Ten of the Best — Nos. 6 and 5

The countdown on Stuart CraigTop Ten sailings has reached six and five. If you havent already read about numbers ten, nine, eight and seven, check out his previous postings on crsc.org.uk — and look out for more favourite sailings as the countdown continues over coming weeks.

No. 6  Loch Buie — ‘Fionnphort to Iona return’ 18 May 1993

Loch Buie FionnphortA strange choice, you might think; and with some justification. My fellow shipmates and I had spent the previous night in a lively Tobermory, with the aim of taking a trip to Staffa the next day. But storm clouds were gathering, and it wasn’t from the Mishnish’s curry. On arrival at Fionnphort we were met with the news that there would be no sailings to Mendelssohn’s island today. We didn’t have to look far for the reason why – a veritable gale of Die Hebriden proportions was ripping up the Sound of Iona with sufficient force to drown out an entire orchestra.

No Staffa, but could we get to Iona? CalMac staff were optimistic. There would probably be one more sailing today. More poignantly, if we got over would we get back? So we hung around for an hour and then Loch Buie suddenly appeared from her sanctuary in the Bull Hole. She was up for it, and so were we.

Just getting aboard was tricky – waves were rushing around the sides of the ramp, a running jump had to be carefully timed otherwise there would be wet feet. One slip and other parts would get wetter. It was as if old Neptune was trying to dissuade us: “don’t do this, but if you do you’re going to get soaked!”

Loch Buie tumblingSo off across the turbulent Sound of Iona we bobbled. Loch Buie lurched, staggered, plummeted, regained her poise, slid away, rose up…..and then did all this again. It was great fun. In the little saloon we stood, hanging onto the seats – we couldn’t sit on them – jumping from leg to leg to keep our balance. Out of the window there was only sky, and then only sea, and then just sky again. Now I know what it feels like to be tumble-dried.

It is only a mile across to Iona, and all too soon we were at the other side, where things were a bit more subdued. But this was such an animated crossing that it was one of the best ‘miles’ I’ve sailed over. It would have been nice if it had all lasted a bit longer – not too long of course! In any case this was only half time and the second half was just as exciting as the first. Just a pity there was no extra time or penalties; I think I’ve been watching too much football.

No. 5  Suilven — ‘Ullapool to Stornoway’ 18 May 1992

I always liked the look of Suilven — I mean the ship, not the flat-topped monolith of a mountain that towers above Wester Ross. I hadn’t been on either, but in May 1992 was to put that to right.

The ship served on the Ullapool to Stornoway route throughout her CalMac career, with only one noteworthy exception when she spent a weekend on the Oban-Craignure run. She had nice lines – a long deck with a well raked funnel set well back. She looked more contemporary than others in the fleet.


Suilven looked better when viewed from afar than when you were actually aboard’

What made this sailing so special, however, was not so much the ship as the weather. This was one of those rare days when there was just no weather at all – except sunshine. A high pressure of Waverley-boiler magnitude sat over the whole of Scotland, sending barometer needles off the scale. Take away all the clouds, ban even the softest of zephyrs and envelope the west coast in a blanket of heat and you get the picture. The infamous Minch was a vista of serene calmness, the like of which I have never seen since. The sea was oily flat, so smooth that I felt I could have walked across to Lewis. Gulls and guillemots sat on the surface looking bored. Gannets had given up plunging headfirst and were dozing gently with head under their wing. Was that a fin out there to starboard or just a little ripple on the surface, to display that we were actually at sea?

The crossing took over three hours and time slipped past obligingly slowly. Time spent relaxing, sitting out on deck, watching the benevolent seascape slip astern. Land approached, Lewis looking as if it was hovering above the shimmering horizon, disembodied from it.

Suilven purred onwards, splicing the oleaginous surface with a tender swish. I stretched out on a seat, eyes closed, imagining I wasn’t at sea at all but basking on a Mediterranean beach. Should I put suncream on my nose? Maybe the Minch is like this all the time. Maybe the volatility of the seas around here is exaggerated. Maybe I was kidding myself on. I have crossed these waters a good dozen times since, and to be fair have never seen it rough, but this day, back in 1992, was special.

Suilven-Ullapool 2

Suilven at Stornoway: ‘this was one of those rare days when there was just no weather at all – except sunshine’

As for the ship, Suilven I think looked better when viewed from afar than when you were actually aboard. Her lounges were rather cramped by today’s standards and her successors, Isle of Lewis and now Loch Seaforth, are much better suited to the route – especially on days when the zephyr becomes a tempest and the sea a seething mass. Those conditions were impossible to imagine on a day like this. It seems a long time ago now but, looking back at the photos of that day, there I am, stretched out on the deck seats of Suilven, squinting in the bright light and with a red nose.

Do you have favourite sailings that linger in the memory? Please write something about them and well publish your account — no longer than 200 words per sailing, and no more than three sailings per person. Send them, along with any photographs of the occasion, to info@crsc.org.uk