Today is a big day because we face one of the more forbidding headlands on the west coast, Rubha Reidh. It sticks out into the Minch like the defiant lump of Old Red Sandstone it is and the tides run fast around it.
As a result there are tidal overfalls when the tide opposes the wind and getting too close to it, even in a well found yacht, is like being in a washing machine. However much you want to save distance by cutting close to it, two miles off is a much better place to be.
The forecast we looked at yesterday is confirmed with the wind slightly W of S and Force 4. We are glad not to be on Big Sand beach but having gone out of our way for shelter we will now have to row four miles to even get to Big Sand.
The coast north of there is rocky and inhospitable, and even when we round the lighthouse at Rubha Reidh we still have six miles to the first decent shelter which is Cove. In total we need to row 20 miles today. What is the tidal current doing?
HW Dover is 0516 and 1756 British Summer Time so slack water is 1116. This means that the tide is foul (against us, flowing south) until 11 in the morning and then it will gather strength in our favour.
We are at neap tides, fortunately, so the flow is only about 1.5 knots max, but we do not want to be at Rubha Reidh in a brisk southerly breeze when the tide is flowing the other way!
Badachro is about 15 miles from Rubha Reidh so working backwards if we make 5mph in our following wind we need to leave Badachro around three hours before 1100, so 0800. This early start is inconvenient for the Ullapool based rowers but a good start for a long day.
The forecast for today starts with SW F4, strengthening to 5 by afternoon and veering to W and NW overnight and tomorrow. A typical Atlantic low is coming in and will dominate the weather for two or three days. Should we postpone? If we wait, the wind will turn against us and we will lose at least two days. Better press on for this morning’s tidal gate.
As things turn out we all arrive pretty late, due to a succession of small things. By the time we have sorted out our gear, the skiff, the support boat, and so on, we are an hour and a half late.
Gairloch are parting from us today to head back to base at Flowerdale and we wish them godspeed.
The wind is SW F4 and as we leave Badachro it comes round the headland and is quite a choppy beam sea till we pass between Longa island and Big Sand at about 1030. We are late for slack water at Rubha Reidh but the tide will be favourable so we are not too worried. Big Sand has the telltale flashes of white surf which remind us why we did not stop there last night.
Rounding Rubha Ban we head north, and the motion gets easier. The tide is slack and the wind and waves on our port quarter are pushing us along so for a while we make good progress.
Then one of the crew reports a mild asthma attack and we pause for them to use their inhaler and rest. The boat lies safely with the wind on the beam and the support boat stands by.
We resume for a bit but then the asthma comes back and the rower reports that the inhaler is nearly empty. We are halfway along a 20 mile row with no bail-out options till Camus Mor just after Rubha Reidh, which is nine miles away.
The crew member swaps places with the cox and we press on, having decided that if the asthma gets worse we will send him north with the support boat to land at Cove and get help. As it is his asthma stays in control and he does not need to row.
By 1200 we are off Melvaig on this long rocky coast and the wind is veering as forecast to a bit north of west. The onshore waves are reflecting off the cliffs and making an uncomfortable jabble which adds to the southerly Minch swell from past days. Some of the crew are feeling a bit queasy and the rowing is less coordinated than usual. Rubha Reidh is four miles away and we press on.
Jonathan in his Pioneer is having a lumpy time. Motorboats running slowly to stay with a rowing boat do tend to have a poor motion, and to his credit he seems not to be getting sick. We do, however, ask him to stay downwind of us as the engine fumes don’t help us.
By 1245 we are approaching Rubha Reidh and there is enough north in it to start to kick up a wind against tide situation off the lighthouse. This is just what we don’t want. The tide is with us now, about a knot, but the wind is slowing us down until we can turn to starboard and run along the north coast of the peninsula. Time is not on our side because both wind and tide are speeding up, so we grit our teeth and carry on.
The waves are so chaotic and unpredictable that the oars keep catching, but slowly we manage to pass the lighthouse and ease round the corner. The seas gradually get more regular and the rowing gets easier. We take a breather off the white sand beach Camus Mor but because the wind has veered, it too has surf so we cannot land. We take the chance to bail out the water which slopped into the boat by the lighthouse.
We use the break to swap rowers round for the last stretch and head on eastwards to the entrance of Loch Ewe.
We pass the rocky island Eilean Furadh Mor where during WW2 an American liberty ship, William H Welch, was heading into Loch Ewe to join an Atlantic convoy. A bitterly cold NE gale with snow showers overcame her low-powered engine in the early morning and she was driven onto the island. By 0600, still in darkness, she broke in two with all the crew clinging to the upper superstructure. Onlookers were helpless to do more than rescue survivors as they washed ashore covered in oil, and those still alive were wrapped in blankets and carried over a snowy moor to shelter. Sadly only 12 out of a crew of 74 survived the wreck.
With great gratitude we see Loch Ewe open up and the wind is at last behind us. We start to make out the details of the little landing place at Cove.
At 1545, weary but happy, we stiffly climb ashore and enjoy being on dry land. The end of a long and eventful day gives us plenty of food for thought. We are lucky to be here on a sunny summer’s day in peacetime and not, like the seamen of the William H Welsh, shipwrecked in the darkness of a snowy winter gale.
The view from the Safety Boat
Jonathan’s Saorsa II – a Pioner Multi with a Yamaha 60 HP 4-stroke outboard – was to be safety boat for this – and indeed subsequent – legs of this west coast section of the RowAround Scotland 2020. With a drop-down bow door and plenty of deck space it works well as a safety boat. She has VHF radio and a small sat nav.
With the planned departure at 0800 from Badachro of the Ullapool crew in Cul Mor, it was important to get the safety boat launched in good time and ready for the skiff as soon as possible.
We had 40 litres of petrol, an immersion suit, a 20-metre tow rope and a couple of spare lifejackets, A large thermos of honey tea, water and sandwiches, snickers bars and a tube of sunscreen were our on-board stores.
We left Ullapool at 0600 trailing Saorsa and launched from the slip at Badachro about 90 minutes later at pretty much low water without event. However, no sign of Cul Mor and her crew yet…..the rest of the rowers were a tad delayed and we waited in Saorsa on the rising tide on the slip.
After a quick consultation with Cul Mor’s crew with regard to contingencies, general operations around rescue etc., I boarded Saorsa again and were away by 0930 with Cul Mor and her crew in good form if a little groggy after their early start from Ullapool (and the Badachro Inn!)
Saorsa’s role was to keep station with Cul Mor, well downwind of her and the crew so that engine exhaust fumes did not impinge on their efforts. This meant I was actually ahead of them on their starboard bow for the leg up to Rubha Reidh. Occasionally I would make a wide circle around and under their stern every once in a while so they could see me and knew I wasn’t far away, although the cox could always see me. I was always in hailing distance and could respond quickly as necessary. In the worst case I could take all five crew off Cul Mor and tow the skiff on to Cove.
The only concern was a debilitating asthma attack endured by one of Cul Mor’s crew and I drew in to see if I needed to take him off but they swapped positions and carried on.
It was little rough as we got to Rubha Reidh, and the wind had veered more to the north making it lumpy but once around the cape, the wind was behind us and the rowers spirits lifted and I maintained station some 50 metres ahead of them.
Cul Mor entered Cove just before 1600 after a long row and much relief all round – a great effort and achievement. We slipped Saorsa onto her trailer for the night, to be launched on the morrow to accompany the next crew to take Cul Mor on to Mellon Udrigle.