Early July 2008 - Gairloch, Rona, and Handa
This month we have continued our journey generally northwards, though hampered at times by northerly winds and intermittently, heavy rain. After restocking at Portree we had the first enjoyable sail for some time with a moderate southerly wind propelling us up to Gairloch Bay. This is a wide bay with many sandy beaches along the north and east sides making it popular with holiday making families. The southern side has several inlets providing a choice of excellent shelter for boats. We opted for some "luxury" by staying on the pontoon at the village of Gairloch. The pontoon is adjacent to, and protected by the fishing pier (see left). This had pros and cons. The main disadvantage was that the we were disturbed by the noise of the boats coming and going at all hours, but the advantage was that a lady had set up a thriving business selling fresh fish from her van on the pier - fish that had been brought in on the boats that morning - delicious. The pontoon is also used by the local tripper boats providing tours of the bay and whale/dolphin watching trips, so space was limited. At one point we were the inside of a raft of three yachts. But they were very friendly and considerate so we got along fine, immediately next to us were David and Sheila on 'Gannet' who were based in Troon, and then on the outside were a Swedish couple who were on their way down to Cork. The Swedes were either very brave or crazy; every morning they would have a quick dip in the sea - the water is still very cold and alive with jellyfish! We also took advantage of the local price of 70p/litre for red diesel (it was 95p/litre in Oban) and topped up our tank.
Perversely the wind dropped shortly after we arrived at Gairloch and there followed several days of calm weather but the local area provided us with much to do. There were several walks which we enjoyed while the weather was fine, not to mention a cycle ride along the quiet coast road round to Badachro. Here there is an excellent pub with a veranda overlooking the harbour.
One morning the cruise ship Hebridean Princess docked at the pier and disgorged a coach load of people who were whisked off for a mornings excursion to Inverewe Gardens (National Trust of Scotland). We opted to take the local service bus which gave us much more time. The gardens were created on what was a barren peninsular, by labouriously applying seaweed to improve the soil. Unfortunately all the rhododendrons had finished flowering, but we were much impressed by the walled garden (right) where neat beds of vegetables were interspersed with marigolds and sweet peas, with an army of gardeners hard at work. It must be a real pleasure to dig this vegetable patch as it slopes down to the shores of Loch Ewe and has a beautiful view across the loch to the surrounding mountains.
When the wind returned the three of us in the raft all decided it was time to set off. With the wind from the north, we decided not to fight it and headed south to Rona for a few days. Of the other two, Gannet headed north, and the last we saw of the Swedish yacht was as it headed off across the Minch to the Outer Hebrides.
Rona, which is off the north end of Raasay, has a sheltered harbour on the west side called Acarseid Mhor (Gaelic for "Big Harbour"), (see left). It is quite a rock dodge to get in and unfortunately the sea bed here is soft mud and while we had no problems, we would not have stayed there in a big blow. It is also a very popular spot for visiting yachts being only 10 nautical miles from Portree so the many anchors plowing the sea bed does not help the holding either. There are a number of rocks and reefs in the anchoring rear too, and while we were there we saw one large Beneteau yacht go aground when they tried to leave (their cause was not helped by the person on the helm immediately reversing them into the shore side of the reef when they first hit rock!).
Overlooking the harbour is 'Rona Lodge' where Bill Cowie, the warden, lives. Bill is a very sociable chap with two very friendly dogs. He welcomed us as we walked ashore and warn us about his grumpy bull. Over recent years he has been restoring old abandoned cottages as holiday lets and also offers basic facilities to visiting yachts (shower, washing machine and a mooring) The following morning we put the first load of washing on, and then, having been warned that it was a very slow machine, set off to explore the southern end of the island. When we returned, Bill had not only put on our next load of laundry, but hung out the first load for us on his washing line!
While walking on Rona we spotted some Sundew plants, these have sticky pads with which they trap small flies and insects (see MORE PICTURES).
After three nights on Rona we made a short visit to Portree for more provisions, and then obligingly the wind turned to blow from the south giving us two long days of productive northwards sailing. It was the sort of sailing that Jan and Ian became very familiar with last month - just the head sail on a rolly sea. But thankfully the rain that is usual with south westerlies did not arrive until the evening we arrived in Loch Nedd - a long narrow steep-sided tree-lined inlet on the southern side of Edrachillis Bay. It was an excellent place to shelter, as we were anchored in smooth water while watching the trees thrashing around in the wind at the top of the valley sides.
After a brief visit to explore Loch Glendhu and Loch Glencoul (where we spied Gannet anchored) the weather gave us the opportunity go to Handa. The anchorage on the island is exposed to the south and very narrow with little room to swing at anchor (below), so when the forecast was for light northerly winds we jumped at the chance.
Handa is a nature reserve managed by Scottish Wildlife Trust and at this time of year the island is a haven for nesting sea birds. It is very different from the adjacent mainland which is made up of Lewisian Gneiss and is generally barren and rocky. Handa is a small pocket of Torridon Sandstone left after the ice age, with steep cliffs on the northern side, and rolling grassy fields running down to sandy beaches on the southern shore - a veritable oasis for the birds.
A small open boat acts as a ferry for tourists from the mainland. It lands at the sandy beach at the head of the bay (above), so only operates in suitable weather. He was obviously very busy as he only slowed slightly as he passed us making Innisfree bounce around in the wake. So we timed our row ashore for when it was not near by! We were welcomed on the beach by one of the Trust volunteers who's primary job seemed to be to wheel a ramp out into the water to help the people off the ferry. He directed us up to the hut in the bottom of the picture where another volunteer introduced us to the island. There is a well maintained footpath around the island, which takes you to the best locations for watching the birds. The island has only recently been cleared of rats so the puffin burrows are concentrated on the grassy topped sea stacks. But one or two obliging birds landed close to the path. They seem to be unphased by humans, and will allow you to crawl ridiculously close to get good pictures even with our little camera.
Handa is also home to 150 pairs of Great Skuas (Bonxies) and 40 pairs of Arctic Skuas. Both are brutal birds and the success of the other local breeding birds must be adversely affected accordingly. We often see single Bonxies out terrorizing other birds while at sea but to see 20 of them bathing in a fresh water pool on Handa was a bit alarming.
The good weather was short lived however, and we had a very damp passage to Lochinver. But again, there is a pontoon at Lochinver and the area has much to entertain us so we shall probably stay several days.