Easter in the Western Isles
Report and pictures by Martin Longhurst
Under grey skies and with a cold, stiff breeze blowing some 300 people gathered at Glasgow Science Centre to join the Waverley for her first sailing of the season on Good Friday 22 April 2011. Owing to concern about the state of the quay wall, canting the ship is no longer permitted at Pacific Quay but this did not matter today as the steamer had her bows towards the sea. However, with the northerly wind and the tide ebbing, there was a risk of not clearing the river bank straight in front of the ship. Captain O’Brian’s solution was to use a lifeboat to run two ropes across the river to the north bank so as to be able to position the paddler safely for her departure. This was accomplished on time but a technical problem intervened which delayed the steamer for an hour. This was to one passenger’s great benefit as he arrived at about 07.30 out of breath, having been cycling flat out.
Finally we were able to let go, manoeuvre to the centre of the River Clyde and get under way for Greenock, Campbeltown and Oban. The ship yard workers and crane drivers waved to the paddler as she slid down river – surely a sign to them that summer was on its way! About another hundred were waiting patiently at Custom House Quay, Greenock for their chance to join Waverley and sail away. Now it was out to sea, passing the Cloch Lighthouse (now the home of Alastair and Lyn – two Waverley supporters on board today) and heading for Garroch Head at the southern tip of Bute. Here the paddler turned west to pass north of Arran to enter the Kilbrannan Sound which took her south to Campbeltown.
By now the sun had come out and tanning products liberally applied. The greyness had gone but had left limited long distance visibility so we could not spot the coast of Northern Ireland as we rounded the Mull of Kintyre and broke out a David MacBrayne pennant. Owing the building work in preparation for the new Islay ferry, Finnlaggan, Port Ellen pier was closed and so an alternative calling point had to be selected to break the voyage between Campbeltown and Oban. Port Askaig (the other Islay ferry pier) was deemed unsuitable so Colonsay was the eventual choice. This course took Waverley through the Sound of Islay between Islay to the south and Jura to the north, passing Port Askaig where whistle blasts were exchanged with Hebridean Isles which was alongside.
There was a call for a doctor on board – four came forward. Two assisted an unfortunate passenger who was badly affected by kidney pain. After assessing the situation, an aerial evacuation was requested. A Royal Navy Sea King from HMS Gannet at Prestwick reached us in the Firth of Lorn. We reversed course briefly into the wind to aid the helicopter’s manoeuvering and a paramedic was landed on deck. In view of the imminent call at Colonsay and the needed for refuelling, the Sea King quickly departed northwards for Oban. Soon we were alongside at Colonsay and the on-board doctor passed care to the island doctor as the casualty was landed with his companion and the paramedic. We later learned that the patient had been flown to hospital in Paisley and was said to be comfortable. Unfortunately the late start in the morning meant that we had to sail on straightaway in order to arrive at Oban before 9.30 p.m., an hour after sunset – the limit of the Passenger Certificate. In the event, Waverley tied up at Oban’s North Pier at 9.15 p.m.
Saturday saw the paddler’s first call at the Isle of Rum. She set sail at 10.00 and headed westward along the Sound of Mull to Tobermory where she made a call resulting in a net gain in passenger numbers. Then further west past Ardnamurchan Lighthouse then north, leaving Muck to port and Eigg to starboard. There was a significant swell running and passengers were advised to hold on to the ship rather than to other people. Fortunately the swell was coming from the west and Rum’s anchorage is in an inlet on its east coast, so calm conditions returned once we got into the island’s lee.
Landing was by the launch Ullin of Staffa (80 passengers) which made six runs to take everyone ashore. Each boat was given a different departure time and each group had about 40 minutes ashore. The fittest were able to walk the mile or so to Kinloch Castle which stands at the head of the inlet. Waverley’s return sailing was routed to the east of the Isle of Eigg, meaning we had sailed round the island.
Sunday’s sail started from Oban early with a return run to Fort William preceding the traditional Four Lochs and Corryvreckan cruise. There was some rain on the way south from Fort William but the day was mainly fine although distinctly chilly. We steamed round the north tip of Kerrera before entering Lochs Shuna, Melfort, Craignish and Crinan before heading west through the Gulf of Corryvreckan and then north-east for Oban, returning up the Sound of Kerrera to complete its circumnavigation. The paddler was to spend the night alongside Fort William Pier but a coach return to Oban was offered for those wishing an evening cruise.
Monday’s cruise was to take us to Iona to land. The steamer departed from Fort William at 9 a.m. and from Oban at 11.30 a.m., after loading a food delivery from Brakes. She headed west along the southern coast of Mull. For the previous three days, a small TV crew had been on board to make a programme for a German station about the Waverley, as part of a series on historic paddlers. Today they had chartered a helicopter and proceeded to fly round and round the steamer, shooting from every conceivable angle! The further west we went so the swell increased and the less likely a landing seemed. Finally Captain O’Brian announced that use of the southern anchorage in the Sound of Iona had been ruled, but Gordon Grant (skipper of the landing launch) was going to have a look at the northern anchorage. Certainly the transfer at Rum two days before had been successful in perfect conditions but the amount of rolling occurring in the swell would have made a repeat exercise impossible. Soon the second announcement came ruling out the use of the northern anchorage. However, the extra time in hand meant we could sail on round Mull and avoid returning through the swell. In addition, there would be time for a short stop at Tobermory. All this took place under sunny skies and the paddler returned to Oban right on time at 19.30. As Waverley was remaining at Oban overnight, a coach was provided to take Fort William passengers home.
We left on the morning train on Tuesday before the steamer headed off to Skye at 09.00. She was due to spend four days around Skye before returning for three more day’s sailings from Oban over May Day Bank Holiday weekend. She was then set to go back to the Clyde for dry-docking at Greenock.