He­brides cruise

Afloat at last, Sam Llewellyn takes his re­fur­bished Dahlia on her maiden voy­age among lochs, moun­tains and minke whales

Practical Boat Owner - - Contents -

Sam Llewellyn sails from a boat­yard in Skye to the lagoon at Ar­di­namir

Last year I bought a heavy ketch that had been sit­ting in a yard on Skye for what the seller said was five years, but I sus­pect was eight. Dur­ing the win­ter and spring we reengined her, re­moved a layer of green slime and black­ish Burgess Wood­seal, re­placed the run­ning rig­ging, ap­plied mea­sure­less gal­lons of paint and var­nish, and filled note­books with to-do lists, some of whose items ac­tu­ally got done. The electrics were shot. They could wait an­other year. I wired up a Nasa sounder and a VHF, and bought yet an­other Camp­ing Gaz lamp for heat and light. We were ready to go.

The launch­ing tech­nique was to sus­pend the boat in slings on a vast hoist, af­ter which the yard’s mildly ec­cen­tric boss towed the whole gi­gan­tic works, which I came to think of as VFS (for Vis­i­ble from Space) on to a long flat beach at low wa­ter. VFS was then parked and left pend­ing the ar­rival of the tide while the lucky owner, viz. me, de­voted him­self to prayer, fast­ing and the weather fore­cast.

The prog­nos­ti­ca­tions for launch day at first spoke of a brisk northerly, bring­ing 6ft walls of wa­ter rolling down from Ice­land and slam­ming into the project boat as she hung in the slings. Prayer, how­ever, paid off, or per­haps the fore­cast­ers had been drink­ing. When the great day dawned, there was no breeze of any kind.

Out I strolled onto the beach, lad­der over my shoul­der, and climbed aboard. The tide came in like a sheet of green glass. I mus­tered the large car­rots I had brought as bungs in case of sea­cock fail­ure, but not a trickle of wa­ter came aboard. The en­gi­neer who had put in the new Beta engine ap­peared as the wa­ters rose. The thing started with the do­mes­tic purr of a sew­ing ma­chine. Off came the slings. The deck came alive un­der­foot. And we were away, slid­ing past the perch on the nasty lit­tle reef and into the charm­ing wa­ters of Broad­ford Bay.

When I bought her, the boat had one of those names com­pounded of their own­ers’ Chris­tian names (Sid­dor, it might have been, for Sid and Doris). I had changed it to Dahlia, af­ter Ber­tie Wooster’s stout but sport­ing aunt. We in­formed the sea gods of this de­ci­sion, and tipped half a bot­tle of Te Bheag, Skye’s favourite whisky, into the og­gin to ce­ment the deal. Hav­ing com­pleted the engine checks, the en­gi­neer and I took the boat along­side Broad­ford Pier and pol­ished off most of the re­main­der.

The tran­si­tion from project to cruis­ing

boat can give you an in­sight into the thought pro­cesses of Baron Franken­stein and other re­an­i­ma­tors. Dahlia was now a boat, alive, and al­ready show­ing signs of per­son­al­ity in the shape of a vi­o­lent prop­walk to port. I spent the night along­side the stone quay, and next day set off across an empty blue sea for Plock­ton. The moun­tains of Ap­ple­cross rose on the port bow, and the light­house mark­ing the ap­proach chan­nel glided by to star­board. It was time to prac­tise pick­ing up moor­ings.

Dahlia weighs in at about 7 tons, so it was no bother to en­gage neu­tral and let her carry her way some 50 yards up to the buoy. Hav­ing done this a few times with­out wrap­ping up I rowed ashore and walked round the pe­cu­liarly beau­ti­ful vil­lage in a sort of smug trance. Dahlia seemed to be be­hav­ing. The engine was good. The sails went up and down, and the roller jib, which had shown a ten­dency not to un­roll, had yielded to a good drench­ing of PTFE spray on the top swivel. Away we went off the moor­ing next day, full of con­fi­dence, head­ing for the Skye Bridge and the long blue road south.

Run through the moun­tains

There was wind, and un­der the bridge, tide. Dahlia ham­mered her nose up and down, sub­du­ing the chop by sheer force of char­ac­ter, or per­haps weight. A swift run round the Co-op, handy for the pon­toon out­side the Kyle of Lochalsh Ho­tel, for gro­ceries; and down the tide we went on a dead run, hang­ing a right into the gut of Kyle Rhea, where the tide whooshes through the bot­tle­neck be­tween Skye and the main­land. The moun­tains rose to port and star­board. The wind dropped, but the tide had us, and away we went past Glenelg and Sandaig, where Gavin Maxwell lived with his ot­ters, into the Sound of Sleat. We shot past Loch Hourn to port and Isle­orn­say, home of Te Bheag, to star­board. The houses

of Mal­laig rose ahead, and we put down the helm, head­ing into Loch Ne­vis.

Many peo­ple love to go to Ne­vis be­cause of its pub. I have a sen­ti­men­tal af­fec­tion for the place not be­cause of the pub, which in the end is only a pub, but be­cause my grand­mother was born there, and be­cause there is a de­cent an­chor­age to the west of the moor­ings off the ferry pier, pro­tected by rocks above and be­low the wa­ter. Dahlia was reach­ing briskly into the en­trance, and I was ad­mir­ing the steady plough of her progress through the sea, when I no­ticed a dis­turbed pale-brown patch fine on the star­board bow. A touch of the wheel brought us to­wards it. It looked like a whale, or pos­si­bly a shoal of brown­ish fish. When it was per­haps 20ft away I re­alised that it was nei­ther, and was in fact a rock. Cold sweat burst on the body. I put the helm hard up. We roared head-to-wind. When I looked at the pa­per chart I saw a fly-speck that said Bogha Cas Sruth. I had been nav­i­gat­ing, if you can call it that, by Navion­ics on the plot­ter, and Navion­ics had shown only a patch of un­threat­en­ingly shal­low wa­ter. I felt a deep sym­pa­thy for Ves­tas, the Volvo Ocean Race boat wrecked on the Car­gadas Cara­jos shoal in the In­dian Ocean on a reef that did not show up at the lev­els of zoom used by the nav­i­ga­tor. Curs­ing freely, I en­tered the har­bour, dropped an an­chor, cooked a nour­ish­ing repast of black beans and chorizo, and nod­ded off with the uneasy sen­sa­tion that the maiden voy­age had come within feet of be­ing the fi­nal voy­age as well.

Go west

Rais­ing Dahlia’s orig­i­nal an­chor, an enor­mous CQR, would have been un­nec­es­sar­ily dif­fi­cult. I had there­fore re­placed it with a Ko­bra II, which held the bot­tom as if con­creted in and was about half the CQR’s weight. This came up eas­ily the next day, and we headed out to sea, reach­ing again, stick­ing pretty close to the south­ern shore of the loch, guar­an­teed haz­ard-free. The tall quays of Mal­laig came abeam and dropped astern. We jinked to avoid the Ar­madale ferry and pointed the nose at a long, low shadow that lay across the wa­ter to the south: Ard­na­mur­chan.

Ard­na­mur­chan is the west­ern­most point of the British main­land, and is a penin­sula with a pretty foul rep­u­ta­tion. In less mech­a­nised days boats round­ing it were en­ti­tled to wear a bunch of heather in their cranse irons. Nowa­days it causes less panic, as it lacks the tidal hor­rors of, say, the Mull of Kin­tyre or the Lizard. Still, there are no­tably fewer boats north of it than south of it, and on a bad day the light­house at its tip can seem just about glued to your beam.

To­day, the ap­proach was promis­ing. The breeze was dy­ing as we passed the dis­tant white-sand beaches of Mo­rar, and by the time we were off Ari­saig, which with a big wind over a big tide can be a sav­age cor­ner in its own right, it had died com­pletely. I rolled up the jib, started the engine, dropped the mizzen, and saun­tered on to the coachroof to drop the main. The engine hummed un­der­foot, and Dahlia demon­strated that even with­out an au­topi­lot she would hold her course while her ship’s com­pany made a cup of tea and fried up some eggs and ba­con.

As the day wore on, Ard­na­mur­chan’s hills turned from grey to green and the wa­ter to oiled silk. The idea was to get round the point and turn left for Tober­mory, the boat cen­tre of this part of the West Coast. As the light­house came abeam, though, this seemed un­nec­es­sar­ily timid, be­sides bring­ing us into con­tact with large num­bers of peo­ple, some­thing to which we were feel­ing an aver­sion. Some­where in the high-pres­sure murk ahead lay Coll, an is­land I had never vis­ited. So in­stead of turn­ing to port, we gave the wheel a hint of clock­wise and shaped a course for Ari­nagour, its prin­ci­pal set­tle­ment.

Sur­prise wel­come to Coll

The low is­land con­densed out of the high-pres­sure haze like a black-and-white pho­to­graph de­vel­op­ing in a dark­room tray. Ahead in the still, grey wa­ter, some­thing rolled: a black back, humped, end­ing in a hooked fin. A minke whale. Sud­denly there were three of them, rolling and breath­ing and div­ing, and rafts of shear­wa­ters, and a flight of geese on its way to Mull. I watched, cheer­ing and hold­ing my breath by turns. And fi­nally there was the green buoy at the en­trance to Ari­nagour, and a charm­ing vis­i­tor’s moor­ing, and low white houses against a green hill­side.

Coll is flat by Scot­tish stan­dards, so it is a good place to go for a walk, af­ter which there is an ex­cel­lent pub with a vis­i­tor’s book for vis­it­ing yachts. A woman in the only shop was com­plain­ing of a vi­o­lent pain in the bot­tom right-hand side of her stom­ach. It sounded like ap­pen­dici­tis, and most of the pop­u­la­tion of the is­land gath­ered round, sug­gest­ing she call the doc­tor. She seemed in per­sua­sive hands, so I left, rowed the dinghy out to Dahlia, and fell into a heal­ing slum­ber.

Tober­mory is a bit of a shock af­ter the peace and quiet fur­ther north. By So­lent stan­dards it is pretty much a one-horse town. But there are shops, mul­ti­coloured houses over­look­ing the har­bour, the leg­endary Mish­nish Ho­tel full of hard­drink­ing yachties, pon­toons and plenty of diesel. There is also a chan­dlery, and down the road from it the inim­itable Brown’s, which sells a large va­ri­ety of iron­mon­gery and an even larger va­ri­ety of whisky. Here I re­plen­ished the stocks of Te Bheag and whip­ping twine. Af­ter dis­cus­sions with the kindly har­bour­mas­ter and a com­edy in­ter­lude pre­sented by a small man try­ing to park a big mo­tor cruiser in a cross­wind, I re­turned to Dahlia, filled up with diesel, ne­go­ti­ated with­out ac­tual dis­grace a slalom of tourist boats, and re­tired to a moor­ing.

Next morn­ing I left the seething me­trop­o­lis, pass­ing un­der the bows of a cruise ship so gi­gan­tic it filled a large por­tion of the har­bour, and in­jected Dahlia into the Sound of Mull, an­other of the wa­tery trav­e­la­tors in which the West Coast spe­cialises. The wind was in the north. Down came the mizzen. Dahlia com­ported her­self de­cently goosewinged with­out a whisker pole. And into Locha­line we sailed on the first of the flood.

So­phis­ti­cated Locha­line

Locha­line used to be a wild­ish spot, with a mine pro­duc­ing sand used in the man­u­fac­ture of so­phis­ti­cated op­ti­cal kit, and at Ard­tor­nish at the loch’s in­land end a gar­den that closely re­sem­bled the for­est primeval. It has now gone so­phis­ti­cated, with handy pon­toons in­shore of which are some of the most lux­u­ri­ous show­ers on the West Coast, and guided tours of the sand mine. The vil­lage shop a short walk from the pon­toons has plenty of good stuff, in­clud­ing a pi­ano which shop­pers

are en­cour­aged to play. Next to it is the White­house, a restau­rant that reg­u­larly wins awards, and you can see why. At Ard­tor­nish the house, a mon­ster of Vic­to­rian gothic, has been turned into hol­i­day flats; while the gar­den has re­ceived a good go­ing-over and is now a beau­ti­fully-man­aged jun­gle. I an­chored off the boathouse and bought fresh veg­eta­bles from the kitchen gar­den to ward off scurvy, whose first signs were not mak­ing an ap­pear­ance.

Armed with a bun­dle of chard, I rowed back to the boat and cooked a din­ner that was as healthy as it was dis­gust­ing. Next morn­ing, Dahlia took the first of the ebb out into the Sound. Ard­na­mur­chan was a dis­tant mem­ory, to be dis­missed with the light laugh. Ahead lay the soft and tree-girt lands of Ar­gyll, not to men­tion its fe­ro­cious tides.

It started off kind and easy, with a light breeze. We ghosted down the ebb at 3 knots over the ground; Dahlia is by no means a light-airs boat, and (it seems) only re­ally gets go­ing in Force 3 and above. On we went. The wind dropped flat. I fired up the engine. Duart Cas­tle, much fre­quented by James Bond and Chi­nese coach tourists, rose swathed in scaf­fold­ing on the star­board bow. As we moved out on to the Firth of Lorn, it looked as if it would be an­other bor­ing mo­tor to Eas­dale and Cuan Sound, the next tidal gate.

Then far ahead I saw a sail: not a main­sail sheeted in, as if an engine was ham­mer­ing un­der it, but a main­sail and a jib bashed over twenty de­grees by what was un­doubt­edly wind. The oily sur­face of the sea was sud­denly frosted with tiny rip­ples. The rip­ples joined to make wave­lets, and mov­ing air cooled the face. I hauled the wheel down to star­board un­til the burgee flut­tered dead fore and aft. Up went the mizzen, to keep us weath­er­cocked. Then on to the coachroof to haul up the main, and back into the cock­pit to ease out the jib. The engine came off, and in the thick si­lence that fol­lowed we were sail­ing, heeled at a de­cent an­gle, and the only noise was the en­cour­ag­ing roar of the wake and the flut­ter of cour­tesy flags against the belly of the main­sail.

Trim. Ad­just so the mizzen was giv­ing drive but not weather helm. Hands off the wheel, and the nose stayed due south. The wind was ris­ing now, Force 4ish, and the deck was canted un­der­foot, and this boat that had been a mouldy hulk in the yard all those years was fresh and bright and alive, tear­ing a white groove out of the sea as the wind and the tide took us full-and-by down the Firth to­wards Insh Is­land and the flooded slate quar­ries of Eas­dale.

In­side Insh Is­land the waves were wind-over-tide steep and the wind fun­nelled, head­ing us. But Dahlia crunched her way through the seas. One tack, two, and the chan­nel be­tween Eas­dale Is­land and the main­land was open­ing. Crack sheets. Roar past a red perch with the seas heav­ing brown weed at its base, then a green perch and the nee­dle-thin chan­nel past the ru­ined pier, ham­mer with the tides across the bay and into Cuan Sound, blasted across the top of Lu­ing at 10 knots over the ground. A sort of hand­brake turn round the point op­po­site An Cleitach rock with its perch, and shoot into the ed­dies swirling op­po­site the tower of Ard­maddy, smooth and blue and shel­tered from the breeze by the is­land of Torsa.

At the south­ern end of Torsa, barely mov­ing now, we gin­gerly threaded the two perches on the rocks guard­ing the en­trance to the lagoon at Ar­di­namir, put up the helm, and ghosted across the an­chor­age to­wards the red cat­tle pad­dling off the beach un­til the sounder read 3m. Down went the an­chor with a roar of chain that echoed off the rocks. Down went the sun, and down came the twi­light over the is­lands and the sea. Dahlia was a fine cruis­ing boat, a project no longer. To­mor­row would be the Cri­nan Canal, and home.

On to Broad­ford beach to join the ship

Ard­na­mur­chan is the most west­erly point of Bri­tain. Be­yond are the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck

Dahlia poised for launch, pro­vided she can find a way out of ‘VFS’

Tober­mory is a bit of a shock af­ter the peace and quiet fur­ther north

Ar­di­namir: the cat­tle have seen it all be­fore, but the day is hot and the sea is cool

Left Coll is flat by Scot­tish stan­dards

right A walk ashore gives a bit of per­spec­tive to the hurly-burly of tober­mory’s shiny newish pon­toons

ABOVE Ar­di­namir. The an­chor­age is get­ting crowded

RIGHT Mo­tor­sail­ing BE­LOW Ev­ery­thing seems to be work­ing as Ar­gyll rises from the sea ahead

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