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Cruising the Nicholson 36 'Samphire' from Ireland to the Hebrides

13th February 2020
Samphire, a Nicholson 36 Samphire, a Nicholson 36

Royal St George Yacht Club's Frank O'Beirne won the Irish Cruising Club's (ICC) Perry Greer Bowl for the 'Best First ICC Log' that describes a cruise from Dun Laoghaire to the Hebrides last Summer, a voyage that has provided the impetus for a proposed cruise to Rockall via Reykjavik this season

In 2017, our third year of ownership we took Samphire around Ireland and on passing through the North Channel, looked wistfully at Scotland and vowed to come back next year and cruise the Hebrides. And so it came to pass. It was to be Scotland this year.

Winter planning and noodling about on Navionics resulted in a ludicrously ambitious plan to get as far as Stornoway, perhaps taking in Rockall on the way home via Reykjavik. Sense finally prevailed and with families and jobs to keep going, Skye was set as the target. A pleasant stay in Ballycastle during the previous year's circumnavigation gave us an excuse to return on a short cruise in early June so that we were positioned there as a jump-off point to make the most of our time. The trip up to Ballycastle for Kieron, his brother Declan and I, via Ardglass and Glenarm, was eventful if only for the characters we met in both locations, being guided to the 'right' pubs and mixing it with the local marching band…but that's another story.

"bouncing around in a 1964 36-footer in variable Scottish weather was a hard sell"

The end of the Leaving Cert for our two girls Helen and Grace was the perfect excuse to press-gang them and their mum, Judy, into accompanying me on the first leg of the cruise. I'll admit, potentially bouncing around in a 1964 36-footer in variable Scottish weather was a hard sell, but a promise to tone down the parental warnings regarding an upcoming Magaluf trip eased the path, and we walked from home to the Dart station and onto the boat in Ballycastle a few hours later via bus, train and taxi.

Samphire Hebrides TrackjpgSamphire's Hebrides route

A following southwest breeze, 8-12 kts, zero cloud cover and flat seas are the best way to sail to Gigha – it has a lot going for it. The skipper did not allow enough time to catch the last of the east-going flood between Fair Head and Ratlin, and we lost some time punching a west-going current which turns early inshore. A half-hour late departure made all the difference. Lesson learned; missing tides up thereabouts guarantees a long day.

Gigha's new breakwater and pontoon, along with the attractions of the Boathouse restaurant its own sub-tropical micro-climate and Achamore Gardens make this a destination in itself. As the islanders have bought out the landlord through a vehicle called the Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust, the improvement is evident everywhere. We bumped into ICC members Peter and Rosemary Bullick on their way back from an extended cruise to the Outer Hebrides. Two days later we set out up the Sound of Jura with spinnaker set and chilled out. One of the great things about cruising with teenagers is you get to hear all the new hit tunes…ALL of them. I developed temporary tinnitus.

Next stop Crinan, for supplies a shower and the 6.5km walk which is the Crinan Trail. All this stunning scenery, rounded off with coffee and carrot cake at the key-side café while watching the antics of just-in-control crews pass through the lock gates. We think of 'cool' as the exclusive domain of the young. However having watched the older couple let the bustlers go ahead of them, ease into the lock, slip warps onto the bollards with minimum fuss while conversing pleasantly with the lock keeper, I'd beg to differ. This pair were the epitome of cool….in an off-beat sort of way.

Passage through the Sound of Luing was a sleigh-ride with a north going tide. We were shocked to see what appeared to be a periscope approaching at speed. Sure enough, the chart said 'submarine exercise area' so we took evasive action and gybed onto starboard. As we sped past, the periscope turned out to be a semi-submerged lobster pot set in 5kts of tide complete with rooster tail. Another lesson learned; use the darned binoculars. Past the impressive Fladda rocks, up the Sound of Nish, through Kerrera Sound and onto the pontoon in Oban. A big day out but great sailing.

"Another lesson learned; use the darned binoculars"

As a new member to ICC, I am impressed with all the fine dining that appears to go on. Oban, by Rick Stein's assessment, boasts 'the best fish and chips I've ever tasted' at the Oban Fish and Chip Shop. Not a fancy joint, décor includes white tiled walls and floor, condiments are mainly of the ketchup, salt and vinegar type…..but the cod and chips! Michelin stars are not generally handed out to chippies, but if they are, this is the place.

Off to Tobermory next in company with ferries, superyachts and trawlers. Arrival here was the highlight of Helen's trip who remembers the BBC children's programme starring Katie Morag. We played 'what's the story in Ballimory' on the speakers for her arrival. Nostalgia is alive and well. Robert Hemming is a welcoming Harbour Master and the facilities at Taigh Solais, the harbour building, are as good as you can get.

Taking a few days to enjoy the setting included a memorable swim under the Aros Waterfall. This is not for the faint-hearted or cold-blooded but well worth it if only for the getting out afterwards. The 88m superyacht Infinity was anchored off but didn't invite us on board for a sundowner — their loss.

Cooling down in the Aros waterfalls TobermoryCooling down in the Aros waterfalls at Tobermory

Judy brought me across the harbour in the dinghy for a long swim back across what we thought was a very shallow bottom. On inspection, we were looking down into water clogged with jellyfish as far as the eye could see. Not sure what environmental phenomenon caused this but I could have nearly walked home on jellyfish and kept my feet dry. We beat a hasty retreat for a sunset G&T.

Sunset and GTJudy and Frank

The girls' time had come to an end, and Magaluf beckoned. I couldn't compete with this so sent them off on the bus where, through a combination of trains, planes and automobiles they arrived back later that day at our local Dart station for the short walk home. Tobermory & Oban are places to be recommended for a crew change.

A blissful two-day solo sailing period ensued which included a stop off at Loch Aline and then Puilladobhrain. The obligatory hike over the headland for (several) beers in Tigh An Truish opposite the Bridge Across the Atlantic had me in company with Kirsty and Donald (whom else when in Scotland?). Two locals with a severe sense of craic about them.

A very sluggish start the next day got me to Oban again to pick up the incoming crew in the guise of Kieron Guilfoyle my co-owner, Chris Arrowsmith and Adrian Eggers. A quick pitstop for supplies and we were away again for Tobermory in the company of sailors in the annual Round Mull Race. Although not entered, we managed to get a hooter as we crossed the line – a great days' racing'. This race is quite a thing here and goes on over three days with a shindig in a different port every evening.

Up and away the next day to see what Rum, Eigg and Muck had in store. We vowed to return to Rum at some stage when we saw the magnificent scenery and potential for walking as we dropped the hook in about five fathoms 100m off the slipway. We were intent on visiting Kinloch Castle, a late Victorian mansion built as a private residence for Sir George Bullough, a textile tycoon from Lancashire whose father bought Rum as his summer residence and shooting estate. It was the last word in opulence and one of the first to have electricity fed by its hydroelectric dam. Alas, the weather Gods turned against us, and we didn't fancy the egg-beater of an outboard on the dinghy, making it ashore and back. Hence, we spent a profitable evening on the hook inspecting a perfect bottle of gin, sorting out world politics and singing badly.

"we spent a profitable evening on the hook inspecting a perfect bottle of gin"

The heavy weather continued the next day, so we cleared out and had a decidedly lively broad reach in 25-30 kts to Malaig. The marina there is well run, and the town has one of everything. What we didn't anticipate was the arrival of the Hogwarts Express into Mallaig station. Passing through stunning scenery, it runs the 41kms to Fort William passing over the famous Glenfinnan viaduct which features in the Harry Potter movie. We just needed more time to do all the things we wanted to do….perhaps another time. We settled for a hike over hills behind the town to give some stunning views of the Highlands.

Next up was Skye across the Sound of Sleat. We had hoped to cruise the southwest coast of Skye taking in Scavaig and maybe Canna but some heavy weather had closed in and time was running out. We did, however, tick the Skye box by calling in at the delightful Ornsay harbour for a swim, lunch and a pint. We then beat back southwards, bypassing Lough Hourn and into Lough Nevis to The Old Forge gastro pub at the foot of Knoydart in Inverie. With no roads in or out, an 18-mile hike over Munros or a 7-mile sea crossing, the pub claims to be the remotest on mainland Britain (verified by the Guinness Book of Records). The seafood here is excellent and worth the bumpy ride to the complimentary mooring afterwards.

The Old Forge InnDrinks at The Old Forge Inn for (from left) Chris, Adrian, Frank and Kieran

It is hard to capture the essence of the scenery here, the ruggedness and raw beauty. The steep loch shores fall straight into the sea, the peaks are jagged and, gnarly and everywhere you look, you are overwhelmed by the beauty of the place.

It was time to start heading south again, and we set course for the 38nm leg to Coll. Anticipating an upwind slog, we settled down for the day in damp, blustery conditions. We got a break though as we pulled level with Arisaig sound and the wind veered 30 degrees giving us a fetch in relatively flat water – Samphire's favourite point of sailing. This was meant to be both a sailing and walking holiday, so we felt obliged to do at least something by way of exercise and tramped across the island to swim on a beach on the west coast of Coll. Again, not a swim for anyone who enjoys heated pools, but it built up a great thirst which we attended to in the Coll Hotel with a memorable dinner thrown in.

For me, the next destination was one I was looking forward to most – the Treshnish Isles with its puffins. If you haven't seen one of these funny little guys up close, I commend them to you. The Island of Lunga has one of the most spectacular colonies of puffins which nests there April-August.

Thar be PuffinsThar be a Puffin!

The noise is something else, and as you stand among them, incoming puffins whizz past your ears as they land with a bill full of sand eels to feed their young in burrows in the ground. There is also an enormous colony of guillemots that set up a tremendous racket, raising their young on the most precarious cliffs across from the viewing point. Even Kieron, a confirmed non-romantic, admitted to being impressed by the place. The pilotage in and out of Lunga is a bit dicey with rocks all round but in calm weather is tenable during the day.

On through the passage between Iona and the Ross of Mull to Tinker's Hole where we dropped the hook overnight. This is a curious place, perfectly tucked away and a high stopping point on the journey back south. Next day we picked our way through the litter of rocks and islets off Erraid on the way to Scalasaig to await the turn of the tide in the narrow sound between Islay and Jura. The weather had pretty much played ball all trip and pilotage had been mainly by eyeball, cross-checking on the plotter and keeping a backup on paper charts. We'd learned the hard way always to keep paper charts available when crossing the Irish Sea at night when everything electrical sat down. That was an early lesson learned, and I wouldn't fancy being caught out among some of this coastline in adverse conditions without a fix.

Hauling ass at 9.7 knots onboard Hauling ass at 9.7 knots

As the tide turned south again, we left Scalasaig and were sucked into the sound logging 9.7 kts over the ground. In a 10 ton, long keeled boat, this is shifting. Rounding Ardmore Point at the southeastern end of Islay we were met with a decidedly rotten sea-state and bumped our way along an inshore passage to Port Ellen. To ease sheets and head for lovely Gigha again was sorely tempting but we sucked it up on the basis that the wind angle could make the run across the North Channel a challenge the next day. While the marina facilities are excellent, perhaps we hit Port Ellen on a slow night, and we were distinctly underwhelmed by the place. After a dram in a local hostelry, we retired on board to inspect a bottle of Jameson we had overlooked earlier in the trip.

As so often happens, we could have spent a pleasant night on Gigha after all as the next morning we awoke to lots of fog but no wind. So we had to motor for several hours to make the tidal gate in the North Channel which we did and arrived in Glenarm mid-afternoon. Up to Stevie who runs a great pub called The Bridge End Tavern for pints and a meal. Stevie doesn't provide dining, but he has an excellent arrangement with the local takeaways who will deliver direct to your pub table; everything from fish & chips, through Chinese, Indian, Thai to Italian. As I write this, I realise the more I reveal of our culinary preferences, the more I wonder at the ICC granting us admission to its membership.

Planning Rockall via Reykjavik next yearPlanning Rockall via Reykjavik next year! 

Going back down the Irish Sea is an easier prospect as once we carry the flood far enough south we don't pay the price when the tide turns later as we are nearer the slack water area off Dundalk. And so it happened. The sail past Strangford entrance was memorable in that the sunset was perfect; the company was excellent, the music was Johnny Cash hatin' San Quentin and dinner was served in a bowl in the cockpit. Chris and Adrian wanted to round off the trip with a night passage and who were we to deny them? Reaching our home club at RStGYC next day in perfect weather after 18 nights onboard was the ideal end to an (inner) Hebridean adventure. As for next year, perhaps Brittany….although Rockall via Reykjavik is still an option?

Frank O'Beirne

About The Author

Frank O'Beirne

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Frank O'Beirne started sailing with his father at the age of seven in Dungarvan, County Waterford. Progressing from the local Petrel class into Mirrors and Laser dinghies, he was happy just messing about in boats. While based in Kinsale, County Cork he also became involved in racing in bigger boats competing in Spring and Autumn Leagues in both KYC and RCYC. Moving to Dun Laoghaire in his 20s he moved back to dinghy racing, both nationally and internationally, in Fireballs, Laser 2s, finally returning to Lasers again. An active member of the RStGYC, Frank has been Junior and Youth Organiser. He ran the Optimist European Championship in the club and performed the duties of Rear Commodore Sailing.  More recently he has been part of a successful cruising partnership, now on its second boat, a beautiful 1964 Nicholson 36 which is in its second lease of life and is cruised in Irish, Scottish and soon, French waters. 

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