Around the Cauldron’s Edge…

There have been too few periods with settled weather along the West Highland coast this summer. Too few moments when one could depend on a pre determined passage plan. The last week of August seemed to promise better… well anyway, who cares? It was a chance to go – it’s only weather after all.

A few hard shoves prised Whisper of Sunart from her drying mooring to drift quietly north into the midnight dark. On the last high tide before the neap it was wiser to kedge further down the bay and grab a few hours kip until dawn. The south coast of Skye, so long a distant horizon of our cruises, was the firm objective this time.

Some 36 years have passed since, as an O level age youth, I had cruised with my father around Skye. Back then four fortunate school friends had accompanied us on the family yacht… half a lifetime ago.

Wide deserted seascapes haunt my memories of that voyage. Great cliffs with tumbling waterfalls plunging to inaccessible coves. I recall that we anchored overnight in the secret north harbour on Soay, where the abandoned shark fishing factory – Gavin Maxwell’s post 1945 project – stands in dereliction. Back then wheeling seabirds gathered wherever the fishing fleets hauled their nets; lights marked life on the patchwork of Crofts perched high on wild coastlines. For us schoolboys it had been a voyage of grey seas and gentle mist, sparkling sunshine and keen hard winds: an inspiring time.

Warm sunshine roused this ‘sepia tinted’ dreamer to snatch a quick breakfast. The wind was slight but from the south east it could carry us well. We headed to sea.

While wind blows from the south the Sound of Arisaig is a tranquil place, resembling far more an inland sea than the fringes of the Atlantic. Funnelled between the ragged coastal hills windshifts can be peculiar but do little to stir up any sea.

Out to port the low morning sunshine highlighted the isles of Eigg and Muck, isolated in the deserted ocean. Far to the north – some thirty miles distant – lay a darker band of colour: the hills of Skye. It would be a long day.

As the hours passed the wind, cyclonic, backed north east, then died. Gradually other craft emerged. Some RIB craft rushed about from place to place – wild life cruises – hoping perhaps to spot some whales. Other yachts, possibly with the same object in mind, simply drifted, while nearby small commercial creel boats laboured with their lines. Crews on a couple of larger yachts, minds numb, preprogrammed on GPS transits, motored – with rigid ‘dead’ mainsails, on their pressing business. A markedly different scene from that held within my sepia-tinted memory.

As the afternoon turned to evening the Cuillin Hills rose in domination high above us. With no genuine anchorages giving all-round shelter Loch Scavaig is an awesome prospect for a small craft. As the wind built again from the north east hard cool gusts rushed down from the towering summits above, to remind me that there had to be a destination for tonight.

Pilot books of the Western Highland coasts are all precise and unemotional in the language they use. None of them would advise an overnight stay in Loch Scavaig in unsettled conditions. (Uniquely here, earlier generations of seafarers have equipped some shore-side rocks at the head of this loch with mooring rings to provide emergency backup anchor points should anchors fail to hold in squalls… they are frequently needed!)

For a Drascombe this is a serious place to venture. Not for nothing does the Gaelic name translate as the Cauldron. Sharp gusts of cold air descend in squalls from the three thousand feet high peaks that surround the Loch head anchorage on three sides. And these lumps of air can plummet from any direction.

The wise place to head for, if staying in the area, is the north harbour – the secret inlet on Soay. Accessible to keel yachts at high tide only, this is a fine Drascombe place. As Whisper glided to safety her rudder blade just tapped on the kelp covered boulder ledge that obstructs the entrance (it was low tide after all).

We found the inlet to be deserted. It was supper time. Even the swift arrival of local residents – the Soay midges are a social lot I can assure you – did not spoil the sense of timelessness and peace. On the shore lay still the wrecked fishing boat hulk, which I well recall from 36 years earlier. It alone seemed a bit more decrepit. Otherwise the place remained unmarked by the passage of time.

Next day, with the fine easterly weather still holding, I took my chance: I pressed home my ‘attack’ on the Cauldron. But under sail it took time for I am not a lover of the motor option. So we tacked back and forth, under the awesome gaze of the Coullin. Some gusts of wind carried us nearer our goal, then as if some mountain committee had withdrawn consent, we would be headed off and have to slide away. But eventually Whisper worked up towards the lip of the Cauldron, and we could peer inside.

Then I noted that we had a considerable audience, albeit a disinterested one. More than a hundred seals lay basking on rocks close by the entrance to the inner loch. Used to the regular passage of sightseeing craft, they reclined passively: live and let live rules applied here, obviously. Peacefully Whisper ghosted on, close hauled in some puffs, heeled hard by other squalls, drifting on in calm moments, slowly drawn towards the bowl.

Right on queue just two feet under the surface, a boat length to port, like a submarine surfacing, loomed the well scraped summit of the massive rock that forms one lip of the pool. Several meters of water surround it. Treated with respect it presents no hazard, but quite visibly it has claimed autographs from many less wary victims! Whisper, out of respect, found a helpful gust. She heeled gently and powered past, through into the pool.

The seabed is mud and shingle, but even this good ground does not prevent anchors from popping out during the fiercer squalls. In true Drascombe style we made our way towards the shallows in the north east corner and, after checking for a weed free patch, dropped the hook.

It would be unwise to desert any craft at anchor there unless sure that conditions were right. In any case I voyage without a dinghy, relying on an endless line system to venture ashore. Once rigged this enables me to veer Whisper to some rock ledge and then pull her back out 25 meters or so, into deep water. It doubles security and works well on this coast.

Just a few hundred yards inland, past the splendid 25 feet high waterfall that provides its only exit, lies Loch Coruisk. Tightly held within the scree slopes of the surrounding three thousand feet high mountains, unchanged through the ages: an awesome place of dominating natural scenery.

But the weather was changing. Stronger and stronger gusts hammered down the hillsides. As the last tourist boat powered back towards civilisation it felt unwise to push my luck. Back on Whisper my gut feeling was confirmed by the shipping forecast. ‘Rockall, Malin: wind north west 6 to gale 8, perhaps severe gale 9 in the west, showers, rain later’. Clearly it was time to go and hide somewhere!

It took less than an hour to cover the five miles back to Soay, chased by fiercer squalls with rooster tail wake roaring astern. There the secret inlet was still deserted, but not for long. Within hours we had three companions riding out the storm. The largest came in at high tide – a huge 48 ft charter yacht. None ventured out again for 30 hours.

Huddled into the shallows at the head of the inlet with maximum 1 on 8 anchor scop Whisper tugged and strained in the powerful gusts, while through the driving mists of gale driven rain the larger yachts to windward could be seen careering around, wrenching on their scope, battling to hold position. In north west winds the secret harbour shows its one weakness – its small entrance lies slightly ajar to the north west. The best hiding hole on this coast is also a trap. You need patience, a sense of humour, and a good book!

‘Malin, Hebrides: wind north west 5 to 6, perhaps gale 8 in the north, backing south west or west 3-4 later, then increasing south west 6-8. Showers, rain later’. It was now 01.00 hours, thirty hours had passed. It was time to cut my losses and go home.

I could not risk being trapped by another gale, particularly not a south westerly one. It could mean another 48 hours delay. The night sky was hardly really dark, it was almost full moon. The wind had dropped. Clearly a real weather window existed through which to get south, home to Ardnamurchan again.

Everything carefully stowed we motored with apprehension out into the dying swell. Heavily reefed mizzen and six-rolled jib was enough to have a look-see. And, it was not so bad. With only a 4 from the west the trip was on. Two rolls more jib, unreef the mizzen and we were off, out round the north of Soay and back south towards the point of Sleat and Eigg. Some massive swells still rolled in past Rum, out of the north west, but the wind was dropping away as the moonlight waned.

After a while the reefed mainsail was set, but adding that sail just made the motion more uncomfortable. So with the wind turning more westerly, it was furled again and once the jib was reduced by a small bit Whisper became balanced on a reach with the helm lashed, and I managed to doze for minutes at a time, wedged securely under the sprayhood. Through the darkness we powered down the swells, over an empty ocean, back to the south.

Gradually the dawn sky turned a pure salmon pink over the Knoydart hills. Red sky in the morning… time to be safely home?

Eight o’clock, just seven hours after leaving Soay we ghosted against the ebbing tide into the shelter of the narrows, and paddled quietly home into the tidal pool where we often linger to await the rising tide. The high cliffs on Skye had receded once again to lie in wait: just a dark line on the horizon.

Whisper of Sunart has braved the Cauldron!

Tom Colville
Coaster Whisper of Sunart