Six days in the Sound of Jura (Sunday 8 to Friday 13 Sept 2013) OS sheets: 55, 60, 61, 68
The idea for this trip crept up on me as my dislocated shoulder slowly healed through the summer and autumn of 2012. I’d envisaged a far-ranging multi-day trip with open crossings and big distances: Islay, Colonsay, Mull, the Garvellachs, Scarba, when the mainland coast opposite Jura started to intrigue me. I hadn’t really noticed it before; deep sea lochs cut northeast leaving narrow headlands thrust into the Sound, islands scattered at their tips and the renowned Isle of Gigha just offshore in the south. Patches of native woodland clung to the coast, rivers drained the hills and there were few roads. The Sound of Jura seemed to offer what I wanted – a sense of remoteness, great scenery, the need for careful tidal planning and plenty of interest along the way. Ideal! From numerous visits to Islay I knew we could drive to the coast in a day, arriving with light to spare, so early in 2013 I started to plan. A thread on the club forum attracted four enthusiastic paddlers: Tash Lewer, Esther Wheeler, Andy Nutter and Vicky Bostock. Sadly Vicky was unable to join us.
The September dates fitted our availability, the sea wouldn’t have chilled and hopefully there would be fewer midges.
My general plan was to paddle along the mainland coast and back, exploring the deeper inlets and maybe hopping across to Jura if conditions allowed. I anticipated paddling north from Tayinloan (mainland opposite Gigha), possibly as far as Crinan in the north, beyond which the Dorus Mor tide race formed a natural barrier for a group of our ability, but we could start from either end, depending on the forecast. Paddling to Gigha would let us get a feel for the sea and our fully laden boats and would let me see how the group was coping.
I didn’t plan each day until the preceding evening, knowing that the conditions, the forecast, the group’s attitude and unforeseen events would make a mockery of fixed plans. And whichever end we started, sooner or later the tide would demand an early start.
SATURDAY 7 London to Scotland (Shadwell to Tayinloan): 530 miles.
- Leave Dalston 0630. Drive all day. Camp on beach by ferry. I hoped the Isle of Gigha would be a gentle testing ground to see how we handled the conditions before moving further afield. It also gave us a chance to pop back to the cars after our first night to collect or dump kit. I thought we'd probably circumnavigate the island then cross back to the mainland and head north. The weather before our visit had left no swell and although this lessened the feeling of being on the ocean it made my planning easier; no swell/wind-wave/tidal stream interaction, no surf landings, tide races exacerbated only by wind.
SUNDAY 8 Cross to Gigha (2NM), clockwise round & camp on tombolo (total 11NM).
- HW Oban 0805 BST. North-going starts about 1235 BST.
- NNW F2-3, Smooth, Good, Fair.
The drizzly night gave way to a dry, sunny morning, ideal for the task of trying to pack all our kit into the confines of our kayaks (food for 7 days!). As I'd expected it was midday and close to slack tide as we left Tayinloan, pointed our boats at Gigha and enjoyed the novelty of paddling away from the mainland for the 2NM crossing. The kayaks were very low in the water and felt solid and stable. The rocky coast was a grey laminated rock with veins and knobbles of white quartz. The forecast for Monday was good so to keep our options open we camped on a spectacular tombolo beach (2 beaches back to back forming a neck of land joining 2 bits of land) near Gigha’s northern tip. Andy fished and returned with a Pollock and a mackerel. Tash demonstrated her fire-lighting passion, though finding firewood was not easy, and cooked the fish starter. As the dusk thickened we lay watching stars multiply and the Milky Way grow more luminous.
MONDAY 9 Cross to Jura (8.7NM) & struggle to top of Craighouse Bay (total 14NM).
- HW Oban 0836 BST. North-going starts about 1306 BST (tidal diamond).
- NNW F2, NW F3-4 later. Smooth (moderate), Good, Fair.
On Monday morning the forecast was still good and although wind was due to arrive in the evening I thought the opportunity too good to miss. After breakfast I made a tide plan and with two hours of a negligible south-going still to run we set off, on a magnetic bearing over a glassy sea, Islay of to our left, Jura 8.7NM ahead. 20 minutes out Tash pointed ahead to where a pod of small dark porpoises was head-and-tailing not 100 metres away, the first of several pods we saw, though none came closer. We rested every hour and after about 100 minutes I announced we were halfway. A slight NW breeze picked up a couple of times but then died again. We kept a wary eye on a big Calmac ferry behind us, headed for the Sound of Islay, coming in our general direction. About 1.5NM off Jura the breeze picked up and we encountered some confused chop. The big ferry was about a mile away but instead of pointing south of us into the Sound of Islay it was coming towards us; we changed course but it was still closing. I used my new vhf radio and got an immediate and laid-back response from an antipodean captain who said he'd pass in front of us and that he didn't think his wake would bother us; he wished us a pleasant day and passed 200m ahead. You'd love to see the photo... but no-one took it! I was paying attention to the group in the chop and freshening wind and mentally checking our position and options. The last 30 mins of paddling took more like 60 so we were grateful to land in sunshine and take a comfort break. Gigha looked a long way away. We battled north against the increasing wind, hugging the coast for any shred of shelter it could offer.
TUESDAY 10 A strong wind up to Tarbet via Lowlandman's Bay (total 10NM)
- HW Oban 0912 BST. North-going starts about 1402 BST.
- NNW F5 then F4
The strong wind was hard work, a good F5 with fierce gusts. Rather than cross the mouth of Lowlandman's Bay and risk being blown out into the Sound we hugged the shore and stopped for tea while I ran up to the old schoolhouse at Knockrome to see if my wife's relations were at home, but there were only chickens to greet me. We continued around the bay, killing time, adjusting skegs and considering our options: Camp again? Carry boats over land? In shallow weedy water we surprised an otter that leaped into the air in a muscular arc, disappeared back beneath the surface and simply disappeared. We landed again on the seaward side of the bay by the old lighthouse cottages, climbed the ridge to view the Sound and its whitecaps and then, thinking the wind had lessened slightly the other three walked north a few hundred metres to see what shelter the coast might offer. A favourable response, there was an unruffled margin beside the coast. We agreed to give it a go, relaunched and nosed carefully out of the bay. The wind was manageable but still strong. 4.5 miles further on at Laggs another tea stop and as we sat a dolphin broke the surface followed by a second, but they were going the other way and jumping again, disappeared round the point. These were much bigger animals than the porpoises we'd seen the day before.
I'd hoped to reach Lussa Bay as a jumping-off spot for the next day's return to the mainland, but the wind kept blowing, we grew tired and wanting to set up camp and find water before dusk we landed at Tarbet. While the others searched for a camping spot I walked up to some houses for water. Turns out it was a hunting lodge and after some initial reserve at the back door the kitchen staff were friendly and helpful despite my grizzled stubble and wet neoprene. They said we could camp on the lawn in front of the lodge! We didn’t. Later a friendly keeper came to warn us there would be target practice the next day at 0900; better shout and wave a paddle if you want to walk about!
WEDNESDAY 11 Fog to the mainland, Owen’s tarp & across a tiderace to Eilean Mor (12NM).
- HW Oban 0955 BST. South-going starts about 0910 (tidal diamond); north-going starts 1445.
- NNW 2/3, Slight, Poor/very poor, Showers
Although I’d planned our crossing the night before I woke at 4am with a niggling worry, sat up, checked, and then reworked my plan. Instead of paddling out to the skerries, mid-channel, then dropping down to arrive audaciously at Eilien Mor we’d take a safe and simple line back to the mainland. I’d then review our options for crossing to the islands. It meant an earlier start and we still had to paddle 3.25NM to Lussa Bay, our jumping-off point. I woke everyone at 0545, earlier than agreed, so over tea and porridge I explained the change. We’d all wanted to get to Eilean Mor (largest of the MacCormaig Islands where the saint of the same name went for peace and quiet), it sounded a magical place to camp, but we let it go; maybe another time. We struck camp, loaded the boats and were away by 0800, reaching Lussa Bay at 0910; ten minutes rest then off, into the fog on a compass bearing. Tash asked whether any ferries plied this channel and I was glad to be able to say there weren’t, but we kept our ears open for fishing boats. Somewhere about mid channel we could see no hint of land, just fog in all directions. We hit the shore bang on time, but 0.75NM further south than I’d planned, and followed it south to Ruabh Riahag, a tiny harbour inlet with a stone jetty where we put up Owen’s famous tarp to shelter us from intermittent drizzle. Hot drinks, food…and more planning! I was happy to announce that if we waited until the low water slack, we should be able to paddle out to Eilean Mor just before the north-going started. An hour before the north-going we set out. From the spiky rock finger tip of Ruabh na Cille, a mile down the coast, it was 2NM over to Eilean Mor (Big Island). As we approached the island it became obvious that between the islands the north-going was already established, a very audible tide race ahead of us, tide going left to right, wave train going right to left. It was steady and regular and we crossed with a frisson of excitement but nae bother. Andy and Esther fished, returning with eight(?) coley. I showed Esther how to fillet and skin them and we added them to Tash’s stew; sublime! Cooking supper my petrol burner grew weak and we abandoned it, resorting to gas. I was tired and couldn’t face trying to fix it in the dark.
THURSDAY 12 Return to mainland; wind and tide to Stornoway Bay via heaven (15NM).
- HW Oban 1049 BST. South-gong starts about 0939. North-going starts 1539 BST
- SSE F3/4, veering to WNW 4/5 by 1700; Moderate; Good occ poor; Sun then rain
Another 0600 start. I’d cleared my stove’s fuel line, which was roaring again and I was happy. Breakfasted, packed and away by 0925, but not before Esther had shouted for us. We ran over to where she stood; she’d seen something just off-shore, close in. It then surfaced a couple of times, each time a bit further out, long and dark with a small dorsal fin. I thought it was too big to be a dolphin and never saw the head or tail. Pilot or Minke whale? I don’t know. Crossing back was easy, a mile and a half hopping from islet to islet, poor visibility in foggy drizzle. We rounded the Point of Knapp into Loch Caolisport at 1040, the sun came out and we stopped in the perfect bay; alder, birch, rowan and ash fringed a flat meadow bordered by a stream. I had a hunch there’d be mackerel for lunch so we started fishing while Tash went ahead to light a fire. In no time Andy had fish, Esther had fish and I had fish. Unusually the beach had plentiful firewood, Tash had found a hearth and smoke was already curling up from a kindling tepee; we collected more wood to build up embers for cooking. On the wet sand by the kayaks something silver caught my eye, a smalI fish, 60mm long, still flipping. I found half a dozen more and when we relaunched Andy pointed out a shoal of them in the shallows, probably driven there by the predatory mackerel. I cooked the tiny fish on a hot stone; they tasted very fishy. Esther reported seeing a mushroom among the trees and she and Tash went to hunt it down. They returned with two amber, funnel-shaped fungi, Tash consulted her book and we agreed they were chanterelle. One was past eating but the other was cut up and went into the wok with a little oil and lemon juice. Patterned Turkish ‘Ararat’ bread was dredged from the depths of a kayak hatch to be heated on the stones and eaten with beetroot and a tahina dip, while the mackerel grilled and smoked over the fire. A feast in paradise. I could have stayed for days. I had some concern about losing the south-going tide and leaving was helped by the rain as predicted by XC Weather. We left at 1340, paddled down to Port Ban campsite for water and, once topped up, continued towards Loch Stornoway. Skegs had been a help as the wind picked up but off the points the sea became bigger and more confused and the group found steering hard work. Even by 1750 there was no indication that the tide had turned against us, but weariness was setting in. Not everyone was enjoying the last few miles so it was a relief to turn into Loch Stornoway and surf the following sea. The map showed a great expanse of sand at low tide so I picked a camp site by the river, meaning we’d have less far to carry the boats. Tash was exhausted and retired to her tent to recuperate. It began to rain. I think we all slept well.
FRIDAY 13 Return to Tayinloan.
- HW Oban1211 BST. South-going starts about 1100.
- NNW F4 backing WNW F3 then veering NW F4 by 1900; slight/moderate, good, fair.
We had a lazy start, not launching until 1200, looking forward to being able to dry our kit and clothes which were all damp or soggy. After crossing West Loch Tarbet with its few rocky islands the scenery grew flat and rather dull. Reluctantly we opted to camp by the jetty at Tayinloan as we had on arrival. It was not the most romantic spot but the cars were there and with the prospect of tomorrow’s 500 mile drive I had no stomach for complicating life and carrying things any further than strictly necessary. We collected wood for a camp fire xxx menu xxx and I found an otter spraint on top of a concrete rock just below the hightide mark.
SATURDAY 14 Pack up, drive home. In the morning a dead dogfish visited our beach and one by one we went to say hello. Andy said to skin them you nail the head to a post and pull the skin with pliers, in a chip shop the meat is rock-salmon or huss and the skin can be used as an abrasive for boat decks or sanding wood; we didn’t. We packed up and drove home; it was sad and exhausting.