WILD SUMMITS, WILD CETACEANS… & WILD SWIMMING

NORTH RONA – 11TH TO 21ST JUNE 2016

Regular guest Irene has provided her account of the North Hebridean Explorer cruise last month (photos by Irene, Michael Lea and Anna White):

Saturday 11th June – a starter of bow-riding Dolphins
I thought I was seeing double as we entered Oban harbour on the MV Loch Coriusk as Halmar Bjorge looked to be both on her mooring AND berthed at the North Pier. But on closer inspection, it turned out to be HB’s sister ship, Elisabeth G, on the mooring and sturdy old HB, our home for the next ten days, tied up at the Pier. They made a fine sight as we sailed in, although HB looked a bit hemmed in by several yachts rafted alongside her.

The welcome sight of Chef Mark at the quayside by HB meant we weren’t going to starve, whatever ‘deprivations’ the skipper might put us through… After dumping the bags on board and exchanging hugs and hellos with Anna and Mark, I left the car at Stoddarts’ excellent secure parking in town and returned to find the rest of our party already on board. As we were all there promptly and we had a long way to go on the first afternoon, it allowed Mark to make an early start… or at least it did once he’d literally pushed HB free of its neighbours in a fine display of ‘formation mooring’.

I’d spent the previous few days on Mull, so as HB headed back out into the Firth of Lorne, retracing the same route as the Calmac ferry, I was beginning to feel like a Sound of Mull commuter… I can think of worse commutes! We headed up the Sound, enjoying good views of both the Morvern and Mull coasts on either side but were soon into murk and drizzle north of Tobermory, although the sea at least was calm. Muck loomed out of the mist and the distinctive profile of Eigg drew the eye, with Rum lowering almost menacingly alongside, with most of its hills hidden in the murk.

Dolphins by Michael LeaAs we pulled into Canna Sound, I was loitering with intent up the ‘pointy end,’ waiting for what has become one of my favourite sights on trips with Northern Light… the appearance of the ‘usual’ pod of Common Dolphins and sure enough, they were soon spotted feeding off Canna. And the question of whether HB’s new engines were ‘dolphin friendly’ was resoundingly answered when the entire pod of close on 100 turned almost as one and swam straight for us. It always amazes me how they seem to deliberately break off, even from feeding, and choose to head for the boat but I’m not arguing with the result. Hanging over the bow just feet from bow-riding dolphins is an experience that never gets old and was a thrilling start for both regular passengers of HB and first timers.

With our dolphin escort, we pulled into Canna for our first overnight anchorage and it’s a shame that the rain closed in on us as Canna is always one of my favourite spots to anchor. As we sheltered in the harbour, protected by the headland leading to Prison Rock and Compass Hill, our first fabulous evening meal started Mark II’s successful one man campaign to make us all increase a clothes size or two. The conversation was lively and wide-ranging as the disparate group of passengers broke the ice and it was a promising start, with lots of different interests and like-minded personalities who were to gel really well over the course of the trip. Although for those of us who’d sailed with HB before, there was an obvious and very sad, four-legged absence. Seven will be sorely missed.

Sunday 12th June – the magic of the Shiants
Fortunately, sunshine and clear skies greeted us as weNeist Point by Irene Boston left Canna so we were able to appreciate the impressive geology of its northern cliffs but as we headed north, eyes were soon drawn to the north west coast of Skye. We sailed past the wide sweep of Loch Bracadale with its many small islets and islands before reaching the Duirnish peninsula, with one of the MacLeod’s Tables dominating the skyline. With several Munroists aboard, we had some fun with the map and a lot of reasoned guesswork as to what mountains we could see; most of us not having seen many of them from this seaward angle before.

The scenery improved all the way as we reached the Neist Point lighthouse, perched on its promontory. The most westerly point on Skye and designed by David Stevenson, the lighthouse couldn’t be in a more spectacular geological spot, with the cliffs home to breeding seabirds such as Razorbills, Guillemots and Shags. The lighthouse was first lit in 1909, although since 1990, it has been controlled remotely from Edinburgh and the keepers’ cottages are now in private ownership.

Shiants by Irene BostonConsidering how critical the weather is for reaching the Shiants, we were very lucky with calm conditions which allowed us to not only reach the islands but land and for me, this marked my second time ashore. We anchored on the east side of Garbh Eilean and went ashore after lunch, a pair of Bonxies greeting us on the shingle ridge where Mark dumped us… sorry, I mean, executed a smooth and controlled landing of his ‘precious’ cargo. Sue and Ruby climbed up to the top ridge of Garbh Eilean, living up to its name of Rough Island.

The rest of us walked over Eilean an Tighe, House Island, running the gauntlet of the Bonxies with breeding Twite, Wheatear and Rock Pipits as a fine supporting cast. Later, as we waited for Mark to collect us in the rib, we met the RSPB guys we’d seen earlier perched precariously in the boulderfields on Garbh Eilean. It was interesting to find out about their productivity surveys of the nesting auks and talk to them about what it was like to live on the islands throughout the last winter. Sue enjoyed the first of several wild swims of the trip… and although we felt that her ascent of Garbh Eilean sort of qualified for that part of the triathlon, she’d missed out the middle cycling section somehow.

When Mark picked us up on the rib, he had a treat in Arch at Shiants by Irene Bostonstore as the sea was calm enough for him to take the rib round the northern side of Garbh Eilean and back through the arch, with the Lewisian gneiss looming above our heads and auks on the sea all around us… the sea so clear we could see the birds diving as we approached. Their sleek agility and speed under water was in stark contrast to the clumsiness they exhibit on land or on take-off. After another fantastic meal, the plan was to set off very early to make the most of a small weather window and make a run for North Rona. So with that prospect to look forward to on only our second day aboard, we fell asleep to the sounds of the seabird colony and the gentle rocking of HB.

Monday 13th June – Thar she blows!
Some of us managed to drag ourselves out at the crack of ungodly to enjoy our departure from the Shiants, the rest of the passengers deciding sleep was the better option – lightweights! A bank of fog settled over the sea and land as we left, making it look like someone was covering the Shiants in icing. It may have been very atmospheric on a calm sea but it did limit visibility of the coast of Lewis as we motored north. A belt of harder rain and murk caused the skipper to describe the morning as gruesome but the sight of two Minkes heralded a clearance in both visibility and the weather and the rest of the morning was anything but gruesome. In fact, I’d say it was pretty unforgettable and was probably one of those once in a lifetime experiences that you feel privileged to experience.

Although we couldn’t see much of Lewis, the view to the mainland improved all the time and Suilven looked mean, moody and magnificent in a misty pink sunrise over to the east. We were up to seven Minkes by that time and with everyone else appearing for breakfast, we drew level with Stornoway and Tiumpen Head but I don’t think any of us were prepared for what happened next.

A bellow of, ‘That’s a big blow,’ and the sight of an arm-waving Mark hanging out the wheelhouse window gave us a slight clue something special might be about. And after much peering at the sea, windmilling of pointing arms and changes of direction, we were rewarded with the sight of a juvenile Humpback Whale feeding amongst a pod of more White-beaked Dolphins than you could shake a stick at. Mark later spotted a Risso’s Dolphin and on any other day, Storm Petrels would have caused great excitement as they delicately fed off the surface amongst the melee, but with plunge-diving Gannets adding to the spectacle, it was the Humpback which made jaws drop.

Humpback by Anna WhiteThe atmosphere was almost dream-like, with the air was so still and the water so calm it had almost a silvery sheen to it. It was so quiet that we could hear the blow even at a distance as the whale surfaced. At one point, it swam towards us and I was hanging off the bow again as it dived under HB… it’s a wonder I didn’t fall in after it, I was so excited. You could clearly see the white of the flippers, the huge roll of the back and the shape of the flukes as it swam beneath us, all merely feet away.

I can close my eyes now and conjure up that image very clearly… it’s something I shall never forget. We must have stayed circling in the area for nearly an hour, with all thoughts of the dash to North Rona temporarily suspended. Well, you can’t sail away from a Humpback, can you? As Anna said, you felt like lighting up a cigarette afterwards!

Eventually, the feeding group drifted off and we resumed our northward journey to North Rona, all somewhat stunned. And four  hours and 44 miles north of the Butt of Lewis later, we were there at our destination for the whole trip and we hadn’t even been afloat 48 hours yet! However, we’d used up our day’s luck by then and we could all see for ourselves, even before looking at Mark’s dubious expression, that the swell rolling in from east and west meant that we had little chance of even landing, never mind an anchorage. So we had to content ourselves with sailing around North Rona and then onto Sula Sgeir for a close but short look. But given that it takes exceptional conditions to even make it out this far, and we saw both islands in the sunshine, we really couldn’t grumble.

Although in an attempt to be sure there was no possibility of a landing, our skipper pretty much circled the island, which at least allowed us a close up view of the stunning geology, the steep hill of Toa Rona at its eastern end with the modern lighthouse drawing the eye. The north west coast of Rona was edged with a chaotic jumble of boulders, testament to the power of the sea which had piled up this embankment to over 50ft in some places, but even that gets overtopped by the sea when conditions are much rougher than we experienced.

North Rona by Irene BostonSula Sgeir by Irene Boston

With such severe conditions to face year round, North Rona’s past population had to be self-sufficient and they surprisingly managed to make a living on the island. Books relate that not only was the island fertile but there was often a surplus, which is in stark contrast to the borderline existence of the St Kildan population at times. Although North Rona had been continuously inhabited for 700 years, it was last regularly occupied in the mid-1940s, apart from one brief spell later on. As we approached, you could just make out the area where the old settlement was but it’s an exploration that would have to wait for another day.

The first inhabitant was supposed to have been St Ronan who built a hermitage in the 8th century. And although there are other theories about the name for the island, some sources claim it means seal island and as we approached it from the south, the outline sprawled across the surface of the sea did resemble a recumbent seal.

A further hour west saw us draw near to the amazing geology of Sula Sgeir and Mark treated us to a slow cruise alongside the cliffs, with the smell and sound of the Gannets all around us. Along with Sula Sgeir, Rona was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1956 in recognition of its importance as a breeding colony for Guillemots, Puffins, Razorbills, Kittiwake and Fulmar, as well as the Gannets. Not likely to be seen during the day, it’s also home to Leach’s and Storm Petrels which nest in burrows and in the autumn, these islands are the breeding grounds for more than 7,000 Grey Seals.

The men of Ness on Lewis still have permission to harvest the gugas, the young Gannets, each year in September and once crossed from Lewis in an open rowing boat. With no anchorage or beach and no soil or any fresh water on the island, it’s a test of survival for anyone who spends time here, the only shelter being the small stone bothies which the guga-hunters live in for the duration of their stay.

But for us, with no shelter and the weather due to deteriorate big time, Mark had no option but to run for the north west coast of Lewis to spend the night. As we didn’t make it into Carloway, our overnight anchorage, until 10pm, it made for a very long day, especially for the two Marks and Anna. The passengers were also exhausted and all we’d done was laze about, pick our jaws up off the floor at regular intervals, and eat too much… but it was an unforgettable day. Well, how often do you see a Humpback Whale and North Rona on the same day?!

Tuesday 14th June – the first of a Pabbay duet
Blackhouses by Irene BostonAfter being aboard HB all day yesterday, it was a welcome break to go ashore at Carloway and stretch our legs on a walk to the Gearrannan Blackhouses in the sunshine. We were sheltered from the strong north easterly wind but it reminded us of the conditions we’d escaped from out at sea and prompted thoughts of what it must be like out at Rona today. A pair of Golden Eagles entertained us over breakfast, along with an immature White-tailed Eagle (our first of the trip), plus we managed to see a Black-throated Diver in the mouth of the sealoch and breeding Twite around the village.

We spent a fascinating few hours wandering around the renovated Blackhouses, finding out about the way of life in this crofting township and we could see how the double thickness of the walls, the squat profile and the thatched roofs were needed to brave the Hebridean weather. Now, as well as the renovated dwellings, some of the blackhouses have now been converted into fairly unique self-catering properties.

After lunch, we sailed to Pabay Mor, towing the rib behind us, as the wholly new ground for me of the western coast of Lewis opened up ahead of us, an enthralling mix of cliffs and fine beaches. Passing round the northern side of Pabay Mor, we could see the coast was riddled with sea caves with a natural stone arch forming a passage into the hillside.

It wasn’t long before the hillwalkers aboard spotted a Ben Mhor on the map for Pabay. So what else could we do but climb it? So the first of several summit plans for the trip were hatched… And indeed, most of the party summited, although it was touch and go for a time but we all made it to the summit in the end… at a staggering 68 metres. You take your hills where you can!

Exploring Pabay, with the sun shining and the glorious Pabbay off Lewis by Irene Bostonhills of Lewis as a backdrop, was a wonderfully relaxing way to spend the rest of the day. The wealth of flora to enjoy included Spring Squill, Marsh Cinquefoil and Bogbean with birds such as Golden Plover, chipping Snipe, Lapwing and Raven gracing the slopes. Sue swam again off the sandy beach and we seemed to take to heart at the phrase, ‘leave nothing but footprints’ as the beach was more like quicksand to walk across and we nearly left Mike behind at one point as he sank not so slowly into the mire.

The remains of the stone walls of old fish traps were a testament to the island’s past occupation by a fishing community, and were still visible on the western end of the island where it forms an inland natural harbour, bounded by the protective arm of Pabay Beag. We stayed overnight off Pabay with views towards the shell-sand beaches on Lewis, and it was another idyllic anchorage which is always one of the highlights of a trip on HB, and another one to add to my ever-growing list of favourites.

Wednesday 15th June – sheltering at Loch Tamanavay
A cloudy morning greeted us and in dramatic seas and intermittent rain, we headed south along the distinctive gneiss of the Lewis coast to skirt Scarp. We headed for Loch Tamanavay, sailing into the narrow mouth of the sealoch to find shelter from the continuing north easterly wind which was to dog us over the next few days. We were lucky with another White-tailed Eagle and a pair of Red-throated Divers were fishing in the loch as we arrived before flying off inland, presumably to their breeding lochan.

Guests at Tamanavay by Irene BostonAfter lunch, we were put ashore for a walk to the blackhouses, the first part of the walk being along the winding road to the estate lodge which was driven through in the late 1990s. Once we left the man-made surface, it was a tussocky but rewarding walk up past the remains of an old mill high up on the burn, before a soggy hill stood between us and the remains of the blackhouses. While the rest of us pottered about the ruins and the old pier, Sue and Don kept up the group’s unspoken summiting tradition by heading for the top of Ard Beag at 182m, where they enjoyed the extensive view seawards while being buffeted by the cold wind.

Unfortunately, on a solo walk back, our work experience lass, Ruby sprained her ankle but was fortunate to find two kind fishermen who helped her to Tamanavay Lodge where she was able to rest up, and they deserve even more thanks for driving her back to the rib landing spot. She was lucky to find such Good Samaritans considering how isolated the area was, the lodge being the only habitation for miles, and it certainly made collecting the walking wounded in the rib easier than it might have been later on. So while we were sorry to disrupt their quiet holiday, we were thankful for what they did.

While all this was going on, Mark and Anna had managed to discover several beehives on the shoreline which aren’t marked on the map and when he picked up the rest of us later, we detoured to the site and had a fascinating time exploring the shoreline. It makes for a thought-provoking experience to look at these small cells and then lift your eyes to the surrounding countryside and imagine the deprivations that the weather and living in such a landscape would have brought to its occupants.

While we were all ashore earlier, the skipper had also not been idle and had been over the side diving for scallops and dinner that evening was scallop risotto, definitely a highlight of the many delicious meals ‘Cheffie’ produced for us. Plans were hatched over dinner for the next day and weather permitting, Mark promised us a landing on Scarp, dangling the promise of a bowling championship if we  made it. By the time we all went to bed, teams were picked (women versus men of course), tactics were discussed and challenges issued… and the men were looking decidedly nervous and already rehearsing their excuses.

Thursday 16th June – a scarper round Scarp
Drop scones greeted us for breakfast and were soon devoured, only minor skirmishes breaking out over the syrup bottle. One of the great bonuses of life aboard HB is the food. Every cruise blog mentions it but it’s worth emphasising just how superb the whole eating experience is aboard HB. Every single meal is different… and that includes breakfast. While there are always the staples of porridge, toast and cereals, each breakfast would also see something different, with either eggs or drop scones or sausages or kippers (even if the skipper missed out on those first time round… he was just too slow!).

Lunch would be equally varied, with either homemade soup, pasta bakes, pizza and even with lunch on the hoof, when Mark II could be forgiven for going with something quick and easy, there would nearly always be something homemade landing steaming on the table… and dinner each night was a revelation. As one of only two vegetarians aboard, that side of the menu was never short-changed, as so many places do when you’re made to feel it’s an imposition having to do something extra to what’s being offered to the carnivores. Each vegetarian dish would be imaginative and the thought and care that went into it was very impressive, and I’m sure I’ll lose the extra poundage eventually… hopefully in time for the next trip.

Scarp by Irene BostonThe weather was a trifle livelier than we’d hoped as the skipper skirted round the top end of Scarp and he wasn’t optimistic of a landing. But as we entered the shelter afforded by the Hushinish headland on Harris, he managed to land us in the rib in the choppy conditions and intermittent squalls for an all-too-brief visit (although sadly no time for a summit, let alone bowls). Although we also reckoned that the prospect of the men being thrashed at bowls was part of the reason for curtailing our Scarp visit… next time perhaps?

Our quick visit ashore was well worth the effort though, as we could see how fascinating the island is for a longer exploration. We managed a quick wander across yet another idyllic sandy beach and a brief visit to the Commonwealth graves in the cemetery. Most islands had merchant sailors’ bodies washed up during the war and each island has its own Commonwealth graves… the marine equivalent of the grave of the unknown soldier, I suppose, although the ones buried on Scarp were luckier than most in that their names were known so presumably their families could be notified.

Our plans were as fluid as the weather and after a brief brainstorming, we headed for Taransay, one of only two island repeats for me on this trip and a particular favourite of mine, where we planned on staying overnight. A walk in the wind and showers allowed us enough gaps to explore and I’m pleased to say that Sue and Don kept up our summiting tradition by walking to Ben Raah, while the rest of us explored the island’s various nooks and crannies. Those who visited the Loch an Dun broch were also rewarded with a pair of Black-throated Divers on the lochan. Sitting on the leeward side of a rocky outcrop with what seemed a never-ending view westwards, it was fascinating to watch the breeding birds all around me on the moorland, a highlight being several pairs of Golden Plover.

Friday 17th June – Boreray (the other one!) and yet another Pabbay
While it was another breezy morning, at least the sunRib landing at Boreray by Irene Boston was shining for our morning on Boreray, where we had fun with another soggy beach landing. Although Mark did threaten to put the cost of the dent one of the hidden rocks had made in his outboard prop onto our bar bills… Inevitably, most of our party headed straight for the mighty 56m summit of Mullach Mor… superb views for minimal effort. And it’s probably the only time I’ll ever be able to write that I stood on the summit of Boreray!

Walking back via the ruins of the settlement, both flora and fauna held surprises as we separately stumbled across a Lesser Butterfly Orchid on the machair, but it was the Mute Swan with five cygnets which was an unusual sight for this area. A Barnacle Goose had surprisingly over-summered with the Greylags around Loch Mor, an inland stretch of water that was barely that… separated from the full force of the Atlantic by only a thin rock and shingle ridge at its western end.

After lunch on board, we sailed to our second Pabbay of the trip, again towing the rib behind us. An easy landing followed on the pier ramp but we did manage a Northern Light first… Mark II came ashore with us. There should be a blue plaque on that pier!

It was a fascinating afternoon wandering around the ancient settlement, the ruins of an earlier chapel and the ruined castle of Old Dun, now perched precariously on what is effectively a large sand dune. Pabbay once supported a considerable population of about 100 people in the early 1800s, with a surprisingly fertile soil producing and exporting corn, barley and it was once known as the granary of Harris.

And, of course, we topped our visit off with yet another summit, Beinn a Charnain at 196m. Lounging at the top, we soaked up the most far-reaching views of the whole trip, with the Sound of Harris, Uist and Berneray arrayed in front of us and some of our journey spread out behind us.

Pabbay by Irene BostonPabbay 2 by Irene Boston

A treat for me was watching breeding Dunlin, a rare sight for a Southerner. I lost count at 15 pairs on the way up, with a supporting cast of Golden Plover, Curlew, Lapwing and Redshank and a herd of Red Deer which managed to spring over the deer fence as if it wasn’t there. And although the spread of flora was impressive, it did suffer in lack of diversity from the presence of the grazing sheep.

Saturday 18th June – another Northern Lights first
By this time, the group were quite taken not only with summit fever but also with the idea of firsts… so the prospect of a possible first landing for HB on Shillay was greeted with enthusiasm as we sailed north from our overnight anchorage at Pabbay.

The skipper was able to use the anchorage on the eastern side of Shillay but was worried about the tide, so we only had an hour or so ashore but it was enough for us all to race round exploring as much as we could. It’s a fascinating island, made more so by being the first one we’d landed on that had something missing. No sheep! And it showed, in the lushness and diversity of the flora. It was akin to walking on a soft thick carpet of vegetation rather than something overgrazed to within an inch of its life. It’s how the uplands should look…  Needless to say, we all topped out at a knee-trembling 79m, including Mark and Anna, and it became a question of how many people could you stand on the summit boulder? As it turned out… six!

Shilogh by Irene Boston

We carried on round the western side of the island above the vertical cliffs where Ruby found a White-tailed Eagle feather, a primary feather which was as long as my forearm. We also found several Great Black-backed Gull kills and there’s only a few things that can take out a gull that size and sure enough, a sea eagle flew along the west coast of the island on cue before flying off in the direction of Harris… seen by everyone except me! We also managed, courtesy of our skipper, a sight of St Kilda and the other Boreray as blue but clear smudges out on the western horizon.

The Arctic Tern colony on the beach was a treat for the eye and ear, and I could have sat on the beach watching a breeding pair of Ringed Plover all day. The presence of Common Sandpiper, Linnets, Starlings, and Oystercatchers were testament to the richness of the birdlife the island supported, and it was a treat to see Twite feeding on their preferred food plant of Sorrel, which formed a rich red carpet on the ungrazed slopes. And in the autumn, the sheltered sand and boulder beach on the south eastern side is a safe haven for Grey Seals at pupping time.

Our exit from the beach was fun. Mark announced that we would execute a commando style launch of the rib… with style and dignity. Clearly, calling our group ‘dynamic’ that morning at breakfast had gone to his head! Although, sadly, our clambering onto the rib had far more enthusiasm and flailing around about it than it did skill. I don’t think the Special Boat Service need look over their shoulder at the competition any time soon.

In sunshine, we sailed through the Sound of Harris, emerging onto the eastern side with a view to the Shiants – we had come full circle. Civilisation beckoned, chiefly because the skipper had run out of books to read! So, as we’ll do anything to avoid a grumpy skipper, we moored at Lochmaddy for the afternoon; HB gently coming to a halt with barely a bump alongside the pontoon in what Don, the experienced sailor among the passengers, pronounced to be an amazing piece of driving by Mark.

After a potter about the village, we headed for Loch Eport, another favourite anchorage of mine where we enjoyed a calm, peaceful evening and Sue a last wild swim, with the hill of Evaal an impressive backdrop. As she said, it’s a very special experience to be swimming in a sealoch surrounded by hills you’ve climbed.

Sunday 19th June – a ‘lumpy’ Minch
The morning dawned misty and windy as we left Loch Eport and headed out onto the Minch where the sea soon became more than a bit lumpy as we headed for Canna in a force 5-7. Even in the roughest of seas, HB always feels stable and sturdy, and even the most nervous of sailors aboard commented how safe they felt aboard the old girl. Some of us, me included, are lucky in that we don’t suffer from seasickness at all, but we felt for those who did but everyone coped well and four hours later we reached Canna harbour again, where a week ago we’d started.

After a discussion about possible plans A and B based on the worsening weather, the skipper decided we’d hole up at Canna overnight and then head for Mull the next morning. So we were landed ashore at Canna and although the weather closed in on us, we made the best of a soggy afternoon. Don and I just about made it to our last summit of the trip, the highest point of Carn a’ Ghaill at 210 metres, Don in front as usual. Although it wasn’t long before the rain made further exploration more of a sadistic chore than an enjoyable pastime but after a while, you just can’t get any wetter!

The rest of the party scattered throughout the village, some braving the walk along the bay overlooking Sanday and others retreating to the shop and the café before wandering down to the harbour where Mark collected us… eventually. Another cruise vessel was anchored offshore and offloading passengers for much of the afternoon, the much larger Serenissima. And although she’s a fine-looking vessel, seeing the large number of passengers (she can carry 100, apparently) made me doubly glad to be on board HB. Size is not necessarily everything…

Monday 20th June – Mull bound
Canna dawned bright and dry and fortunately the wind had slightly eased, confirming that Mark had made the right decision. As we set off, expectations were high of a repeat of our dolphin escort but it was the first time I’ve sailed down Canna’s dolphin alley with no appearance… not a first we wanted really.

A steady rolling crossing in brightening skies past the Small Isles again saw us reach the northern end of Mull in good time. Sailing past Bloody Bay, we were lucky with views of a sea eagle circling over the radio mast and we were soon onto a mooring in Tobermory harbour in time for lunch. As I’d spent a few days on Mull already, I stayed aboard while everyone else went ashore.

The afternoon saw us motoring down the Sound for our final overnight anchorage and yet another personal favourite, both from land and sea, Loch Spelve, where Golden and Sea Eagles greeted us. A final dinner treat of veggie haggis and stuffed aubergine just about finished off my waistline and Mark II made us a superb cake for our final night… the skipper making a right Horlicks out of cutting it, but we felt safe in heckling him now we were in sight of land!

Tuesday 21st June – homeward bound
An early morning departure accompanied by eagles saw us head over to Oban via Kerrera, although Mark was initially thwarted in his attempts to tie up to the North Pier. A frustrating spell later and much jockeying of position by the other boats saw us safely alongside where we all enjoyed a final brunch, all of us starting to worry about the gastronomic withdrawal symptoms no doubt heading our way now we were losing Mark II’s cooking.

The real world was an unwelcome intrusion as the rail strike impacted on some of our passengers’ homeward journeys, so plans were hatched to ferry some back to cars, or different railway stations to try and minimise the stress after such a relaxing trip. Not the way you want to come back to earth really after such a fantastic experience. It’s my fourth trip with HB and I’m already looking forward to a fifth in September… and I’m going to keep coming back again and again until Mark gets it right… Only joking, skipper!

 

DID YOU KNOW?

Monachs. The main islands of Ceann Ear, Ceann Iar and Shivenish are all linked at low tide. At one time it was possible to walk all the way to Baleshare, and on to North Uist, five miles away at low tide.