Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Peel to Fort William: the full story

We left Peel at 3.30pm, just as soon as the tide allowed. It was still blowing Force 6 but from the southwest, the sea state was moderate and we had a nice sail towards the Mull of Galloway in the evening sunshine. Just as we were approaching the Mull, Jim decided to peruse the pilot book about the Forth & Clyde Canal and came across a passage that said 'air draught 3 metres'. Since Fettler is a boat with a low profile we hadn't thought this a problem before, as long as we took the mast down. However, Jim's mind wandered aft to the the radar tower and realised immediately that it wouldn't clear. It was lucky he discovered this then, before turning the corner - we could simply head for the Mull of Kintyre!

We were both a bit excited about this sudden change of plan since it meant some double quick passage planning up to Fort William, an area full of outrageous tidal streams. Just as we were settling down again, we had our first incident. At around 11pm the wind died and Jim had gone to double reef the main sail so that we could motorsail. When he lowered the boom, the topping lift (which holds the end of the boom up) worked out of its jamming cleat and whipped wildly around the mast, wrapping itself several times around the mast and stays. There was no way of retrieving it without going up the mast.

We quickly secured the boom, got out the Mast Mate (a webbing ladder for climbing the mast) and hoisted it. Meanwhile we were rolling around. Jim then climbed halfway up the mast until he could reach the topping lift and tie a second rope to it. We started untangling the topping lift, but as the light was failing we reached a dead end where we couldn't see what it was hooked on. Time for another trip up the mast. Jim managed to get all the way up, clinging to the mast for dear life, and we did get it sorted pretty quickly.

Jim then went below for a little well-earned rest, while I took up my night watch. I could see a few fishing boats and ferries, but nothing to worry about until I started brushing my teeth. That's when I spotted a vessel on what looked like a parallel course to ours. It was approaching rapidly and I flashed a strobe light on our mainsail to make sure they'd see us. There was no time to check my original compass bearing to see if it was changing. Suddenly this fishing boat cut across our bow and I jumped up to the wind vane, changing our course 30 degrees - we missed a collision by a couple of metres. I could see that there was no one on deck. They must have just set the autopilot, and they didn't even notice that they almost sank our boat. Jim heard my cry of alarm, jumped out of bed and just saw the blinding lights of the fishing vessel as it passed at high speed.

The next part of the passage went very well. We arrived at the Mull of Kintyre at exactly the right time to take advantage of the strong tide and rounded it in the morning sunshine. I saw our first puffins of the trip just inside the Sound of Jura. But alas the pleasant weather was not to last and soon we were navigating by GPS and radar in the fog and rain and motoring as there was no wind.

The next tidal gate was the Sound of Luing, where the stream runs at up to seven knots. This sound is just after the (in)famous Corryvreckan Whirlpool, which runs west at the same time as the Sound of Luing runs north. We had to be very careful not to get sucked into that. Again, we timed the tide right. Stan, our autopilot, couldn't cope with these crazy waters, and Jim took the helm. The water looked like it was boiling around us. There were whirlpools and eddies and upwellings aplenty. Our speed peaked at 9.5 knots over ground (with the engine only contributing 4.5).

After that, I slept for the only two hours I was going to get that night while Jim took us into the Firth of Lorn and past Oban. Then we were both needed to go through the Lynn of Lorn in the dark. Most of the buoys and islets weren't lit and we had to change course every half a mile or so to make a safe course through. We had just reached the safety of Loch Linnhe, a very deep and hazard-free loch, when the engine suddenly cut out.

Luckily, a faint breeze was just coming up and we hoisted the jib. Initially we thought that we'd miscalculated the fuel level and therefore topped up our fuel. Jim started the engine again, and it seemed fine, but since there was wind, we shut off the engine and sailed through the night. Loch Linnhe was very atmospheric at night - hardly any light and high mountains in shades of grey lining both sides.

Jim was getting his 1.5 hours' sleep for the night when I decided to wake him as we were approaching the Corran Narrows. Loch Linnhe is shaped like an hourglass, and at the Corran Narrows the tide runs very strongly. This time we weren't there at the right time - 3 knots of currents were against us, and we were only sailing at 3.5 in the light winds. Jim decided to use the engine to help us through there, but it cut out after a minute or two. We then crept through the last part of the Narrows at 0.1 knots over ground.

Once we were on Upper Loch Linnhe, Jim got down to business, bleeding fuel lines and trying to figure out what was wrong with old Sven, our 40-year-old Sabb engine. He quickly found that the breather valve to the fuel tank was totally clogged up, creating a vacuum that starved the engine of fuel. We got out the pipe cleaners and started cleaning it, but as we found out later, it's almost 50cm long and we couldn't get it cleared while under way. However, Jim hit on the idea of opening the fuel filler cap slightly and this worked a treat.

While Jim was toiling in the engine compartment and we were sailing back and forth outside Fort William, I caused an accidental gybe and one of our winch handles was caught by the mainsheet, flipped into the air and overboard. Good thing we had a spare.

We then entered the Caledonian Canal around 9 in the morning and had to go straight through a lock. I had a hard time throwing our lines up in my state of utter exhaustion. We tied up while we were waiting to go through the second lock, and a very nice thing happened. A guy came up to us and said: 'I know the man who built this boat.' Turns out his father was a good friend of Fettler's original owners, Joe and Val Rickerton (hope this is spelled right). Val is still alive, and he was going to let her know that Fettler is still going strong.

As we were pulling away to go into the next lock, one of the lines holding the tiller jammed and Jim just managed to get us clear of the boat next to us. Almost clear, that is: One of the two wires supporting the radar tower was hooked by the fluke of its enormous anchor and snapped. This was the final straw - it was time for some rest.

We tied up at the first available pontoon, where I slipped on the wet boards when jumping ashore with the lines and bruised my shin. Jim then fixed the radar stay, while I got a blissful 90 minutes of snooze. Jim rested up a little as well before our crew, Able Seaman Martin, arrived and helped us negotiate Neptune's Staircase, a series of eight locks that take boats up 21 metres. Just as well that Martin had decided to join us, since it's tricky with less than three. After that, we decided to call it a day and stop the night in Banavie, especially since the lock keepers had warmly recommended the Lochy Bar. Unfortunately, this hostelry was fully booked and the only other hotel bar in town was closed because of a wedding so we had to take a cab into Fort William to get a well-deserved dinner and a pint. And this time we really got an early night.

No photos for this one - we were too damn busy!

1 comment:

Penny said...

My, my, my.......you had quite a time of it with all the bits failing, falling, and generally not working.....tricky tidal waters, dangerous auto-pilot fishing vessels, winds, no winds, and mostly NO SLEEP! Glad that you made it through to tell the tale. Really nice bit about the original builder of Fettler....there is always something nice to balance out the really scary bits! Take care, lots of love, Mum.