TWO women have braved big seas, strong tides and chilling winds to become the first female pair to kayak from the Outer Hebrides to St Kilda – and they did it in a replica 1950s wood-and-canvas kayak.
The 40-mile crossing took Christine Stewart and Dolina Swanson, both from Stornoway, 14 hours with only 15-minute food breaks every two hours and a few sips of beer at the halfway point to keep them going.
They made the journey in an old-fashioned kayak to recreate the first such crossing to the archipelago in 1965 by kayakers Hamish and Ann Gow.
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As their boat was only completed last Tuesday, the pair had only one hour of training in it, on Tuesday night, before they set off on their attempt at 8.20am on Thursday.
They left Scolpaig beach on North Uist having had only four hours of sleep due to delays in getting a table at a local restaurant the night before. While the first 10 hours were completed in conditions coach Mike Sullivan described as "a tropical paradise", the weather deteriorated for the final three-hour leg, when the wind from the north increased and waves started coming over the boat.
The swell was so big – up to 15ft – that the pair and their support boat, the Elinca, lost sight of each other several times.
The winds and tide pushed the pair south so they had to bear north of St Kilda in order to arrive as planned in Village Bay on Hirta. They reached the bay at 10.40pm and celebrated with a dram.
Mrs Swanson, 49, a mother of two, said that, getting out of the boat, she was walking "pretty much like a penguin" after being seated for so long. She said: "The boat danced on the waves. We kept to our compass bearings and enjoyed it.
"It hasn't really hit home yet."
Mrs Stewart, 55, a mother of three, said: "I'm absolutely delighted at having done it. I am so proud of the coaches. We can't thank Mike enough for all his organisation. The fact we were able to cope with the sea is just wonderful. I didn't find it tough, I love a big sea."
Mrs Stewart was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis five years ago, and while it does not restrict her mobility, it leaves her dealing with "horrendous tiredness". However, she said that so far, there was no sign of fatigue as a result of the crossing: "Usually, it hits me on the third day after a major exertion. I'm waiting for it, but I don't know if it will come." She said living with MS had not held her back, saying: "I felt so well doing it."
Mr Sullivan said: "The most amazing thing was that you felt like you were stepping back in time because of this vintage canvas and wooden kayak that looked really flimsy. It's only the second time a boat like that has made the crossing. They are the first two women to complete it as a double, so it's a great, great achievement."
The replica kayak, made by father-and-son boatbuilders Angus and Innes Smith, was half the weight of the pair's training kayak and had original seats from a 1965 Clyde double kayak, padded out with swimming pool floats. Mrs Swanson said: "They were very comfortable, like our own little armchairs."
Mrs Stewart added: "She (the kayak) was absolutely beautiful."
Another kayaker, Dave Clement, also made the crossing in a solo kayak a mile behind the pair. The three kayakers and their support crew, including Mrs Swanson's daughter Nina and Mrs Stewart's husband, stayed overnight on the yacht in Village Bay.