West Highland Yachting Week success is built on Argyll's rich sailing history
The Royal Highland Yacht Club was founded in Oban in 1881, and held its first regatta the following year. In those days yachts were generally much larger and required paid crews to sail them. Between the wars most leisure sailing craft had become smaller, less expensive and capable of being handled competently by their owners with help from friends and family.
In 1947 the Royal Highland Yacht Club, Oban Sailing Club and the Western Isles Sailing Club decided to combine their respective regatta events into a single six-day yachting extravaganza – the West Highland Yachting Week. Representatives from each club formed the Joint Regatta Committee, establishing an event management system still effective today.
The Race Team is responsible for course-setting, rules, times and results – a combination of accurate observations and calculations – achieved with help from the official boats stationed at the start and finish lines and racing marks. For many years the late Philip Preston, engineering supremo and former boss of Caledonian MacBrayne and Loganair, was a key member of this team. Philip is remembered as an unshakably cheery race official, even in the poorest and most challenging of conditions. He is sadly missed.
One of the characteristics of West Highland Yachting Week is its mobility. Feeder races from Gigha and Oban concentrated competing boats at Craobh from where this year’s series races in Loch Melfort started. In previous years other feeder races brought the Clyde fleet from Inverkip to Ardrishaig, and the Crinan Canal would be jammed with boats pushing to Crinan. Other feeder races over the years have included Bangor to Crinan and Oban to Crinan.
The passage race to Oban is one of the world’s great nautical spectacles – as many as 200 sailing boats of all shapes and sizes have been recorded crashing or ghosting up the Sound of Luing. After crossing the line, boats and crews are based in Oban and fill the bay and neighbouring marinas, and the town benefits enormously from this influx of happy, hungry and thirsty sailors. This year the crews were based in Oban for four nights in total and made a significant contribution to the seasonal uplift in business for restaurants, bars and shops. Food, drink and music are important and traditional elements of the event’s social scene, and a great way for local businesses and artists to get involved.
Racing out of Oban this year involved two class races in the Firth of Lorn. Sometimes, if tidal conditions allow, these races take place round the Isle of Lismore. Each course presents technical challenges associated with close inshore racing and famously changeable conditions, but the overwhelming impact of the beautiful and dramatic surroundings is what makes this event uniquely special.
The Oban to Tobermory passage race is another familiar fixture – sometimes a gloriously random scatter of boats all trying to find favourable wind and any advantage as they tackle the Sound of Mull. This year the fleet was berthed in Tobermory for two nights for class races and the start of the Tobermory to Oban return passage event. Crews always make the most of local hospitality in Tobermory and back in Oban for the prize-giving ceremony and party.
The success of this great event is largely dependent on the continued support of race sponsors. Between 1980 and 2009 Tennent Caledonian Breweries supported the racing and social events and laid the foundations for the Joint Regatta Committee to grow West Highland Yachting Week into an open international sporting event. This year’s sponsors were Argyll & Bute Council, Gael Force Marine Equipment, Malin Waters, Owen Sails, Thomas Tunnock Ltd and Tobermory Harbour Association. The event would not have been such a success without the support of Craobh, Dunstaffnage and Oban Marinas, HM Coastguard, the RNLI, West Coast Motors, Flit Self Drive and the Gigha Heritage Trust.
The organisers, sponsors and supporters are justifiably proud of West Highland Yachting Week, and competitors look forward to retaining titles or improving performances year on year. The communities on the changing circuit provide safe, welcoming and friendly experiences and provide fine showcases of the Argyll and the Islands holiday destination. The suite of facilities available to visiting boats improves every year, and destinations up and down the coast are developing appealing products and services to meet the needs of visitors arriving by road, rail and air.
In this series, The Oban Times’ resident Bodach (Gaelic: old man and, by experience, often a storyteller) looks through archive material for articles and pictures that preserve moments from the past. There is always a back story – and sometimes a future one.