Cruise accounts

 

 

A sailing canoe cruise on the south West coast of skye

We set off from the beach at Glenbrittle with a forecast that promised three days of fair weather with a 10-15 Knot N or NE wind. This meant that we should be on the sheltered side of the island with offshore winds, and hence have relatively flat sea conditions. However, with the 3000ft high Cuillin mountain range coming right to the shore along this section of coast, we might expect some gusts. The plan was to sail round to Loch na Cuilce, at the head of Loch Scavaig and camp there, where the river runs out over the rocks from Loch Coruisk. The Cuillins form a horseshoe around this loch with its mouth facing South to the sea. We planned to spend a day climbing the Dubh slabs up to the main ridge at Caisteal a Garbh-choire before finally returning by canoe again on the third day. As a yacht anchorage, our destination has the reputation of being very prone to squalls. Yachting literature abounds with tales of what a dark and forbidding place it can be. There is no road, no habitation, just you and the mountains. Eric Hiscock, that well known world cruiser of the 50's, once had to unreeve all the running rigging from his gaff rigged yacht while at anchor there, to avoid her being laid flat by the gusts. On our previous visit, 25 years ago, my wife and I had arrived by tripper boat from Elgol. We camped, but the next day the weather had turned foul and it was clear that the boat would be unable to return, may be for several days. Climbing and walking prospects were poor, given the low cloud base and pouring rain, so we had little alternative but to walk back out , 14 miles, along the coast across the "bad step" carrying all our gear.

Starting on the beach at Glenbrittle

On this occasion, it was proving a hard job to get all our walking and scrambling gear into the canoe as well as full camping kit and food for 3 days.

Off Rubh an Dunain

I like to stop off and stretch my legs every couple of hours, especially on a sea passage. Our first stop was hence made just around the low lying headland of Rubh an Dunain. Here there is an improbable short section of canal with low rock walls, reputed to date from Viking times, which links a small low level lochan to the sea.

the entrance to the viking canal Viking canal

It might have been fun to try and canoe through the canal at high tide, but unfortunately it is now too choked with small rocks.

After lunch, we headed slightly offshore to the low island of Soay, famous for an ancient breed of sheep said to survive by eating seaweed. soay We took another break on Soay. From here the wind became progressively more gusty as we got into the lee of the high mountains. We had to take down both the foresail and the mizzen as the precise direction from which the next gust might come became harder to predict and there was a significant risk of being caught aback. We continued to advance slowly using the paddles, just trying to hold our position during the strongest part of each gust. an inlet on Soay The Coullins from canoe

Just beyond Ulfhart Point we took another break on a very stony beach, in the shelter, directly below Gars-bheinn, which forms the SW end of the horseshoe. It was now late afternoon and, although it was nice and sunny, looking out at the sea state and the one or two yachts we could see, it was clear that, around the point we would meet the full force of the N wind concentrated by funnelling down Loch Corusik between the mountains, almost directly towards us. I was sure that the wind would be too strong for us to paddle against it for two miles. I was not at all confident that we would be able to make sufficient progress to windward under sail either. My fallback plans were, either to reach across the wind to the beach at Camus Fhionnairigh where there might be some shelter below Sgurr na Stri which forms the SE end of the horseshoe, or , if the worst came to the worst, to run back round the point and camp where we were.

With the rig snugged down to reefed foresail and full mizzen, we headed out to see how bad it really was. The wind was about force 5, rather too much for a sailing canoe with 45 sq Ft of sail, but I did not think we would get far to windward with less. Fortunately it was at least blowing in a more constant direction here. The sea was covered with white horses but , as the fetch was so short, the waves were quite small. With both of us hanging right out we seemed to be able to keep the canoe upright enough, except in the strongest gusts. We battled on for a long time on Port tack but were taking in too much water from the breaking wave crests. Bailing was difficult as both of us were needed out on the sidedeck unless I spilt a lot of wind. Heaving–to would have resulted in a big loss of ground to leeward. Both shores were too rocky for landing.

Loch Scavaig map

I was on the point of abandoning our goal, but we had actually made a good distance to windward and, what's more, the wind seemed to be changing direction slightly in our favour as we got further in towards the head of the sea loch. It seemed a pity to give up without a fight. As we got further in, the gusts became stronger. It was no longer possible to spill enough wind, as the boom of the foresail dragged in the water. My only hope was to pinch up to the wind and try and hang on to the tack long enough to bring us in to the shelter of a small hook of rock called Rubha Port Sgaile, or failing that a small rock island just off the cliff opposite the "bad step". This course meant going very close to windward of one of the many isolated rocks in this part of the bay; there was also the risk that, by pointing so close to the wind, a gust would catch us on the lee side of the sail, and cause an instant capsize.

We made it into shelter before we foundered and where able to bail out and mentally regroup for a final couple of tacks to take us up behind Eilean Glas to arrive, near low water, on a mass of seaweed covered rocks below the outfall of the river. Here we were welcomed with tea by some sea kayakers who had been watching us with apprehension, wondering whether or not we would make it.

the canoe at the head of loch scavaig camping at the head of loch Scavaig

Loch Corusik and the head of Loch Scavaig from the Cuillin Ridge at Caisteal a Garbh-choire


A SAILING CANOE cruise in company AMONG the western isles

Diana and Rushton Princess at anchor near Siel Sound

I had long been inspired to make an expedition by sailing canoe among the Western Isles off the Scottish coast. I had read “Quest by Canoe” by A.M Dunnett and followed the fortunes of its two idealistic young Scottish nationalists, Alastair and Seamus as they made their way from the Clyde to the Isle of Skye, sometime in the 1940s, in search of the true spirit of Scotland. I had also read an account of an outing by the Clyde Canoe Club in 1874, following a similar route, up through Seil Sound, under the Atlantic bridge and the Sound of Mullbefore running down to Iona.

Despite the constraints of work andchildcare, an opportunity finally presented itself. Greg, a free spirit who had given up his job to go cruising, and with whom I shared the ownership of a small yacht called Diana, would be at Craobh Haven. William, a tall Scotsman with a huge head of black hair and looking somewhat like a Scottish version of Jeremy Clarkson, said he was keen to come on a canoe adventure.

A map of the route taken

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The author night paddling in Seil SoundIt was pitch black when the alarmclock went off. I can’t say I was much looking forward to it at that moment, but the tide would not wait. The morning was surprisingly cold for June, with a light North Easterly land breeze. We tacked up towards Seil Sound in the canoe, with the last of the flood tide in the dying wind. In the dark it was hard to make out exactly how much progress we were making or if I had the best tacking angle. William concentrated on keeping the canoe upright, warmer than me in his thick balaclava.

When Alastair & Seamus had come this way, they had got separated, running hard before “roaring gusts” of wind on the edge of being able to cope. Alastair had dropped his sail but lost sight of the other canoe. He feared the worst might have happened to his friend. In the dark, I couldn’t make out the small bay into which his friend had been driven.

The Atlantic Bridge in sight at lastWe were falling behind time. The tide was already slack. Down sail and out paddles. “sail when you can and paddle when you must” was Warrington Baden Powell’s advice to sailing canoeists, back in the golden age of the sport between 1860 and 1900. After interminable effort the hump backed arch of the Atlantic bridge finally came into view.

Where the piers of the bridge constricted the flow, it was all we could do to hold our own. A superhuman effort got us to the quieter water and a grassy bank just beyond the bridge. We felt we had passed the crux.

 

A quick rest and a view of dawn's first light, just beyond the bridge in Seil Sound

The tide gathered pace against us. In the first light of dawn William nobly shouldered the bow warp to act as a tow horse which was the only feasible means of making progress to Puilldobhran. Out in the Firth Of Lorn, the sun rose and with it the wind. We reached across towards Mull and made our rendezvous with Greg who had sailed and motored round through Cuan Sound in Diana. William and I were both very glad to burrow down into the warm cabin and have some hot tea.

Out in The Firth Of Lorn

 

The mountains of Mull

  

   

Tobermory is a fine little town, with multicoloured houses spread along all the waterfront of its sheltered harbour, which is hidden behind the small low lying breakwater of Calve Island. By the end of October Alistair & Seamus had been stuck here for quite a few weeks. The weather was bad, and they had struck up a friendship with two girls from the MacDonald family farm on the small island. They had finally found the community spirit which was the avowed purpose of their quest, and perhaps found out something about themselves as well. We were fortunate in that William’s uncle owned a fish farm in the bay and had agreed to provide us with a mooring buoy for Diana to use during the coming summer. He had engaged a diver to connect a warp to the anchor of one of his fish cages. Our plan was to go to the town first and meet up with friends and relations and hopefully enjoy ourselves for a day or so. With the anchor down near the small boat moorings, we rowed straight ashore. While we caught up with all William’s family gossip at the fishmongers, and I made a visit to the chandlers for a warmer jacket, undertook provisioning, bought steak from the butchers and enjoyed the hustle and bustle of civilization, unnoticed, Diana took the ground. Ignominiously, we were stuck in full view of the town for the rest of the day.

Diana aground ignominiously in Tobermory harbour

We further disgraced ourselves that evening. We all had a good meal onshore, with perhaps a little too much to drink. I motored Diana over to the far corner of the bay with the canoe in tow, to pick up the new mooring. We wanted a quiet night, away from the prying eyes on the town quay. Having tied on, I reversed back as I would when anchoring, in order to be fully satisfied that the boat was securely attached to the seabed. Greg said “you must remember to stow that autohelm ram right against the back of the cockpit coaming or it will catch on the tiller”. I responded that I had, but that it must have shifted when I motored back on the mooring. A minor argument ensued. To prove my point, I went ahead and then motored back again, more sharply, using most of the available throttle. The bow lunged down into the water then popped back up like a cork. The mooring had parted at the seabed. We never did notice if the ram had moved.

 

From Tobermory we were bound for Loch Sunart. More fine weather. Greg got off to a flying start in Diana. William and I were somewhat slower to leave, but we both reached out across the Sound Of Mull with a fine quartering breeze. Halfway across, I was rather desperate to relieve myself. This is something which is tricky to do while sailing boisterously in a sailing canoe. Right in the middle of the Sound, there is a small bald rock called Little Stirk, rising just above the water. On a rough day , larger ships would be well advised to give this a wide berth, but for us, it presented the ideal toilet stop. Having said that, it was rather hard to gain a purchase on the smooth surface and prevent the canoe being swept past.

William about to gain some relief on "Little Stirk" rock

After this we settled down to a fast reach to overhaul Diana. In the right conditions, the canoe can be surprisingly nimble. The sense of speed is enhanced by one’s eye being so close to the surface. It feels as if you are skating over the water. Although it feels alarmingly unstable when you first get in, once wind is in the sails, balancing the boat becomes second nature. The beam is so narrow, that only small movements are necessary. Man and canoe become one, like riding a bicycle.

The canoe sailing on Loch Sunnart

 

Greg sailing Diana into Loch Sunnart

 

Rushton Princess sailing in Loch Sunnart

That evening we made a fire and barbecued the steak.

 

In 1874, the three intrepid adventurers of the Clyde Canoe club had been undecided as to whether to continue North round Ardnamurchan to Skye or back towards the South around the top of Mull and down it’s West coast. As the weather was good, they pressed on and left Tobermory in the evening. “The whole population seemed to have turned out to see us start”. A long night of paddling and confused navigation by the light of waxed matches, brought them into Loch Cuan. The next day “ A stiff breeze from the North had sprung up”. This settled their direction Southwards towards Staffa. When they got there they had the courage to canoe right into Fingal’s Cave.

“To get to the head of it without being smashed by the billows as they came thundering in required some sharp practice, but it was managed. The noise was tremendous and a ducking was enjoyed while backing out again through the waves as they came fair over the stern”.

Rather them than me! We decided to head round the North end of Mull ourselves, but for a more sheltered anchorage.

Coming into Ulva Ferry from the Northern end, with a following wind and the sea heaping up behind you was unnerving. The clouds were low and held a sense of foreboding. All the channels between the islets looked indistinguishable and too narrow, between the tall rocks at low tide. All looked as if they had a blind end. Running dead before the wind is the hardest point of sailing in the canoe. Although there is no great force tipping you over, neither is there anything predictable to lean out against in order to balance the vessel. It seems best to sit low down in the bottom of the boat, but one must be ready to spring up onto either sidedeck at short notice if required. Fortunately the channel we chose was not a cul-de-sac. After a sharp turn and avoiding a rock, the water became smoother. By the time the ferry itself was reached, the water was like glass. You felt you could touch the multicoloured seaweed on the bottom. Diana was at anchor somewhat beyond this, just off a steep gulley, down which mangled and rusting cars had been tipped. I find it strange that people are prepared to ruin such a pristine, natural, location with their rubbish. William, however, must have liked the place. Unbeknownst to us then, he would, in future years, buy an abandoned stone barn near here and rebuild it as a fine house, with a view out towards the outer Hebrides

The next day William and I felt like a break from sailing. We put on our climbing boots instead and made a traverse of Ben More, Mull’s highest mountain.

William on the summit of Ben More

Greg, who is always happiest pottering on the boat, towed the canoe behind Diana, round Ardmeanach and met us on the Loch Scridain side. As we strode down in the afternoon sun, we could see him working his way up the loch far below. Out in the distance, we could also see Iona, our ultimate destination.

 

Iona has a magical quality. One could imagine that this was the last resting place. Nothing might exist beyond Iona, as far as the eye can see, to the Western horizon. In the strong yellow light of the slowly setting sun, the rocks off Fionnport take on a pinkish hue. Although we had arrived, I wanted to keep sailing on and on, exploring the rocks and islets until the moment when the sun finally set. Of course, when it does, you wish you were already cosily arranged for the night.

Sunset over Iona

The provisions had now run very low, particularly the bread. The most plentiful ingredient for a meal was smoked trout. We still had two packets of this, a free gift from William’s uncle in Tobermory. Hence the meal was to be cold smoked trout, made into sandwiches thus: two pieces of trout on the outside smothering a small slice of lemon in the middle.

From here, Rambler, Monsoon and Lark the three canoes from the Clyde club had returned on board the ferry Dunvegan Castle, with their canoes stowed inside the ship’s lifeboats. For us it was back to Oban and put the canoe on the car, leaving Greg in Diana to explore Skye and the outer Hebrides on his own for the rest of the summer.

The Canoe on the car ready to go home

 

An abridged version of the following account was published in Watercraft No 74 (March/April 2009)