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Sunday, 24 June 2012

June 2012 Cruise north Ullapool and cycle south via Outer Hebrides

Shimshal hit the water during the May day holiday but a prolonged spell of high pressure on the West Coast of Scotland meant that she only just floated off the travel lift sans mast. Being launched on the Friday evening of a holiday weekend meant that our mastless sailing condemned us to being a marina caravan for the duration. Shimshal copes admirably as a party boat as we entertained a succession of visitors all of whom indulged in mutual head scratching over her various electrical dilemmas. Whilst Sandra cycled Haydn happily immersed himself elbow deep in the engine compartment and solved a plethora of problems. Richard, Julie together with toddling Girma and Hiwot came to test out Shimshal's central heating as refugees from their early season camper holiday. It turns out that a 48 foot yacht in harbour is rather more satisfactory accommodation than a 1980's VW camper. Dave and Helen also came along for a day and took part in the great alternator debate. Despite never leaving the quay Shimshal's first weekend of sailing was a fine and very sociable affair.

By the end of May we were back on the boat and this time the mast was on. It took only a day or so to get the boat ready for sea and by Friday afternoon we cast off our mooring lines and left Ardfern. We motored down Loch Craignish and plugged our way northwards against the ebbing tide through the Dorus Mor. Within an hour or two we were on our mooring at Traighuaine.

We came ashore at Traighuaine to investigate a water shortage which our builders were suspected of causing. Happily they were blameless and the source of leakage was quickly found to be a faulty ball cock in an overflowing tough.

The tide was to be favourable in the Corryvreckan from 0930 so we motored south in the morning calm. The breeze gradually built and on the west side of Jura the engine went off and we set off on a fast reach across the Firth of Lorne to Mull and then inside the Torran Rocks to the Sound of Iona. There the wind headed us and we motored our way out through the Treshnish Islands to Coll where we picked up a mooring and went ashore. The next day was to be our Wedding Anniversary so we celebrated ashore with a meal in the Hotel.

Shimshal anchored south of the Shiant Islands

The Rock spit at the Shiant Islands


Old strip plots used by the long gone crofters

The Minch





Shimshal anchored off the Shiants

THe old croft on the Shiants now used by bird ringers


Shimshal was joined at anchor by a ketch from Shieldaig

The connecting spit

Sea Pinks

Shimshal at Anchor with the Isle of Harris behind

Reluctantly leaving the Shiants in our wake

Our aim was to head north to Ullapool but the next morning brought us a blustery and frigid northerly wind and we were in no hurry. Instead of ploughing on we spent much of Sunday pottering and relaxing on board. Dos Tintos, whom we met in 1999 at Bayona, was also on a mooring but they were hardy circumnavigators and left early.

By the evening the wind had veered and eased a little and we had hatched a plan to beat out across the Minch overnight and find ourselves a sheltered spot in the Outer Hebrides to sleep off the night's labours. Shimshal bounced along through the night and the only drama was the lighthouse that lay directly on the route I had plotted which hadn't shown up on the un-zoomed vector charts I had used. Fortunately Sally was keeping a good watch and spotted the 16 metre tower and flashing light from about 10 miles away!

We had had the Raymarine SG3 Course Computer reprogrammed to cure it of its nasty habit of switching off unpredictably. This was now performing well but we were continuing to have rubbish data in from the compass sensor. For years this has given unblemished service from its bulkhead mount beneath our bunk but, for some mysterious reason it started behaving erratically in 2011. I had thought that it was the SG3 that was screwing up the heading data but the familiar magnetic pirouettes began again as we sailed off from Coll into the night. The failure being exactly timed to coincide with us being pretty dependent on it. The frustrating reoccurrence of our magnetic gremlins led me, in cynical mood, to wrestle out the sender and stick it with a bit of double sided tape on the instrument panel in the companion way. From its new position it performed faultlessly for the rest of our time at sea. I still have no explanation for our magnetic gremlins but at least we now have a solution!

Sally was looking a bit pale at 4 am at the end of her watch with a rising wind and Shimshal ploughing through choppy seas at 8 or 9 knots. I did the dutiful thing (it was, after all, our anniversary) and dropped the sails a mile or so from land and found us a nice snug anchorage in which to catch up on sleep. Finding the narrow and unmarked entrance into the anchorage would have been a struggle without the assistance of technology but now Shimshal bristles with plotters and charting software and so our only surprise was that the entrance channel was rather shallower than shown on the charts. We anchored in the warming glow of sunrise in the still and sheltered waters on the east side of Benbecula. The first night passage of the season was done and we slept until lunchtime.

We crept out over the bar and and passed the rocky skerries that concealed the entrance to our lock. Once back in the Minch the wind had virtually died so we motor sailed in flat water close into the coast of Benbecula and South Uist. The wind strengthened a little and veered to the east as we passed the Sound of Harris and we were able to sail a course to the remote and renowned Shiant Islands.

I think we have had vague plans to visits the Shiant Islands of 4 separate cruises but we had, for one reason or another, never made it before. Now these wonderful islands were appearing over our bow and we had perfectly settled weather and a golden chance to explore them. The recommended anchorage is to tuck into the north west corner of a small bay to the north of the main island but a long swell was rolling down the Minch making that option unattractive. With light north easterlies forecast we opted instead to anchor in about 14 meters south of the shingle spit that connects the two islands.

The anchor set so well that I fretted that it was snarled between boulders and would never come back up but I needn't have worried as retrieval the next day was uneventful. We kept the sun late on into the night and were treated to displays from hunting dolphins and a plethora of seabirds. Even a couple on Minke Whales rolled past about 300m from our anchorage.
Ashore the next morning we scrambled up through the basalt ramparts of the most westerly of the islands and then up a steep grassy gully to reach a large plateau patrolled by Skua and Black Backed Gulls. Peering over the cliff edges the boulder field below was infested with thousands of Puffins and Guillemots buzzing frenetically between sea and nest.

A Torridon based ketch had an spent the night on the north side but the swell had meant they had been unable to land so they motored around to anchor close to us and we chatted with them as we rowed back to Shimshal after a few hours ashore. We then crept around the northern side of the islands close in under the towering basalt cliffs. The sea was carpeted with seabirds and as we drifted past they either dived or took to the air with rapid wing beats whilst running along the sea's surface to achieve lift off. The air too was thick with birds flying too and from the cliffs like unerring missiles.

With the Shiants now in our wake the northerly breeze began to build and we were able to sail close hauled directly to Tanera Beg in the Summer Isles. A dozen dolphins playing in our bow wave provided our escort for 2  hours across the Minch.We had arranged a rendezvous on the Summer Isles with Ali and Sally McLeod of Ardfern (Eala) and within minutes of the anchor going down Ali was along side in his dinghy to invite us to a BBQ ashore.

Ashore Ali and Sally already had the the fire lit and  the crew of Josephine (Jay, Gillian, David and Penny) had gone off for an evening stroll around Eileen nam Fadda. We had brought some steaks and pasta salad to mix with the party food and we had a lovely evening culminating in a coffee on board Shimshal to end the perfect day. Eala (Moody Eclipse) was heading to Loch Laxford and Josephine (Rustler 42 by Stephen Jones) were hoping to round Cape Wrath and head up to Orkney before coming south again via the Caledonian Canal. Having overwintered in Ardfern this winter they were then going to press on southwards to their home berth on the Beaulieu River.

Grey sky and a stiff easterly breeze greeted us the next morning and we motored the remaining miles to Ullapool where we picked up a visitor's mooring and re-fuelled by dinghy from the adjacent fuel station. Shimshal was booked at Ullapool for 7 week stay whilst we were to cycle back over the coming week via the Outer Isles, Traighuaine (for a site visit). That afternoon we took the dismantled touring bikes ashore by dinghy and spent a couple of hours rebuilding them on the dock. We were collected from Shimshal the next morning by the Harbour launch and had simply to wheel our bikes onto the Stornaway ferry to begin the return leg of this Scottish journey.

Our long cycle south through the Outer Hebrides

The beaches of South Harris

Our long cycle south through the Outer Hebrides

Two bikes in their bags come of Shimshal in Ullapool ready for our long cycle south

Assembling the Bikes - (Thorn Raven Sport with S&S couplings)


South Harris


Orchids on Vattersay

Orchids on Vattersay


South Harris


Sally's Thorn Raven Sport Tour

The bike comes out of the bag

Peat store on South Uist

The wind and weather was perfect for cycling south with clear blue sky in Stornaway and a cool north easterly. But before the biking could begin we had to pay a visits to the Fisherman's Cooperative to stock up un winter weight gloves for future Shimshal adventures. Then to the new Arts Centre try out their delectable prune ice cream. And so, suitably fed and gloved we pedal led out through the busy streets of Stornaway into the afternoon sunshine. The traffic was quite heavy on the main road so  took a diversion out to the west on a minor road that looped out though miles of peat bog before turning back into the wind and rejoining the main road south from Lewis to Harris.

At Bal Allan we pedal led a few yards up a track to find our first b&b about 20 miles south of Stornaway. Debby and Paul had escaped Wolverhampton a decade earlier to paint in the Outer Hebrides where they had turned their hose into a b&b / art gallery. They cooked us fine food and sent us on our way the next morning with a gusty wind behind us and some moisture in the air. As Lewis changed into Haris the cycling became increasingly strenuous until we were rewarded with a high speed, wind assisted blast of a descent down to Tarbert and our second b&b. We had booked in at Avalon on the shore of West Loch Tarbert where we had a comfortable night and a lovely meal at the bar near the Ferry dock in the eastern loch.

Another hard pedal on a grey and windy morning took us up into the hills of South Harris and finally down to the stupendous Atlantic beaches that were to be our constant companion for the rest of the day. Mile after mile of pure white sand, rolling green machir and birds galore all the way to Leverburgh. We there in time for lunch on the pier whilst we awaited the car ferry that was to take us south to Berneray.

The ferry dodged and wove an intricate course through the islands and skerries of the Sound of Harris before landing is on a gloriously sunny afternoon on Berneray. The causeway led us onto North Uist and it's myriad of lochs, lochans, islands and estuaries. With the tide out the wide expanses of sand to the west were breathtaking. The bird life here was even more numerous with lapwing, redshank and oystercatchers everywhere. A roadside verge during a respite stop proved an ideal vantage point to watch a hen harrier hunt. Fantastic!

The wind kept behind us and pushed us south to the centre of North Uist where we stayed in our third b&b with Morag at the Old Shop House at Bayhead. Supper though was another 4 mile round trip to the Westfield Inn.

Unbelievably we still had the wind behind us when we crossed the causeway to Benbecula and took a loop out west through the hideous Ministry of Defence barracks. We never did find the cafe there but instead continued south to the Cooperative Store that, miraculously, was open on a Sunday. Another causeway and we were on Grimsay and another and we were on South Uist.

That night we stayed with Murdo and his wife Cathy at Crossroads near Stoneybridge.

Barra Jeannie Grant



Ellen and Ken Parker, Tregoryha Guest House, Tighnabraich.

Helen and Dave at Helenburgh

Lock Ned

Edrachillis Bay

Badcall Bay

reconnecting the SSB antenna to the backstay

Badcall Bay

Badcall Bay

Old Man of Stoer

Handa Island

Entrance to Lock Laxford

John Ridgway's Adventure school on Loh Laxford with English Rose V on her slip





Liathach's long ridge

Looking down on Torridon

Liathach's long ridge

Bienn Alligan

Coire na Caime

Upper Loch Torridon

Liathach as we sail south








Sally heading east

Sound of Luing

Sound of Luing