Jonty and Morag Clews aboard Freebird, their Sadler 34, quietly slipped out of Liverpool Marina on the 19th May 2016 for an extended summer cruise. The aim was to leisurely cruise north from Liverpool with the most northerly destination being Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, then cruise south returning to Liverpool by mid September. Our intention was to combine sailing with walking and we planned to stay at specific locations for a few days to take in the sights and local walks. Apart from ourselves we have a trusty and indomitable crew: ‘Vonda’ the Volvo, ‘George’ our helmsman who can hold a course no matter what the weather throws at him and is uncomplaining in the rain, it should be said ‘George’ helmed most of our 1283 nautical miles (nm) voyage, and finally Ernest and Shackleton our bear and cat that travel everywhere on Freebird and are custodians of the ‘ship’s chest’! The cruise had to be broken down into four phases due to family commitments in Liverpool, and Jonty’s annual delivery sail of RY Bloodhound from Leith to Oban in July with the return passage in late August.
We headed north to Whitehaven some 80 nm, the weather was dreich, wet, rain, rain and more rain; it could only get better and as our adventure progressed it did and we were blessed with some superb weather and great sailing, spectacular scenery and terrific sights. After sailing the Solway Firth and visiting Kircudbright where Mike and Yvonne Croxall popped over to see us we slipped the Harbour Master’s pontoon just after midnight, tide waits for no man! With the tide and the wind we rounded the Mull of Galloway and headed across the North Channel to Bangor Marina, County Down via Donaghadee Sound. We had lived just Bangor in the early 1980s when there was no marina at Bangor just a beach and a rough rock breakwater – how it had changed. We met up with friends from 30 plus years ago and had a great time revisiting some old haunts and sampling the ‘black stuff’ on numerous occasions!
Then it was off to explore the Firth of Clyde, a wonderful sailing area with many harbours, marinas and anchorages to visit. We knew we would return to the Clyde on our way south so we focussed on the ‘Islands’: Ailsa Craig, Arran, Bute and Great Cumbrae. It was great sailing with spectacular views, sunrises and sunsets. Everywhere in the Firth of Clyde is within ‘touching distance’ so short mpassages with lunch time stops in secluded anchorage was the order of the day. Long walks were taken on Arran and Great Cumbrae and even swimming off the back of Freebird! After just two glorious weeks at sea we had to leave Freebird at Troon, a superb Trans Euro Marina on the Ayrshire coast, with an excellent train service to Glasgow. We returned to Liverpool for a week and were back on Freebird on 10th June ready for our trip to the Outer Hebrides.
Troon is an excellent location to start a passage north, the Marina has first class facilities, chandlery, boat yard, restaurant etc. The town is within walking distance as is the supermarket and the coast walks along the south and north beaches are delightful. Once repleted we head off north to Tarbert mand then into the Crinan Canal. We had been warned about Scotland and the ‘Midges’, today we mhad seen none and were expecting to be swamped with them in the Crinan, the ‘midge’ attack never mmaterialised throughout our entire trip, whether sailing or walking, including Jonty’s passage mthrough the Caledonian Canal both ways; 2016 was not the year of the Midges for us! No doubt we mwere lucky.
After a lazy trip through the Canal we popped out at Crinan and made our way to Craobh Marina on Loch Shuna avoiding the draw of the Corryvrecken. We were now officially in amongst the Western Isles and we progressed north with the mountains getting bigger. As we passed between Fladda and Dubh Sgeir our SOG topped 9kts but once out into the Firth of Lorne it all changed, the wind got up as did the sea and for three hours we had a rocking and rolling passage with three reefs and the No1 Jib as the waves and wind came at us from all directions! Once passed Lady Rock at the entrance to the Sound of Mull the weather was turned off and normal sailing resumed. A quiet night at anchor in Loch Aline was the reward and the next day we sailed to Tobermory. Day 22.
We went alongside at Tobermory and with the swell it was quite uncomfortable though we were fortunate that the swell subsided during the night. The following day Chris Jacks and Rona arrived from Portree; he stayed for a few hours, had some food, refuelled and a couple of hours sleep before mcontinuing on his circumnavigation. It was great to see him and Rona in really good order and good spirits. A terrific solo achievement.
Alan Sullivan joined us for a few days at Tobermory and we took in Loch na Droma Buidhe, Salen and then out round Ardnamurchan Point passing Muck, Eigg and Rum to Mallaig. After a good walk maround the Glens of Mallaig we did the short passage to Inverie for a night at the Forge Inn – it was closed! We all went swimming and had a a sumptuous veggie meal aboard. Back to Mallaig to drop Alan off and despite the railway strike he made it back to Liverpool and we continued to head north mto Skye through Kyle Rhea, the Kyle of Lochalsh and onto the very picturesque village of Portreeon Skye. It was day 30 aboard Freebird.
Day 31, the Outer Hebrides was our destination so yet another 0430 start and we slipped for Stornoway on the other side of the Minch. We set off in excellent weather but at the top end of the Sound of Rassay we were engulfed with thick thick fog! Thank goodness for AIS but only if everyone has it! A fishing vessel came out of nowhere, no sound signals, no AIS and no one on the bridge or deck – keeps you wide awake though. The fog persisted for a few hours and we eventually broke out into the most beautiful sunny day with a vibrant blue sky and a turquoise sea. Passage across the Minch past the Shiant Islands was one to remember, the odd dolphin but not as many as we would have liked. We arrived in Stornoway to find the harbour was full, with yachts rafting up all the way to the Esplanade Quay, fortunately the Harbour Master squeezed us in on a pontoon opposite Lewis Castle, idyllic. It was an eclectic mix of yachts from literally all over the world, msome coming south, some heading to the Shetlands and further north. We arrived on a Saturday and were able to replenish our stocks and visit a watering hole to sample some of the Hebrides fine sales! Absolutely everything is closed on a Sunday to mark the Sabbath and all visitors are encouraged to have a day of rest and reflection.
We stayed at Stornaway for a few days and walked to some spectacular white sand beaches that stretched for miles, beautiful clear water that was very tempting for swimming but looks are deceiving – the water was freezing. We have lived in the Falkland Islands and landscape of Lewis and Harris is very similar; beautiful beaches, rolling landscape and not many trees! Interestingly Lewis is further north than the Falklands is south! We also visited Callanish, the Scottish Stonehenge, it is spectacular and you can walk amongst the stone freely taking in the sights across the Island and inlets.
Day 35. We left Stornoway early in the morning of day 35 aboard just as the Queen Elisabeth had dropped anchor outside the harbour and was starting to ferry hundreds of passengers ashore. With the tide and the wind we sailed across the Minch towards Loch Gairloch for the night and then 40nm to Plockton, where we found the last visitor’s mooring. Plockton is worth a visit and we stayed a couple of days did some walking in the rain, and devoured the most magnificent fish and chips on the quayside.
Having been north our aim was now to get to Oban to leave Freebird there whilst Jonty went to Edinburgh to bring RY Bloodhound through the Caledonian Canal to Oban. We left Plockton and retraced our steps back through Kyle Rhea to Mallaig where are we spotted Mersey Joy another Liverpool yacht. One night in Mallaig and on to Tobermory where we picked up a mooring at the far end of the Bay next to a waterfall and had a very peaceful night. We would recommend the moorings or going to anchor rather than the pontoons as they are very susceptible to swell. Oban was now in sight and after a night stop on a chums mooring in Loch Aline and a long walk around the Loch we headed to Dallens Bay north of Oban and then the following day through the Appin narrows south through the Lynn of Lorn and on to Kerrera, the island off Oban where we picked up a swinging mooring and left Freebird after 43 days aboard.
Three weeks later, 1st August, we were back on Freebird and rafted up alongside RY Bloodhound in Oban Bay. While Bloodhound did her month of day charters Freebird continued her passage south. We had decided that the Firth of Clyde was a great sailing area and wanted to explore it in more depth. Back through the Crinan Canal, this time in pouring rain but still no midges. After the canal we went to Portavadie Marina on the east side of Lower Loch Fyne. Portavadie is a ‘State of the Art’ marina and is worth a visit if you are in the area – just for the outside heated infinity pool! The walking is excellent and we continued with Skip Novak’s advice – sail into somewhere and then walk up the biggest hill you can see.
From Portavadie we sailed through the beautiful Kyles of Bute to Port Bannatyne where we met up with some old friends who keep their yacht, Midnight Drifter, there. After we had walked the northern part of West Island Way on the Isle of Bute we sailed in company for the next few days visiting Holy Loch, James Watt Dock and Rhu. The Firth of Clyde is without doubt a great location to sail as no matter the weather there is always somewhere to go within a couple of hours sailing. Alistair and Alison departed aboard Midnight Drifter back to Port Bannatyne and we headed for Plantation Quay.
Plantation Quay is a City of Glasgow Council run pontoon in the centre of Glasgow next to the Science Centre, opposite the Crowne Plaza and a short walk to the West End and Glasgow Green where the World Piping Championships were concluding when we visited. The passage up the Clyde is both interesting and scenic, the Clyde is not very wide and for much of the motor sail upstream after Greenock and James Watt Dock you are surrounded by rolling farmland until you arrive in the centre of Glasgow. The Science Centre staff open the foot bridge across the Clyde for you and the pontoon is on the south side of the river, electricity and water are provided and it is completely free so long as you book with the Glasgow CC. The Waverley, the last seagoing paddle steamer is berthed on the other side of the foot bridge and the Tall Ship Museum is moored a short distance down stream on the north side of the river. It is a fantastic city to sail into with a top notch pontoon location. Day 62 aboard.
After a terrific short break in Glasgow we headed south down the River Clyde and the Firth of Clyde to Troon where Freebird was going to stay for two weeks whilst we want back to Liverpool and Jonty delivered RY Bloodhound back to Leith.
We returned to Freebird on 1st September and we had promised some friends in Northern Ireland who were away on holiday when we visited Bangor going north that we would return on our trip south. We slipped Troon and made the 44 nm passage to Loch Ryan and Stranraer Marina, though the marina is at the far end of Loch Ryan the sail down the Loch is very pleasant. The following morning we set sail for Bangor some 39 nm away. The Royal Ulster Yacht Club were returning from a race to Portpatrick which our friends were on. We all married up at Bangor Marina that night for champagne and a drop of the ‘black stuff’ again!
We spent three days in Bangor catching up and revisiting old haunts. Peter and Joanna took us to The Royal Ulster Yacht Club for dinner. The RUYC sits on the headland and its Victorian red brick club house dominates the surrounding area. The Club is 150 years old this year and was the base for Sir Thomas Lipton’s five America Cup Challenges all raced under the RUYC burgee. The Club is steeped in history and it was a real pleasure to dine there, the Dining Room has a panoramic views across Belfast Lough and to Scotland, on a clear day.
As we had taken Freebird into the centre of Glasgow it was only right that we should sail into the heart of Belfast to the newly opened Belfast City Marina. It is only a short sail down the Lough but once into the City it is fascinating. Belfast is still a working port but the planners have combined the docks with tourist attractions along the quayside, the biggest is the Titanic Museum built on the original slip way where Titanic was built; the corners of the building are full size replicas of the Titanic’s bow and tower above you. The BBC Last Night of the Proms was also on, with the stage actually on the Titanic Slipway. With the city centre just across the foot bridge the marina is in a perfect position for a short break in Belfast, we stayed three days but it was time to move on and head for home. Day 76.
From Belfast we called into Bangor for one last time and then headed out through Donagadee Sound and pointed Freebird towards Calf Sound at the bottom tip of the Isle of Man. What a great sail we had and we arrived at Calf Sound at slack water and slipped into Port St Mary where we picked up a visitor’s mooring. When we arrived it was a beautiful day, by 2200 there was a ‘raging’ gale outside which persisted all night, a few ‘peeks’ through the forepeak hatch during the night to check we were still attached to the mooring, otherwise it was a rocking and rolling night. The morning brought a beautiful sunrise and we set sail for Deganwy in Wales. We flew across the Irish Sea with the wind on the quarter, the welsh coast was shrouded in a heat haze until we were only two miles off. We arrived far too early to get up the river to Deganwy so ‘mouched’ around Puffin Island and Conwy Bay until we could pilotage up the river. Day 77.
Day 78 aboard Freebird and we woke to another beautiful day in Wales, the sun was breaking out and it promised to be another scorching September day. We slipped our berth an hour before high water and made our way down the River Conwy and out around Great Ormes Head towards Q1 rather than the Rock Channel as we were on springs. There was a lot of wind farm support vessel activity and as we entered the Limit of the Port of Liverpool with Burbo Wind Farm Extension on our starboard side the fog closed in from nowhere and visability was reduced at times to less that a cable. We made our way cautiously towards Q1 talking on the VHF to Mersey Radio and the vessels which were converging on Q1 at low water. We hugged the starboard side of the channel and once past the ‘Crosby’ Buoy the fog lifted and we sailed down the Mersey towards Liverpool Marina. We arrived at Pluckington Cardinal at 1900 and worked our way towards the lock gates and dropped the anchor in 4 metres of water and waited for the lock gates to open at 2050. Spot on time the bridge went up, the gates opened and we motored into the lock that Freebird had left in May four months previously.
So after 1283 nautical miles, 78 days aboard, 50 marinas, harbours, moorings or anchorages, no breakages and no ‘midges’ we arrived back at our home port, Liverpool. We secured Freebird on her berth and walked the short distance home. The summer sailing season was over and what a great summer we have had. Next year’s adventure is to Ireland, South Wales, the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, round Land’s End to the Isles of Scilly and then to the West Country – can’t wait.