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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.