Last time I travelled to Scotland was in 2002. I was a student still and I hitched my way around Scotland and mainly the Inner and Outer Hebrides, visiting many of the islands. Within our sailing team, we talked about going to Scotland for several years and this year we finally went. If you want to read about our short trip, keep reading.
Friday night we flew from Prague to Glasgow, overnighted there and in the morning did some provisions shopping and walkabout of Glasgow city centre. Around noon we took an Uber straight to Largs marina, since the cost was equivalent of us taking the train and then a taxi from Largs railway station to the marina. The marina is situated about 3 kilometers from Largs centre, a nice stroll by the coast, but obviously sans the luggage we had with us.
We had the boat booked from Flamingo Yachts, who have the office right in the marina. We reserved Phoenix, a brand new Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 349. A smaller boat, but since we were just six crew members, we thought it would be sufficient. When we visited the charter office, we had an interesting conversation, that went something like this:
“Hello there, we’re here to pickup Phoenix,” we said as we entered.
“No, you’re not,” replied the manager.
“Phoenix is not finished yet, you can see it right there, out of the water, it’s not fully fitted,” he said with a dead serious face.
At this moment, my heart sunk. You see, originally, we were supposed to go a week later, but due to scheduling problems of one of our crew members, we had to change the reservation for an earlier date. And now I thought to myself: ‘They never changed the reservation and had been preparing the boat for next week.’ Well, we can always take the ferry to the isles, right?
“But don’t worry!”, said the manager with a little smile. “We have another boat ready for you and in fact, it’s a better one: The Voyager.”
Phew. The trip was saved. We signed the paperwork and checked the boat out. She was also a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey, but slightly larger 389. Made in 2014, she was almost like new. In fact, I was much happier that we did not get the brand new boat, as new boats usually have some quirks and defects from manufacturing and fitting, and you basically have to finish the construction yourself, more often than not.
Half of the crew went shopping to Largs Morrisons for food and drinks and the rest made the boat ready for departure. We wanted to leave port today.
After storing everything inside, we immediately departed. Our plan was to take an overnight trip past the south end of Isle of Arran and Mull of Kintyre to Port Ellen on Islay. The forecast showed very little wind and maybe a bit of light rain.
When we were getting close to Arran, I was at the helm and saw a weird shape in the water, that seemed to be moving. I told myself: ‘This looks like a submarine.’ And guess what? It was a submarine. Apparently, there is a Royal Navy base in the Clyde and the nuclear submarines are practising in the area. Well, that was a first for me. Fortunately, they did not fire any torpedoes at us and neither did their reactor melt, so all was well. As a bonus, a group of dolphins appeared and greeted us, as the sky was getting dark.
It was already night, when we were passing the southern tip of Arran. We’ve seen a large pyre burning in the hills, probably somewhere around Lagg.
We set up shifts for the night passage. I was woken up around 3 in the morning. It was pitch black, with light drizzle and fog. We were passing the Mull of Kintyre. The visibility of navigation lights was about half a mile. Not great but still workable. As we approached the southern tip, where the strait is at it’s narrowest, the current became really strong. We were doing 5 knots against water, but 10 knots over ground. The water became really choppy. I wondered how would we do it, if we were going the other way. We’d probably be fighting the current for a while or would have to wait for the tide to turn. Interestingly, just few hundred meters after passing thru the strait, the sea became calm again and the current came down to mere 1 or 2 knots.
At dawn my shift ended and I went to sleep. I was woken up by the sound of the guys preparing to moor at the Islay marina in Port Ellen. The marina is small, but equipped with all you need, with clean showers and toilets. The only drawback is, that the facilities are open only during the day, so if you come in very late or very early, you have to wait for the morning.
We made breakfast and prepared to spend a day on the island. Local fishermen started unloading and sorting the crabs and lobsters they caught. I asked them where the crustaceans are headed and they surprised me with their answer — to Spain. That’s globalization for you.
Islay is home of several distilleries, some of them really prominent, so that was our plan for the day. To visit three distilleries that are close to Port Ellen: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. It was sunny and quite hot, very unusual for Scotland. The Three distilleries walk is about 4 miles. The Ardbeg distillery was closed for the day, because it was recovering from yesterday’s festival. But a nice lady welcomed us anyway and we got a dram and some cheese — leftovers from the festival. Lagavulin and my personal favourite, Laphroaig, were open, so we also got a little dram there. I am a member of the Friends of Laphroaig club, which comes with ownership of a square foot of a peat field. When I visited, the distillery paid me my rent with a miniature bottle of Laphroaig 10yo. Now that’s what I call customer care.
The next day we set out to the small island of Colonsay. We sailed around the south-east shore of Islay thru the narrow Sound of Jura, past two more distilleries of Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain. After clearing the strait, we suddenly encountered fog again. Fortunately the fog lifted before we came close to Colonsay.
We planned to stay at Scalasaig port, which supposedly had few places to tie the boat at the pier. When we arrived, there were already two boats alongside the only suitable place and they were not too happy to have yet another boat tied to them. So we went just around the corner to the west into a shallow bay, which provided some cover and anchored there for the night. We went ashore using our dinghy and walked to the local monument with beautiful views of the small village of Scalasaig. We were surrounded by sheep, grazing on the ever green grass of Colonsay.
Iona and Mull
Our next destination was Mull and mainly it’s smaller sibling, Iona. After anchoring the boat near Fionphort we again used our dinghy to get ashore. The main tourist attraction on Iona is the Iona Abbey. This still active monastery draws pilgrims mainly from UK. The whole Iona island is a protected territory, where only the locals can bring their vehicles and camping is prohibited. We climbed to a hill near Fionphort with a beautiful view of the whole island, the Sound of Iona and western shores of Mull.
The anchorage in the Sound of Iona was not very protected and the ferries and bigger boats passing around made us uneasy about spending the night here, so we decided to move to a more protected place. We found a suggested anchorage called Tinkers hole at the south-west corner of Mull. When we arrived there, we found out that the name really fit. It was a hole alright. It was a very narrow bay surrounded by fairly high and steep rock cliffs. The boat was only about 10 meters from the rocks on all sides, but it seemed safe enough so we spent the night there.
From Mull we started our return journey. We sailed along the southern shores of Mull into the narrow Cuan Sound between the isles of Seil in the north and Luing in the south. The waters around Cuan Point can be a little choppy with water eddies and strong tidal streams, so make sure you check the tide calendar. Going thru the canal seemed more like river cruising than sailing the sea.
Up or down?
Craobh Haven marina welcomed us with mirror-like water and almost tropical temperatures. We spent the evening in The Lord of the Isles pub, tasting some of the local food and beers.
In the morning we set out for a short trip to Crinan with a plan to enter the famous Crinan canal. The canal is 9 miles long, with 15 locks — which is a set of two water gates which allow the boat to go up from the sea level to the highest point of 32 feet above sea level and back down again.
Three of the locks are machine-operated, but most of them are manual. Which means when you approach the entry gate, someone has to leave the boat, open the gate, close the gate, open the sluices, let the chamber fill or empty, depending on where you are going, close the sluices, open the exit gate and close it behind you. Repeat 12 times. We’ve found that going up is a bit more difficult, as the water is rushing in from the higher ground into the chamber, which can create quite a bit of current.
Holding the boat in place when going up requires a bit more strength
We planned to go all the way to Lochgilphead or Ardrishaig, but we took things slow, even had a swim. When we approached the lock near Cairnbaan around 16:30, one of the canal workers informed us, that they will be closing soon and we cannot go any further. So we moored the boat for that day and went for a two-mile hike to Lochgilphead to get some dinner and few pints. I’ve had probably the best fish and chips ever in a small café on the Argyll street in Lochgilphead.
We had to go back the two miles to our boat as the sun went down already. At that time we were reminded that we were in Scotland, because a swarm of midges appeared out of nowhere and enveloped us. We tried to keep them off the boat, but failed miserably. So the night was not very peaceful, as we had to fend off the little beasts. The repellent we had was not much help. I scratched the itching caused by these guys for a week.
Back to Largs
In the morning, as soon as the canal workers unlocked the gates, we continued our journey thru the locks to the last one in Ardrishaig. The last gate is again machine operated and also involves raising, or rather turning aside, a bridge over the canal.
We then continued the final leg of our journey thru Lower Loch Fyne, past isle of Bute and between Great and Little Cumbrae isles to Largs. We filled the diesel tank at the marina fuel station and went for a final dinner to Largs town, which is about two miles north from the marina. Largs is quite a lively seaside town, with many pubs and restaurants.
Half of our crew left in the morning with a taxi for Glasgow airport. We returned the boat without any issues and the remaining three of us left with a taxi to the Largs train station, where we took a train to Glasgow and Edinburgh, subsequently. There we spent the rest of the day exploring this beautiful city.
I’d definitely like to spend more time cruising the Hebrides, so I hope to return some day for at least two weeks, to have time to go to Outer Hebrides.