Bay of Biscay

Clare and Dave

Apart from a lack of wind, the days slip pass, reading, watching and spotting birds. The Blasket Island cliffs passing us by are spectacular formations of rock with billowing clouds snaking around them. Abandoned cottages prick the hills sides, often with modern buildings perched by the side of them. The hillsides show remnants of former enclosure systems through gradations in the colour of the vegetation and crumbled walls. Gannets full the sky in a feeding frenzy skewing a fish ball beneath them. We receive warnings via the ‘Burnyeataafon’ that storms are imminent and retreat to Dingle.

The Blasket islands

We sail into the fishing harbour and see Dan our new crew member waving from the wall. We moor amidst a jumble of living and wrecked fishing boats to which Lista easily merges into. We peer into the fishing boats: camping stoves, cigarettes, coffee, crisp packets and a few magazines are strewn around the galley. Paint peels from the walls, water sloshes on the floor and anchor winches rust. It’s a bleak, Spartan existence, I don’t envy their lives on the high seas; cold, wet, nauseous, constant motion, pulling in nets of fish, plunging freezing hands into the mass of flapping bodies to sort them.. and this is only in my imagination, I expect the reality is far worse.

Dingle fishing harbour

We jump through nets and scramble along metal decks, over the line of boats that we are moored against and finally climb onto the pier. It’s 9.00pm and we’re walking through what feels like a film set. A huge Spanish trawler dwarfs the pier and a crumbling building. Dark faces peer and leer at us as we skulk passed. My skin crawls, it feels as if they haven’t seem female flesh in months. A reporter holds a microphone under a fisherman’s nose, it feels as if we’ve stumbled across a seedy underworld.

Lista at home among the fishing boats

In the morning we are given a net of crab crawls. We snaffle them with fresh bread, salad and lashings of Mary Rose sauce dribbling over our chins and hands. Delicious! We remain in Dingle for a couple of days sitting out the storm. Dave and I run up the nearest hill, we follow a track pock marked with horses’ hooves and flanked by sheep. A team of choughs rises from our feet, squawking. Rocks splatter the hillside like unruly teeth, but the ridge we can see from the base is a sequence of false horizons and we never really make it to the top. We can see the sea and the distant hills, our last view before the rain curtain sets in. So we plunge back down the slope, flying off the boulders and jumping through the air.

Crab crawl feast

All day, a group of Philippino fishermen mend nets on the pier in the pouring rain with plastic gloves on their hands, wearing yellow overalls. Dan and Clare explore Dingle and learn of the infamous Fungy, the apparently twenty-five year old bottle nosed dolphin who swims in the bay. We are slightly worried about what will happen if Fungy ‘carks it’, it seems the town’s tourist trade is based on the celebrity dolphin. We have doubts, with visions of locals dressing up as dolphins and swimming around the harbour to keep the folk lore alive.

Looking back to Dingle through the rain

I chat to a fisherman and he assures me that Fungy is real. He also tells a melancholy tale of the fishing port at Dingle. Less than thirty years ago he remembers over twenty, small, local fishing boats based in the harbour, a cornerstone industry of the town. Now the tale is very different, one of huge trawlers, dominated by foreigners, collapsed fishing stocks and limits on fish sizes. Fishermen are bitter and sour. My fisherman describes how he will have to pay over £20 000 to meet EU standards and keep his boat working, but he doesn’t have the funds.

Sunset on the ocean

What is the answer? The stark facts are that fish stocks have collapsed in many of the world’s oceans. Fishermen routinely throw back thousands of undersized dead fish into the sea each year that will never replenish stocks. The methods for harvesting fish have become increasingly mechanised, using radar and satellite imagery boats can target fish rapidly efficiently. There is little hope for fish stocks if man continues at this rate. North Sea cod stocks have collapsed, eels and salmon are at risk, just about any fish you can think of is threatened. It’s a liturgy of woes and the fishermen feel the brunt of it, but this tragedy of the commons cannot continue. If there are no fish, then there will be no fishermen. A hundred years ago no one would have believed that mankind would be able to decimate the plenty of the oceans, but then could they have believed that we could destroy great tracks of rainforest the size of Wales each day or plough up mile upon mile of pristine Russian steppe………?

Brooding sky

On this dark note we leave Dingle. The winds are still high, but we had to leave if we are to reach North Spain by the beginning of September. We forge out of the harbour and who should accompany us but Fungy himself!! The huge bulk of Fungy leaps from the waves at our side and rubs against Lista’s bow, our parting siren.

Late light over the canvas

The waves boil, the sky turns leaden and we lurch and nose-dive into the howling sea. Dan turns green and I shortly follow him, before long and a couple of ‘voms’ later we are out for the count. Dan has a particular miserable bout of sea sickness and is laid low for some time. I manage to creep out on deck the next day and grow accustomed to the pitching which gradually starts to ease. Dan emerges later and is soon back to his high spirited, puppyish ways.

Anne

As we plunge into the waves, the engine stops working. Now, we have resolved to use Lista’s engine as little as possible, preferably only as a safety mechanism. The problem is that we need to speed to Spain in order to reach our ferry home to Dave’s cousins wedding and my sister’s wedding. The other issue is the Bay of Biscay, when I ask Brian and Anne (who have circumnavigated the world) what their worst crossing was, without hesitation they say the Bay of Biscay.

Anne, Clare and Dan

The Bay of Biscay is legendry for its fiery oceans. This is on account of the huge Atlantic fetch coupled with the underwater topography which allows waves to grow before crashing onto the shallow shelf. The sooner we sail this hazardous stretch of water the safer and we decided that if that required some motoring then so be it. After this stretch, however, we are committed not to use it, only to be powered by the wind, even if we drift for days without a gust.

Clare & Dan

Back to the engine failure. At this particular moment safety is high on the agenda. The wind is pulling us towards a group of jagged island cliffs, the Bull, Cow and Calf at the base of Ireland. We cannot manoeuvre away from them and we have no mechanical back up. We fly as much canvas as possible and Dave plunges into the engine room to deal with the corpse. Clare pops out with an old drive belt in her hand asking for a spare! While Dave’s natural instinct is to sail Lista out of trouble, Clare the motor boat gal, heads straight for the engine room. She has sorted the problem and we realize (if we hadn’t before) that we have an ally on board!

DL setting sales

The weather improves, with a couple of days and nights of really strong winds, allowing us to maintain average speeds of 7 knots/hour. We slosh through the waves and take it in turns to keep watch for boats. I find the motion handicaps activity, as I am incapable of working below deck when we list from side to side and nausea sweeps over me.

Cap'n' checking his bird

We scan the waves for life. The normal suspects follow us, fulmars, gannets and then a Mediterranean shearwater and tiny storm petrels, like sparrows over the waves. Then one scorching day, as we pier over Lista’s bulwarks we spot jelly fish. These are not the normal jellyfish, of umbrella shapes with streaming tentacles. These are quite extraordinary singular cases of jelly attached to one another. It looks like a lady has dropped her bag of curlers over board and the rollers are spongy and linking together to form vast coils of rope. The weird, translucent, hoards of jellyfish drift passed us for miles. I still haven’t traced the origin of this phenomenon but will let you know if I find out.

Coils pf jellyfish

The next ghostly image is dead fish. Layer upon layer of small white fish drift passed us. There must be thousands on their backs. The only likely explanation appears to be by-catch, that the fish were jettisoned for not meeting the required market size. We shall continue to search for likely explanations.

Dead fish

Dave is sitting on deck thinking. The Bay of Biscay is famous for sightings of whales, particularly in late Summer when high pressure systems settle allowing calm conditions for finding whales. By late Summer water temperatures are also higher, allowing phytoplankton to flourish. These free-floating marine plants form the base of much of the marine ecosystem, fuelling directly or indirectly microscopic organisms and mighty whales. Phytoplankton is in abundant in the Bay of Biscay due to the sudden drop in gradient over the continental shelf. Cold ocean currents rich in nutrients are forced up from the ocean floor miles below to meet the shallow shelf, bringing with them a wealth of phytoplankton. This abundance attracts fish, crustaceans and squid, as well as cetaceans.

Grubs up

Dave is thinking about those whales and why we haven’t seen any and that wildlife watching is generally like this, when you look for something you don’t see it. One could become apathetic and lose interest, but that is the very mystery and intrigue in nature, if it presented itself on a plate to us, there would be no surprise.

Fin whales glide passed Lista

Then out pops a whale!! Can you believe it! He screams from the deck and we all scramble to catch a glimpse. Two huge grey forms undulate through the surf. We see their heads, backs, fins and giant jets of water flush into the sky. They are colossal, bigger than Lista’s 16 odd metre length. We are humbled and dwarfed by their bulk. All six of us clamber as high as we can to drink in the sight. I have never seen anything as spectacular in my life. They swim close to suss Lista’s bulk out, could she be a rival or a possible mate?! I want to dive in and clamber on their backs, but they soon recede into the distance until even their ‘blows’ are no longer visible.

Clambering up the shrouds

We crowd around the book to work out what species we have witnessed and finally conclude they were fin whales. Fin whales can grow up to 26m and typically feed on fish, prawns and squid. They are widely distributed around the world, moving to warmer latitudes in the winter to mate and calve. The Bay of Biscay is an important Summer feeding ground for the species, which is the most abundant baleen whale in the area.

Sailing under a pink sky

There are two types of whales, baleen and toothed whales. Baleen whales have plates of baleen or whalebone, which hang from the roof of their mouths. These vertical plates can grow up to 2m long in species such as the blue whale and are used to filter enormous quantities of crustacean and small fish. There are nearly seventy species of toothed whales, which include dolphins and porpoises.

Dan plucks at the guitar

As we near the North West of Spain the night brings tankers and ferries crashing upon us from all directions through the shipping lanes that we must cross. Their lights so simple to decipher in the book become a blur of colours as I try and decide which way they are heading. Then lightening streaks through the sky and for hour upon hour it feels as if we are floating on a battle field as the horizon and distant ships are lit up by forks of lightening.

Inside the galley

A pigeon circles our boat and attempts to land, but each time is thrown off course by Lista’s boom. Finally she settles and shattered she side steps to a crevice on top of the cabin. We feed her water and wheat, at least she is can rest her weary wings, even if she is still being battered by the storm. By the morning she is looking decidedly perky and we perch in the galley near food and water. She preens and gains a spring in her step, vociferously pooing all over the seat before waddling down to Dan’s bunk to coo in his ear. We decide she has had enough of luxury and bring her back to reality on deck where she hops around, avoiding Dave’s grappling hands.

Snatch 2 perched

Snatch 2’, as she is christened, after the last racing pigeon that flew into out-stretched arms before making a dash for freedom, remains with us for a full two days and a half. During that time another vagrant appears on a deck and really a far more beguiling passenger in the form of a tiny warbler. Well, that is the genus I think it must be, but I cannot locate it in the text book and can only presume that it is rare vagrant blown of course on the Easterly winds. I have footage of the passerine and hope to identify it soon, will help form a clutch of ‘twitchers’

Dave and Snatch 2

Our pretty warbler departed rapidly, luckily after a good refueling. Snatch the second, is less decorous and after guzzling his way through our rashons, leaving her calling card all over the decks and far out staying her welcome, flies off at the first sniff of land. ‘Sniff’ it certainly the word, after five days at sea, we smell land before seeing it. The stench of humanity wafts through our nostrils. I can sense how the character in Peter Suskind’s ‘Parfume’ feels as he avoids settlements and their wretched human odours at all costs. A mix of sewage and salt, followed by sky scrapers and concrete greets us.

Dan and Clare head off to surf

How ever the port might smell, I am still very pleased to see it. We anchor in A Coruna in the rain. Over the next couple of days, Dave and I hardly leave the Lista as we mend, tap and tidy. We do manage to cycle off to Sada to see if we can find accommodation for Lista during our absence. This involves cycling some 15 km away along dual carriageways and flyovers and then through suburbs. It seems the Spaniards do not commute on bikes, generally viewing the ‘bicicleta’ as a tool for leisure rather than business, consequently the roads are fairly hostile, but drivers generally give us a wide berth.

Anne & Brian 'treating' Lista

It’s great to leave the city and see orchards full of apples and peaches. This North Western corner of Spain is remarkably similar to England. It is verdant with familiar species such as brambles, stinging nettles and blackbirds, but then you are stopped in your tracks by a lizard or the sound of the cicadas and you realize it is anything but England.

Dave discovers rotten planks

The buildings are also very different, modern and bright with terracotta roofs. Occasionally, old buildings have been saved and are often accompanied by a small out house on stilts used for drying maize. We do not have time to explore further afield, hopefully one day…

A Coruna

Clare and Dan have meanwhile been walking in ever decreasing circles around La Coruna, relishing getting lost and arguing! They have sample a good few watering holes and Clare determined not to utter a word of the local lingo, is adamant that she can get by on her faithful hand signals, drawings and miming… Which of course she does and makes a good few friends along the way for good measure. Dan is mastering the fineries of ‘Cerveza’ speak and together they sample the local brews and fiery concoctions, intermingled with some light surfing.

Clare & Dan

On September 3, we leave Lista, Clare, Dan and La Coruna. Miraculously we completed the Bay of Biscay without trauma. Anne and Brian were able to catch their plane home after leaving us with a wealth of knowledge and charts and we should catch our ferry!

Dave and Kat

West Coast of Scotland

 

A common gull perches on the bowsprit

2August 2008

Our exit from Jura is far from speedy. Hour after hour we crawl past Jura’s headland, with Lista contemplating reversing; 2.4 knots…1 knot… We sit on the mill pond.

Katharine in the icy water

A common gull alights on Lista and idles on her bowsprit. Dave and I dive into the freezer, well that is Dave dives in and I dip finger after blue toe and ankle in. I squeak around the boat and sprawl shuddering on the deck. David brandishes a soap which slips through his fingers… oh well, he was never one for over cleanliness, the ‘African’ arm pit it is! Clare grins at the eejits shivering in the water and lights another roll-up.

On the rowing machine

After a while in need of action, I fling myself onto the rowing machine (which still requires a cunning scheme to attach it to our power supply) and lurch along the deck. Clare shins up a halyard and decides it will be her mission to climb it each day. Within seconds David, the classified orang-utan, has also sprung up Lista’s rigging and is dangling on high unhooking the radar rope. This is a useful trait in our captain along with his ability to dangle from the boom as it sways perilously into an angry sea. I, however, have mastered neither and dangle 2 feet above the deck in a wimpish attempt to pull my girt bulk upwards.

Spider Man, Dave

Eventually Carsaig, Mull , grows closer. Towering sea cliffs strike through the ruby sky. We let out the anchor and after the second attempt Lista holds fast

Red skies

As we sit and drink tea and coffee we itch, an attractive bunch. Clare announces that she will keep clear of landfall while the midge massif rules as unfortunately they appear to particularly relish Lee skin.

Unravelling the anchor chain

Next morning we pull the anchor up from her serpent’s nest. Coil upon clay clad coil of chain unfurls along the deck, like a line of terrier turds. The plan is to mark ten metre points along its length so we have more of an idea of just how much anchor chain is being dropped into the plonk. I have become aware during my short, but lengthening rendezvous with the world of sailing, that knowing how much anchor chain has been dropped is crucial to a successful night’s sleep.

Lista mored by Kerrera

6 August 2008

We sail on our way up the Firth of Lorn with the Grampian Mountains rising in the distance. We had planned to anchor in Oban, but the winds prevent a speedy arrival and we spot Kerrera. Low, undulating, green hills reminiscent of the North Island of New Zealand and a ‘Fimo’ model greets us. Sheep grazing the hills and a castle watch our arrival.

Sheep graze the hills

Clare refuses to go ashore until the infestation subsides, ‘There are sheep on shore with ticks and everything. This morning I awoke to a tick nestling on my neck. For TWO days it’s been feeding off my blood. They’ve probably created a family by now!’ She’s constructing the best weapon for her next drop on land.

Weirdos emerge from the bracken

We row ashore with the Kelly Kettle and a packet soup. A sea archway is full of old shoes and broken bottles. We need water and follow a stream along its meandering bog course. Meadow sweet, black knapweed and scabious prick the tussocks. A farmstead shelters in a fold of a hill. It looks the perfect site for a future home, although fertility for vegetables looks questionable. We climb up to the highest point we can see and gaze over the mountains. We give up on acquiring water and return to the dingy.

KL commands dingy!

We hadn’t quite anticipated the tide rising so much and find our boat bobbing by an island that had previously been attached to the sea. Very bright! Wading across, a shawl of fry scatter through my legs and long lengths of kelp part. We paddle back to Lista over sand and kelp fields, with crystal clear views to the sea floor.

Clare at the helm

Early next morning, Oban harbour wall draws near. Clare flies through the air in a ‘leap of death’ and claws at a step and we land. Tom and Sarah and the wennits (Adam, Jenny, Ellen and Ben) join us for the weekend. Our mountain of supplies grow. Particularly useful are vacuum packed cooked lamb chops and eggs.

Tom and the wennits at the helm

I think it’s about time that we pay homage to the humble egg (in a worryingly reminiscent Edwina Curry moment). What a perfect parcel: scrambled, fried, boiled, omelettes, cakes, pancakes…. So diverse, so tasty and organically packaged to last for months. It is misinformation that leads one to believe that eggs should be refrigerated (the egg compartments in a fridge are there to fox you). On the contrary, eggs should in fact be stored at an ambient temperature. Hardy sailors have told us of ploys to extend the life of an egg by sealing the pores in the shell with oil… but we shall continue munching through our mountainous supply until we start crowing (not long, I think).

Pidge, Sue and Garetti

Of course we had ideas of bringing a clutch of our broody bantams with us as the perfect giving travelling companions- feeding us with eggs and finally a roast.This never transpired, but will at some point no doubt.

Scrubbing potatoes

We settle for a couple of wet days amid the mussel farms of Loch Spelve. Adam catches mackerel which is finally fairly abundant around the Scottish islands. The children become pirates and run around and around Lista’s deck and then dive under tables and into bunks in hide and seek. David and I run into the hills and have clear views of Ben More (966m) one of the Scottish Munros and also one of the peaks on the Scottish Islands sailing and running race.

Munros of Skye (the Cuilins)

A Munro must measure at least 3000 ft high or approximately 914 m. ‘Bagging’ a Munro has become an obsession for some people with all 277 being bagged in increasingly short time periods. The ‘Munro’ originated from the early twentieth century gentleman, Sir Hugh Thomas Munro who published a list of qualifying mountains in the Journal of the Scottish Mountaineering Club in 1891.

Tom, Sarah, Adam, Jenny, Ellen and Ben

We trot down the slope through bracken and heather plucking the odd Bilberry. Crashing through bracken we reach a river. With all the recent rain, it is thundering through its canyon of rocks. Forgetting the Duke of Edinburgh and mountaineering diktat, we plunge into it, madly thrashing for the other bank. Completely exhilarated, we jump in again and kick furiously to prevent ourselves from bolting down the river like flotsam.

Elstone

Conifer plantations grow everywhere. We run through one that has been recently planted. It looks like a battle field, where past trees have been felled, with their root balls left jagged on the surface. Huge lines of ditches have been excavated to drain the site. It’s a typical sight of destruction. The plantations completely alter the ecology of an area, plunging it into acidity, changing its hydrology and once the dense canopy has matured shade all but the hardiest of vegetation out. The forest floors are bleak and baron. The canopy might support the odd raptor nest, a goshawk, buzzard, pine martin or red squirrel, but compared to native mixed woodland or the heathland that these plantations have decimated they are moribund.

We sail back to Dunstaffnage and meet a couple who are planning to sail to New Zealand. Their home is the last boat made of Kauri wood in New Zealand in the 1950s. The New Zealand Kauri Kauri australis is a huge native conifer only found in Northland and on the Coromandel Peninsula. Kauris grow to 30m and are believed to attain an age of about 2000 years. They are the fabled giants of New Zealand that tourists flock to see. Unfortunately, they were logged ruthlessly in the past for their valuable timber and dammar resin. Indeed, much of Northland is covered with their fossilized remains.

Washing line

We moor by a huge former Dutch ice breaker. Her bearded owner grabs our ropes and chats about his voyages and passes some newspapers our way. We have become pretty bereft of current affairs and this can only slip further from us as we sail further away.

DL&KL

Fiona, Ross and George arrive. Fiona far to fleetingly and before we know it, at sunlight next day she is running back along the coast to Oban. We sail passed Lismore and into Loch Aline for sunset, plucking mackerel and coley from the waves as we go. That night a line of lanterns drift into the sky, twinkling, one after the other.

Coley

Laterns above Loch Spelve

The Kelly Kettle

The next morning we continue up the Sound of Mull, finally reaching Tobermory. George sleeps inside Ross’ jumper giving him the appearance of an expectant Mother. George is familiar with ‘Ballermory’ from the children’s series and chatters about the characters before jumping onto the dingy with Ross for shore. The buildings are a hotchpotch of bright colours framing the bay. We anchor on the wooded shores.

Ross and his 'bump'

Sound of Mull

I have been to Tobermory before with my friend Tamsin and her father Simon. On that occasion we anchored Lola and rowed ashore for a ceilidh with phosphorescence whizzing from the awes like a thousand shimmering stars. Tam and I then walked across the island passed Highland cattle, bell flowers and pipers before lying on the cliffs above Iona under an azure sky with white sands beneath us. Amazingly, the Isle of Mull lived up to my memories and that night glitter shot out of the loo as I pumped it!

Tobermory

Phosphorescence is an incredible phenomenon which can coat your body in silver as you swim at night or create waves of glitter behind a boat as it moves through the darkness. It is produced by bioluminescent plankton, mostly dinoflagellates. These are tiny single-celled organisms that emit bright flashes of light when disturbed. It is thought that the lights are an anti-predator mechanism, to attract the predators (shrimps and fish) that will prey on the predators (planktonic copepods) attacking the dinoflagellates.

Katharine, Ross (George) & Dave

‘Sex and the City’ has landed at Tobermory. A lorry chugs around the Highlands and Islands ensuring that no one should be bereft of designer shoes and gossip. I missed my fix in Exeter and miss it again in Tobermory. Instead I run up a hill and into a woodland park, wending my way along a trail overlooking the sea and down to Lista.

George

Ross and George leave ‘Ballermory’ on the bus, George showing his ‘hurt’ on his middle finger to the passes by. Apparently, the bus drive back to the ferry is spectacular, winding along lanes looking out to sea and lochs in the sun.

George again

One morning a colossal cruise liner appears and obliterates Tobermorry. These are massive, floating hotels several stories high, an incredible feet of engineering, belching out yellow fumes. They look out of place amongst the wee fishing harbours and intimate inlets of the Scottish islands.

Dave varnishing

Clare, Tobermory

Finally we make our way past the point of Ardnamurchan and can see Rum and Eigg in the distance. We float on the water, sails flapping in the pathetic breeze, Eigg within easy reach, but no wind to carry us there. The oily smell of fish floats on the water and in the distance Dave sees a splash and what looks like part of a minke whale. Minke wales are the smallest baleen whale to be found in the British Isles) and every time I have visited the Inner Hebrides I have seen them.

Sunset over Lista & the mill pond

Another sunset floods the sea and Lista, but this really is stunning, blood red fading into softer hues, with the hazy blue shapes of mountains and islands in the distance. We limp into Muck and anchor.

Muck

15 August

Finally we reach our goal post, Eigg and with our bunting of flags flapping we see Tamsin, Simon, Nick and Tom waiting for us at the Pier. The days fly past. We circumnavigate Eigg, tacking and jibing, seeing the same white bothy for hours. Rum and Eigg’s Sgurr change shape from different angles. A wealth of sea birds fly passed, porpoises flicker out of the waves and then disappear and the fins of a basking shark appear.

Sorry – image not available (Clare & Tom pull in sheets)

Clare & Tom wining winch

Tom has become the first ‘mate’ aboard who Dave has had to ask to stop pulling at a sheet! This is a rare accolade, particularly with Lista’s creaking, heavy, armoury. That night ‘the Irish’ appear and moor by our side. They board Lista with fine malt whiskeys and tales of Ireland and Greenland. We are under their spell and sing sea Shantys with them into the wee hours. The next day they are leaving, wisdom guiding them away from drink soaked days, to the Outer Hebrides. It’s only very occasionally that one meets a kindred sole, we certainly have found one.

Nick on the Eigg circumnavigation

We run up to the Sgurr. For once the curtain of clouds has parted and we see for miles to the Outer Hebrides and over to the mainland mountains. Eigg was once known as ‘Eilean Nimban-More’, Gaelic for island of the big woman, which is apparent on mounting the mighty Sgurr which rises from the south of the island. An Sgurr forms the largest mass of columnar pitchstone lava in Britain. The northern plateau and southern moor are basalt, which have weathered into fertile soils. Cliffs around the northern point are sandstone. Here the famous ‘singing sands’ can be found where dry grains of quartz squeaks under foot

An Sgurr

The islanders, along with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Highland Council own Eigg. There is primary school, shop, tea rooms and bar, with a community of over seventy people living on the 5000+ acre island. Cattle and sheep graze the pasture and silage is made on the crofts. One islander I spoke to grows a myriad of vegetables under poly tunnels for the shop.

Cleadale

When wondering the tracks and single road that spans the island from Galmisdale to Cleadale we notice that the birds (as on many islands) are fairly tame, that the silage fields are not of the familiar rye grass monoculture but contain a plethora of wildflowers, including yellow rattle and milkworts. A pair of golden eagles are reputed to hold territory on Eigg, but we only saw buzzards dining on worms. Previously, when visiting Eigg in the winter we encountered a ‘fall’ of woodcock; up to a hundred birds descended from the sky into the heather at dusk. I need to find an explanation for this.

The road across Eigg

The wedding is spectacular, with the most magical setting. Clare joins us with a wet skirt (and a handy chat up line) after a dunking when pulling the mooring lines in. She finds us in the morning on the other side of the pier, after her first row of shame!

Clare

Eigg, what a place to have grown up in. You can see how it would breed the wonder lust in the soles that haunt it. Staring out of the kitchen window to sea, wondering what lies beyond the horizon, hushed to sleep at night by the waves sounding like a distant train.

Sorry – image not available (Looking out to sea)

We watch Eigg and our friends recede and collect Anne and Brian from Muck. I make a double batch of savoury and sweet flapjack, not the greatest of achievements, remaining with us in various guises for days.

KL & DL

We sail passed Coll and Tiree, aiming for the west coast of Ireland. A boat sails towards us, we can’t understand why it’s sailing straight for us for goodness sake! Then we see whose aboard, they’re waving, the Irish, returning from the outer Hebrides! We mutually shout, ‘Fair winds’ and they turn and sail into the distance on their own journey.

The Irish

Lista, just before light fades for another night

Fishguard (Wales) to Isle of Jura (Scoland)

It’s 3.30 am and we pull Lista’s anchor from its Fishguard bed and leave Cardigan Bay to slosh up St George’s Channel and the Irish Sea. Contrary to the force 4-5 winds predicted, hardly a breath of wind tickles the sails.

KL and DL gaze into the distance!

Platoons of manx shearwaters, gulls, guillemots and occasional gannets drift passed. Then finally, razor bills, our first sighting since starting our voyage. They are auks, cousins of puffins and guillemots, with broad black bills with a white stripe.

If you were to journey back a hundred years to a peat fire, which you are huddled beside, under a turf roof on a Hebridean island. You might well have found yourself dining on a puffin, a shear water or other such marine bird. They were considered delicious by the local crofters and fisherman and would likely have been easy quarry as they were yanked from the entrance to their burrows as they returned at night to their broods. Sea bird eggs were also highly prized and collected from squawking colonies with the odd meaty squab. Other maritime countries have similar traditions including Norway and New Zealand where ‘mutton birds’ (shearwaters) can still be harvested in controlled numbers.

Puffins fly the waves, by KL

We slip into the night, preferring another night’s watch as the shipping forecast is favourable and the thought of mooring Lista in the dark is not. Clare and I rotate, ‘Three hours on, three hours off’, with David snatching the odd shut-eye on the engine house (like a slumbering dolphin with one eye open).

David on night watch

The ‘shipping forecast’ has taken on a whole new meaning. Previously, Radio 4’s familiar dulcet tones filling the airways had been reassuring, lyrical, but imperceptible. Now the shipping areas are real, the announcements received with gravitas. We hang on each word in case ‘force 8’ or ‘rough’ should make an appearance.

The sea starts to look a little rough

Dave radios the Hollyhead harbour master to inform him that we will not be arriving as previously reported. He replies that, ‘Force 8 and rough seas’, are indeed imminent. Taken off guard, we have no choice but to keep sailing and head for the Isle of Man. Huge ships emerge from the darkness and bare down on us, leaving glinting Merseyside behind for glinting Ireland. The night is wild. Winds howl in Lista’s sails and waves bash her sides. I brace myself against the helm, muscles strained, peering into the crashing darkness, desperate for daybreak to relieve the storm.

By the morning, the sea is a cauldron of frothing waves and certainly not receding. We snatch a glimpse of land before it disappears behind a pea soup of fog. Dave screams orders over the noise of the crashing waves to lower the mainsail and finally the staysail. I swallow back lumps of bile, grabbing madly at sails and then mooring lines, as Lista smashes through the waves. Finally, the break water of Douglas harbour appears out of the gloom and then suddenly calm.

Lista in Douglas Harbour

After some fraught manoeuvres by a platform that was drifting from its mooring by the harbour wall and being pierced in the bulwarks by the tug boat, we negotiated a calmer sight for Lista and squeezed under a bridge and into the main marina.

Shattered after the night’s ordeals, we slide ashore like a trio of dismembered ghosts. The land greets us in a turmoil of its own, rocking at our every footfall. I slink into an internet cafe in an attempt to work, but achieve zilch. Dave finds the chandlery, but with mouth ajar like a goldfish and eyes glazed over, is marched out, ‘Get some sleep and come back later.

So that’s where I find him, back aboard Lista. Miraculously, Clare is buzzing and steps off under the light of the moon in search of a local and her steak and chips fix.

On our brief walkabouts we find that he Isle of Man is in inhabited by a hotch-potch of incomers: the Scottish, Liverpudlian, Yorkshire and Geordie accents are scattered through its streets.

We take to the hills

The next day David and I head for the hills, darting along tracks and up to the cliffs. The wind claws at our hair and the cliffs tumble down to a pewter sea. As we dash through the gorse fields, two choughs alight, pinging words to one another. I haven’t seen one of these Cornish sentinels for at least a year.

Choughs share the corvid family tree, amongst the crows and jackdaws. They are distinctive in having a red, fine, curved beak when adults. They haunt cliffs and mountainous areas, clattering through the air with their mates, sometimes seemingly ‘playing’. Like many of the ‘black birds’ they are best recognized when on high by their sharp, ‘whizzing’ calls.

The thing about choughs is that they disappeared from Cornwall where they had been wide spread before the mid 1900s. A whole Cornish folklore had built up around them and they were even emblazoned on the Cornish flag. They were a symbol of Cornwall’s rugged and spectacular coastline.

The RSPB amongst others were concerned and started to manage the cliffs to ensure that there was available habitat for choughs to survive. Choughs require short turf, grazed by sheep or cattle where they can use their sharp beaks to prize out leather jackets and other invertebrates. Cow pats are particularly useful reservoirs for such fodder. Gradually, the correct grazing regime was created and then, miraculously, one day a wondering chough stopped by! The RSPB suggest that it could have been a French juvenile looking for new habitat to occupy. Since then, the population has increased thanks to specific management by farmers and the work of the RSPB.

Cattle, chough 'gardeners'

Clare and Katharine aboard

We leave the Isle of Man on calm seas and track North, gliding passed fishing villages and remote cliffs under a thousand stars. One morning, we miraculously tune into Radio 4 and the Farming programme heralds Dave’s brother, Ross, chatting about his work in Northumberland. He has been part of a project reintroducing salmon to the River Tyne and providing interpretation for the general public…. It is most extraodinary being transported home through the radio waves aboard the salty waves…

Sound of Isla

I awake to the Sound of Isla and land closely flanking Lista on either side. Perfect winds and a mighty tide swish Lista through the channel at 10.6 knots, her fastest yet. David basks in glory. A whisky refinery reminds us that we are near to the origin of some of Scotland’s finest, smoky malts.

Photographic evidence of Lista's feet!

A flaming sunset streaks across the sky and leaks pink, umber and fiery orange across a Jura sky. The colours recede and expand, morph and consolidate for what appears to be hours. David swears that if you stare at the sun religiously, with unblinking focus, in a completely clear sky, just as it tips over the horizon, a green flash ignites the sky. What does it mean? Did ancient mariners seeing the flash believe their impending doom was sealed? Or perhaps it marks the birth of an incredible being who will change the world……?

Sun set over Jura's islands

A huge, eighty strong flock of oystercatchers wheel above the beech turning from side to side, breaking up and then reforming.

Loch Tarbert

We pull back the hatches to an incredible view of verdant hills, Loch Tarbert lapping at Lista’s petticoats. The oystercatchers have awoken and are in full throttle darting around the beach and shrieking at one another. They are a ubiquitous bird along the UK’s coastlines, whether mud flat, beach or shingly inlet, they are likely to be disturbing the peace. They are part of the ‘waders’ clan with specialised beaks and fairly long legs, including, plovers, avocets and godwits.

Looking back to Listalight on Loch Tarbert

Oystercatchers as their name implies have a beak that is perfectly adapted to hammering and opening such prey as oysters, mussels and cockles. During the summer, you may also find them in upland areas where they will lay their mottled eggs on a scrape by a boulder strewn river.

What we think are boulders are in fact fat seals slumped over on an island enjoying the sun. Rock no.2, Shag Street, is hanged with shags and cormorants, pinning back their wings to dry and taking the odd peck at one another. A single great black backed gull sits like a turkey as their sentinel.

Lista Light

The seals are probably grey seals. We also have common seals in the UK, but contrary to what their name suggests, they are far from common. In the past seals were eaten and their hides and fur used for clothing, as they still are in hunter gatherer tribes in the Arctic. Seals have also suffered from distemper, but the likely most significant threat today is over fishing.

Wildlife of Jura by KL

We jump in the dingy and row to shore. The water is surprisingly opaque for a Scottish Loch. It appears that Jura’s hills are weeping peat which rolls into the streams and out into the salt water. A band of white sand layers against the bracken slopes that abut grey boulder fields, beyond these, the great ‘paps’of Jura loom, like conical volcanoes.

David and I scramble over the hills through streams of clouds, with occasional glimpses back down to Lista Light, alone in the Loch. A forlorn whistle rises from the hillside and we snatch a glimpse of a golden plover. Golden plovers are also waders, nesting in the uplands in bogs, moors and pastures. The male has a spectacular summer plumage with a gold, flecked back and jet black apron. He runs backwards and forward on a ledge calling and bobbing. We saw them last year on Skye and before that in the forest of Bowland. A line of five of the speckled waders fly pass.

Lista through the clouds

Meanwhile, Clare, who chose a lower path to explore the shore of the loch, is warding off the midge fraternity that have descended upon her in a cloud. Puffing roll-ups to keep them at bay she chooses the dingy back rather than contending with the marauders. This is her first run off with the fabled Scottish midge and it’s not a happy one.

Katharine at top Jura

Day two, Dave and I are determined to run up the hills before the mist descends. Clare is still suffering from yesterday’s midge onslaught and chooses the safety of the boat. She is eyeing the brilo pad, anything to stop the frenzied itching.

Dave limbers up for run!

We pick minute ticks from our exposed limbs after thrashing through the bracken. Deer tracks scrawl the hillside providing a myriad of route ways for us to ascend the Jura bean stalk.

We reach top after top, rounding a ridge to find the horizon straddled by red deer. Red deer are indigenous to Scotland and would have been found throughout the UK. Today, very few herds remain in England, Exmoor being one such exception. They are the biggest of our native mammals, forming large herds, in contrast to the diminutive roe deer which are generally solitary. Other species of deer have been introduced to the UK or have escaped from private collections, including: fallow deer, muntjack and Chinese water deer.

Previously, red deer would have been hunted by wolves. Unfortunately, wolves were exterminated in the UK mainly due to conflicts between farmers and their livestock. With no natural predators, red deer populations have burgeoned, with shooting and stalking providing limited local control. The consequence of unchecked increases in deer populations is overgrazing, often reducing deer territories to bracken, mat grass and purple moor grass. Shrubs and trees are nibbled before they have a chance to grow, limiting niches for other species to flourish.

We finally reach the top of a ridge, a myriad of turquoise lochs, lagoons and craggy hills unfold before our eyes.

As we pick our way down the slope to the sea cliffs, a peregrine falcon suddenly swoops up from under our feet. He gains height, then, pushing his wings beside him, forms into an arrow and hurtles over the cliffs, piercing the sky at break neck speeds.

Nearing the beach, we leap into a stream and stick our heads in the pounding waterfall. Cream foam forms at the mossy edges. We float like logs towards the sea, sliding over the algae covered rocks.

Washer woman

David is determined to find razor fish. He has heard how you are able to entice them from their haunts by salting the entrance to their borrows. The slight floor in the proceedings is that he is not entirely sure what their burrows look like!

I bob off to Lista in my holey wet suit. A seal nods at me, but startled by its own bravado, dives deep and disappears. Long fronds of kelp entangle my legs and my ‘white finger’ syndrome takes hold.

Clare has been learning chords on the guitar. We guzzle soup and watch Dabid stalking the strand line for razor shells.

DL 'mixing'!

We clear the decks ready for departure. Nothing has really changed, the seals still laze over one another on the rocks, King gull stands on high, the shags take it in turn to slip into the water and the oystercatchers shuffle across the beach. The only new arrival is a juvenile black guillemot, which I haven’t seen before.

Jura's cormorant colony