What do you do in a calm?

July 18th 2018

This calm has lasted for 18 hours – so far. It is 1145 and I am sure it started before 1800 yesterday.

I’ve decided that I like calms. There is absolutely no point in getting worked up about them. I cannot make the wind blow and there is no point whatsoever in trying to motor through them – that might work if my destination was ten miles away but currently it is 760 and with a full tank Samsara’s range is only 150 miles.

Besides, the electronic autopilot packed up a few days ago and I am not hand steering a compass course for 150 miles…

So, you might ask: What do you do in an 18-hour calm?

The first priority was some music. I had no idea how much I would miss it but it seems I allowed my phone to go flat and when I charged it up again, Spotify required me to log in again – for which, of course, you need an internet connection.

I deliberated all day about this. I do have an Iridium-Go which gives me satellite access – both to summon help should I need to but also to send blog entries to my son Hugo who is paid £2.50 a time to post them. Theoretically, I should be able to use the same connection to log into Spotify.

Not so; it seems I need an extra app – for which, of course, I require internet access…

I tried a couple of times but, mindful of the $1.25 a minute charge, I didn’t try for too long.

To console myself, I got out the clarinet and played Stranger on the Shore and Londonderry Air but Basin Street Blues sounded terribly forlorn without Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five to play along to.

Then it was time for a cup of tea and a Penguin biscuit. I found that using small tins of evaporated milk caused a terrible mess. In the rough weather of the last few days, I had ended up keeping the can inside a mug so at least I wouldn’t lose the spilt milk. However, that meant the only way to get the can out of the mug was to upend the whole thing – with predictable consequences. Next, I folded a piece of kitchen roll lengthwise and used that to lift it out – but all that happened was that the paper got soaked and disintegrated so not only did I have to upend it all again but I wasn’t even able to use the spilt milk.

Never mind, tea and a Penguin biscuit with Charles Dickens. I was supposed to read him at school and remember thinking “For heaven’s sake, get on with it.” I could hardly blame him, if I was being paid by the column inch, I’m sure I would be just as long-winded (I’m not being paid at all for this. Indeed, if I send it by Iridium, I will be the one who is paying – but I notice that doesn’t seem to stop me going on…)

Actually, I am rather enjoying Pickwick Papers. After all, I have the leisure which I presume Mr Dickens’ readers enjoyed in the early 1800’s. Maybe I’ll get to the end of it. In which case it feels as if I am about to discover a complete treasure trove of delights – after all, those people who appreciate Dickens insist there is nothing like him – people who claim to have read the whole canon twice over…

Of course, after an hour of something like that, I had to return to my own novel-in-progress. Having written one before, I know it’s not as easy as it sounds and I know the process: Just keep writing. Up until now it was all by hand in a blue ring-binder but now I decided I didn’t like the central character – he seemed like a bit of a wimp so I started adjusting him. After covering several sheets with circled paragraphs and arrows pointing in all directions, I remembered how I used to do this: With a pair of scissors and glue. Seeing the film Trumbo, I realised that I was not the only one. Now of course, with Microsoft Word, none of that is necessary.

However, I’ve discovered that writing directly onto a laptop is not as easy on a small boat as it is at my desk at home. I tried putting the laptop on the chart table but that faces forward, meaning I have to brace myself sideways against the lurching of the boat and the mouse keeps running away of its own accord – I have to disable the touch pad because I keep touching it and the cursor disappears Lord knows where.

So, instead, I sit on the windward berth with my feet braced against the leeward with the laptop where it is designed to go – on my lap. Of course, this means I can’t use the mouse and if I disable the touchpad, every time I need to get the cursor out of the document, I have to enable it again.

Well, now I am pleased to report that I have trained myself to keep the heels of my hands on the computer either side of the pad without touching it while my fingers dance across the keys ((I am a touch typist these last 50 years and, as you can tell by the length of this, dancing fingers involves no effort at all).

Once that was sorted, it was time for dinner – the other half of the tin of tuna with sweetcorn. I sweated half an onion with it and added a stock cube to the rice. This cheap easy-cook rice needs much more water but I cut it with 1/4 with seawater and anyway I’m only using three litres a day. Follow that with cucumber and sprouted mung bean salad (always two jars of beans on the go – think I might start a third) and tinned peach slices with as much evaporated milk as I can get into the bowl now I’ve discovered that powdered milk tastes just as good if you let the tea cool or add some cold water first.

Dinner was taken, as usual, at the chart table with the Kindle and Mr Dickens propped up against the compass (to hell with the deviation). I find I don’t miss a glass of wine if I have cold herbal tea instead – using the ship’s mug that Tamsin gave me and I didn’t think would be very practical. It’s made of china and I thought it would get broken in five minutes. But now I think it’s one of the best things on the boat. It’s a pain having to hang onto your drink all the time in case it spills.

Wash up in salt water (but rinse the cups and coffee pot with fresh) then wonder about taking the sails down. They’re slatting away as the boat rolls but they are propelling us in the right direction – albeit very, very slowly. Decide to leave them.

OK, so anyone going nowhere like this would need cheering up. So, how about rewarding myself with a Movie Night. I have about a dozen DVDs and a tiny player which plugs into the laptop. The Bluetooth speaker (no defunct with no music) plugs into the earphone socket and, arranging both sleeping bags into a sort of chaise longue, I watched the RomCom Wimbledon – probably seen it a dozen times but my daughter Lottie and I agree that if you really like a film, you can watch it again and again and always get something new out of it.

There were a couple of intermissions to check for shipping and see if the wind had sprung up. Also, it seemed appropriate to have a small glass of grog – after all, it seemed that the chances of having to rush about on deck were next to miniscule (anyway it was a very small glass).

And so, to bed with the two timers set for 90 minutes – which of course turned out to be pointless since this part of the North Atlantic seems particularly deserted and, no, the wind did not return.

Awoke to rain – and still no wind. Went back to bed.

Finally, when it stopped raining at about 0800, I got up and took the sails down. We were now going very slowly in the wrong direction and there was not enough wind flowing over the windvane to correct this.

Breakfast – made the night before – oats, sultanas and powdered milk allowed to soak overnight. Started the last apple.  Chopped it up into tiny cubes to go on top. Perfectly all right, should have bought more.

Remembered I finished the 50/50 sliced bread for lunch yesterday. I brought two loaves with me and now the time has come to start baking. Actually, I really look forward to this. There is nothing, absolutely nothing quite as satisfying as baking your own bread on a long passage – not only the smell or the delight of eating warm bread fresh from the oven but the whole process, watching it rise, seeing it brown…

And I have found a very good boat bread recipe:

Take a wide, flat two litre plastic container. Half fill it with strong bread flour. Add two teaspoonfuls of dried yeast.

Make up half a litre of water including one quarter seawater.

Add the water gradually and mix with a metal spoon to a dough. Do not put your hands in it until you can do so without the dough sticking to them.

Light the oven and put it on the lowest setting.

Knead the dough in the container for ten minutes, adding more flour when it starts to stick to your hands. Put the dough on a metal plate and into the oven to rise for ten to twenty minutes depending on the heat of your oven. When it seems to have stopped rising, scrape it back into the plastic container and knead for a further ten minutes. While you are doing this, have the baking tray in the over to warm.

After kneading the dough a second time, shape it into a ball and coat it lightly with flour. Sprinkle some flour into the baking tray. This will stop it sticking. Do not grease the tray.

Return to the oven and allow to rise again. This time, when it seems to have finished rising, turn up the oven to the maximum setting and bake. Check the colour after 20 minutes and then at five-minute intervals.

When it seems to be the right shade of brown, remove from the oven, turn the bread out of the baking tray and allow to cool on a wire rack.

Then enjoy!

…and at last, at 1800 I can report that the calm is over. After lunch of fresh bread, corned beef and pickles with mayonnaise and HP sauce, I decided that enough was enough. The wind was fluctuating between three and five knots from the starboard quarter (or what would have been the starboard quarter if we had been pointing in the right direction) so I hoisted the cruising chute on its own and sat there steering by hand. After a while I reckoned I had the measure of things and carried on with the Pickwick Papers while steering.

This went on for an hour or so, until it seemed we could have the main without it blanketing the chute… we could…

And finally, after an hour of that, I went below and spent the next hour sewing the frayed edge of the ensign – and we were still on course when it was done, slipping gently over a flat sea at about three-and-a-half knots in the direction of Sao Miguel.

It is now 1830. My belief that calms rarely last more than 24 hours is vindicated. I have quite enjoyed it – and now I think we might investigate the beer locker…



The Black Box

July 16th 2018

The little black box is indeed about the size of a pack of cigarettes – a little bigger, maybe – but a marvel, nevertheless.

Bernard Moitessier dreamed about this. In his book: The Long Way, he mused, deep in the Southern Ocean: “Some day we will have tiny walkie-talkies no bigger than packs of cigarettes, with a range of thousands of miles. Then pals cold communicate without going through the ears of others…”

Well, it’s not a walkie-talkie but, being effectively a Satellite phone, the Iridium-Go can get me onto the internet from anywhere in the world. I tried it from the back garden at home and then used it last week to send four blog posts for my son Hugo to upload. It took nearly 40 minutes by the time I worked out how to do it. Now all I need to know is: Does my $40 a month cover 7KB of data or am I paying $1.25 a minute regardless?

This is urgent because, although the wind has veered today and we are charging off in the right direction at five knots, the towed generator spinning like a mad thing and the ETA suddenly shunted forward to next Tuesday, that is still a week away. “Can I survive a week without music? Spotify is on my old phone along with some 200 songs – everything from Van Morrison to Willie Nelson. And  How am I supposed to practice the clarinet without Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues to play along to?

It seems that I allowed the phone to run down and, when I charged it up again, Spotify expected me to log back in – but how am I supposed to do that from here?



July 12th 2018

Won’t you get bored by yourself for all that time?

Well, if there was a day to get bored it was yesterday. Want to know how much progress we made? 17 miles. At this rate the two-week voyage is going to take two months.

But from the very first (three O’clock in the morning) it looked as this was going to be a day of going nowhere. In fact, for pretty much the whole day, the sails were furled, Samsara rolled through 500 in a snappy two seconds and it might have been fairly easy to sit wedged at the chart table and grumble.

Yet, somehow that doesn’t happen out here. We’re now five days out in the Atlantic – it’s three since I’ve seen a ship. I did pick up the world news from a short wave station in Thailand (Did I hear right, Boris Johnson has resigned over Brexit?) But essentially, this a bubble. The world has shrunk to 31ft 10in x 8ft 9in. Time is measured not by the clock but by mealtimes. So, what can I remember of yesterday?

I do remember taking off all my clothes and wandering around the boat in the buff. It felt wonderful – until there was a creeping sensation of parts of me beginning to burn.

Since a bit of maintenance gets done every day, this was clearly the occasion to tackle a really fiddly bit of wood-stripping. It took nearly three hours, feet at awkward angles, braced against the incessant rolling but with a bit of inventiveness (including a Conwy District Council library card to protect the instruments from the sandpaper), I managed to get it all done – and earned the reward of a corned beef sandwich with mayonnaise, pickles and HP sauce.

And I’ve started to write another novel. Ever since publishing the one from the attic on Amazon (see the tab above) felt this nagging urge to do a second. Would really like to know if I’m any good at it  – especially since Number Three Son Owen graduated from the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing course. He has a whole lifetime ahead of him to make his mark as a writer. I seem to have spent mine producing reams of journalism which somehow doesn’t seem to count as a legacy in quite the same way – although if you’re looking for a real journalist I can still quote you Vincent Mulchone verbatim.

So, out came the blue folder with its blank Sainsburys Low Price A4 ruled refill pad and now the first of its 200 sheets contains a basic plot. Without any apparent effort, this was followed by a handful of characters (all pinched from real life – mustn’t forget to add that bit about “any resemblance to persons living or dead”). I’m going to do it the right way this time as well – first chapter and synopsis. Last time I wrote 108,000 words before I sent it to anyone – and they wanted it cut to 60,000.

I’ve been so busy, I’m late for lunch…



July 10th 2018

It’s only if you have children that you can name your favourite colour – after all, who else asks?


I used to paint my bedroom yellow so that it would be like waking up with the sun shining even if it wasn’t.

Back in the days when I thought I was going to be retiring rich and having my perfect boat built to order (38ft steel cutter) she was going to be called Shansi with a little painting of the Chinese Womble on the wind vane. I used to ghost-write Womble stories for Elisabeth Beresford who wrote the books. That’s how long ago it was.

And Shansi, the boat, was going to be bright yellow. Yellow hull, yellow decks, yellow mast – and caramel-coloured sails. Quite apart from the advantage of being somewhat noticeable, the good thing about a yellow steel boat was that the rust streaks would look quite attractive.

Well, plans are made to be changed and Samsara has a white hull and grey deck (not the right shade of grey but that is another story – and rather a tiresome one).

So, what was all this yellow I’ve been finding today?

About a hundred miles west of Ireland, the wind has been light all day and finally died away to nothing – well, not really nothing; I’m sure a lightweight racing boat with a full crew would have kept moving but Samsara is no lightweight and I draw the line at sitting up at the helm all night for the sake of putting on extra knot. Instead, I took everything down, shut the hatch and went to bed with two alarms leapfrogging each other.

It was the four O’clock alarm that was just in time to show the little boat icon on the plotter actually moving – but in the direction of Newfoundland instead of the Azores. That’s what you get with a windvane: The wind changes – and so does the heading.

In the normal course of events – four O’clock being somewhat before breakfast – I wouldn’t be up to doing much more than re-setting the steering. But this voyage is a bit like being in a pursuit race: The family arrive at Ponta Delgada at 1825 on August 1st and progress yesterday didn’t leave much leeway. So, pulling on foul weather gear over my pyjama shorts (clammy but convenient), I started crawling around the dew-covered deck setting sail which is not as easy when you’re pointing in the wrong direction and don’t want to start the engine because you’ve cranked so much grease into the stern gland it would be a waste it to turn the prop shaft.

So, headsail first to get her moving and a flow of air to help the mainsail go up without fouling the shrouds. Leeward lazyjacks off because it would definitely foul those. Then back to the cockpit and haul – yes, it worked. Don’t forget the topping lift. Then trim to course and, amazingly, bubbles start to move past the cockpit. The log wakes up and registers a speed – well, not exactly a speed – but movement, at least: 0.37kts…1.10kts…1.56kts…

Strange to think of this as progress but it definitely warranted breakfast in the cockpit.

Now, if you have looked at the “Good Health” page on this blog, you will see that the only reason I am able to do all this at my age is because of my collection of natural supplements (I don’t carry any pharmaceutical products at all – not even paracetamol). One of these supplements is a water-based curcumin (usually it’s only soluble in fat which means you have to cook with it to get it into your system). Mine comes in a little plastic capsule – slightly fiddly to pick out of the pot if you put everything in there together.

Which is, why, while picking out the Krill Oil and the Plant-Derived Minerals and so on, some of this stuff ended up on the floor. Of course, I picked it up. It’s not going to do me any good on the cockpit floor…

If I had known what was going to happen next, I would have been rather more careful about making sure I picked up everything – that I didn’t leave any capsules there to get squashed… and spew bright-yellow water-soluble curcumin into the deep, non-slip tread of my very expensive leather (not clammy) Dubarry boots.

It would have been fine if I had just stayed in the cockpit – or even gone below where I could tread the yellow all over the dark grey waterproof carpet.

But no, after my special (and quite delicious) cold porridge with sultanas and apple – and even a nectarine since, as usual, they had all ripened at once – it seemed that 1.56kts was no longer enough. The wind had veered some more and there was no doubt, she would carry the cruising chute.

That’s a palaver, I can tell you: Backwards and forwards to the foredeck: Unlock the forehatch from below, go up and open it, bring up the sail, back to the cockpit to pay off the sheet, scrabbling around getting the endless line on the right side of the sausage. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother – especially since, ten minutes later, the wind died and the whole thing was slopping about and threatening to wrap itself round the forestay. Safer to take it all down. Could leave it on deck – but better to do things properly, stick it below – and remember not to leave it sitting on top of the collapsible water can or that’ll leak…

So, you can see how much activity there was – and with so much of the action taking place in the rigging, it was hardly surprising that I never looked at the deck.

The grey deck (too pale by half) was now covered in random smears of bright yellow – and not just the deck (you can always scrub the deck). Every rope on the boat now seemed to be marked at intervals with bright yellow. At first glance I thought it was the manufacturer’s trademark – they haven’t made plain white ropes since the 70’s.

So, I scrubbed the decks. I knew what it was. I’ve had this trouble before. Also, I knew to scrub my boots first. But then, the more I scrambled around scrubbing, the more the stuff seemed to spread. I scrubbed the boots again, kneeling in the cockpit with a bucket of Atlantic to make sure I did a good job – that just seemed to make matters worse. In fact, when I crawled up to the foredeck to unhook the jibsheet from the anchor windlass, there seemed to be more than ever when I came back.

It was somewhere around this point that I discovered a second crushed capsule – still oozing its bright yellow cargo, had somehow got itself stuck to my knee…

It is now evening but not yet late enough for the other half of last night’s spaghetti putanesca. Samsara is under all plain sail and making four knots in the right direction. The hatch is shut because the North wind is chilly for July and somehow it seems like it’s been a busy day. I think I’ll add the other half of Sunday night’s tin of sweetcorn. Sweetcorn cheers you up.

It’s yellow.



Welcome Back

Monday July 9th 2018

Start putting together the perfect day and sunshine has to come high on the list. Yes, the sun is shining – just a few high clouds but they’re mostly on the horizon. In this patch of the Atlantic it is a day of blue skies.

Blue skies and blue seas – that deep blue you only get with deep water and here, just south of the Hebrides Terrace Seamount, the seabed is over 2000 metres beneath the keel.

And progress is on the list too – the feeling that the destination is getting closer all the time. This is where the singlehanded sailor has the advantage: He can change the destination.

Yesterday the destination was causing trouble: The whole point of coming to Scotland had been to take part in the Rival Round Rockall Rally. It is 50 years since the first Rival yacht was launched and the owners’ association had the idea of marking the event by taking a number of these tough, seaworthy boats to that desolate lump of granite 200 miles out in the Atlantic which gave its name to a whole sea area of the Shipping Forecast: Rockall.

In fact, only three made it to the jumping-off point in Castlebay on the Isle of Barra – and one of them saw Rockall as only a part of their “big picture” which was to circumnavigate the Outer Hebrides. This meant starting with a 25-mile detour.

There was also a plan to land two people on the rock. After all, landing on Rockall is about as common as landing on the Moon. Clearly this was going to be quite an operation. It would take hours.

None of which seemed to fit in with my own “Big Picture”. For me, Rockall was just a turning point to get a good angle to the prevailing winds going down the Atlantic where I was due to meet the family in the Azores. I had 24 days to do 1,500 miles – so no time to waste. Certainly, no fuel to waste motoring into the wind and tide for the detour when there was a perfectly good short cut between the islands. I told the other boats I would see them on the other side.

I never did. Half way to Rockall, there was still no sign of them. Then the wind died and backed to the West. The other hundred miles might take another two days – meanwhile the other boats were loaded with fuel (one had an extra 50 litres lashed on deck). They would turn on their engines just as soon as the speed started dropping. By the time I got there the historic ascent of Rockall would history.

That was when the chart for the Atlantic came out. The Azorean island of Sao Miguel lay 1330 miles away on a bearing of 2200. Let’s just try an experiment – see what course we can lay: Lift the chain off the self-steering, put the helm up, trim on the other tack. Not too close, she’ll have to look after herself… Now, what course does the compass give us? Hey, 2230 – almost a straight line to the Air BnB Tamsin booked in Ponta Delgada.

So it was that sunset found me standing in the companionway with a can of Green King IPA (cool from the beer locker in the bilges) watching the windvane tracking us into Irish waters when there was a sigh close by.

It was a sound so familiar – a reminder of a life which is returning in almost every detail. And there, just off the quarter, so close as to be practically within reach, were two pilot whales surfacing – as they always seem to – so close together that they might have been joined at the hip.

Within five minutes there were a dozen of them spread out astern, in two’s and three’s – their blunt, jet-black heads breaking out of the white crests, the air filled with their explosive sighs. One group of four curled again and again, pressed together so closely, they appeared as one. They couldn’t have needed to breath that often. I think they wanted to look at me.

When had I seen this before? When was the last time I was alone in a boat embarking on an ocean crossing? I worked it out – 27 years ago. And yet everything was the same – as if no time had passed at all – as if these were the same friends come to check up on me as they might periodically just to see all is well.

“Hello!” I called out to them. “Hello again!” Silly, really…

And then something peculiar happened. One of the whales broke away from the others. That was odd, to see one swimming alone. Then suddenly it leapt right out of the out of the water – not high in the air like a dolphin or doing a somersault or anything. But it did turn right over on its back. I could see its pectoral fins quite clearly as it splashed back into the water.

Again and again this one whale performed its manoeuvre immediately astern while the others continued to rise and fall on either side. It might be fanciful but was there some sort of communication going on here?  Because there are more accounts of whales and dolphins appearing to communicate with sailors than you can imagine.

In which case, I like to think that what this one way saying was “Welcome back”?

And, yes, it’s great to be back.



Explanation called for…

August 2nd 2018

I am sitting in a bar in Ponta Delgada, in the Azores waiting for Tamsin to arrive with the youngest two children. They have landed, apparently and will be arriving at our Airbnb apartment whenever the charming Portugese bureaucracy has finished with them (it is charming, very good for the patience and helps keep lots of people employed).

When they do arrive, I shall be seeking an explanation from 15-year-old Hugo as to why nothing has been posted on this blog since the Hebrides.

I have done my bit – writing the stuff in the first place and then sending it by very expensive satellite transmission to Hugo’s email address (whence it was supposed to be posted here – and he was charging me for the service!)

But nothing – nada, niente… an aching void.

Ah well, I suppose I’d better order another beer and do it myself…


A magical moment in the high latitudes

27th June 2018

After the gales of the Fair Isle Channel, the passage down the west coast of the Hebrides was marked by calms.

And then this happened,,,

St Kilda

28th June 2018

I can tell you two things about St Kilda. All the people left 1930, unable to cope any longer with the hard life on this desolate piece of granite 60 miles out in the Atlantic.

Secondly, part of the reason was because the island’s gene pool wasn’t what it was: For hundreds of years there had been a tradition that if a young man could climb to the top of the gigantic sea stack which rises hundreds of feet out of the ocean next to the largest island, stand on the stone at the top, join his hands in front of him and then jump through the hoop made by his arms without falling off and plunging to certain death, then for one night he could have the pick of all the women on the island.

It was great for the young men. Who knows, some of the young women might have been quite keen too: A man who could do all that must have seemed like Justin Bieber and Brad Pitt all rolled into one. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the arrival of the Rev John MacKay in 1865, this resilient micro-community might still be there, subsisting on sheep and seabirds and defying the outside world. But even before the new minister got around to banning the singing of anything but psalms, dancing, games and storytelling, he put a stop to the heathen practices on “The Mistress Stone”.

So, dropping anchor in Village Bay, you might forgive me some preconceptions. After all, the pilot book makes much of the “comprehensive by-laws” of this World Heritage Site, the necessity to seek permission to land from the warden…

Undoubtedly, it is a fascinating place: The old houses are still there – and the original “blackhouses” without windows or chimneys where the people took what shelter they could with their animals to keep them warm when the peat gave out – and, then, of course, there is the quaintly named “street” – the new houses built in the mid-1800’s: Two windows and a chimney…

If I’d read up about it properly, I would have known that’s not the whole story: Since 1957 there has been a handful of MoD personnel manning the radar station over the hill but as far as I imagined, it was just the warden living in the Reverend MacKay’s old Manse next to the kirk. What an amazing existence…

The idea of spending a couple of days anchored in the bay, sharing the warden’s solitude was too much to resist – and exactly two weeks after leaving Suffolk, the anchor went down in Village Bay. In I could see it, six metres down in water clear as air.

More chain rattled over the gypsy, full astern with the engine to dig it in and then switch off.


Then: “Beep-Beep-Beep…”

You know that annoying sound which large earth-moving vehicles make when they reverse – that they make incessantly because they’re always reversing?

Well that is the sound of St Kilda today.

It just so happens that, now the World Heritage people have seized on it, the place has to be done up – which means that now it is not only home to the warden and the MoD but also about 25 construction workers living in a row of green Portacabins.

There are hoardings with artist’s impressions of how the St Kilda Accommodation and Infrastructure Project will be in keeping with the ambience of this historic location (once they’ve torn down the hideous power station and taken away all the Portacabins).

In the meantime, there’s quite a community. John Sikorsky, who calls himself the Ranger, not the warden, has a Seabird Ranger as well – and an archaeologist. Altogether, you have almost as many people as the 37 islanders who were evacuated to the mainland all those years ago.

Their names are written on slates in the fireplaces of their old houses – and in the kirk, on the open page of the Bible, there is the list of deaths from the 1870’s – mostly in infancy.

For £190 you can take a high-speed trip from Harris – two-and-a-half hours each way which leaves five hours on the island. Actually, that’s plenty. The gift shop doesn’t take long.

There was also what appeared to be a converted fishing boat which took eight passengers on a sort of mystery tour – the mystery being that the skipper would decide on the destination only after listening to the forecast.

Or you could join a cruise ship. Yes, they call at St Kilda. John the Ranger goes aboard to give a briefing and warn the passengers not to leave the village. Not only are there no fences or warning signs to stop them falling off a cliff but, if the weather turns, that’s 300 people who have to be ferried back to the ship before the swell threatens to capsize tenders at the pier.

It hasn’t happened yet but, just thinking about it, where would you put 300 cruise passengers for a night on St Kilda? The Blackhouses? There are plenty of sheep to keep them warm…

Arrival at the St Kilda group. Calm again!

The new houses built in the mid-1800’s – every modern convenience (chimneys and windows).

…and a Blackhouse.

The weather changes quickly here.

The Best Beach

3rd July 2018

This was a must: The pilot book describes Vatersay Bay as “the finest Sandy Beach on the East side of the Outer Hebrides” and it is fabulous – white sand and crystal clear water that would not be out of place in the Caribbean – and, as you see, not a soul on it.

To give myself an excuse to go ashore (not sure why I needed one), I took the gash (rubbish) with me and walked up to a little group of houses. After the beach, they were a bit of a disappointment – somewhat shabby prefabs with a temporary air about them. But then, until 1991 when the causeway to Barra was completed, building materials had to come by boat.

Of course, the whole Island has a complicated history when it comes to settlement. Until 1906 it was left to the birds and seals but then, men from Barra landed and claimed they were exercising their ancient rights to the land. However, the owner of Vatersay, one Lady Gordon Catchart, would have none of it and took them to court. Despite massive public support, “The Vatersay Raiders” were sentenced to two months in prison.

But Lady Catchart’s heart seemed to have gone out of the fight and she sold the island to the wonderfully-named Congested Districts Board which allocated crofts rather in the way West London councils allocate allotments.

Chasing the ether

4th July 2018

Remember when people used to like to “get away from the telephone”. What ever happened to that?

I have just spent three weeks trying to find a mobile signal.

Obviously, sailing long distances, there are going to be times when you are out of sight of land and we all know the UK networks don’t even stretch across the English Channel. But last autumn, coming round from Wales and this spring, down to the West Country and back, I was never out of touch for more than a few hours at a time.

The trip from Suffolk to the Outer Hebrides, however, has been a learning experience. After leaving the Norfolk coast behind on June 17th, it wasn’t until I got to within five miles of South Uist that I was able to call anyone. That was on the 30th – and I still didn’t get any data.

So, arriving in Castlebay, the capital of Barra, a metropolis which boasts a hotel, a post office – even a Co-Op supermarket – imagine the disappointment at being told: “Ah now, you’ll be wanting the 4G signal for that. They’ve got it up in North Bay. But there’s free wi-fi in the community shop.”

The Community Shop and café does indeed have free wi-fi – it’s just that, whenever I looked, about a dozen people were crowding the three small tables, sitting over cold coffee and poking at iPads. Instead I went to the Castlebay Hotel and sat in the lounge (no-one else did). At £4.50 for an obligatory pint of McEwans, it made for some expensive emails.

Cheaper to send a letter, of course. I know because I thought it more appropriate for my 22-year-old son who is about to leave to teach English in China for a year – the post office sold me a single envelope and a single stamp.

In the end, there was nothing for it but to move to North Bay – and what do I see when I look up?