February 2017 Chris Adams “Mad About the Isles – a Scottish Passion”

Vice Commodore Chris Adams started his talk by proposing to us some guiding principles for sailing in the wild waters of Western Scotland. These principles might, on reflection, be seen as being equally relevant to sailing in general, and perhaps even to life as a whole. So what was he suggesting? Stop when you are somewhere nice, and enjoy the moment. Don’t hurry. Make good plans, but only stick to them if they remain truly the best option, which as often as not they may not be. Be opportunistically self-sufficient. Ride the tides. Find really good shelter when circumstances demand. Have decent ground tackle you can trust. (OK those last three are about sailing, not life in general, but stick with this – allegorically they work just fine in a wider context.) Chris has perhaps invented a new religion, or perhaps he was defining Zen (remembering, though, that the Zen that can be defined is not the true Zen).

Lismore Race and lighthouseChris confesses his passion for this home cruising ground of his – the Isles of Scotland. This is a magical area he first came across when backpacking and ferrying around them as a teenager. There are 790 offshore islands, zillions (his word) of little isles and skerries, and 10,000 miles of coastline (three times that of England). This is a playground for (intrepid?) yachtsmen par excellence.

Chris’ adopted a thematic structure, rather than, as is more usual, following the chronology of a cruise. This was refreshing and worked well – allowing him to range much more widely over the many aspects of this area that make it so special, and to show us more of his photographs, which were of professional standard. (What do I mean by this? It is mostly about light…) It was unsurprising that one of his pictures had won this year’s Christmas photo competition. Themes covered beaches, brochs (odd, probably iron age, defensive towers found only in Scotland), churches, abbeys and tombs, castles, birds, beasties (not fauna, note), boats, lighthouses, distilleries, and ferries. Each theme comprised a series of photographs, accompanied by a piece of traditional music (listed below) to help draw us emotionally into this wild world. We heard something of the history, culture, and architecture. We admired the beauty of the sea, sky, mountains, lochs, estuaries and isles. We shared Chris’ journey of discovery, and his enthusiasm was infectious.

Canna sunsetBut Chris also told us about a few actual passages, passages that stuck in his mind as exceptionally good days, and that served to illustrate the application of the principles he had proposed. They gave us a flavour for sailing these waters, reading tides and weather, finding remote anchorages, walking and exploring ashore. Several passages had had their destinations revised (in accordance with one of the aforementioned “principles”). Each featured something special to illustrate the variety of these waters, including an “awesome” anchorage, and the Gulf of Corryvreckan whirlpool in a narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba, in Argyll and Bute.

There are many small cruise boats, some converted fishing boats, operating in these waters, and this is a good way of getting a taster. One can join in as crew or sit back and let others work the boat, and cook, a choix.

Chris recommended we read “Sea Room” – an autobiographical tale set in uninhabited (other than the author, of course) islands off Lewis.

Chris certainly achieved his object with this evangelical talk. We began to understand his obsession, and few of us (even the more blasé of us) were left unmoved. The Western Isles are clearly a wonderful place to sail, and it is well worth facing the challenges posed by the intricacy and complexity of the coastline, the strong tides and the narrow channels. And facing challenges (up to a point!) is of course at the heart of what many of us enjoy about sailing…


The music:

  • Beaches and skies – ‘Magnus’ Polska’ – Jennifer & Hazel Wrigley
  • Churches, tombs and casstle – ’Farewell to Stromness’ – Peter Maxwell Davies (original piano version played by the composer)
  • Birds and beasties – ‘Folias’  (Falconiero) – L’Arpeggiata, Christina Pluhar
  • Entrance to Loch Moidart –  ‘Seven Songs Home: Tractor Ride’ – Peter Maxwell Davies
  • Boats, lights and ferries – ’The Final Trawl’ – Back of the Moon
  • Distilleries and sunsets – ‘Hector the Hero’ – Breabach