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A Classic Journey

Author: Mary Topp

Sailing on the Norfolk broads did not prepare us for Scottish waters. Moving to Edinburgh after University and marriage I was embarking on a voyage far from the haven of friends and family in a nation I knew little of. Gliding at weekends, we soared the currents above Bishop Hill and landed beside Loch Leven in Fife. Occasionally we travelled to other airfields and so I arrived at Connel to fly above the bridge, Loch Etive and Loch Linnhe with very different views.

Flying was too insular so we switched to exploring the east coast in a modest sailing boat. We sailed under the two Forth bridges, to Anstruther, Charlestown and Pittenweem. The lifting keel enabled us to tie up at harbours and watch the tide disappear. We investigated the coast further north, found the dolphins off Stonehaven, rounded Rattray head with the engine dying, and eventually got as far as Orkney in our second boat Snark.

When we took Snark through the Caledonian Canal to the west coast we found a space at Creran Moorings, three hours from Edinburgh. The West became our sailing home. Weekends and holidays were spent investigating the lovely anchorages, pubs and restaurants of the Highlands.

Drifting on a calm day, where could be more beautiful than the west coast of Scotland? Here is the place I wanted to be. I was at my happiest with a slight breeze filling the sails, the Mull mountains tipped in snow paying court to Ben Cruachan on the mainland; early in the season with a promise of adventures to come.

Snark is a nine metre Kelt, a frisky French boat who liked to travel fast tilted at a saucy angle, bouncing over rather than cutting through the waves. She suited our youth and we learned to navigate strong currents, trim sails to the wind and find safe passage into rocky inlets. Paper charts, a parallel rule and a good pilot book were our main tools. How very different from today. At first we didn’t even have an autopilot, so I was the helm while the captain took care of navigation and sails.

In 1999 we joined the Classic Malts Cruise. It visited Oban, Talisker and Lagavulin Distilleries where we enjoyed generous hospitality over a two week period. In July 1999 we left Oban still feeling the effects of the previous nights feasting and entertainment at the distillery. Several days later having met up with friends at Arisaig we set off for Talisker Distillery at Carbost on Skye. It was a grey day with mist and low cloud cover. The wind wasn’t strong enough to maintain 5 knots so we started the motor and employed the autopilot.

We left the Small Isles behind us and at last Loch Bracadale opened up on the west coast of Skye and we turned towards the entrance to Carbost. Suddenly I heard an ominous splash and looked ahead to see rocks. My warning shout chimed with a terrible grinding noise. The rocks were just below the surface hidden by the Spring tide. We couldn’t raise the lifting keel and no amount of swinging out on the boom or racing the engine in reverse would bring her off. The Captain had to go below and radio a Mayday to Oban coastguard. We donned lifejackets and he went on deck to inflate the dinghy and lay an anchor. I looked for things to pack should we need to abandon ship.

We weren’t close to a lifeboat so I was grateful to hear our friend Mike on the radio.

“We’re only half an hour behind you, but will be with you in ten minutes.” Such a relief that I ignored the discrepancy and squeaked,

“I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that.”

Their boat, Salutation, is a 46ft steel yacht with a big engine. We were so lucky and the time passed quickly. The Captain suggested I go under the guard rail to join him in the dinghy. The water had gone down a long way since he had climbed over the rails. My life jacket, an old design with interior plastic floats got stuck. I almost strangled. The Captain stood up to push me back. The dingy capsized emptying him and our “valuables” into the water. I was left swinging above. Luckily my neck came free but I still hung on there until an aluminium work boat came to my rescue.

As the fisherman prised my fingers away I thought, “Good, there must be boat below.” But no!

I splashed ignominiously into the sea to be hauled over the bows of the metal boat. Wet, sore, but glad to have retrieved the Captain, dinghy and the very wet bags we were transferred to Salutation. Several boats on their way to muster at Talisker distillery were standing by or showing interest as they passed. We knew we were in for some questions and ribaldry once we got there.

Later that evening, dry and well fed, we returned to set up a rope on Snark. We hoped that as the tide rose we could pull her off. Snark rolled violently before the second large wave rolled her back upright and the next freed her. It was the stuff of nightmares. No water had come in but we couldn’t steer her. So tied alongside Salutation we were towed in to join the festivities, a generous spread with free whisky and a ceilidh. We were sad to see the party leave but had to find a crane to take her out and a lorry to take her to Ardfern boatyard for repairs. We had been admitted to the club of west coast yachtsmen who have struck a rock, no longer one of those who have not struck a rock yet!