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Skipper Gordon Lawson of Moonstruck Too with George Macdonald Comann Na Mara race secretary and, centre, Gus Macaulay CNM chair
After 100 nautical miles and almost exactly 23 hours at sea, Moonstruck Too, Gordon Lawson’s J122, took victory at the inaugural St Kilda Challenge.
Organised by North Uist’s Comann Na Mara, the challenge brought together 27 yachts from all corners of the UK and beyond.
Of those 27 boats, 15 of them went in the racing fleet and the remaining 12 cruised in company.
Despite having been at sea for such a prolonged period, it was a nail-biting finish between Grant Kinsman’s Sigma 400 Thalia and Port Edgar Yacht Club’s Moonstruck.
The fastest boat on handicap, Moonstruck was the only one of the racing fleet to make the return journey in under 24 hours – 22 hours and 59 minutes to be precise. Dublin Bay-based Thalia, meanwhile, sailed in after 24 hours and 31 minutes.
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 (OHT) has asked VisitScotland for an urgent review of its decision to close Lochboisdale Visitor Information Centre (VIC).
Alan Graham, the Vice-Chairman of Outer Hebrides Tourism (OHT) and the co-owner of Orasay Inn tourist business in Lochcarnan, comments: “It is sad that OHT, the organisation representing businesses across the tourism industry in the Outer Hebrides, were neither involved nor consulted on this decision.”
OHT has therefore now expressed its concern to VisitScotland about tourist information provision in the Outer Hebrides. Whilst OHT was briefed on a wider review in December 2015, it was assured that any changes to local visitor information centres, and the process of doing so, would be discussed with them. That has not happened.
“Whilst OHT recognises and welcomes the use of digital technology as an information source, we are proud that the experience of a holiday in the Outer Hebrides is renowned for the local personal touch so loved by visitors. Visitors should not have to rely solely on a world-wide web for local information. But relying on enlisting tourism businesses in Lochboisdale to plug the gap left by the closure by signing them up to VisitScotland’s new ‘Visitor Information Partner' campaign is unfair on busy businesses focussed on meeting the needs of their own visitors."
OHT says it would have been keen to discuss possibilities for interim arrangements for the Lochboisdale VIC had the recruitment problem been properly shared with its team. OHT has now sought a meeting with VisitScotland to explore all options to reinstate this visitor information centre at Lochboisdale as a matter of urgency. Ferry passengers arriving at Lochboisdale now find the nearest visitor centres are in Castlebay, another ferry journey away on Barra, and Lochmaddy, several islands and a long drive to the north.
Na h-Eileanan an Iar MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil is dismayed at the closure of the Lochboisdale Tourist Office as VisitScotland state that they are unable to recruit suitable staff.
Mr MacNeil has received confirmation from VisitScotland that the decision has been taken not to re-open the premises and roll out the VisitScotland Information Partner (VIP) programme, a strategy which will include industry, working with VisitScotland to provide more information to more people through more outlets.
A decision to close the Lochboisdale Visit Scotland office has been met with incredulity by Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan.
Visit Scotland say that following the departure of a key member of staff, they made ‘numerous’ attempts to recruit seasonal staff for the centre – all of which were unsuccessful.
As a result, the tourism body has decided not to re-open the office.