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