Voyage of a Lifetime

‘West Highland cruising at its best’: Eric Schofield at the helm of Sea Eagle

In the latest of our series exploring non-CalMac/Waverley summer cruising options, Eric Schofield recalls a different type of Hebridean voyage to those he usually makes by ferry.

Back in 1995 I entered a competition entitled ‘Voyage of a Lifetime’ organised by the Sunday Post. Not long afterwards I was delighted to discover that out of all the correct entries my name had been drawn as runner-up.  My reward was a voucher for a Polartec fleece jacket from one of the Graham Tiso Stores — ideal, I thought, for those dry but chilly days when sailing my yacht Satyros.

Some four weeks later a representative from the Sunday Post contacted me to ask if I could take up the first prize as the original winner was unable to do so, the prize being a week’s cruising by luxury yacht in the Western Isles. “I know it is very short notice, but we’ve got the yacht booked for the coming week, and we have to get a winner,” gasped the paper’s representative. “Have no fear,” I said without a second’s delay, “I’ll be there.” And by the way, I got to keep the fleece jacket as well.

The prize was for two people to cruise as guests on a skippered charter aboard Sea Eagle of Shian, a 43-ft Seastream ketch, including visits ashore for dinner at the Pierhouse Restaurant in Inverie on the Knoydart Peninsula one evening and at the Tobermory Hotel on the Isle of Mull a couple of days later.

Sea Eagle at Tobermory

My wife, not being a sailor, did not wish to go, but a quick phone call to my German brother-in-law, Rolf, who ran his own business in Cumbria, soon solved the question of who could take up the other berth. Although not a sailor Rolf readily jumped at this exciting opportunity, promising to be at my house come Friday in time for a quick lunchbite, before we set off for Oban to meet up with Sea Eagle’s skipper, Andrew Robertson, at the North Pier about 5pm.

“Look for a tall slim chap wearing a red sailing jacket, and surrounded by a load of provisions,” we had been advised by Angus in a telephone call the previous evening. Having parked the car and made our way down to the slip at the North Pier, we had no difficulty in picking out Angus sitting on the promenade railing with a flurry of supermarket bags at his feet.

Our introductions over, we helped carry the shopping down to the little ferry boat that runs the short distance across Oban Bay to the island of Kerrera, Angus pointing out Sea Eagle to us as we motored into the pontoon, where we met up with Sarah Fellows, the yacht’s Mate and Cook. Master Chef would be a better description, as despite the confines of the yacht’s galley, the wholesome quality and ingenuity of Sarah’s varied menus was in itself a highlight of our week.

Having enjoyed the first of the week’s evening meals, accompanied by an equally excellent choice of wine, Rolf and I went for a stroll to explore the northern part of Kerrera. We returned onboard in time for a rather distant snap of Isle of Mull heading for Mull, as heavy cloud began to block the remaining daylight from the west, and the first of our week’s many rain showers commenced.

Saturday dawned rather wet, but after a hearty breakfast, the rain had moved inland aided by a stiff breeze from the south-west. Angus reckoned that if the wind held at around the forecast 25-30 knots, we would make good, if maybe wet, progress up the Sound of Mull. I must admit that I was thankful for my Musto sailing gear, as the temperature was not what might have been expected for late May.

‘We made good progress’: view forward from the cockpit

We made good progress, and I soon found that my local knowledge, picked up over many years of cruising onboard King George V and other vessels operating out of Oban, was of considerable benefit to both Angus and Sarah, this being their first year sailing in West Highland waters. On more than one occasion during the week, after a quick glance at my watch, I was able to advise Angus that in a moment or two we could expect to see a ferry appear from a port we were nearing, or from behind a headland just ahead.

Angus was delighted to find that at least one of the prize winners was not only familiar with the area but also a yachtsman, as he was perfectly happy to let me helm the boat as he set about the many shipboard tasks that a working charter boat presents its skipper. This, after all, was their first week of operating Sea Eagle in this area, although they had cruised in the Canaries and as far north as Greenland in the recent past.

Our first overnight stop was Tobermory Bay, where we picked up an available mooring. Rolf and I soon learned the intricacies of lowering the inflatable from the fitted davits, and then the outboard into the tender, and after another delightful dinner, we headed ashore for a nightcap in the Mishnish Hotel, enjoying what had now become a calm although still showery evening.

The Sunday morning forecast was not promising, predicting light winds and frequent showers of rain, so with little prospect of any reasonable sailing it was decided we would take the opportunity to spend some time ashore by walking round the cliff path to Rubha nan Gall Lighthouse, where a great-uncle of mine served his final posting as lighthouse keeper in the years immediately after the Second World War.

The following day did not seem to offer much improvement in the weather, but by the afternoon, now dry and with the sun appearing occasionally, we headed out into the Sound, cruising over towards Kilchoan then back across to Bloody Bay, enjoying a pleasant heave from the Atlantic swell surging in from the south west and some really exhilarating sailing.

Bruce Watt’s Western Isles at the old pier at Inverie

A school of dolphins joined us for some fun and for quite a while they took turns in swimming alongside, breaking the surface sometimes only a foot or two in front of our bows, before we returned to ‘our’ mooring in Tobermory Bay. Come Tuesday morning and we were all hoping for a fair sailing breeze, as that evening we were scheduled to be at Inverie in Loch Nevis, and the prospect of motoring all the way there did not enthuse any of us.

A lively reach across the mouth of the Sound of Mull, then an altogether more sedate run from Ardnamurchan, brought us into Loch Nevis late in the afternoon. Plans to drop the hook were not required as we found an empty mooring buoy that we were assured by a local fisherman would not be occupied that night. It is not that we did not want to use the anchor, but why have the bother of bringing up a dirty hook the next morning when we could simply cast off and sail away when ready?

As we were preparing to go ashore, Western Isles was loading her day-trippers and local passengers at Inverie’s little wood and stone jetty for the return sailing to Mallaig (these being the days before Inverie’s impressive pier was built). She was under the command of Bruce Watt, whose father, also Bruce, had purchased the MFV hull from the Admiralty in the immediate post war years and fitted out the boat to serve this and other remote communities.

Ashore at Inverie, we were introduced to the owner of the Pierhouse Restaurant, an ex-army cook from Yorkshire, who served up a seafood platter that was truly stunning, the central lobster struggling for plate room amongst the myriad other shellfish and freshly caught local fish and salad trimmings. The Sunday Post had arranged for Angus and Sarah also to be treated to this dinner, so the four of us had a fabulous evening of wining and dining with plenty of good crack.

Western Isles and Iona heading for Mallaig

After that we meandered the few yards down the village road to the local pub, where we proceeded to sample a malt or two… or was it three? Yes, that was quite some night, and later in the inky blackness we somehow or other managed to find the dingy and make our way safely back onboard Sea Eagle.

Angus had asked me the previous evening if I had any preference for Wednesday’s sailing destination, and after some discussion on the many possibilities that this area presents, I suggested we try and make for the island of Coll. I knew that the stopover at Coll would give Rolf the chance to visit friends he and my younger sister had met when they were doing voluntary work some years previously in Lesotho, Southern Africa.

Wednesday turned out to be the best day of the week as far as sailing was concerned, with a stiff westerly giving us a steady broad reach for most of our course. As we sailed out from Loch Nevis an unusual view was obtained of Iona and Western Isles heading for Mallaig. We creamed along at 7-8 knots for much of the time, with the lee toerail often in the water, particularly when the full force of the wind and the substantial seas were felt in the gaps between Skye and Eigg, Eigg and Muck, and then from Muck to Coll, with steady sunshine accompanying us throughout the day.

Having found all but the outer mooring occupied on our arrival, Angus took Rolf and me ashore in the dingy while he popped into the local store for some fresh milk, with Sarah staying aboard to prepare the evening meal. This gave us the chance to walk along to the guest house that Rolf’s friends owned, and we spent an hour or so with them before making our way back to the stone jetty where Angus would meet us with the dingy.

Sea Eagle (right of centre) sits far out in the bay at Arinagour, Coll

Our Thursday destination was to be Tobermory, this being the evening for which dinner in the Tobermory Hotel had been pre-booked as part of the prize. In a mixture of scattered showers and sunny spells we made good progress towards the Sound of Mull, aided by the surges we got from the still lively Atlantic swell. We passed close to a number of the boats which bring divers from Tobermory or Oban out to the rugged western coastline of Mull to dive on the many wrecks in this area. Having made good progress we decided to find a suitable anchorage for our lunch break.

In general discussion I had mentioned reading about Croiag Jetty in Mull, from where in 1801 a small sailing packet had begun a weekly service out to Coll and Tiree, so after consulting the charts Angus reckoned it might be a suitable spot to anchor for a while.

The nearby little sandy bay, sheltered by rocky islets, turned out to be ideal for our lunch break. With a pleasant warming sun and Sarah’s delectable yacht-made bread and freshly prepared salad bowl, we were able to savour the absolute peace of the early afternoon, the only disturbance being the cawing of the seabirds and the occasional splash as basking seals on the nearby rocky islets lazily plopped back into the sea to cool off. This was West Highland cruising at its very best.

It took considerable determination to summon up the effort to get underway again, but we had a dinner date in Tobermory and a good few miles of Mull coastline to navigate before then. It was whilst relaxing over lunch that I learned that the dinner was only for Rolf and me, but we had become such good friends with Angus and Sarah that I insisted they be my guests. This gave us the added impetus to make Tobermory in sufficient time for me to go ashore and confirm this arrangement with the hotel — just as well, as they had a full house for meals and would not have been able to cope with two extra at the last minute.

‘We obtained a close-up view of Isle of Mull near Oban’

The Kilchoan ferry Coll passed close by as we arrived in the bay. Another fine evening of wining and dining was greatly appreciated by all, before we returned to Sea Eagle for our last night aboard.

The forecast for Friday was not at all promising, and sure enough we awoke to find Tobermory Bay shrouded in a typical west coast drizzle.

With little wind to speak of, it looked like a motoring job to make our way back down the Sound of Mull to Kerrera. I was, however, more than happy to take my seat behind Sea Eagle’s steering wheel for the opening stint.

On any normal Friday I would have been at my desk for another day in the office, but this was altogether more enjoyable and nothing was going to take even a second from the inner glow I was experiencing.

The others all retired below decks as the rain became more persistent, but with my Musto jacket zipped up and hood pulled over my head so that I had only the narrowest of openings through which to keep a constant lookout, I felt at one with the boat and the elements.

Both Angus and Sarah offered to spell me at the wheel, but I was more than happy to refuse their offers while welcoming the warm mug of coffee passed out to me as Sea Eagle cut her way through the rain-flattened waters. After a couple of hours, with remarkable suddenness, the rain ceased. A fitful sun made the occasional appearance from behind the bubbling clouds and we began to pick up a steady breeze that was swinging round from Loch Linnhe into the lower part of the Sound of Mull. Angus did not waste any time in getting the canvas flying, and on those last few miles into Oban Bay we obtained close-up views of the lighthouse ship Pharos as well as Lord of the Isles and Isle of Mull.

During the week Angus and I had often discussed the topic of yacht maintenance, and once we had picked up our mooring he offered me an opportunity that was too good to miss. With camera slung round my neck I part climbed, part was hoisted up in the bosun’s chair, nigh on 60 feet to the top of Sea Eagle’s mainmast, thus putting the final seal on what had truly been the ‘Voyage of a Lifetime’.

All photographs are copyright Eric Schofield.

View aft

View from the masthead

Coll passes en route to Kilchoan

Pharos (1993-2006) in the Sound of Mull

Lord of the Isles near Oban

‘The wholesome quality and ingenuity of Sarah’s menus’: Eric (left) and fellow voyagers enjoy lunch at Croaig

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