The Merganser Voyages actually started in another boat. Goosander was a twin keel 14′ Midshipman plywood sailing cruiser built by my Dad in our garage. Dad had this idea of taking his family sailing in the nearby Lake District. I was about 4 at the time, my sister Kathryn was 3.
Then after some early sails on Ullswater and Windermere, Mum and Dad went off for a cruise up the Llangollen Canal (without kids) and were captivated. Dad realised it would be an ideal way of exploring Britain with a young family at 4mph during his long summer holidays from his job as a teacher. If we got fractious or bored we could always be put on the towpath and told to walk.
His timing perfectly captured the end of the commercial era of canals in the 1960s, but came before they became popular tourist destinations with the large hire fleets of steel narrowboats by the mid 1970s.
Merganser was a GRP Norman 17. 16’9″ long with a 2 berth cabin that Dad bought as an empty shell. He fitted her out with a rudimentary galley including a two burner primus stove and a plastic washing up bowl and whale water pump. There was a small locker for hanging our tooth brushes and another for cutlery. He even managed to fit in a very narrow wardrobe just big enough for his smart jacket and trousers, and a secure secret locker just big enough for his camera. Though we has an “Elsan” chemical toilet in the cabin, we only used it on the River Thames where “Bucket and Chuck-it” was banned. Kath and I slept in the cockpit under a folding canvas pram hood. Lighting was from a paraffin lamp. Motive power came from a Swedish Crescent 9hp engine which had a small generator which powered a car head lamp for use in tunnels. With her road trailer she could be towed to and retrieved from any part of the canal network from our home in Cumberland.
For 5 years between 1966 and 1971 we explored the English and Welsh Canals, reaching nearly all the parts of the network which were open at the time. Dad recorded our voyages with his trusty Pentax camera on colour slides. Also in his log books (currently missing) and in his neat annotations in the margins of the British Waterways blue “Cruising Guides”. In these posts I hope to combine Dad’s slides and notes I can find with our somewhat shaky family recollections of the Gossander and Merganser voyages.
A few years ago my little brother Donald undertook the mammoth task of digitising Dad’s slides. He does not appear in these posts because it all happened before he was born.
Dad died in April 2020 after 20 years of slow decline with vascular dementia.
We are planning to go to Ireland when Covid restrictions allow but, Post- Brexit, Ireland is now considered “Foreign” to British Flagged vessels.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, White Knight , as a “British Flagged” vessel, is supposedly free to navigate the High Seas within the laws of our Flag State. So after many years of almost unimpeded travel around European waters, now if we can expect our documentation to be scrutinised.
An insurance certificate and Ofcom radio licence with an out of date certificate of registry may have just about sufficed in the carefree days of almost unimpeded travel around European waters before Brexit. In those heady days a customs & revenue check was unlikely, unless the country’s coast watchers were out for a bit of fun. But the populace voted that freedom away.
Now that the UK is a “Third Country” to our nearest and dearest neighbours and we try to “Go Foreign” suspicion could become automatic. Proper documentation including up to date registry can be expected and demanded by any Third Country’s border force. Upon returning to the UK our own Customs and Excise can expect and demand proof of VAT history or insist VAT be paid. It was time to sort out the ship’s papers.
Insurance documents (requirements vary by country)
Evidence of eligibility for relief from VAT and import duty (to facilitate your return to the UK)
With a 40-year-old pleasure boat that has gone through at least 4 or 5 changes of ownership the chances of having all the original documentation are slim. All we had to start with were our bill of sale, a copy of a bill of sale drawn up 20 years before at the last change of ownership and an out of date certificate of registry. It was time to go on a treasure hunt.
We knew that White Knight had originally belonged to the Royal Armoured Corps Yacht Club. There were some vague details in the Club’s online history but a letter to the club’s secretary drew no response. The Contessa Owner’s Association had some basic details on its boat register including its original name “White Knight II” and a cryptic note “Misplaced in JRs book 644 after 651”. Armed with these vague details I contacted Jeremy Rogers Ltd, who were able to provide a letter confirming Boat Make, Name, Hull, Number Sail Number and details from the original invoice including the vital confirmation that VAT had been paid when White Knight had been built.
The original CO sail number did not match the numbers on our sails, but a quick call to the RYA Registration department confirmed that our sails were correctly displaying the RYA Sail numbers allocated to the RACYC in 1979. The RYA register was updated with our details, no need to change the sail numbers.
The next challenge was updating the United Kingdom Certificate of Registry Part 1 issued under the “Merchant Shipping Act 1995” and “The Merchant Shipping (Registration of Ships) Regulations 1993 as amended.” The old certificate we found in the chart locker was years out of date, but I sent an innocent enquiry to the Registry of Shipping and Seamen, Cardiff with a scan of the old certificate. A very helpful Officer of the Registry replied confirming that White Knight was still Part 1 registered but the registration was due to expire, good timing there. The officer also confirmed however that
the engine in the boat was not the engine recorded on the register,
the Port of Registry was Poole, not Southampton as shown on the transom and
that our Bill of Sale was not sufficient evidence of the change of ownership because it was not in the MCA required Deed of Transfer format,
also that fees were payable to update each of the incorrect details.
The MCA Bill of Sale / Deed of Transfer was easily sorted out filling out three sets of the correct forms, one for each of the new owners setting out their shares in the boat and confirming that they were all British Nationals. These were sent to the previous owner to sign and return. I then scanned and e mailed these to the Register of Shipping along with a “Declaration of Eligibility” confirming the names, addresses and nationality / citizenship of all the shareholders, the number of 64th shares allocated to each and appointing a “Managing Owner” signed by all the shareholders.
The Engine was more troublesome. Ideally when the engine had been changed the owner would have simply sent a copy of the invoice confirming the engine details to the Register. But in our case, this had not happened. When had the engine been changed and by whom? I contacted the 2x previous owner who confirmed that the current engine had been fitted before he bought the boat and that he had never had any paperwork about the engine change. Without the ideal documentation the helpful chap at the Register said they would accept a “Surveyors Certificate of Survey for Tonnage and Measurement of a Vessel Under 24 Meters (Excluding Fishing Vessels”, but it would have to be undertaken by a Yacht Brokers, Designers & Surveyors Association (YBDSA) Accredited Surveyor and reported on a YBDSA form, administered and registered by the YBDSA. There was another fee plus expenses to make this happen. I rang Colin, the surveyor who had undertaken the pre-sale survey. Normally this would have required another survey but as we were now in another Covid lockdown and the boat was no longer just up the road from him, but 500miles and three Covid locked borders away from him. Colin had a chat with the YBDSA and came up with a solution. He would prepare the form based on the previous registration with his recent survey notes and photos of the engine to provide the new details. The fee payable would be only the administration fee to the YBDSA. Result. The forms were duly completed, administered and sent to the Register of Shipping.
We did think of changing the Port of Registry to our new home port of Caernarfon, but this would have involved yet another round of form filling and fees. We decided to change the lettering on the transom from Southampton to Poole instead.
Three weeks and a load of paperwork, form filling and chasing around, our new “United Kingdom Certificate of Registry (Part 1)” was issued electronically, printed out and laminated for the Ships Papers.
The spectre of VAT “Returned Goods“ came lumbering over the horizon as the Brexit talks ground towards the final rounds of brinksmanship. These complex rules are designed for the temporary export and return of goods like exhibition display material but are also applied to boats. Reading through the regulations it appeared that in addition to confirming that VAT had been paid somewhere and at some time, we may also have to prove the boat was in UK Territorial Waters at the end of the Brexit Transition Period. 23:00UT on 31 December 2020, covid locked-down in Caernarfon Harbour, we could not get near White Knight at the critical moment. But we had a marina receipt covering winter storage and we knew the White Knight would be visible on CCTV. A copy of both bits of evidence was added to the Ships Papers.
As members of the Royal Welsh Yacht Club we can be granted a “Permit” to fly a defaced Blue Ensign in accordance with a Warrant issued to the RWYC under Section 73 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 (and the amendment to the RWYC’s Warrant issued by the Secretary of State for Defence dated 8 February 1985). In short, fill in the application form, provide proof of UK Part 1 Registration, sign that we have read understood and will comply with the permit conditions. Bingo we have a permit and a wonderful Defaced Blue Ensign to hang on the back of White Knight.
In his youth my Dad had read and been captivated by Dr R B Carslaw’s account of sailing the western isles during the 1920s and 30s with his large and growing family. “Leaves from Rowan’s Logs” was oft referred to as much for its descriptions of place as its wonderfully caustic observations on the trials and tribulations of sailing with growing children. As a result of Dad’s captivation, I was introduced to the west of Scotland as a small child. First camping, using canoes to explore the lochs, then as the eldest son of a family of five, squeezed into a 20 foot long sailing cruiser for 2-3 weeks at a time. In the 1970s I was told this was not an unusual holiday. The Inner Hebrides infused my soul, and then lay dormant for many years. But, occasionally, a sunset through clouds would stir a memory of the islands.
The Saints: In 1976 National Geographic magazine ran an article about a team led by Tim Severin sailing across the Atlantic in a leather boat similar to the curraghs still used on the west coast of Ireland. I, like many of the crew, had read and been hooked by Tim Severin’s book. His tale of the research, design, building, and trials of the leather curragh being as fascinating as the log of the journey. He described how a stepping stone route from Ireland through the Hebrides, to the Faeroes, Iceland, past Greenland into the ice and eventually to Newfoundland matched the ancient account of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. As time passed I became aware of the voyages of other early Irish Saints through the western isles which paralleled the Irish “Scotti” colonisation of what we now call Scotland. Sailing the western isles in small light weight boats has a very long and inspiring history.
The Spirits: Whisky goes with the Hebrides. The idea of a cruise to visit some of the distilleries of Mull, Islay and Jura quickly captured the imaginations of the crew. So if excuse be needed, what better than to follow in the wake of the saints and explore the spirits of the Inner Hebrides. A few hints dropped at a significant birthday party were all that was needed to get the crew following the scent.
We chartered a Moody 31 “True Blue of Hamble” from Alba Sailing at Dunstaffnage Marine North of Oban. With Ian & Martin planning to join us part way through the week, the rough plan was to sail the Inner Hebrides. First up the Sound of Mull and if conditions permitted poke our noses round Ardnamuchan, picking up some heather on the way. Then south, through the islands to Iona and on to Islay and Colonsay. We arranged to meet Ian & Martin in Crinan then sail back to Craighouse to visit the Jura Distillery. The remainder of the cruise was to be spent working our way north through the islands up the Sound of Jura and out into the Firth of Lorne back to Dunstaffnage.
As the bard put it “The best laid plans of mice and men gan oft agley” The following log is compiled, edited and expurgated from the deck log and other recollections of the cruise.
Day 1: North Wales to Carlisle, early start loading gear for three into the Golf and on the road to get past Thelwall before the morning jam.
At Carlisle the Skipper took a detour to sort out parental domestics while the Mate and Crew went to Morrison’s for victuals. An hour later a large trolley overflowing with stores was being loaded onto the checkout belt, the cashier wondering how we would fit so much stores in a small boat, Mate wondering how we would fit it into an even smaller car. Crew wondering whether he could hold onto the car roof all the way to Oban. We offered to close the windows on his fingers if his grip started to slip. Then the checkout belt broke under the load and the cashier suggested putting some food back. A bit of reorganising and the stores were all squeezed into the Golf, and later repacked around the Crew.
From Carlisle to Oban, The roads get more open and emptier as we head north over Beattock then close in again as we drop down through Glasgow and over the Erskin Bridge, bringing back childhood memories of the bridge being built and left part complete for a year with drooping ends. Through Dumbarton and out onto the road to the highlands. Stopped at the Drovers Inn to impress the Crew with the collection of stuffed animals including the bear. There we picked up haggis and cheese melts for lunch on the go. Another change of drivers for the road north to Crianlarich then west down towards Oban. Passed by three pink bikers in tutus raising money for “Breast Way Round”.
Arrived at Dunstaffnage for the hand over of Moody 31 “True Blue of Hamble” from Tim the Engineer. Loaded and stowed the gear and stores. Time for a chill out in the Wide Mouthed Frog with a beer & snacks.
Refreshed we secured for sea, cast off and reversed out of our berth (always a moment of faith with a strange boat) then motored out into Firth of Lorne. Winds very light and on the nose so motored past our first Stevenson Lighthouse, Eilean Musdile, on the southern tip of Lismore. A lone porpoise played in the overfalls as we headed up the Sound of Mull past Duart Castle (with an enormous coach parked next to it), Craignure, Ardtornish Bay with a couple of yachts at anchor. Crew captivated by the clouds, photographing reflections and the sunset over Ardtornish Castle. Then in the gloaming passed through the narrows to Loch Aline and an anchorage for the night.
A late dinner and a whisky completed the first stage of relaxation from work to cruising mode.
Day 2: A slow start and gentle breakfast prepared by the Crew before raising the anchor and motoring out though the narrows, back into the Sound of Mull. Bright sunshine, sails up but wind light and on the nose so motor sailed up the Sound of Mull towards Tobermory admiring the scenery and large new holiday homes on the Morvern shore. Picked up an appalling weather forecast for “Jubilee weekend in The South” and the Mate’s mum’s reassurance we were in for the best weather in the UK.
Late morning and we turned into Tobermory Bay now well supplied with Visitor moorings and pontoons that were but a dream last time I came this way 35 years ago. The distillery was closed due to lack of water and the visitor’s centre had closed for lunch so we wandered up the brightly painted high street to the Post Office for Tobermory Cat postcards, past posters for “Curry Cruises” and onto Brown’s. Brown’s is difficult to describe being a miniature general superstore. A shop which stocks everything imaginable from mousetraps to Airfix models, plaster of Paris, to musical instruments and tools to fine whiskys. Bought a bottle of 12 year old Tobermory Whisky, 12v multi socket, fishing lines and that rarest of finds a PP9 battery to run the ancient echo sounder on our Shrimper “Daisy”.
We picked up some pies from the bakery for lunch and wandered back in time for the reopening of the Distillery Shop. Amongst other reminiscences and spirits they sell wooden USBs, which impressed the Mate.
In blazing sunshine and very light wind we motored towards Ardnamurchan, past another Stevenson lighthouse on Ardmore point. As we broke out of the Sound of Mull the wind picked up at last so sails up and motor off to sail around Ardnamurchan Point. More porpoises were playing under the cliffs and rafts of guillemots mixed with other sea birds drifted by then scooted out of our way.
As we rounded the point we had a clear view past the small isles up the Sound of Sleat round to Barra and past Coll to Tiree.
An evening sail past Ardnamurchan Lighthouse and gently drifting on into the sunset, we couldn’t decide where to anchor, so we decided instead to sail on into the night. Past pitch black Coll back lit by the orange twilight, we missing the blue flash and sailed on through the night past Tiree towards the beckoning flash of the Skerryvore light.
Day 3: After midnight the wind increased to F6 and backed NE. At 03:30 we reefed at the change of watch as the Skipper took over from the Mate. The Crew tucked himself deep into the lee berth as, 7 miles from Seryyvore light, we tacked and close hauled off to the East. Skipper standing watch alone tacked North for an hour before tacking back East away from Tiree towards the faint smudge of Iona on the horizon . Dark mutterings from the Crew at each change of tack were followed later in the day by an apology from the Mate for not pointing out the lee cloths.
As the night wore on instruments started to fail, first the auto helm, then the plotter. Despite turning off all unnecessary power, started to get wild readings from the echo sounder. Back up onto the windward rail, tiller extension in hand as twilight turned to half light and the Dutchman’s Cap became clearer to windward. Sunrise over Mull, Iona becoming clearer, nearer and dead ahead on 100o. A slight backing of the wind and Skipper was able to keep the ferocious Riedh Eilean group of rocks safely to leeward. But not enough to clear the Eilean Annraidh rocks which guard the north west entrance to the Sound of Iona.
Three tacks in quick succession woke the crew as the Skipper worked around Eilean Annraidh rocks before bearing away into the Sound of Iona. The engine could not be started because all the batteries were flat. Considering the options we thought it unwise to anchor off Iona as we would be more likely to get the battery charged on Mull. We anchored under sail off Fionnphort and then slept.
The Crew, with less sleep to catch up on than the rest of the crew, arranged to borrow a generator from the dive boat anchored next to us. Restarting the engine with great relief we exchanged working batteries for the remains of the bottle of Tobermory Whisky.
Motored over to Iona and landed at Martyrs beach, the scene of a massacre of Irish monks by Viking raiders in the 9th century. As we wandered up through Baile Mor towards the cathedral, we passed the beautifully simple parish church designed by Thomas Telford and built in 1828. This was the first church on Iona after the abandoning of the cathedral in the 16th century.
Exploring the cathedral the Skipper found the watch tower by the main door to the cathedral with its unusual serrated window and recalled the tale told by a mischievous guide to a 9 year old version of the Skipper…..
When the Benedictine monks ran the monastery in the 12th century they used to have a monk on lookout for visitors and raiders. One night the duty monk heard scraping footsteps coming up the stairs and saw the devil coming up the stairs to get him. The only way out was through the window. So the serrations are the groves left by his ribs as he made his escape.
The present guide had not heard the tale but swapped it for the tale of St Oran, after whom the chapel in the burial ground is named.
St Oran was one of St Columba’s followers who accompanied his leader into exile from Ireland. When the monks established the monastery they wanted to dedicate a burial ground but had no body, so Oran volunteered to be buried alive. Three days later Columba wanted to look upon the face of his old friend again, so ordered the monks to dig open the grave. When the lid was removed Oran sat up and started telling the monks how death was not at all the fiery pit of demons he had been told about. On the contrary he found it to be a wonderful place of quiet contemplation. Hearing this heresy Columba was furious and had Oran quickly reburied.
The Jubilee spirit was abroad in Baile Mor with posters of the Queen (with a safety pin through her nose) advertising a Jubilee BBQ lunch. By the time we rolled up the food was long gone, eaten within the first hour by more ravenous revellers.
Returning to Martyrs Beach the tide was in and the dinghy was missing, a hurried search found the dinghy secured to the pier and dark mutterings from everybody who thought (with 20:20 hindsight) the tide might reach the place we had left the dinghy but didn’t like to say. Two strokes of ill “luck”, what more could go wrong?
We consoled ourselves with Ice Creams, chatted with a boatman and admired the curragh which had just been rowed over from Ireland, as a robed pilgrim and his girlfriend carried a large wooden cross onto the Cal Mac ferry back to Fionnphort. Another day normal for Iona.
An afternoon cruise out to Staffa after the last tripper boat had retuned, was rewarded with the additional joys of a minke whale, puffins, guillemots, eider ducks and porpoises.
The Mate and Crew landed on Staffa and explored Fingal’s cave. With no secure anchorage the Skipper circled the island passing through rafts of puffins, passing close to the SW rocks in 30+m of water. The swell caused huge echoing booms as waves hit the back of the Boat Cave. A group of sea kayakers left heading NE towards Ulva.
Heading back towards Iona we watched for the whales without luck. Exploring the Bulls Hole we found it exposed to the northerly wind so headed south to find our way into Tinker’s Hole. Despite lookouts and a very slow speed we touched bottom on our way through the rocks. The echo sounder apparently showed 2m clear depth of water below the keel. With nine yacht’s in Tinker’s Hole, one anchored in the fairway, space was tight. The Mate redeemed some pride with excellent berthing reversing slowly into a slot with a line ashore to the rocks.
The sunset firing the pink granite brought forth the quote of the evening: “Disney could not have done it better.”
Day 4: Quote of the Day: Of the man who dreams in the night you have nothing to fear. BUT beware the man who dreams in the day, for he has the power to make his dreams come true.
Mate & Crew dived to inspect and photograph the keel. Crew in wetsuit, Mate chose a more traditional approach. The inspection only found some minor paint damage near a previous significant rust filled ding. There were no other signs of damage to the keel. Skipper rechecked the keel bolts, no signs of damage or leakage.
Working our way out, inshore of the Torran Rocks, we made passage across the South of Mull in a flat calm. Skipper invested time trying to find the leak in the inflatable dinghy’s tubes, without success. Caught the Crew dozing at the helm and reminded him in the old days this was a flogging offence.
We anchored for lunch by the old landing on Eileach an Naoimh, before exploring St Brendan’s monastery established some 20 years before Columba founded Iona. Climbing to the top of the Island we passed the ancient grave reputed to be of Eithne, princess of Leinster, sister of St Brendan, and mother of St Columba. It is easy to see how the Garvelach islands got the Celtic name of Hinba “The Isles of the Sea”, being in a commanding position for coastal traffic heading to the Firth of Lorne or out around Mull to the outer Islands. Close enough to the colonising High King’s court at Dunadd, yet far enough away to give the monks some of the isolation they craved. The tail of Corrievreckan’s flood tide eddies are visible far out into the Firth of Lorne. Close to the monastery are the well preserved and famous semidetached beehive cells.
To head inside the islands for the Sound of Jura we had a choice of Cuan Sound to the North, the Sound of Luing, The Grey Dogs or the Gulf of Corrievereckan to the South. All of which are tide gates needing either slack water or the start of the ebb. By the time we had finished exploring Eileach an Naoimh and got ourselves back on board we had only an hour of flood left so Cuan Sound and the Sound of Luing were becoming less ideal. Corrievereckan with its fearsome reputation holds a fascination. Conditions were ideal, calm, 5 miles at 5 knots and we would be entering the Gulf on turn of tide. Other yachts were also heading for the mighty maw. Setting all plain sail and motoring we set course. Skipper and Mate in turn read the pilot books, double checking tidal calculations, the Mate recalling as a child climbing over Scarba to look down on the whirlpool at full flood tide flow. With millions of tons of water squeezed through the gulf up, over and around the submerged stack close to the Scarba shore creating a fearsome standing wave with eddies shed from each side mixing with the incoming swell of a South Westerly gale, they left a small boy with an awe inspiring image of the power of the sea.
As we approached, the last disturbances of the flood tide eddies played lazily with the keel. Heading for mid channel we entered, with wide grins and taking photos like Japanese tourists. We turned to take a closer look at the boils of water just starting to build over the submerged stack, as gannets and terns dived for fish. Then out into the Sound of Jura with porpoises playing in the rip. Beware the man who dreams in the day, for he has the power to make his dreams come true.
Into the Sound of Shuna the Crew tried fishing but kept catching weed.
In through the rocks to the anchorage at Ardinamir for the night. After dinner we went for water at Ardinamir Farm. The elderly resident couple confirmed Mrs McLachlan’s visitors books had been archived by CCC and they no longer keep a book. The farm and byres are now very different from the spartan farm Mrs McLachlan kept last time I visited in 1978. Now they are well appointed holiday homes.
We walked over the hill to Cullipool in time to catch sunset from the ridge then in through the village for the lighting of the Jubilee Beacon on the hill above. Fossicking on the beach we found fools gold in amongst the slates and took a couple of stones for the Skipper’s youngest daughter.
Day 5: An early start from Ardinamire to catch the tide gate at Dorus Mhor, we were followed out into the Sound of Shuna by a small fishing boat. The weather was calm with a thin overcast as we passed through the swirls of the Dorus Mhor and the turn to Port up Loch Craignish to Ardfern. The appalling Jubilee weather from the south was moving north.
Ardfern gave us the chance to refill the water tanks, clean the boat and then the Skipper treated the crew to hot showers. Altruism or self preservation? The sun broke through and we hauled the Crew up the mast to fix a flag halyard to the starboard cross trees. Wandered up the village for lunch & camera battery charging at the Galley of Lorne. Then the postprandial snooze lasted well into the afternoon. A text landing from Crew 2 with his ETA at Crinan woke the slumberous.
As we departed the main VHF was not being picked up by the Yacht harbour, again the domestic batteries came under suspicion. Fortunately the hand held radios were both working. Motoring to Crinan put some charge back into the domestic battery.
Just as we arrived in Crinan to pick up Crew 2 it started to drizzle the rain approaching from the south. Picked up a mooring then a quick buzz around in the tender (successfully repaired at Ardnamire). Two loads, one of stores and kit the other for Crew. Kit was roughly stowed. We dropped the mooring and motored off in light rain. Out into the Firth of Lorne and south towards the MacCormig Islands with porpoises and dolphins playing around boat. Approaching the islands we had to ferry glide to cross the ebbing tide.
Twilight found us pirouetting around the tiny inlet trying to find a suitable spot to anchor without fouling an Alban Vega from Northern Ireland.
Crew 1 promoted to Chef; – Dinner of hand made burgers with oven roast chips, Granny Happ’s jubilee buns, red wine and a nip of whisky rounded off a gently satisfying day.
Day 6: After breakfast we landed on Eilean Mor, St MacCormig’s Island. MacCormig was reputed to be another one of Columba’s 12 companions. With a wayward nature and forever seeking his own white martyrdom, in a desert space in the ocean, he became known as “MacCormig of the Sea”. Eilean Mor was where he isolated himself as a hermit, using a cave at the south western end of the island as his place of contemplation or Cell. Following the Viking age Reginald Sommerled, First Lord of the Isles, set up a chapel on Eilean Mor as at many other Celtic Christian sites including the monastery and abbey on Iona, and the chapel on Eileach an Naoimh invoking the memory of a golden age of Alba before the Viking’s colonisation. Eilean Mor is now owned by the Scottish National Party.
We landed just after the strimming gang arrived by RIB. Walking up past the new visitor’s centre built in the style of a black house with a turf roof, on to the 14th Century Chapel built by Sommerled First Lord of the Isles, which has also seen use as an illicit distillery and farm house.
Over the top of the island past the cross lies MacCormig’s Cave. The original entrance has collapsed but a narrow cleft in the roof gives an awkward drop into the cave. The Chef went first then had a struggle getting out again; the Skipper and the Mate could not resist the challenge. Carved into the cave’s walls are an ancient cross and a “marigold” dated by archaeologists back to the 8th Century. Imagine an Irish Celtic hermit monk contemplating his god and carving these images. Bridging up out of the cave, the age and experience of the Skipper and Mate matched the youthful vigour of the Chef. Terns, hooded crows, gulls, guillemots, oystercatchers with their haunting whistle, turn stones, curlew and a host of other seabirds flock to the islands.
Made passage for Jura. Tidal calculations to set a course to steer, ferry gliding across a mirror sea, passing just north of the Skervuile rock and lighthouse. Into Craighouse Bay by the entrance south of Eilean nan Gabhar.
Picked up one of the many spare visitor’s moorings, then ashore to pay the mooring fee and for lunch at the Jura Hotel (Haggis Panini or salmon salad). Watching the sea kayakers paddling across the bay towards Corrievreckan, we contemplated the selection on “Jean’s Fresh Fish” van as the mobile bank was passing through.
Of course being Jura we could not miss out on the distillery tour and tasting the wonderful array of Jura Whisky. Production was just finishing with the last casks being filled before the summer maintenance shut down.
Dropping the mooring we headed south on the last of the ebb towards the Sound of Islay, catching the first of the flood off McArthurs head. Too late to call in at Port Askaig (Caol Ila) and Bunnahabhain distilleries for another tour, but able to admire the increasingly remote and unspoiled western coast of Jura with its Paps.
As we approached the northern end of the Sound of Islay the wind started to pick up so sails up and a gentle sail into Loch Tarbert (Jura) in glorious sunshine. Seals bobbed off the rocks as we made our way in through the islands and rocks following Blondie Hasslar’s leading marks into the middle loch. Three other boats had already bagged the preferred anchorages, so we tucked in by Eilean Ard to watch red deer grazing on the upper slopes of Clach an Rain.
The chef went skimming off in the tender to go mussel hunting on the drying rocks but was attacked and beaten off by Seagulls. Dinner was Pesto Chicken with pasta, followed by a walk up the hill in the gloaming.
On the last trip back the outboard ran out of fuel. So the Mate and the Chef had the joy of refuelling in the dark, adrift while the stars and planets whirled overhead un-dimmed by street lights or any other man made distraction and the moon rose over the shoulder of Clach an Rain.
Day 7: As we crawled on deck into the morning sun we noticed an old yacht with a wooden pilot house sailing out of the Cumhann Beag narrows from the upper loch and across middle Loch Tarbert. Under an enormous saltire cruising chute it made its way through the Cumhann Mhor narrows and out to sea. We followed under engine through the Cumhann Mhor narrows before raising sail, then breakfasted of bacon butties and kippers as we left Loch Tarbert.
A two hour passage brought us to Scarrisaig on Colonsay for diesel. The anchorage at Scarrisaig was exposed, with a swell and uncertain holding the Skipper stayed on board while the crew went for stores and diesel. The war memorial had 16 names from Great War from a very small community. The store was closed until 2pm for lunch so the crew returned for theirs, passing a fishing boat with a large whale vertebrae on board. After lunch a quick trip to the stores for diesel (£1.71 per litre). Harbour dues were paid into the honesty box then off for the Firth of Lorne.
As we beat up between Colonsay and Jura towards the Garvelachs wind built to F 6 + gusting 7. The Chef was proud to reach 7.6 knots in 1.5 m swell with spray over bows and with the wind speed peaking at 32 knots.
We approached the Garvelachs as the rain set in. There was no shelter to be had on Eileach an Naoimh with the wind funnelling straight through the anchorage, so we bore away for Lunga. Tucking into the relative shelter of Camas a Mhor Fhir for the night, the Grey Dogs thundering half a mile to leeward. At deck level we were out of the wind. It was a different story at the mast head.
A late dinner of the Mate’s Spanish Omelette and a dram. With rain showers cutting the deck we discussed the merits of breathable waterproofs. The Mate mused ruefully on the advantages of a set of waterproofs in which he could breathe, unlike his current set bought 30 years before in his svelte youth.
Sleep with the wind howling in the top of the rigging is relative. As the wind rose the snoring eased, and then as the howling in the rigging eased the snoring picked up again. Snoring alternated with wind in the rigging for most of the night.
Day 8: By morning the domestic batteries had drained again. Fortunately the engine batteries were ok and we were able to put some charge back into the domestics. After breakfast with high winds overhead we set off beating through the islands, out into the Firth of Lorne. On a beat back from Mull the Mate topped 8.1 knots, much to the disgust of the Chef. Gradually the wind decreasing from F6 to 5 to 3 to 0.
For lunch we nipped into Puilladobhrian, then trying to see into Clachan Sound, Skipper on the helm, we gently touched bottom with 2m showing on the depth sounder. So much for the offset. The Mate felt vindicated for his grounding approaching the Tinker’s Hole. A quick blast of reverse and we were off. Up through the Sound of Kerrera to dodge the Cal Mac ferries in Oban Bay.
Back to Dunstaffnage Bay and dodging the Eider duck we approached our second along side mooring of the cruise. Balancing wind, tide and throttle we got away with a “perfect approach”.
We were closely followed by a Westerly 41 full of French extreme sports men who, loudly feigning uncertainty and confusion, executed another “perfect mooring” next to us. Visions of a night disturbed by over enthusiastic youth started to form as they proceeded with unloading their cargo of climbing gear, Para-gliders, surf boards, musical instruments (including violins, guitars and a full drum kit) and began carefully checking and sorting it before loading it into their converted fire tender. One of the climbers gracefully bounced up and balanced on a fence to take photos as the tide rose around the wheels of the fire tender. The tide receding inches before doing any damage. The graceful movement was explained when we learned later that this was no ordinary group of youth, but a troupe of acrobats from Circe de Soleil.
After clearing the boat, a night off for the Chef with a superb dinner in Wide Mouthed Frog watching the sun set over the Morven shore. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Week 1 “Jan’s Gastronomic Odyssey Around Loch Fyne”
The idea for Jan’s Gastronomic Cruise around Loch Fyne was seeded as we repeatedly drove around the loch heading for Croabh. Once seeded the idea germinated as we came through the Crinan Canal to Loch Fyne in summer 2019. Elin threw in her love of the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. Why not sail there? Other gastronomic delights in the area came to mind; The Fish & Chip shop in East Loch Tarbert, a prized destination when I was a child. The Arran Distillery Loch Ranza, Nardinis famous art deco ice cream parlour in Largs. Gordon’s recommendation the Creggan Inn.
Through the long days of the first Covid Lockdown and with the Whisky Cruise postponed, the potential gastronomic delights of Loch Fyne developed. Throw in the incredible beauty of the area and almost limitless anchorages and sheltered waters. Would a week be long enough?
This first week of our summer cruise combined the “Gastronomic Odyssey” with a thorough shake down before we were to head south for the Irish Sea and Wales.
After being hauled up our mast to refit wind vanes, anemometers, radar reflectors and a broken flag halyard, then being paid to do the same on a neighbouring, Elin took her boyfriend Scott off to the Marina’s restaurant for a slap up burger. Jan and I headed into Largs for fish and chips sitting in the car on the sea front.
Next morning, round Great Cumbre and up the beautiful Kyles of Bute through the Burnt Islands via Wreck Bay passage and onto Cladagh Harbour. Elin pointing out to Scott the lions mane jelly fish wafting slowly by. As re-crossing to the Burnt Islands we were in the midst of a pod of porpoises fishing. Coming back down the East Kyle a phone call to Port Banatyne Marina confirmed they were full, so we returned for our first night at anchor in Cladagh Harbour. Scott & Elin went snorkelling then had cockpit showers to clear the salt. A putter round the island in the tender to find a landing for some exploring.
Sunday dawned with a rising gusty wind coming over the hills. Out in Loch Riddon the fluky winds boxed the compass before giving us a lively beat down the West Kyle then out into Inchmarnock Water and lower Loch Fyne. Ideal conditions to try White Knight and her new reefing system in F6+. Carving through the water with full genoa and single reefed main and 9 knots showing on the log (doubt that somehow but it feels good). Wind instruments giving AWA, TWA, AWS, Trend and a host of other new data in multiple formats. Nerd heaven here we come.
Heading into Loch Fyne the AIS was warning of the departure of the Portavadie to East Loch Tarbert ferry. Crossed ahead of the ferry then tacked for East Loch Tarbert.
The marina is a new addition to East Loch Tarbert, Well it has been built since I last stayed the night in the mid-1970s, no more need to anchor in the bay and row ashore. Now a friendly marina with good shore side facilities at a reasonable price a short walk from the town’s shops. After a bit of paddle boarding the crew demanded feeding, so off around the town to forage. Restaurants either closed or open to bookings in advance only, so a Fish & Chips supper, one of our childhood treats and still as good as ever.
East Loch Tarbert was our base for the next couple of nights with a day sail to Loch Ranza and our first gastro stop, the Arran Distillery to stock up the drinks cabinet.
Hot breakfast rolls from the deli on the quay before heading south for Arran. A much calmer day to start off as we sailed out of East Loch Tarbert into the Loch and along the Kintyre shore. As we broke out to cross Kilbrannan sound the NW wind picked up blowing directly into Loch Ranza. Two yachts in front of us fluffed the mooring pick up. Slick work by the crew and a good mooring pick up, relief. A quick lunch then inflated the dinghy for the choppy transfer to shore, leaving the pump on board. The short walk to the distillery was only a couple of miles much to the chagrin of the crew, the mate kept her peace. As we walked a car drew up. “Good to see you back again” came the call. He must have a good memory; it is over 40 years since I was last here. More likely the easing of lockdown was much appreciated.
The Arran distillery is a relative youngster built in the 1995. Cautiously reopening as lockdown eased the distillery tour was limited to the shop with a tasting of any of their single malts we were seriously interested in. We finally homed in on the 10 year old as a gift to Ian for all his work on the fore cabin. A set of 6 self-levelling glasses for the drink’s cabinet and a few other knickknacks were added to the skipper’s invoice.
Returning to the dinghy it had part deflated, somebody had inadvertently loosened a valves on the crossing to shore. Skipper and mate made the first crossing in the flexible flubber, re-inflated the dinghy then collected the crew. Lesson learned, always carry the pump.
A grey crossing back to East Loch Tarbert with Elin demonstrating her skills as a blindfold helm. Boyfriend suitably impressed. A chance to fine adjust, tune and secure the standing rigging.
After more breakfast rolls from the deli, a flat calm gave us the opportunity to give the engine a long run up Loch Fyne and a chance to calibrate the instruments. 9 knots on the log came down to 6 knots when calibrated against the GPS. Doesn’t feel quite as impressive but gives a more reliable base for the navigation. A passing trawler inspired the crew to get the fishing rod out. The corroded weight soon broke free but the paravane kept the hooks deep and veering.
Up Loch Fyne through the Otter Narrows, then up to Loch Gaire where we took a detour to take and send some photos of Gordon’s Uncle Wallace’s Southerly Asagai. Back into the main loch for some MoB practice and on up though the Minard Narrows and on to Inverary. We anchored off the quay in sight of the Duke of Argyle’s impressive castle.
An old puffer, the “Vital Spark” lies forlorn against the quay awaiting another jaunt with the eponymous Para Handy and his motley crew “three men and an enchuneer” all lovingly created by Neil Munro, a son of Inverary. A tentative wander around the shops, masked against the virus, all respectfully ‘social distancing’. Essentials of food, also some fishing lures and a small whisky for Grandma. The shop keepers grateful of the tentative tourists who were gradually returning by motorbike and car but ‘respecting the destination’.
Returning four miles back down Loch Fyne we picked up a visitor’s mooring off the Creggan Inn, free with our pre booked meals. Time to top up the water tanks from the tap at the back of the Inn, several ferry trips in the dinghy before getting into tidy clothes for dinner. Juicy steaks in a socially distanced dining space. Luscious deserts and tea then back on board for a quiet night on the visitor’s mooring.
A driecht morning of steady drizzle and calm entailed another morning under engine heading to the visitor moorings at the top of Loch Fyne and a short walk to the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. The smell of the smoke houses permeated as far as the moorings, so the walk was genuinely short and the anticipation long.
Crisis. All seats in the restaurant were pre-booked for the next week and a half. The crew was infuriated and letting her feelings rip. Dreamed of for weeks in advance through the months of lock-down, the disappointment was immense. As compensation we took a shellfish platter back on board for a socially isolated lunch.
After lunch a bit of manoeuvring and mooring practice for the crew, before heading back down the Loch as the clouds lifted.
Early afternoon came the first sign of the engine problems which were to dominate the next few days. The crew noticed that the hot water was very hot.
Nearing East Loch Tarbert, the temperature warning light came on in the final approach. Throttling back, we kept going for the last few minutes to the marina. Removing some weed from the sea water inlet strainer and reducing the leak from the seawater impeller were the obvious fixes.
A slow morning checking over the engine, fudging a seal on the seawater pump and chatting with friends from the 2014 Commonwealth Games Flotilla.
We sailed for Brodick on Arran ordering new screws for the seawater impeller from DDZ at Largs on route. On the North East shore of Arran are the measured mile markers used by the big ships.
Log Check off Arran measured miles: – Log reading 55.4, 56.3 and 57.2. Under reading by 10% but corrected for tide seemed close enough. We did not reverse the route.
We sailed close by Brodick Castle with its fabulous Victorian tropical gardens. The crew were more interested in a playing a round of crazy golf than botany. Skipper and mate relaxed with a cup of tea.
After dinner, a night sail to Kilchatten Bay on Bute with the crew in charge. The engine temperature warning light came on within a few minutes, so engine off and a pleasant sail into the night. Skipper dozing below. Final approach into a very dark shelving bay looking for the non-existent visitor’s moorings. Smart work by the crew had us anchored before midnight in time for a whisky night cap.
An early morning motor to Largs Yacht Haven, temperature warning light blazing. There appeared to be a flow of cooling water through the exhaust, but the engine block was still getting very warm. To help dump heat we ran out our remining drinking water through the calorifier.
There were no Engineers available to look at the engine but with the advice from Volvo Penta dealer over the next two days I gradually dismantled, cleaned out and reassembled the seawater cooling system and heat exchanger.
Mean while the replacement crew were on route from Wales expecting to depart on Leg 2 around lunch time Saturday. No pressure.
Engine repairs Round 1: Sea water cooling pump and Exhaust Elbow:-
Replaced screws and resealed sea water cooling water pump.
Removed checked and cleaned the exhaust elbow and thermostat.
Thermostat moves when dropped in hot water. All appeared ok.
Called Ian to bring the spare exhaust elbow from the spare engine.
Reassembled the engine and test run, still overheating.
Week 2 “The Nightmare of the Green Donkey”
In theory week 2 was to be a straightforward delivery trip to get White Knight home to North Wales. But the challenges for the skipper included balancing the wish to get south and home to Wales, with a questionable engine, also the dynamics of the new crew Jonathan and Jess full of excitement and youthful vigour replacing Jan and Scott. An excited but inexperienced new crew full of anticipation and the anxieties that go with it. A new mate; a long-standing friend, co-owner of White Knight, a young naval architect also experienced on sail training ships. But an unknown entity to me on a small yacht. Then Elin, staying on for her second week, competent on top form, but missing her recently departed boyfriend. Throw in a deteriorating weather forecast and growls from the Sottish Nationalist about closing the border again. No pressure.
We managed to divert the impending crew and gain an hour by suggesting a shopping trip to Duncan’s Yacht Chandlers in Glasgow. Meanwhile my first job of the morning was to remove and clean the heat exchanger, before reassembling it all again hopefully working reliably.
Round 2: Heat Exchanger
Buy a socket set rather than rely on the spanner set.
Removed heat exchanger then take it to the bench to open it up, clean out the muddy crust, replace seized nuts and reassembled it.
With the cooling water drained give the engine a good flush, before reassembling it all again. A fiddly job in the hard to reach crevices of the engine locker.
Finally reassembled with fresh bolts, nuts and seals the engine was tested again. A steady stream of cooling water coming through the exhaust.
Just as I was refitting the heat exchanger and an old bolt was refusing to bite, the new crew arrived for Week 2. But first finish reassembling the donkey and an engine test on tick over in the marina. All seemed ok, but oh how we were being deceived by the malevolent green donkey.
With the engine reassembled and the cabin cleared up the new crew started loading their dunnage and food. Skipper, trying to avoid the unavoidable chaos, sloped off for a hot shower, late lunch and a mug of tea, then returned to chaos. A few helpful hints on where stuff could be stowed allowed order to eventually be restored.
Next the crew safety briefing and a rough outline of the plan for the trip and the many options and constraints to be balanced. The rough idea was to introduce Jonathan & Jess to the delights of cruising White Knight through the beautiful Kyles of Bute, before crossing to Arran, down Kilbrannan Sound to Campbelltown, our departure point for the Antrim coast. The third leg would follow the Ulster coast to Ardglass before crossing directly to North Wales. The Isle of Man was closed to visitors with no landing permitted.
The first leg was the short hop east to Port Bannatyne on Bute for the night. Filled water and fuel tanks. 40l of fuel and 30 engine hours since last fill so 40/30 = 1.33 l/hr then a gentle motor sail across to Bute, the engine apparently behaving.
The engine temperature warning light killed that plan next morning as we made our way through the drizzle up the East Kyle.
That was until we hit the vomit inducing swell crossing between Bute and the southern tip of Little Cumbre. Smiles returned as we swung into the shelter of the Cumbrae islands into the Hunterston channel.
Back to Largs and
Engine Repairs Round Three: –
Stripping down checking, flushing and reassembly of the freshwater side of the cooling system. The freshwater pump showed no signs of problems.
A conversation with Dino of DDZ Marine produced a box of spares and suggesting trying a new thermostat and restricting the flow to the calorifier. The new thermostat moved far more easily than its predecessor.
We gave the engine another thorough flushing with fresh water dislodging years of corrosion residue.
After installing the new thermostat and clamping down the calorifier hose, an hour’s engine running check showed no problems.
Had we really got to the root cause of the problem? Years of crud slowly building up throughout both the seawater and freshwater cooling systems and ultimately a thermostat which kept jamming? Taking a cautious approach, we re-planed our route south to keep to the Scottish mainland shore before committing ourselves to the Irish Sea crossing.
Another grey start was lifted by a common dolphin with a nick in its dorsal fin closely inspecting the boat and Elin’s poached eggs with smoked salmon breakfast. A minor leak from the engine cooling system was quickly fixed.
As we headed south the joy ebbed as the weather thickened to rain and just over a mile’s visibility and the wind increased. Passing bolt holes at Ardrossan, Troon and Ayr, we decided to bail out at Girvan.
A call to the harbour master recommended waiting until half tide at 15:00 before making the harbour entrance. So we headed out towards Ailsa Craig and waited for an hour for the tide to rise. Mal ’de Mare hitting the crew with the relentless wind and swell rising too.
Approaching the coast and its shoals we hove-to under engine and backed reefed genoa to survey the run into Girvan Harbour. The lee shore swells building over the shoals with the wind. Time to go for it. Surfing in under bare poles over the shoals at 4.5 knots, with the engine in reverse tick over to slow our approach. Crew’s knuckles white. On in through the narrow harbour entrance. Crew on deck rapidly fixing lines & fenders. A swift turn and a perfect landing on the available windward berth only slightly marred by a tangled line. The engine was behaving.
Adrenalin and hot tea combined with a safe harbour quickly cured the mal de mare. Jess’ superb fish pie with a bottle of wine for dinner as the rigging screamed in the ever-rising wind. We slept well.
Tuesday was spent wind bound in Girvan.
Jonathan took on the task of sorting out the bosun’s locker AKA “Jeff’s Shed”. A quarter was old packs of hardened glue and other spent material, AKA “bin fodder”. Another quarter was duplicates, and spares which would not be used except during the winter refit, bagged up to go home to the store. The remainder was boxed up into new recycled plastic takeaway containers and the cracked old ones recycled. New Velcro was applied to the cushions to stop them sliding when healed. We also topped up the antifreeze.
With a reasonable 4g signal I managed to catch up on work. A MS Teams morning call with the team and a collaborative planning meeting, knock back the emails and move a few issues forward. Work appeased, Elin and I then went for a walk around the town, discovering the hardware store to pick up a few more necessaries; more anti-freeze and a hose pipe. Then cautiously into a social distancing café for tea and cream buns. J&J went off for their own walk to Asda.
Dinner a superb fish supper from the harbour fish bar washed down with another bottle of wine.
With an updated weather forecast, we started contemplated passage plans for tomorrow: – Northern Ireland strongly rejected by Elin in case we ran into an ex-flame. Scottish coast preferred in case of engine problems with its land route home, but with a strong southerly forecast once around the Mull of Galloway would make shelter a rare commodity before the Cumbrian coast. The Isle of Man was the most direct route home, but the island was locked down with no landing permitted and the forecast for Thursday rapidly oscillating between benign and unpleasant.
Reviewing the options next morning, the destination for the day was left open. Nobody trusted the engine to perform reliably and a port of refuge on the Scottish / English mainland may be desirable. With 5 & 6 in the forecast, particularly around the Isle of Man caution was called for. Elin was still against going to Bangor in Northern Ireland as her old flame was now known to be in town (the wonders of social media). The quickest route to North Wales would be via an overnight stop at the Isle of Man, provided we were not gale bound. But Elin and Jess were both keen to be able to get home to their own beds as swiftly as possible and not to be stranded on any islands. Isle of Whithorn was a strong possibility on the Galloway coast but exposed to the South. Little Ross Island and Kirckubright were possibilities beyond. Local advice was to aim for Peel
There was still a significant onshore swell as we broke out of Girvan harbour and turned south again heading for the Rhin’s of Galloway. Clawing off the coast the swell reduced and the sun broke through.
As we approached Corsewall Point at the north end of the Rhins of Galloway the tide turned favourable to carry us down through the North Channel. A glorious afternoon with a good tide past one of Dad’s favourite harbours, Port Patrick and on to the Mull with its fearsome tidal race, arriving in time for slack water.
Off the Mull of Galloway the crew agreed that the quickest way to their beds was to head south to Peel. Leaving the decision so late ment an hour clawing against the new flood tide to get sufficient offing to get across the tide and down the west coast of the Isle of Man. Shelter from the southerly wind on the exposed East coast of Man would be difficult without landing.
Entering behind the shelter of Peel breakwater just after sunset we picked up a mooring for the night. Secure and sheltered from the rising wind it was Jess’s first night afloat on White Knight that was not in a marina. Spaghetti Bolognaises for dinner and a good night’s sleep. Forecast still oscillating, but appeared to be better if we could get East once past the Calf of Man.
The early forecast on Thursday morning was still confused and complex. but after an early and rough start there was just a chance of better conditions if we kept East of the rhumb line to Anglesey. We were heading out into a fierce swell and head wind but with the tide under us. All strapped on with lifelines as White Knight bucked, reared and sliced south.
Half an hour out and I looked below to see the hatches from the cabin sole floating in an inch of water. Handing the tiller to Jonathan I quietly nipped below to switch the bilge pump on and check for leaks. Tasting the water, it was salty but warm, no obvious leaks from the seacocks. Shining a torch into the engine locker, water was spraying around the stern gland. The pumps were beating the incoming water. Time to turn around and head back to Peel.
A call to Isle of Man Marine Operations to let them know we were returning to Peel and may need to enter the inner harbour or dry out. We agreed there was no need at this stage to notify the Coastguard as the pump was dealing with the water, but the harbour was closed for Covid. Back on the mooring and a hand into the engine locker located the problem, the exhaust muffler was leaking, and the water was being thrown around by the drive shaft. It took a few minutes to remove the box and find a couple of gouges where the box had become dislodged and lain on the drive shaft.
A crew revolt was averted by a pot of tea and breakfast, after which we called the harbour master who managed to find us some quick curing epoxy and delivered it to us. Excellent, friendly service. We look forward to returning when covid allows.
14:00 and off again. The swell was slightly reduced but the tide was still foul. Off Elby Point we set the double reefed main and genoa and headed offshore. Rounding the Calf of Man the tide carried us east of the rhumb line and the wind and swell eased to a beautiful evening sail across to Anglesey. Ragged clouds and murk spoke of worse to the west.
02:00 and we arrived in Holyhead. Shore crew waiting to return the sea crew home to their beds.
Jan & I returned to Holyhead on Friday evening to top up the fuel tank and sail White Knight around the North coast of Anglesey heading for Conwy on the early tide Saturday morning.
A delightful sail for a grey day. Just the two of us, nobody else to worry about. The tide under our keel, gannets and terns divebombing for fish a few feet away. Light winds across Conwy Bay, engine on or off? Need to make the tide gate on Conwy Marina. Engine back on as we feel our way up the river past the sand banks and shoals. Tide sluicing out as we crept past the Beacons jetty then the sharp turn across the tide into the Marina. A quick hunt for the allocated berth then moored up.
Conwy was to be White Knight’s new home, at least for a couple of months. The crew returning to clear and clean the ship. More terrifying than anything else we had experienced over the last couple of weeks, emerging into the courtyard at the marina there were loads of people crammed in milling around. Social distancing and wearing face coverings seemed irrelevant to them. So very different from the “respect the destination”we had experienced in Scotland and the Isle of Man.
We refuelled to full with 32l so in addition to the topping up at Holyhead, total refuelling 52 l used in 37 engine hours = 1.4l/hr. Slightly higher than the 1.3 l/hr used up Loch Fyne, but conditions were worse so the engine was working harder.
After all the winter work, frustration of the three months of amazing sailing weather lost to Covid, the joy of finally getting afloat and completing the winter refit, White Knight was ready for our first proper cruise of 2020. The gastronomic cruise around Loch Fyne, a family holiday we had dreamed of.
Despite the problems with the engine, this trip got us very familiar with the little green donkey which lives under the companion way step and showed us that repairing it was very straight forward, almost a joy to work on, if we had to. By the start of the delivery cruise the main problem with the thermostat had been fixed, though we remained suitably sceptical about the reliability of the green donkey. The leak in the water lock / muffler may have been dripping for some time. The pitching off the Isle of Man may have worsened the leak but it was only that the bilge pump was accidentally switched off that we found it. The temporary fix held until a new water lock could be fitted and secured.
The delivery trip was a challenge for the less experienced members of the crew but ultimately one which brought great experience to build upon. We became more familiar with White Knight’s capability also gaining the performance data to be able to plan future trips with more confidence.
From our first viewing we knew that our Contessa 32 White Knight would need a substantial winter refit over the first winter and a smaller refit the second winter. All the boats we looked at would have needed one. White Knight’s happened to be the refit which could be managed without compromising our sailing time too much. Following the survey and our first season fixing urgent actions and deferring nice to haves, we had pulled together a long work list. But was it all for the first winter refit? In best Project Management style, it was time to set an Aim and some supporting Objectives
The aim of this refit was: To address all the remaining “advisory” issues highlighted in the pre-purchase survey and make White Knight safe and fit for the coming season, with a view to staying afloat for up to 18 months and leaving the mast up for up to 3 years.
Next the objectives: Working through the work list; Some bits would need professionals (rigging replacement and Gas safety work), most of the rest we could do ourselves with White Knight ashore in an appropriate boat yard (engine servicing, replacing the exhaust pipe, servicing sea cocks, doubling and replacing hose clips, navigation instruments and electric, painting, varnishing and anti-fouling). Some things could be taken home (cleaning and servicing all removable bits, replacing as necessary).
The next question was where? As we wanted to so some more sailing in Scotland in 2020 we did not want to bring White Knight home to Wales just yet. Croabh was six and a half hours drive from home, the Clyde a mere four and a half. On the Clyde we checked out several boat yards, in the end settling on Fairley Quay near Largs because it allowed us sleep on board in the open yard but offered inside storage for a repainting if we needed it. On site were Fairley Riggers along with boat builders, canvas crafters, marine engineers and a small chandlery backed up by the larger chandlery at Kip all with 10% discount. The Volvo agent, DDZ Marine, was near by at Largs YH. Mast removal and re-stepping along with hire of a cradle came as part of the package at a competitive price.
At the end of September, after an oil and oil filter change, Ian, Sue and I sailed White Knight down from Kip to Fairley Quay arriving at the appointed time to be hoisted and our first chance to get a proper look at White Knight below the water line.
A quick jet wash, then after being settled in a cradle we unloaded sails, spray hood, dinghies, life raft, outboard, cushions (except the saloon seats) and a host of other stuff into the waiting cars. Then started the cleaning, vacuuming into the crevices, degreasing the galley and winterising the engine. A temporary plywood cover was made for the battery box to allow somebody to work on the electrical panel and chart table without having to sit directly on the batteries. We also arranged for the rigging to be checked over and a quote for replacement along with getting contact details of all the other trades we may need.
For the next couple of months all the work was managed from home including building Jonathan a workshop for all the wood working projects he had planned (but only after he had finished refurbishing his new house). The new teak grating for the cockpit could wait until after the house had been decorated. The riggers inspected and condemned the at least 20-year-old rigging.
It was the end of November before Ian and I managed to get north again. A leak in the anchor locker grp lining had rotted all the supporting woodwork. Ian took on the task of cutting out the rotten woodwork and rebuilding the anchor locker. This also involved removing the linings from the fore cabin, a job we had hoped to leave until the second winter. One job which defeated us was removing the pencil anode from the engine block, but a long list of minor works was knocked off.
Scott the gas fitter quoted for replacing all the aging pipe work regulator and valves up to gas safety certificate standard. The issue was installing a low-level vent for the gas locker. The gas locker is low in the cockpit and with a low freeboard boat would often go below the waterline. The existing locker vented to the cockpit. Running a vent pipeline through the lazarette would be vulnerable to water locking and being knocked off. An exchange of e mails with Jeremy Rogers Yachts the builders did not come up with a better solution. In the end Scott wrote out a qualified Gas Safety Certificate, highlighting the vent to cockpit arrangement, and following a brief discussion with the insurers this was accepted as the least-worst solution.
In mid-January I managed to fit in a flying visit, successfully removing the pencil anode fitting with a reversed half inch socket. The fitting was taken home to remove and replace the last remains of the old anode. I also investigated fix why the cockpit was not draining (a sea cock had been left closed), review options for draining the gas locker overboard, drilled out for USB charging point in fore cabin, and knocked off a short list of other minor works.
Ian and Jonathan returned in early February for Ian to make progress on the anchor locker rebuild. While Jonathan worked through the sea cocks and removed the exhaust hose. The through hull fitting was looking suspect with a badly corroded bolt. The replacement hose did not fit. By mid-February it was starting to become apparent that there was a looming pandemic on its way.
Reviewing the budget and to do list along revealed that with a few savings by doing more work ourselves and with the mast down meant we were able to start installing a NMEA 2000 set of instruments starting with a wind vane and combined log depth sounder. This would also enable the AIS in the radio to be linked to the Raymarine plotter above the companion way. I headed north at the end of February to remove all the redundant instruments and cabling and start installing the NMEA 2000 Backbone and transducer cabling. I brought the companion way garage home for Jonathan to start modifying the instrument pod to take a new B&G Triton MFD and the existing Raymarine chart plotter. Interfacing the chart plotter with the other instruments moved it from being a mere chart plotter to an all singing all dancing information centre which, via a wifi link, could be read and manipulated from an IPad or phone. “The Mutts Nuts” was christened.
The following weekend Jonathan, Ian and I headed north again to try to complete the winter refit work. By this time it was clear that the pandemic was likely to be disruptive but we pressed on with our plans to launch by Easter. We nearly completed the anchor locker resealing & rebuild and completed most of the work on the mast including hauling through the new sensor cable for the NMEA 2000 instruments. There was also the heart in mouth job of drilling a large hole below the waterline for the transducer through-hull fitting. Then the agonising wait while the epoxy filler hardened sealing the bronze fitting to the hull. Would it keep out the water? The mast was now ready for refitting. Typically we were achieving 60-80% of what we had planned for each visit.
Then the Covid Lockdown hit. It was decreed that we should all work from home and stop socialising face to face. There was to be no travel more than 5 miles from home and no staying on board for months. The Scottish and Welsh borders were closed.
Fortunately, we had taken a few jobs home; Jonathan was able to make a new face plate for the instrument panel in the pod. Ian made some new head lining panels and cleaned all the cushions with a carpet shampoo cleaner. I could clean and measure all sheets & warps, service the outboard, repair the sail cover and make up new mooring warps and fender lanyards. But three and a half months of the best sailing spring weather for years slipped by un-used. The planned cruise to the whiskey islands was toasted on a zoom call as it slipped back to the unfinished business list. Virtual cruises were planned with live weather conditions. The sun shone but the long slow frustrating lock down was extended and held.
Then finally at the beginning of July there came the first signs of easing.
To kick start the work we hired Quay Marine to complete the exhaust pipe refit while the yard re-stepped the mast.
Within 24 hours of the Scottish and Welsh borders being reopened I was across them with a trailer load of kit and a long list, to spend 3 socially isolated days completing enough of the jobs to get White Knight launched. More GRP to complete the anchor locker, then clear the lining glue from the fore cabin sides ready for painting with Damboline. Up-sizing the trunking, and refitting the hatch garage resplendent with Jonathan’s 12 coats of Epifanes varnished face plate, I was able to complete the NMEA 2000 installation & testing along with other bits of electrical work. Removal, cleaning and re-seal the leaking fore hatch was a sticky messy horrible job. Next refit the engine impeller and test the engine for launching. Tighten the rigging and a host of other minor jobs. Mean while two coats of anti-fouling were put on by one of the yard hands. With the main works completed it was time to start cleaning up. Collecting all the tools, off-cuts, empty boxes, half empty tins of unguents, paint and rubbish then carry them down the ladder to car, trailer or skip as appropriate. A thorough vacuum clean and wipe over of interior then a light rub down and oil / polish interior woodwork and another deep vacuum clean of all the cushions. A very satisfying dinner was followed by a good night’s sleep.
I was up at 6am to put on the final coat of anti-fouling. The weather forecast was marginal for a mid-day launch with an onshore wind. Keep on with the preparations. So began the reloading with the anchor chain & anchor, rigging the boom, sort out running rigging, fitting sails & covers. A new gas bottle, cushions, dinghy, life raft, all ropes & fenders, danbuoy, life ring, outboard, fuel & water all being hauled up the ladder and stowed. By noon on the third day the bills had been paid and we were ready to launch.
After a shaky launch into an on-shore swell and the straps refusing to sink White Knight was at last afloat and free again. The first visiting yacht to arrive at Largs Yacht Haven after the lock down.
Ian took over to complete the last bits, fitting the new linings to the fore cabin including a wonderful set of head linings on new backing boards. Replacing the pristine cushions, steralising the water tank, Cetol to all the brightwork and refitting the curtains. In the July sunshine the boating world was coming back to life and adventure beckoned. White Knight was ready.
It was time to bring White Knight into the Clyde for her first major refit for nearly 20 years. Our summer around the islands of the Inner Hebrides had got us used to her foibles and the survey listed several advisory items which the insurers insisted were resolved before the 2020 season. This included a gas safety certificate, changing the aged standing rigging and servicing all the sea cocks. There was also a longer list of nice to haves to address. From Croabh to the Clyde we had two reasonable options, around the Mull of Kintyre or through the Crinan Canal.
In the words of a song sung by Neill Munro’s Dan MacPhail “Enchuneer” of The Vital Spark
The Crinan Canal for me,
I don’t like the wild raging sea
Them big foamin’ breakers
Wad gie ye the shakers
The Crinan Canal for me.
A bit of history:- The Crinan Canal was built to provide a short cut for commercial sailing and fishing vessels between the industrialised region around Glasgow to the West Highland villages and islands, avoiding the notorious Mull of Kintyre. The canal was designed by Civil Engineer John Rennie with work starting in 1794. In the early years the canal was beset with problems including; finance, poor weather, labour shortages. After the Canal was opened in 1801 the problems continued with bank and reservoir collapses. Thomas Telford was commissioned to assess the problems and suggested improvements to the locks, and some parts of the canal were redesigned including the swing bridges which were replaced in cast iron in 1816. Today the canal remains a popular route for leisure craft between the Firth of Clyde and the west coast of Scotland, used by nearly 2,000 boats annually.
White Knight’s Delivery Trip to Kip via Crinan Canal and Loch Fyne
23 August 2019: Jan, Elin and I drove up to Croabh from North Wales, arriving 20:45 just in time for a late dinner in the Lord of the Isles.
24 August: Loaded, victualled and final dues paid at the Marina, we removed the fenders from the berth and liberated a piece of old sail cloth from the skip to protect White Knight’s topsides in the Canal. It was a cold grey start with spray over the decks as motored down to Dorus Mor.
Calling ahead the Lock keepers opened the sea lock ready for us. The sun finally broke through the murk as we entered Crinan Sea Lock. With lines secured the lock filled lifting us to the canal basin. Time to nip to the office and pay our dues, £124 for passage through the canal with a discount for a return trip within 12 months. A short break in the canal basin while Elin admired a small dog and we grabbed a mug of tea.
The sea lock and next lock were both manned and set in our favour, so we passed quickly onto the long pound. With the bridges maned we did not have to wait long to pass through. Wonderful scenery and serene, the Crinan Canal certainly lived up to its reputation as “the most beautiful short cut in Britain”. The views across the salt marshes gave way to the wider wetlands around Dun Add seat of the kings of Dal Riata.
Arriving at lunch time the main flight of locks was DIY. A large yacht ahead of us left all the locks set against us. It was heavy going working the locks while Jan and Elin steered the boat and tended lines. A Lock Keeper finally appeared as we came through the next to top lock but was not very helpful. He was more interested in chatting up the passing ladies. My back starting to feel it as we came through the last up lock. As the midges started to bite, Elin blagged some mosquito repellent from an Australian couple in a nearby motor home.
We just missed the day’s racing at the Mid Argyle Radio Sailing club in the reservoir by the top lock. Water levels in the short top pound were getting low at the end of a long day. Starting the decent we were able to get through two locks before we were stopped by the lock keeper for the night at Cairnbran.
All very tired, stiff aching and a bit grumpy. Hot showers in the lock keeper’s hut were followed by a restorative dinner in the Cairnbran Hotel.
Through Lock 6 and 7 as soon as the loch keeper left the lock keys and unlocked the gates.
After an easy run we were held for an hour at Ardrishaig top lock for road traffic through the lower locks and bridge openings. The very helpful lock keeper suggested Jan & Elin take the opportunity to go to Morrisons and stock up with food. We rafted through the final locks with 2 other boats.
Leaving Ardrishaig Sea Lock and the Crinan Canal we broke out into a flat calm in Loch Fyne.
An unplanned MOB practice when a fender broke loose. Dolphins were playing around the channel markers as we streamed the log. Elin took to the boom for a doze in the sunshine as we made our way slowly down Loch Fyne.
We looked into East Loch Tarbert harbor for future reference. The new marina looked very welcoming, but we did not stop.
A light SW wind carried us across Lower Loch Fyne towards the Kyles of Bute. Rounding Ardlamont Point we set the Spinnaker for the first time. Then had a fine spinnaker run up the West Kyle to Tighnabuaich then wind dropped. Time to recover the spinnaker. Something which will need more practice to perfect.
From Tighnabuaich we motor sailed up to Caladh Harbour and the Burnt Islands, doffing our caps to the Maids of Bute as we passed. The wind dropped so we motored down East Kyle to Port Bannatyne.
Port Bannatyne Marina is a very friendly place with loads of people just wanting to chat. The facilities are clean, warm and unfussy. Last time Elin and I visited Port Banatyne was in our Cornish Shrimper Daisy in 2014 before we joined the Commonwealth Games Flotilla. A boat we had met on that trip Ancaster iV was in the marina but unfortunately nobody was on board.
Breakfast at the Port Banatyne Post Office Café with its stunning views up Loch Striven and its George VI post box
Departing in a light South Westerly the wind increased as we crossed Rothsey Bay. By the time we rounded Toward point it was blowing F5 gusting 6 and the swell was rising. After the calm waters of the Canal and Loch Fyne the mal de mare reared its ugly face.
The chance for a sail around Great Cumbre was rejected. Elin was keen to head home and secure her collage place. So we sailed direct for Kip Marina. Furling the sails in a lively swell off the old jetty for Inverkip Power Station was challenging before heading for the calm of the marina. We were quickly moved from the visitor pontoon onto the main marina. There was no additional charge as our berth at Croabh was already paid for. Elin quickly made up for the saving with a visit to the on-site chandlers.
After a quick tidy up Jan & Elin caught the train home to arrange an interview and confirm Elin’s college place. With peace descended I was left for a quiet evening’s working through the “to do” list and dinner at the marina restaurant.
My brother Donald and his sons visited in the morning. After a breakfast of bacon grill butties, part of the boys missing education, we went for a short sail up the Clyde to the Cloch lighthouse then back to Inverkip.
Afternoon saw us back on the road to Croabh to collect the car and the new cooker. Lunch at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar en-route. Donald & the boys then headed onto Fort William to climb Ben Nevis.
I spent the evening installing the new cooker, removing the U/S refrigeration unit and relocating the spare battery in its place. The Fish and Chip supper was not particularly nice.
From agreeing the deal on the 29 June, it took a couple of weeks to sort out a survey, arrange insurance (subject to survey). transfer funds (subject to verbal survey report), arrange leave and acquire the most urgent bits of replacement kit including a new B&G V60 VHF radio with built in AIS receiver. The first trip would be a “Shakedown”, the main objectives of which would be:
Rummage Ship: Jeff had left White Knight with a very full inventory with lockers stuffed to overflowing. So, task 1 was to Rummage and clear out all the lockers moving tins of paint, spare sails and accumulated stuff to the van to give Jan the chance to do a thorough clean and make space for our dunnage.
Urgent Fixes: I needed to install the new VHF Radio, a USB charging point and a host of other minor stuff. We also needed to thoroughly check the boat and her equipment from the truck of the mast to the bottom of the bilges. The verbal survey had highlighted a few things that needed sorting out. This would take at least one day if not two.
A Shakedown sail: to test and understand how White Knight works, check over the engine etc. Then a few days going a bit further; maybe up the Firth of Lorne, around Mull, through Corriebwreckan. Maybe even a side trip to Loch Craignish and Ardfern before returning to Croabh.
Finally start pulling together the next “to do” list.
On Thursday 11 July 2019 I headed north with Jan & Elin for the “Shakedown Cruise”. All excitement as we crossed the Scottish border, over Beatock and down the Clyde valley through Glasgow. We pulled over in Dumbarton to download the survey and e mail it onto the insurers. They were happy, and we were insured. E mailed Jeff to let him know. Jan took over the driving, on up Loch Lomond to Tarbert then hang a left over the low pass to Arrochar then the long haul up and over the Rest & Be Thankful pass to Cairndow and the Loch Fyne Oyster bar. Last leg down Loch Fyne through Inverary to Loch Gilphead then over the isthmus by the Crinan Canal, past Dun Add and on to Croabh, the new boat and dinner in the Lord of the Isles.
Jan & Elin set off early to Oban for victuals, etc. Leaving the skipper un-distracted to start working his way through the ship and a long list of “maintenance” and fitting out tasks.
First on the list was to replace the antediluvian VHF radio. I found that the old radio was not working because the cockpit extension speaker would not work, something for the “not essential now so fix later” list. To get the old radio out I had to removed a shelf unit by the chart table to gain access, then feel for the fixing screws holding the old radio. Next the wiring had to be freed up. Three quarters of an hour later the old radio was out. The Furno GPS including the spare wiring for a laptop connection was far easier. I checked the wiring to VHF antenna, and signal strength using adaptors and a pair of handheld VHF radios. All seemed to be working OK.
Next to install the new B&G V60 radio with built in MSSI and AIS. I was not able to install it where the old radio was fitted as it clashes with chart table lid. So found a new home on the top of the instrument box. Re-routed the wiring and cabled up. Up to the chandlers again for zip ties to tidy up the cables, then switched on. It powers up, whoopee. Programmed in MMSI etc. All seems to work OK, AIS proximity alarms coming in from other boats in the marina and out in the Loch.
Next I tried to find out why the anemometer was not working. Checked wiring to mast head instruments following Stowe’s instructions. No faults found. Found a loose screened cable in the instrument box with blue core. May this be the anemometer feed? Can’t be sure. Do without and move on. Something else for the “not essential now, so fix later” list.
I continued to rummage ship. Clearing space in the cabin lockers that Jeff had filled with spare sails, maintenance gear and all sorts of other stuff.
Knob on gas regulator loose. Back to the chandlers for epoxy glue. Fridge not working. Can’t find any reason why not. Do without. Yet another thing for the “not essential now, so fix later list”. Jan had left a pile of freezer blocks with the Marina.
Jan and Elin came back from their shopping trip surprised at how little I have managed to get done. Jan cleaned & stowed galley and generally tidied up below while I got started on the Cockpit lockers and hauled rummage up to the van.
Elin inflated cleaned and checked the dinghy. Inflatable floor does not hold air, leaking valve, but otherwise all seemed ok. The spare valve wrapped in PTFE tape was slightly better but did not seem to make a complete fix so yet another thing for the “not essential now, so fix later list”. A quick row round and a quick check that the outboard works. All fine.
I hauled Elin up the mast to check fittings and locate the source of rainwater coming down the cables. Elin hugely satisfied.
There was no petrol (or spare can) for the outboard so a 40 mile return trip to the nearest garage in Loch Gilphead to buy 5l of petrol, probably using more than 5l of diesel to get 5l petrol.
Late dinner on board followed by a game of Uno.
Overall the essentials seem to work ok. The “not essential now, so fix later” list is now covering 2 pages.
Time to go sailing. An early start with the mate and crew itching to get underway.
Filled the water tank, to overflow into the bilges. Bilge pump working. Filled the 25 l spare water carrier. Final stowage of gear from the car, food and the freezer packs into the cool box.
Engine fired up and settled, then pulled off the berth in reverse. Always a heart in the mouth moment going astern for the first time on a new boat. Strong prop-walk kicked the stern to starboard, but at low engine revs the rudder was soon back in control. A slow turn onto fuel berth, manoeuvre successful, instructions whispered, no fuss. Relief. 15 l to “fill” the fuel tank, or at least blow back some fuel. The watch glass (plastic pipe) was too crudded up to be legible. Another candidate for the “not essential now, so fix later” list.
Departed Croabh Haven around the south end of Shona and Luing. Strong tides carried us North through Sound of Luing, With the sails up we were carried sideways through the overfalls out of the North end of the Sound past Fladda. A red hulled Contessa 32 under spinnaker was just beating the tide heading south for Sound of Luing.
With the crew demanding food and the mate on the helm I nipped below and found the hot water tap running. The pump was not switched off. No idea how long it had been running for or how much water we had lost. Lesson 1 ALWAYS switch off the water pump when not in use. At least the water was hot so the calorifier was working.
Our first two attempts at tacking were not pretty, Lesson 2: With a large overlapping genoa the tack needs to be sailed through then held while the crew get the sheet in before easing onto the new course.
With Duart Castle abeam we started adjusting the mainsail trim to meet the exacting demands of the Topper sailor. At which point my treasured sailing cap flew over the side and sank before a MOB manoeuvre could be instigated, much to the joy of the Mate and Crew.
Closing the Morven shore, we gybed around rather inelegantly, recovered and headed up into the Sound of Mull. With the wind freshening as it funnelled through the Sound of Mull we worked on improving tacking the genoa. In the grove White Knight was holding 6 knots to windward without really trying. Her motion was sea kindly, slicing through the wind over tide chop. Seals bobbed up as we passed Glas Eilean.
A quick check of the pilot book to confirm the leading marks as we made for the narrow entrance to Loch Aline. Dropped sail outside then made for the narrows. All the pontoons on the new marina were full, much to the distress of the crew who wanted a run ashore. Heading up the Loch we took the next to last visitor’s mooring, closely followed by a Nicholson 32 which bagged the last. The crew disappeared into the fore cabin to sulk while I launched the tender. I had a quiet run ashore, paid the dues for the visitor mooring and had a hot shower. £1 for 4 minutes. Then a burble round in the tender and a chance to snap some photos of White Knight in the evening calm.
Ashore to use the facilities then an early morning walk into the village past the optical glass silica sand mine and the ferry landing then up to the village store which was closed being Sunday. Back at the marina people were gathering for the annual swimming race across loch.
We departed before the race blocked our passage and headed North West up the Sound of Mull into a light head wind. We motored the first hour to recharge the batteries, then started sailing. The Crew demonstrating all her Topper experience showing “how it should be done”. A better hoist on the main and resetting the genoa cars improved the trimming. Practice was improving our tacking, holding turn while the genoa was sheeted in.
The AIS alarm sounded regularly as we wove between yachts which were either motoring up the sound or running before the wid. Cal Mac ferries steamed majestically by, all in the clear sunshine between the wooded banks of the Sound capped by purple mountain tops. A light plane shattering the piece as it took off from the Mull airfield. Skimming low before heading south east.
The piece was shattered again a few minutes later “MAYDAY relay, MAYDAY Relay”: A light plane was reported as ditching in the Sound of Mull between Loch Aline and Glas Eileanan, some 4 miles back the way we had come. Tobermoray & Oban lifeboats were launched. Yachts closer to the scene were diverted, then reports started to come through that plane had only skimmed surface then taken off again. Then reports that the plane was inbound for Oban Airport, then had safely landed. The lifeboats and Rescue Helicopter were stood down.
AIS CPA alarm kept pinging off regularly as yachts and ferries plied past us.
As we were approaching Tobermory we were able to FaceTime our daughter and friends in Shropshire, all fans of Balamory. So much for the remote Highlands.
Entering Tobermoray we managed to get a space on the Visitor’s pontoons next to another Contessa 32 Leyla. Hot showers then shopping for a Mackerel line for Elin, followed by dinner at the excellent Fish Restaurant on the steamer quay. Elin’s first Oyster and a shellfish sharing platter.
The day was rounded off with a digestive of cheeses and Tobermory whiskey, chatting with other boaters about the days excitements while the youngsters played Uno with Elin.
The morning was spent food shopping at the Co Op, including ice for the cool box, then onto the amazing Brown’s general store and off license for glue. A spare kill cord for the outboard was acquired from chandlers. Sandwiches & pasties from a small baker’s store.
Light winds and a tight reversing exit from the pontoons set the first challenge of the day, executed without problems. We motored up the Sound of Mull to Ardmore Point where we found the wind, then sailed. Three dolphins passed close by heading into the Sound of Mull, just where the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust app suggested we were likely to see them.
Elin, fishing, hooked a large fish, but as she reeled it in it got away.
Jan on the helm kept tweaking the sails in the light breeze getting closer to the Tradewind 35 ahead of us. “I am not racing” she claimed, until we had clearly outpaced then passed Seriol.
We tacked for Iona and the wind died away to nothing. We were motoring the rest of the way with the tide giving a helping hand. Guillemots and their chicks were joined by Puffins as we approached Staffa
We anchored in Martyrs Bay Iona. For the skipper and crew to go ashore and visit Iona and the Abbey. Elin found a wishing font and wished for fair winds.
Crossing the sound, we anchored in Bulls Hole for the night. Then the water tank ran out. With only 5 gallons from the spare canister plus 6l of bottled spring water, we washed up in sea water with a splash of fresh water to rinse. Lesson Learned: always have spare water on board.
A murky start. Grey skies above the mist. We motored round to Tinkers Hole then out behind the fearsome Torran Rocks immortalised by Robert Louis Stevenson in his novel Kidnapped as the “Stoneyard” where Davie Balfor and Alan Brech’s ship was wrecked. Balfour was washed ashore onto the island or Erriad. Stephenson knew the area well from his time supervising the construction of the Dubh Artach lighthouse designed by his father Thomas.
As we passed out from behind the Torran Rocks the wind died, and visibility decreased. We remined in fog all the way across the Firth of Lorne, using the AIS to track nearby transmitters while keeping watch for other vessels.
The fog gradually cleared as we approached the Garvellach Islands. Stopped to fish and were passed by a porpoise and seals. Not a bite.
Anchoring in between the rocks by Eileach an Naoimh, St Brendan’s Hinba (Islands of the Sea) monastery we had a lunch of hot pasties, before setting off again to catch the tide for Loch Craignish. Crossing towards the Gulf of Corryvreckan Elin’s fishing line caught in lobster pot buoys. Not a problem but an opportunity for MOB practice. With the fishing line successfully recovered we headed for the “Great Whirlpool and Race”
Arriving about an hour before slack water we were in time to play in the last of the over falls, much to the disgust of the rib ride jockeys with their customers hyped up for danger. A family on a small yacht waving and following the same course through the standing wave rather blew their hype.
Pushing on through to the Sound of Jura against the last of the flood then onto the Dorus Mor to arrive bang on slack water. From entrance to Loch Craignish I radioed Ardfern Yacht Haven for a berth (5 miles), a clear transmission, so a good test that the radio works.
By the time we arrived, all the easy berths had been taken. The only berth remaining was tight in ahead of the fuel berth. A textbook slow approach and mooring, Lines passed (not thrown) to helpful bystanders. Elin rather enamoured with the hunk who made sure he took her line. Hot showers, and a walk to the Galley of Lorne in Ardfern village for dinner.
Rain Rain Rain.
Into the chandlers to pay the marina fees, search for more bits and to try on oilskin coats. Jan’s old oilskin coat is leaking. To some keep control of the cash flow we agreed Jan would wear my coat and I would use my old nearly waterproof crew jacket.
The engine was tricky to start. No obvious reason though the battery may be a bit low and the heater plugs were not given the full 12 seconds. A tight manoeuvre to get off the pontoon reversing against the spring to pull the bows clear, then a 3 point turn in the very narrow channel. Prop wash worked to advantage.
Tried to use the Genoa only at mouth of Loch Craingish but Elin wants full sail. Through the Dorus Mor overfalls on a broad reach, then a goosewing run to Shuna, and broad reach to Croabh. Wind 5 gusting 6 rain all the way. A lively restart of the engine off Croabh, roll genoa, and drop main. Then rigging warps & fenders, before coming onto marina. Slow textbook landing.
Rain Rain Rain. Unloading and cleaning in heavy rain, followed by dinner in Lord of the Isles to escape the rain and ahead of the planned early start for the drive home. It was not to be.
Rain, showers, finished clearing and cleaning the boat, loading car then found Jan had left her handbag in the Lord of the Isles. Not open until 11:30 so plans for an early start dashed. Elin started protesting over missing her breakfast at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, So we went to the Post Office café in Killochmelfort for bacon butties. After collecting Jan’s handbag we started the long drive home. Lunch at Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. Home 19:00
Overall the Shakedown cruise went well. The weather was the best that Scotland can deliver. The boat performed above expectations and the “to do” list moved forwards from essentials to nice to haves. Jan reconnected with sailing in a boat she can enjoy sailing. Elin had her eyes opened to the wonders of the West Coast of Scotland and big boat sailing.
After many years fun sailing Daisy from North Wales and the Clyde, some charters in the more remote parts of Scotland and the warmer climes of the Med. I was diverted for 3 years as roadie, logistics manger and financial manager for my daughter’s Topper campaigns growing through club, regional and national racing circuits to 2 UK championships and a world championship in China. Now outgrowing the most competitive size for a Topper we were looking for the next adventure. Also thinking ahead, in a couple of years Jan and I would hopefully have some more time to sail together again without the competing demands of the children at home.
Since my teens I have wanted to sail some distance, say around Britain and beyond to the coast of Europe. Whilst Daisy is ideal for day sailing up to long weekends, and good weather weeks in relatively sheltered coastal waters, off shore sailing for weeks at a time demands something a little larger. Three basic requirements needed to gain management approval were: –
a “proper” cooker (including an oven),
standing headroom below decks and
a proper heads.
For some reason Jan is not a fan of crouching to cook or the bucket. In addition, my requirement was a navigations space big enough to lay out a (folded) chart and hold some instruments out of the weather. Whilst these requirements can just about be crammed into some 26’ boats the compromises are rarely elegant. So, we targeted the 28-32’ LOA range.
Charter holidays in Mediterranean marina boats with fin keels and flat sections were lovely on Mediterranean summer days. But off the West coast of Scotland running reefed before a force 6 from St Kilda to Barra with the charter yacht slamming badly and pulling its rudders out of the water on a broad reach, I was not endeared to this hull form. The sea kindliness of a deep vee bow with ballast moulded deep in the long fin keel or fin and skeg brought more confidence. Evenings trawling the yachting press, Apollo Duck and eBay yachts drew me towards the designs of Kim Holman, Chuck Paine and David Saddler.
The elegance of the Kim Holman Twister had long appealed. Faultless and elegant above decks and below the water line. Available in timber, GRP hull timber deck composite and all GRP. The later all GRP models made the long list. Below decks “compact and bijou” springs to mind. Early models had a two burner hob, sometimes with grill opposite a chart table. Moving forward the saloon would just about sit 4 people, with the table usually folding up against the bulkhead. Sleeping headroom in the saloon provided by trotter boxes fore and aft. The sink in the heads usually a fold up model. The forward cabin with vee berth largely given over to stowage often with an anchor chain hanging down the middle. Prices were generally sub £20k with some remarkably decent examples going for less that £10k and some mouldy examples sitting on the market for much more. One late example with a rear facing chart table full galley including oven grill and hob, also a fitted sink in the heads caught my eye but unfortunately, I was not ready to take the plunge before it sold for a song. “If only” the saddest word combination in the English Language.
Frances / Victoria
Chuck Paine’s Frances 26 had impressed me when I crewed on one in the 1990s. The flush deck version would not pass management scrutiny, the short cabin version or the decadent full cabin Victoria 26 or 31 might just gain approval, but they are rare and sought after. By the time I found one worth considering other factors had come into the equation.
Old friend Ian was about to retire, and his recently married son Jonathan was about to relocate back to North Wales. They were interested in joining us in a small syndicate to share the fun and expense of a cruising yacht. This moved the requirements slightly to a yacht suitable for two couples to cruise in reasonable comfort. Jonathan’s desire for a classic boat with lots of wood work was modified by a two to one majority in favour of a sailing project rather than a wood working project. GRP hull & deck, minimal external woodwork, so a plastic classic. Sailing two up for any length of time effectively means each person needs to be able to sail the boat single handed.
In reality two adult couples cruising in relative comfort means a 6 berth yacht. Quarter berths may be the berth of choice for the hard racing skipper / navigator in foul weather. In a cruising boat less that 35’they are either the home of the still supple, the masochistic contortionist or stowage (aka a dumping ground) for everything large and loose that people want out of the way, close to the companion way but not on deck (cushions, deflated dinghies, oars, spare boat hook, sweaters, dog bed etc etc). The conversion of the saloon table into a “double berth” creates either a very cosy double, in which both occupants can enjoy enforced body contact but neither will get much sleep, or a spacious single. The opposite berth makes another adequate single, lee cloths can turn both into quite good sea berths. The Vee berth in the bows, either with or without the infill, creates a reasonably sizable double / twin berth at the head, and footsy playing at the toe. For more racing inclined owners Jeremy Rogers offers pipe cots for the forward cabins of Contessa 32s.
On with the search. Enter the Rustler 31s, Contessa 32s, Sadler 32s and 34s.
Big sister of the Twister occasionally Rustler 31s come on the market. Solid conservative yachts often overshadowed by their larger incarnation the renown Rustler 36, the yacht of choice for the leading skippers in the Golden Globe Race. The 31s we looked at had a reasonably conventional layout, bespoke to the original owner. Many adopting the rear facing chart table and additional cockpit stowage, rather than the quarter berth. The two that we looked at were both project yachts. Immaculate examples were well above our budget. The projects would have required considerably more overall investment than buying an immaculate example.
David Saddler designed the Contessa 32 in the late 1960s as a step up from the popular Contessa 26. The design did not push the limits of IOR but did popularise the fin and skeg arrangement. Already popular as a round the cans racer and training boat the Contessa 32 became renown when Willy Kerr’s Assent, skippered by his son Alan, became the only boat in Class D to complete the infamous 1979 Fastnet Race. Willy went on to sail Assent to the Arctic, Antarctic, Pacific coat of Canada and Alaska.
David Sadler went on to modify the design of the Contessa 32 to the Sadler 32 a slightly beamier boat and more commodious below, then elongate the design to the Sadler 34. The collected opinions favoured the Contessa 32. The Sadler 32s we saw were in poor condition and would require a lot of work and money to bring them back to reasonable condition. The 34s were either major projects or out of budget.
Back to Contessa 32s
A good range of Contessa 32s were on the market. Some from the photographs were obviously in poor, neglected condition, mould visible, green stuff growing over all the decks and running rigging. Other’s appeared reasonable. Some had been done up to a high cosmetic standard and were asking silly money. A short list was drawn together, ranking was primarily based on overall condition, inventory and big cost items needed in years 1 and 2. Fringe benefits came further down the list. Visiting a few gave a better feel for what to look for, also asking price vs value.
With a short list of two and a reserve in North Wales we headed to Scotland on a lad’s weekend with Martin. First night in New Lanark youth hostel amid the model mill town that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An early start to get ahead of the Glasgow traffic, then up past Loch Lomond to one of our favourite hostelries The Drovers Inn for breakfast.
Our first viewing of the day was just north of Oban. From the ground the boat looked in good condition, on deck similarly, well though out layout, well maintained and even a wind vane steering to play with. Descending the hatch was a different story, well used and the quick tart up coat of varnish was still sticky and entrapping mould. A new engine only heightened the worn out look. We had no doubts that the soft furnishings would not pass the scrutiny of the three sets of senior management at home. £10-15k off the asking price may have made a reasonable refurbishment project, but we were in search of a “sailing now” project. The search went on.
Heading south to Croabh our next appointment was with Jeff, owner of CO32 White Knight of Purbeck since 2001. The heavens opened as we made our way to the end of the pontoon. Jeff greeted us with a pot of tea and Tunnocks wafers to sit around the immaculate saloon and listen to Jeff talking in his soft Lancashire burr for an hour as the rain beat on the deck above. White Knight had originally been built for the Army in 1979 then sold in the early 1990s, The owner prior to Jeff had undertaken a major refurbishment relining the main cabin with teak veneer, refitting the galley, installing a refrigerator and calorifier (pressurised hot water throughout), and fitted new bunk cushions, all carried out and maintained to a very high standard. The overwhelming smell entering the cabin was of bee’s wax furniture polish rather than mouldy bilge and diesel. One of the many tales Jeff told was of having the hull stiffened after White Knight had fallen off a wave in the Sound of Jura flexing the hull and delaminating a stringer.
With the rain having passed we undertook the detailed inspection, hoisting the sails in a flat calm then a sort trip up towards Loch Melfort to try out the engine and manoeuvring. A deal was agreed including a berth at Croabh Marina until the end of the season, a spare engine and a van load of other spares.
Its Friday evening, Radio 2 Drive time requests are playing on the car radio, the Muppets theme has just played. School is behind us and a long road stretches ahead into the gathering night. The two, or occasionally three, of us are heading off for the weekend and a Topper National Series event. For 4 years my youngest daughter Elin sailed Toppers.
Elin started sailing at a very young age coming with us in dinghies, kayaks and Gordon’s Drascombe Lugger, then Daisy our Cornish Shrimper. Then aged 6 she started trying Optimists on our local Flash, was initially scared, but liked the weekly sweet shop with sailing that is Gresford SC Juniors also meeting up with friends from other schools. But she grew to dislike the “Tea Chest” like Opie. Excitement came back when the club got a pair of RS Fevas. Far more exciting than the Opie, with its see through racing sails and asymmetric spinnaker. First crewing with an older girl then grabbing the helm herself she loved the power. With another girl they started travelling to other clubs on the RYA North Wales Club Youth Racing Circuit (CYRC). The big event at the end of the North Wales Junior Circuit is the annual On Board Festival held at Bala SC. It is the selector event for Regional Squads. Five Gresford Juniors were selected for the RS Feva Squad. Through the course of that winter we hauled the kids and their dinghies to various venues around the Welsh coast and larger lakes. Pairings and roles were changed, teenage squabbles driving some pairings. Elin was paired with a lad from Anglesey who’s parents bought him a new Feva, so he was helm. Through the next season it became clear that the relationship was not working. Elin was being blamed for all the poor results and started losing her self-confidence. Training together was not fun. As his Dad put it “When it was good it was very very good, but when it was not it was horrid”. To help her regain some confidence, Elin was lent a Topper at the Flash and loved it. Capsized it a lot, but still loved it. Entering the Wednesday Evening Pursuit Races with a scratch handicap she capsized five times in her first race, four times in her second and only once in her third race.
The Topper was originally designed in the late 1960s by the renown Ian Proctor as a plywood beach boat with a hull form which surfs very easily. Very soon afterwards it was re-developed as a large polypropylene injection moulded hull. The largest single moulding in polypropylene at the time. This provided a mass producible light-weight resilient hull that was exactly the same from the first moulding to the current mouldings 40 years later. A true racing “One Design”, winning is entirely down to the skill and luck of the helm. Minor developments have been moving from rear sheeted to centre sheeting, variations in the kicker and down haul and the halyard arrangement. Maintaining this robust dinghy to top level competition standard is not expensive with parts readily available (and easy to fit) to cover the occasional breakages and whims of teenagers (do red downhauls really make the boat go faster than black ones?). The original 5.3m2 rig remains the standard, a smaller 4,2m rig allowed younger and lighter children to join the fun. The latest development is a larger 6.4m2 rig introduced in 2020 after 2 years testing by the RYA National Squads. The class is widely supported from club level through to RYA regional and international squads, a network of coaches and a very active Class Association (ITCA). In the UK along with the Optimist it is the Junior single handed feeder boat into the RYA Youth and Olympic squads. RYA and Team GB’s Olympic success has encouraged other countries, especially China, to follow a similar pathway programme for their own Olympic Squads. I had sailed an early Topper in the 1970s and loved it. But having just built a Mirror Dinghy, Dad was not for letting me have one. It would also have involved buying a wet suit, almost unheard of for fast growing sailing children at the time.
Enter “Ruthless”. Searching Apollo Duck, we found and bought a reasonably well equipped second hand “Squad ready” Topper with a range of 4.2m and 5.2m sails, a good trolley and a weathered cover for £850. Her name “Ruthless” giving hints to the literary influences of her Lake District based previous owners. In her first race in “Ruthless” Elin stayed upright for the whole race and moved up from the back of the field. “This is my lucky boat, I love it” was Elin’s verdict to her still slightly sceptical mum. Within a few weeks Elin was starting to win the Wednesday Evening pursuit races and was having her handicap increased to keep her wins in check. My role, as parent of the person most likely to need it, was in the Rescue Boat.
While persevering crewing the Feva Elin quietly gained skill and confidence in the Topper. Her squad coach Dave Eccles ran a weeklong summer camp at Bala each summer. So as her Feva helm was elsewhere, Elin took her Topper along. Racing against other similar children found she was quite successful, contrary to what her Feva Helm kept telling her. The crunch came at the On-Board festival. There was a decision to be made. Move up to Welsh National Squad in the Feva or Regional Squad in the Topper. Elin chose Topper Regional Squad explaining that her Feva Helm needed somebody closer to him to train with.
As a Junior Squad Parent you have many roles:-
Kit Manager/ bosun,
First Responder (both medical and mental well-being),
Behavioural “Responsible Person”,
Accommodation & Catering Manager (AKA warm roof over the head, cook, bottle washer and filler, clothes picker upper and laundry operative).
This, at a time when the natural progression of all teenagers is to see their parents diminish from being Heroine / Hero to “ZERO”. The ultimate accolade a parent can hope for is to be “AN EMBARASSMENT”. So ideally not seen or heard, preferably not even in the same universe. Unless needed, at which point instant presence is expected and demanded. Also to take the blame for everything in the teenager’s world that is “WRONG”. Fortunately by this time the teenagers are also starting to become more independent so can, with a bit of encouragement, be left to sort themselves out. Though binoculars can be handy for the nervous parent’s piece of mind, they should also be used very discreetly. Competitive parents do exist in all sports; though in my experience of Topper Parents most generally manage to keep a lid on their vicarious competitive nature, in public at least. Topper’s reputation as “the Friendly Class” is largely deserved.
Logistics Manager: Regional Squad would involve a round of winter residential training camps and committing to competing in a round of ITCA National Series competition cross the UK culminating in the GB Topper Nationals in Pwlhelli. This adds up to about 4-5000 miles of travel to various local, regional and national events each year with 20 or so nights away. The mileage and nights away increase as the competitor raises through the ranks. So how to meet the logistic challenge. The Topper is car topable. But with a dodgy back and a relatively small car along with all the other kit clothing, not my preferred option. This was confirmed when we dropped a Topper onto the bonnet of my car putting a couple of scratches in it.
We started out with an old Mirror Dinghy Trailer which I gradually modified to carry the Topper inverted (so as not to distort the hull) then added a box to carry “foils” (rudder and dagger board) and various other bits of kit. We then added a pair of “rig tubes” to carry the spars and rolled up sails. These I made from a sawn up length of plastic piping from our local builder’s merchants, though commercial equivalents are available. This rather Heath Robinson contrivance served us well that first season, being low profile it was just out of sight of the rear view mirror until I fitted the box. But it failed spectacularly within a couple of miles of home on our first trip to Weymouth. A suspension arm fatigued and fell off in a cloud of hot rubber and grinding metal. Dragging the remains to the side of the road we arranged to borrow a friend’s large camping trailer, transferred boat and kit and were back on the road less than an hour behind schedule. 5 hours later we rolled into Weymouth’s Premier Inn and what was left of a night’s sleep.
Our next trailer was an Ifor Williams box trailer to which I fitted a Unistrut frame to carry the boat and rig tubes leaving the box for kit. 10,000 miles, later it is still almost as good as new, easy to tow behind our cars and with a resale value about what we paid for it.
Chief Financier: Sailing has an unfortunate reputation of being only for the rich. Yes like any passion it can use up a lot of money if you want it to, but it does not have to. After the initial outlay on the boat and trailer, the biggest costs were travel and accommodation, then sailing clothes. A serious campaign of 5 or 6 National Series event weekends and a week-long National Championship cost little more than the equivalent “staycations”. We got to keep meeting a great bunch of like-minded people and established a nationwide network of friends. In winter we used Premier Inns booked well in advance to get the best deals, then shared holiday cottages for Nationals. Sometimes we camped, others had motor homes.
Good comfortable warm clothing is essential to the enjoyment. Training in the snowy midlands in February needs good kit. Yes there are the brand loyalties and pressures, but bad kit is very quickly seen through and bad reviews gets around the teenagers very quickly. Colour preferences are individual. One of Elin’s friends always races in his trademark yellow. Some were pretty in pink, at least until puberty hit. Most went for uniform black with the occasional accents of red and blue. Woolly hats and bandanas were part of the individual’s character.
Keeping the boat maintained and dealing with minor breakages was part of the fun. It helped to be handy with a drill and pop rivet gun to replace and upgrade parts of the rig. We quickly developed a small tool kit which Elin took great pride in. Even now she carries rolls of electrical tape in her school bag. Russ Dent, Topper’s production manager attended all the National Series events with a van load of spare parts and ran a workshop for running repairs and aiding less technically confident parents. Sorting out the leak in Ruthless’s hull with a soldering iron helped saved Elin’s first National championships. Thanks again Russ.
Serious injuries are rare, occasional cuts and bruises, occasionally some muscle strain from trying too hard without warming up, most often cold bordering on hypothermia during winter training or when “The Beast from The East” hit the winter nationals at Weymouth. Coaches and safety crews are alert for this. Two capsizes and you are ashore was the rule for that event.
Teenage children are a law unto themselves as they break free from parental control and start to experiment with their growing freedoms. Hormones also kick in and must be learned to be managed as friendships evolve and change.
Racing is a disciplined sport with rules strictly applied, however pushing the boundaries to the limits and beyond is how many learn to excel. Overall the Topper sailors were a reasonably self-regulating group with minimal need for parental intervention. Self-discipline could and did break down as particularly the younger sailors became dehydrated, tired and “hangry”. Savvy parents quickly learned the benefits of some hot quick calories and fluids, then the need to give space.
Having this wider circle of friends gave Elin a lot of support and balance when she was having problems with some other children in the narrow world of school. Social media contact with the Topper friends was a far greater benefit than threat. Within the Topper family friendships formed, some did not last but all learned how to evaluate and enjoy those friendships which did.
At the end of a long day on the water either training or racing the boat had to be brought ashore, put to bed (or at the end of the weekend onto the trailer) and the tired helm showered, changed and taken to the venue for the night. Early snack food and drink was essential to get past the hangry phase. Through the winter we tended to stay in Premier Inns. Identikit we knew what we were getting without having to think too hard. Sustaining food was on hand early and with little trouble. There were always other families staying in the same venue, so socialising continued until the call of a warm bed took over. In the summer we were more likely to stay on site where herds of teenagers would roam around socialising. A particularly memorable venue was the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club in Lowestoft where we stayed in the garret at the top of the club’s Edwardian dome. 360-degree views from our room in a very old-world setting. The promenade created a great venue for the teenagers to hang out in the evenings while parents enjoyed the dining room and bar. Group hiring holiday cottages for the weeklong nationals also worked well.
It isn’t all about the kids. Some parents enjoyed sitting in the club house drinking tea and chatting, others finding a quiet corner with a laptop to catch up on work or social media. My preference was to help where I could while trying (usually unsuccessfully) not to cramp Elin’s developing style.
My first role was running the Tally Board to keep track of which children were ashore or on the water. A vital part of the safety organisation which required a flurry of activity as boats were launched and recovered.
For the next event, because I had a VHF licence, I was asked to run the Bridge. This provides the communications link between the Event Director and shore-based teams, with the Race officers, Mark layers and Safety teams on the water. Usually this is busy as the race management and safety boats go on the water and check out, then again as they check in at the end of the day with occasional bits of traffic as competitors are brought ashore. But a sudden and severe change in the weather at Bala one year moved what was fairly routine into a major rescue and recovery exercise. As Bridge officer part of my role was to keep the logs of all radio traffic and help direct efforts where they were needed. That all the competitors were brought ashore and accounted for within 10 minutes and the whole fleet including many abandoned boats was safely recovered ashore within half an hour called for a great deal of coordination across the whole race management team.
After a few events running the Bridge I wanted to try something on the water so joined the Safety fleet. I already had a Power Boat 2 qualification with a Safety Boat endorsement from my work as a Dinghy Instructor. Generally, this ment long days on the water following the fleets around a designated portion of the race course or escorting boats to and from the beach, occasionally providing assistance where necessary. To comply with Safeguarding all coaches, safety boats and other race official’s boats need to have a crew of at least two. Often a parent filling at least one of the crew roles. Between races the safety fleet is kept busy herding competitors into a reasonably small area and keeping an eye out for stragglers. One particularly memorable trip was again at Lowestoft where I got to crew and have a go at driving an ex RNLI Atlantic 21.
At the Pwllheli Nationals we got to try different roles, so in addition to Safety Boat I crewed for the on the water jury one day and helped on the committee boat another. Over the course of the next season I rotated these various roles.
The big step-up came towards the end of the UK National Series season where I was invited to train as a Mark Layer for the world championships in China. The ITCA Mark Layers are a very close-knit team of long-established partnerships. A daunting prospect to be invited to join this elite team, many of whom are on the RYA and World Sailing lists of certified Mark Layers and some were part of the team of 2012 Olympic race officials. I was initially sent a load of training material from the official RYA course to start getting my head around the role. My training came during the Weymouth Nationals week where I joined Andy Millington for my first day’s training.
The role is to lay a series of race marks to a precise pentagonal arrangement dictated by wind direction, strength and the Race Officer’s desired race duration. In tidal waters there are various adjustments to account for tidal set, drift and the relative strength of wind. Mark laying accuracy is to within a very few meters on a course which can be up to a kilometre long and wide in whatever sea and tidal conditions prevail. The mark positions are roughly set out from prescribed tables using GPS, then more precisely positioned using compass bearings and laser range finders all orientated from the first mark, laid near the committee boat. Handling the anchors, warps and buoys is wet and physical work and requires a lot of organisation to avoid warps tangling, getting wrapped around the boat’s propeller or dropping an anchor without it being properly tethered. Laying the marks to allow for tide and wind moves the game from the precise science of navigation to an art. Then comes the mystique. At the bottom gate mark, will the boats split evenly showing no bias in the set of the course? Will the first boat finish exactly on the time dictated by the Race Officer? Then come the traditions, a Mars Bar after the first set. Drinks on the Race Officer if an even split of the boats around the bottom gate.
The Mark Layer’s toy box full of kit develops quickly: VHF radio, Iris sighting compass, wind vane (sometimes attached to a hand bearing compass), laminated sets of course cards and dimension tables, clip board with protractor to recalculate course angles quickly and reducing the amount of mental arithmetic, Garmin 72 GPS, tide gauge sticks, wind speed gauge, optical or laser range finder, waterproof case. Then the bigger bits of kit; fog horn or other sound making equipment, heavy duty snap shackles for attaching marker buoys to the RIB, Jersey rings and buoys to lift the marks from deep water, Signal flags, course shortening boards (folding). The favoured boat for Mark Layer’s is a RIB with a 50-90HP outboard. The second seat is sometimes sacrificed to make more room in the back of the boat for anchors and warps. A towing post behind the seats is an advantage as is a stainless steel frame over the engines to which marks can be attached high out of the water for towing. A good bilge pump is essential.
The Mark Layer’s day starts early with safety and race committee meetings, then off to the boat to rig up for the day. Marks, warps anchors and dumbbell weights are usually loaded up and the fully fuelled RIBs launched the night before an event. Food and kit for the day stowed and the toy’s deployed. Each lead Mark Layer has his or her own preference for pimping up their RIB and stowing their kit. The Crew fitting in around the lead. The Lead Mark Layer’s role is to get the RIB into the best position to lay the marks accurately and adjust accordingly. A very high level of both RIB navigation and handling skills is essential. The crew’s role is mainly to manage the marks, warps anchors and dumbbell weights. Fast accurate knot tying is an essential skill. Upper body strength is desirable. The Crew also assists with the finer navigation work taking cross bearings and sometimes gets to use the range finder.
Signing out with the bridge the Mark Layers usually follow the main committee boat onto the course area. Top level race officials do this with some style with the four Mark Layers RIBs following in strict vee formation behind the Committee Boat as they leave the marina and head out to the course area.
Once the committee boat is anchored and the Race Officer happy the first gate is set out from the committee boat. This is the fixed point around which the remainder of the course is aligned. Mark 1 the windward mark goes in next. This has its own dedicated marks boat “Marks 1” as it will be the mark moved most frequently as wind shifts come through. Mark 2 and Mark 3 (a gate mark) can then be laid and referenced back to the gate mark, each again with their own dedicated Marks Boat. “Marks 4” looks after the start and finish marks and with the help of “Marks 3” manage the outer end of the start line and any general recalls. The Marks boats can also be used for signalling to the race fleet shortened course or other course alterations and monitoring boats as they round (or miss) the various marks.
Wind shifts mean the course needs to be realigned. Sometimes by dragging a mark and its anchor to a new position but more often lifting the whole kit and caboodle, including the pair of dumbbell counter weights which keep the marks upright and the warps below keel level. Flaking the anchor rode as it is lifted then relaying in the new location. The mark is then left to settle to wind and tide then checked for positional accuracy. Maybe adjusted slightly or re-laid again if it is dragging. A good day is when the course only needs minor adjustment. A bad day when the course must be lifted and relayed 6,7 or 8 times. A particularly bad day is when the committee boat must move several times during the day and the whole course area moves with it. Respite came as the race progressed, time for a quick snack or hot drink, watching for our helms and other competitors we knew. Between races the course resetting, adjustments and realignments then back on station for the start.
As the last boats finished the last race of the day the Marks team collected in all the race marks coiled down, secured the marks to the back of the RIB, cleaned up and headed for the marina to refuel the boat and head back to the berth, hot showers, dinner and a drink in the bar……. Well not quite. There was also the helm to catch up with, feed, console or avoid as necessary, possibly boat and equipment repairs along with social and accommodation secretary duties to attend to. A few hours in a warm bed then do it all again the next day.
Four years of great fun and an unrepeatable time with my daughter at a formative stage of her life.
I first became interested in St Kilda nearly 40 years ago and there it sat, like a distant star, tantalising but seemingly out of reach.
We awoke to a glassy calm and watery light. With Martin on the helm we made our way down the flat calm Sound of Sleat. Ian, in Guiness hat, on watch. Stewart and Gordon preparing breakfast. Rounding the Point of Sleat we put Eigg abeam, Rhum floating ethereally above a ring of low cloud and the summits of the Cullins wreathed in clouds. As the morning wore on the wind filled in and the clouds over the Cullins slowly lifted to reveal the fearsome saw-toothed ridges and a pair of Minky whales, mother and calf, rolled by.
The 24 hour + forecast was questionable for St Kilda with East winds making Village Bay untenable. Our tactical decision was to head for Leverburgh on the Sound of Harris to await the next forecast while considering Taransay or the sea lochs off the Minch.
Close in the under the cliffs at Gob na Hoe gannets were fighting with a skua and Black guillemots flying low while we listen to Celtic band Daimh (pron Dive) on the stereo. Once past David Alan Stevenson’s 1909 Niest Point lighthouse, we took our point of departure to cross the Minch to the Sound of Harris passing just to the north of the Niest Point TSS.
Off Rodel we started running our pre-planned transits into the Stanton Channel through the Sound of Harris. Transit marks include small cairns on distant islands, Jane’s Tower (a painted cairn), the left hand end of a building, and the top of one of the many rocks. We anchored in Leverburgh Harbour off the pier with 4.9m below the keel.
Landing we got chatting with the lifeboat crew, just returning from a shout, then wandered through the village listening to cuckoos, being followed by a dog with children playing on their bikes. As we passed the Church of Scotland church the minister for “South Harris, St Kilda & Rockall” David Donaldson and his wife Jean invited us in. Over tea & banana cake we shared common connections and found how seriously religion is taken with five churches serving Levenburgh’s sparse population. David painted an apocryphally picture of cockerels being separated from hens from Saturday night until Monday and children’s swings being tied up on Sundays in Free Presbyterian Church households. All pondered as we strolled gently back to the harbour and an amazing sun set.
When it came the weather forecast was good enough for a passage to points west and delivered by the loveliest of lilting Gaelic voice from Stornoway Coast Guard. Departing at midnight, we ran a watch system with Gordon and I each taking 2 hour watches turnabout and the crew taking 2 hours on and 4 off. Passage through the Leverburgh channel and out into the Atlantic was straight forward.
Our guiding star (Jupiter) set into the haze ahead just before a spectacular red moonrise. The International Space Station arced across the stars to the south while Venus & Mars rose from astern. It was never completely dark. St Kilda became a smudge slightly more solid than the clouds on the horizon in the twilight.
Back on watch at 06:00 a pair of grey mottled (Risso’s) dolphins passed to the south of us. Puffins, guillemots, razorbills, gannets, fulmar passed close by as they headed away from St Kilda. Boreray, Stack An Armin (Gannets) and Stack Lee like a Bishops Mitre stood out ahead. We tracked north of the rum line to approach the archipelago from the ENE. I started sketching the islands in the monochrome light, then adding the colours as they started to fill in with the rising of the sun.
With the sea so calm we were able to put Stewart in the sea on his surf board with his cameras to film the birds on Stac An Armin & Boreray from the water. Thousands of Gannet’s started circling Stewart as he made his way towards the stacks totally ignoring the boat. Skuas, fulmars and guillemots joined the circling throng. Seals basking on the rocks ignored us, while one kept watch from the water. Gannets and skuas were fighting over fish caught by the gannets. A gentle swell broke over low lying rocks as we kept well outside the line of pot buoys tucked close to cliffs.
Leaving Boreray, we crossed towards Soay and Hirta, then turned into Glen Bay. Puffins abounded skimming close past the sea caves which punctured the cliffs. Glen Bay is described as a possible anchorage but with 20m under the keel very close to the cliffs even at the head of the bay it would only be worth considering for a yacht in ideal or desperate circumstances.
Leaving the bay we passed close to the mighty arch through the cliffs then kept close under the northern cliffs of Hirta. Fulmars and guillemots nesting on narrow ledges while walkers occasionally appeared high above us on the horizon and the radar station sat silent above all.
Dropping sail to enter Village Bay we anchored off the restored old feather store. Gordon had partied there with the army detachment during his visit in 1977, a disco and bar set up in the ruin left roofless following a submarine attack in WW1. As we ate our lunch a pair of Minky whales were feeding further out in the bay and a male Eider Duck dabbled along the water’s edge.
Too excited to catch-up on sleep, we landed and walked up through the village, then fell asleep in the sun on the grass in front of the Museum.
Refreshed, postcards were posted to friends and families, an old tradition for visitors to St Kilda. Then a wander round the Free Church of Scotland and adjoining school room. Both filled with an overwhelming sense of the sadness and constraint they had inflicted on the islanders. Demands which coupled with influxes of Edwardian steamer tourists, whose life view and ideas were so incomparably different from the way of life the islanders, had ultimately precipitated the evacuation of the last 36 remaining islanders in 1930.
Around the head of the bay below the old village lie the 1960’s MOD prefab buildings strapped down to their concrete foundations to serve the radar station on the summit of Mullach Mor.
We climb past the dry stone cleits used by the islanders to store the dried fulmars they lived on and the walled enclosures used for their sheep up to “The Gap”. A pair of Great Skuas mating and ragged Soay Sheep grazing, then from the ridge we looked down onto Fulmars nesting a few feet below and the sea far below. With stunning views out over to Boreray and the stacks, the mountains of Lewis, Harris and the Uists just visible on the horizon.
The Shipping forecast warned of strong winds to come so time to head for shelter. We departed for a lively overnight passage south to the Sound of Barra, leaving St Kilda to drop into the twilight behind us.