The Way to Ben More
By Dave Simpson
From the BFMC Journal 3, September 1988
The choice of which Munro to keep for last is usually made carefully. Sir Hugh himself was keeping Carn Cloch Mhuillin so that he could take ponies to the top carrying the wherewithal for a banquet. In my case Ben More on Mull almost selected itself. The remaining mainland summits were fitted in as (increasingly contrived) detours to club meets and the Skye tops were already complete. It just had to be Ben More.
Since sailing was occupying an increasing part of my time I thought that it would be rather nice to combine my last Munro with a sailing jaunt round the Inner Hebrides. This would allow the Rhum hills to be included, and a wee boat opens up other possibilities: there’s an obscure Corbett half way up Loch Nevis – a long walk, but with a boat …
Plans were made, altered, and changed again. The main problem was crew availability: for the first week I would be on my own. Single-handed sailing adds lots of complications in all sorts of subtle ways. By this stage, however, bloody-mindedness had set in – I was going and that was that!
I floated the boat onto her trailer at Port Edgar and pulled her out of the water without incident. An hour later she was de-rigged and prepared for the long tow west and north. Gigi (so named by her previous owner) is a bilge-keeled, four berth Bermudian sloop: 20 ft long, seven ft beam, two ft four inches draught (and yours if you make the right offer). Although she is trailable, boat, trailer and gear weigh around one-and-a-half tons, which tends to make progress behind a 1600 cc Alpine a bit slow!
Twenty minutes after setting off I was bombing along the M9 at 35 mph, getting used to the feel of the tow and wondering which pub to have lunch at when the trailer’s nearside wheel detached itself and overtook me. The trailer doesn’t go too well on one wheel, so we came to a sudden halt, mostly on the hard shoulder. Inevitably it happened on a bend and in heavy rain.
The next seven hours involved discussions with the police and with the AA, lots of assistance from an amazing outfit called Brighter Trailers of Polmont who supplied a new wheel and welded replacement studs onto my hub, and a trip to Perth to collect a spare tyre and wheel. The boat, fortunately, had only shifted slightly on the trailer and was none the worse. (A motorway cats-eye and some tarmac weren’t so lucky, but I’ve not had the bill yet.) Under way again I crawled up Glen Ogle then spent the night in a layby near Lix Toll. (A towed boat makes a perfectly acceptable caravan.)
An early start the next day gave me quiet roads for the long first gear slogs: first up the steep climb up from Tyndrum then on to the moor at Blackmount. The weather down through Glen Coe was brilliant for once, then I had a relaxed drive to Fort Bill, marred somewhat by most of the car’s electrical circuits failing mysteriously. The last section of the road to Arisaig is twisting single track and I had a series of close encounters of the tourist kind. I was very glad to reach Arisaig.
The promised slip was nowhere to be found. On enquiring, I was directed to a piece of stony beach surrounded by rusting junk. Payment was requested for the privilege of using this. I knew there was a good slip at Glenuig but I couldn’t face that road again so, cursing quietly to myself about taking highland entrepreneurs’ claims at face value, I raised the mast and rigged the boat. Every 20 minutes or so another busload of tourists took pictures of proceedings. ‘Say, are you going sailing?’ While waiting for the tide I repaired the mangled socket that had caused the car’s electrical problems.
Launching was a protracted farce. Although I was fairly used to manoeuvring the trailer in a tight space, the so-called slip was too doglegged and obstructed to allow a clean approach. Its loose surface was also waterlogged at one point by what I suspect was a septic tank’s soakaway. The inevitable point was reached where the car couldn’t be taken further backwards without hitting something but didn’t have enough traction to pull the boat forwards.
The trailer was therefore unhitched and lowered down on a rope, restrained by two turns taken round the car’s tow ball. Not enough: the boat started to accelerate. Trying to keep my fingers out of the system (and hence keep my fingers) I tried frantically to flick another turn over the ball but succeeded instead in flicking the first two turns off! Luckily we were between tourist buses and the boat’s rapid progress down the slip with me vainly hanging on to the rope was unwitnessed. After hitting the water with a great splash she stopped dead and no amount of heaving could coax her into deeper water.
Another hour of rising tide lifted her off the trailer, but now I found that the slip’s seaward exit was cluttered up with floating ropes which tangled with my keels, outboard and rudder. Meanwhile the freshening breeze was pushing the boat onto a large, half-submerged object that looked like it might have once been a ship’s boiler room.
Escaping finally with only minor damage I found an anchorage (difficult, since fixed mooring chains have been laid over all the best spots) then inflated the dinghy, rowed ashore, recovered the submerged trailer and hosed the salt out of its important bits. By now it was nearly closing time and I was desperate for a pint. Half way to the hotel, however, I realized I had left my money on board. Speechless, I rowed back to Gigi. After a start like this, things could only improve. Couldn’t they?
The morning forecast was not encouraging, but I was now a day behind schedule, so I weighed anchor regardless. Sailing from Arisaig along the marked channel through the shallows of Loch nan Ceall gave an easy series of tacks then, on reaching the open sea, I freed my sheets and ran north, parallel to the coast. I was puzzled by smoke moving up the coast until I remembered that steam-hauled trains run to Mallaig in the summer.
The cloud level fell, followed by the rain. While passing Mallaig the sky was black and I entered Loch Nevis well reefed in the strengthening force 5. Conditions in the loch entrance were weird – flat calm then sudden screaming gusts that laid the boat over on her ear. Once in, the loch itself was so sheltered that I started the motor to maintain speed.
Through the narrows to the inner loch the cloud base was only 50 ft or so above the sea and dense, penetrating, fine rain fell steadily. My Corbett was up there somewhere and I tried in vain to find an anchorage on the steep north side. I finally dropped my hook off the south shore, just inside the narrows: a lovely sheltered anchorage but a long row to the other side for a hill that I was still determined to climb. After all the aggravation involved in getting here I wanted to achieve something. Sanity eventually prevailed. I wouldn’t consider going up a hill in these conditions if I’d driven to its foot by car, I told myself, so it was daft to do so just because I’d sailed there. There was always tomorrow.
Next morning brought no change in the weather so I motored back out of the loch through the now-expected violent squalls at the entrance and set course for Point of Sleat. Visibility was almost nil, it was raining heavily, and damnably cold. Thankfully the Autohelm was working quite well so I could occasionally nip below for five minutes before the cold got too unbearable. Just being able to dry my face and hands on a towel was bliss.
Point of Sleat lighthouse appeared out of the gloom while still a few hundred yards off, confirming that the weather was improving. The savagely hacked, uninhabited coastline at the point looked particularly dramatic in the swirling mist. The same course could be held, now pointing to Rhum, but halfway there the wind died and the motor was needed to push the boat through the confused, choppy sea.
I selected a reasonable anchorage among the dozen other yachts (all much bigger) sheltering in Loch Scresort. Plans for an after-dinner stroll ashore were shelved when another dose of wind and rain arrived. Strong gusts funnelled by the hills made the anchorage uncomfortable and I got little sleep, constantly trying to check by my position relative to the other gyrating boats whether my anchor was dragging.
The weather began to moderate around noon next day so I blew up the dinghy, rowed ashore, phoned home from what must be the last surviving button A&B callbox, and had a quick look around the castle. The hills were now beginning to clear.
I set off immediately, heading for Barkeval. Walking in the hills again felt so good that I jumped between two of the summit boulders with a bit too much joie de vivre and damn near broke my ankle. Considerably sobered up, I carried on up Hallival then on through the mist to scramble over Askival. Fine hills. Not enough daylight left, though, to complete the ridge so I dropped down to Dibidil. I stopped for the best part of an hour at the bothy, drinkng tea and blethering with two English lads, then took the coast path back, reaching the loch as darkness fell.
There was now not a breath of wind so the midges were out and making up for lost time. I could hear the sounds of unhappy campers doing battle with them as I for the dinghy organised. As I rowed as quickly as possible towards the boat I heard a scream then witnessed several tormented, naked bodies hurl themselves from their tent into the loch. Suspecting that their relief was going to be very temporary, I scrambled aboard, dived into the cabin and slammed shut the hatch. Ten minutes worth of Moon Tigers got rid of the few midges that had followed me in, and I made a quick supper that Egon Ronay would probably not have recommended, before crashing out.
Things were looking up. Maybe this trip was a good idea after all!
My sleep wasn’t to last long. Around 0100 the boat’s motion woke me: yet another depression was making its arrival felt. All night the boat charged about on her anchor chain, getting uncomfortably close at times to our nearest large and expensive neighbour. Things never look so bad after dawn and I dropped off then, missing the 0555 forecast. This was a nuisance since I hadn’t had a forecast now for over 24 hours and the next wasn’t due ‘til 1355. While it blew hard I spent the morning tidying up and doing maintenance jobs between rain squalls. The afternoon forecast gave SSW 5-6, 7-8 later, visibility moderate to poor. Not encouraging.
The sensible thing to do would be to sit tight, but I was fed up with doing that and another night in this anchorage in strong winds would certainly be unpleasant and possibly dangerous. There was another consideration: I had a tryst with my crew for an out of the way part of the west coast of Mull and if I didn’t show up they would have problems. If I could just get past Ardnamurchan then even in pretty bad weather I should be able to make Tobermory and sort out things from there. I could do nothing stuck on Rhum
Anyway, I argued, force 5-6 was just unpleasant rather than dangerous, and so close inshore the wind would probably be less than the 7-8 promised later. How many lives have been lost by this sort of reasoning? All the English climbers who will do their selected winter routes because their pals know their plans and they’ve come all this way and the avalanche risk is probably not as bad as the locals are making out …
I sailed off my anchor at 1430 and out of Loch Scresort. Visibility was under half a mile and Rhum disappeared as I struggled to put in the reefs that I hadn’t thought I would really need. I immediately headed west to find Rhum again then followed its coastline south. The poor visibility was a nuisance since single handed doesn’t really blend with fancy navigation unless you can leave the tiller for a while. The Autohelm had packed up – the salt had finally got to it. My intention had been to travel down the west side of Eigg then the east side of Muck, which would give me a good idea of my position at all times.
Once clear of Rhum, however, it was blowing a good F6 and the wind was further to the south than I had hoped for. We were making a lot of leeway and I thought that the passage west of Eigg would be too dangerous. So, playing safe, I left Eigg to starboard and, sailing close hauled, waited for the Ardnamurchan peninsula to appear. I knew that I would be some miles east of the point but didn’t realize how many. If I’d had the chance to look at the chart I’d have realised that my most likely landfall would be Moidart! I could only hang on to the tiller.
Around 1830 land appeared about a mile ahead and I soon settled down to a series of beats: inshore ‘til I felt that the rocks were getting close, then out again ‘til the land disappeared. It was not pleasant as I thrashed backwards and forwards in a very lumpy sea. The boat was charging along with 5 knots showing on the log, but I was making good less than 2 knots to windward. Headland after headland looked like it might be Sanna Point then revealed another a mile further on. I was continually having to blink away spray and every now and again a chunk of sea would slop into the cockpit to keep me company.
The inshore ends of each tack were becoming a bit more sheltered so I took the chance of looking at the chart occasionally. I couldn’t match the coastline and chart at all but eventually persuaded myself that a small inlet ahead was Fascadale. I went in cautiously between rocks and found a very cramped anchorage amongst a few small motorboats. A chap walking his dog informed me that it was Kilmory, some two miles east of Fascadale and seven miles from Sanna.
I was tempted to stay the night. I couldn’t possibly make Sanna in daylight. On the other hand this rocky place was constricted and could be dangerous if the wind increased. My (admittedly outdated) copy of the West Coast Sailing Directions did not give it a mention, but said of Sanna Bay: “There is shelter from all winds behind a rock in the SW corner of the bay near the head, but great care must be exercised … etc.” I put to sea again.
Midnight found me thrashing backwards and forwards in a southerly F7 at the entrance to Sanna Bay. Ardnamurchan’s horn mooed mournfully through the clag somewhere above. I could only just make out the gleam of the spray breaking on the refs at either side of the entrance as I tacked between them – I couldn’t hear the breakers for the noise in the rigging. I had the motor running by now to help the boat through the wind but it made little difference – each pair of tacks only gained me a few yards. Once in the bay things were little better. The lights of caravans ashore bore no relationship to the coastline and were more hindrance than help. I was really afraid of running onto a rock as I charged to and fro so I decided that slowly motoring to windward would be safer.
In the process of dropping sail I tripped over my ‘safety’ rope and fell heavily. By sheer luck I didn’t knock myself unconscious. I then discovered that the motor wasn’t strong enough to keep the boat’s head into the wind. I had to ‘tack’ under motor, putting the boat through the wind if I could catch a lull. Several times there was no lull and I had to circle round the other way to avoid being pushed onto a rock. Each of these manoeuvres lost the ground gained in the previous 10 minutes.
I eventually groped my way into the right corner of the bay, looking for then promised “shelter from all winds” and almost collided with another yacht already anchored. I had found the correct spot but, as I dropped anchor, it seemed only slightly more sheltered than the middle of the bay. The previous hours had not been pleasant. As dinner (supper? Early breakfast??) heated up I wrote in my log a list of lessons learned – there were quite a few.
Exhausted though I was I still slept badly. The wind had strengthened – a full gale now, with occasional stronger gusts screaming down between the rocks then through my rigging. Far from sheltering me, the coastline was acting as a funnel. The boat pitched about and the anchor chain grumbled and growled. Was I dragging? Pitch dark and nothing to judge by.
In the morning the shore looked further away but as far as I could make out from my transits I didn’t seem to be moving. The wind had reduced a bit to around F6 and my companion of the night had gone. I blew up the dinghy and rowed ashore – I had visiting to do! Portuairk, where I landed, to Sanna is only a mile but it had been raining now for two days and the burns were up. I was forced further and further inland to find crossings and two hours passed before I reached the Sanna water tower. The McLeod family was, thankfully, at home and a dram has rarely tasted so good.
A very convivial, lazy afternoon followed, involving the fleshpots of Kilchoan and Sonachan before being dropped off at Portuairk. Ideas of taking anyone out to see the boat were quickly abandoned: the wind was up again to a near gale and the water was decidedly choppy. Worse, the anchor was definitely dragging and the distance between boat and shore had doubled. The row back was quite entertaining – as a spectator sport.
Before re-laying the anchor I swapped engines. I carried two outboards since they are notoriously unreliable beasts and I now fitted my big 10 hp Chrysler. It produces lots more power than my elderly 6hp Johnson but it has its own drawbacks – it’s greedy on petrol and it cannot be swiveled, which makes close quarters manoeuvring much harder. After my scare the previous night, however, I did not want to be caught again with inadequate engine power.
The midnight shipping forecast gave SW 6-7 occasional 8 now but falling to 4-5 later. Outer weather stations reported rising pressure. Optimism! I could believe the ‘now’ part of the forecast. The wind was screaming and slamming at the boat. Another night with little sleep. It was now the early hours of Friday morning and I was due at Loch na Keal on Saturday afternoon. If I could reach Tobermory though, I could surely organise something,. I still had to round Ardnamurchan though. It should be okay in anything less than a gale. What kind of sea would the last two days have left, though, and what if … I fell asleep.
I was pleased to see in the morning that the anchor hadn’t dragged at all. The wind was much less but, taking no chances, I set off heavily reefed. Once clear of the bay the wind became lighter and lighter. Even with full sail I could make little way since the lumpy sea knocked what wind there was out of my sails. After an hour in which less than one mile was logged I started the engine. There seemed no reason now why I shouldn’t carry out my plan A and go round Mull so I first headed for Coll to refuel, since I was down to my last gallon.
By the time Arinagour was in sight the rain had definitely eased. I anchored at 1630 and had a mad scramble to inflate the dinghy and make two trips ashore with petrol bottles before the pump closed at 1730. Having made it by five minutes I had a swift celebration pint at the hotel. Back aboard, the rain stopped and the sun actually appeared as I set off. A perfect sailing breeze had established itself – SSW 3 – giving me a superb close reach through the Treshnish Isles and on to Gometra Harbour. Glorious sailing! The entrance to the natural harbour is quite narrow but the wind was perfectly positioned to allow me to sail in under jib alone.
Gometra Harbour is beautiful: totally sheltered by surrounding cliffs with little waterfalls tinkling down and the air filled with birdsong – land birds, not squawking gulls. I hoisted my sopping sleeping bag up the mast and soon had damp clothes attached to every available piece of rigging. Simply sitting outside without having to be cased in waterproofs was sheer joy. This really was a superb spot – and I’d no-one to share it with: it seemed almost indecent.
I slept for over 10 hours, missing both night and morning forecasts, but the morning was sunny and the barometer was rising. After a leisurely breakfast I enjoyed a leisurely sail into Loch na Keal and anchored below Ben More at 1400. The hill was clear and if the rest of the party had only been with me I would have been all for grabbing it while it was going. They weren’t due for some hours, however, but I had plenty of wee jobs to do. Alison and Stewart duly arrived, having had to walk from Salen. The west of Mull is not a hitcher’s paradise – I had seen about one car an hour. Everyone was in favour of an early supper and bed. The barometer was still rising.
The 1555 forecast wasn’t bad so we were up early and set off for the hill. Weather mixed – some heavy rain showers then clag on top. The summit looked like it might clear but didn’t. We waited, swigging the statutory bottle of Champagne. My previous experiences of the stuff had been restricted to weddings and I didn’t have a very high opinion of it, but at 3000 ft when you’re hanging about in a chilly mist it (a) tastes remarkably nice, (b) has a kick like a mule! And (c) is the perfect antidote for any feelings of anti-climax.
After waiting in vain for a clearance we took a careful compass bearing and set off down the SW ridge. Once below the cloud base we discovered that we were on the NW ridge. We looked at each other – this bubbly stuff must be even better than we thought! Later, of course, we discovered that Ben More’s summit is magnetic. Back afloat, we departed in a strengthening wind and had a great sail to ‘Bonny’ Bunessan for a celebratory dinner at the hotel. We had seen no other yachts on the west side of Mull in what is normally a popular cruising area.
Next morning we were up late (surprise, surprise). No great rush though, since we had to wait for a favourable tide for the passage through the Sound of Iona. The 1355 forecast have S 5-6 possibly 7. We decided to go. The forecast was accurate. Beating through the Sound was very wet and uncomfortable. After some difficulty we made the anchorage at Erraid with engine assistance. In the Sound the wind had been 6 gusting 7, directly against the tide, which kicked up a steep chop and the sudden calm of the sheltered anchorage was uncanny.
Next day’s forecast was mixed and the weather was wet. However, the wind would be with us now for the long run east. The Firth of Lorne had quite a sea running. Maybe we should have taken anti-puke pills. Despite some queasiness, however, no-one actually invoked Ruth or Hughie. Reefed down hard, we bucketed along at 6-7 knots: dead run or quartering, following the south coast of Mull to Frank Lockwood’s Island (who he?) then across to Seil. Here the wind died and we anchored at Piulldobhrain beside about 20 other boats.
After rowing ashore a path over the hill leads to the pub at Clachan Bridge. We got to know it well. The following day was spent mostly in bed as the wind out in the Firth and in the top of the rigging hit F9. The next day was little better so we took the bus to Oban then Alison’s car to Arisaig to retrieve my car and trailer. After looking at prospective slips at Gallanach and Oban we settled for the good one at Ganavan and left the car and trailer there. Back to Clachan for yet another evening in the pub.
That night the wind dropped and the following day was much better. The stormbound boats left en mass. A good wind gave us fast passage through the Sound of Kerrera – so fast that we arrived at Ganavan before there was enough water on the slip. After a leisurely lunch waiting for the tide the boat was retrieved at the second attempt then de-rigged and prepared for the road.
The journey south was surprisingly uneventful. We stopped overnight at Kingshouse (Strathyre) then on to Port Edgar the following day to re-launch the boat. It had been an interesting trip and 1985 had not been the best of summers. As we were returning Gigi to her pontoon, Lorna Marsh was finishing her Munros in style near Bridge of Orchy. Maybe that would have been a better was to go about it after all …