After a sunny morning in Dover it was time to set sail with an almost empty ship, up to Bonnie Scotland. We would have a day at sea on Saturday before arriving in Greenock on the Firth of Clyde, on Sunday morning. A grand total of 9 lucky passengers had the ship almost entirely to themselves for this little jaunt, for we would be picking up the remainder of our guests in Greenock before the annual National Trust of Scotland charter cruise.
Our Saturday at sea was unfortunately rather gloomy with foggy patches and occasional drizzle, however the sea remained nice and calm which on the plus side meant that we were able to spot plenty of wildlife as we headed north through the Irish Sea. Whales and porpoises aplenty were sighted by our team on the Bridge throughout the day.
Early on Sunday morning, we approached the river Clyde and weaved our way up towards one of the old shipbuilding centres of the UK, now home to the famous naval base of Faslane. We were berthed safely alongside in Greenock at around 10:30, welcomed by a piper and some light Scottish drizzle. However as the day wore on the sun manged to find its way through the clouds and it ended up being quite a pleasant afternoon.
I had an old Scottish friend and colleague living nearby, who thought he’d pop down and say hello. In hindsight I believe it might have been the offer of an excellent free lunch on board which was his main incentive to travel my way, but of course I am always willing to give such people the benefit of the doubt (despite the fact that he is Scottish). Afterwards though, he offered to drive me down the coast to the town of Largs, which boasts the world famous Nardini’s ice cream parlour. We enjoyed a cracking bowl of frozen delight there, whilst walking along the Scottish waterfront watching sailors struggle with the gusty winds whipping up the brown waters of the Clyde.
All too soon the day wore on into evening, at which point it was time for me to check everyone was on board Saga Pearl 2 and then head off to sea. We wouldn’t be going far though, for our first port was that of Tarbert, located just around the corner on Lock Fyne. Our aim was to be anchored there just after supper time in order to be ready to tender our freshly embarked passengers ashore first thing in the morning. I checked the forecast and couldn’t believe my eyes – sunshine was on the cards in Scotland. I would await until awakening the next day before I would believe this news!
Well, you can only imagine my delight when I awoke to sunny skies and a gentle breeze on Monday morning. All was looking delightfully well for our first port of call on this interesting ‘Celtic Homelands’ itinerary.
Our tenders were lowered at around 07:30 and we commenced ferrying passengers ashore shortly thereafter. It was only a half a mile or so ride into the little local fishing harbour & marina. The village acts as the gateway to the beautiful peninsula of Kintyre, and the harbour still home to a working fishing fleet. Behind the village, backed by rugged hills, lie the ivy-strewn ruins of Robert the Bruce’s 14th century keep which offers smashing views over the surrounding area.
Local fishermen shared the little quay with us as we carried out our respective operations. The fishermen were landing tubs full of crab & lobster; a small amount of which headed to the local village but a significant amount was also being loaded into a Spanish registered refrigerated lorry, which would travel straight down to Spain as soon as it was fully loaded.
National Trust for Scotland’s tours today whisked those who wished off on visits to the Trust’s gardens of Arduaine and Crarae; the most prehistoric site in mainland Scotland so I am told. Inveraray Castle – the 18th century home to the Duke of Argyll – could also be visited.
Early evening approached and it was time for us to weight the anchor, which today posed a few more challenges than normal. We had somehow managed to snag an entire factory’s worth of wire & rope from the seabed around it, which took a while to detach using boathooks and a zodiac armed with bolt-cutters. I assumed that the wire we plucked up and cut wasn’t the main phone line to Bute, however we haven’t heard from them since to confirm…
After freeing ourselves from the seabed, we enjoyed a sunset sail along the east coast of the Kintyre Peninsula as we sailed south through the Kilbrannan Sound. Next stop tomorrow: Barrow-on-Furness… or so we all thought.
Well, just as we were departing Tarbert yesterday, an interesting email popped into my inbox from the agents of our next port of call, Barrow-in-Furness. The message read something like this: “Sincere apologies, however we have no pilot available tomorrow, therefore we have had to close the port.”
Now, there is little argument that one could have with this sort of message, so thinking caps were all thrown on, and within minutes an alternative ‘Celtic Homeland’ port situated nearby was suggested – and it is of course Liverpool. Luckily the cruise terminal was free and so we pointed the ship’s nose towards the River Mersey.
A slightly grey but dry Tuesday morning saw us entering the Mersey at around 06:00, just before sunrise. It takes just under 2hrs to head the 18 miles or so past the river basin and into the channel towards Liverpool, passing the commercial container docks before reaching the city centre and the perfectly placed cruise berth. It literally is a step off into the city centre, with the famous Royal Liver Building & Cunard House marking the waterfront nearby.
Passengers were given the full day to roam at their pleasure throughout the city. Just next door to our berth was the ferry across the Mersey – themselves even older than old Gerry and his Pacemakers’ famous song. One can take a cruise on either of these lovely little ships, to see the sights on the waterfront the easy way. Alternatively, it was a mere 10-15 minute stroll upriver to the famous Royal Albert Docks, where the maritime museum lies along with some fascinating maritime relics (although my father was at home in Jersey today).
For those who were more interested in retail therapy, Liverpool’s city centre was a 15 minute stroll eastwards where there are all sorts of shops small & large; the contents of which befuzzle someone like myself. Normally I shop only for food or the occasional hardware or DIY necessity, but, very occasionally, when my socks develop holes which you are not supposed to put your feet through when donning them, my shopping skills are put to the test and I must locate one which instead sells clothes. This sort of trip I find relatively tedious - ever since my mother, some 20 years ago, left me to my own devices, and no longer guides me to the appropriate section within these stores - which seem to be ever-growing in size! However, many others I come across seem to enjoy the experience and for them, I am most pleased: someone has to!
Well, it was supper time on board once everybody had returned from their wanders ashore, and after an exceptionally good curry cooked on board by Tushar, it was time to take our lovely little ship out of Liverpool and back down the Mersey into the Irish Sea. Tonight, there was a special Ceilidh (pronounced “Kayley”) on the aft deck throughout the evening, which entails all sorts of traditional Scottish Country Dancing to a highland band playing appropriately jolly music. What better way to enjoy this than whilst cruising along the Liverpool waterfront, kilts flapping away in the breeze…
A gentle potter westward across the Irish sea overnight following the northern coast of Wales, saw us approaching the island of Anglesey the next morning. The weather provided a glorious morning, sunshine all around and just a gentle breeze from the northwest.
We entered the harbour, sheltered by the longest breakwater in the UK at 1.7 miles long. Unfortunately, though, storm Emma earlier this year managed to defy this structure by blowing wind into the harbour from the unprotected northeast, and a significant amount of damage was caused in the harbour including some 60 boats washed ashore and written-off. Our pier, situated on a long causeway arm, was undamaged however unfortunately is little used nowadays, for its primary use was that of cargo ships loading and exporting aluminium made in the nearby factory which has recently been shut down.
We were safely docked by 08:00 and passengers could be bussed down the causeway into the little local town of Holyhead should they so wish. However, I am reliably informed that 5 minutes is all that one requires to familiarise themselves with this little spot, and so many chose to venture further afield instead. Surrounded by beautiful countryside this was not at all an unpleasant place to be, and with the glorious Welsh sunshine (a phrase rarely heard, I do recognise) blessing our stay, moods were high.
The entire rural coastline is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and its 125-mile-long coastal path popular with walkers. Tours offered today trundled merrily off to see the above coastline, Snowdonia of course, and Caernarfon, and the Welsh Highland Railway with a trip to Penrhyn Castle. There was also the option to visit Plas Newydd, a grand country house named by some chap with an obvious fascination for perhaps just a few too many consonants.
Well, I had a day full of meetings & inspections and therefore unfortunately couldn’t enjoy any time ashore here, however it was nice enough to stand on the Bridge-wing in the sunshine and wave goodbye to this green countryside as we departed at around tea time. We weaved our way back out of the breakwater, passing a few local fishermen still busy collecting supper, and then set full speed ahead to our next port of call – a small cluster of pleasant islands situated way down off the Cornish southwest coast. In case you hadn’t guessed – we’re going back to the Isles of Scilly!
In a fresh early morning north-westerly breeze, we approached a small archipelago of islands dotted some 28 miles south-west of Land’s End in Cornwall. 5 of these islands are inhabited, whilst over 100 others remain uninhabited by humans – only nature: and plenty of it.
We headed in towards our anchorage in Crow’s Sound, located in the sheltered, eastern section of the archipelago. Another ship arriving today – the Europa 2 – carrying a hoard of German passengers, elected to anchor closer to the tender landing spot in the less sheltered western part of the archipelago. They soon learnt why us British had opted otherwise, for they encountered some tricky swells making their tender operation a little more exciting than usual no doubt. Local boats soon made their way out to us to ferry our passengers in to various islands for their day’s explorations.
These islands have been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and are a haven for birds and sea-life alike. Hugh Town, the ‘Capital’ of St Mary’s which is the largest island, boasts an interesting garrison fortified to counter the threat of the Spanish Armada in the 16th Century. A walk around its walls provides fine views of the other islands – and out into the Atlantic. I also happen to know a good little shop here for Cornish Pasties. Neighbouring Tresco island, which would also be well-visited today by our passengers, contains a mass of tropical plants and is a positive paradise for anybody who enjoys roaming around with garden tools all day at home.
The day passed with a stiff breeze but plenty of sunshine, which no doubt delighted our passengers and Tresco’s tropical plants alike. When the sun appeared between the rapidly-moving clouds, these islands do look glorious with their miles of golden sandy beaches, deserted apart from a few ramblers and sailing yachts visiting from near & afar.
G&T time fast approached as the last tender arrived back at the ship at 18:45, and after we had counted everyone back on board it was time to weigh our anchor again and head back to sea. Only a short hop was required overnight tonight before our next stop tomorrow in the 3rd largest natural harbour in the world. I’ll leave you to guess where that may be, whilst I go to enjoy a delicious supper in the Veranda with some of our guests.
The sun had not yet risen, when we found ourselves creeping into the River Fal early on Friday morning. Falmouth harbour is of course tidal and, when the tide is at its lowest, we would not be able to navigate in or out, therefore we tie in our planned movements with high tides allowing us plenty of water underneath.
Backing down onto the berth just before 07:00, I could smell the nearby bakeries preparing one of my favourite treats: Cornish Pasties. It was a fine morning and I was planning this morning on taking a little walk around the town, conveniently only a stone’s throw from our berth.
Warmed pleasantly by the Gulf Stream, the harbour is a gateway to a beautiful network of tidal rivers & creeks called the Carrick Roads – Falmouth has protected this sheltered anchorage since Tudor times. The town also boasts the excellent National Maritime Museum Cornwall. On the headland, old Henry VIII decided to have Pendennis Castle built – which turned out to be a superb idea as it also played a prime role in defending the coastline during the two world wars.
Trips further afield today would whisk those passengers with gardening gloves off to the Eden Project, and those with paintbrushes to the famous Tate Gallery. I would stick to my original plan though and venture into the town to source the best smelling Cornish Pasty shop. Not, however, before I was delighted by an old friend and colleague who popped by to say hello. He lives nearby, and is fondly renowned by all who work here…yes some of you may have guessed already: Captain Philip Rentell (ret). A few laughs & salty sea stories later, I found myself walking briskly with a sort of semi-urgent hunger towards to home of the Oggy (Cornish, apparently, for ‘Pasty’).
There was a selection of 3 fine looking shops as far as I could see – and so naturally my choice was to sample all three. Two pasties and a sausage roll later, I waddled happily back to my ship where we would sail earlier today to catch the high tide out. Whilst walking back, I noted a number of our passengers also returning to the ship; however none with Pasties or crumbs in the way of evidence down their fronts. Apparently the food on board is too good!
Shortly after lunch we set sail from Falmouth, out of the bay where we would turn hard to starboard and round Land’s End before venturing into the Bristol Channel, destined for a certain Welsh port tomorrow which this little ship has yet to visit.
Well, if it is actually mist & rain that many people associate with Wales, then there would be little disappointment today!
It was around 04:30 in the morning, and the Bristol Channel narrowed as we approached our next port of Cardiff. The reason for this somewhat anti-social arrival time was again because of the high tidal range here – today we expect a range of some 11 metres. The channel we must use to gain access to the port entrance and lock has only a charted depth of some 1-2 metres, therefore it is entirely necessary to utilise the height of tide for our transit in and out of here today.
Our next challenge here is the lock leading to the dock area – which is only a few metres wider than that of the dimensions of our ship. With a blustery wind and driving rain, it was just the sort of fun challenge I always look for early on a dark, wet Saturday morning.
We breathed in as we entered the lock at about 05:30 (well, I certainly did – most sensible passengers remained soundly asleep) and then popped out the other side into the docks about half an hour later once we had been raised to the appropriate level. Cruise ship calls to Cardiff are very rare (there were just 6 visits this year, I was told) and so we received a warm welcome from locals alike on the quayside, despite the very Welsh weather.
Next to the docks, the River Taff winds through the city centre and flows into the freshwater lake of Cardiff Bay, where much regeneration has taken place of recent years. Plenty of restaurants and bars occupy the waterfront now, along with the so-called Senedd (I was told this contained a seat for someone in the National Assembly. What a large bottom he or she must have). Cardiff’s immediate outskirts offer lovely green attractions such as Dyffryn Gardens, Llandaff Cathedral and Blaenavon – an historic mining town that is now a World Heritage Site.
Venturing further out of town, for those who so wished, gave passengers the chance to visit Brecon Beacons, Tintern Abbey or Caerphilly Castle. I was subsequently told that it did actually stop raining on the Beacons, giving those who had prepared their cagoules and ponchos for this excursion instead a lovely dry experience. What a nice surprise.
Well, time was nigh for us to depart again later that evening, as the tide was high again. We went back through the narrow lock and into the Bristol Channel, heading west replacing daffodils for fiddles, as our next Celtic stop tomorrow will be Ireland. But not before I finished my freshly-baked Welsh Cakes.
Sunday morning started slowly – as it often should do – but this time with a slightly delayed arrival into Ringaskiddy due to some strong currents and even stronger headwinds; the latter of which surprised us over night as the Met Office had not forecasted them the day prior.
Therefore it was after breakfast that we approached Irelands southern coast and County Cork. The relatively short passage in to Ringaskiddy – a local fishing village a little further upstream than Cobh – is a pleasant one. We pass through the heads into the sheltered bay, before sailing along Cobh waterfront and the Cunard building, where the final passengers to board Titanic prior to her fateful journey would have boarded her tenders from. Shortly after we pass Spike Island and an Irish Naval base close on the port side, before entering the harbour area and coming alongside our berth.
Just 12 miles from Cork, Ireland’s second largest city, there were shore excursions aplenty on offer today. For our avid gardeners again, a trip to the picturesque harbour village of Kinsale would take them to the colourful Fota House & Gardens, presumably full of pretty plants, lined with beautifully trimmed hedges and perfectly mown grass. Medieval Blarney Castle could also be visited, for those interested in seeing the world-famous stone (along with the castle itself, of course).
The weather today was entirely the opposite of what Cardiff had to offer yesterday: pleasant sunny spells, light winds and crucially, no rain whatsoever. This of course made our visit all the more delightful.
We sailed a little later than usual in the evening, casting off our lines at around 20:00 before sailing out into the twilight the same way we’d come in earlier. Passengers at this stage were well into the delights of their supper, enjoying views out of the dining room windows, whilst also looking forward to a nice relaxing day at sea tomorrow as we head north again to Bonnie Scotland!
It was a slightly bumpy ride out there, but by Goodness was it worth it. We sighted St Kilda and her surrounding islands at around 07:00 on Wednesday morning, as we bounced out to these islands ‘on the edge of the world.’ The spectacular cliff tops of this – the UK’s only dual World Heritage Site – beautiful volcanic island group loomed ahead of us as we slowly neared them for our dramatic sail-by.
We approached the northern-most of the 4 main islands, Boreray, with the intention of sailing around its northern face, and then ‘threading the needle’ in between it and Stac Lee, a few hundred metres to the west. The sun miraculously had emerged especially for our sail past it seemed, and we rocked our way gently through these stunning high-rise pieces of land, waves crashing a dozen or so metres into the air upon the battered Atlantic lee shores.
These islands are home to a thriving population of seabirds, including one of the world’s largest colonies of northern gannets – of which we witnessed several hundred plummeting into the white waters, a daily ritual to catch a fishy lunch. Once we rounded Boreray, we then circumnavigated St Kilda itself anti-clockwise before making our way into the relative shelter of Village Bay to anchor and check out the scene ashore.
Bronze and Iron age finds have been made upon this island, providing evidence that this remote ex-volcano was in fact inhabited in prehistoric times. The visible remains of a village on the shores dates from the 1830’s, with the well-preserved remains of the traditional blackhouses between the more modern Hebridean houses laid out in a crescent above the shoreline. The final residents departed here to the mainland in 1930, struggling with illness and food shortage, at their own request.
After sussing out the conditions ashore, it was unfortunately too rough to land passengers today. There were a number of factors working against us: it was low tide and too shallow for our boats to approach the little breakwater, as well as there being another strong Atlantic depression heading our way – bringing weather conditions which we would rather escape ahead of. However, it was pleasant enough at anchor to enjoy a peaceful lunch for a few hours and the beautiful scenery of Village Bay, before proceeding to sea again at 14:30 just as siesta time approached and the library thus filled with its afternoon armchair residents...
We would head south-east, to the southern end of the Outer Hebrides, where we would squeeze through the scenic Sound of Mingulay at supper time, thereafter affording us some nice shelter from the Atlantic conditions behind the islands. Slowly and peacefully overnight, we worked our way to our final island destination of this cruise: Canna.
Well so it was that we found ourselves back in Bonnie Scotland again – but with no such bonnie weather. We rounded the Isle of Skye’s north coast in the early hours of Tuesday, and the winds were a howling from the west as we approached the little town of Portree tucked into Skye’s eastern coast.
The autumnal weather certainly did make an impression today, with decidedly Scottish conditions of gales and passing squalls making our tender operation slightly wetter than we would normally hope for. Luckily though, in this sheltered cove, the seas were flat enough to safely run passengers ashore to enjoy the rain over there, instead of on board.
Once ashore, passengers could embrace all that Skye had to offer – marked firstly by their arrival into the harbour famed for its Thomas Telford pier, and the inn where Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald parted after fleeing over the sea to Skye from South Uist. The island also contains intriguing geology such as the Cuillin mountains and Trotternish peninsula, as well as fascinating wildlife – the otters here inspired Gavin Maxwell to write his ‘Ring of Bright Water.’
Excursions took our passengers all over the island; to Dunvegan Castle and its glorious gardens, wonder at the curious pinnacles of the Quiraing, and sample the smoky Talisker whisky. The latter no doubt had a provocative effect in the historical feuding of the MacDonald & MacLeod clans…
With that done, we set sail up to pass the island of Lewis – the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides – and then out into the Atlantic Ocean where we would head west towards what was probably the highlight of our cruise, the Archipelago of St Kilda. The seas would be bumpy in these conditions; but we were sure the beautiful scenic reward would be well worth the passage…
It seemed that the last port of call this cruise, the little green island of Canna, would continue the Scottish weather theme for our day there. As we approached in grey blustery conditions with the passing odd rain shower, (or ‘liquid Sunshine’ as the Scots prefer to name it?) nearby seals, no doubt intrigued as to our intentions, swam around our proposed anchor position seemingly unperturbed by our approach.
We anchored shortly before 08:00 and launched our tenders, sending one in to assess conditions inside the little harbour just under half a mile away. Due to the tidal range today and the seeming lack of available landing spots in the harbour, it would be a slightly tricky operation. Visited only a few times a week by small local ferry, this little island remains quite remote, which is one of the very reasons we are trying it out!
The most westerly of the small isles, Canna is rich in archaeological remains, fertile croft land, seabird cliffs & coastal walks. It, and its very close neighbour, Sanday, were once owned by eminent Gaelic scholar Dr John Lorne Campbell. Now, I’m not sure what stresses or strains one might be burdened with by owning islands as I’ve never been fortunate enough to have been in such a position however, for whatever reason at the time, in 1981 this fine upstanding gentleman handed over his islands to the National Trust for Scotland to take care of.
Now Mrs Fay Shaw – although her surname might not suggest – was the good wife of Dr John and also a very keen collector of authentic Gaelic songs and traditions. Together they built up a substantial collection of Gaelic literature, photographs and folks songs, which was also gifted to the National Trust, and remains in Canna House – just around the corner from where our tenders would land people ashore.
Throughout the day, passengers embraced the local weather and donned their waterproofs to head ashore and enjoy cliff walks, scenic tours, bird-spotting, a coffee in the tiny village café or even a local Gaelic sing-along or two. Once everyone had enjoyed themselves and become soaked right through, it was time to come back aboard our warm dry ship and enjoy more tea & coffee in the Discovery Lounge as we departed shortly after 16:00. Our route back to Greenock weaved nicely in between various west coast islands and peninsulas, keeping us sheltered as best possible from that North Atlantic swell whilst providing all with a scenic afternoon sail.
Tomorrow would be our final stop in Greenock, where we would wave goodbye to our NTS passengers and sadly, the NTS team themselves. Goodbye National Trust for Scotland, thank you and we do hope to see you again on another wee ship of ours!
A fine autumnal day dawned as we steamed at full sea speed towards Dover on the day of the Sabbath, Sunday 16th Sept. It was a pleasantly hazy but warm day, and a following wind from the southwest of around Force 6 on the Beaufort Scale.
We would arrive in Dover just before lunch time, in order to embark passengers for our upcoming Norway & Iceland Exploration cruise. Everything was going swimmingly with the exception of the notable absence of our refuelling barge, which was expected to arrive just after we did but there was no sign of her anywhere. We had not heard any cries for help over the VHF radio and no coastguard alerts either, therefore once we had made the safe assumption that she had not sunk, we enquired further with our agents.
To cut a long story short, our fuel supplier had suffered a “mix-up” and pretty much forgotten about us. Therefore, we looked on our long-range scanner to see if we could find another suitable oil tanker nearby, and lo & behold, there was one anchored off Calais just across the Channel. We hailed her, negotiated a decent price for a tank of diesel, and over she came to fill us up. That done and dusted by midnight, we set off east to the North Sea and our next port of Bremerhaven, Germany.
A pleasant day at sea with some sunshine towards at the end, we enjoyed a smooth a gentle trip to Germany and the River Weser, which we entered at an unfortunately anti-social time of around 04:00 on Tuesday morning. Safely docked in Bremerhaven’s Cruise Terminal just before 08:00, with the sun shining brightly and the temperature forecast to soar to the high 20’s, moods were high as passengers set out ashore to enjoy their day.
Starting out as a little fishing village in 1139 (apparently) this town still exists very much for fish, with over half of Germany’s fish fleet being deposited here. The town is rather pleasant, and organised tours pootled off to explore it by bus, tram & foot. Other trips included a sail out on the river Weser aboard a Dutch tall ship, and quite excitingly a trip to the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg; where Saga is currently having Spirit of Discovery built. Those on this tour would be able to view from a gallery the dock in which our new ships are being built, and also explore the yard’s history as well as being shown mock-up cabins for Spirit of Discovery. Spirit of Discovery is starting to take shape now, and so this should be a fascinating trip for all – some of our crew went along too, to take a glimpse their future new workplace & home.
Early evening arrived surprisingly rapidly, and with that it was time to head back out of the river and north to our next destination, Bergen in Norway. Now, I’ve only ever been to Bergen once when it hasn’t rained (it’s renowned as Norway’s ‘Rainy City’) so let’s see what it’s got in store for us this time…