Category: Oban

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 through.family 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

Winter is over

I can say with some certainty at this moment that winter is over here in Scotland. The weather will deliver up its usual flavours of wind and rain, no doubt, but I can be confident that it will remain mild, perhaps unseasonably so, right through until summer takes hold. How do I know this? Well because in our living room we have now have a wood-burning stove providing lots of warmth to the house and an embarrassment of hot water too. stove in actionAll winter we waited for the moment when the big white van would stop outside our door and Robert the stove fitter would stagger in the door with the heavy steel beast to begin the installation. All through the coldest months, the gales and storms, the floods, the hail, we sat on the sofa and warmed our hands before an imaginary fire, wishing we could have a real one before winter ended, but our prayers going unanswered. Nothing we could think of doing would bring it to us any quicker, no magic words, no strategy nor financial incentive. We had placed our order and just had to wait our turn, wait for this moment to arrive. All this time we knew we could be certain of just one thing; that it would happen eventually. And so it did, just as the weather warmed. But fortunately we live in a place where the first signs of spring are accompanied by chilly afternoons and nights so our new acquisition does add the sudden benefit to our lives that we’d expected. And thus it is that I find myself slipping into the morning routine of clearing the ash, laying the paper and kindling in joyful expectation of the afternoon or evening to come when I can strike a match and watch the flames spread.

Rather than become too single-minded, however, for some weeks now we have been hatching another plan; to load up Ducky with provisions and head off northwards, in the general direction of the North Pole. A brief glance at a map reveals that there is a sizable chunk of Scotland that sits between us and the Arctic Ocean and it is this that we are keen to explore, right up to the very edge of the last piece of  land. So we abandon Carradale one wet morning, after taking fresh food parcels from house to campervan, stuffing warm clothes into cupboards and filling water containers to the brim, then just turn north along the edge of Kintyre and keep going.

The heavy overnight rain still falls as we charge through deep puddles which drench every inch of the van with mud-stained spray and it still falls heavily as we lurk in the car park outside Oban’s Lidl. But no sooner have we finished our shopping, stocking up on Campo Largo baked beans and Crusti Croc paprika flavoured crisps like we hadn’t seen a Lidl for months (which is true), when suddenly the clouds part and the sun shines down. In the blinking of an eye Scotland performs the magic trick we love, winter becomes spring, rain becomes shine, dark becomes light, wet becomes dry. My dark glasses are resting on my nose once more as I gaze out at Mull’s looming peaks across a sparkling sea. Ah yes, this is why we left our lovely new stove behind.

We do not intend to travel quickly as there is much to see along the way, loads of scenery to take in, so when I write the words “250 miles later” it needs to be said that nearly three days have elapsed since leaving home. We move along at a gentle pace.road to Ullapool

But as it happens just 250 miles distant by road from Carradale (Ducky choosing to use imperial measurements) there is a mountainous chunk of rock going under the name Stac Pollaigh (which is pronounced ‘stack polly’). It stands 613 metres (according to our metrified map) above sea level and 549 metres above the car park that lies just below. More than thirty years ago when I visited this part of Sutherland I charged up Stac Pollaigh, as I was wont to do in those days when a summit looked as though it needed to be conquered, then danced along the summit’s rocky ridge, before galloping all the way down again and driving off somewhere else. I made a promise, as do so many others who climb this iconic hill, that I would one day return. stac-450Which explains why Kate and I find ourselves in assault mode tackling the steep path which winds its way to the top, not alone, but in the company of both old and young, first timers and old hands like me, many of whom are also returning for the first time in thirty years. The summit’s very proximity to a road as well as its isolated position in the landscape make it into a ‘must do’ climb that traps many who come this way. It is just that sort of place.

It turns out to be a windy climb, the air cooling noticeably for each upward step we take, and we are not disposed to hang about on the summit ridge nor indeed dance along it. The strength of the wind makes this unwise. Instead we find a little shelter and wolf down the cream cakes that have made the ascent in my backpack, before pointing ourselves downhill again. With little warning a rain squall chooses this moment to attack and what seemed like an easy path becomes somewhat trickier as the wind tries to pluck us off the hill. Within minutes we are drenched to the skin and thoroughly chilled but away to the west we can see a line of blue sky so this is where we head, knowing we’ll be dry again in minutes once the rain stops. Scottish weather never disappoints.

Rainbows and garden birds

The rain descended like a waterfall, hammering on the roof of the car and bouncing up off the road to create a dense mist which flowed away to either side, the water taking with it anything it could pick up from the road surface. We were deep in the forest, driving along the winding single track road that follows the long edge of Loch Awe and just minutes before the sun had been shining, blasting down through the trees creating sharp bars of light against the under-dark. There is nothing like a good drop of rain to freshen everything up and clear the air – and this was nothing like a good drop of rain. This was solid water coming from a cloud as black as night which we had seen approaching from the west, a real tropical cloudburst. It hardly felt safe to continue so we slowed down and crawled along till it moved on, as we knew it would. Rainbow over the gateMinutes later again and as if a tap had been turned off, the rain ceased, the noise stopped and we had escaped from the shadow of the black beast; it was distracted and had turned its attention elsewhere while we sneaked away.

Such dramatic weather generates impressive rainbows, always elusive and hard to photograph, like this one sizzling as it touches the surface of the water from which it appears to emerge.

A little further on and our road was dry, as if it had not rained at all, when across the road in front of us ran a small red bundle of fur. Kate screeched in delight as we stopped the car and watched the squirrel as it loped back into the woods, aware of our presence but hardly bothered when there was work to be done, seeds and nuts to be gathered. Red squirrels do live on in Britain and the spruce and pine forests of Scotland provide a habitat where they can compete with the non-native greys. The reason for this is largely due to the presence of spruce cones which they strip for the small seeds that lie within. It is a meagre diet for the work involved but it is enough for them to live on whereas the grey squirrels need more substantial fodder and cannot compete. Red squirrels are a native species surviving competition from the invading hordes against all the odds, a condition shared by humans too, in many parts of the world.

It is easy to become blasé about the way the sky shows off around here. Clouds over KilbrannnanOn a windy day the clouds can be blown apart into long streaks that surely can only be the result of a paintbrush being liberally applied to the canvas above. Then there’s the way the sun catches the clouds as they slide over the hill behind our house and provide a full palette of tints and shades as the evening draws in. They are back-lit, so the colour the cloud picks up depends upon its translucence and on the angle of the sun as it strikes – the low sun of the gloaming being the best. The heavens fill with colour and this matches the reddened tints of the fresh leaf growth which spreads up from below. We have a dense barrier of green now just beyond the garden fence and this is where the birds that visit our garden will perch as they size up the competition on the feeders. Goldfinch and Siskin on the feederA typical thought process might be, ”Oh, I see a goldfinch is on the seed feeder. I’ll do an ascending fly-past to see if I can shake him off then just whizz onwards to the nuts for a small snack. Oops, I nearly didn’t spot that siskin there.”
A siskin will often act aggressively towards a chaffinch, a considerably larger bird, and vertical-flying fights ensue, a no holds barred punch-up between the two as they rise from a feeder, wings, legs and beaks all in action. I have yet to see a chaffinch win such an encounter.

It is tempting to think of the birds as ‘ours’ or even ‘tame’ when they are slow to react to our presence at the back door, even right in the garden with them. They are neither of these things. They encounter few humans so do not assess us as a primary threat, or so I imagine, and they are in the garden only to visit our feeding station, not for our pleasure. Little do they know how much we enjoy them there!

Kate shovelling the rubble of the coalbunker

Meanwhile work progresses in our garden on building the base for the new shed. Thanks to Pat next door, whose unused coal bunker succumbed to the power of the sledgehammer, we now have a small mountain of hardcore which will provide a firm base and after our trip to the Oban shed factory we now know the size we need. Laying a level base using large lumps of brick and concrete might sound like a simple operation but I continue to perspire freely whilst breaking up the pieces and flattening them into the ground. In the end though, between the rain showers and with the sun bursting through, things are gradually taking shape.

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.

Boatyard life

Tonight will be our last night in the marina boatyard on board Cirrus before we depart for our winter home. Sleep might not, however, come easily as we are currently in the grip of the fiercest storm in our experience here. Gusts are whipping across the island and even tucked in behind the raised bank in a corner of the yard our boat is shaking and vibrating beneath us. Our mast pokes up above the bank into the full strength of the wind making the rigging howl and whine, the pitch varying with the wind strength and in the squalls there is a low humming noise as well, as if the mast is being played like a violin string. Leaves torn from the young trees above us flash past our windows, smaller broken pieces of debris settling on our wet deck briefly then flying off again.

As I write the sun shines brightly from a patch of blue sky, as if defying the storm. But every few minutes a rain squall drops from the racing clouds, water accelerates in the fast-moving air and thrashes against us, penetrating every weakness, invading everything it can. All day yesterday the barometer needle swung anticlockwise as the pressure dropped steadily. By evening the wind had reached gale force, the noise rising with it, disturbing our sleep. This morning the air pressure had reached its lowest point and started to climb back up, the barometer needle now moving rapidly. The wind continued to increase in strength; 75 mph gusts are now flashing past us, diving down the slope to the sea behind us then hurtling across Oban Bay, whipping up spray which is driven away into the town. Little is moving. No ferries are leaving port. The population is hunkered down for the duration.

We count our blessings that Cirrus was lifted out some days ago. The marina, still full of yachts, is sheltered by the island but masts are swaying about wildly just the same. We think we are through the worst now; if the forecast is right, the wind will diminish overnight so our journey across to the mainland tomorrow is not likely to be affected.

A boatyard is a strange place to be living, hardly to be recommended. We have mains electrical power here but for the toilet and showers we have to cross the open yard, negotiating puddles and other debris. There are few lights and at night you forget the torch at your peril. Even with this there are hazards, like the sheepdog from the nearby farm who wandered into the yard and tried to round up Kate on her way back to the boat the other night, getting quite cross and nipping at her heels when she would not stay in one place.
On our last brief walk around the island several days ago we found this deserted beach where we added our footprints in the sand to those of the otters who live here. A truly magical place this, the pebbles carried here from a thousand different headlands all with stories to tell of their journeys.

So today we are packing – one large suitcase and one large shopping trolley – ready for our travels. Somehow, possibly with the assistance of a few ropes, we’ll manoeuvre our luggage from deck to ground then across the yard and along the pontoon to the ferry. For the next week we have a complicated schedule, a minor surgical operation, and many miles of our own journeying to undertake.
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