Category: Mull

Time on the water

Arms straining, I pull myself up the sloping foredeck for the nth time and wriggle into position on the windward rail where my meagre seventy eight kilos helps to balance the boat as she accelerates upwind again, crashing and bashing through the waves. The next piece of sea thumps into the bow, jumping up and dousing me with salt water but my body protects the rest of our crew from a soaking, not that their gratitude is particularly overwhelming, I have to say. This wave is one of many I take full on for them, but I’m not complaining. I signed up for a week of racing on Owen’s 10 metre X-yacht, Jochr, and know full well that this is what goes with the territory, it is just part of the experience.

We have a mixed bag of weather thrown at us, fairly typical for any summer in the West Highlands I guess, heavy rain and winds one day and light airs the next, but despite this our fortune in the rankings for our class remains good. For the final passage race, a long southerly beat down the Sound of Mull from Tobermory to Oban, my role is to ensure that the genoa passes smoothly around the front of the mast on each tack without the sheets catching on the front of the mast or the sail getting hooked on the guard rail. Aside from this I am ballast, the weight of me and the other crew making a minor but significant difference to the performance of the boat. Our skipper drives us across the Sound then back again, against twenty five then up to thirty three knots of headwind, as we fight to keep our place in the fleet of yachts that surround us. For hour after hour we battle on, hardly pausing for breath, until after four hours we find ourselves jostling for position on a finish line beside Lismore Light. The current is running fast here calling for fine judgement in close proximity to other boats but the gun fires at last signalling a good finish to the final race of the week, the end of six tough days.

West Highland Yachting Week                           West Highland Yachting Week

Jochr is on the far left of the picture, sail No. 9726

Our boat and crew have sailed through rain and shine, wind and calm, rough and smooth seas, enduring some excellent and challenging racing from which it takes my body some days to recover. At some point I will admit that I am too old for this sort of thing… but not yet.

As things turn out this year all this strenuous stuff follows soon after a family trip south into Yorkshire for a week long holiday on a narrowboat, motoring slowly along the Leeds to Liverpool canal, where the only real exercise is cranking the key to open the sluices on the many locks we pass on Megans Drum With us here are Mike, Eleanor and of course, wee James, for whom this is a first boating experience.

The term narrowboat means literally that and for good reason; these boats are built to fit the canals (or is it the canals that were built to fit the boats). The locks on our canal are just big enough for two boats, each a maximum of seven feet wide, to fit side by side with only inches to spare. The canals were built for working boats which often towed a ‘butty’, an engine-less load carrier, and it was essential that both boat and butty could fit in the same lock side by side. If the lock is any wider then all that happens is that you waste water. The overall boat length is an issue too as any more than fifty feet long and we’d be bumping up against the lock gates on the Leeds Liverpool. But given these restraints, it is quite surprising how much can be fitted in on board. On Megan’s Drum we have separate bedrooms, toilets and a shower, a fully equipped kitchen and dining room, storage for all our stuff plus the convenience of mains electricity for the microwave oven and the TV.

Our days on board consist of chugging slowly westwards through the Yorkshire Dales at no more than four miles an hour, the canal speed limit, so our pace of life slows to accommodate this. Being in charge of steering I get to watch my crew opening bridges and lock gates ahead of me then once through, I manoeuvre the heavy boat to the bank to pick them up again. It becomes routine, eventually, with each member of the team knowing what to do. Steering the long vessel around a tight bend requires forward planning, anticipation of the way the stern will swing, as the boat pivots about its centre rather than its rudder, but generally we manage to avoid bumping the canal sides too often or entangling ourselves with the trees that frequently overhang the water on one side. One can certainly imagine that life has always gone on at the same slow pace on the canals but (not surprisingly perhaps) young James finds it hard coping with the speed the world drifts by. He is often happier sitting below playing games on his ipad and we worry that he misses the herons standing knee deep in the shallows or the amusingly named and brightly coloured narrowboats that are floating homes to a sizeable population on England’s waterways.

At dusk all traffic stops and we too pull over and moor to the bank. The water becomes still, only disturbed by the movements of the odd duck, the occasional swan and fish rising to take flies from the surface. Now the tree-clad banks and the painted boats are reflected almost perfectly by the water creating a surreal inverted image.

Megans Drum on the LeedsLiverpool canal

More and more islands

There are 162 islands is this part of the world. I know this because we carry on board a book written by Hamish Haswell-Smith who describes them all in wonderful detail. He defines an island as something over 100 acres which is not connected to the mainland by bridge or causeway, even at low water. This is a definition that excludes some pretty large and significant land masses, like Skye for instance, but clearly you have to make some choices if you set out on a task such as his.
Rather than try to visit everything we too are being selective, our choice being governed by the wind and the weather as much as anything else. But unlike Hamish we recognise that there are some bits of mainland that are equally worth seeing so our compass is even larger than his. We make a return visit to Loch Drumbuie on the Morvern peninsula, its narrow entrance widening into a natural safe haven for yachts but with no facilities to offer except a bottom of silt into which an anchor can plunge. A high pressure system is centred over us bringing morning fogs which can linger and make navigation difficult. Fortunately our GPS system operates regardless of the visibility so we don’t get lost in the mist.

Stripes of mist hover about us as we motor out of the Sound of Mull towards the island of Coll, a windswept hummock of rock and heather with a human population of only a hundred or so, more when the holiday cottages are full. In the centre of the eastern shore is a bay where the main settlement lies and the ferry pauses briefly each day, as do a few yachts like ours since the island boasts a hotel, shop and café in addition to its many sheep. The islanders wave hello as you pass by whilst the sheep stand and gaze or scratch themselves thoughtfully (or maybe this was an obscene gesture).

A northerly wind arrived overnight, a fair wind for just about anywhere except Coll where it brought a sudden temperature drop which prompts most of the boaties to up anchor and leave. I may have mentioned before that downwind sailing is our thing, so naturally we were headed south, across the Passage of Tiree to find shelter behind the twin peaks on the Isle of Ulva, an island off the west coast of Mull whose name means wolf island in old Norse. The southern shore is dotted about with rocky skerries through which we weave our way until we can drop anchor in Cragaig Bay, as safe an anchorage as one can find. A ‘cleared’ village, now only walls and doorways remaining, stands onshore as a sad reminder of what took place all over the highlands and wild goats gaze down on us from the mountain slopes above. Although sheltered from the northerly wind, strong gusts sweep down on us buffeting Cirrus this way and that but we suffer this as the view is stunning, mountains (on Mull) to the left and islands to the right, as far as the eye can see, some sharp in the clear air and others faded with greater distance. Even three photos stitched side by side cannot do justice to what we are seeing from our companionway door. Every piece of land we see is another island and they stretch from ear to ear. The clarity of the air makes everything as sharp as a pin but although the sun shines we huddle inside out of the cold wind. All this and not a human soul to be seen.

What makes this place feel even more remote is that we have no mobile phone reception, no access to the internet and no broadcast radio reception either. We are alone with the seals, the goats, the gulls and the terns plus the cuckoo singing away nearby.

After two nights at anchor we move on south passing through the Sound of Iona, early enough in the day to miss most of the trip boats taking tourists to see the monastery and the cathedral there, then turn east to pass along the south coast of Mull. Sailing at more than seven knots we are joined by a solitary dolphin who ‘plays’ around us for thirty minutes or so. Easily two and a half metres long he keeps just in front of our bow, close to the surface, sometimes showing us his white belly, just for fun, then flipping over and surfacing, blowing a sardine-scented breath before drawing another lung-full and diving. He comes alongside, tilting his head to look up at our deck where we stand spellbound then races ahead again between our twin hulls. He seems to like the speed we are going or the shape and colour of our boat, has no difficulty keeping pace, and is as curious about us as we are about him. Finally he has enough and we wave farewell.

Later the northerly wind deserts us, making it feel much warmer but Cirrus slows down so miss our tide in the Sound of Luing. We press on anyway and arrive at this constricted passage between the isles of Luing and Lunga just when the sea is rushing northwards at over five knots. Our short passage south, engine at full speed, starts very slowly as current tries to hold us back, boiling and churning past us, but eventually we gain on it and escape round the south end of Luing to safer waters and into Craobh Marina. Our return to mainland Britain is complete.

Another helping of Mull

We have been reading the blog of our friends Kyle and Maryanne who have been travelling across Scotland on their catamaran Footprint. Moving east through the Caledonian canal they experience the same weather as us whilst taking in the breathtaking Caledonian Canal scenery that we enjoyed last year. Their account has much detail of their day to day lives living aboard the boat whilst travelling about, reflecting our own existence.

They talk of the ‘luxury’ of a hire car taken for a day so they could visit some places that might otherwise be difficult to get to, a telling comment in this car-mad age when most people would not regard the car as any sort of a luxury. We recently did the same thing on Mull, hired a car for a day so that we could see as much of the island as we wanted with the advantage of being able to stop as we pleased when something caught the eye. (It is worth adding that car hire, like many other aspects of life here, is handled in a casual way. ‘You say you’ve had no accidents or convictions so that’s fine by me…’).

Our day proved to be sunny and cool but clear and £35 well spent. It was one of those rare days when the air positively gleams and you feel you can reach out and touch objects twenty miles or more away. In total we drove about 100 miles which, to anyone who knows Mull, is something of an achievement. Apart from one short section along the shore between Craignure and Salen, Mull’s roads, despite being used by the island’s regular bus services, are wide enough only for one vehicle. Frequent passing places and basic politeness make it all work, that and a general lack of haste. Few of our car’s five forward gears saw use.

Every so often there is a sign encouraging one to visit ‘standing stones’, inarticulate lumps of rock placed upright on the land many years ago, with no explanation left for those of us who follow. No amount of imagination can visualise what the land was like at the time they were erected and sadly the true shape of the land is now lost to view. Certainly a clearing in the middle of a stand of pine trees, attractive though it is in feeding light down onto the stones today, would not have existed at the time.

In a heritage exhibition centre near Dervaig there are painstakingly excellent models showing what the stone and iron age dwellings might have looked like with information on how it is thought people lived. There is little here to explain the standing stones but models of the ‘black’ houses, so called not because of the wood smoke which perpetually filled the chimneyless interior but because of the similarity in pronunciation between the Gaelic words for ‘black’ and ‘thatched’, give a clear impression of hardships people lived under. Such apparent poverty left no room for sympathy from the landowners, both English and Scottish, who in the 18th and 19th centuries evicted so many people from these lands so that intensive sheep farming could be introduced. Who can imagine what Mull would be like today had these events not occurred.

One highlight of the day was a visit to Carsaig on the Ross of Mull, the southern peninsula that points westward towards Iona. Here we left the car and took a walk under the same thousand foot cliffs that we sailed past last summer. The geology of this whole area is amazing. You get basalt columns mixed with volcanic and sedimentary rocks, some of which are crammed with ancient sea shells, sharp edges of ancient mussels and limpets still sticking out. Above us were wild goats living in the tiny strip of land between the sea and the cliff, most of which slopes at forty-five degrees, and then higher still the golden eagles soar. There are supposed to be more than 100 of these creatures living on Mull so they are not an uncommon sight. They just float about effortlessly looking more like small aeroplanes than birds. Crows and seagulls will fly up and mob them, but cautiously and with no great effect. They are top predators here and they know it.

Back in Oban after a very cold but delightful sail back along the Sound of Mull we reassess our lethargy and lack of willingness to do more exploring around these islands. This is not a comfortable time of year to be sailing here. When the sun does shine the air can be clear and bright but a cold wind is a heavy wind, or so it feels, and bold exploring is often only rewarded by a night of worry over whether the anchor will hold.

With this is mind, and it being Kate’s birthday as well, my proposal to take the Calmac ferry out to Barra in the Outer Hebrides seems to have gone down rather well. Someone else can take charge of the navigation on the five-hour crossing whilst we relax cozily inside. More on this trip will follow.

Twelve months into retirement

From her winter home in Oban we moved Cirrus Cat first to Loch Aline, or Loch Alainn as it is known locally then on to Tobermory on Mull, making use of the new genoa to sail into a brisk south-westerly then into a wild northerly wind, the sail pulling us along at over 7 knots when the sea was flat enough. We still have a lot to learn on how to handle a sail this powerful. Kate expressed some disappointment at the absence of dolphins or seals on our journey but I guess it is just too early in the year for them to show themselves. This time last year we were just setting out on the adventure we call ‘retirement’, not really knowing what was in store for us. Kate’s diaries place Cirrus in the South East of England, at Gillingham Marina in the Medway, and us visiting our friends near Sittingbourne before last minute shopping and casting off to go north.

Reflecting on all we have done in the last twelve months we realise that we have still to complete our original ambition of circumnavigating the UK. Events late last year cut short this plan and left us ‘stuck’ here in the Western Isles instead of smugly secure in some West Country creek and although this is something we have always seen as a positive – it has given us much longer here than we expected – we feel in some ways we still have a mission to accomplish. It is early to be sailing this far north, very few boats venture out this early for very good reasons – it can be cold and the weather unpredictable. We will wait for the weather to come right before venturing forth but before long we’ll be looking for northerly winds to blow us southwards again.

At the first opportunity we have taken ourselves off into the hills for a spot of walking, just to take in the ambiance that is uniquely Scottish. Lichen drapes from the branches of trees giving them a grey-bearded look and higher up we caught a distant glimpse of two roe deer just at the same moment they spotted us. Not being able to smell us they seemed unconcerned and casually ignored our presence.

We were walking beside Loch Aline looking for, and soon finding, Tennyson’s Waterfall where a small mountain stream drops some 20 metres into a natural amphitheatre ringed by a line of brown cliffs. Some of the stones here are soft and green in colour, and the cliff being undercut it is possible to walk behind the screen of water and look out at the view across the Sound to the Isle of Mull in the distance. Of course, Kate just had to risk the cold shower to get here. Her feet would already have been wet because the one thing almost guaranteed about walking in Scotland is wet feet. The ground often has a sort of bounce to it, the moss and the tussocks of grass lying over peat bog or hiding marshy areas into which the feet sink ankle deep.

On a completely different topic, just a few weeks ago we were held up in the UK by the effects of industrial action affecting air travel – in our case it was the French air traffic controllers. Am I the only person to see the irony in the present massive disruption to air travel caused by the Icelandic volcano, just weeks after the end of latest of the strikes here in the UK? Surely the great god of the skies must be thinking ‘You call that disruption…. I’ll show you disruption!’.


Rather surprisingly, to us at least, we have discovered we love the island of Mull. This feeling has sneaked up on us unexpectedly, catching us unprepared for such strength of emotion. On first sight it is a powerfully wild place, its unkempt rock-bound shores backed by massive mountains whose slopes turn from green to grey as the eye ascends, houses scattered about randomly, each one representing a life so different from anything we have ever known, and of course the climate which arrives salt-laden straight off the North Atlantic.

So what is is about this island that has grabbed us?

Maybe it is the untrammelled acres of untrampled wild flowers that I struggle to resist taking countless photographs of. They lie in wait beside every road and path, little splashes of blue or pink giving their all to be more technicoloured than their neighbours so as to catch the eye of a passing pollinator.
Pink is also the colour of the land out in the west where the Ross of Mull stretches its long finger towards Iona. Seen up close, a small piece of this rock is revealed as a randomly chequered patchwork of orange granite and white quartz crystals all bonded together forever by some volcanic magic. Fire and ice has shaped this land and much of the exposed rock in the deep valleys on Mull still bears the signature of long-gone glaciers which scraped and smoothed to leave crests of rounded rock peeping out from the sea of heather and grass. Even the moraines left behind by the receding ice are still visible as vegetated hillocks; it is as if the glacial thaw has only just finished.

The Island’s charms don’t stop with the land itself and the nature on it. I simply could not resist this picture of Loch Don Post Office, located not in the cottage but in the shed peeping out from the shrubbery beside it. The main A road (Mull only has one) passes close by and a bus will stop and pick up anyone brave enough to cope with the single track roads which force drivers to swerve alarmingly into the passing places when meeting another vehicle. Bus drivers on Mull must have nerves of steel.

Ben More, Mull’s highest peak, rises 966 metres from the sea although its domination of the landscape is tempered by so many other summits close by of similar stature. Mull is so replete with steep-sided summits that its roads have to make devious detours along the winding valleys the glaciers have left behind, a delight for the tourists craning their necks out of car windows but a nightmare for the drivers.

The one thing we have found to dislike here is the absence of coverage by our mobile internet provider so our leaving the island today will be our first opportunity for some days to pick up messages and update this blog. But surely this is a small price to pay when matched against the sunsets that Mull has on offer.

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