My Life in the Blue Stuff – Chapter 11 – St Kilda, other Islands and Keith Floyd

This is the eleventh installment in the series of articles from Alan Haywood, one of the clubs early members. You can see the full series of articles here.

Chapter 11 – St Kilda and other Islands  

“Find me a nice hotel, in The Loch -Fyne Area, where I can drive along coastal roads, eat good sea food, call to see my friends Jean in Oban and Roger and Annabelle McDonald (Members) at Minard Castle and explore future dive sites for you”. I had accepted a place on board The Ketch Jean de la Lune, live aboard for a dive trip to the island group of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides organised as a club dive by Dave Hanson. Ann was as excited as me and we did a hunt for a hotel to meet her specification.

Found it! Kilfinan Hotel, a terraced row of cottages converted into a hotel in a Village close to the town of Tighnabruaich at the head of The Kyles of Bute. We would stay together one night, move for one night to Oban, meet up with the ECSAC crew and have a curry with them, next day we all sail, and Ann returns to her hotel.

Sailing on the Jean De Lune

Jean de la Lune was a French Tuna fishing boat converted to accommodate 12 Divers in great comfort, with excellent food, a powerful main engine and an interesting “Self-Tacking” sail plan to the two masts. David, owner operator, his wife and her friend could handle the boat under sail. (She has now changed ownership and has been rigged as a Brigantine, square sails on the Main and a triangular sail on the Mizzen Mast).

We sailed from Oban through The Sound of Mull and dived en- route at The Monarchs. This first dive was sensational, visibility was the best I have ever experienced in the British Isles. There were lobsters and crayfish everywhere, I was tempted to take a couple but was not sure of the reaction of Skipper and Crew so left well alone. Fortunately, others were not so green, and we dined well that evening. I was surprised to find octopus sitting out in the open, plaice and monkfish a plenty. Fortunately, I had my faithful Nikonis 3 and took a few photographs.

After the dive we Motor-Sailed most of the remaining journey to our anchorage in Village Bay, although the last few miles the weather deteriorated to a gale force 8, sails were stowed, and we arrived after an interesting trip.

St Kilda, at the time of our visit, was a military base for the recovery of practice munitions, torpedoes and missiles used in the area. The village was abandoned in 1930, when the male population was not large enough to launch the boats. The remaining population was moved to the Scottish Mainland. Several of the houses are now being renovated by The National Trust to the standard of the original.

The islanders lived on a diet of fish and Sea Birds, particularly Fulmer and Gannet. The mountain behind the village is covered with Cleats, dry stone buildings used to dry cure the catch for winter use. Birds were lassoed by men who climbed the very high sea cliffs carrying long poles with a noosed rope attached. They frequently lived for weeks on the Stacks and Out Islands, collecting eggs and birds, which were then collected by a village boat daily and taken to the storage Cleats. Every part of the birds was used, apparently, the skull of a Gannet was used as the sole of a hard-wearing shoe.

Diving was very relaxed! A glass of Orange juice delivered to your cabin at 7am, a light breakfast and an early dive. Delivery to the dive location was by JDL to the Out Islands or by the Zodiac from JDL at anchor in Village Bay. Then back for a wonderful fried Brunch, site seeing or relaxing in the afternoon and a late afternoon dive. Dinner at 7pm and suitable Beveridge for sale at the ships bar or ashore at the Puff Inn, the NAAFI canteen.

Every dive was superb, to whatever depth you chose, and with one of the crew as boat cover, delivery and pick up was excellent. There is no shortage of fish around the islands, huge shoals of Mackerel and Herring, so large you can hear them. Every dive I saw Bass, huge Pollack, Conger and of course Crab, Lobster and Scallops. A Chefs dream, certainly our two Chefs created some dreams every evening from the Goodies provided each dive.

Most of the diving was on vertical faces down to 30 metres with occasional flat rocky or sandy areas. I was amazed to find family groups of Grey Seal lounging in the sandy shelves, maybe 5 or 6, like a party of sunbathers on a tropical beach! Nobody seemed to leave for a breath of fresh air.  (See on right for a photo of Ros. Kidd on a typical wall).

It all had to end, we left St Kilda and sailed to Mull, an anchorage in Tobermory and a chance to check the Guinness at The Mishnish is still on form

It was, next day we dived in The Sound of Mull on the wreck of a second World War bombing victim (Oops, can’t remember her name). Black as a bag shot rope descent to a wreck covered in bright anemones, making arrival into brilliant visibility at 35 metres

I arrived to find Dave Hanson successfully tied to a 56-pound weight by about 5 metres of very flexible shot rope. He made suitable non BSAC signals which I read as “get me out of this cat’s cradle please”, with a few non-standard signal expletives thrown in! It took all the knowledge of knot tying I learnt in The Boy Scouts, (or was it being accused of being a Yachty by David on JDL when I put a round turn and a half hitch on the Main Sheet)? “Two round turns, no half hitch, the pressure on the hitch will tighten so much you will never untie it when we need to reset the sail. This is a ship, not a sailing dinghy”! I was suitably impressed but a bit bruised having recently finished a short-handed race (Skipper and 1 crew in a 31-foot yacht) over 800 miles, for which I had received “The Half Crown Trophy”, given to the Skipper and Crew of the boat which achieved outstanding feats of single / shorthanded sailing during the race.

It’s amazing what antics a loose rope will do, running amok around a pillar valve and a quick loop around an arm. It took several minutes to unravel Dave, then we carried on with an interesting dive. Dave told me a local (Bollington) company bought the wreck and cargo. He was present when explosives were set and exploded, the cargo, bales of rubber, came to the surface and were used in their manufacturing process.

Then on to Oban to unload, say our farewells and a collection by Ann, now very experienced in the geography of North West Scotland. She had located Roger and Annabelle at Minard Castle and spent some time with her friend Jean in Oban. In total a very good time had by all and Ann said she liked the idea of doing a similar trip if I had another dive trip I wanted to join. The opportunity came soon after.

This time it was The Orkney and Shetland Islands on a 50-foot steel ketch The Sula Skier. We joined her at Kirkwall, after a ferry trip from Thurso. Our base for the Orkney section of the two weeks was the island of Stronsay. Ann was delighted when Dave Hanson telephoned and asked her to join us there for a few days. She arranged flights, Thurso – Kirkwall and on from Kirkwall in a four-seater aircraft, landing in a field at Stronsay. The only hotel was fully occupied by a BBC TV film crew and their Star Keith Floyd, I jumped ship and stayed with her in a local B & B for two nights.

Sula Skier had been booked by The BBC for a programme in the series “Floyd around Britain and Ireland. On the day of filming, we dived and provided various items of seafood including an 8-pound lobster. I passed this from the water to Keith on film, when I climbed aboard I said “If you don’t use this in your programme please put it back in the sea. He cooked a crayfish in the tiny boat galley and served it to Atty, the skipper, with finnesse. He put the lobster back and pretended to shed a tear at the loss, having impressed his audience that “The Divers” had requested it’s return.

I was very impressed with Keith’s performance. He had no rehearsal prior to filming, simply picked up a boat hook as a prop and adlibbed his way through the half hour show, with the inevitable glass of wine in hand, although he did not drink much of it.

 On completion, the BBC crew joined their boat and invited us to join them in Kirkwall for a party. Everyone agreed, however I had arranged to meet Ann’s flight in Stronsay and wanted to travel back. The skipper radioed local fishing boats and a Stronsay trawler collected me alongside and I hugged the exhaust pipe for the two-hour trip, I had been in my wet suit for several hours. Ann was on the Jetty waiting for me to return, the ECSAC divers and BBC had sore heads the following day. I met Keith Floyd at his pub “Floyds Inn” at Bow Creek on the river Dart shortly after. He told me he enjoyed the day, was impressed with the shellfish we caught, but was not impressed with the boat’s tiny galley.

Typical Shetland Coastline

The second phase of our trip started under sail from Stronsay to Shetland, where we had a mooring available at Mainland Harbour. The total Archipelagoes is stunning, our aim was the island of Foula and the wreck of “The Oceanic”, subject of the book “The other Titanic” by Simon Martin

In 1914, just after the outbreak of World War I, the greatest liner of its day, the White Star Liner Oceanic, struck a remote reef off Shetland and sank. This ‘Queen of the Seas’ was even more magnificently luxurious than the Titanic and unlike her, a remarkable salvage operation was achieved some sixty years later by two young and relatively inexperienced divers. In this book one of these divers tells the story of the disaster and the remarkable salvage work that he and his partner Alec Crawford undertook. After the war salvage attempts were abortive and written off as impossible until Simon Martin and Alec Crawford took a lucky trip to Foula in 1973. Simon Martin bought the wreck and successfully salvaged most of the valuable Non-Ferrous metals over a long period.

The wreck was a six-hour sail from Mainland. The journey out and return boring, the crew provided a shotgun and Clay Pidgeon Trap, time was taken shooting, fishing, reading, or on the return journeys cleaning trophies recovered.
 My only recovery from the wreck is a badly battered and bent porthole which when cleaned I donated to ECSAC. It has been used since as a photograph frame, fixed to the clubroom wall and  identifying the Branch Officers. The noise of the divers on site, recovering the trophies was horrendoes, hammering and cutting using large hammers firemans axes and compressed air drills. Pure dedication. I just swam around the enormous wreck and admired the scenery.

(On right see a photo of Dave Hanson onboard Sula Skeer).

We left Mainland at 9pm, under sail. I volunteered to take the first watch from 9pm to Midnight to be replaced by The Skipper Midnight to 3am. The hydraulic system powering the rudder was leaking and had to be topped up several times during our two weeks on board. I was alone, at the helm and everybody was in bed. Each operation of the wheel had no effect for about 10 degrees of each turn. It was a nightmare trying to steer a true course. Midnight arrived and I was longing for a warm bunk and some kip! No chance, despite bangs on the deck, shouts and whistles nobody arrived. The self-steering was hopeless, I could not leave the helm, the play in the wheel meant the boat came up into wind continuously, so I carried on and cursed. It was midsummer and 24-hour daylight at this latitude, I could see Fair Isle in the distance, so I tried to stay awake and enjoy it. Skipper arrived at 3am, full of apologies! I went to bed and heard the engine start and the sails lowered. Then the engine seized, he forgot to open the cooling water inlet. I laughed and slept.

Return ferry from Kirkwall, Ann met me in Thurso. She had found a Country House Hotel near Inverness, a hot bath, wonderful meal and a real bed. We returned there several times during other dive trips, brilliant!

More Islands next week, a lot warmer!

Read the other episodes here