ISLE OF SKYE TO SCALPAY HARRIS
by Robert Arnold and Anne Barany

(An article aimed at yachting magazines in 1983)

We chose our Drascombe Coaster as the ideal boat to explore the islands along the horizon across the Minch from our house on the Isle of Skye. The boat had to be big enough to feel safe in the open sea and have two berths for sleeping on board. As we were not very experienced sailors the loose footed sail and the low two masted rig seemed easy to handle and the gunter mainsail stows low down, an advantage for a boat kept on a mooring that is swept by gales regularly. The light weight and shallow draught are obvious points to appreciate if you live in a place with no harbour or boat yard and all the moving about on land for winter has to be done by yourself. The large cockpit area on the Drascombe makes day sailing a pleasure.

 coaster

Early in the summer we saw a very similar looking boat to our own, only built in wood, sail into Loch Dunvegan and anchor off Stein next to our mooring. Later that week we met the ownner, Dr Dick Watkinson, the brother of John the designer of the Drascombe range. His boat "Cariad" was featured in a short article in PBO no,183 p.23. He had sailed up from Arisaig via Soay and was planning to go north to Harris, across to the mainland and on to Orkney and Shetland. We chatted in the inn on the night before he set off over the Minch heading for the Island of Scalpay off Harris. This must have sowed a seed of an idea with us for later in the summer we became fixed on the plan to voyage to Scalpay and see this unusual Hebridean island for ourselves.

 starting out

The Drascombe Coaster with its shallow draught can be brought up to the shore easily

It was August when we were loading the boat with fuel and provisions for a week long trip. There was a light breeze from the west and force five, six or possibly eight forecast from the north west. We had been joined by Meg, a friend who was keen to explore with us, and as her time was limited , we decided to dash for Rodel and hope that the wind did not veer before we had crossed the Minch. The tide would be running south for most of the time and would help us to keep upwind, a slight problem with the Drascombe. We had a good sail for most of the twenty mile crossing despite the shipping in the Minch. I finally decided that a radar reflector is essential, as even in broad daylight it seems to be a matter of luck if you are seen and then only at the last minute.

 ng

Reaching with furled mizzen on the way north to Scalpay. Avon dinghy rolled up on the deck

About five miles off Rodel the wind got up considerably and rain clouds appeared, the tide was still in our favour as we reduced sail to reefed main and reefed jib with the direction becoming more northerly. After an exciting sail we started the 6hp Yamaha to round the headland and enter the narrow channel into the pool at Rodel. It was low tide and the channel was almost dry, so we anchored in a foot of water and I stepped over the stern and walked ashore feeling very satisfied with the day and the versatility of the boat. We were ready for the warmth of the Rodel Hotel bar after we had waited for the tide to rise enough for us to enter the pool. To sleep three on the Coaster we pitched an ordinary two man tent on the large deck area and this seemed to work well enough.

The next morning was sunny with a strong wind and we walked around to Rodel Church which has a square tower; most Hebridean churches have no tower at all. By noon we thought we would be alright heading north to Scalpay. With the fresh breeze coming off the land we should be able to sail and avoid rough seas. With sunshine and sprayfrom fast sailing we followed the coast of Harris, a bare rocky landscape with occasional houses clinging to the slopes. Near Lingarabay we saw whales blowing about half a mile away across the choppy sea. Eventually we could make out Scalpay lighthouse, Eileen Glas, on the horizon and we sailed straight for it reaching with reefed main and furled mizzen. By the time we rounded the lighthouse and came upon some surprising tide rips nearby the wind must have been gusting six or seven. We were sailing the Coaster like a dinghy, leaning out and playing the sheets to the gusts. Turning north into the wind to come along the north shore of Scalpay proved impossible for us to handle; the wind was just too strong and the sea was beginning to get rough. The Drascombe fortunately converts easily with a few sail ties and a pull on the starting cord into a powerful little motor boat and six horse power will punch into quite a sea although the helmsman gets drenched.

 Scalpay

Scalpay North Harbour
The Drascombe anchored in good shelter and part of the fishing fleet tied up at the jetty for the weekend

We motored around the island and into the wonderfully sheltered North Harbour of which the islanders are very proud. It is the harbour which is the key to the atypical success and prosperity of the Scalpay community. They own a modern fishing fleet that works in the Minches, setting off on Mondays and returning on Thursdays. The employment and money that this generates are obvious in the numbers of young people who choose to stay on the island and in the astonishing home improvements changing small traditional houses almost into villas. There is also a shipping company owned and, operated from the island running coastal freighters along the west coast and beyond. We spent the evening walking around the village and discovering several minute shops that all seem to stock everything. It was here that we found how luxurious tinned custard can seem especially after a hot meal and followed by a large whiskey.

 pier

Scalpay jetty

On Saturday morning we set off walking to the other end of the island to look at the lighthouse. It is about two miles along a single track road and then a mile across the moor to the east end and the impressive red and white ringed tower. It has recently been converted to automatic unmanned operation, a change that several islanders expressed regret about, partly for sentimental reasons and partly for the loss of a trustworthy pair of eyes scanning the Minch where the Scalpay fleet fishes. Back in the village there was a lot of activity with children shopping for sweets, youths driving up and down the single track roads and girls promenading from shop to shop.

 shop

Annie MacLeod's sweater shop

Annie Morrison

Annie MacLeod's sweater shop inside

Annie's brother

D Morrison's shop, Annie's brother

The 5.50pm forecast predicted SW.5-7 after a period of W 4-5 and coupled with a lack of curiosity about the strict sabbatarian attitudes of Scalpay people we set off at about six fifteen to motor south against the moderate breeze. We wanted to eventually reach Lochmaddy on North Uist to make the crossing back to Skye from there, and with a S.W. wind coming we needed to make ground against it. The coast of Harris is indented and affords many small sheltered anchorages and as we passed it by we had the choice of several. We decided to go into Stockinish which sounded very safe reading about it in the Clyde Cruising Club Blue Book. We had time to eat well and sort out our gear before a stroll onshore as darkness fell.

 sailing

The reefed main when we were broad reaching along the coast of Harris

It was ominously quiet at 6.25 am and the forecast was SW backing six to eight. I had spotted in the Blue Book a tiny deserted island called Hermetray with a specially good anchorage for small boats and was keen to get there before we met the gale, so we set off immediately out into the Minch where the day was starting bright with sunshine and a few clouds moving in a light breeze. We made good speed south west past Rodel and along the Sound of Harris in sight of the white sand beaches of Berneray. About half way from Rodel to Hermetray the wind freshened suddenly and the rain started, and we wondered whether we should still be at Stockinish but having got this far we had to continue into the rising waves.

 

After a tense time heading for the outline of Hermetray we rounded the small point into a totally enclosed bay with a beach at its head just as thick mist and rain obliterated everything. Some geese that obviously live on the island flew out, disturbed by our arrival, and we anchored in five feet of water in a flat calm pool, very pleased with our luck and glad to have made a rapid departure from Stockinish, we set about cooking a late Sunday breakfast before preparing for the imminent gale. a really safe anchorage, a hot meal and the certainty of wild weather coming gives one a marvellous sense of well-being.

 Hermetray

The anchorage at Hermetray before the gale. We gathered firewood and waited

Hermetray

We pitched the tent onshore, put out a line to the beach and collected driftwood to have a fire as the wind rose during the day. We walked to the east side of the island and spotted Waternish through the rain looking very remote across a rough sea. By dark the wind must have reached gale force and as we left Meg in her tent on the beach we had only one chance to get to the boat in the dinghy as it would have been impossible to row against the squalls sweeping across the pool. Despite torrential rain and some alarming noises on deck during the night we slept fairly well and were sorry to find that the tent had not fared so well. However a hot breakfast and the weather clearing cheered us all up and we began to think of the delights of Lochmaddy and its hotel.

 

By midday we were sailing out of the bay at Hermetray tacking into a brisk SW breeze. The sun lit us as we lifted over the large swell that remained after the gale. We made good progress down to Weaver's Point where we waited for the Macbrayne‘s steamer MV Hebrides to head out for Uig on Skye, not wanting to meet her rounding the point at twelve knots. After she passed us we had a hard beat with reduced visibility from frequent rain squalls to round the rock, Maddy Beg, at the north of the entrance to Lochmaddy. Then we eased the sheets and raced up into Loch Portain and out of the chop at the mouth of the loch. A minute after dropping the anchor we were heating some food, having had a really wonderful sail. Nearly within sight of the Lochmaddy Hotel we talked about booking in for a dry sleep, hot bath and of course a good meal. So we motored through the maze of islets in the loch using the large scale chart and anchored at the fishing quay right in the middle of the village. We found petrol, food and water at the shops a hundred yards along the road and then set off to book into the hotel. It was full and could not even book us for dinner and this was only a Monday. Although a set back to our plans we had soon found an excellent B and B for two and were planning to spend the evening in the hotel bar which has good bar meals.

breakfast

Breakfast

I spent the night aboard while the others had their hot baths and warm beds, and I realised how spacious our boat is for one when you are used to living with three on board. I had a luxurious time dressing without kicking anyone and cooked an enormous fried breakfast on the stove with the sun streaming into the little cabin.

 Lochmaddy

Perfect sailing weather, leaving Lochmaddy on the way back to Skye

By late morning we were all revitalised and with sunshine, a good forecast and force three from the north we sailed out past the hills that guard the entrance to Lochmaddy. It was perfect sailing weather and we began to toy with the idea of going south to Canna, just visible on the horizon beyond Neist Point. We altered course to the south and were nearly committed to the idea when the wind began to die. After a while we were reduced to rolling about on the flattening sea with the centre plate thumping from side to side in its case. We were reluctant to cut short our new plan but tiredness and the almost total calm persuaded us finally to furl the sails and motor back towards our home base at Stein in Loch Dunvegan. Feeling slightly cheated by the weather we sat trying to enjoy the day when a dark shape suddenly appeared alongside the boat then another on the other side. They broke the surface and raced us just a couple of feet away from the hull. It seemed that these dolphins were escorting us safely back to Waternish and we felt privileged to have been met by these impressive creatures. They were gone after five minutes and we left the Minch and headed for the mooring, well pleased with our journey and with a new seed of an idea sown, Canna.

 picnic

The spacious deck and cockpit areas of the Coaster are ideal for leisurely picnics

The Drascombe had as usual performed beautifully and her seaworthy lines had been proved as well as admired. Later in the summer we sailed her south to Canna and from the hilltops there we were able to see a new horizon of Coll, Mull, Muck and Ardnamurchan... next year...