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?