When I was on my drift around Loch Fyne last week, I toyed with the idea of just heading to Northern Ireland for a few days. The weather forecast looked pretty good, tides were favourable and there was some nice winds forecast. I did some planning and plotted my routes and departing times only to have a reminder pop up on my phone telling me that I had a dental appointment on Monday and one that I couldn’t really miss. I travelled home to Edinburgh for my appointment and returned to Largs after having a molar excavated and filled.
My plan was to make for Campbeltown and then cross the North Channel to Glenarm for a couple of days and then head north for Ballycastle before returning to Campbeltown and perhaps a few extra days on Loch Fyne. I spent Monday afternoon and evening getting Jess ready, topping up the water, and checking the engine. I needed to get fuel but I was planning to leave early the following morning so took a couple of fuel cans to fill up. I recently bought a wee electric pump for transferring diesel from a can. It works well and transfers the fuel pretty quickly by submerging the whole thing into the fuel can and the other end has a hose to fill up the tank. I packed everything away, made up my bed, and had everything ready for an early departure.
It was pretty gloomy when I slipped the lines just after 7 am and set off toward Cumbrae Pass to head around the top of Arran. I had just under 40 NM to cover and I hoped to be in Campbeltown by mid-afternoon. The gloominess slowly lifted throughout the day and I had a great sail down Kilbrannan Sound arriving in Campbeltown just after 1400. Campbeltown Marina is a nice wee stop-over for heading around Kintyre or across to Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, they had decided not to open up the showers this season – no matter, only me on the boat! There is no Harbour Master’s Office, the HM runs things from his own boat and they have an honesty box. I walked up to the town to find a bank and I was struck that it wasn’t quite as depressing and run-down as I remember from a previous visit a few years ago. I stopped off in The Back Sheep pub in the Royal Hotel hoping to get a pint and something to eat. On the way to the bank, I got chatting with a young guy at the marina gate with a pile of camera kit. He was filming for a BBC travel show which is to be broadcast next year, he said he wasn’t allowed to say any more than that! The hotel was full of BBC production staff so they weren’t serving food to the public, just guests – so back to the boat.
I had an early start to catch the tide around the Kintyre and to push me across the North Channel. It was a better day when I set off just after 0730. It cleared as I was passing Sanda Island and a nice southerly got up. I pulled out the sails and these, along with a strong tidal stream, I made great progress and arrived in Glenarm well before my anticipated time. I really like Glenarm, it’s a wonderful wee marina. Facilities are perhaps needing a bit of an upgrade, but it’s the only marina laundry I know of where the only thing you need to buy is laundry powder – it’s free to use the machines! There’s not much to the village, a couple of pubs, a grocery shop, an antique shop and there’s a castle with extensive grounds and walks. After an early start, it was early to bed!
I was staying a couple of nights in Glenarm before I headed north to Ballycastle and decided to investigate the castle and its grounds for the day. I bought a ticket online for the Walled Garden and set off. When I was last here we went to the coffee shop, but there seemed to be a lot more activity this time with various gift shops and craft centres open. The garden was lovely and despite being in the middle of September, there was a surprising amount of colour on show. I spent an hour and a half wandering around before I headed for the coffee shop when it started raining. When it stopped I made my way back to the village and had a nosey around there. Glenarm doesn’t look much from the main road and the street where the pubs are is a bit run down, but further in there are some fine buildings and houses. The two pubs in Glenarm are literally next door to each other. Of the two, I much prefer The Coast Road Inn where the cliental and owner are friendlier. Neither pub serves food, but it is possible to order a takeaway from one of the restaurants in the next village and have it delivered to the pub. I went up to watch some European football and had a great time chatting with the locals – and it was a good game as well!
The trip north from Glenarm to Ballycastle is just under 23 NM and with a following tide, it wouldn’t take any longer than about four hours. The tidal stream started running north just after nine so I started getting ready to leave around 0830 and left Glenarm at 0845. There was less wind than predicted but there was a horrible swell coming from the SE which had me rolling about for most of the passage until I started heading a bit more west as I reached the top of Ireland. I tried putting out the headsail a few times to see if that would make me a bit more stable but the wind just wasn’t strong enough to fill the sail, so I suffered. As it turned out, I made the passage in just over three hours at an average speed of nearly 7 knots. The Harbour Master at Ballycastle is a wonderful man who can’t do enough to help and was waiting on the pontoon to help me tie up.
Ballycastle is a bustling seaside town which is split into two main parts. There’s the harbour and marina area which is popular with bikers and tourists alike and has a nice beach, some shops a couple of pubs and the famous Mortons Fish and Chip Shop. Regular craft fairs are held here on a Sunday in the summer next to the harbour. The other part is further inland about a twenty-minute walk up from the harbour and has all the shops, pubs and restaurants you would expect. The main part of the town has a couple of the oldest pubs in the area, The Boyds Arms and The House of McDonnell. The House of McDonnell was originally a Spirit Grocery, something that seems to be peculiar to Ireland where a retail business, usually a grocer or hardware store, was combined with a pub. Both of the pubs have many of their original features and well worth a visit.
The Autumnal Equinox arrives on Wednesday 22nd when the amount of daylight almost exactly matches the amount of darkness and usually heralds a change in the weather to more unsettled conditions. True to form, a low-pressure weather system is due to pass north of the UK on the 22nd and with it a break down in the weather we have been enjoying with more wind and rain forecast for Northern Ireland and Scotland. An early start on Monday to make the crossing back to Campbeltown – it’s coming into spring tides so it made for a fairly rapid crossing.
The tidal stream across from Northern Ireland and across the North Channel started at around 0540. Whilst not quite managing the start of the flow, I crept out of Ballycastle at 0615. It’s a tight wee marina with not a lot of room to manoeuvre and my situation was made worse by Jess being tightly moored between two large diving boats – the catamaran type. Fortunately, there was a gentle southerly blowing and with a bit of poling, gentle use of the engine and being blown off by the breeze, I made it out safely and was soon passing Fair Head doing eight knots and building up speed. I was treated to the most wonderful sunrise as I was heading toward Scotland – just stunning!
My average speed across the North Channel was 8.5 knots and I arrived at Sanda Island in just three hours and was passing the entrance to Campbeltown Loch just before 1000. I had intended stopping at Campbeltown for the night but I was making such good progress, that I decided to continue – and anyway, 10 am is a bit early to pack up for the day, The only drawback is that there are few overnight stops going north from Campbeltown. There are moorings at Carradale and anchorages at Blackwaterfoot. Then, of course, there’s Lochranza. I didn’t fancy a mooring so I decided to make for Tarbert. The passage would be nearly 60 NM but I had made a good start and I was still getting tide. As things turned out, I got tide nearly all the way and a bonus sail up Kilbrannan Sound and arrived in Tarbert just before 1530, after 9 hours and at an average speed of over 6.5 knots – I was well chuffed. I went to the office and paid my dues, had a shower and took a walk into the village and The Islay Frigate. Two pints later and I was done and ready to go back to the boat and get something to eat. In bed and asleep before 9 pm!
The final leg of my journey took me from Tarbert back to Largs across Inchmarnock Water. This is not my favourite bit of water as it is often choppy with short swell and wave frequency particularly when the wind is from the SE or SW. There was a SW forecast but the sea looked pretty flat. I had put up the mainsail just after leaving Tarbert and about half an hour out I was able to pull out some headsail and had a terrific sail all the way to Garroch Head where I needed to turn and make for Cumbrae Pass between Little and Great Cumbrae. There has been a NATO exercise taking place on the Clyde in the past few days. I had seen lots of small warships and I came across this French minesweeper travelling quickly south. I also had to stop to let a large container ship pass.
It was a terrific trip and the weather was very kind with great conditions for crossing the North Channel and I did get some sailing in despite the general lack of wind. This was most likely the last long trip of the season, but I do hope that I can get out for the odd day or weekend in the next few weeks.