David Forde, Jon Meredith, John Kenny, Will Fyans and Amanda Rhyneheart visited the Western Isles of Scotland over the June Bank Holiday weekend 2012. Well to be brutally honest it was the week before the Bank Holiday that JM, JK and DF set off from HQ Rathcoole on probably the most lengthy sea journey undertaken by the club. Why did we do it?? Possibly because we could…
Departure was delayed by hours due to the fact that redecking the boat had over run into the small hours of the day. However, undettered and with the best weather forecast ever dreamt up by Met Eirrean we began blasting up the M1 at 0900 on Day one. The “Plan” being for the three proper explorers (JM, JK and DF) to drive the boat over from Ballycastle all the way up to Tobermory stopping of on Gigha and Scarba on the way. A predicted trip of just over 100nm, 30nm each day. At Tobermory we would be joined by our back up team of WF and AR who were respectvely without enough annual leave/too sea sick to come on the travelling bit of the trip. This meant that after launching in Ballycastle, JM and JK had to cross Northern Ireland twice more in order to reposition the trailer. It was a job for one man (i.e. a driver), but such was JM’s guilt (for enjoying his carefree weekends through the spring months while others toiled), he felt the need to chaperone Kenny rather than explore the wonders of Ballycastle. This was made slightly more exciting as one trip was conducted by a female taxi woman from Crossmaglen who replied to Kenny’s no nonsense questioning on all things Nordy with unstinting hilarity. JM sat quietly in the back and said nothing,
DF’s tricky job of ensuring the boat didn’t float away ended at 2000 hours and we departed on our epic adventure in high spirits. I’d like to say the crossing was a nerve wracking test of seamanship but the photos tell the story by themselves…
However, Kenny’s meticulous planning almost immediately struck the expedition as the boat ran out of juice mid channel. Whilst Kenny reached for the life jackets JM and DF swiftly resolved the situation with a cunning mixture of Seawater and Sunscreen and we slowly coaxed Cobra into Gigha harbour where we quickly pitched camp after fighting off the first waves of the many midges.
(Arriving at Gigha)
Food was hard to come by due to flighty scottish hospitality but we managed to get a bag of crisps with our pints. We camped to the right in the picture below not more than 100 yards from the boat, ruining the romantic setting for the couple in the only other tent. The building in the picture is actually a restaurant (limited opening hours…) and has shower/toilet facilities for campers.
The next day we began the first of the diving…This side of the expedition had been the subject of much debate and excitement mostly due to pouring over the charts (Imray C65 and C63 in particular) and the brilliantly written fiction “Dive West Scotland”. Our first attempt was on Cath Sgeir (DWS #28) which seemed pretty good by the book, by the chart and topside conditions were A1.
Our verdict however was it was about as decent as the Muglins on a bad day, with a slightly shelving rocky slope down to about 30m covered in the sort of usual life to be expected but devoid of the West Irish Sponges and hydroids that you might expect. So far the travelling hadn’t been worth it but high hopes for the Garvellachs remained.
However Kenny’s planning struck again and we were delayed by a couple of hours as owing to some arcane dispute there was no fuel for sale on Gigha (thankfully our glorious leader had an envelope marked Plan B for just such an occasion…). A short speculative search to the mainland ensued looking for petrol (Dave’s paralysing range anxiety actually proving quite usful in this instance). A 1k shlep with the Jerries was avoided with the help of a friendly local and her Landrover. Lesson learned – don’t rely on guidebooks or internet information (and especially not I-have-a-plan-Kenny). Scotland was looking up and the sun beat the decks as we pounded (at an economical 1600rpm) northwards up the straights of Jura…
(Lunch stop on Jura – we went for a ramble and it looked absolutely fabulous)
The plan was to overnight on Scarba (a large abandoned island north of Jura) looking down on the Corryvreckan Whirlpool (regarded by the Senior Service as unnavigable). However, despite Jon’s sudicial desire to dive it, practicality, range concerns and sense (all mainly attributable to Dave) triumphed and we decided to overnight at Craobh Haven marina on the mainland. To run in and out to Scarba would have added 20 miles to the trip. (Lesson learned: Scotland is really big and there ain’t much petrol in it). Despite advertising same, Craobh Haven inexplicably only had diesel for sale which rather threatened to put another spanner into Kenny’s ‘Plan’. Jon’s knowledge of the local lingo came to the rescue and a friendly employee offered to fill jerrys for us in the town on his way home, returning the following morning. We pitched up in the marina and consoled ourselves with a hot shower and some lovely local ale.
Craobh Haven at dusk with Scarba in the background…
(Dave lost 3lb in body weight to midgies to take this shot!)
The following day (hereinafter known as The Big Day) we got up at the crack of dawn and bailed out once our juice fairy arrived. We landed on Scarba to climb the peak of Cruach Scarba (448m). Scarba is very wild, remote and beautiful Island owned by the Laird of (Something) who keeps a herd of red deer, a shotgun collection and not much else on the island (think Inisvicillaune on ecstasy and you’ve an idea). The hike was tough but the going was good (despite some carping from Dave’s little passengers – ask him about that…) and the views from the central ridge opened up 360 views of the Western Isles.
Despite Kenny’s gallant attempt to drown himself in some brook and Jon’s noble effort to pole-axe the trip by attempting to break his ankle it was well worth the effort….
(Los Three Amigo’s after lots of balancing a camera on some heather…)
After coming down the scenic route of sweeping valleys and high mountain lakes we motored around to Garbh Eileach (WNW of Scarba) where our trusty (ahem…) guidebook assured us there was exceptional diving. The journey there was a beautiful passage through the sounds of tiny unnamed islands with Iona in the far distance. Reveries were interrupted when Jon managed to plow into the only standing wave on the western seaboard at the Grey Dog Races, causing him to be demoted to the bilges for the rest of the day.
The reality of the diving was again slightly underwhelming – a dive not unlike some of the less interesting sites in Clare Island. Lots of invertebrate life but few fish or crustaceans. When we surfaced there was a fairly pronounced feeling that the diving in Scotland was not necessarily all it was cracked up to be. The descriptions in the guidebook were also getting the saline treatment….
Once back to base (the boat) we motored on up the coast towards Oban where another juicing (something of a theme with a 2 stroke 140 and a welly load of gear on board) point beckoned. En route, Kenny took out the field glasses and spied a little village that looked tempting for a nose-around. We landed in a lovely old mining village called Easdale where the resident madmen quickly descended to offer well meaning but curious advice on the relevance of star signs to site selection and other vital titbits.
The pub was awesome and the lovely barmaid attempted to take Jon prisoner in her ample bosom. Jon escaped through a cunning mix of feigning not to understand her accent, loudly discussing moisturising and offering inane observations on Scottish independence. The beer, scones (with jam and cream) and hospitality made the detour worthwhile. With enough juice in the tank we decided not to drop into Oban and pointed Cobra toward the Sound of Mull.
Departing Easedale was made considerably easier by the loan of half a pint of two stroke from one of the other denizens of the pub and we began to make good headway towards the sound of Mull. There were some tidal races at the mouth of the sound but Fordey manfully navigated the 2ft high waves. The views of the entrance ot the Sound were really impressive.
Fordey cox’d whilst JM and JK checked out the diving off the Ladies Rock with what was left of the gas in the bottles. This was picked straight off the chart and whilst there was a need to watch out for the breaker the diving itself was actually pretty good, a decent 25-30m bimble with the traditional kelpy start/finish and rocky ledges at the bottom. Fish life was actually pretty abundant and we began to get slighlty more positive, especially when the plotter began to show depths very rarely encountered on the west coast of Ireland. Enthused we began to beat 20 miles up the Sound of Mull in towards Tobermory (Text to Will: “Its verry long” Response: “I’m guessing its the same length as it is on the chart”). This took us tantalisingly close to some of the wrecks we would later attempt but the lack of air meant that all we could do was stare at the fixed shot buoys and wonder.
After a breath-taking spin with the sun picking out amazing scenery either side up the sound of Mull (and after the mother of all days) we pulled into our base for the duration. We’d heard a lot about Tobermory but really – its absolutely spectacular.
(Tobermory Marina – our house was right beside the steeple of the church on the harbour road)
Tobermory proved to be a superb base. There was a compressor station just up the ramp from Kenny in the photo which was self service after Meredith was shown how to use it by a very obliging owner – (cue Kenny and Dave pleading ignorance for the duration and leaving long suffering Blighty-ite to fill). We moored up as in the photograph for the duration (the Harbour Master was very obliging – he even lent us little trollies to ferry our gear around the place) and there was a petrol station in the village. Although the jeep was arriving (and we were very glad of it) you wouldn’t strictly need transport to run a dive trip out of Tobermory.
The town was very picturesque with brightly painted houses, decent shops, average pubs ( the Mishnish is the best pub in the Western Isles….??…we thought it was awful but anyhow – the Arms down the road is much better), tolerable midge levels and a very good chipper.
Having fallen on our feet we had a well deserved pint, bag of chips and planned out the 6 days diving remaining. In no particular order (mainly because we’ve forgotten it…) here is what we thought of the sites. We had good weather every day except one where it was a bit lumpy. If the weather was bad you’d get diving out of Tobermory unless it was howling.
Lochaline Pier Dive.
Front of the boat touching the pylons of the pier…sounder reading 90m….
A pretty insane wall dive with sheer walls all the way down to as deep as you’d care to go. We dived it a few times and does not appear to be afffected by the tides as much as the other sites.
Lots of life on the wall including loads of nudibranchs not seen in Ireland. Really popular with everyobdy who dived it.
Just to the right of the photo of Tobermory above this was a 2 minute steam from home base. A 40 metre wall with lots of fish life in the vertical crevices. Loads of scallops at the bottom and we tended to do this as the third dive of the day and used it to scoop these up for tea (which is allowed in Scotland) (on the subject of which we had scallops for dinner, lunch and, yes, breakfast most days in every conceivable combination…think Bubba and shrimp and you’ve got the right idea – they are abundant and delicious but none of us have been able to look at one since). A lovely dive.
This is an enormous (60 miles long) sea lough flowing in opposite Tobermory. The scenery above water was spectacular, the locals whose pier we sat on for our patented lunch of mackrel, apple and cheese on oatcakes- all together – absolutely delicious- were friendly and the diving was good. At this point we had stopped comparing the diving to Irish conditions and started to appreciate the dark waters and hosts of interesting micro fauna. A lovely day trip (although we think we missed ‘the spot’ you are apparently supposed to dive)
This is absolutely class. We dived it a couple of times and were fortunate enough to have it to ourselves each time.
Slack is critical on this wreck as it runs like billyio outside of that. Once on the wreck she is what we do not have in Ireland. 30m deep, sizable ship (70m long 1400grt) that is completely intact with lots of spooky but very safe penetrations possible. Her holds, superstructure, rudder, engine rooms and accomadation sections are all completely intact. Not a huge amount of fish on her but absolutely swaddled in enormous plumrose anenomes. Brilliant dive.
Another great dive. The rudder of this 2000 grt ship sits at 5m, her bow at 50m. Much more badly damaged than the Hispania the attraction of this wreck is following the ship down the slope . Although much of her superstructure is gone the keel of the ship and the shelving sea bed have created a number of very, very cool swim throughs. Festooned with anenomes and a pretty unique dive. Decompressing on the rudder and looking down at the ship shelving off into the gloom is particularly cool.
This sits out of the tide near the Hispania and is another tanker. This was a huge hit and, because of the absence of tides allows for a full explorartion. Deepest point is about 35m and she is completely intact and completely upright, a treat we don’t really have on this side of the Irish sea. Great opportunities to penetrate into the engine rooms and down three stories into the forward hatches and fo’csle are there if anybody wants them. As with all the sites we were lucky to have this site to ourselves but apparently it does silt up if the hordes descend.
This was the only time we ventured north of the Sound of Mull. Although a lumpy, lumpy day the view of the Small Isles about 10 miles further north was spectacular. This is a pinnacle or sea-mount that plunges down from the surface to 90m or thereabouts. Competent diving and boat handling is definitely required to dive here. The reviews of it were mixed. It was hyped as the UK’s best dive and while the wall was very nice it wasn’t that spectacular – lots of hydroids and sponges but not that much colour and not an enormous amount of life. Either we dropped in in the wrong place or its slightly underwhelming – Lochaline was a better dive. On the plus side the top-side scenery was amazing and Kenny and Will were visited by two large Minke Whales and a juvenile Great Skua topside. After the dive we decided to can our plans to visit Eigg and landed instead for lunch at a little beach called Sanna Bay on the Ardmurchan Peninsula.
With a few days to go Dave had to return to Ireland because of a family bereavement and we decided to use the balance of the day to explore Mull. Although there was some stamping of tiny feet (Kenny’s not Amanda’s) it proved to be a fantastic day out. We drove the length and breadth of the Island and were all struck by how beautiful it was – high peaks, lush green valleys and sheltered bays everywhere we looked with very little habitation. We visited Duart Castle and were shown around by the Laird and took the obligatory pictures of Highland Cattle.
The really, really, really impressive thing about Mull is the wildlife though. We saw so many golden eagles we stopped counting (literally everywhere), buzzards and for a few magical minutes a White-Tailed Sea Eagle. There was dolphins and porpoises in the bays and red deer munching in fields beside the road. We didnt see any otters, nor did we join the amiable English bloke who assured us that there were Peregrine Falcons lurking on the cliffs, but that was about it – it was an absolutely spectacular day out and it looks like there is loads of terrain left to explore (not to mention to visit Iona, Coll and Tiree, the nearby islands that we didnt get to visit)
Our journey home was long but uneventful: 4 divers, loads of kit, clothes for 10 days, boat and lots of happy memories all squished into the Panzer. Ferry to Oban, drive to Stranrear, ferry to Belfast and then home from there in a very long day travelling for everybody. Fittingly the only bad weather of the whole trip was on the journey home.
With a 140 2 stroke juice was a big factor but doing the drive up by sea still worked out cheaper than ferry/jeep. Total cost for those who did the full thing was about €900 and for Will and Amanda it was about €550. It was an expensive trip but not madly so and that included some pretty sweet accomadation over the two busiest bank holidays in England (the Jubilee weekend).
Would we do it again?
Nothing beats the adventure of going somewhere by boat. The adventure was absolutely magic and the Western Isles are all they are cracked up to be and more.
Its probably fair to say that if people want to go for the adventure, fun and excitement then its an amazing once in a life-time trip. While the diving was very good (particularly the 30m wrecks) its not worth it for the diving alone so if thats your sole interest go to the Irish west coast instead. Its cheaper and easier. If on the other hand you’d get a kick out of beating up the Sound of Mull at sunset then its worth thinking about.
From that point of view though it should be borne in mind that we had superb weather the entire time.
It was flat as a pancake for the travelling days and superb for the rest (with one exception). 130 miles, with dives, is an awful, awful long way to go if you are beating through a sea. The seaways in Scotland are all enormous so even if you get over the Irish Sea there is not much shelter there. If you were thinking about this trip I’d only go if you had force 2’s or a gentle 3 for a few days and be prepared with a plan B (not going at all if it kicks up, going late (we delayed a day becasue of the forecast and despite Merryweather’s wailing about collective lack of moral fibre, it was a great decision – travelling anywhere in a Force 4 is just no fun), or on the ferry if necessary). The only time of the year that its remotely prudent to plan a voyage like this is over the June BH.
Its also worth bearing in mind that your boat needs to be in tip-top condition. We put a lot of work into getting her absolutely ship-shape before departure and clearly you don’t want to be heading across the Irish Sea with a dicky VHF.
This is not the type of trip you do twice. Get decent accomadation (do not stay in Oban – its a 20 mile spin to the diving) in Tobermory and take the time necessary – 10 days didnt feel too long for those travelling up by boat – any shorter and its a lot of hassle and expense for diminished returns.
Also bear in mind that this is a very popular diving location. We were very lucky to have the wrecks completely to ourselves mid-week. However on our last day diving the hordes had descended and there was 7/8 ribs on the Hispania alone. Having dived it already we shoved off elsewhere but those on a shorter trip might not have that luxury.
Again basing yourself in Tobermory will give you flexibility to dive in the evening after the day boats from Oban and Lochaline have gone home.
There are no compressors on the way up (or even reasonably off route) so plan that into your calculations. As above petrol stations can also be an issue (although it all worked out) and it needs to be carefully planned.
We are all very, very glad that we did it and if anyone is thinking about it (or a similiar long distance trip) talk to any of us.