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Special Report on the forthcoming expedition to the FLANNAN Islands (DI25)

Expedition to IOTA EU-118

from August 8, 2002 by André, GM3VLB, and Alex, GM0DHZ


Many of you will recall the 1999 expedition (by André, GM3VLB and Keith, MM0BPP). Those who have seen the video will understand why I was reluctant to contemplate a return trip.

Excluding ROCKALL, there are 11 GM EU IOTA Islands. EU-008, 009, 010, 012, 092 and 123 are all easy, only requiring permission, a modest financial outlay and transport. EU-059, 108, 111, 112 and 118 are more difficult (and costly) - and for anything other than 'pop on, pop off' operations (which leave many island hunters frustrated) these islands require special transport arrangements and authorisation; serious planning to survive an unscheduled prolonged stay; and will entail considerable expenses, even for serious 'shoe-str112ing' expeditioners such as GM3VLB. (A previous dxpedition group, several years ago, had persuaded the Coastguard helicopter to take them out to the Flannans, but this had serious repercussions and the use of the Coastguard's helicopter for such activities has since been banned).

The FLANNANS (EU-118) are in a league of their own!

The Flannan Islands comprise several individual islands, the largest of which has supported a lighthouse for over a hundred years. It is also the highest, rising steeply out of the sea to a height of 88m. There are two possible landing sites (the 'west' and 'east' landings) - both now in very poor condition. From each a track leads up to the lighthouse - this track originally incorporating just that, a narrow-gauge rail line for pulling up carts of supplies.

The Flannans (DI25, or IOTA EU-118) lie some 30km off the north-west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. These islands are now uninhabited, save for a huge population of sea-birds and rabbits. The last human residents left when the lighthouse became automated, and visits now tend to only be for maintenance of the light. (There 'may' be a resident 'ghost' population, the spectres of three lighthouse keepers who vanished without trace in the early history of the light!).

As the crow flies, they are about 30km off the west coast of the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides (the "HI" group), which even in summer, is battered by westerly winds. Transport is limited to one or two charter companies operating from sheltered inlets in WAB NB03 or NB23 - the alternative is a long, often unpleasant, sail from the Scottish mainland. Either way, the sailing distance from these start points is considerably increased. A private charter can cost around $5000. You may also go as a 'normal' individual passenger, but it is then skipper who decides the itinerary (which may or may not include your proposed destination). Special restrictions will apply to generators, fuel, batteries etc., there are NO battery charging facilities on the Shiants, the Monachs, Treshnish etc.!!!

For my 1999 EU-118 expedition (and again for the 2001 EU-059 St KILDA operation), I was able to secure the services of a deep-sea fisherman, but it should be remembered that fishing boats are not "licensed" to carry passengers - any cash transactions are 'unofficial', and you travel at your own risk. Similarly, your stay on an island may be (and has to be) 'authorised', but is also entirely at your own risk.

In 1999, we managed to borrow a small 2m, 'unsinkable' fibreglass dinghy with one pair of oars. This was to allow us to transfer from the fishing boat to the so-called 'west landing' of the Flannans, which consists of a small concrete ledge at the foot of a near-vertical cliff. The multi-trip transfer, although only 100m each time, in perfect conditions (which includes a minimum 1.5m Atlantic swell) from a fishing boat anchored offshore, would have tested anyone's resolve. The surge of the swell over submerged steps and rocks below the ledge is guaranteed to up-turn any small dinghy. Fortunately our various sinkings only resulted in the loss of one fuel container, although clothes were soaked from several 'dunkings'!

Up the side of the cliff, a 6 or 7 metre stretch of concrete steps, part of the access used by the 'pre-automation' lighthouse keepers, has long since been sent to the bottom of the sea by the constant Atlantic battering. You are now presented with a smooth rocky surface, sloping at 45° into the treacherous, swirling sea below. If you get past this with all the equipment, you then have a serious, vertigo-inducing, cliff-crawl to the 4m square upper concrete platform (originally the base of a long-gone small crane). There is no railing, only a 30m drop into the raging sea!

This is where we 'anchored' the tent - without a single tent-peg!! As some will recall, the weather changed during the operation and it became impossible to leave by the said 'west landing' and we were faced with a long, arduous haul of equipment - right across the island to the 'east landing', followed by another "interesting" transfer to our fishing boat.

Few would enjoy the 10 hour trip, each way, in a wallowing fishing boat - although Keith (MM0BPP), as an ex-Navy man, did - but it was the conditions encountered getting on and off the Flannans which led me to say "never again"!

Now, 3 years on, the memory is still as vivid but I guess I must have a masochistic streak. This is fuelled by the many requests I receive from those still needing EU-118 as an IOTA point in its own right.

As they say, better the devil you know! The fishing boat skipper had got me safely to and from the FLANNANS and St KILDA in the past, and was willing to try again. I have been giving the question serious thought for many months. Permission was obtained (having activated 114 Scottish islands in the last 5 'seasons', including all GM IOTA groups other then Rockall, does help). Chartering a helicopter was financially well out of the equation, so I decided early on (in 1999!) that the 'west landing' was definitely not an option. That leaves the 'east landing' where, last expedition, a slip almost caused an involuntary high-dive into the Atlantic - but which, in the event, only caused me observe that video cameras don't survive such drops into the sea either!

For the last several weeks I have been relying on the fishing-boat's skipper to locate a more suitable form of transport for the transfer from fishing boat to Flannans. But he has been unable to locate such a boat. I got this news last Sunday evening, and Alex GM0DHZ and myself sail for the Hebrides next Wednesday (August 6th).

Boats 5m (or longer) ARE available, but whilst we are operating on the Flannans, the fishing-boat will be working, and cannot tow such a boat around whilst doing so. It is also impossible to lift a boat of that size out of the water, either onto a cramped fishing boat or onto the Flannans, and it could not be left at anchor, as it would soon be swamped. If we were to rely on a smaller boat, we would be faced with an even greater likelihood of capsize as we made the journey to and from the island.

WHAT TO DO - Two options
(1) abandon the expedition and lose the cost of the ferry bookings already made to the Hebrides (with mainland transport, this represents about $300 before we even set sail for the Flannans), or
(2) seek alternative transport. My skipper friend suggested I contact the Coastguard again, which I did yesterday morning (based on the fact that I have been in regular contact with them during many of my previous expeditions). I suggested that, if the skipper could get us to a point where the fishing boat was lying off the Flannans, would the Coastguard helicopter consider lifting us off the fishing boat and onto the island. My pessimism proved justified. Unfortunately, there have been two major helicopter accidents here in the last couple of months. The first was a Lighthouse Board chopper that crashed off the Orkney Island ("OI") group, killing the pilot (I had negotiated but not used a lift on this particular chopper to N. Rona and Sula Sgeir in 2000!!). The second was a couple of weeks ago when a chopper chartered by Shell UK (where my daughter works) crashed with the loss of more than ten lives whilst on its way to a N. Sea offshore oil installation. As you can imagine, it was hardly a good moment for a private individual to request a 'lift'!

I have another card up my sleeve - this time another contact from my 1998/99 Flannans research. This option involves a travelling the WHOLE distance from the Outer Hebrides in an 8m R.I.B. (rigid inflatable boat). In my travels, I've experienced many of these (from 2m sizes upwards), often in heavy seas - in which they are (supposedly!) unsinkable, although very uncomfortable. A couple of hours travelling in one of these will be an endurance test - but it looks as if we may have no choice if the expedition is to go ahead.

The overall cost of the expedition would then be at least double what my original estimates had showed. My contact says, he MIGHT be able to get us there (although the weather has only allowed him two visits to the Flannans so far this year) but he MIGHT NOT be able to get us back (in which case a 'real' rescue by the Coastguard might then be needed!)

In 1999, we had some support from the Island Radio Expedition Foundation (IREF), and from the Island of Scotland Award scheme, as well as donations (some generous) and 'extra postage' from a few individuals. This time, I have not approached ANY official body, and it is now probably too late to do so. Perhaps this description will cause some, especially those who NEED the Flannan Islands, to reflect that a trip to EU-118 is not like a cruise on your local lake. EU-118 is perhaps not as 'exotic' as some Caribbean or South Pacific islands, but they are certainly 'difficult' and relatively costly to activate.

I now estimate a total cost in excess of $1000, which some may consider 'cheap' compared to the semi-commercial 5 or 6-figure operations we are becoming increasingly used to. Repeat operations from EU-118 are likely to be very infrequent, if at all. With prevailing poor band conditions, we obviously cannot guarantee a QSO but ANY help, however small, will be much appreciated. Any donation received prior to our departure would be returned in the event of the expedition having to be cancelled for whatever reason. Incidentally, QSLing will be direct to the home calls only.

Thank you and vy 73 de André GM3VLB es Alex GM0DHZ

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