Seven Short Blasts; A Hebridean Odyssey 2003 (Derek Finlayson)
A Hebridean Odessy - Ian Duff and Derrick Finlayson.
This a joint report of a trip Ian Duff and I made last week to the Hebrides on the occasion the Western Isles were blessed with glorious weather. Travel arrangements were courtesy of DUFF TOURS & TRAVEL and transportation was by FINLAYSON CHARABANCS in their deluxe touring Smart car. Catering was onboard by CALMAC and glitches were kindly provided free by Visit Scotland.com. Cynicism and superfluous embellishments by Dongelhead.
TUESDAY 15 JULY 2003
Picked up Ian the back of 0700 and headed for Ayr for a full Tuesday day cruise on the WAVERLEY, getting to Ayr with about 30 min to spare. Weather absolutely gorgeous, with temperature in high 20's C and clear blue skies, light wind. WAVERLEY sailed promptly at 1000. The first port of call was Millport, where the SECOND SNARK just beat us to the quayside, after which we sailed on to Largs. On the way, we passed the small R V AORA alongside the quay between Millport and Cumbrae Slip. She resembles a small fishing vessel. The quay at Largs was crammed stapit foo wi' folk all going on the WAVERLEY. Guess the good weather really brings the crowds out. Felt sorry for CalMac as I bet they wished they had as many people waiting for their ships. LOCH ALAINN and LOCH RIDDON were operating the Largs - Cumbrae Slip service. With a healthy load on board we headed for Rothesay,.. where a lot of the folk then got off. Eh?! Some folk just don't appreciate the finer things in life. However, a good number also got on board and they were the wiser ones. It could not have been a finer sail that day up through the Kyles of Bute to Tighnabruaich. Oh, SATURN and JUNO were operating Rothesay - Wemyss Bay, and LOCH DUNVEGAN was on the Colintraive - Rhubodach service. An Archer class patrol vessel was lying just inside Loch Riddon but couldn't see her pennant number. From Tighnabruaich we made our way to Tarbert on Loch Fyne.
Thanks to some mindless hooligans who'd got hold of a yacht in Rothesay and hadn't a clue about the highway sea-code, WAVERLEY was running a tad late at this stage. Unfortunately, this meant a slightly shorter cruise into Loch Fyne than was otherwise planned, but everyone enjoyed the trip nonetheless. ISLE OF CUMBRAE was on the Tarbert - Portavadie run. A lot of people had got on and off the vessel during the cruise, treating her more like a ferry service than a coastal cruise.
Ian and I enjoyed two full meals onboard, one of which was Waverly's famed chicken curry, getting in early before the queues built up and food was fresh. However, I wasn't aware of any real queues developing in the restaurant during this cruise, as every time I had a look in, there always seemed to be plenty of space. Anyway, it was a great day out amidst some really spectacular coastal scenery on a beautiful summers day.
On the return leg from Millport, we passed the new Clydeport cutter MOUNT STUART and the cargo vessel SLUISGRACHT inbound. In the distance, we could make out ROYAL PRINCESS heading outbound off Largs and CALEDONIAN ISLES in Ardrossan. WAVERLEY arrived back in Ayr some 40 mins late, making for a very long day for the crew. Tuesday's sail is the longest day cruise of the week. B&B in Prestwick in a room that felt like a sauna due to the outside humidity.
WEDNESDAY 16 JULY 2003
After a good breakfast it was off to Oban, via Loch Lomond. It was another glorious day and, although I was driving, I couldn't help but be impressed at the beauty of the Loch Lomond area. Oh, I really hope they can get MAID OF THE LOCH up and running next year, as It's a wonderful area crying out for a steamer.
We stopped at Loch Awe Station just in time to get a snap of the Oban bound 2-car dmu with Kilchurn Castle in the background. Ok, so its not as impressive as catching a steam train bound for Oban, but do you have any idea just how few trains there are going to Oban these days? And another thing, why do Scotrail insist on putting class 156 dmu's on the Oban/Fort William/Mallaig service? When I sit down in these thingies, the window is above my head, even with a window seat. I feel like that boy peeking over the wall. What a complete waste of such spectacular scenery when you can't even see it.
Anyway, there used to be a wee steamer called LADY ROWENA which served Loch Awe Station - Kilchurn Castle. Sadly she burned and sank a couple of years ago and the last thing I've heard on her is that they salvaged her and were surveying the damage to see if she could be repaired, but there was no sign of her there. They'd even scraped off the reference to a steamer service on the advertising boards. I was going to ask, but thought better of it, as it might have been bad news. Anyway, they've got another boat in her place called FLOWER OF SCOTLAND, although I think that was a bit of a misnomer. Outwardly, she resembles a plastic waterbus with badly done paint patches over rust and scrapes. Inside she looks less than appealing as she had all the magnetic personality and attractiveness of a car carrier and although I took a picture of her, I apologised to my camera shortly afterwards.
Our next port of call was Taynuilt. ANNE OF ETIVE operates cruises up Loch Etive and if we'd had the time, I would have done a trip on her. Again the scenery round Loch Etive is impressive, especially in good weather. I had to settle for a wee photo-shoot instead as we had a ferry to catch in Oban.
Arriving in Oban, PHAROS lay alongside the lighthouse berth and ISLE OF MULL headed out to Craignure. Oban was very busy with BRUERNISH and EIGG tied up together at the lay-up quay behind the lighthouse quay. A number of local day-tripper boats were doing short cruises to "Seal Island". This destination cropped up in a number of locations on our trip, but I suppose its better than "a cruise to no-where". Vessels like SERENITY, MAID OF THE FIRTH (its great to see her back in service. The last time I saw her she was lying in a derelict condition on the shore near Taynuilt.) DUCHESS (a former Dunkirk Little Ship), SCEPTRE and CHEVIOT BK322 (a converted fishing vessel) were in the harbour.
We quickly booked in to our B&B, just behind the ferry terminal and then we got our tickets for the afternoons cruise. Whilst waiting I noticed JEAN DE LA LUNE (Leith's tall ship) and the Coast Guard cutter HMCC VINCENT were in port along with the usual gaggle of fishing vessels.
Soon our "cruise ship" LORD OF THE ISLES docked , with CLANSMAN arriving just as we were embarking, and having to stand off till we vacated the berth, before LOTI headed for Colonsay and Port Askaig. Again, this turned out to be a glorious trip. We passed the small Kerrera ferry GYLEN LADY on the Kerrera slip. As we passed the island of Easdale I tried to see signs of the small ferry operating there and of the Highland Council ferry service to Luing but to no avail this time. LORD OF THE ISLES was very lightly loaded, even with passengers which was a real shame because the trip is well worth doing. We met EILEAN DHIURA at Port Askaig operating to Jura. She fair benefited from our presence as she left nearly full for Jura with many vehicles from LORD OF THE ISLES, although her "bus stop shelter passenger accommodation" was devoid of people.
Time and the weather has been taking its toll on the wreck of the fishing vessel on the rocks near Bunnhabain Distillery (apologies if that is not be the correct spelling). She's the one on the front cover of the book Argyll Shipwrecks. Opposite the southern end of Kerrera on the mainland, there seemed to be a new outdoor pursuits base being set up. There is a high speed cat called URCHIN, a 2-masted wood sailing vessel and about half a dozen ribs (rigid inflatable boats) all in the same yellow and black livery.
LOTI, as she is affectionately known by her admirers, (of which Ian is one) has a reasonable amount of deck space to enjoy such a cruise although that's more than can be said for our next vessel. LOTI has also benefited from some interior refurbishment during her last winter docking. The crew not having a huge number of passengers, were very friendly, and the food was excellent. When PIONEER eventually retires I can see LOTI filling her roll, although with the CORUISK arriving shortly on the Mallaig - Armadale service, she will probably end up in Oban again next year. Interestingly she had a draft winter timetable on show inviting comments from public. I can recommend her chicken curry to you.
THURSDAY 17 JULY 2003
And after a hearty breakfast, we had a free morning in Oban. Again, the weather was unbelievably good. In fact, this turned out to be the hottest day of the trip with the temperature about 30oC or so it seemed. In the afternoon, we checked into the terminal for CLANSMAN's afternoon sail to Lochboisdale and Castlebay. Joining the queue of cars waiting for boarding, we were met by representatives from CalMac Users Committee.They dished but a survey form to everyone, reminding us that the tendering process for CalMac routes is due for renewal and this was our opportunity to express our concerns/views/opinion/suggestions for Oban facilities. Ian buttonholed three of them and they perhaps they were glad to stop having their ears bent when he had to board as more than a few observations and suggestions were imparted to them. I must stress however that Oban badly needs a second linkspan to cater for the three major Calmac units operating there during summer timetable. It would also help with overnight lay overs of these three units, utilising their time better. We then drove onto the CLANSMAN's car deck and there seemed to be ample space on this crossing at least. Internally, she is a nice vessel, kept spotless by her attentive crew.
However, the CLANSMAN experience is always somewhat spoiled by her inadequate deck space. Ian, particularly, was grumpy about her, as he had had the experience of travelling on her last January on the CRSC's chartered winter cruise round Arran, when CLANSMAN deputised for CALEDONIAN ISLES. Then over 300 enthusiasts turned up for that special cruise, and her inadequate deck space created more than a few problems as most people wanted to get out on deck as it was a beautifully sunny day then as well. Anyway, she brought back these memories for him, but with no helicopter rescue this time...but that's another story.
I was not relishing the idea of sailing 6hrs couped up inside on such a glorious day as this. However, fortunately for us, she was fairly lightly loaded. Heading out of Oban, we passed the training vessel T.S.ROYALIST off Kerrera and in the Sound of Mull, we passed HMS PEMBROKE M107 heading the other way. LOCH FYNE was on the Fishnish - Lochaline service. Near Tobermory, the 2-masted charter yacht CORRYVRECHAN passed us inbound. LOCH LINNHE sailed from Tobermory in front of us heading for Kilchoan but she rounded our stern and as we passed Tobermory, I noticed RAASAY on a buoy in Tobermory Bay. In the distance, a shape reminiscant of a large block of flats floated round Ardnamurchan Point and into the Sound of Mull. CLANSMAN's Captain informed us all that we were about to pass the cruise ship CRYSTAL SERENITY. As she drew alongside, her towering slab-side reflected the towering cliffs of Ardnamurchan behind her. To me, she looked awfully top-heavy. and I didn't fancy a sail in her in anything more than a Force 5. Actually, I preferred being on CLANSMAN, and she was growing on both of us. CRYSTAL SERENITY may be larger than her older sisters, but she's not as aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Didn't notice very many people on her decks either, in fact she was a virtual Marie Celeste. One wonders if regular cruisers from Crystal Harmony & Crystal Symphony will try Serenity and then never return, preferring the cleaner lines and size of her smaller fleet mates. And so we made for Lochboisdale where after disembarking, here was just enough time to snatch a few pictures before she was off to Castlebay. Something inside was sorry to see her go (it was the curry, Derek!) as I was just beginning to enjoy the trip on her. Then, checking the map supplied by the tourist information office in Edinburgh, where we booked the B&B in Lochboisdale, we set off to find it. When we arrived in the next wee village, I reckoned we'd missed it, so we doubled-back. This was my first visit
to the Outer Hebrides since 1982, and it would be helpful if the roads carried visible street names as my navigator's epithets could probably be heard back on the CLANSMAN. In fact, we were almost back at the quayside before I saw the sign for Bayview B&B. It was literally 50 yards from the terminal and our map was all wrong. I had booked all our accommodation with the Tourist Information Service before we left. They have a new booking service through Visit-Scotland.com. Now there's a disaster for Scotland. The system can only accept one individual booking at a time, and when I tried to make more than 3 bookings at one time, my bank shut down my card suspecting fraud, didn't they? So, their new-fangled system needs a major upgrade, and that's putting it politely. Secondly they could not carry forward all my personal details and had to reinput each time. What should have been a 15 minute booking turned out to take over 100 minutes, all for the lack of some inexpensive software. It took me two days to get my card unblocked by my bank and I would have hated to be some poor unsuspecting foreign tourist booking accommodation. This was not the only glitch with Visit Scotland that we encountered, although to be fair most criticism came from B&B owners.
FRIDAY 18 JULY 2003
Time was going to be tight from the start. We had to get to the Berneray terminal in time for the sailing at 1040 if we were going to get the afternoon's sailing from Tarbert to Uig. After enjoying yet another hearty breakfast, we set off at 0830 and not another vehicle on the road. Rush hour in the Outer Hebrides! So different from Edinburgh at the same time. It was wonderful. The road we travelled on skirted past the airport at Benbecula although you really couldn't see much from the road so on we went to Lochmaddy. Well, I hadn't been there before and just wanted to see the place. We arrived at the ferry terminal on Berneray with about 30min to spare, where LOCH PORTAIN lay alongside. Externally, she looks like a very basic and functional ferry but, please, don't let this deceive you. Just
time for a wee photo-shoot but we didn't have long to wait before we drove aboard. Her passenger facilities occupy the main lounge above the car deck which was sumptuously fitted out in an early 1990's Burger King style. ( I have heard her referred to as Loch Portakabin but that really is unfair). Externally, fore-and-aft, there are wonderfully back-breaking real plastic chairs tastefully decorated in a subtle scarlet hue adorning the only areas of deck space available for walking on. Stovepipes replaced the conventional funnels fore and aft. First-class refreshments are provided at a small cost for her travel-weary passengers via a rather trendy drinks machine with real drop-down paper cups - and a bag of sugar, with one damp teaspoon - just the one for all drinks and passengers. (the sugar nozzle wasn't working). The magnanimous generosity of her owners to the simple fare-paying public reaches astonishing new heights of gobsmackedness. Ah, but it was a lovely sail, dodging the various rocks and shallows lying in between Berneray and Leverburgh. Ian has done this route before from Otternish to Leverburgh on the Loch Bhrusda's inaugural season so he was slightly under whelmed by the magnificent scenery.
Now we had time to get to Tarbert and have a wee walk around before HEBRIDES arrived. I managed to get some pictures of her arriving from the hill opposite the ferry terminal whilst Ian informed the various dock officials what I was going to do and to "hud the boat" and yes, I did get back in plenty of time as they hadn't even completed unloading. Port operations with CalMac were handled with great efficiency and she was in and out in under 30min. Again, another lovely sail and HEBRIDES is an improvement on CLANSMAN, not least in offering a smidgen more deck space to stretch your legs on. Again, like all the other CalMac vessels we'd travelled on, she seemed less than half full. This crossing is a lot shorter than CLANSMAN's and just as I was getting to know my way
around, (And after sampling another magnificent curry) we arrived at Uig. This time the map was right and we found our B&B right away.
SATURDAY 19 JULY 2003
Here, what a nice B&B this was. Huge breakfast, man. Crannachan's on the menu, so you know its going to be good. Ian had a full cooked breakfast and I had Aberdeen toastie for a change. Absolutely great. This was the best B&B of the trip and with an elegant sufficiency, (but no doggy bag) we set off. Leaving Uig, we passed the Cullen's on our way to Sconser for a wee photo-shoot of LOCH STRIVEN arriving from Raasay. Then we made our way to Kylerhea to snap the GLENACHULISH. What a lovely road this is with stunning views and is best travelled on in summer wearing brown undergarments, as extra time and care needs to be taken as the road is very narrow and quite steep in places. We reached Kylerhea just as the Norwegian pallets carrier LYSFOSS of Lys-Line sailed past heading northwards towards Kyle. The road on the other side leads to the Caravan Club's most popular site in Scotland at Morvich and gazing at the wonderful scenery, and at the seals playing near the shore, I could see why. But, we had a (real) ferry to catch.
On to Armadale where we joined a big queue of vehicles for the venerable and most worthy PIONEER. We were both glad we'd booked all our crossings before we started as we would not have got on if we hadn't. PIONEER was the only ferry I was to encounter from my previous trip in 1982 AND she was on the same route, Armadale - Mallaig. But the poor old girl was struggling to cope and was running over 30min late by this time in the morning. Basically, the problem was this. In 1982, PIONEER loaded via her stern ramp at one port and unloaded through her side ramps at the other. Since then, both terminals have been converted to drive through loadings meaning that PIONEER could not make use of her side ramps. And she's not a drive-through ferry, is she? So, it took a long time for her to load and unload with some vehicles going forwards and some vehicles reversing as only her stern ramp could be used. When I drove on, one of her crew said to me "I wish all the cars could be like yours." as I drive a wee Smart Pulse. But full credit to her hard-working deck crew. Not a single section of deck space was vacant when we sailed to Mallaig, but we left a long, long queue of unbooked traffic behind. Once underway, she covered the passage swiftly enough.
On the way I got talking to one of her crew members. Her replacement, CORUISK, is due to be named at Armadale on 14 August 2003 and will then take over the PIONEER's rota. PIONEER should then sail back to the Clyde and to what? or at least that was the plan before one of the Clyde Streakers developed expensive engine problems, so perhaps CORUISK might start her career on the Clyde and never see Skye until spring of 2004 leaving PIONEER soldiering on at Mallaig. (Jupiter now back so this theory is sunk, for now.)
Arriving at Mallaig, we checked into our last B&B before joining our last cruise, an afternoon's sail to Eigg, Muck, Rhum and Canna on LOCHNEVIS. She looks odd from a distance with one offset funnel, "double" bridge and high sides, but her design for this route is excellent. She has plenty outdoor space when lightly loaded, and has a huge 72 seater restaurant/bar forward of her 18 car deck space. (winter service Mallaig Armadale as well as Small Isles) The rear ramp is very high and can either act as a sail or a buffer on windy days making handling that bit more interesting. Catering however is limited due to a small galley, but has burgers and filled rolls on offer with chips. (Wot? No curry??).
Again, she left Mallaig with a relatively light load and this was another great cruise. This cruise and LOTI's cruise to Port Askaig were the highlights for both of us on this trip. The weather had been very mixed this time up to this point, but it cleared just as the cruise got underway. This cruise we recommend wholeheartedly. (All Cal Mac non landing cruises seemed to cost the same price - £13). Anyway, at Eigg, the LAIG BAY came out to meet us. She first of all tied up near the stern while some cargo was loaded and unloaded. She then moved up the side to unload and load her passengers. There was some shindig taking place on Eigg that weekend and a lot of people got off with rucksacks. Leaving Eigg, we made the short crossing to Muck. The Muck ferry WAVE came out to meet us and did likewise. She resembles a small wooden fishing vessel. At Loch Scresort, Isle of Rhum, the Rhum ferry ROUMA came out to meet us, also following the same pattern. On her lifebuoys, the island is named Rum as is her port of registry. Rhum or Rum, which is the correct spelling? (one is probably the Gaelic spelling so both could be correct?) The island looks like the Forbidden Lands in the Lord of the Rings. A large party of scouts got off here. And so to Canna where LOCHNEVIS ties up at the pier here which is not as exciting as watching a group of land-lubbers trying to negotiate a delicate transfer from one bobbing vessel to another. Each of the islands has their own distinctly different scenery and are really attractive when viewed close-up. (I could hear Ian's brain in gear and already planning his next Hebridean Odyssey). And so back to Mallaig where the former fleet tender LOYAL MEDIATOR was lying in the harbour amongst raft of fishing vessels along with Bruce Watt Cruises' WESTERN ISLES, the Dutch 2-master LOTOS and SPANISH JOHN I & II.
On the way back to Mallaig on the LOCHNEVIS, I noticed a lady looking at the galley/bar with its shutters down and no crew member in sight. To the right on the wall was a button with the words "Please ring for attention" above it. Turning to the lady I said, "I think you have to give it seven short blasts, followed by one prolonged blast..."