Of Saints and Spirits: A cruise around the Inner Hebrides

The Idea

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.

The “Plan”

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.

Sunset Clouds, Sound of Mull

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”.

Tobermory

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.

Waverly passing Ardnamurchan, True Blue at anchor in Sana Bay

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.

, Alan Stevenson’s Egyptian style Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

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.

Iona Parish Church, built in 1828 to a design by Thomas Telford

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?

Dingle Curragh recently arrived on Iona, little changed from the curraghs used by the Irish Monks in the 7th Century

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.

Staffa with “Fingal’s Cave” and the “Boat Cave”

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.”

Tinkers Hole: -“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.    

Eileach an Naoimh or Hinba: The Isles of the Sea
Double beehive cell
Gulf of Corrievereckan in the distance

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.

Approaching Corrievereckan at slack water

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.

Sunset over Culliport, Mull, Fladda and the Garvelachs

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.

Arrival of the Dragon and the rain, Crinan

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.     

McCormig’s Cross, Eilean Mor

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.  

Carved into the cave’s walls are an ancient cross and a “marigold” dated by archaeologists back to the 8th Century

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.

Craighouse, Jura

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.

Paps of Jura from the Sound of Islay

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.

Chef Bearing Away, trying to better 7.6 knots

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.

Fini

Aiming for Wales, a passage through Covid.

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.  

Cladagh Harbour

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.

East Loch Tarbert Marina

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

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.

Lochranza

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.

Loch Ranza Castle

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.

 Loch Fyne

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.

Trawling Loch Fyne

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 dreicht morning greeted me as I climbed the companion way steps

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. 

With fresh oysters, steaming langoustines, three types of smoked salmon (one kept for later), fresh soda bread and lemon mayonnaise, the disappointment eased slightly.

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.

Arran (again)

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.

Crazy golf in Broddick

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.
Exploded view of the cooling system. Copyright: Volvo Penta web site

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.

Sailing back past Rothsay the day brightened ………

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.

Two bundles of misery huddled together in the back of the cockpit, occasionally leaning over the rail before returning to their contemplations.

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.

Corsewall Point

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.

Calmer seas and Wales in sight

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.

Summary

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. 

Its the Crinan Canal for me

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.

That film has a lot to answer for

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.

End of a long day

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.

25 August

Through Lock 6 and 7 as soon as the loch keeper left the lock keys and unlocked the gates.

Dew on the decks bodes well for the day

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.

Out of the sea lock

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.

Gently down a calm 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.

Spinnaker run up the West Kyle

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.

26 August

Breakfast at the Port Banatyne Post Office Café with its stunning views up Loch Striven and its George VI post box

Breakfast at Port Bannatyne Post Office

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.

27 August

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.

28 August: Home.

Kip

Shaking Down the New Boat

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.

12 July

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.

13 July

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.

14 July

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.

15 July

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.  

16 July

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.

Jura emerging from the fog, our first sighting of anything solid for 3 hours

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.   

17 July

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.

Rain Rain Rain Rain, beautiful rain

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.

18 July

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. 

Beyond the Hebrides Part 1: St Kilda

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.

Under the cliffs at Gob na Hoe

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.

Leverborough

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.

A sunset full of promise for a new day

 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.

Boreray, Stac An Armin, Stac Lee, and Hirta

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.

Stewart filming from his surf board
Keeping the boat outside the pot buoys Stewart was able to get much closer to the 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.

Asleep in the sun,

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.

Refreshed on “The Street”

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.

Village Bay

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.

Stac Am Armin, Stac Lee and Boreray from The Gap

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.

Leaving St Kilda to drop into the twilight behind us.