Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Northern Ireland

Jaime writes:

The fresh westerly winds continued to blow and we set sail from Gigha mid morning. We quickly put a reef in the main in the lee of Cara Island as the wind built and headed south towards the Mull of Kintyre. There are apparently many songs about this sticky-out-bit, although I can’t recall any of them just now. We tried to stay a few miles west of the Mull to avoid the rough sea state typically found close in and started to track across the Traffic Separation Zone used by large ships transiting the North Channel. As the channel is relatively narrow ships must follow the zones north or south. They are quite useful for small ships crossing such areas, as providing you know where you are you can expect the ships to come from one particular direction only. There is also a handy safe zone in the middle. The strong tides pushed us south easterly down the channel and we closed in on our destination of Red Bay on the Northeast coast of Northern Ireland. We arrived after dark and dropped the hook. We hardly slept a wink, as the anchorage turned out to be very squally and the boat was kept beam-on to the waves which made it very uncomfortable. Early the following morning we sailed the short distance around to Glenarm marina and fell asleep there. It was a lovely little sail; the tide whisked us past Garron Pt as the sun rose in the east, shining a fresh light on the lush Antrim coastline.

Glenarm Marina

The sturdy white limestone harbour wall of Glenarm gave it a Mediterranean feel and as the sun was shining it was quite beautiful. The friendly staff of the marina welcomed us and charged us a very reasonable £10 per night which included everything. As a bonus, we'd tied up next to the Harbourmaster's fishing boat, who kept us in supply of fresh (still flapping) fish while we were there. One night he gave us a 2lb Pollock which was gorgeous. Craig steamed it; Hong Kong style, yum, yum.

Fresh Mackerel


Lord Antrim's House

Steamed Pollock

This was also the first time we had met a man with a pet congor eel. He lives under the bridge in the harbour, the harbour master feeds him fresh mackerel.

Glenarm is a very pretty town at the foot of the last of the 9 glens of Antrim. We went for a walk the beautiful forested valley, the trees were old and mixed, it had a proper forest feel about it, and such a nice change from the boggy landscape of Scotland. There is also a really fancy turreted castle there, where apparently Lord Antrim resides at weekends.

While we were there we took the time to give the boat a good clean inside and out, and Craig tracked down the tiny corroded wire that had stopped our radar from working. This was after I had hoisted him up the mast to took at the radome; where he had fun swinging around; and I had fun letting him down….

Mast Climbing

A Pint of Guinness at last

The next morning We left a note to the Harbourmaster... 'so long and thanks for all the fish". A fresh offshore wind and the tide carried us south, down the coast towards Belfast. As we passed within a few hundred meters of the Isle of Muck, Craig thought he could here singing. As we got closer it sounded like deep groaning and moaning, we thought it might be seals again, but we couldn’t see any. Then we noticed some Manx Shearwaters hanging around in groups. These supposedly have an eerie call when returning to feed their young, so maybe that was it.

We arrived in Bangor, on the south side of Belfast Lough a couple of hours later. This is a full-on commercial marina, with hundreds of yachts. Belfast port authority doesn’t allow yachts in to the port, so we had to use Bangor as a base to visit the town.

We had a couple of days over the weekend to explore Belfast. It felt a lot like London really. There are heaps of pubs and naturally we sampled a couple of them and had a pint or two of the black stuff. We also visited a gallery which exhibited photographs taken by the Irish Press Association on the theme of the euphemistically named "Troubles". Later that afternoon we went for walk in to west Belfast to the Shankill and Falls areas. Respectively these are the protestant and catholic areas of the city, you can tell where you are by the colours of the flags flying. We had gone there to look at the murals, which are really quite amazing. In particular are those found on the Shankill housing estate, a strange place to find yourself as a tourist. We found it hard to believe that some of the murals still existed, as I’m sure they remain provocative.
We gathered from the local radio and newspapers following recent tragic events that the main trouble in Belfast now is caused by gangs of young wayward kids attacking and terrorising people.

Falls Road Mural 1

Falls Road Mural 2

Mural on Falls Road Sinn Fein office wall

Shankill Road Mural

Shankill Estate Mural 1

Shankill Estate Mural 2

Shankill Estate Mural 3

Bangor is also a vibrant town. On the day before we left there was a chav/hoon- mobile show in the car park. I don’t actually know what the proper name for these cars is, but I mean the type that have massive booming speakers in the boot and drive around very fast, skidding their apparently expendable tyres, and congregating in ASDA carpark. These cars were "top of the range" for this style, and were frankly amazing. Instead of having their bonnets open to show off their engines, the boot was open to show off their zigadecibel speakers, One special car, about the size of a VW golf had only room for a racing drivers seat, the rest of the car was literally full of pumping speakers, TV screens, and flashing dials & buttons, it was so loud you couldn’t stand near it for long. We could feel the base from all this music through the hull of the boat.
The following morning we left and it was the passage between Bangor and Strangford Lough that would prove one of our toughest so far. Strong winds had been forecast which is nothing new but we got a little something extra. We were only 15 miles from our destination mid morning when the wind started to kick in. The south westerly wind forced us offshore in to more exposed waters and we started to get large waves that were building in the deeper waters with the larger fetch. What followed was a mini F8 gale. The wind was in the high 30’s and I saw 43kts (80km/h) on a number of occasions. It wasn’t long before we were negotiating waves about 5m high. Until then we had kept our foresail up to give us more speed to sail up the waves and keep steerage, but it got too much with the winds and Craig gallantly volunteered to crawl to the front of the boat and pull the sail down. In the past when we have encountered strong winds, luckily we have been sailing with the wind behind us, but this time we were sailing up wind which makes things altogether more annoying, mostly because the apparent wind is felt so much more. With the foresail down the boat became more manageable, but we had lost a lot of speed. Its best to try and sail up and down the waves in a weaving manner so you don’t send yourself head down a wave and dig your nose in the trough or fall down the back of a wave because you don’t make it to the top. I have to say though, that the boat handled so well, that we weren’t particularly worried and we after all didn’t have far to go. It is during such weather that one experiences the "Mermaid Facial". First of all dry and dead skin cells are exfoliated from your face by sharp rain which is targeted at right angles. All micro-debris are dispersed by a refreshing bathtub quantity of cold water infused with mother natures blend of inorganic (the new organic) minerals which lands on your head. This blend also has antibacterial properties which penetrate and clean your pores. Your face is then blown dry so that you can start from the beginning again. This cleansing routine is repeated on a number of occasions depending on how lucky you are. Facial muscles are also exercised as successive expressions of shock and horror followed by relief sweep across your face periodically. Happily, I had timed my facial with the passing of a cold front, this meant that in addition to the above I was subsequently dowsed in soft rain, blown dry and then the sun came out, to rouge my cheeks. Giving that "just been slapped by a wet mermaids tail look".

So anyway, enough sillyness. Over a 15min period the wind veered 90 degrees to the north west and dropped back to a gentle breeze just as quickly. This was great, except we how had no wind to sail over the large waves, which don’t die down so easily. We put the engine on, which then overheated as it wasn’t getting enough cooling water in to the water inlet, and was instead taking large gulps of air, causing airlocks because of all the lolloping about. This led to Craig checking the inlet filters, messing around with water pump impellors and making a new gasket out of a Kellogg’s packet- tricky when you are being thrown around. Thankfully the wind picked up again to give us a sensible amount wind to get to the entrance to Strangford Lough. The entrance to the lough is very tidal, and we were cutting it fine with our arrival time, what with the engine playing up as well we sadly decided to go elsewhere. So Craig set the course for Ardglass. As we closed the shore the waves became much more manageable and we tacked our way to the harbour entrance and glided into an empty berth in the sheltered harbour as the sun went down over the hills behind the little town. Having liberally applied aloe vera and some St. John’s Wort oil prepared by my mum, my face has stopped tingling.

We learnt an awful lot from this experience, which was thankfully short and sweet. The bookcase index (how many books fall off the shelf in the forepeak) indicates that this was the roughest weather we have encountered, as all the books fell off the shelf.
We stayed in Arglass for a couple of days to rest. There isn’t much going on in the town. The local bartender told us there aren’t any festivals in the town as people just end up getting drunk and fighting. Umm.

Our next destination was Carlingford Lough in Ireland. We were still a little nervous of the weather and so we motored close inshore all the way. The wind was on the nose and we didn’t want to tack further off shore again, and the weather was miserable anyway so beating (zigzagging 45 degrees across the wind) down the coast wasn’t a very attractive option.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Plockton to Gigha

Yet again, time seems to be flying and I have so much to write about. In the last update Jaime wrote about our visit to Plockton, where we awoke on Saturday morning, August 25th, and prepared to sail the short distance around to Loch Alsh and on to Loch Duich, about 17 nautical miles, which includes sailing under the Skye bridge.

Skye Bridge

The castle on Eilean Donan, near Dornie is apparently one of the most photographed in Scotland. We anchored in the tiny bay of Totaig, about half a mile Southwest across the loch from the castle but unfortunately the weather remained overcast, so our photo of it isn't so impressive.

Eilean Donan Castle

Shags in the morning drying their wings

We were off again the following morning, heading down to Loch Nevis via the narrow channel known as Kyle Rhea which separates Skye from the mainland. According to the Tidal Stream Atlas there can be very strong currents forced through this narrow gap about two miles long. We had heard stories of yachts doing speeds over 10 knots over ground as they were swept through. However, I think the best we saw briefly was about 7 knots and a few annoying eddies and weird currents pushing us sideways at times when the wind disappeared. About halfway along the channel I heard some strange mournful voices wailing disharmoniously. I looked around to discover the source and found it was coming from a large group of seals laying about on the banks. We'd seen seals almost everywhere we'd been over the last few months, but never heard them singing in these unearthly voices before. It sounded really weird. Out of Kyle Rhea and into the Sound of Sleat all the way down to Loch Nevis. This is another picturesque lake surrounded by a dominating range of mountains towering up to 3000 feet. There are several settlements on the Knoydart peninsula which are linked together by a single road to the village of Inverie, where we found the 'most remote pub in Britain'. It has earnt this title because it is completely isolated from the rest of the mainland road network and can only be accessed by a long trek over the mountains or of course, by boat which was our preferred mode of transport, anchoring for a night in a nearby bay, and then for the second night by taking one of the pub's free moorings provided for guests. Here we spent the evening chatting to Peter and Donna from North Yorkshire whose yacht Maniac was moored nearby. The pub was lively and full of sailors, deerstalkers, walkers and a few visitors who arrived in a ferryboat from Mallaig. There are a small number of cars used here by locals, but as there are no garages, and no MOT stations, none of them are taxed, and most have home-made repair jobs, such as broken windows replaced by glued-on perspex, or damaged bumpers fixed up with gaffer tape. It's all a bit Mad Max! I didn't dare ask what colour their diesel was!

Village of Inverie, Loch Nevis

So on Tuesday we thought it was about time to get organised with regards to doing our Yachtmaster practical exam. We'd both clocked up over 3000 miles at sea by now and were feeling fairly confident that we'd covered all the course material and put into practice the YM theory we'd done before leaving Brighton earlier in the year. We'd been speaking to the RYA in Scotland about finding an examiner while we were up here and time was running out as we were making our way South. So we sailed up to Mallaig Harbour at the mouth of Loch Nevis and tied up to a big old fishing boat which the harbourmaster assured us wasn't going anywhere. With a tidal range of around 4 metres that night we weren't too keen on scraping up and down those barnacle encrusted steel and concrete pillars, so it was great to have another ship to tie up to. Fortunately as we were back in mobile phone range again we received a message from a local examiner and arranged to meet him the following Monday in Oban Harbour. So, just enough time to brush up on theory and Colregs and to practice those Man Overboard drills. However in Inverie, Peter and Donna had insisted that we mustn't leave without visiting Loch Scavaig on the South coast of Skye, and Jaime still wanted to visit at least one of the Small Isles (i.e. Canna, Rum, Eigg and Muck). So on Wednesday, out into the morning mist we sailed towards Scavaig, keeping a very good lookout for other vessels. Visibility remained poor for the whole passage, however we didn't have any trouble identifying the island of Soay and piloting past a number of submerged and drying rocks then sounding our way in to the anchorage which is tucked away under truly the most dramatic landscape we've yet seen. The Cuillin Hills tower beautiful and menacing over the small bay, capped by constantly moving clouds. White water falls through jagged cracks into the sea, bringing the lovely sticky mud in which we anchored firmly. Shining black stone and damp mossy heather cover the slopes, almost impossible to climb. I've never had so much trouble fitting a landscape into a photograph, even with a wide-angle lens. Perhaps these photos will begin to show why we were so glad not to have missed this place, and why we were disappointed we didn't have more time to explore.

Loch Scavaig entrance

Anchored at Scavaig

Another view of Scavaig

Jaime rowed around in the dinghy with a depth line looking for a suitable spot to anchor with enough swinging room for the sudden squalls we expected, and out of range of rocks that appear at low water. All the time, being followed at a short distance by an inquisitive baby seal. There were a few other yachts there when we arrived, but the following morning all but one were on their way and we rowed ashore to spend a bit of time climbing up to Loch Coruisk for a better view, and came across three deer who regarded us carefully at a distance but walked past without darting off as we'd expected. Perhaps they didn't know about shotguns, or that it was deerstalking season.

Walk to Loch Coruisk

Deer we met along the way

In the afternoon we had made a plan to sail to the island of Rum where you can anchor in Loch Scresort near an extravagant Edwardian mansion, now a museum of the weird and wonderful excesses of the day. However, upon our approach we were disappointed to see yet another apparently lovely landscape covered in foggy mist. So with a fair wind and favourable tide we decided to plot a new course South past Uigg and Muck then round the famous Point of Ardnamurchan and into the Sound of Mull instead, only about 30 miles further. This would give us a head start towards Oban in advance of our exam.

All we saw of Rum!

Tobermory is about 10 miles into the Sound of Mull from Ardnamurchan to the Northwest and having been there earlier, we knew there are plenty of visitor moorings which we'd be able to identify in the dark. It was the obvious place to head for. We didn't arrive until well after sunset and snuck out again at the first light of a drizzly dawn for an invigorating downwind sail during which we managed to goosewing the mainsail and No. 3 jib for all of the remaining 20 nautical miles down to the Firth of Lorn and then most of the way across to Kerrera before having to come about to allow a ferry to enter Oban Harbour ahead of us. Goosewinging, when you set the sails on opposite sides of the boat to maximise your sail area, allows dead downwind runs and is often a difficult setup to maintain, particularly in light gusty winds, or with any kind of swell. But this was a dream run, maintaining about 7 knots most of the way and arriving in Oban in time for breakfast! This gave us a couple of days in which to prepare for the exam on Monday, which I'm happy to say we both passed. It was a long and tiring day. With two additional crew we'd only met at the last minute, we sailed to various bays and marinas in the area to carry out exercises, demonstrating passage planning, day and night navigation and pilotage, crew management and theory too. We didn't get back to Oban until well after midnight, exhausted but very excited and relieved it was all over. We took a couple of days out to relax, then started thinking about victualling for the coming week and planning our next few passages. On Wednesday we were very surprised to run into blog readers Mike and Sue in the main street of Oban as we were on our way to deliver about a months worth of washing at the laundrette. Met up with them again at a dockside pub later in the evening for a few pints.

Oban Harbour entrance

Oban Town Centre

Oban Pier

A couple of blog readers we ran into!

The next passage, planned for Friday involved passing the Gulf of Corryvreckan again, and some tricky strong tidal streams through the Sound of Luing, and Sound of Jura. We were hoping to make it to Craighouse on the Isle of Jura. Careful planning was called for, but as it turned out, the neep tides weren't quite as strong as the atlas suggested although we did see speeds of up to 9 knots over ground at times. As with all these island passages, tidal streams can vary greatly from one place to another as the sea is forced through narrow gaps and around bits of land or over shallows which cause races and turbulence where streams meet from different angles. It always makes passage planning interesting and a careful watch on position must be kept. I found myself running up and down the companionway to the navigation table, compass in hand, plotting our course on the chart every ten minutes or so. Quite different to the predictable east-west flow of the English Channel we'd been used to back home. There are so many strange tidal phenomena here. In Jura Sound, the flood and ebb streams mostly only run in the first three hours, making normal tidal curves impossible to use for predicting height. And not only this but weather conditions and barometric pressure can affect heights by up to a metre. In Craighouse, I had to go back and re-check my working twice after calculating no difference in the high and low water levels. Sure enough, after reading further to investigate if I was going mad, I found that this is a phenomenon known as an amphidrome which is a kind of tidal pivot point where the range from high to low tide is nil. The exact location of this point moves during the tidal cycle. Martin Lawrence writes in his Yachtsmans Pilot guide that this is the reason for the curious observation which used to appear in the Admiralty Tide Tables that 'it is neeps at Port Ellen when it is springs at Machrihanish'.

With a brisk Southwesterly wind we were making fast progress over the water aswell as over ground, and sailed into the bay of Loch na Mile just on dusk, anchoring in front of the Craighouse pier, overlooked by the well known Jura distillery. We awoke on Saturday morning (Happy Birthday Matt!) and thought it looked like a good day for a walk. We had to enquire at the pub first to find out if any deerstalking was taking place that day. After a quick check with a few locals we were happy to be told that the area to the south of the mountain Glass Bheinn should be free of camouflaged men creeping about armed with shotguns. We spent a few hours walking in the hills and climbing through pine forests. Its always good to stretch the legs properly after spending so much time on the boat.

View from the hills on Jura

The next morning we had plenty of time to wait for the tide before sailing across the sound to the island of Gigha, just 12 miles away. Unfortunately, after trying for an hour or so to get the boat moving with the cruising chute, the lack of wind, and the building south-going stream finally convinced us to start the engine and motor around to Ardminish Bay. This was to be our last night in Scottish waters. The next day we would be southbound, passing the Mull of Kintyre and crossing the North Channel to Northern Ireland. With the high pressure system prevailing over the UK, and winds remaining from the West, we expected the Irish coast to be more sheltered than that of England or Wales on the eastern side of the Irish Sea, and it usually preferable to avoid lee shores where possible. Today I am writing from the well kept little town of Glenarm, County Antrim, but more about that in the next update.

Loch Inver to Plockton

Jaime writes:

My mother’s side of the family is Mackay, and the North Highlands, notably Strathnaver is the old stomping ground for the leaders of the clan Mackay AKA the Lords of Reay. We thought we would take a couple of days off from Lady Ayesha and hire a car and go exploring. Firstly we drove back up the north coast along the winding roads towards Cape Wrath and around to Durness, stopping at Tarbet on the way to eat some smoked salmon we bought off an old lady. I had over estimated how long it would take us to get there as I’m used to passage planning based on about 8mph. Happily we arrived in Durness with plenty of time for a walk around Faraid Head, where we found quite unexpectedly some of the most stunning sand dunes I have seen. They were very tall, partly covered with coastal grasses, except for the natural paths that weaved between them, and the irresistible sand slides own to the sea. The sun came out and we had a lovely stroll along the deserted Balnakeil beach. It made such a change to the poor weather we have been having. We tried to hitch a ride back to our hostel, but it seems that now we are back on the mainland people are less likely to pick you up, even when you are being obviously attacked by midges. We stayed in a comfortable hostel called Lazy Crofters which was full of German backpackers, probably stranded there as the public transport up this way is useless.
Heading for the highlands

Stopping for lunch at Tarbet

Sand dunes, Durness

Balnakeil Beach

Showing off our Scottish tans

Balnakeil dunes

The following day we headed over towards Bettyhill. On the way we passed by Loch Eribol; this would have been one of our boltholes had the weather deteriorated on our way around Cape Wrath. We also stopped in the township of Tongue which I had excitedly read was dominated by Castle Varrich, a 14th Century Mackay stronghold. I thought that this would really impress Craig, you know, having castles in the family and all. Alas, this was not to be the case as he likened it to a large potting shed, and to be fair he wasn‘t far off , except that the walls were 4ft thick. So we walked the two miles downhill back to the car and drove on after having some concessionary cream tea in a hotel.

Tongue, dominated by Castle Varrich!

'Castle' Varrich

Bettyhill is an old crofting settlement at the seaward end of Strathnaver. At the east end of the village is the former Church of Farr, now the Strathnaver Museum run by a talkative chap who gave me a free copy of the Mackay magazine. In the graveyard of the church can be found the Farr Stone, a Christianised Pictish monument. We were sternly advised to be careful because strange things can happen when standing in front of it!

Church of Farr

The Farr Stone

It stopped raining long enough for us to be able to take a picture and then it started again. This region used to be inhabited and owned by the Mackays, however their land was progressively taken over by the Gordon family or the Earls of Sutherland by 1829. Shortly before then in 1806 the notorious Sutherland Clearances had begun. Basically Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland wanted to “improve” her northern lands, her interest was in maximising opportunities rather than maintaining the traditional way of life. At this time during the industrial and agricultural revolution there was a tremendous desire for “improvement” in all levels of society and the young and beautiful countess felt compelled to be at the forefront of this. The scheme that she and her greedy advisors developed was grandiose in the extreme and involved social engineering on a massive scale. Consequently literally 1000’s of people were cleared using fire and fury when necessary from their land and villages and moved to coastal allotments to make way for sheep, for wool and mutton were in high demand. In the view of the so called “improvers” the land folk would shed their slothful habits and become useful citizens, they were even referred to as banditti by one of the advisors who was eventually charged with murder, but remained rich. The clearances were not limited to the Sutherland Estate, they took place across Scotland and are known as the Highland Clearances.

We drove through the beautiful heather valley of Strathnaver and stopped at the ruins of the 66 buildings of the Grunmore Settlement, which was razed to the ground by Sutherland’s henchman. Life was tough in the extreme here for all sorts of reasons and many people left the area for good and emigrated to America and the New World in search of a better life.
We headed back to Loch Inver along the narrow single track roads, giving way and waving to the stream of modern motor homes. It was a real pleasure driving through such a beautiful and vast landscapes with such courteous happy drivers. The strong winds took a rest for the day and stopped blowing all together when we attempted to sail to the Summer Isles. We had hoped that it might be summery in these Islands and headed off under motor and anchored in Loch Ristol. Legal action under the Trade Descriptions Act is underway and we headed south the following day in the drizzly rain and blustery winds to Gairloch. I can’t overstate how disappointing the weather has been this year. In Shetland I bought a padded immersion suit that fishermen use for offshore fishing as my rather expensive Gill waterproofs are not up to the job of keeping me warm and dry. This would be understandable in February- but August. Grhhhh.

Anyway we couldn’t get to Gairloch as the wind picked up too much and we didn’t fancy going around any exposed headlands so we headed in to Loch Ewe. On the way we passed Gruinard Island, which has a fascinating albeit disturbing history. It was here in 1941 that scientists decided to bomb this “useless” island with anthrax spores. The unsuspecting penned sheep below, no doubt munching away innocently, duly died. Apparently the Germans were carrying out similar experiments. Still, at least we had some weapons to kill the enemy’s sheep. The story doesn’t end there. As spores of anthrax are persistent for years the MOD decided to disinfect the island by soaking the entire surface area in formaldehyde. The island was then returned to its pre-war owner who wasn’t best pleased and understandably never wanted to set foot on it again, and neither did we.

We stayed at the comfortable anchorage on the eastern side of the Isle of Ewe and set sail for Gairloch in the morning. We had a swift downwind sail under main alone from Rubha Reidh to Gairloch and I think the sun even shone.

Gairloch is situated in the picturesque Loch Gairloch. We took a walk to the sparkling Flowerdale falls through the lush heather hewed landscape and finished off with a really satisfying meal at the Old Inn. Far from the mediocrity we have encountered in many eateries which are just out to make cash and have some 16yr old frying everything to death in the kitchen for £5.40/hr, this place had really nice food that someone actually cared about.


Latest in Shetland Fisherman Fashion

We had a number of options the following day for destinations. So we sailed downwind to Loch Torridon, which promised to be one of the most spectacular of the west coast lochs, with the sun shining it lived up to its reputation. The upper loch was exceptional. We wanted to anchor and go for a walk, but the mountains created such squally conditions that we wouldn’t have been able to leave the boat comfortably so we headed off to Portree on the Isle of Skye. By now the wind had picked up from the north to F6, this caused some largish waves to be generated down the narrow stretches of water between Isle of Skye, the islands in the middle and the mainland. We only had a relatively short distance to go and with the wind behind us we found ourselves surfing down the waves which was good fun with the 300m high towering cliffs of Skye above us. We swung in to Portree, past a massive cruise ship leaving the harbour and picked up a mooring. Curiously a little blue fishing boat was belting along, full throttle very close to the cruise ship. It turned out that the cruise ship had pulled up some lobster creels with its anchor which had then got stuck in their bow thruster. God knows what the fishing boat was going to do about it. Portree is a cheerfully painted lively town that attracts cruise ships and other holiday makers. Craig got his hair cut and I had a shower and almost felt respectable again. As the sun was shining we decided to celebrate by inviting the crew of two boats moored nearby over for drinks. We had a lovely evening with Chris and Emma and their beautiful dog Daisy from Ullapool on their Folkboat, Sonas(?) and Helen & Richard from Edinburgh on their Hallberg Rassy (Wild Theme).

Loch Torridon

Portree Anchorage

Portree Waterfront

The next day we experienced why the Isle of Skye is also called the Island of the Mist in Gallic, as a thick fog settled in the bay. Chris and Emma attempted to leave, and we saw them disappear into the mist. Ekkk. An hour later they were back. As we couldn’t go sailing, we thought we would go for a walk. We rowed over to their boat and they offered us a brandy coffee and shortly all thoughts of walking were abandoned. That evening we all met again for a barbecue and roaring fire on the eastern shore of the bay and watched the sun go down. It started to feel like summer at last.

Creeping Fog

Sunset Barbecue Portree

The town of Plockton on the mainland east of the Skye Bridge came highly recommended, so that was our next destination. Light winds gently blew us down the Sound of Rassay through the Narrows and on to a late lunch in the pinch between the Crowlin islands. Here we were met by a couple of elderly Dutch sea-kayakers who had been travelling around for 5 weeks in their little boats. It sounded like an amazing trip. After lunch we sailed up Loch Carron, past Cat Island to Plockton.

Plockton really is a pretty little town, with lots of picture postcard cottages with well attended gardens and a number of palm trees, framed by hills of heather and wild flowers. We went for a walk along the poorly maintained path around the bay through the woods which involved climbing over fallen trees to Castle Duncraig. We passed an amazing fir tree on the way which was massive, you would need 5 people joining hands to circle it. There was also an imposing courtyard in the dark woods with the words “Work Hard, Be Honest, Fear God” in big scary letters inscribed over the gatehouse. I think this is a former Wee Free Church area. We eventually arrived at the castle which was actually someone’s home. It didn’t say private anywhere but there were children’s toys lying around and road bollards stacked up in the chapel. Anyway it was all a bit spooky , so we headed back to the pub where we enjoyed Oyster Shots. Now I think oysters are ugly snot monsters, but Oyster Shots sounded interesting, it was essentially a mini Bloody Mary in a shot glass with an oyster. They were actually very tasty. I wonder what they taste like in Champagne?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Shetland to Loch Inver

It has been a few weeks since the last blog entry, and quite a few nautical miles have passed under the keel since we were stuck in Hamnavoe. Having listened to repetitive reports of strong winds and gales being reported all over the northern isles, we decided we had to make our way south or we'd be stuck in Shetland until next summer!

Tuesday August 7th looked like a good day to make a break for it and we intended on sailing to the island of Foula, southwest of Shetland mainland, with towering cliffs on one side, sloping down slowly to sealevel on the other, visible for many miles out to sea. It is known as the most isolated populated island in the British Isles and until the early 19th century, the population of several hundred still spoke the old Norse language. Even today the small number of remaining inhabitants still cling steadfastly to the old Julian calendar. According to Hamish Haswell-Smith's remarkable book on Scottish Islands, Foula also has a unique subspecies of field mouse "a charming little creature with big feet" and its own variety of carnivorous sheep which strangely enough have recently been seen feeding off young arctic terns and skua nestlings! There is only one tiny bay which provides any kind of shelter. Even the mail boat which goes out each week from there is lifted out on a crane every time it returns due to the regular heavy swell.

As we left Hamnavoe and sailed out through the narrow channel between violently breaking waves, it still looked like Foula might be achievable as a jumping off point for the west coast of Scotland. The wind was a Southeasterly, due to drop from force 5 to variable force 3 or 4. However, after four hours at sea with a heavy swell continuing to build, we decided Foula would be too dangerous. Swell from any easterly wind makes it unapproachable. So we decided to sail southeast along the mainland to Skelda Voe instead, where our sailing directions suggested there was a pier and new pontoons to tie up to. This was about another 25 nautical miles, and with headwinds and a sharp choppy sea our progress was uncomfortable, wet, and slow. As it turned out, Skeld was a good choice. New pontoons are provided with not only the luxury of shorepower and fresh water, but also showers, toilets, a diesel pump, and quite possibly the friendliest managers you could imagine. They were down there in the rain at 8:30pm helping us tie up, offering fuel and advice, and even the services of reiki therapy, if we so desired. At that time, sleep was our highest priority. We did however have time for a drink with the crew of the Swedish boat, 'Jenna Blå' - Jesper, Ann and baby Leo, who we had last seen at Aith when we rafted up to them at the pier in the middle of the night after almost dragging anchor, several weeks earlier. They are on their way south too.

Early morning in Skeld

The next day the manager's wife took all of us in her four wheel drive to go food shopping, and stopped at a cafe and art gallery for lunch. Very civilised! That evening we had a barbecue with the Swedes, and dined aboard their boat. We enjoyed their company and talked about our experiences in the local sailing areas.

Not exactly my idea of a barbie, but...

Next morning we were both planning to leave at 6am, bound for the Scottish mainland, a passage we expected to take at least a day and a half. They were still undecided about whether to go the same way as us, Southwest via Cape Wrath and down the Western Isles, or to head Southeast past Fair Isle, then east of Orkney and down to Inverness and the Caledonian Canal. The forecast was for Southeasterly winds, so we were surprised to see them head off Southeast towards Inverness under motor as we steered for Cape Wrath. We left Skeld early as planned and had mirror-like calm seas with an escort of dolphins and even a few spells of sunshine at last. At moments like these you can so easily forget about the crap weather and choppy seastate two days before.

Dolphins escort us out of Skelda Voe

Jaime tries to speak to more dolphins several hours later

Dolphins through reflected sky

We hoped Jenna Blå had a safe passage down to the Moray Firth as they would be beating into strengthening winds all the way. And strengthen they certainly did! We were on a heading of 230 degrees from Skeld, some 140 nautical miles all the way to Cape Wrath. The ships log records that for the first six hours the wind steadily built from almost nothing to a force 4. No problem there, however, from about midday to 6am the next morning, it didn't drop below force 5, including a number of hours at force 7 and 8 (officially described as 'gale force' for those unfamiliar with the shipping forecast!). Not exactly what we had planned for our longest and most distant offshore passage to date, but the boat kept us safe, and we managed to keep her on course with reduced sail, all through the night in crashing waves and powerful gusts. Much of the time we were reduced to several reefs in the mainsail and the foresail safely rolled away. For safety, our lifejacket harnesses were clipped on permanently while either of us were in the cockpit. White handflares were at the ready in case they were needed to signal our presence to any vessels that may not see our navigation lights, and we had the radar on for early warnings of other traffic, of which we saw only one pelagic fishing boat. We maintained hourly shifts at the helm, and when off-shift concentrated on the navigation and trying to get warm and dry below, away from the continual dousing of seawater. We were fortunate to have some stars in the sky and to have a reasonably short period of darkness, still being so far north. Regular radio contact with Stornaway Coastguard to report our position and check latest weather updates also gave some comfort. I imagine doing this kind of passage single-handed must be a terribly lonely affair.

By 0500UT we were 10 miles North of Cape Wrath. The dawn filled in the dark picture of the coast, adding a coastline to what had for hours been just a slow flashing light from the lighthouse, seen through the compass sight. With dawn, the wind had backed to a gentle southwesterly of only force 2 or 3. This headland has a fearsome reputation for rough seas, and we'd planned to give it a wide berth of at least 5 miles, however on approach, it looked fairly settled and so we re-drew our passage to save time, and passed it within about two miles instead. For those who may be interested: Waves get bigger, the longer they are subjected to wind. The wave height can be roughly estimated based on the 'fetch' (distance they have travelled) and the wind strength and time. The prolonged southeasterly meant that in the open sea, they would be much bigger, however the waves in the area immediately northwest of the cape had very little fetch as the wind was blowing off the land. Since Cape Wrath is completely exposed to the Atlantic, the same conditions for wind blowing from the west would have created a very different scenario. And as expected, as we rounded the cape, the seastate became calm, so calm in fact that for the last few hours, the sun came out and we sailed under motor. Jaime slept, and I dried out some clothes on the cockpit seats, while listening to Radio 4 on the portable radio, and enjoyed the sight of trees again and new mountainous landscapes as we approached our destination port, Kinlochbervie.

This was until recently a very busy fishing port, but the trade there has died, so the massive loading terminal and docks, although only recently constructed, remain eerily empty. After rafting up alongside a shiny brand-new Swedish yacht on the pontoon, hanging out our cleanest looking fenders, we approached the Fishermen's Mission for showers, but they close early on Fridays. Just a strong smell of chip fat in the tiny eatery and a few youngsters playing pool. We managed to get showers at the harbour office, and walked up the hill to the hotel for a well-earned beverage (or it may have been two), despite the sun being not quite over the yard-arm! Finally we were back on the British mainland. I'm really glad we made it down when we did because gale warnings continue to be given regularly for the Faroes and Fair Isle shipping areas since then. We really may have been there until next year!

Tied up in Kinlochbervie at last

Leaving Loch Bervie

After a days rest in Kinlochbervie we started making our way down the coast planning short daily passages of only 20 or 30 miles and trying to see as much as possible while making good progress South. We sailed out of Loch Bervie on the ebb tide, and downwind on a gentle Northeasterly breeze past many small islands and exposed rocks, to Handa, which is a designated bird sanctuary. We enjoyed beautiful sunshine as we sailed through the shallow waters of Handa Sound where visitors take little boat trips out to the white sandy beach on the island. It was very tempting to drop the anchor and row ashore for a picnic lunch, but our plan involved making good use of tidal streams in these light winds, and so we decided to eat aboard instead, and sailed on into Eddrachillis Bay. We navigated our way through the Badcall Islands and down Loch a' Chàirn Bhàin, under the bridge and into the bay by the village of Kylesku where we anchored in the late afternoon. I'd bought some tasty looking Scottish sirloin steaks in Kinlochbervie, but found myself short of creme fraiche for the sauce they so obviously deserved. Never mind. A quick row in the dinghy, tying up to the slipway in front of the hotel, found me enjoying a local ale in the small public bar of the restaurant which I was told is the subject of much acclaim by food critics. A calculated yet offhand mention of my predicament was taken up by the everso friendly barman who immediately summoned the chef to prepare for me two servings of his delicious green peppercorn sauce, sealed up in a container suitable for transport by dinghy back to our little ship. Problem solved, I finished my pint and couldn't wait to return to Jaime to present her with the spoils of my hunting.

Approaching Kylesku

The next morning we hoisted our sails at dawn and drifted out again to sea. This time as we sailed out of the loch to more exposed seas the wind was stronger, and from the Southwest. Not too bad, as our passage to Lochinver would involve two long tacks: a close reach west to the Point of Stour, another headland that is known to cause tidal races, and then Southeast past Rubha Rodha into Loch Inver. As we came into sight of the tall pinnacle of rock known as the Old Man of Stour, it became obvious that the seastate was going to be uncomfortable. We headed out to sea as far as possible before tacking around, but the waves were so choppy that the boats expected speed of over 6 knots in such a wind was reduced to less than 3 over ground as we were tossed up and down, with sails flogging helplessly as the boat pitched every time we luffed up to take a wave. So sadly it was time again to roll away the headsail and put the engine on in order to maintain boat speed and get into the relatively protected waters of Loch Inver. This is still an uncomforable way to sail, but at least we were making some progress. It was during this time that I found myself again the subject of the attentions of a great skua, or bonxie as it is known in Shetland. After my earlier experience of this species on Papa Stour, I was very wary, and tried to show no fear as I watched it from the corner of my eye, gliding expertly in the strong wind behind the boat to within several metres of me, turning its head constantly as though tracking its prey. I was convinced it was moving in for an attack but I managed to fend it off several times by shouting and waving at it threateningly with an oar, much to Jaime's amusement.

My evil nemesis returns!

Four hours of rain and seaspray later, during which I remained on the helm and Jaime stayed dry below, we arrived at Lochinver and tied up to the pontoon near the busy piers where pelagic fishing boats from as far away as Spain pull in to swap crews and deliver their catches. Strong wind warnings had been issued by the coastguard with gales expected over the next few days so we tied up to the leeward side of the pontoon using about eight mooring lines, stowed as much deck equipment as possible below to reduce windage, including removing the rolling genoa, and lowering the boom to deck level. Here we were to remain for 5 days, but I'll let Jaime tell you all about that in the next update.