July 2009 : Whitehaven, Firth of Clyde, Crinan Canal, Mull, Isle of Skye

Greetings from the Isle of Skye. We end this month anchored just below the Skye bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh in very wet and windy conditions. To be fair, this has been the first piece of nasty weather we've experienced all month - generally our problem has been too little wind, rather than too much. Blazing hot sunshine would have been nice, and a bit less chilly in the evenings, but all in all, the weather for us this month has not been at all bad - using as our yardstick the fact that we have eaten nearly all our meals outside in the cockpit. The wind, when we've had it, has been mainly southerly - excellent for our northward progress.

We have moved on another 288 miles this month, mostly in very small leisurely stages - this being the 'holiday' phase of our voyage. The exception to this was at the start of the month when we made 114 miles in 2 days of excellent sailing. On the first, we left Whitehaven and made a longer than planned passage, arriving off Drummore - the most southerly village in Scotland - tucked just to the east of the Mull of Galloway. Having enjoyed a very good sail, we were somewhat disappointed to find that the anchorage was pretty much non-existent - just off a beach outside the harbour which was completely dry. The wind piped up strongly just as we arrived and blew violently all night. As a change in wind direction was forecast, we took anchor watches all through the disturbed and anxious night. The anxiety was exacerbated by apprehension of the tidal gate of the Mull of Galloway facing us the next morning - as described in our pilot 'Fearsome Passages': Its headlands, tidal races and overfalls constitute one of the greatest challenges to the cruising yachts in the waters of the British Isles. However, having checked and rechecked tide times all was well as we rounded the cape close inshore in relatively benign conditions. Setting off northwards towards the Firth of Clyde we then enjoyed another great day's sail - downwind under genoa and mizzen. Notable features en route were Ailsa Craig (340 metre volcanic plug just sitting in the Firth of Clyde), the dear old 'Waverley' - a frequent visitor to Bristol - paddle-steaming its way around the Clyde, and a submarine, half-submerged, ploughing stealthily through the water. As the seas moderated through the day, we found ourselves flying along and bypassed 2 potential destinations, arriving after 68 miles into the secure anchorage of Lamlash on the Isle of Arran. This is a superb natural harbour, protected on the open side by Holy Island. It was apparently used as an assembly point for wartime north Atlantic convoys. We anchored off Holy Island, which is currently in the ownership of the Tibetan Buddhist 'Centre for Peace and Health' and used as a monastery and educational centre offering such courses as 'Swimming Dragon Quigong and Meditation' and'Flying with both wings' - and numerous others - but we just went for a walk.

After our flying start to the month, we then slowed right down, with passages mostly of 10-20 miles and frequent days 'off'. First step was to Largs from where we visited Glasgow for a day's sightseeing on foot. An interesting mix of immensely large and grand Victorian buildings with some drab dereliction. The Necropolis - 'city of the extravagantly wealthy Victorian dead' - is an amazingly opulent graveyard. Sauchiehall Street was a bit disappointing - just a pedestrianised shopping area which could have been anywhere, however we managed to find some Rennie Mackintosh architecture - rather reminiscent of Gaudi in Barcelona. Finally the Kelvingrove Museum - to spend an excellent two hours browsing the wonderfully informative exhibits on a all manner of subjects - we particularly liked the Spitfire flying over the elephant.

Then back to the sailing and into the beautiful Kyles of Bute, then round to East Loch Tarbert on Loch Fyne - a picturesque fishing village. Here we were lucky to coincide with a visit of the 'Screen Machine' - an articulated lorry which unfolds to become a mobile cinema seating 80, which tours the villages of the Highlands and Islands. Next day a leisurely downwind sail with genny poled out the 9 miles to Ardrishaig - the southern end of the Crinan Canal.

The canal was a delightful experience in itself, and also served the purpose of cutting out another of the dread tidal gates - the Mull of Kintyre. The canal, which was completed in 1801 is 9 miles long and 20 feet wide. Crinan Canal There are 7 Bridges and 15 locks, all but 3 of which have to be operated manually by boat crew. Being only 2 of us, we enlisted the help of a 'pilot'. These pilots are locals who help short-handed boat crews through the canal by setting up the locks and taking lines. Brian arrived on his bike with his dog Polly. He actually works for the canal, but was earning extra cash on his day off - so he knew the ropes pretty well and certainly earned his money. It was hard enough work for us manoeuvring into the locks and then keeping the boat under control in the turbulence as the locks filled/emptied. The canal is charmingly picturesque - pretty little whitewashed cottages and banks lined with rose bay willow herb, astilbe, gunnera and yellow loosestrife. We had a mixture of sunshine and showers on the trip of 7 and a half hours, including a stop for a pub lunch half-way through, eaten outside under a sun umbrella in pouring rain - dogs not being allowed inside the pub. We emerged in late afternoon sun into a stunning new seascape - dominated by the mountains of Mull to the north - little islands and rocks all around in a flat calm blue sea. Judging that we could just about make the tidal gate of Dorus Mor, we decided to continue on to a remoter anchorage in Loch Shuna - which we managed to achieved without being sucked into the notorious whirlpool of Corryvreckan not too far away. A good day's work.

Puillodobhrain anchorage Our next anchorage at Puillodobhrain was the most beautiful yet and we stayed put for a couple of days, taking the opportunity of strolling over to the 'Bridge over the Atlantic' at Clachan - built in the 18th century and so called because it was apparently the first bridge from the mainland to an island. We also treated ourselves to a meal of locally caught languoustines and mussels at the nearby pub.

Next Oban - fishing port and ferry gateway to the islands. We strolled around the sights with all the other tourists, lunching on seafood from a quayside stall, visiting the distillery - one of the oldest (1794) and smallest in Scotland (7 employees), and noting the incongruous profusion of clothing and footwear factory outlets.

While anchored off Oban, we hopped on a train 12 miles to Taynuilt and headed for the sound of the pipes for the Highland Games. The official opening of the games was marked by the procession of 'chieftains'' at the head of a pipe band - last time we encountered chiefs was in Fiji! We focused on the 'Heavy' events - including putting the shot, throwing the hammers - light and heavy, 56lb weight over the bar, etc. - great brawny men in kilts. All very entertaining - together with the dancing competitions - highland, sailors hornpipes and Irish jigs, various field events from the serious half mile run to three-legged (all ages at once) and pillow fights - and everything accompanied to the constant swirl of bagpipes as the various piping events proceed throughout the afternoon. A lovely atmosphere and great event - our only disappointment was in having to leave before the caber tossing to catch our bus back to Oban.

The other excitement for us in Oban was a completely unexpected crossing of paths with our previous much loved boat Perdika. She now lives in Glasson Dock near Morecombe Bay, and her owners were on a 3 month cruise around the west coast of Scotland. With mixed feelings we dinghied over for a visit and were very glad we did, finding that Paul and Jan love the boat as much as we did - especially having done a lot of work on the engine and teak decks!

After a day's delay in Oban due to heavy weather - which we put to good use doing a bit of forward planning and chart ordering - we motor-sailed up the Sound of Mull to Tobermory. Tobermory Tobermory is adorable and we loved it with its brightly coloured houses lining the harbour in a pretty wooded bay. Unbelievably picturesque, it was surprisingly unassuming. As well as the odd arty gift/pottery shop, there is an extraordinary hardware shop selling an incongruous variety of items - hardware, plastic model kits, whisky and wine, telescopes, guitars and ukeleles. Unaccountably Chris bought a ukulele and is now banned to the forepeak (hereinafter called the music room) while he learns to play it! His efforts to tune it prove conclusively that he is tone deaf. Not so the two guitarists who entertained the drinkers at the Mishnish Hotel on a lively evening after the local Highland Games - riotous dancing, stag party, and teenage angst - all human life was there!

However, all good things come to an end and with the threat of more bad weather looming, we set off north again, rounding yet another tidal gate - no less than Ardnamurchan Point - the most westerly point on mainland Britain. Eigg harbour We then called in at the Island of Eigg for a few hours. Julia spent a family holiday there very many years ago and it was fascinating to find it exactly the same as it was then as forgotten details came flooding back,

With the bad weather in mind and no very tenable anchorage on Eigg, we continued on northwards towards the awesome Cuillins on the south west coast of Skye, before starting up the Sound of Sleat to the secure anchorage of Isleornsay. A motoring trip in no wind, but compensated for by a day of fantastic hot and clear sunshine - while gale warnings were in force for our sea area!

The bad weather kept threatening, but not quite arriving, so we thought we'd better press on to Loch Alsh, involving a passage up the narrow channel of Kyle Rhea, through which the tide rips at 8 knots, so timing was a bit critical - but we've become pretty used to this by now. Windy rain squalls were starting, but we got through the channel and into our anchorage during a sunny interval. The anchorage of Totaig, at the end of Loch Duich is another beauty - tiny and rock-ridden, it was a sheltered and tranquil spot, half a mile across from the iconic castle on Eilean Donan. We dinghied over the next day to visit the castle - a maze of passages and rooms with lots of tartan, weapons, family photos and heirlooms and a fantastic setting.

From there, after a couple of nights, we moved the final 7 miles to Kyle of Lochalsh in worsening conditions, in time for Julia to catch the train for one of her trips south. Chris was left on the boat, at anchor in nasty weather - alone with his ukulele!

The ongoing testing of our refitting and equipping of the boat is proving very satisfactory. By and large everything is performing well. Particular stars are our 'new generation' Spade anchor, which digs in immediately every time and stays solidly put - better than our old CQR which held well, but sometimes took a few attempts to set. Also the autohelm - 'George' - who is a real trouper - although we realise we have sited the display in the wrong place and will have to move it (more for the winter jobs list!) The chartplotter - 'Jeeps' - is interfaced with everything and, though we know it's cheating, we do enjoy all its cleverness. Our only problems have been those we had as we left Bristol - dodgy VHF aerial and alternator. The VHF aerial we have temporarily solved by using the second aerial on the mizzen mast - meant for AIS - but not really needed much in these parts. The alternator was more of a problem and when Chris used our weatherbound day in Oban to investigate further he decided we needed professional input. Rather impetuously we decided to continue progress and seek out help in Tobermory - potentially a foolish idea, given the small size of Tobermory, but by our great good luck, we found an excellent (and dishy) marine engineer who came to our aid immediately. A keen sailor himself, he understood our need not to be held up (although there could be worse places than Tobermory). It was all a bit of a puzzle, but the conclusion was finally reached that we needed a new alternator. John managed to source one and arrange for it to be transported from Inverness in 24 hours and then fit it - all done very efficiently and, relatively, inexpensively.

A superb and relaxing month. Our only disappointment is in not yet having met anyone else on the same voyage as ourselves - or many fellow yachties at all. Next month is likely to prove somewhat more challenging. We'll have to up the pace with longer passages and, now that the 'barbecue summer' has been scrapped, may experience more difficult weather conditions.