July 2012, Mull, Coll, Canna and North & South Uist.
As with 2011, work commitments again kept us off the water until early July, but by the 11th we were finally afloat. Typically it was calm, so the season started with a motor 30NM north to Drumbuie, and the following morning a hop across the Sound of Mull to the Tobermory pontoons (right). Tim had some work to finish off for a client and needed the mains power available at the pontoons. The work was tough going because Tobermory harbour is busy with tenders passing too and fro, their wakes making the boats at the pontoons dance up and down. We had not yet got our sea legs and a few hours peering at complex spreadsheets on the small laptop screen was enough to unsettle the stomach, so he called it a day, with only a couple of hours needed to finish the following morning. However the laptop had other ideas, and by the next morning the screen back light had given up the ghost. Thankfully we still had the smart phone, so could search the internet for computer support on Mull. Here was our first piece of luck, there was a man based in Tobermory. We left a message on his answer phone and half an hour later he called back. Yes, he could lend us a monitor for the day, and even offered to bring it down to the pontoons for us. (Judith left Tim working and walked around the local park where the water lilies were putting on a good show (left)). The next problem was how to get the spreadsheets to the client. The harbour office has wifi, but the laptop receiver is very poor and could access it from the boat. The fallback plan was to use the internet at the youth hostel as we had done in previous years. However they had increased their computer security and Tim couldn't access the files on the flash drive. This meant we had to move the laptop and monitor from the boat to the lobby of the harbour office. However even here the laptop could not find the wifi. Therefore the only option was to set up the whole lot on the wall outside the harbour office directly below the wifi aerial with an extension lead snaking inside to power the monitor - after first fixing the fuse in the extension lead, and getting permission to leave the fire exit open because otherwise the lead would not reach. Thankfully it was a dry day, if it had been raining we would have been stuck.
Having received email confirmation of the delivery of the spreadsheets, we were free to set off. Our first destination was the island of Coll, just to the west of Mull. With the wind blowing strongly from north we had an exhilarating sail from Tobermory, arriving late morning. The island has a typical Hebridean feel, having sandy beaches along the west coast, safe harbours on the east coast, and between low undulating peat covered hills - perfect for exploring by bicycle. It was a stiff row against the wind from the boat to the pier, and an equally stiff cycle ride against the wind around to Ben Hogh (339ft) the highest point on the island. Here there is a large erratic boulder (right) near the summit that is balanced on three small rocks, with clear daylight visit beneath. The cycle back, and then the row to the boat took half the time of the outward journey.
The wind swung around overnight to the west giving us favourable winds for a second day - most unusual, and it was an excellent sail north to Canna, the most westerly of the small isles (for more on Canna see late June 2007).
The spring and early summer at home, near Bristol, was exceptionally wet, but the Hebrides had been exceptionally dry. They were near drought, and this was really noticeable when walking on Canna where the moss in the peat bogs was dry and crispy. The most common animal on Canna is the rabbit. A few years ago all the rats were removed from the island to help the ground nesting birds, and now the rabbit population has exploded. This helps the birds of prey, with buzzards everywhere, and several pairs of eagles, both sea eagles and golden eagles (right). The rabbits are also a permanent feature on the cafe menu, with wild rabbit pie the specialty dish at the time we were there!
Another frequent summer visitor are basking sharks. Canna is targeted because it is perched on the edge of an underwater shelf, a good place for food. We were lucky to be there when high water was at dusk. This meant that the sharks were tempted into the harbour where the water was deep enough for good feeding. At high water the island of Sanday, which makes up the southern shore of the harbour, is cut off by the tide. The sea water flows through from the west, bring the plankton which has come up from the depths to feed in the evening. We were treated to the sight of two smaller sharks weaving backwards and forwards around the bay for over an hour. The following morning as we set off for Lochboisdale on South Uist, we saw first one shark, then another, then as we neared the edge of the underwater shelf, ten sharks at the same time. There was much splashing as they got in each others way, but thankfully left us well alone.
Lochboisdale (right) is the largest town on South Uist. The eastern side has a ridge of high barren hills, and the west has the fertile machair (left). This is sandwiched between the miles of white shell sand beaches and the peat bogs. Over the centuries the sand is blown inland and neutralises the acidic peat, making the fertile grassland which is a paradise of wild flowers and birds. It is also a paradise for insects and with bad planning, we chose a still day to catch the bus to go for a walk. Flies...we have never seen so many, we both had dozens of them buzzing around our heads for the whole walk, making for a most unpleasant couple of hours.
From Lochboisdale, the plan was to stop in Loch Eport (see Late July 2007) where there is a lovely sheltered anchorage, and an good walk up Eaval the highest peak on North Uist. The winds were light from the south west so we were motoring up from Lochboisdale, when Judith thought she could smell diesel. A quick look under the engine hood showed one of the fuel pipes was emitting a fine jet of red diesel. Thankfully it was on the low pressure side so not issuing gallons, but we dared not stop the engine because air would get into the system and it would need bleeding to start again - not something you want to have to do in a hurry on a rocking boat.
This put paid to ideas of Loch Eport as it is several miles across peat bogs from the anchorage to the nearest house, let alone anywhere where we could get assistance if needed. So it was a change of plan, with Lochmaddy (right) the new goal. The fuel leak was not disastrous because the wind was increasing so we could have sailed, even if at only 1-2 knots, but maneuvering around the lochmaddy moorings would not have been fun. After a quick rummage in our tool box, a temporary "patch" was constructed using duck tape and cable ties (left) which reduced the leak to the occasional drip. This got us safely to the moorings, and saved us from filling up the bilge with diesel. As is was, we extracted about 3 litres from the depths of the bilge - and what a nice job that was... We did not want to use the bilge pump as that dumps it straight overboard, so instead extracted it with a sponge on the end of a piece of string. This involved leaning as far as possible over the engine to repeatedly drop the sponge into the bilge, pulling it up by the string and squeezing out the mucky diesel into a pot, all in a confined space that was filled with diesel fumes - very nauseating. Judith took the experience one stage further by allowing the end of her plaited hair to fall into the diesel pot. Three attempts at washing it failed to remove the diesel smell, so the last 3" were cut off - just above the hair elastic, then Tim the hairdresser evened up the resultant wavey line when the plait was undone.
Next came the saga of getting the replacement part. We know a reliable supplier and they located the replacement pipe, and while we were at it we also ordered a new exhaust elbow as they are prone to corrode and eventually leak from cracks. This was all packaged up and sent out to us by courier - the first mistake! The Outer Hebrides are outside the guaranteed zone for most couriers, and it took over a week to arrive. The second mistake was not explaining clearly to the supplier what to put on the package for "to be called for" at the local post office. They had written it on the box, which the courier promptly obscured with their label. It therefore arrived and the post office staff did not know who it was for. Someone in the back office opened it, and it was still not obvious as our name was written in small type at the bottom of the dispatch note. They guessed it was something someone had ordered for their heating system so put it to one side. It took a lot of persistence on our part to get it unearthed, as we had been told by the courier that it had been delivered. However when we got to it, there was only the exhaust elbow in the box. The result was we had to order another one! This time is was sent by Royal Mail "next day" delivery and was with us in two days - very impressive. We had fitted it and tested within half an hour of getting it back on board (right).
We were not idle during our enforced stay, but went for several walks using the service bus, and also hired a car for a few days to get to the less accessible places. We would have preferred to be able to move on, but there are much worse places to have been. The weather was mostly fair so it was a real pleasure to walk on the white sandy beaches. As with South Uist the flies did become a bother when the wind dropped, but we had to keep reminding ourselves that it just meant more food for the birds like the ringed plover (above/left).
Driving around the outer Uists is a different experience to mainland Britain. Most of the roads are single track with passing places, so rarely travel more than ¼ mile before having to pull over, and 30mph is speedy. You often see "Otter Crossing" signs around the Outer Hebrides, but this sign tickled us - a place to dispose of your caravan? - what a good idea (though more likely to do with effluent).