We set off southwards from Helmsdale on the west side of the Moray Firth on the 21st July in a brisk north easterly Force 5 and bright sunshine. Storm Petrel is a well mannered cruising yacht and she loves it (as does her skipper) when the wind is behind the beam. We had a cracking sail on a bouncy sea touching ten knots at times passing Tarbet Ness at lunchtime until we came in to the shelter of the Inverness Firth where the land converged on either side of us, folding us into its sheltered embrace. With brother Michael’s friend Peter having departed the day before we were a family crew of three and spent a happy day indulging our favourite hobby and reminiscing about adventures in days gone by before navigation became so routine and predictable.
The approaches to Inverness are impressive with the commanding presence of Fort George to port and Craigton Point to starboard where dolphins play at the right state of the tide. Under the tall Inverness road bridge and in to the Marina we went to tie up and say a fond farewell to Michael. We had all so much enjoyed our time together in tolerably good weather conditions and who knows he might be persuaded to join us next year in the Hebrides. Duncan McMillan rejoined us on the 23rd after a long days train journey and Mike Robory arrived on the 24th. We were ready to cast off again, washing done, boat cleaned and re-victualed. This next leg was to be in calmer, indeed at times, still waters.
The Caledonian Canal entrance is just around the corner from the new marina and once locked in you pay your dues and proceed through a series of locks towards Loch Ness. Bridges open, traffic is halted and trains wait whilst the likes of us motor majestically through. The sails are put away for a few days as we make our way south west. Nessy decides not to grace us with her presence and Fort Augustus provides us with an audience of countless tourists as we rise through lock after lock, breaking free at the top and heading on our way. The views and atmosphere are truly breathtaking. We had little rain but mists rolled through in the mornings and the sun was warm when it graced us with its presence.
We duly drew closer to Fort William and spent a whole afternoon with Ben Nevis in sight, looming larger and larger ahead of us and to one side. Not a cloud in sight. More fantastic scenery but now we are looking for salt water again and we lock out in to Loch Nevis and head on our way. The staff who operate the canal are dedicated to their work, they are polite and friendly and nothing is too much trouble. The Canal no longer serves any commercial purpose and depends for its survival on its famous name and the regular flow of yachts heading north and south. There is no case for this waterway in terms of profit but what a wonderful tribute to Thomas Telford and the people who built it. Do sail it.
We locked out at Corpach on the 29th July and proceeded in stately fashion down the Loch with Ben Nevis disappearing behind us, we rushed through the Corran Narrows turned to starboard in to the sound of Mull and then again to starboard in to Loch Aline. There is a nearly new pontoon and facilities available so after a night there our next stop was Tobermory, surely a compulsory visit for anyone cruising the West Coast. One might be tempted to say that Tobermory was becoming spoilt by its own popularity but it remains a charming and photogenic place. We tracked down the local fish shop and two kilos of boat cooked moules later (with wine) we were ready for sleep. This cruising lark is so tedious!
We don’t have time this year to go any further afield so Loch Sunart and a night at Salem pier was on the list. Thence back to Oban in very poor visibility. On passage our AIS spotted the ferry approaching and sure enough it loomed up out of the gloom and past us to starboard. Mike left us in Oban in good spirits to see his family in Glasgow. There was not a lot of sailing done whilst he was with us but we did the best with whatever wind we could find. The down side to all this pleasure seeking is that our waist lines have suffered on this cruise! The weather was dire in Oban for a couple of days, the cabaret comprised of watching exhausted competitors in the West Highland Yacht Festival sailing in with reports of 45 knots of wind in the Sound of Mull. We were hugely impressed with people who raced in these conditions until we discovered that their last race had been cancelled and they were just cruising back. We recommend a winter of fast cruises in the Solent!
Now was the time for our Corinthian reunion. Bill and Joan Thomas had been touring the highlands and islands by car and Bill was to join us for some sailing while Joan went south to see old LSC friends and to stay with Emmy and Ros. Lo and behold there they stood on the jetty and greetings concluded we made ready to sail away once more. Yes, more food, fuel and washing all done under the supervision of our Admiral with her usual skill and panache. Onwards we sailed towards Kimelford only to find ourselves stationary at full speed, so to speak, in the Sound of Luing having misjudged the tides. The wind picked up, however, and we were through and away looking nervously across at the Corryvrekan where we espied a pleasure boat going around in circles to amuse its paying guests. Not for us!
Kimelford has a nice privately owned pontoon where we moored up for the night and from whence we proceeded to Ardfern Yacht Centre for a further night. From there we were within an hour or so of Crinan where our final leg of this year’s adventure was to begin. Our feelings at this point are that the east coast has more peace and quiet to offer, the wild life is certainly much more interesting and it is off the beaten cruising track, a great attraction to the likes of us. From this point the beautiful scenery will continue but there is little pressure on our time and the distances covered are much reduced. It is local sailing now for a while but not before we have explored another canal. We are lucky people indeed.