SCOTTISH SOUNDINGS
Yachting World|April 2021
A SPONTANEOUS CRUISE ALONG SCOTLAND’S WILD WEST COAST PROVED TO BE A VOYAGE OF SURPRISES FOR PHIL JOHNSON
PHIL JOHNSON

The warble call from a loon broke the silence as we edged closer to shore, motoring quietly through still water. Astern, mountain peaks glowing purple in the sunset faded into the sea. Off our bow, tidal rocks marked the entrance of a cosy lagoon we’d soon be anchored in, just before the crisp evening air settled around our yacht Sonder. The bay was shadowed by sheer cliffs of dark volcanic rock, now in silhouette, that thrust high above our mast top, reaching 1,000ft in places. This was Scotland in the autumn, during a global pandemic, and we were all alone.

My wife, Roxy, and I are both in our early 30s and run a small e-commerce business remotely while living on our Cheoy Lee Pedrick 47 Sonder. In August, we sailed across the Atlantic from Massachusetts, with the goal of cruising the warm waters of the Mediterranean, but with European COVID travel restrictions still in place, we opted instead to winter in the UK. This change in plans set off a chain reaction of spontaneous decisions; the first being an idea to cruise Scotland ‘while the weather was good’. However, it was now the beginning of October, and local sailors we shared our cruising plans with responded uniformly: “The sailing season is already well over!”

Their advice resonated as we sat in our chilly, damp cabin listening to sheets of rain on deck while docked in Belfast. Sonder has spent her life in warm water without a diesel heater, which is a problem since Scotland’s northern latitude nearly matches that of Greenland. As we hurried to install a heater, friends docked alongside us with European passports tossed their lines and departed for a course south, chasing the waning sun.

Tempting though their plan was, we instead turned Sonder left, sailing into steep chop that slapped her bulwarks as we pushed north out of the Irish Sea.

The water of the Scottish west coast isles awes visitors with its icy clear blue, more reminiscent of the Caribbean than anything you might expect to see at this latitude. Its temperature is slightly warmed by the faint remnants of the Gulf Stream, which helps moderate the climate of this archipelago. This was why, upon making our first landfall and anchoring off the Isle of Gigha, we were surprised to find New Zealand palm trees dotting a bay of white sand beaches scattered between granite boulders.

INDIAN SUMMER

In the morning, the sun lit the water brightly right down to the base of Sonder’s keel. Plucky locals nearby leapt into the shallows for an icy swim. I hugged my morning coffee in the cockpit with a woollen blanket over my shoulders. Perhaps the Belfast sailors were wrong, maybe we were fated to have an Indian summer? My eye caught the scurried movement of an otter climbing a nearby rock. A little later, several otters were taking turns basking in the sun, as if they too felt the scarcity of this warm morning.

The fine weather held the following day as we broad-reached toward Loch Tarbert on the Isle of Jura. Sonder’s full main and 110% genoa scooped the following breeze from our starboard quarter, the seas running down the Sound of Jura just starting to build up as the sound widened towards the Atlantic. I slid the port jib-car forward, pulling the genoa leech tight and called back to the cockpit for Roxy to sheet out the main a little. The weather-helm eased and Sonder drove forward, unaffected now by the short seas building behind us.

With full tanks and provisions, Sonder weighs nearly 22 tons. Even so, she moves along just fine in moderate airs, carrying over 1,100ft2 of canvas. The designer, Dave Pedrick, cut his teeth at Sparkman & Stevens and brought the same classic ocean-racing philosophy with him when he designed a line of Cheoy Lee cruising yachts. Her proportions are quite moderate; she has a long keel with cutaways fore and aft and a skeg-hung rudder. The beam narrows towards the stern, which has a slight overhang coupled with a healthy freeboard and moderate sheer.

On this day, Sonder was in her element sailing at over 7 knots through the water. We made quick work of the Jura Sound and soon entered the narrow seaway dividing the south coast of Jura and Islay just as the tidal flow increased in our favour. The high shoreline of Jura dirtied the air, with puffs coming at us from shifting angles. I steered us between the channel buoys, scanning the water’s surface for signs of katabatic gusts coming off the surrounding hills and cliffs while Roxy sheeted the main in snugly. The tidal stream made up any loss of speed difference and we clocked speeds of up to 13 knots dancing though overflows, eddies and gurgling water.

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