Raring to go on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late July after journeys from all over the country, eight budding young sailors stood in Oban harbour beholding the good ship Skylark at the end of the pontoon…

Guest post written by Jamie Bailey

The first task after the arrival of the train carrying six of the eight members of the crew was to collect the food order from Tesco, about half a mile from the harbour. Fortunately my family holiday had brought me, and more importantly Dad and the car, to Oban as well, so he watched as the car was filled to the brim with shopping bags before driving the whole lot down to the harbour, saving us what would otherwise have been quite an interesting journey on foot, that or a highly unusual taxi ride. After emptying the previous crew’s thirteen litres of unconsumed almond milk down the sink and admiring the pretty patterns it made in the water as it escaped from the hull, we loaded up the yacht with our supplies in no time, and settled down for a good old chinwag: where are we going? Deciding that St. Kilda—a small archipelago about forty miles west of the Outer Hebrides—was a bit too ambitious given the forecast for fairly strong winds, we had our first meal aboard and then watched as the rain began and the wind and waves picked up, throwing the pontoons about like ribbons dancing in a breeze, which made trips to the toilet on the shore more exciting than they perhaps needed to be, especially given the lack of boats on either side for part of the way. Getting rocked in the boat would have sent me to sleep in no time had it not been for the constant clanging of the taut sheets against the mast echoing in the saloon.

Glad of our decision to remain in Oban overnight, we awoke at half past four so we could make it into across the Firth of Lorn and into the Sound of Mull before the tides turned unfavourable. We watched as the warm sun rose above the hills on the mainland, betraying little of the events of the previous night, although there was still a fair bit of wind. The sails were up immediately and they took us all the way up the sound, the wind dropping as we entered the shelter of Mull, before we practised some fender (read ‘man’) overboard drills with our gracious volunteer, Bob. We sailed on past Tobermory, wondering what the story really was, and around into the shelter of our first sea loch, Loch na Droma Buidhe, just off the entrance to Loch Sunart. There we had a hearty lunch before motoring on below the spectacular Ben Hiant and round Ardnamurchan Point, the coastline between the two making us wish we were geologists. Soon the south channel of Loch Moidart was upon us; we ventured in, past the proud-looking castle with an island all to itself, as well as about a dozen seals, and anchored up for the night. Dinghy McDingface was inflated (not before we turned the stern locker inside out trying to find it) and a group of us paddled to an islet in the middle of the loch, the water as flat as a millpond.

We were allowed a lie-in on the Monday morning. Or at least, half past seven seems like a lie-in when it’s three hours later than you got up the previous morning. Breakfast was eaten and the dinghy put away, and off we sailed... okay I can’t really gloss over that bit. The dinghy was hoisted up onto the foredeck and the two brand new shiny aluminium seats were sent back to the cockpit for storage along with the two oars, borne by my very own trusty hands. Unfortunately I have never had very big hands, so being a bit too ambitious and forgetting skipper Ti’s very wise rule of “one hand for the boat, one hand for the job”, I tucked one of the seats under my arm. I felt it slipping but had too much faith in my magic levitation abilities to stop and rethink, and as I clambered towards the cockpit it dropped and promptly slid into the loch. Ti was there instantly trying to reach for it, but after teasing us by floating on the surface for a couple of seconds it let go its final breath and plummeted to the seabed ten metres below. Oops. Lesson learnt.

After we’d gone to explore the north channel of Loch Moidart, and being very thankful that doing doughnuts in a loch doesn’t have the same lasting effect as doing them on a muddy field (although just as fun), the wind took us on a rather bumpy ride past the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck, which were magical viewed from afar, and on to Soay, a small island just off the south coast of Skye. We nearly made it all in one tack but decided to play it safe and head around the eastern side of Soay, deciding that would be preferable to running aground, and we anchored for lunch in a little bay on the northern side, the swell dropping right down as soon as we were leeward of the island. It was here we had a decision to make: head down to Rum for the night and venture up the eastern side of Skye in the morning, or carry on up the west coast, easily setting us up for the Outer Isles as well as a visit to the Tallisker distillery. In light of the gale that was forecast for the next twenty-four hours or so, we chose Rum over whiskey. However what we lost in whiskey was made up for in company when, after an awesome adventure up Loch Scavaig to see some of the Cuillin mountains and some very pleasant beating and later motorsailing south to Rum, we had a rendezvous with CUYC skipper Oliver Beardon aboard Yacht Alcuin, which he’d chartered for his Sail Britain summer programme. He very kindly gave us a lift to the island on his dinghy because he had an outboard motor which I think we were all a bit jealous of. He dropped us off and just before he disappeared back to Alcuin, he told us that “Chainsaw Dave” was eagerly awaiting us a bit further along the shore. We set off down the only road somewhat cautiously. The Isle of Rum measures about eight miles across but only about thirty people live on the island, making it one of the least densely populated of all the Hebrides. There’s an abandoned castle in the only village, Kinloch, and the post office-cum-community shop-cum-pub wasn’t much more than a wooden shack. There must have been more chairs in the pub than there are residents on the island! It felt timeless, as if we’d been transported back a few centuries, apart from the presence of a few cars here and there. It was the most incredible place, and I left with an even greater appreciation of the opportunity to come sailing in the Hebrides. To be able to island-hop and visit all these amazing places like we were doing isn’t something that presents itself to you very often.

I again volunteered to pack away the dinghy the next morning, and promised myself I would be much more careful with the oars and remaining seat this time. I brought the dinghy to the foredeck and with first mate Jack standing beside me I started to hoist it out of the water, but as I was lifting it the seat simply slid out of the sliders and fell down into the water. I hadn’t even touched it this time. I couldn’t believe it. It sank just as quickly as the other one had the day before. I didn’t recover from the astonishment all day, and the crew didn’t let me forget about it for the rest of the week! The gale wasn’t as strong as had been forecast, so we had a journey across towards Mallaig a bit calmer than expected. Fairly uneventful, we reached the mainland again late in the morning and sailed up the spectacular but squally Loch Hourn for lunch, but the weather turned while we were up there and the rain set in. Full up and having said hello to the dolphins, we headed back out into the 36-knot gusts in the Sound of Sleat and then up towards Kyle Rhea, where we fearlessly made ten knots with a little help from the tide, while watching seals use eddies to travel the other way. Now in Loch Alsh, we glimpsed Eilean Donan Castle and headed for the Skye Bridge, but beyond that we could barely see a thing the visibility had become so poor. We followed a bearing and anchored up at An Acarsaid Mhòr on Rona a couple of hours later. Due to the popularity of this particular anchorage, however, we spent the best part of an hour lowering and relowering the anchor (with the help of a very friendly seal) trying to find somewhere suitable for the night. After seventy miles of sailing, we finally settled down for our evening meal at half past ten.

With only thirty miles to travel on the Wednesday, the group went ashore in the morning (I stayed on the boat, too scared to face the dinghy) and climbed the 125 metres to the highest point of the island, Meall na h-Acarsaid. We set off just before lunchtime and hoisted the Yorkshire flag in honour of Yorkshire Day, making a certain Yorkshireman on board very happy, although we didn’t see it all day because we kept the same tack all the way from just outside Rona, past the stunning landscape of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula, near to which we sighted many ‘seaducks’ and ‘seageese’ (they probably have proper names too), past an undersea rock which gave us some exciting waves near the Shiant Isles, and eventually to a couple of miles off the coast of Lewis. We took down the sails and motored in and out of Loch Bhrollum for a little explore, which was again full of seals. Our anchorage that night was just inside the entrance of Loch Claidh, but Lewis being Lewis, it was really quite wet and visibility was fairly poor. We may not have set foot on the Outer Hebrides, but at least we had made it!

We still could hardly see when we woke up in the morning, although it had stopped raining. We waved goodbye to the Finnish neighbours we had acquired overnight and motored all the way up Loch Claidh, with (you guessed it!) yet more seals for company, and even some blue sky, which we hadn’t seen since Rum, but we hit more mist coming back out of the sea loch, as we saw a 965-foot German cruise ship disappear surprisingly quickly. Once we were a mile or so offshore, though, the mist cleared and it was quite pleasant. Interesting tidal phenomena fascinated us as we made our way back to the Shiant Isles, this time with the intention of stopping and going exploring. It was not to be, however, as we found two vessels already anchored and by the time we had found somewhere which might have been appropriate (and nearly lost the anchor in the process of doing so), the wind had picked up and so the not-so-sheltered anchorage wasn’t suitable anymore. The isles themselves though were a spectacle and a half: sheer rock faces rising out of the sea, with flattish grassy tops, and easily a couple of thousand seabirds, mainly puffins. Happy that we had at least seen them up close and gatecrashed the Hebridean Puffin Convention 2018, we began our final passage across the open sea to the Summer Isles. Unfortunately we discovered that the teashop on Tamera More, the largest of the Isles, was closed due to a “major construction project” whose nature was a hot topic of conversation over dinner that evening, that and who the mysterious Lizzy was that had answered the phone at the Tamera More ‘Tourist Office’ (“Yes, you could call it that...”). We observed a glorious sunset having climbed to the highest point on Tamera Beg before the rain hit the half of the crew that drew the short straw and took the second dinghy ride back to the boat. Skipper Ti braved the Scottish sea and jumped in (twice) though was out of the water again just as quickly, claiming that it wasn't so cold after all, but none of the crew were willing to follow this example ...

We spent our final morning exploring Tamera More, which is probably prettier in the sunshine than it is in the rain, where we discovered that they were building some holiday cottages. Bob made a final appearance for more man overboard drills, when more dolphins came to see what was going on, before we sailed jib-only up Loch Broom to our destination harbour of Ullapool, (not so) narrowly avoiding a collision with Caledonian MacBrayne’s Stornoway ferry. And what better way to round off a fantastic (if not a little damp) week of sailing off the west coast of Scotland than with a glass of smoky Scotch whiskey in the pub!

Cross-posted from the CUYC website.