The main 2022 Rally consisted of a cruise from Largs in the Firth of Clyde, via the Kyles of Bute and the Crinan canal, to the beautiful lochs and islands north of Jura, to end up at Dunstaffnage near Oban, where we recovered our boats. It started on 27th May. The route is well served with marinas and anchorages, and there are some good sailing challenges too.
We had been alarmed by the weather forecasts of minimal wind, and that from the NW so ‘on the nose’ for parts of our passage, but in the event we had good and varied sailing conditions. Some days started with a gentle F2 and worked up to F5/6, some started flat calm, when we could happily use the 1.5kt current and enjoy the sun and the stunning scenery, with a perfect F4 filling in later in the day.
Boats, 12 in all, arrived at Largs from as far south as Plymouth and as far north as Inverness. Although members of the Association only meet for a rally once a year, good friendships are made on these occasions, so as boats were rigged on the hard, and later at the opening dinner, there were many warm handshakes and catching up on sailing stories since last meetings. And of course much interest in the latest tweaks made to the boats by their ever-resourceful owners.
Largs Yacht Haven made us very welcome – they have a good slipway, usable for most of the tide, and had organised an area for parking our cars and trailers.
Many skippers had arrived a day or two early with the intention of launching and having a day for a shake-down sail, as this was the first launch of the season for most of us. But winds gusting 40/45mph between Largs and Bute deterred all but the most determined, so we used the first leg of the cruise to remind ourselves how to hoist and set our sails.
Day 1 – Largs to Kames (West Kyle In spite of the squally winds the day before, we found ourselves in very light airs within an hour or so of putting out from Largs, heading anticlockwise round Great Cumbrae and then NW toward Rothesay. But the lull was temporary and as we passed Rothesay we had plenty of wind and were soon sailing up the East Kyle into a F5 headwind, with the narrow channels at the Burnt Isles needing navigational care at the end. Those naive enough to expect that a beat up one Kyle means a run down the other were soon disabused of the notion by flukey forceful gusts from all directions as we headed down to our first night’s moorings off Tighnabruaich. Kira had been towing a dinghy with outboard, so thanks to her skipper we had an excellent water-taxi service to and from the Kames Hotel, where an excellent dinner rounded off a great first day.
Day 2 – Tighnabruaich to Tarbert The day started bright and seemed to promise settled F2/3 wind, so we had an impromptu race to Kilbride Bay. The wind strength may have been a right as an average, but it was made up of periods of flat calm and an afternoon of F5/6 from the NNW as we rounded Ardlamont Point and beat into the up the lower reaches of L Fyne. We anchored in Kilbride Bay for lunch, and then on to the wonderful natural harbour at East Loch Tarbert. This was equipped with pontoons some years ago, and on this visit it was clear that the town is continuing to invest in its harbour, as evidenced by impressive new shower/toilet facilities. Dinner for most came from the excellent fish and chip shop on the quay, which had to be washed down with a pint of course!
Day 3 – Tarbert to Cairnbaan We had a 13.00 appointment at the sea lock into the Crinan Canal. Only those very early out of E Loch Tarbert could sail even most of the 10 miles, however. The rest of us sailed 1km zigzags, making little ground against the tide, so as the wind dropped completely and eerie clouds and rain settled on the Loch, the outboards were necessary.
The Canal was quite an experience. The very kind and helpful Crinan Canal staff showed how to operate the first few locks, and after that we were left to our own devices. Getting 3 pairs of rafted Cape Cutters through each lock together, with the locks substantially bigger and deeper than their inland cousins, certainly hones teamwork and rope handling skills! The skippers and crew were not the only ones enjoying our transit of the canal. The Cape Cutter is a very beautiful boat, and to see 10 together is a particular delight. So whenever the fleet can came near to a path or place where folk were out walking, an appreciative crowd would gather round, cameras out, with many admiring comments.
The canal offers a number of pontoons for mooring so we rafted the 12 boats at Cairnbaan, sharing the moorings with unusually early swarms of Highland midges. Dinner had been arranged at Cairnbaan Hotel. It was as well that we had booked this in advance, for here, as elsewhere on our trip, we had the impression that the catering industry in the Highlands was still recovering from periods of Covid restrictions and staff shortages.
Day 4 – Cairnbaan to Ardfern On Day 4 we finished the 15 canal locks, issuing out of the final sea-lock into Loch Crinan. This was the beginning of a very different part of the passage. Up to that stage tides had not been much more than 1kt, but from now on we could expect areas with 5kt, or even 7kt in some channels.
The best pilotage book is Clyde Cruising Club’s ‘Sailing Directions and Anchorages’. It is extremely comprehensive and helpful, but it issues dire warnings of tidal races, eddies and overfalls, and even a current that can whisk the unwary into the Corryvreckan whirlpool in light airs! Mindful of these, various contingency plans had been made should we be faced with strong winds or big swell coming in from the Atlantic. But in the event the winds became lighter and the following four days were to allow us to sail, ride the tides, drift or motor amid the stunning scenery, spotting porpoises, dolphins and the highlight – a white tailed sea eagle (albeit being chased off by seagulls).
We left the Crinan canal under a wide blue sky with a pleasant F2 from the W and headed NW across Loch Crinan up into the beautiful L Craignish. The passage was just 9 miles to Ardfern marina – but the wind did not hold up long enough to sail even that modest distance, so the peace was shattered by the sound of outboards for the last part of the day.
Ardfern village has a very well stocked shop, and the excellent Galley of Lorne Inn where we duly gathered in the evening, though sadly the restaurant was not operating fully and we had to make do with our pints before returning to the marina cook supper on our own galleys back aboard.
Day 5 – Ardfern to Craobh Haven We awoke to a clear blue sky and warm sun. Not ideal for sailing, but to drift with the tide and enjoy near-perfect reflections of the hills and clouds in the glassy surface of L Craignish was a good consolation.
The route involved going through the Dorus Mor off Craignish Point, one of the channels earning a very scary description in the Sailing Directions. Even in the very gentle conditions, we took care to consult the tidal stream charts, and the transit was in fact delightful – going through at about 6kt, of which only 1kt was through the water.
The wind picked up after that as we sailed N between yet more islets towards Shuna Island. The race for the Cape Cutter 19 Association trophy had been arranged to be round Shuna Island starting from Craobh marina, but a change in itinerary meant adapting this en route. The marina entrance buoy would be the finish – but how to identify a good starting line?
VHF ch72 was buzzing as various lines were investigated – difficult from the sea in F4, but a consensus emerged and the 10 boats now in the fleet were soon sailing the usual dance below the chosen line. The friendly chatter on VHF was replaced by occasional terse comments as the serious business of racing began. The RYA would have thoroughly approved – a 10 minute message came over VHF from the nominated race officer, loud and clear, and he told us there would be 5 and 1 minute messages also. Boats positioned themselves, the cluster in the best position to miss the fish farm having to resort to shouting ‘Starboard’ from time to time (in a 1km wide stretch of water!). Tension rose as we waited for the 5 min message, but nothing came, nor a 1 min. Had the race been postponed? Had the race officer gone overboard? At the appointed time no starting message – just a crackle on ch72. The keen cluster, in the absence of a starting call, reasserted the consensus approach and about 30 seconds later someone said on the radio ‘we might as well just go’. And go they did – while a boat at the back of the fleet had time come on to ch72 to protest the entire race committee!
The course was only 4 miles, with a broad reach followed by a run, so not much opportunity for tactical manoeuvring. But it did present an opportunity for the two carbon-fibre masted boats to be pitted against wooden masts, and the new lighter technology certainly delivered on its promise (though the carbon masted skippers might have felt their sailing skills were involved also!)
Back in port, what was to be the fate of the recalcitrant Race Officer? As the race rules had specified that protests would only be heard at 3.00am the following morning, he got off lightly after he explained that he had duly tried to broadcast the 5, 1 and 0 min messages, but his VHF radio had failed to commit them to the airwaves.
Craobh Haven marina made us very welcome, and the post mortem for the race all took place with the best of humour during an excellent BBQ on the Marina shore, bathed in the glorious evening sun slanting in over Luing. The evening included songs to a small guitar thanks to the skipper of Elektra.
Day 6 – Craobh Haven to Puilldobhrain Emboldened by our easy passage of the Dorus Mor, the daily briefing concluded we could go through Cuan Sound on Day 6. Tide times would mean mustering at 14.30, so the first part of the day was available to cruise up L Melfort, and for the more playful skippers and crew to have a go at some of the Rally competitions – Mast-or-Chef (most creative meal for eating at the helm of a Cape Cutter) and The Art of Sailing (draw a picture with your chartplotter track).
But rather more concentration was needed when the time came for Cuan Sound. This narrow, acutely angled, stretch of water lies between Seil Island and Luing. More accurately it races, swirls, boils and tumbles between those islands. Soon after the tide starts running it reaches 7kt and the ‘Sailing Directions’ warn of standing waves, overfalls and strong eddies. We decided to go through about 3hr after the tide started. Even then we saw a drop of about 0.5m across the 15m wide rock in the middle of the sound. After being swept down that, our 1500kg boats started to be spun round like corks, patches of calm water suddenly boiled up into whirlpools and the eddies took us where they would. More like a fairground ride than sailing!
We shot out into the far wider waters of the Firth of Lorn. Enough wind to get the sails up again, though that dropped at tea time so the iron tops’l was needed to get us to our night’s haven in the superb Puilldobhrain inlet, where dinghies were inflated and we went ashore to walk over for dinner at Tigh an Truish – the House of the Trousers, the inn where in former times islanders had to leave their kilts and don trews before they could cross the Atlantic Bridge and safely visit the mainland. As we walked back, westwards, to the anchorage after dinner, glorious views unfolded of our boats in the still water with outlines of the Mull mountains in the distance silhouetted by the sunset. Many photographs were taken – and more at dawn, one of which found its way onto the BBC website.
Day 7 – to Dunstaffnage The final day was pure fun. The Firth was level and sunny, a F3/4 blew from the North so we played all morning. Some of us sailed over to Mull, one boat edging into L Spelve. Others went dolphin spotting and were enchanted by a large pod playing around their boat, going through their paces in the crystal clear water and sunshine. Others beat up the narrow Kerrera Sound – quite a feat with wind on the nose and some rocky channels.
Later in the day one of those weather changes which are typical in Scotland meant that the bright breezy day became flat calm and covered in leaden clouds, with no wind but vertical stair rods of rain. So for some of us the day’s ‘sailing’ ended with the sound of the motor and sitting in very wet oilies.
That evening we celebrated the end of our passage with a final dinner together in a restaurant on Oban Quay, followed by the Rally prizegiving – hotly contested trophies for the best kept boat, the most accident prone boat, the best four legged crew, etc.
Farewells and Homeward The following two days we drove in a hired minibus back to Largs, collected our cars and trailers and drove back to Oban. Working together, we quickly got all of the boats hauled out via the good slipway at the Dunstaffnage Marina, de-rigged and ready for the trip home.
It was to be a long drive home for most. But no matter – we had enjoyed a memorable week’s sailing, in excellent company, in some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in Britain.