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Sailing in Scotland: 'It's too good to be left to the rich...' - September 2011
Friday September 9 2011
You can emulate at home our first night in west Scotland's waters, as the waves lapped on the aft cabin of our boat: simply lie on the floor and ask a friend to drop a sack of potatoes next to you, over and over. For effect, add in a mild whisky hangover and get a neighbour to wake you at 8am playing the bagpipes.
In my pounding head were dreamlike memories of drinking below deck with a Liverpudlian sailor cuddling his post-alopecian African grey parrot ransomed from kidnappers in Grimsby - man and bird alike nodding along to electro-bagpipe pop. It was the kind of night to ruin a weekend: yet within moments of popping my head out into the fresh sea air of Oban's marina, it had been miraculously revived.
Living in London, Scotland's west coast looked too remote for any kind of weekend break. But a flight to Glasgow on Friday morning gave enough time for a guided visit of the ornate City Chambers by Queen Street station before catching the scenic train to Oban - a ride worth taking for views of the Firth of Clyde and Loch Lomond alone. We reached Oban by mid-afternoon, and one quick whisky distillery tour later we were on the ferry to the marina on the island of Kerrera. There you can eat lavish platters of fresh seafood, in what looks little more than a hut next to a marquee, at the Waypoint Bar and Grill (June-September only). While the rain lashed down, we warmed up with chowder and feasted on scallops, clams, mussels, langoustines and salmon from the grill.
It felt like I'd packed so much into the first 24 hours of my trip, and we hadn't even set sail yet. My boat for the weekend was Caitlin, a 12.7-metre Bnteau yacht that comfortably took six of us - including the skipper, Jim Smith, veteran of decades in the Royal Navy and his wife and navigator Dorothy, arguing agreeably over the course to sail. While qualified sailors can charter yachts "bareboat", anyone can go out to sea by hiring skippers while chipping in with as much (or as little) rope-pulling as they'd like under expert supervision. Our small three-boat flotilla included Jeanne, skippered for now by the bagpipe-playing Colin Brown with Paul and his parrot as crew, and Moonshadow, a bigger, more luxurious yacht whose owners Colin and Pauline Taylor both sail and cater for their guests.
Sailing, like skiing, is too good to be left to the rich. It's often perceived as a bottomlessly expensive billionaires' pursuit, but a sailing trip can also have the rough and ready feel of a camping holiday, and if you fill the berths on a boat with a few friends it works out cheaper than many hotels - around £40-£50 per person per night. And there's no checking in or out. One of the most surprising sensations to me still after a couple of sailing trips is the moment the ropes are first slipped from their moorings and your home is suddenly drifting off somewhere entirely new, and you haven't even had to pack.
Here, we were heading up to the Sound of Mull, as Oban's Victorian seafront slipped further away behind us. And then, with motor off and sail raised, the incredible moment when all is silence bar the waves and the wind, a few seabirds - and somehow this boat is zipping through the water, sucked on by the strange magic (or aerodynamics, as Jim explained) of the sail.
The forecast was grim: rain followed by showers, then showers followed by rain. But even - perhaps particularly - with overcast skies the panoramas were something else: clouds rolling over clifftops with forested slopes and waterfalls below, and ruined castles to port and starboard as we sailed.
At Lochaline, we stopped at a new pontoon built in the loch off the Sound of Mull - part of an ongoing investment in upgrading facilities for leisure sailors along the west coast. A short, atmospheric walk past an old sand mine took us to lunch. Once a remote Scottish village promised little for the hungry visitor, but times have changed. The Whitehouse Restaurant, a lovely, cosy yet bright place, was serving langoustines fresh from the loch and roast monkfish that we washed down with jugs of fresh fruit cordial and Heather ale.
We couldn't linger: Saturday night meant a booking at another miniature seafood paradise, Cafe Fish on the brightly painted harbour of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. In the last hours of sunlight, we overlooked the stretch of water that separated us from the western tip of the mainland, back where cities and stress existed. After dark, a trad-music night in MacGochans pub - highland dancing, wellies filled with drink, and Colin from Jeanne playing bagpipes on the dancefloor - was as far removed from any city nightlife I remember (and more fun).
Our night was completed by Moonshadow's Colin, who on board his boat in the small hours took us through a passionate "nosing" of the various Highland single malts, including the peatier, acquired tastes of the likes of Laphroaig. (Jim told me the next day he had a bottle at home: "We give it to people we don't like.") That sea air truly is invigorating: the next day, Colin and Pauline were up to cook us first breakfast and then, after seven hours sailing, a farewell lunch back at Kerrara.
Our boats returned into the final strait of water amid a pod of porpoises; a sea lion bobbed around the harbour as we said goodbye. Some touches of a Scottish sailing weekend just can't be emulated at home.
Portway Yacht Charters (01369 820120) offers a range of yachts from its bases at Kip Marina, Craobh Haven and Ballahulish for either bareboat or skippered charter. Weekly charter rates start at £800 for the smaller boats (sleeping four-six) in low season, and go up to £2,400 in high season for a larger boat sleeping 8-10. For accommodation offers and further information on Scotland go to visitscotland.com/surprise. For more information on sailing in Scotland visit sailscotland.co.uk