Having successfully negotiated the north coast of Scotland, Philip and Nigel continue their circumnavigation of the Great British coastline
This is part five of Phillip Davies and Nigel Boutwood’s round Britain adventure. You can read part one here.
Our mission to circumnavigate the UK in my 27ft Rhea 850 is on track and much to my personal relief we have made it round the feared north coast of Scotland to the relatively safe haven of Kinlochbervie. The weather rarely stays settled for long this far north and sure enough it looks like we won’t be leaving Kinlochbervie any time soon.
The forecast is pretty grim for the next few days but we’re both grateful we didn’t get trapped in Loch Eriboll, the only bolthole for a boat between Scrabster and Cape Wrath. Here at least we have the bare essentials of western civilisation – electricity, water, a shop and most importantly of all, a pub.
The other good news is that the harbour office has a special BOGOF offer (buy one get one free). I book for two nights just in case with the next two nights gratis, but it gets even better – the free nights are transferable to the next stop down the track, Lochinver, which unsurprisingly is in Loch Inver.
The Highlands Council owns pontoons in various locations along the coast and offers this deal to encourage visitors to stay a few days and make the most of the local facilities.
On our third and last night in Kinlochbervie, we eat on board but are told by the bar staff to come up to the pub anyway as The Trooters are playing. The Trooters are a Scottish cèilidh band consisting of a fiddle player, pianist and guitarist and as promised they are brilliant. Their name derives from their love of trout fishing or ‘troots’ as they call them up here. If their casting is as good as their playing, the poor fish don’t stand a chance.
The following morning we fill up with diesel (the cheapest yet) at high tide to avoid another long climb up a rusty quayside ladder similar to the one in Scrabster. The chandlery staff are very friendly and manage to dispense the fuel through the huge hose designed for North Sea trawlers without swamping the decks with diesel.
Article continues below…
Cruising around Britain in a 27ft boat: Part 1 – Gosport to Ramsgate
Firth of Clyde: Spectacular cruising on Scotland’s west coast
Kinlochbervie to Lochinver
We set off with a moderate wind on the nose and a slight sea state to cover the 25 miles to Lochinver. As it’s only a short distance we motor along at a slow displacement speed of 8/9 knots safe in the knowledge it will take us no more than three hours.
Everything goes to plan and other than another lively discussion on how much clearance we should allow round another significant Scottish headland we arrive in Lochinver and take possession of a northern-facing finger pontoon as instructed by the harbour master. After our enforced three- night stay in Kinlochbervie, we have the luxury of several different restaurants and pubs to choose from, not to mention a much-needed fresh outlook.
As with most ports this far north its main industry is fishing but we can’t help but notice that all the large articulated lorries waiting for the trawlers to land their catches are from Spain and France. We are told that at least 80% of the catch is destined for these two countries alone. Our next planned port of call is the Kyle of Loch Alsh, on the south side of the bridge linking the mainland to the Isle of Skye.
There are seasonal pontoons here and a place to eat. It is also a good place to pause and plan our passage through Kyle Rhea, a spectacularly picturesque but tricky ‘S’ bend a few miles long and only half-a-mile wide with fast tides running through it.
We don’t want to be trying to thread our way through this in a wind-against-tide situation. Going through Rhea, however, means avoiding a much longer more exposed route around the west side of Skye with the potential for even more unpleasant sea conditions.
Lochinver to Mallaig
It’s a 65-mile run from Lochinver to Loch Alsh and the first 35 miles are into the wind but the sea state is mostly slight other than a couple of lumpier stretches around the headlands. After 35 miles we turn to port past Gairloch, where a neighbouring boat in Lochinver told us that the sea state would reduce noticeably as we came into the shelter of the Isle of Skye.
His prediction is correct and we raise our speed to 20 knots as we cruise down the east side of Rona for the last 20 miles to Loch Alsh. Nigel phones ahead to let them know of our imminent arrival. The berthing master answers our call but not from his office. He’s in his car en route to Stirling. Not only is he not around to welcome us in but nor are the pontoons! The weather has been so bad until now (mid-June) that they haven’t had a chance to put them out yet.
We’ll either have to pick up one of the three visitors’ mooring buoys, if available, find a berth in Kyleakin (unlikely) or anchor somewhere. He wishes us good luck and signs off. Inevitably, the mooring buoys are occupied and when we try to raft up alongside a sailing boat in Kyleakin, the owner emerges from below decks to let us know we can’t stay there as the local fishing boats have priority.
We head back out into Loch Alsh while checking the tide times to see if it is safe to go through Kyle Rhea and onto Mallaig some 15 miles distant, a proper town with a proper marina.
It is half tide(ish) with a light wind in the right direction, so off we go. Like the Pentland Firth, there is much written about this short stretch of sea. With the potential for 8-knot tides and katabatic winds, the sailing brigade might find themselves going backwards or round and round in circles in the whirlpools!
We enter the beautiful Rhea and see nothing to worry about; the sea is flat with just a few ripples showing where the tide race is meant to be. Start Me Up does lose 5 knots of speed over ground where the tide is at its peak but after a few minutes we are through it and on our way to Mallaig.
Forty-five minutes later we are entering Mallaig harbour where a young lady points us in the direction of our very fine berth for the night. Mallaig town is 300 yards away with several pubs and restaurants to choose from and the marina has excellent facilities for yachties and motorboaters alike. We celebrate our good luck with a couple of cold beers followed by a hearty bowl of Cullen Skink, a delicious local soup of smoked haddock and potato.
Mallaig to Tobermory
We had used just over half a tank (300 litres) since filling up at Kinlochbervie, helped by much of our passage-making being at frugal displacement speed. The fuelling facilities at Mallaig are not very appealing (another long ladder against a rough stone wall) whereas our next stop of Tobermory is meant to have a proper fuel pontoon.
I judge that there is more than enough in the tank to get us to Tobermory, around 40 miles down the track, even at our 18-knot cruising speed. So off we go again on what turns out to be a lovely cruise. Down past the island of Eigg (it looks a bit like Cape Town’s Table Mountain), round Ardnamurchan Point and into the Sound of Mull where we join a Jeanneau NC9 on the Tobermory fuel berth while we await the attendant to grace us with his presence.
Tobermory is very pretty with much-photographed coloured houses lining its harbour. It’s a justifiably popular tourist destination and even at this time of year there’s a cruise liner anchored off the harbour with a dozen coaches full of tourists parked next to the marina. Four hundred litres of fuel later (550-litre tank), at the highest price yet paid since leaving Gosport, we head through the beautiful Sound of Mull to Oban.
Tobermory to Oban
On arrival we are instructed to take any vacant berth in the cutely named Transit Marina on the North Pier. Unlike the harbours further north, this one is full of leisure boats, largely sailing yachts from every country north and east of Scotland.
Its other marina is on the island of Kerrara, about a mile away, which shelters the town from almost every direction. The harbour is teeming with ferries, small cruise liners, trawlers, fishing boats and the most leisure boats we have seen since leaving the Solent. It is the principal boating hub for this section of the West Coast of Scotland.
Oban to Port Ellen
Our cruise to Port Ellen on the island of Islay, some 64 miles away, is mostly in sheltered waters and the forecast is good. Having left the Sound of Kerrara we continue to enjoy shelter from the southern end of Mull, then Colonsay until we enter the narrow Sound separating Jura from the island of Islay.
We spot one distillery after another. Islay has a population of just 3,500 people but no less than 11 distilleries – a ratio I thoroughly approve of. It even has its own gin called The Botanist.
Once we leave the Sound of Jura we motor round the rocky bottom of Islay into Port Ellen, where we claim one of the few free visitors’ berths in the small council-run marina. There are only 30 berths available and they can’t be booked in advance, so it’s first come first served. The marina manager tells us to register in the office and put the berthing fee in the honesty box.
There are two restaurants and one pub. We arrive at the pub on our electric scooters. A couple of youths cast envious eyes over our magnificent transport as we saunter in. It’s a proper pub – no food and a dozen or so locals. We get talking to a distinguished-looking older guy who turns out to be the owner of the local Spar, where you can also pay your marina fee by card if you don’t have cash for the box.
We start talking malts and are soon introduced to the pub’s consensus view of the best, a 17-year-old Bunnahabhain served neat at room temperature. It slips down as smoothly as syrup and is utterly delicious. Our new friend advises us to add a splash of water to the next one.
There is an impressive brass tap in the middle of the bar for exactly this purpose. As promised it changes the character and complexity of the malt, releasing a different taste and a whole new appreciation of this liquid gold. Time to take our leave while we still can but not before letting the local lads have a spin on our scooters. ‘Sick’ is their verdict, apparently a Gaelic term for ‘very good indeed’.
After an excellent meal in the Islay Hotel, we make our way back to the tiny marina where Nigel notices a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 35, the same sailing boat as his own but a few feet longer. He stops for a chat with the owners. They are from Essex and are also circumnavigating Britain.
Nigel invites them back to our boat with the promise of a singsong accompanied by my Pig Nose travel guitar, a battery-powered electric guitar with a tiny built-in amp that, after a few whiskies, sounds a bit like Jimi Hendrix. Another neighbouring boater brings his guitar and before we know it Start Me Up is hosting her first rock and roll party with other crews joining in the dancing on the pontoons.
Whiskey in the Jar by Thin Lizzie is easily the most popular tune of the evening. Being sensible boating folk and with due respect to our neighbours, the party ends before midnight and the Pig Nose is returned to its special locker where it lurks in the darkness awaiting its next guitar hero moment.
Port Ellen to Bangor
There is diesel in Port Ellen but only in cans so yet again I am grateful for the size of Start Me Up’s tanks. It is 65 miles to Bangor Marina in Northern Ireland and we have just over half a tank left. The crossing itself is only 20 miles across the Irish Sea and the high cliffs east of Ballycastle and beyond Rathlin Island are soon visible on the horizon.
We enjoy a quiet and incident-free passage and four hours later we pull alongside the fuel pontoon in Bangor. The marina is sizeable with excellent security and all the facilities a passage-making motorboat could wish for. It is also very near to the town centre restaurants, shops and pubs and a railway station.
The weather looks like it is taking a turn for the worse over the next few days so we decide to take a second break from our circumnavigation. We are approximately two-thirds of the way around Britain and the next series of legs will bring us to the final significant turn left, around Land’s End itself and along the south coast of England.
With that in mind we secure the boat, catch the train to Belfast and arrange our passage home to Lewes in Sussex. Belfast is unrecognisable from the last time I visited 25 years ago and it feels good to be heading home in a positive frame of mind. When we return, it’ll be the start of the long home straight and the completion of our challenge. We can hardly wait…
First published in the April 2020 edition of Motor Boat & Yachting.