Return from the Hebrides

Our return to the boat from the Isle of Harris in the Hebrides was constrained by the need to get back to the boat to meet Steve Tanner, a Raymarine Specialist who would get our AIS (Automated Identification System) working. We arrived later than planned – about 5:30pm in the evening – we had found a Co-op open on a Sunday on our route back so we took the opportunity to re-provision. Steve was still at the marina. He was installing a new VHF high aerial for the harbourmaster. The harbourmaster’s assistant Coll, same as the island, was helping him. “I’ll be another hour” he said “and then I’ll come and sort out your AIS”. Coll said he was working late at the marina as a big boat was about to come in. It was the Harvest Caroline II, a fish food distribution ship. He told me that near the marina was a large warehouse which was the distribution centre for fish food – this was loaded onto the ship – which is why the ship had such a large crane on board and the ship filled hoppers on the fish farms that now had automated feeding systems. An auger (much like an Archimedean lead screw) took food pellets from the hopper to feed the fish – he explained that there was a video camera about 5m deep and if it detected pellets falling that far – they knew the fish had had enough to eat as normally they feed near the surface and there was a frenzy of activity at food time. In earlier times the feeding would have been done by hand, but there was great risk in strong winds – so now the fish can be fed under any weather conditions quite safely. Ros has added the comment that the idea of farming fish fills her with horror and she will check more carefully that she is not eating farmed fish when dining out in restaurants in the Western Isles. Interestingly what was a fascinating engineering problem for Ian has become an environmental one for Ros.

Harvest Caroline II returning to Loch Boisdale Marina and turning on a sixpenceIMG_1209 (1)

By 6:30pm Steve joined us on the boat to check out the AIS – he explained that the reason the AIS (Automatic Identification System) was not working was the Baud rate was wrong – he had set the right value required for the AIS and this was now working – in fact an alarm went off in the harbour as there were two other boats with AIS within 0.5nm, our alarm limit, so we knew it was working. When we checked the wind anemometer it was working also, so Steve was not needed after all, but while he was there I asked him to train me in the use of the Raymarine chart recorder and help me set it up as I needed it. This he did brilliantly and I ended up with readouts of both depth and true wind speed and direction on the chart – with relative windspeed and direction on the instrument panel. Furthermore – he explained how I could interrogate the AIS and set up targets to display potential collision information continuously. Chatting to him later, it turned out he was looking after Raymarine navigation systems and other electronics for the whole of the Hebrides. He worked amazingly long days but enjoyed his work so much that it was not a problem for him even though some jobs did not finish until midnight

Later that evening I spent a long time searching for our flag pole and red ensign along the harbour shoreline, lost during the gales, but did not find them. I took the hire car back first thing in the morning and then prepared for the sail back to Tobermory via Canna. We had decided to return on Monday regardless of whether the engine had been fixed or not as the weather was going to worsen by Thursday 19th May. I looked at alternative routes but the winds dictated the way to go. Both Rosamund and I were delighted at the prospect of returning to Canna as we wanted to do some walks on the island, visit the gardens at Canna house and return to the marvelous food at Café Canna.

We had the wind on our port beam (just) on the way back – enough to try out the shute for the first time. It took me a long time to work out (again) how to use it. But here’s a picture just to give you a bit of colour.

Top – Sailing with the Shute on Milo and bottom – a tanker passing across our bowIMG_1217   IMG_1215

In the end the wind dropped and we had to take the shute down and motor sail. As we had not repaired the leak we developed a strategy of motoring for an hour – turning off the motor and sailing (whatever the wind conditions) and bailing out. We were shipping about a bucket and a half of water an hour, which was contained in the well below the engine. Previously, when we had not understood the problem, we would have motored for four hours then got some heavy winds and sailed – this tipped all the water which was retained under the engine into the bilges and with the boat heeling quite severely the water then found its way everywhere – including our food locker under the port bench seat in the cabin. Our new strategy worked perfectly and we did not even get any water into the bilges. Moral – know the cause of the problem and you can probably find a way around it.

We had a lovely part sail, part motor to Canna. The wildlife was vast and varied. We saw a Dolphin (just one) and puffins as well as gannets and guillemots but sadly no eagles despite sailing past the tall cliff where they were nesting.

We moored in the harbour at Canna and I went ashore to the Café Canna to catch up on email and the blog, to find that lobster was on the menu the next night. The photo below shows Anna holding the two lobsters she’d just brought from the harbour by bicycle for clients that evening – they were alive and active which is why Anna is looking rather apprehensive – she was keen to get them to Chris in the kitchen.

Picture of Anna with the lobsters


So after a meal on the boat and a restful night, in the morning we found the rain forecasted for the next evening arrived at least 6 hours early and we weathered out the storm on the boat by having a lovely cooked breakfast followed by reading and then a little work. By 4pm the rain had eased and we went ashore and had some tea and cake at Café Canna – we met a sailor from the “Wylde Swan” a Dutch herring carrier, a tall ship that was anchored just outside the harbour entrance but in the lee of Sanday. We learned that they’re also come from the Hebrides and had visited St Kilda, but the day they came back was quite rough and she’d rolled a lot.

Wylde Swan at anchor in the outer harbour at CannaIMG_1246

Rosamund and I went on a walk to the castle, which used to be a prison where we could see the Wylde Swan anchored in the bay. Later we visited a small church on the north side of the harbour and then walked onto the ferry terminal where we met crew and passengers from the Wylde Swan. The next day they were heading for Tobermory – “Ah so are we “ said I “what time are you leaving?” – they said about 10am. We left at 7am and expected them to overtake us at some point but we never saw them – it turned out that they had gone via the Islands of Rhum and Eigg and called off at every one. In the end they arrived at Tobermory one hour after we did, but it was still lovely to have a tall ship moored in the harbour.

Top: passing the Wylde Swan when leaving Canna; 2nd from top: cruise ship National Geographical Explorer in Tobermory harbour; 3rd from top left Navy Cadet training ship T.S. John Sherwood and bottom: The Ocean Youth Trust Scotland yacht Alba Explorer 



Tobermory harbour the night we arrived was chaotic. Firstly a cruise liner arrived and anchored in the bay – rib after rib arrived with life-jacketed passengers sitting on the side – “Welcome to Tobermory, you have an hour and a half to explore – may I suggest you visit the pub called ‘the mishnish’ on the other side of the harbour and walk up to the higher part of the town where there are magnificent views of the bay” – later I talked to one of the crew, who turned out to be one of the Naturalists aboard –the liner was the “National Geographical Explorer” and, they had started in London and were now heading back to Lewis before crossing via the Orkneys to Denmark where their cruise ended. There was also a Royal Navy cadet training boat, the T.S. John Jerwood and a huge yacht owned by the Ocean Youth Trust Scotland offering sail training for young people – the port was heaving.

The next morning the cadets had obviously been told to walk to the headland and back – returning to the boat at 8pm and within 2 minutes of their return, the Jerwood had left!

Thursday 19th May was a bad weather day with lots of rain and high winds – it was an opportunity for us to get repairs done on the boat. The harbourmaster, Paul Traynor, had put us in contact with Philippe, who was an amazing character. He was French from Chamonix on the border of Italy and France, he’d been in Tobermory for 20 years and seemed to know everyone. I was interested to learn about repairs to sea-water pumps as one day I may have to do this myself. I shadowed Philippe the whole time – including time spent in his delightful workshop in the upper reaches of Tobermory. It was a complicated job involving precision engineering and many of special tools. I decided it would be better to carry a spare sea-water pump, even if this were an expensive option.

View across the harbour and the Sound of Mull from Philippe’s workshop in upper Tobermory


With the weather changeable and the auto-helm being mended we decided to start heading home on Sunday, earlier than we had planned. Picking up the car on the Isle of Bute would be an adventure in itself, an almost 9 hour journey by bus, two ferry crossings and train journeys. We were now in a very slow-journey mode of being and so the long journey would be a pleasure. And as Ros said it is remarkable that you can leave the car on one island, sail for three weeks, moor on another island and then find public transport to take you back to your car again.

We will travel via Edinburgh to watch Hugh and Percy sing in a choir in a folk concert called Songs of Separation,  performing in the Queen’s Hall on Monday May 22nd. Then back to Bristol for a few weeks before returning to the Western Isles in the middle of June.






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