Wednesday, 17 October 2012

All the Gigha, no idea!

Last month when we did our trip to Tayvallich ( ) we had originally hoped to sail to the Isle of Gigha. Very strong winds put paid to the plan on that occasion however last weekend Rambo and I decided to make another attempt. The forecast had been yoyoing back and forth between relatively calm and quite wild weather all the week prior to our proposed trip but in the end we took a calculated risk and went for it on an uncertain forecast.
I met Rambo at his house just after nine on Friday morning and gave him a hand to lift his canoe onto the roof of his car then we hit the road for the long drive to Kintyre. We were unlucky with slow traffic and it seemed to take an eternity to reach our launching spot at Point Sands campsite near Tayinloan (where I'd arranged for us to leave the cars). We wasted no time in getting our canoes ready to go however it was already lunchtime so we decided to eat before we departed.
As soon as we'd had lunch we got the boats down to the water's edge ready to go.
I'd read as much as I could about crossing the Sound of Gigha, it's not that far in distance from the mainland to Gigha however the Sound is very shallow with some rock hazards and reasonably strong tides (and we were there on Springs) so it can prove quite challenging. As we set off though it appeared to be okay.
Further out the wind freshened and started to work against the tide giving us a bouncy sail but it was fun rather than intimidating.
The sail across took quite a while, the distance (despite not being huge) is further than it appears from the mainland. Once we were approaching Gigha it was time to decide whether we should head north or south. We opted for north based on my desire to reach the twin beaches at Eilean Garbh which I'd read made for a stunning camping spot.
We were subjected to some heavy squally showers on the way north but the corresponding rainbows were some consolation.
The eastern coastline of Gigha is an intricate web of inlets, bays and coves separated by headlands, it looked like a fascinating area to explore but with time getting on we chose to sail a fairly straight line up the coast in the hope of reaching the twin beaches before darkness.
As we rounded the northeastern tip of Gigha another squall blew through. This time though we didn't have the shelter of the island between us and the expanse of the Atlantic beyond so the waves started to get larger and the white horses more frequent.
This photo (taken as we rounded Rubha a Chairn Bhain) was the last one I was destined to take for a while. Despite the increasing wind and seas we pushed on in the assumption that the squall would blow through like all the previous ones had and leave us with a window to make the dash round to the western side of the island. In order to clear the reefs at the northern tip of Gigha safely we had to sail straight out towards the skerries of An Dubh sgeirr and Na Dubh sgeireagan which lie around a kilometre due north of Gigha. Once past the bay of Port Mor we could see that the sea between us and Islay in the distance was a mass of white horses. I reefed my sail down in anticipation of what was to come and at this point voice communication between Ramsay and I became almost impossible. Essentially we were committed at this point, sailing downwind to escape was a more frightening prospect than pushing on. The wind was blowing a good Force 6 and the swell was large enough that all I could see of Rambo at times was the top half of his mast and sail, also the tops of the swells were starting to break (a sure sign of the windstrength in case we'd been in any doubt). As we approached the skerries the waves started to become more confused and started to come from different directions simultaneously which was caused by tidal action. This made sailing quite tricky at times as the canoe would suddenly roll in an unexpected direction. I started to become a bit worried and scared but there was nothing for it but to push on. I had a quick chat with myself urging myself to stop fretting and just sail the bloody canoe properly rather than sheeting out and prolonging the agony. It was good to go about near the skerries and turn south west, at least we were heading in the direction of safety and shelter. I was hoping that we'd find shelter at the northern bay of the twin beaches (this would save having to go further round Eilean Garbh to the south bay). At this stage though it wasn't clear if the surf would be too big for us to land on the northern beach. Our course upwind took us back in towards the northwestern shore of Gigha and seeing the waves breaking on the rocky coastline was a sobering sight. A capsize and swim at this point would have been very serious and didn't bear thinking about, any boat would have been pulverised by the rocks and waves never mind a small sailing canoe! We tacked west again to clear the final few reefs and once more the sea became a confused, boiling mess with the backwash of the waves bouncing back off the rocks. The next tack took us directly towards the northern beach and it was with huge relief that I saw that the beach was fairly well sheltered from the surf and looked like it would provide a safe landing. I glanced over towards Rambo who was grinning widely and instinctively knew that the conditions that were scaring me were providing great entertainment to him. A few more minutes and we were into the shelter of the bay and shortly after that we pulled the canoes up through the small surf onto a lovely white sand beach.

 We chatted on the beach for a few minutes about what had just happened. Rambo reckoned that whilst he enjoyed the challenge greatly, we were pretty close to the safe limits of our boats. It was a relief to hear this from someone who had experienced challenging conditions previously (albeit in yachts and kayaks rather than sailing canoes). His words made me feel a little better and less wimpy than I had been.
Now we were ashore we had a look for somewhere to pitch our tents, the ground was tussocky and uneven but we found a suitable spot and started setting up camp.
It wasn't long until the sun started to set treating us to some nice views as we cooked dinner.
This picture is looking back the way we'd come. You can see the two skerries just to the left of the rainbow and the reef we tacked past just off the end of Gigha.
This is the view to the southwest from the other twin beach. 
We made our dinner and chatted over a few beers that Rambo had brought (I took wine, not as good with curry!) I started to get a little cold due to being damp from my leaky drysuit (Rambo was damp as well for the same reason but is made of sterner stuff) so I got in my sleeping bag in my tent while Rambo squashed into the porch in his Thermarest chair. This worked well and we chatted, drank Glenlivet and listened to some music until late (a most enjoyable evening).
During the night the rain started and several times I woke briefly to the sound of it's pattering on the tent. Sure enough in the morning it still sounded nasty outside (a brief glimpse out the tent confirmed this). Time to roll over for a lie in then! I was also aware of the rumbling of a diesel engine on a few occasions as the ferries to Islay made their way past our spot.
 About nine the rain eased off and I got up, Rambo was having his first relaxed morning for a few weeks so lay in for a bit (emerging just as I was about to make him a brew in bed!) We ate breakfast while discussing our options for the day.
The sea state looked a lot calmer than it had done the evening before but the forecast was once more for Force 5 or 6 westerlies. I was very much unsure about attempting the west coast (which is characterised by a lack of safe landings) on this forecast as I was still feeling a bit rattled from the day before. Rambo was keen to go for it so that we could complete our aim of circumnavigating Gigha. We decided to delay our decision until the last minute to see what the weather would do. As crunch time arrived I felt the need to put my foot down and say sorry but I'm not happy to go west. Rambo accepted my view with his customary good grace so we left the twin beaches in the same direction that we'd arrived the night before.
I genuinely felt bad for depriving Rambo of the option of sailing down the west side but my instincts were screaming at me that I wouldn't have enjoyed it even if we'd managed to achieve our goal. As we sailed out of the bay we had a lovely view across to the Paps of Jura.
As we got a little further out of the bay the wind started to pick up and we had good sailing back towards the skerries.
We turned east and the swell (which had been getting larger the further out we got) started to pick up the canoes and give them a good shove. This coincided with us bearing away onto a reach which made for a fantastic surfing session. Rambo clocked about 10 knots on his GPS whilst mine malfunctioned showing 28 mph! Fun though it was we were acutely aware of the dangers of broaching so again I have no photos of this section. Further east the island started to shield us from the swell a little so I was able to start videoing and taking pictures again.
Once we got around the corner back onto the east coast it became completely flat again.
This time we had no time constraints so we explored every nook and cranny of the coastline as we sailed south. There are plenty of spots where discreet wild camps would be possible if weather conditions prevented access to the west coast altogether.
Eventually we worked our way down to Ardminish Bay where we knew "The Boathouse"  restaurant was located. We already knew from chatting to the campsite warden at Point Sands that it would be closed however I was curious to see it and we knew there was a good landing spot there for lunch.
Sailing into Ardminish Bay.
I anchored Aylen just off the beach (to save the hassle of being left high and dry by the falling tide) while Rambo pulled his boat up onto the beach.
Although the Boathouse was closed, their outside tables made a fine venue for our lunch and saved us from sitting on the ground. 
By now there was a strong, cool wind blowing from the west which meant we didn't linger too long once we'd eaten. I wondered to myself what conditions would be like on the west coast and felt relieved that we hadn't attempted it. We left Ardminish Bay and continued south in increasingly lively conditions. We'd discussed camping on Cara island but weren't sure if we'd have enough time to reach it before nightfall. The working plan was to head for Cara in the knowledge that we would hopefully be able to find a spot on the southeastern part of Gigha if things didn't work out. The sailing became increasingly boisterous as we got further south and by the time we reached Gigalum island it was very exciting and splashy. We worked our way down the eastern side of Gigalum where we could see the crossing ahead to Cara. It was completely exposed to the west and we realised now that the forecast had been correct and there was a good Force 5 blowing through the channel between the southern tip of Gigha and Cara with a big swell and plenty of white caps. We hove too in the shelter of Gigalum and had a quick discussion, it was a no-brainer to head back to Gigha. Twenty minutes later and we had landed safely at a beach near the airstrip, it wasn't perfect as it was near some houses and didn't have too many places to pitch the tents but the light was starting to fade and we knew it would do. We pulled the boats up the beach way above the high water mark and set to pitching the tents and my tarp (which we rigged as a communal living space between the two tents in case of rain). Mindful of how cold I'd become the night before I put plenty of dry layers of clothing on before we started cooking dinner. By a happy coincidence we were both having pasta dishes so my red wine fit the bill as an accompaniment. It wasn't long before the rain started but we were cosy under the tarp (and were glad we'd gone to the trouble of rigging it). As darkness fell the heavens opened and the rain absolutely bucketed down.
The ferry that runs from Gigha to Tayinloan on the mainland moored at the pier just behind our camp at the end of it's working day.
We stayed up until about eleven thirty chatting and drinking as the elements hammered the tarp and the tents (it really was a terrible evening weather wise) but we were dry and warm in our little shelter. At bed time the rain miraculously stopped long enough for us to take the tarp down (we didn't want to have to do this during the night if conditions deteriorated further).
In the morning it was dry and sunny so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast while the tents dried out a little.
We weren't to be denied Cara today so we set sail south with a steady wind blowing (this time from the east) determined to at least set foot on the island.
Our destination Cara with it's haunted house and large colony of feral goats.
About twenty minutes after setting off from Gigha we landed on the beach at the northern tip of Cara. It would indeed have made a great camping spot had we been able to reach it the night before.
There were loads of goats grazing nearby (apparently there were even more until they were culled recently).
The view back from Cara to Gigha.
The forecast had predicted that the wind would be a nice Force 4 in the morning but would drop right off in the afternoon so we chose not to linger on Cara. The crossing back to the mainland was about 5km which we could do on one tack with the wind direction as it was. This would also have the advantage of the tide pushing us north towards our destination at Point Sands.
A final look back at Cara with the haunted house (the ghost is known as the Brownie) and the Brownies chair which is on the rocky hill at the left of the picture.
Rambo cruising back across the Sound of Gigha with the Kintyre peninsula and Northern Ireland behind him.
The sail back across was perfect, the wind was a nice F4 as predicted and we once more had a little wind against tide to liven things up. Once across the Sound we tacked north up past Tayinloan (passing the ferry we'd seen the night before).
I arrived back at Point Sands a little before Rambo (having cheated and unleashed my full sail area which is larger than his) but the wind was dropping as I pulled Aylen up the beach on her trolley. Rambo arrived back shortly afterwards and we congratulated ourselves on timing things so well as the wind petered out completely. We had a leisurely lunch in the sun and packed all our gear and boats back onto the cars before starting out on the drive home.
What an amazing weekend! The conditions were on the limit of what I'd consider sensible for sailing a loaded canoe in an isolated location but we got through unscathed and all the richer for the experience. I can't thank Rambo enough for his company and his understanding when I cried enough. As it turned our this was the right decision and while we didn't achieve our aim of sailing right round the island we now have the perfect excuse (if it were needed) for a return trip in future. Gigha is a stunning place to explore.
The total distance sailed according to my GPS was 31.67 miles (roughly divided equally between the three days).

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The return of the P.M.C.

Back in 1988 when I was actively ticking off summits in my Munro book I climbed one of my local hills, Ben Vane.  In those days it hadn't occurred to me that hillwalking was about more than just an artificial checklist of mountains to be climbed so a terrible weather forecast was no deterrent to a day in the hills! Off I set one day, all on my own to conquer the poor unwitting hill. Almost as soon as I left the car park I was immersed in thick cloud and pouring rain (the buffeting wind would join the party once I'd gained some altitude). The whole ascent was made on a compass bearing (there was no well trodden path up most of the hills back then) and I was very pleased with myself when I emerged at the summit cairn. As I've grown older and (possibly a little) wiser I've always intended climbing Ben Vane again in decent conditions to savour the views and enjoy the experience a little more, I've also always harboured a nagging doubt as to whether the cairn that I reached that day was indeed the true summit (how could I tell when I could only see about five feet in front of myself?)
Twenty four years later and I set out to do the hill again accompanied by my old friend and hillwalking partner Phil.
I picked Phil up at his house in Tarbert and we set off on the short drive up to Inveruglas (where we would be leaving the van). I've hardly seen Phil in the last year and it was good to catch up on all our gossip. Once we were booted and spurred we set off up the Hydro road that leads to Loch Sloy then turned south briefly up a side track before heading off road and up the hill proper. The weather this time around couldn't have been much better and as we gained height the views started to open up.
It was hard work, Ben Vane is quite small (only just breaking the 3000ft mark to qualify for Munro status) but what it lacks in height it makes up for in steepness. This was the first hillwalking I'd done since my hernia op' last year and Phil is superfit from the hundreds of miles of cycling he does so I was a bit concerned as to how I'd get on. In fact I did okay and when I needed to stop for a rest to catch my breath Phil was happy to stop and chat.
The view north towards Ben Lui
and south to Ben Lomond, Loch Lomond and the islands. 
Loch Sloy is reputed to be one of the ugliest hydro electric schemes in the country but it doesn't look too shabby from up here! 
The upper reaches of the mountain were even steeper necessitating a little easy scrambling in places until eventually we emerged onto the small summit plateau with it's two cairns. It was exactly as I remembered from all those years ago and left me in no doubt that I had reached the very top in 1988.
Phil posed for the obligatory summit photo then we took in the views and had a bite to eat and a rest. 
To the southwest were Beinn Ime and the Cobbler.
The Cobbler and Beinn Narnain. 
Despite the sunshine we soon became chilly sitting on the top and we could see the cloud building to the west as forecast so it was time to make a move back downhill. 
The rescue helicopter from HMS Gannet flew past us and disappeared southwards down Loch Lomond. 
Soon we were back down on the track again and all that remained was to stroll back down to Inveruglas but not before I noticed this little chap standing on the track. 
One last look back at Ben Vane.
It was good to get back out hillwalking again and is something I hope to do more often in future. It was also great to catch up with Phil, hopefully it won't be another year before we do something else together!