David & Maggie McMullan’s Scotland Cruise July/August 2006
The plan for our 2006 cruise was to travel up the West coast of Scotland and round the top to the Orkney Islands, and to the Shetland Islands if conditions permit, and then back via the Caledonian Canal.
Originally we intended to depart late May/early June, but time ebbed away with the completion of the sale and delivery of our previous boat ‘Badger of Baltimore’ to Plymouth and then the need to rectify a few items on board Steel Pulse, prior to our departure.
We finally set off from Bangor marina on Monday 3rd July at 08:00 bound for Cushendall in Red Bay.
We caught the last of the ebb tide north to Blackhead and then up the coast passed the Gobbins. We motored, as there was a light northerly wind, which made for an easy start as we got used to handling the new boat with only the two of us aboard.
The RYA-NI had announced that new visitor moorings had been installed in Red Bay, off the yacht club at Cushendall, so we decided to stop there for our first night provided there was adequate protection from swell.
We arrived at Cushendall at 14:00, picked up a visitor mooring, and had lunch watching a dinghy training session and generally admired the scenery. The instructor came over and offered to ferry us ashore, but as there was a bit of a roll, we decided to stay aboard and push on for a more sheltered overnight berth at Rathlin Island once the tide turned.
We left the visitor mooring at 15:50 and motored up the coast, aiming to enter the Rathlin Sound at slack water. We passed Fair Head at 17:45 and arrived in Rathlin harbour at 18:50. A new pontoon has been installed in Rathlin Harbour, see photo below, which was initially confusing but it makes the arrival/departure less dependant on tide heights.
There were four yachts already moored up on the north side of the pontoon, so we rafted up outside ‘Osprey of Wight’, as we were unsure of the water depth on the south side. In the event both sides can be used.
As a consequence of the new pontoon, the inner harbour now appears to be seldom used and the old resident fishing vessel, the Maud Chambers, is no longer there. Since our last visit there have been a few more new houses built, together with a new toilet & shower block between the harbour and the pub. The restaurant adjoining the bar was open and there was also a small mobile chip van doing a good trade with day visitors and campers.
On Tuesday morning we had a pleasant walk down to the light at Rue Point at the south end of the island (2.5miles). The road goes past several small lakes and we were chased away from the Rue light area by some anxious nesting kittiwakes and oystercatchers.
We departed from Rathlin harbour at 15:50 and slowly motored west along the coast, past the old mine works towards Bull Point at the west end of the island and then crossed in still conditions over to Islay. From the entrance to Port Ellen bay we could see that the pontoon was full of yacht masts, so we picked up a visitor’s mooring off the Port Ellen Distillery at 20:15.
On Wednesday we went ashore and took a bus across the island via Bowmore to Port Askaig. Port Askaig, was a possible stop-over point for us, if we went up the Sound of Islay; however it turned out to be a much smaller place than we expected. It comprised the ferry terminal, a hotel, a lifeboat station and a small shop/post office. But there is a useful small anchorage and landing slip to the north of the ferry terminal, which is out of the main tidal stream. After lunch and a long wait for a return bus, we stopped for a quick look around Bowmore (more tourist oriented, with tours of the distillery of course) and then back to Port Ellen.
The forecast for the weekend was looking ominous, with gale force winds expected, so instead of going up through the Sound of Islay and around the west side of Jura, we opted for a more sheltered passage up the east side of Jura to Craobh Marina (pronounced ‘creuve’). We departed on Thursday morning at 08:00 and typical of Scottish weather, we had a windless, sunny run up to Craobh, arriving at 17:30.
On Friday the forecast was still ominous, but we decided to push on for Loch Aline at the south of the Sound of Mull. We departed at 11:30 and had good sunny weather again with little wind up through the narrows at the sound of Luing. After a spot of sailing in light winds off Easdale we reverted to motoring again across the Firth of Lorne towards Duart Point and the entrance to the Sound of Mull. As we made our way up to the entrance to Loch Aline, the weather started to close in and sun hat gave way to oilskins. By 17:45 we were anchored at the far end of the loch, although it was not particularly sheltered from the forecast strong SW winds.
It was a wet and windy night with the boat swinging from one side to the other and what sounded like the halyards rattling inside the mast. But the anchor held firm and the following morning (Saturday) we were off at 07:00 to find a vacant mooring in Tobermory.
The benefit of arriving in Tobermory at 10:00, as other boats were leaving, was that we had the pick of the available moorings and we managed to get one just off the pontoon, leaving us a 5-minute row ashore. After a cooked breakfast in a café, we set off to explored the town, which hadn’t changed much since our last visit in 2004 – apart from the exterior wall of the Mishnish pub being repainted black.
Week 2 got off to a slow start, as the weather deteriorated and we decided to remain safely tied up to our visitor’s mooring. Boats came and went, while we patiently waited and tried to reconcile the forecast to the actual weather. Bangor boats we recognised included the McDowell’s Bravado, Spindrift and Dromedaris.
However by Wednesday boredom had set in and with the forecast still Force 4-5, we had a quiet motor down Loch Sunart as far as Salem and then came back to a sheltered lagoon, known as Drumbuie, where we anchored for the night. After a bit of fishing, a small mackerel provided the bait for the new lobster pot, which caught 6 velvet swimming crabs.
On Thursday morning the forecast of West F3-4 for the Ardnamurchan area looked good and we set off at 09:00 and motored to just past Ardnamurchan, when the wind freed off enough for the sails to appear and we headed for the south entrance of Loch Moidart. Rounding Ardnamurchan we were passed by Jeff Gouk’s boat ‘Sirius’, which headed north as we went east.
The anchorage at Moidart is described in the pilot as, “One of the most picturesque of all West Coast lochs. ……It is however one of the most difficult of all lochs to enter with a labyrinth of islets and rocks. ….. There is no current detailed chart of Loch Moidart. Photocopies of the very old chart 531 will provide more detail than anything currently published, subject with the usual reservations about obsolete charts.”
A quick check of the tide tables showed it would be low tide by the time we entered – indeed a Spring low. So armed with the pilot sketches we mastered the tricky twisting entrance and motored up to the anchorages, only to run aground off the jetty west of Riska Island. Maggie was dispatched in the dinghy with a sounding line to find the deeper channel and after a second attempt we backed off the bank of mud as the tide rose and we did a 270deg traverse around Riska Island to anchor at the south side off Castle Tioram.
On Friday morning, it was full tide when we departed, which gave more water depth but actually made the pilotage more difficult, as many of the small rocks at the entrance were now covered. We exited safely and motored over to Eigg. At the entrance to the harbour we saw a minke whale surface twice – our first sighting of any dolphins and porpoises so far on this trip.
We passed through the harbour/anchorage and had a quick exchange with the couple on ‘New Chance’, which was berthed alongside us in Bangor before we left.
We then motored around the south and west coast of Eigg and over to the anchorage in Loch Scresort at Rhum, arriving at 14:20. Loch Scresort is east facing and 1 mile long by a quarter of a mile wide. We anchored in the vicinity of the other two yachts and made our way ashore to stock up with provisions from the shop and to get some water. As other yachts arrived we witnessed what can only be described as a display of lemming behaviour! As each new boat arrived they looked for a gap between the existing boats and threw out their anchor. The last boat in (the 15th) was a Contessa 32 that wanted to be near the previous two boats to arrive and proceeded to drop their anchor within two boat lengths of us. During the evening we swung to and fro, but not quite close enough to touch and in the end we relocated outside of the rest of the boats to avoid worrying about a crash during the night.
The following morning (Saturday) the forecast was for the wind to get up to F5-7 on Sunday with rain; so we opted to head for the shelter of the Sound of Sleat rather than proceed out to Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
We motored across to the Point of Sleat and then up to Armadale, with a bit of unsuccessful fishing on route. We picked up a visitors mooring and went ashore to check out the few tourist shops by the ferry terminal and then walked into Ardvaser to post some cards and slake our thirst, as it was a hot sunny day.
The weather on Sunday morning was still good, with light winds, but there were still strong wind warnings being broadcast, so we motored up the Sound of Sleat to Kyleakin. The narrow Kyle of Rhea has currents of up to 7 knots, so we set off at 08:00 to make sure we carried the last of the north-going tide through it. As we exited the narrow Kyle, the wind started to increase from astern and we had the dinghy attempting to go airborn as it was only tied down at the bow. The boat that came through behind us claimed that they had gusts of 35kns. At Kyleakin, boats at the pontoon were already rafted two abreast and the small pontoon at Lochalsh was full as well, so we picked up a visitors mooring off Kyleakin – next to the new Skye road bridge.
As we came in we recognised Jeff Gouk’s Sirius also on one of the visitor’s moorings. The fact he left shortly after we arrived, we assume to be purely co-incidental!
Rather than tour around Skye by boat in the forecast damp wind conditions, we hired a car from Lochalsh and went exploring the north of Skye by road. We set off about 11:00 by the time the car was cleaned and delivered, and headed up the east coast for Portree. It was a mizzly day and the higher ground was in the clouds. At Portree we stopped for lunch and a quick look around the harbour area, then the shops and afterwards set off again on the scenic road north. Stopping at the tourist sites enroute we continued down the west coast via Uig, then out to the Waternish Peninsula, with stops at a knitting centre for Maggie and a quick visit to a local tannery. By this stage the roads were single file with passing places and kamikaze sheep wandering along the roadside, which took more driver concentration than I’m used to.
At the end of the afternoon we left the car back at Lochalsh, caught the bus over the Skye Bridge (now toll-free) and dined in ‘Saucy Mary’s’, named after a Viking lady who apparently resided in the local castle.
On Tuesday 18th the forecast was much better, so we decided to head back out to the Small Isles and then over to Barra in the Outer Hebrides, if the weather continued to stay settled. To catch the tide down through the Kyles of Rhea necessitated an early start and we departed at 05:40, reaching the Kyles at 06:20. The previous day’s mizzle had left patches of fog and the section through the Kyles was thick fog – thank goodness for a chart plotter and radar! Once through the Kyles, the fog thinned out and we were out of the Sound of Sleat and heading over to Canna by 10:00 in bright sunshine.
Crossing to Rhum and then Canna the sea was glassy smooth and so we decided to skip Canna and motor onwards through the afternoon to Barra, whilst the conditions were so benign. It was so warm, Maggie even put her shorts on!
We passed Canna around lunchtime and whilst I was below cooking some bacon, Maggie spotted some ‘black fins’. They turned out to be Basking Sharks swimming along just below the surface with their dorsal fin and tail showing. We circled around trying to get a good look at one of them, while the bacon was left to crispened!
Ten minutes later there were another 2, 15 minutes later 6 more and within an hour we had seen a total of 17. Having not seen any for years, it was amazing to see so many in such a short period.
Later in the afternoon we sighted some camera-shy Bottle-nosed dolphins, but nearing Barra a very large pod of Common dolphins came charging over to great us and gave a spectacular display of jumping and bow-riding.
We came into Castle Bay on Barra and picked up a visitor’s mooring and sat back with a sun-downer thinking what a special day it had been.
On Wednesday 19th we went ashore to explore Castle Bay, stock up with milk, etc and to suss out diesel and water. First stop was at the Co-op, but we found several smaller shops later as well. Water was available from the ferry pier – from a fire hose and (marine) diesel was available from the fuel pumps on the High Street. We also discovered showers in the toilets adjacent to the CalMac office. So the afternoon passed with trips back and forth in the dinghy with fuel drums, water containers and wash bags. In the evening we ate ashore in a small ‘Indian’ café.
The following day we made the relatively short passage (21nm), past Eriskay to Lockboisdale on S. Uist – arriving there about lunchtime. Enroute we saw two more Basking Sharks and some Bottle-nosed dolphins.
We made use of the available visitor’s moorings again and were surprised when we went ashore to find more shops than indicated in the guide, as well as a toilet/shower block.
On Friday 21st we continued northwards, departing at 08:50 just ahead of the Oban ferry. Another day of light winds and a bit of sun, but not the heatwave the rest of the UK seemed to be enjoying according to the BBC news. We motored up the coast leaving S. Uist, passing Benbecula and up to Lochmaddy in N.Uist.
We arrived off Lochmaddy at lunchtime, so decided to stop at the entrance for a spot of fishing for bait for the lobster-pot. Caught a reasonably-sized saithe and several mackerel, so set the lobster-pot off a headland out by the entrance and proceeded in to pick up one of the visitor’s mooring adjacent to the ferry berth. Our intention was to have a look around and then move to a bay further away that had 2 visitor’s moorings; however by the time we returned aboard they had been taken by 2 Norwegian yachts.
Ashore Lockmaddy disappointed initially, until we found that the village was actually centred around another bay – rather then around the newer ferry terminal.
During the night the wind increased from the NE and one of the two boats that had anchored outside of the visitor’s moorings had to move as her anchor was dragging.
On Saturday we departed from the mooring and went to retrieve the lobster pot. The wind was still a fresh NE’ly, which made picking up the lobster pot a bit of a challenge, even from the dinghy, as it was an on-shore breeze and the lobster pot was close in on the NE side of a headland. However the pot was lifted with about 12 velvet swimming crabs and an undersized eating crab. Getting the outboard and dinghy aboard would have been difficult in these conditions, so we motored over to the N-side of the inlet and into a sheltered bay. Once everything was back aboard and well lashed down, we rounded the headland and headed into the wind up to East Loch Tarbert on the border between S and N Harris.
The attraction of Tarbert was a claim in the Pilot Guide that the Harris Hotel did laundry! So we anchored off the ferry terminal and rowed ashore with two bags of dirty clothes, towels and duvet covers. They promised to have them done by the following morning, so we strolled around the town and then decided to check out the harbour at Scalpay as an overnight anchorage, rather than adjacent to the ferry terminal.
The following day (Sunday) we lifted anchor at 09:45 at a very sleepy Scalpay and motored back up to East Loch Tarbert to collect the laundry. A fresh breeze was blowing into the anchorage, so we anchored and Maggie went ashore on her own, whilst I ‘boat sat’ to make sure we didn’t drag. After a bit of a delay, whilst the final load was removed from the dryer, Maggie returned back aboard and we set off at 10:30 back down to Scalpay and under the road bridge over to Scalpay. The bridge clearance was 22m and we reckoned the top of our mast was 18.5m, so we lined the boat up with the highest part of the bridge, Maggie disappeared below to avoid watching and we crept slowly under the bridge … and started breathing again!
Once out of Scalpay Sound, up went the sails and we were able to sail the whole way up to and into Stornaway harbour. The wind was a reasonably steady F5 on the stern quarter, with a gybe required after Loch Odhairn.
As we approached the dock, there were 7 yachts rafted up on the Esplanade Quay, so we assumed (correctly as it turned out) that the yacht marina must be full and we rafted up outside a yacht that had come in about an hour before us.
On Monday 24th we celebrated the start of our 4th week with a lazy day; we just had a stroll through Stornaway and around to the grounds of Lews Castle, up to the Sports Centre for a shower and to the Stornaway Fish Smokers for a pair of kippers! We also arranged to hire a car the following day.
On Tuesday we set off in the hire car to the west side of Lewis. The first stop was at the Shawbost Norse Mill and Kiln, which had been recently restored. The mill had a side stream of a river that ran underneath it and turned a paddle wheel in the horizontal plane, which was attached to the upper grinding stone. The adjacent kiln was used for drying the oats and barley, prior to grinding.
The next stop was at the Gearranan Blackhouse Village, a group of old ‘black houses’ which had been kept in tact as a cultural exhibition of what village life was like in the rural communities. Two of the houses are fitted out, as they would have been at the time of their abandonment in the 1940s. The black houses were used to house the family at one end and their animals at the other. Originally they had a central fire in the living room, but these ones were ‘modernised’, with the fire at the gable end and had windows fitted. The roof was similar to the mill above.
A bit further down the road was the Carloway Broch, which is an Iron Age structure dating back over 2000 years. It was built with two concentric walls, with passages and staircases in the voids.
Very impressive, but the best was yet to come. A few miles further brought us to the Callanish Standing Stones. They are formed in the shape of a cross, with a circle in the centre, with a small chambered cairn. There is an avenue, or double line, of stones to the north, and to the south, east and west has a single line of stones.
There are three other standing stone circles in the area, which haven’t been fully excavated yet. The stones above were only fully uncovered in the 1850s, when up to 1.5m of peat was removed from around the stones.
On Wednesday we departed from Stornaway, after refilling the fuel and water tanks, and headed east to the mainland coast and our planned anchorage of Loch Nedd. A Dutch boat that arrived on Tuesday had complained about the fog and shortly after leaving the Lewis coast we were enveloped in fog and this lasted all the way across until approaching the entrance to Loch Nedd. We passed through a group of trawlers on the way across and were again glad the boat was fitted with radar.
Loch Nedd turned out to be a lovely surprise. Shaped like a long sock, it was very sheltered once you turned into the ‘foot of the sock’. Day boat users drifted away leaving us on our own during the evening – quite a contrast to the trawlers arriving into and leaving Stornaway during the night. On the hills behind we could see a female deer grazing, being followed by her young suckling offspring.
When we got up the following morning the anchorage was thick with fog, but by the time we finished breakfast it lifted sufficiently to see the entrance of the loch – so we decided to push on, hoping it would continue to lift. Our fallback option was to put into Kinlochbervie, if the thick fog lingered.
As we progressed north up the coast it continued to clear ahead of us – initially a few hundred yards, then a quarter of a mile and finally it drifted away to around 5 miles. It turned out to be a very pleasant motor up past the entrance to Kinlochbervie and later we could make out the lighthouse at Cape Wrath, but there was a bank of fog lingering to the north of it.
Approaching Cape Wrath, with fog bank beyond
As we came level with the west side of Cape Wrath we were enveloped in pea-soup fog. Again we had to resort to use of the radar and chart plotter, initially to pass inside the isolated Duslic Rock, just north of Cape Wrath and then later as we crossed through the ‘Firing Practice Area’ marked on the chart, where we assumed they wouldn’t be doing any target practice in thick fog!
Halfway through this area there was an almighty BOOM, followed by a metallic crack as an underwater shockwave hit the hull. Jaws dropped! Then another BOOM and a sharp crack. Should we don lifejackets or flack jackets? A very hasty VHF call to the target range safety vessel confirmed that there was no target firing, but that they had just let off some underwater explosives. Anxiety levels slowly receded on hearing that.
Going into Loch Eriboll the fog lifted a bit as we got closer to the land, but it lingered around the first possible anchorage in Rispond Bay. So we headed down the Loch to the next anchorage marked in the chart on the north side of Ard Neackie. The anchor filled with weed and wouldn’t hold, so we tried the bay to the south and had three attempts there before going further down the loch to Camas an Duin, where we managed to anchor in 13m at our first attempt. Closer in was full of moorings and immediately to the west was a fish farm.
On Friday 28th we were up early to make best use of the tide going east along the coast to Scrabster. Anchor was lifted at 07:10 and by 08:15 we left Loch Eriboll heading east. The Coast Guard forecast at 08:20 implied Saturday and Sunday would be stronger winds, so we altered course and instead headed direct to Stromness in the Orkney Islands. Entry into Stromness is via the Holm Mouth, which has currents of up to 8kn and some shallow pinnacles in the narrowest part, which throws up some serious eddies. The Pilot Guide states that it should only be attempted at slack water, which would be at 19:30.
Enroute we spotted a minke whale and (for our first time) a pod of white-beaked dolphins.
We arrived off Rora Head at 14:45, just south of the Old Man of Hoy. The chart indicates that this coast has not been surveyed, so we had to keep a reasonable distance off, even though it has steep cliffs. When we passed the Old Man of Hoy we were recounting seeing the Chris Bonnington climb on TV, when we noticed a climber standing on the top of the rock, just visible in the photo below.
We then spent the rest of the afternoon slowly motoring along the coast until we could get in on the start of the east-going flow into Stromness. At the marina we were met by the berthing master, with a bundle of tourist information and details of the marina facilities – very friendly and efficient!
Saturday 29th was another lazy day – showers, laundry, cooked breakfast ashore and a wander around the town. We tried to hire another car for the following day, but the earliest we could get one was Monday.
So Sunday was another lazy day of sorts – except for writing up the Week 3 & 4 logs, which we e-mailed home, when we could get internet access.
On Monday (31st July) we picked up our hire car and started our tour around some of the 5000 year old Neolithic relics. This was our main reason for visiting Orkney – to visit their spectacular Neolithic, Iron Age and Viking ruins.
Monday’s tour started with the Standing Stones of Stenness, then a larger set of standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar and a chambered tomb at Maeshowe – all within a short distance of each other. It was obviously a very special area for the Neolithic tribes. And there are more ‘mounds’ identified and awaiting exploration in the area as well.
Part of Ring of Brodgar
After that we headed over to the west coast to the prehistoric village at Skara Brae, which ‘appeared’ out of the sand dunes after a storm in 1850. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the site was occupied from before 3100BC to about 2600BC. It includes a group of 6 interconnected houses, each with a near identical internal layout, and a workshop.
Then up to the NW corner of Mainland to the Brough of Birsay, an islet that has the remains of some Norse Longhouses and an early Christian church and also the ruins of Earl Robert Stewart’s castle onshore.
To finish the afternoon we drove around to the NE of Mainland to the Broch of Gurness, one of Orkney’s best-preserved brochs, from around the 1st century BC, and occupied by both Picts and Vikings. Whereas the broch on Lewis was a standalone structure, the broch at Gurness is surrounded by other dwellings, all linked by tunnels.
Finished the day eating fish and chips out of newspaper on a bench outside of the Lifeboat house.
On Tuesday we left Stromness and took the boat around the north of Mainland (Orkney’s largest island) to Kirkwall. Fresh S winds were forecast, so we opted for the shorter north-about route, rather than the south-about route through Scapa Flow and the Pentland Firth. The lowlight of the day was finding that the holding tank had overfilled and leaked, leaving the inside of the boat a bit whiffy! Why do high level alarms not work, when you need them? At Kirkwall Marina we found a berth well away from other boats and started the clean-up exercise.
Wednesday we familiarised ourselves with Kirkwall, starting with a cooked breakfast ashore, then visiting the Earls & Bishops Palaces, the St Magnus Cathedral and the museum.
Thursday we hired another car and toured around the east side of the Mainland, visiting the ornate Italian Chapel built by the 2nd WW POWs from two Nissen huts, drove down the Churchill barriers linking the islands on the east side of Scapa Flow, visited the Orkneyinga Saga Centre which told some of the Viking Saga relating to the history of Orkney during that period (my favourite Viking names were Ragner Hairybreeks, Eric Bloody-axe and Thorfinn Skullsplitter!!)
Then we had a tour around the Highland Park distillery to round off the afternoon.
With that we had seen most of the main visitor attractions on the Mainland. So on Friday we left Kirkwall after topping up with diesel, water and gas and had a short 3-hour crossing over to the harbour of Whitehall on the island of Stronsay, famed in it’s day for its herring fishing industry. We anchored off the pier overnight, had a quick visit ashore in Saturday morning and then left on another 3-hour trip to Pierowall harbour on the NW island of Westray.
At Pierowall we were met at the visiting boat pontoon inside the harbour, by a very helpful harbourmaster, who provided us with a guide to the harbours and marinas on Shetland.
On Sunday we went exploring around Pierowall on foot, and over to an adjacent beach that is supposed to have fish fossils in the layered rock – but didn’t find any. In the evening we treated ourselves to dinner at the Cleaton House Hotel, a converted manse, and feasted on a sea-trout salad starter and scallops for main course. Then back to the boat by taxi and early to bed in preparation for a 12-hour crossing to the Shetland Islands, weather permitting …….
On Monday 7th August the morning’s wind forecast of NW force 4-5 was still a bit too fresh for our 12-hour leap up to Scalloway in the Shetland Islands. In the harbour we were measuring F5 and anticipated the beam seas would be a bit on the rolly side for a long crossing. However the forecast predicted the wind dropping to variable force 3 or 4, prior to it becoming South 5 or 6, then SW 5-7 later. Hence there looked like a window of lighter winds before it settled into stronger southerlys.
On Tuesday we got up at 4am and the wind had dropped appreciably, so we cast off and crept out of the harbour as quietly as possible. We headed west around the south side of Papa Westray in the pre-dawn gloom and had a bit of a scare, when we passed a lobster pot marker about a boat length off and suddenly saw a long floating rope stretching out from it. Luckily we glided over it, without it catching the keel or propeller. We rounded the SW of Papa Westray and set a course for Fugla Ness, 66 miles to the NE, our first landfall in the Shetland Islands.
At 0605 the Shetlands Coast Guard broadcast the new forecast, which started with a Gale Warning ‘force 8 expected soon’ for sea area Fair Isle, which covers the area we were crossing. There were also Strong Wind Warnings for the Shetland and Orkney areas. Oh dear .. what to do??? How long would the light F3-4 winds last before the strong southerly winds built up?
With the swell already building, as we got past the lee of the land, we decided to err on the side of caution and turned around and headed south instead, back to Kirkwall to ride out the pending gale.
Once in the lee of the islands the swell decreased, making it quite a pleasant morning. We came down the east side of Eday and going through Lashy Sound, at the north entrance of the Eday Sound, we were registering a speed of the ground of 13.4kn with the tide behind us. Quite big upwellings at time, twisting the boat to and fro.
Coming south towards Kirkwall, we decided to go through the Vasa Sound, a relatively small gap between Shapinsay Island and a group of rocks marked with a perch. We lined up confidently as per the Cruising Guide recommendations and only started to get a bit anxious when two CalMac ferries behind us also turned for this small gap! The first overtook us prior to the narrows and confirmed to us we were aligned on the correct course. The second came steaming up behind, but swung off to starboard to pass on the other side of the rocks, through a second gap.
In the marina, the staff suggested we moored facing the west, rather than south, as the wind would swing into the west during the night and they were proved correct. The strong winds held off until the early evening, so with hindsight we could have made it over to Scallaway. But we were now safely tucked up in Kirkwall.
During Wednesday and Thursday the wind blew at F6-7, with showers and occasional rain. The wind veered into the NW and pressed us onto the pontoon during Thursday, giving us a bit of a list, and by Friday was down to F4.
There was a bit of excitement on Wednesday morning, when we received a Pan Pan message from the yacht that had been lying ahead of us at Westray. She was a charter yacht, which had engine problems whilst at Westray, and had had a mechanic working on it on Monday. While coming south on Wednesday the engine went on fire, resulting in the Pan Pan call. Over the VHF we could hear that two of the inter-island ferries diverted and stood by them until the Kirkwall lifeboat arrived. It turned out that it was just smoke, without a fire and they were towed in to our marina about an hour later by the lifeboat.
On Friday the forecast showed things improving and we stocked up with fuel and water and then left Kirkwall on Saturday morning at 08:30 for Wick on the NE coast of Scotland. To get there we had to choose our departure time to get through the String, a narrow tidal passage going east from Kirkwall. By the time we got there, the flood tide had just started and we carried it with us out to Mull Head and then down towards the Pentland Firth. The pilot notes advised a 3nm clearance around Mull Head, as there is always a north-going stream at the headland, which kicks up a steep sea and we could see the line of waves as we passed. From Mull Head we motor-sailed, with the jib adding an extra knot to our speed.
To avoid any adverse tides at the Pentland Firth, we kept 8 miles east of the Pentland Skerries, where most of the bumpy bits had died down. However there is an area of shallower water running SE from the Skerries and as we passed over it there was still quite a bit of up-welling. When abreast the Skerries we altered course to SW for Wick and arrived there at 16:00. En-route we passed a group of Risso’s Dolphins, which are much whiter than the more common varieties and they ignore passing boats – they just carry on feeding.
Wick is described as busy fishing harbour, but both the inner and outer basins were virtually empty. According to the Harbour Master, the recently constructed auction shed building that we moored up alongside had never been used. But they had good showers and toilets for visitors.
A walk around the town centre revealed a Weatherspoon’s pub – so we popped in for a meal and a few drinks. Cask-conditioned beer for £1.59 – amazing!
As the next leg to Inverness was going to be a 12-hour stint, we had another lazy day on Sunday, including another visit to Weatherspoon’s – which coincided with the Chelsea vs Arsenal match, although being Scotland they delayed it to show a Scottish Premiership game first.
So whereas the week started with a plan to go to the Shetlands, by the end of the week we were back on the Scottish mainland, starting our passage home.
On Monday 14th August we departed from Wick at 05:00. The early start was because it would be a 12-hour trip and we needed to arrive at Inverness with the last of the incoming tide, but more on that later.
It was a dull drizzly morning, with little wind as we motored out of the near-empty harbour and headed out sufficiently far off the coast to avoid any hazards and then followed the coast south. For the first 6 hours the tide would be against us, so our speed over the ground was around 5kn. By 0700 a N’ly wind had established itself, so we unfurled the genoa, which increased our speed to 6+kn and by 1000 the drizzle ceased and the sky started to brighten.
To fill the time gap between a very early breakfast and lunchtime and to warm us up a bit a cooked eleven’ses was required. A rummage through the tinned stores didn’t reveal any soup, so a tin of M&S Macaroni had to deputise instead. It was so filling, Maggie couldn’t manage any lunch later!
We crossed the Dornoch Firth to Tarbat Ness and turned into the outer part of the Inverness Firth, with the wind dying and the sun breaking through. Passing the Fairway Buoy off the Cromarty Firth we could see a lot of sea birds feeding and on closer inspection with the binoculars, we could see a whale (probably a Minke) coming up and rolling at the surface, obviously feeding on a shoal of fish trapped at the surface.
Looking up into the Cromarty Firth we saw several parked drilling rigs and at the construction yard at Nigg Bay, they appeared to be trial-erecting a very large wind turbine.
The remaining part of the journey up to Inverness is past shallow banks, well marked by channel red and green buoys. There is a pinch point between the lighthouse at Chanonry Point on the north bank and Fort George on the south bank. From there we crossed over the shallow Middle Bank and approached the road bridge at Inverness.
The bridge is across the Kessock Narrows with outgoing tidal currents of up to 6kn, but by keeping our average speed up from Wick, we arrived almost at HW slack water. As we manoeuvred through the twisting channel to align us with the mid-section of the bridge, a ship appeared on the other side of the bridge, together with a Pilot vessel. After squeezing over towards the shallows, we passed each other safely and motored past the entrance into the Ness River and on towards the entrance of the Caledonian Canal at Clacknaharry. As if to welcome us, a pod of dolphins appeared.
We arrived at the entrance to the sea lock at 17:00, which was just in time to get locked into the canal system and up as far as the Seaport Marina, where we pulled in and tied up.
On Tuesday we wandered around the centre of Inverness and then on Wednesday we moved on to Fort Augustus approximately halfway through the canal.
The lock-keepers advise boats when the next ‘lock up’ will take place. The first locks from Seaport Marina are the Muirtown Flight, three back-to-back locks. But first there is a swing road bridge, so the lock-keepers are keen to get the boats through with minimal delay to the road traffic. The locks are all manned and generally boats tie-up starboard side to and the lock-keepers loop your mooring ropes on to hooks as you come alongside. Going through the flights we found it easier for Maggie to stay ashore and walk the bow rope along between locks. After another swing bridge and a lock at Dochgarroch we entered Loch Ness. Loch Ness is about 1.5M wide and 22M long. There was low cloud and it drizzled the whole way down the loch, with the sides just a dark blur. We crossed over to the north shore to have a look at Urquhart Castle and then disappeared back into the gloom, checking our progress on the radar. Approaching Fort Augustus the rain eased. After tying up at the pontoon, we hoofed it up to the Bothy Bar to dry out and warm up a bit.
The following morning a lock-keeper came along to see who wanted to go up in the first lock-in. We decided to wait and go up later in the morning, in order to give Maggie a chance to look around this pretty village. However the next lock-in turned out to be reserved for a very large tourist vessel, the Lord of the Glens, and when we finally exited from the top of the flight it was close to 17:00. Although not in a hurry ourselves, there was much muttering from some of the other boats. The lock-keepers knock off at 18:00, so we only managed a small stretch of canal and through the next lock at Kytra before we had to moor up for the night. In Inverness we had bought from a butchers a couple of Cornish Pasties, with a highland twist. They were filled with strips of steak and haggis, and tasted very good.
Up and off early on Friday and we were soon up and into Loch Oich, the highest lock in the system at 32m (106ft) above sea-level. It’s a relatively small narrow loch, with a series of red and green buoys to mark the ‘no go’ shallow areas.
After a swing bridge and another lock, we entered Loch Lochy – the other long loch in the Canal system. There was only the odd spot of rain going down this loch and we had a better look at the splendour of the glens, albeit with the tops of the higher hills lost in the cloud. We arrived at the SW end of the loch at lunchtime and moored up at a pontoon, to wait for the end of the lock-keeper’s lunch break. Whilst preparing our own lunch a large flock of Canada geese landed in the pool beside us. Has the poor August weather caused them to start their winter migration early?
After lunch we motored onwards, through probably the prettiest section of the system – a winding, wooded canal section, until we came to Banavie at the top of the Neptune’s Staircase flight of locks.
On Saturday we took the bus into Fort William, to do the tourist look-around. Then on Sunday we joined a couple of large trawlers at 08:30 and went down through the eight locks making up Neptune’s Staircase. Then along the final length of canal, joined by another couple of yachts and out of the sea-locks at Corpach at 11:00.
The Caledonian Canal is very different from other ‘typical’ canals, in that it was designed for ships rather than canal barges and provided a route from the Atlantic to the North Sea avoiding the hazardous route around the north coast of Scotland. As we saw it is still used by commercial traffic.
Back out to sea, at the head of Loch Linnhe, we passed Fort William and then headed southwest towards the Corran Narrows, which we got through just as the tide was turning against us. The tide can get up to speeds of 5kn, but was only about 1kn as we passed through at 12:00. The sun was shining with a light head wind, as we continued down the coast towards Shuna Island, then inside of Lismore Island, via more narrows off Port Appin, and down to Dunstaffnage marina, just northeast of Oban.
Towards the end of last week, Maggie started to suffer the onset of a heavy head cold and after a very restless night’s sneezing on Sunday, we decided to stay in Dunstaffnage for a couple of days until she recovered.
On Monday 21st August I took the bus from Dunbeg, the village adjacent to the marina, into Oban – 4 miles away as the crow flies. Cough medicine for Maggie was high on the shopping list, together with sending off the Wk 6&7 log reports from an internet café.
Oban was as bustling as ever and full of tourists. It took a while to track down where the internet café was that we used on our previous visit in 2004, only to find that it had moved to another address on George Street. So a bit more walking around to find out where George Street was and then along George Street until I found it. Logs sent, then a quick review of the weather sites to see if the weather was likely to improve enough to let us do a bit more exploring west of Jura, before we headed home. But the outlook was similar to the first few weeks of August – wet and windy with no settled sunny weather in sight.
On Tuesday Maggie was feeling a bit better, having had better night’s sleep but we had another quiet day, while she downed copious amounts of Benelyn to clear up the cough. However we were both feeling a bit restless, so paid up our marina bill and got ourselves ready to depart early the following morning. During the night a frontal system was expected to pass through with rain and fresh to strong SE winds.
‘Wide Mouthed Frog’ restaurant top left and Marina Office tall building lower right
On Wednesday we were up at 06:00 and under way and heading out of the marina by 06:20. The rain had passed through during the night, leaving a dull overcast sky and the wind had swung round to SW – more or less on the nose.
We motored around and into Oban Bay and passed down the inside of Kerrera Island. Leaving Kerrera behind it took another hour or so to pass around Seil Island, the slate quarries on Easdale and then on to Fladda Lighthouse at the north end of the Sound of Luing. The early start was to ensure we caught the south-going tide through this narrow sound and as we passed over the shoal areas south of Fladda the GPS was registering a speed of the ground of over 11kn with lots of big upwelling swirls at the surface. With the strong spring tide behind us most of the away down the Jura coast we reached our destination at Craighouse at the SE of Jura by 13:10.
There were already a couple of other of yachts moored there, but there were still about 6 vacant visitor moorings available. We made for the nearest one and watched aghast as the reading on the echo-sounder gradually dropped to leave just 1m clearance below the keel by the time Maggie had our mooring line secured to the buoy. The bottom was clearly visible! A hasty check of the rise and fall of tide followed before we concluded that as it was close to low water it was safe to stay and switched the engine off.
Craighouse is a small place and from the mooring we could see clustered together the village’s three highlights – the Jura Hotel, the Isle of Jura distillery and the Jura Stores. We launched the dinghy and went ashore to explore and stock up at the shop.
The following morning we left at 08:50 for the relatively short hop down to Port Ellen on the south coast of Islay. It was a bright sunny morning, although still quite cold at sea, with a light SW wind. Off the Sound of Islay Maggie spotted a Basking Shark, so we had our second attempt to get some photos including this time some movie footage.
The shark was relatively small – about 6ft long – and swimming happily around just below the surface as we tried to manoeuvre Steel Pulse in close enough for a detailed photo. Unfortunately the sun was still quite low and behind clouds, so visibility down into the water was limited and the pictures weren’t quite up to Richard Attenborough standards.
As we carried on down to the SE corner of Islay the wind increased and it was quite fresh as we motored into it heading SW towards Port Ellen. As we had done previously, we tied up to one of the visitor’s moorings off the Port Ellen distillery, rather than go into the pontoons in the inner harbour, and set about preparing lunch. However there was a swell coming into the bay at about 45deg to the wind and the boat had a very uncomfortable roll. So after lunch, we decided to move into the pontoons.
Our next leg from Islay south to the N.Ireland coast would necessitate an early start to make best use of the flood tide to assist us on our way down the N. Channel. Overnight the wind had swung from W-SW around to SE, so was on our nose as we departed from Port Ellen at 06:00. Initially at F3, it increased during the day to F4-5 and although the wind was blowing against the tide the seas were not uncomfortable. But it was overcast with outbreaks of rain, which made it unpleasant.
After 3 hours we had crossed the shipping separation lanes NE of Rathlin and altered course for a way-point sufficiently west of Torr Head to avoid any overfalls resulting from the water spilling out of the Rathlin Sound. With the help of the tide we were travelling south at this stage at 8-10 kn.
As conditions were reasonably OK, we decided to head on for Bangor – the alternative was to go into Glenarm for the night. We carried the south-going tide as far as the Hunter Rock off Larne and then progress slowed rapidly as the north-going tide kicked in. We passed Muck Island at 13:00 and going down past the Gobbins we were only making 3.5kn against the tide. We passed Blackhead Lighthouse at 14:30 and arrived back in Bangor Marina at 16:00.
We tied up at berth E13, where we had been berthed prior to departing on the trip, and were met by Liz and Terry, who whisked us off home.
(Note the ski gloves – August weather!)
During the 8 weeks we covered a total of 1090 miles.
The weather was mixed. In July there were periods of still sunny weather, but the west of Scotland still caught passing frontal systems giving cooler, wetter, windier weather – whilst the rest of the UK was experiencing a heatwave. In August the weather was mainly unsettled, with prolonged windier periods – delaying us in the Orkney Islands to the extent we decided to forgo the trip up to the Shetlands.
The new boat was much stiffer than our previous Contessa 32. This made the boat motion more comfortable, especially for Maggie who didn’t need to resort to Stugerons at all during the trip. The increased length also gave us that additional living space, which made a prolonged stay aboard more comfortable.
Apart from the holding tank overflow (after which we got the high level alarm working again), the only equipment problems were with the VHF aerial and an eratic autopilot. We gradually realised that the muffled weather forecasts from Stornaway Coast Guards were being received clearly by other boats near-by. So we eventually switched to an emergency aerial mounted on a stanchion, which gave better reception.
Since we collected the new boat, we discovered that the autopilot was a bit temperamental and would start the boat yawing from side to side in widely increasing arcs. We were able to tame it by turning the gain down, but the problem needs a bit of further work before next year’s cruise – perhaps the compass is too close to the steel hull.
All in all it was a very enjoyable trip.