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Far from the crowd

Sam Llewellyn enjoys a quiet cruise.

Lock Scresort

On the south coast of England, the waters of the Solent were bristling with white sails. Up here in Mallaig harbour on the West Coast of Scotland, the only other yacht under way was an elegant Bristol Channel pilot cutter.

A black-backed gull eyed us coldly from a pile of trawl net, and a seal wallowed in the clean green water, pretending without success to be a crocodile. The wind bumped into the mainsail and we glided into the Sound of Sleat.

Mallaig fell astern

The Sound of Sleat is the stretch of water that separates the southern part of Skye from the mainland of Scotland. The noise and diesel of Mallaig fell astern. We broad-reached north past the lonely Knoydart peninsula through rafts of shearwaters and guillemots.

Somewhere in the murk on the port bow, the Cuillin hills lurked fierce and jagged. We passed Sandaig, where Gavin Maxwell lived with his tame otters, and anchored in the lee of an island at the mouth of Loch Hourn.

As the afternoon’s mackerel fried and the corks came out of the wine, we were the only boat for some ten miles in any direction. It was pleasant to reflect that the ‘Harbour Full’ signs were probably out in Yarmouth, IOW.

Next morning we caught the tide up to Kyle Rea. The wind was blowing briskly from the SW, and we waltzed through the seven-knot flume in the narrows like a ballroom dancer with a blizzard of diving terns instead of a mirrorball. At the top of Kyle Rea the town of Kyle of Lochalsh flashed by, the Skye bridge shot overhead, and we were washed into the Inner Sound.

First human

It was here, a couple of days later, that we met our first human of the cruise. This was Bill Cowie, the custodian of the island of Rona, and its excellent harbour, providing showers, haddock and venison for visiting sailors.

We chatted about this and that in the slow, polite manner of the Gulf Stream. Down in the Solent, racing yachtsmen crazed with adrenalin were probably barking at each other for water at the mark.

The days began to run into each other. Stornoway Coastguard’s weather forecasts spoke of high pressure. One morning we woke to find the world sunk in fog. On the South Coast, this would have been a cause for extreme anxiety. Here, we watched, drinking tea, as the day’s colours emerged from the pearly haze, and the sky cleared, and the mountains of Torridon floated into the blue, their feet invisible in a white eiderdown of mist.

We spent a night off Inverie on the shore of Loch Nevis. There is no road to Inverie, but it still has a pub, and the sound of discreet revelry drifted across the mirror-calm evening sea. In Cowes, the music would have been pumping. Here, there somehow seemed plenty to do without going ashore.

Next best thing to a miracle

Next morning we headed west. The Gaffers and the racers would be foregathering in Cowes. For a moment, I wished I was there to see them.

Then a Great Northern Diver crossed the bow, brilliantly chequered black and white, and a splash caught my eye. There in the channel was a group of about a dozen grey pilot whales, males and mothers and babies, breaching and rolling. They came and raced alongside, then went off to look for their breakfast, leaving me to conclude that a fleet of gaffers is a beauty, but a pod of whales is the next best thing to a miracle.

Then the boat put its shoulder into the sea, and the wake roared, and we surged towards the glittering horizon and the islands of Rum and Eigg lying like battleships under the high bright sun.

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