Mallaig, the invasion, Mr Maxwell, a good blow and onwards to Stornoway

The shelter offered by Soay was wonderful and gratefully accepted. I loved the delicate balance between being social and having complete and total solitude in my little anchorage. Saoy is the kind of place that I dreamt of for this trip. We all know that we are well and truly on the radar these days and for many this is fine and dandy but there is a sliding scale of acceptability for others. I am somewhere on that scale. Quite where, I don’t really know and because of mobile phone service (albeit sporadic) my guess is that I will never fully find out unless I throw the phone over the side which I’m not about to do! What I do know is that I love being under the radar / off the grid but I do miss my family, my friends and Sarah (no order there Sarah!) but not so I want to abandon this trip to be with them. Knowing they are all there is comfort enough to allow me to appreciate my little world of water. I think about all the people I know, love and like frequently and I try to think about people who I know albeit not very well. I don’t want to get home, see them and think ‘I never thought of you once’ so my mind is pretty active.
I think about my Dad a lot too and with pictures of him around the boat he is never far from sight and in fact I feel closer to him being on this trip than I have since he slipped his mooring and left for his super-yacht in the sky. I bet he’s loving it. The perfect boat (which only exists in heaven), no mooring fees, constant force 4 in the right direction and hot mermaids! The closeness I feel must be because I am doing something that I know he would have loved to do and also because I have plenty of time to think. This is the time that eludes anyone living a ‘normal’ busy life. These thoughts are not sad, they are warmth and comfort and I love the fact that this trip has enabled me to feel like this. Joanna wrote me a note on a postcard as part of a box of leaving presents that my family gave me and on the card she wrote that she is proud of me for untying the lines and doing one! She also wrote ‘I know that Dad would be so proud of you too’. I love this post card and I use it as a book mark (yep, this educationally unenlightened Essex Boy is reading now – mainly ladybird but it’s a start) so I see and read it often. The funny thing is, and I don’t wish to sound arrogant but I know my Dad would be proud of me for what I am doing. He was a believer in living your dreams and he managed to balance this with working to support a family and taking us with him on his dream which was basically sailing as much as possible which we did throughout all of Joanna’s and my childhood. It was the stuff of Swallows and Amazons that lasted from my first sail at three weeks old through weekends away, family sailing holidays, learning to sail in a dinghy that Mum & Dad bought for us, investigating creeks in that very dinghy to being a young man with raging hormones and a head full of questions about life and what lay ahead. What I never questioned was my total and utter love of being on a boat and sailing. As Joanna and I got older, other things like holidays with friends and racing small boats had their place but the adventures on Fiesta continued and Dad and I embarked on a few ‘boys only’ trips up the East Coast. These good times rolled until the original Fiesta was sold in the year 2000.
Here she is…
That was 20 or so years for me so the fact that I can’t get enough and have taken up the mantle of being afloat as much as possible would make Dad proud. Much has changed over the years except the feeling that doing this gives me. It is the same feeling that I remember from when I was in my childhood. It’s fantastic, magical, rewarding and it’s freedom. That dude Ratty from The Wind in the Willows had it right. When Mole questioned him if being in a boat was really that good, Ratty said ‘Believe me, my little felching friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply f*cking about in boats’….
I couldn’t have said it better myself Roland.
I left the shelter of Saoy in a very wet force 7. I don’t usually venture out in a F7 by choice but I needed to get to Mallaig because a family reunion was scheduled! Fortunately the forecast had done what it said it would do and the F7 was from the northwest which meant a dead downwind sail from Soay round the bottom of the Sleat Peninsula and across to Mallaig. What a cracking sail! The wind had been blowing all night so had the time to build up a good sea and once I tuned the corner out of Saoy and headed downwind it was nothing short of mind blowingly fantastic and beautiful out there.
Big rollers with dark grey clouds and hard rain gave it an ominous look to set the scene for a bracing tale of survival on the high seas. However, Fiesta put paid to that by settling down with impeccable manners and taking it absolutely comfortably and effortlessly in her stride. After about thirty minutes of steering with the full genoa rolled out I realised that I was making a meal of it. I switched the auto pilot on and was immediately disappointed in myself but wholeheartedly impressed with the better course being steered by the computer.  In fact, everything was so under control and comfortable that I went down below to make my own meal of it with bacon and eggs while Fiesta carried on about her business of a consistent 7 knots plus a few 9.5 knot surfs down the waves while I looked out the window as the bacon sizzled! She might not be the latest and greatest but the Prout brothers knew what they were doing with cruising cats when they were building them in their sheds on Canvey Island.
Mallaig is a beautiful little harbour. It’s main purpose is still commercial and it is one of the oldest fishing ports on the West Coast. It was only in 2011 that they squeezed a fifty berth marina in the corner and being surrounded on all but it’s north side it is a lovely shaven haven. Sorry, I mean sheltered!
I got in, moored up and set about bleaching and scrubbing both top and bottom sides and gave myself another haircut before I turned my efforts to Fiesta.
Mum (Doris / Wendy / The Old Doris / The Old Dear / D4 / Nanny D / The Old Boiler – but let’s just use ‘Mum’ for the purpose of this), Joanna, James, Tom and Jack arrived after flying from Stanstead and then hiring a car for the three and half hour drive from Glasgow to Mallaig. Now, what with Burnham-on-Crouch being in deepest darkest Essex and one of the original founders of the definition of a close family (hair lip, club foot – that sort of thing) it shouldn’t be a surprise to know that being just over three months since I left Pool Harbour, this was the longest time in my life that I hadn’t seen Joanna so it was fantastic to see her again and indeed all the family.
They arrived on the 5th of August which happened to be Tom’s 10th birthday so Fiesta had been adorned with some balloons, banners and a chocolate cake and we had a great dinner and birthday celebration for Tom.
The weather was kinder than the forecast had suggested and it was mostly dry and frequently sunny. We walked, talked, dined in, out and went for a cruise to Loch Nevis where we anchored in Inverie Bay for lunch before returning to Mallaig. There was a lot of fun and many laughs although I have to say that what tickled me the most happened when we were anchored for lunch. We were pretty much in the middle of an area where there was a guy learning to windsurf. There wasn’t much breeze at all but he was doing pretty well right up until he ran into Fiesta’s anchor chain which sent him off course headed between the bows. The next thing I saw through the front windows was his head and shoulders and two hands on the foredeck before he disappeared below our line of sight under the bridge deck with a look of panic on his face! Mum sad ‘Oh god, do you think he is going to go all the way underneath’? I suggested that James go and see if he was ok because I just knew that I wouldn’t have been able to stop laughing if I had gone and that wouldn’t really have been fair would it. He didn’t go all the way underneath but was floundering just under the bit before it gets dark! He apologised to James and they had a brief chat before he regained his composure and windsurfed away again probably with a chain shaped graze on his shin! I know you shouldn’t laugh at someone else’s misfortune but trust me, it was f*cking funny!
Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t, time flies when you’re having fun. Tuesday rolled around and at 9am we were all saying our goodbyes and I watched as they all disspapeared on their way home. Ok, now I am rewinding to the start of this drivel but I miss those people, all of them. However, in the short visit I did manage to prove once again why I am a better uncle than I would be a father by giving Joanna & James much work to do ironing out all the uncle mischief and new words that you can possibly impart on your nephew’s in a few days!
Fiesta felt very quiet, very empty and much lighter in the water! Honestly, bring back loin cloths and spears. Much easier to fit in a boat.
With apologies, this is advance notice of a tangent and it concerns Gavin Maxwell…….
I left Mallaig and sailed up to the Sandaig Islands (which are beautiful by the way) and anchored in Sandaig Bay. It’s a remote spot but well visited because of both it’s beauty and the fact that it is synonymous with Gavin Maxwell. It is where he wrote Ring of Bright Water and lived with his pet Otters. There is a memorial there to him and his pet Otter which died in the fire that destroyed his cottage and a bolder marking the spot where Gavin Maxwell’s desk used to be before it too perished in the fire. His old rusty boat trailer is also still there on the beach more than 40 years later.
Now, it appears that Gavin Maxwell is remembered as if a national treasure or some kind of hero and whilst I should probably read at least one of his books before I express my opinion here, I’m not going to! I have had conversations with several strangers over the last couple of weeks, both tourists and locals who say ‘You do know that this is where Gavin Maxwell spent much of his time, wrote this, did that etc etc, all delivered with an ever so slightly misty, far away, admiring look in their eyes. Having heard several accounts, stories and accolades I’m not sure that these aren’t a little rose tinted and from what I have read, I’m struggling to see why there seems to be this hype and reverence. Sorry, it is not the intention to warp this blog into a means of inflicting my opinion on anyone else but you know how it is when everyone seems to be on a different page to you…..
Gavin Maxwell was born with an enormous silver spoon lodged fairly and squarely up his sphincter. There is no question about this although he did put his time in as a Special Operations Instructor (or so I read) during WW2 but thereafter it seems to me that he felt he could do whatever he liked with his privileged life. He moved to Sandaig where apparently the locals didn’t like him because he used to recklessly tear around in a Mecedes Roadster, ran up a hefty bill with some local shop owners which remained unpaid despite his means (again, so I read) and generally did very little to ingratiate himself with the community.  It also appears that he seemed to think that creatures of the wild were his to toy with. For example he captured and it seems bonded with Otters although one was barbecued when Maxwell’s house caught fire on account of the fact that it couldn’t escape from it’s enclosure within his house. Ok, so this wasn’t intentional but it seems to me that he was / is seen as a naturalist, carer and lover of animals despite embarking on a three year project to hunt and kill as many basking sharks as possible around this coast and take them to Soay for processing. I have no problem with the killing of animals for food but it should be done with respect to the animal and I read that he tried many different ways of dispatching the sharks not limited to harpooning, dragging them backwards through the water so their gills wouldn’t work and machine gunning them. Yes, really!
In Mallaig there is a plaque that talks of a time when he harpooned a 30 footer and it was towed into Mallaig where they tried to lift it, still alive, by it’s tail from the water but with a loud sickening crack the tail seperated from the body and the shark sank to the bottom of the harbour where it bled to death overnight. Nice eh! Apparanteley he wrote of his concern about their pain and suffering but carried on anyway so to me, that is like going to confession and saying ‘Forgive me father, I know it’s wrong but I’m going on a murder spree and as there is no doubt that I will be filled with post murder regret, is this ok?’
So Mr Maxwell, god rest your soul and all that but despite your literary offerings I remain to be convinced that you were a very nice person at all and let’s not even go down the route of the fly tipping of all your shark processing stuff on the Island of Saoy and of your tailer that is still on the beach at Sandaig Bay 40 years later. Jesus, have you any idea how much sh*te any of us get into for forgetting that the old yellow mattress has accidentally fallen out of the back of the car into the local nature reserve?????
Right, I think I’ve probably said enough!
The next few days are very easy and quick to sum up. I didn’t really do anything at all. A gale was forecast and for the first time I didn’t have a marina to run towards and hide in so this time it was about choosing the right anchorage in which to shelter from the storm. I chose Isleornsay on Syke which was about three miles across from Sandaig. I was able to get right up in the bay and hide behind some high land and trees. There were about eight other boats in there who also chose Isleornsay in which to shelter although owing to the shallow draft of Fiesta I was able to tuck myself right up in the muddy shallows with greater protection. There were some visitor mooring buoys in there too and whilst five of the boats chose to use them, the rest of us chose to sit at our own anchors. Sometimes I do find it tempting to use a boy (sorry I meant buoy) in these situations but you have to assume that it is well maintained and that the chain is not rusting away under the water where you can’t see it. I am confident in my own anchor set up. I know what shackles I have used, I know the chain is good and the rope not frayed. You tend to get a false sense of security with a permanent mooring buoy whereas at anchor you are slightly more alert to movement and windage so you pay more attention to what is going on and when it’s gusting thirty-five knots and howling through the rigging you are that much more alert to deal with any issues should they arise.
Thankfully, there were no issues. There was a big old wooden yacht with about twelve people onboard and they dragged their anchor twice in the night that I saw and were up in the dark trying to get it reset. I use a brilliantly named App called ‘Drag Queen’ and this has proved to be a great way to monitor movement. Basically, you set the longitude and latitude of exactly where you drop your anchor, set the maximum amount of distance that you are happy to move from that point and if that distance is exceeded, the Drag Queen will start shouting at you. I had 100 feet of anchor chain / rode out and set the Queen at 120 feet in order to give a bit of room for error and at full stretch in the gusts the distance reading was 105 feet and in 48 hours of strong winds and continuous strain in the same direction, the figure stayed at 105 feet. Fiesta didn’t budge an inch! The wind howled and the rain was relentless and there was very little to do other than reading and chilling out although somehow I did manage to strain the muscles in my right arm.
When the gale was over I headed up through Kyle Rhea which is an exciting narrow channel between the mainland and the Isle of Skye where all is benign until you get about a quarter of a mile before the narrow part and all of a sudden the water accelerates and Fiesta went from 5 knots to 11 knots and we barrelled through amongst swirling frothing water and plenty of seals which I guess are there to take advantage of the fish that get churned up and confused in the hectic water.
We were now in Loch Alsh where we moored at a community pontoon with a very small town. Once again the Co-op was on station to rape and pillage but this time I was grateful because I needed a bit or a restock because there isn’t going to be much around for the next bit.
On Monday morning I made the break from the Western Isles. I felt very sad to be leaving but having looked at my previous track on the GPS I am happy with what I have seen and where I have been especially as my plan was only very loose at best.  I had allowed it to grow it’s own legs and I am very happy with where those legs took me. Tick!
For the last couple of weeks there has been an elephant in the boat that I can no longer ignore. It’s called the North Coast of Scotland aka ‘The Top’!  It suddenly dawned on me that if I am going to go around The Top, I have got to stop ignoring it and make progress to meet it so on Monday morning I decided to forgo a couple of places on the West Coast that I had wanted to see and take the favourable wind forecast and head to Stornoway! So, today is Wednesday. Hang on, yes Wednesday. Or is it Tuesday? No it is Wednesday isn’t it? Oh, I don’t know and quite frankly I really couldn’t give a toss! Anyway, today is today and here I am in Stornoway Marina. When I look at the chart I just cannot believe how far up I am. What the f*ck is Fiesta doing up here? This is yet another pinch myself moment. I cannot explain exactly why but I have always wanted to come here. The name has always intrigued me as has it’s location and exposure to the elements. I haven’t made a plan yet but I am now sitting right next to the elephant and soon I will be having a good tug on his trunk! Prior to that and for the next few days I plan to have a good look around and enjoy being in Stornoway.
Finally, a funny thing happened to me. I know this is just coincidence but it’s still weird.
When I first got to Scottish waters, the first person that I spoke to when I went ashore in Loch Ryan was a bloke who used to live in Burnham-on Crouch. What were the odds of that? Anyway, when I arrived in Hebrides and moored up here in Stornoway marina, the harbour master and his colleague came along to the boat to give me codes for the gates, toilets etc and they asked me to fill a form in with my details and to do that I went down below. While I was filling it in I could here them talking about Prout catamarans being built in Canvey Island and references to Essex boys! I went back outside and said ‘What’s all this I am hearing about Essex boys’? The harbour master said, ‘He’s talking about me because I used to live in Burnham-on Crouch’! WTF????? Turns out he used to race from the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club which my flat is right next to.
We had a good chat about the old place and then went our separate ways, both dragging a slightly oversized right foot behind us. Small world brother!
Family reunion in Mallaig and leaving for Sandaig
Sandaig Bay anchorage, an old abandoned cottage that used to belong to an ex Eaton Master called Raef Payne and was near to Gavin Maxwell’s cottage before it burnt down. Lovely sunny day at Sandaig, a few campers on the beach enjoying the ‘Right to roam’ and a large cheers from me!
Beautiful night at Isleornsay but as the navtex foretold, it was the calm before the storm
After the gale everything was back to normal (?). 
You can stay mate but no sh*tting!
Entering Kyle Rhea and being swept through.
Moored up at the Kyle of Lochalsh with a view of the Skye Bridge
Fiesta out.

5 thoughts on “Mallaig, the invasion, Mr Maxwell, a good blow and onwards to Stornoway

  1. Wow beautiful pictures Mark!! Bet it’s amazing up there. Missing you and looking forward to the next time we see you xxx


  2. Interesting thoughts on Maxwell, a marmite character! Although in his defence the shark fishing was ten years before the otter conservationism . May I share to the Maxwell society?
    Regards Clive …a fellow Essex boy !


    1. Hi Clive. Thanks for getting in touch. It is a long time since I did this trip so I had to look at the site to see what I wrote! Ok, so I certainly expressed an opinion there didn’t I! Yes, of course, fee free to share this.

      Kinda regards



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