End of Season Sail – Part 3

I have always been interested in music and have played guitar for over 40 years. I also play ukulele and keep one on board ‘Jess’, but my guitars are expensive and I would never consider leaving one on board.   There’s a fantastic wee music shop in Oban which I passed on the way back to Oban Marina from getting milk and bread at Tesco. I was in Oban waiting for my friend Alan to return from Edinburgh so that we could resume our annual end of season cruise to Northern Ireland and the West Coast of Scotland. I noticed a Tanglewood parlour guitar in the window and decided to go in and have a look at it. Mahogany construction, decent Grover copy machine heads, nice action, it sounded great and at the bargain price of £110 it would be absolutely perfect for the boat. I bought it!

Trips around Kerrera and Iona

I had a few days to fill before Alan returned and with the forecast looking good I had planned a walk round Kerrera Island, a trip to Iona and I needed to restock the supplies at some point over the weekend.

I picked up a map in the marina office and set off up the hill to Hutcheson memorial. David Hutcheson was one of the founder members of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry company, now the largest ferry company in the UK.  From the top of the hill you get a great panoramic view across Oban Bay and north to Mull.  I continued around the northern end of the island and then took a walk along the beach where there were a number of interesting old wrecks, rusting channel buoys, chain and anchors which made for some great photographs. Kerrera is worth exploring, however, many of the paths can be very muddy at this time of year and overgrown with bracken and thorny bramble bushes, but the bonus is the brambles are delicious!

Last year we had planned to circumnavigate the Isle of Mull and during that, stop off at Iona. Unfortunately, this plan was thwarted by the weather. There are no moorings and very few anchorages around Iona. However, it is possible to anchor in Martyr’s Bay, row ashore and then take a walk around the island for a few hours. This can only be done if the weather is very quiet and not really a spot to anchor overnight as it is very exposed and there’s a lot of swell. An alternative is to anchor at Bull Hole on Mull, row ashore and then walk to Fionnphort where you can take the short CalMac crossing to Iona.  I visited Iona as a child but I don’t recollect much about it other than it being wet, cold and miserable. It was also the first time I have ever felt home-sick. I had booked a tour to from Oban which included the ferry from Oban to Craignure, a bus tour and the ferry from Fionnphort to Iona. I was lucky in that the weather was glorious and Iona is absolutely stunning in the sunshine. The island is rich in history with Scots, Irish and Norse influences and is well known as ‘The cradle of Christianity’ in Scotland.

I met Alan from the station on Sunday afternoon and before heading back to ‘Jess’ we stopped off at the supermarket  and got a few supplies for the next stage of our passage. We had given ourselves five days to get to Tarbert in time for the Music Festival Weekend on the 14th of September.  This would allow us to get down through the tidal gate of Dorus Mor and maybe an overnight stop at Ardfern, a leisuely transit through the Crinan Canal, perhaps a night at Otterferry on Loch Fyne to arrive in Tarbert Harbour by lunchtime on Friday. A month ago when we arrived in Largs for the start of our trip we were wearing shorts and t-shirts and for the first couple of weeks we enjoyed warm sunshine and blue skies. As the trip progressed we had definitely moved from late summer into early autumn and the forecast for the next few days just wasn’t looking good and this was going have a serious impact on our “leisurely” plan.

It was a miserable wet, windy day in Oban and the forecast for Monday and Tuesday was for F7 and F8 winds from the WSW meant that we would be staying in Kerrera, but there appeared to be a bit of a window on Wednesday.  We needed to be at Dorus Mor by 11:00 am on Wednesday morning to catch the last of the ebb tide through the tidal gate having to leave before 05:45 am in order cover the 23 nautical miles from Kerrera. At spring tides, the ebb stream through Luing Sound runs south at over six knots and eight knots south east through Dorus Mor, so you need to get your timings right particularly as the flow is at its strongest just after the turn. Having said that, locals have told me that it is possible to pass through Dorus Mor against the stream as long as you stick very close to the northern shore, we had decided not to test that particular theory.

We usually enjoy night sailing but the passage through Kerrera Sound was a bit stressful despite us proceeding cautiously. The channel is quite narrow and twisty with numerous small islands and rocks to avoid, fish farms, moored boats and to add to the confusion of lights there’s a road that runs along the mainland shore and I mistook car lights for navigation lights a number of times! However, we stuck to the route we had on the plotter and soon we emerged into the Firth of Lorn and navigation became much easier. The wind still wasn’t really in our favour but as we approached Fladda and turned toward the Sound we got a well-reefed main sail up and unfurled a tiny bit of genoa. We had taken a bit of a pasting crossing the Firth of Lorn and had made very slow progress through a heavy sea with the wind blowing F6 from the South West and gusts in excess of 37 knots.  This is no surprise really as there is nothing between here and Newfoundland 2000 miles away, but soon Lunga, Scarba and Jura were offering a bit of shelter from the swell and the worst of the wind and we were grateful to enter the relative calm of the Sound between Fladda and Dubh Sgier – one of the many “black rocks” marked on the charts! Once passed the lighthouse at Fladda and into the Sound it’s fairly straightforward toward the southern tip of Luing and we sailed, very quickly toward Reisa an t-Struth with 6 knots of tide we were touching 12 knots at times. From Reisa an t-Struth there is a choice of routes to Crinan. You can continue south and then head east to pass between the southern end of Eilean na h-Earne and North Rock or pass to the south of Reisa an t-Struth and then south east through Dorus Mor between Graignish Point and Garbh Reisa. We chose the latter as it would give us more shelter into Loch Craignish and across to Crinan. It was still a bit of a challenge to get the sails down and the fenders out but we found a bit of shelter just outside Crinan Harbour, readied the boat and entered the sea-lock at Crinan just before 10:45 am. We had made good time; our cautious start and slow slog across the Firth of Lorn had been cancelled out by our quick passage down the Sound and we had covered the 25 miles in less than five hours.

We had a short wait in the sea-lock whilst another boat was making its way down from the final canal lock to head out to sea. This gave me the chance to fit tarpaulins down the sides of ‘Jess’.  Some owners like to use a fender-board for transit through the canal, but I have found they aren’t really that successful with my boat due to the shape of a Moody 31 and its wide beam. Instead I just use lots of fenders, five or six, on the side next to the lock wall and a tarpaulin between these and the hull to keep the hull clean.  A few years ago I bought a large five by three metre tarpaulin and cut it up the middle and I attach this to the toe rail using small ball bungees between the hull and the fenders. This only cost a few pounds but it keeps the hull clean in the transit through the canal locks. Canal staff will assist you through the sea-lock and lock 14, the first canal lock, both of which are automated and since we wanted a quick getaway the next morning the staff helped us into a space just above lock 14.

Heading South to Crinan

Many sailors balk at using the canal citing the cost as one of the reasons not to use it. It is quite expensive; particularly if you employ a local to assist your passage as we were. However, I think it a stunningly beautiful canal, especially at this time of year as the leaves and foliage are beginning to turn and it gives great shelter from the storms that can be frequent at the beginning of September. It’s also a wonderful, relaxing experience and had we not been pushed for time we would have taken most of the four days you are allowed for transit. The canal is nine miles long, running from Crinan on the west to Ardrishaig on Loch Gilp and was opened in 1801 to provide a short cut for vessels to travel from the industrial area of the Clyde to West Highland villages and islands. A few years ago, Scottish Canals offered an assisted passage using their own staff, but they’ve discontinued this now, reducing the cost in the process. Although they no longer offer the service they will give you a list of locals who will help in your trip through the canal.  

First locking on the canal is at 08:30 but we were able to leave a little before this as it takes about 30 minutes to reach the first swing bridge. We had arranged to meet Andy at lock 13 and he would help us for the rest of the day to Cairnbaan where we planned to stop for the night. Lock 14 to lock 9 going east are the uphill locks and lock 8 to lock 2 are downhill and we planned to get below lock 5 at Cairnbaan where the pontoons have shore power, showers and toilets. Uphill locking is very much more turbulent than downhill and you really need to pay attention, especially when there is more than one boat in the lock, to avoid crashing against the lock sides or into another vessel.

After the battering we took coming down from Kerrera, the passage through the canal was a delight, particularly when someone else is doing all the hard work. We had time to enjoy the wonderful scenery and wildlife, take photographs and chat to other boat owners in the locks. With Andy’s able assistance, we were tied up at the pontoons alongside the Cairnbaan Hotel by early afternoon.

We always plan for the end of our trip to coincide with the Tarbert Music Festival, which is held each year in the small town towards the middle of September. The Music Festival is always very popular and the marina in the harbour busy so it’s well worth arriving as early as you can on the Friday. With this in mind, we left Cairnbaan just after 08:15 to make our way down to the first swing bridge where Andy would meet us once again. This last part of the canal would take us around a couple of hours to complete and with just 12 miles to cover once we were into Loch Gilp, we would arrive in Tarbert around dinner time. I spent the time between bridges and locks tidying things away and making sure that we were ready for the short sea-passage south. We left the sea-lock just before 10:00 and I got the sails up. There wasn’t much wind but, fortunately it was coming from the NW and we motor-sailed down the loch and arrived in Tarbert at 12:30 and quickly found a berth.

The music weekend was fantastic yet again, with many great local bands and artists with the highlight for us being “Dr Hip and the Blues Replacement” featuring brilliant keyboard player Ronnie Leahy who has played alongside many great bands and players; Jack Bruce, Narareth, Steve Howe and Jon Anderson (both from “Yes”) and many others. At the age of 72 he has lost none of his enthusiasm or skills and it’s always a pleasure to watch and listen to him.

With the Autumn Equinox just a week away, it was clear to us that summer had gone and autumn was approaching fast. In the past week or so the weather had become increasingly unpredictable with stronger winds and frequent fronts streaming across the country. Our final leg from Tarbert back to my home port in Largs was covered in some of the worst weather we had seen.  At times it was squally, wet, choppy and bouncy sea, very strong wind and stronger gusts. Despite recording the highest wind speed of the trip at 45 knots, we were well reefed and sailed the entire way in record time.

Another great trip and already thinking about the next.