The final reach into Portree on the east coast of Skye seemed almost too easy, too perfect in the warm sun and moderate, if somewhat flukey, southerly breeze. But I felt that we had earned it over the previous ten days especially in the many periods of uncertainty and tension when the weather and particularly the wind had been less than helpful. Both too much and too little wind prevent any sailing craft from making progress and sailing canoes have a narrower window of opportunity than most: any more than about a Force Four and it all gets a bit too exciting and when it happens in an exposed coastal area it can be downright scary. On a couple of occasions we had coped with a brief spell of about Force Five and it had proved to be on the edge of what we felt was feasible, let alone desirable or pleasant, when sailing an open canoe. But then we had set out to discover just what we and our boats were capable of when journeying on tidal waters.
Crinan to Portree 1994 - Day 1 of 11
Setting the scene
We were three canoeing friends who also worked at the same place and who are members of the Open Canoe Sailing Group. Each of us was using a different make of open canoe but all of them plastic, around 16 feet long and used a sailing rig of the same sort and dimensions thus providing a reasonably well matched sailing speed and performance. The trip was inspired by an account (reprinted in an Advanced Sea Kayak Club newsletter) of one carried out by three members of the Clyde Canoe Club in August 1875. The type of boats they used were rather different from ours, probably being more akin to kayaks, with more decking and using double bladed paddles; but still similar in that they also utilised a small sailing rig to make progress whenever the wind made it possible and worthwhile. The scope and length of their trip was dictated by their use of public transport (coastal steamers) to travel to and from their start and finish points. Understandably they made good use of the shelter from prevailing wind and swell provided by the many islands and headlands off the Scottish west coast. Our historic predecessors had taken a steamer from Greenock to Ardrishaig and paddled along the Crinan Canal to commence the first sea leg. So it was that we came to be at Crinan harbour to load our canoes on a warm and sunny morning in June 1994.
Day 1 - Getting started
Some of the weather forecasts had sounded a bit dodgy, suggesting stronger winds than the light south-westerly we were seeing. Nevertheless we decided to go ahead with our preparations and see how it looked a short way out before fully committing ourselves to the first leg of the route which was to go through the Dorus Mor (a tidal race of some renown) before turning north. To be honest I think we were all desperate to get started, not least myself whose brainchild the trip had initially been, with the planning and anticipation building up over many months. But on the other hand we had been careful to establish between ourselves what the acceptable “ground-rules” were to be especially in terms of the conditions under which we would start each leg of the trip and to accept that any of us could “veto” proceedings should they become unhappy with the situation. That particular morning the weather forecast and the “actual” not matching certainly made me feel a little uneasy, so once we had packed and rigged our boats and while Andy and Tony filled water containers I nipped up to the yacht chandlers. I had remembered that they usually had a weather bulletin displayed at the door; which sure enough they still did; and even better it was a Metfax, the source of weather information which was to prove most accurate for our purposes over the ensuing days [NOTE: in 1994 we did not have mobile phones, let alone smartphones to obtain the weather forecasts we so readily benefit from these days!]. It reassured us by actually corresponding with what we were seeing, even mentioning the slight risk of fogbanks early in the day, some of which we had spotted in the distance out in the sound while we were sorting out the boats.
In fact, as we set out on a bearing towards the Dorus Mor, mist was obscuring the area around it. This was certainly an added challenge to our navigation skills over and above the expected straightforward “eyeball” coastal pilotage, especially for Tony who although a very competent paddler and sailor would be the first to concede had not had much experience journeying on salty water. After a few minutes of pleasant sunny sailing we entered the fogbank, which infuriatingly was so shallow that we could see the sun above us. Being careful to keep each other in easy sight we continued on the bearing catching a fleeting glimpse of one of the small islands on our right, which served to confirm our correct track. At more or less the expected time we sighted land ahead of us, which I quickly recognised as Garbh Reisa, the island to the south of the Dorus Mor. As we approached the gap it became apparent that the tide was still running east against us much as the almanacs predicted, but it was due to slacken and turn in our favour very shortly. So we landed on the island for an early lunch and to calm some of the adrenalin which was flowing, partly through getting under way at last and partly through having to contend with the poor visibility. I think making a satisfactory landfall in the tricky conditions served to reassure us all that the venture was not as foolish as some people might judge.
We lunched overlooking the tide race, which in these settled conditions was smooth and benign. It was also slackening as predicted, so we set off again but under paddle as the wind had dropped to nothing, with the water glassy-smooth and the enveloping fog giving me a spooky feeling, trying to imagine the contrasting conditions which would be experienced when the race is working on spring tides in a gale. We paddled north, planning to catch sight of Craignish Point on the other side of the gap before heading north towards Shuna Sound. What actually happened was that the the tide was more of an influence than we expected and when we were thinking that it was about time that we should be seeing some land the breeze returned, clearing the mist and we found ourselves further west than expected. So we set sail, dropping into the lee of Reisa Mhic Phaidean to reef our sails down to their smallest size of thirty square feet before enjoying a wonderful beam reach in the Force 2 to 3 westerly breeze, all the time discovering that the boats and rigs could cope with, and relish, the waves which were larger than any we had experienced before.
We headed north and passed up the Sound of Shuna in thoroughly pleasant conditions with sun and a helpful light breeze most of the time. Passing between the mainland and the islands of Luing, Torsa and then up the Seil and Clachan Sounds was so idyllic and so much what we had come to the area to do, we agreed that even if we did not manage to get any more sailing in for the rest of our time we would not mind. We made good progress, averaging about three and a half miles an hour, approaching Clachan Bridge just before high water. This was perfect timing, as the channel dries out at low water. The water was flowing north up the channel and pouring over the high point past the bridge, just like a river and only a foot or so deep in places.
Having been on the water for some hours by then, we stopped for a break and some hot food. The weather still being kind and the next leg being somewhat exposed up to the Sound of Kerrera we decided to press on to make best use of the daylight and reasonable conditions. Although the wind was only a very manageable Force 2 the waves were again quite exciting, especially those created by the large CalMac ferry on its way to the Hebrides. The crew on the bridge certainly seemed to study us very closely as they steamed past. Our first night was spent just above a pebble beach on the south of Kerrera Island where we relaxed, happy to have got under way and with the 22 miles progress made.