by Kim Ross and Douglas Guthrie.
Helensburgh to Crinan
We had a few warm-up weekends before starting the circumnavigation, including an epic cruise from Port Bannatynne to Portavadie in 45+ knots. Except for ripping the leech off the number three jib, the boat held up well. At the end of May, Douglas sailed the boat from Helensburgh to Tarbert to compete at Scottish Series after which the long adventure would begin.A week later, after a long drive from Kingussie (Aberdeen for Doug), a stop-off in Oban for fuel and food and dropping a car at Craobh marina, we arrived in Tarbert, Loch Fyne about 6.30pm on Saturday 30th May. Quickly loading the boat, we waved goodbye to my parents who had very generously helped with travel logistics, and set sail for Ardrishaig in about 15-18 knots. The forecast for the next few days was wet and stormy so we were aiming to get into the Crinan Canal as early as possible the next morning. It was a lovely, fresh downwind sail, and it wasn’t long before we were squeezing onto the pontoon just outside the first lock about 9pm. We tucked into a curry cooked on our new stove and enjoyed a bottle of wine, very happy that our long-planned adventure was finally under way.
We headed into the sea lock about 8.30am on Sunday morning, eager to get going through the canal. We had an hour’s delay, however, waiting for another yacht then with payment queue’s. Time was spent eating porridge and drinking tea to keep warm – it definitely didn’t feel like summer! A few people asked where we were headed, and were surprised when we said “Helensburgh, the long way round”. The forecast for Monday was 50+ knots, so we decided to continue hiding in the canal and take the time to explore the surrounding area. Berthing the boat at Cairnbaan, we followed a path that warned of “seasonal boggy sections” and we both quickly wished our shoes were a bit more waterproof. We aimed for Dunadd, said to be the site of the inauguration of kings in the ancient kingdom of Dalriada. The 15km round walk was well worth the soggy feet. Both of us have been through the canal a few times, but neither of us have taken the time to enjoy the surrounding countryside.
As forecast, the weather the following day was horrendous. After motoring to the Bird Hide, the increasing torrential rain and gale force winds called for an afternoon nap and a three km walk in our foulies to Crinan for coffee, cake then beer and dinner. Although nice to chill out, we were getting a bit fed up of being soaking wet and we were keen to get out to sea and start sailing again.
Crinan to Craobh
We left the canal on Tuesday after three days. The wind was about 20 knots, and we opted for two reefs in the main and the number three jib, hanked on but not set. Sailing towards the Dorus Mor, we could see breaking white waves on the horizon and we were apprehensive as to what lay ahead. As we drew closer, we popped the jib up to help power us through and held on tight. The steep, sharp waves crashed over the bow into the cockpit, knocking us both over, but, moving with the tide, we eventually made it round the point, grinning and pretty chuffed as a yacht double our size had opted not to brave the passage. We were grinning less later on that night as we realised we’d left a small vent open in the anchor locker and our berth in the forepeak was soaking wet…
For the next few days we cruised around the Slate Isles, and, thankfully, the weather slowly improved. After surviving the Dorus Mor, we made our way to Balvicar on the Island of Seil and rode in the dinghy up to the great little inn called Tigh an Truish at the Bridge over the Atlantic for a couple of pints and some warmth by the fire. The next morning we negotiated the Cuan Sound and spent a beautifully sunny afternoon exploring the little island of Easdale, marvelling at the flooded slate quarries and their spectacularly blue waters. It was good to be able to get the cushions and sleeping bag out on deck, and the sunshine helped lift our spirits after a week of relentless rain (at this point we were blissfully unaware that we would count these rare sunny moments on one hand…). Towards the end of week one we headed to Craobh Marina where we planned to leave the boat for a week for Doug to join his pals for a week of sailing further north, and for me to go back for my final week of work.
Craobh to Tobermory
After our week away, topped off by a fantastic wedding at Largiemore, Loch Fyne, we drove back to the boat on Sunday 14th June. Monday was spent re-provisioning and sorting last minute jobs before sailing over to a small anchorage on the Isle of Luing. We cooked chicken curry on our double camp stove in the cockpit before getting a long sleep. The next day, we motored and sailed in light breeze but big swell all the way along the Ross of Mull to a small anchorage called Tinker’s Hole between the Isle of Erraid and Mull. Although a wee bit swelly, the anchorage was amazing, with pink granite rock plunging into turquoise sea. We struggled to sleep with the swell, and Doug even suggested getting up to explore at 5am (I firmly objected). We did finally get up about 8am to big breeze and heavy rain. We had a quick explore on land and a glimpse out to sea before popping up the main (three reefs) and the number three jib. We sailed between rocks and reefs to the Sound of Iona, deciding to continue on and anchor three miles further on at Bunnesan to shelter from the waves. We then walked back along the road and got the CalMac over to Iona to explore the abbey and nunnery and enjoy a tasty meal at Fionnphort.
The next morning, we sailed round the Isle of Staffa then up the west coast of Mull. Although too much wind and swell (2-3 meters) to stop, we got a good view of the black basalt columns of Staffa and glimpsed Fingal’s Cave. Lots of comical little puffins frantically flapped by the boat, cheering us up on an otherwise very cold and damp day. We sailed for about eight hours covering 30 miles, reaching the colourful village of Tobermory about 5pm. We went for a lovely meal, had a peaceful night’s sleep and spent the next morning doing chores and re-provisioning before heading round Ardnamurchan with the tide in the evening.
The Small Isles and onto Skye After spending a night in the deceptively sheltered anchorage of Sanna Bay, we sailed to the Isle of Eigg, spending time enjoying coffee and cake before exploring the island. After taking up the offer of a lift back to the boat, which was gratefully received due to the relentless rain, we continued on to Rum, arriving late on the Saturday evening. The following morning we rose early to take the guided tour of the eccentric Kinloch Castle, complete with skinned tiger rugs and giant Japanese incense burners, before hiring bikes to discover the rest of the island. Through breaks in the low lying clouds which shrouded the Rum Cuillin, we caught glimpses of the mountainous landscape, cycling passed herds of the infamous red deer, highland cows and Rum ponies on our way to Harris and the site of the Bullough’s mausoleum. The rough tracks and undulating landscape made for challenging cycling, and the evening sail to Canna felt long, cold and tiring. Arriving late, we were hoping to pick up one of the ten visitor moorings, but our heart’s sank as more and more masts came into view as we drew closer. After dropping the anchor, we climbed into bed and hoped that, after a week of rain, the sun would be shining in the morning.
We were in luck. We woke to the sun streaming through the windows, and we quickly got up, washed our hair over the side of the boat (with strong objections from Doug who complained of brain freeze!) and ventured ashore for coffee at the delightful little Café Canna.
After a morning exploring and soaking up the glorious sunshine, we decided to move on, hoping to stay in one of the most dramatic anchorages in the western isles, Loch Scavaig. But, the weather had other ideas. As we sailed between the Isle of Soay and Skye, the wind dropped completely and we started the engine. But, the calm was short-lived as, glancing into the distance, we could see a dark line of wind on the horizon. Within minutes, we were hit by gusts of 30 knots, which flipped the dinghy and knocked us down. We quickly reefed the mainsail, swapped to the number three jib and made the decision to continue sailing rather than stopping at Loch Scavaig, where the wind was funneling down the Cuillins, blasting the anchorage with gusts of 40 knots. Turning to sail with the wind, even with the reduced sail we were surfing down the waves, reaching speeds of 11 knots – fast for a boat with a supposed maximum hull speed of six knots! What had been planned as a three-hour sail turned into another long, chilly and windy evening as we decided to continue round the point of Sleat and on to the more sheltered anchorage at Isleornsay, finally picking up a visitor mooring at 11pm. We seemed to be making a habit of cold, late-night cruising and vowed that the next day we would totally relax, read our books and enjoy good food and a few drinks at the Isleornsay Hotel.
That night, the swell pummeled the boat and neither of us slept much despite our exhaustion. The promise to stay put for another night was even stronger, and we spent a lovely day by the fire in the pub resting tired bodies. The following morning, when it was time to move on, we were greeted with flat seas and, unfortunately, more rain. For the first time on the trip, we spent the entire day motoring, journeying passed Glenelg, through the Kyles of Lochalsh and onto Plockton for a quick pit-stop (including a proper hot shower, the first since Tobermory, five days previous!) before reaching the Crowlin Islands around teatime.
We opted to anchor in the ‘eye of the needle’; the deeper, wider pool between the two islands, accessible only two hours either side of high water. But, as we reduced the engine speed to negotiate the narrow, shallow passage to reach the bay, the engine spluttered and died. Great timing. With the tide ebbing, it was a race against time to get the engine re-started and safely navigate into deeper water. Throwing the anchor out to hold us in the center of the four-meter wide channel, Doug worked quickly, concluding that, due to the heavy rain, some water had made its way into the fuel. Unfortunately, when undoing the drainage screw on the carburetor it sheered, leaving a small hole and therefore no pressure. With the tide dropping, we ingeniously re-blocked the hole with the prong of a plastic fork, and fortunately, after a few pulls the engine spluttered back to life. We moved anxiously forward, acutely aware that there was only a few centimeters of water below the keel. After successfully creeping into the deeper water, and surprising around fifty seals that had been lounging on the rocks surrounding the anchorage, the torrential rain returned. We quickly assembled the boom tent, cooked dinner and retreated to bed, exhausted again after another long, eventful and wet day.
The following day dawned fair and dry and we made the most of the weather by exploring the deserted islands before heading towards Portree to re-provision. This time, instead of using the engine, we opted to sail out of the gap between the islands, managing to creep close to the seals before they slithered into the water. Unfortunately, the breeze and dry weather were short-lived, and by the time we reached Portree, the rain had returned with a vengeance. Feeling pretty disheartened by the relentless bad weather, we opted to pack an overnight bag and seek out a dry hotel bed for the night. But, after discussing our adventure with a group of generous Americans, we felt a loyalty to Vamonos (and anticipated the embarrassment of eating breakfast with them in the hotel after we’d pointed out which boat we were staying on!) and decided to return to the boat after dinner and a few drinks. The following morning we fought our way through hundreds of cruise guests who had descended on the quiet town and quickly re-provisioned for our next stretch to Ullapool.
Portree to Ullapool
The end of the day was in complete contrast to the beginning, and by the time we reached the gorgeous secluded anchorage of Fladda Harbour after a great downwind sail in around 15 knots, the sun was beaming and our spirits were high. We opted to spend the afternoon seeking out Calum’s Road on the Isle of Raasay, an incredible stretch of single-track that was single-handedly constructed in the 1960/70s due to one man’s grit and determination to connect the village of Arnish to the rest of the island; a task that had been neglected by the council despite requests by the Arnish community.
The next morning we sailed the short hop from Fladda Harbour to the Isle of Rona, guided into the anchorage by a large white arrow painted onto the cliffs. The anchorage was busy, with around eight other yachts enjoying the sheltered bay of Acarseid Mhor. Rowing ashore, we were greeted by the friendly resident of Rona Lodge, who suggested we wander across the island in search of Cathedral Cave and Acarseid Thioram (Dry Harbour). After a peaceful night’s sleep, we woke to over 20 knots of breeze, but as it was blowing from the south-west, we opted to head onwards with two reefs in the main and the number three jib. The sail was fantastic, and although we could see big rain clouds around us, particularly towards Skye, the weather stayed dry all the way to our destination at Badachro.
Anchoring in the busy bay at Badachro, we ate at the great little Badachro Inn, spending the evening catching up with emails and enjoying a lovely meal. Amazingly, the following day was also dry, and we sailed on to Aultbea, stopping for a coffee and delicious cake at the beautiful Aultbea Hotel before anchoring in the calm waters near the Isle of Ewe. We’d heard rumours that the weather was due to change for the better, and we went to be bed looking forward with anticipation to the forecast sunshine.
Emerging from the cabin, we were greeted with grey skies and strong breeze. One of our main grumbles about the poor weather was that much of the stunning scenery which we were travelling through was hidden from view, shrouded in thick cloud, but as we sailed north the clouds slowly started to break up and the magnificent mountains of Wester Ross started to appear, illuminated in bright sunshine. As the temperatures increased, the winds dropped, and despite starting the sail with two reefs and the number three jib, we moved to full sails and finally ended up motoring the last few miles to Ullapool (via the Summer Isles for tea and cake). By the time the new Ullapool-Stornoway CalMac ferry sailed passed us, we were enjoying a gin and tonic and soaking up the glorious heat which had been so elusive on our travels so far.
Ullapool to Orkney
Unfortunately when leaving Ullapool, fully re-stocked with food and fuel, the wind was on the bow, resulting in a long beat down Loch Broom. After reaching the Summer Isles, we were able to bare away along the Assynt coast, passing Lochinver and the Old Man of Stoer. As the sun started to dip in the west, we were treated with the most spectacular sunset of the trip, with the remnants of it lasting well after 11pm. But, as the light faded, the temperature dropped significantly. Tired and cold, we opted to head for an anchorage called Badcall Bay, trusting Navionics on the iPad to guide us between the islands as it was now around 1pm and very dark. We eventually flopped into bed, after travelling (by bus and sail) for over 18 hours.
Our sleep was short-lived, as we needed to get up at 7am the following morning to ensure we reached Cape Wrath in time to round the point with the tide. We quickly got the boat ready despite the torrential rain and strong breeze, sailing off the mooring with three reefs in the main and the number three jib ready to be hoisted. The forecast ensured us that the wind was to drop and the weather become drier as the day progressed, so we pushed on, exclaiming that we were lucky to dodge the numerous fish farms the night before as we negotiated our way back out to sea. As predicted, the wind started to ease, and by the time we reached Am Balg island south of the Cape, the sea state was, crucially, fairly flat. We had been slightly apprehensive sailing this far north in such a small yacht, but as we drew closer to the most north-westerly point of mainland Britain, we started to relax and enjoy the rugged scenery.
But, as we rounded Cape Wrath, the sea started to build, approaching the boat from all angles. The swell pushed all wind from the sails and it felt like we were wallowing, making no head-way through the house-sized waves. The iPad, however, indicated we were traveling at 6 knots, and, as we looked back towards the coast, we were re-assured that we were moving forward. We sailed a few miles further north before turning east to sail along the north coast. Unfortunately the forecast south-easterly had much more east in it than we would have liked, and we ended up beating our way up the coast towards Durness. Due to our long day the day before and the early starts, we decided to sail in shifts. There are no luxuries on board Vamonos such as auto-pilot, so the steering requires constant attention. After a two-hour watch each, we eventually reached our chosen anchorage at Rispond Bay around 6pm. After setting the anchor, however, we decided it didn’t provide enough shelter from the swell so decided to motor on (the wind had died completely), eventually reaching the perfect little abandoned harbor of Skullomie, near Kyle of Tongue, after another couple of hours. Promptly on arrival, the heavens opened once more, so after quickly assembling the boom tent, which we opted to leave up all night, and eating dinner, we again retreated to our bed cold and exhausted but also very proud that we’d successfully negotiated Cape Wrath and excited to reach Orkney the following day.
To our delight, we woke to bright sunshine but, unfortunately, no wind. We were concerned that, due to the longer periods of motoring over the last couple of days, and the decision not to re-fuel at Kinlochbervie in order to round Cape Wrath with the tide, we no longer had enough fuel to cover the 70-mile stretch of sea between the north coast and Orkney. Thankfully, as we deliberated over heading to Thurso to buy more petrol, a light breeze filled in on the beam and we enjoyed a good but very long sail towards Stromness. But, due to the light wind and limited fuel, we only averaged around three knots, meaning we reached the entrance to Scapa Flow a few hours later than planned, and, looking towards our left, we noticed huge white water waves surging out the channel. A quick check of the iPad confirmed that if we ventured too far to port, we would have eight knots of tide against us. Both feeling quite nervous and vulnerable as the light faded, we stuck close to the shore on the right hand side, using the depth reader to stay in as shallow water as possible. When the point came where we decided we needed to cross the channel to reach Stromness Harbour, we had to execute a very extreme ferry-gliding manoeuvre to ensure we didn’t get caught up in the huge standing waves. At points, the engine was full throttle and both sails were up, but we still moved backwards. It is not a situation that either of us would like to repeat! Eventually tying up in the marina at 11.30pm, we headed straight to the nearest pub, still in our foulies, to enjoy a celebratory beer at having reached the most northerly point of our adventure.
The East Coast
We paused in Stromness for three nights, taking time to catch up with old friends and see some of the fascinating historical sites that are situated across the islands. With memories of the extreme tide still fresh on our mind, we took extra care planning our departure time to ensure we had the tide with us for as long as possible sailing through Scapa Flow, out into the Pentland Firth and onwards to Wick. Fully re-stocked with provisions and fuel, we set sail in beautiful sunshine at 3.30pm. Cruising through Scapa Flow with the kite flying, we joked that this was the kind of weather and sailing we had imagined when planning the trip.
After further discussion, we decided that, because of the tide, we would continue sailing/motoring throughout the night instead of stopping at Wick for a few hours and having to leave at 4am. At around 10pm, we started doing watches, with Doug offering to take the darkest shift between midnight and 2am. In reality, we were never in complete darkness, with the red glow of the sunset moving round to the east and turning into the most incredible sunrise around 4am. Our new destination was Peterhead, which we reached at lunchtime, just in time to greet some of our Aberdeenshire Sailing Trust colleagues who were teaching a group of topper sailors in the marina.
Due to a few days of strong south-easterlies, we had to pause in Peterhead before continuing our journey south. Unfortunately, many of the small harbours on the east coast are unsuitable for fin keel yachts, drying out at low tide. We therefore had limited options as to where we would stop, resulting in long sailing days covering over seventy miles per day. We also had the additional pressure of being booked into the canal at 4.45pm on Tuesday, only two and a half days away. At the first sign of the wind dropping, we decided to leave Peterhead even though it was 10pm. We wanted to get to Arbroath at lunchtime the following day in time to get into the wet dock before they shut the gates. Unlike our previous overnight sail, this one turned out to be much more difficult. Big swell made sleep elusive, and pouring rain made helming miserable. Additionally, there wasn’t enough wind to sail, resulting in a long motor. We passed Aberdeen around 2am, making sure we sailed outside the exclusion zone around the harbour mouth thus dodging the anchored oil ships. Cold, tired and damp, we were grateful to finally pull into Arbroath harbour half an hour before the wet dock gate opened. Although desperately wanting and needing to sleep, the sun had started peeking through the clouds, so we decided to spend the afternoon exploring the town, enjoying ice cream and, of course, an infamous arbroath smokie.
Due to the tide, the wet harbour gate was only open between 7.15am and 8.30am the following morning, so we rose early, marched to the supermarket to buy more fuel, then set off around 8am. We had another long day ahead of us, needing to reach Port Edgar to guarantee our entry into the canal the following day. Motoring away from Arbroath in light breeze, we headed directly towards the Bell Rock lighthouse. Doug’s Great Grandfather had been a lightkeeper here, and he was keen, therefore, to see it up close and possibly take the dinghy ashore to take a photo of him standing on the doorstep. Our little dinghy engine had other ideas, however, failing to start despite Doug’s best efforts to coax it to life. From the lighthouse, we turned south, for a while enjoying a great sail in building breeze. We were making great progress along the Fife coastline until, unfortunately, the wind died completely when we were around 12 miles from Port Edgar. Doug tried to start the engine but with no luck. After five weeks, our temporary plastic fork repair had finally given up, on the same day that the smaller dinghy engine also failed. Typical. Despite trying multiple times and using up most of our plastic cutlery, the engine still failed to come to life, resulting in us drifting the direction we had come, the Forth Bridges slowly disappearing from sight. With Doug’s attention firmly on the broken engines, it was lucky that I had noticed the clouds changing direction despite the mill pond water around us. A dark line on the water was fast approaching from the west, and, with very limited warning, the wind filled in suddenly, accompanied by driving rain. Doug just managed to pull the number one jib down as the 25+ knot squall hit the boat. As the rain passed, the breeze decreased slightly, and we settled into a long beat against the tide towards our destination, trying to keep out of the main channel as much as possible. We passed Edinburgh and the illumated bridges in the dark, finally sailing into the Port Edgar marina at 2.30am, eight and a half hours later than expected. Again, we crawled into bed: cold, tired but thankful that the wind had filled in enough for us to reach our destination. The alarms were set for 8am, as we needed to head to the chandlers as soon as it opened to beg them to fix our engines so we could reach the canal the following day (and the Sonata national championships which started in only a few days time).
We are very grateful to Bosun’s Locker for squeezing us in the following morning, having both our engine’s running just in the nick of time for us to leave at 1.30pm, giving us only three hours to reach the canal. Motoring up the Forth next to a cargo ship, we commented how far removed we were from the tranquil island hopping we’d enjoyed only a few weeks earlier on the west coast! Reaching the mouth of the Carron River we anchored in strong current and, under the watchful eye of a curious seal, we managed to successfully lower our mast and motor up to the first lock 5 minutes early. Phew!
The Forth and Clyde Canal and our final destination
The first night in the canal was spent directly below the Kelpies, the first time either of us had seen the magnificent sculptures. The following morning, with the help of the local canal staff, we moved through the locks, passing by the Falkirk Wheel, reaching the Stables near Kirkintilloch in time for dinner. The canal team informed us that we had to be at the Maryhill Locks by 9am the following morning, which was a two-hour motor by their reckoning. We spent the day being entertained by the Glasgow lock workers, and met up with family at the Clydebank shopping centre and again at Bowling. We were informed when reaching Bowling that we wouldn’t be able to leave the canal that night as it would take too long to crane the mast into place. We told them we could do it ourselves in 10 minutes, and quickly got to work, keen to keep moving towards our final destination at Helensburgh. Many hands make light work, and it wasn’t long before we were being lowered back into the Clyde on the west coast.
We had a beautiful final sail down the Clyde, with the sun shining and the wind around ten knots. It was a perfect final ten miles of our 800-mile journey, and, heading into Rhu Marina, we both felt a huge sense of accomplishment. Some thought we wouldn’t make it and many thought we were mad, but, even though it was the third wettest season on record, we had successfully managed to sail round Scotland in a Sonata.