Ten of the Best — the countdown begins

Stuart CraigRemember that wonderful sailing, many moons ago, that even today evokes special associations in your mind? Stuart Craig has dug into his memory to chart his Top Ten favourite trips, beginning here with numbers 10 and 9.

Winter is around us and summer sailings and excursions seem a long time ago. Soon, however, we can look forward to planning trips for the year ahead. One of the best things about taking a sail is the memory of it – looking back at the trip months or years later. So that is what I am doing now, as I sit and plan my next ‘steamer’ trip.

I’m looking back and thinking “what are the ten best sailings I’ve had over the years?” Well, I just had to make a list, and now I’m going to share it with you. So in the style of a Radio 1 DJ, here is my chart countdown.

No. 10  Caledonian Isles — ‘Round Arran’ 7 February 2004

This was a CRSC charter of the Arran ferry during the period when she normally laid up at Brodick for a few hours between morning and afternoon sailings to Ardrossan. In previous years we had chartered the Arran relief vessel (usually Clansman) but decided that, for a change, we should wait this time for the usual incumbent, ‘Caley Isles’, to get back on station, and take her right round Arran.

Under the command of Captain Andy McCrindle, myself and 223 fellow passengers sailed away from Brodick on a four-hour, anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the Clyde’s biggest island. Despite similar winter charters, for me this one was very special — for several reasons.

Arriving at Brodick in the gloom

Arrival at Brodick in the winter light

Firstly I had never sailed round Arran before. Secondly the ship had just been refurbished and proved herself to be very comfortable on a winter’s cruise such as this. But it was especially enjoyable on account of the weather. No, it wasn’t one of those stunning, crisp, sunny days that occasionally illuminate the winter months; it was just the opposite. A force nine was blowing up — but not from the south-west. This was a north-westerly, which meant that sea conditions on the Clyde were moderate and the cruise consequently smooth.

Out on deck, off Corrie, there was a sight to behold. The surf was being whipped up by intense squalls of bunnet-clutching intensity, which suddenly pounced on us and then vanished again just as quickly. Eddies of wind and surf rose like spectres out of the sea around us. Wraiths of wispy spray came at us in all directions and then mysteriously vanished. I had never seen a sea like it, and yet it was a calm sea. It was overcast, gloomy and yes, spooky.

Down the Kilbrannan Sound the sun gave a wan sheen to the seascape, the mass of Kintyre away to our starboard side tempering the sea from the full impact of the wind. Off the more exposed south coast, passing the raised teardrop of Pladda, there was a bit of movement but Caledonian Isles took this on the chin and demonstrated she can handle a moderate swell.

Arriving back at Ardrossan in the gathering gloom another squall made its presence felt and the ship rocked unsteadily, as if unsure whether to proceed through the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ entrance to the harbour. Indeed she halted, and reversed back out into the Firth. Just as we were thinking that we were reversing all the way back to Brodick, ‘Caley Isles’ shuddered forwards again, and in the calm between the tempests slid neatly into her berth.

Within a couple of years CalMac started adding extra crossings between Ardrossan and Brodick during the winter days, and charters such as this became impossible. So this was the last one, and for me it remains a very special trip.

Hebridean Isles sailing towards Tarbert, HarrisNo. 9  Hebridean Isles — ‘Tarbert to Uig to Lochmaddy’ 22 May 1995

This sailing could not have been more different from the previous one. It was a glorious, serene, sunny day, of the kind that the west coast occasionally throws at you — if you’ve been good — once or twice each spring.

This sailing was a leg of one of our ‘Island Hops’ — a crazy annual Hebridean adventure that some pals and I engaged on for some 25 years. In 1995 we endeavoured to get ourselves, by public transport, from Ullapool to Oban via the Western Isles – all of them! Well, all the big ones in the Outer Hebrides: Lewis, Harris, Berneray, North Uist, Grimsay, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. We succeeded, but the three hours spent aboard Hebridean Isles that day stand out in my memory. These were the days before the Sound of Harris ferry (usually Loch Portain) and so to provide a ferry link between Harris and North Uist we had to sail via Uig on Skye. This was no setback, of course. The sail across the Little Minch is always a pleasure, for there is always some interesting lump of land to try to identify. For many years in the 1990s the ship providing the link from Harris (Tarbert) and North Uist (Lochmaddy) to the ‘mainland’ was Hebridean Isles.

The ‘Heb Isles’ is my favourite CalMac ship. She was then and she still is now. This is on account of her size and layout. She has a view-over-the-bow, a quiet ‘zizz’ lounge where you can have a nap unencroached by Homes under the Hammer or Celebrity Bake-a-Great-Big-Cake on the telly. The restaurant is bright and well laid out. There is an Observation Lounge, a cozy bar, outside seating on two levels, and whoever decided to put windows in the windbreaks on her rear deck deserves a medal for his or her inspiration and common sense.

Not that we needed shelter on this day. It was a radiant day. The cobalt blue of the sky and the deep ultramarine of the sea were straight out of an artist’s palette. Needless to say there was barely a ripple on the surface of the water. Squadrons of puffins scrambled purposefully past. A lone marauding skua seeking its next scapegoat cruised overhead. Guillemots flurried excitedly out of the way of the ship’s bow wave. We just sat and watched it all, not scurrying anywhere – well, we might have spilled our beer!

Sailing into Uig from Tarbert we stayed aboard (sending CalMac’s counting system into meltdown) and on arrival at Lochmaddy didn’t want to disembark. It took two crewmen each to prise us from our seats and drag us ashore.

“You have to go ashore, gentlemen, we’re tying up for the night!”

I have crossed the Little Minch several times since, but none of the crossings could compete with the beautiful calm that embraced us on that sailing – and it wasn’t just the ale!

The countdown of Stuart’s Top Ten will continue in coming weeks. If the memory of a special sailing inspires you, why not tell us about it and have your account published on CRSC’s website? Contributions should be no longer than 200 words per ‘favourite sailing’ and are limited to three sailings per person. If you have photographs of the occasion (people and/or ships and scenery), please send them. Write to info@crsc.org.uk

Hebridean Isles off Uig

Hebridean Isles off Uig

My favourite CalMac ship!

My favourite CalMac ship!