Venture Cruises To Iceland - Part One
2010 started for Venture II with her being on display under the glittering lights at the Dusseldorf International Boat Show. Once the last of a steady stream of visitors had gone home she was launched into the cold, swift-running Rhine and brought back to her berth at Shamrock Quay in Southampton. Conveniently located just a few meters from the offices of Fleming Yachts Europe she was provisioned and made ready for our planned trip to Iceland. Although very much in the news because of the eruption of the volcano and disruption of air travel around the world, I had been planning to take VENTURE II to that land of fire and ice for about eighteen months. I am writing the first of this year's blogs in a quiet anchorage in the Western Isles of Scotland and the contrast between the hall in Dusseldorf and the exquisite natural beauty of the Scottish highlands and islands could not be more extreme.
On the morning of our departure on April 19th I was interviewed by Steve Adams of Yachting TV and it was not until just after noon that Captain Chris Conklin and crew member Andy Cross and myself finally cast off from the land and waved goodbye to a small group of envious well-wishers on the dock. It would be several months and thousands of miles before we returned to this spot. With just 18 miles scheduled for this first day we made our way across the Solent and past Cowes to the small port of Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. When we arrived at 2:30, the marina was not very full and we were allocated a convenient berth from which we could walk ashore, but by 5:30, even on this off-season Monday, most of these convenient berths were occupied by seriously equipped sailboats.
We had dinner at the Bugle pub and were soon in our bunks as we had an early start the following morning to avoid the tidal race off Portland Bill. It was barely light when we prepared to get underway and, in the predawn darkness, I pressed the horn instead of the starter button and the twin air horns shattered the silence of the marina. Surprisingly, there were no outraged cries but it's not a recommended way to start the day.
The weather was fine and calm and we had a good view of the sun rising behind the Needles. Our route took us well clear of the Portland Race so we had no problem with the aptly named turbulence on the Shambles Bank. We made very good time and it was early on a sunny afternoon when we arrived in the lovely harbour overlooked by the towns of Dartmouth on one side and Kingswear on the other. We were allocated a yellow buoy in the middle of the harbour and given the option - which we were pleased to accept - of moving to a shore-side pontoon after 5pm when it was no longer in use by the ferry. Here, accompanied by his granddaughter, we were visited by Nigel who I hadn't seen since we were fellow apprentices at the De Havilland Aircraft company more than fifty years ago.
The following morning the clear blue sky was streaked with contrails of high flying jets indicating that the moratorium on air travel, caused by the volcanic eruption in Iceland, was over - at least for now. We headed for Falmouth and on the way passed the Eddystone Light made famous in the old sea shanty about the outcome of the "marriage" of its keeper to a mermaid one fine night!
The notorious English Channel was so calm that the surface was glassy. At one point there was no wind at all with the anemometer effectively reading zero and swinging around all points of the compass. Being the most westerly major port in Britain, Falmouth has for centuries been the first and last port of call for ships on their way to and from far-flung destinations. HMS Beagle, with Charles Darwin on board, called here on her return from the Galapagos in 1836. We tied up at the Pendennis Marina in mid afternoon and met up with some friends who lived locally and whom we had met last year when we had shared the same mooring in Dartmouth.
Falmouth was our last port of call on the English mainland and once we were out in the Channel we found the conditions very different from the day before with a strong easterly wind and waves of three to four feet. We passed the famous Lizard headland but it looked more like a crocodile to me with the bones of many shipwrecks littering the seabed around it. We passed close by isolated Wolf Rock where the waves were exploding into mountains of spray against the breakwater at its base. A short while later, the Isles of Scilly appeared low on the horizon and, leaving the lighthouse on Round Island to port, we turned into New Grimsby Sound with Cromwell's Castle a prominent landmark at the waters edge. King Charles castle occupied a more commanding position above it on top of the hill but was considerably the worse for wear.
The following morning dawned sunny and cloudless. The sky and the sea were beautiful pastel shades of blue with yellow gorse adding a bright splash of colour to the surrounding hills. Chris and Andy launched the tender and we drove across the bay to the town of St Mary's. The wind had increased and was against us making the ride rather cold and wet. We tied up at the dinghy dock in town which was a floating pontoon made up of square black boxes. As I walked towards the jetty, I was very surprised to hear someone call my name. It turned out to be the well-known author and experienced powerboat authority, Dag Pike, who was visiting the Islands with his wife. We hope that Dag will be joining us later in the trip. It's certainly a small world in some respects although virtually unlimited in others. We enjoyed a cup of coffee together before continuing our respective journeys.
We explored the small town and took a roundabout route back to the boat. We frequently found ourselves in shallow water with rocks just below the surface. Many of the islands have rocky outcroppings very reminiscent of the tors on Dartmoor in the county of Devon in England.
The Isles of Scilly are lovely and deserve more time to explore than we had available - given our long-range cruising schedule. We were underway at 03:55 the following morning to make the 14-hour, 130-mile, crossing to Kinsale in Eire. The Flir infrared night vision camera was of great assistance as we crept out of the bay where, apart from the rocks, there was one sailboat to avoid plus two mooring buoys.
The weather started fair but visibility slowly deteriorated during the day until it was less than 1,000 metres, which meant that we were officially in fog. We passed within three miles of a gas platform but did not see it. We also passed by the site of the controversial sinking of the Lusitania by a U-boat in May 1915: the distinctive headland, the Old Head of Kinsale, from which the sinking was witnessed, was hidden in the murk. By the time we reached the marina a nasty cold drizzle was drenching the figures waiting to take our lines on the dock at the Kinsale Yacht Club Marina. One of them was Bobby Lane whose business, Latitude Kinsale, is making beautiful, custom 3D charts - one of which forms the centre-piece of the coffee table in VENTURE's salon. He says that we have picked the worst day they have had for weeks for our arrival in their lovely harbour.
The following morning started off overcast with heavy rain showers but steadily cleared up until the sun broke through the clouds, presenting us with a lovely day. We spent two nights here and had time to explore this lively and pleasant town.
It had not been easy to decide our next port of call between leaving Kinsale and reaching Howth, just outside Dublin. Some ports were too close, some too far and others, like Waterford, rather far up river for an overnight stop. On Bobby's recommendation we decided on Kilmore Quay. Despite its very tight appearance from the chart, the harbour master assured us they could accommodate our 20-meter length.
However, we began to have our doubts when Chris had to turn parallel to the shore, at right angles to the wind, to begin his approach for the narrow harbour entrance. To starboard, the channel was obstructed by a trawler taking on ice while, to port, another was loosely tied alongside with its stern hanging well out into the remaining gap. The gap between the two was barely sufficient and the rusty, battered topsides of the obstructing vessels left little doubt who would be the loser should contact occur. Once through, the harbour did open up although it could best be described as 'snug". We were allocated a hammerhead berth right in the centre.
Kilmore Quay is a commercial port whose primary business is clearly fish. Fishing boats of every size are rafted up along the quays - the condition of most, I have to say, strongly suggests that their owners put a low priority on the appearance and maintenance of deck equipment. The air is redolent with the smell of fish; seabirds fill the air with their raucous cries and carelessly leave their calling cards wherever they may fall. Nonetheless, this a harbour that is fully alive and, despite a lack of much in the way of amenities for visiting yachts, still well worth a visit.
It was foggy and distinctly chilly when we got underway the following morning. Fortunately no one was taking on ice so there was only one vessel obstructing the entrance and she was tied up snugly alongside the dock. The East Cardinal buoy loomed out of the mist as we set course for Howth Marina some 90 miles away.
Despite the wind, which increased during the day to 27 knots, the fog grew increasingly thick and visibility for a time was down to about 100 yards. This presented no problem with radar and other navigation aids, including AIS, which not only broadcasts our own identity, speed and course but does the same for other similarly equipped vessels. These modern aids to navigation make our lives much easier and less stressful but a good pair of eyes is still essential. The fancy gear cannot always be relied upon so we also carry a full set of paper charts.
As we approached Dublin, visibility improved and we even had sun for a while which was just as well as traffic - in the form of freighters and ferries - increased greatly in the bay off Dublin. We turned into Howth - pronounced Hoe-the - at dead low tide and found the entrance quite confusing and tricky in the strong wind. The tortuous channel was marked by a series of red and green pilings, many of which had toppled over and were leaning at all sorts of crazy angles. We had booked a space in advance and been allocated a convenient hammerhead berth just inside the entrance.
It was high tide when we left the following morning and the channel appeared much less daunting. The wind and seas came upon us suddenly as we rounded the breakwater and headed out past the island called Ireland's Eye. We had a beam sea, which has traditionally been considered a bad thing. Ironically, with the introduction of stabilizers, beam seas often produce the most comfortable ride because stabilizers are much more effective under those conditions than dealing with steep seas right on the nose.
We had been calling ahead to book a berth on the Isle of Man. St Mary's had been recommended but this is a small harbour and rather open to winds from the south which was their current direction. Douglas said they did not have suitable space and recommended we try Peel, which is on the northern side of the island. The harbourmaster at Peel said he could fit us in but we would need to anchor off until 10 pm until there was sufficient water to pass over the flap gate into the inner basin.
It was just after 3 PM when the island appeared above the horizon, and the seas began calming down as soon as we came under its lee. We passed Contrary Head with Corrins Folly and tied up to a yellow mooring buoy. Impressive Peel Castle loomed above us while we waited for permission to enter the channel leading to the inner chamber. It was almost fully dark when we negotiated the channel and the swing bridge was already in motion as we approached it. Soon we were snugly tied up in the most secure of berths with the town on one side and a steep, gorse-covered hill on the other.
A strong motivation for our visit to the Isle of Man was to allow Chris and Andy - both motorcycle enthusiasts - to drive around the TT course and see for themselves the roads over which the competition riders average an amazing 130 mph. We rented a modest Ford Fiesta and drove around the course at a sedate pace, taking three hours instead of the 18 minutes it took the racing bikes to cover the 37 miles. The countryside was exquisite with spring finally bursting forth. Flowering cherry trees adorned many a garden with clouds of pink blossom and primroses lined the hedgerows. Horse chestnut trees were beginning to display their pink and white candles. We took a look at the boat harbour in Douglas and were pleased that we had finished up in Peel.
Back on the dock, we learned about the surveying of whales and dolphins in the Irish Sea from the gentleman in the next berth whose boat was used for that purpose. We also received advice on places to visit from a couple who had spent two years rebuilding their famous junk-rigged sailboat, Ron Glas, after they had located her, abandoned and neglected, in Inverness. Such are the interesting people and experiences open to you when cruising.
We explored the small town and visited the factory where I bought a few brace of kippers for which Peel is famous. We could not leave until there was sufficient water in the channel and we got underway at 13:45. We had an easy crossing to Northern Ireland with sunshine, showers and beautiful cloudscapes. We saw the mountains of Mourne rise out of the sea while the Isle of Man was still in sight, reckoning that the visibility was at least 30 miles. From the top of the Isle of Man on a clear day you can see England, Ireland north and south, Scotland and Wales.
Our destination was Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. This is a sea lough (loch in Scotland or lake in England) or an arm of the sea extending inland for some distance. It has a narrow entrance and, with a tidal range as much as 4 meters (13ft), the speed of the current through the entrance is considerable and the uneven seabed creates swirls and eddies with miniature whirlpools. We were entering on the ebb and a clear line of disturbance in the water defined the start of the turbulence right at the South Cardinal buoy marking the entrance. Once in the channel the water was roiled with upwellings which, swung the boat this way and that. Our speed over the ground dropped right off to as low as 2 kts with the current against us.
We passed the prototype turbine in the middle of the channel and pulled into the marina just as a heavy rain shower was passing. The friendly and chatty harbour master was on the dock to greet us and take our lines. We talked with him about the tidal conditions and he told us that he had been part of the crew of the lifeboat which had nearly capsized when a southerly gale in opposition to a powerful outgoing ebb had created huge holes in the water which opened up beside the boat.
We had a meal ashore at the local sailing club and visited a pub called Fiddlers Green where they had live music. Hoping for some traditional Celtic melodies, we had to settle for two guitars and a harmonium playing more conventional tunes.
The following morning we left the marina for a cruise of Strangford Lough. We had to back out of the slip and flood tide was running pretty strongly, but the lough was mirror calm and wonderful cloud effects made for some dramatic photography. We anchored just off Mahee Island at noon then took the rib ashore to Down Cruising Club Quay, where the clubhouse is a converted lightship. We walked to a restaurant called Daft Eddy's for a very nice lunch. We did some exploring of the lough in the rib and visited an anchorage at Ringbeddy Quay where there were large numbers of large, well-equipped sailboats. Powerboats are very much in a minority in the waters around Britain and this place was no exception.
The wind was quite strong during the night but the anchor held firm although Chris did get up a couple of times to check. We retraced our course and entered the narrows passing the small towns of Portaferry one hand and Strangford on the other. The tide was outgoing and water turbulent but not so much as on our way in. I was taking some video of the disturbance where the outgoing tide met the sea and was ambushed by a sneaky wave, which soaked me and, more importantly, my expensive video camera. It was killed stone dead despite being wiped off and warmed in the engine-room.
However, the sea outside was not at all rough and we had a smooth journey. We could see both Scotland and the Isle of Man as the visibility was again at least 30 miles. We turned into the marina at Bangor and tied up at 13:10. We spent a couple of nights here and I was amazed by the number of people who had read about our travels in the current issue of Motor boat and Yachting and who came up to talk to us about it. One Bangor resident had checked the AIS Internet website and learned to his amazement that we were at his local marina. He had immediately come down with his friends to see the boat. I told a couple of people that we were bound for Iceland and they pointed out a nearby, German-flagged, Halberg-Rassey yacht and told me that that it was going to Iceland too! I immediately introduced myself to the owner who confirmed it and invited us onto the boat where his crew had arranged some snacks, and we had tea and coffee. He is going to take part in a race in the north of Iceland. Details are at www.icesun.is. We both agreed that we had never expected to encounter another boat bound for Iceland!
We had a crew change here and were very lucky that it had not been one day later when all the airports in Ireland were closed because of ash from the Icelandic volcano. It seemed that not only were we going to Iceland but Iceland was coming to us.
The following morning it was grey and dismal and, with winds forecast from the NNW, we anticipated head seas. In fact it was not at all bad and by the time we reached Rathlan Island off the north coast of Ireland, the sea was blue and the sun shone on the bright yellow gorse on this small island. We followed the small ferry into the snug harbour and found out later that as many as ten ferries a day ply between the island and Ballycastle on mainland Ireland. There were more houses surrounding the small harbour than we had expected but we were the only boat on the pontoon. A number of Eider ducks were bobbing about around the boat. The harbour master with a mixed Scots and Irish accent was very chatty and obviously knowledgeable about what he was looking at when I showed him the engine room. He had spent most of his life on the island. We had planned to eat ashore at the only pub but, having waited until 6:45, found that the kitchen had closed at six o'clock! We settled for a drink and ate on board.
We had allowed two nights in Rathlan Island because we had planned to visit the bird colonies on the cliffs at the western end. We had been told that the bus making the five-mile trip would leave at 11 AM just after the arrival of the larger vehicular ferry. We waited by the bus but there was no sign of the driver. A passerby suggested we call at the pub to ask. We went instead to the small visitors centre, which was just a few yards further on. Here a helpful person phoned around and told us that of the two drivers one was on the mainland and the other was not answering his phone. Also, being still a bit early in the season, many of the birds had left - presumably to attend a fish fest - and also on that particular morning the cliffs were shrouded in fog and we probably would not be able to see anything anyway. He apologetically told us that things did not always operate on the island in the same way that they did on the mainland. We agreeably said that we quite understood but privately thought that they also didn't altogether operate on the Irish mainland either in quite the same way as they do in other places! But then that's the charm of travel - if you are sensible enough to take a relaxed view of life!
Instead we decided to forego the second night and head directly for Scotland, passing the cliffs we had hoped to visit by land. This we did and, sure enough, we could barely see the outline of the cliffs through the mist, and there were not that many birds. The mist also hid the Mull of Kintyre from our view but gradually we could discern the shape of the Island of Islay (pronounced Eye-La) on the horizon. Beyond it we could just see the the isle of Jura which was of great significance to me.
It was on this island that my great-grandfather, Donald McKechnie had been born and spent his early years. He later became famous as the Bard of Jura for his poetry in the Gaelic language. It is in his honour that VENTURE II has the Isle of Jura as a hailing port on her transom so it was fitting that our first port of call in Scotland be on Jura, sometimes described as the wildest island in the Inner Hebrides with a population of just under 200 people and 5,000 deer. We were to spend several days exploring the island, touring its distillery, sampling its single malt Scotch whiskeys and visiting the remote croft, which had been home to my ancestor.
The full story of our visit and circumnavigation of that island must wait until the next chapter in this narrative. It was now May 5th - just seventeen days and 784 miles after we left Southampton.