Going long-term cruising is a big deal in so many ways, not least in terms of the personal element. Judging by the many happy couples we meet cruising the oceans it’s an ideal life for some. But we’ve also met couples where one clearly loves sailing and the life that goes with it, while the other partner is, well, less convinced. Sometimes it seems to work—just—whilst at others it’s clear that it isn’t going to work and it just can’t last.
Lou and I had met on one of my shark surveys—she had never been aboard a yacht before, yet within five minutes it was clear that I was going to have a fight on my hands to get the wheel back from her. With some people it just clicks, in more ways than one.
Several years later, happily settled together, the crucial moment was coming up—would we go for the big decision, pool our money and build a boat to become our wandering home, or just stick to cruising around our beloved Hebrides?
Time To Front Up
As I was coming to the end of my career as a working skipper, and Lou had gone freelance, part of the decision was already made. But the elephant in the room remained—were we ready for it?
Lou, now with several years experience working as mate aboard our survey yacht, certainly felt so. But we both knew that whilst that had been challenging at times, it was essentially day sailing with others aboard to assist. The question of the transition to the longer haul and coping entirely on our own still remained to be tested.
So rather than run the risk of discovering some way down the line that we hated the life we agreed to put ourselves through a ‘crash test’ first. We picked on one of our bi-annual delivery trips between the west of Scotland and Cornwall, with just the two of us aboard, as a suitable proving ground.
Forever Changes, my trusty Frers 39, we both knew well and loved dearly, but she was essentially a working boat, with few concessions to comfort and no autopilot.
To overcome that latter deficiency we had already re-fitted our Monitor windvane, although we knew from previous experience that it would be of little use in the enclosed waters of the Irish Sea, where the shifting winds due to land effects meant endless corrections to the vane to keep the boat on course. But it was better than nothing.
And What a Place to Sail…
Ah, the Irish Sea. A nasty, narrow, shallow piece of water with ferocious tidal gates at each end, where the relatively sheltered inshore waters meet the might of the Atlantic.
I’d done this trip dozens of times before in a variety of boats big and small, in just about every configuration—non-stop, up the coast of Wales, down the Irish coast, in and out of just about every port of refuge—and the one thing I did know about the place was that, as the old Spanish proverb says, ‘whichever route you take there is a league of bad road’.
Tactically, this is one passage you have to get right. The currents are so strong that to make any real progress towards your destination you have to carry the tide with you, but if the wind is against the tide (as it always seems to be), well, you’re going to get a battering. And if you’re thinking of trying to make ground to windward against the tide, forget it—you’ll be going sideways at best.
For it to be an enjoyable and smooth passage, you need a good forecast, a capable boat and a determined crew—and more than a little luck. Fun, huh?
And as we were going to be doing this at the beginning of April, we knew that we had every chance of facing some really grim weather at some stage of the voyage. Short days, long nights, cold and wet.
We reckoned if we could hack this one, get home in good shape and remain on speaking terms, anything else would be a walk in the park.
So we made the long haul north in a van full of gear and got Forever Changes ready and launched in Loch Creran late one bitterly cold spring afternoon. The last of the sun’s wan rays reflected off the snow-capped mountains around us, and off we went—immediately. This is the kind of passage that demands that if the forecast is favourable, you just get going.
First stop was at Dunstaffnage in the pitch dark to fuel up in the morning—tired, cold, apprehensive, but elated to be on the move at last.
The weather forecaster’s cheery voice predicted light northeasterly winds with fog patches, so we were up and off as soon as the fuel was aboard. The sun was out, on one of those unique west highland mornings, when the visibility stretches the imagination and you feel you could just sail on forever. Until you run into thick fog that is, as we did as we raced down the Sound of Luing a few hours later.
Now, of course, the one thing that wasn’t working when we left was the radar. The radome had been damaged while the mast was down in storage, a fact we hadn’t been aware of until we came to put it back up. So there was no time to repair it, but we consoled ourselves that if you wait until everything is working, then you’ll never leave the dock.
As it was, we were approaching the one ‘busy’ stretch of this passage, close to the entrance to the Crinan Canal. But this early in the season there was hardly likely to be much traffic—was there? So we crept inshore to avoid any chance encounters, only to narrowly miss the only other boat out on the water, who had exactly the same idea. I don’t know who was the more shocked, but Lou just laughed it off as if this was a sort of everyday occurrence around here. I sincerely hoped it wasn’t…
Finally the fog lifted, and we were off again, sharp into the first and last westerly breeze of the entire voyage, down to the lovely island of Gigha just as the sun sank into the sea. Time for a quick snack, then straight to bed to be ready to face a 5 o’clock start. Typical delivery: perfect weather, ideal opportunity to visit a delightful island, and we’ve got to keep the pedal to the metal.
So we were up and away in the dark, reaching into a foul tide in order to pick up the best of the favourable tide through the treacherous bottleneck at the Mull of Kintyre. This is a critical point in the passage—get it right and you’re flying, get it wrong and you may well regret it, especially as the overfalls here are around the worst in the British Isles. But with a moderate northeasterly and the tide under us we charged through the tidal gate and settled down to enjoy the magnificent backdrop of the Glens of Antrim, until the tide turned against us off the Maidens Lighthouse and we slowed down for a long slog into Bangor.
And there, the marina had the ambience of an abandoned shopping mall, and apart from one boat on our pontoon showing signs of life, that was it.
Finishing off the warps, I overheard Lou talking to the good people from the boat opposite, just in time to catch the alarming word ‘gin’, and before we knew it we were sitting in the warm fug of our new friends’ boat sipping ‘mothers ruin’ and enjoying the craic.
Now Irish hospitality is notoriously warm and generous, but it needs to be treated with respect, otherwise there is an inherent risk of becoming over-refreshed. But a couple of hours later that really didn’t seem to matter any more, and by the time the charming lady skipper and I discovered that we were, in fact, distant relatives, our fate was well and truly sealed. Oh dear. Tomorrow wasn’t going to be fun.
Part 2 coming up in a few days. Make sure you don’t miss it.