Venture Cruises To Iceland - Part Three

In my last blog we were just leaving Jura

 

We had allowed more than a month to cruise the inner and outer Hebrides and, although Jura had been of special significance for me personally, we had only just started our meandering through the islands. There is a wonderful book that should be in the hands of anyone wanting to do this by sea or by land. It is The Scottish Islands by Hamish Haswell-Smith. This beautiful book covers every aspect of the islands including wildlife, geology and history plus maps and colour sketches.

After circumnavigating Jura we had originally planned to stop on the island of Gigha where there are interesting gardens. However, the anchorage in Ardminnish Bay was very shallow and our props were churning up sand as we manoeuvered between the moored boats in the strong northerly wind. Also, we failed to spot any suitable dock for a tender such as ours so we continued north up the Sound of Jura with the island of the same name on our port side and the Scottish mainland to starboard.

We considered several places to stop for the night - including Crinan, which lies at the western end of the Crinan Canal - but it was too exposed in the northerly wind. Finally we picked Ardfern as being the most suitable; we called them to see if they had space and they obligingly said they would move some boats around to accommodate us. We pulled into the well-equipped marina just after five o'clock and went ashore for dinner at the nearby hotel.

The following morning not a breath of wind disturbed the surface of the water, and every yacht in the marina was perfectly reflected in the glassy surface. Once again I noticed that sailboats greatly outnumbered powerboats. The crisp, sunny weather was perfect for hiking through the scenery and we relaxed here for a couple of days.

From Ardfern we passed through a channel called the Dorus Mor which lies just off the tip of Craignish Point to the east of the infamous Corryvreckan described in the previous blog. Although not in the same league, the Dorus Mor does share some of Corrycreckan's characteristics and, especially for smaller boats, the tides need to be carefully considered when planning a passage. But, for us, the notorious passage was once again calm and, after passing through it, we had the mountains of Mull to port as we followed a ferry into Oban. The town is rather lacking in facilities for pleasure boats and we had to raft alongside a replica schooner. This boat was itself tied alongside a workboat which was leaving at 08:00 the following morning and returning some time later. This was clearly not a good location for us because we hoped to be able to leave the boat unattended for periods during the day while we enjoyed the amenities of the town.

Fueling facilities are few and far between in these parts and you need to take advantage of them when available. We phoned the local fuel company and they brought a tanker truck down to the dock. A hose was run across the two intervening boats and, as we can fill all the tanks from a single fill, the exercise was quickly and easily accomplished. This was the first fuel we had taken on since leaving Southampton. The fast running, modern-styled powerboats with limited range are not well suited to cruise these waters. You really need a sturdy boat with comfortable amenities for living aboard and a good range.

The schooner mentioned above was a 92' gaff-rigged pilot schooner called "Spirit of Fairbridge". While she does have a modern engine, all the sail handling on this vessel is strictly manual and accommodations below are sparse. This vessel and her small professional crew serve a worthy cause of providing a six-day adventure experience for disadvantaged kids, mostly from the inner cities, who have never encountered anything remotely like this in their lives. They said that the results can be life transforming for the participants even over such a short space of time.

The following morning we awoke to a grey day with the threat of rain. We untied from the schooner at 07:30 and stood by around the harbour until we could contact the marina located on Kerrera Island across the bay. They had no space for us on their pontoons but we were able to pick up one of their moorings. They had a free shuttle which ran every hour across to Oban and we used our tender to go to the marina floats to link up with the shuttle. While in Oban we climbed to McCaig's Folly or Tower, a prominent circular structure overlooking the town and surrounding waters.

Our plan had been to stay longer in Oban to await the arrival of our next guest but, with the lack of convenient amenities, we decided to move on slightly earlier than intended to Tobermory on the large Island of Mull. Our route took us through the Sound of Mull with wonderful mountains on either side punctuated with prominent lighthouses and ruined castles. The sea was calm and the weather mostly sunny with broken cloud and occasional rain.

Just after noon we arrived at the small town of Tobermory with its multi-coloured houses lining the harbour. We were allocated a convenient hammerhead berth in the small marina. A short walk through the town was all it took to convince us to modify our plans and stay here for a few days. The island of Iona, adjacent to Mull, was on our list of must-see places to visit but, as is frequently the case, we were worried about finding somewhere safe to leave the boat while we went ashore. We decided to rent a car and drive across Mull to Gallanach from where the ferry made the 10-minute crossing to Iona, leaving VENTURE secure in Tobermory.

We drove for many miles on mostly single-track roads with the usual passing places marked by black and white poles. The route took us through tall mountains on serpentine roads. We stopped and walked to a sunlit clearing in the forest to visit the Kilmore standing stones, which are about 5,000 years old. After descending from the bleak mountain terrain, the hedgerows in the valleys were lined with primroses and bluebells with many of the trees still in bud. It seemed as though we were holding spring at bay as we continued on our way north.

Christianity was brought to the island of Iona in AD 563 when Saint Columba landed here with twelve companions. He founded an abbey which was destroyed multiple times, and the monks were slaughtered in a series of Viking raids in 795, 798, 802, 806 (68 monks murdered) and again in 825. In 849 the few remaining treasures were removed and stored elsewhere. An even later raid took place in 986 during which the abbot and fifteen monks were murdered, so the Vikings are not remembered fondly in these parts. But the most decisive blow came with the reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, a result of which the abbey was reduced to a roofless ruin. In 1899 the Duke of Argyll donated the abbey to the Church of Scotland on the condition that it be restored for worship. Restoration has continued to this day and the main buildings are essentially complete. The Celtic cross in front of the main entrance to the abbey has been standing for 1200 years.

We had lunch on Iona at a restaurant which served food from produce grown in their own garden and dinner on the way home at the Bellachroy pub in Dervaig, reputed to be the oldest pub on Mull having been in business since 1608.

Patty Stucki joined us here by train and ferry from Glasgow. She had been our naturalist guide in the Galapagos when we visited those islands in VENTURE in 2008. She had also accompanied us from there to Panama and we had stayed in contact ever since.

We left Tobermory and headed west to the island of Staffa which is famous for its basalt pillars from which wave action, over thousands of years, has created the huge cavern known as Fingal's Cave from the piece of music of the same name written by Mendelssohn. We circled the island a couple of times but with winds gusting up to 20 knots the sea was too rough to permit us to make a landing at the small exposed jetty. However a couple of tour boats arrived and, with their larger crews, were able to land people; but it looked like quite a hike over the rocks to reach the cave.

We then drove to a bay called Bun an Leoib which is near Bunnessan just around the corner from Iona. Even though we were anchored in the lee of the surrounding hills, wind gusts were funneled down the slopes and hitting the water at 27 knots.

By the following morning the winds had calmed but were replaced by thick mist reducing visibility to less than 1/2 mile. This set the scene for a messy kind of day in which the windlass control decided not to co-operate. We were finally able to solve the problem with the invaluable help of Simon in Southampton who relayed messages back and forth between Duncan in Taiwan and the electrician in the Tung Hwa yard. All this required cell phone coverage which came and went like a will o' the wisp according to our exact location - meaning within a few yards. Eventually a work around was devised which simply required the snipping of a wire to the offending unit. This procedure had overtones of a less catastrophic combination of "Houston we have a problem" and the bomb disposal hero who has to cut the correct wire to avoid being blown to bits.

The delay put us behind our planned schedule but, with visibility still less than .7 of a mile, we went back to Staffa in the hope of being able to land or enter Fingal's Cave. But there was an even bigger swell than yesterday, and this was out of the question. We decided not to go all the way to Skye as originally planned but to stop at one of the so-called Small Isles of Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna. Actually they are not all that small except in comparison to Mull and Skye and possibly Jura. We dropped the anchor in the wonderfully peaceful anchorage of Bagh a Ghallanaich on the island of Muck and were rewarded by a dramatic sunset in serene and beautiful surroundings.

The fog was still thick the following morning and, although this presented no problem for navigation, we delayed leaving the anchorage because of being unable to see the wonderful scenery we knew was hidden under the grey blanket.

We finally raised the anchor in the early afternoon when the visibility was still less than a mile hoping that maybe it might improve beyond our existing location. We felt our way towards Loch Scavaig in Skye passing between the islands of Eigh and Rum without seeing either of them and entered the tight and dramatic anchorage of Loch na Cuil at four o'clock. As we approached the steep shore, the mist slowly parted in sections like gauzy curtains being drawn back to reveal tantalizing glimpses of waterfalls and steep crags. The anchorage was tight and we passed a rock with seals resting on top of it peering warily in our direction as we slid past. Soon after we had dropped the anchor in 10 feet of water, the mist slowly dissipated and the whole dramatic scene was revealed to our startled gaze. We wasted no time in lowering the tender to tour the skerries that littered the bay. That night we had the sounds of rushing water from the nearby waterfall as a lullaby.

The following morning the water was mirror calm and most of the low level fog had moved higher up the slopes. All crew members, other than myself, went ashore for a hike through the boggy terrain while I cruised around in the tender taking pictures of VENTURE against the dramatic backdrop and of the many seals perched on rocks and skerries. They proved to be very wary and skittish and would slide into the water as you approached and would watch you with just their heads poking out of the water.

We had one more day of low visibility, which occasionally turned into light precipitation before the winds swung back to the north and the weather cleared.

After a couple of days in Loch Scavaig under the shadow of the Cuillins, we continued up the Sound of Sleat and the cloud gradually lifted until it just cleared the tops of the high mountains.

The channel separating the Isle of Skye from the Scottish mainland is very narrow and the depth drops from 180m down to 12 so the currents are considerable. We were lucky to be able to tie up to a very convenient pontoon right in front of the Lochalsh Hotel at Kyle within sight of the relatively new and elegant bridge, which now connects Skye to the mainland. We enjoyed a drink sitting on the terrace overlooking the Kyle of Lochalsh with VENTURE in the foreground and the backdrop of magnificent mountains on the opposite shore of the channel. At this latitude, sunset did not arrive until 10 pm.

We had hoped to be able to rent a car to be able to drive around Skye but there were none to be had. We had arrived on a Saturday and it turns out that Sunday and Monday are days when many places are closed. Instead we decided to launch the tender and go around the corner to Loch Carron to visit the small village of Plockton. However when we had reached open water under the bridge a cold north wind began to whip up the waves to the point that it was wiser to turn back before conditions got worse. We headed back inland and deep into Loch Alsh where the views of the mountains were breathtaking. Historic Eilan Donan Castle was silhouetted against the dramatic backdrop.

We very much wanted to land at this strategic spot where Loch Alsh and Loch Duich come together but once again we were frustrated by having a tender which was not suitable for going ashore at anywhere other than a pontoon. There were a couple of tatty slipways we could have used but using either of them would have required a flat-bottomed, lightweight tender. On the other hand, that kind of tender would have been quite unsuitable for the extensive run we did today in choppy water so the question of the ideal tender is not an easy one to answer.

To add to the frustration, we could see a building onshore which had the word PUB painted in large letters on the roof. So near and yet so far! By the time we got back to the boat we were all thoroughly chilled and the instant Cup o' Soup - so readily available this side of the Atlantic and in Canada - were a quick and tasty warm-up dish.

Christine then made the excellent suggestion that we go to Plockton by train for the evening. The railway station was within sight of the boat and we took the 2-carriage train, which followed the edge of Loch Carron to Plockton railway station about five miles away. We found it was a good 20-minute walk from there down a country lane to the village. It was a beautiful evening and the hedgerows and gardens were rich with bluebells, lilac, gorse, the first of the rhododendrons, azaleas, clematis and a profusion of wildflowers. The village itself was really charming, bordering a lovely anchorage surrounded by mountains with many yachts moored in the bay.

Patty had brought with her some very special coffee beans grown on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. We have no coffee grinder on board and the ongoing challenge had been to find some place to grind the beans. We had tried the supermarket in Kyle who directed us to a caf?. The caf? owner was willing to help but their machine was connected to an expresso machine. At the restaurant in Plockton the waitress said they would be happy to help but couldn't find their coffee grinder. Eventually it was triumphantly produced along with the desert and the next problem was to find an electrical outlet. One was located in the passage leading to the kitchen and Chris and Christine were crouched over it grinding beans. One diner entering the restaurant was heard to remark "smells like they have freshly ground coffee here". I hope he wasn't disappointed!

The following morning we arose at 05:15 to drink some of the newly ground coffee before Patty had to leave to catch the first train at 06:21. Frustrated in our attempts to rent a car we had decided to take a tour to see up close some of Skye's dramatic scenery. The tour took us around the Trottenish peninsula where the area around the Quiraig mountains offers the most bizarre scenery. Here the road twisted and turned through a jumble of weirdly-shaped rock formations. There were two other passengers from Canada on the bus who had a train to catch and the final leg of our Tour de Skye was completed at breakneck speed with our pilot driving like a man possessed in a futile and unrealistic race to catch the train.

It was now time for us to leave the Scottish mainland and Inner Hebrides and head across the Hebridean Sea to the Outer Hebrides. On the way we stopped for a few contemplative minutes off the small bay which was the site of Camusfearna - the place where author Gavin Maxwell lived with his otters and wrote about in his charming book "A Ring of Bright Water".

We again went past the small Isles of Muck, Eigg, Rum and Canna, but this time the skies were clear of fog and we could see that Rum has high mountains and Canna basaltic columns reminiscent of those on Staffa.

It was sunny with broken cloud by the time we anchored in Vatersay Bay adjacent to Barra Island. There was a lovely sandy beach but the only structure resembling a dock was a broken concrete ramp so once again we were frustrated in our ability to go ashore by not having a more basic tender.

Barra is famous for having the only official in the UK airstrip where flight schedules are listed as being "subject to tides". The airstrip is a beach and we came as close to the shore as we dared to look at it from the water. We saw one twin-engined Otter flying overhead before we got there and another small plane in the distance taking off shortly before arrived. The water was a stunning blue but too shallow to allow us to approach too closely. We continued up the eastern shore of the Outer Hebrides and anchored that night at Loch Maddy a few miles south of the Sound of Harris.

The remote island group of St. Kilda, located 41-miles out in the wild Atlantic, had been high on our list of places to visit but the ability to do so is very much weather dependant as the only anchorage at the main island of Hirta is wide open to winds from the South to the North East. We had no phone or internet connection from our anchorage in Loch Maddy, but we were able to go ashore and tie up the tender to a rough concrete dock at the head of a small bay filled with small fishing boats. From here we walked up to the Tigh Dearg Hotel where we were able to check the local weather. The forecast was for settled weather for the next couple of days with light winds mainly from the northwest. We were in luck - the fates have smiled on us. We leave for St Kilda tomorrow morning and with luck will be able to anchor for two nights in this remote, hard to reach and historic archipelago which, although inhabited for almost 4,000 years, was evacuated, at their request, by the remaining inhabitants in 1930. My next blog will have details and photos of our visit to this fascinating destination.