Returning to Scotland

Day 8 – Ballycastle to Gigha

We spent a couple of nights in Ballycastle and on the second day did a little exploring of the harbour area and further up in the main town. We had lunch in the town and then spent a couple of hours in the Boyd Arms enjoying Guinness, Irish whiskey and the bar tender’s great taste in music and craic. A couple of years back we were in a pub just up the road – The House of McDonnell – a fantastic traditional pub, the interior is A-Grade listed and it has been in the same family for over 250 years. Sadly for us, down to COVID, it’s only open at the weekends. Happily for the owners, it’s still managing to stay open.

The weather has been really great this year, but, not great for sailing with very little wind, so we were pleased to leave in a F4 northerly. Leaving Ballycastle, we headed east towards Kintyre in order to avoid the MacDonnell Race, an area of choppy, messy water to the east of Rathlin Island and best avoided. We have sailed this route a number of times but never in such good weather and with a nice 15 knot westerly we were making good progress towards Gigha covering the 34 NM in just over four and a half hours. During the passage we spotted a submarine (on the surface!) making its way round Kintyre and heading out along The Sound of Islay between Islay and Jura. It was big and I’m pretty sure it was a nuclear Vanguard Class as we could see it quite clearly from nearly eight miles away.

We arrived to glorious sunshine and a calm Ardminish Bay. This was just as well as the moorings have no pick-up buoys and you need to pass a line through a ring on the top. I had (had – it was broken) a clever gadget which allows you to poke the ring with a special hook which threads the line for you. Instead, I had to hang over the bow of the boat and do this by hand. There are 24 moorings and quite a bit of space along a single pontoon. The pontoon was full as were most of the moorings but and we managed to get one of the last remaining buoys. It was a beautiful calm evening and we ate our tea in the cockpit.

Day 9 – Gigha to Ardfern

We spent a quiet night on the mooring and woke to thick fog. Over the past week or so, the whole area to the west of Scotland has been covered in thick fog first thing in the morning which has slowly cleared over the day. We had over 30 NM to cover to Ardfern and had to set off, fog or not. It did clear as we made progress up The Sound of Jura and once again, we were treated to some bright, warm sunshine. The day before I had bought some Cornetto cones in Ballycastle. I don’t have a freezer on board but the fridge is more than capable of keeping ice frozen and we enjoyed a cooling ice-cream making our way up the sound! There had been little wind but a breeze got up as we were passing Crinan and I pulled out the headsail and we manage a bit of a run up Loch Craignish to Ardfern.

Earlier in the year, when I was in Oban in June, I noticed just how busy marinas and moorings were – a great thing to see – and on reflection, we should have phoned ahead. Whilst there were moorings available, we needed to get diesel and some shopping which meant being on the pontoon and there was no space. Fortunately, the Harbour Master told us to sit on the fuel pontoon as a boat was leaving in an hour or so. Another beautiful evening, so tea in the cockpit once more and as the pub was closed, we poured a couple of Dark and Stormy cocktails , with plenty of ice and watched the world go by!

Day 10 – Ardfern to Crinan

Transiting the Crinan Canal has become a bit complicated this season. For whatever reason (I suspect cost), Scottish Canals has decided to close The Crinan Canal to traffic on Tuesday and Wednesday. This made a bit of a mess of my plans in June when I was coming south from Kerrera with my brother-in-law and a friend. Not only this, but due to a lack of water not only are boats restricted by their draft but also they can only enter the sea-lock two hours either side of high water. Fortunately, Jess’s draft in fresh water is 1.6m, well below the 2m restriction, and high tide at Crinan allowed us to enter the canal at 0830. We planned to spend the day and night at Crinan at lock 14 just above the basin.

The crossing from Ardfern to Crinan takes around an hour and twenty minutes and we found ourselves through the sea-lock and basin and tied up above lock 14 by 11am. We spent the day wandering around the village, drinking coffee, taking photographs and visiting the chandlers. Alan was tempted by some cheap Crocs from the chandlers, in my opinion one pair is one pair too many. I don’t care how “comfortable” all dignity is lost as it seeps out of these wee holes. Horrible things.

Day 11 – Crinan to Cairnbaan

Whilst is is just about possible to transit the canal with just two crew and there is always the likelihood that there will be other boats going through as well, we have always used a Private Pilot to take our lines and help us through the locks. It is an added expense (£55 a day), but it does make the passage so much easier and relaxing. I have used Andy before and we had arranged to meet him at lock 13 and so we set off just after 0830. There were another couple of boats heading through and we made excellent progress tying up at the pontoons in Cairnbaan just after lunch-time. I really enjoy the canal, it’s beautiful and relaxing. I had already been through twice earlier in the year and the trees were vibrant and green. The slight red and brown tinge was quite noticeable as were the bright red rowans.

We had decided to have an early tea and head for the Cairnbaan Hotel later in the afternoon. Our decision was made all the easier when we heard that a live band were performing in the garden until the early evening. Like most other people, I haven’t heard live music in over a year and we were looking forward to seeing the band. We got ready and set off to walk the 100m to the hotel.

A large motor-cruiser had tied up behind us on the pontoon, skippered by Stephanie along with Tilly, her crew. We stopped to have a chat and Stephanie told us she had been having trouble with her batteries and they weren’t charging properly. She said that there was a screeching sound coming from one of the engines which had the alternator. I thought it might be a slack belt and offered to try to tighten it for her the following morning to see if that would solve the problem.

The band,  Jojo and the Harlies, were good and seemed to get better as we had more to drink! It was a bit of a shame that there wasn’t a larger crowd there, people did come and go all afternoon, but I think we were the only ones who stayed for the entire session. The good thing about this was we just shouted out the names of bands and they played their songs – brilliant! Alan and I spent some time chatting to the band members and checking out their instruments and equipment when they had finished their set.

Day 12 – Cairnbaan to Portavadie

Our departure from the canal was constrained by the time of the high tide at Ardrishaig, which wasn’t until 1730 so the earliest time we would be able to leave would be around 1530. It was a leisurely start from Cairnbaan and we wouldn’t have to set off until around 1230 to make our way to the basin and wait for the tide to come in. We had decided to do the last part of the canal on our own without Andy’s help. There’s a bridge and three locks operated by staff leaving one for us to do ourselves. Going down is far easier than going up and I knew we could manage. I met Stephanie on my way to the shower block and she told me that her crew, Tilly, had deserted her and she would be on her own for the rest of the canal. It was a big boat but it did have the advantage of having bow thrusters and a central open cockpit. I asked her about her battery situation and she had discovered that one of her batteries was dead. I took a look at the alternator belt, which she had managed to tighten, and it looked fine to me, so I guess that the dead battery was more to blame. I offered what advice and help I could for her getting to Ardrishaig and told her that we would get her lines and help her through the locks. As it turned out that there was plenty of assistance from the canal staff which was a relief for us and most definitely Stephanie.

Once we tied up in Ardrishaig basin she told us that she had decided to stay put for another night as she could do all her work – drug dealing- from the boat 😀 No, it turns out she works for a large pharmaceutical company, the largest suppliers of insulin to UK (Novo Nordisk perhaps?). Canal staff were speculating about the disappearance of her crew, particularly when he boat is called “Hide Aweigh“.

I admired that she was unfazed about the whole thing, I don’t think I would have been as calm. I do hope that she made it home safely.

We managed to exit the canal around 1630 and arrived in Portavadie just before 1900.

Day 13 – Portavadie to Largs

It was another windless flat-calm of a day when we left Portavadie around 9am and that gave me the opportunity to get some stuff packed and things tidied and cleaned on the passage home as Alan steered the boat (well, the auto-helm did the work) . As we were crossing Inchmarnock Water we caught sight of a large cruise ship which turned out to be Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. She was on a cruise from Liverpool and heading around Arran. She was quite far off (about 5 miles) and my camera had ran out of battery, but I managed a couple of fuzzy shots on my phone. We also kept a look-out for Hide Aweigh but didn’t see her – perhaps Stephanie had decided to stay another night on the canal – the weather was fine, the canal quiet and after paying for 4 nights transit, why not use them? We tied up in Largs at 1330 and after a final bit of packing and tidying up, we left for Edinburgh just after 1400.

We have had a great trip and covered around 220 NM, sadly, most of it motoring or motor-sailing. The upside was that the weather was absolutely brilliant, warm and dry – I don’t think we got wet once. We saw some great things and met some wonderful people.

Roll on next year’s trip to Northern Ireland – we can’t wait!

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