Monday, August 12, 2019

The Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge - Season 4, Episode 4

The Continuing Adventures of Hjalmar Bjorge
Season 4 - Episode 4 - The Flannans
Exploring the Isles of the West Cruise    July 10-19, 2019

Tuesday morning (July 16) the forecast looked good for the Flannans. So we left Carloway and set a course to the west. After three hours of steaming under a clear blue sky we entered the sheltered anchorage between Eilean Mor and Eilean Tighe - the tip of the infamous lighthouse just visible above the clifftops.

With the ship firmly anchored, Mark and Anna went in the inflatable to see how the landing looked. The answer was: not good. We already knew the lower stretch of steps had been scoured away a long time ago. But that, combined with the low tide, made the landing even more precarious.

Once back aboard Mark pondered the situation for a long time. People have been injured here attempting to land, and Mark had to consider the capabilities of all the guests to handle a rope landing. The swell was not the issue, it was the low tide, which made the distance to where you could get a good foothold some six-feet above sea level. After a while Mark decided it was probably a no-go. But twenty minutes later saw Mark, along with Anna and Michelle, back in the inflatable taking another look.

Our hopes of landing returned, as we saw them jump ashore and string a rope to the old rusted stanchions. Once upon a time these stanchions supported railings you could hold on to while ascending the steps. As it turned out, the reason we'd be able to land was that the tide had dropped enough to expose a lower step that would provide a solid foothold for getting ashore.

Landing involved carefully placing one foot on that first step, grabbing the rope, putting your right leg over to the far side of the rope, then slowly ascending. After a climb of 20 feet you reach the beginning of the intact steps, which steeply lead to the old tram track. The good news was that we'd landed. The bad news was that we'd need to leave before the tide rose over that low step. We'd have only 40 minutes ashore.

Only 40 minutes. Good thing it's a small island. I had learned over the past week that this group of guests liked to explore at their own pace, so I decided trying to guide them all around as a group, in such a short period, would not work. Those who wanted to enjoy the puffins could easily find them, as they were everywhere. And those who wanted to see the lighthouse could easily find it. So I left the guests to explore on their own and made a mad dash to the far side of the island. Time was oh so short, and I had one thing, and one thing only, on my mind. To get some photos of the 8th century beehive-cell oratory showing it covered in more puffins than I'd ever seen in one place anywhere in the Hebrides.

The Oratory cell

The oratory has three chambers: a lobby on the east side, the oratory in the center, and a western chamber that may have been the monk's quarters.

The eastern chamber - the lobby

The central oratory chamber

Looking over the third chamber (the monk's cell) with a single-room beehive in the distance

The 3-chambered cell seen from above
East entrance to the oratory
I only had a few minutes to photograph the cell. To get into the central chamber involved getting down on my belly, and then squirming under the low lintel stone across a gooey layer of puffin pooh. Once I crawled out of the far end of the third chamber, a look at the watch showed there was only 10 minutes left. As I hurried back to the landing I met up with Nigel, and with five minutes to spare we ventured a ways down the steep steps to the West Landing. It was there they think the lightkeepers were washed away in December of 1900.

As I said before, I'd never seen more puffins in one place. And as we retraced our steps down to the landing they presented photo ops at every step.

Going down the narrow, steep steps was a bit daunting. Near the bottom I found Michelle waiting for our return. Once Mark came over on the inflatable we took turns descending the rope and carefully stepping into the boat.

It had been an exhilarating 40 minutes. Once we were all back aboard the anchor was lifted, and we set out to for a tour around Roareim, Brona Cleit, and Eilean a' Ghobha: the farthest Flannans. Similair to Sulasgeir, these sea-stacks are home to a large gannetry.

After circling the islands Mark set a course to the southwest. We needed to get through the Sound of Harris, maybe as far as Lochmaddy, a distance of 50 miles. There was a bit of urgency to do so, for a gale was blowing up. The forecast for the following day, Wednesday, was, to put it mildly, dire.  We'd just had a day of adventure. We did not know it at the time, but Wednesday would bring an adventure of another sort.

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