifth attempt, I had no idea what I was in for.
Being a lover of remote places, the idea of the British archipelago had intrigued me for over a decade. I remembered reading about how a community of people had lived on this 6.7 sq km patch of rugged volcanic land since the Bronze Age – over 5,000 years ago – and how its existence was first documented in 1697 by a man called Martin Martin, who journeyed there by the only method available at the time: a longboat over several days. I recalled reading in awe the story of how the last of its 36 locals were ‘evacuated’ to the mainland in 1930, and being intrigued by a sepia image that showed a St Kildan foot that appeared ridiculously narrow and long next to a mainlander’s. It was said to have evolved that way due to centuries of climbing the vertiginous sea stacks to collect the eggs of seabirds (and indeed the
birds themselves) – their only food source for many years. I didn’t so much want to see this intriguing place, I had to with every fibre of my being. And so, over the years, whenever I headed to the Isle of Skye, I would enquire about the speedboat that takes visitors there in a four-hour trip. But every time I signed up, it was cancelled due to bad weather. I had started to think I would never make it there. And then I heard about Bessie Ellen.
Lovingly restored by her skipper, Nikki Alford, the 1904 tall ship known as Bessie Ellen is one of Britain’s last wooden trading ketches, with huge canvas sails that look like every child’s dream of a pirate ship. Its main belly cargo hold had been transformed into a dining/ living area where guests’ bunks are built into the walls (with curtains for privacy) and hot showers are – literally – on tap.
On a ten-day St Kilda trip, getting to the prophesied isle was by no means guaranteed. But with guests expected to get hands-on as much as they could, the adventure would be earned whatever the outcome. It was a reality I quickly discovered on my first night, as we anchored alongside the town of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.
“We won’t make St Kilda in the next couple of days – that’s for sure,” predicted Nicki as the sun turned the sky a deep shade of purple behind her. “The wind is too strong, the sea too rough. But if we all muck in and start early, we should be able to land on Canna tomorrow, take shelter there and then head to the Outer Hebrides the day after. If we’re lucky, the weather will change.”
I eyed my fellow would-be sailors curiously. There were four old hands, who had been on Bessie Ellen previously and become hooked; a pharmacist couple and their retired best friend, who had never winched so much as a jib before in their lives; another retired couple, also new to seafaring; a mother and daughter eager to try their hands at the ropes; a solo 40-something Scottish woman in search of an adventure; and a German couple in their 30s, who had been intrigued by Britain’s mysterious far-flung island. Conversation flowed nervously over shared dinner that evening as many of us confessed to being overwhelmed by the sailing terminology. But despite our trepidation, the one thing we all had in common was a determination to make it to St Kilda.
Nikki hadn’t lied about the early start. The sun had barely risen when the shout was made to grab breakfast before heading up on deck. This time I put on my sea-issued waterproof trousers and jacket, and though I looked distinctly Minion-like in my yellowand-blue shiny rubber, I felt instantly warm and at ease.
Along the way we were shown some knots – bowline, figure-eight, reef, clove hitch – taught how to hoist (raise) and trim (adjust) the sails, and learnt how to read our position on the GPS and complete the captain’s log each hour. By the time we reached the Canna, part of the Small Isles, I was starving. We inhaled a hearty meal
‘Getting to the prophesied isle was by no means guaranteed. But with guests expected to get handson, the adventure would be earned whatever the outcome’