I glanced at my watch; it was 4am. The sun which had set into a dull twilight was rising somewhere behind the clouds; their fringe was lined with a tint of pink from the first light of day. A bitter chill fluttered around the bellowing white sail before me, the silence broken only by the thud of our engine as we chugged forward. I clasped a gloved hand around a plastic mug half full with luke warm coffee and with the tiller. Gazing out to sea the summer solstice rose upon the horizon I was half asleep and cold but then again, no one looks back on their life to the nights they got plenty of sleep. I was alone on deck; My father Paul, uncle James and best friend Seumas slept below. A short distance astern another yacht Twister followed in our wake. It was the annual ‘solstice sail’ of the Lochbroom Sailing Club. In traditional evening chaos we had packed, guzzled our fish and chips and swilled a beer before setting out into the night. Our yacht Mollymawk was packed to the gunnels; gear and food was crammed into every hold and two sea kayaks were stowed neatly on the deck. Paul was the captain and Seumas ‘first mate’ shared with James. Being the least experienced I was the ‘Cabin boy’ as usual.
Sailing in shifts, working 9pm-5pm the next day we aimed to reach South Uist from Ullapool. The 20 hour journey would be our longest, and a chance to ‘purge from the office air’ as James described.
Our small fleet was two swedish designed boats called Albin Vegas. Albin had designed the boat almost as an afterthought to try and sell their engine designed purposefully for yachts. In a twist of irony the engine was crap and subsequently both our boats had replaced with Saab and Volvos respectively. The thick fibreglass boat however remains a remarkably seaworthy vessel – Vegas have even reached Antarctica (Read: Berserk in the Antarctic). Unlike Berserk we had neither waves nor gales to cope with, quite the opposite in-fact; our greatest danger was running out of beer and bacon before we landed.
I grew up on the sea; my childhood was spent sailing dinghies and exploring the coastline at my doorstep, somehow despite this I am still a rubbish sailer. As children when Seumas bought his first boat; an evocatively named Fireball I was more than happy to let him take over the sailing choosing instead to hang upon the trapeze as counter weight and splash guard. Although some of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences of my life I still find myself uncomfortable at the helm or fumbling when asked to draw the mainsheet; I long to overcome the mental block that sailing is a means to get from A-B and learn to truly love it as a sport.
A tiny storm petrel fluttered no larger than a blackbird atop the waves, it led my gaze to the kittiwakes soaring in graceful evolutions in the dawn sky above and then beyond; Drawn onto the Shiant islands jutting from the sea like the spine of a giant sea monster on the horizon. It was moments like this that I felt, even for just a short time the lure and beauty of a journey under sail.
Light danced through an open hatch, the smell of bacon stirring my senses back to reality. Crawling from my bunk in the forward hatch I hobbled dreary eyed back on deck, I had hardly slept since coming off shift. The engine was off and we heeled over under the weight of the sail; Paul was at the helm with James deep in a book at his side, Seumas was busy rigging the jib at the bow.
I had slept into the afternoon after returning to bed at 4am. The newfound luxury of a boat was much appreciated, after a summer living off damp oatcakes and tea aboard my kayak the addition of fresh salads, a selection of cheese and olives AND beer made a great upgrade.
We sailed leisurely at 5 knots through the afternoon; lazed around on deck, drinking cool beer, reading books, eating, shouting jokes to the other boats, cracking into another can of red tin; life was just grand.
Sailing into Loch Boisdale harbour
Arriving at Loch Boisdale on South Uist we anchored by the pub for short walks, ales and a catch up on the world cup.
Anchors up, Sails unfurled, bacon sizzled; we sailed our way south to Eriskay. Our next harbour offered pontoons rather than anchors and the chance to join forces with Twister for a wander into the small community on the far side of the island. We had scheduled a meeting with a politician; I speak of course about The Politician – an inn.
Like wellie booted pilgrims we took up the single track road to the north. After a quick stop in the local shop to replenish the cutlery which was thrown carelessly overboard with the dirty washing water; we settled into to the pub.
We returned to the yachts via a typically Hebridean bay; James took a skinny dip while the rest of us wandered across the pristine white sands. On a sunny day the beaches on these remote and weather beaten islands rival even the most desirable Mediterranean beaches; they are so good that it was a picture of a beach out here that was used for the poster image of a Taiwanese airport advert.
Our next stop was Barra; another short hop by sail down the line of islands. With the iconic Kisimul castle perched on the small rocky island by the port. Like a giant island pub crawl the harbour promised yet more inn exploring to be had; but first it was time to deploy the kayaks. While we rafted together with Twister Seumas and I donned waterproofs and set off by paddle.
Sat in my cockpit I was back where I felt most comfortable. Just like we had all through our teens Seumas and I eagerly set off to explore together. First the castle, then the nearby surf gently breaking on a half submerged rock and lastly a short paddle across the bay in the golden evening light. We landed on a small sandy bay and strolled around a rocky headland to look back at our ‘motherships’ bobbing across the water in the harbour. We decided that in the morning we would continue our paddle antics and kayak on to Mingulay – after an evening pint of course.
Dropped from Mollymawk at the sheltered side of the small island Flodda Seumas and I left Paul and James to chase Twister by sail to Mingulay. Unfortunately for them the sea was glass calm; perfect for kayaks. Only a small swell rumbled the far side of the island. Hoping to find a natural arch going through the island which wasn’t there we hugged instead to the rocks to dodge, weave and glide through whatever gaps we could find.
Seals glided beneath our boat as we dipped our blades beneath the surface. The crags and caves on the rocky shore tempting us to explore wherever we could. The game as to who could squeeze their kayak between the narrowest gap or smallest turn begun; points were lost for touching ground.
As we reached the western shore the swell stopped us paddling too close; our focus instead brought onto battling the chaos of waves brought by the swell on the rocks.
Shelter behind the next small island found us inside our first big sea cave. Seumas nosed his way inside to a flurry of startled cormorants; beneath our hull thousands of jellyfish brought in by the tide struck on our blades.
Back in the battle of clapotal waves bouncing from spectacularly high cliffs we rounded the island of Pabbay. Discovering shelter in clefts that dwarfed our kayaks we could only sit in awe to look up from our unique perspective. Only the birds flying high above could bring us scale to the shoreline to which we clung.
Seumas explores a cleft in the cliffs of Pabbay
Leaving Pabbay behind us we whooped as we rode through a tremendous tide race channelling between a few rocky outcrops. The speed of the water launching us east with exciting splashes, it were as if Seumas and I were riding on a river.
It was this same tide which we then had to turn and fight to make our way to the west of Mingulay. Furiously paddling against a 3 knot tide we quickly realised that our efforts were somewhat pointless. Rather than spend all afternoon battling to progress we turned back with the eastern stream to go the other way instead. What sights we would miss on the west would be made up for from a stroll onshore instead.
Dry on land we watched as the Barra primary school enjoyed their day trip to swim on the shores of Mingulay (I know! I’m jealous too!) We sat perched on the top of a crag to look down on our boats in the sand; puffins soared all around us. Neither Mollymawk nor Twister were in sight.
From the summit of the island we soon spotted the boats approaching. Passing the Edinburgh mountaineering club who were off for a climb in the afternoon sun we returned to our kayaks. Another evening of beer and banter soon begun followed with a second short stroll back up to the cliffs to walk off dinner late in the evening. We returned via a short detour to ply the lovely national trust lassies with whiskey and question them about the local Corncrakes which were calling in the reeds nearby their hut.
Overnight the mist grew thick and rain dampened the decks. When the morning alarm clock of Paul raising the anchor sounded at 6.30am the air was damp and cold, there wasn’t the faintest breath of wind. A short motor round the corner of the bay brought us to Berneray for a morning stroll to the lighthouse somewhere in the fog.
Setting ‘George’ the auto-helm to steer us east toward the distant isle of Coll we hunkered down into the hull for tea and breakfast; just as we had on our long passage out we formed a rota to ensure someone was on deck at all times. Lost deep in a good book the journey ticked by at a pleasant pace, James called out with the first sighting of a whale on the trip as a small Minkie surfaced nearby. As Coll approached the mist began to fade, the promise of sunshine brightened the skies above. By the time we reached its shores the sun was blazing down on the deck and VHF discussions between the two boats as to where the best swimming beach was had begun.
Twister cutting the corner round a marker buoy
We settled on a small secluded beach about 8km from Coll’s largest town Arinagour. As we each jumped in with a refreshed gasp Sandy’s voice cracked over the VHF. Aboard Kumari his brand new boat he was heading across from the mainland to join as the third in our little fleet. ‘Where are you?’ scattered through static on the radio. ‘Heading to Arinagour’ we replied. oh….I was heading to Coll came the answer much to the amusement of all aboard.
James and I decided to leave the yachts in favour once again for the kayaks. It was both James and my final day aboard as we both had commitments we needed to return home for. Our final 8km at sea needed to be relished.
We paddled in a relaxed pace around small islets sneaking up on seals as we went. Choosing often to simply sit back and drift on the wind James and I took time to chat and gaze beneath the surface to watch crabs scuttle from our shadows on the shallow sands.
Arriving well before the rest of the fleet James and I ventured ashore to the nearest inn to wait with a pint. Stretched out on the helipad in the sun we settled into the final night before leaving the boat to Seumas and Paul. In the morning our ferry home would be waiting.