SUFFOLK, FALMOUTH, DUBLIN, OBAN
Goodbye, Kehaar. In 2001 we decided we were spending too much money and time on the boat we had owned for ten years, and sold her. Wouldn’t it be much more sensible to charter other peoples’ boats in nice places, and get on with our lives the rest of the time without obsessing about equipment and cruises?
For several years it worked. Hello, Seychelles, Adriatic (several times), Greece and other destinations. However, in 2004 William began to investigate the idea of buying a small boat and sailing round Britain in his gap year, so naturally I helped him narrow down the choice and began to visit boatyards with him to look at ideas, with a Contessa 26 the favourite. We looked at several.
It was the beginning of a slippery slope back to boat ownership. Will changed his plans and went off round the world using other means of transport; I kept on visiting boatyards, egged on by a small inside voice telling me that it would be good to have a healthy outdoors project in the run up to retirement, and sailing round Britain could fit the bill – my own sort of gap year. The upshot was that in 2005 we bought Pepper, a Verl 900, a 30 footer with an unusually large amount of room down below for a boat from 1978, and a surprisingly good turn of speed for her top-heavy looks.
She had a new engine and Furlex, and the hull had just been resprayed professionally, but otherwise she needed a big refit, which we spread over two years, until we had new rigging, electronics, sails, ground tackle, and a host of the other odds and ends that need renewing on every boat of this generation. The plan was to go slowly, fitting a round Britain cruise into other schedules by doing it in stages, exploring as we went, and finding places to leave Pepper whenever necessary, including a winter at Oban in Argyll.
We hadn’t discovered WordPress in 2007, so this is not a blog but a photo album with text.
We had a fast passage from Shotley Marine on the River Stour to Ramsgate, where we stopped for a couple of hours for fish and chips and to wait for the tide, before heading on to Brighton, Cowes and Poole, then a lunch stop at Lulworth Cove and a night at Weymouth for a rest, before heading off across Lyme Bay.
We went inside the Portland Race, crossed Lyme Bay to Dartmouth, and up the River Dart to Totnes to drop off David Fairhall near the railway station – there is a pub next to the boatyard where a 5 foot draft boat can squeeze in for an hour at high tide. Tony and I headed straight down river and out to sea and set sail for a night at Salcombe and then to Falmouth, and into Malpas Marina, where we had arranged to leave the boat for 6 weeks. The passage from Suffolk – with David, Tony and myself – took a leisurely week, in mostly fine weather.
We drove back to Falmouth in early July, with Judy, Georgia and Tony; the weather was bad, with a howling southwesterly much of the time. We moved to Falmouth’s visitors’ marina and settled down for some traditional wet west country holiday making in the rain. It was almost nostalgic for old times, walking up and down the High Street dripping wet, fish and chip restaurants (I know where not to go now after the food poisoning one of them gave us), the Ghurka restaurant (very good) and pubs over-run with damp visitors. We also paid a visit St Mawes, where we had kept Kehaar for four seasons in the 1990s.
The weather refused to let up, with violent gusts for days, making even a brief excursion up the River Fal a lively, heavily reefed sail.
We had to drop our plan to visit the Scillies en route; as soon as the weather settled, Tony Georgia and I (Judy had to get back) sailed straight for Dunmore East at the entrance to the river that runs up to Waterford. The weather was perfect, with a beam or close reach most of the way, and bright sun as we passed the Lizard, crossed Mounts Bay and rounded Lands End and Cape Cornwall for the passage North.
The breeze held through the night, and the next day we had fun trying to film the dolphins that milled around us, before arriving to raft up alongside a fishing boat in the harbour at Dunmore East, an attractive little holiday village, where it didn’t take long to find a good pub for supper.
The plan next day was to head past Hook Head for Carnsore Point, the south-east corner of Ireland, and then up to Arklow. With a good breeze out in the estuary, we managed to get the main halyard badly tangled round a mast fitting, and after struggling with it for a while decided to head back to calm water at Dunmore East to sort it out. Georgia volunteered to go up the mast to free the halyard.
On the way, we took a short cut inside the Saltee Islands, across St Patrick’s Bridge, a narrow buoyed channel in the long underwater reef that stretches nearly 2 miles from the inner island to the shore. (As we were crossing, my phone rang with a completely unnecessary call from the office! I hadn’t yet retired.) We entered the narrow harbour at Arklow, turning off into a small marina just outside the town.
I had a special reason to visit Arklow, because it was the nearest town to my grandfather’s farm at Monaglough, near Wooden Bridge and Avoca, which I had never seen. One of my sisters had found it some years before and gave me rough instructions about how to get there, so we rented a taxi for the morning and headed off in search of it.
Even the pub at Wooden Bridge wasn’t sure where Monaglough was, so we stuck with my sister’s directions, but couldn’t find the steep road up a hill that she described until we stopped at a house and asked, mentioning my grandfather’s name to an elderly man: he knew the family history, told us about a cousin who had moved to Avoca and gave us exact directions to the farmhouse.
We told the taxi to come back in an hour, found the turning up the steep hill, walked to the top and there was the farmhouse, sold off many years ago, after the death of the uncle who took it over when my grandfather, the oldest son, died.
My grandfather never seems have taken it over or farmed it anyway, though exactly what happened with his inheritance is unclear. He emigrated to London in his twenties, and refused to return to Ireland. But my mother spent childhood holidays on the farm with her grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins; we marked it carefully on the map, so that a year after us my mother, helped by my sisters, was able to visit. She introduced herself to the new owners, and among much other news discovered that the farm across the road was still owned by her cousins.
These farms are in one of the most beautiful parts of Wicklow, with a grand view over to the mountains, and a steep wooded valley on one side leading down to a river. Looked at in 2007, when Ireland was prosperous, it seemed a magical place. In the grim 1930s and 1940s, when farming in Ireland was an unrewarding slog, a secure job in London must have seemed a much better prospect for grandfather.
We met the taxi again at the bottom of the hill, and drove a couple of miles to the local churchyard, which was full of familiar names, including grandfather’s brother Dan. There we discovered not only that his real name was Eugene, but also a bit of a mystery: Dan shared a grave with a much younger man with a different surname. We still don’t know why, though my best guess is that he was an illegitimate son.
From Arklow, we headed north on a fine day for Dublin Bay, and up the River Liffey into the marina (which since seems to have been closed) right in the centre of the city, where we stayed for a couple of days, after which Tony had to leave to catch a plane home to London and work.
From Dublin, Georgia and I motored round to spend a night in the pretty town of Howth, and then to the little harbour at Ardglass just over the border in Northern Ireland, all in settled offshore weather.
There was no time to explore the intriguing Strangford Loch because its entry and exits are governed by strong tides, and Georgia needed to get back too. So from Ardglass, a marina which played host to a seal who insisted on sleeping on one of the pontoons, we headed straight for Bangor on Belfast Loch, which is within easy reach of Belfast Airport; the next day Georgia caught a plane to London.
I left Bangor on a fine clear morning, crossing the head of the loch, passing Larne and sailing fairly close in to the beautiful Antrim coast, with deep valleys down to the sea.
The weather turned squally and wet approaching Fair Head, the north east turning point of Ireland, then cleared as soon as I passed it, so I crossed the bay to the pretty seaside town of Ballycastle in bright evening sun.
The tides are strong between between Ballycastle and Rathlin, the crescent-shaped island two miles offshore. On a morning of light winds and sun, which became a flat calm by the afternoon, I set off for Port Ellen on Islay, rounding the west end of Rathlin.
There’s never time to see everything, and I too had only a few days left to get back to London, so I regretted not exploring Rathlin on such a beautiful day. However, the passage across to Islay was a compensation: warm, hypnotically calm, with a view of the Scottish and Irish shores, and no traffic at all in the shipping lane.
Port Ellen is a friendly place, with showers at the back of a villager’s house, and I discovered an advantage of being single-handed, when I was asked onto the boat next door for drinks, dinner and a long conversation about the best places to see on the west coast.
Next day was bright and calm so I decided to go inshore among the rocks to see the three distilleries along the coast just north of Port Ellen (whose own distillery has closed, putting a high value on the remaining bottles). Going north, first is Laphroaig, then Lagavulin and then Ardbeg. North of all three is a delightful passage close in to the shore that feels almost like a canal, so hemmed in is it by the offshore rocks.
I had time to go right in to Lagavulin, which involves rock hopping with the pilot book in one hand and the tiller in the other, and was rewarded by a tightly enclosed shallow bay with remarkably clear water and a great display of seaweed of different colours. Because of its position, there is hardly any tidal range so – temperature apart – the flora and fauna is living in Mediterranean-like non-tidal conditions. There were two visitor buoys.
From Islay, I plugged on up the Sound of Jura under engine in light weather, with the Paps of Jura – named after their shapes – off to port.
At Crinan, the end of the canal of the same name, I picked up a mooring buoy for the night. I had a view out to the great race of Corryvreckan, between the islands of Jura and Scarba. George Orwell stayed for a while in a house overlooking the race, and nearly lost his life saving a friend who had rowed out into it.
Leaving Crinan, there’s also a powerful race – nothing like the awe-inspiring Corryvreckan – leading into the Sound of Luing, between Scarba and the mainland. This leads up past the slate quarry island of Easdale into the Firth of Lorn.
From there it was a short distance to the Sound of Kerrera, a pretty channel that leads to the grand sweep of Oban Bay. There I took the pontoon mooring I had booked in Oban marina on Kerrera. Pepper had arrived, but I had to get back to London.
Later in the summer, Chris and I were back for a short walking and cruising holiday. First, we did a delightful walk round Kerrera itself, a pretty island with a spectacular fort on its southern tip.
Then we went up the Sound of Mull to Tobermory and spent a night in Drumbuie, whose narrow, rocky entrance opens out into a wide and peaceful loch, before heading back to Oban to lay up Pepper for the winter.