Landlocked in Summer ?

Beste Allemaal,

Here is a new story of a short trip made this past summer .
Perhaps it could be something for armchair sailors to enjoy over the holiday period ?

It was also sent to the DA webmaster and it appears  deep within the articles on the DA website.

Wishing you all a happy Christmas Holiday and great sailing  in 2018.


Tom Colville.

Whisper of Sunart lay at rest, immobile on her trailer. Although fully stored, ready for a prolonged summer cruise, a family funeral had intervened. Dates came and went:  2017 was turning into a weird shore-bound summer.  Gales blew, forecasts baffled.  Then one five-day outlook held promise.

Spring tides offer a ‘magic carpet’ to Highland destinations further north. With precise coordination any small boat can achieve considerable mileages along this coast (Skye trip 2017 (opens in new tab)).

Late one warm August afternoon, Whisper surged out through the narrows, besting a slight headwind before the tide began to turn. A few gentle tacks northwards during slack water would be required.  The beginnings of the new flood surge should sweep us back into shelter within the south channel to Loch Moidart.

It had been such a pleasant day, for this short three mile “hop”…  we just sailed.  Whisper, as ever, noted an oversight…and …there was a trick to play!  Beyond the narrows the wind freed. A short steep sea lay in wait.  Thoroughly exhilarated, in the thrall of new adventure, Whisper suddenly crested a steep sea at full tilt and mischievously contrived to bounce down with a thump. Like a retriever, she shook  a penance of cold water – a bucketful – aimed directly down the ‘supervisor’s’ neckline. Even this short passage between places of shelter had exacted its toll.

The roar of the open sea receded, Whisper gathered “cats paws” to ghost into a deserted bay. Hardly a ripple washed surrounding rocks. Salt soaked clothing clung to the chilled skipper like a second skin. While supper steamed gently on the stove, surrounding hills basked in the orange glow of a windy sundown. Occasional drips plummeted from the laden washing line: one definition of small boat folly.

Overnight the wind backed to the south west.  Sneeking a ride aboard the last of the ebb out through the narrows, the flood tide with forecast SW 3-4 should speed us north.

Happy skipper

Given steady winds Whisper can be set to sail for long periods with helm lashed – always provided the skipper behaves, and sits still. Hands-free that sunny morning we settled down on a steady reach.

Far over the bows a small white tower ….the Point of Sleat lighthouse some 20 miles northwest … glinted in the morning sun. Soon Loch Nan Uamh came abeam.  Perhaps Soay  could offer shelter that night if these fair winds held true ?

Looks past Eigg ( to port) towards Kinloch bay on Rum

They did not.  By 15.00 hrs real progress had ceased: the ebb had won.  Downwind of Eigg, winds became fickle. Turning eastwards, tucking in out of the tide, we slanted in towards Arisaig’s south channel. Just behind the outer marker several unmarked skerries form a boundary to some calm but remote shallows. Working carefully in under oars we played “hookey” with passing sea kayaks, and provided fresh entertainment for vagrant seals. In the lee behind Luinga Mhor, a hidden inlet offered peace. While the ocean surged south in the distance, in hot bright sunshine afternoon tea was served with biscuits. It was excellent shelter.

Later in twilight the tide rose high. Suddenly the wind ‘filled in’ from the south. This change of rhythm awoke the skipper. In that expanding moonlit bay the waters became increasingly choppy.

After midnight the inshore forecast confirmed the change.  The present period of settled weather would be short.  It was time to move on. Within 72 hours things could become very unsettled indeed.  Whisper’s voyage still had many miles to go to complete her “mission”.

Shortly after 01.00 in late summer afterglow and strong moonlight Whisper felt her way out past the gurgling skerries.  Gradually the steady southerly breeze filled all sails. We were away, gliding powerfully over a glinting seascape. Westwards lay Rum.

Crossing to Rum at 2 am. The White light is Ardnamurchan point. The red one is Glamisdale on Eigg.

It was a grand sail. Whisper carries an all-round white masthead light. The night was clear. Progress could be charted in relation to lights on Eigg, with back bearings onto the Arisaig channel markers.  Later shore -lights at Mallaig and the steady pulse of the Point of Sleat light would confirm progress. In summer the sound of Arisaig is no deserted sea, not at all. Megawatt arrays on fishing craft, intent on their nets, tore holes in the moon-dark sky.

Bleary early-risers – the anchor watch on a vast OYC training ketch – appeared rubbing their eyes as the old dog watch stood down.  Out of the dawn light Whisper arrowed past them, leaving mystery in her wake. Her destination:  Kinloch bay…but from where… at 6 am ?

Funnelled between Eigg and Rum, the south wind had built steadily during the past hour. Whisper had been surging along at near hull speed – a real dawn treader? Just her lone triangles of tan sail incoming from the tranquil horizon.  Close below the sea cliffs a pair of small trawlers – so industrious a few hours earlier – drifted about … crews having a quick snooze or hard at work re-boxing the catch…looking forwards to a hearty breakfast.

The Coulin at 5 am ( lights from trawler off Elgol)

In the shelter of the bay, it was calm. Useless, the sails were furled.  Oars pushed us quietly past many a slumbering yacht to the head of the bay.  Once in the shallows, it was time for some shut-eye.

On waking three hours later we were alone.  Daytime ‘cruisers’ had all departed.  Whisper had the bay to herself.  The 12.02 shipping bulletin failed to impress: outside the entrance whitecaps could be seen – it looked wild. Later this force 6 south westerly should ease. Maybe with the second quarter of the ebb tide still an hour away our “mission” was still achievable.

Slowly, flasks were refilled with hot water. A warm meal was tucked away. Clad once more in full wet weather gear, all loose items were secured or tidied away.  The next 8 mile leg was sure to have some bounce to it!  We headed out.

This cruise had been in my mind for many years. Satellite images had revealed that the south western tip of Skye had once been a significant place for the ancient Highlanders. Well before Viking times, perhaps during the Iron Age, a settlement had existed around Loch Na h-Airde a low lying fertile place just north of the ‘Dun’ (fortified place). Nearby a chambered cairn nestled between gentle well-drained hillsides. Around this small freshwater loch ‘Galley’ crews could have waited out storms in safety, perhaps over-wintering before braving the Minch.

Down the centuries a large clachan had built up. Ruins of more than 20 houses could be identified.  I hoped to determine first-hand just how sheltered the southern shoreline, east of Sgeir Mhor, might be for small craft.

The SW tip of Skye, with cliffs beyond Loch Brittle behind.

Cautiously Whisper accelerated north east, away from Kinloch bay into a confused sea.   Well out onto the slack tide, we turned to the northwest, powering downwind under jib alone.  The GPS showed some surges exceeding 8  knots – a thrilling ‘surfboard’ ride. Out beyond  shelter, north east of Rum, the wind slowly backed to WSW  5 …then 4  Only then did Whisper’s crazy dash slow. Ambling and wallowing less urgently across successive heaps of water, all the while she headed towards the tip of Skye.

Through a sudden rain shower, crashing seas could be seen thundering white onto the Rubha Dunain headland. Yet there, tucked in behind the rocky reef outcrop of Sgeir Mhor, an old southern landing place for the clachan opened. The location was obvious: conditions could have been quieter!

Approaching Sgeir Mhor.The dark lump of the Dun is just right of centre

On ebb tides some shelter really does exist round the eastern side of this reef.  Within this rock girt pool a distinct cleft exists, usable as a small harbour – a narrow boat channel at high tide. Inland from this ‘dragons mouth’ of calm, small boats might have been drawn up, maybe dragged right through to the village on a quieter day. Guarded by the ruined Dun this groove did indeed run northwards, a high tide connection with the freshwater lochan.

But our arrival that day was timed all wrong:  the tide had fallen far too low. Waves tumbled onto  a maze of house-sized boulders : this coast trashed by the sea.

Ever more curious about the extent of this pool, Whisper closed to within a hundred feet of the surf line. Clapotis tossed her about. Helm down, I aimed to sail in parallel with the coast. After passing inshore just behind a weed coated outlier it appeared to be possible to idle along into the calm place – the sheltered lee of Sgeir Mhor.

Never one to suffer fools gladly, Whisper had her own view of this risky evolution. She misbehaved!  So close to crushing oblivion, she became sluggish and strangely uncooperative.  It took me a few moments to recall that during that long off-wind leg down from Rum I had raised the centreboard to prevent it grabbing on steeper wave crests. No board = no helm.  Ooops !…. Senior moment!  (rapidly remedied. )

That day few could have failed to appreciate the dangers. Although this might sometimes be the right place to get ashore, now…today…on my own …a leeshore … this was completely the wrong moment. Jib aback we gybed within that spooky wind shadow,  bows passing just feet from the outcrop,  then Whisper was on course once more, headed away eastwards  again…far from danger.

Heavy rainfall accompanied us for the 2 mile crossing to north harbour on Soay.  A creel boat powered past, headed towards Elgol through the growing gloom. Whoever was aboard, the wheelhouse door remained firmly shut!

The northern inlet on Soay lay deserted, only a tired guano-streaked RIB was in there, tethered to its mooring  Across the entrance to this secret place a bank of weed-encrusted  boulders restrict access.  Shallow draft boats may only cross it above half tide. After a short wait, eventually the tide began to seep back through the weed – we paddled in.  Opposite Gavin’s derelict shark oil factory the anchor splashed down – a  ‘Ring of Grey water’.

Soay Harbour with Dutch Drascombe Friends

A treasured photo from 1968, snapped during a last youthful family cruise while at anchor there, flitted across my mind. On another occasion Whisper had been storm bound for three days, anchored at full scope through blasts to force 9 and 10.  Happier memories too: Dutch Drascombe friends – joint evenings with many boats rafted up together after full days at sea.  But now, on that grey and dreary evening, the atmosphere seemed oppressive and bleak. Through steady drizzle, attentive crowds of midges came to sympathise.

I suppose my snores might have scared them off. I did not wait. Long before the 00.45 shipping forecast we were out to sea.  Another frontal system was approaching.  In 2004 a similar alert had me worried. Then we had remained.  Now, knowing adequate time to get back south still remained, clearly this was the moment to depart.

That starlit night will linger long in my memory. Something spiritual and magical occurs when sailing well through the semi-dark of a west highland summer’s night. Watching the various navigation aids flash and blink, surging along unnoticed past floodlit trawlers at work,  glimpsing high-up the red strobe lights of overflying aircraft against the stars -passengers cocooned above the world’s weather-  their lofty tangents headed due west .

Across the deeps, jewel like, fluorescent trails weave their mysterious magic between the waves.

In the glassy lee of Eigg we skimmed along within a boat’s length of a vast slumbering trawler, lights blazing, generators humming – nets hauled, gently adrift on the tide. This huge high-tech ship could have been the ‘Marie Celeste’ for all the vitality it displayed!

Then Whisper gybed out of the dawn to Poll nam Partan, the sandy anchorage off Glamisdale.  Just one yacht lay at anchor there. The waking skipper’s reaction on finding a night time arrival so nearby was never observed.  It was just after 4.30am … well beyond time “sack” time

I woke slowly.  The yacht was already gone.  After a late breakfast we made tracks again, back south the last 12 miles towards Ardtoe.

Heading back to Loch Ceann Treagh ( the highest lump is Beinn Resipol.)
Eigg with Peaks on Rum in cloud behind.

Hours later, tide rising again, Whisper explored new pathways around submerging  rocks, “kayaking” through narrow clefts between outlying reefs, safely rising  on the flood. Later, just  a chunk of flotsam on the flowing tide, she was carried further and further up the tortuous river channel between the flat tidal sands in the bay.  With everything tidied away, her skipper stepped dryshod onto the grass, then ambled off home.

(This summer quest had involved four distinct sailing periods, spread all around the clock but within  72 hours. I suppose 100 miles…but why ever not ? .)


Tom Colville

Coaster Whisper of Sunart

Copyright Dec. 2017. Tom Colville.