Thursday, 20 September 2012

The continuing adventures of the Open Canoe Dining Group (a canoe sailing adventure on Loch Sween).

The alarm went off at 1030 and I'd only been in bed for three and a half hours after finishing my last night shift, I hit snooze and rolled over. An hour later I forced myself to get up and start packing for the trip  (still feeling very tired) . We'd been planning a wild camping expedition to circumnavigate a hebridean island but the forecast of gale force winds associated with the tail end of a hurricane had put paid to that plan. One side effect of the uncertainty associated with the change of plans was that I hadn't packed, bought any food or loaded the boat in advance as I normally would have done. The weather for Thursday and Friday was due to be poor so I also hadn't felt any real sense of urgency to get away either, still I'd optimistically assumed a lunchtime departure would be realistic. In reality it was 4:30pm by the time I hit the road for Tayvallich to meet up with Andy and Graham.
The drive was uneventful, I wondered whether to stop for fish and chips in Lochgilphead to save cooking dinner and decided to let fate decide. If there was a parking space outside the chippy I'd stop, if not I'd keep going. I arrived at the campsite in Tayvallich hungry! I assumed that Andy and Graham would have been storm bound all day but in actual fact they'd already enjoyed some good sailing which made me regret my late start somewhat but on a positive note they'd not eaten yet and were intending visiting the Tayvallich Inn (conveniently situated right next to the campsite) for dinner. It took me five minutes to rearrange the inside of my van into sleeping mode and by 7pm we were reading the menu in the pub. Everything looked delicious and to make things even better they had Orkney Ales on draught as well!
Overnight the weather deteriorated, I was woken a few times by the wind swaying the van from side to side and the rain hammering on the roof and wondered how the guys were coping in their tents. Morning revealed that they'd survived (albeit Andy's tent had suffered three broken guy lines) but had endured a disturbed night with the wind causing the tents to flap noisily. Nevertheless once we'd had some breakfast we were ready for some form of activity. Sailing was out of the question with winds gusting to F7 but Andy fancied a walk around the Beaver Trail around Loch Coille Bharr. Beavers were reintroduced here in 2009 for a five year trial period (having been extinct in Britain for 400 years).
We found a dam that the beavers had built. 
It was very picturesque despite the weather being a bit wild, fortunately the rain showers weren't too heavy or frequent.
We enjoyed strolling around the loch for a couple of hours and when we got back to the car we decided to drive to Crinan for a look around.
The sea out in the Sound of Jura looked really wild and made us glad we hadn't attempted to sail. Even large craft had sought out shelter during the storm.
We had lunch in the cafe in Crinan then decided to drive to the end of the peninsula that Tayvallich is on to check out possible landing spots for future trips. Our first stop was at Keillmore where the remains of an old harbour and slipway are to be found.
We then drove out to the causeway which separates the mainland from Danna island and on the way back to the campsite stopped off at Taynish where we walked down past the old mill to a view point overlooking Loch Sween. By the time we returned to the campsite it was late afternoon so there was just time for me to unload Aylen from the van roof and carry out a few minor modifications I had in mind in anticipation of getting out for a sail on Saturday. As evening drew in we adjourned once more to the Tayvallich Inn for dinner and drinks. I decided to try the scallops this time (which were as good as they looked!)
While we were in the pub Tom arrived (having driven up from Ayrshire after work). After putting up his tent he joined us for a few pints as he'd eaten en-route and we made some rough plans for sailing on Saturday.
On Saturday morning after breakfast we trolleyed the boats down through the campsite, across the road and down the small grass verge to the edge of Tayvallich harbour. Graham and Tom launched without problem but in my attempts to find a short cut I ended up launching through some horrible sticky mud and unfortunately Andy made the mistake of following me. Once I'd cleaned the smelly black mud off my boots I unfurled the sail and followed the guys out of the harbour. The water was fairly sheltered in the harbour and immediately outside but before we rounded the corner into Loch Sween proper Andy and Graham reefed their sails in anticipation. I was a little surprised as Loch Sween didn't look too bad but did likewise just in case (something I was to be very glad of). As we sailed out towards Eilean Loain the white horses started to appear and the swell picked up, it was exciting sailing and great fun and we pushed on in an attempt to reach Linne Mhuirich. I was getting a fair bit of water over the sides and wondered how Graham and Tom were coping in their undecked boats. I sailed past the view point we'd visited the previous afternoon as we tacked southwest down the loch. Graham headed in to a sheltered cove he'd spotted on the western shore. I followed him in and we anchored the boats so that we could discuss options in the increasing wind and swell. Andy and Tom soon joined us and we decided to break for an early lunch while we had the chance. As soon as we'd anchored a nosey seal appeared to see what we were up to, Tom and Andy swam out to see if they could get close to him but he wouldn't let them get closer than about twenty feet. I decided not to join them in light of my leaky drysuit!
After playing with the seal for a while we ate an early lunch. 

It was nice and sheltered where we were sitting but a few feet away over the rocks the wind was strong and the swell was building up. Andy had been revelling in the seaworthiness of his new canoe but was happy enough to go with the consensus and run back downwind and seek shelter so we all set off with the absolute minimum of sail unfurled in the direction we'd come.
Despite the tiny sail area I was amazed to see 5.7 mph show on the display on my GPS as we surfed downwind.
In a fraction of the time it'd taken us to get out, we were back at the corner where we could head back into the shelter of Tayvallich, Graham had been busy during the downwind run and caught two mackerel. Once around the corner I suggested attempting to sail up Caol Scotnish as it was still only lunchtime. Graham  and Andy were a little concerned about how long it would take us to get back up the narrow loch against the wind (and potentially the tide) but we decided to go for it anyway on the basis that we'd be sailing next to the road so could always improvise a vehicle recovery if push came to shove. As we set off up Scotnish I was blown away by how pretty it was from the water. Despite the road running along the western shore it's concealed from view from the loch by the trees and we all sailed in silence revelling in the views.
We stopped briefly to check out a potential campsite and decided to sail around the small island at the head of the loch before setting off back upwind.
Tom on the final leg downwind.
The head of Caol Scotnish.
We negotiated our way around the island (standing up in our canoes in an attempt to spot any rocks lurking beneath the surface) and then an impromptu race back up the loch commenced. I eked out an early lead leaving Graham and Tom now that I have a faster boat while Andy had been slow leaving the spot we'd landed so was a good way behind us. It was fun trying to sail as quickly as possible and the wind was a good strength (if a little gusty). I was caught with my mainsheet cleated off in a gust which had my outrigger completely submerged and the canoe on it's side, fortunately I managed to uncleat the main in time to stay upright but after that I stopped using the sheet jammer! Andy overhauled Tom and Graham and caught me (his racing experience showing clearly) so once he'd passed I turned back downwind to keep Tom and Graham company while Andy shot off upwind like a man possessed!
Andy chasing me down.
The sailing was great fun, Caol Scotnish is so narrow that it feels like sailing on a river in places.
By late afternoon we'd made it safely back to Tayvallich and were soon sailing back into the harbour, our fears about not getting back had been unfounded and what had started out as a last resort effort to extend our sailing time had turned out to be an extremely enjoyable afternoons sailing in stunning surroundings. 
As Graham had caught mackerel we decided to join forces and cook dinner together, however as rain was forecast we put up my van awning (affectionately known as the "crashed hang glider") to give us some shelter. Graham then set too steaming the fish while I cooked pasta and sauce to go with it. 
Mackerel this fresh is absolutely delicious and Graham did a fine job cooking it to perfection, it was almost a shame to put it in with the pasta! Dinner out the way we adjourned once more to the Tayvallich Inn (just for drinks this time) where we stayed chatting and drinking until far too late! 
On Sunday morning I awoke a little the worse for wear (red wine, beer and then whisky is not a great combination!) Graham was talking about heading home and not bothering with a sail but we managed to persuade him to stay and come for a mornings sailing. We set off to visit the Fairy Isles (unfortunately as on Graham and my last visit it was to be on the wrong state of tide). Tom and Andy hadn't been before so we were sure they'd enjoy it. The weather to the southwest down Loch Sween looked threatening as we turned north east towards the Fairy Isles.
Soon we were approaching the concealed entrance to the Fairy Isles lagoon. There were loads of seals basking on the rocks and swimming around us in the water.
We worked our way up the lagoon but as I said the tide was too low to venture up to the extreme top end (which was all dried out). 
Next we decided to cross the loch and check out the narrow inlet at Craiglin (which I'd read was blocked off by a suspended chain).  When we got there we found this was indeed the case. 
Tom and Graham either side of the entrance at Craiglin. 
I sailed across the loch again to visit the campsite that Graham and I had used on our previous trip to Loch Sween earlier this year ( ). We then decided to sail south again and round the island of Eilean Loain (notoriously occupied by a gun toting American who guards his privacy a little over zealously!). The wind picked up at this point giving delightful sailing with non of the gustiness of the previous day.
Andy enjoying himself. Shortly after I took these photos Graham announced that he was going to head back and start packing up his boat as he had a long drive home and an early start for work on Monday morning. The rest of us pushed on towards Eilean Loain. 
You can just make out Tom in the far distance in this photo, behind him is Eilean Loain. 
As we sailed up the narrow channel between the island and mainland the heavens opened and subjected us to a downpour of epic proportions.
Time was getting on and with the deterioration in the weather we decided to head back to Tayvallich for lunch at the cafe that overlooks the harbour. We anchored the canoes in the harbour a short walk from the cafe. 
Graham had loaded his gear into his car and drove along to join us for lunch before he left for home.
The food was once again superb and we joked about forming a breakaway organisation called the Open Canoe Dining Group (or similar) due to the gastronomic emphasis of our trip! Graham said cheerio and set off while Andy, Tom and I reluctantly left the sanctuary of the cafe to start packing our own gear. 
Initially Tayvallich had just been a last ditch attempt to salvage something from a horrendous forecast  that had ruined our plans but it turned out to be a great weekend in it's own right. Loch Sween and the surrounding area offers huge potential for sailing and despite having been there twice this year there's still plenty left to explore on future trips. The scenery is second to none and the area is rich on wildlife as well. Combined with the amazing food and great company it was another truly memorable trip.  
The distances sailed were 18 miles on Saturday and 12 miles on Sunday. 

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