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Monday, 11 July 2011
Cruising and pottering around Skye and Torridon June 2011
Michelle White, Sally and me watered and provisioned Shimshal minutes before the rain started to fall in buckets. Motoring out of Oban Bay my horizon shrank to not much further than the rain and mist on my glasses. It was Michelle's first trip on Shimshal but, instinctively, she knew that when it's wet on deck the best place to be is down below enjoying the luxuries of Shimshal's deck saloon. The skipper stayed at the helm all the way to Tobermory by which time the rain was easing and the mist lifting.
Despite this dank and inauspicious start Michelle took to life on board very easily. Having sailed Lasers she was most at home helming and, when the Autohelm proved somewhat unpredictable, she spent many long hours at the wheel coaxing Shimshal along and only had to be fuelled and motivated by the occasional biscuit.
It rained heavily all night in Tobermory but we slept well tied to a mooring. Ashore next morning we bumped into Richard Russell and family who were holidaying in the grounds of a castle on the northern tip of Mull. Whilst the rain cleared up we drank coffee in one of Tobermory's excellent cafes.
The star attraction was the Peregrine Falcon roosting in the church tower on the sea front. There he sat eyeing up the twitcher's telephoto lenses and surrounded by food parcels in the form of pigeons who seemed oblivious of the predator in their midst.
By the afternoon a light south westerly appeared and, as the rain receded, we cast off our mooring and drifted off towards Ardnamurchan. With sails now up and with Shimshal powering along Michelle took the wheel most of the way to Mallaig.
New moorings had been put in at Mallaig and we rang ahead to the harbour master to reserve one but, as it turned out, there was plenty of capacity. The rain found us again that night and we pottered ashore the next morning to check out the Fisherman's Mission and to buy a map of the Skye Cuillin.
It was a short trip the next day - in rain again - across the Sound of Sleat and the southernmost tip of Skye before heading north and through the narrows into upper Loch Slapin. We anchored in 7m just north of the fish farm with the Skye Marble Quarry on our starboard and the gorgeous peak of Blabheinn on our port. This peak was to be our objective for the next day.
As the anchor went down a squall ripped through reminding us that June isn't always drought and sunshine on the West Coast of Scotland.
The next day dawned still and sunny and Sally, as always on a hill day, was up early and coaxing the rest of us out of bed with pancakes or bacon sandwiches. I fall for that trick nearly every time and end up slogging up relentless slopes of bog and tussock as my penalty for a cooked breakfast. In fairness it was a perfect day to "do" Blabheinn. We motored silently with our rather wonderful electric outboard (Torqueedo) along the mirror smooth loch and beached the tender a few yards from the road.
A short walk along the road led to a path that climbed up through the heather and bog following the bank of a sparkling river. Above that came a narrow and rocky gorge and then the waterfall. At about 500 metres I took a phone call from John who was struggling at the Pinfold with Mum's care package and this rather distracted me from the allures of Blabheinn. I wandered back down the hill to the boat whilst Sally and Michelle went on to the Summit. They had a fine day.
We sailed, or rather we motored, that afternoon with the intention of heading to Skye's West Coast but the westerly breeze and a strong wind forecast pushed us further south so we fetched up on the island of Canna which is well protected from the south west. We nosed, late into the day, into the crowded anchorage and managed to find a secure holding close in on the north side of the bay. Although the breeze picked up the threatened gale never materialised. After a very wet night the wind settled in the west and we went ashore to check out the cafe which was splendid.
By early afternoon the sun was out and we were hopeful that the wind had got enough south in it for us to enjoy a speedy reach up to Dunvegan. As we came out of the lee of Canna the sea was quite lumpy and the wind direction would have left us with a bouncy beat for the rest of the day. It took only a couple of moments to decide to ease the sheets and run off to the east towards the Point of Sleat. Shimshal sped along at her customary 8 or 9 knots and, as we entered the Sound and turned north, the wind followed us rounds and gave us a dead run with poled out genoa up the eastern side of Skye. Alba Explorer, the 80 foot Ocean Youth Boat, had left Rhum as we passed and Michelle's competitive spirit emerged as she coaxed Shimshal along to keep her ahead of her 80 foot neighbour. The dual continued until the early evening when Alba Explorer ducked into an anchorage just short of the Skye Bridge. We continued onto Plockton and picked up a mooring in the evening gloom.
We had never been to Plockton before so the next morning we went ashore to the hotel for showers and a leisurely breakfast. We motored out of the bay and picked up a southerly breeze as we closed on the Applecross Peninsular and this pushed us all the way up to Loch Torridion which we roared down with 25 knots of wind off the beam. The water was rushing past so fast we scrambled to get the sails down before we ran out of water.
We anchored in Loch Shieldaig in the early afternoon and were delighted to eat ashore in a lovely French owned restaurant overlooking the bay and Shieldaig Island. At dusk we rowed back out to our anchorage and visited a Hansa 40 charter boat that had anchored a few yards from us. On the Hansa we faced a gentle interrogation by the all male crew who had chartered out of Armadale. I have to say the Hansa was a curious mishmash of design with a very racy open stern and plumb stem but with a tiny electric furling, self tacking jib. The 6 boys on board had obviously been sailing her quite hard with the result that, despite the fact that she was only 3 weeks old, quite a few bits were already falling off. I'm not too sure who the designer had in mind when he penned the Hansa 40.
Another Munro day dawned fine and flat calm. Our RIB roared off towards the head of Loch Torridon at an implausibly early hour. We beached amongst the midges and donned our boots and hill gear. Intending to climb the Northern Pinnacles of Liathach we had taken the precaution of packing 10 metres of an old furling line to act as a confidence rope on the scramble. The approach took us through the rhododendron and scots pine forest behind Torridon House before heading up the well made path that climbs up into the Glen between Liathach and Bhienn Alligin. After a few miles we plunged into a boggy and tussocky wilderness of sandstone terraces that lead up to Coire na Caim on the north side of Liathach.
The Pinnacles looked imposing below and I did flirt with idea of seeking an easier line but this didn't go down too well with the girls so I podded on. The steepness increased and, eventually, using grassy handholds, we came out on the ridge between the first and the second Pinnacle. By now there was a swirl of cloud and a few spots of rain to dampen the sandstone. Which way to go? We had not got a guidebook and there seemed no evidence of any route. The southern side of the ridge looked steep, intimidating and loose and the northern side steeper, looser and even more intimidating. The rope now seemed to be particularly pointless as it was long enough to get us into a position that would then prove impossible to extract us from. Fortunately for me my misgivings were echoed by Sally and Michelle and we decided upon discretion but not before I had slipped on a loose wet rock and set everyone's hearts racing as we all contemplated our exposure. With confidence and ego dented we set about the weary task of a very long retreat and made a complete meal of descending the steep, loose slope that led down to the Coire.
It was a relief to get back into the RIB and race at full throttle the five rain sodden miles back to the welcoming warmth and security of Shimshal. The Hanse had left and a couple of other boats had arrived and we were to meet more of them the next day on Rona. It had been a fine day out on the hills that had been thwarted by a 100m of wet, slippery and deplorably loose rock. In fact, as we were later to discover, this is exactly how the Northern Pinnacles are described in the guide book together with the cautionary advice, "best attempted in winter when the rocks are cemented together by ice". We celebrated our failure ashore with fine food and fine views.
It is a short but spectacular sail from Torridon to Rona. It was raining in the east but clear and sunny in the west so it was no hardship to leave the wonders of Loch Torridon and head out towards the the lighthouse on Rona. We put away the sails off the entrance to the bay on the west side and concentrated hard on the chart plotter as we motored gingerly past the rocks that guard one of "Scotland's best anchorages". It came highly recommended by guidebooks and friends alike.
A few boats were already occupying the best spots so we dug the anchor firmly into the mud and let out enough chain to leave our rudder just 10 metres short of a drying reef. Not ideal but secure enough. The two Sheildaig boats came and anchored close by and we went ashore to explore Rona. Failing on first attempt to find the cave we wandered along the quad bike track that threads it's way through the heather, midges and moorland.
On the way back to Shimshal we passed behind Eala, a Moody Eclipse. Ali, her skipper, called us over and we were soon relaxing in the saloon with his wife Sally and tucking into that morning's harvest of winkles and limpets. Alan and Fiona joined us from their boat and we spent a lovely hour or two supping white wine and telling stories of adventure in the Hebrides. It turned out that we had met Ali and Sally a couple of years earlier in Ardfern which is where they live and keep their boat.
Even by Scottish standards the next morning was particularly soggy and another westerly gale was forecast. The first priority was to return the hospitality of the previous evening and so we welcomed Ali, Sally, Alan and Fiona on board for morning coffee. Nobody was in a hurry to leave but Sally and Michelle did venture ashore to seek out the elusive cave on the east coast of Rona which doubles as a church. Eala left for Portree and we abandoned our previous plans to sail to the west coast of Skye and opted to follow them down to Portree. The gales didn't come to much and the rain abated during the afternoon. Arriving late in the day there were no moorings left so we dropped the anchor only to find that the soft mud didn't provide the most secure holding. We reset the anchor a few times and, in the process, backed up the chain which prized the cowl off the top of the windlass shearing the M6 bolts that had secured it. A trip to a hardware store in Tobermory to buy a set of bolt exctractors fixed that problem a couple of days later.
Ashore in Portree we met up with Pete and Irene Smith who had driven down from Uig to join us. Friends from our Everest trip in 1994 they had migrated north and settled in Uig. Pete has carved out a new career caring for the gardens of widows and fighting fires whilst Irene has moved into brewing Skye's "Red Cuillin" beer. It was lovely to see them but we had docked late so we arranged to meet up for dinner aboard in Armadale the next evening. The tide mandated a 5am start so no time to tarry at the supermarket and, luckily, Pete and Irene volunteered to supply the dinner we had invited them to!
The anchor was up and we we were motoring south moments after my alarm went off. Shafts of early morning sunlight filtered through the heavy rain clouds over Rassay as we plugged south towards the Skye Bridge. Gradually the wind became favourable and up went the sails. By the time we got to Kylerhea the tide was running fast and sped us on our way towards the morning sunshine.
We picked up an Armadale mooring in time for lunch and the Marina man came alongside with his floating hosepipe to fill our depleted water tanks. He left the pipe with us so that we could attack the topsides with polish whilst he went off to fix the broken Hansa we had seen in Shieldaig.
A brief sortie ashore found us ensconced in the inevitable cafe. This time we sat out on the sunny terrace adjacent to the ferry pier.
Pete and Irene arrived brandishing pre-cooked dinner for five. We ate in the cockpit bathed in the mid-summer evening sunshine. A rare treat on this trip!
A tedious motor into a light wind the next day took us to Tobermory's luxurious showers, scallops and chips from the van next to the pier, more peregrine antics and lots and lots of midge bites.
The wind was westerly and very unpredictable the next day when we sailed into the Sound of Mull. The other Ocean Youth yacht, Alba Explorer, was heading south too and so, with Michelle at the helm, another dual was on. During the puffs of wind the 80 footer would power itself and surge off a knot or so faster than we could muster but we had the edge when the wind died down and we were able to claw our way back. We played cat and mouse all the way to Duart Castle when our larger rival bore off for Oban. We came close onto the wind with a course to the entrance of Cuan Sound but soon the evening calm arrived and on came the engine. The tide shot us through Cuan at a break-neck speed and it's quite easy to see how so many yachts get pushed onto the reef where the channel takes a 90 degree dog-leg to the north. We got through though without drama and half an hour later we were tied up securely to our own mooring. We slept aboard as Stu, Liz and there five children were in Traighuaine that night.