Lengthy cruises in UK waters too often become interrupted by bad weather. Early summer 2015 has certainly been an unusual period for the northern half of Britain. In any normal year the West Highland coast can expect a fairly settled if cool period during the second half of May, into the beginning of June. This year was the exception. Two huge storms came rattling through off the north Atlantic. They battered coastal communities, disrupted ferry sailings and sent cruising yachts scurrying into whatever shelter they could find.
The skipper of a cruising Drascombe is always alert to predictions of winds over force 5 and 6. Most of us would not choose to venture out. Should the area forecast start with a gale warning for all surrounding sea areas, options for any small boat have to be considered extremely carefully. When storm 10 becomes 'imminent' everything must be ready.
A small group of Dutch Drascombe friends have been gathering in west highlands waters intermittently many times over the past 15 years. Over these years we have tallied up well over 4 months - maybe over 1000 miles - sailing in close company. Members of this group have now explored much of the NW coastline from Loch Gare in the north, south to Kintyre. More recently in 2012, some of the group sailed over from northern Skye to explore the Hebrides south to Barra and back. Experience has taught us many things. However our latest cruise has finally dispelled any lingering doubts about the wisdom of stowing such a huge burden of extra equipment aboard.
The last days of May this year found us off southern Islay. We were in Port Ellen when a very unseasonal severe storm warning first came through. This splendid harbour, the best on the Island, is in fact quite exposed to the south and south east. This turned out to be the very direction from which this huge depression would intensify.
Remaining moored to Port Ellen's extensive community run pontoon system was an option. However considerable Atlantic swell can enter the bay. Every Drascombe skipper will recognise how the height difference between gunnel and standard steel pontoon frames can cause damage. Then, for any prolonged stay, the question of privacy when living aboard any Drascombe on a pontoon while in full view of daily life ashore can be a personal 'hang-up'.
We decided to seek shelter in some shallow intricate inlets, inshore of the Ardmore Islands, some 7 miles back north-east. This undisturbed wildlife haven, home to seals, deer and sea birds, must have provided safe refuge for millennia. Local fishermen, travellers, smugglers and even pirates down the ages would hide there. Perfect invisible hidey-holes for shallow draft vessels abound.
One by one our four remaining Drascombes wormed their way right inshore to the innermost channels. While the Drifter 22 was restricted to an outer inlet, the two coasters and LBC Malmok set about making the boats as "storm proof" as we could. These rock lined inlets are very shallow- the holding is soft silt. Rocky wooded inlet sides rise almost vertical to 30, even 50 feet. Around southern Islay the tidal range is slight. I was sure that at the height of the Monday storm we would be in fair shelter. With luck at the storm's peak low tide would leave us almost dried out. I was quite wrong.
With our anchors lying out to the west, and a cat's cradle of long lines linking our bows, but also tethered back to shore-side rocks, we waited for the big wind. So perfect was the shelter we hardly noticed the storm arrive. It began to build from the south-east. Looking upwards just after dawn we could see the surrounding trees bend and strain against powerful squalls, but we lay at rest, almost becalmed. Worryingly, the water level in the inlet began steadily to grow higher and higher. A surprising storm surge of at least 3 feet above H.A.T. slowly filled the lagoons. Higher lichen covered rocks around which our landlines were secured became submerged. The roar of powerful winds above our relative calm was weird. Our relative comfort did not last.
As the morning drew on, gradually the wind veered more south and then south-west as the storm deepened. Stray gusts began to penetrate our hiding place, funnelling between the wooded slopes. Some blasted directly down the inlet. The effect of storm surge became critical. During the second stage of this storm, if anything, the waters rose even higher. Elevated by these invasive waters, as the wind veered our sense of exposure and vunerability steadily increased. The rigging hummed, mooring lines squeaked and snagged as the boats heaved and strained against powerful forces that would destroy them; perhaps dashing them onto the submarine rocks just feet away. Overhead, fluffy clouds scurried eastwards against a bright blue sky; out on the Ardmore skerries huge Atlantic storm rollers smashed white in the distance. In the shelter of the hidden inlets the early summer sun was powerful. Boats trapped: we socialised and wandered about the splendid deserted wilderness on foot instead.
We had entered these channels early on the Saturday evening against a forecast for SE 5-7. On Sunday the forecast was SW veering NW 5-7 Occ. gale 8. The early forecast for Monday 1st June: W 5-7, backing south, increasing gale 8 to SE severe gale 9, veering SW or W possibly 10 in west later. We assumed this to be 'the big one'. But Tuesday - if anything - became even more extreme: Cyclonic W 8-9 occ. storm 10...veering NW and decreasing 5-7. Through heavy showers we lingered on. Only on Wednesday 3rd June did things start to settle down a bit. With WSW 4-5 forecast we could gather up our "monkeys and parrots" and after 4 days tethered to land resume our 3 week cruise.
In the outer inlet Dulcibella, the Drifter 22, had lain to anchor. Her skipper selected a shallow spot well out from shore. He then deployed her standard ground tackle at full scope enhanced by a heavy anchor 'chum'. Whenever we climbed the rocks to look, she was weaving back and forth, a curiosity for local seals. Luckily her ground tackle never shifted. Her Bruce anchor simply dug deeper and deeper into the silt. On maximum scope the drifter's heavier displacement and high stability ensured that even in the strongest squalls she was in no actual danger. Had we tried to anchor our Coasters or the LBC in this same location away from close shelter, common sense would have seen us lowering both masts to conserve stability through those sudden dreaded cross winds.
For the 3 boats rafted inshore, in close company through those storm days, the "monkeys and parrots" consisted of the following: From Whisper one 7.5kg Bruce on four metres of heavy chain and long nylon warp, plus two additional lines looped to two 4 kg grapnel type kedge anchors wedged around nearby rocks, and one further long line to a more distant rock passed over the foredeck, over to Malmok. From Malmok, the LBC, her (?8 kg) Danforth due west, plus three additional long lines to other small kedge anchors wedged among surrounding rocks and one passed over to Batyr. From Batyr, out to the west a 7.5 kg Bruce to a lighter length of chain, a long warp. She also deployed one grapnel type 7 kg kedge anchor laid due north down the inlet, plus three additional long lines to shoreside rocks.
Lessons learned: for those tight shallows make all lines as short as possible so boats have little scope to surge about. Sudden surges can disturb your neighbours, they also cause lines to snub and inflict damage. In retrospect we could have done this better by balancing lines of more equal scope. The boats suffered no damage. On board Whisper I retained another old CQR and two lengths of chain in reserve plus a few spare lines, just in case.
Clearly our time devoted to study served us well. After a couple of beautiful sailing days heading on north through the swirling powerful tides of the sound of Islay, by late on Thursday 4th June the group were exploring the magnificent scenery of Jura's Loch Tarbet. It was too good to last. Soon we were hunting once more for where real shelter was available. With all our 5 boats back in company, the inner recesses of Loch Tarbet on Jura witnessed the construction of a splendid long-stay gale resistant raft-up. Fates dictated that from Friday night there would be a second 'no-holds-barred' re-examination of group resilience. Our recent experience made us re-connect all five boats to each other and also to the shore. Then we waited. (Friday forecast ESE 5-6 veering S to SW 7 to severe gale 9. For Saturday: W 7 to severe gale 9, veering NW 5-6.)
Through that Saturday afternoon and evening the wind slowly dropped back from W 5-6 to NW 4-5. But within our cat's cradle of mutual protection we hung on for a memorable group supper and another calmer night.
At last, on Sunday, dismissed by the great invigilator, we sailed free to outer Loch Tarbet, before heading northwards on Monday morning in bright sun and gentle winds: conditions which lasted till the end of our cruise 10 days later.
The wisdom of continuing to stow all those "unnecessary and bulky" extra lines, fenders and kedge anchors, built up through so many years of West Highland cruising - just in case, now fully justified.
( More images from this cruise can be found on the Dutch blog www. drascombe.nl )
Copyright 2015 Tom Colville