Sheevra’s Scottish West Coast Cruise

Jonathan Wallis (photographs by Hugo Wallis)

In 2007 we went south to Harwich to find the sun, and found a deal of rain and wind. Clearly we did not go far enough south. So in 2008 we decided to turn left and head for Scotland on the grounds that it could not be much worse and at least we would have the whisky as compensation.

Delivery trip

On a Thursday evening in early July we filled up with fuel and provisions and left Blyth for the attempted delivery trip to Inverness. The first night was pretty ghastly due to a confused swell and headwind. Andy the GP, George the son, Alex the university friend, and me the skip all took regular turns with the bucket as we motor sailed across the Forth. The swell subsided as we closed Bell rock and everyone appeared somewhat cautiously on deck nibbling the obligatory ginger nut biscuit. We turned north east, heading up the coast, until wind and tide turned together against us at 1700 and we took refuge in Montrose. The harbour was very friendly if not adapted for small yachts with shiny topsides. We can recommend Bombay Delights in the pleasant town centre. The onion bhajee was particularly good. Leaving early the next morning we had a better than forecast slant on the wind and enjoyed a close fetch in an offshore NNW past Stonehaven and Aberdeen. As we approached Peterhead the wind was averaging 24 knots true and we were about to leave the shelter of the land. I rang my personal router and forecaster for an update from windfinder. Oh she says, it’s due to go down over the next two hours and should be very pleasant before long. Buoyed up by this valuable information and with three hours of tide to run in our favour, we waved carelessly at Peterhead and pushed on to Rattray Head, expecting some small increase in the wave height. The wind quickly showed what it thought of internet forecasts, though Andy said, later, that he wouldn’t have missed the waves for anything. As the Yorkshireman alongside us in Fraserburgh said later that day, ‘There’s rough and there’s Rattray’. By the time we had tied up, eaten the lasagne and green salad thoughtfully provided by my personal nutritionist, and explored the uncertain delights of the town it was midnight and the thought of a 0400 start was unappealing. We agreed a 0630 start at which time the wind had died and the swell had abated but it was soon clear that we could not make Inverness in time for our planned hire car back home. Alex and George were in no hurry and fortunately Andy was not returning to work until Tuesday. I phoned work, booked a car for the first thing in the morning and we had a not unpleasant day drying out in weak sunshine over a glassy sea. Plans to anchor off Fortrose a few miles short of Inverness were scuppered by an unexpected breeze rising quickly to F5 from the SW, so we pushed on to the town. There was nowhere suitable to moor in the harbour which is undergoing a facelift so we came alongside the jetty by the sealoch tempted by a large Beneteau already there and seemingly comfortable. The piles slope but fendering was easy enough and the loch keeper arrived way after closing hours to welcome us and give us a key to the facilities and promise us an early transit the next day. Excellent service. Unfortunately I miscalculated the tide and failed to leave adequate scope on the springs. The fairlead was repaired before breakfast and we were through the lock and tied up at Seaport marina by 0900. Andy and I were on our way shortly after and back at work that afternoon.

Days 1 & 2

The next Friday evening we reversed the car journey with the family (Elizabeth or Lulu 12yrs, Hugo 16yrs, William 18 years, George 20yrs, Pippa and I) to begin the holiday proper. The canal was attractive and easy enough.

Fort Augustus

Fort Augustus on a peaceful Saturday evening

The crowds of hire boats of lore, careering into each other were not apparent and the lock keepers were cheerful and friendly. Perhaps there is something about the rythyms of a canal that calms the temper. Or perhaps not because at Corpach on Sunday night an almighty family row blew up out of nothing. Corpach is a small village with two late night shops which proved very handy. It is difficult to pursue an argument too far if one of the parties is insensible.

Days 3 – 5

We left the next morning together with a small tug from Glasgow who had followed us through the canal. They had been working on the Inverness harbour scheme and were now heading home, a sort of diesel Para Handy. We carried the tide through the Corran narrows and a gentle breeze came up. A few miles to the SW we dived behind Shuna island and through Shuna Sound for a bit of interest, and exited the other side. A buoyed passage to the south was easy enough to follow once the small red and green cans had been picked up but we noticed that our electronic charts thought we were on the rocks.

We had heard rumours of another Swan 36 in Dunstaffinage at the south end of Lismore and took a detour there to find not only the swan, Scherzo, but her owners, Ian and Jennifer, and a spare berth on the hammerhead. We poked around each other’s boats picking up ideas. The differences were surprising, but after 40 years a fair bit of alteration is I suppose to be expected.

Scherzo lying in Dunstaffnage Marina

Scherzo lying in Dunstaffnage Marina

The Indian takeway in Tobermory

The Indian takeway in Tobermory

From there the tide was now favourable for the sound of Mull and we joined a large number of boats under spinnaker, now in the rain, in some sort of race. By the time we reached Tobermory the moorings and pontoons were packed. We tried to drop a hook in the specified anchoring area but the depths were 15m and at the third attempt with no holding, the crew declared themselves fed up with pulling up 50m of chain and half the kelp in Scotland. A further approach to the pontoons found the berthing master who kindly allowed us to tie up between two of the slimmer craft on the finger pontoons. An advance party was sent to the town and lighted on the cheerfully decorated Indian restaurant. Inside were none other than the crews of Golden Otter and Airstrip both of RNYC. They were finishing, so a distinctly Scottish takeaway was brought back to the boat. We devoured the starters and asked where the main meal was to be told that that was it. George (eldest) and I removed ourselves to the Mish Nish for a jolly couple of hours music and beer again finding the Jenkins. You can’t get away from RNYC.

After a rainy morning we decided to head north and set off in the soft Scottish mist that might easily be mistaken by a foreigner for driving rain and thick fog. Rounding Ardnamurchan we had a glimpse only of the point and the beautiful Sanna bay but soon picked up a pleasant offshore F4 and bowled along to Loch Moidart. The entrance is narrow and rock bestrewn but the pilot makes it sound easy. Now untrusting of the electronic charts in less recently surveyed areas, we crept in holding our collective breath and, past the rocks, breathed a sigh of relief and motored slowly around the wooded island further up the loch to anchor close to Castle Tioram. This is built on a small island connected to the mainland to the south by a causeway. Holding was good and we enjoyed the dramatic wooded cliffs and slopes of Ardnamurchen to the south and Moidart to the north. Altogether a sombre but beautiful anchorage on a rather grey night.

Castle Tioram

Castle Tioram in Loch Moidart, taken from the bows

On Wednesday morning the tide demanded an early start and George and I rose early and crept out, this time taking the northern channel which was a little better than the southern route we had entered by. Free from the rocks George determined on mackerel for breakfast and quickly caught 6 of the smallest mackerel known to man. Sardines would have been a generous term. They were promptly returned to the depths and hopefully will be big enough to eat in a year or two should anyone pass by there with a rod or tackle. A gentle beam wind took us on to Muck and as we turned north up the sound of Rum the sun came out and was to stay out for most of the next 6 days. This is regarded as a lucky break in Scotland. In addition, as we were told later , it had been so dry in the far north west that the midges were late. Tubes and tubes of Avon Skin-so-soft lotion, reputed to be the best thing since the ice age for deterring midges, went largely unused.

In the Sound of Rum (it lost its ‘h’ in 1991, having previously gained it, so my Encarta reading son Hugo told me from the navigation station, because the former owner in Victorian times did not fancy being known as the Lord of Rum) the wind picked up to give us a glorious run, the mountains emerging from the clouds to port. I looked at them longingly but was outvoted and we pressed on to Canna. Rounding the northernmost tip of Rum, chute down, our Imray chart C65 placed casually in the cockpit was lifted by a sudden gust of wind and taken overboard. I was quite pleased by the speed of turn and accurate positioning of the boat, but as we passed, George hanging down between the guard rails, we saw the chart shimmying out of our reach beneath the waves. That decided it, we had to go north.

Canna was quiet with only two boats at anchor, and, after four attempts to get holding in the kelp, three. By that evening there were about 10. Elizabeth, Hugo and I climbed a small hill with a lovely view of the anchorage and the mountains of Rum whilst George sketched, William visited the two chuches dreaming of singing madrigals and Pippa sunbathed on board. Next to us was a lovely Bowman Corsair, about 43 feet and looking very powerful. According to the owner only 19 were built. It looked very roomy compared to Sheevra. Tempting.

Canna Harbour

The anchorage at Canna. Left, from Compass hill, with the mountains of Rum in the background, and right, from the slipway looking west.

Canna Harbour

Canna Harbour

Days 6 & 7

We left early the next morning planning to go up the sound of Sleat but the wind was easterly and not as forecast so we turned north up the western flanks of Skye, passing the brooding Black Cuillins encased in morning mist. This year we invested in AIS which interfaces with Seapro navigation software on the boat’s PC. Suddenly the screen was filled with little green ship shapes appearing on the vhf horizon. By clicking the mouse on the shape it is possible to bring up full details of the vessel, including vessel type, speed, size, destination etc. Rather surprisingly they all turned out to be sailing ships of over 100 feet heading for Malloy. It dawned on us that we had stumbled into the middle of the tall ships race from Liverpool to Norway. As we approached the fleet, loosely spaced around Ness point on Skye, the wind dropped to nothing and we turned the motor on. Hugo’s pictures of Etoile and Pelican of London show the beauty of these lovely ships, sails hanging limp in the airless noon.

Etoile

Etoile

Etoile

Etoile

Pelican of London

Pelican of London

Pelican of London

Pelican of London

Atlantic coast of South Harris from Clisheam

Atlantic coast of South Harris from Clisheam

The tide now turned in our favour and rather than stop at Dunvegan as planned over breakfast we decided to press on for Harris, arriving through the rocky but reasonably easy entrance at teatime. We anchored at East Loch Tarbert where there were plenty of evening entertainments (well one pub and one inflatable pub/celidh, a sort of Scottish bouncy castle with alcohol). Local salmon and scallops at the pub were subtly flavoured and quite delicious, and considerably better than the faux French cuisine (rubbery fish drenched in Campbell’s lobster bisque soup) that we were served at a Stornoway hotel restaurant a few days later. The house white wine was delicious and two bottles later we ambled back to the dinghy, Pip and I arm in arm for additional stability. It was the effect of stepping on land after several days afloat we explained. An expedition by bus and foot took us up Clisheam (2400m) the next day. The views were good though misty. On return we visited the Harris tweed shops and splashed out on what will undoubtedly become the Gosforth fashion must have for Pip, a sort of shorty jacket in purple tweed, and a more conventionally coloured (cow pat) jacket for me.

Days 8 & 9

George is convinced that the tide tables had been personally printed by me to explain why it was always necessary to make an early start, but as we slipped under the Scalpay bridge, taking the northern route out to the Minch it was a particularly beautiful morning. Shortly after breakfast 14 knots came up from the south west and we hoisted a spinnaker for an unforgettable run up the coasts of Harris and Lewis to reach Stornoway at 1400.

Sheevra

Sheevra leaving Scalpay and North up the Minch

Leaving Scalpay and North up the Minch

Leaving Scalpay and North up the Minch

We paid a visit to the Callanish stones in the afternoon, our taxi driver giving us local insight into life on Lewis.

She also informed that nothing is open or happens in Lewis on a Sunday so we set off for the mainland the next day as soon as the morning mist cleared from the harbour. After an hour or so under motor the wind came up abeam and we hoisted the cruising chute and roared into Loch Inver to meet some friends on a golfing tour. They took us to a pie shop in the centre of that charmingvillage where we had the first multi pie take away in family history. My vension and broccoli was delicious, as was the blackcurrant and apple together with a large tub of icecream. A chat with the HM revealed that most of the fishermen arriving with catch were French, Spanish or Faroese. He, a fisherman himself, said the indigenous industry had fished the area to near extinction on the back of guaranteed prices, often bringing back rotting catch only fit for cat food. When some revival occurred for the deeper sea fish, licences were granted for those with a track record. These were all foreign boats. As if to order a French trawler arrived unshipping crate loads of langoustines.

Days 10 & 11

Sheevra

Sheevra

The next morning we planned to stay and climb some local hills (Suillvan looked tempting, but Quentin tells me that the walk in and back is further now than when he was young. I remember doing it aged 25 and perhaps it is as well I did not attempt a repeat). The weather forecast off the internet at the newsagent and fishing shop in the village (very handy) suggested a reasonable day followed by strong easterlies. We needed to get around Cape Wrath, the chart for the return to Caledonia canal having been consigned to the depths, and the pilot books ominous warnings about Cape Wrath were nagging away at my confidence. A quick decision was made to set sail before a nasty swell built up and we were soon heading out towards the Point of Stour.

We did not see the Old Man of Stour because rather unexpectedly we became encased in thick mist. We pushed on, under motor, comforted by the AIS showing no shipping. Fishing boats rarely show on AIS but they do show up at ¼ mile looming out of the mist. He was laying some sort of net or pots and called us up on VHF to warn us of slowly sinking lines. As he called we saw the line beneath us and slammed her into neutral. Luck was with us and we slid over. We called the fishing boat back and he kindly looked on his radar and was able to confirm that there were no other vessels on his screen within 12 miles. George then emerged from the companionway graspingTom Cunliffe’s yachtmaster bible. Tom says he starts, I do not want to know what Uncle Tom says I bellow, Tom says he continues that in fog you should slow down to a snail’s pace, head inshore and ‘stooge about’ in the shallows until the mist lifts. Uncle Tom did not have a itinerary to keep to. Nor for that matter did we, but I was confident we would soon be out of the mist and shortly after the horizon began to clear and Handa Island hove into view. The fog was hanging thickly around the shore and I promised Uncle Tom and all his adherents, of which there were several among the crew, that we would put into Kinlochbervie if even a shred of mist remained. As we headed North, bit by bit the coast emerged and soon we could see the fabled cape ahead. There was something awesome about the jagged rocks below the high cliffs, and the feeling of endless seas to north and west. A little out to sea the swell broke lazily over the Duslic rocks that were clearly visible.

Cape Wrath

Cape Wrath

The sea was calm and we headed between the cape and the rocks and turned east with a close fetch to Loch Eriboll. The entrance was beautiful and we ghosted up the loch to anchor in sunshine on the south beach of Ard Neakie. William went fishing and soon had several fine mackerel, George headed off on a photography expedition, and Hugo, Elizabeth and I stooged about in the shallows in the dinghy just in case the mist came down.

Ard Neakie in Loch Eriboll. Sheevra and a fishing boat in the southern bay

Ard Neakie in Loch Eriboll. Sheevra and a fishing boat in the southern bay

Ard Neakie in Loch Eriboll. Sheevra and a fishing boat in the southern bay

Ard Neakie in Loch Eriboll. Sheevra and a fishing boat in the southern bay

Leaving the Loch the next day it seemed less idyllic in the grey mist. We set off for Hoy and Stomness in a forecast of 4-5 easterly. It was on the nose and I am ashamed to say we motored under main alone for a good part of the day. Approaching Hoy and dodging rainstorms the wind began to rise and I asked George to check the CCC pilot regarding the sound of Hoy. ‘ Entry should not be attempted .. with wind against tide..’ it advises, warning of vicious overfalls. I could see Uncle Tom’s ghastly presence looming over us. The tide was now at full strength, albeit neaps, and the wind was up to F6 form the SE, ie, directly through the sound against the tide. I did not wish to go to Scrabster, nor did I wish to go 20 miles north to Eynhallow sound and Kirkwall. We called the HM at Stromness and the Shetland coastguard without reply. Then from the sound emerged the Hallenvoe ferry on route to Scrabster. How was the tide and overfalls we enquired. The tide is 4 knots and there are no overfalls he replied in a soft Orkney/Norwegian lilt. He was right. The sea was flat and the tide whisked us in to Stromness. We tied up besides none other than Golden Otter.

Days 12 & 13

A days rest in Stromness after four days passage making seemed in order. Myself, William and Hugo took the ferry over to Hoy but I was rather unnerved to see almost every visitor in the marina including Derek in Golden Otter, heading off for Kirkwall via Hoy sound. We had a delightful walk across the island returning to catch the lunchtime ferry back. George, Elizabeth and Pippa had spent the morning clearing up the boat and did not seem to appreciate our prompt return. We can however strongly recommend the Stromness hotel for supper.

Flotta at dawn, oil refinery flare to the right and tanker to the left.

Flotta at dawn, oil refinery flare to the right and tanker to the left.

At 0230 the alarm went. We motored out in the dark keeping inshore out of the contrary, and turned into Scapa flow. The sea was flat and eerie flames floated above the oil refinery on Flotta. The light soon came and shortly after 0500 we edged out of Long Hope into the Pentland Firth. Following the pilot’s instructions we headed west on the last of the ebb towards Aithe Hope. But the tide had turned earlier than predicted and the eddies were strong. Stroma seemed a long way away in the mist, and so we headed out early into the middle of the Firth. Comparing the SOG and log speed, the tide in the middle turned to the minute forecast. There was barely any slack. One moment we had a knot against and the next a knot with. Stroma and Swona seem like sirens, trying to suck you into their eddies, but GPS is a wonderful thing and soon we were making 11 knots SOG and were spat out around Duncansby head, the wind picking up to F3-4. The seas around Duncansby head, though we were well out, were lumpy and we cut the motor and set off on a port tack making roughly due south. The windincreased and we took in two reefs with the number three and still made 6 knots as long as we did not try to beat too close. It was a glorious sail and as evening approached we were clearly heading for Whitehills on the Inverness coast. I would have prefered Peterhead but it was not to be. The entrance to Whitehills is tight, but the HM, David, met us on the pier riding his bicycle and piloted us in, it being low tide. I had noticed on the AIS, as we approached, a class B vessel lying in the harbour. He was one of a Swedish pair of boats heading home, and I was pleased to find that he had seen us approaching despite being behind a high stone harbour wall and both his and our AIS ariel being pushpit mounted. The coastguard VHF does not reach there but it seems that AIS VHF can leap concrete walls at a single bound. Impressive.

Days 14 & 15

Whitehills is very welcoming and has excellent facilities. Pip particularly enjoyed making use of the laundry room. We shall make a beeline for there on our next trip north. The easterlies remained but the tide was in our favour for the morning only, so we set off at 0900 to go round Rattray. All went well at first. Then off Fraserburgh, scene of the scuffed topsides on the journey out, the forecast easterly F4 arrived and the sea became a bit lumpy. OffCairnbulg Briggs just to the east of Fraserburgh is a large trawler sitting upright on the rocks. A sort of warning to all who pass. We pushed on to Rattray, itself in the drizzle. No one was quite sure when it happened, but suddenly we realised that we could see no more than 2 to 300 yards in the murk. By now we were sailing and listening for the occasional throb of engines, but none came close. We called up Peterhead and asked permission to enter and whether there were any vessels about to mow us down. They were most helpful and I think could see us on AIS. Grampian Explorer is leaving shortly they said. 30 minutes later Grampian Explorer was still hanging around having let go its mooring but not eager to make way. TheHM explained to all who cared to listen that Grampian Explorer were a law unto themselves. Finally they left and he invited us to enter. We saw the north pier at about 100yds and slipped inside and headed for the marina. Almost as soon as we did the cold front came through and the fog cleared. We tied up in bright sunshine alongside a very smart 1950s 45ft steel cutter called Witte Raaft from Holland. She was lovely and crewed by husband and wife only. A quick visit to the granite faced library with internet connections (very helpful staff and a copy of 2008 Macmillan’s on the shelf) gave us a detailed wind forecast for the night. It was now Friday and we needed to be back by Sunday. The tide would turn at 2100 and so we left at 1900 with the promise of headwinds for 6 hours but a beam reach across the firth if we could get far enough south west by the morning. We knew it would be lumpy coming out of Peterhead but did not expect it to continue so far south. A most uncomfortable night. We sailed for 3 hours but from then on it was motor until we slid into Newton at 1900 on Saturday. Some good friends in their cottage entertained us that evening.

Sunday, Day 16

A peaceful night at anchor with Tina Louise and Tenko. We spent a quiet morning before the tide turned and we headed off for home. Finally we had a favourable westerly and we tied up in Blyth at 1700 on Sunday night.

We spent more time passage making than exploring but it came with a sense of achievement . Rounding the magnificent and awesome Cape Wrath (even the streetwise teenagers were wide eyed) was perhaps the high point of the sailing, although on that particular day you could have sailed round in an Optimist. Otherwise the evening at anchor in Eriboll will stand out in all our memories.

The Crew

George, the navigator.

George, the navigator.

Pippa, mending the ensign.

Pippa, mending the ensign.

William, in characteristic pose on his bunk.

William, in characteristic pose on his bunk.

Hugo, the photographer.

Hugo, the photographer.

Lulu, the cheerful one.

Lulu, the cheerful one.

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