Ian McNee’s Grand Adventure – Week 9 (part 1)

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Sailing away from Arisaig there was a heatwave forecast, not that there was any indication of it where I was.

Heatwave indeed!

I was also expecting the winds to be fairly light so I hadn’t deflated and stowed the dinghy. I regretted this later. Passing back through the rocky channel I realised the winds were quite a bit stronger than forecast, but carried on under full sail nonetheless. I soon hove-to and put a reef in, and even then I was picking up more speed than I was happy with, having the dinghy in tow. The sea was steep as well and the dinghy began ploughing nose down into the waves and getting awash. I tried playing with the lengths of the two painters, but this wasn’t very successful and I was concerned about the integrity of the attachment points on the dinghy itself, so I hove-to again and deflated the dinghy, unceremoniously stuffing it into the cockpit; I didn’t fancy rolling it up to stow it on the foredeck in these conditions. With the dinghy safely onboard in an un-seamanlke manner, I was a bit more relaxed and carried on, but soon I had to put in another reef as it was starting to blow real hard. There was much alarmingly loud flapping of sails and I felt a bit overwhelmed but got things settled down and soon the worst of it passed, just as I was drawing level with Mallaig on my way north into the Sound of Sleat. I had decided that I would go up to Plockton, and that this would be my most northerly destination, then it would be time to turn back.

Pretty blustery passing Knoydart.

I sailed past Knoydart, which is an area I’ve always wanted to go explore, but never have, on account of it being really hard to get to. It’s the only part of the UK mainland that you can’t get to by car; i.e. it has roads, they are just not connected to the rest of the UK road network, you have to go by boat. I pondered this as I sailed right past.

I was unsure where to stay for the night, and had considered stopping at Sandaig, which is the setting of the book Ring of Bright Water, but when I arrived there it was still pretty early in the day, and with my September deadline in mind, I decided to press on and get as far that day as possible, especially as the tide was in my favour. I ended going right up into East Loch Alsh, passing a few mountains I had climbed in the past when working for the RSPB, looking for ring ouzels. I’d had decent wind for the 20+ miles from Arising to Loch Alsh, but when I arrived in the loch, I was in the wind shadow of the mountains, so I made pretty slow progress inching eastwards. It had been a long day, so I decided to crack open a lukewarm one.

Enjoying a light refreshment as she sails herself.

I decided I’d anchor in a little spot called Totaig, it sounded nice from the description in the Clyde Cruising Club sailing directions. On my way there, I started to feel itchy, which soon turned painful; my back started to really sting. Feeling around, wondering what the hell was going on, it seems a little flying red ant had somehow gotten down the back of my shirt and promptly went to town.

The culprit.

Happily, the stinging sensation didn’t last long, and I was soon back to looking at the scenery as I worked towards the end of the loch.

Inching through East Loch Alsh.

I picked my spot and dropped anchor. It had been a long day, but I had a quick row to the shore and a look around before I made some dinner, can’t remember what, and then turned in.

Anchored in Totaig, Eilean Donnan behind.

The next day I was determined to make Plockton so I set off, and there was a fair bit of wind to use. Around the mountains, it can be quite flaky, coming and going and some pretty severe squalls can come out of nowhere.

Dramatic scenery in the morning.

A further obstacle in Loch Alsh seems to be a wild proliferation of lobster pots everywhere, I’ve never seen so many in one place, it was like doing a slalom. But they are well marked. In fact, ever since getting around Land’s End, I haven’t seen a single one marked with a half-submerged invisible float, milk bottle or black buoy. I soon had to put a reef in as I made my way past Kyle. I had wanted to stop here for a shower, but the conditions didn’t favour anchoring so I just continued through the Skye Bridge, hoping there would be some in Plockton

Approaching Skye Bridge with a reef in.

I looked on the bridge fondly as I passed, remembering from past adventures when I was hitchhiking through here and slept under the bridge one night like a hobo. Anyway, once I was away from the mountains I could turn downwind and things were quite smooth from then on.

Goosewinging downwind up to Plockton.

At this time of year, all the guillemots have fledged off the cliffs; the male parents call the young ones into the water from below, which they obey by jumping off the cliff before they even have their adult plumage, so they can’t fly. After landing with a plop, they then go out to sea with their dads to learn how to fish. Now as I sailed along, I was seeing tons of these father-son bonding trips.

“Watch out for that boat son!”

I arrived in Plockton, and naturally, anchored up. I rowed ashore and looked around trying to find the spot where a photo was taken of me as a wee nipper. Finding the spot, I tried to recreate it, but I was balancing my phone on my bag, which was balanced on the dinghy, and it kept falling over and wasn’t easy.

Stylish, even then.
My, how I’ve grown.

Some bloke was looking at me in puzzlement as I struggled with the composition. I got chatting to him, he was a local, and we shot the shit for a while, but most importantly he told where to get a shower. Bizarrely, there is a gin bar which has a shower that sailors can use, for a small fee of £5.

Feeling refreshed, I had a beer, and then went for a look around. I can’t remember anything from my time here as a bairn, but I do recognise some landmarks from the classic 90s TV show Hamish Macbeth, although strangely the village of Plockton doesn’t seem to be capitalising on it like New Zealand with Lord of the Rings.

I had no real reason to stay in Plockton, and I started to get that feeling you get as a child when you climb too far up a tree and realise you’ve got somehow get back down. It’s a long way back to Plymouth. Plus, the heatwave was beginning, and I’d prefer to be out sailing where I can get a cooling breeze. So off I sailed, pulling up an inordinate amount of seaweed with the anchor, to the alarm of some Frenchies who had anchored nearby, presumably also being too tight to pay the morning fees.

Fantastic start to the day.

It was a fantastic start to the day, and the sailing was easy. It occurred to me that this was the first time I was retracing my steps (apart from when I was sailing very badly upwind), however I think on my southwards journey I’ll go almost the whole way without revisiting any place I stopped at on the way up, with a couple of exceptions perhaps, like Newlyn. Although maybe I’ll go to Penzance instead, cause they are rip-off merchants in Newlyn.

Once more under the bridge.

I almost managed to sail back through the Skye Bridge, but there wasn’t quite enough wind so it was on with the engine, just for the bottleneck. Once I was through there was enough wind again, in fact I soon had to put another reef in and then I had to pick my way through the minefield of lobster pots. Approaching the entrance to Kyle Rhea, the tide was starting to run, and I shot through here like nobody’s business.

Approaching the entrance to Kyle Rhea.

That night, I anchored up in Isleornsay and then the following day made my way back down through the Sound of Sleat.

Leaving Isleornay under sail.

Unfortunately the wind was not in my favour, nor the tide, and I had a hard time of it tacking back and forth across the sound, trying to find the most favourable angle of wind, which kept shifting about.

Tacking in the Sound of Sleat.

I refused to put the engine on and eventually made it round the point to head downwind on the other side of the peninsula, bound for the Cuillins. Only now, the wind disappeared, because of course it had. So it was on with the engine. Then it came back, then went. This went on for a while, but I managed to goosewing most of the way there.

Downwind to the Cuillins.

I was heading for Loch Scavaig, for a spectacular anchorage that I had seen before, years before I was into boats, when I was doing the RSPB job up in the mountains.

Loch Scavaig, the big mountain is where I looked for Ring Ouzels.

I remember looking down on this place from above and thinking how nice it would be to visit in a boat. And now here I was! As I drew closer however, the wind seemed to get funnelled in by the mountains and it was getting pretty strong. The anchorage itself is called Loch na Cuilce, and the admiralty chart isn’t a great deal of help here, although the pertinent rocks are marked on it. The chart in the CCC book is better, but I was still nervous about it, especially as the wind was pushing me along even with the sails down.

Yup, there’re rocks somewhere…

The most important thing is to stick close in to the islet on the final entrance as there are submerged rocks in the middle of what appears to be the entrance. I only had a rough idea of where they were, so I kept well over towards the islet.

Keeping tucked in.

I was dubious about the feasibility of this anchorage given the current conditions. The wind was blasting right in and there was a bit of swell running too, but there was another yacht already in there, and from watching it’s mast against the backdrop of mountains, it didn’t appear to be bouncing around much at all so I went for it. And as I got round the corner, I found the water to be pretty smooth and the wind wasn’t too bad, and forecast to only get better anyway. And what a dramatic place to anchor!

What a place indeed.

I promptly blew up the dinghy and went ashore, to have a look around, but mostly to take photos. The geography of this place is pretty unique; in amongst the mountains close to the sea loch there is a freshwater loch, and there is a very short little river through which drains into the sea.

The shortest river in Europe! (maybe?)
Looking into Loch na Cuilce.
Freshwater Loch Coruisk on the right.

It was still pretty windy and I thought I might get blown off a cliff trying to take more photos, so I retreated to the boat. There was a very unbothered deer browsing the shoreline.

This fella has a taste for seaweed.

By this time, the rocks in the entrance were showing in the falling tide, so I could get a good look at where they lay. A visiting yacht the following day would have probably paid good money for such a view, as will soon be demonstrated…

The rocks showing now.

The following morning the other yacht that was sharing the anchorage with me departed, and for a brief while I had the place to myself.

Fairhaven is truly dwarfed in here.

I wanted to get a bit of exercise so I got my hiking boots on and off I went up one the mountains. It was a bit more overcast than the day before and soon started to rain, but that didn’t bother me much, at least I wouldn’t overheat. There were a few deer on the way, which again either weren’t bothered by my presence, or were far enough upwind to not realise I was overdue for another shower.

Free range venison.

Before long, I got to the top, although the cloud cover was pretty low and I couldn’t see a whole lot. I could however make out the anchorage, and I could see another yacht arriving. They appeared to be heading straight for the middle of the entrance, which I thought a poor decision considering the presence of rocks, but I could see they had people on the bow and the rocks looked like they were showing; I could certainly see them from above.

Land ahoy!

But they didn’t alter course, and they went slowly, but seemingly deliberately, straight into the rocks. It was a pretty big boat, so maybe the messages didn’t get back to the helm in time. Whatever the reason, they went back out, then came back in successfully, and anchored, no damage done it appeared, at least that’s what they said when I spoke to them later.

…and touchdown.

I didn’t have much in the way of a packed lunch, just a tin of stuffed vine leaves from my favourite budget supermarket.

Lidl’s finest.

Unlike the day before, there was barely a breath of wind, and of all places, it was on top of this mountain that the midges finally appeared. I had been getting concerned that I wasn’t getting the full Scotland experience, after all I had barely even seen a midge since I entered Scottish waters and I was wondering what had happened to the country since I had been away. I wasn’t very well prepared for a day out in the mountains, but one thing I did have with me was a midge net.

Ah, my old friends.

By the time I had gotten back down I was pretty well soaked through, but still wanted to have a wash, in the loch. I had brought a towel and clean clothes etc. although it seemed a bit pointless using them seeing as I would just get soaked again anyway, but I took the opportunity to go for a dip and wash off the funk.

It’s a big bath, but a cold one.

Feeling invigorated, I headed back to the boat and rustled up some dinner. It was only about mid-afternoon, so I decided to move on instead of staying for a second night.

I’ll have to put the rest of the week in another blog post, as this has turned into a rather long one, but hopefully it will appease Jake who has been on at me for an update like an angry news editor.

Have mercy!

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