Heading to the Western Isles

Saturday 25th June

The Arran ferry leaves Ardrossan. The "Cal Mac" ferries are an essential year round life-line to many Scottish islands. The ships have to be sturdy to deal with the winter weather - one ship has even been converted to a luxury cruiser which the Queen has chartered.

The Arran ferry leaves Ardrossan. The “Cal Mac” ferries are an essential year round life-line to many Scottish islands. The ships have to be sturdy to deal with the winter weather – one ship has even been converted to a luxury cruiser which the Queen has chartered.

We arise to wind and rain so after breakfast the girls make another trip to Asda. The weather forecast is for the weather to clear later this morning for the rest of the day before another “unseasonably deep low” sweeps bad weather in. (The fifth storm system we have had to hide from since we started). By late morning the sky has cleared and there is a brisk force 4 to 5 south westerly wind so we decide to sail to Tarbert which is on the way to the entrance to the Crinan Canal which we will take to regain the open sea and the Inner Hebrides. (There are lots of Tarbert’s in Scotland – this one is on Loch Fyne – think kippers!)

Ardrossan marina in the old inner harbour. A rather souless development but the amenities are good, the railway station is on the harbour wall and there is Asda right next door. The harbour control tower is on the left with the useless control lights and the hard to reach operative!

Ardrossan marina in the old inner harbour. A rather souless development but the amenities are good, the railway station is on the harbour wall and there is Asda right next door. The harbour control tower is on the left with the useless control lights and the hard to reach operative!

As we are about to set off we hear the Cal Mac ferry reporting in to the harbour control over the VHF. There is a very ineffectual harbour traffic light set up by the control tower which we see has turned to 2 red lights and a green – go for the ferry and stop for us so we hang about for 20 minutes or so whilst the ferry docks. The harbour control is meant to re-set the lights to all green once the ferry is in but earlier experience has shown that this harbour control is a bit wayward and does not respond to yachts radio messages so as no-one seems to be at home in control we venture out once the ferry is docked and its bow doors are open. Out in the Firth we just set the foresail (genoa) and make good progress at 6 knots or so over a rather bouncy sea on a reach towards the north of Arran and Tarbert. (For non-sailors, a reach is when the wind is at about 90o to the side of the boat. Sailing boats sail quickest and easiest on this point of sailing which in sailors slang is known as a “soldiers wind”, dating back to transporting troops by sailing boat). There is a cloud plume from the mountains of Arran which our course takes us under and we duly get rained on. The wind dies under the clouds, so we motor. Later, a light wind fills in again so we re-set both sails. Such is sailing! As we hoist the mainsail using the winch in the cockpit there is a bang and the winch fails. We have another winch we use but we have another repair on our hands. As we pass into Loch Fyne near the Mull of Kintyre by Tarbert we see some very large birds with enormous wing span soaring very high up – sea eagles!

The narrow entrance to Tarbert harbour protects it from the sea. The Portaverdie ferry connecting the Mull of Kintyre to the mainland is departing.

The narrow entrance to Tarbert harbour protects it from the sea. The Portaverdie ferry connecting the Mull of Kintyre to the mainland is departing.

Tarbert is a small and very well protected harbour at the end of a narrow inlet off Loch Fyne known as East Loch Tarbert. It is accessed via a winding passage between rocks which give added protection from the waves – just right for sheltering from heavy weather!

The attractive waterfront at Tarbert. The Tarbert Hotel on the right provides old fashioned but good food with a Sunday special roast.

The attractive waterfront at Tarbert. The Tarbert Hotel on the right provides old fashioned but good food with a Sunday special roast.

Once inside the entrance, the harbour opens out with the attractive village nestled around three sides of the harbour and with a back-drop of hills and a ruined castle. It makes an attractive picture. Once in port John dismantles the winch and discovers the broken part – a bronze cog that has failed before. Happily, we have one spare on board so the winch is soon repaired. However, our winches date from 1984 and spares can be difficult to get. Phone calls to co-owner Phil and John Steer draw a blank (John used to make the parts for us but has now retired and the workshop is no longer available) so the hunt is on for a source of spares.

View of the entrance to Tarbert harbour which is well protected by several rocky island and reefs from the swell of the open sea. The channel in is narrow and a bit tortuous with several buoys to mark the way.

View of the entrance to Tarbert harbour which is well protected by several rocky island and reefs from the swell of the open sea. The channel in is narrow and a bit tortuous with several buoys to mark the way.

John gets on the internet and sends a message to Lewmar, the original manufacturers but we will have to wait until Monday for an answer.

Many seafaring communities around the UK developed their own craft to suit their needs and waters. Some survive, the design kept alive by enthusiasts who often race them. A very few are still work boats (e.g.  the Falmouth Oyster Boats). These are Loch Fyne Skiffs - clinker built with the distinctive raked backed masts. The town can be seen in the background with the ruined castle on the hill above. The active fishing fleet of around 20 boats are at the fish quay on the right, the new leisure and small boat marina is on the left, centered on the site of a former boatyard.

Many seafaring communities around the UK developed their own craft to suit their needs and waters. Some survive, the design kept alive by enthusiasts who often race them. A very few are still work boats (e.g. the Falmouth Oyster Boats). These are Loch Fyne Skiffs – clinker built with the distinctive raked backed masts.
The town can be seen in the background with the ruined castle on the hill above. The active fishing fleet of around 20 boats are at the fish quay on the right, the new leisure and small boat marina is on the left, centered on the site of a former boatyard.

We enjoy G & T’s on deck, then cook up sausage supper (one of our “one pot” dishes) before turning in. Ships log Days run: 25.5 nm Total mileage to date: 942.7 nm Engine hours today: 2.5 Hours sailed today: 5.5 Total hours sailed: 206.0 Sunday 23rd. June With the stormy weather forecast we decide to stay and explore Tarbert today so we walk to the village to find a Sunday paper and see what we can do.

Tarbert hosts a classic boat rally each July. It is also home to a number of classic boats including Swn y Mor, a converted Colvic Watson lifeboat that was converted to a sailing yawl and subsequently sailed round the world.

Tarbert hosts a classic boat rally each July. It is also home to a number of classic boats including Swn y Mor, a converted Colvic Watson lifeboat that was converted to a sailing yawl and subsequently sailed round the world.

The harbour office gave us a welcome pack and the weather forecast when we booked in yesterday (which is rare for any harbour or marina in the UK) which included a fine yearbook. From this we learn that Tarbert has been a shelter for both fishermen and traders for over 1000 years. Like so many fishing ports, it grew with the rise of the herring industry from the 18th century until the “silver darlings” became scarce in the 1970’s and fishing rapidly declined to the 20 or so fleet of today who fish for prawns & clams while dive boats fish for razor shells, clams and otter clam shells (a Chinese delicacy).

There was a boat yard in Tarbert until the current millenium building boats up to 100 ft including MTB's and gun boats in WW2. This was the slipway winch, re-cycled from the battleship HMS George V when it was broken up in the '50's. When the electric motor started the lights in tarbert were reported to dim!

There was a boat yard in Tarbert until the current millenium building boats up to 100 ft including MTB’s and gun boats in WW2. This was the slipway winch, re-cycled from the battleship HMS George V when it was broken up in the ’50’s. When the electric motor started the lights in tarbert were reported to dim!

Over the past 100 years Tarbert harbour has been administered by its own Harbour Authority Trust that has always been run by unremunerated Trustees despite the considerable responsibility that they carry. The Trust has developed the harbour considerably over the past century to meet the local needs and develop it for the benefit of its community. In order to offset the decline in fishing the Trust has developed facilities for leisure boating whilst still looking after their fishing fleet. Today, Tarbert has become a favourite with yachtsmen. Recent developments, assisted with grants, have included the expansion of pontoons for yachts and motor boats with electricity & water plus a basic amenities block, a harbour walk and a games area.

There seem to be dive boats in nearly every harbour - typically catermarans (for stability). They are used for both leisure diving and work work including setting and servicing moorings and fishing for razor shells, clams and (in Tarbert) otter clam shells (a chinese delicacy)

There seem to be dive boats in nearly every harbour – typically catermarans (for stability). They are used for both leisure diving and commercial work including setting and servicing moorings and fishing for razor shells, clams and (in Tarbert) otter clam shells (a Chinese delicacy)

Alongside this they have developed a programme of summer regattas and meetings which this year includes a regatta in May which they claim is the second largest in the UK, a traditional boat festival in July and numerous other festivals and fairs. Of all the harbours and marinas we have visited so far, Tarbert is the one where they make the biggest effort to promote themselves and welcome their customers as well as getting feedback from their customers. No wonder they have become such a popular place for yachtsmen. All in all, it is a tribute to the local Trustees for moving their harbour with the times without losing its charm.

The castle at Tarbert was originally an iron age fort and was subsequently fortified by Robert the Bruce. By the 18th century it was in disrepair and most of the stone was re-cycled into expanding the port and the local houses. The remains are today in the care of a local Trust and a small flock of Hebriddean sheep. Traditional materials may be hard to work but can usually be re-cycled unlike modern concrete which usually ends up as hardcore.

The castle at Tarbert was originally an iron age fort and was subsequently fortified by Robert the Bruce. By the 18th century it was in disrepair and most of the stone was re-cycled into expanding the port and the local houses. The remains are today in the care of a local Trust and a small flock of Hebriddean sheep. Traditional materials may be hard to work but can usually be re-cycled unlike modern concrete which usually ends up as hardcore.

The local tourist office provides us with some maps of local walks so we don our walking boots and take to the hills, stopping at the local castle en route. There has been a fort here for over 1000 years. Robert the Bruce and other Scottish kings fortified it but by the 18th century it was in disrepair and most of the stone was re-cycled to make the harbour and local houses, leaving just the keep standing. (Traditional materials may be harder to work but can generally be recycled, unlike concrete which usually ends up as hardcore).

There are some fine walks around Tarbert with great views over Loch Fyne - when the weather permits!

There are some fine walks around Tarbert with great views over Loch Fyne – when the weather permits!

The hill walk is quite strenuous, climbing several hundred feet above the village and giving good views up Loch Fyne and across the Firth of Clyde (when the weather permits). These hills a partially wooded with many open areas and attractive patches of wild flowers. It is good to get out on these hills. We visit the local chandlery that carries a surprising amount of stock and think they can get our winch spares. We buy some fibreglass restoration polish for Sundart and a Scottish courtesy flag to fly from our spreaders. After our exertions on the hills we have Sunday supper at the local hotel – old fashioned, good food and welcoming.

Swans live in many harbours and sheltered areas of the sea - these are the resident mute swans at Tarbert cadging for food.

Swans live in many harbours and sheltered areas of the sea – these are the resident mute swans at Tarbert cadging for food.

Typical in small, relatively isolated villages shops and businesses will have many strings to their bow.

Typically in small, relatively isolated villages shops and businesses will have many strings to their bow.

We are impressed by Tarbert. Not only is it an attractive place but after Campbeltown and Ardrossan it is nice to get back to somewhere where people are proud of their locality and are friendly and helpful.

Monday 24th June A 7:00 am start today. Our plan to day is to sail up Loch Fyne to Ardrishaig where we will take the Crinan Canal across the Mull of Kintyre to the open sea and the Inner Hebrides. The morning is bright and there is still a good breeze blowing so we reef the mainsail and tack up the Loch, arriving at Ardrishaig around 11:00. The sea lock is open and another boat is about to enter so we go straight in.

Entry to the Crinan is via sea locks ate each end. These are the ones at Crinan. Each fill of a lock takes around 300,000 litres of water, which works its way down from the summit through successive locks until being discharged to the sea. The canal has a system of water holding lochs and reservoirs above the summit but there can be a water shortage during dry, busy summer months.

Entry to the Crinan is via sea locks ate each end. These are the ones at Crinan. Each fill of a lock takes around 300,000 litres of water, which works its way down from the summit through successive locks until being discharged to the sea. The canal has a system of water holding lochs and reservoirs above the summit but there can be a water shortage during dry, busy summer months.

The CrinanCanal was built at the end of the 18th Century to shorten the sail from the Firth of Clyde to the Inner Hebrides by up to 80 miles and avoid ships having to go round the Mull of Kintyre. It made for sea going boats and is wider with bigger locks than normal inland canals. In its commercial heyday it carried a considerable volume of traffic, including over 30000 sheep and cattle per year for market.

Goods still move by local coaster such as these logs awaiting loading at Ardrishaig quay but there is little commercial traffic these days on the Crinan Canal

Goods still move by local coaster such as these logs awaiting loading at Ardrishaig quay but there is little commercial traffic these days on the Crinan Canal

Today it carries around 3000 vessels per year, mainly leisure boats including yachts and motor boats.

The route of the Crinan and sights along the way

The route of the Crinan and sights along the way

The Canal is about 9 miles long with 15 locks and 7 sliding and swing bridges. Officially, the canal works from 0800 to 1630 with half an hour break for lunch. The official literature states that there are paid lock keepers at the sea locks at each end and to operate the bridges but all the rest has to be operated by the boat crews. With the exception of the sea locks at each end and one modernised main road bridge, all of the rest of the system uses the original 200 year old equipment and systems using human muscle power alone so it is quite hard work. The official instructions are full of regulations and guidelines which seem intimidating. What the official documents do not prepare you for is the cost – over £100 for a 4 day licence to use the canal! We had thought the cost would be half this so it’s a shock! The only consolation, apart from the shortening of the journey, is that this includes the use of the showers & amenities along the way plus up to 3 overnight stops. In reality, the experience is far better than the official documents might suggest. The staff is very helpful and friendly and over the summer months extra staff (in the form of students) is employed so there are few locks where help is not available. Once away from the outskirts of Ardrishaig, the canal runs through some fine countryside, rising up to its summit in a forest. Part way along we have to wait for a boat to come down a flight of locks so we stop at Cairnbarn Hotel for a coffee. Nothing happens quickly on a canal and sitting in the sun having a coffee for half an hour is no problem!

View from the summit, with the upland mire nature reserve of Moine Mhor on the right

View from the summit, with the upland mire nature reserve of Moine Mhor on the right

The canal reaches its summit at Dunardy. It is an unusual experience to look out from up a hill over the surrounding countryside from a sea-going boat!

The traditional lock and bridge keepers cottages are still lovingly maintained

The traditional lock and bridge keepers cottages are still lovingly maintained

As we travel along the canal we admire the well kept lock keepers cottages with pretty gardens.

There are some wonderful 18th century mechanisms still in daily operation such as this sliding bridge. They are all still manually operated.

There are some wonderful 18th century mechanisms still in daily operation such as this sliding bridge. They are all still manually operated.

The old equipment to move the bridges is well kept and simple but effective in its design.

Janet earns her keep! Moving the lock gates is hard work as they are larger than the normal inland lock gates

Janet earns her keep! Moving the lock gates is hard work as they are larger than the normal inland lock gates

Working the locks, even with help, is heavy work. As the canal is wider than most inland canals the lock gates are correspondingly bigger. Each lock changes height by around 8 to 10 feet and there is usually only one ladder up each side of a lock wall.

Careful control is needed of the boat bows, especially when ascending in a lock due to the strong currents as the water fills the lock. Yvonne is doing the business here.

Careful control is needed of the boat bows, especially when ascending in a lock due to the strong currents as the water fills the lock. Yvonne is doing the business here.

We find going up harder than going down for controlling the boat in the lock. We evolve a technique, with Janet jumping off to take the ropes and hook them on the “meat hooks” or little bollards that are used at each lock whilst Yvonne & John control the boat. At the start we share the lock with another boat, which is a squeeze but later we have the locks to ourselves. The canal runs through an interesting area as it has been inhabited for at least 5000 years. The Kilmartin Glen has Scotland’s richest prehistoric landscape whilst there is a hill fort at Dunadd dating from 500 AD when the Scotti migrated here from Ireland and established the first line of Scottish kings. There are several sites with prehistoric rock carvings and a Bronze Age cairn.

Our personal showers and loo at Bellanoch Bridge!

Our personal showers and loo at Bellanoch Bridge!

The Crinan has an abundance of wild flowers, along its banks, such as these yellow irises

The Crinan has an abundance of wild flowers, along its banks, such as these yellow irises

We choose to stop the night at Bellanoch Swing Bridge, about three quarters of the way along the canal. This is by the Moine Mhor (Great Moss) Nature Reserve, which has been established in one of Scotland’s last remaining raised mires. Apparently this supports a “rich and varied ecosystem” so after supper we go in search of the bird hide and wildlife. Sadly the bird hide blew down in the 2012 gales, leaving only a bare platform but there is a bench on the tow path from where we can look over the bog lands and see sundry ducks, heron, wheatear etc. Perhaps one has to wade through said bog to really get the full range of ecosystem but it does not seem to be teeming with life. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe have been given a key to the amenities along the canal as part of our fee and sure enough we have our own little shower and loo block on the tow path – simple but sufficient – as we cannot use the sea heads on the boat. It is all very peaceful and we sleep well.

Swing bridge mechanism at Bellanoch - hand operated

Swing bridge mechanism at Bellanoch – hand operated

Ships log

Days run: 18.7 nm

Total mileage to date: 964.2 nm

Engine hours today: 6.2

Hours sailed today: 9.0

Total hours sailed: 215.0

Tuesday 25th June

The Crinan canal is largely used for leisure boating these days and is being developed for this business. This is a new sculpture by a local artist at the Crinan end

The Crinan canal is largely used for leisure boating these days and is being developed for this business. This is a new sculpture by a local artist at the Crinan end

A leisurely breakfast looking over the marsh lands in the sun – it really is a lovely spot. The showers are used and the bridge operator arrives so in due course he winches the bridge open for us and we proceed to Crinan.

There are some fine settings along the canal, such as these buildings at Bellanoch

There are some fine settings along the canal, such as these buildings at Bellanoch

Clyde Puffers were developed in the 19th century for the Crinan and Forth-Clyde canals. Some have been lovingly preserved - this is Vic 32 in action at Crinan. Some such as this one were designed as small cargo vessels

Clyde Puffers were developed in the 19th century for the Crinan and Forth-Clyde canals. Some have been lovingly preserved – this is Vic 32 in action at Crinan. Some such as this one were designed as small cargo vessels

Another preserved Clyde Puffer, this time configured as a tug that towed barges

Another preserved Clyde Puffer, this time configured as a tug that towed barges

Awaiting our turn to pass through the sea lock at Crinan. Locking through is never quick.

Awaiting our turn to pass through the sea lock at Crinan. Locking through is never quick.

We soon arrive there and see White Magic the boat we set out with yesterday at the start of the canal. Pleasantries are exchanged and we pass through the final two locks in their company. Whilst waiting we see a “Clyde Puffer” – the Vic 32 – steaming along the sea outside the last lock. These ships were specially constructed to work this canal and the Forth – Clyde Canal. There is another example in the basin between the last two locks. There is clearly an active preservation movement looking after these old ships. Apparently it takes 12 hours to raise steam from cold and ready them for action! Finally, two hours after starting out, we leave the sea lock and head out to the open sea. We are a bit ahead of schedule and the weather forecast is good for the next few days so we have decided to turn south and see something of the southern most Inner Hebridean Islands of Jura, Islay and Gigha before heading north to Croabh Haven to meet up with Paul Fox at the end of the week.

Fair winds to you all,

Yvonne, Janet and John

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