I had pretty much already decided in my head a while ago, but hadn’t yet admitted it to myself, that I would not circumnavigate. The main reason for this was that I’d rather spend the time sailing around the Hebrides than going down the East Coast. I would have liked to have gone through the Caledonian Canal, but I’ve been along the Great Glen a few times before, and it doesn’t hold a huge amount of interest for me, and I got a good experience going through the Crinan Canal, so it didn’t seem worth it. And while there are plenty of cool places to see on the East Coast, I think there’s far more places that I would just be impatiently sailing past on the long journey home. I think I always knew this was a likely outcome, ever since I’d changed my mind about the initial decision to sail anti-clockwise; the main reason for going clockwise was that I would get to the best bit (west coast Scotland) more directly. And if sailing around Britain was an important achievement for me, I’d rather do it via Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth, and perhaps I’ll do that another time.
So with the decision made, it was time to get exploring, and after leaving Oban I pointed to port and made for Loch Spelve on Mull. Luckily I’d put my socks on the right feet that morning…
I wanted to go to Loch Spelve because it looked interesting on the map, being a large sea loch with a very narrow entrance, surrounded by hills, and I wanted get off the boat and stretch my legs with some hillwalking. Unfortunately, this was not meant to be. As I was struggling to catch what little wind there was, and not making much progress, I eventually gave in and turned the ignition. But after a while, the engine suddenly sputtered and died. This being the first time that had happened, my heart sank.
But there was no immediate concern, I had plenty of sea room and it was almost getting towards a Force 0, so I fired up the outboard and turned back. Luckily it wasn’t far to a convenient place to anchor, so I dropped the hook in Oitir Mhor Bay and got to work dismantling the companionway steps to access the engine and figure out what happened. Further attempts to restart the engine had failed: it would turn over on the starter motor but wouldn’t fire. However, after leaving it a short while, it would fire up, but then immediately die again, so I though it was a fuel supply problem. I checked the filters which seemed fine, and after doing what I always do when stumped (check the internet) it seemed that maybe it was an airlock in the fuel line. So I bled the fuel lines and sure enough the engine then ran fine. So there must be a small leak somewhere allowing air in. I fiddled with some of the connections, and tightened the hose clips, but I’m unsure if it fixed it. Time will tell I suppose, but now I have developed trust issues with “old faithful”.
By the time I’d put everything back together, it was evening so I just stayed put for the night. The next day the wind had swung round and the now the tide was against me, so after a brave but futile attempt to tack towards Loch Spelve, I had to admit defeat and so turned around and headed for the Sound of Mull. I had a quick stop at Duart Bay and had a jaunt ashore, but there wasn’t a great deal to see. Then I moved on to Scallastle Bay and anchored again, the reason I picked this spot is that nearby there were some hills I could climb. There is also a tern colony on the shore, so the place was pretty busy with bird life. The next day brought some pretty foul weather so I ended up staying inside the boat all day. Unfortunately, I was dismayed to find my gas bottle had been all used up and so I had to make do with cold food, and thus a good time was had by all. The boat isn’t big enough to carry a spare, and I was caught off guard by how quickly I had gone through the stuff. There was nowhere nearby to restock so I would just have to wait. In the meantime I set to work trying to fix the autopilot, as I had personally helmed every single nautical mile ever since entering Milford Haven.
The insides of the autopilot looked fine, but I had to admit I didn’t know what the hell I was doing and so just put it back together, although I did realise that the little rubber drive belt had stretched and the teeth were slipping on the cog, which is where the annoying clicking sound was coming from. I’d like to replace it, although at nearly £30 for a replacement off the internet it would have to wait. The next day the weather hadn’t improved much and the wind change was threatening to make the anchorage untenable so I decided to shift to Loch Aline. The topography of the Sound of Mull is such that the wind tends to funnel into it and follow the channel, and with the wind coming from an almost perpendicular angle I thought it must be about 50/50 whether it funnelled north or south. Of course, it funnelled South, because I wanted to go North. So once more I tacked upwind and went flying into Loch Aline on the flood tide and found a spot to anchor. The following day, the cloud cover had lifted and the rain had ceased so I got ashore to stretch my legs and strolled up the nearby hill. By the time I got to the top, the weather had improved markedly and I got a nice view from the top.
I had failed to drink enough water though, to counteract the sudden decrease in the volume of tea I was consuming since the gas ran out, so by the time I got back down I was severely dehydrated and had the mother of all headaches. It was really hot and muggy and I was getting a bit of hayfever and when I got back to the boat, was thinking to myself that going ashore isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
When I set off the next day my headache still hadn’t abated which was unusual, considering the amount of water and paracetamol I had taken. Maybe it was caffeine withdrawal? The previous day had been the first day I could remember, perhaps the first day in my entire adult life, when I had not had a cup of tea. Anyway the wind wasn’t great and I couldn’t be bothered struggling to fight against it so I just motored up the sound, slumped in the cockpit feeling sorry for myself.
Thankfully, whatever I had done to the autopilot had fixed it, so it did the helming for me. Eventually I made it to Tobermory and mustered the energy to squeeze into about the only spot in the harbour not taken up by moorings, to drop the anchor. I went ashore and, seeing the length of the queue at the chippy, went into Co-op for some more reduced price bargains. It was too late to get a replacement gas bottle so I just got a bunch of cold sandwiches for dinner and a can of Irn-Bru for a quick hit of caffeine and turned in for the night, still with a pounding headache.
In the morning the headache had finally started to ease up a bit, so it was another sandwich for breakfast, then a walk around Tobermory followed by a glorious 6 minute shower at the harbour master building, which doubles as toilet block and aquarium, oddly. The aquarium is really small, but it runs on a catch and release basis which means that their livestock is only there for 4 weeks before being released. Local fishermen are the main suppliers of new livestock, it’s a pretty simple setup, with water being provided fresh from the sea outside on a flow-through arrangement with no filtration.
Before leaving Plymouth, I had managed to source a couple of second hand copies of the Clyde Cruising Club’s sailing directions for the west coast, but I was missing the one that covers everything north of Ardnamurchan Point, which is where I was headed next. Luckily, Tobermory has a small chandlery, with just such a publication available for purchase. Though it pained me to pay full price for a brand new one, I handed over my hard-earned; after all there is a ton of information inside and it didn’t cost much more than the price of staying one night on the pontoons here, and with my penchant for free anchoring, I reasoned that I’d so far saved enough on mooring costs to warrant this expenditure.
I remember being in Tobermory years before, and had foggy memories of the chippy being good, award-winning in fact, so I made sure to visit before leaving. However, I should have known better, as in my experience whenever a place, especially a chippy, is known as “award-winning”, it’s always rubbish. The chips from the dirty, greasy, nameless and poorly advertised places that all look the same, are always far superior. After my portion of dry, flavourless chips, and re-stocked with veggies and Calor gas, I weighed anchor and sailed off once more into the Sound of Mull, bound for Ardnamurchan Point. And once more, the wind was right in my face. A couple of hours later after some real lengthy tacks back and forth across the sound, I reached for the engine starter and took the direct approach.
There was no drama as I passed around the most westerly point of the Scottish mainland, and soon I was heading in for the next anchorage- Sanna Bay. Many years before, I had been at the lighthouse on Ardnamurchan Point, and I remember seeing through a telescope, in the waters close by, several basking sharks, dolphins and a minke whale. Today however, there was bugger all to be seen. From the CCC sailing directions, Sanna Bay is understood to be a delightful sandy bay, but on the day I was there, it was grey and the wind was onshore, so I can’t say my night at anchor there was delightful, but it was uneventful and I was off again first thing in the morning. The wind was forecast to get quite vigorous in the afternoon, so I wanted to get to my next destination in good time. There is an abundance of options along this stretch of coastline, and I wanted to put in some distance northwards, but also not to stay out too long and get caught in the strong wind, so I settled on Loch nan Ceall, which is by Arisaig, along the railway line from Fort William to Mallaig that the Flying Scotsman steam train runs on (it’s got the Harry Potter bridge along it somewhere). I had been camping here when I was young, but all I can remember of it is midges, cleg bites and getting lost.
The entrance requires some care, for obvious reasons when you look at the chart, but in reality if you follow the instructions in the CCC and aren’t a complete idiot, it’s not too bad. Although once through the rocky channel, there are still plenty of submerged rocks in the bay to be mindful of inside the loch itself.
The following day, gale force winds were forecast from the south so I headed to the bottom portion of the loch, known as Stuart’s Bay, to find a spot to anchor. I went for a walk ashore, although the bad weather was just starting to arrive and it was a wet, wild and windy walk. Through the night and the following day the winds were fierce, and being in the loch meant shelter from waves, but the wind was howling into the loch, and the boat was yawing around something terrible. Before leaving Plymouth, one of the many items on my to-do list was to make an anchor sail to help keep the boat pointing into the wind, but alas, I ran out of time. Anyway the wind wasn’t alarming, just distracting, and toward the end of the following day it had decreased considerably, and in the early evening disappeared completely, allowing me to go for another stroll ashore.
I couldn’t be bothered carrying the dinghy up the shore and was a bit cavalier in tying off the painter; I just wanted to get off the boat after spending the previous 24 hours cooked up inside.
Another factor in my decision to not go down the East Coast was that I was considering going to Australia in September to join Ness who is going down under for a conference. This had been scheduled for a while now, and I had been umming and aahing about it, but finally I made the decision to do it, so while floating about at anchor in Loch nan Ceall I took the opportunity to use the good phone signal and troll through countless flight options on the various comparison websites and eventually booked my tickets. So now I have a deadline to meet, I have to be back by the end of the first week of September…