BULLETIN TWO - THE DARK SIDE OF MULL
Readers may remember the 1970's NASA moon missions as heroic ventures, fraught with a myriad of hazards, needing the varied skills of thousands of the world's most skilful engineers, scientists, doctors and managers to overcome almost insuperable challenges. But, at the centre of the dramas were small teams of people, three in number, who had to do it when it came to the crunch. These were the crews, crammed into frail capsules, alone in the vastness of space. The most compelling facet of the whole affair was the times when the spacecraft passed to the Dark Side of the moon. All communication was cut off and the watchers on earth had to hold their collective breath until, to the accompaniment of a huge sigh of relief, the tiny capsule re-appeared and radio contact was re-established.
So it is, in the imagination of Broontroosers, with the island of Mull. The North and East sides are quite sheltered and seem to our brave skipper to be perpetually bathed in sunlight. The West Side is dark and mysterious, exposed to the violence of the Atlantic ocean, inhabited by a range of wild sea creatures, referred to by the cheerful Bartlett as 'dragons'. Even the names seem alien - Ulva, Gometra, Inch Kenneth, Tresnish Isles and Staffa. A small team of heroic space travellers, namely Totty and Broontroosers, have resolved to circumnavigate this dark isle, passing from the sunlit to the shadow side, hopefully to re-emerge into the light and contact with Clyde Coastguard radio.
The early stages of the trip are easy - just a routine six hour cruise past Oban, up the Sound of Mull and overnight in Tobermory of the wonderful Café Fish and superb Misnish ale. Up early and start by 11am, motor out of Tobermory bay, say hello at sea to Clare and Andrew Reid, on a yacht heading for the Small Isles, (Like the aforementioned dogshit, Cretingham Bell habitués get all over), call the coastguard to give a passage plan to the isle of Ulva. Note with mild alarm a suspicious lack of visibility out to the West, but set course for the Treshnish Isles, some 15 miles away. Anticipate the wonders of these isles, the craggy cliffs and seabirds, then over to Staffa, home of Fingal's Cave and onwards past 1000 foot cliffs and Inch Kenneth to the Sound of Ulva and a beautiful sheltered anchorage in a pool under 3200 foot Ben Mor. There are walks of extreme beauty but a short dinghy ride away - what a prospect!
Back to present reality - the horizon has disappeared! Ten minutes later, some yachts going in the same direction have also disappeared, five more and we are alone in a sort of glaucous capsule about 250 meters in circumference. The outside world has completely disappeared, the only evidence of its existence being the coastal outlines and ominous dots signifying other boats on the radar. Slow down and continue, and eventually our first destination, the Treshnish Isles appears - on the radar - there's no sign visually, even from a mile away.
A short debate on the proposition, “This crew would rather be sitting in the Mishnish Arms with a pint of ale in hand than drifting around aimlessly in the bloody murk somewhere off the west of Mull” resolves matters rapidly and three hours later back in Tobermory the first pints are flowing frothily into the glasses.
Next day, even earlier start - 10.30 am. Viz. good, sea calm, Treshnish Isles loom up on the radar and this time the eyeballs. These craggy islands are home to myriads of seabirds and..... What is that?! - half a dozen huge dorsal fins floating about in lazy circles. It's basking sharks, which seem to accept Deneys Reitz as a pal and cruise slowly around the boat - they are at least 20 feet long, with huge wide-open mouths, filtering plankton. Having played with the fishy pals, a funny white blob appears on the horizon a mile or so to the west. Investigation shows it to be a boat's fender - in perfect condition, so we haul it aboard. It's from a boat harboured on the eastern seaboard of the US. It obviously crossed the Atlantic specially for us, sensing our intent to purchase another of these grossly expensive items. So friends, there is something good out of George Bush's America! We thanked our trans-Atlantic benefactor kindly and added this smart newcomer to our motley family of multi-coloured car tyres and other liberated fenders.
Thus to Staffa and Fingal's Cave. The massive basalt columns and yawning cave are as usual awesome and the Atlantic swell makes entry impossible, so we rock and roll just outside for photos, with Don thinking, “Bloody hell, it's me doing this!” - and then set sail towards the islands of Ulva and Gometra, passing the diminutive Inch Kenneth, home of the Mitford clan and lady Redesdale the batty mother, who lived on this remote island and had her supplies delivered weekly from Harrods for nearly 60 years. Think of the fleet of green vans creeping up and down the Great North road.
The mountain cows of Mull
The Sound of Ulva widens into a pool, nestling under the massive presence of Ben Mor on Mull and the 1000 foot cliffs on Mull's west coast. Overlooking the pool is a 150 foot basalt cliff - on top of the cliff, silhouetted against the sky was a small group of mountain cows - Highland cattle who obviously come to look at boats. They were a handsome sight against the skyline, huge horns prominent : Ma cow with her fine udders, Big Bull with appendages to shame the most virile of human studs, Mavis the teenage sister showing great potential and Little Kirsty already evident as female. They came to the edge of the cliff when we arrived, had a gander at us, went away; and every time one of the five boats which anchored arrived, so did the cows. “Aha”, we thought, “These cows are obviously boat freaks - or - are they auditioning for a documentary called “The Mountain Cows of Mull?”. Or maybe films with titles such as “Cow-er at his Might” for Big Boy, or “Calve her name with Pride” for the little one?
The Mountain Cows of Mull - coming for audition?
Ulva offers magnificent walks, oysters with baked beans on toast in a small café at the ferry - and is owned by a family that seem to add little to the life of the community. When Don said that we had met the son on a previous visit ten or more years before, and he was working cleaning oysters; a man in the café grunted “It must have been at least that, he hasn't done a stroke of work for ten years or more.”
We stayed two nights in Ulva and the second day was hot, hot, hot, so setting out to walk round the island seemed like a bad idea by half way. But by evening, matters were cooling down, oysters were consumed, chilled white wine poured down parched throats and, at 10.30 pm, dusk was falling accompanied by a magnificent red skyscape, when all of a sudden, a cold blast roared down from the mountain - must have been a sort of Katabatic wind caused by rapid cooling at the summit of Ben Mor, 3200 feet above. Broontroosers spent four hours sitting tensely in the wheelhouse dressed in (blue) underpants, nervously taking skilful star bearings with a hand-held compass, waiting for the anchor to drag and the whole shoot to be driven ashore. Such is the varied life of the indigent boater. Totty slept soundly. Some people just don't recognise imminent disaster. (Bloody neurotic, what's an anchor for - Charlotte).
Before the Katabatics - Ulva Pool
The rest of the trip was uneventful, despite the terrible dangers offered by the Sound of Iona, average depth 3 feet (rubbish, 3 metres - Totty), and the lurking menace of the terrible Torran Rocks, graveyard of a thousand yachts ( yes, but before GPS was invented - Totty). The old navigator set up 5 waypoints in the winding channel to the south of Mull and the helmsman steered from one to another with absorbed concentration on the GPS screen. The rocks were often noticeable only by occasional startling combers breaking in the middle of an apparently empty expanse of sea as the Atlantic swell rolled over submerged reefs. Terrifying.
The South side of Mull is unpopulated, with glowering cliffs. Quite threatening. Reaching Ardfern was a blessed relief after so much danger. (Jolly nice trip - Totty).
The great giant squid controversy - riveting new evidence
After Charlotte's dogmatic assertion that giant squid are not a common nuisance in The West, new evidence has emerged which completely refutes her thoughtless strictures. Crew members returning from the Hebridean Island Distilleries Annual Malt Whiskey Cruise have reported with great emotion that their boats were indeed visited by these giant creatures. They described them as generally affable, if a trifle melancholy. Many were clad in bright clan tartans and some sprawled on yacht coach-roofs singing touchingly sad songs of the deep, outlining the difficulties faced by gentle creatures so unjustly stereotyped by humans. Conclusive proof, I would say.
The Art of Impeccable Cruising, Number 57 - Bunkering
This is not what some more luridly imaginative readers may imagine - it is quite simply taking on fuel. Ah, but maybe not so simple. When we first started travelling on Deneys Reitz, marine diesel cost 20p a litre. The old boat consumes 10/12 litres an hour or about 2/3 miles to the gallon in old currency. We were shocked therefore to find that it was being advertised at 95 pence a litre on the island of Kerrera, opposite Oban. Broontroosers, as we all know is an old hand at the fuel lark. It was indeed he who negotiated with the Russian Mafia to obtain diesel in the Latvian port of Lepaiea, driving in a black Mercedes with shaded windows to do business with black-clad fellows sporting No 1 haircuts and shades. (No, it wasn't, it was the yacht agent, who took a whacking cut from the extortionate dollar price, I'll bet - Totty)
Hrmph - to resume... There is a fuelling berth at the North pier in Oban, where all the trawlers and big boats fill up. We had fuelled there before, moored aft of the 'Hebridean Princess', which only charges £22,000 for two weeks in a double stateroom and was taking 110,000 litres to our proud 1000. Angus (not his real name), who worked at the fuel berth, surely would remember us and look kindly on our poverty when deciding whether we were a 'working' boat. As I said when he first asked, “Work?? I can tell you that everybody sweats like buggery on this boat”. “Guid”, said Angus, “So ye will nae need to pay VAT”.
As we approached the berth, it became apparent that something had changed since last time. For a start, Caledonian MacBrayne, the monopoly supplier of West Coast ferry services, had built a bloody great pier outside the fuel berth, exposing boats to huge washes from their props and thrusters.
MacBrayne are a law unto themselves, giving rise to the old rhyme:
“The airth belongeth to the Lord,
And all that it contains,
Except the Western Highlands,
And that's a' MacBrayne's”
To complicate matters still further, the MacBrayne berth had reduced the mooring space available to fishing boats, so they were all lined up, two to four abreast, blocking the entrance to the fuel berth. A telephone conversation from the boat to Tommy Barbour, the current fuelling boss, clarified matters - if we could moor up outside the fishing boats, then he could bring a truck and stretch his hose across them to Deneys Reitz. Further enquiries ascertained that his price was 67p a litre, nearly 30p off the marina price. Almost worth dying for!
Closer inspection revealed that death was a likely outcome. The tide was out, so the top of the wharf was 30 feet from the sea level. Still worth a try. Even closer inspection showed that the fishing boats were only loosely moored together, so there were ominous gaps between them. Right close up, it became clear that the boats were imperfectly aligned with the narrow rusty ladders, which to add spice, were seaweed-covered, it being low tide. A near-suicidal mission! But....30p a litre!
So we moored up outside the two smallest fishing boats and Broontroosers scrambled across piles of net, around gaping hatches in the decks, avoiding jagged bits of machinery, leapt from one to another, crossed the second, and.... was faced with a four foot jump to the slippery ladder, with a nasty drop into slimy water between boat and wharf. Half-closing his eyes and muttering the mantra, “30 pence off!” he leapt - and made it! Up the ladder, half noticing a couple of small brown chaps squatting impassively at the top, he strolled to the bunkering office. Tommy was friendly as usual, the more so when it was mentioned that Broontroosers was 69 and Totty was crippled with a sore back and 71. “No problems”, said he “I'll find ye some helpers”. So he drove the truck to its lofty eyrie above the boats and genially addressed the two brown men. “Lads - these people need help” - explaining that the two were the owner/skippers of the trawlers, Ellen May and Misty Dawn. “Aye” said he, “MacPhalangong and O'Bhumaputra are a fine pair of lads”. The two suddenly changed from totally impassive to smilingly helpful, pushed Broontroosers aside (“69, surely not”) grabbed the hose, swarmed down the ladder, across the boats, jovially nudged a startled Totty aside, opened the tanks, asked how much did we want, shouted up the ladder to Tommy, mopped up surplus fuel, closed the tanks, helped Tommy haul up the hose, told us that they were Malays from Indonesia, spent nine months a year catching langoustine in the outer Hebrides and the rest back home, smilingly agreed that they drank beer, accepted several cans each, climbed the ladder again and resumed impassive crouching.
Tommy's lad, a lithe 20-year-old summer student, (put him in my top pocket and take him home -Totty), came down with the bill, cash was exchanged, no questions asked about the price, and we shook hands before casting off. That friends, is the way to re-fuel your boat - but only if you are cunning, aged and helpless!
A final word from Bob the Dog
Boats are great! The sea is fantastic - so smooth and flat! There's really good bedding, great food -and.... my friend Jen and new pals take you in a sort of small boat to new lamp-posts, with nice grass, rabbits and all kinds of stuff. Wonderful!!
That's about it so far - the next event is the arrival of Jane from Cretingham and her faithful hound, Alf the Lurcher.
Arf, arf, pant, pant, sniff... “No Bob, get down”.