Reaching Across The Sea Of The Hebrides

“To reach one of the worlds finest unspoilt cruising grounds,
we must first cross the Sea of the Hebrides”

We have to go. We think we can choose but in reality we don’t have a choice. The call out West is sometimes delayed due to lack of time, poor weather or lack of experience, but eventually it is irresistible and so we head out towards the Western Isles. As cruising yachtsmen our keels are but iron filings in relation to the magnet of the Outer Hebrides. Resistance is useless. It is our destiny. We have to go..…We just have to go….

To reach one of the worlds finest unspoilt cruising grounds, we must first cross the Sea of the Hebrides. For yachtsmen based in Scottish waters it is one of the great Rites of Passage as we put more and more miles under our keel. For many Clyde based yachtsmen rounding the Mull of Kintyre is the first great passage west. Then there are the great tidal gates in the Sound of Islay, Sound of Luing, Corryvreckan and more. For those based on the west coast the first rounding of the Ardnamurchan peninsula (the most westerly point of the British mainland) is a significant event. Then there is the enchantment of the Inner Hebrides which could occupy us for many sailing seasons but eventually and inevitably the lure of the Outer Hebrides calls us further out west.

My first crossings of the Sea of the Hebrides were made as a child on board the ferry Claymore for the annual family holiday on the Isle of Barra. It was a long drawn out affair taking some 12 hours from Oban calling at Tobermory, Coll and Tiree before crossing the Sea of the Hebrides to Barra and South Uist. I have clear memories of vehicles being craned on and off the ferry in nets with cushions around the wheels except for the Isle of Coll where a small tender met the ferry as there was no pier. Today the Calmac Ferry Clansman sails from Oban direct to Barra in 4 hours 50 minutes. Just in case you have not heard the paraphrase of the Old Testament Psalm, it goes…”The earth belongs unto the Lord and all that it contains….except the Western Islands which belong unto MacBraynes”

The stretches of water separating the Western Isles from the Inner Hebrides and mainland Scotland are called the North Minch, the Little Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides. They are known and respected by seafarers worldwide. Fiction and fantasy have no foundations in these waters for the simple fact is that real life contains more drama and adventure than any writer could invent.

In February 1941 the Politician went aground off Eriskay and spawned Television programmes about the quest for a certain golden liquid. In December 1974 the Ridgway family were returning home from the oceans of the world. In her account of this last leg (in her book “No place for a Woman”) Marie Christine Ridgway describes the passage from Barra to Ardmore as the “worst ever”. In November 1979 the Barra lifeboat and the Islay lifeboat capsised on service in the Sea of the Hebrides. Fortunately they self righted with no loss of life. All in the winter months I hear you say…but in recent years there have been severe but short lived gales in summer months. In late May 1996 Ian Weinbren and crew survived a F9/10 at anchor in Loch Skipport. In June 2000 John Anderson was singlehanded at anchor in Northbay and survived (with one anchor down) what Barra airport later told him was an hourly average of 54 knots with the highest gust recorded at 83 knots. In June 2002 the Round Britain Yacht Race took a battering while rafted up on the moorings in Castlebay in a severe southerly gale.

The first crossings I made as skipper of my own yacht illustrate just how quickly conditions can change. We were at anchor at Arnigour on the Isle of Coll waiting for a break in the weather and we ran out of patience. It’s only a SW6 which will give us a fast reach across the Sea of the Hebrides we reckoned. The yacht copes with a force 6 very well with a double reef in the main and a working jib. We have a strong crew of 4 and we might as well just go. We went. We had a comfortable run up a weather shore to the Cairns of Coll and turned left towards Castlebay on the Isle of Barra. It was a 7 hour bash in poor visibility which had half the crew incapacitated. As we closed the east coast of Barra the Decca also became incapacitated and visibility reduced even further. I had deliberately set a course to land us uptide of our destination but was not sure exactly how far north of the rumb line we were when the unmistakable appearance of the Currachan Rock appeared out of the mist on our starboard bow. With the benefit of local knowledge we were in Castlebay without delay and the sick crew made a marvellous recovery in time to eat a 3 course meal in the comfort of the Castlebay Hotel.

Two days later we motored from Northbay to Tobermory in a flat calm. Alfred the autohelm did the work as we sunbathed on deck. Half way across the Sea of the Hebrides a pair of dolphins played with us for a while. It was a day when you could have navigated west without a compass as each Island could be identified by the size and shape of the fair weather cumulus clouds which capped them perfectly.

This may be a good illustration of how quickly conditions change but it is also a good illustration of how not to plan a visit to the Outer Hebrides. Assuming that your starting point is on the west coast of Scotland, you want at least a week to explore Barra Head to the sound of Harris and another week for the top half. Two weeks for each half of the Western Isles would be ideal, especially if you plan some Atlantic Adventures. If pressed for time, prior weekend “positioning passages” to springboard harbours should be considered. Assuming a free wind, a crossing of the Sea of the Hebrides can be made within daylight hours in the summer if departing from Tiree, Coll, Tobermory, Arisaig or Mallaig. If the wind is westerly it is common practice to reach up to Rhum or Canna for a good overnight anchorage. If the wind is still in the west the following day it is possible to tack across the remaining 30 miles in daylight hours or alter your destination in the Outer Hebrides to reduce the number of tacks!

Those skippers with confidence in their night pilotage should have no hesitation in entering the well lit harbours of Castlebay, Northbay, Loch Boisdale, Loch Maddy or Stornoway at night. I would not recommend a night entry into Eriskay for your first visit in spite of the fact that it is well lit. It is a tight entry with small margins for error. Make your first entry to this excellent harbour by day if possible.

Those with sufficient crew can of course plan longer passages to the Outer Hebrides. If sailing from the Clyde or Ireland direct to the Outer Hebrides be sure to be well west of Islay unless the tide is favourable. I remember getting it wrong and making 0-5 miles over the ground in a 2 hour period just west of Islay. (It wasn’t the planning that went wrong it was the alarm clock in Ballycastle Marina.) Passage planning to catch the tide at the Mull of Kintyre and the Sound of Islay is an interesting exercise often given to candidates sitting their Yachtmaster exam.

The number of foreign yachts visiting the Outer Hebrides is increasing each year and the task is made easier by the availability of 2 excellent sets of Sailing Directions. One is published by Imray and the other by the Clyde Cruising Club. A couple of years ago, while in Stromness Harbour in the Orkney Isles, I rushed on deck to take the mooring lines from a single handed yachtsman tacking his 23 foot cruising yacht into the inner harbour. “Where from” asked I. “Oslo” was his reply. “Engine failure” asked I. “Don’t have one to fail” was his reply. A few hours and a few drams later I asked “Where to” He unrolled an obsolete chart of the Outer Hebrides with depths in fathoms. “I am told these are the finest cruising grounds in the world and so I think I shall visit them on my way to the Mediterranean”

A few years ago I was walking along the road in Northbay, Isle of Barra, when a couple stopped me and asked if there was a bank on the Island. I asked them where they were staying and they pointed to a well equipped 36 foot yacht at anchor a short distance away. “Where from” asked I. “Newfoundland” was their reply!

Where were you at the start of the Millennium? I am a city dweller but persuaded my family that a special event should be celebrated in a special place. We got the last ferry of the old millennium from Oban to Barra. A few hours before the new millennium the rain stopped and the skies opened to reveal a magnificent milky way of stars untainted by background city light. At the appointed time flares appeared on the horizon from all parts of the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Then the celebrations began. A few days later the first ferry of the new millennium left Loch Boisdale in South Uist and headed into the teeth of a southerly gale. Unable to make headway towards Barra it turned east and ran towards Oban. That was the good news. The really bad news was that Calmac sent a relief ferry 2 days later.

If you are a cruising yachtsman in Scottish waters, stop dithering, and reach across the Sea of the Hebrides. You will be rewarded.

Angels, Riding Sails and Shorelines advanced anchoring techniques

Angels

The weight which some yachtsmen send down the anchor cable has a variety of names: Angel, Sentinel, Chum, Buddy, Kellet, Rode Rider.

In the sketch on the right a yacht (LOA. 10 metres) is at anchor in 5 metres of water and the wind is strong enough for the cable to be fully stretched. The cable is marked to scale at 10 metres. The wisdom of letting out more cable in a blow can be seen by comparing the angle of the shank of the anchor above the sea bed at scope 3, scope 5 and at scope 7.The lower part of the sketch illustrates the effect of sending an angel down the cable at scope 5. Sending it two thirds of the distance towards the anchor is illustrated in red. Sending it one third of the distance is illustrated in green. In either case note the very short distance which the bow of the yacht has moved towards the anchor. In light winds the yacht should dance around the angel but when it blows hard it will eventually dance around the anchor. How hard does it need to blow? The answer to that depends on the scope deployed and the weight of your angel!

In a crowded anchorage an angel can reduce your swinging circle by deploying it closer to the bow but this will only work in light to moderate winds. In strong winds it can be deployed closer to the anchor to improve the effectiveness of your cable by keeping the anchor at a smaller angle to the sea bed. In this situation the angel needs to be really heavy to be effective and will never be any more effective than the equivelant weight of chain. So if you have chain in your locker which has not yet been deployed let it all out before you think about sending down an angel in a blow.

A heavy angel is not easy to deploy. I have experimented with different methods. In the photo I have anchor chain bound up as an improvised angel weighing 35kg. Difficult to deploy even more difficult to recover! If it’s blowing up in a crowded anchorage and you are worried about swinging circles then my advice is simple: Escape now before it’s too late!

Do Angels delight? I think the answer is only sometimes!

The Riding Sail

I had my sailmaker make me a dedicated Riding Sail which is simply hanked onto the backstay with an improvised strop on the tack to a strong point in the cockpit. The main halyard or the topping lift hoists the sail to the desired height and sheets are led forward and tensioned on a trial and error basis. The result is illustrated in the main photo.

In strong gusty winds the riding sail reduces the arc through which the stern swings by about 15 degrees but more significantly the speed at which the boat yaws is reduced. In combination with 2 anchors down in the fork moor (illustrated in the Sailing Life article) this makes Westbound Adventurer as tame as it is possible to make her.

There is a twin riding sail which I have captured on camera on a Barra fishing boat. I guess this would increase stability even further. It’s a piece of kit that would only be considered by those who plan to spend a lot of time at anchor. If you already have a storm jib which is small enough you could do your own experiments with this.

Shorelines

In the photo of Westbound Adventurer at the Flannan Isles a line comes from the bow through an attachment point ashore and back to the yacht for ease of departure. The engine is running slow astern and the yacht is not left unattended. NLB no longer maintain the steps and have issued warnings that they may not be safe. On another occasion I have anchored off with a heavy angel on the bottom because there is a high risk of fouling an anchor on the rocky bottom. The yacht was not left unattended on this occasion either.

When anchored close inshore in the conventional manner it is sometimes possible to take a long line ashore as a “preventer” which is secured in a slack condition and will only come under tension if the anchor drags. Many yachtsmen will rig a preventer on a swinging mooring as a back up to the well used or not yet replaced line on the mooring. If you think you have found a suitable rock ashore which will cover at high water you need to take measures to ensure that your line does not float away while in slack mode!

When we go ashore in the dinghy we can usually see what we are in for and take the appropriate precautions. Sometimes we don’t foresee the conditions on our return some hours later. When exploring remote places and uninhabited islands a useful piece of kit is the “endless” mooring line. You need a small anchor with a short length of chain connected by a line to a ring and fender. You also need a long line to run from shore through the ring and back to the shore. With everyone ashore you send the dinghy out to the anchor which you have dropped a short distance offshore. When you return at a different state of tide from your party ashore or hill walking expedition, you haul the dinghy towards the shore and jump in from your rocky ledge. If it has been a beach landing you still have to get wet but the dinghy can be held afloat while crew clamber in and start the outboard motor. This takes time to set up but reduces the fun and games pushing the dinghy into the swell from the beach as someone rows hard to get into deep enough water to start the OB. There are of course many land locked pools where it is calm enough to lift the dinghy ashore and lift back to launch. The endless mooring is for the exposed landing.

In the final article next month I challenge those who have not yet done it, to drop the anchor under sail then sail it out.

Sands Of Pure Silver

Exploring the southern half of the Outer Hebrides
from Barra Head to the Sound of Harris

In last month’s article I told you to stop dithering and reach across the Sea of the Hebrides to the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides. I also suggested that you should allow at least a week to explore the southern half of the Outer Hebrides from Barra Head to the Sound of Harris. The following comments and reflections assume that you are in possession of the appropriate charts and the excellent sailing directions published by Imray or by Clyde Cruising Club. Other very useful publications are “The Scottish Islands” by H.H.Smith and Caledonian MacBrayne’s summer ferry brochure with some useful maps.

In settled weather the anchorage on the NE side of Berneray allows a walk to one of Britain’s highest lighthouses at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides. Take care not to step over the cliffs just south of the lighthouse! Try to imagine the sea conditions in a prolonged southerly or westerly gale. Former lighthouse keepers reported finding small fish on their doorstep (100 metres above sea level) after the most prolonged gales. Don’t miss the chance to sail round the west side of Mingulay with its spectacular sea cliffs which are only second in height to those of St Kilda. The most southerly sands of the Outer Hebrides are those on the east side of Mingulay but it is not often that an overnight anchorage in the bay will be free from swell. If you want to get back to your yacht with dry feet I would suggest that a rocky scramble at the north end of the bay has a higher success rate than a direct beach landing but more about beach landings when we get to Vatersay.

One fine day in July I remember hearing a familiar voice on the VHF radio while at anchor in Mingulay Bay. Thinking the voice was not very far away, I called him up and we had a clear conversation on a working channel. “Where are you?” asked I. “East of Coll” came the reply! Yes, line of sight, masthead ariel to masthead ariel, a distance of 60 miles. A freak, possibly due to the high pressure system which had been lurking about for several days. In spite of the fact that the Coastguard have powerful ariels at strategic positions throughout the Western Isles, the air waves don’t bend round every hill and into every anchorage. Until you become familiar with the VHF coverage it is probably a good idea to call the CG before entering your destination if you have given them safety traffic.

Heading north from Mingulay there are some enchanting silver sands on the east side of Pabbay and Sandray but take care to study the chart and do a local survey with your echo sounder before dropping the hook. I am told that this was a regular haunt of the Royal Family when Brittania was in commission.

Vatersay is the most southerly inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides and is linked to Barra with a causway which blocks a through passage of the Sound of Vatersay. This most beautiful of Hebridean islands has 3 spectacular beaches (plus 2 smaller ones) and even in summer the cows on the beach often outnumber the people. The largest and most sheltered bay is the east one. It is one of the most beautiful anchorages in this part of the Outer Hebrides providing you avoid the drying rock in the SE corner of the bay. There is a regular bus service from Vatersay to Castlebay on Barra for those yotties who, like myself, don’t have room for folding bicycles.

A few years ago I chose the west beach of Vatersay to carry out some nautical experiments. I had persuaded my crew that the absence of wind presented us with an ideal opportunity to conduct some dinghy manouvres in the interest of science! We were anchored overnight in Vatersay’s east bay but the following morning there were absolutely no waves breaking on the beach so we motored round to the west bay which is open to the Atlantic and found just enough of the white stuff to conduct our experiments. There are many inviting Hebridean beaches which lure us ashore but by the time we want to return to mother yacht a slight swell has built up and the fun and games are often of a very wet variety. As a precaution you might want to consider taking a light anchor and warp with you. The trick is to judge when to drop the anchor on your way ashore. Too soon and you run out of warp! Too late and the falling tide leaves your anchor on the beach! Tie a fender to the end of the warp so that you don’t loose it. On your return you simply haul yourself off the beach until you are able to get underway with oars or outboard motor. This Hebridean Heave does not prevent you getting wet. It simply reduces the length of your battle with the elements!

When the experiments were complete it was time to relax on board and reflect upon our surroundings. There are very few days in each year when you can anchor in a flat sea off a beach which is open to an Atlantic fetch of 2000 miles. To combine this with blue skies and the sun sparkling on the blue and green sea was a rare moment indeed. It was not long until our thoughts turned to the monument above the beach, to the Annie Jane and her destruction in this very place in 1853. How could the villagers of Vatersay cope with the survivors and the bodies of 350 men, women and children washed ashore on their island? No causway to Barra. No phone to the mainland. No RNLI all weather boat. No Coastguard Helicopter. The full story is told in the Heritage Centre in Castlebay which is open during the summer months.

If the Silver Sands of Vatersay can be described as enchanting, what adjectives are left for the sands of Barra? The great strands on the west of Barra are best visited on foot via bicycle or bus while mother yacht is safely anchored in Castlebay or Northbay. Most visiting yachts head for Castlebay which is the main town and ferry terminal. There are times when the 12 visitors moorings are fully occupied but in southerly winds it is more comfortable to anchor on the north side of Vatersay if you have enough tide to cross the sand bar. In westerly winds a beautiful anchorage is Brevig Bay on the east of Barra if you have the confidence to dodge the rocks on the way in. The most sheltered anchorage on Barra is Northbay which has water, diesel and gas on offer courtesy of the staff of the Fish Factory at Ardveenish Pier. Yachtsmen must appreciate that these facilities exist for the local and visiting fishermen who pay fees to land their catches and berth alongside. It is a matter of courtesy to choose a quiet moment to request these facilities. Another magnet for the visiting yachtsman is the local pub in Northbay which offers meals in the summer months and is now an internet café! There is a regular bus service to Castlebay for provisions or crew changes by ferry or a visit to the swimming pool or the Heritage Centre and much more. For those crew who can afford it, the one hour flight from Glasgow airport is a unique experience as there is no other airport where the plane lands on the beach and arrival and departure times are dictated by the state of the tide.

For the adventurous cruising yachtsman, Northbay is the place from which to explore the many islands and secret anchorages in the Sound of Barra. High on my list of favourite places is the lagoon between Gighay and Hellisay. It is definitely not the place to take a charter yacht. It is only the owner of a yacht who should take the risks involved as both entrances to the lagoon are tidal and heavily fortified with rocks. Once safely inside it is a magical place. Beware low tide explorations of these and similar places throughout the Hebrides. If your pilotage has been mainly visual your return at high water can be fraught with danger as many of your references will have disappeared. For this kind of risky but rewarding exploration I keep small marker buoys on board and if all goes well I collect them on the return! Forget about secondary port tidal height calculations from the standard ports of Ullapool or Stornoway. Get hold of the local tide tables in Castlebay. The tourist office will point you to the wooden hut where they can be purchased. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted into the Sound of Fuday in anything other than your dinghy. Chart corrections cannot keep pace with the shifting sands in this sound and even local shoal draft boats go aground from time to time.

Moving north, the beautiful island of Eriskay is now linked to South Uist by a causway. The natural harbour on the south east of Eriskay is well worth a visit. The island can be comfortably explored on foot and the main village has a pub offering meals. A new ferry link has just been established from the west side of Eriskay to the Ard Mhor peninsula east of Barra Airport.

Lochboisdale on South Uist is a much larger natural harbour with visitors moorings and ferry terminal. Between Lochboisdale on South Uist and Loch Maddy on North Uist there are a number of natural harbours for the cruising yachtsman. The entrance to some can be very difficult to spot from seaward for the first time. All involve careful pilotage and some require very settled conditions for your first visit. Happily for the cruising yachtsman, mother nature has provided us with a magnificent natural harbour about half way between the ferry terminals of Loch Boisdale and Loch Maddy. Loch Skipport has no visitors moorings or shoreside facilities, but its various arms offer 360 shelter in a spectacular setting of hidden pools, mountains and islets. Don’t take my word for it. Discover it for yourself and allow a couple of days to explore its many parts in the dinghy.

Loch Maddy on North Uist provides a natural springboard for a passage through the Sound of Harris. Be careful if you are entering from the north, particularly if you are tired after a lengthy passage from St.Kilda or elsewhere. It is easy to mistake the correct arm and end up in a Loch Maddy Muddle.