A Circumnavigation of Mull, via the Mull of Kintyre and the Crinan Canal.
Andy Smith, Ron Rietveld and myself, Ian Moore, decided on a ‘boys trip’ in 2016 at, of all things, Ron’s wedding reception! Ron and Eileen had decided to get married after many years together and Andy and I were invited guests having known the pair of them for, on my part, many years. At the wedding reception Ron, Andy and myself got to talking of Andy’s latest venture trips on his 1966, 26 foot Nicholson built yacht ‘Ladybird of Rhu’.
Andy painted a picture of open seas and the spectacular scenery of the western isles of Scotland that fired the imagination and got me to thinking of the one and only time I had experienced the same during my time in the Royal Navy. I was on a submarine and on a surfaced passage through the isles when the casing was opened to the crew in order for us to, on the one hand, get some fresh air and, on the other, to have a look at the stunning scenery we were passing through.
To sail around the western isles of Scotland became an entry on my bucket list and one which I thought would be hard to fulfil as I knew no one who owned a yacht, let alone one based on the west coast of Scotland.
Andy’s conversation fired the idea of a proposal of my own and it was a simple one-line statement that led to two weeks of brilliant sailing and weather not normally seen over a prolonged period off the coast of Scotland – “It’s always been on my bucket list to sail round the isles” says I - “Mine too” said Ron – “So why don’t we do it” replied Andy. The three of us looked at each other and immediately got to discussing route, logistics, time of year, experience (Me – none, Ron – some, Andy – loads) and, the most important aspect, how to tell the wives what we were planning!
Andy said his wife Lesley would be ok as he was always taking little jaunts here and there on Ladybird and Lesley was as adventurous as he was with her charitable bike rides through Asia, Africa and South America, not to mention dog sledding across the Arctic. My wife, Rose, may be ok with it but we suggested to Ron – who by this time was very excited and animated - that tonight, his wedding reception, may not be the best time to tell his new bride that he was planning a boys trip in 2017!
Emails flew between us for the first couple of months as Andy came up with suggested routes, itinerary and potential dates so that Ron and I could organise diaries and respond to suggestions. We finally decided on two weeks from mid-May into June 2017 and the route would take us on a round trip beginning at Rhu, past Arran, round the Mull of Kintyre to Iona, Jura and Mull, returning to the Clyde via the Crinan Canal. It looked brilliant, but, as Andy was at great pains to impress upon us – “Everything is wind and tide dependent and therefore the route is written in chocolate as it could go out the window on the first day if the weather deteriorates”. No matter – it was in the diary and we were going!
As time passed and the day drew nearer my conversation with my patients (I’m a Podiatrist by profession) became more focused on the upcoming trip to Scotland and they were all looking forward to hearing the story on my return. Sadly, I had to leave all the planning and logistics to Andy and Ron as they were on site in Rhu and Clynder in Scotland, our start point, and I am on the south coast of England in Gosport, so could only support from afar. Still, I had my own stores to source in the form of sailing gear to wear and thinking ahead as to what I would need bearing in mind the restricted space and storage of a yacht.
Andy would be fortunate insofar as both myself and Ron are ex submariners and therefore used to living in small spaces and ensuring tidiness is at the forefront of a good team. Nothing gets through to people more than tripping over someone else’s crap they have left lying around. Andy admitted later that he had had second thoughts about the trip as he had never had three full grown adults onboard before and had doubts over everyone enjoying themselves if we were to fall out over minor issues…. He even tried to get my feelings on the subject but in a roundabout manner. In an email he said that the bunks were small and that the one I had been allocated is more like a coffin! My reply was to say I was used to it as the bunks on a submarine were the same. I asked if I could still turn over in the coffin – “Yes” he said – “Good” says I “Because I couldn’t on a submarine”! He gave up.
That just left the route planning and organisation of the yacht. We had already stated that Andy was the skipper and Ron and I would fall in with whatever direction or instruction he was to issue as there can be only one Captain. Ron had already volunteered to be the cook as it was his passion outside of his day job in engineering. That just left me with a job to do. So, I said I would keep a diary and log.
Day 1 : Friday / Saturday 19/20 May 2017 : Rhu Marina to Port Ellen, Isle of Jura : 96.1 miles : 23hrs
Chatting to Andy he painted a picture for us for the first twenty four hours and in summary it would be – Rhu, through hang a left at the Cloch, through the Cumbrae channel, past the Holy Isle and Pladha Pladda into the North channel, round the Mull of Kintyre and across to Islay. Time it right and the tide would sweep us out of the Clyde and into the Atlantic. Get it wrong and we’d me motoring against a flood tide with large swells, overfalls, rip tides before getting into Port Ellen…whenever! Sounds like a plan, lets crack on!
I arrived in Scotland on Thursday 18th May with the intention of helping to store the yacht and prepare for sea on the Friday ready for sailing on Saturday 20th. Meeting up with Ron and Andy they said that the yacht was all prepped, stores onboard, fuel and liquids all topped up and just needed myself and Ron to put our personal gear onboard. I had reduced everything I needed down to the ‘submariner grip’ which essentially was a small weekend bag. The only thing that packed it all out was my foul weather gear which made my baggage look huge! Andy panicked and Ron laughed his head off but, amazingly, everything went into the small locker allocated to each of us and the ‘foulies’ went into the wet locker in the forepeak. All done.
The original intention was to sail on the early morning tide (5am ish) of the Saturday…. but…….. we were all ready to go and twiddling our thumbs for the next 18 hours. We all looked at each other and when Andy suggested we sail at midnight Friday we all jumped and agreed.
We actually slipped at 23.30 and motored out into the channel heading for Rhu narrows. All I could see in front of me were a hundred lights of varying descriptions, colours and intensities. Mind boggling, confusing and the main reason why I was an engineer and not a bridge watchkeeping sailor!
The weather was very fine with no rain and a small amount of wind that, according to Andy, may be enough to get the sails up once into the channel. The trip out was pleasant and the first time we hauled the sails up (or rather Andy did) and stopped the engine was excellent. Perfect peace and quiet apart from the rustling of wind on sail. We managed just over 4 knots which was enough to keep us in the right direction and made for decent sailing conditions.
Everyone up and around at 7am to a Ron full fry up breakfast special and a check over of Ladybird to ensure no damage had occurred and to tidy up ropes and deck fittings in line with our mandate to keep everything ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’.
Breakfast over we went in search of any shoreside facilities for showers and toilets but as far as Andy could remember there weren’t any. We ambled around and went to the local hotel for a coffee before deciding on which distillery would be graced by our presence…. We decided on Laphroaig and walked the couple of miles or so to the distillery along a winding footpath that traced the shoreline of Islay which had some stunning views over the ocean.
The tour cost £10 each for which you, as a group, get a guided tour of the facility, an explanation of the process and a ‘nosing glass’ attached to a lanyard for hanging around your neck. Attached to the lanyard were three clips – their use becoming apparent later. The tour over we sojourned to the bar – where the clips were explained.
They had a range of single malts lined up and the younger whiskies, 8 year olds, were 1 clip each per tot, the 12 year old was two clips and the 18 year old three clips. I chose the lightest (in colour) looking whisky in the belief that the lighter the colour the less ‘smokey’ the taste would be. Laphroaig is renowned for its smokey, peaty taste which I find too much on a palate more refined to Bacardi! One sip resolved my intention to get to know whisky………nope! Sorry to say that as a born and bred Scot……cannot stand the stuff!
I gave up my remaining clips in exchange for what the distillery term as ‘driver bottles’ where designated drivers can exchange their clips for a tot in a bottle to take away with them. These were then presented to Ron and Andy. On completion and the usual photo opportunities taken at every stage, we returned to Ladybird to plan our next move out through the Sound of Islay to Jura. On the way back to the yacht we spotted a well reefed square rigged sailing vessel out in the Sound as it made its way towards Port Ellen.
Back on Ladybird we discussed the weather forecast which for the following day was not looking good. A Force 8 was expected across the region, so we doubled up on the ropes holding Ladybird in case the wind became too much inside the harbour. Time to batten down and see how the weather develops, although you would not have thought so looking at the picture above!
The storm blew itself out overnight with no visible damage to the yachts in the harbour but watching the square rigger make its way into the harbour last night was a true act of excellent seamanship and control from the skipper. High winds and rough water made it a tough entry and his/her handling of the manoeuver was brilliant. She made it safe and sound which, I am sure, was much to the relief of everyone onboard.
Our day looked reasonably good as we were on our way to a third distillery! About 10 miles from Port Ellen is Bowmore. We made our way to the bus stop and had a couple join us in waiting. They were speaking Dutch and Ron introduced himself. Turned out they were the owner and operator of the Thalassa, so we found out the name of the 47 metre square rigger that came in last night. After ten minutes of chatting Ron managed to secure us an invite onboard Thalassa for their whisky evening tonight. Result!
The bus duly arrived and we enjoyed a twenty minute trip across the wilds of Islay during which we saw a Ferrari, an Aston Martin, a Porsche Panamera and a couple of classic minis! Obviously no shortage of cash around here!
Bowmore itself is a small town set around a glorious harbour with whitewashed cottages set along its shore and a single main street, where the shops are to be found, and a small square off which is the distillery itself.
We then made our one and only mistake…. we didn’t book a tour. Damn. Thinking we were there before any of the tourists arrived and being a Monday when most people are still rousing themselves towards a new week, we wandered around the town, had a spot of ‘elevenses’ (more on this later) and then ambled into the distillery thinking we could get tickets for the next tour. Sadly, we were told the next two tours were already fully booked and that we could book ourselves onto the next available which would be a couple of hours away. We decided against it as we wanted to get back to the Ladybird and chill out for a couple for hours.
While waiting at the bus stop for the return journey I was passed by a woman who I was sure I recognised. Here, of all the places……anyway, I was sure it was someone Rose worked with at Haslar hospital in Gosport. I had seen her at a number of parties over the years but never really got to know her. Curiosity got the better of me and I chased after her and the chap she was with. Turned out I was right. Her name was Ann and she knew Rose and was stunned to actually run into to someone from Gosport right here in the middle of the Scottish islands!
We got back onboard by 5pm and settled down to supper before wandering over to Thalassa. In the interim we had the harbour master call to collect the dues for our stay and in the course of conversation found out that the small B+B just off the marina provided showers and toilet facilities for sailors. We availed ourselves of the facilities immediately after supper. I was first up and reported back that there was a plastic bowl just inside the door to the shower block for voluntary donations. Dropping in a 50p piece for a hot shower and using as much water as you want seemed like an excellent price.
Fully refreshed, faces scrubbed until they glowed, we ambled over to Thalassa and caught them all at dinner, so we returned in an hour and were welcomed onboard by the owner having joined the guests in the bar.
There was probably about thirty or so guests onboard and they were already tucking into whiskies and were in a good mood from the wine at dinner so it looked as though it was going to be a good evening. We had already had a couple of nips of, the now infamous, Pussers Gunpowder Rum (lethal stuff!) and we too were in a good mood. We soon ingratiated ourselves with the guests and crew who were all having a great time – how could you not, them having already visited a number of distilleries with many more still to do.
Andy and Ron both enjoy their whiskies and Andy has an affinity for certain types and knew their history and qualities…. however……..he met his match with a Dutch woman who, along with her husband, owned a whisky bar in Holland. They got to talking about the various differences between island and highland and the water, the grain, the malting processes of the different distilleries and then she took over and starting teaching him about the differences in taste between those whiskies using Port and Sherry wood casks! He was stunned and in awe, as we all were, about her knowledge and expertise. Not only that but she was ordering each whisky as they were talking about it.
All of us were getting slowly hammered! Me, being ‘whisky phobic’, stuck to the wine we had brought over with us, then the Dutch beer, then the Bacardi and finally the Geneva Gin….. bollocks! By 11pm Ron called time on us and dragged us away from our new-found friends, which was just as well because I was burbling like a three badge Rock ape and Andy was muttering about a ‘scary woman’ who knew the difference between ‘Port and Sherry wood’! We bimbled our way back to the yacht and slept the sleep of the righteous!
We slipped from Port Ellen at 10am having awoken to the sounds of screaming seagulls and crashing waves…….until I realised it was a hangover! All three of us were feeling slightly ‘jaded’ from our mixture of grain and grape. The weather was fine and the sea slight but exacerbated by the ‘screaming seagulls’!
There were some fantastic views whilst crossing the Sound of Jura, including seals, which the camera could only make use of on telephoto lens. Anchoring in Craighouse at a public mooring and who should follow us in but Thalasa….. we hid ourselves away!
After having a ‘power nap’ we got ourselves something to eat and swore to never drink again (on my part anyway). Ron was loving his cooking and really into seeing what he could turn out from basic amenities. His tour de force was his secret herb and spice box which lifted any food to another level and did so on many occasions. Tonight was pasta, ham and tomato sauce and garlic bread…so much for losing weight!
The weather was dull and overcast and Craighouse consisted of a distillery (obviously), a shop, a pub and a few houses, so going ashore was probably more hassle (having to pump up the dinghy) than it was worth and, anyway, no one was eager to see its delights this time round. We were also in an area of no phone reception which was quite nice to think about. This day and age of immediate communication, where people can find you and annoy you, is so intrusive; so to find ourselves in a place where we were effectively ‘off the grid’ was excellent. We went to that other place of communication which anyone under 30 will not understand – we had lots of conversation. People speaking to each other without any idea of where that conversation may take you.
Our main topic of conversation at this juncture was the lack of wildlife seen to date. We caught sight of gannets diving into the water, shearwaters skimming across the waves and the occasional seal and porpoise surfacing for air but no biggies, like dolphin, whale or, the best to hope for, killer whales. Maybe soon.
Depart Craighouse at 0730 and traversed the Sound between Islay and Jura and round to the North coast of Jura and into Loch Tarbet.
We reached Loch Tarbert, Jura, and anchored in Glenbatrick Bay. Shoreside there was one single, quite large, dwelling with a walled garden and nothing else. By nothing, I mean nothing, no signs of a road or track as to how the owners of the property would get to it. More to the point is how they got all the building materials, brick, slate, glass, wood etc, into the bay itself and who built it!? See, this started another conversation of the logistics of living off the grid and in the wilds of Scotland. We decided that it all must have been shipped in by some form of landing craft; a la D Day landing type.
This time we did decide to go ashore as Andy spoke of the so called ‘raised beaches of Jura’ which, I had to admit, I had never heard of. There then broke out a massive fight of muscle against rubber in trying to get the dinghy un-stowed and blown up. What fun; trying to straighten out a dinghy on the already overcrowded foredeck of a yacht and then pumping it up using a foot pump whilst trying to keep your balance was a bit of a laugh!
Once we had got our act together, and the dinghy was ready to go, I realised just how small the damn thing was. Ron looked decidedly worried and had the raised eyebrow stare of ‘Really….three of us in that!’ Anyway, shit or bust, time to give it a go. Fortunately military training took over and both myself and Ron waited until Andy was in and sorted himself out, then Ron got in and settled then, when both were ready, I stepped in. It was surprisingly stable but the little 2 horsepower outboard was struggling like a bastard to push us through the water. It managed but was on life support for a while. (Bollocks. It coped admirably: Andy)
We drew into another inlet round the corner from where we anchored and the full view of the beaches made a hell of an impact on me. Millions of almost perfectly round stones of varying sizes made up a beach that extended at least half a mile inland.
But it’s not actually a beach as such. What we were looking at were the remains of a glacier from the ice age 10,000 years ago that had rolled across stones on its way to the sea. The rolling action shaped the stones and created the ‘beaches’ left behind once the glacier had reached the sea and melted.
Mighty impressive but I have seen them before. Walney Island off the town of Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria had exactly the same stones, formed in exactly the same way. Only difference being that the stones on Jura were all under a foot in size whereas the stones on Walney varied from pebbles to a few feet in diameter. Either way, very strange, almost alien in its presence.We wandered around and found a small waterfall pumping water that was very dark brown in colour from all the peat it had passed through to get to this point
Getting to the waterfall we passed an area where the seagulls were going absolutely banzai at us with no apparent reason why. No reason until I almost stepped onto a gulls nest with three very well camouflaged eggs in it. Took a quick photograph and then informed the others why the birds were going nuts and we made a wide skirt of the area on our return.
We had just returned to the landing spot where we left the dinghy and were discussing how remote the region is when we saw a lone walker step into view on top of a hill probably half a mile away from us. They obviously saw us at the same time and started to make a beeline for us. It being rude to just leave, we thought to hang around just to see if he/she was coming toward us. They disappeared a couple of times round dunes and hills but eventually stepped onto the beach where we were. To our astonishment it was a girl, on her own, in the middle of nowhere and telling us she had been trekking for five days already and was circumnavigating the island. Gutsy! Also turned out that she was Dutch! Middle of nowhere and she finds another Dutchman in front of her….incredible. After a few pleasantries and discussion on where she was off. We wished her well and saw her on her way. Turned out she was heading for the house in the bay, where we were anchored, with the intention of camping in the garden.
We clambered back into the dinghy and set off back to the yacht against a hefty tide. The outboard struggled even more (Okay. I’ll concede it did struggle at this point: Andy) and Andy decided to pull in at the half way point so we could refuel and wait a while for the tide to lessen. The wait lasted nearly two hours but it was two hours of solitude, peace and quiet – glorious!
Back onboard Ladybird we spotted the Dutch lass making camp alongside the house. She was obviously well versed and highly competent as she had herself all sorted within minutes. For us it was a matter of settling down to Ron’s next culinary delight – chilli con carne from a tin. My quick one liner that it ‘Looked like dog food’ was met with indignant looks from Ron and laughter from Andy. Tasted good though.
Once done and cleaned up we settled into an evening of me teaching Ron and Andy how to play 3’s and 5’s using dominoes. Easy game, just play as you normally would but score points if you can make the end dominoes make up multiples of three or five. Then I taught them how to play ‘Find the lady’ or, as it’s more commonly called in the Royal Navy, ‘Chase the pisser’. This involved, or can involve, a degree of gambling but still good for a laugh. The wind got up slightly and had us swinging round the anchor for the night but we slept soundly.
Depart 0700 from Glenbatrick and sailed northeast and then north of Colonsay, passed the Shackleton and Torran Rocks and round the Ross of Mull (peninsula of land off the south west of the Isle of Mull). Ideal sailing weather, blue skies, Atlantic rollers, wind behind us and the sun rising over a glorious sea off to the east. Absolutely stunning.
We were heading for Bull Hole, an anchorage between Mull and Iona. Andy told us he had never been there before and that it was a tight anchorage so everyone would have to be on their toes and ready for anything. We could see what he meant as we entered into the Hole itself; rocks everywhere, shallow water, anchorages that do not allow for too much chain on the anchor as there is a risk of getting too close to lots of hard bits waiting to put a hole in Ladybird and a strong current just to add a little spice into the mix!
After some deliberation over choice we managed a good anchorage and ensured the anchor was dug well in before shutting off the engine and getting to relax. There was one other yacht already anchored which took centre stage of a memorable visit.
We all wanted to go ashore and see if we could go over to Iona and visit the fabled abbey and monastery of St Columba. It is amazing to consider that Iona is well off the beaten track for the normal tourist but receives over 150,000 visitors a year to an island 1.5 miles wide and 3 miles long with just 120 permanent residents.
We prepared ourselves and took the dinghy ashore into a little cove with a sandy beach, then walked the couple of miles over the headland and down into the village of Fionnphort to catch the ferry. Interesting amble as we trekked through the remains of what appeared to be a granite quarry.
Access to Iona from Mull is via a small car ferry plying the 10 minute crossing and was very busy with all manner of people from tourists on a grand tour of the highlands and island, curiosity seekers wondering what all the fuss was about, religious zealots making their desired pilgrimage, cyclists facing up to the challenges of big hills, massive country vistas and midges and us; three guys fulfilling a bucket list request….. excellent! We paid our £3.30 each ferry fare and settled into seats on the upper deck that gave us the best view of the journey, even if it was going to be very short.
When we did pull away from the port we seemed to be going too far to starboard instead of the expected straight ahead which seemed a little weird. Then the tannoy announced that we would be taking a slight detour in order to help a yacht that had stranded itself on rocks.
Great curiosity was bouncing round everyone onboard and we all headed towards the bow in order to get the best view of what was occurring. To mine and others amazement, the ferry was heading into Bull Hole! You have to be shitting me..!
We exercised great caution getting a 26 foot yacht in there and the ferry master is driving his 150 foot ship towards it! This should be good to watch. He gently manoeuvred the ferry into Bull Hole and, with the aid of bow and stern thrusters, edged his way in and past Ladybird to go to the aid of the other yacht which had dragged his anchor and now lay scraped up onto rocks.
We got close enough to pass a line over, gently manoeuvred into a position so as to pull him off whilst doing the minimum amount of damage and then released the owner of the yacht to go find himself another anchorage and do something about his red face and embarrassment! Mind you, there but for the grace of god goes many a sailor who has forgotten the principal rule of ‘sods law’ – ‘if it’s going to happen it will probably happen to me!’
Stepping off the ferry onto Iona we had, along with about a hundred other people, a short amble walk to the monasteries about half a mile away. The sun was shining and the birds twittering and a distinct lack of background noise as found in most towns and cities made for a pleasant day that could be said to be ‘uplifting’. I can see the attraction of getting away from the rat race and living a life in simplistic terms but I think I enjoy my Costa coffees too much. Being a townie means having everything on your doorstep and not having to ‘plan’ to go to the shops for provisions as though it was some logistical exercise. For those that have made the transition and been successful at it have my fullest admiration.
The £6 entry fee into the grounds and buildings of the monastery was money well spent as the buildings and grounds would require constant maintenance and funded continuous discoveries of more information related to the first settlers and the arrival of the ‘holy men and women’ who built the churches.
The whole area was kept immaculate so we could see where the money was being spent and at the time of our visit there were archaeology students digging in one corner of the grounds and uncovering more foundations of buildings. The views from the grounds of the church were stunning to say the least. Being raised up we could see the full length of the Sound in front of us and was something that brought most people to complete silence so as not to disturb the peace and tranquillity of the place.
The slow walk back to the ferry in the sweltering heat made one thought uppermost in the mind……need a beer! Once off the ferry back on Mull we sojourned to the nearest bar and had a cold one in readiness for the trek back over the headland, onto the dinghy and back to Ladybird.
Once onboard, Ron set about dinner which this evening was to be chicken in white wine sauce and rice. It was brilliant and, amazingly, from a tin! I did not believe it, but the chicken in white wine was from the Marks and Spencer food range and was excellent. Knowing that my other half, Rose, would not even contemplate chicken in a tin, I swore I would try it out without telling her about it – just to see the reaction when I did! This has yet to be done but will be in the near future.
Long day ahead of us tomorrow as we are out into the Atlantic rollers heading for Staffa and round to Tobermory. Anything up to a ten hour day.
Depart Bull Hole 0600 and the most stunning start to a day ever! We had an incredible sunrise going on around us and wind and tide in the right direction for sailing. We motored out into the Sound of Iona and immediately hauled the sails up and stopped the engine just to make the most of perfect silence and sunrise – amazing.
The following tide and wind launched us out into the Atlantic where Ladybird was bouncing along at a very respectable 5 knots. We were all in shorts and tee shirts under lifejackets and trying to stay in the shade as the sun was ferocious! This is Scotland….!? We had been so lucky with the weather so far. Most days in glorious sunshine where the Factor 30 had taken a pounding to ensure we would not frazzle.
After a few hours, one of the most iconic landmarks in Scotland came into view and the weather was calm enough for us to be able to get in close. Staffa and Fingals Cave is nothing more than a small cluster of rocks openly exposed to the Atlantic rollers and, no doubt, some ferocious storms. It is tiny, but has held its own in Scottish history as being the inspiration for Mendelsohn’s Highland Overtures, and I can see why.
It is a magical, mystical place where the rolling waves of the Atlantic sweep into and crash against the caves worn away by millions of years of storms. The caves, being of dissimilar sizes, create a variance in noise and tone – almost like a symphony – so we could see how Mendelsohn came up with his ideas. We managed to get within a hundred yards of the shore and managed many photos and video of the towering basalt columns before skirting round the east side and heading north enroute to Tobermory.
Still in glorious sunshine we rounded the top of Mull and headed east towards the Sound of Mull at which point we were now going against the wind and tide so resorted to the real sailing which I had been looking forward to!
We tacked our way across the north of Mull and the closer we got to Tobermory the more bouncy and windy it became. Ladybird had a good lean on her with each tack and we had to take the tiller in hand as the autopilot couldn’t cope with the movement. Excellent! Salt spray was coming over the cockpit adding the final icing on the cake. The very last half mile was just the best…..skirting the 20m contour about 100m off the sheer rock face of Mull. Brilliant just brilliant! I was on the tiller and we were keeping the sails at the very edge to maximise wind and speed.
Andy looked out from the chart table and said all he saw was me with a big stupid grin on my face and a sheer rock face that seemed to be getting closer! The weather got so bouncy (wind and tide both against us) that at the very end we had to drop the sail and motor into Tobermory itself as we just could not make headway to get us round the headland, but what a rush. We anchored in the harbour, piled into the dinghy and made our way ashore to have a shower and carry on to the world famous, to the sailing fraternity anyway, Mishnish hotel and pub. The Mishnish is identifiable to anyone under the age of ten as the huge yellow building in the children’s TV programme Balamory! The only difference being is that the name of the pub on the front of the building has been photoshopped out to preserve the innocence of the programme. That first pint in the Mishnish after eight and a half hours of, as Andy termed it ‘some of the best sailing he has ever experienced’, was an absolute dream; so much so we had to have another! And then you take pictures of anything . . .
We wandered around Tobermory in, once again, glorious sunshine and did the tourist bit of buying one or two typically ‘holiday tat’ such as fridge magnets and keyrings (anything small due to storage space) apart from me wanting to get something special for Rose for her birthday which I would miss as we would still be away. There was a small independent jeweller on the High Street who made his own silver and gold bangles with inset locally sourced stones. One in particular caught my eye and she is now the proud owner. Should never let me loose in the shops after having had a couple of beers as I become a magpie and home in on anything shiny!
We caught up with each other and returned to Ladybird to store away our ill-gotten gains and chill out for a couple of hours before taking the dinghy ashore again to go back to the Mishnish for dinner then a tour of some of the local bars. In one they had a huge screen showing the latest racing from the Americas Cup. At the time Ben Ainslie still had a chance of competing for it which, unfortunately, today, has gone as he was beaten to challenge the Americans by New Zealand who are leading the Yanks by 8 races to 1 in the first to 9……looks like the Yanks are going to get their arses kicked! Mind you, the Yanks fought back an 8-1 deficit to win 9-8 in 2013! The greatest sailing comeback in history.
The journey back to Ladybird was made in a state of a mild ‘food coma’ after a full meal and copious beers making for a pleasant evening all finished off with a ‘wobbly coffee’ made with a shot of Gunpowder! Definitely a ‘Night, night all’
Glorious morning, flat calm with, unfortunately, a strong S.E wind forecast. That meant a headwind for trying to get down the Sound of Mull. It was compensated for by an early morning departure (0700) which allowed us another stunning sunrise. All peace and quiet before the rest of the ‘yachties’ woke up.
We motored down the Sound in another glassy calm and made a small detour into Loch Aline for a nosy on behalf of Andy who wanted to have a look with the intention of coming back this way with the grandchildren in tow. Turned out it was a stunning little loch with excellent mooring facilities and amazing scenery.
Continued out of the Sound and into the Firth of Lorn having passed a number of castles and lookout fortifications from days of old when the feudal Lords of the highlands Isles were keeping a careful eye on those traversing their waters. Past the isle of Kerrera, the other side of which was the town of Oban, which was a possibility on our itinerary, but we’d decided against as we wanted to stick to places that only a yacht could get to – most of the time.
We were still on the ebb tide and having to motor due to lack of wind so Ladybird was making 4.5kts plus the tide run of 4.5kts so we were shifting along at 9kts – fairly head spinning! Given that straight ahead of us is the open Atlantic and the water surrounding us was as though we were on an inland lake it was very surreal.
We passed through the Cuan Sound between the islands of Seil and Luing, went north round the Isle of Torsa and wound our way back following the coastline of Luing to Toberonochy and a mooring in Kilchatten Bay. We arrived at the mooring at 2.30pm which was damn good going for a journey that was expected to take at least two to three hours longer. Gave us plenty of time to discuss the next leg to the Crinan Canal, get some food inside us, play cards, dominoes, chat, watch the sun go down, take a picture of a Cormorant (it's a Shag.:Andy) then sleep like a log!
We slipped from Kilchatten Bay at 0900 (lazy day already!) into, once again, glorious sunshine and little wind, so motoring was called for. Ladybirds little Yanmar 10hp diesel engine has been working wonders considering it was not designed for the purpose of extended motoring, being usually confined to manoeuvring in and out of tight spots and harbours. So far it has been absolutely solid in its performance and sips diesel as we still have half a tank of fuel (about ten litres) after all the hours it has had to run in the last week or so.
We exited Shuna Sound, between the isles of Luing and Shuna, and skirted past the most turbulent and dangerous stretch of water in the world according to some authorities and unlucky captains. The Gulf of Corryvreckan comes from the Gaelic Coire Bhreacain meaning ‘cauldron of the speckled sea’ or ‘cauldron of the plaid’ and is a gap between Jura and Scarba that holds fear and dread for most mariners; as the name would imply, having the word ‘cauldron’ in it.
At certain times of day, essentially ebb and flood, the area becomes a boiling cauldron of white water with whirlpools, cross currents, standing waves and racing tides coming at you from all directions. Many small ships have seen their last days of sunshine trying to pass through the Gulf but, having got the time and tide wrong, have ended their days on the bottom of the sea. It’s a major piece of seamanship to actually get through and is not for the faint hearted. The closest point of approach we made was probably by a few miles but we could still hear a dull roar in the distance. We had spoken of the Corryvreckan prior to the trip and Andy stated categorically ‘we will not be going anywhere near the Corryvrekken!’……spoil sport! (I'm just a big fearty. : Andy)
We had our own little ‘Corryvrekken’ to deal with anyway. The islands of Scotland are some of the oldest rocks in existence. Billions of years of weather had worn away the edges leaving peninsulas pockmarked by shallow rocks, reefs and narrow gaps that tested the navigation on an hourly basis. Going round Craignish Point and through the Dorus Mhor was, quite literally, a case in point. Full of rocks and hard stuff that was just waiting for the unwary to make a mistake. It lulls you into a false sense of security by showing you a whole series of reefs above water and visible to the eye whilst not telling you that there are a whole series of rocks just below the surface waiting to slice a hole into you. Careful attention to charts and navigational skills are required which will see you through, so long as you do not try to take any shortcuts – they may be your last!
We reached the entrance to the Crinan Canal just after midday and slowed to a stop just in front of the Crinan Hotel to wait whilst other yachts were exiting the canal before being called forward. The sea lock into and out of the canal at each end are manned; everything in between is ‘hand-draulic’ and up to the user to operate. I had a slight problem with this as Andy was the skipper/owner and needed to steer, Ron was a ‘metal mickey’ having just had both hips replaced, which would not respond well to running up and down the canal towpath……. which just left….. me and 13 locks to operate! Bollocks!
It must have appeared funny to other users as when we first entered the canal as we were wearing full foul weather gear amongst people wearing shorts and tee shirts. After stripping off most of my stuff I got to operate the first of the locks without having any clue as to what I was doing as I had never done this before. Pretty self-explanatory at the end of the day – shutting the sluice behind and opening the one in front then watch the water either enter the lock (for one half of the locks) or leave the lock (for the other half).
Two things; the sluices take a lot of winding and the running/walking between them made for a half decent workout using muscles I had forgotten about! Thankfully we were intending on stopping halfway through to moor up for the night. By 3pm we were at Cairnbaan which is, more or less, at the mid-point of the Crinan and we moored alongside still in bright sunshine. Then I spotted this;
Changing into shorts and tee shirt we all trooped across to the hotel on the lock side for some well-earned beer! I say well-earned as I was the one with backache, legs wobbling from miles of walking and arms like Popeye! Much to the derision and disgust of my, so called, compatriots who took the piss out me remorselessly and also insisted I had not done ‘all’ the locks as I had used ‘slave labour’ at one of them after a couple of kids asked if they could help! Marvellous! Changing into shorts and tee shirt we all trooped across to the hotel on the lock side for some well-earned beer! I say well-earned as I was the one with backache, legs wobbling from miles of walking and arms like Popeye! Much to the derision and disgust of my, so called, compatriots who took the piss out me remorselessly and also insisted I had not done ‘all’ the locks as I had used ‘slave labour’ at one of them after a couple of kids asked if they could help! Marvellous!
Berthed across from us and going in the opposite direction was a rather large yacht from the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust taking young sufferers, teenagers mainly, out on an expedition. This one was an all-female crew returning from the Tarbet Regatta and heading north. Puts things into perspective when you think about it.
After having a meal back at the hotel we returned to the yacht and I had a fitful sleep thinking about the other five locks I had to do tomorrow morning! The other two just snored their heads off. I awoke to a little bit of scratching to my ankles as the dreaded Scottish midges had invaded the cabin overnight. We only had a few but they were enough to start eating any exposed flesh. Some say that the Scottish midge is small and insignificant, well, let me tell you….. they can grow as big as cats and have teeth and claws to match! These little buggers have been the cause of many miserable nights under canvas during my military days of camping in the hills of Scotland. Then getting up in the morning and working up a sweat on another twenty mile trek just added insult to injury as the sweat causes uncontrollable scratching and irritability. We had a term for it as being the ‘highland madness’. Getting up early on the yacht and starting to make headway whilst the morning was still slightly chilly was good news… the midges are still asleep!
The views along the canal are absolutely stunning with forests of scots pine to one side of us and open landscape to the other. The morning was heating up quickly and it was very pleasant to be drifting along the canal with hardly anyone around us. There were the occasional cyclists, runners, walkers and dog walkers along the towpath who all found the time to wave and shout “hello”, and the very occasional yacht or motorboat coming the other way but, otherwise, we had the canal to ourselves or should I say – just me and another five locks….
At the south entrance/exit to the canal is the small town of Ardrishaig which is also home to the renowned classic Clyde puffer the VIC 32. Built in Yorkshire in 1943 she was a result of Admiralty demand for at least 50 Victualling Inshore Craft (VIC) to be used to replenish ships of the Royal Navy at various bases around Scotland’s shoreline during WW2 and, after, to supply remote villages around the Highlands and Islands. She is one of the last coal-fired steam driven puffers left and is currently being used to ferry tourists around the Caledonian Canal. We were lucky enough to arrive at Ardrishaig just as she was preparing to get underway at the start of another cruise.
On the jetty was the most flamboyant character most of us had seen for a while. A man dressed in a full bright pink suit with matching waistcoat and wearing a fedora hat. At first glance we took him to be one of the passengers who just wanted to get into the spirit of his trip by helping to get the gangway stowed onboard. Turned out he was the skipper! Brilliant character which was either done to continue the eccentricity of the legend surrounding the puffers or it was just him and his character…..either way; excellent.
The legend of the Clyde puffer stems from the author Neil Munro and his tales of Para Handy aboard his puffer the Vital Spark. Munros short stories first appeared in the Glasgow Evening news in the early 1900’s and were revitalised and turned into a BBC series which ran from 1959 to 1995, much to the delight of young and old alike. I must admit the only series I saw was the 94/95 run starring Gregor Fisher, as Peter ‘Para Handy’ Macfarlane, who could always be relied upon for brilliant character acting and being funny to boot.
At 20m long one would assume the VIC 32 is a handful to steer in the close confines of a canal, but todays Captain made it look easy-peasy! He had to manoeuvre her through 270 degrees in an area not much larger than she was and align her into the sea lock. He achieved this by attaching one of his mooring ropes to a bollard on shore and swinging the VIC 32 around the bollard and into alignment with the sea lock. Brilliant to watch and done with the aplomb of a well versed, tried and tested method conducted by a very competent skipper. Mind you, as she got up steam there was a few minutes of coughing and spluttering with billowing black smoke from her funnel that blacked out the jetty and those standing on it.
In the mean time we took the opportunity of stepping ashore, grabbing a coffee and a mooch around the shops before returning to Ladybird and await our turn to pass through the lock and, once again, taking to the open sea.
To give a known position recognised by most sailors we were now at 56°01´N - 5°27´W and entering into Lower Loch Fyne and heading for our next port of call; Tarbet. We were glad, in one sense, to be arriving in Tarbet just at the end of her regatta weekend when all sorts of yachts would have been jostling over a limited number of berths. Us not being entered into any races or being part of the ‘privileged few’ would have been relegated to a mooring or an anchorage somewhere in the harbour.
As it happened, Andy knew a couple called Dave and Pam who lived aboard their yacht in the marina itself and who said we could use a berth that they knew would be free as the owner was away with his yacht sailing somewhere. Very nice of them and even more so that they insisted we join them later for a beer.
Looking around the marina was an eye opener. There were some very expensive yachts where no expense had been spared in looking after them and had everything ‘just so’. There were others that looked as though they had just come through a storm and been turned upside down a few times before limping into Tarbet and sat waiting for either rescue or scrap. Quite a difference in fortunes for the owners was being reflected in the current state of their yachts.
We arrived at the same time as all the yachties from the regatta were having their prize giving ceremonies and slapping each other on the backs whilst celebrating their good fortune of being seasoned sailors. I am sure the local economy prospers during these weeks but is equally glad to see the back of them until next year. Good for a cash injection into the local economy but a few drunken revellers can give sailing a bad name. Suppose you get all sorts in every type of hobby.
Tarbet itself is a glorious little harbour surrounded by quaint cottages and hills with a small derelict stone tower at the entrance which is lit up by colour changing lights in the evening. It’s also a working port so very busy with fishing and tourist boats going in and out all day long.
Once secured alongside we headed for the showers and then town for a beer (obviously!) and some fish and chips. I had hoped to lose a few pounds during this trip but Rons cooking and the beers we were putting away made for a difficult weight loss programme! Trouble was we were eating something virtually every hour on the hour; 7am breakfast 8pm coffee and baguette (freshly baked every morning on board Ladybird) 9am biscuit 10am coffee and snack bar 11am coffee etc and so it goes on……. Lunch, 1’sies, 2’sies…… Dinner, 8’sies, 9’sies; finished off by a ‘wobbly coffee’ of Gunpowder Rum. Holy crap, no wonder we're not losing any weight!
Once sated with fish and chips we returned to the marina and took up the invite from Dave and Pam on to their 46’ yacht Nesiros. Very nice people who made us very welcome and even apologised for the cramped conditions in trying to seat all of us around the table……Andy take note! The conversation flowed and we had a great evening before returning to Ladybird when we tuned in to the latest weather report that said there may be some wind tomorrow for sailing.
We headed out at 0900 into a dark and dismal morning which has been in stark contrast to the previous days of glorious sunshine and cloudless skies. Our heading took us south east across to the Kyle peninsula and, once turning the corner round Ardlamont Point into the West Kyle. We had the wind and tide with us to head up the north west coast of the Isle of Bute. Sailing time!
At this point the heavens opened and the longed for rain by gardeners descended on us in bucket loads. No matter, we were already all kitted up in full foulies and, anyway, there’s no such thing as bad weather only the wrong choice of clothing! We were heading for Caladh Harbour, a small safe haven of a tiny bay protected by a small island. Really tiny, so much so that Andy was wondering whether to actually go in as there was already another yacht in there and with the wind picking up there was the obvious risk of one of us dragging our anchor and either running aground or into the other yacht. Faint heart be bollocks… we went for it anyway. Just as we got in, the rain stopped, the sun came out, all looked fresh and clean – all is well with the world! However, this may have been the eye of the storm as it were. We had been forecasted for Force 5/6 in the afternoon. Have to wait and see.
More importantly…. Ron just broke the toilet….. again! This time it’s terminal, he busted the handle and after much discussion of potential jury rig fixes we decided that it was better to allow it to die gracefully so that Andy could go about looking for a new one for his birthday (strange wish!) “Grandad, what would you like for your birthday?” “Well my boy……I’ve been dreaming about this Jabsco thingy…..” So now we were reduced to the ‘bucket and chuck it’ scenario… not a great left to the imagination but one must always make sure the wind is in the right direction…!
Later in the day the wind did get up and with some ferocity. It meant moving Ladybird a few miles or so across into East Kyle and mooring onto a buoy belonging to the local Colintrave hotel. Gave us a bit more shelter from the prevailing wind and a more solid mooring than anchoring. We then spent most of the evening going round in circles as the wind was whipping us round the buoy like a spinning top but at least we wouldn’t have someone from the hotel rowing across to us and asking for mooring fees and the sunset was even better!
Happy birthday to the lovely wife Rosarie!
We slipped at 07:45 and transited the East Kyle under motor as, once again, the weather had turned a lovely shade of blue and the wind had buggered off somewhere else!
Still, at least when we exited the Kyle we would, hopefully, run into some fresh breezes….nope, not yet! We came out of the Kyle after, once again, admiring the stunning scenery of the west of Scotland and decided to take a detour by turning left into Loch Striven. Andy had not been in there for a long time (ever!) and wanted to know what the moorings were like at its head. We motored the full length of Striven right up until we could not go any further and found the only place in the loch where you can anchor. All the way along its length the sides of the loch are sheer rock faces at such an acute angle that twenty metres from the shore the depth showed forty metres below the keel, thirty metres and that drops to seventy below the keel! Damn deep!
Striven is seven miles long and is full of salmon, trout and mussel farms on an industrial scale. Dozens and dozens of netted areas where we could see the fish leaping up for food when they heard the outboard motor of the farm workers, quite some sight. The detour took us a few hours to complete but worth it for Andy as he was impressed enough to consider adding it to his future itinerary.
On exiting Striven we had our first wind and hauled sail to see if it was good enough to get us across to Rothesay… it was and we did. There were one or two other yachts scooting around plus a number of ferries and tourist boats so it made for having your eyes peeled and watching around a 360° circle. Rothesay is a strange place insofar as you cannot get into the harbour if the regular service ferry is in as it blocks the harbour entrance. What do they use to control other users? …..traffic lights! Lights were red so we stayed back and waited for the harbour master to give us the ‘green light’ to come in once the ferry had moved off a safe distance. To get into the inner harbour we then had to ask for the bridge to be raised so we could enter.
The last time I was in Rothesay I was in military uniform and on the Opportune submarine conducting ‘Perisher’ training for wannabe submarine captains. These guys really are the ‘six million-dollar men’ as, in the mid-eighties, that is what it cost to train each one! Today it will be more like ten million given the increase in technology and costs of sending ships to sea to act as targets.
The harbour at Rothesay is right in the centre of town which will be most convenient for winding our way back after the obligatory beers. But first a wash and brush up.
Rothesay has the most brilliant of public showers and toilets anywhere on the planet. I defy anyone to tell me of a better convenience than a spotless Victorian relic that must be the pride of the local council as it is in pristine condition made of masses of porcelain and coloured marble. If it didn’t have listed status then it should have. It may be old but the showers are red hot from shower heads that could water a rain forest. They were so good we even took pictures of them! How mad is that….
Once refreshed and changed into some sort of semblance smartness (!?) we stepped off into the delights of the back streets of Rothesay in search of that well known hostelry of sailors in a bygone age – the Grapes Bar!
I had been talking of the Grapes for the last few hours of the trip into harbour so was now hoping that it was still going to be there, after all it was thirty years ago since I had last been here. I seemed to remember coming off the jetty, crossing the road into the Square, taking the next row of buildings behind the Square and going off to the right….. Yes, spot on – there it was. Still called the Grapes and, by the look of the outside, still that spit and sawdust place I remember so fondly. Many a drunken night was had in the Grapes along with many a sore head in the morning when we sailed at 0600 to get us out into the exercise areas!
Being more refined these days (!) we restricted ourselves to a few pints and a shopping trip to pick up some tacky seaside trinkets to please those at home. I say tacky because I have a wife who, when on holiday, will buy anything stuck under her nose by a street hawker. She’s the perfect tourist! I have fridge magnets galore, tea towels that don’t soak up water, fluffy key rings, bookmarks (marked leather but actually compressed paper!) and brass ornaments that end up in a charity shop as soon as she’s not looking! So payback time I suppose.
“The three amigos” – Andy looking more Mexican than the others…… 3 pints and 3 packets of crisps please….. We are looking at a continuance of the Force 5/6 tomorrow so hopefully more sailing weather.
Depart 0930 (very convivial) after waiting for the ferry to get out of our way again and straight into the predicted 5/6, lovely, lovely sailing weather. We fairly shot along at 4.5kts into lumpy, bumpy bouncy waves that Ladybird took in her stride. The rain came down and the weather closed in on us restricting visibility to a few hundred yards which made for interesting dramas with some of the local ferries which had no regard for either weather conditions or small yachts in front of them. The ignorant ones didn’t even slow down slightly once they saw us, knowing their wash was going to toss us around for a few minutes.
Awoke to another glorious day and slipped the berth at 0930. As soon as we could we shut off the engine in favour of seeing if there was enough wind to fill the sails and tack our way out of the loch and into the Clyde. There was, just, but hard going. We continued into the Clyde at a stately 3.5kts with the sun shining, the wind just in the right direction, a slight lean on the boat with a little bit of spray coming over the bow now and again… brilliant!
Most of the chat onboard was the planning of the next journey – to go north to Skye, Harris, North and South Uist or south to Ireland, Isle of Man and the north west coast of England. Choices, choices…. who knows!
The most important aspect of the final leg was to ensure we crossed over our outbound track so we could say that we had indeed made a complete circumnavigation of the southern Scottish isles. We crossed our track at the entrance to Rhu Narrows – Job done, 325 miles in 13 days 12 hours.