The tide is running west, and a zephyr is blowing from the east, and the sea is like dark-grey satin. The GPS is reading ten knots, the log is reading six, and a couple of miles on the starboard beam the Mull of Kintyre is sweeping by at astonishing speed, Over to port Northern Ireland is a long blue shadow on the horizon.
The tide washes us up the coast of the Kintyre peninsula to the island of Gigha – visitors' moorings, clean white beaches and a splendid garden. Next morning, point the nose northwest to the sound between Islay, whisky capital of the universe, and wild Jura. The tide blasts the boat up the narrow gut. A lighthouse sweeps by. To starboard, the scree-grey Paps of Jura tower into the sky. Ahead lie a crowd of dolphins and the island of Colonsay, fair weather only; and beyond, the long mountainous line of Mull, with the holy island of Iona at its western end.
Get the tides right here, and the moon does most of the work. Thread the cardinal buoys marking the Torran Rocks and into the Sound of Iona. The weather is still gentle, but has turned southwesterly, so it seems sensible to head up the west coast of Mull. Pause at Staffa to admire Fingal's Cave and shudder at a couple of basking sharks. Then on northwards to the fair-weather anchorage at the Treshnish Isles, infested with puffins and corncrakes. It is calm, which is good, because the sea between the north of Mull and the island of Coll is a prime spot for minke whales. Furthermore Coll has a hotel and an actual shop – a rarity in these waters.
But soon the weather goes northerly, and the clouds come down on the hills of the Ardnamurchan peninsula, the British mainland's most westerly point. Ardnamurchan is the gateway to wild and beautiful parts, but the seabed off its tip looks like the Montana badlands – no fun in a northerly. It is time to point the nose eastwards, perhaps up Loch Sunart, or into exquisite loch Drumbuie; or more probably into Tobermory, the capital of Mull, with diesel – the first since Campbeltown – and supermarkets. Then south.
The Sound of Mull is a treat in a northerly on a south-going tide. The boat slides happily down, dropping in at the beautifully sheltered and gardened inland sea of Lochaline. At the bottom of the Sound, south of the white tower of the Lismore light, lies urban Oban and its surrounding marinas and anchorages. People keener on the wild may turn their sterns to Loch Linnhe, gateway to Fort William and the Caledonian Canal. Having checked and rechecked the tidal stream atlas, they will make for the softer landscapes of Argyll.
Like many beautiful things, these are protected by dragons. Most ferociouse is the Corryvreckan, a gulf through which the tide can run at twelve knots, forming rips, overfalls and whirlpools. Then there is Grey Dogs, a miniature version of the above; the Sound of Luing, long and brisk and charming with a fair tide; and Cuan Sound, narrow and rapid and useful except for the odd rock.
Once you are past this flock of dragons the world fills with porpoises, and beautiful gardens, and the nests of sea eagles, and for those who enjoy such things or need diesel some highly civilised marinas.
Assuming you are heading south, there are now two questions. Can you face the fiftyish-mile slog south, back to the rips of the Mull of Kintyre? Or would you prefer a shorter passage? If the latter, ring Crinan Sea Lock and book a transit of the Crinan Canal, which after about twenty-four hours and fifteen locks will drop you into Loch Fyne.
But as the tide washes the boat between the rocky banks of the Dorus Mor, the last tidal gate before the Crinan sea lock, it is hard not to look over the shoulder across the rips and eddies towards the Corryvreckan, and feel pleased with yourself, and vow that next year, for sure, we will head for the wilds that lie far and bright across the sea north of Ardnamurchan.
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