This far north, the days are shorter still, and the temperatures far lower, than at Tréguier, where the passage started, especially this late in the year. So it was a well wrapped-up crew who set off from Dun Laoghaire at first light to make the passage up to our next planned overnight stop at Strangford Lough.
The wind had now settled into the west and we had obtained the very latest web-based weather updates, which gave us plenty to think about, to say the least!
As we still had a good way to go, we knew we had to time our run to perfection to reach our final goal of Ardfern, or we’d have to leave Eala Bhan somewhere safe for the voyage to be completed when the weather allowed. Big boat or not, she was still very new, and we were well aware that we didn’t want to take any serious chances with her until she was a far better-known quantity.
Dun Laoghaire to Belfast Lough
There was no real sign of the weather to come as we made our way out past Howth Head and Irelands Eye, and settled down to a comfortable close reach up the coast. This next leg is an easy one if the wind is in the west, as there’s total shelter from the land, and because of the way the tides work in the Irish Sea, there is a large pool of slack water almost as far as the next major headland at St Johns Point—it’s about as mild a stretch of water as can be found in the whole of the Irish Sea.
It’s a rather lovely piece of coastline on a fine day, when the views of the Carlingford and Mourne mountains can be especially uplifting. Which can also be said of the katabatic gusts that come careering down from them on a windy day when sailing close to the shore, as I’ve found to my cost on occasion.
And it’s also a patch of water where I’ve often seen whales, and on this day we were treated to a juvenile Minke whale repeatedly breaching, in a wonderful display of youthful exuberance.
All in all, a great day to be out on the water, and life was easy indeed, the only concern being that we needed to be into the narrows at the entrance to Strangford Lough by late afternoon to catch the last of the flood up into the Lough. The tides in Strangford are astonishingly powerful, which is why there is a sizeable tidal turbine situated in mid-stream just below Portaferry, and trying to make an entry against the tide here is always a loser’s game, slow and arduous.
We made it in good time, and were soon tucked up at anchor for the night in Audleys Roads. The wind was finally making itself felt, but down below you’d never have known it, as the thick insulation makes such an effective sound-deadening material.
The rain blew horizontally past us all night as it will in Ireland, but even in the stronger gusts Eala Bhan hardly budged; another plus you get with a bigger, heavier boat. Result: total peace.
Off with the ebb at the crack of dawn with the wind now a solid Force 6 (22 to 27 knots) from the west, we bounced our way out through the turbulence in the narrows before turning north to head up the coast to Belfast Lough.
A Rollicking Sail
By now there were gale warnings out for just about all of the sea areas around the British Isles, with severe gale and storm warnings just to the north of us. But with the wind off the land, and from the perfect direction, Eala Bhan was ready to show us her potential in a real breeze at last.
With two reefs in the main and full staysail, she was beautifully balanced, and even with the tide against her we were really covering the ground fast. When the wind occasionally piped up to Force 7 (28 to 33 knots) she remained stiff and comfortable, and the NKE autopilot didn’t show any sign of distress.
With the kicker (vang) and the mainsheet eased a little to allow her to spill the wind in the gusts, we had a fantastic sail, and we were up through the narrow passage between Copeland Island and Donaghadee and into the Lough with time to spare, tying up in Bangor in the middle of the afternoon.
Keeping The Options Open
It was time to make the call on the next leg to Scotland. The weather was by now pretty dire, and we had to decide on what was our best option. The forecast for the following day was for a gale from the south—a lot of wind but from a good direction, especially with the tide in our favour.
As a wind from that direction has a long fetch, there would certainly be a bit of a sea running, but that shouldn’t present any problems, we agreed.
The outlook for the following day was more worrying, with the wind set to swing round to the west or northwest, which would make for atrocious conditions at the critical bottleneck between Fair Head on the Antrim coast and the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland, where the tide runs like a mill race.
Once more calling on previous experience, I knew that a wind from the west would bend round into the North Channel and head us completely just when we least needed it, and none of us liked the thought of that.
After a long discussion we decided to leave the next morning and head up to Cambelltown just inside Kintyre and leave the final decision regarding the Mull until we’d got the latest weather update.
Seamanship is Thinking Ahead
We gave the boat a very careful once-over in Bangor, finding a loose bracket on the engine, and tightened the alternator belt that had now bedded in, leaving nothing to chance for the next leg.
Checking everything, getting food prepared in advance, and having a thorough mutual briefing isn’t just good policy from a practical point of view, it’s also good for morale and crew cohesion, and gives a strong sense of purpose and preparedness when tricky conditions have to be faced. As a result, when we cast off at Bangor we were all feeling confident in ourselves and Eala Bhan.
Conditions out in the Lough were not too bad, but we knew we’d find out what it was really like once we cleared the entrance, when the full force of the wind would let itself be known.
We’d decided not to offer a hostage to fortune by deploying the Watt & Sea hydrogenerator, in case we had any problems with it that might necessitate hanging off the back of the boat to retrieve it.
I shinned up the mast via the mast steps to rig a downhaul on the luff cringle of the third reef as the track was still a little stiff, which proved useful as it soon became clear that we’d need it, and we set the third reef whilst it was still easy to do so. As we cleared White Head we altered course to the north and, with the wind almost dead astern, we lowered both daggerboards and Patrick took over at the wheel.
With the wind steady at around 30 knots, Eala Bhan settled down to a smooth, steady lope in the short, steep sea that was running. The forecast was for the wind to increase through the day, reaching a peak late in the afternoon, by which time we hoped to be alongside in Campbelltown.
With three reefs in the main and full staysail, she was running beautifully in total control. These true centreboarders (like our Ovni), with the mast well forward, handle really nicely with this set-up, running under a heavily-reefed main well-secured with a preventer. Eala Bhan proved this once again and, with the additional benefit of the daggerboards, was running on rails.
Our intention was to keep the wind slightly over the quarter and gybe the boat to keep the staysail drawing, although with the wind shifting around constantly it wasn’t doing much at times. As Eala Bhan stormed along, looking back down the deck to Patrick and Linda’s happy faces was a delight.
“Eala Bhan” running into Kilbrannan Sound, gale Force 8.
Once we were well out from the land, the wind settled down in direction and picked up steadily, and by early afternoon we were regularly recording longer spells of up to 38 knots and the sea had got up considerably, but Eala Bhan still ran as straight as an arrow and not a drop of water came aboard.
We were regularly making over ten knots, with short bursts of over 12, in total control, now with the autopilot handling the steering. The NKE autopilot was fantastic, fast and accurate at all times, and the power winches were an absolute blessing when we came to gybe the boat.
As a fresh bleat of misery came through over the VHF in the form of the latest gale warnings, we decided to scrub the planned stop at Cambelltown and continue on to Tarbert up Loch Fyne. As we careered up into Kilbrannan Sound the magnificent wild landscape of Scotland worked its magic on us all—what a way to come home!
Picking our moments to gybe with care, we simply flew up the Sound, with the wind eventually swinging round in our favour as we neared Skipness Point. By now the sea was going down a little, which was welcome, but the wind was still strong, and we got hit by a few really spiky gusts once north of the Cock of Arran. But it was late in the day, so we pressed on as fast as we could to enter Tarbert with the last of the light.
Entering via the twisty entrance at Tarbert the town seemed fast asleep, no surprise really as the rain was teeming down and it was blowing really hard. As a result, nobody appeared to help us as we set up for a fast downwind approach to the visitor’s pontoon.
Eala Bhan has both a bow thruster and a stern thruster, and it’s at times like these that they come in very useful. As we rounded up at the last minute, the wind came hard on our beam, but with both thrusters working, Patrick made a textbook landing alongside and in a moment we had her secured. As it was by now a really poor night, we immediately retired below and fired up the heater, none of us wanting to face the walk into town. And with such warm and comfortable accommodation, who would want to, in any case?
By now we had run out of time, though, and with only one day left we decided to leave Eala Bhan in the Crinan Canal for a week or so until Patrick and Linda could return to pick her up to make the last leg to Ardfern. The Crinan Canal was built specifically to make life safer for vessels working between the Clyde and the west coast when conditions outside are bad, and it’s a pretty diversion at any time, but it is undeniably hard work as most of the locks are manual.
With only three of us and no other boat crews around to share the work, we didn’t consider for one minute that we’d get through it all in one day. Still, we were up early the next morning to get her into the sea lock at Ardrishaig and well on her way.
How wrong can you be, as the lockkeeping staff, with little to do at this time of year, helped us every inch of the way, aided by Patrick and Linda’s good friend Tony Bennett of Argyll Yacht Charters, who joined us at the highest point of the Canal at Cairnbaan.
As a result we positively raced through the Canal and were able to lock out from Crinan Basin late in the afternoon to make the last short leg up to Ardfern in a stiff breeze from the northwest. An hour or so later Eala Bhan was finally alongside, after what could only be described as a fantastic voyage home to Scotland.
The Boréal 55, The Verdict?
I don’t think I’ve ever sailed a boat with as much power in reserve as Eala Bhan. She handled all of the weather with ease, in safety and comfort, and didn’t overtax her crew at any time.
Any boat should look after her crew first and foremost and she excels in every department in that respect. Not only is she solid and stable at sea, she is also very comfortable at anchor or in harbour.
On watch, the doghouse is one of those features that make such a positive difference to offshore sailing, that once tried, anything else will seem like less in future.
The rig is easy to handle, and with the optional power winches life is easy for a short-handed crew.
She has huge amounts of stowage area available and substantial water and fuel tanks, the kind of features that are so necessary for real long-range cruising but are often overlooked. Everything about her shows that she was conceived for crossing oceans and exploring wild places, whilst taking care of her crew.
All in all, this is an exceptional boat, and I’d be happy to go anywhere in her.
And with her crew, who were kind enough to offer me the chance to join them on such a memorable voyage. Working with Patrick and Linda over the past couple of years to see Eala Bhan come together has never been less than enjoyable and it was both an honour and a pleasure to sail her home with them.
I think that they and Eala Bhan will make a wonderful team, and I look forward to hearing about their exploits in the future. Thank you!
In Part Four, Colin takes a detailed look at the gear on Eala Bhan, what worked well, and what didn’t.
Learn more about these lifting keel aluminum boats.
Colin has worked closely with the company as owner’s representative for several builds.