At 9.30am yesterday (Friday June 10), 27 yachts left the Sound of Harris with their sights set firmly on the St Kilda archipelago – a return journey of some 100 nautical miles.
It is expected that the first yachts home will pass through the finish line mid to late morning today (Saturday, June 11) and organisers hope that the last will be no later than three o’clock in the afternoon.
The St Kilda Challenge is the brainchild of North Uist’s community organisation Comann Na Mara and yesterday’s starting gun on this first ever edition of the event marked the culmination of years of work on the part of the committee to bring the dream to reality.
Perhaps the sheer uniqueness of this event is best illustrated by how far people have been prepared to come just to be part of it – in the cruising fleet, Trevor Bardwell-Jones’ Inky Paper has made the journey from Cornwall. The USA registered yacht AJ Wanderlust is a veteran of travelling the high seas - currently based in the Isle of Man, her crew is comprised of sailors from London, Manchester, Isle of Man and Maine, US. And John Rutherford’s Sigma 38 Degree of Latitude has her roots in the Solent.
Unusually for an area of the country not known for its calm weather, wind was notable by its absence this morning and the racing fleet took some time to make progress towards the open Atlantic – not helped by sailing against a flooding tide. Just a light easterly – peaking at no more than five knots – nudged the boats on their way.
For the 12 yachts taking part in the cruising fleet, with the option of switching an engine on to aid progress, the lack of breeze was not of major concern. For the racers, however, contemplating 100 or so nautical miles with the forecasters predicting no more than 15 knots of wind, even in the far Atlantic, could signal time to dig deep into the patience and stamina reserves.
The atmosphere on North Uist when the fleet assembled was electric – a frisson of excitement with the village’s marina filled to bursting and hundreds of participants taking to the shore and exploring. Locals meeting and greeting and enjoying the busy vibe.
Alongside the race and cruise, the committee has organised a three-day festival with everything from bands to plays, books and art through to film. The Hebridean premiere of Julie Fowlis’ Heisgeir is a notable highlight, as is the arrival of the Highlands and islands’ own mobile cinema the Screen Machine for the duration of the event. Singer and composer Rick Taylor has already performed his work The Poet and The Maiden to great acclaim and contemporary traditional ensemble the Ross Ainslie Trio, accompanied by Plan B dancers, take to the stage this evening.
“We are absolutely delighted to see the St Kilda Challenge in full swing,” said Comann Na Mara chairman Gus MacAulay. “We have been planning this event for many, many years and it is finally happening – we are thrilled and very grateful to all those who have helped.
“It’s been a phenomenal amount of team work and I’d like to particularly mention our race officer John Readman of Clyde Cruising Club for such an excellent job.
“It has been fantastic to see so many boats making the journey north and to see Lochmaddy’s Marina at full capacity. The draw of the St Kilda archipelago is a strong one and there has been great excitement among all those who are participating.
“The atmosphere ashore has been great and I am sure that there are friendships being forged here which will endure. I am looking forward to hearing all the tales when the sailors return tomorrow.”
Some of the those taking part know one another of old; most are new acquaintances. In the racing fleet, Irish yachts Grant Kinsman’s Thalia and Dream Machine, owned by George McCormick – both Sigma 400s – are friendly rivals and were planning to enjoy their own mini race within the race. In the cruising flotilla, though, there is also a competitive edge with both Mungo MacDonald’s Arty Miss and David Petrie’s Sulis also agreeing to race each other.
Both Thalia and Dream Machine, as well as Helensburgh yacht Pippa VI, a First 40.7, with Fraser Gray and Gordon Lawson’s J122 Moonstruck Too from Port Edgar Yacht Club were up bright and early this morning to strip out their boats – removing all excess weight to allow them to gain as much speed as possible.
The yachts left Lochmaddy Marina at 7am to journey about 20 miles to the start line in the Sound of Harris. Local man Ruaraidh Nicholson lent his fishing boat Harmony to act as committee vessel, while the Leverbugh Lifeboat, dressed overall, marked the other end of the line.
The challenge brings the windswept St Kilda island group into sharp focus – helping to highlight the UK’s only dual World Heritage Site, recognised for both its natural and cultural significance, in what will be the 30th anniversary of it receiving its designation in 1986.
Sailing’s governing body RYA Scotland and the Scottish Sailing Institute, which specialises in the organisation of national and international events in Scottish waters, have been closely involved in the project along with Clyde Cruising Club, and CalMac is offering significant support as proud prime sponsor. Collaboration partners on the event advisory board also include Ocean Youth Trust, Sail Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, University of St Andrews, Scottish Natural Heritage, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Harris Tweed Hebrides and Harris Distillery.
Outer Hebrides Tourism and RSPB Scotland have joined forces to launch a new Bird of Prey Trail in the Outer Hebrides.
Both organisations wish to highlight one of the islands’ greatest natural assets: the abundance of birds of prey.
RSPB Scotland’s Robin Reid said, “The Outer Hebrides is a stronghold for several of Scotland’s most iconic predators including both golden eagles and sea eagles. For many visitors to the islands, an eagle encounter is the highlight of their stay. The Outer Hebrides Bird of Prey Trail links the best places to watch birds of prey throughout the islands and aims to attract more visitors to enjoy these spectacular birds.”
It’s fair to say the year 2015 was one to forget for Hebridean boat-operators. In fact, Seumas Morrison, of Sea Harris, says the horrendous weather made it the worst he had ever experienced.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, last year was the worst,” he said. “We were only out five times in May. That’s unheard of.”
Not getting out to sea was particularly frustrating for Seumas, as he had just taken delivery of a brand new boat. However, ever the optimist, he has simply transferred his enthusiasm from this time last year to now.
And thankfully, the bookings are still coming in thick and fast, a welcome indicator that the cancellations of 2015 haven’t put people off for 2016.
Celebrating its fifth year in 2015, the North Harris Trust’s Isle of Harris Mountain Festival is set to be bigger and better than ever before.
Begun in an attempt to extend the local tourist season, the event has seen a rise in popularity over the years, with attendance of 560 in 2014 – 40 of whom came to the Western Isles specifically for the Harris Mountain Festival and would not have visited otherwise.
“We always hold the Festival in September in a bid to boost tourism at the end of the season,” explains North Harris Trust Ranger Matt Watts.
“We now have people coming just to go to the Festival events so it’s great news. Thanks must go to our sponsors – Awards for All Scotland and Marine Harvest – and also to the many local businesses and organisations which join us and allow the festival to offer such a full programme of events.”
Running from Saturday 12th to 19th September this year, a terrific set of guest speakers will be on hand to regale, entertain and inform throughout the week long celebration of the mountains of Harris.
‘Headline’ speaker of the 2015 festival is the esteemed nature writer and journalist Jim Crumley who joins the line-up to talk about his latest publication ‘The Eagle’s Way’.
Concerning the effects of the reintroduction of Sea Eagles in Scotland, Jim combines passion, beautifully descriptive prose and his 25 years’ experience within the book, making it essential reading for wildlife lovers and eco-enthusiasts. His talk, therefore, is not to be missed!
Other speakers include fell-runner Manny Gorman telling the story of his continuous traverse of the Scottish Corbetts on foot, bike and sail – a journey which took 70 days; Sustainable Rural Development Lecturer Roddy Murray, of Lews Castle College presents an interesting look at the islands lands; and the ‘Munro Moonwalker’, Alan Rowan, brings with him a film to accompany his talk.
A ‘mountain fanatic’, Rowan has climbed the Munros twice, the Corbetts and all the 3,000 foot peaks in England, Ireland and Wales – many of them during the night!.
As well as hosting Photographic Workshops throughout the Festival week, award winning natural history and landscape photographer Laurie Campbell presents a collection of his work, old and new in his turn as guest speaker.
Landscape Photographer Darren Cole will also take Festival-goers on a day-long photography workshop; and rounding up the guest speakers is James Ogilvie, a mountaineer and forester who completed his round of ‘Seven Summits’ - climbing the highest mountain on each continent around the globe – in January this year.
The Harris Mountain Festival once again throws down its own climbing gauntlet in ‘The Harris 5 Peak Challenge’. Climb three of the five peaks – An Cliseam, Toirga Mor, Toddun, Beinn Dubh and Roineabhal – and claim not only a free Mountain Festival dram, but the accolade of your achievement!
Certainly not a ‘passive’ event, the Isle of Harris Mountain Festival encompasses everything outdoors, and the 2015 week proves no different with walks, trails and more to suit every ability – from a stroll in the rolling hills to a hike to the top peaks!
Guided walks due to talk place include the Huishinish to Cravadale and Traigh Mheilen path; walks to the summit of Todun, An Clisham and Tiorga Mor; as well as the Community Walk following the ‘Postman Path’ and taking in Urgha, Rhenigidale and Maraig, and the ever popular Golden Eagle Walk.
Segway Trekking events are another, and perhaps easier on the legs, way to explore the Harris hills; and for a different perspective of the land, why not take a powerboat tour of Loch Seaforth to view the mountains from the sea!
Other outdoor activity taster sessions on offer this year include sea kayaking, rock climbing, and surfing.
And you can find out more about the seas surrounding the Harris Mountains – and what’s in them – by joining the Whale and Dolphin Conservation ‘Shorewatch’ Event, celebrating these amazing creatures by learning how to spot and identify different species of whales and dolphins.
A Boat Trip to Scarp from Hushinish, delivered by the Islands Book Trust, offers a rare chance to get out to the island of Scarp; the annual Mountain Festival Raft Race will no doubt provide much hilarity, and you can test your mettle against others in the Rhenigidale Hill Race!
And throughout Festival week, the Isle of Harris Mountain Festival will also offer the chance to gain a Mountain Training Association ‘Hill Skills’ accreditation for beginners; as well as ‘Mountain Skills’ for those aiming to improve their abilities.
Tourists with campervans can now enjoy the luxury of electricity as the West Harris Trust provides four brand new hook-ups beside the stunning Seilebost Beach.
And included in the £18 per night (inc VAT) fee is use of litter bins and fresh water.
Situated at the Trust’s base at the former Seilebost School, the hook-ups are already proving to be a real hit with happy campers.
Lisa Macdonald is a Development Officer at the West Harris Trust, and the hook-up scheme was her first major project since moving to Harris last year.
She said: “We have installed four campervan hook-ups for use between April and September. These will be manned Monday to Friday by ourselves during the daytime, but we also have an out-of-hours caretaker.”
The new hook-ups come with four special pitches, and are securely fastened on two posts. “All motorhomes have their own cables,” said Lisa.
“It’s just a case of turning up and plugging in.” Although planning permission restrictions means that the Trust cannot offer toilet or shower facilities, Lisa says that campers are directed to Horgabost, where such amenities are available.
For the future, the Trust hopes to establish another three hook-ups at its new enterprise centre in Horgabost. “Only a few places have hook-ups in Harris, but none are on the west side,” said Lisa.
“Our hook-ups are right beside the beach. It’s a perfect spot for getting onto Seilebost beach, and it’s an ideal place to base yourself if you want to see the whole island, as you are right between Tarbert and Leverburgh.”
Lisa added: “The hook-ups have been very popular. A lot of people have found us online, on Facebook and on www.ukcampsite.co.uk.
“On our first day we had a motorhome who had heard about us from someone in Scarista, so word of mouth has been very useful too.”