Jonathan Footerman continues to sail the Scottish coast on his journey to circumnavigate the UK in a mini-yacht.
Author’s Note: Taken from the thirteenth chapter of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman.
In the Hebrides, there are endless miles of coastline to explore at leisure, like Polynesia with plaid instead of grass skirts, which is about as similar as they get. Regretfully I missed them, exiting the Caledonian Canal further south in Loch Linnhe; in any case, a UK circumnavigation would only allow time to sail quickly past. Linnhe runs into the Firth of Lorn past the islands of Jura and Islay, of peaty whisky fame. I was planning to slip inside Jura to the Mull of Kintyre, and Macca’s lyrical mists rolling in from the sea. It is a long tongue of land on the West of the Firth of Clyde, and I would take the Crinan canal across its neck to emerge above the Isle of Arran where I was invited for a week’s rest in a real bed. A storm blew overnight but we left in the morning in dead calm beneath a still hostile sky. I was sailing my 21-foot yacht Elektra with Alastair in his 27-footer, a man with the generosity to share his lifetime’s experience of solo sailing. We had eight hours before the next weather system, and headed 35 miles to Dunstaffnage, another ruined castle above sheltered pontoons. The bay is protected by Eilean Mor, meaning big island. (Eileans are to Scotland as Cathies are to California.)
About 10 miles down, the current rushed Elektra through the Corran Narrows at 7 knots, snaking through overfalls above a rocky sea-bed. Careful planning is vital. The lochs run south-west into the Atlantic and tides swirl around the lochs and islands. Single figures sound unthreatening in our era of high-speed transport, but the ebb was doubling my motor speed through a gap of about 250 metres: an adverse current and a cross-breeze could have taken me onto the rocks in minutes. Another 10 miles and the loch divides around Lismore island, the inside passage dotted with islets (elevation is needed for a good photo: from the boat they merge into one.) With a clunk, my outboard picked up a mass of seaweed. It took fifteen minutes to clear, and I flooded the motor trying to restart. Alastair came to the rescue. If we missed our ‘tidal gate’, we would have to wait out the flood for 6 hours with another cyclone on the way, so he towed Elektra until the motor dried out.
We were overhauled by a dozen yachts racing in case they had to raft up or berth inconveniently. I don’t get it. Do they want to be on the outside where they can cast off without notice, or inside where others cross their decks when they like? There was plenty of room on pontoons further from the facilities but people will spend fifteen minutes cruising a mall car park for a space near the entrance. I find the pettiness mystifying on a yacht, Captain Ahab obsessing on a carp. Don’t they notice the spectacle of the water and coastline? Having quit the ignominy of professional life, I resent the small-minded at sea and wish they’d go draught a divorce settlement somewhere dry.
A current was running along the finger berths. Yachts moving slowly between the rows risked being pushed sideways onto boats already berthed. Since nobody likes running that gauntlet, the berths filled up from the outermost. Turning upstream onto a finger, the current would slow the boat and maintain steering across the rudder, so those spaces also filled first. Turning downstream would point the cabin entrance into the weather unless you reversed in. So a large yacht decided to reverse between the lines and into a downstream berth at the end, to be nearer. We hung back to watch a display of masterful yachtsmanship… but sadly no. She got to the end, discovered it was too tight with the rudder at the front, and started to motor out. The current took her off in an instant and she smacked into the bow pulpits of two berthed yachts. Who’d have thought it? We berthed further away, facing the wind which came up overnight and shut us in the next day. Alastair was heading off to the Hebrides so we parted in a gap in the weather, enough for me to hop down to Oban.
Mid-July on the Scottish west coast and for all my praise of stoicism over the weather, I was fed up with endless low pressure systems and un-sailable conditions, still hoping for a bit of summer. It was not to be. In the 1880s, a gale brought the sea over the nearby isle of Easdale, flooding its slate quarries. I had been dogged by those same south-westerlies from Dunbar on the east coast. The marina-man found me a sheltered spot beside Dasler, a 29-foot Sadler that I had seen on the east coast, and I went on board for tea. I like the Sadler, with foam in a double hull making it virtually unsinkable. Space is lost, but I am only one person in body, however plural I may become in mind from too much time alone. Note to self: don’t read this note aloud!
The Oban marina is on the island of Kerrera connected by a shuttle ferry to the town. One of the ferry-men threw in a line and pulled out a large Pollock in thirty seconds, a fine family meal as I remarked. “What, this?” No, the Pollock was going into a lobster pot, and he would have something better for the weekend. Good idea: I bought a dressed crab from a stall on the quay. Oban is a popular resort overlooked by McCaig’s Colliseum-like folly, a shell left unfinished when he died. As I strolled, everyone’s attention was caught by a sea-plane smacking the water. It looked great, the sort schoolboys of my generation would doodle in boredom during a translation of Caesar in the Gallic Wars. It flies in from Glasgow to its own pontoon. The old giant on the quay looks downcast by the technology, forlorn in the Firth of Lorn.
The Royal Yachting Association teaches you always to plan a refuge in case the unexpected happens. My usual choice was to anchor in the nearest shallow bit or go back the way I came. But I spent more time on tide tables for the Crinan route than any other leg, because of the Gulf of Corryvrechan, the ‘cauldron of the speckled sea’, the washtub for the great plaid of the hag goddess of winter, and the third largest maelström in the world. George Orwell misread the tides off Jura and was shipwrecked on Eilean Mor (another) nearby, and if I do not have his tongue for description, neither did I have a taste for the experience. The most likely of its legends is of the Norse Lord Breachan who tied up there with 3 ropes, one of hemp and one of wool which broke, and one of virgins’ hair which would hold if the maidens were faithful; but it broke and he drowned.
‘Argyll and Bute’ is shredded by lochs and sounds, broken up into islands and rocks. The Firth of Lorn is bounded south-east by Seil, Luing, Scarba, Jura and Islay all in a row, and the Sound of Jura separates them on other side from the Mull of Kintyre. The tides running up the Sound find no outlet in the lochs at the top, and squeeze between Scarba and Jura into the Firth of Lorn through the Gulf of Corryvreckan, about 1,200 metres wide. A pinnacle in the middle, the ‘Old Hag’, rises to 30 metres below the surface beside a hole 220 metres deep and causes whirlpools. A 29 metre shelf between the Sound and the deeper Firth waters creates a standing wave across the gulf. When the wind is steady for days, it can stack water to one side and then release it, and the standing wave has been known to rise to 9 metres when all the elements come together, the roar audible 10 miles away. Currents of 10 MPH flow through, and the slack on the turn is short. Timing is critical, the spectacle very impressive, but I did not intend to go near it.
The bay of Crinan faces the Gulf of Corryvreckan from the Mull of Kintyre. Planning: my route went inside Kerrera, down the west coast of Luing between rocks and lighthouses, and behind Scarba. At the southern point of Luing, the Gulf is 3 miles south-west. If conditions turned adverse, I could go around the point and away north-east to the Craobh Yacht Haven to wait. If not I would go south-east to the Craignish peninsula where the last of a strong ebb current would be running south. At Craignish point, still 3 miles from the Gulf to the West, I would turn south-east again to Crinan. Never closer than that to the washtub, where was the problem? At Craignish Point. Islands 700 metres south create a smaller tidal race called The Dorus Mhor which I had to go through. Eddies at the edge flow as powerfully as the main current but in the opposite direction, a phenomenon I saw in the straits of Gibraltar. Too early, the ebb could sweep me past the entrance into a west-running eddy which sweeps into the Corryvreckan. At best I might struggle southwards out of it, abandoning Crinan to follow the Kintyre coast, or wait 6 hours for the turn; at worst the eddy could carry me west to Orwell’s fate in twenty minutes. And if I arrived too late when the flood had begun, the main current would be running hard west to the maelstrom, and I could not fight that.
I was apprehensive on 19th July as the weather turned nasty, blowing rain in my face and stealing my cap. I set off at 10 a.m. on the ebb, as late as I dared for the 3 p.m. slack at Dorus Mhor, to make Crinan before more rain arrived. There was no way to beat up-wind for that deadline and I motored, while a larger yacht tacking under sail behind me dropped back and disappeared. In the event, the weather dried out and the ebb swept me to the Dorus Mhor with 15 minutes to spare, in sunshine. There was nothing to see, no rushing water except the remains of overfalls at the far end which I had learnt not to under-estimate. As I crossed the mouth avoiding turning too soon, I felt the current abruptly pull Elektra to port and I swung the tiller over, and from there she clocked up a knot per ten seconds to nearly 8 knots. There was some wriggling through the overfalls but ten minutes later I was on the other side and heading easily down to Crinan. The planning had paid off, but the truth is the currents were in control all the way.
The Crinan basin was idyllic, the only part of the canal I photographed because Macca’s mists rolled in on cue and the whole, beautiful journey was in low cloud. The Crinan locks are unmanned, operated by the boaters, difficult single-handed with no-one to catch lines. The trick is to team up with others who would appreciate a pair of hands to wind sluices and push gates through the fourteen locks – or you can hire a guide. The locks are separated by wide waiting pools and boats cannot be towed through. I teamed up with John and Katka in a splendid 40-foot Dutch boat with the pretty name of Zeemuis. A Sea Mouse is a little creature which does not match the splendour of the yacht, a marine polychaete or many-haired worm, technically Aphrodite Aculeata. The etymology beats me, except that ‘cul’ can mean bottom, and I think ‘Bottomed Aphrodite’ beats ‘hairy worm’ any day, which is as far as I’ll go down that road. It is less than a day’s journey but we were taking our time when word came that the last swing bridge would shortly close for the night. We dashed on and made it only because the controller was kind enough to wait for us. In the evening, the canal men balance levels between the locks, so closing time is not going home time.
In Ardrishaig on the other side, there was little space to raft up. I squeezed on to a pontoon, the advantage of a boat not even a foot longer. Part of the problem was an old motorboat whose master claimed wet paint, monopolising the only shore power point. I later learnt that he is always there with the same story. Good luck to him if that is where he wants to live, but he makes life difficult. Beside him was a boat with a French skipper the worse for a drop of wine. I struck up conversation, glad to practice my French, and he invited me aboard for dinner which for once I refused because John and Katka had invited me. He had broken rigging, but there was something off-key with him, like a man in hiding. It means nothing, but I took warning that a solitary life promotes a sense of isolation that turns people away. I should start sailing with crew.
Everything was wet: cloud-mist gets everywhere. In damp shoes in the morning, I changed destination from port Tarbert on the west of Loch Fyne to Portavadie opposite, a large new marina where I could guarantee shore power. There was wind, and I pulled out the jib for my best 12 miles of sailing since Whitehills. There are yachtsmen who love Portavadie, but mostly in Portavadie. The facilities include a blessed warm room for gear to dry. But it is limbo for sin-less yachtsmen whose virginal decks are yet to discolour in the salt and sunshine; a waiting pool in a large basin hewn from the rock for servicing oil platforms, with no town and no life beyond, only hills. The steel ‘concept’ buildings, Faraday’s Cages screening out the world’s signals except near the doors, have had designers in: they prescribed glowing white interiors like the film ‘Heaven Can Wait’. Service is formal in white coats to white melamine tables conceived for angelic, anorexic mint juleps rather than devilish, bulimic hot chocolate with extra marsh mallows. But the waiters were very nice once I had bashed a hole in the ice, and found me a table by a door within cable-stretch of a power point for my laptop. There are play facilities for kids, but the designers never envisaged one 4-year-old who returned his macaroni cheese to the white tiled floor with his third ice-cream of the day. He got a replacement to everybody’s dismay, and continued to run around scaring the fastidious, but the water is very deep for oil platforms that never came, and there was the cheering possibility that if the child fell in, the whole family might disappear after him without a trace.
Sailing 23 miles down to Arran, the south-westerly came up again which for once I had the time to tack into in the classic manner, and I rounded the northern tip of Arran into Lochranza under sail, delighted to deploy them in earnest. There are a dozen public buoys rated for a lot of weight on which more than one yacht can moor. They were all occupied and nobody was prepared to share. I was not unduly polite to two yachtsmen who sat tight with a smugly imperturbable air, but before I could offend a complete dozen, a friend saw the problem from his house overlooking the water and found me an unoccupied private buoy. There is an honesty box for mooring fees, but experience suggests that little went into it from the two gentlemen who refused to share.
I spent a week in Arran in the height of summer with nothing but clouds decapitating the hills and my ambitions to climb them. It is known as Scotland in miniature for its glens and peaks. I began to climb in an intrepid Rob-Roy moment, to stalk stags on the crags with my binoculars, but I met a far more intrepid lady coming down who told me not to waste my effort because they were all on the golf course. They know where the grass is greenest. So I took the bus around the coast and passed a seal resting on its belly on a rock just awash, head and tail sticking up like a battered shrimp. I thought it was on the point of relieving itself, but saw a second in the same pose and decided that their tops must shrink a little when they dry out. A third in the same position persuaded me that they just like airing their under-parts, with which you have to sympathise. I walked the last few miles for a closer look at the seals, wood warblers beneath the cliffs, a rare merganza and chicks, red squirrels, and beautiful, ubiquitous Oystercatchers. All in all, Arran is worth the detour.
Next episode: Contrasts in Ayrshire and Ireland.