Boating around Britain in 26 days: Breathtaking scenery but slow progress around the North of Scotland

Boating around Britain in 26 days: Breathtaking scenery but slow progress around the North of Scotland

After rounding the remote north coast of Scotland, the Aquastars head south to close the loop, but time is running out…

Skirting the awe-inspiring coastline of the Isle of Skye

This is Part Three of Phil and Neil’s boating around Britain challenge – if you haven’t already, make sure to read Part One and Part Two first.

Until an hour ago our charity fundraising attempt to circumnavigate Britain in 26 days was going swimmingly. We’d made it from Brighton to Wick, a few miles south of John o’ Groats, in just 11 days but coming out of Wick harbour this morning, my Aquastar 38 April Rose came to a shuddering halt on a submerged rock.

We managed to get back to the marina alright but heavy vibration from the bent propeller means we aren’t going anywhere until it’s fixed – not an easy task in somewhere as remote as this.

The harbourmaster arranges for a mobile crane to come and lift April Rose and within a couple of hours she is perched on the harbour wall. The port propeller and P-bracket are badly bent.

There are some minor scuffs on the hull and a two-metre section of the wooden sacrificial keel is missing but the main GRP structure itself is still sound.

The nearest propeller repair shop is in Buckie some four hours drive away. They can repair it in a day provided we can get it to them by 0800 tomorrow. A local farmer with a van agrees to pick it up this evening and bring it back once it’s fixed for £500 cash.

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In the meantime a local marine engineer manages to bend the damaged P-bracket back into alignment using a hydraulic jack, a heat gun and a “kiss” from a lump hammer!

Unable to remove the propeller from the shaft without a special puller, I resort to undoing the shaft at the gearbox end and taking the whole lot out as one just in time for the farmer to collect it.

By 1900 the following day the propeller and shaft are back alongside the boat looking as good as new. The shaft slides neatly through the P-bracket, stern gland and, with the aid of a firm whack, into the coupling.


Fitting the repaired propeller

Thirty minutes later the shaft is connected, the rudder refitted and we are on our way to the pub for a well earned beer.

The following morning I wake up with a major hangover, look at my watch and jump out of bed. I’m already half an hour late for the relaunch. By the time I arrive, the crane is in position and minutes later April Rose is gently lowered back into the harbour.

After checking for leaks, I start the engines and venture out into the bay, vibration-free. Result! We thank everyone profusely and head out to sea once again.

7 May – Wick to Stromness & Lochinver (134nm)

With the sun shining and a light breeze we are soon passing Duncansbury Head (aka John o’ Groats). Only the large swell hints at how far north we are and it never truly subsides until we get into the lee of the Orkneys.

Twisting and turning our way through the channels leading into Scapa Flow we finally arrive at Stromness marina and secure the two boats.

We find a small café overlooking the harbour and order a full Orkney breakfast, where Rob presents me with a bottle of local gin called Rock Rose, much to everyone’s amusement.

Joie de Vivre and April Rose safely berthed in Stromness Marina, Orkney, for a fleeting Scottish breakfast

As the wind is forecast to increase later, we make our way back to the boats and are soon motoring west through Hoy Sound. Once out of the sound we are met by a big but mercifully gentle rolling swell.

We travel past the vertiginous sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy and push on west towards Cape Wrath, sometimes losing sight of each other between the waves, which we estimate at 5-8m high.

The north coast of Scotland is immense with amazing rock formations and towering mountain backdrops all the way to Cape Wrath. We give the Cape a wide berth, going round Duslic Rock rather than the more perilous inside passage, and head south into the North Minch.

Cruising past The Old Man of Hoy

The light starts to fade as we run along a coastline devoid of human life despite the perfect white beaches, past the Old Man of Stoer and into Lochinver Harbour.

Journey time: 9.5hrs
Average speed: 14 knots
Fuel burn: 600 litres per boat

8 May – Lochinver to Ullapool (32nm)

We wake early to a windless morning with stunning views over the Scottish countryside. Today’s destination is Ullapool and we are soon underway on a perfectly calm sea. Keeping north of A’Chleit Island, we round Rubha Coigeach then turn south-east to run inshore of the Summer Isles.

The scenery is breathtaking. Rather than stopping at Ullapool, Neil persuades us to carry on four miles further up Loch Broom and drop anchor in the lee of a large hill.

Rafted up on Ullapool’s solitary pontoon

It’s a magical spot and we raft up the two boats so we can lunch together on April Rose. After a while I notice that we are slowly drifting back down the Loch. Neil says he has let out his usual 15m of chain oblivious to the fact that we are in 30m of water!

Thankfully there is nothing to hit so we continue our controlled drift for an entertaining few hours before heading back into Ullapool for the night.

Journey time: 3hrs
Average speed: 8 knots
Fuel burn: 125 litres per boat

Enjoying the wealth of local seafood in April Rose’s cockpit

9-10 May – Ullapool to Ullapool (33nm)

We wake to rain and wind howling ominously round the pierhead. After a big breakfast with lots of coffee, we don our waterproof clothing and decide to give it a go. The seas are surprisingly flat as we head out of the harbour and pass to the south of the Summer Isles.

We pass Cailleach Head with Neil running point in Joie de Vivre and April Rose about half a mile behind. I spot Neil slowing down and soon discover why. The wind and sea hit us square on the port side.

The helm window is taking such a battering that water starts leaking through. I try to stem the leak with gaffer tape but the first big wave washes it away. There’s nothing for it but to head back to Ullapool and wait for the wind to drop.

Journey time: 2hrs
Average speed: 15 knots
Fuel burn: 130 litres per boat

Castle ruins provide the perfect backdrop to Kyleakin Harbour

11 May – Ullapool to Kyleakin (80nm)

We’ve booked a Highland Fuels tanker to fill up both boats and once brimmed, we wait until the tide has turned before setting off into the westerly Force 4.

The sea isn’t as bad as it was two days earlier but we give Gruinard Bay headland a wide berth before pressing on towards Skye in gradually improving conditions.

As we get closer, Skye’s towering cliffs provide enough shelter for Rob to add to his wild swimming CV by taking a dip under the cascading waters of the Mealt Waterfall.

The Mealt Waterfall on Skye where Rob braved a dip in the chilly waters

With Rob safely back on board and looking several shades bluer, we carry on southward through the Sound of Rasay and poke our noses into Portree harbour to see if there is anywhere to moor.

It’s a beautiful little harbour surrounded by colourful houses and fish farms but we can’t see anywhere suitable for us to berth so we head back out and continue south.

Soon we are passing under Skye Bridge and with the tide running hard against us, we enter Kyleakin’s small harbour and raft up to the boats already occupying its solitary pontoon.

Passing under the Skye Bridge

A check of Joie de Vivre’s fuel separator once again reveals about a pint of water with some ominous gunk at the bottom. The problem is getting worse but with April Rose having no such issues despite fuelling at all the same places, we can’t figure out where it’s coming from.

Journey time: 6.5 hrs
Average speed: 6 knots
Fuel burn: 350 litres per boat

12-13 May – Kyleakin To Mallaig (20nm)

It wasn’t a comfortable night so we all wake early. It is blowing a good F4 from the south so we batten down the hatches and motor out into Lock Alsh in the shelter of the Cuillin mountains.

As we turn into Kyle Rhea, the wind is funnelling down the narrow entrance against the tide, making for a very uncomfortable ride. We buckle in for the hour-long run down to Mallaig, spurred on by the promise of brunch ashore.

The colourful houses of Portree, Skye

Sure enough we are soon snugly berthed in Mallaig marina washing down the boats and looking for somewhere to eat. The Tea Garden serves us a splendid late breakfast which helps takes the edge off a forecast that looks certain to trap us in port for at least another day.

Rob has to leave us here due to work commitments so we head into town later for a farewell beer in the Steam Inn. Despite the flowing beers, Phil insists there’s a weather window at 0400 the next morning which will allow us to move to Oban, our next planned stop. Somewhat reluctantly we agree to have a look at 0330.

I awake to hear the wind rattling the rigging of the yachts around us and immediately crawl back under my nice warm duvet. Neil comes to the same conclusion but only after going out on deck in his underpants to check!

It is still raining hard when we wake again a few hours later (they call it Scottish sunshine up here) so we kill the day playing cards and sharing yarns in the local fisherman’s pub.

Journey time: 2 hrs
Average speed: 12 knots
Fuel burn: 85 litres per boat

14 May – Mallaig to Crinan (82nm)

The wind has dropped sufficiently for us to leave. Our plan is to head to Oban with a stop in Tobermory to have some breakfast. For the first stretch to Ardnamurchan Point we have the wind on our nose but the tide is with us and bypassing the shallows makes it bearable.

After passing the small isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck, we turn to port into Tobermory. It’s a beautiful little town with coloured houses and a long hammerhead pontoon for us to tie up.

Joie de Vivre and April Rose rafted up on the hammerhead pontoon of Tobermory marina enjoying the spring sunshine and a hearty Scottish fry-up before heading off in search of diesel

There is no diesel available for the boats but we fuel up with a proper Scottish fry-up, sitting in the sunshine watching charter yachts practising their docking manoeuvres before continuing our journey south.

The Sound of Mull is spectacular with amazing properties and ruined castles lining the route between the mainland and the Isle of Mull. It is getting quite busy as we head past Lady’s Rock into the Firth of Lorn. For the first time in more than a week we start to see other leisure boats out and about.

Oban Marina is actually on the Island of Kerrera opposite the town of Oban and once safely berthed there we are told the bad news that no fuel is available here and we would have to try the commercial fuel station in Oban itself. As the sun is out, we decide to move on to Crinan where the boatyard assures us there is fuel.

Joie de Vivre charges south towards the Crinan Canal under brooding Scottish skies

Passing between the islands of Fladda and Dubh Sgeir we encounter numerous whirlpools whipped up by the 4-knot tide running over the peaks and valleys of the seabed clearly visible on our sounder.

We pass the infamous Gulf of Corryvreckan between the islands of Scarba and Jura where numerous trip RIBS are zooming around giving tourists a spin to remember.

Pulling into Crinan Boatyard we tie up alongside the plastic floats used for launching dinghies and reel the fuel hose all the way out to meet us. Neil tops up his tanks but after putting 200 litres in my port tank the pump starts to gurgle and fearful of taking on any gunk from the bottom of their tank call it quits with my boat listing slightly to port.

We pay for the fuel then motor around the headland to the first of the Crinan Canal’s 15 locks that will allow us to bypass the long run around the Kintyre Peninsula and enjoy another of Scotland’s most scenic boating routes.

Journey time: 7.5hrs
Average speed: 7 knots
Fuel burn: 325 litres per boat

Perched on Crinan Boatyard’s plastic pontoon

15 May – Crinan Canal to Portavadie (18nm)

The lock-keeper is waiting for us at 0930. I have already paid the £300 for both boats to transit the canal and Neil enters first, pushing right up to the forward gate before I squeeze April Rose in alongside.

The sun is shining so Colin and I head up to the flybridge to make the most of the views before the rain sets in. After five more locks we reach the summit where we have to wait for a number of boats going the other way to pass before continuing the journey back down.

With the water now entering from the lock gate behind us, it pushes April Rose forward into Joie de Vivre’s beaching leg, gouging a half metre scratch down the port side. Lesson learnt, more fenders and a midships spring needed between the boats.

The first of the Crinan Canal’s 15 locks

We were told it would take about four hours to transit the canal, which should leave us enough daylight for the 5.5-hour run to Bangor in Northern Ireland and get us back on schedule.

But once again fate is against us with water balancing issues and passing boats delaying our exit from the last sea lock until 1630. That left us two options within an hour’s motoring, Tarbert or Portavadie, with the latter winning us over with its promises of modern facilities and a restaurant on site.

It is almost low tide as we exit Ardrishaig into Lower Loch Fyne; the calm waters enable us to give the motors a blast as we set off into the evening sun.

Journey time: 8.5hrs
Average speed: 5 knots
Fuel burn: 50 litres per boat

Following a yacht along the narrow canal

16 May – Portavadie to Troon (36nm)

We wake to wind and rain once again and leave Portavadie into a grey seascape with short, sharp waves pushing us from behind us as we cross the Loch to Tarbert where we brim both tanks and order a late breakfast at the Marine Bistro.

Heading out of the harbour we are soon up to 15 knots punching into a head sea sending sheets of spray right over the boats. We pick up shelter closer to the coast then run into more heavy seas as we pass the Island of Bute into Inchmarnock Water.

We slalom around some large ships traversing the Firth of Clyde, picking up more shelter as we close on the West Kilbride coast, finally entering Troon just after 1700. Tree trunks are stacked all along the quay of this timber port, accompanied by the sound of the local wood mill.

Exiting the Crinan Canal at Ardrishaig

The usual routine of beers, curry and more beers follows along with the familiar weather forecast checks. It looks like there will be a brief weather window at 1600 tomorrow allowing us to reach Bangor in Northern Ireland.

Journey time: 3hrs
Average speed: 12.5 knots
Fuel burn: 150 litres per boat

17 May – Troon to Bangor (66nm)

It’s still blowing when we leave the shelter of the harbour at 1300 but we’ve locked everything down in preparation for a bumpy journey. We hug the Scottish mainland for as long as we can before entering the North Channel and turning towards Bangor.

The waves are on our port quarter, forcing us to drop speed from 15 knots to 8 knots just to reduce the spray enough to see out of our windscreens. After a very soggy few hours we start to gain shelter from the Irish coast.

Leaving Scotland behind bound for Northern Ireland

By 1730 we are safely moored up in Bangor with the heaters running to dry out Colin’s bunk which has once again taken a dousing through the air vents.

With F8 winds forecast for the next couple of days we pay for two nights and fight our way through the wind and rain to Nelsons Bar followed by dinner at the Little Wing Pizzeria where Neil decides only a 2ft family pizza will satisfy his hunger.

The night ends with a new bottle of Calvados being breached on board April Rose to celebrate our arrival in another new country but with time slipping away our mission to circumnavigate the UK in 26 days is in serious jeopardy.

Journey time: 5.5hrs
Average speed: 13.5 knots
Fuel burn: 300 litres per boat

Next month: Will our intrepid duo manage to make up lost days as they battle south through Ireland, Wales and across the Bristol Channel to Cornwall, the Scilly Isles and back home?

To donate to their fundraising efforts for Prostate Cancer UK visit the Aquastars on Tour GoFundMe page.

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