Issue Eight, Summer 2007.
Page No 3
Molly Jade around Skye
Molly Jade – Summer 2006
Rona reconnaissance 25th of May
The weather this may has been interesting! Frequent of northerly winds, new snow on the hills almost daily. Through the day you watch as the snow burns off the hill (on the rare days when you can see them) and in the morning its back again.
May the 24th – The forecast for tomorrow was for westerly 4 to 5, showers with good visibility in between. It had been a frustrating week, full of things I don’t want to do, so when asked buy Briony what my plans were for tomorrow the answer was simple, "Going sailing".
It so happened that my pal Lochie was round at the time and his wee voice piped up from the corner "Can I come?" So it was agreed, I had a crew.
Rona is the northernmost island in the Inner Sound between Skye and the mainland, it is separated from neighbouring Rassay to the south by Caol Rona, a narrow deep straight dotted with wee islands. It is made of Lewisian gneiss, one of the worlds oldest rocks. There is a lot of exposed rock on the island giving it an almost lunar character, a gneiss landscape tends to be very rough with lots of outcrops, valleys and folds.
The rock was one factor in our decision to visit the island as we both climb and were keen to explore virgin territory untouched by other climbers.
When I look out of my front window on a clear day, I can just see Rona ‘hull down’ on the horizon, another compelling reason to sail there. Now not only did I have a crew, I had an objective.
May the 25th – The day dawned clear and completely wind free. By the time we had got organised and packed our gear, got the food together etc a light westerly had sprung up and things were looking more promising.
We set off west up Caol Scalpay under engine as the wind was right on the nose and we were determined to get to Rona, as we headed out into the mouth of Loch Ainort the wind freshened and a shower threatened. As we passed the point of Moll and headed into the mouth of Loch Sligachan where I expected to be able to dispense with the engine and hoist sails we were heeled at 10 degrees, the hail bounced off the decks and we froze as the squall passed through, still motoring under bare poles!
Once through the Rassay narrows conditions improved and we hoisted the main with one reef in case of another squall, and rolled out the jib.
Conditions settled and the wind stabilised to a pleasant force 3 on the beam. By now the skies were grey and Skye was wreathed in its customary mists (It is not known as ‘The misty Isle’ for nothing). To the east and north the sky remained largely clear, though full of fluffy cumulus clouds, the transition between the flat grey to the west and clearer skies to the east was above out heads and created wonderful light, Rassay looking very mystical.
Our sail up the Sound of Rassay in these conditions was peaceful.
There was a lot of birdlife around the sound that day, the usual hordes of Razorbills, Guillemots and Cormorants were accompanied by an unusual number of comic and colourful Puffins. All we needed was a Sea Eagle to finish off the scene, but today he was absent.
We continued thus past Portree, the capital of Skye, and continued north edging towards Rassay. Once past Portree, the swell from the north made itself felt as the sound opened out and we headed towards the Hebridean sea.
Around three miles from our destination on Rona our pleasant force 3 beam wind increased briefly to force 4 and then died to virtually nothing, we continued sailing in light airs at around 2 knots, rolling in the long swell.
A few minutes later, as we admired an isolated shower as it wreathed the Old man of Stoer on Skye in curtains of rain, the surface of the sea darkened and we were hit by a blast of wind. Molly-Jade heeled over, almost putting the gunwale under, dug in and charged off on a close reach at around six knots. I was rather glad I had kept the reef in. The squall continued to intensify and another reef was put in the main rather hurriedly and the jib rolled in a bit (hampered somewhat by a riding turn on the sheet winch).
In one of those contrasts that makes the Hebridies so wonderful, we had gone from peacefully toot ling along laughing at Puffins flapping along the surface, to charging along excitedly adjusting sail trim and steering round the rapidly rising seas as they stood up in a force 6 squall. And all this in a matter of minutes! Both situations great sailing, one pleasant and relaxing ,the other exciting and invigorating.
By the time we had got the boat set up and sailing nicely in the new conditions we had closed to within a mile of Rona and with Rassay coast not too far off with its attendant skerries we had a rather unpleasant lee shore to consider also.
Rona has two anchorages, one exposed to the north and west and not the one for us. The other, which we were headed for, is a narrow inlet full of rocksand skerries with the entrance guarded by a small island. We were now parallel with the entrance and the squall had moderated to a stiff force 4, we changed course and on a beam reach headed for the entrance.
My plan was to keep the sails up until in the shelter of Eilean Garbh from the lumpy sea, and then thread our way through the rocks and skerries under engine power. In preparation for this I fired up the engine.
Just as we were about to enter the shelter of the island and were committed to our approach, the engine alarms went off and I had to shut down. ‘Bugger!’ I thought.
As soon as we sailed into the lee of the island I rolled up the jib, the wind in the lee was light and we were just able to maintain steerage way, which was fine. I sent Lochie up to the bow to prepare the anchor and flake out the chain, also to look for rocks.
With Lochie standing by ready to let go if we found ourselves in a blind alley and keeping a good eye on the chart and sounder we threaded our way through the channel and into the anchorage. The anchor splashed down and I backwinded the main to set it, then dropped the sail. I took a couple of transits to check we were holding and opened a tin of Guinness! Lochie remarked that his first ever trip in a sailing boat had been "quite good fun".
The anchorage on Rona is incredibly scenic, a small loch studded with islands, surrounded by crags and rough ground, unusually for the Hebridies there are a lot of trees. The islands caretaker has a cottage which sits prettily up on a wee hill overlooking the anchorage.
We tidied up the boat and I repaired the engine (water pump impeller had failed),then went ashore.
We explored the island a wee bit and did some bouldering (climbing about on small crags with soft ground below in case of a fall) We also found several large crags which will yield some good climbing when we return with a rope.
The island surpassed our expectations, put simply, it is a fantastic place to spend some time. We walked up to the high point and looked out over the western seaboard of the mainland, identifying mainland hills we had climbed, but seeing them from a strange angle. The views west along the north coast of Skye and out to the western isles, or south across Rassay and Skye, simply needed to be absorbed.
Our intention had been to spend the night at Rona, however on the sail up we had heard the weather forecast on the VHF and it was speaking of "west to southwest 5 to 7 possibly gale 8", which would have put the wind right on our nose all the way home, and a fairly big wind at that, also spoke of rain. So as we walked back toward the anchorage we decided it would be best to return that evening, one of the great things up here in the summer is that it hardly gets dark, on a cloudless evening you can follow the track of the afterglow across the northern horizon until the sun pops up again a couple of hours later.
At the caretakers cottage we called in to say goodbye and were treated to a wide ranging discussion on the estate Factor and his shortcomings, power generation, the Postie on Rassay, "them buggers in plastic caravans of boats that sail around thinking they own the place", etc, until he was driven inside by the midgies, don’t think he gets out much! However, we were welcomed back any time and discovered that the Dutch lady who owns the island has an open door policy toward visitors.
By the time we got back aboard Molly-Jade it was 7.30.
We pulled the anchor and motored out through the twisting channel, if anything a bit more nerve wracking than when we came in as the tide was now high and covering all the rocks and skerries. There was no wind, so we continued to motor, through Caol Rona and then turned south down the east shore of Rassay. As we left Caol Rona we were escorted by a pod of dolphins for a while, wonderful place to be surrounded by some of the finest scenery in the world on a flat calm mirror finished sea with the sunset developing, the sky turning orange.
I cooked dinner and we ate and chatted and wondered at the view. The sun dipped finally behind Rassay, and the long Hebridean twilight began, the most magical time of day in my opinion. It got cold.
We continued motoring, still not a breath of wind, and rounded the southern tip of Rassay, by now very cold, slowly getting darker, the land crisply outlined against the darkening sky as the stars began to pop into existence.
As we rounded the southern end of Rassay and headed for the harbour where I had to drop Lochie off, I looked up, and soaring out of the shadow of the hill came a Sea eagle. This is the third trip in a row I have seen one. There are, I believe, 40 or so pairs in Scotland now (the 200th chick has just fledged on Skye according to the West Highland Free Press), to have one that frequently patrols the Inner Sound is a rather fine.
We approached the ferry harbour on Rassay in the gloaming, Ben Tianavaig (pronounced Chan-a-vaig, gallic, don’t ask, you get used to it!) framed in the orange afterglow, the hill inky black, as was the pier, so we missed the ladder on the first pass.
I manoeuvred the boat round, nose in to the pier and Lochie grabbed the ladder, I held the boat in and he shot off up and away to find a warm house for the night.
I pushed off and turned the boat, aiming her bows for home. Cold now and wanting to be tucked up in bed I set her cruising at 5 ½ knots and made a coffee. With the tiller mate holding her on course I went up to the pulpit and leaning against the forestay drank my coffee and smoked a reflective cigarette as I contemplated the darkening sea around me, save for the beat of the diesel, I could have been any Hebridean mariner at any time in history, heading into my home port at the end of a long day. That thought made me feel rather good about life.
I picked up my mooring at 23.30, and rowed ashore, satisfied.
Post script – I woke the following morning to rain hammering on the bedroom window, by the time we would have been leaving Rona to sail home had we stayed, it was still pouring down, visibility in the sound was around half a mile and the wind was around force 6. I was not unhappy we had curtailed our trip, the weather lasted all day.
The great puffin hunt and other trips –July & August
The great puffin hunt came about following a week where Briony and Molly had been away, and I had been left at home looking after the dog. Left to my own devices I had divided my time roughly equally between the mountains, the Triumph and the boat. Had a couple of nice days out in MJ, a pleasant days fishing in Loch nam Beiste, just south of Kyle of Lochalsh, and a more exciting trip around Scalpay.
I had decided I was going out, I arrived at the boatyard and was chatting to Graham (the chap who runs the place), the previously pleasant SW breeze had turned unpleasant and gusty. I was on the point of going home again and not bothering and then though "Ach, I’ll just go and have a look, see what like with a reef in". I sailed off the mooring with one reef in the main, cleared the other boats, rolled out the jib and sailed west up Caol Scalpay. Met the usual gusts at the mouth of Loch Ainort and headed for the Sound of Rassay. The sound looked rough and unpleasant, so I turned east and headed Scalpay And Rassay, the sun came out and the wind evened out and dropped. I shook out the reef in the main and rolled out the full jib, lovely sailing, boat trundling along nicely at 5 knots, sun on my back and great views. I rounded the NE corner of Scalpay, the wind died to a vesper on the starboard beam, picked up again in a wee gust, then died again. Becalmed.
I sat there and sunbathed, sails idle, watched the Puffins and Guillemots, my sea eagle floated past on the thermals (no camera, again!). I was trying to summon the motivation to drop the sails and start the engine when a new breeze sprang up and we were off again. The breeze stiffened, a black line approached from the south and the 30 seconds later I was up on the coachroof tying the reef back in. I shot down between Scalpay and Longay close hauled into a F5 gusting F6, a short steep chop sending plumes of spray over the bow, the cockpit remained dry right up to the point where I had just nearly finished rolling a cigarette, when a big lump of spray came in and destroyed it. I took the hint and didn’t bother with smoking after that.
I sailed on the same tack down past Pabbay, almost to the Skye shore. Then tacked up between Skye and Pabbay, wind getting more gusty the closer I was to Skye. Then a last leg on a fast close reach back to the mooring. I was rather pleased I decided to go out after all.
When Briony and Molly returned, we conceived the great puffin hunt. We saw lots of puffins and had some nice sailing on a quiet day. Unfortunately, I rather spoiled the day by running the boat into a rock while trying to pass through a narrow shallow channel on a low spring tide, she stopped with a bit of a bang.
Another fine day out was a trip over to Plockton, 18 miles on a beam reach with some quite large seas to contend with at times, for once it was a day without gusts, just a steady F4/5. The food and crack in Plockton were that good that we never quite made it back to the boat in time to get home. Briony and I motored home the next day in an absolute flat calm.
That’s about all for now, MJ is staying in the water this winter, looking forward to those cold crisp days and seeing all the hills plastered in snow. But that is for the next newsletter!