Easter morning: overcast, but calm. We think it is a good day to begin our cruise, and have timed our departure from the Clyde Marina near Glasgow to arrive at the Mull of Kintyre to have the current with us through the worst passages. Because of our careful timing and no wind, we made the 70 mile trip to Islay in just 12.5 hours, totally under power. Thus began our Malt Run back to North America, in the wake of St. Brendan’s Voyage in a leather boat some 15 centuries ago, from Scotland to the Faroes, to Iceland, to Greenland, and finally Labrador. The voyage started with calm weather, but Scotland gave us walloping storms (thankfully mainly from the SW) and a great deal of rain, with only tiny sunny intervals.
Submarine in the Firth of Clyde SW of the Isle of Arran ... defending whom against what?
The guest pontoons at Port Ellen on Islay provided us a safe and comfortable dockage for 6 glorious days of sun. Last year we visited 5 of the island’s 8 distilleries. This year we completed the tours by going to Lagavulin, Bruidchladdich and Kilchoman, a newcomer just 6 years old.
Kilchoman's wash (low wines) still and spirit safe
From Lagavulin we hiked another 3 miles to the Kildalton Cross and chapel ruins. The cross is the best-preserved Celtic cross from the ninth century in Scotland, and is so similar to the three crosses on Iona that historians feel the carver must have come from Iona.
Jane and Brian at the famous Celtic cross carved in the 9th century
The graves, both ancient through the twentieth century were fascinating, some adorned by wild daffodils in bloom. We saw many seals sunning themselves on the rocks.
The wee, wee lambs are so sweet, galloping headlong into mum. We have also seen calves and colts in the fields. We did not see any adders although one was seen recently on the golf course.
Mutual Admiration Society on Islay
We hired a car for one day to see the far-flung sights on Islay. Bus service is sparse, and car rental was not too expensive. However, it was exciting getting back on the “wrong side” of the road, especially when the road is a single track with turnoffs every 200 yards or so to allow passing. If you could see 200 yards ahead, driving should be fairly easy, but when you have no idea which direction the road is going to turn as you approach to top of a hillock, it is nail-biting.
We visited the one brewery on Islay, and a 19th century woolen mill (tourist trap). The brewery was in an old manor house near Bowmore along with other artisan’s workshops. The walled kitchen garden for the manor house had been salvaged by volunteers and was huge.
And what a kitchen garden it was. Michelle Obama, eat your heart out; the White House kitchen garden is a fraction of this
We truly enjoyed our stay on Islay: distilleries, brewery, Kildalton Cross, single lane roads, Gorse bushes with brilliant yellow flowers, round brown-green mounds of dried heather just beginning to sprout their 2011 growth, pale yellow grasses, and the evidence of the peat harvest rows. “Singing Sands” beaches, shells, slate. Lambs, cows, horses. We even saw our first otter fishing in the harbour, along with the resident seal. Our last night on Islay a large sailboat with a tall rig, 3 spreaders, came into the harbour and rafted against a fishing boat. It was much too large for the marina docks. As we left the harbour we saw its name: Scepter. It was the British contender in the 1958 America’s Cup Race.
Sceptre, the British contender in the 1958 America's Cup Race, in Port Ellen
Our first anchorage was off the NW tip of Gigha (pronounced GEE-ha) Island. One other boat was at anchor, and we read in the book on Scottish Islands that RY Britannia used to anchor in the north harbour (we are in the south with NE winds). We took the dinghy ashore and explored the sand beach. Mussel and cockle shells aroused our interest, but we did not find any to harvest. We saw several groups having picnics and dogs having great fun in the water. The island was owned by Mr. Horlicks in the 1940’s, the one who marketed the malted powder for milk popular in the UK.
The south beach at Gigha Island
After two nights on Gigha we set sail for the Isle of Jura, 10 miles away. The breeze had finally lightened, and we had a lazy broad reach across Jura Sound. We picked up a mooring in Craighouse, the only village on the island with a population of 200. Tuesday night the wind dropped completely, but at 2AM the ocean rollers licking around the south end of Islay met the current in Jura Sound and sent fairly large waves into the harbour, hitting us broadside. Sleep was impossible, and the pounding never did stop. Despite a sleepless night, we went ashore for a tour of the Isle of Jura distillery, our 27th (and last). Having read a bit about the distillery, we did not expect much from the tour nor the dram. This is the only distillery we visited with free tours and tasting, however. We were pleasantly surprised. What you get in most outlets is the 10-year-old, and is not interesting. The 16 year old was quite flavorful, and the peaty “Prophecy” a different dram from the Islay malts. The stills are the 2nd tallest in Scotland, and the extra height makes an entirely different new make spirit than the shorter stills on Islay.
It’s all in the neck
Isle of Jura distillery
From Jura we had a rip-snorter sail with just the mizzen and Genoa back across the sound to Loch Caolisport on the mainland. Strong Wind Warnings were back in the forecast, and this bay provided some protection from the SE winds. The winds were gusty (9 – 18 knots) and we almost felt like we were back dinghy-racing playing the puffs of wind to keep high on the course.
From Caolisport we sailed passed the dreaded Corryvrecken on our way to Oban. George Orwell spent a few summers on the Isle of Jura and almost drowned swimming near Corryvrecken. Our careful calculations told us that the slack period (no current) around Corryvrecken was at 11:45. Since our anchorage was about 20 miles from Corryvrecken, we decided that a 7AM departure was prudent. We hauled anchor around 7:30 and had a brisk sail down Loch Caolisport at 6 knots. Our first 5 miles went smoothly, and we were ahead of schedule. By 9:00 we were heading into a 1.5 knot current against us, and by 10:30 it was 2.5 – 3 knots against us. Therefore we were going 6.5 knots through the water with 20 knots of wind, but the speed over the ground was only 2.5-3. It was like climbing a steep hill. Even when we approached Corryvrecken at 12:30 (after slack) we were still experiencing a strong current against us. It was not until we passed the centre of the whirlpool that suddenly the current let up, and we could make good way. The wind was behind us and the current against us, so the waves were amazing, tossing us like a matchstick. We also had rain all day and poor visibility. The fully-enclosed cockpit felt good.
Corryvrecken at (just after) slack
Near the end of the passage with high currents, we were in a channel with extreme shallows and depths that caused overfalls (like waterfalls in the water), which were clearly visible. We were racing down an overfall at 10.5 knots and really had to concentrate to keep the boat on course. The water currents took precedence over the rudder at times.
Light house at Dadh Sgeir as we sped by at 10 knots
We docked at the Oban Marina. We had been to the distillery and seen most of the sights in Oban last August, but this year we climbed the hill on which the city is situated to MaCaig’s Tower. It looks like a coliseum, the privately funded project provided winter work for tradesmen during an economic recession and was never finished. There is a beautiful garden around and in it, and a great view of the harbour from it. The azaleas were in full bloom.
Oban with McCaigs Tower in the background
View from McCaigs Tower
The wind was still howling when we left Oban for Tobermory. Halfway up the Sound of Mull, between Oban and Tobermory, there is a land-locked loch, Loch Aline, which became our refuge for the first gale of our season.
Loch Aline thunderstorm and downpour
At anchor, as soon as we got the sail covers on, the rain started, followed by lightning and thunder (referred to as “tundery showers” on the weather forecast). We watched a stunning display of lightning; the thunder roared on and on, echoing off the hills. The wind couldn’t decide what it should do under the circumstances, and we pirouetted around our anchor twice before settling down to a SE whisper of wind. However, the next day we had rain and wind again … enough to keep us on Pilgrim rather than go ashore. The bad weather gave Brian ample time to figure out why the remote switch for our windlass (raises and lowers the anchor) was not working. In the process he discovered a failing solenoid that shot a spray of sparks when activated! Fortunately Brian is a belt and suspenders engineer and had spare parts. The third day in Loch Aline we finally managed to go ashore and walk around the Ardtornish Estate complete with a clock tower and a Victorian “country” house. The Kinlochaline Castle on the hill was overshadowed by the estate.
Ardtornish Estate complete with a clock tower and a Victorian “country” house
The following day we were hit by 20 knots of wind and pelting rain, and decided to stay one more day.
Finally, four days after anchoring for the night in Loch Aline, we sailed up the Sound of Mull to Tobermory with the current and gusty SW wind. The weather was very poor while we were in Tobermory with high winds and heavy rains. Because of the poor weather, we took a tour boat rather than Pilgrim to Staffa, an island west of Mull famous for its caves and bird cliffs. We took a local bus 10 miles south to Salem, waited for an hour, be picked up by the tour company’s minibus, then took a ferry (outboard) across to the Isle of Ulva where there was a boathouse in which we could huddle out of the rain. When the rain let us we wandered around the Isle of Ulva, exploring a reconstructed spinster’s hut from the 19th century
Isle of Ulva, reconstructed spinster’s hut from the 19th century. Note tree branch in fireplace. It was her standard way of fueling the fire and providing a drying rack.
Once on the tour boat we were happy with our decision to leave Pilgrim back in Tobermory. The wind had been blowing hard enough to create 3-4 foot waves which crashed over the bow of the tour boat, soaking the poor soles on the side and stern. We had judiciously selected seats in the enclosed bow. It took an hour to get to Staffa from Ulva, and the tour guide had a wry sense of humor and described points of interest along the way. The boat circled around the mouth of Fingal’s Cave, the Square Cave, and McGuggion’s Cave before landing (amidst heavy waves and spray … we were glad it was not our boat going in for the landing).
Staffa, home of Fingal’s Cave
It was sunny for the hour we roamed the tiny island. Fingal’s Cave was the inspiration for Mendelssohn to compose music. We were able to get about 1/3 of the way down the cave with protective railings. The cave was smaller than we had imagined, but was dramatic. The basalt columns are amazing and beautiful, the noise of the rushing water deafening, and the spindrift flying up at the mouth of the cave mesmerizing.
Fingal’s Cave inspiration for Mendelssohn, small and crowded for the crush of tourists
We climbed to the top of the island, from which you could clearly see the Abby on Iona, about 12 miles to the SW. We climbed right over McGuggion’s cave and could hang over the edge (Brian did not). There is a Puffin Colony nesting on the NE side of the island, and as we left the island, the tour boat drifted that way and we saw our first Puffins of this year.
Jane trying to capture nesting puffins (on camera)
After 4 days of bad weather we finally left Tobermory in high winds and rain to Loch Drumbuie just 5 miles away. We just needed to get moving and this anchorage was a safe move. The following day we rounded Ardnamurchan Point and had a lively sail to the Small Isles and a familiar anchorage, Rhum.
Ardnamurchan Point in good visability
Last August we spent several nail-biting nights on Rhum with Force 11 winds (55 knots). This year Rhum lived up to its reputation. We waited at anchor for 2 days with 25 knots of wind. Not only was it windy, but cold and wet. We began to leave the diesel furnace on all day and night, and we fabricated “cat-flap” doors from lightweight towels (later replaced with waterproof sailcloth) to keep the warmth inside the cabin. Just out of spite, our wind generator’s bearings gave up the ghost in the high winds. Once again, the belt and suspenders engineer fixed the generator when we got to Stornoway, but we missed getting its power for almost 2 weeks. We encountered our first Canadian-flagged boat since we left the US in 2007 in this anchorage.
In 2010 we sailed down the west coast of Skye, so this year we decided to sail up the east side through the Sound of Sleat (pronounced slate)to the Oransay Isle anchorage and wait there while the NEXT gale went through (more 30 knots from the W), before heading further north.
After 2 days at Oransay Isle, the wind tricked us into thinking it had lessened. NW Scotland was being hit with a series of Atlantic lows which had brought “squally showers” … that means heavy rain for about 10 minutes with wind gusting to 25-30 knots followed by 2 minutes of brilliant sunshine and relative calm (15 knots of wind), followed by the drizzle with 20 knots of wind followed by sunshine. Repeat the process until summer is over. The best thing about the weather was that the wind was from the S to SW to W, which meant when we moved, we sailed. Unfortunately, since we no longer had a wind generator that worked, we often had the motor on to recharge the batteries.
Our next passage from the Sound of Sleat on the SE coast of Skye was through the narrows of Kyle Rhea, under the bridge that connects Skye with the mainland, and then north to Loch Carron. Especially in the narrow passages, the current can run very high, so we carefully timed our departure for early afternoon. We were flying with just the mizzen and staysail, and with the 4-foot waves that had built on the fairly sheltered Sound of Sleat, Pilgrim wanted to broach whenever a gust of wind hit us. Helming took maximum concentration. En route we were hit with a couple of rain squalls, but visibility was pretty good. We anchored in a bay about a mile from Plockton that is stunningly beautiful with soaring hills and low islands. Two anchors were out again, with the wind gusting to 25 knots even in the protected anchorage. Once safely anchored we had time to reflect on the roller-coaster sail and we heard the familiar song of the seals. We could not locate them, but thought they were probably on the far side of the small island that shelters us from the west, and almost disappears at high tide. During dinner Brian spotted a couple of whiskered snouts floating by the boat at a safe distance. There is a 2-car commuter train that passes us and toots as it approaches (we assume there is a level crossing we cannot see; it is not saluting us).
When we arrived in Plockton, it was rainy and misty. The next morning when the mist lifted and we had a bit of sun, we were astounded to see the distant mountains capped with snow and see the myriad of waterfalls. In fact, we could hear one close to our anchorage, and saw small bits of it as the water cascaded into the bay.
Anchorage at Plockton … distant snow capped mountains
After 2 nights in Plockton, the forecast was for winds to calm to Force 4 (15 knots). Timing for the tidal current changes indicated we should leave the anchorage at 7AM, so we were up at 6 to prepare and weigh both anchors (thankfully they had not twisted). The wind in the anchorage was 20 knots, but we were sure it would lessen as we traveled. In short, the forecast was incorrect, and the wind built from the south to 25-30 knots. We had 4 miles of motoring into the wind, and then were able to sail up the Inner Sound on the east coast of Skye. By the time we got to Rona South (at 11AM) the forecast had changed, promising Gale Force winds from the W and NW (the direction we need to go) on Sunday. We decided to skip Rona and sail directly on to Harris / Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The ride was wild. The good news is that the wind (and mostly the waves) was with us most of the trip. We had the Staysail hoisted, but no other sails, and were skimming the waves at 6-7 knots. There was rain the entire trip, so we missed the beauty of seeing the east coast of Skye. Skye and the other islands sheltered us from steep waves much of the way, but once we were out of the lee of Skye and the waves had a long fetch and 3 days of 30+ winds to build, we encountered 15-foot waves, often breaking over our port stern. Lots of stuff got wet.
We found an anchorage (Loch Ceann Dibig) in East Loch Tarbert where there were no waves; the shore sheltered us without providing steep cliffs that produce deadly downdrafts, and the gentle rain washed off the salt spray. It became a harbour of refuge when the winds increased to a sustained 30-40 knots first from the SW and then from the W. We had to turn off the wind instruments; the high wind warning, triggered at 35 knots, was constantly beeping and became annoying. Although we were anchored fairly close to shore, the wind whipped up amazing waves and then blew the frothy tops off the waves onto the cockpit enclosure; we have never experienced salt water spray at anchor before. Preparing dinner was a challenge. The boat was heeling over and bouncing about as though we were on the high seas. There was one other boat in the anchorage: a 50+ foot ketch with a UK flag that is single-handed. It was a comfort to have another boat in sight during the worst of the wind.
Safe anchorage (Loch Ceann Dibig) in East Loch Tarbert in sustained 40 knots of wind
Four gannets fished the bay, and it was fascinating watching them fly and soar in such high wind searching for food. They dive from such a height, and occasionally are lucky enough to catch a fish. We watched one black-backed gull (about the same size as a gannet) attack and snatch away a fish from one successful dive. We also saw a couple of seals floating with noses in the air. The ever-present sheep seem to understand the weather. They are adept at finding leeward hiding places on the steep cliffs where they constantly graze. Studying the sheep we imagine this weather is not unusual.
We try to keep up to date with BBC new broadcasts, but it was a phone call with daughter Amelia that informed us of the volcanic eruption in Iceland. It was not until there was chaos with airline flights in the UK that the volcano finally was in the UK news. We did not notice any ash cloud, but then with the weather systems passing over us, we did not have a good view of the atmosphere at 140,000 feet.
After 4 days, the wind totally died down and we left our anchorage for Stornoway, our last port in Scotland. The Danforth anchor was buried deep in mud and shell and took much “nudging” to extract itself from the sea bottom. The cleanup of the chain and anchor was also lengthy. However, we are not complaining. The anchors kept us safe in difficult weather.
As soon as we left the anchorage the rain began and the visibility was poor. We passed the Shiant Islands and hardly saw them … the same as last August when we were going south. We are sorry we missed seeing this incredibly beautiful landscape again.
We stayed in Stornoway for 7 very rainy and windy days. Stornoway does not have facilities for pleasure yachts greater than 35 feet. We were tied up to a wooden quay, with all fenders, fender balls, and fender boards deployed. The vertical beams were so far apart that our fender boards slipped in between them, causing much angst. The tidal range was 10 – 14 feet. Especially when larger boats were rafted against us and the wind was pushing us against the quay, we set up hourly watches to ensure we would not be “caught” under a horizontal beam on the quay as the tide rose. The harbourmaster and staff were very helpful and understanding, and provided solutions when they could.
After suffering against the wharf we were repositioned temporarily to the cruise ship tender dock … then moved against an abandoned fishing boat.
Taking the mizzen mast down to replace the bearings in the wind generator was too costly, but the crane company offered to take Brian up in a cherry-picker to remove the generator, which allowed him to change the bearings (and discover a manufacturing defect) and then took him back up to re-install it.
Brian’s first time up the mizzen … it took a cherry picker to get him up there
We provisioned our larder, filled our water and fuel tanks, did laundry, and spent time in the arts centre catching up on long-overdue emails. We spent time with our Welch friends on Islander of Menai who arrived in Stornoway an hour after us and left with us on June 2 for the Faroes and plan to sail to Iceland and Greenland with us.
EQUIPMENT FAILURES SO FAR (April – May)
Dr. LED anchor light bulb (new in 2011) lasted 2 minutes … poor design/manufacturing
WIFI antenna (new in 2011) Bad Boy Xtreme … flooded with rainwater … poor design
Remote switch for the windlass (new in 2006) … corrosion
Solenoid and wiring in general for the windlass (New in 2006) … corrosion
Diverter (diverts electrical current from charging full batteries to heating water in our hot water tank) (new in 2005) … Permanently in Divert mode … failsafe systems failed
Mizzen spreader light (New in 2008) fell apart … poor design
Danforth anchor swivel (new in 2006) … Retaining pin unscrewed … poor design
Newport Diesel Furnace … fuel needle valve leaking (new in 2005) … need to carry spares
Honda 2000i Gas Generator getting hard to start (new in 2005) … needs overhaul
Port rub rail (new 1983) … damaged by rafting boat fender riding under rail
Nikon 18-200 zoom lens … fails to focus at infinity … even in manual focus mode
NEW IDEAS that have been implemented:
Canvass doors at the companionways to keep warm air in, water breaking into the cockpit out
Aluminum platform fabricated to fit on top of our diesel furnace as a stand for the kettle. A full kettle almost comes to a rolling boil