Norman Inglis rediscovers a love for Scotland’s west coast, one of the best locations in the world to combine sailing with hill walking
I have kept my boat Happy Bear, a modified Kingfisher 30, at Rochefort on the river Charente in France for the past 10 years.
But thanks to Brexit I now have to bring it back to the UK or face paying import duty and VAT.
I’d previously sailed on the west coast of Scotland for about 20 years but had headed to France for some warmer, drier weather so the prospect of sailing back to cold, rain, gales and midges did not at first fill me with enthusiasm.
However on reminiscing I did have some great sails, especially when the sail included a hill walk – and the west coast of Scotland must be one of the best locations in the world to combine sailing with hill walking.
One sailing and hill walking mini expedition I particularly enjoyed was a cruise into Loch Hourn to climb Ladhar Bheinn (pronounced Larven) a 3,346ft mountain on the south side of Loch Hourn.
Taking a shortcut
To climb this Munro would normally involve a ferry trip from Mallaig to Inverie in Loch Nevis then a seven mile walk in to get to the slopes of Ladhar Bheinn.
But looking at the chart I could see what appeared to be a sheltered horseshoe-shaped bay, Poll a’ Mhuineil, right at the foot of it.
According to the chart there was plenty of depth for Happy Bear’s 1.2m draught to anchor in and it seemed sheltered from all but a northerly direction.
I’d already sailed into Loch Hourn on a previous expedition with my brother, anchoring on the northern side at the village of Arnisdale and climbed Beinn Sgritheall, a 3,195ft Munro and considered it a spectacular sea loch with Munro’s either side.
Happy Bear was normally moored on my swing mooring in the Gairloch on the Clyde not far from Faslane submarine base but during summer I often left her at Kyleakin or Arisaig, both of which were accessible by bus or train.
On this occasion she was lying at Arisaig on a swing mooring hired from Arisaig Marine.
The anchorage in Loch nan Ceall, Arisaig, is almost enclosed from the sea and safe though it can be uncomfortable in a gale.
However it does require careful pilotage to enter or leave and if entering for the first time using binoculars make sure you’re aiming for the correct buoy and not the one way beyond it as the course can zigzag around reefs.
I arrived at my boat first and checked her over, all seemed well, there was very little water in the bilge and the wind turbine had kept the batteries charged.
The engine started first time after checking oil, coolant and alternator belt.
The next day Neil, my crew and hill-walking companion, arrived and we set off through the narrows of Loch nan Ceall carefully following the buoyed channel to reach the mouth of the loch via the south entrance (there is a north entrance but I’ve never tried it and don’t intend to).
Dead ahead was the beautiful island of Eigg with its distinctive Sgurr, or peak, but we headed north and caught a southerly Force 3-4 so it was off with the engine and all sail set.
So often when sailing in Scotland the wind seemed to head the boat no matter which way I steered: with the wind dead ahead I’d round a headland expecting it to free off but the wind would mischievously back or veer to stay dead ahead.
This was one occasion when the opposite happened – the wind stayed astern coming slightly over the starboard quarter most of the way to Poll a’ Mhuineil coupled with a slight sea state and sunshine.
Happy Bear ghosted along effortlessly at four knots.
We changed to a north-easterly course, slipping past Camusdarach and the silver sands made famous as the movie Local Hero’s beach.
Then the river Morar snaked through the sands: this must be one of the shortest rivers in Britain that flows into the sea.
Next the entrance to the port of Mallaig with inviting shops, bars and restaurants but we sailed past and crossed the mouth of Loch Nevis, another interesting sea loch with hills either side and the village of Inverie proudly boasting mainland Britain’s remotest pub.
We were now well into the sound of Sleat ,the stretch of water between south-east Skye and the mainland.
It gradually narrows down to Kyle Rhea and its eight knot tides, but at this point the tide was gentle and with us.
The mouth of Loch Hourn gradually opened up and we steered more and more easterly until we passed the islet of Eilean a’ Phiobaire.
I gave it a wide berth as there were rocks off its east side and steered straight into the horseshoe of Poll a’ Mhuineil with a tidal islet Eilean a Mhuineil forming the east leg of the horseshoe.
After sounding the depths near the shore I finally anchored in 7m with about 35m of chain.
It was late afternoon and after a bit of exploration ashore we went back on board for a curry.
Neil is a keen fisherman and we tried our luck with the handlines.
Needless to say we caught nothing but it was an evening well spent listening to curlews, watching the sun slowly dip behind the hills to the west with fishing line in one hand and a dram of Talisker in the other.
We set off early next morning, with fine sunny weather we travelled light.
The first obstacle was a fence erected by the John Muir Trust, named after the Scottish-born American conservationist who helped found Yosemite National Park.
The area had been replanted with native tree species and the fence kept deer out.
We eventually found a way round it and started up the ridge marked Druim a Choire Odhair between Choire Odhair and Choire Dhorrcail.
The going wasn’t too bad, there were some craggy bits but it was generally grassy slope most of the way up.
On and up we went, stopping occasionally for a breather and taking in the view below as Happy Bear became smaller and smaller eventually looking like a tiny toy boat in a bathtub.
At the top of the ridge we came to a summit Stob a Choire Odhair at 820m but this was not the true summit so we descended a little then climbed to the summit of Ladhar Beinn at 1,020m.
On the summit we met a party of young hill walkers in their 20s with full expedition gear.
They had a seven mile walk in over rough terrain and faced a seven mile walk out.
They looked askance at a couple of slightly curmudgeonly blokes in their 50’s wearing only shorts, t-shirts and with miniscule rucksacks.
(That was then, now, read ‘a couple of totally curmudgeonly blokes in their 60s’).
I didn’t let on that we’d cheated.
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We had a drink and a sandwich on the summit taking in fantastic views including the cuillins of Skye and Rum with the outer Hebrides to the west.
To the east the loch snaked and narrowed with hills and mountains as far as the eye could see.
After too short a time I knew we had get down and set sail for Mallaig as Neil had a train to catch early next morning.
The descent was relatively easy and it was reassuring to see Happy Bear getting bigger rather than smaller.
Once back aboard, as we weighed anchor a pod of porpoises came into the bay and started frolicking.
I don’t know if they were chasing fish or just having fun, but they gave us free entertainment.
I have to confess I’m not a sailing purist and after a half-hearted attempt at tacking against the wind which had dropped to Force 2, the temptation became too strong to roll up the genoa and turn on the engine – not helped by having a 30hp Watermota ready at the turn of a key.
We motorsailed out of the loch round Rubha Ard Slisneach and into the Sound of Sleat.
I could sit back and take in the views and the wildlife as the sun sank lower behind the islands and mountains to the west, though I was glad I’d soundproofed the engine bay to keep the engine noise to a dull thrum.
Towards the south of the sound we noticed a weird lenticular cloud formation looking like a huge UFO hanging motionless.
The opening to Mallaig harbour soon appeared, this entrance does require some care as there are reefs which cover right in the middle of the opening.
There was a small green buoy marking them but I’d prefer to see something more substantial and lit.
Nowadays Mallaig has a proper yacht marina with pontoons but back then Happy Bear had to mix it with the local fishing boats on the fish quay.
Past experiences there were not always pleasant, but this one was.
The boat inside threw over a bag of scallops and the boat in front fed fish to harbour seals which rose right out of the water like dolphins to grab them, providing entertainment for all around.
After a dinner of the scallops and a token visit to the local pubs we had an early night (we had just climbed a Munro!).
In the morning Neil caught the first train to Glasgow and I started on a slow voyage back to the Clyde after a great sail come hill walk with glorious weather, warm sunshine, fair winds (mostly) and not a single midge bite.
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This feature appeared in the January 2022 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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