A torrid tale of Martin Atherton, G3ZAY, and his motley crew taking to the high seas to reach the furthest outposts of the empire!
For several years Cambridge University Wireless Society members have been activating British island groups for the RSGB’s Islands on the Air (IOTA) Award. Previous conquests include the Treshnish, Summer, Monach, Shiant, and Farne Is, as well as the treacherous reefs of the Plateau des Minquiers near Jersey. In most cases the operations were the first time the islands had been on the air.
1989 saw only two possible new ones on the IOTA list; the Flannan Islands which lie about 20 miles west of the Outer Hebrides, and, 150 miles further on, the tiny stump of Rockall. The latter being rather too challenging logistically for a major expedition, the Flannans were chosen as the main destination. The next problem was how to get there. Transportation for previous island visits had usually been on local fishing or tourist boats willing to deviate from their normal routes for an hour or two on payment of a modest fee.
Unfortunately, this clearly wasn’t going to work for the Flannans which are a long way from the nearest harbour and are never visited by commercial tourist craft. We were clearly going to have to find some other way this time.
Enquiries at the tourist office in Stornoway revealed that the 40 foot, 10 berth yacht ‘Annag’ was available for charter, complete with skipper, by the day or by the week. Fully equipped with Deers navigator, radio and outboard-powered rubber dinghy, it seemed ideal. After a quick conference and unable to face the prospect of booking just a couple of days and finding ourselves confined to harbour by bad weather, we committed ourselves to a full week which we hoped would allow us to fit in a visit to St Kilda in addition to the Flannans. Martin G3ZAY, Chris G6VMA, Catherine G6OQA, Andrew G0HSD, and Mark G1XMO drove up with all the equipment via Skye and the Uig-Tarbert ferry whilst Don G3XTT jetted (well turbo-propped) in to meet up on the day before departure: Friday July 7th.
The boat was anchored at Amhuinnsuidhe (pronounced Av-In-Soo-Ee) in West Loch Tarbert, an idyllic spot graced with a magnificent Victorian castle and a sea loch where the salmon were jumping so frequently it seemed you only had to hold out a hand to catch them. The equipment and food supplies had to be ferried across in the rubber dinghy, a process which took several hours, but we were able to check in to the IOTA net using a mobile rig on the quayside and keep them up to date on our progress. The skipper, Donald Wilkie, wisely insisted on a safety lecture before departure and included individual tuition in the use of the toilets or ‘heads’. It seemed that incorrect flushing could result in the entire boat filing with water out of the lavatory pan! We were excused sailing lessons as an experienced ‘Number One’ had joined us in the form of Billy Mackinnon, ex-Merchant Navy and a business studies lecturer at the local college.
Setting out at 1600 we discovered the wind was coming directly from the Flannans so rather than spend many hours tacking to and fro we started the engine and lined up on he exact compass course. Steering was quite an art as even a slight swell tended to deflect the boat and the natural tendency to over-correct resulted in a rather zig-zag wake. The islands were clearly going to be further than the straight line 30 miles the way we were going. The boat normally boasted a very fine auto-steering system capable of holding a course better than the most experienced helmsman but in common with much else on board Annag it was defective. Donald gradually broke the news to us that the Decca navigator system was a bit temperamental as it would not work with the engine running or if the battery volts were too low, there was a loose connection in the depth sounder, and the VHF aerial had snapped off! The aerial we could and did fix and ‘Annag’ was quickly back in touch with the coastguard with a quarter wave whip on the rear of the boom. We attempted maritime mobile operation with an HF whip but the lack of any metallic surface for it to work against caused severe RF feedback. A dipole would probably have worked well, but by this time, and despite Stugeron sea-sickness pills, none of us felt like going into the forward cabin to unpack the necessary boxes.
The sickness problem was solved later on when we realised that the recommended dosage, adequate for a gentle car ferry crossing, could safely be exceeded. Most of us felt fine on a triple dose though G0HSD did claim to be seeing blue Ford transit vans off the port bow after swallowing a full packet. His callsign phonetics are now ‘Heavy Stugeron Dose’. At the risk of a lawsuit from the manufacturers I can report that the elasticated wristbands had no apparent effect. We were all sceptical about them from the start not least Donald who had seen acupuncturists and homoeopathic doctors reduced to swallowing Stugerons by the dozen so perhaps this diminished their placebo potential. Visibility was poor most of the way across and the only interest en-route was when we passed through a fleet of foreign trawlers taking advantage of the imminent Sabbath (and hence the absence of all local craft). The Flannans came into view at around 2100 and by 2230 we were anchoring in the lee of Eilean Mor, the largest of the group.
Donald and Billy set off to reconnoitre the old landing stage, constructed along with the lighthouse in 1895, and returned to pronounce the sea-level steps unusable. This only left the main loading platform some 10 feet up the cliff, reached by a steel ladder. All the equipment had to be ferried across by dinghy and then hauled up to the platform on ropes. There were some heart-stopping moments with the generators and rigs as the swell threatened to dash the dinghy against some sharp projecting bolts, but thanks to Donald’s seamanship and G3XTT’s brute strength everything made it safely ashore by dusk at around 2330.
Unfortunately, Eilean Mor rises almost sheer to a grassy plateau about 25Oft asl so we had to carry everything up a tortuous route of broken concrete steps followed by a scramble up the old cliff railway trackbed. The railway had been constructed to lift supplies up to the light-house but was dismantled about 20 years ago when the light became automatic and helicopter access the norm. DXpedition tip: Always take at least one Territorial Army officer with you. Chris, G6VMA and Don, G3XTT, true to their training, actually appeared to enjoy labouring up a crumbling path with a Honda generator or HF rig under each arm. The rest of us would probably have voted to dismantle them and take them up a piece at a time!
By about 0100 everything had been carried up but too exhausted to operate we collapsed into the tents for a rest. Adrenalin levels did not allow much sleep and we were up at 0500 erecting antennas and made the first QSO with G3TOK at 0530 UTC. Daylight was of course no problem as it never really got dark; there was just a fairly deep twilight from 0000 to 0230. The equipment used was an FT101ZD plus KW1000 linear, with a TS120S as a second station. Power came from two Honda generators and a car battery. A 40OW Honda powered the FT101ZD and a 65OW Honda allowed the linear to generate about 300W output. The TS120 was quite happy running off the battery. On previous trips the Hondas performed faultlessly but on this occasion both played up. The smaller developed a blocked silencer and the larger, a sticking carburettor. At times we were wholly dependent on the car battery while G1XMO went to work on them with the limited tools we’d brought.
For antennas we had taken a Butternut HF6V vertical, a 24ft telescopic aluminium mast and dipole kit on loan from the Territorial Army, and all the makings for a 10/15m quad together with eight four foot sections of interlocking 2in steel tube. The steel sections were heavy and had been left on the yacht until we knew how the Butternut would perform. They were to stay there for the whole trip as the HF6V exceeded our expectations on all bands. With only a handful of nonresonant radials we had no trouble working into W6 and VE7 on HF and across Europe on LF.
The army dipole kit was a great help as it gave us a simple second antenna which could be retuned easily to whatever band we wanted. Nothing tricky about it, just a spool on each end to take up excess wire, a table of length against frequency (different from what you might expect because of the end-loading of the spools), and coloured markers every metre along the wire. To lower the operating frequency we just uncoiled more wire.
With two stations on the air it was time for the off-duty ops to explore the island. The light-house buildings were securely locked and of little interest anyway, but a little way down the hill there was a one room dry stone shack marked on the O.S. map as an ancient chapel. Local opinion was that it was more likely to have been a shelter built in the sixteenth or seventeenth century by fowling parties from Lewis or Harris. We learned that the Flannans had been a good source both of sea-birds and their eggs and had been regularly farmed. These early visitors had apparently developed a range of superstitions associated with their landings. They would not land if the wind changed on the voyage out, they would leave their clothes on a special rock, would avoid the use of certain words and would never kill a bird with a stone or before all members of their party were safely ashore. With no hunting taking place today the seabird numbers have increased enormously and the eastern side of Eilean Mor we found to be carpeted with Puffins. Unaware of any danger they would allow people to approach within a few feet before taking to the air.
The WX during our stay was reasonably good. A brisk wind blew in from the south-west during Sunday but the tents stayed in place, helped by a few large rocks, and ‘Annag’ was well sheltered in the lee of the island. Visibility at one point increased enormously and we were able to see the outline of St Kilda on the horizon some 40 miles away. Nearer at hand we could also see the adjacent islands of the group some 4 miles west and in a different WAB square. Despite repeated requests on the 80 and 40 metre nets we decided not to attempt a landing as the sea was getting quite rough and there was no safe spot.
The majority of people seemed to know where the islands were though a few persisted in calling them the Flannels. A most interesting QSO was with a GM3 who had been one of the last lighthouse keepers to be permanently stationed there in the ’60s. He reminded us of the mystery disappearance of three keepers in 1900 when the supply ship arrived to find a half eaten meal and nobody to be seen. It was eventually assumed they had been washed off the cliff path by a freak 100 foot wave. Perhaps they had used one of the proscribed words or left their clothes on the wrong rock!
During Monday evening we conferred with Peter G3VIE, who works for the Met Office at Bracknell, about the best time for departure to St Kilda. His advice was to go as soon as possible as the conditions were likely to deteriorate during Tuesday with a Force 7 wind developing. Although we had been hoping for a good night’s sleep and a leisurely sail across on Tuesday morning we decided to set out at once. There followed a frenzy of packing up and portering and we finally had ‘Annag’ loaded by about 0300.
Needless to say the wind was coming at us directly from St Kilda so once again the engine was started and we chugged off to the south-west. One hour later the engine spluttered, stopped, and refused to re-start leaving us no option but to hoist sail and make the best course we could (about 40 degrees off the required track). Donald disappeared head-first into the bowels of one of the lockers in order to change what appeared to be a dirty fuel line and Billy emerged with the welcome news that a gale warning had just been issued. A little later Donald was still head-down in the locker and a muffled shouting could be heard. On investigation it seemed that he had become stuck after a few minutes and been unable to attract our attention!
Around 0900, as a result of Donald’s labours (and thanks to the Jubilee clips off our camping stove) the engine was restarted and we were able to resume a proper course. Or rather, we would have been able to if we had known where we were! The batteries had run flat so the Decca navigator put us in the middle of the Sahara and we had only a rough idea of our course and speed over the previous 5 hours. Donald spent some time on a dead reckoning estimate before announcing our new course as the visibility was poor and we would need to pass reasonably close to St Kilda to sight it.
Fortunately his experience paid off and the cliffs of Hirta came into view at around 1400 not too far from where we had been expecting them. However, just as we were looking forward to getting ashore the WX took several turns for the worse. The wind got up to Force 8-9, visibility dropped to a few hundred yards, and the sea became quite rough with waves up to about 15ft high. The island was no longer in view and the Decca still thought we were south of Timbuktu!
Inexperienced sailors would probably have given up any thought of making St Kilda and headed off for open sea but Donald was made of sterner stuff. Steering by the wave direction and making use of a small amount of mainsail he inched his way blindly into the lee of Dun, a small island guarding the entrance to Village Bay. The first few miles took about three and a half hours with ‘Annag’ actually being blown backwards at times. It was rather depressing to glimpse one of the outlying stacs through a temporary gap in the mist and then see it in the same place through another gap half an hour later!
Village Bay was a welcome respite from the storm though clearly it was far from being a perfect harbour. Every few minutes a squall would come racing down the hillside and shake the yacht violently. Passengers en route to the jetty would invariably get drenched with spray blown off the surface of the sea. Down below things were equally wet as one of the hatches had not been closed property and most of the clothes and sleeping bags were soaked through.
First impressions were of a misty rainswept island rising steeply from the sea with a cluster of grey military buildings by the shoreline and a veritable smallpox of drystone constructions on every non-vertical surface. These were the cleits or storage bins, built by the St Kildans when the island had a permanent population. The old village, evacuated in 1930, was visible as a line of mostly roofless dwellings in an arc around the bay. It was a rather wet and bedraggled group that climbed onto the quayside to be welcomed by the Battery Sergeant Major of the St Kilda Royal Artillery Detachment. Our arrival was expected as we had already written to the Army and the National Trust for Scotland for landing, camping, and operating permission and we were given a warm welcome. The sergeants mess made clothes dryers available and things were soon looking up. The camp site even had hot showers. We were pleased to find that the island boasted its own pub ‘The Puff Inn’ but, for the first night, were unable to take much advantage of it because of the high levels of Stugeron in our bloodstreams. Renowned for its relaxed closing times and rowdy parties ‘The Puff Inn’ was also, we were told, famous for its meat pies. Needless to say they were off the menu the night we arrived and we had to be content with crisps and peanuts.
Don, G3XTT, got a station on the air as soon as the tents were up but succumbed to exhaustion after an hour or so and like the rest of us collapsed into a sleeping bag until late Wednesday morning. Wednesday and Thursday were much brighter days and we got a clear view of the other radio installations on the island. The RA missile tracking equipment consists of a number of radomes an the peaks of Mullach Mor and Oiseval together with a 240 foot steel tower right on the summit. Access is by a narrow, winding, single track road suitable only for four wheel drive Land Rovers driven by specially qualified and tested drivers. Winds regularly demolish the radomes and have been known to blow the Land Rovers onto their sides!
Down below, the operating QTH was well screened by steep 1000’ hillsides but the Butternut did its stuff and we had no problem working the IOTA enthusiasts in Europe and the USA. The WABers were another matter altogether as they were quick to point out that St Kilda sits on the intersection of four separate squares and wanted a QSO from each. Presumably a station on the exact cross point would have met this need with one QSO but that physical location was 800 feet up a very steep hill and we didn’t fancy the idea of carrying anything up there.
NF09 could be reached by a level walk of about 400 yards from the campsite but NA00 was over the peak of Mullach Mor some 1200 feet above us and NA10 was at a similar height in territory we knew to be guarded by aggressive nesting skuas. (We had already been divebombed by them on an early walk around the island.) We agreed to do NF09 at 1800 on the 13th and with assistance from the army in the shape of a Land Rover ride up the single track road to the summit were able to do NA00 at around 1830. Equipment for these excursions was the TS120 car battery, and trusty Butternut vertical.
The last night was spent in the bar signing the visitors book; the ceiling! A stepladder was supplied and our callsigns were added to all the other names. We looked hard but could find no trace of the 1988 VHF expedition up there so concluded they were too drunk to climb the ladder or too wedded to operating to spend time in the bar!
The return voyage was fairly uneventful. For once the wind was behind us and were were able to sail all the way back to Amhuinnsuidhe making a short tour of the other islands in the St Kilda group on the way. Even the Decca navigator started working and was soon mastered by Catherine, G6OQA, who kept us regularly informed of progress and bearing to steer. Her course was monitored by Donald which was just as well because in the final approach up West Loch Tarbert we all forgot that although the computer was giving us the correct course to the anchorage we had forgotten to tell it there was a headland in the way.
Unloading produced a narrow escape to the great amusement of most of the onlookers. (The exceptions were Donald’s next party who had come to check their departure time and begun to wonder what they were in for!) Having filled the dinghy with rucksacks, etc, we stepped in, cast off and tried to start the engine. This is not the approved order, although we did get the first bit right and we soon found ourselves being blown down the creek without a paddle. Yes the dinghy was usually equipped with paddles but we’d left them on the boat! They were thrown out to us but fell short and the jerry cans we had with us didn’t make an adequate substitute. Just as we were drawing lots to decide who would swim for them, the engine spluttered into life.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. We took Don back to the airport where for some reason British Airways was flying a jet in the livery of Presidential Airlines of Washington DC and then headed for home via the Stornoway-Ullapool ferry. QSO totals were 1500 from Flannans and 1000 from St Kilda. A jolly good time was had by all. Honestly.
The members of the group would like to express their appreciation for the skills (nautical and culinary) and goodnatured round-the-clock assistance of ‘Annag’s’ skipper Donald Wilkie and temporary crewmember Billy Mackinnon. Rarely can they have had such an eccentric bunch of passengers and we trust that our antics will amuse future charterers just as Donald’s tales of past voyages amused us.
Webmaster’s note: This article appeared in RadCom: