Neptune repays a debt

At the south-east end of the Irish sea is one of our favourite places – the islands of Skomer and Skokum. For the summer season they play host to countless seabirds and so a stop off there was mandatory as far as we were concerned. By now the guillemots and razorbill chicks have fledged and are to be seen offshore , swimming alongside a parent who scolds us like a fishwife if we come too near, but that still leaves a huge host of puffins who raise their chicks in the security of burrows as opposed to on ledges , and it will be 2 or 3 weeks before they too disappear off to sea.

From Lundy , Scilly and home

We anchored in the late afternoon and to our dismay there were no puffins to be seen onshore . Gradually rafts began to form in the little bay and before long we were surrounded by many thousands of them. Those with a beak full of fishes were pursued mercilessly by the lesser black backed gulls , but usually escaped by diving deep into the water . As the light began to fall, the puffins began to take off and fly in close formation round and round the bay and it was noticeable that the gulls were less successful in their bullying when faced with these massed formations. All of a sudden a few birds peeled off and landed , scuttling in to their burrows. Within ten minutes the cliffs were dotted with little black and white specks as the rest of the puffins dived into the burrows , delivered their fishy loads to their offspring and re-emerged to stand and pass the time of day with their neighbours.
By dusk they were practically all ashore , but that still left 50% of the burrows unaccounted for and we suspected that they were home to the large numbers of Manx Shearwaters that we had seen in the area. . These are very different birds to the puffins and other auks. Long , high aspect ratio wings make them superb flyers but dangerously ungainly on the land and helpless to defend themselves against the predatory gulls who hang around the breeding grounds. They have to come ashore to breed , incubate and feed their chicks and they have solved the safety issue by doing so only in the dead of night. We tried to stay up to observe this but an 0500 start that morning sat heavily on our eyelids and we fell asleep but next morning there was incontrovertible evidence of their presence as the boat was covered in bird droppings. There must be a phenomenal number flying in to have covered the boat in just one night and I feel cross that I didn’t stay up to observe it – but as with so much of this trip , it just means we will have to come back!

From Lundy , Scilly and home

We did manage to “come back” to the island of Lundy which lies like a bottle stopper in the neck of the Bristol channel. 35 years ago Lynda and I did our first ever offshore passage, from the Bristol Avon round to Falmouth, in our new ( to us!) boat. She was built in 1889 and leaked like a sieve. We had no means of getting a weather forecast , in fact no electronics whatsoever , and the engine didn’t work. So it was that we drifted up and down with the tides past Lundy for two whole days ( we didn’t have enough rope to kedge in the deep waters and there was insufficient wind to get in to the anchorage). When the wind came it came with a vengeance and we slogged our way to windward towards Lands End with ¾ of the crew sea sick , pumping all the way and eventually getting round to Falmouth after 5 days . We were out of food and our parents had asked the Coastguard to put out a general alert. Oh to be young, foolish and indestructible again – as opposed to just old and foolish!

This time round it was a doddle. Light NW winds made for easy passages and a calm anchorage which allowed us time to explore this fascinating island . It has a long history of independence from the mainland , and as late as the 16th century was occupied by Moorish pirates for 5 whole years. I can understand how they made it into an impregnable fortress , but with sheer cliffs all round and massive tides I will never know how they managed to keep anything other than a tiny boat safe through this time.
Our luck and the NW wind held for the passage to the Scillies as well. All those years ago we had to fight every inch of the way , but this time the boat sailed effortlessly along on a beam reach whilst we snoozed and read and listened to the prom on the radio. I supect Neptune decided that after the baptism of fire he had subjected us to all those years ago , he owed us one!

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