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.