I had already sailed to Northern Ireland this season and I was making this trip with Gordon, my nephew. We have been sailing before around the Clyde and also the Oban area, but this would be our first trip to Northern Ireland. Gordon is a real whisky enthusiast and the highlight for him was going to be our visit to Campbeltown at the end of the trip. But, we did have a couple of other goals, one was to find an Irish Whiskey that we liked and the other was to taste as many drams as we could, and since we had a huge selection of 18 malts from all parts of Scotland on the boat, we had plenty to keep us going. For someone who hasn’t been drinking whisky that long, Gordon has accumulated quite some knowledge and even bigger collection of whisky. He writes for a whisky blog, Dramface, and much of what we discovered and experienced over the week will be written up there.
We had decided to head straight for Glenarm from Largs, which is a bit of a long haul at nearly 65NM but the wind was in our favour and had the advantage of saving us a day. We set off early from Largs and arrived in Glenarm just after 6pm covering the distance at an average speed of 5.6 knots.The F7/8 wind was from the NE and we did the entire crossing with a reefed main, just a wee bit of headsail and one tack in the middle of the North Channel. The tidal stream, heading toward neaps, sort of evened itself out as we crossed the channel. Glenarm is a great wee marina and town, we planned to stop off on the way back north from Bangor so we decided not to explore (we were also exhausted) and stayed on board getting stuck into some drams.
After our epic crossing from Scotland, the trip down to Bangor was relatively easy and with a great following wind, a reefed main was all we needed to cover the 24NM in just over 3.5 hours. I love sailing a downwind run, it’s so peaceful and you can usually get a tremendous amount of speed – we managed 11.5 knots with the tidal stream – whilst steering can be a little tricky, as long as you have a preventer on then it is the most relaxing way of sailing in my opinion. We were caught out a bit getting the sail down outside Bangor in gusts of 55 knots – but we managed and tied up safely in the marina.
Bangor is a wonderful little seaside town, but almost everything closes down before six o’clock on a Sunday night. We had a wander up the main street and managed to catch Asda just before it closed, headed back to the boat, made tea and sipped whisky.
An early start the next day and a rush up the hill to the railway station to catch the train to Belfast. There is a marina right next to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast but it’s not much of a journey up Belfast Lough and I think it’s better to stay in a nicer marina (Bangor) and get the train – it take 20 minutes to the Titanic Quarter and costs £9 return.
The weather had been pretty good to us but the day in Belfast could not have been any better! We had the whole day planned out; getting off the train at the Titanic Quarter, catch a bus into the city centre, wander around and then do an open top bus tour before finding a whiskey shop and a couple of bars where we believed we could find some good Irish.
Our day in Belfast was brilliant. This was the second time I had been on the Titanic Experience Tour and it was just as good as the first time. Whilst all the statistics, figures and technical information is great, it’s the wee human stories I liked.
We took the The Belfast Glider back into the city centre and set off in search of “The Friend at Hand” – a whisky shop in the upbeat, trendy, hipster Cathedral Quarter of the city. We should have researched beforehand as it is closed on a Monday. Disappointed, we stepped round the corner the The Duke of York pub, one of a couple we had been told would have great examples of Irish Whiskey. It’s a fascinating wee place, full of colourful interesting bits and pieces, quite a few Irish Whiskies to choose from and a bar area dedicated to “Line of Duty” where some scenes for the series were shot. We sat on a bench opposite where Steve and Kate planned the downfall of the latest police scallywag. It was also the venue where Scots/Irish band Snow Patrol played their first gig in 1998.
We gave Irish Whiskey every chance, and maybe we were just getting the wrong stuff but to be brutally honest, none of it blew us away, including a couple of very expensive Yellow and Red Spot Whiskies and some Rebreast. They were all perfectly fine but in our opinion lacked the depth, complexity and variety you can get from even a mid-priced Scotch and all tasted much the same.
We caught the train back to Bangor stopping off at a pizza place and ate delicious pizza on the water front watching the world go by and the sun go down before heading back to the boat. The next part of our journey was to head back north to Glenarm and then on to Ballycastle on the north coast of Antrim before heading back across the North Channel to Scotland.
The tidal stream on the Antrim coast is strong even, as we were, entering neap tides and it can make a huge difference in the length of time to make a passage. It’s just short of 24NM from Bangor back north to Glenarm and planning your departure time is important. If you do, you can enjoy the benefit of 2.5 – 4.3 knots of stream which could mean considerably shortening passage time or if you get it wrong (well in my boat at least) extending it two or three times.
The weather had been very kind with winds mostly coming from the north and for our passage back north the winds were very light and coming more from the east. Making the most of the tidal stream and the winds, we arrived back in Glenarm around lunch time which gave us plenty of time to have something to eat and then spend some time exploring the town. There’s not a lot to Glenarm, there’s a shop, two pubs and Glenarm Castle estate with some workshops. At one time there was a working lime kiln and pottery works and later a fish processing factory but these have disappeared.
We spent some time in the castle shop and had delicious tea and cake in the cafe before heading back to the town to wander around and take some photographs. On the way back to the boat we stopped at Stevey’s Bar (Coast Road Inn) for a drink before heading to the boat for tea and getting stuck into our whisky store.
Our final stop in Northern Ireland was Ballycastle which is on the north Antrim Coast and the stretch of water at Fairhead just before you head west round the headland is subject to fierce tital streams both here and further on between the mainland and Rathlin Island. With the tides the way they were we had to leave Glenarm early to get around the headland as even at neaps we would struggle over the last part. We planned it well and rounded the headland into the bay just as the tide was turning and only had a couple of miles with tide against us.
A lot of sail boats passed us heading south as we made our way to Ballycastle. At first we thought it was for the Bangor Regatta which would be held the following weekend, but it turns out that they were all taking part in the Round Ireland trip.
Once again with an early arrival, we had time to explore the town. Ballycastle is in two parts, there’s the part next to the coast with the harbour/marina and is a proper seaside town with a great beach, cafes, ice-cream parlours and a brilliant chip shop. The other part of the town is much more like a market town (although I don’t think there is one any more) with lots of shops, cafes and pubs and is a short walk up the main road. We stopped off at Ursa Minor bakehouse and cafe which had a large choice of pastries and cakes but just one sandwich on their in-house baked bread, which was quite the best sandwich I have had for a long time – spicy peanut butter with kinchi cheese – sublime. I would thoroughly recommend this cafe if you are in the area.
Back to Scotland and Gordon had arranged a visit to Cadenhead’s warehouse for a talk and a tasting and then in the afternoon a distillery visit and tasting at Glen Scotia. However, when we arrived in Campbeltown he was out having a wander around and ended up in Springbank, the other distillery in Campbeltown, and was persuaded that we should also do a tour there as well. So we had a packed day of talks, tours and tasting.
We started off in Springbank and there was already a queue and the shop filled quickly with tour attendees and a couple of “Whisky Flippers”. Whisky flippers don’t give a fuck about what is in the bottle, they are buying purely to speculate. Gordon bought a “caged bottle” of Springbank for £65, later he showed me a similar bottle on an auction site retaing for £300 (plus P&P). Fortunately, Springbank won’t let anyone buy more than one bottle. One guy came in – clearly out to spend money on whisky to speculate and must have spent over £300 in the first five minutes the shop was open – he had two or three bottles of Springbank 10 (the most popular) which is almost impossible to buy outside the shop. My purchase was a little more modest – 20cl of Hazelburn.
Next up was a tasting at Cadenhead’s Warehouse where a stonking selection of whiskies had been laid on for us including a delicious grain whisky from Cameronbridge – first pure grain scotch I’ve tasted – and a delicious Glen Elgin – Glenlivet – so good I bought one.
Our final visit was to Glen Scotia and a brilliant tour from Archie – who seemed to do just about everything in the distilley and was actually running it on his own during our visit. We finished with a fine tasting talked through by Cheryl.
Saturday and it was time to head back to Largs. The forecast was for strong winds and we had the choice of heading around the south of Arran or north through Kilbrannan Sound. We passed a small cruise ship anchored in Campbeltown Loch (filled with Americans many of whom came ashore to play golf at Machrahanish and visiting the distilleries).
I only raised a well reefed mainsail and on passing Davaar Island and into Kilbrannan Sound it was clear that it would be more than enough. The wind was blowing a constant 40 knots (and gusting F9) and the seas approaching moderate with waves around 2-3 metres. It looked decidely lumpy south of Arran so I chose to head north up the sound where both the wind and the seas were following. It was a bit difficult at first but became much easier heading up the sound. As we turned round the north of Arran passed Lochranza, the wind dropped but picked up on the far side and we had a great beam reach across to Cumbrae.
It was an absolutely belting trip. My nephew is great company and has a great taste in whisky!