How I got back on the water

I went sailing for the first time in nine years a few weeks ago, it made me decide to change track entirely and try and make a career out of it. It’s going to take a while to get there, and a lot of hard work, but this might explain why..

We drove up overnight to avoid the traffic, pausing for many cups of service station coffee along the way before finally reaching our stop off just above Glasgow at about half three in the morning. A lovely lady by the name of Hilary welcomed us into her beautiful house and fed us wine and beer before we crashed for a few hours on some exeedingly comfy beds. We had been aiming for a relatively early start in the morning but got rather waylaid by breakfast; a glut of bacon, sausages, scrambled egg, haggis, black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, juice, tea and coffee that set us up in fine style for the last couple of hours driving. I got a front seat view for this bit and spent the whole journey peering excitedly out of the window at Scotland’s stunning scenery saying “Ooooooooooooh!!!” and demanding that we slow down for pictures. As first impressions go, Scotland does well; rocky bits, mountains, lochs, ruined castles, bluebells, chocolate box towns… it took me about 15 minutes to fall in love.

When we had all finally arrived at Dunstaffnage marina we found our vessel and got on with booking in, moving in, getting the shopping in and generally sorting ourselves out. It would have been useful if our captain had brought his captains bag of really useful stuff (including his wallet) rather than leaving it by the front door of Hilary’s house, and it was lucky for us that she had a credit card that she didn’t mind being used to act as surety against damages, especially as she wasn’t coming sailing with us! The boys were especially keen to try out the dinghy, before and after supper, to the point where they nearly missed out on Miss Boggis’ delicious brownies which featured heavily over the week, the woman must have been baking for days! A final chance for a shower in the luxury of the marina’s posh new utility block followed by a quiet drink in the bar and it was time for bed.

So, the ship was vittled, (mainly an obscene amount of cake- everyone had to bake a cake for the voyage, there were 7 of us on a 6 day trip, and Jules brought 2 plus three tubs of brownies) and watered (and wined, rumed and Pimmsed…) and we were up early in the morning to set off on our adventure. As we motored out of the marina and put up the sails I felt a familiar and much missed thrill course through me, I was home and it felt good.

There’s very little to do a lot of the time when sailing, the occasional tack (that’s turning to the uninitiated) means a flurry of activity as ropes go flying and get winched in, and the helmsperson has to concentrate on keeping course, but for the rest of the time you can sit, relax, enjoy the company of your crewmates and when sailing through somewhere as stunning as Scotland, admire the awesome scenery you are passing through. It was cold, but we were wrapped up in layer upon layer of thermal goodness and so only our noses really felt the chill as we made our way down the Firth of Lorne, down to Jura and into Loch Tarbert, which cuts right into the center of the island. We raced an American boat into the loch but they then wussed out and went to anchor at the side of the wider part, we however were aiming right for the far end, it meant navigating some fairly treacherous rocks using the white markers on the shore but we made it safely in. It was still pretty windy even surrounded by the hills but that didn’t deter the boys from making a bee line for the shore to explore the solitary house and the surrounding hills and rocks. Meanwhile the girls got on with sorting out wine, nibbles, music and supper. We received a couple of badly distorted radio calls, from the shore, something about one of them being abducted by a madman with a gun…. we had wine and home made tortilla chips though so weren’t about to go running anywhere. The boys miraculously survived the ordeal, the shout about food being ready had obviously scared the gun toting madman back off into the hills. By the time they got back to the boat the wind had died and the water had achieved a gently undulating glass-like quality. The sun had long hidden itself behind the hills but the clouds turned into a floating mass of drifting pink candyfloss as we finished our supper. Then it was the moon’s turn, trying to hide behind a few wisps of lace it lit them up instead with a delicate golden glow, and I stood on deck admiring a blurry Venus as she shone in the pale remnants of daylight while the moon peeped from behind the lace in the gathering dark.

The next morning was bright, breezy and beautiful, we extricated ourselves from Loch Tarburt and headed for Iona, bypassing Colonsay, which for some reason we had taken an instant dislike to. (Try saying the name in the way a footballers wife might say Chardonnay, that might help you see why…) The weather turned on us in retaliation and we were hailed upon viciously. Nick and I had taken the sensible option of retiring to the mess as it was cold and we weren’t vitally needed upon deck at the time so we were safe. We were however called upon to provide saucepans for the captain and mate as head gear to protect them from the large stones bombarding them from the grey Scottish sky. It soon passed though and we sailed on through sunnier but choppy waters, occasionally the cry of “WAVE!!” warning those below to hold on tight. Instead of heading straight for Iona we anchored in Tinkers Hole for the night. Iona has no harbour to protect a boat from the swell of the open water, but just across the sound, at the bottom corner of Mull, a tiny archipelago of islands that are barely more than rocks houses a pool big enough for a few boats to hide away from the ravages of the sea for a night. You have to navigate past the drying rocks and through some fairly narrow bits between huge chunks of stone, and once in, anchoring in a tight space is an essential skill but it’s a lovely spot. The sun was hidden from us long before it set, but once again we were treated to some awesome sunset colours that silhouetted the rocks and dusted the sky with pastels.

I nervously piloted the boat out through the rocks in the morning and we pootled over to Iona, after anchoring the boat we ferried ourselves ashore in the RIB for a look around. Iona is picture perfect; quaint little cottages, white sands, artistically placed boats and fishing tackle, if only the temperature had been a little higher, but you can’t have everything. We wandered up past the old nunnery, past lush allotments, yellow irises and a scarecrow competition until we reached the cathedral. Iona’s cathedral is beautiful, full of serene calm as can only come from centuries of quiet worship, I lit a candle and took a moment to remember Grandi, she would have loved it. Through the cloistered courtyard in the old refectory there was the ubiquitous gift shop where I purchased some Iona mead, and then it was time to head back toward the shore. Thoughts of having lunch in one of the restaurants were swiftly banished by the hoards of tourists that had just arrived on the ferry so we returned to the boat.

All was not well, the anchor had dragged and entangled itself around a nearby mooring bouy. Ben was all for stripping off and diving in, but the female contingent forbade it on the grounds that he’d get hypothermia! Eventually, after a lot of faffing, a lost boat hook and a bit more faffing we were free. Our boat hook, which I had been charged with watching as it bobbed away into the distance with the current, was returned by a kindly fishing vessel and we set off, hoping that not everyone had been watching from the shore, which, of course, they had.

As we approached Staffa, home of the legendary Fingals Cave we entertained ourselves with Dirty Shopping, a variation on My-Grandma-went-to-the-shops-and-she-bought… I think I was most disturbed by Nick’s purchase for G – Golf clubs?! We rounded the island admiring the crystalline rock formations and then set course for Coll. The weather and wind weren’t playing particularly nicely, and we had to tack a fair amount, which made cooking an interesting endeavour. We knew we’d get into harbour quite late that night and Jules had been doing stirling work in the galley most nights so far so I jumped in before her. I thought starting at 4 was going to leave me with plenty of time, but when you only have 2 small gas burners and a gas oven that only browns the few inches right at the back by the flame, cooking sausage and mash with gravy becomes a marathon task! I didn’t make it easy for myself either, the mash had leeks and cheese in it and I had to make the gravy from scratch by caramelising the onions and rinsing the browning bits down with wine again and again (some for the gravy, some for me..) I either had to strap myself to the cooker to stop falling back to the other side of the cabin, or brace myself against it to stop being thrown into the food, depending on the tack we were on. By the time we ate though the sea and wind had calmed and by the time we could see the lights of Coll’s harbour the sea had flattened out to a near mirror like surface, we slid in in the dark, all the mooring bouys had been taken so we anchored once more. By the time we were done it was about 5 to 11 but that didn’t deter people for heading shorewards to the pub, I reckoned it would be closed before we got there so declined, opting for a quiet glass of wine on the deck, listening to the clanging of stays, water lapping and a distant radio from another boat, a blissful little moment of calm. There was also the lure of fresh fruit dipped in chocolate sauce to keep me on board, Nat and Paul had also stayed, Paul had had a slight altercation with a door frame earlier and wasn’t feeling too well and Nat was tired, so we munched fresh pineapple and ginger cake smothered in chocolaty goodness and took it easy. The others returned a few hours later, I’d been wrong about the pub!

Showers were the order of the day in the morning, and we eagerly made our way to the hotel, there was only one shower so there was time to read the papers, play chess and shop for meaty goodness. On the way back to the boat the RIB engine packed up on Jules so we had to row the rest of the way, the lack of motor noise encouraged some local seals to get a bit closer and they silently circled the boat eyeballing us. We got going in the early afternoon and sailed over to Mull, we were looking for somewhere called Goat Island for our barbecue but it looked a little exposed so we landed on another piece of land that looked like an island, but turned out to be more of a promontory, it had a beautiful little sheltered bay though, and I bounded about excitedly with my camera for the first hour or so. We burned and ate the most delicious marinaded lamb from Coll, along with venison sausages, burgers, Camembert in foil and bananas which we ate with toffee sauce. More explorations followed and as the tide had gone out I found myself unable to resist the temptation to go mud paddling. It was gorgeously squoogy between my toes, the kind of smooth muck they put expensive glass jars and sell for exorbitant sums of money. As we packed up the sky cleared from a dull grey to a delicate blue and all was peaceful. At least until the RIB engine packed up again and Ben’s cry of “OH SH*T!!” echoed out through the dusk.

We had a glorious days sailing the next day, tacking down the sound of Mull with a good wind and bright sunshine, trailing our now usual mackerel lines. We hadn’t caught a thing all week but the boys were as yet undeterred, despite knowing we had no chance of snagging anything when going at 6 knots. We past ruined castles and towering rocks, Chewie and Ben sported bunches and there was lemon drizzle cake. There had in fact been cake everyday, apple cake, ginger cake, carrot cake, brownies, fruit cake…if I’ve missed some out I’m sorry, it was delicious though! The sunshine continued when we had moored in Tobermory harbour and after a visit ashore to see the town that inspired Balamory and, much more importantly it’s distillery, it was still so warm that we were able to discard all the warm winter clothes we’d been wearing and wander around in shorts admiring the scenery, the seagulls and the jellyfish. The mackerel line went over the side again and as if by magic they started biting, the first few were quite small but then some big fat ones started coming up on the line too, I gutted and cleaned them and they were put carefully into the fridge for later. After a haggis supper we made a vague attempt to smarten ourselves up and headed ashore, several whiskeys and a few hours later there was some rather drunken manhandling of the RIB and we nearly boarded the wrong boat.

A little worse for wear next morning, we sailed on down the Sound of Mull toward our final port, trailing the smallest of the mackerel we had caught on the line in the hopes of catching more, but we were going too fast and they were pulled off. Not before they had attracted the attentions of a seagull though, he eyed them for a while before making a grab at them, only to look rather embarrassed as they were pulled through his claws on the line. The scenery and sun made it a photographers dream, and Nat and Ben started cooking the mackerel. There were several schools of thought on the mackerel but we decided on half baked in foil with lemons to make pate and half fried in butter and served on oatcakes. The oatcakes course came first and we ended up eating more or less constantly for the rest of the day, by late afternoon the wind died and Ben was making burgers. We were becalmed, even with all the sails up and Ben and Chewie farting into them, we weren’t moving. There was dancing, mostly to Madonna, and the boys performed a whole routine for us before we decided to stick the motor on and get on a bit. This also involved chasing some unfortunate sea birds in futile attempt to pelt them with biscuits, they just casually dived out of the way to reappear somewhere else, looking smug. The wind finally picked up a bit and we were able to sail back into Dunstaffnage in style, jibing in the mouth of the entrance and making a tight circle to allow a boat out, we looked at them in envy as they motored out to start what we were just finishing.

Hilary was waiting on the pontoon to greet us and hand ropes, we cleaned the boat down and had a much needed shower. I was last out and nearly missed out on champers with mackerel pate on oatcakes, but some had been saved and I ate them in the car on the way to Oban. We ate at a very good fish restaurant and I indulged in all my favourites, oysters, mussels, langoustine, salmon…. Heaven! We were last out and headed back to the boat for a nightcap before our last night on board. A long car journey home the next day was broken up pleasantly by a late pub lunch and I arrived home sunburned, tired and with my heart set on going again.

Click here to see photos from this trip