When the tide fell – a 2018 summer cruise
People often rush about striving to do as much as possible with each hour. This is really not The Drascombe Way at all. At least it has no need to be. Why set a destination or schedule when everything needed for a happy few hours remains within easy reach?
Early summer 2018 had begun with a long period of very slight winds along the west highland coast. Then for weeks while England scorched, sustained warm winds streamed in from the south. They blew day after day. Well known hidey holes from westerly weather systems became untenable overnight… new places which are usually too risky to call at, lay strangely tranquil. The whole cruising area around Ardnamurchan became ‘refreshed’ in a wonderful way. It was as if someone had thrown away the old cruising charts and drawn up a new version.
There is something special about two boats sailing in company. If the kindred spirit also celebrates one of the golden rules of Drascombe ownership, a motor is carried only as one part of emergency equipment, so much the better. At heart every real sailor will suspect how efficiently a sailing boat can be made to travel. A Drascombe skipper can learn: proceed everywhere using the rig alone, oars or a paddle. It is how voyaging used to be. A century may have slipped by, but skills that the old timers once had are not extinct – they can become yours.
We sailed away against the afternoon incoming tide, our sterns to the summer breeze. Usually, while outward-bound several tacks are necessary. That day we fair shot out the narrows and round to anchor off that gorgeous sandy beach – the Singing Sands. Hardly any swell came round there that evening from the open ocean. The prevailing winds could do nothing to compete with the season’s land breezes.
The line of pristine shell-sand beaches was deserted. As dusk fell the land cooled, the breeze fell away. Gentle waves caressed the rocks nearby, a lullaby for any resting sailor.
Dawn opened the huge panorama. Far in the distance the Knoydart hills and Coulin on Skye glowed in morning sunshine. Further west the crags of Eigg obscured the lower slopes of peaks on Rum – summits wreathed in thin adiabatic cloud.
A leisurely conference over fresh brewed coffee was called. Then we made sail. The day seemed set to blow us over to Muck, riding down the ebb tide. We had no firm plan, neither did the wind! As we gathered speed Notus reached a truce with Zephyrus. Destination Eigg was selected for us!
Besting a flood tide across the final mile towards the shallow sands of Kildonan Bay, in late afternoon sunshine we neared landfall. Behind outlying rocks, remote shallows may be reached, where no yacht can be. We anchored in a few feet of water. Curious seals came to check the source of the disturbance their poor eyesight denied them. The Coasters should just float there at low neaps… maybe the seals wondered too? (Our keels never touched!)
Next day the wind still blew from SSW. It funnelled quite strongly through the Galmisdale narrows. The conditions set the day’s challenge. The north going tide was flowing by the time the coffee conference was tidied away. Our ability was under scrutiny! Each skipper sought eddies behind rocks, near the jetty, or close in behind reefs along Eilean Chathastail. Tack by tack the two Drascombes worked away, one tack gaining a meter or two southwards, then the other. An hour later – or was it two? – our boats were clear at sea, rising and falling to the gentle ocean swell off the south of Eigg. Not that far apart, and often hull down in troughs, both were reaching powerfully towards the west.
The northern anchorage on Muck is a shallow sandy bay. It contains many reefs. Local pilot books give clear transits for avoiding trouble. Only yachts sailed with skill would dare enter at all. The advice must be studied carefully. The nervous approaches of several cruising skippers later that day appeared similar to expecting watched paint to dry!
As we tacked in, old maxims for small boats along these coasts held good: The brown bits are the hard bits and seaweed does not grow on sand! Crowds of grey seals and sea birds enjoyed ancient vantage points within this obstacle course. Our Drascombes tacked again and again, often turning just metres away from this wild audience.
Central at the head of the bay, a low cliff on a small tidal islet provides good shelter. In its lee out of that day’s constant wind, a small boat will also lie hidden from the windows of houses that overlook. We anchored here over clear sand. Nearby, gleeful children were jumping from the islet, watched by a dad in a dinghy. The bravest, in wet suits, were plunging down, and then rock hopping through shallows back to the beach.
Next day was too windy for cruising. Veering a long line carried up ashore, Whisper was left at anchor to ride the wind swinging well out. With the backdrop of sister JUNO and the jagged peaks of Rum beyond, Whisper settled and looked secure enough. We went to explore.
Lots of day visitors were wandering the roads and footpaths across the island. Sheerwater, the regular daytrip boat from Arisaig, had docked in the south harbour half a mile away. Checking with the skipper we benefitted from his professional knowledge and mobile weather app. We learned that the present wind was certain not to ease or alter direction much for 24 hours. In outlook the approaching weekend promised something wilder too. As the day trippers departed we retreated to the island tea room for tea and delicious cakes. It was to be late the following afternoon before the wind abated enough to allow fair progress back upwind to Ardnamurchan and proper shelter.
With so few manmade features, distances on clear days across open water are deceptive. Our Navionics iPad charts showed just over seven miles to a very unusual cruising destination: Bay MacNeal. To reach it that evening, the course appeared to be slanted upwind. But with each tack swept by the ebbing neap tide we hoped to aim off to the south east and be swept west. It did not quite work out like that. Rounding the vast new fish farm off the east end of the island, the wind headed us. Soon it veered to the south again. After some grand sailing covering perhaps fifteen miles – almost four hours of long tacks – slight differences with windshift and boat speed had carried the two Coasters far apart.
As the silhouette of each boat merged against the hills, unseen, JUNO had indeed reached Bay MacNeal. Not certain of this, in fading daylight Whisper tacked in to check for her in Sanna Bay, near the village of Portuairk, just in case.
There was no sign of JUNO. Then a white all-round mast light was spotted approaching from seaward. We sailed towards each other in the dark, then tacked up together to drop anchor near the head of the bay. Waters glowed with phosphorescence despite the bright moonlight. It was nearly midnight.
Gusty winds funnelled down overnight from inland. Over breakfast next day a more sheltered hiding place could be seen nearby, tucked in behind a reef. There we whiled the blustery day away, busy with small maintenance tasks or reading, basking in hot sunshine.
By late afternoon the wind had eased. The challenge of a night in Bay MacNeal still tempted us. Just a short hop to the west, this remote bay offers the UK’s most westerly possible mainland anchorage for a shoal draft boat. Guarded for much of each year by foaming reefs, only during southerly winds can it provide complete, if gusty, shelter from ocean swells. We tacked warily inshore, around disturbed water, assisted by Navionics. The resolution conflict between the WSG84 charts and GPS mapping was too obvious. As ever, many weed-covered darker seabed areas confirmed the true location of hundreds of small reefs.
It’s always much wiser to approach a strange shore on a rising tide. Now it was falling – and falling fast. Patches of fine shell sand could be spotted between the hard places. As the sun set, extra vigilance was called for: each boat must drop with the tide to settle within a sandy patch. At low tide tranquil waters mirrored the magical moonlit sky.
When we awoke a warm but blustery southerly still swept over us. That day’s coffee time conference decreed the boats would lie together, beached on the falling tide. By using an endless line to a nearby outcrop to secure them, we could wade ashore through the shallows.
To our west some 750 meters away the grey granite silhouette of the Ardnamurchan lighthouse stood proud. To the east, high up, there is a stone walled plinth on which a WW2 Coastguard lookout hut had once stood. Up there the whole approach to the southern Minch could be observed. From Sanna Bay out to Muck, with Rum and Eigg behind, round to Canna, with some dim outlines of peaks on Uist along the hazy horizon. Coll occupied the west. Southwest lay the Treshnish Islands, and there Tiree, lurking in the distant gloom. The NW corner of Mull was a dark line to our south. Those year-round coastguards had to be tough: their post is a very exposed place indeed. As gusts whistled past that summer’s day, it was hard to stand there or hold a camera steady.
Returning to the boats for tea, we passed time watching distant yachts converge near the lighthouse. Suddenly a small rowing boat was spotted rounding the point. Later we understood this was Andy Hodgson, on his solo 2018 www.roundbritainrow.org.
Bay MacNeal promised a less than restful night. As the tide rose again the wind eased. Time was running out if we were to be in good shelter again before cold fronts spoiled the peace within the next 48 hours. With the tide slackening we sailed out. Impatience brought us to the lighthouse far too early. Some time was spent tacking aimlessly within the giant eddy there beyond the point, making little headway south. Our first concerns that the passage to Kilchoan Bay might end up in the dark became more real. Much later, after a superb series of intersecting tacks over flat seas in towards the Sound of Mull our boats fell calm: coasting gently below high cliffs we allowed ourselves to be carried east on the tide. Unbidden, dusk came on swiftly and with it a steady drizzle set in. (These midnight excursions were becoming a habit!). Even with local knowledge, identification of known transits against background lighting is always a testing way to enter any rocky anchorage. Only after the 0045 BBC Radio 4 shipping bulletin was over did sleep in Kilchoan Bay finally claim us.
Conference next day determined not to linger. The best storm anchorage in Loch Sunart is within Loch Drumbuie. As the day brightened steady drizzle eased for a while. We tacked off east. Hours later we came to anchor in a tight corner of shelter I have often used. Over tea, a debate, over which side of the anchorage was more likely to offer even better shelter in view of the approaching front engaged us. Shallows under the wooded slopes along the south shore were persuasive. We moved.
With a sudden crash the wind veered 120 degrees. It was pitch dark and nearly low tide. Whisper swerved powerfully till her part lowered rudder blade snagged again. Horizontal pulses of rain hammered the decks. Snoozing complacently while bouncing against leeshore shallows through a severe squall is not the stuff dreams are made of! The cozy sleeping bag was exchanged for clammy chest waders. It was vital to reposition our anchors. At low tide in the dark, with the red beam of a head torch deflected by torrential rain, this urgent evolution was probably a joy only a certain type of Drascombe sailor knows?
Next day, chastened, and our lucky boats undamaged, special kit was cleaned and dried off. The well frequented Drascombe corner opposite accepted us ‘sinners’ again – a far more sedate second night was granted.
It is now eighteen years since JUNO’s skipper first came to Oronsay. Back then we all made a memorable dawn passage, paddling through the tidal Dorlin narrows at high tide. Years of extra experience with our boats could now be put through a retest, this time under sail. Each tack risked curling through the wind because gusts came sneakily around trees. Sudden swirls in the few open places in that rocky place gave some small momentum again. It took a long time to work along to the final gap. At just four metres wide, in calm, oars were deployed. On the final heave of that rising tide each boat squeezed through.
Satisfied, the small west channel that passes Carna tempted us on. After twenty minutes hard tacking into the new ebb JUNO had somehow climbed half way in. It was like snakes and ladders, miss one tack and be swept back out. With her older sails Whisper missed one tack three times in one eddy and was swept back down tide. We might have anchored for a coffee conference. Instead, and for the first time that cruise – a lunch venue in mind – our engines were deployed. They shoved us through.
Outer Loch Teacuis has a neighbourhood watch: dozy seals basked in hot sunshine to oversee our lunchstop! Then, cook boxes stowed again as the ebb gradually eased, we tacked on uphill. An inner narrows leads towards my old family home Rahoy. With all the time available to us as low tide approached, could it be done? Each tack might gain ground: many lost it all again. After twists too numerous to count, between rocks I first explored as a child, it worked. We sailed in against the tide – a truly extraordinary memory.
Tea and biscuits were served at anchor. Then, undaunted, we simply repeated the ‘snakes and ladders’ challenge back out of the loch again. The wind now chased us but the returning tide grew more powerful by the minute. By using eddies in behind reefs steady if hesitant progress was possible. Just enough momentum could be built for each boat to climb successive ridges of incoming water. At each pinch spot the boats slid out sideways, gliding across almost the full width of the channel to settle within some opposite eddy. A sea kayaker would play these eddies too. It is to be doubted any other Drascombe skipper will ever attempt to pass through this narrows against the tide twice under sail as we did that day.
By the time we reached it – surging up, just feet from the shore within a back current – the final eddy behind the Bridge of Carna had weakened. The incoming tide was over. The last of the flood up Loch Sunart towards Salen became a serene drift in hot sunshine which amused us for hours. Much later as shadows lengthened, a small wind filled in to carry us to anchor inshore of all yachts at the head of the bay.
Next day brought wind… lots of it. While JUNO was eventually permitted to moor in a cat’s cradle of lines to the jetty pontoons, Whisper ended up in safety back ashore on a trailer. Gusts to near gale force blasted straight at the pontoons. Clearly Salen was not the best safe haven to have chosen. The advantage of being able to have a shower there, and for me to call at my home just three miles away over the hill, had been too good to pass up.
Overnight the wild weather passed through and the wind dropped. By mid-morning Whisper was afloat once more. Then coffee conference over, we cast off for the west again. The 2018 Kilchoan Regatta beckoned.
Down-tide with steady winds, the delightful small inlet in the north side of Oronsay drew us in for a late lunch. We might have remained there overnight, but dismissing thoughts of making such an early start next day to reach Kilchoan in time for the sailing event, we raised the anchors.
For the first time that week we really could free our sheets. The most exhilarating sail of the whole cruise took place. In a single tack in winds over force 5 we close-reached west. As the wind swung SE again the Coasters began to surf, often at hull speed and more. Sea mists kept us attentive, visibility was not good. Occasional glimpses of the well-known landmarks directed us into the relative calm of the village anchorage. It was supper time.
Each year the Kilchoan Regatta is a boating feast for locals and visitors. This time four Drascombes appeared in the bay to join in. The motley fleet also included a 21ft trimaran, set to test the previously triumphant Omega dinghy, a locally owned open sailing canoe – which has sailed round Britain and a splendid wooden Caledonian Yawl. All sail equal under handicap – huge fun!
The sociable days rushed by: prizes for all! That Friday evening we crossed to enjoy tranquillity in the hidden inlet of Calve Island. Saturday visitors to Tobermory might have envied the most convenient parking spot in town: our Drascombes kedged short in wellyboot shallows off the beach, just yards from the Co-op. Old habits die hard!
That Sunday we sailed back home. The weather forecast warned of a week of soaking wet. As variable winds filled in from SSW, we made good time. We came bouncing around the Ardnamurchan lighthouse point as the tide swept north, the thirty mile passage to Ardtoe was completed in one hop.
One final uptide challenge, upwind into the narrows in drizzly twilight, brought us to anchor at low water in a foot or two of water near the pier in Loch Kentra. We slept soundly. (Our motors slumber still!)
Incoming tide seeped silently over the sandy shallows. Waddenzee – style, as flotsam under reduced sail, the winding river channel fed us gently back across the flooded Kentra Bay sands to the fringes of the croft. There we stepped out on the grass. With memory cells fully charged, we wandered off home.
Copyright: Tom Colville 2018