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Ian McNee’s Grand Voyage – Week 10

Once again, I was up pretty early to catch the tide. I wanted to sail down to the Isle of Coll, and the forecasted wind wasn’t particularly strong so I thought I’d use the tide as much as possible. I sailed off the anchor, threading my way between the other anchored boats, the occupants of most I think were still fast asleep. There wasn’t a lot of wind, but enough and I did about 2 knots quietly gliding through the harbour. Once I’d gotten around Rum it was a broad reach all the way to Coll and with the winds being light, I decided to hoist the cruising chute. This was only the second time I’d ever used it, but I managed to get it up and running without too much trouble. The conditions were perfect for it, I was making an average of about 3.5 knots and it is was easy going.

Before it all went wrong.

At one point some minke whales appeared quite close to the boat. This was the first time I’d seen them on the trip, and the first time I’d ever seen them up close. It was quite a surprise and also one of the few times I spoke to myself, exclaiming in words that aren’t suitable for print. I also saw a pair of dolphins racing through the water, clearly on a mission. I wondered what they were up to and scanned the area ahead of them and saw a couple of porpoises surfaced and reckoned the dolphins were going over to give them a hard time, which they are known to do. The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful until I started to get close to Coll and was wondering about taking down the chute.

Approaching the north end of Coll.

I decided to keep it flying to get through a gap between the north end of Coll and some off-lying rocks, although this meant pointing the boat more downwind and it was a precise business trying to steer for the gap whilst also not pointing so far downwind that the mainsail’s wind shadow would collapse the chute. Once I made it through, I turned further into the wind and then the boat was rocketing along. Then the wind started to pick up. I wondered again about taking down the chute, but I was making good speed and some other yachts had converged behind me, all headed the same way. They were all much bigger and I quite liked being out in front, although I noted I was the only one flying a spinnaker. The gusts were increasing now and the boat was becoming difficult to control. In hindsight I should have already taken the chute down but instead pressed on, enjoying the speed. Very quickly though, the boat was heeling over alarmingly and virtually sailing sideways, so I decided to take it down in a hurry. Stupidly, I forgot to undo the little bit of string that held the excess halyard coil, and so when I let off the halyard, it jammed. Then I let off the tackline and that jammed too (cheap rope). Then I let off the sheet to try and pull the whole thing in, but ended up with the chute flying literally like a kite, way out on the end of the ropes.

Artist’s impression.

I grabbed the rigging knife and was about to cut the halyard because I just wanted the damn thing free so I could pull the spinnaker in, but I paused. If I cut the halyard, the whole thing would run through the block at the top of the mast, leaving me unable to fly the spinnaker again without another trip up the mast to thread it back through. I went up the mast in May before leaving Plymouth and I didn’t fancy going back up there again. Instead, I cut the string holding the coil, and managed to free up the tangle before the lot whipped through my hands. Now the spinnaker collapsed and started flapping about like a flag in a hurricane. I was surprised at how far away it was. Since it wasn’t filling, I could pull it in and bundle it down through the hatch. Suddenly everything was much calmer.

Easier to do this.
…than this!

As I was collecting myself, I noticed the other boats sailing right past me, and I felt somewhat embarrassed about the spectacle I had just treated them to, but it must have at least been good entertainment for them. After this mayhem, I unfurled the genoa and then it was a relatively straightforward sail to the anchorage off Arinagour in Loch Eatharna. The wind had picked up quite a bit by now and I was happy to be safely anchored.

Time for breakfast.

The next day I had breakfast surrounded by seals, typed up one of these blogs and decided to hire a bike to explore the island. Naturally, I wanted to get my money’s worth so I cycled just about everywhere. It was sweaty work on a hot day but I found a beach, which I had all to myself and went for a swim, which was fantastic.

Nice day for a swim.

I had been to Coll on holiday when I was a kid, and snippets of it were coming back to me, but mostly I just remembered the general look of the place. It’s like each of the Hebridean Islands has it’s own unique character which makes it different to the others. Coll is very low lying and rocky, with plenty of white sandy beaches.

One of the many beaches.

That evening I went to the ceilidh in the local town hall. It wasn’t what I was hoping for though, ended up being more like a school dance and whilst chatting to a few folk, I lost my voice pretty quickly. Having not spoken out loud a great deal lately, I think my vocal chords were surprised at being used in a noisy place.

Anchored in Loch Eatharna.

The weather was good the next day, but without much wind. Still, I wanted to move on so it was on with the engine and up with the anchor. As I was motoring my way south, I heard on the radio another yacht nearby was asking the coastguard for assistance as their engine had broken down and there was no wind for sailing. There was quite a bit of tide running and they were drifting at 2 knots, but a local powerboat heard the call and obliged them with a lift back to one of moorings. I imagine this is the situation I would have been in when I left Oban, if I hadn’t had the outboard engine to fall back on.

Windless day, “Dutchman’s Cap” on the right.

I was bound for the southern end of Mull, but I made a couple of stops on the way there. The first was a small group of islands called the Treshnish Isles. They are known for their seabirds and made a nice pit stop. I was surprised to see a few Puffins still here coming and going from their burrows, since I hadn’t seen many elsewhere. Some of them were starting to lose the colours in their bills as they change into their winter plumage after the breeding season. I could get pretty close to them, and there was also a family of Shags nesting right next to the path which didn’t seem fussed about me at all.

Anchored of Lunga.
Fading into winter colours.
These shags ain’t shy.

The tide was starting to run pretty strongly between the islands and it was a tough row back out to the mothership. Underway again, it wasn’t long before I made another stop, at Staffa Island. I’d never been here before, but it has to be one of the most famous of the Hebridean islands thanks to its weird looking basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave, famed for it’s acoustics. There was quite a bit of swell at the landing stage, as usual I suspect, and it is a very poor place to anchor so I didn’t go ashore for long. I had the place all to myself though, which meant I could go right into Fingal’s Cave and give it the old Pavarotti routine to test out the acoustics. Even with my hoarse vocal chords, the echoey sounds were impressive.

Clamshell Cave.
Fingal’s Cave.

Some wind had developed so I could sail the final leg of the journey towards the Ross of Mull. I was trying to decide where to spend the night. Initially I was going to stay on the north side, but the tide was in my favour for going through the Sound of Iona, or at least part of it. The tide runs pretty strongly through here and it requires some careful navigation right in the middle, so I compromised and went partly into the sound before turning off into a little spot called Bull Hole. It was pretty windy overnight and the following morning, and it was one of those grey miserable days when I awoke. It would have been nice to visit Iona, but the weather wasn’t really suitable for it, and I’m not that fussed about old religious buildings anyway so I set off for Colonsay. Upon exiting the Sound of Iona, there is a proliferation of treacherous half hidden rocks known as the Torran Rocks and looking at the charts, it’s the stuff of nightmares. I gave them all a wide berth and the wind was on the nose again, so it was a dull morning motoring through the greyness.

Torran Rocks.

Eventually I was clear of the rocks and pointed the right way for raising sail. It was pretty slow going though so I tried a bit of fishing with the paravane that Mick gave me (thanks again!) but just ended up catching seaweed.

Can’t eat that lot!

It was a really slow day. After what felt like an eternity, I was at last approaching Kiloran Bay on the north end of Colonsay and things started to pick up. A bit more wind developed, so I picked up some speed, and then a pod of bottlenose dolphins joined me.

Dolphins off the port bow!

Looking back, I noticed I had also hooked a fish! I think the dolphins were hunting mackerel, they seemed to be chasing something into the bay, and this is probably why I caught one. It made up for a pretty boring day. Once I had anchored, I watched the dolphins for a bit. They seemed to be herding the fish into a corner of the bay where some rocks formed a sort of bottleneck which must have concentrated the shoal. I chopped a couple of fillets from the mackerel for dinner, and very tasty they were too.

Thanks to Mick and the dolphins.

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