Imagine stepping aboard a 150 year old sailing ship as part of a new crew to sail to distant places and then explore the mountains and rivers and coastlines just as the pioneers did way back when. What an adventure that would be.
This summer Daniel and I had the great privilege to join the Lady of Avenel, a replica of the kind of vessel that the early explorers used to use to navigate the world, to explore distant places with five other pairs of fathers and their teenaged sons on a voyage of adventure.
To begin we spent a day traveling by car to the distant land of North West Scotland to join the ship and this is what happened next...
The Thursday morning was bright and sunny as we drove down the hill into Oban town centre and found our way to the North Pier where the Lady of Avenel was already tied up. We saw Charles on the deck and called down to him to introduce ourselves. Charles is immediately impressive and looks exactly as his CV might suggest, a weather beaten and rugged man that has spent his whole life engaged in practical outdoors activities. His manner however is engaging, positive and gentle making Daniel and I feel immediately at ease in his company. We exchanged a few pleasantries and went on our way to do some final exploration of the town before joining the ship at 2:00 that afternoon. Charles and the crew had a lot to do to make the boat ready.
At 2:00 PM we returned to the pier side and found a young man sitting on his kit bags and guessed he must be there for the same reason as us. We introduced ourselves to Nathan, Terry’s son and soon afterwards Father and Son pairs began to appear one after another. We all shook hands, shared names and apologised for the fact that we would be constantly forgetting them over the course of the next day or two.
Charles and his colleague Nick arrived in a cab packed full of enough food to feed fifteen people for five days. Charles and Nick were running a little behind time so the first job was to get the food loaded and stowed. The ship’s deck was about ten feet below the level of the pier as the tide was out so a range of methods were used to get the food aboard. Some was passed or thrown hand to hand and some was roped down and everybody got involved to get the job done quickly.
Within the first hour we had found bunks and stowed our personal kit ready to leave the harbour but had to wait while an oil covered giant, later found to be called Stefan and the owner of the boat, finished some critical maintenance work in the bowels of the ship.
Once the oil change was complete there was a pause as we convened in the main cabin for a briefing on safety and domestic arrangements. None of us had any real idea about where we were going and what we might be doing. While we’d been loading the boat a woman looking down from the pier side had asked where we were going and I’d shrugged and said “We don’t know, it’s an adventure!” I’m not sure that she was satisfied with this answer but it was all I had at that point and I was happy with it. We had bought into the expedition on a promise of adventure and, as Charles confirmed, that was part of the idea. An adventure is a journey with an uncertain outcome and that’s what we were going to get.
When the initial briefing was over Stefan started the engine and we motored out of Oban heading south west around the island of Kerrera. This however was not supposed to be a gentle cruise in the sunshine so we quickly had to get to grips with the complexities of a nineteenth century sailing ship. Information came at us thick and fast. Sheets, halyards, clew lines, buntlins, staysails, fore sails, gibs, main, sweating the yard and tying off were new terms we quickly had to get to understand to enable us to differentiate between the various bits of rope and canvas and what should be done with them to make the ship move forward. In what felt like an amazingly short space of time, though it perhaps was longer than I imagined, we had enough sails raised to enable Stefan to switch the engine off and we were sailing.
In all the excitement I had barely taken notice of how Daniel was engaging with all this new experience but when I did pause for a moment I could see he was there doing his best to haul ropes and pass instructions from the rear deck to the fore. The XBOX kid was one of the youngest men on the ship but he was making his presence felt and clearly enjoying himself.
That evening we dropped anchor in the bay just below Castle Gylen on the southern coast of Kerrera. The setting was something like that from an adventure novel. A secret bay with no other ships, people or vehicles about, a dark and ruined castle high on the cliff top and a sloping pebble beach seemed to be drawing us explorers to it. Over dinner that evening we made a plan to explore the castle the following morning.
After a breakfast of any combination the sailors wanted of porridge, eggs, bacon, fruit and bread we launched the RIB and Charles ferried the crew across to the beach. We all climbed the hill side to the castle and discovered the history of its construction by Duncan McDougall and it’s capture and destruction by the covenanter army in 1647. It’s a pretty foreboding spot and must have felt very isolated 350 years ago.
After exploring the castle for an hour or so we took the RIB back to the ship, where Dan had his first go at fishing and caught a Mackerel.
After a short pause we weighed anchor, using 'mandraulics', and headed south west and then south to pass between the islands of Luing and Scarba and then to follow the coastline of Jura to Lowlandman’s bay.
We had a good wind and were able to raise plenty of sails and it was this day that I decided to climb the mast. I’m not good with heights and knew that the mast climb would be coming everyone’s way soon. I’m always telling Dan to face his fears and do it anyway so I decided to lead by example and get it over with as soon as possible. By the time I had fitted my harness and gathered some courage three of the crew were already aloft with Charles.
This was probably not the best day to do the mast climb, particularly for a rather chubby, unfit, middle aged man with a fear of heights, as the ship was healed over and pitching about under almost full sail. Nevertheless I pressed on.
Rhodri, Emlyn’s son, was full of teenage confidence as, standing on the platform above me, he chuckled at the sight of the fat old bloke heaving himself ever more slowly and with increasingly tighter grip up over the edge of the platform to join the small group that was clinging to the swaying mast.
As I concentrated on hanging on with all my might Charles regaled us with tales of the brave men of a couple of centuries before that would climb four times as high, without safety harness and balance as they ran along the yard arms in heavy seas and all weathers. Sometimes they would fall to their deaths.
Close to hyperventilation and fearing I might, out of fear, freeze to the spot I decided it was time to get down and so I very slowly and carefully made the downward journey. On arrival the deck, though moving around wildly in the heavy sea, felt almost as good as the ground might have done.
Dan said he’d climb the mast when the boat was still and I didn’t blame him. Oddly the Bowsprit held no fear for me at all and I was able to enjoy a ride for an hour or so that afternoon with no thought for anything but the fabulous view.
That evening, as we sailed into Lowlandman’s bay, we spotted two white tailed sea eagles above the northern headland. Now you don’t see them on the bird table in your back garden.
On the morning of the third day we launched the RIB again and dropped most of the crew to walk over the southern headland of Lowlandman’s bay.
We set off to walk with Will, the youngest team member, in the lead to discover something about the crofters that lived on the island. Stefan and Charles took the ship around into the next bay to meet us on the other side of the headland.
This was a pleasant morning stroll once we were off the boggy marsh that made up most of the beach area and a good opportunity to stretch our legs. During the course of our walk we discovered that a croft is a small farm that is worked by a tenant farmer with the rights to use the land and pass it on to his/her family. The rights of the crofters were enshrined in the crofters act of 1886. Most crofters today have additional work outside the croft to supplement their income.
After an uneventful walk we re-joined the ship and planned the next part of our journey. Unfortunately both tide and wind were against us for our next leg south along the coast of Jura but we calculated that, as we approached Jura’s south eastern tip the tide and winds would carry us up the Sound of Islay towards our final destination for the day. So we fired up the ‘Iron T’galant’ (that means engine for the uninitiated) and headed south.
As we arrived at the point at which we were to turn North West into the sound and raise some sail we decided that we should engage in some tacking practice. Most of now had a rough idea as to which bit of rope did what but we were not yet a coordinated team and to make the ship work properly under sail we needed to be. The first job was to get some sails up, which went OK and then to try a tack which didn’t go as planned. We realised, after a bit of trial and error that we needed a ‘conductor’ at the back, a ‘foreman’ at the front and someone in between to relay messages so that everyone knew what to do and when.
We tried and aborted a few tacks as the wind dropped away or backed around thwarting our efforts to bring the ship across it until finally we managed a good coordinated turn. As we progressed into the straight we had another couple of goes and started to look like we knew what we were doing.
Sailing the straight of Islay was largely uneventful. Some of the team had a go at fishing. Dan and I thought we’d join in but fumbled our hand line and managed to drop the lot, hook line and sinker, over the side between us which was a little embarrassing. Some of the distilleries for which Islay is famous lie along the straight and it was interesting to see some of my favourite brands in large black letters on white buildings indicating exactly where they came from. In one case it was possible to see the copper stills from which the elixir of life flowed.
Pointing my binoculars over towards Jura I was excited to see, for the first time in my life, a golden eagle soaring over the cliff tops. Two different species of eagle in two days is quite something.
As we sailed young Will made flapjack for fifteen people, in accordance with Charles’s Mum’s recipe, in preparation for the walk we were planning for the following day. Lots of calories were going to be important.
Our goal for this day was to anchor in Loch Tarbert but this was not going to be easy in a large sailing ship like the Lady of Avenel. The entrance to the harbour is hazardous with hidden rocks and a number of key transit lines must be followed which means tight turns with very little room for error. A less confident skipper may have simply decided to drop the sails, start the engine and do it the easy way but not Stefan. With our newly coordinated two day old crew he decided to go in under sail.
This was a very tense time. The tide was peaking so giving us as much water as we could hope for in the channel but still the rocks were very close and we had to be able to drop the sails and helm the ship through with rapid responses to Stefan’s terse instructions without error. Lady of Avenel weighs 100 tons and so has a lot of momentum when she’s moving. Contact of any kind could have been disastrous and the hard stuff felt very close. The crew was silent and focussed on their assigned halyards, sheets and downhauls as we picked up the first transit line and began threading our way through the safe water.
The whole crew worked like clockwork. The helmsman worked hard to keep the ship pointing straight down the required line. The sails were dropped or hauled in one after the other exactly as required and when required without fuss and barely any sound. When finally the anchor was released in the midst of the safe anchorage there was a shared feeling of huge relief.
Later that evening Stefan shared the fact that this was a highlight moment in his sailing career. To be able to bring a ship the size of the Lady of Avenel through such a tight channel with a novice crew was something special for him. Stefan had a placed a lot of trust in us and I think we were all quite proud of ourselves.
That evening I decided to go for a swim. This was not a sensible thing to do. Even though it was August the waters around Jura could not be described as anything other than freezing but I decided that it had to be done. I’m not sure why. As Charles lowered the ladder over the side he made a light hearted reference to the fact that surviving a heart attack in such a remote place would be pretty unlikely. I nodded understanding and with some enthusiastic encouragement from the younger boys leapt into the water.
Because children may read this blog post I find myself short of most of the words I would need to honestly describe just how cold the water was however it was the kind of cold that knocks the breath out of you and gets to your bones in an instant. A quickish circuit of the ship’s hull was enough for me and out I got. Despite the apparent lack of sense in the act I felt totally invigorated by it and was glad to have taken the plunge.
Emlyn and his son Rhodri decided to go in next launching themselves over the rail on the rear deck then Martin and his Dad Zlatko also had a go. The rest of the team kept their heads screwed on straight.
After Dinner we planned the following day’s activity. This was going to be an exploration of the coastline and perhaps further inland towards the Paps, a couple of large hills or small mountains, roughly in the middle of Jura.
This was the day of the walk. The rough plan was to walk along the coast for a couple of kilometres and then inland and perhaps climb one of the Paps. I Imagined an easy walk followed by a strenuous climb up the hill. We set off around the coastline and soon started to realise that the terrain was going to be hard going. Boggy ground, pebble beaches, tufted grass and what we came to call ‘man eating bracken’ sapped everyone’s energy very quickly.
But everywhere was beautiful. As we plodded along our eyes were focussed on the square meter of ground in front of us but as I later said in one our de-briefs you could have sat down at any point and spent the afternoon documenting what was in that one square meter in front of you. Every patch was a garden in its own right. We saw grasshoppers and frogs and a number of adders and paused to eat wild blueberries from amongst the heather and every time we stopped to take a breather and looked up we were surrounded by pristine unspoiled nature. From the very tiny plants and animals at our feet to the wide horizons that surrounded us we were surrounded by beauty.
By the time we had turned inland and started towards the Paps it was becoming clear that the rate of progress that the team was making was not going to match the challenge of getting up one of the Paps and back down again by early evening. I knew my fitness wasn’t going to enable me to make it and I suspect I was not alone.
We decided to change our plan and split into two groups. We formed a ridge team that would climb higher and take a circular route back to the ship. Dan and I joined the coastal team that would return over a lower ridge and then re-trace our steps along the coastline.
I had imagined that the coastal route might be easier going however Max, Rob’s son had another idea and, leading the group from the front, steered us along and over every nook, cranny and cliff side he could find. By the time we returned to the ship the ridge team were already arriving and everyone was thoroughly tired.
It was time to make preparations for sleeping but instead of returning to the ship and our soft, warm bunks we were going to sleep out in bivouacs just as the old explorers often had to do. Each father and son pair were issued with a couple of canes, a plastic sheet and some string and told to go and make a shelter. Some locations were suggested and we all went to grab a spot that looked flattish and sheltered.
As we began building the rain and wind came our way and Dan and I soon discovered that the spot we had chosen was not as sheltered as we first had imagined. After an hour of moving rocks into place to hold it down we had built something that might have kept the rain off but, because of its position, was in danger of being blown away no matter how many tons of rocks we loaded it up with. We decided to choose a better location.
Emlyn is an ex army man with lots of experience of bivouacking and had built a grade A shelter for him and Rhodri. With help from Emlyn, Rhodri and Terry we re-positioned our shelter amongst the bracken that earlier in the day had been an obstacle to our progress and now formed a soft wind break and mattress.
While we had been messing about with bivvys Nick, Charles and Stefan had been preparing dinner. A big pan of beef stew cooked over an open fire on the beach was very welcome. We gathered around the fire and tried to dry socks and boots and talked about what we had done that day.
As a simulated survival exercised sleeping in the bivouac was a gentle introduction. We were warm and snug and, although a heavy shower came through just as we were getting into our sleeping bags, we stayed dry. Dan complained that he had a rock in his back all night but he appeared to be sleeping pretty well when I tried to rouse him the following morning.
We all rose pretty early and were all keen to get back aboard ship and get some dry clothes and showers and so on. I was in the first boat load to return and so decided to get the bacon and eggs on while the rest followed.
Once everyone was safely on board and full of breakfast we spent the morning being introduced to new skills. Mast climbing was one of them and I was proud of Dan when he reached the platform on the Main mast. Knots and splicing were other skills that sailors need to know and so we spent some time trying to make eyes in rope ends and learning to tie anchor knots.
In the early afternoon we motored out of Loch Tarbert, one of the most beautiful places on earth, and headed north towards the island of Mull where we would anchor for the night before making the short crossing back into Oban the next day.
We had a run out of bread, this was part of the catering plan apparently, which meant that we were forced to bake some if we wanted it. Dan and I volunteered and baked four large loaves. Rob and Zlatko had successfully filled a bucket with line caught mackerel from Loch Tarbert that morning and so lunch was freshly baked bread with freshly caught mackerel. Fabulous!
Once we had some sails up the teenagers all retired to the main cabin and mostly spent the afternoon sleeping. Emlyn and I worked together to get the lunch and dinner ready and, because we were spending so much time below, this was the only time I really felt any sea sickness. Resting on deck with eyes on fixed points like land or the horizon soon sorted it out though.
The main feature of the day was an opportunity to sail at night. After around 7:00 PM there were no other ships or boats around and as the sun went down the sky, previously grey and dark, cleared to reveal the crescent moon and the starscape. Under sail with no engine sounds and only a couple of navigation lights on it felt like we were utterly alone
On the last day we sat over breakfast and discussed the highlights and what might have been better. I think we were all agreed that we’d had a terrific adventure and we wished we had a couple more days. We motored over to Oban and put a few sails up, more for effect than usefulness as there was very little wind.
We attracted a lot of attention as we arrived in Oban harbour, Lady of Avenel is a beautiful ship. We all shook hands and said our goodbyes and then it was time for the long drive home. There’s not much to say about that bit, it was just a car journey and utterly boring.
This was a terrific adventure aboard a wonderful ship with great company and superb leadership and instruction. It was a high energy experience but carefully crafted to ensure that no one was pushed harder than they wanted to be. There were opportunities for reflection and learning from each other as well as the instructors and lots of tales of the old explorers to place our experience in context. It quite literally broadened the horizons of everyone that took part and created new friendships that will last.
For me it was a great opportunity to get Daniel away from a world of electronic whiz bang, fluffy duvets and central heating and show him some of the wonderful things that are out there in the real world. Dan has said he’ll come sailing with me anytime but he doesn’t want to sleep in a bivouac again which is OK. The bottom line is it was great fun.
Charles, Nick and Stefan are planning more adventures for next year and I think we may join them. This first Voyage of Adventure for Fathers and Sons was an excellent adventure that Daniel and I, and I’m sure the rest of the crew, will remember for a long time.