Conquering perilous Rockall

A RATHER unusual motion was raised by Isles MSP Alasdair Allan in Parliament on Tuesday, May 20.

The motion asked 'That the Parliament notes the achievement of Innes Smith, aged 21, who landed on Rockall on Wednesday May 14 with Charles Veley, the world's most travelled man; congratulates Innes for swimming out to Rockall before climbing to the top of the rock with a Saltire and a flag made of Harris Tweed; notes that Innes is most probably the youngest person to land on Rockall and is the only person to circumnavigate the rock by kayak; acknowledges this very rare feat, and congratulates Innes for his achievements'.

Speaking of his adventure, Innes, smiling broadly at the memories, simply said: "It was just good fun!"

As part of the crew of sailing yacht 'Elinca', Innes travelled to Rockall, in a 700 mile round trip via St Kilda, with 'island-bagger' Andy Strangeway and world adventurer Charles Veley amongst others in an expedition organised by Andy.

For Yorkshireman Andy – who is already the first person to travel to and sleep on all 162 Scottish islands over 40 hectares in size – the aim of the trip was to take his quest one step further by spending a night atop Rockall.

Alas it was not to be for the Island Man as, once arriving at the rock the team were faced with the challenge of battling a 15-20 foot surge in order to get onto Rockall.

"From that point of view the trip was a failure," admitted Andy, continuing: "Both for me spending a night on Rockall and for Radio Ham Michael Mcgivr from Chicago who was with us and has had the dream of transmitting from Rockall – probably the most difficult place in the world to transmit from – since he was 18."

However, all was not lost as Andy added: "I don't believe that there is any other place on this earth that's as hard to land on and stay on as Rockall, and although I never made it this time, I've now collected plenty of experience and information which I can go through to see what is to be done before the next attempt."

A total of six others on the trip did make it onto Rockall however – Lewis men Innes Smith, poet/sailor Ian Stephen and Mark Lumsden were all successful in conquering the rock and making it to the summit.

World traveller Charles Veley – who has visited 629 of the world's 673 countries, territories, regions, islands, states and provinces – also made it onto Rockall, although not to the top, as did Dublin based David Langan and oil industry worker Martyn Simpson from Peterhead.

For Martyn, the chance to get to Rockall fulfilled a childhood dream. Having first seen Rockall about 12 years ago when on a trip with his father, a fisherman working on a trawler out of Peterhead, and having narrowly missed landing on St Kilda due to bad weather whilst on a school trip, when Martyn read of Andy's expedition he knew that he had to be a part.

"Seeing Rockall for the first time on the trip was strange as I had been there before, but had never expected to ever go back or be able to go ashore," he revealed.

"I did land on Rockall, but it was difficult due to the swell of the water. To get ashore we had to get off the yacht and into a dingy which took us to about five to 10 metres from the rock where we had to get into the water and swim the rest," he explained of the feat undertaken by the six men.

"At the rock you had to judge the swell to lift you up onto the rock so you could grab onto anything – a ledge, a small hole, seaweed – you had to grab anything so that when the swell dropped back down you could try to scramble ashore.

"I got ashore on my first attempt, but was hit with the swell three times before I managed to scramble high enough to clear it. I only got half way up due to having no climbing experience, unlike Innes, Ian and Mark, but I was delighted to get to the rock and to get ashore.

"The feeling to be on the island was strange as so few people had ever been there before – it was a great feeling though!"

Situated roughly 230 miles west of North Uist, Rockall, the summit of the eroded core of an extinct volcano, rises about 72 feet from the Atlantic and is regularly washed over completely by storm waves.

Those on Andy's expedition were lucky therefore to have calm weather for their landings, but this in itself caused a few problems for skipper of the Elinca, Innes' father Angus Smith.

"The weather was just too good as we just had no wind for sailing and ended up motoring most of the way there and back!" he said.

"Seeing Rockall though was fantastic. I love it as although you're plotting courses and you know when you're going to come across the rock it always comes as such as surprise when you see it rising in front of you and you know you've found this tiny wee spot in the middle of the ocean.

"It was just such as fantastic buzz to get there."

And Angus is obviously very proud of his son's achievements at conquering Rockall.

For Innes, it seems no challenge is too great, as he expanded on his adventure: "It was a good challenge getting up to the top.

"Once you were on the rock it was a good climb to the top and it was really slippery with all the bird guano – it's just as well that I had to swim back as I was pretty stinky by the end of it!" he laughed.

"Mark made it up first and I went round in the kayak to shout instructions to him on where to go as when you're climbing you can't really see where's best for the next step.

"Kayaking round the rock was pretty bumpy as there was a good 15 ft swell between waves, but it was brilliant fun, and Mark even went round it on his surfboard as he was telling me where to go during my climb."

Once he had scaled the summit, Innes then not only had the honour of 'claiming' Rockall for Scotland by raising the Saltire flag; but the even greater honour of unfurling a length of Harris Tweed and raising it above the isolated ocean outcrop.

As Rockall is considered part of the South Harris parish, Luskentyre weaver Donald John Mackay had donated the tweed to be 'landed' on the island.

A success for some and a failure for others, there is little doubt that whatever the outcome, the trip to Rockall was an adventure that all who undertook it will remember for a lifetime.

But for many aboard, the trip was about more than simply getting to Rockall and climbing to the top as Lewis poet and sailor Ian Stephen – the final of the three to climb to the summit, where he recited a 'made-up-on-the-spot' poem – said of the experience: "For me it was a very thoughtful trip. It was also a very funny one. The banter aboard was just great, but there was space for quieter conversations too.

"One of the group, Bob, a retired master-mariner, said we'd all come on the adventure for different reasons and ended up as friends. That's a good summary."