The seas are high and black with toppling white crests, and the Ardnamurchan lighthouse on the starboard beam seems to have been there forever. But after a couple of hours the peninsula has crawled past, and before us lies the black sweep of the Sea of the Hebrides.
Ahead lies the fin-backed mass of Eigg. At the root of Ardnamurchan lies Loch Moidart, the most beautiful anchorage in Britain if not the world. But we have been made soft by the bright lights of Tobermory, where we started at the beginning of the flood, and the entrance to Moidart is less than straightforward. Easier to thread the rocky approaches to hospitable Arisaig, or head north along the coast past the white sands of Morar to Mallaig, home of shops, kippers, fishing boats and diesel.
Beyond Mallaig lies Loch Nevis, home of Britain’s remotest pub, separated by the wild Knoydart peninsula from Loch Hourn, a fifteen-mile inlet where Munros leap skywards to port and starboard. You could spend a couple of months exploring here, or stay in the Sound of Sleat, haunt of well-documented sea monsters, and tear on through the Kyle Rhea narrows between Skye and the mainland, full of birds and seals and the occasional whale. The stream here can hit eight knots, and will wash you to Kyle of Lochalsh to buy a prawn bun, then spit you under the Skye Bridge and into the Inner Sound.
We are now out of marinaland. Sea eagles wheel with the gulls, and the terrible saw-edge of the Cuillins cuts the horizon. This is a cruising ground for people happy to anchor, and there are plenty of excellent spots, some, like Acarseid Mhor on Rona, in perfect all-weather shelter.
The western part of the Inner Sound is full of seals and dolphins, interspersed with the odd nuclear submarine. On the mainland side are Loch Torridon, whose limestone mountains turn the colour of red-hot iron in the sunset, and Loch Gairloch, with the charming anchorage at Badachro, where the flow from a burn keeps a boat off the quay by the pub without the need for fenders.
Further north, out of the shelter of Skye, the Rubha Reidh lighthouse on its bleak headland protects Loch Ewe with its majestic garden. Further north still are the charming Summer Isles and Ullapool, then Cape Wrath and Orkney. The seas up here can come all the way from Greenland, big and cold and difficult. One of the joys of the place, though, is that if you decide that you are cold and wet and you have had enough, you can sail round a couple of corners into a sea loch, as flat as the Serpentine but infinitely more beautiful. And you will probably have it to yourself.
Some will continue north, heading for Shetland and even Iceland. We put the helm down and turn northwestish to pass the bird-thronged Shiants in the middle of the Minch, resupply in Stornaway and sail south down the Outer Hebrides. There is plenty of interest on the east coast of the chain, and even more on the west coast – approach with caution, the preferred route to its standing stones and white-sand beaches being the Sound of Harris, studded with rocks and subject to mighty tides.
From the southernmost of the chain, turn the boat’s nose across the Minch and head south for the Small Isles: Canna, with its bulletproof anchorage; Rum, home to one of the great follies of the Victorian era, whose conservatory was home to hummingbirds and alligators before it blew away in a gale; and Eigg and Muck, where wilderness meets sustainable agriculture. It is a measure of the splendid isolation of this cruising ground that after the Outer Hebrides these remote islands with their tiny populations actually feel, well, cosy.
As we head south, the Cuillins sink astern and Ardnamurchan rises from a sea as blue as a baby’s eyes. It is easy to forget the anxiety of a falling barometer west of the Sound of Harris; and think, well, one day when the forecast is right we will certainly head forty-odd miles west, and put down the anchor in Village Bay under the bird-roofed sky of St Kilda.
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