Our passengers arrived in far-flung Inverness wired after stressful journeys by train, plane, car and donkey. Well, no not the donkey but the train proved problematic once again as the strikes had led to scheduling problems and it is a very long drive. They were soon settled in and talking ten to the dozen but not all on the same page. This was a less homogeneous group by age, gender and outlook. It was also to be the longest leg so we were already wondering how the group dynamic would evolve.
Diner served and all the guests tucked up in bed we did final preparations to set off through the Caledonian Canal , up the Muirtown locks at 09.00 the following morning. The weather forecasts were not great but thankfully the rain held off and by 09.30 we were through the first swing bridge and into the first of the 29 locks that separate Inverness in the east from Corpach in the west. These are all lockkeeper operated but like so many places they were short of staff and some stages of the canal were operating limited hours. Add to this the threat of gale force SW winds on our third day we were keen to make as much distance as we could in the first two days.
The Muirtown flight and two subsequent single lifts take you to the start of Loch Ness. This is very, long 26 miles and very deep, we clocked 230 metres under the boat, the deepest water we had been in so far. Somewhere down there was Nessie slumbering in the darkness of the brown peaty water but she didn’t dane to stick her head up for us as we passed. We made good time, passing an endurance swimmer on the same route who finished some time after us having swum for 11 hours in the chilly water.
Our first night was spent deep in the Highlands at Fort Augustus, a pretty town sited alongside a long lift of locks going up to the next stage of the canal. The guests headed off to the local pub to watch the Euro final between England and Germany, the later being supported by the Scottish locals to the disgust of the more conservative guests. The match ran to extra time, but they still made it back for dinner. Amongst the guests were a socialist pharmacist with a strong loyalty to Yorkshire, a well travelled and informed BBC news journalist, a retired IT executive and another journalist who had spent 30 years reporting on the EU, a mixture which sparked some lively debate on matters political and social.
We were quickly passed up the five locks into the upper stretches of the canal, through increasingly dramatic and wild scenery, along the beautiful Loch Oich, down the Lagan locks into Loch Lochy and on to finish day two at Gairlochy almost at the west end of the canal. Now we started to experience the staffing problems and the last ten miles and our final decent down Banavie flight, aka Neptune’s Staircase took another two days. This was a blessing in disguise as the weather had turned foul and strong SW winds and constant rain put a dampener on any outings and obscured the heights of Ben Nevis and the surrounding peaks.
By the end of day four we were back on schedule, moored in Corpach Basin, ready to lock out to sea and set off down Loch Linnhe the following morning . The weather had cleared up allowing some trips ashore, variously to pubs, castles and shops. The mountains were finally visible and the sun even showed its face for a few minutes. One small blessing was that we had got through the Highlands without being attacked by midges!
Awesome, amazing, spectacular etc all the superlatives are appropriate to describe the scenery as we motored on down the seaward section of the Great Glen, into yet another headwind. The waves were building in the Lynn of Morvern, so we zig zaged past Port Appin into the Lynn of Lorn. The staff shortage at Corpach meant they had closed the fuelling berth, the only one at the west end of the canal. We were getting a bit low and planned to head into Oban for fuel, but this is a frenetic port and in a strong wind Snark can be unmanageable in confined spaces so we opted to carry on and refuel at the next available stop. We continued west of Kerrera and we soon brought up in the magnificently named little rocky cove of Puilladobhrain. Seals basked on the rocks, numerous oystercatchers screeched around and the sun set majestically over the mountains of Mull, a perfect Hebridean anchorage.
It was also well placed for our next adventure, the passage through Cuan Sound, a narrow twisting passage that short cuts past the rocky and super tidal passage through the Sound of Luing. It is also a shortcut to the marina at Craobh with its much needed fuelling berth. The tides dictated an early start and after a couple of hours we had cleared the Sound and were heading down to Craobh Marina, not the easiest place to get into and eye wateringly expensive. We had paid 98 p/ltr. for red diesel a couple of weeks earlier in Peterhead Fish Docks, now we were hit for 152p for the same stuff. Even allowing for the difference in turnover the price differential is difficult to justify. When we budgeted the trip we planned on 70p and less motoring so the change has had a significant impact on the bottom line and will certainly effect next year’s pricing.
Topped up we set off down the Sound of Jura. Hugging the east side at first to stay well clear of Corryvreckan the notoriously dangerous tidal maelstrom, we motor sailed south. The wind was still stubbornly to much on the nose to help much but it was good to have some canvas up for a change. The scenery gets more stark and ominous as you heads south. The sound gets wider and you start to become aware of the influence of the Atlantic on the sea state.
Our next overnight stop was Lagg Bay on the Jura coast. A tiny little harbour which was once the arrival port for the post boat and packet to Jura. The single house in the glen was once the Inn, the venue for many a drunken brawl and the news and gossip centre of the Island. The wind cascaded over the Jura hills and swung us around but the holding was good and as the sun set behind the island a calm settled over the anchorage. By nightfall there was just one light visible in the entire landscape, an upstairs window in the old Inn.
The next morning we woke late and after a leisurely cooked breakfast weighed anchor and set off in search of whisky, Islay malt to be specific. The weather was getting worse and a slow slog head to wind eventually brought us past the Sound of Islay and down the east coast past Arbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig tucked in on the coast behind jagged rocks and tiny islands. We had intended to berth on the quayside in Port Ellen but it is a tiny harbour and one error would have us blown into the yacht pontoons down wind. So, we stayed in the bay outside Port Ellen with a force 6 gusting 7 sending streaks of foam across the water and anchored as close in to the windward shore as we dared. There was little shelter to be had and we swung back and for as the eddies of the wind swirled around the bow.
The persistent SWerly had created quite a swell outside the bay which refracted around the headland and entered the bay at right angles to the wind creating an uncomfortable rolling motion. Dinner was a fractious affair with significantly divergent political views coming to the surface. The mood was only buoyed up by the prospect of distillery visits the next day. Having said that one of the guests was a non drinker, another had had major cancer treatment which meant his stomach wasn’t up to taking spirits so only two were in a position to partake.
The next morning the wind had subsided a little so we launched Boo and loaded the four guests and the skipper onboard and headed of downwind in a typical Scottish har ( how do you spell that?) towards the port about a mile away. As we got further down the fetch the waves were building and fully ladened Boo was starting to roll a bit too much. The answer was to head closer to the shore and then land the passengers on the leeward beach with wet sandy feet all round. They headed off to the town and on to the distilleries. In the event only one was open and they charged £100 for the tour so the much-anticipated sampling was limited to a small shot or two before they headed back for lunch at the only restaurant in Port Ellen.
I motored back to Snark, bow up into the waves, spray everywhere and picked up Qiao so we could go ashore for some provisions and to stretch our legs. Boo was much happier two up and we made it into the town marina and wandered off to the co-op. it was Qiao birthday, and a mini celebration was in order, so provisions purchased we retreated to the Harbour Inn for tea and cake. One by one the passengers also arrived soggy and slightly disappointed by the lack of service at the three distilleries.
The group was split into two for the rather splashy return trip, the rain had stopped and the sun was struggling through. The two ladies decided they would have a swim so once everyone was aboard, I took them to the windward beach were the sea state was much calmer. Looking back, Snark seemed to have moved in relation to the adjacent anchored boat or had they? I rushed back to check the track on the chart plotter and we had in fact gradually dragged the anchor some way across the bay! Engines on and anchor raised we found the cause, the tip of the delta shaped Rocna anchor had lodged in a loop of old wire rope preventing it digging into the sand. The wire removed we motored back to our previous position and dropped it again, this time it held firm and in a dying wind we felt secure to sleep that night. The ladies were retrieved from the beach and a warming Thai curry was served to a less argumentative group.
The tides dictated a late start across the North Channel to Red Bay in Northern Ireland. The wind had gone but left a rolling beam sea coming in from the Atlantic. As we picked up the strong flood tide the seas lengthened and were slightly behind us sending us surging down the larger waves at 8 knots. A bit disconcerting in a flat bottomed barge. Still it speeded our way south and soon we were entering the dramatic bay set between high hills and cliffs. A similar beam send was running but this time the wind shifted around the hills and turned us stern too so we lay more comfortably for the night.
The forecast had promised a sailing wind for the last day but in the end there was none. We motored down past Larne and into Belfast Lough over a glassy sea. A couple of dolphins made a brief appearance to cheer up the passengers. Ten days with only one period of sailing was disappointing for some guests and to be honest to us as well. Not only were we using more diesel than we intended at considerable cost but we were not really fulfilling our sustainability agenda of sailing as much as possible. The passage plan dictates the need for certain distances to be covered each day and tacking into a head wind was not going to achieve that. We wondered if we had chosen the wrong way around but circumnavigators who were heading the other way complained of the same problems. Maybe it’s just how the wind nymphs tease us presumptuous humans who encroach on their domain.
Belfast is a busy port and we had to wait a while for ferries and bulk carriers to turn and exit before we could pass the terminals and head in to the Titanic Quarter and the little marina next to the new arena and Harland and Wolff’s now empty ship yards. The overtly symbolic Titanic Museum rather strangely celebrates the biggest disaster of the yard rather than the thousands of successful vessel launched there over centuries of shipbuilding.
Belfast seems more at peace with itself than when I visited many years ago. That said one of the passengers decided to go for an evening jog up the Falls Road to see the murals and came back rather chastened by the very visible poverty and dereliction in the suburbs and the sense of foreboding that permeated the still divided city. More on the strange qualities of the city centre of an evening in the next blog.
The passengers disembarked and heading off for the airport to fly home. Yes I know, despite our encouraging sustainable travel they all escued the ferry back and settled on the quicker and for some cheaper option of the internal flight. As with the sailing / motoring issue, pushing the sustainable travel agenda is full of potential problems in our time limited world. Slow travel is fine if you haven’t got plans or commitments, or a cat to get back to.
It might seem this was a less successful leg but it was just different. The lack of group cohesion was more than offset by the amazing scenery and adventures we had on route. By and large the guests left with there expectations fulfilled and plenty of tales to tell.