Ten of the Best — Nos. 8 and 7

In the second instalment of his Top Ten favourite sailings, Stuart Craig brings the countdown to numbers eight and seven, and asks: do you have a favourite that lingers in the memory?

If so, why not write something about it and we’ll publish your account. Contributions should be no longer than 200 words per ‘favourite sailing’, and are limited to three sailings per person. Send them, along with any photographs of the occasion (people and/or ships and scenery), to info@crsc.org.uk

No. 8  Lord of the Isles — ‘Oban to Tiree to Castlebay’ 15 May 2003LOTI at Castlebay

Scanning the summer timetable early in 2003 I spotted an alteration to services out of Oban to Coll, Tiree and the Western Isles. Each Thursday in summer the service to Barra would be augmented by extending the sailing to Coll and Tiree out to Castlebay. The ship would then turn around and retrace her wake. I simply had to incorporate the outbound leg into one of our Island Hops. When the day arrived it was clear that the ship taking us on this epic, new voyage was going to be Lord of the Isles.

We pulled away from Oban at 0900 and, watching Kerrera slip past from the upper deck, we bumped into two friends from the CRSC – both called Iain. This meant that out of our small party of five, three of them were called Iain.

LOTI is one of CalMac’s best ships, I declare boldly. For a start she has a great name – evocative of a couple of elegant paddlers from a different era. Accommodation-wise she is a very comfortable ship to sail on. Her crew are a cheery bunch, even though their faces have changed over the years. The galley serves the best haddock and chips this side of Oban and, as of the year in question, 2003, she had been given a new upper deck, spacious enough to accommodate three Iains. Indeed the only asset she lacks is a ‘view over the bow’.

I have probably spent more hours aboard her than any of her cohorts. I’ve been to Colonsay on her; to Lochboisdale, Craignure, Tobermory, Brodick, Rothesay, Port Askaig and Kennacraig. I’ve sailed into Wemyss Bay on her, for goodness sake! I’ve even spent the night with her – that is to say, slept in one of her cabins, in the days when one could. But I had never sailed direct from Tiree to Castlebay before.

LOTI joins Isle of Mull and Clansman at Oban

LOTI (left) joins Isle of Mull and Clansman at Oban

This sailing to Coll, Tiree and on to Barra sticks in my mind as one of my favourites as it was a new venture for me and because she sailed through the Gunna Sound. This is the mile-wide strait that separates Coll from Tiree, and this stretch of the journey was the most exciting part of the trip. On either side of the narrow channel the serrated edges of partially obscured reefs could be seen protruding through the steely grey sea. Their presence had an unfathomable allure which seemed to draw the ship towards them.

But there was no slacking of the props as LOTI powered onwards. A subtle change of tone and she pulled away to port into the marked channel and clear water, away from any submerged threat. Whew! We had avoided “doing a Loch Seaforth” — the MacBrayne mail boat that famously met her end in this very Sound in 1973.

The Gunna Sound is a regular haunt for basking sharks, and we spotted three of them hugging the northern shores of Tiree, their dorsal fins cutting a sinister, menacing knife-edge through the water, their mouths agape as they hoovered-up their breakfast. A bit like one of the Iains in the cafeteria earlier. The approach to the Minch was also wide open now as LOTI powered onwards into the blue.

We approached Barra from a different tangent, which made the game of guessing which island is which decidedly trickier. We got off at Castlebay, heading for another ferry. The rest of the Iains stayed aboard to do it all over again, in reverse.

No. 7  Pioneer — ‘Largs to Port Askaig’ 13 March 2000

I loved Pioneer. She was angular, her deck space had a fragmented look and her lower saloon resembled a lurid dentists’ waiting room. But she was fast. She looked purposeful. Her low stem always seemed to push the surf aside with a blasé nonchalance as she dug bow-down into the water.

This sailing on her, however, should be included amongst my ‘most horrendous sailings’ for reasons that some of you reading this may recall. But as I am not offering a ‘ten of the worst’ I have to include it here, in at number seven.

Pioneer berths at Largs

Pioneer berths at Largs

CalMac were bringing Pioneer round from the Clyde to Mallaig to take up the Small Isles sailings. She was going to call into Port Askaig, on Islay, on the way, and so it was generously offered as a positioning cruise to the West Highland Steamer Club, and anyone else who fancied coming along for the ride. I was amongst the lucky seventy who jumped at the chance but nobody suggested it was going to be a rollercoaster.

We left Largs at 0700 and headed south towards the Mull of Kintyre. All was plain sailing for the first couple of hours. The sea was benevolent and an insipid sun put in fleeting appearances. But the wind was picking up, causing packs of shaggy clouds to scamper across the sky. An announcement was made, good news and bad news: lunch would be soon, and the stabilisers weren’t working. Everyone gathered on deck as Pioneer ploughed on round the Mull. The wind was now force seven from the north-west.

The lighthouse appeared at around eight o’clock on the imaginary timepiece. At nine the bow began to rise with more enthusiasm. By eleven Pioneer was pitching tempestuously and enthusiasm for lunch was waning. I always thought that corkscrewing was the act of unplugging a bottle of wine. Now it had taken on a different, nautical meaning. People were rushing to the ship’s rail – but not to admire the view of the rising and falling sea. I tried to go downstairs to the toilet, only to be warned “don’t go in there”. Pioneer lurched and banged and threw bucketfuls of sea over us. The surf looked angry, infuriated, in a state of upheaval. We had paid money and volunteered for this!

I eventually made it downstairs, made a face at the crewman who asked if I wanted my steak-pie now, and joined a couple of dozen comatose bodies in communal slumber.

I woke. It was calm. The room was not jumping up trying to hit me anymore. We were in the sanctuary of the Sound of Islay. Up on deck everyone was smiling and telling each other what a great cruise it had been. And I was agreeing with them!

Keep a look-out for Stuart’s next instalment of favourite sailings, coming soon.

Pioneer at Port Askaig

Pioneer at Port Askaig

It was calm! Pioneer in the Sound of Islay

It was calm! Pioneer in the Sound of Islay