What in the world are we doing?

I’ve been unusually tardy of late, as far as updating my blog that is. My last post was back in August and the weeks have slipped by so quickly. Prompted by inquiries from friends I thought I’d better give an update.

So, what in the world are we up to now?

After a week or so wrapping up our sailing season dodging tricky winds within the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, we took a quick detour to Bangor in Northern Ireland to avoid the south-westerly winds, then had a fantastic sail directly to Whitehaven Marina in Cumbria. That was our final sail of the season. Over the past three years, the idea of replacing our old engine with a newbie had reached fruition, and our focus shifted entirely towards weeks of major work aboard Blue Heeler. By the end of August our sailing season was over.

So what’s wrong with the engine? Nothing more than age (happens to us all!). At over 20 years old and although still running (it got us from Australia to the UK and still has plenty of miles), we want a sound engine to spend the next few years without major mechanical troubles which would likely present themselves between some remote islands in the Pacific. Plus the fact, Volvo parts are horrendously expensive and overall the price of a new engine seemed like a good deal compared to buying a number of other parts while the engine grows older and less reliable.

Before we could even figure out exactly what was required, we first had to find a place where we could do the work ourselves while also living aboard. This isn’t easy in the UK as few places allow live-aboards in a boat yard. Fortunately our far-reaching search was fruitful, and Whitehaven Boatyard came to the rescue. In early September Blue Heeler was hauled out, washed and supported in a cradle – this is our home for the autumn months.

Rudder skeg to be replaced

An engine repower can be complicated on a boat, but Wayne has all the skills and experience to do the work himself and with me helping of course. While the boat is out of the water, we’ve taken the opportunity to do other major jobs too. Removing the rudder was a priority. Although we’d dropped the rudder in Thailand back in 2013, we weren’t happy with the slight movement that had developed since then. It made sense to remove it to replace all the bearings, seals and this time install a brand new bronze skeg. This skeg, plus other unique parts for the boat were sourced via Hallberg Rassy’s HR-Parts division.

Off with his head!!

One place that has to be kept in good condition is the head and ours was getting a little manky. The stainless steel holding tank was original (circa 1996) and although the welds were touched up in Thailand (as we had a little leakage) it seemed like the perfect time and location to replace that too. We had thought about a plastic tank, but the size and weight didn’t seem to fit the space well, so we opted for a tank specifically designed for the space – also bought from HR-Parts. Over the side the old one went, along with seized ball-valves and stinky hoses. Our toilet bowl and pump were also original and the base had broken (a potential disaster in rough seas!), so over the side that went too. I even splashed out and bought the best sanitary hose I could find; it has a vanilla smell. Can’t wait to have a new dunny that smells nice!

How’s your sea-cocks?

One job that may be easily overlooked by boat owners until it’s too late is seacocks and skin-fittings. It’s not always easy to identify whether a skin fitting (aka through hull) is defective. Over time the metal can weaken and fail – skin-fittings and seacocks/ball-valves. Out on the ocean is not the place to find out whether your bronze bits have deteriorated. Some of ours looked okay but once removed we could see that although the handle turned, the ball was fixed in the open position. In two cases the balls were entirely missing. Over the side they went!

The job to remove and install skin fittings and valves is laborious (we exchanged nine) as they are usually located under the floor or at the back of a small cupboard suitable for a pint-sized person. The valves can be quite costly once additional fittings, hoses, and other items are added to the order.

Then there are the sometimes unexpected jobs that crop up along the way; corroded sea strainer connecting pipes, changing the layout of the engine room; removing wiring and other components; replacing tired engine room insulation; installing strainers; running errands; dealing with Raymarine service division when our MFD died (that’s a whole other story!). Before we could even begin any work we had to remove sails, drogues, guitar, bags or stuff, and anything else we won’t need for the next six months and transport it to a storage place in nearby Egremont.

As Chief Passer O’Tools and Logistics Organiser, my initial focus was to thoroughly clean the interior of the hull – engine room oil spills, mould and other goo that builds up over time in these cold latitudes, plus scraping hours of old sealant. This gave Wayne time to understand how he would install the new engine and study all the technical stuff.

Keeping the boat habitable and the beers cold is pretty easy to do despite the disorder. Each day I prepare an easy crock-pot dinner (amazing what you can cook in a slow cooker – lasagne, Tom Yum, whole chicken) and after a day’s work we quickly tidy up, have a beer, a shower, then have a feed. If we are really busy, there are many eateries around Whitehaven (the nearby Fraser’s fish and chip shop offers a huge piece of cod with chips – yum!).

Lunch with Ann and Chris was a delightful surprise!

Staying focused on what has to be done keeps us on track to get the major done before the weather turns cold and horribly wet. We are up early and finish at normal knock-off time, but work seven days a week. So busy that we haven’t even explored the nearby pubs in the six weeks we’ve been here. But we did have a lovely distraction with a visit from Ann and Chris who we sailed with in the Indonesia/Malaysia rallies back in 2012/2013. Great to catch up over a beer and lunch at nearby Bransty Arch pub.

Happy days!

As I write this, Blue Heeler has no engine, no toilet and no rudder installed and we’ve almost finished installing the final valves and skin-fittings. Tonight was a crock-pot feast of roast lamb with a cheap bottle of Spanish Tempranillo from Tesco. I’ve already sold the old engine on Ebay and our new Volvo engine arrived last week, on the same day as our new toilet plus a heap of other stuff.  In the middle of all this chaos, we’ve managed to stay fairly positive within the confines of a small boat in a boatyard.

Views of Scotland from the boatyard

The good news is that Whitehaven is pleasant enough to walk around and the people are very friendly and give a cheery “Y’orright?” in delightful Cumbrian dialect. Tesco is just next door so it’s easy to grab groceries in the middle of a busy day (their selection of wine is pretty good too!). The marina complex is a five minute walk from the boatyard and has good showers, toilets and laundry facilities, and friendly people. Anything we need can be bought online and the delivery service in the UK is impressive. The boatyard has toilets, electricity and water and a few rabbits darting around. Strong winds can be a little unsettling so high above and it rains a lot. Whitehaven has an interesting history so I’ll write more about that in the coming months once the work is done.

So that’s about it for now. My sister Diana has flown from Perth Australia and will visit us this week so that will be a pleasant distraction from the work; although we still have the antifouling to do and the extra hands would be useful…

Next time I hope to show you lots of shiny new stuff aboard our little Blue Heeler.

Until then…

 

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Scotland: Highland hiking and a wee bit of history

Scotland may not have the warmest weather, but as far as hiking goes, there is an abundance of trails and paths crisscrossed over the islands and coastline. Staying fit while living on a boat isn’t as easy as some make out, particularly the sort of exercise that gets the blood pumping. So for me, the chance to jump ship and head for the nearest trail is something I enjoy.

From Stornoway, we returned to Portree to fill up with diesel. We had wanted to hike some of the trails on Skye, but transport to and from trailheads without a car is not easy, and requires catching the intermittent bus service or hitchhiking. Ideally a walk from an anchorage to a trailhead is much easier. So we stayed aboard that night to enjoy the calmer warmer weather with the Cobb cooking some ribs on the aft deck.

Eilean Donan Castle, Kyle of Lochalsh

The next morning, from Portree we continued on the familiar route motoring under the Skye bridge and the Kyle of Lochalsh. Through the mist we took a side trip to Eilean Donan Castle for some photos before heading south along the fast flow of the Kylerhea strait. We anchored for the night at Loch Na Dal before heading to Mallaig the following day, again making good use of the south flowing tide.

Mallaig Harbour

 

View of Loch Nevis

Mallaig is a touristy town filled with exuberant kids that’ve taken a ride on the Jacobite Steam Train from Fort William to Mallaig (famous from the Harry Potter movies). I looked into doing this trip, but it was fully booked at this time of year. There are short walking trails around Mallaig so we hoofed along a track for a couple of hours with views of Loch Nevis, finishing off our exercise routine with a pint of ale at the pub!

The next few days produced no wind and warmer than usual weather – around 20degC. Not particularly good for sailing, but great for walking. Heading west we motored 15nm to reach the island of Rum, located to the east of Canna in the Small Isles. I’d discovered a good hike on Rum and the weather was perfect for the walk.

Rum mooring field – Blue Heeler all alone…

Rum has ten moorings – relatively new – so at 10 pound a night we grabbed one for a couple of nights. Payment is easily paid online, or you can walk to the Rum Bunkhouse to make payment.  There isn’t a dedicated dinghy dock, but the nearby floating pontoon which belongs to the MOWA company can be used.

On shore is the small community of Kinloch. Kinloch has a post office/shop/community centre, plus a camping area and a couple of ‘glamping’ cabins. A most impressive building is the Kinloch Castle. Built from red sandstone, the building is open for public tours in the afternoon but our timing was off and we didn’t make it for the tour, but I did peek inside the windows. Nonetheless, the views from the castle out into the bay across to mainland Scotland are quite impressive. Apparently Queen Victoria’s kids used to come here for holiday shenanigans.

Kinloch Castle, Rum Island

The island of Rum is a native sanctuary to many seabirds; the most abundant are the Manx Shearwater. The estimates vary, but they say over one third of the world’s Manx Shearwaters return to Rum each year to breed and raise their chicks. Red deer and goats also inhabit the island, plus the oldest Highland Pony stud in the world are located here on Rum.

Sturdy, sure-footed Highland Pony

To get our legs warmed up for the next day’s hike, we took the trail north off the town which took around an hour. Following a series of painted ‘wellies’, you will find yourself at Croft 3 – a local croft which offers a variety of local produce and crafts.

To help us identify walks throughout the highlands is the website Walk Highlands. Used in conjunction with the app ‘Viewranger’, I can import GPX files and have the route and tracking displayed on a topographical map on my iPad. The website also provides descriptions of each walk plus other useful information, such as walk difficulty, terrain, plus ‘bog factor’ (many walks are very boggy!).

Example from the Viewranger app

The Hallival and Barkival hike is 13.5km long and takes us up two peaks – Hallival (750m) and Barkival (590m). We left the boat at 9.30am then walked towards the village and headed along the Coire Dubh walk – a 2.9km trek. From the end of the Coire Dubh walk we continued southeast towards the ridge of Hallival.

We are boat fit which generally means that we can sit for days as ballast as we cross oceans, but on land things get a little shaky as our dormant tendons and muscles are flexed back to life. The initial part of the hike is a good trail which slowly ascends to 200m. The next stage is across boggy, rocky ground following a narrow goat trail. Up on the ridge at around 550m, we looked up at Hallival, still shrouded in an impenetrable mist at the top, so we headed west to the clearer peak of Barkival at 590m. The views of the Rum Cuillin were amazing, although the cloud floated around the peaks, the highest is Askival at 810m (2,659 feet).

Gorgeous views

There were pockets of midges in the air, but nothing too bothersome, although there is rumour that a second wave of these notorious bitey beasties will appear before summer’s end. Walking through the soft terrain at the top, small holes are dug into the hillside – the nests of the shearwater. After a rest and a bite to eat, including a sweet bite of whisky tablet, we trudged downhill and returned to our dinghy by 4.30pm.

The next day a slight northwest wind was ideal for a trip to Tobermory, 27nm away, on the Isle of Mull.

Baby spinny!

Under the shadow of the Rum Cuillin, we motored an hour before we could turn off the engine and get the sails out. Not enough wind to keep the foresail billowing, so with wind less than 10kn, we dragged out our secret weapon – Baby Spinny! With our small spinnaker we can sail in 5-12kn of wind and sail along at an acceptable speed.  Over the course of the warm day, in seven hours we travelled 27nm – not fast, but at least we had a lovely day on the water and weren’t wasting diesel.

Tobermory harbour is filled with many moorings with virtually no anchoring room close to town, and it’s very deep, we decided to grab a mooring. As part of Highland Week, a sailing regatta was taking place offshore as we approached, but we beat the fleet and managed to snag a mooring ahead of the competitors. Already 4.30pm, we decided to stay aboard in the warm weather and would go ashore the following day. At 8pm, the Tobermory marina guys came to us by dinghy and asked for payment of 17 pound per night for the mooring.

The next morning after walking around Tobermory for a couple of hours, with nothing attracting our attention except window shopping along the charming colourful waterfront buildings and visiting the Coop to buy some supplies, we threw off the mooring line (a long heavy chain in fact) and motored to Oban, 26nm to the east.

Lismore lighthouse

Approaching the Firth of Lorn, the water began swirling and white tips ‘roosts’ spread across the water. The tide was strong and a current of up to 3.5kn against us had us struggling to keep 2.5kn of speed over ground.

Once we’d passed the Lismore lighthouse on Eilean Musdile to our port side, the current eased and we continued on to Oban with a CalMac ferry bearing down on us from behind as we entered the north channel. Heaps of room though and we continued on the starboard side of the channel and headed into the Oban Marina located at Kerrera Island. As usual, first things first – laundry, showers, and a beer with friend Brian who was berthed at the marina. We took advantage of the marina’s weekly mooring rate and stay a week, which gave us time to order in a part for our outboard and do a few small jobs aboard.

Oban Marina with Oban town in the background

Oban Marina is a ferry ride away from Oban town and the ride is complementary for boats staying at the marina. Kerrera Island is a popular place for tourists to visit – walking trails around the island, a Farm Shop which sells fresh farm products, plus a newish restaurant at the marina itself. At the farm I bought half a dozen duck eggs and some pork and apple sausages. Looking over the marina is Hutcheson’s Monument which is a short walk from the marina. Erected in 1883 the obelisk is dedicated to David Hutcheson, a ship-owner who operated services to the islands. The Caledonian MacBrayne shipping company (CalMac) still runs ferries to the Inner and Outer Hebrides.

There are a few trails around Oban. A nice walk is south of town up to Pulpit Hill and onto Gallanach, which is around 8kms.

Kerrera Island, Oban

A short walk north along the waterfront takes you to Dunollie Castle with nice views of Kerrera. The castle is quite dilapidated to say the least, but the museum was nicely presented and on Sundays a pipe band puts on a show. Over the past 1000 years, Clan Chiefs and Lords of Lorn ruled large areas of Argyll & the Isles from Dunollie. Nowadays, Dunollie remains the ancestral home of the Clan MacDougall and this week was the annual gathering of the clan where MacDougall’s from around the world come together for a variety of activities.

After a week at Kerrera, it was time for us to move on. Already the season is changing and it won’t be long before autumn is upon us. We’ve chosen Blue Heeler’s home for winter so now we begin our slow journey south.

Until then…

 

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Scotland: Stornoway, Outer Hebrides

Over the past couple of weeks the weather improved – over 20degC some days and the wind eased. But with a good southwest wind, from the small isle of Canna we headed north to visit the largest town in the Outer Hebrides, Stornoway.

Stornoway is located on the island, Lewis and Harris, the largest Scottish island and the third largest in the British Isles (after Great Britain and Ireland). The population is around 8,000, around one third of the entire Outer Hebrides population. Harris is the hilly southern part of the isle, while Lewis is to the north.

This region is quite remote. Less than 200nm away to the north are the Faroe Islands, and a similar distance to the northeast is Shetland. Stornoway attracts tourists, but fewer than say Portree on Skye. The pubs don’t have typical sidewalk outdoor seating as there’s a good chance of rain most days. But inside is warm and cosy. While the EU suffers yet another heatwave, Stornoway’s temperature struggled to reach anything close to 20degC.

Over 60% of the locals speak Scottish Gaelic and the Hebrides has the highest number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland. Children learn Gaelic and it’s compulsory learning in the first two years of secondary school.

To the ears the dialect is either a charming rhythm or a baffling mumble of sounds where you might be lucky to identify a word or two. Either way, the locals are friendly and offer a cheery ‘hello’ as you pass. Signs throughout the region are bi-lingual.

Crofting is a big part of the local economy and has been for many years. The Highland Clearances of the 1800s had a big effect on the island as landowners took up up large swathes of land. Denied their rights, many crofters left the islands to seek new beginnings overseas. Nowadays, in most cases a crofter pays rent for the land and buildings, while roads and fences are provided by the crofter. A croft is typically around five hectares but can be more or less.

Tourism has certainly helped create diversity among the crofters. Local outlets that produce of meats, honey, jams and liquor, and creative artisans are dotted around the island and sell their products in Stornoway or directly from their croft. One of the most recognisable products is the famous Harris Tweed. To supplement their income, many also have other jobs within the community.

A full Scottish breakfast

Another of Stornoway’s well-known products is Black Pudding. This sausage is tasty and bursting with zinc and iron, as it’s made from pork blood, suet, and oats. Definitely not for vegetarians! A Scottish breakfast is tasty and filling on a cold morning – beans, mushrooms, sausages, black pudding, egg, square sausage and a tattie scone!

To keep the fires burning, peat has been used traditionally for hundreds of years. Though nowadays many have more modern methods of heating in their homes. Peat is an organic soil with more than 60% organic matter and exceeds 50cm in depth and gives off a unique scent when burnt. The low fields of Lewis are rocky, lumpy and boggy, and apparently the peat can reach down to 5m or more.

Like many locations in this part of the world, evidence of our ancestors can be found on Lewis and Harris. The Calanais Standing Stones are a bus ride away from Stornoway and presents another intriguing glimpse into the past. Archeologists can only speculate as to why they exist.

Hide and Seek at the stones

The stones were erected around 5000 years ago and in the mid 1800s were discovered buried under a thick layer of peat. Today the stones provide entertainment for the many visitors, particularly children. Some people were spotted with their hands pressed to a stone and eyes shut perhaps trying to connect to something spiritual.

Back at the Stornoway marina, Blue Heeler is safe from all winds and tucked in nicely in the town centre. We arrived on the final day of the HebCelt Festival, held on the grounds of Lews Castle. We didn’t have to buy tickets as we were right next door and could hear the music – light Celtic music, modern rock, and some heavy techno with a bass that vibrated through the boat.

There are many local yachts, a few foreign yachts – French, German and Norwegian, but we are the only Aussie boat. There are plenty of shops in Stornoway, a good-sized fisherman’s co-op to poke around in, plus plenty of pubs and fish’n’chip shops too.

Heavy rain and strong winds from the southwest kept us on board for a couple of days, so we used that time to catch up on other jobs until we had a weather window to depart and head back across The Minch and return to Portree, Skye.  

 

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Scotland: Canna – a small isle

The Small Isles located south of Skye on Scotland’s west coast comprise Muck, Eigg, Rhum and Canna. On a calm day from Loch Scavaig, we motored 15nm to reach the island of Canna, the most westerly island in this small archipelago.

Over twenty yachts filled Canna’s harbour, but by mid morning the following day, most had departed. Ten yellow moorings are available for yachts, while others can anchor in the middle of the harbour. Blue Heeler anchored near to the landing ramp so we took the dinghy ashore, dragging it up the ramp and out of the way of larger vessels.

Three churches are dotted on the island, a sign of a healthier population of years gone by. I believe the population of Canna is somewhere around twenty people, with many more hairy ‘coos’ and woolly ewes. The Canna Cafe is the only venue to go for a bite to eat, but it’s closed on Tuesdays. It’s also the only place to connect to WIFI as there’s no 4G signal at the island. Next to the cafe is the Community Shop, where an honesty box sits on the counter for customers to make their own purchases and to pay for use of the moorings.

Despite having spent so many weeks from Shetland, Orkney and down to Canna, I hadn’t seen many puffins, except for an odd one darting away from the bow as we sailed along. On the southeast corner of the island of Sanday, linked to Canna by a vehicular bridge, is the Puffin Stack. The walk takes around three hours return from the wharf. The day started off grey, but after 90 minutes walking following orange puffin signs, we found them.

The Puffin Stack is inaccessible to all but birds, mostly hundreds of orange beaked puffins. I setup my camera on its tripod, but the distance was just a little out of range for my 300mm lens. No matter, we sat and watched the behaviour of these comical little birds. They are particularly cute when they come in to land, with their little webbed orange feet spread out while their little wings flap madly.

Funny characters

Not so cute was a Great Skua, who decided Wayne was his, swooping numerous times but never hitting its quarry. The attacks lasted for a good couple of hundred metres and it was quite amusing to listen to Wayne laughing as he swatted away the low-flying bird.

On our return, we stopped at the closed café to check the weather from the WiFi access then headed back to Blue Heeler. The next day’s forecast promised winds up to 30kn, so we setup the anchor sail and tucked in for a day aboard.

Canna port – dinghies on the landing ramp

As expected, on Wednesday the blow came through around 9am but quickly blew itself away by 4pm. After this, the sun came out and yachties dinghied across to the cafe to buy food and check emails. We also went across for a drink and check the weather. We would leave this interesting island the next day.

Making good use of the southwest wind, we decided to go north to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, but as it was over 80nm north, we anchored half-way in Loch Dunvegan. Winds up to 25kn on the beam kept seas slightly rough as we made our way to arrive at 5.30pm, dolphins escorting us for much of the way in. We anchored into the bay near Dunvegan, on the west coast of Skye, just east of the moorings and away from the underwater cable.

The following morning with 50nm to reach Stornoway, after a terrific sleep we left a little later than expected and ended up having a great sail across to the Outer Hebrides. Since our arrival in Stornoway would be around 8pm, we decided to stop at Loch Shell, 15nm south of Stornoway and have a free night on anchor.

The next morning we sailed to Stornoway – the largest town in the Hebrides.

Below: Cats Galore! A Children’s Trail of cats are dotted around the island of Canna.

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Scotland: Loch Scavaig and Loch Coruisk

High tide at 6.30 so to ride the ebb south we left at 7am as we had 36nm to reach Loch Scavaig. With little to no wind and unusually calm conditions, we headed south along Kylerhea passing under a 60m electricity cable (they never actually look that high though). This strait can run up to 8kn, but we only experienced 2-3kn. The fastest speed-over-ground for us was a mere 8.5kn. Our friends Kathy and Alan were staying nearby so we took a detour into their bay and waved goodbye, a text confirming they had seen us.

Rounding the bottom of the Sound of Sleat, we headed north west towards Loch Scavaig. To port: the small island of Eigg, and the much larger island of Rhum. Canna is further west and just visible on the horizon.

The entrance to Loch Scavaig is a little tricky, as the chart is not 100% accurate; charts never really are. With the aid of a raster chart and Google Earth, we could identify a rock at the entrance which we gave a wide berth. Two yachts were already anchored and we dropped the hook in 2.5m and laid back to sit nicely just ahead of them, allowing passage for tourist boats ahead of us.

Towering over the anchorage are the high Cuillins of Skye – the highest mountain Sgurr Alasdair at 992m – making this anchorage one of the most outstanding we’ve anchored anywhere in the world. Entry is only by boat, and no roads lead into this pristine area.

From the anchorage at Loch Scavaig, following the fresh water stream over the rocks, the valley opens up over the fresh water lake of Loch Coruisk. Having first met our friends Brian and Chris from yacht “Coruisk” back in 2014, it was a delight to actually be at the place of their yacht’s namesake.

Tourist boats drop people off at the rickety metal steps every half hour or so. Paddling our dinghy across, we tied up to a nearby metal ring to keep dinghy away from the landing area.

This part of the world is truly captivating. I would have liked to have stayed overnight and enjoy the subtle tones of a setting sun or the warm tones of a morning sunrise, but as the anchorage is quite exposed to southerly winds and swell, after a hike and a refreshing dip in the water (in 16degC mind you!), we continued on our way to reach the isle of Canna, some 15nm west, by early evening.

Canna harbour, Small Isles

The harbour at Canna has around ten yellow moorings available for yachts. We anchored south of the landing area in 6m and made sure the anchor was dug in well as we wanted to explore the island on Tuesday and a big blow was due on Wednesday. It’s not clear how much boat weight these moorings can take and with winds expected of up to 35kn we decided to ride it out on anchor.

But before the blow came, we enjoyed a day out with hairy coos, woolly ewes and just a few hundred orange-footed puffins.

 

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