Charmian Entwistle tests new facilities at Tarbert, Harris and Scalpay
Over the last decade or so, the facilities available to visiting (and resident) yachts in the Outer Hebrides have changed beyond recognition.
For a few years now sailors have benefited from an excellent marina and pontoon facilities at Stornoway, and more recently Lochboisdale (South Uist), Lochmaddy (North Uist) and Castlebay (Barra) have acquired yacht friendly facilities.
This has made the area a much safer place to cruise with several havens if the weather should happen to become unsettled.
Last year saw the opening of the Harris Marina Hub which provides pontoons and other facilities at Tarbert, Harris and on the adjacent island of Scalpay, and these completed the marina chain down the Outer Hebrides.
I was fortunate enough to be able to sail over and visit them this year from Skye and see some of the delights of the islands.
Arriving at Harris from the north and the east you should find that Eilean Glas lighthouse (the first lighthouse to be constructed in the Outer Hebrides), which is a white tower with red bands, is fairly easy to distinguish but careful navigation is required round several rocky outcrops on the way into the channel.
Once into the Sound of Scalpay you then head in under the Scalpay Bridge which is rather square looking and a little nerve-wracking height-wise although there is plenty of clearance for vessels with a mast height of 20m or less.
Approaching Tarbert and Scalpay from the south or with air draught of more than 20m, you will probably head in through Braigh Mor, which is the channel between the islands.
This makes interesting navigation and there are several alternative anchorages in that area if the weather is right or you want a bit of quiet time to yourselves.
Arriving in Tarbert takes you into the heart of the new Isle of Harris Marina (isleofharrismarina.co.uk).
The T-shaped pontoon design with 24 berths is a great improvement on the previous anchoring area which always felt very close to the ferry pier.
The pontoons are well serviced with power, water, wifi (no diesel in 2018) with toilet and shower facilities ashore. There is also a row of trot moorings, to restrict swinging into the fairway off the ferry berth.
Going ashore at Tarbert puts you very close to a good range of facilities including restaurants, hotels, bars, groceries and a variety of other shops.
Local attractions include the Isle of Harris distillery and the world famous Harris Tweed shop to name but a couple.
There is a lot going on at Tarbert and it will not be long before the pontoons there become very busy, so booking in advance is worth considering.
If time and other commitments permit, it is well worth hiring a car for a day or two to explore the spectacular beaches on the West Coast of Harris and the historical sites, including the Callanish Standing Stones on its linked neighbour the Isle of Lewis.
On our recent visit to the islands we included a wonderful sail to the Shiant Islands about 12 miles north-east of the Sound of Scalpay.
The Shiant Islands are a dramatic group of islands to visit in settled weather but it is rarely calm enough to stay there overnight.
Arriving there at noon, just as the two trip boats already there were leaving, meant that we were able to have the lovely remote islands to ourselves with only the sea birds for company.
A walk ashore allowed us to sit very close to the puffins which are most people’s favourites, but there are many other interesting birds living there as well including Manx shearwaters, storm petrels, razor bills and guillemots to name but a few.
After a lovely visit to the Shiants over lunchtime, we headed back to Scalpay for the night which worked very well as we had an excellent sail both ways.
The new pontoon facilities at Scalpay were very good, with power and water handy. Two toilets and showers ashore are provided by the local community, while diesel is available by arrangement at the fishing pier.
Ashore on Scalpay
An award-winning bistro restaurant is a few minutes’ walk away from the pontoons – advance booking is recommended in high season (as at most restaurants on the West Coast).
Scalpay has a much quieter feel about it than Tarbert but is still very attractive and there are several interesting walks for those who want to stretch their legs after a long passage.
At both Tarbert and Scalpay, the Marina Hub team offered a very helpful service to visiting yachts and were keen to greet new visitors.
The two facilities at Tarbert and Scalpay offer shelter and berthing in East Loch Tarbert in differing wind conditions.
Tarbert is exposed in strong east, south-east and southerly winds, Scalpay from the west and north-west. They offer a comfortable and secure option for anyone who wants to visit the Outer Hebrides.
The passage across The Minch can sometimes be challenging but it gives an unequalled opportunity to see some of the most spectacular sea life and scenery in the UK which can include Minke whales, dolphins, and the occasional basking shark or orca as well as the sea birds.
Both islands are well worth visiting either as a stop-off on a tour of the Outer Hebrides or a break in a longer passage.
A warm welcome awaits you there.
About the author
Charmian Entwistle and her husband Mark run the Isle of Skye Yachts charter company. Charmian is also a director of Sail Scotland.
As published in the April 2019 issue of Practical Boat Owner magazine. We pay for your published cruising stories and harbour updates. Email firstname.lastname@example.org