"What's next?" they asked when we finished the Three Peaks Yacht Race in 2016 (and having completed the Scottish Islands Peaks Race twice before). Well, participating in the Irish equivalent of the Three Peaks Yacht Race would be a great next step.
One problem: There is no Irish Three Peaks Yacht Race.
Answer? Make one!
Hence: The Irish Sailing and Mountaineering Adventure Challenge!
View the awesome video of the 'If not now, then when' team at the Three Peaks Yacht Race 2016
Left to right: Stuart Aitken, Rob McCaffrey, Kate Standeven, Dennis Earl, Martin West, James Glasspool
Right: Five crew, luggage and two weeks' provisions, fitted into the back of a 1989-vintage Volvo 850.
Sailing the boat to Barmouth was not an inconsiderable feat in itself, and deserves some mention. Six of us undertook the delivery, including our 'sixth wheel,' emergency stand-in James Glasspool. We first sailed from Largs to Lamlash bay on Arran, anchoring next to Holy Island and setting our first overnight anchor watch. Next day we sailed or rather motored to Ailsa Craig in glassy calm conditions, putting a party ashore while anchoring on the bouldery seabed. Ailsa Craig is managed as a bird reserve and is the third most important gannetry in the world, while we also saw guillemots, razorbills and puffins. The ruined buildings of the old riebeckite-granite curling stone quarry were fascinating to explore. Rowing back to the boat we rescued a racing pigeon that was sitting bedraggled in the water, feeding and watering 'her' in a cardboard box in the cockpit and giving most of us a great deal of pleasure in having an unexpected companion onboard.
We then undertook a very long overnight motor down the Rhinns of Galoway to St Mary Port on the southern end of the Isle of Man, arriving at dawn, all quite tired. The pigeon, however, obviously felt rested, and flew off while we were having our breakfast, oddly enough back in the general direction of Ailsa Craig, now some 50 miles away. Kate Standeven and myself took the bold decision to try and climb the highest peak on the island, Snaefell, and using island buses and despite the TT Races snarling up timetables, we achieved this during a long and tiring day.
|The first light of the next morning saw us in a difficult position. With perhaps a dozen miles to go to Caernarfon Bar, over which we would not be able to pass with the low water levels due in a few hours and with the tide about to set against us, we decided to fly the spinnaker in anger for the first time. A clean hoist and some nice 'kite' flying from crew mates Kate and Dennis saw us safely over the Bar just in time, with Team Excellence and an army team close by. Martin West helmed the boat in tricky tides to drop off myself and Kate at 6am at Caernarfon to start our run. We trotted along the quiet country road to the bottom of the Ranger's Path, and then walked most of the way up to the top of Snowdon in increasingly wet and windy conditions, seeing the army lads coming down near the top. We ran down the Llanberis path quite fast, passing hundreds of Marie Curie charity walkers on their bedraggled and ramshackle way up. Once down at Llanberis we tried to step on the gas, but our legs were tired by that point, so a decent jog had to suffice to bring us back to Caernarfon, finishing in a highly respectable five hours (eighth fastest out of sixteen teams).|
Martin again used skill to pick us up from the old Shell pier, and we set out to sail the tricksy Menai Straits, passing the grounded Go Ape boat on our way. One of the other boats, Team Excellence, retired from the race at this point, deciding to motor instead. Very light airs and a northerly wind saw us tacking up to the most difficult part of the leg, the narrow, rock-bound Swellies, though which the tide washes at up to 6knots, and which luckily for us was flowing with us at this point. We used the oars to gain boat speed and steerability and using our reconnaissance of the trip down managed to avoid the many rocky perils, passing under the Menai Bridge with some relief. However, the tide was soon to turn against us and with a dying wind, we rowed onto a mooring in Beaumaris on Anglesey. Here the crew surprised me with a wonderful chocolate birthday cake and a nice card, and I opened up presents and cards that I had brought with me for my 49th birthday: what a way to spend it.
Just as the birthday cake crumbs were being cleared away, a zephyr sprang up, just enough to allow us to sail off the mooring and into the dying adverse tide and to catch up with two other boats that had been toiling valiantly but ineffectively as we had been enjoying our cake in the afternoon sun: the now refloated Go Ape and our friends on Scimitar. We three boats were neck and neck around Puffin Island at the northern end of the Menai Straits, and enjoyed half an hour of close racing in light airs, with oars and spinnakers used to gain any advantage. Finally the breeze filled in and Scimitar sailed away, benefiting from being half our weight, while the three oar configuration of Go Ape which meant that they could row their boat at 2 knots in no wind meant that they pulled away from us as well. We were in last place again, but still racing.
At this point in the race, the leaders were still only about six hours ahead of us, in the unusual wind patterns of this year's race. Normally the event enjoys southerly or south-westerly winds, but so far there had either been winds with a northerly component or next to no winds at all. We spent the night very slowly sailing north and apparently sailed too close to a gas rig, since they sent a safety vessel ten miles from the other end of the gas field to warn us off in no uncertain terms. In frustratingly light winds we seemed to drift into Whitehaven after a very long day, rowing the last mile around St Bees Head, depositing our athletes Dennis Earl and Martin West at 8pm to pick up their bikes handily delivered to us by super-supporter Brian Morris, and to start on the next leg.
The lads cycled their mountain bikes though the industrial outskirts of Whitehaven to Black Sail Youth Hostel and then running via an ascent of Wasdale Head to Scafell Pike in the dark and driving rain, fording knee-high torrents of mountain streams in spate, in somewhat extreme conditions. They encountered all of the teams coming down, as well as the pair from Scimitar who had tough time on the hill and who retired from the race at this point. The chaps enjoyed an exhilarating descent on their bikes in the early morning light and were back in a time of 11.59, very respectable for the tough conditions that they encountered on the hills. Brian picked up the bikes, the chaps had a quick shower and we were away again, chasing the rest of the pack and with the army boat still in view.
Still with very light northerly airs, we slowly rounded the southernmost Rhinns of Galloway as the sun was setting, spending the whole night slowly sailing towards the Mull of Kintyre. The crew of the army boat eventually put into Portpatrick, retiring from the race but driving up to Fort William to climb Ben Nevis all the same, for completeness. It was around this time that the winners of the race, Aparito Digital finished (full respect to this all-woman team for beating everyone else!). With the benefit of some good sailing and some favourable tides, we managed to pass the Mull of Kintyre by passing it far to starboard, heading up towards Islay, before tacking back in towards Gigha. Around this point, the wind freshened and until the end of the race we had perhaps 20 knots of wind, peaking at 29 knots (F7, just), although still northerly. Despite a frustrating night, the next morning saw us sailing up through the picturesque islands of the Sound of Jura, and some hardscrabble tacking finally saw us through the crucial tidal gate at the Sound of Luing. Having Fladda island behind us was a significant marker for me: now the end was almost in sight. However, we still had a hard day of sailing ahead of us, needing to sail north into a northerly wind. North of Lismore we accidentally and temporarily switched off the domestic battery and all the navigational instruments, leaving us temporarily 'blind,' which was a salutary lesson in the pros and cons of modern technology.
It should be mentioned that we ate like kings throughout the trip, with memorable meals including chicken and chorizo pasta, a stunning soup from Kate, and boeuf bourgiugnon - and we entered into the spirit of well-known baking afficionado Bill Tilman by baking several fresh loaves on the yacht. An early calamity was running out of gin for our nightly gin 'n' tonics. However, such was the quality of the cooking on board - and the quantity of cake that we scarfed down at every opportunity - that I gained five pounds during the trip.
|We finally came to the biggest 'stopper' in the race - the Corran Narrows, where an entire sea-loch empties out through a narrow constriction and where other boats have sometimes been stopped for six hours by the tide. We had a northerly wind and needed to sail north against perhaps four knots of tide. We snuck up as close as we could in the slower-tide shallows, but then finally had to face the beast, tacking for all we were worth across the deep and fast-flowing narrows themselves, making perhaps only ten or twenty feet with each pair of tacks. It was desperate stuff, with Dennis and Martin grinding the sails in as fast as they could with Kate and Stuart, tiring all the time, and with me on the helm taking the yacht in as near into the steep-to shore as I dared in order to make the most of each tack and to benefit from the slower tide at the edges of the current. Each tack would take us a little further north to our destination and with a final two crackingly good tacks, we passed into calmer waters, earning a small round of respectful applause from the crew of the watching Corran Narrows ferry. We did well to get through and this was a high point of the trip for me and for the rest of the crew.|
|We had a laborious sail up to Fort William, finally arriving in the dark and having to row over the finish line as the wind died on us once again, which somehow seemed a fitting end to such a sailing race of contrasts. In the pitch black of midnight Martin somehow found a boat to raft up against and myself and Stuart Aikman started on the final running leg. Stuart set a cracking pace at the start, but with Ailsa Craig, Sneafell, Bardsey Island and Snowdon still weighing heavily in my legs, I struggled to keep up on the four mile run in to the Tourist Path up Ben Nevis. As we started to walk up the very rough path, my exhaustion through sleep deprivation started to become debilitating and I had my doubts about finishing, even after all the efforts that had gone before. I was literally sleepwalking up the hill, stumbling occasionally very close to the edge of the precipitous path. Thankfully Stuart never suggested a nap, because I would have gone to sleep, stiffened up and that would have been the end of my run and the whole endeavour. We ascended into the drizzly clouds in the grey dawn, slipping up swathes of snow still left over from winter, finally finding ourselves to be the first people on top of the highest mountain in Britain at 5am.|
With the arrival of dawn's early light I seemed to rally and both Stuart and myself had a cracking fast run down the rough path to the bottom, losing the height that had taken us four hours to gain in only one hour of descent. On the run back into Corpach for the race finish, it was Stuart's turn to hurt while I seemed to gain a second wind, feeling stronger on the last two or three miles than at any time on the Ben Nevis run. Finally, at 7.20am, Stuart and I flopped over the finish line to the warm congratulations of the rest of the crew, Kate, Martin and Dennis, to be awarded medals by the waiting marshals and to congratulate ourselves on finally having completed this hardest of hard races. It had taken all of us to the limits of our endurance, but we had persevered. We had finished the race.
We were recipients of 'The Last Inn Trophy' for being the last finishers (finishing inside the time limit for the race, which was 6pm on the day we finished) finishing 13th out of 16 official starters; the Lachaber Watersports Qaich for the being the first yacht based in Scotland to finish, and, best of all, The Anarchy Trophy, for ‘The best effort among the smaller amateur yachts, as decided by the race committee.'
Huge thanks and kudos to all the other crews, and to the organisers and marshals of this awesome race.
The whole race can be reviewed on the GPS trackers we carried at all times, at the Yellow Brick web site.
It had been a tiring and challenging two weeks, but with good humor, great teamwork and a willingness to chip in, we had got through it with barely a cross word spoken. As I mentioned to the crew over our celebratory champagne, we were like links in a chain - if any link had failed, then our race would have been at an end. As it was, we were strong enough to complete this most difficult and challenging of sailing and mountain running races.
Our video of a sailing trip from the Hamble to Alderney, to run in the Alderney Half Marathon and 10k, and thence to Sark, the magical island from beyond time, and then back, via a fabulous night sail and the Needles, to Newtonw River and back to the Hamble, in September 2015.
This was the second attempt of the ‘Old Dogs’ to complete the Scottish Islands Peaks Race - albeit with only two of the original ‘dogs’ from the 2013 crew. In 2013 we retired from the race when trying to round the Mull of Kintyre against the tide and with no wind (D’Oh!), but we did complete the course: knowledge that was to come in very handy in 2014. In 2014, Robert McCaffrey (me, 46) was skipper, again, and Harry Longman, 52, was lead runner and mountain navigator, having competed in the race three times before but never yet having had the pleasure of finishing the race. New on board were Kate Standeven, 42, a strong runner from Bath, Patrick Martin (59), and Stuart Aikman, 52. Robert, Patrick and Stuart are all members of Dorking and Mole Valley Athletics Club, way down in Surrey.
For us, getting to the start line is quite a feat in itself. First we drove up to Hamilton and stayed with my (Rob’s) brother Danni. Then a quick trip via a major Tesco shop to Largs to load up the boat and to fit the rowlocks (made in the engineering workshops of the Hunterston nuclear power station of nuclear-grade stainless steel, so that they glow in the dark), and to set out for Ardrishaig - the start of the Crinan Canal. Starting through the canal first thing the next morning, we enjoyed bucolic scenes and a serene pace, friendly locals and a relaxing ambiance all the way through, even giving a couple of little boys and their mum a jolly-boat ride as we went through the penultimate lock. With the wind on the nose, we motored up to Oban and found a snug berth at the marina on Kerrera. We took the water taxi over to the race HQ at Oban Yacht Club, and enjoyed a ‘Kilt lifter’ ale while chatting to a few of the crews - which was great. Stuart joined us here, slightly bewildered from having flown in from an Australian holiday a few days beforehand.
First thing the next morning we attended to our remaining chores and motored over to a mooring buoy just shy of the start line. We put our two best runners ashore to start the SIPR 2014 for us: Kate and Harry. At 12 o’clock sharp, they were off, with the Old Dogs momentarily in the lead due to a sprint from Harry off the start line - although it was not to last. We finished the Oban run around two thirds of the way down the field, out of 42 crews to enter the race in 2014. We had a south westerly to leave the crowded bay - past the luxury yacht of Jim Ratcliffe, owner of the Ineos chemicals group, but soon found that we were dead last within a few miles, partly due to the relative slowness of our boat ‘Firebird’ and the designed arrangement of its sails (and our sailing skills, perhaps?).
Pictured left is Stuart on the helm, on the way to Salen.
We were last in to Salen on Mull, at 6pm, and set off in heavy rain that - for us - didn’t last long. We met the leading runners coming back from Ben More while we were still running in on the road to the hill - they were impressively fast-looking, as were the other half dozen crews we saw coming back. After the first checkpoint inland of Loch Ba, we set off for a very wet and windy yomp through the bogs of Mull to the top of Ben More, where we found one other pair of runners sheltering in their blizzard bags from the storm, hypothermic, waiting to be rescued: we left them as dark was falling at around 10pm and carried on to gain the summit a few minutes later. They were helicoptered off later when the clouds lifted from the tops. So, we weren't dead last any more. We found our checkpoints very quickly, thanks to Harry’s experience and a very powerful head-torch and we motored on down, taking a high line along the valley side to avoid the bogs lower down. The moon arose over Loch Ba in the stillness of the night, and we ran back to the finish for just after 2am - the marshals were surprised to see us 'so soon' - we took just over 8 hours and had the 37th fastest time - not quite the slowest, but still not bad for 23 miles and a Munro! We rowed back to the boat in the dark, but there was no wind, so after a feed, we all went to bed.
Pictured right is Nick Macdonald (right), Harry, Kate and another valiant marshal, at the end of the Mull run.
|Rowing out from Salen into the Sound of Mull at 6am on the Saturday morning, we saw eight boats ahead that had spent the night in a flat calm. I saw the GPS chart plot of yacht Gawaine - it looked like the peregrinations of a drunken slug, since they had drifted with no wind at the mercy of the tides the whole night. The wind got up and they sailed away, but the wind eventually came to us as well and we chased off after them. The wind increased and increased, until rounding Duart Castle on Mull, we were in a fresh F5: However, it eventually became apparent that we would miss the tidal gate at the Gulf of Luing (7 knots against you - no way through), so we headed for Cuan Sound. Switching on the engine, we motored in against a tide of around 6.5 knots - at top revs we only just made it. We found one other boat there, Capricorn, on their skipper’s fifth attempt to finish the race. We rafted up with them (having lost our anchor and anchor windlass controller in the space of 10 extraordinary seconds) and had a good natter. They left at 7.30pm to try to get through the tidal gate and to sail down to Jura in the night, but we fancied a kip, so we had another meal and all went to bed again. Amazingly, the winners of the race, Clockwork, finished at 2.03am on the Sunday morning in just 43 hours. Full respect! However, during the Saturday and over into Sunday, many yachts had battered themselves in trying to sail down to Craighouse Bay in ‘fresh’ conditions and against spring tides (even taking the outside track to the west of Jura - like yacht Caol Ila), but had variously succumbed to seasickness, exhaustion or both.|
|We left very first thing the next morning, at around 5.30am on the Sunday, sailing to regain the point at which we had switched on the engine the previous evening. We tacked through the tidal gate just fine at around slack tide, and then sailed with the tide down to Craighouse Bay in bracing conditions - but as nothing compared to what had faced the earlier competitors. That is one of the odd things about the race - depending on the time you take, you can experience totally different conditions from the other competitors - perhaps much worse but perhaps much better. As we arrived at the northern end of Craighouse Bay on Jura, the tide turned against us and the wind dropped to near zero: We rowed for half an hour, deluding ourselves that we were making progress, and only managed to make any headway when we turned into the bay itself to get out of the tidal stream. Never having thought of the necessity of sailing the ‘inside’ length of the bay, the charts were quickly scrutinised in detail and a course through the relative shallows plotted (shown left). A delicate sail inside the islands finally brought us to the mooring. We saw a number of other boats heading the ‘wrong’ way at this point - having retired from the race after their runners finished the run, mostly due to rotten conditions on the Paps of Jura. We had taken 38 hours from leaving Mull to arriving at Jura, but due to the number of boats that had retired on the way, we were only the 28th slowest (Capricorn took 28 hours, Firedancer had taken 34 hours). Yes, we were 28th and slowest, but moving through the field.|
|Kate, Harry and myself rowed ashore and after a kit check from the friendly marshals in the village hall (and a chance meeting with the friendly manager of the Jura Whiskey distillery), we once again set off as a team, at 4.05pm, running up the road and then over onto the tussocky bogs, through the ‘false paps’ and eventually onto the first of the Paps. Cloud base was down to about 300m, but it meant that at least we found the first Pap - not a given. Up the first, up the second, up the third and down - seeing hardly anything due to the cloud. Alas, at least one other team went up the first, up the second, traversed around the second and back up the second, failing to find the third: that must have been a bit frustrating. Night fell as we were descending the final pap, but we had a view of the Loch an t-Siob as we attempted to run into the gloom. The bogs in lower parts of the glen have to be experienced to be believed - many times we sunk up to our knees in the dark. Finally we found the last checkpoint at the three-arch bridge (another team had decided not to cross the Corran River below the lochan and had to traverse across the river by the bridge - by which time the river has grown in size to alarming proportions - scary). We felt relatively fresh and had a fast run back to the village hall and were rewarded with Jura whiskey and cake (both parkin and lemon drizzle cake) and a very warm welcome from the marshals - they had expected us to take at least another two hours (we took 7 hours and 13 minutes) and it meant that they could go to bed before midnight. I was a bit warm after the fast run back, so I took most of my kit off - flying the Union flag in Scotland while I still could - while enjoying a wee dram of Jura (thanks to one of the marshals for the photo). We were 23rd fastest out of 27 teams to complete the Paps - the slowest team (Sea Fever), took 10:42 - we can only imagine what nightmare of rain, night navigation and bog they encountered. Back to the boat for midnight, we had a quick meal and then went off to bed - the tides meaning that it was pointless to set out that night.|
|At 10am the next morning, Monday, we sailed off the mooring (with the help of the oars), out into the Sound of Jura (crew, pictured left, with the Paps in the background), where we picked up a fair wind: we actually flew the spinnaker for a couple of hours, and everyone had a go - that was very satisfying indeed. At 4.23pm that afternoon, the final boat in front of us (Sea Fever, final winners of the All-rounders class) finished in Troon. We were absolutely last, but we were still racing, and now were in 18th place. We actually had to slacken speed a little in order to arrive at the Mull of Kintyre tidal window at the right moment. As we arrived, a spectacular wall of cloud rolled on to us, with thunder, lightning, water spouts, a sudden increase in wind speed and wildly varying wind direction - luckily we had already put in two reefs and partially furled the headsail. After the strongest winds had passed, we experienced the heaviest rain that I’ve seen at sea - mixed in with sleet. It was freezing. That was quite an experience. We rounded the Mull of Kintyre as darkness was falling, taking an inside passage to gain the early turn of tide - and sailed on into the night. At least nine other teams retired from the race after completing the Paps on Jura and before arriving at Arran and we know that a number were storm-lashed on the Mull of Kintyre leg (a day or more before our own arrival), or gave up for lack of wind or due to encountering foul tides or the dangerous tidal races off the Mull. A year before, we had retired at this point.|
|We then had four 90 minute watches, Harry, Kate, Patrick and Stuart, with me below checking on progress and on them. It was a pitch-black and stormy night, with the wind rising to F7 - it we could have seen the seas, we probably would have given up and gone home. The crew - especially Patrick and Stuart (pictured right) who had the latest, stormiest watches, did very well. They had yet to run, and it was good that they were relatively fresh for these testing conditions. Oddly enough, in the middle of the night and in the middle of those stormy seas, I encountered a wifi-hotspot, and updated all my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I wonder if it was the hotspot of a submarine? As the sun arose at around 4.30am on Tuesday, we found ourselves off Pladda, at the southermost tip of Arran: the wind going light, we had to struggle to make effective tacks to get into the northern entrance to Lamlash Bay, figuring that there would be no wind in southern entrance to the bay in the wind shadow of Holy Island. At around 10am, after a 24-hour sail, we sailed onto the mooring - again, most satisfying.|
Kate, Harry, Patrick and Stuart then went ashore in the very overloaded dinghy, and ran the Goat Fell leg - knocking it off in benign conditions in just over 6 hours. Back on the boat by about 6pm, which I had cleaned and aired, we sailed off the mooring (another satisfying manoeuvre), and in light airs headed out past Holy Island at a rate of around 1 knot. I gave our ETA as mid-day on Wednesday, and one of the crew asked me if we should just put the motor on. D'Oh! We were going to stay out there drifting all week if we had to - failure was not an option. Fortunately the wind got up just as darkness was falling, along with more torrential rain, so we sailed with alacrity to Troon, finally finding the harbour lights among the plethora of shore lights, just as the wind dropped again. With some tricky sailing, we managed to catch a breeze that took us into the inner harbour and almost to the berth - just before we let go our last two runners and they dinghyed in - sticking to the letter and the spirit of the rules. They came to find us on the pontoon (more good mooring line work in the rain and dark from my crew) and we had a jog up to the race control to finally finish at 00:20 on the morning of Wednesday 21 May - 108 hours after we started. Although we were all exhausted, we were also elated: We had a mix of champagne, wine, porter, lager and Jura whiskey to toast our 'victory.' One crew member had appointments to keep and left the boat at 7am that morning, after 4 hours sleep. It seems that plenty of people were following our slow progress via Twitter and Facebook, even after they had gone home from the race, put the washing in and put their feet up: We had some nice plaudits from the other competitors.
On Wednesday morning we sailed the boat back from Troon to Largs in absolutely perfect weather - blue skies, a warm and constant wind and seas just rough enough. We were off the boat by 4pm - which was when we had arranged to charter the boat until anyway, and we were back down south, in our own sweet beds, at just after midnight. When I went for my lunch the following day in the office, I told my colleagues that if they subsequently heard snoring, that they should leave me for at least half an hour before waking me. Despite the nights we had spent variously at anchor or on moorings, we were all shattered. After all, we reckon that we had perhaps the oldest average age for a crew by a few years. It takes real stamina to be in a race for that long!
We were the 18th and last boat to finish, out of 42 that started. In the all-rounders class, out of seven starters we were the second out of two finishers.
Entry of a boat and crew (Old Dogs) into the Scottish Islands Peaks Race....
Steve and Mike's blog of our race...
Video below: use the controls to vary the resolution - up to HD quality if you wish.
With a team of fellow athletes, we entered a yacht race that saw us sailing 160 miles in the storm-lashed seas on the west coast of Scotland, as well as running up and down a total of five hills over a distance of 60 miles, some in fog, some in the dark. This ‘holiday’ - my idea of heaven - is my wife’s idea of sheer hell.
We have unfinished business with the SIPR!
Below: Video of a sailing training weekend on the Solent, May 2013
Family trip to Falmouth in August 2012
Sailing with the kids on the Solent in February: It can be done!
Skippered by Lewis McCaffrey and onboard Clova
A journey around the southern Inner Hebrides
On Friday morning, I collected Ian from his house in Epsom, and John and Patrick were dropped off at mine: We packed the car, headed around the M25 to Egham to collect Jon (who had driven there from Reading) and then made tracks up the M40 and M6, finally arriving at my brother’s house in Hamilton, just south of Glasgow at 6pm. We headed out for top class fish and chips (and ice cream) at the famous Equi’s, and then to the centre of Hamilton for a quiet pint (fat chance – the pubs are deafening – I must be getting old). Bed for midnight.
Showing our class, next morning we headed to a famous café on an industrial estate, only to find it closed – Asda was the second choice, and did us a full breakfast for a ridiculously low sum – about £2.69, I think. We used the newly-opened M78 to traverse Glasgow at speed, crossed the Erskine Bridge and arrived at Morrisons in Dunbarton at about 10.15. We quickly shopped for all our food and booze, and eventually Lewis (skipper and brother), Richard and Simon arrived from Edinburgh to meet us. We stayed there to have another supermarket breakfast – a ‘sweites früstuck’ or second breakfast in German.
|We headed via the side of Loch Lomond, Crainlarich and Inverary to Ardfern on the west coast, where we shipped our gear on to the eight-berth, 46-foot yacht ‘Clova.’ After a longish wait for the handover, we went through the briefing with Tony, boss of Argyll Yacht Charter, and as soon as that was done, we slipped our mooring lines and headed out to sea.|
We headed south west down Loch Craignish, past the entrance to the Crinan Canal, with Jura on our right and the long finger of the Tayvallich peninsula on our left. Finally we rounded the end of the peninsula and anchored in Loch na Cille, sheltered from the light northerly winds in a very peaceful anchorage. I had been preparing the first meal, chile con carne, so that it was on the table soon after we arrived: Lew’s duty roster was extremely useful throughout the week (two to prepare each meal, two to wash up). A few drinks were taken. Phosphorescence in the water and stars above.
On Sunday morning, we breakfasted and headed south west again, for a speck of land in the Sound of Jura: Eilean Mor. I was up the mast looking for rocks as we headed in to the anchorage, but Lew had a crisis of confidence at the last moment and spun us around to head back out into deeper waters. I was on the first shore party, and roamed around the ancient monuments on this atmospheric island – which is doubly notable for being owned by the Scottish National Party.
A derelict beehive cell is on the south side of the island, and next to it, for additional isolation, is a cave-cum-pit, which I climbed inside and meditated in for five minutes, communing with the ancients. Swapping with the boat crew, Lewis, Richard and myself took it in turns to swim in the sea (me in a wet-suit, them naked): it was perishingly cold. We then capered around – hooting - naked on the deck (to dry out) much to the consternation of the other crewmate on board and to the surprise of a boat load of tourists that passed at that moment.
We then sailed down to the island of Gigha and anchored off Ardminish – possibly a little bit too close to the intended course of the Tayinloan ferry, which gave us a couple of toots and some arm-waving from the captain (or maybe he was just being friendly). We stayed put and went ashore, and saw an idyllic view of a shallow warm sea-beach with families playing in the sun and camper vans and tents on the shore – this would be a great spot for a family holiday.
|Simon had persuaded me to try to climb a crag that he had spotted on his Hebridean travels possibly 20 years before, so the pair of us and Patrick walked along the island’s road in the hot sun to try to find it. Ascending the ridgeback of the island, we finally found it: a 10m overhanging nearly blank face. It had not – apparently – ever been climbed before, since it is somewhat off the beaten track. Simon rigged up a bomb-proof belay for a top rope and I started to try to climb up. I ascended three feet, got stuck, tried half a dozen times to get past a dwarf-problem, managed it and ascended another four or five feet and then the already small holds ended and the overhang increased. I tried three or four times to go further, but my strength was spent and Simon Lowered me down. It had been a tiring 20 minutes! Simon’s climbing friends will no doubt come and polish it off with ease, but still, we reckoned that it would be graded at around E2-3 (E being for ‘extreme’).|
We ambled back to the boat and with the others back on board, we set sail for Port Ellen on Islay. We had a rollicking sail, going west in a cold northerly, and arrived at Port Ellen to find all the other yachts in the marina. We found a mooring buoy and had a bit of a bumpy night.
|On the Monday morning, we cast off and headed south for Rathlin Island, off the north coast of Northern Ireland. This was a place that I had wanted to visit for around 20 years, ever since I was at the Queen’s University of Belfast, so I was really chuffed to finally arrive. Once we had anchored in the sheltered village bay, I put on my running shoes and Union Jack running shorts (I figured I was safe), and headed for the western end of the island over undulating roads and tracks. When I got to the end of the island, I found that Lewis had arrived five minutes before me on the bus, and had descended to the RSPB bird reserve. I went down the stairs and met up with him, and with two very pleasant young lady volunteers who showed us the myriad birds (guillemots, gannets, puffins) nesting on the steep basalt cliffs.|
I ran back (Lew walked) and I managed to get all the way to the far end of the other end of the island, with the mighty cliffs of Fair Head opposite me on the mainland a few miles away. The day was hot and by the time I got back to the village bay, I was very pleased to paddle to my thighs in the cool sea and then to swig a chilly pint of Guinness with the guys in the local pub. Total distance was 14.5 miles: it was a challenging and very satisfying run over the length of the island. Back on board the boat, I was not of very great use to the others, although I did scoff my fair share of Jon’s delicious prawn curry that was served when we arrived at Ballycastle, on the mainland. We continued to rehydrate in a waterfront bar.
|Next day we set off along the coast to try to get a glimpse of the Giant’s Causeway, but because of the rough sea state, a glimpse was all we got, before tacking and heading north again, back to Islay. Our destination was the Lagavulin distillery on the east coast of Islay. This is a tricky anchorage, which can only be attempted by a boat of our size (with a draught of 2.5m) in settled weather. The chart in the pilot book proved to be incorrect, but the description in the book was correct and by carefully following its instructions, we finally made it in and anchored up. A patronising, pompous, red-faced lardy-dah southerner on a fat-arsed yacht reminded us why yachties are sometimes so loathed and, rather than spend another second in his presence (and possibly be held captive by a falling tide), we upped anchor and left, without even going ashore. We will debate this particular episode for years, I feel sure.|
We drifted off Ardmore Point and attempted to catch a few fish (and failed) but finally ended up at anchorage at Aros Bay – an idyllic spot which we shared with many seabirds. We motored to the white sandy beach in our dinghy and walked over to Kildalton Church to see a couple of ancient stone crosses, before we headed back to the boat for another scrumptious meal. Lew set an anchor watch. I had the 2am-3am stint and really enjoyed it: I took my sleeping bag and a couple of cushions and made myself comfortable, and spent most of the hour star-watching in perfectly clear skies. Marvelous.
|Next morning we motored up the Sound of Islay, past a few more distilleries and along the coast of Jura to anchor in Loch Tarbert, which nearly cleaves Jura in two. We motored ashore – a long way since the bay is shoal – to Glenbatrick – where one of Britain’s landed gentry – Lord Astor – maintains a ‘little’ holiday cottage and where his son was spending six weeks summer holiday.|
|We headed up the long ridge of Sron Bheithe, where Lew and I saw two deer and a stag and plenty of foxgloves, and eventually made it to the top of Beinn an Oir (785m), one of the three Paps of Jura, in absolutely perfect conditions. In our youth we might have tried to climb the other two (indeed, ten years previously, we did), but maturity drove us down to the valley, where we saw an adder and sundews – the carnivorous bog-dwelling plants. I had a quick swim in a lochan on the side of the hills – especially quick on account of the voracious cleggs, the horseflies that can bite you through your clothes.|
Back on the boat, we had our dinner and then we upped anchor and started to head up the loch, as the forecast weather change swept over us and it began to rain. Despite Loch Tarbert supposedly being the most remote spot in the Hebrides, there were another half dozen yachts in the upper loch, although if it had been the Solent, it would have been six hundred. We had another anchor watch, but it was less pleasant than the first, there being no stars to see, and the rain made it rather damp.
On the Thursday, our penultimate full day, we sailed over to Oronsay in a very stiff breeze. We anchored up, but once again, maturity won the day and we decided not to motor ashore in a force 7. It was a close decision though. Instead, Lew decreed that we should use the best of the wind and sail to Loch Spelve on the east coast of Mull, whereupon he retired to his bunk. We took turns helming, and five hours later, arrived in the evening calm and sunshine, negotiated the narrow entrance to the loch and moored up. We went ashore and chatted with the proprietor of the mussel farm (fascinating) who knew Tony, the yacht charter boss. Back on board for another scrummy meal (might have been Patrick’s lamb tagine) and a few more beers (+ wine and whiskey). Slept well.
|On our final full day, we really went for it. We sailed down to the Black Isles, two of the islands in the confusion of islands off the north tip of Jura. We anchored between Eilean dubh Beag and Eilean dubh Mor, and enjoyed watching the seals sporting in the clear water. We went ashore on Eilean dubh Mor and although there was not a huge amount to see on the island itself, it does sit in the middle of everywhere, and is one of the very few places I’ve ever been where you can stand at the top of the island and see sea all the way around you. Eilean dubh Beag is used to strand children upon as part of an outwards bound course.|
|Next we headed past Belnahua – the slate island that was quarried out hollow – and Fladda with its well-known lighthouse, against a fast tidal race, to anchor off the east coast of Lunga, at a place called Poll nan Corran. I yomped over to see the Gulf of the Grey Dogs (Bealach a Choin Ghlais), an infamous and narrow tidal race with an islet in its middle. It was flowing but looked passable to me. I checked out the spring on the southernmost bay of the island, but it was just a moist dribble, reflecting the dryness of all of the islands we had visited and due to the dry first half of the year. Before leaving Lunga, I donned my wetsuit and had a ten minute snorkel among the kelp on the coast – magical stuff, and not nearly as cold as the other day. While swimming, Lewis and Simon had finally had some luck with the mackerel lines and by the time I got back to the boat they had caught 20 of them. While wondering whether to stop fishing, they caught another ten fish.|
|We headed south past the east coast of the bulk of Scarba and gingerly nosed in to the famous Gulf of Corryvreckan – home to Britain’s most notorious tidal race and its largest whirlpool – the Hag. Although we had timed our arrival for slack water, it was still quite a lively place, with eddies, confused waves and a general melancholy air. We saw dolphins close by the boat, and also a minke whale around 60m away, right in the midst of the roughest water.|
We set sail and headed for the Dorus Mor, another notorious tidal race, which gave us some hairy moments and some heated arguments about navigation, helmsmanship, passage planning and lines of command. However, we safely rounded the skerries – and seals - off the south end of Island Macaskin and motored along the narrow southern side of Loch Craignish to anchor off Eilean nan Gabhar – islet of the goats. I had anchored here a few years before and had dreamed of going ashore, which this time I did. It was very hard going, and I only just made it back to the boat in time for tea. Dinner was mackerel – baked, filleted and plenty of them. After this final meal and a few toasts, we upped anchor and motored the last remaining mile to Ardfern, where we tied up alongside the pontoon and did our best to polish off the last of the food and booze.
Next morning, we divvied up the remaining food, transferred all our gear into the cars, and set off, hardly stopping until we had crossed the border back into England. A fast trip down the M6 and M40, dropping Jon in Egham, and we were back in Ashtead for 8pm.
I had managed to step foot on nine different islands, failed to climb an E2-3, we had climbed a cracking hill on Jura, I ran 14.5 miles on Rathlin, we sailed perhaps 220 miles, saw phosphorescence and the Milky Way, mountain foxgloves, sundews, dolphins, seals and a whale. What a week!
(Rob McCaffrey, skipper)
Right at the very start of the trip, two guys, Marc and Patrick drove to my house in Ashtead, Surrey, and packed their gear into my car - we then drove 180 miles up to Lew's house in Yorkshire and picked up Lew and Robin. We then drove another 240 miles to Danni's, where we had a merry night out on the beer and karaoke. After a hearty breakfast, we all piled into the car and, via the imfamous Barras market in the centre of Glasgow, we finally made it up to the Kyle of Lochalsh at 4pm. Uner Lew's direction, we bought £400 of groceries and booze, and packed all of that into my Volvo estate as well, so that there was less than one inch of clearance between the tyre and the wheel arch. Somehow we made it to Ardvasar, on the Sleat Peninsula, on the Isle of Skye, after a total of 18 hours of driving over two days. We loaded up the boat, a 33 foot Bavaria sailing yacht, with all our gear and the groceries for a week, meeting Simon onboard, who had come from Edinburgh. We decided that the weather was too poor to set out immediately, so we had a curry on board and a few beers before bed. Robin could snore for England, but he had kindly supplied us all with earplugs.
|At 3.50 the next morning, Simon and I got up and slipped our moorings, heading out into the semi-darkness and the drizzle, and setting a course for the island of Canna. The rest of the crew woke up eventually, and we anchored in sunshine at Canna at 9am for a quick breakfast. Lew and I went ashore to drop off rubbish and to explore, finding a quaint chapel/art gallery close by the pier. At 10am we weighed anchor and set a course for Loch Eynort on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. The wind was F3-4 and flukey, so although we did some sailing, we mostly motored. We saw plenty of dolphins on the way. Eight hours later we arrived (seeing at least two basking sharks on the way, one of 3m length and one of 4m) but by then we had calculated that the entrance to the 'difficult and dangerous' Inner Loch Eynort was not feasible. We anchored and fished, catching nothing, and later edged in through the narrows of Sruthan Beag at slack water to a very quiet anchorage - not a house, not a light, not a road could be seen. Beouf Bourgingnon for tea. Our mountain objective for this anchorage, Beinn Mhor, was abandoned due to poor weather.|
|The next morning, a Monday, the weather continued to be overcast and drizzly. We set off back through the 'difficult and dangerous' channel of Sruthan Beag (which was a bit of an anti-climax, since we didn't hit anything), and headed north through the murk towards Harris. To break the journey we put into Peter's Port on the windswept and bleak island of Benbecula. Lewis and I wandered along the road to have a look at a two bedroom house we'd found on the internet which came with 180 acres, 2.5 miles of 'unexplored' coastline, three uninhabited islands and three trout lochs... all for only £55,000. Only three problems: no road to the house through the 180 acres of bog, no bathroom in the house, and it was on the windswept and bleak island of Benbecula. Perhaps not. We bought a 3kg salmon from some local fishermen for £10 and headed back out into the murk. We passed by the entrance to Loch Maddy and saw a ship coming out of the gloom - the Queen's chartered former car-ferry (now with 30 cabins and state-rooms). I was all for making a close approach, but the republican on the helm had other ideas. At around 6pm after a long day's sail, we nosed carefully through a narrow channel into the natural harbour pool at Rodel on South Harris. A yacht following on behind us tried the same thing but had a crisis of confidence half way along the channel and then reversed out - they hailed us using a torch and via VHF radio. We steadied their nerves and they tried again, with success. They were Belgians and invited us over - Robin and I dispensed some entente cordial, while drinking their remaining booze. After tea we motored over to the pub where we discovered that the South Harris Show was taking place the next day just up the coast.|
|The following morning I got up at 5am to start baking. By 7.15 I had turned out a fine loaf in the yacht's basic oven, but one which was unfortunately burned on its bottom. I had to start from scratch, and turned out a second, rather pallid loaf by 9.15. The loaf had to be entered in the show by 10am, and we were 3 miles away. There was only one possible solution: I donned my running gear (including Union Jack shorts), was rowed ashore and started running at 9.30 to the show in Leverburgh, carrying the still-warm loaf wrapped in newspaper in a cornflakes packet in a plastic bag. Of course it rained on the way, so I arrived dripping and cold, but just in time. They said, "Well, you get full marks for effort!" and took my picture. Alas, my loaf was eventually unplaced, against stiff local competition. The guys brought the boat around and we met up for lunch, then headed back out to the show, which also featured a tractor disassembly and re-assembly demonstration ('There's a team from up the island can do it in 7 minutes," one tractor guy said to me).|
|We left Robin to do some shopping and the rest of us headed off in a rare hour of sunshine to the top of Roineabhal (460m). By the time we arrived at the top, the cloadbase could be practically touched, and we could only just see our anchorage. We did glimpse - in the far distance - the Shiant Isles. We romped down the hill and back to the boat, where we had a fabulous sea-food chowder made by Lew.|
|Although we were all exhausted, Lew persuaded myself and Robin to head back out at 10.30pm ("We've got to carpe the diem!"), to go to the local ceilidh (barn dance). I had great luck, dancing with a range of bonny lassies, while Lew was utterly dejected at his various rejections. I was clean-shaven and close-shorn, while Lew looked like a shaggy, beardy maniac. We were royally rained-upon on the walk back to the pier and on the perilous dinghy journey back to the boat at 1am. In a week of long days, that was a long day for me - 20 hours.|
|However, nice and early the next day, we breakfasted, took on water and headed out into the Sound of Harris in improving weather. We headed for the Shiant Isles, an extremely isolated but spectacular set of islands in the Sea of the Hebrides, north of Skye. Three hours later, we arrived, in brilliant sunshine, dropped anchor and headed ashore (seen below, rowing, after someone (Lewis) had forgotten to turn the petrol on), where we bumped into a bunch of 20-somethings, one of whom was the owner, Tom Nicholson. His father had gifted him the islands when he was 21, in order to avoid death duties (or some such). He and his brother and their pals were very pleasant and welcoming. They mentioned that Princess Anne had come for tea a couple of days previously, and that princesses Beatrice and Eugenie had explored the islands in their trainers. We said our goodbyes to them and then explored the southernmost of the islands ('Eilean an Taighe') ourselves, looking out at the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides as well as Skye in the Inner Hebrides.|
A famous book about the Shiants, by Tom's father, is well-entitled 'Sea Room.' While the others went back on board, I perched on the edge of a cliff on the northernmost island of Garbh Eilean and enjoyed 20 minutes of peace and quite, observing Lew rowing the dinghy around the bay and watching literally tens of thousands of puffins, fulmars, gannets and other sea-birds wheeling around the place. Brilliant. We left some booze for the owners and then weighed anchor, taking in the east coast of Eilean Mhuire ('Mary's Isle') with its many seals.
We set sail for Rona, again seeing dolphins (or were they porpoises?). Four hours later we nosed into another tight anchorage, Arcasaid Mhor, on Rona (seen below). Simon and I did some 'fishing' from the dinghy, and we then got stuck into another cracking meal and plenty more wine. It finally got dark at 11pm. We saw phosphorescence in the still waters of this wonderful natural harbour. After another early start and breakfast, we all put ashore in the dinghy, before heading for the highest point of the island for distant views of the Shiants and of the Cuillin of Skye (below).
|We wrote a few postcards and applied special 'Rona stamps' to them at the island-keepers cottage, before setting off for the long motor down the Sound of Raasay (winds throughout the week were 10-12 knots, barely enough for a decent sail - but it could have been worse, we could have had gales). We tied up at the pier at Broadford on Skye and headed off in two shore parties: Robin and Marc to the pub, myself, Simon and Patrick to climb the local hill, Beinn na Caillich ('hill of the old woman'). After a 3 mile walk in, we started to climb, and before too long had gained the summit, at 729m. We were rewarded with stunning views of the Outer and Inner Hebrides, Rhum, Eigg, Muck, Coll and even Mull. We saw a stunning range of hills on the mainland, and had splendid views of the rest of the Red Cuillin and also the Black Cuillin. Simon thanked and congratulated us, since this was a hill he had wanted to climb for 20 years. It certainly seemed to be worth the wait. We took in two more tops during a brilliant ridge walk and then set off back down.|
Having not showered all week - this was day 7 of the trip for me - I decided to have a swim in a little lochan. I ran down, took my glasses off, stripped naked and went to jump in, only to discover that the lochan was only six inches deep, that the bottom was a slimy mud and that, anyway, it was full of half-developed tadpole-frogs. Feeling some desperation at my odiferous state, I splashed the froggy mud on all the smelliest parts of my body, dried off on a t-shirt, dressed and ran to catch the others. They did not pass comment on my new 'fragrancy.' Simon and I thrutched through a few bogs and then hit a country road, where we finally managed to bag a lift from some tourists. When we got down to Broadford, we found that Lew had been forced to move the boat from the pier and to pick up a mooring buoy by himself, which is quite a feat. After another splendid meal and more wine and beer, we all slept soundly.
On our penultimate day, with the weather back at its default of grey and drizzly, we motored under the Skye bridge (having avoided the rocks that were later to ensnare a nuclear submarine) and anchored in Loch na Beiste, again on Skye. Lew and I thrutched through interminable heather and climbed up into the cloud to climb another Beinne na Caillich (again about 730m), but we couldn't see anything at the top, not least because we had both taken our glasses off due to the rain. On the way back down, we came across a large chasm which we were surprised not to find on the map and which we had to get across on steep and slippy rocks. There were a few moments of alarm at this point, when the possibility arose that we were not on the mountain that we thought we were. However, with the help of Lew's altimeter and a bit more descent, we rediscovered our position (we had been where we thought we were all the time), and descended straight back to the yacht. We pulled up the anchor and motored on through Kyle Rhea, a notorious strait where the tides can run at up to 7 knots (and where you cannot pass through against the tide). However, as we were passing through with the tide, the Queen's ship passed us going the other way, followed by a Royal Navy rib (re-inforced inflatable boat) and a 100m-long frigate with massive guns at the front. Prince Andrew and Camilla waved to us, while the Queen was seen pacing the top deck in a green sou'wester. Our tentative plan for a mass royal moon did not come to pass. We motored down the Sound of Sleat back to Ardvasar, where we moored up for the final time. Simon and Robin cooked a massive farewell meal of haggis, roast parsnips and roast potatoes, washed down with Talisker single malt whiskey and yet more wine.
At 6.20 the next morning, we rose, breakfasted, shipped our gear and cleaned the yacht ('Sleat Princess'). We were aboard the ferry to Mallaig by 8.30, dropped Lew and Robin off in Yorkshire at tea-time and were back in Ashtead for 11.15pm. We were all beset with delayed sea-legs on land (Lew nearly fell off his toilet the next day), and were all tired for a couple of days afterwards - probably due to the after-effects of alcohol consumption.
During the week we drove 1250 miles, sailed/motored 208 miles, climbed a total of around 1900m of hills, ran three miles, baked two loaves and did not have any major arguments, groundings, bumps or injuries. Result!
2009: A circumnavigation of Mull, calling at Tobermory, Gometra, Bunessan, Garvellachs and the Royal Isle.
This could be us.... (video, 3Mb)
If you are still interseted in coming sailing with us... email me at rob at trionium dot com!