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Ian McNee’s Grand Voyage – Week 7

After riding out some bad weather at anchor in Lamlash Bay it was time to move on. It was another great sail to get over to Little Cumbrae. So far the sailing in Scotland was really good. I think being in the Clyde allowed for plenty of wind but sheltered the water from the Atlantic swell and the worst of the tides. And once again the wind swung around and allowed me to sail the whole way close hauled on one tack.

Approaching Little Cumbrae.

Arriving off the island I found a great little anchorage, and with the dinghy in tow it was easy to pop ashore for a look about.

Time to go exploring.

On the other side of the island there is an old abandoned lighthouse that I looked about inside, even going right up into the bit where the light used to be, although there’s nothing much left on the inside.

The path down to the abandoned lighthouse.
Always fancied being a lighthouse keeper.

It was pretty hot work and by the time I got back to the boat, I could do with a swim to cool off, but there were just too many jellyfish about to take it appealing. I’ve been seeing tons of jellyfish everywhere, seems like more than usual.

Ruining the fun for everyone.

After recovering from a touch of hayfever, I had a bit to eat and then rowed to the little island with the castle standing on it. I read that it was originally built to prevent poaching, although it seems a bit over the top for that sort of thing. Whatever its purpose, it wasn’t doing it anymore, and it was pretty cool to look around inside. It was generally in pretty good nick and the sort of place you would normally have to pay to enter.

View from up the castle.

Apparently this anchorage can be prone to bad swell rolling in, but luckily it was fine while I was there and I had a peaceful night. There was even an entertaining seal playing with/ trying to mount a fender/buoy.

Nice little nuclear power station in the background there.
Always some big monstrosity in the background here.

I was due another visit from my parents the following day, meeting up in Millport on the island of Big Cumbrae, so in the morning I motored into the bay and picked up a visitors mooring.

On with the engine once again.

We had a nice day looking about. There isn’t much to say about this place, it’s just a nice little picturesque town by the sea. The entrance requires some care due to proliferation of rocky islets in the bay, and there is the option of anchoring although the number of moorings makes this tricky so I just tied up to a visitor buoy. One thing of note: Millport is home to the world’s narrowest house!

Seen right here.

Soon it was time for my parents to get the bus home. I spent the night on the mooring, and the following day Ness was coming up to see me so I went into Largs Marina and got the train to Glasgow airport to meet her. Unfortunately her flight was delayed and it was Sunday so public transport was unavailable which left us with an expensive taxi ride back to the boat. This ended up being a lot more expensive than it should have been and we would have been better off just staying in a hotel and getting a bus the following day. Oh well.

After the previous few days glorious sunshine the weather really took a turn and threatened to make the whole week miserable. It rained through the night but cleared up long enough for us to walk up to Largs for a stop in Wetherspoons before getting some groceries in Morrisons. The rain had started again and we had tons to carry so we decided to get a taxi back to the marina, and then in the late afternoon we set off under grey skies. The original intention was to head up to an anchorage at the north end of Bute, but given the weather it seemed like the picturesque setting wouldn’t be worth the long trip up there, especially considering we wouldn’t be able to see it. The ultimate plan was to spend the week getting to Oban via the Crinan Canal, so the lengthy detour around the top of Bute didn’t seem suitable. So it was back to Little Cumbrae to anchor off the little castle once more, only this time in the rain.

Not as sunny as last time.

The next day was grey and windless. It didn’t rain too much though, so that was good. We stopped off at Millport to use the facilities and then got underway for Loch Fyne. It was a fairly long and uneventful journey, but the weather made the surroundings pretty eerie and atmospheric. The clouds were rolling in really low and thick and clinging to land, often completely obscuring everything.

Low clouds were lingering all day.
That’s the spirit.

The plan was to get to the start of the Crinan Canal at Ardrishaig but we wouldn’t get there until late, and Ardrishaig is a pretty dull place, so we stopped a few miles short at Tarbert. This place is much prettier, but it’s filled with a marina and various moorings and the seabed drops off very quickly from the shore so anchoring is tricky, but after a couple attempts I got us secured for the night. I had often wondered in the past why they called so many places in Scotland “Tarbert” or “Tarbet”, there seem to be tons of them, but here I learned that it comes from the Gaelic for “carrying across”, which makes perfect sense when you look at all the Tarberts on the map; they are always at very narrow parts of headlands or similar. Back in the day, boat folk would drag their boats overland to the water on the other side. If Scots had settled in Central America, Panama would definitely be called Tarbert. It made me wonder why they didn’t build a canal here instead of at Crinan as it would be a lot cheaper, although maybe it would still make the trip from Glasgow to the Hebrides too long. We rowed ashore and looked about for a bit and later returned to the mothership under attack from a small force of midges, but it wasn’t too bad really.

The next day it was a leisurely start as the entrance to the canal was only a few miles north and they didn’t open until 0830. In the end we arrived at 10:30 and motored right into the sea lock. There was a yacht just going into it in front of us; they had been waiting since 08:30 to get in but various issues with the lock gates had delayed entry, so we had timed it perfectly.

Entering the canal at Ardrishaig.
Waiting to fork over my cash for the transit license.

Although I used to live around here for a time, this was my first time in the canal, or any canal for that matter. I had read the skipper’s guide and seen a few episodes of Great Canal Journeys, so what more was there to know? Generally, two people is considered a bit shorthanded for this sort of thing, as you have to operate the locks yourself, but these guidelines are always conservative anyway so I wasn’t too fussed. And from what I had read, it seemed quite likely that we’d end up in the lock gates with other boats, so more hands make light work and all that. And as it turned out, every lock we went through was either with other boats or there happened to be a member of staff around to operate the gates for us anyway. I actually wanted to do the whole procedure of locking in and out with just the two of us, but I never got the chance! Damned people being too helpful all the time.

Put yer back intae it!

It was good fun going through the canal and a nice change of scenery, and also a blast from the past as I spent 6 months living by the side of canal several years ago. Things hadn’t changed a great deal since I was last here. Including the food in the hotel; it was still rubbish. However, I had read on the forums that things in the canal had been deteriorating and had heard similar in person from someone working there, and having seen it myself, I can see where things are starting to get a bit worn. Some of the lock gates leak quite badly and some of the sluices don’t work properly, and this year the maximum draught of passing vessels had been reduced due to silting. I get the impression that it’s all leading towards some sort of catastrophic failure like what happened to the Sutton Harbour swing bridge, only up here that means a much longer detour to get around the Mull of Kintyre instead of a small jaunt around the side of a harbour.

Berth for the night.

The next day it was more of the same, except it was mostly downhill now as we spent the night at the top of the canal. Going downhill is much better as there is less turbulence in the lock. A couple of times the day before, the boat had been difficult to control as it bounced around with the incoming water, and I was very aware of the proximity of the other two boats in the lock. On the downhill journey there was just one other boat in with us for most of it, although at one point, due to a poor decision by myself, one of our ropes caught around a cleat and the boat was left half hanging as the water level was dropping, but Ness sorted it out and all was well in the end. In one lock there seemed to be a family of frogs residing in the wall, not sure it was the best place for them, and in another some swallows had a nest in the loch gate itself.

Watch oot for the fenders pal!
It’s nice having crew…
…and a galley slave.

Eventually we made it into the basin at the other end, where we tied up and had a look about. The shortest transit licence still gives you up to 4 nights in the canal, and I would have liked to stay longer, but we had to keep moving to get to Oban in time.

I’m getting small boat syndrome.
In busier times.

So after a walk about, we got the boat ready for sea again and got the last sea lock of the day. The water in the lock was like glass, and filled right to the brim, and behind you could see the water off the sea which was much rougher, and it looked like one of those infinity pools you get in swanky resorts.

The infinity pool.
Out to sea once more.

The canal had been quite sheltered from the wind, and I was surprised we hadn’t had problems with midges (I keep trying to jinx myself). But now we were out in the open, there was a stiff breeze and we zipped away from Crinan in good time.

A good breeze to carry us away to Crinan.

We were actually a bit too early for the next tide gate, which was to get through Dorus Mor, although it was neap tides, so I thought I would try it anyway, against the tide. As we approached the wind picked up considerably so I had to put a reef in, but I think the wind maybe helped to flatten the waves a little as it was running with the tide and I managed to tack through the channel to the other side, even with the contrary tide still flowing. Close to the north shore I think we were actually catching an eddy as we seemed to be making unexpectedly good progress. This channel can be pretty rough at times, and it’s not far from the Corryvrekkan, but I approached it cautiously and all went well. I wouldn’t do that sort of thing on springs. We found an anchorage in Loch Beag, and settled in for the night with an episode of Hamish Macbeth, cause when in Rome…

The next day brought good winds again, and it was an early start as there was another tide gate to get through, this time it was the Sound of Luing. With it being neaps, it wasn’t too drastic, but we did manage to catch a good 1.5-2 knots of tide to carry us northwards. There was nobody else around at the start of the day, but by mid-morning, as I looked astern, I was surprised to see about 20 yachts all following suit and riding the north flowing tide as well. The majority of them caught up and overtook us throughout the morning, but they were all considerably larger. It’s still unusual seeing this many boats; for most of my journey so far the horizon has usually been clear of other sails.

Catching the tide in the Sound of Luing.

By now it was Saturday, and Ness was due to fly from Glasgow on Sunday, so I had planned on being in Oban the day before, but we decided to stop at an anchorage near Oban, which would give us time to do the last few miles in the morning, leaving enough time to catch the midday train from Oban to Glasgow. There’s a few options for anchoring around here, but we ended up going for a spot called Puilladobhrain, which is one of the most popular anchorages in Scotland, and it’s easy to see why. It’s perfectly sheltered, is very picturesque, close to Oban but feels very remote, it’s a sort walk over a little hill to a pub on the other side, and it also gets good phone signal! What’s not to love?

Och, the bonniness fair brings a tear to my eye.

However, all those things does mean it can get quite busy, but we arrived in the early afternoon so there was plenty of space for us. We took the short walk over the hill to the pub, where there is also the so-called “Bridge Over The Atlantic”. It’s a bit of a daft name really, but it’s a nice bridge, and the pub is good too. It’s called Tigh an Truish which means House of Trousers, because back in the day when kilts were outlawed, this is where the locals would change from trousers to kilts as they were going to the mainland.

The so-called Bridge over the Atlantic.
The sun sets over Puilladobhrain.

The next morning it took two hours to motor up to Oban where we got a berth on one of the new transit pontoons on the North Pier, which gave us just enough time to get some freshly cooked mussels and some chips before Ness had to catch her train. It was sad to see her go, but her departure coincided exactly with the arrival of my parents, who are using their free bus passes to get in as many visits as possible!

Another swanky marina.

We had the whole afternoon together, so we got some supplies for a picnic and seeing as it was a lovely day we motored down into Kerrerra Sound and got a nice spot to drop the hook for lunch.

On the way back in, I was a bit distracted chatting and forgot to listen out on the VHF for the ferry traffic information and had to gun it across Oban Bay to get out of the way of a rapidly departing CalMac ferry. We just had enough time to get some more mussels and squeeze in a pint at Wetherspoons before my parents caught the last bus back to Edinburgh.

Once again, I was by myself. It was a lovely evening as the sun set over Oban. I was planning on leaving the following day, and it was time to make the big decision. Was I going to turn to starboard and head for the Caledonian Canal to try and get down the East Coast, or turn to port and explore the Hebrides, ruling out any chance of circumnavigating?

Oban Bay.