Thursday, 19 July 2007

Not all who wander are lost.....

It’s been 3 months since we wrote up the web page and in that time we’ve covered, slowly, some 1200 odd miles and seen some of the varied coastline of our own country for the first time. In the early days of this trip, when libraries were more common, there seemed little point in writing as the journey felt somehow tenuous, as though it wasn’t real – possibly because everything was familiar

The drama started as we left Quayside at 6am, casually reversing out of the berth and into the river without checking we suddenly found ourselves confronted with a tug towing a ship up to the scrap metal yard and just made it across the river to avoid them before settling down to the trip. The days that followed saw us exploring the local anchorages, so familiar to everyone else in the yard and so foreign to us, before seizing the easterly wind and heading on down to Poole. Leaving the anchorage the next day and chancing our luck over a narrow and shallow piece of channel under power, Bee who happened to go below, shouted up that the engine temp. was very hot. Unfortunately this coincided with us running aground and me trying to reverse off. In fact I had just succeeded when she called and as her next shout was to warn of smoke coming from said engine she had no choice but to switch the engine off. So we promptly drifted back onto the mud and lay beam on to the channel, effectively blocking it….. Perhaps unwisely we opened the engine cover but eventually we established the smoke was, in fact, steam but as we blocking the channel used by a local ferry we contacted the HM and got ourselves towed out of the way. In the end the problem turned out to be a jubilee clip that had come adrift and shed the coolant. We repaired, refilled and headed into the harbour for the night. A very swish, varnished yacht lay near by and the owners came along to see us, remarking in passing that the boat was Bloodhound, owned previously by the Duke of E and we were welcome to look her over tomorrow. However the visit didn’t materialise and we left heading the following day for the West Country. 

We arrived at Dartmouth around 2am in a blow, with no large scale chart, hearts thumping and crashed through the narrow entrance and into comparative quiet. As it was still dark and we were unable to locate any visitor’s buoys we tied to a vacant MOD lump and slept for a few hours before heading upstream. Eventually we settled on a buoy opposite a viaduct where, over the next few days, we were entertained by the tourist steam engine bellowing photogenic clouds of steam through the trees as it made its twice daily journey.

From there onto the Yealm, Fowey and then Helford to meet up with Nige and Jude, fellow cruisers from our last trip. They live overlooking the Helford in an idyllic spot and the first night we rowed ashore we were greeted by a garden of wild primroses,bluebells,daffs and wonderful smells.

Toots came with us and spent the evening wandering around with a tail in the air with happiness. A gathering of their friends and family included us and the Sunday afternoon was taken with a boisterous game of football from which two stars emerged – Bee as the top scorer and Dyson, who at 70+ was a powerhouse of defending. Great afternoon. 

We also met up with Brad and Jo, Isaac and Ruby from Lilly B. and spent the evening chatting, drinking and catching up. A last job was to help bring N&J’s boat down from Gweek and onto their buoy opposite their house. The channel to and from Gweek is tortuous and shallow even at high springs and had me wondering how the place ever became so popular. Actually, like many of the “names” we visited, it surprised us by being much larger than we’d thought and, possibly because of that, we were under-awed by the whole place.

We’d also snuck a quick trip into Falmouth and up the Fal which was probably our favourite place. We stopped at the Marina at Falmouth and decided to go looking for Steve and Marilyn, last seen in Nova Scotia but every where we called had no knowledge of where they were although they claimed the name to be familiar. Finally calling at a swish yard and getting the same answer we were directed to a smaller, cheaper yard across the river. As we pedalled through the propped up boats we spotted Spray Venture and banged imperiously on the hull, raising a startled Marilyn to peer over the side to see us grinning and cavorting at having finally tracked them down. 

Onto the Scillies. Much has been said about the islands and everyone we spoke to enthused about them but they did little for us and although we stayed perhaps 10 days it felt as though we were filling in time. We had such interesting trips between islands as fog descends within minutes leaving you peering around listening for sounds that stir the heart and emotions – surf, engines or the bell on a buoy….. Curiously weeks later I was reading a sailing book written in the 1880’s and the author too felt they were over sold and hadn’t lived up to the hype.

We had a couple of longish journeys ahead: Scillies to Wales and Wales to Scotland. Longish in that they offer few places to hole up and the first one crosses the Bristol Channel. We opted for Milford Haven as it had an easy entrance and wasn’t too far east. MH was a revelation and once the industrial section had been left behind we found ourselves meandering along a wonderful river, between woods, rock, fields and sheep. True the tide runs hard but we had a number of great anchorages and to ourselves. MH also offers free pontoons at various points and we tied up to one a few miles in from the entrance readying ourselves for the push north but there is little to recommend this particular one as a swell works its way in and the boat can roll heavily. The journey north took us through the islands of Skomer and Skokholm where the tide rules and puffins abound and we anchored in a small bay to await the return of the favourable tide and then onto Fishguard for the night. The wind was light and variable the next day as we headed off for N Wales. Plans changed and changed again as the wind dropped, veered and the tide turned. A decision to round Anglesey was aborted as we realised the tidal gates would be all against us and we’d spend the next 3 days battling seas and then Bee spotted a little bay called Port Dinllaen and less than 15 miles from the southern entrance to the Menai Straits. Both Reeds and Libby Purves (whose book “One Summer’s Grace” we dip into for bits about the area we’re in) write Dinllaen off as an anchorage for poor holding but the Rocna we bought before we left has been everything we could have asked for. Little we did we know the big test was about to arrive. Cruising along into the last two miles before we turn Hannah was hit by a gathering wind as the pleasant Force 4 escalated to a 7 in minutes and that was protected by the adjacent headland. As we turned into the bay and thus into the wind we dropped the main and crept in under motor………….and crept………..and finally dropped the anchor. 40 metres plus of chain screamed out, the anchor bit and Hannah came up head to wind happily and we rejoiced in our good fortune. It blew hard that night but we remained in position and slept soundly. Well that’s not quite true ‘cos ahead lay the southern entrance to the Menai………and the wind was SW meaning we were heading into the entrance on a lee shore. The channel shifts and the buoy positions with it….was I nervous………too bleedin’ true I was. Should we go in under sail or motor (I chose motor- mistake as we rolled badly) and my nervousness was accelerated when I misread the buoy sequence and headed inside instead of outside of the first mark. But half an hour later we were in and in calmer water but the only two anchorages looked distinctly iffy and we opted for the marina by Caernarfon Castle. A fine choice as we were not only treated very well by the Berthing Master Mark but he has reams of very useful info on the entrance but also on the Menai Strait itself, the traversing of which depends a careful timing. Luckily a couple of local boats were heading to Conwy and offered to show us the way and the following day we all left in convoy………except we nearly didn’t as I completely misjudged the effect of the flood tide on the narrow entrance to the harbour and found that despite full revs and a tiller hard over it was quite obvious we were going to T-bone the wall on the other side……….how strange that  time stands still in these moments as, engine now going hard astern, we waited to see if we would avoid disaster – snapped bowsprit, boat pinned up against a wall before being swept into a  shallow area whilst the Monday morning loafers looked on………. But we did back off, we did get everything under a control and we did slide smoothly through the entrance under a visibly nervous berthing master. The trip up was uneventful after that until we cleared the two bridges the wind picked up and we were faced with a series of mast shaking gybes as we followed a snaking channel. By now all but one of our escorts had left us and we followed him across his favourite shortcut…the depths dropped and continued to drop and still our man ploughed on his gaze glued to his chart plotter, following his boats progress on the screen as we careered along behind him. He knew his stuff, knew our depth and led us safely, if a little worriedly (on our behalf) to the entrance of Conwy. The very smart marina had been primed for our arrival by a friend who also happens to be a policeman and so we closed the entrance and called them…. wind is gusting, entrance is narrow, marina is FULL of expensive, white plastic and there isn’t a lot of room to manoeuvre……..I chickened out and we headed upstream and picked up a municipal buoy where we remained for a week visiting Lindy and Mark and Lindy’s parents, David and Mary Ann before heading north for Scotland via the Isle of Man. 

Not much we can say about the latter other than our departure from Port Erin coincided with a growing wind that had us embayed and Hannah clawing her way out under heavily reefed main and straining engine, burying her bowsprit before aiming for the moon and all on board wondering what on earth we were doing…

We arrived at Loch Ryan after a frustrating trip, a theme that has been common actually as the engine hours will confirm. Loch Ryan has Stranraer at its head and we anchored for a few days before heading in. The Harbour Master turned out to be from Yorkshire and moved boats around to accommodate us. The harbour is being dredged to put in a pontoon for visiting yachts so we had to time our arrival and wait until the dredger had headed off to sea before entering. We stayed a few days as I wanted to head off to say final goodbyes to a friend who had died and say a quick hello to Pete, Sarah and Evan plus various other people I hadn’t seen for almost 30 years.

That was about a month ago and since then we have wandered around the west coast of Scotland, found somewhere to winter (Campbeltown on Kintyre) had a quick cruise around Arran and up the Kyle’s of Bute before heading around the Mull of Kintyre on up to Gigha.

From there an exhilarating sail up the Sound of Islay, between Islay and Jura, where our speeds under a reefed mizzen, stays’l and spitfire reached an exhilarating 9+knots thanks to 6 knots of tide. Progress was going well but a glance of our shoulder saw a rapidly moving cloud and as we approached the entrance to Loch Tarbert, on Jura we were hit by the squall which used the adjacent mountain to accelerate and hit us at a good 50 knots. Hannah heeled and kept on heeling as the bulwarks and then the bottom edge of the toe boards went under water until we clawed the mizzen down to bring some order to the boat. Made it into a bit of shelter and tested the Rocna again. Once the wind eased we worked our way up the Loch and into a pool of brown peaty water, surrounded by rocks for the night. Spent a few nights in the Loch but moved into the inner part after the second night for complete isolation – no houses no roads. We came back through the Islay sound and worked our way, over the next few days up past but not through the Gulf of Corryvrecken but through the Cuan Sound and onto Oban before heading up to Tobermory and onto The Small Isles.
Canna was our choice for a few nights, chatting to other cruisers who all seem to be from the Solent for some reason before heading up to Loch Harport on Skye. Quiet anchorage to ourselves really, although we were visited by a lovely Dutch gaff ketch some 80 feet long. Not sure what it is about skippers on these small ships but they rarely appear friendly or even able to acknowledge your presence although that wasn’t true of the crew. Ho hum. We decided to leave Gesto Bay on a sunny Monday morning and within seconds of Bee starting to haul the anchor she realised we had a problem as an anchor could be clearly seen dangling from our chain some 2 metres under the boat (we were anchored in 5 or 6 metres so we knew it wasn’t ours) There followed 2 hours of hard work as we laboured to raise a discarded mooring anchor complete with riser and bridle. We had lines attached to anchor, lines attached to chain and to our joy the shackles came undone with little effort. Finally with the unwanted anchor hanging, but secure, we set off to accost a local fishing boat across the Loch. “Would they like it otherwise we would dump it” Alarmed at the thought we may do so on their fishing ground they gently came alongside and removed the item and any other bits we no longer needed. We had intended to take it out to sea but I guess wherever we dumped it may have fouled someone’s fishing ground so it is probably ashore in a twee garden somewhere.

Whilst in Canna we were told by several boats about their experiences in the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides. It was generally negative, too bleak, too many rocks etc. We obviously decided to go although the only charts we have are small scale and no use whatsoever in negotiating Loch entrances strewn 
with rocks. But the Pilot Books are and whilst they often lack lat and long it is possible, with care, to work your way into these places. And what places they are. So far we have only been here about a week but we are bowled over. Firstly it reminds us of Newfie but without the prospect of 8’ of ice in the winter and secondly we have the anchorages to ourselves. Not even a mooring buoy to encourage visitors and we love it. At the moment we’re in a small creek in Loch Stockinish on Harris. The entrance has a few rocks to dodge but absolutely nothing to worry about but the Loch opens up after you slide through a 27 metre gap. A few more houses around the Loch than the last few but already we keep looking at small crofts and musing……

But we have moved on again and are now in Stornoway and, like so many before us, bemused by the huge contrast with the rest of the Western Isles. Perhaps we should have realised that the appearance of an occasional street lamp in a sparsely populated hamlet meant we may soon come across more…but this place is a real town with every amenity you could wish for. That’s not meant to be derogatory either but it really bears no resemblance to the rest of the places we’ve visited. Has a great feel to the place, very friendly people who take delight in telling us the Hebridean Celtic Festival starts next week along with the Traditional Boat Gathering and assume we’ve arrived early for the latter………..although, true to form, we will have left before either starts.

I’ve already written about our anchor and can only reiterate it has been a brilliant investment and has never let us down yet irrespective of the bottom. It digs through weed and finds the mud below and even came up once with a small boulder lodged between its flukes. 
Whenever we have needed to reef the main I find myself gazing up at the sail, noting how well it sets and draws and say each time how glad I am we got a professional sail-maker to supply them. They have been a joy to work with and the deeper reefs and the spitfire jib give enormous satisfaction both in raising and it the way they work so well together. 

And finally… Bee is rowing ashore with Toots hanging over the bow dangling a front paw millimetres from the water. I’m on the shore and, as Bee is going off course, I call out for her to pull hard on her left oar….she does…and Toots finds the boat is no longer underneath her but the water is and she is deposited unceremoniously into very cold water……….from where resurfacing at high speed and without assistance she appears to propel herself from the depths back onto the dinghy……