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What it’s really like to sail the Inner Hebrides

10 Aug 2016

Scotland has more than 790 offshore islands divided into three main groups: The Hebrides, the Shetlands, and the Orkneys. The Hebrides are scattered along the west coast and are further divided into the Inner and Outer Hebrides. The Inner Hebrides are protected from the relentless Atlantic swell by the Outer Hebrides, forming an inner, lake-like sailing environment that is a joy to explore. Picking the right time to sail in Scotland is key – the summer months from June to August can be spectacular.

The most important aspect to cruising in Scotland is being able to predict the currents accurately. Between islands, these may run in excess of 5 knots. Get it wrong, and you may be swept along out of control or standing still with engines running at full tilt. Get it right, and you’ll have an exhilarating ride.

Fortunately the distance between harbours is fairly small. Sailing or motoring 15 miles from one island to the next is not arduous. Some anchorages have many visiting boats, others have none. Whatever you are looking for, chances are you’ll find it in the Inner Hebrides.

The nice thing about sailing Scotland is that you can pull up anchor in the morning, sail to one place for lunch to wait out the change of tide, then sail on to another destination for dinner. In fact, that’s the rhythm you develop once you get into the swing of it. Perhaps this is what makes Scotland such a popular chartering destination and an ideal cruising ground. In addition, there are plenty of marinas at just the right distances apart to make taking on fuel and water, as well as re-provisioning or repairs, so easy. Should weather threaten, you are also never far away from a safe harbour.

There are a few places where the currents run particularly furiously with the changing tides. One of these is the infamous Corryvreckan tidal race between Scarba and Jura, the site of one of the largest whirlpools in the world. During spring tides, a standing wave forms along miles of overfalls into the Atlantic. If the current is running against the wind, look out for treacherous conditions: it is inadvisable for inexperienced sailors to pass through there. Another example is “Grey Dog” between Scarba and Lunga. The tides also run fast along the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland, in the Sounds of Jura and Mull, and elsewhere; so it pays to have tide and current tables to hand before you go. Interestingly these strong currents do not always go hand in hand with large tidal variations. These may be as little as a foot or two, so anchoring is rather straightforward.

Then there’s the varied geology and topography. Whereas Skye, Mull and Jura are mountainous, others like Tiree and Colonsay are relatively low-lying, with beautiful sandy beaches. Some islands are gneissic bedrock formed three billion years ago, some are formed from red sandstone about 400 million years old, and others like Rum were created from more recent volcanic activity. Staffa has geometrically distinct basalt columns formed by abrupt volcanic eruptions. Then there are the strangely-shaped Treshnish Isles, home to amazing flocks of rare birds, seals, otters and more.

Another fine reason to visit is the whisky in Scotland (not whiskey as in Ireland). It is possible to sail from distillery to distillery, collecting samples of the precious liquor to sample in ‘small’ quantities later on. Islay (pronounced iyla) has the most distilleries – nine at present. Bring your bicycle and cycle from one to another, taking tours and doing tastings along the way. And if whisky isn’t for your palate, try the local brews.

The people are charming, the scenery breath-taking, and the anchorages secure. It’s the perfect cruising ground, as long as you hit the weather window right, you mind the currents, and ward off the midges. Go – and bring insect repellent just in case...