Happy New Year and all the best for 2015. I am in the Brecon Beacons at the moment packing to head to New Zealand with that very patient man who you all saw hanging about on the pier at Oban. After four months of various dates at Bookers cash & carry, the north pier bins, picking up dog food from pet’s ‘r’ us and heavy handling meat and fish to Hjalmar, we embarked on a culinary tour through France to the Pyrenees and are now sitting in the snowy beacons drinking inferior Spanish wine and reminiscing about 2014. I always find January a peaceful month and I relish having the time to reflect on the year gone by, all the people we have met and the experiences we enjoyed and would love to repeat.
I had such a remarkable year aboard HB. From the moment that I first saw the job advertised I was almost delirious with a yearning to be chosen as the cook for 2014 season. I had sailed around some of the Scottish islands many years before and their remote beauty had left images impressed on to my mind’s eye. Looking back the big draw was Kilda, that ridiculous little archipelago due west of the Hebrides. As many of you know I come from a long line of Irish seafarers and myself and my sister were brought up on highly exaggerated sea stories from the heroic adventures of Grace Darling, mysteries like the Marie Celeste and the Flannan Islands but the ones that lit my imagination were always the remote Islands. As J.M Barrie said “to be born is to be wrecked on an Island”. I remember watching films like ‘Whiskey galore on wet Sunday afternoons in landlocked Cheshire. At that time the most exotic places in the world to where islands like Kilda so a job cooking on a boat going out to Hirta and its environs was a huge enticement. Equally though I had been to Norway three times and Iceland twice in search of the slightest glimpse of a White tailed Sea Eagle. On meeting Mark and after chatting about victualing and the business end of job interviews the conversation turned to the real reason that both of us do what we do. I asked him if he thought what my chances were of seeing a White Tailed Sea Eagle and he replied “Guaranteed” and so began the most sublime five months of my life.
There was not a single trip where we weren’t accompanied at some point by dolphins. Some of them turned up very late on occasion. On one trip we were in sight of Lismore Light with not a solitary cetacean for six days when we were joined by a flotilla of fins that kept company with us all the way to Oban. Personally the most wondrous sight of the year was seeing a pod of over five hundred common dolphins off the top end of Mull. It was a flat blue day, the sea almost so shiny and flat and it looked as though it had been covered in cling film but just below the purple backdrop of the island the sea seemed to boil as the dolphins ran northwards to. The crew know only too well that dolphins do not turn up at convenient times or in accordance with any onboard ships schedule. They have ruined more clafoutis’s than I care to remember and seemed to have an uncanny knack of turning up for lunch no matter where we were. I recall one cooked breakfast where I came out of the galley armed with a plate of toast only to see the saloon resembling the Marie Celeste, napkins floating gently to the ground and the only living thing being Seven, one eye on me and one eye on an un-chaperoned full English breakfast. You’ll never miss a dolphin shout on Hjalmar my little pocket sized crew member Lulu has the remarkable ability to be able to compete sonically with the Queen Mary on a collision course!
As promised by the skipper I saw my White Tailed Sea Eagles firstly off the cliffs on Mull then in trees at Ardnarmurchan then sat on the top of cairns at the entrance to Loch Eport and later in mating flight near the new Marina at Loch Maddy but nothing was quite so spectacular as, when moored up in Tobermory, myself Lulu and Chris sat on the back of the boat drinking tea and eating some rather splendid choccie biccies, when a shadow obscured the sun and there about thirty feet above our heads flew this great avian wonder it’s wings moving so slowly it looked as if someone had forgotten to turn the laws of gravity on.
Kilda was of course as spectacular as I had imagined. The sea cliffs and stacs are breathtaking and the sight of thousands of gannets whirling above the boat will always stay with me as one of my favourite memories. Mark very kindly let me have a copy of that wonderful picture of Hjalmar off Stac Lee and it now has pride of place in our living room. But oddly Kilda would not be my favourite Islands after I had been lucky enough to visit so many other places. It would be Islands like the Shiants and the Monachs that I would choose to visit again and again. As Anna said to me on a particularly choppy trip out across the Minch “ the sun will be shinning when we get to the Monachs, it’s never bad weather there” and she was right it is an exceptional place which leaves one with the feeling of being somewhere near Tir Na Og or some other mythical Island. I can’t think of a single moment in and around those islands that wasn’t dreamlike. From finding whales bones with sniffer dog Seven (although she mainly found decaying seals) to feeding Icelandic Gulls with smoked salmon to afternoons aboard on the foredeck reading, alone in the sunshine, with only the snuffle of seal to break the silence. The Monachs is the last mobile phone outpost before Kilda so I spent a good deal of time sitting above the wheelhouse chatting to loved ones and describing endless biblical sunsets. The seals sing you to sleep on the Monachs and that is something everyone should experience in life.
There were so many Islands visited over the summer that I can’t mention them all but if you ever get a chance to visit them, North Rona and Sula Sgeir make you feel like Captain Cook. Canna has a beach full of pebbles that look like dinosaur eggs, Raasay is abundant in Jurassic fossils, Leverburgh on Harris has a shop and shops become remarkably exotic after five days as sea (especially if they stock skeins of Harris Tweed at Island prices and all manner of balls of wool) One of my most abiding memories of the summer was sitting on the bow shelling broad beans in the sunshine anchored off Scarp, probably the most beautiful place that we dropped anchor all year. If all this doesn’t sound like a job then it’s because even the most tedious of chores was a pleasure to do whilst chatting with such well informed and well travelled passengers. Happy days scraping carrots on a sunny foredeck keenly watched over by the ship’s carrot munching canine.
Cooking for all our passengers was so much fun. Not least because you were all so grateful and complimentary!. It’s never easy cooking on a boat. Lemon tarts are ruined due to erratic manoeuvring because someone sights a sunfish. Beautiful little lunches, slaved over all morning can be greeted with a very smart evacuation of all passengers simply because of a bit of swell. But when we are moored up for the evening, wine and conversation flowing, and I get a round of applause for something like a cassoulet or some dainty little filled parmesan baskets I am the happiest chef in the world. Thank you for all your kind words. On some days it did feel a bit like the inventions test on Masterchef. Especially on long hauls out to places like Rona when vegetables went yellow or bread grew alarmingly green but myself and my inventive helpers Anna and Lulu always came up with replacements to save the day whether it was Anna making some wonderful salads and dressings, me making croissant from scratch or Lulu showing me how to make butter in a jam jar (thanks to her mum for that one) I remember once having been off for an after dinner stroll along the pontoon at Loch Aline and heading to back to the boat I was filled with such a sense of cosy homeness. The lights in the saloon had a soft golden glow and there was laughter drifting out all over the Loch, the boat, so pretty in the last summer light. I was very proud to be part of such a wonderful Crew and I include all our passengers in that because very unnecessarily you all lent a hand and taught us so much.
There will be a few changes this coming year it seems there must have been something in the water on HB as two members of crew are soon to do an all together different form of splicing and tying the knot. As for me and that man with the van on the pier at Oban we will back next year for a few months because there are simply very few places on this planet that are so beautiful and serene as cruising around the Scottish Islands in summer.
Bon Voyage wherever 2015 takes you.
DID YOU KNOW?
A small bothy on Stac Lee was formerly used by St Kilda fowlers. It is big enough to accommodate two people and is dry inside.