Solo Island

PART ONE: NOTES ON GETTING THERE

It took a while this trip. Six or so years of waiting. Six long years of watching the charts and missing season after season as storms moved through without everything getting ‘just so’.

You see to get where we are right now, we being Oli Adams, filmer Danya and I, takes a lot of effort and a shedload of luck.

It all started, as these things tend to, with a late night call from Oli. Something along the lines of:

‘What are you doing from tomorrow for a week or so?’

The answer tends to be:

‘Depends, why?’

Then we get down to the nitty gritty. A trip so out there that no magazine had done it before. Real wild west. But with waves. Great potential for watery tunnels of joy and the best thing is there’s no one there. Well. No. That’s a lie. There is ONE person there. One surfer with a whole island to his own self. Sounds like fantasy but every word of this account is true … honest guv.

Somehow we fit ten boards and two photographer types gear in Oli’s car and motorway miles are duly chewed up. A brief four hours sleep on a friends floor from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. then up and at it again. A ferry is endured. Suffice to say spring swell and ferries do not mix. On that point seasickness bags on ferries are daft. Are they made for children? I’d top one of those things off in one foul hurl. Which would then leave you in a tricky position trying to open a fresh bag for vom two without spilling the gory contents of the first. Anyhoose. I digress. The ferry berths. We take our nauseous selves off for another drive. Another night’s sleep. All so we can get on another ferry. This ferry is key to the tale. This ferry only goes once a week. If the weather isn’t too minging. Which considering the winter we’ve just endured is a long shot. The locals warn us kindly, with a 50/50 mix of humour and concern for us, that the ferry, if it makes it tomorrow, will be the second one to make it in six weeks. Once there we could be stranded for the long run.

PART TWO: ALL AT SEA

The morning is bright and clear. Not a cloud in the sky. It’s the first day of spring and Mama Nature has her Sunday best on for us. Even though we’re far from the Equator there’s a definite hint of warm in the air. So much so I’ve not even bothered with the waterproof over-layers for once. We have to do a shopping spree before getting on the boat because, and I shit thee not, there is not a shop where we are going. No shop. No pub. No nothing. Whatever you need you have to bring with you. Which is on one hand terrifying but on the other refreshing. An unfortunate side effect: it does make you panic buy Curly Wurlys.

The boat departed under a vault of blue sky on the calmest sea imaginable. It would be a few more hours on the brine before we found out if we could get off the other end.

You see this ferryboat, if one can call it that, is all well and good at the civilised departure point with it’s regulation harbour where you can just drive on. Standard. At the other end if there’s too much wind or swell getting off is a tad tricky. As pedestrians you just have to time your jump from the boat to the quay so you don’t get crushed or fall in. As a car you endure the indignity of being hoisted into the blue by a crane…

Yes.

A crane.

It’s a surreal site to see cars and supplies whipped merrily off a ferry by crane anywhere, let alone in the British Isles. Once in the air your car is controlled by the high tech guidance system of: men hanging on to ropes. All fun and games for us. Not so much for Oli with his pride and joy Audi dangling above the North Atlantic; whim to every gust of wind. It all went swimmingly, not literally, and we were off.

Twenty seconds and approximately twenty metres later we were shaking hands with Mr Solo: the sole surfer. The man who lives and surf here by himself. He was glad to see us. Understandable as surfing shallow, heavy waves on your lonesome in an area renowned for strong currents isn’t exactly a cake walk. Not to mention the car size seals and flotillas of killer whales.

He’d sorted us somewhere to stay, a rad crofting cottage that, admittedly, hadn’t been touched inside since it was done up in the early seventies. It was dry(ish), warm (as long as we had the wood burner on) and just over the sheep proof dry stone wall out front had a sea view. He apologised for the lean to/shed part of the property that had been pulverised into firewood by a storm. Like everyone in the UK they’d copped a pasting from the fiercest winter we’d ever witnessed. On the bright side it did mean we didn’t have to look very far for firewood. Just as well as there wasn’t a single tree on the island.

A quick dump of the bags, shopping and many excess boards and we were off to check the surf. That took a drive of about a minute. From one side of the island, where our gaff was, to the other. The surf, like the island, was small, but the potential was blatantly obvious. We’d timed it right. Got in on the weekly ferry on a day it could actually sail and bigger swell was imminent. Now we just had to wait for it turn up.

PART THREE: NOTES ON OUR SITUATION

One quick surf of four waves with a massive bull seal late that first evening and two days of nothing later it’s morning. It’s blowing a hoolie outside. Totally flat on the reef rich side of the island and onshore gunge on the other. So it’s a lazy, long breakfast. I’ve just lit the wood burner and I’m typing this as we huddle around it’s warmth. A strong sweet coffee warming our insides. We haven’t got drinkable water on tap or any hot water apart from the kettle. So in the croft the wood burner is our world. If it’s not too windy it stays reasonably warm. When it’s blowing a hoolie the drafts whip through making warmth fleeting. Wearing coats and/or sleeping bags inside is the norm. Flannel washes are how we keep clean. There is a bath but using a kettle for a bath is daft.

We’re not exactly in the Arctic here but after only a few days the admiration for the people that eke out an existence here, farmers one and all, so far from civilisation, is great. The planning, the resolve, the toughness needed when there’s one boat a week, if they’re lucky, and one cargo plane a week boggles my mind. In the easy everything culture we’re used to the absence of stuff and the constant advertising of stuff is a real tonic. The basics come to the fore: shelter, food, heat and water. We’re okay for the first three and the latter involves driving up to our friends place with drinkable tap water to fill up the bottles. So all we can do now is wait. I can’t even check the charts. Or get a text message for that matter. My network doesn’t reach this far out. The one little guest house near the breakwater that doubles as a pier has got wifi but it seems more like dial-up and they’re only open for lunch, of whatever they have on the go, mainly mutton stew, from 12–1. So it’s take it as it is. Drive or walk across to the other side of the island and see what’s going on. We’ve not scored yet but we’re hopeful. In the meantime a good book is the order for today. I’ll leave you with the thought about how living up here must’ve been pre-Internet. Cut off from the outside world apart from the humble phone. Newspapers a treat. A little satellite island that we know nothing about that could almost be in space it’s so far out.

PART FOUR: NOTES ON THE SURF

Mr Solo the sole surfer has been living here on and off for eight years and one of the things he mentioned about the various reefs was:

‘If you’re looking at it and it’s good … you’ve missed it.’

Now that doesn’t make much sense initially but the gist is simple: it’s fickle, changeable and hellishly exposed up here. What looks good will be probably be a dry slab by the time you’ve suited and booted. Case in point was today. This morning when I wrote the last part it was flat. We went for a lunchtime check and before we’d even parked we could see the offshore reefs feathering huge plumes. The swell had kicked in hard. A right we’d seen the first night looked likely. Draining little pits on a knobbly, shallow, right reef. Oli gave it a shot. As is typical in these situations the head high fun ended when a six foot widow maker set came steam rolling through changing the ball game entirely. But for a first hollow session it was all the taste we needed. Now if we can just repeat that with some light and the offshore wind blowing a few notches down from the speed of sound that it’s currently whistling through the walls at that would be awesome.

PART FIVE: A GOOD DAY

Seems like the gods of weather and waves smiled on those brave or stupid enough to risk getting stuck out here. As light winds and sunshine actually happened. For a few hours at least. Of course the golden sky orb graced us with its presence when the tide was too low. Then the rain came in after Oli surfed two waves at the start of his session. But, the main slab he’d come here to score got its first test. It’s mean, unruly and hard to read but it’s definitely an interesting chunk of rock that the ocean gurgles over. This slab is four minutes walk from our nest. On the west coast. We had a beachy session on the east coast two minutes walk from the gaff in the evening. Who needs cars when you’re living on a small island?

The weather here is phenomenal. I’m not sure if it’s because the island is so small and low but the sky seems huge, like it does in East Anglia, the main effect of this is you can see the weather coming miles off. Fronts fly through on an near hourly basis. It’s when the wind swings you notice it most. As we were checking the beach the wind was light south east, a big chunk of blue sky was about to reach the bit of sky where the sun was hiding. Oli got suited and booted for some fun beachy ramps in potentially awesome evening light. The second he hit the water the clouds stopped, the wind swung and a even darker grey clouds blew in on a west wind. There was a silver lining though, for the last half hour of the day the sun peeked out from under the blanket of cloud giving us a riotous half hour of light that dazzled the senses. Golden light streaming under purple clouds as the jade green waves got progressively cleaner. The sole surfer, unfortunately nursing a bad back from sheep rustling duties, couldn’t resist and joined Oli for a few fun ones. It was the kind of session that leaves everyone with a smile so big it could power a town.

PART SIX: THE REALITY OF LIFE ON THE EDGE

So. We were supposed to be getting the weekly ferry back to the main island today. You can sense from the ‘supposed’ that this hasn’t happened. It’s understandable. The sea is a foamy mess of spume and it’s so onshore at the jetty end of the island there are onshore rooster tails of spray blowing off the little swell. The pack of seals playing in the waves near the jetty don’t seem to mind. Elsewhere it’s huge and scary. It’s so windy the sea is a maelstrom of whitewater. Getting out of the car is not advised unless you want to get blown on your arse. For us soft southerners this wild weather is exceptional. For the hardy locals that call this tiny island home it’s standard. So all we can do now is wait. Waiting for the ferry to make a call. We already know it’s cancelled tomorrow as well. So maybe the next day. But anyone that can read a weather map knows that the day after that is our first hope. We are lucky in one way: there are sheep that need to be taken off island for slaughter so the boat is trying to get here. Without the sheep they’d just wait until next weekend leaving us here for another week.

It’s pretty random to be the only tourists somewhere. We are the lone interlopers. We’re also running out of food as we budgeted for a week or so. But we’ll be fine. The island community is sparse but strong. No one locks their doors or cars. Hell our gaff hasn’t even got locks on the doors to lock. As the sole surfer told us: if you need something just ask. He dropped off a food parcel of treats for us just now knowing we’re a little rattled about being stranded. Even though we knew full well it was a possibility when we came.

PART SEVEN: DOWN TIME ABBEY

It’s 9:30 a.m. I’ve been awake since 6:30. Woken by the wind, rain and hail trying to beat its way through my bedroom window. Whilst the windows in this croft are draughty the walls and roof are anything but. Built tough up here. The walls are two foot thick and the roof … the roof is something to be seen. None of your soft southern roof tiles here. The roof is made of slabs of rock. Not slate. Not tile. Slabs. As in five foot long chunks of bedrock. And thick too. The very end of our croft is still in its original cow shed state with hay feed racks and stone dividers for the cows. The roof isn’t lined in there so you can see the build. Th rafters are random, all sorts of wood, whatever was available in centuries past I guess, and the thickest roof slab is six inches thick. Yep. Six. So. Weather do your worst. You ain’t getting through six inches of rock armour.

There’s not a great deal to do here when it’s blowing a hoolie outside and everyone else is hibernating. So apart from building myself a roaring fire I’m just chilling. Sat on the hearth reading whilst drinking tea. Which might sound like the most boring Saturday morning on Earth but I’m smiling. I’m sleeping so well here, storm aside, and the simplicity of our existence is a real tonic for the soul. Sure this is a work trip. I’m shooting. Oli is surfing, when possible, and Danya is running around filming everything but for once this actually feels a bit like a holiday. I’m gonna come back refreshed rather than the more normal exhausted. Surfing is a break from the norm. You’re at peace in the sea. The pursuit of waves up here just extends that whole vibe.

PART EIGHT: ABANDONED ENDINGS

And so it came to pass the ferry did indeed abandon us. It didn’t work out all that bad as one of the days after we were originally supposed to leave was pumping. But after a few days of ‘maybes’ from the ferry they gave up on making the call and scheduled the next one for the following weekend. So we were staring down the barrel of an extra week when we were already a few days over. For Danya and I, with offices and colleges to be at we had to bail. For Oli it was the impossible choice. Sit it out by himself crossing his fingers the ferry wasn’t called off for yet another week or flying out with us to then return to rescue his car. He stayed. After all there were a few good days looming in the week. As I type this he’s still up there a week after we left. It’s still a ‘maybe’ from the ferry. He’s rattling around the spooky old farmhouse with the island spirits all on his lonesome. Hopefully he’s figured out how to get the wood burner roaring by now. He promised us a Rocky IV style montage week of surfing, training and yoga. He was gonna use sheep for weights and just maybe try and walk around the island in a day.

As for us media scum, we escaped, via the ‘airport’ that is a field with a shed. The islanders take turns in being fire cover for the plane. All that mattered was the flight was ours. On a plane that comfortably wins the ‘smallest plane I’ve even been on’ award. A mere seven passenger seats, a rattly bunch of bolts it was, held together with chewing gum and hope. As equally thrilling as it was terrifying. Cunningly it does not accept surfboard bags. Or any bag over 15kgs. So we left with one bag each. Camera and laptop essentials only. My big lens, my swim fins, wetsuit and bag of stinking laundry are all still there. Waiting for Oli Adams Freight Inc to deliver them at an indeterminate point in the future.

A key plot point there: if you want to explore out here you have to play the ferry game. You can’t guarantee your return, hell you can’t even guarantee getting out there either.

We escaped anyhoose. Leaving Oli to be haunted by barking seals and flocks of Canada geese. Our mission was a long one. I’ve not known the like. Something along the lines of: plane > bus > bus > ferry > taxi > train > bus > plane > car > car > home.

A nerve frazzling experience but so worth it. I’d go back in a heartbeat. There’s something special about the place. A unique corner of the British Isles that few have seen or will ever see.

A place where everyone is friendly, people talk to anyone and everyone because that’s what you do out there. A place where family, food and flock are important. A place that holds many surfing secrets yet to be uncovered. We only saw a glimmer of what the island can do. The potential is vast. I for one can’t wait to go back… Perhaps with a jet ski in tow for the mysto outer reefs. Consider my mind blown, my smile big and my soul glowing.

Huge thanks to: Mr Solo and family for the cottage, coal, wood, food, bog rolls, fresh water, company, history lessons and laughs. It would’ve been a totally different experience without you. And Patrick for being a total legend as always.

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