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Sailing the Isles

After resting in Oban waiting for some warmth to come to us and then recognising that, as everyone here is saying, it is an unseasonably cold Spring, we have spent the last three days sailing, passing through some of the many channels and passages between Scottish islands large and small. The trick for us and our boat, since we are not roughneck, go-out-in-any-weather sailors is to pick a day when the wind is going our way, or as close to it as we can. That way it feels warmer, perhaps even hot if the sun dares to show itself, and as it happens Cirrus, being a catamaran, also likes to sail downwind, for that is what she does best.

So it was a contented boat and crew that emerged from the southern end of Kerrera Sound, sails filling to a nice north-westerly breeze. On our left the Isle of Seil, regarded by some as not an island at all by reason of being attached to the mainland by the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’, and to the right the tiny isle of Insh, reputedly owned by an eccentric Londoner who occasionally occupies the cave on its eastern flank. Seil used to be quarried extensively for its slate which was dug out of a deep hole very close to the sea at the southern end of the island until 1881, that is, when the sea breached the quarry walls and flooded the place thus putting paid to the island’s only real source of income.

Just south of Seil we enter the narrow, tide-swept channel know as Cuan Sound which winds its way between Seil and its smaller neighbours, Luing and Torsa. Navigation here is simply about keeping Cirrus in the centre of the rocky passage as she is rushed through amid seething whirlpools of water and then about making a sudden ninety-degree left turn to avoid more rocks hidden from view beneath the surface. We pop out into Seil Sound and make a sailing detour eastwards to the end of Loch Melfort where there is a hotel accessible both by road and sea but rather than stopping, we reverse our track so we can creep carefully into Ardinamir Bay and anchor for the night. The tiny entrance to this tidal pool is guarded on both sides by weed-covered rocks but some thoughtful soul has erected posts (perches) on them so visiting sailors know where they lie.

We spend a peaceful night here listening to the wind gradually ease and by morning the only noise is from the wildlife, a flock of curlews, some Canada geese, oyster catchers, a red breasted merganser and his mate. When in the morning a slight breeze begins we emerge again into Shuna Sound, raise sail and move on south past smaller uninhabited islands with challenging Gaelic names until we reach the disturbed waters of Jura Sound. This is a place where tidal waters from the Atlantic and the Irish Sea try to force their way into the Western Isles past tongues of land emerging from the Scottish mainland. The Sound is like a river, up to four miles wide, that flows either north or south but is never completely still. Even on a relatively calm day the water swirls about, swelling eddies rising everywhere, wavelets rippling the surface next to fast-flowing liquid plates although the water is in effect simply flowing downhill and it is the force of gravity that changes direction; imagine a water-laden tea tray being rocked back and forth. Yet strangely such mighty forces have no apparent effect on us humans. Sailing through an area like this needs a steady hand on the tiller as the boat is pulled this way and that but it is an exhilarating experience none the less.

We cross the river of water just south of Eilean na Cille (Chapel Island) then reverse our track turning north east up Loch Craignish, another long finger of water whose head will give us shelter for the night in Ardfern Marina. By evening the geese are shouting again while a single lone heron sits patiently waiting for his dinner to pass by and a family of eider ducks seems engaged on moving house.

Our third day is somewhat more tame from a sailing perspective but we pass behind two more islands, Righ (Royal) and Macaskin through a channel cluttered with the floating nets of salmon farms. We cross a breezy Loch Crinan, in reality more of a wide bay, to moor in total calm behind Eilean da Mhèinn whose trees protect Crinan harbour from the worst of the westerly gales. Leaning out over the side we sit and watch a hermit crab backpacking across the sand a metre below us.

Just behind Crinan the land rises steeply to afford views across all the islands we have recently passed by. We make the climb on a clear evening, so clear that the only things preventing us seeing the Outer Hebrides are the mountains of Mull and Ben Nevis itself blocks our view further north. The low shadows pick out every lump and wrinkle in the Spring landscape for the season is just arriving here. Trees have swollen buds waiting ready to pop open, bracken shoots are uncurling, newly emerged butterflies sample their first pollen and the deadnettle is in flower.
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