st kilda is an isolated archipelago 40 miles west-northwest of North Uist in the North Atlantic Ocean. It contains the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, and I have lost count of the times we have visited this incredible island on the Salutay.
It is always a magical feeling when you arrive, because so often the weather conditions are not kind enough to get there, let alone stay.
However, the first time I went was probably my most memorable. Al invited me to join a 10-day trip in 1998, as the boat was not full and had spaces.
So I jumped at the chance, managing to get time off work last minute. I was working for a car-rental company at the time and had a very nice boss.
It took 36 hours to get from Port Patrick to St Kilda without stopping.
I didn’t expect that!
Arriving at St Kilda, the weather conditions were moderate, with a fresh south-easterly wind causing the Salutay to roll from side to side, which meant that our anchorage for the night in Village Bay was not the most comfortable.
I remember the next morning, the sausages were cooking in the oven for breakfast, the bacon was under the grill and the eggs were on the side (on a non-slip mat) ready for frying. Al said to me: “Could you keep an eye on the bacon?
I’m just going to check that the dive-equipment is ready for the first dive.”
Before I knew it, I had served a full breakfast for 10 divers, which wasn’t easy as a few fried eggs slid out of the pan across the cooker as Salutay took a roll.
Once breakfast was over, I started to feel a little seasick. Then it dawned on me. Where was Michael, the cook from the last trip that I’d been on?
I later found out he was on the Ocean Youth Trust boat that week, and Al and Danny, a good friend from his Plymouth University days, were meant to be doing the cooking.
Luckily, Al’s mum had prepared wholesome homemade food for the trip in advance, which was how they operated at the time, so it was just a matter of heating prepared meals that had been frozen. Guess who ended up doing that? No such thing as a free holiday, I thought!
My first dive was on Trouser Rock at 30m up to 10m, and I jumped in to visibility of 30-40m. Countless seals were darting around and biting my fins and the walls were just covered in a carpet of jewel anemones of every colour imaginable!
There were crayfish in the crevices of the rocks and every other underwater critter you could imagine.
The site is called Trouser Rock because the shape of the rock formation is exactly the same as Wallace’s trousers in the Wallace & Gromit movie. First we dived to the bottom, then went through a triangle-shaped cave hole, swam right the way up the trouser leg and basically came out at the crotch! Which is where we met all the playful seals.
The dive lasted for 70 minutes, and I was on a single 15-litre cylinder with a 3-litre pony of air. We dived different dive-sites during our time there, and somehow I ended up cooking for the rest of the trip. Luckily my seasickness improved, and I enjoyed the remaining dives at St Kilda.
It was on this trip that we got the chance to dive the only wreck at St Kilda, the steamship ss Manor in 55m.
Ken, the skipper at the time (an ex-navy CPO), shotted the wreck. Danny Burton was on board and Al dived with Danny as he was on a rebreather, while I dived with Danny’s wife, Caroline.
On the way down the shotline, I saw one of our divers coming back up it with a bell under his arm and a seal (of which he was completely unaware) swimming up behind him!
Was I hallucinating? Or was I already narked? No, what I saw before my eyes was real. I looked back at Caroline, whose eyes were as wide as mine.
We OK’d each other, carried on down the shot and had a fantastic dive.
When Caroline and I came back to the surface, there was an altercation on board between two of our divers about whose bell it was.
Ken had to break up the fight, and Al said the bell had to go to the museum on the island, which is what happened.
The following night in the Puff Inn pub in Village Bay, we held a ceremony and handed the bell over to the National Trust warden for safekeeping. To keep the peace between the two divers, we anchored for the night in Glenn Bay, at the opposite end of the island from Village Bay.
Because the wind was in the south-east, it was more comfortable here, with less rolling around at anchor.
The next morning we dived the Saw-cut. This is a narrow cut, about 1.3m wide and 25m deep, which penetrates 60m into the island of Doon.
The spectacular Scarbhstac on St Kilda.
The walls are sheer and coated with anemones, soft coral and sponges. We had to make sure we didn’t get swept right through the cut and come out the other side. Otherwise, Ken the skipper would be very angry, as this would make for a difficult pick-up.
Luckily, I was with Al and he made sure we turned around at the right point to return to where we started and get back on board safely. Then we dived Scarbhstac arch on Boreray, which was an incredible dive, as the arch was so big and wide, with currents running along the side of the cave wall.
Once you came through the arch, you just finned along the magnificent wall, covered in jewel anemones of every colour imaginable.
Our last dive was at Boreray with caves and tunnels and endless clear blue water. It was then time to head back to the mainland. It was quite rough, so we had sandwiches along the way, but the weather improved and we had a comfortable passage back to Port Patrick, diving along the way to break up the journey.
I remember another trip back from St Kilda. It was an amazingly calm day and the divers had been on deck watching out for wildlife when I called them in for lunch. I brought Al’s lunch up to the bridge, and just as he stood up a minke whale leapt out of the water, breaching!
It was an absolutely magnificent sight, and boy, did we scream! The divers came rushing out of the saloon with cameras in hand. The whale breached again and again. Rohan Holt managed to get a photo of it in the distance.
We had dinner tied up alongside at Lochmaddy Isle of North Uist. It was Fish & Chip Night. I think we can say we are the only British liveaboard to have a deep-fat fryer with two large baskets.
I cooked the breaded fish (or mackerel straight from the sea if we had caught some that day). The chips were deep-fried and were always to die for.
We generally tried to do a scallop-dive on Fish & Chip Day, so you can imagine it was always a feast, served with crushed peas and rocket.