2003 ? – Summer Cruise to the Western Isles

The text of this article written in about 2003 was retrieved from the depths of the Internet. If any members have any photos from this event, please make them available to help complete the record.

For me this was the highlight of this years cruising programme. I have long wanted to sail in these waters and going by the response, so have other members. Twelve people made their various ways over 500 miles up to Oban, the base of our charter. Here we picked up a Westerly Typhoon, ‘Naisso’ and a Westerly Ocean Lord, imaginatively named ‘Ocean Lord’ for a weeks cruise. The intention was try and visit St Kilda, the most westerly island in the UK, which stands alone, about 80 miles out into the Atlantic. In reality the weather and the attractions of sailing through numerous other islands diverted us from our objective.

The Western Isles are a long way off for most of our members but it’s well worth the effort. The scenery is magnificent, sea depths down to 200 meters mountains, up to 11000 meters. It’s empty. We had to take stores, water and fuel on board for the whole week. It’s free. No marina charges, no marinas!. Lots of interesting wildlife, castles, ruins and the odd distillery. Friendly people. The only problem is the weather! Just watch the top left hand corner of the TV weather map for a few days and you will see what I mean. The navigation is interesting and despite a complete lack of lights, buoys and other such useful objects, presents no real problems. I can’t wait to go back and explore more of the west coast of Scotland. Barrie Evans, our esteemed chairman, skippered one of the yachts and kept a log of the cruise. Due to it’s length he asked me to edit it but I found it difficult to do this without spoiling the tale. It gives a good idea of what sailing in the Western Isles is about. So here in it’s entirety is the log of the good ship Ocean Lord. BTOSC Western Isle Cruise 12-19th June 1999.

Log of ‘Ocean Lord’

Joined Ocean Lord at Dunstaffnage, Oban Wind South Westerly F2-3, Sea Calm, Visibility Good. Boat hand over took a little longer than expected (Tom, from ALBA was very helpful though a little long-winded and a stickler for quality). Our vessel, a Westerly Ocean Lord, aptly named “Ocean Lord” was eventually boarded around 16:00. Dunstaffnage is located at the mouth of Loch Etive and as the ebb tide flows from the sea Loch the marina becomes a minefield of tidal rips and back-eddies; just the thing to settle us into our cruise of the Western Isles. Our passage to Tobermory started around 17:00, after the customary briefing and took us between Lismore and Lady Rock. Although this is the correct route, there is still an appreciable flow and it took the addition of the iron topsail in addition to the main and number 2 Genoa to “sail” through. Overfalls South West of Lady Rock, where the bottom comes rises from 150m+ to around 30m, convinced us we had made the right choice. Determined to sail we turned the engine off and proceeded to tack (yes the wind was against us) into the tide, using the topsail again as we went through the narrows in the entrance to the Sound of Mull. There had been a little rain after arriving at Dunstaffnage which had cleared leaving a glorious evening. The distance to Tobermory was around 35 miles that meant a 5-6 hour sail – assuming the tide had been with us. As night fell and the tide remained against us, we commenced watch keeping and used the engine to make progress up the sound. Bouyage is sparse and some are unlit but sufficient exist in reasonable visibility to guide you. During the second watch, the lights of a waterfront hove into view and, after consulting the chart for off lying dangers Ocean Lord was taken into Tobermory. We had been told that there would be no buoys spare on a Saturday but immediately spotted one of the coveted HIE mooring buoys. The procedure for mooring to these is to use your own mooring strop which is a short length of stout warp with a thimble spliced into it and a shackle attached. By reversing onto the buoy, the strop can be attached to the buoy. The light airs and current within the harbour made our task easier and by 01:00 hours we were snugged down for the night.
Wind South Westerly F4-5 Sea Moderate. We rose early, inflated a dinghy and sent a shore party across the harbour of Tobermory to buy fresh milk (if it was available). After an hour the shore party returned, with milk and a story of the challenges they had faced from hostile natives and the A high degree of UV protection is required in The Western Isles! successful outcome – I prefer to believe the version of their account in which a restaurateur made an “ill-timed” appearance and was duly relieved of 4 pints of milk. We left Tobermory later than intended and, off Ardmore Point, proceeded to carry out an impromptu MOB, the casualty being the boat hook which had been left on the coach roof and was sent flying through the air by a flailing Genoa sheet. A couple of passes latter saw the safe recovery of this errant article and the re-commencement of our voyage to Barra. With adverse winds and tide little progress was being made though the boat was sailing well. After seeing the Hyskeir Light for the third time the plan to get to Barra before nightfall was abandoned in favour of a three hour run to Loch Scresort on Rhum. We made radio contact with the other BTOSC yacht ‘Naisso’ and learned that they were entering Arisaig to spend the night. On our passage to Rhum we were joined by a school of dolphins that leap out of the water alongside the boat and rode the bow wave. Just as suddenly as they had appeared, the school disappeared. There is a nautical saying “When the Sea Hog jumps, Stand by your pumps” – fortunately we did not have to. Rhum has very large mountains and glacial valleys which, assisted by SW winds result in Katabatic winds of Force 8 or 9 within the Loch, or so the Pilot information, claimed. We can confirm this is the case!! With a tide range of 4 metres and a desire for some clearance (to allow for swinging over a gently sloping bottom we eventually dropped the bower anchor in 4.5 metres before shearing over to drop the Kedge anchor. During the night the weather deteriorated and by morning we were being regularly hit by gusts of Force 9.
Wind Westerly F8, Sea Moderate (plenty of white horses though). As the morning progressed and the tide rose (on the peak spring range), a fishing vessel at anchor near the mouth of the loch started to drag across the loch due to the ferocity of the storm. A Mayday Relay call for grave and imminent danger was not likely to summon assistance before the fishing vessel grounded. Instead the yachts foghorn was used to send the sound signal for you are standing into danger (two short blasts followed by a longer blast) down wind to the fishing vessel. Sadly no one appeared and within a few minutes the vessel had gently struck the side of the loch and became pinned against the shore. A call to Oban Coast guard was made to report the event and to inform them that no one had been observed on the vessel, even after it had struck the shore. Surprisingly, some 30 minutes after the vessel struck, first one, and then later still, a second person was observed on deck. Our subsequent radio traffic had been picked up by a larger fishing vessel that arrived within 45 minutes but had too great a draft to enter the Loch. The Coast Guard had also sent the Mallaig Life Boat that arrived after an hour and proceeded to get lines onto the stricken fishing vessel. In the hope that the next, though slightly lower tide, would allow the vessel to be hauled off. We were duly thanked for our diligence by the Coast Guard and were mentioned in the Oban Times. As conditions improved, we retrieved our anchors and set sail for Arisaig, a relatively short passage. Leaving Loch Scresort behind we soon emerged from the gloom that enveloped Rhum into bright sunshine and sparkling blue seas. Entry to Arisaig involved sailing slowing through a rocky channel marked by occasional perches. On the way in we met Naisso coming out and paused to exchange pleasantries and pose for a picture. Luck was with us and we found the mooring that Naisso had just left still free. Aside from Tobermory, Arisaig was the most civilised place we had entered – it had a Pub, albeit attached to a hotel. Having eaten aboard, around half the crew went ashore. Whilst waiting on the pontoon, we took the lines of another tender only to discover that these belonged to Jack Bell, an ex BT employee who had retired from City and North Centre Area around 12 years ago and was currently making an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of Britain in his 22 foot Westerly Nomad “Miss Mollie”. Although moored, Jack had maintained a listening watch and had been impressed by Ocean Lords dialogues with Oban Coast Guard. Over a soft drink in the Pub, Jack explained that he had a spot of ill-health passing through the Crinan Canal and decided to retrace his steps (clockwise) back to his home port in the Medway. Jack is offering a free berth to anyone who can join him for a weekend or longer spells on his intended return to the Thames by the autumn. If you are interested please contact the Club and we will put you in touch with Jack. In complete contrast to the previous day and morning, the sun set on Arisaig to the sound of clicking cameras and the mournful tones of bag pipes playing a medley of airs (at least that’s what it sounded like).
Wind South Westerly F3-4 increasing F5-6, Sea Moderate. From Arisaig we planned to go to Loch Eartha on Coll and to explore this island. With overcast skies and a fair amount of wind (on the nose as usual) we retraced our path to the open sea, watched only by Seals, and tacked our way down to Coll passing Rhum and Muck before closing with the Cairns of Coll around 15:00 hours. By this time the wind had all but dropped and a swift decision made to motor sail the remaining hour into a foul tide in order to arrive at Coll before dark. Within the Loch, four of the six HIE mooring buoys were free and we swiftly reduced this to three. Conditions that evening were slowly worsening with a large swell entering the Loch and by the time we turned in, some of the crew were already proposing to take sea-sickness tablets in order to sleep! Wednesday:- Wind South Westerly F6-F7 with F8 at times, Sea Rough. Morning arrived with warnings of gale force winds. We decided to stay put for the time being although some boats did venture out. Around midday we heard a Securite message asking for reports concerning the whereabouts of a small yacht which was being sailed single handed to Gomentera and had last been seen 5 days previously and was now well overdue. Oban Coast Guard gave a description of the vessel and added that a last sighting had been off Tobermory. The message was repeated several times during the morning. Later, when conditions permitted us to venture on deck, a vessel answering the description given was seen afloat in the neighboring Loch and duly reported to the Coast Guard who then asked whether we would take a boat over to make a positive identification. The sea state in the Loch had worsened making a launch of our dinghy difficult. Despite the danger I am delighted to record that members of the crew had immediately volunteered to do this but fortunately did not have to as an auxiliary Coast Guard was dispatched from shore in a large Rib and made the positive identification. We were again thanked for our diligence in reporting this and so ending the search and rescue activities that were mounting. The moral of this story is to remember to call the Coast Guard when you arrive and to regularly monitor Ch16 even when moored. With our good deed completed and a slight improvement in conditions I decided it would be “safe” to make for a more sheltered anchorage at Tobermory. As this would take three hours and involve crossing shoals running before the wind and waves the usual watches were suspended in order that the four most experienced crew members could make up the watch. As a precaution, the working Jib was rigged and three reefs put into the main before leaving the Loch. Off the mouth of the Loch, the seas were confused with breaking waves up to 14 feet high from trough to crest. Further off shore waves of a similar height were frequently breaking due to the unseen contours of the seabed. Steering a course firstly into the seas in order to clear the land we then bore off to a course which held the seas on the starboard quarter and ran under main and engine. With wind and waves on the quarter each helm had to work hard to keep the stern of the yacht at the correct angle to the approaching waves. One of the crew watched for approaching breakers and warned the helm to take action though in most cases, the unmistakable hissing sound was warning enough. Once again we were accompanied part of the way by Common Dolphins that suddenly appeared and then disappeared. Slowly the relative lee of Ardmore point was achieved and the yachts normal watch keeping routine resumed until we were safely moored in Tobermory harbour. The only casualty of this passage was the skippers hat which had blown off around a mile off Tobermory and had chosen to sink fractions of a second before it’s safe recovery could be effected using the boat hook. Tobermory features a waterfall that flows into the harbour and on this occasion, the rainfall had turned this into a spectacular torrent. Tobermory also features the Mishnish Pub and so five of the crew volunteered (surprisingly?) to embark on a fact finding mission for the benefit of the remaining crew. In contrast to the conditions prevailing during the day, the evening brought clear weather and calm seas and a hint that the next day might be fine.
Wind South Westerly F3-4, Sea Calm, Visibility Good. Thursday dawned with clear skies and a fair wind for our passage down the Sound of Mull to Loch Aline and Loch Spelve where we were to spend the night. Visibility was good and the view of the Highlands very impressive. The entrance for Loch Aline was not easy to spot from the North but was clearly revealed by the exit of the CalMac Ferry (must have seen us coming). Loch Aline has a small Silica Sand (used for Optics) mining operation near the entrance and very little else. Loch Aline also has the ubiquitous “fish” farm and we saw a seal “innocently” swim pass. Leaving Loch Aline we sailed out into the Firth of Lorne mindful of the overfalls that arise here due to the shallows connecting Mull to the Main Land. Here we tried to spot likely candidates for Ben Nevis and, although looking in the right direction, failed to make a positive identification. Passing Loch Don we then slowly entered Loch Spelve against a 3 knot ebb, carefully avoiding the “mushroom” a submerged rock which the pilot informed us appears as a mushroom underwater. Was this for the benefit of divers or victims I wondered? Just to add to the excitement, the leading marks were not easy to spot. We anchored off the only sign of civilisation and had lunch before setting off to explore the Loch. During lunch, a motor vessel entered the Loch and hove to in the entrance whilst the deck filled with people aiming binoculars and telescopes at the shore line. We didn’t think they were looking for the leading marks but our curiosity was aroused. Later that evening we anchored in the NE corner of the Loch whilst three parties went ashore to explore. As with Loch Aline, we found “fish” farms and the usual solitary Seal had set up home in the Loch. Our anchorage was shared with two other yachts and the motor vessel we had seen intently looking at the shore. A perfect day ended with a perfect evening.
Wind South Westerly F3-4, Sea Moderate, Visibility Poor. So much for the perfection of the previous evening, soon after dawn it started raining and with closing visibility I broke the news that, in place of a 09:30 start we would need to make sail at 08:00 in order to arrive at Oban by midday. Slipping through the narrow entrance to Loch Spelve we stemmed a 3 knot flood tide giving perfect control for managing this tricky passage. By this time visibility was worse and we were steering a compass course across the Firth of Lorne to make a land fall to the SW of Kerra Island. With visibility down to half a mile Kerra slowly hove into sight and we continued along the Southern edge of this Island which provides shelter for Oban. On passage we past a dark foreboding castle guarding the entrance to Kerra Sound. The rain turned to drizzle as the wind eased slowing our passage up Kerra Sound and into Oban Bay. Still, we resisted the temptation to set the iron topsail and continued right up to Oban, eventually mooring alongside our mysterious motor vessel from the previous evening. Talking to the ships engineer, we learned that they provided Nature and Diving trips on a commercial basis and had paused in the entrance of Loch Spelve to allow their passengers to see Sea Eagles nesting near the shore. We also learned that Golden Eagle (Goldies) were flying above us whist we had anchored for the night (no wonder we had not been able to see the leading marks). Having gone ashore for a quick tour and to buy the skipper a replacement hat (thanks Guy’s) the crew embarked for the last leg of our journey back to Dunstaffnage. We arrived at Dunstaffnage at low water as a squall threatened. Having radioed the marina for berthing instructions we made our way though the marina and slowly came along side “ploughing” a groove in the sea bed due to the lack of water. Within 10 minutes of tying up, the boat was firmly on the bottom and solid as a rock. We were home and in time for showers and the delights of the “Wide Mouthed Frog” (Don’t worry, it’s a restaurant.) Anyone contemplating a cruise of the Western Isle will find the scenery and sailing excellent though amenities are sparse. The weather can be a little extreme though crews prepared for poor weather will be all the more delighted when the weather is fine! If you are interested in Cruising the Western Isle or any other areas give the clubs cruising secretary a call with the details and leave the rest to us.
Barrie Evans
Skipper of Ocean Lord

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