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The adventures of Freebird

Jonty and Morag Clews
Jonty and Morag Clews

Jonty and Monty Clews former members of LYC/TSC and award winning sailors have just received the Seamanship Silver Salver from The Starlight and Sadler Association for this epic journey aboard their yacht Freebird in 2016

Jonty and Morag Clews aboard Freebird, their Sadler 34, quietly slipped out of Liverpool Marina on the 19th May 2016 for an extended summer cruise. The aim was to leisurely cruise north from Liverpool with the most northerly destination being Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, then cruise south returning to Liverpool by mid September. Our intention was to combine sailing with walking and we planned to stay at specific locations for a few days to take in the sights and local walks. Apart from ourselves we have a trusty and indomitable crew: ‘Vonda’ the Volvo, ‘George’ our helmsman who can hold a course no matter what the weather throws at him and is uncomplaining in the rain, it should be said ‘George’ helmed most of our 1283 nautical miles (nm) voyage, and finally Ernest and Shackleton our bear and cat that travel everywhere on Freebird and are custodians of the ‘ship’s chest’! The cruise had to be broken down into four phases due to family commitments in Liverpool, and Jonty’s annual delivery sail of RY Bloodhound from Leith to Oban in July with the return passage in late August.

We headed north to Whitehaven some 80 nm, the weather was dreich, wet, rain, rain and more rain; it could only get better and as our adventure progressed it did and we were blessed with some superb weather and great sailing, spectacular scenery and terrific sights. After sailing the Solway Firth and visiting Kircudbright where Mike and Yvonne Croxall popped over to see us we slipped the Harbour Master’s pontoon just after midnight, tide waits for no man! With the tide and the wind we rounded the Mull of Galloway and headed across the North Channel to Bangor Marina, County Down via Donaghadee Sound. We had lived just outside Bangor in the early 1980s when there was no marina at Bangor just a beach and a rough rock breakwater - how it had changed. We met up with friends from 30 plus years ago and had a great time revisiting some old haunts and sampling the ‘black stuff’ on numerous occasions!

Ailsa Craig
Ailsa Craig

Then it was off to explore the Firth of Clyde, a wonderful sailing area with many harbours, marinas and anchorages to visit. They knew they would return to the Clyde on our way south so they focussed on the ‘Islands’: Ailsa Craig, Arran, Bute and Great Cumbrae. It was great sailing with spectacular views, sunrises and sunsets. Everywhere in the Firth of Clyde is within ‘touching distance’ so short passages with lunch time stops in secluded anchorage was the order of the day. Long walks were taken on Arran and Great Cumbrae and even swimming off the back of Freebird!

After just two glorious weeks at sea they had to leave Freebird at Troon, a superb Trans Euro Marina on the Ayrshire coast, with an excellent train service to Glasgow. They returned to Liverpool for a week and were back on Freebird on 10th June ready for our trip to the Outer Hebrides.

Troon is an excellent location to start a passage north, the Marina has first class facilities, chandlery, boat yard, restaurant etc. The town is within walking distance as is the supermarket and the coast walks along the south and north beaches are delightful. Once repleted they headed off north to Tarbert and then into the Crinan Canal. They had been warned about Scotland and the ‘Midges’, to date they had seen none and were expecting to be swamped with them in the Crinan, the ‘midge’ attack never materialised throughout our entire trip, whether sailing or walking, including Jonty’s passage through the Caledonian Canal both ways; 2016 was not the year of the Midges for us! No doubt they were lucky.

Rough Weather
Rough Weather

After a lazy trip through the Canal they popped out at Crinan and made our way to Craobh Marina on Loch Shuna avoiding the draw of the Corryvrecken. They were now officially in amongst the Western Isles and they progressed north with the mountains getting bigger. As they passed between Fladda and Dubh Sgeir our SOG topped 9kts but once out into the Firth of Lorne it all changed, the wind got up as did the sea and for three hours they had a rocking and rolling passage with three reefs and the No1 Jib as the waves and wind came at us from all directions! Once passed Lady Rock at the entrance to the Sound of Mull the weather was turned off and normal sailing resumed. A quiet night at anchor in Loch Aline was the reward and the next day they sailed to Tobermory. Day 22.

They went alongside at Tobermory and with the swell it was quite uncomfortable though they were fortunate that the swell subsided during the night. The following day Chris Jacks and Rona arrived from Portree; he stayed for a few hours, had some food, refuelled and a couple of hours sleep before continuing on his circumnavigation. It was great to see him and Rona in really good order and good spirits. A terrific solo achievement.

Alan Sullivan joined us for a few days at Tobermory and they took in Loch na Droma Buidhe, Salen and then out round Ardnamurchan Point passing Muck, Eigg and Rum to Mallaig. After a good walk around the Glens of Mallaig they did the short passage to Inverie for a night at the Forge Inn - it was closed! They all went swimming and had a a sumptuous veggie meal aboard. Back to Mallaig to drop Alan off and despite the railway strike he made it back to Liverpool and they continued to head north to Skye through Kyle Rhea, the Kyle of Lochalsh and onto the very picturesque village of Portree on Skye. It was day 30 aboard Freebird.

Stornoway
Stornoway

Day 31, the Outer Hebrides was our destination so yet another 0430 start and they slipped for Stornoway on the other side of the Minch. They set off in excellent weather but at the top end of the Sound of Rassay they were engulfed with thick thick fog! Thank goodness for AIS but only if everyone has it! A fishing vessel came out of nowhere, no sound signals, no AIS and no one on the bridge or deck - keeps you wide awake though. The fog persisted for a few hours and they eventually broke out into the most beautiful sunny day with a vibrant blue sky and a turquoise sea. Passage across the Minch past the Shiant Islands was one to remember, the odd dolphin but not as many as they would have liked. They arrived in Stornoway to find the harbour was full, with yachts rafting up all the way to the Esplanade Quay, fortunately the Harbour Master squeezed us in on a pontoon opposite Lewis Castle, idyllic. It was an eclectic mix of yachts from literally all over the world, some coming south, some heading to the Shetlands and further north. They arrived on a Saturday and were able to replenish our stocks and visit a watering hole to sample some of the Hebrides fines ales! Absolutely everything is closed on a Sunday to mark the Sabbath and all visitors are encouraged to have a day of rest and reflection.

They stayed at Stornoway for a few days and walked to some spectacular white sand beaches that stretched for miles, beautiful clear water that was very tempting for swimming but looks are deceiving - the water was freezing. They had lived in the Falkland Islands and landscape of Lewis and Harris is very similar; beautiful beaches, rolling landscape and not many trees! Interestingly Lewis is further north than the Falklands is south! They also visited Callanish, the Scottish ‘Stonehenge’, it is spectacular and you can walk amongst the stone freely taking in the sights across the Island and inlets.

Plockton Harbour
Plockton Harbour

Day 35. They left Stornoway early in the morning of day 35 aboard just as the Queen Elisabeth had dropped anchor outside the harbour and was starting to ferry hundreds of passengers ashore. With the tide and the wind they sailed across the Minch towards Loch Gairloch for the night and then 40nm to Plockton, where they found the last visitor’s mooring. Plockton is worth a visit and they stayed a couple of days did some walking in the rain, and devoured the most magnificent fish and chips on the quayside.

Having been north our aim was now to get to Oban to leave Freebird there whilst Jonty went to Edinburgh to bring RY Bloodhound through the Caledonian Canal to Oban. They left Plockton and retraced our steps back through Kyle Rhea to Mallaig where they spotted Mersey Joy another Liverpool yacht. One night in Mallaig and on to Tobermory where they picked up a mooring at the far end of the Bay next to a waterfall and had a very peaceful night. They would recommend the moorings or going to anchor rather than the pontoons as they are very susceptible to swell. Oban was now in sight and after a night stop on a chums mooring in Loch Aline and a long walk around the Loch they headed to Dallens Bay north of Oban and then the following day through the Appin narrows south through the Lynn of Lorn and on to Kerrera, the island off Oban where they picked up a swinging mooring and left Freebird after 43 days aboard.

Morag at the Main sail
Morag at the Main sail

Three weeks later, 1st August, they were back on Freebird and rafted up alongside RY Bloodhound in Oban Bay. While Bloodhound did her month of day charters Freebird continued her passage south. They had decided that the Firth of Clyde was a great sailing area and wanted to explore it in more depth. Back through the Crinan Canal, this time in pouring rain but still no midges. After the canal they went to Portavadie Marina on the east side of Lower Loch Fyne. Portavadie is a ‘State of the Art’ marina and is worth a visit if you are in the area - just for the outside heated infinity pool! The walking is excellent and they continued with Skip Novak’s advice - sail into somewhere and then walk up the biggest hill you can see.

From Portavadie they sailed through the beautiful Kyles of Bute to Port Bannatyne where by chance they met up with some old friends Alistair and Alison Johnston who berth their yacht, Midnight Drifter, there and are ASA members. After they had walked the northern part of West Island Way on the Isle of Bute they sailed in company (the Scottish ASA Rally) for the next few days visiting Holy Loch, James Watt Dock and Rhu. The Firth of Clyde is without doubt a great location to sail as no matter the weather there is always somewhere to go within a couple of hours sailing. They all returned to James Watt Dock for a final farewell meal where David Crumlish a mutual friend who had seen they were in the area from Facebook joined us for drinks and a catch up. The following morning Alistair and Alison departed aboard Midnight Drifter back to Port Bannatyne and they slipped their berth and headed for Plantation Quay, at the top of the Clyde in the centre of Glasgow.

Freebird in Glasgow
Freebird in Glasgow

Plantation Quay is a City of Glasgow Council run pontoon in the centre of Glasgow next to the Science Centre, opposite the Crowne Plaza and a short walk to the West End and Glasgow Green where the World Piping Championships were concluding when they visited. The passage up the Clyde is both interesting and scenic, the Clyde is not very wide and for much of the motor sail upstream after Greenock and James Watt Dock you are surrounded by rolling farmland until you arrive in the centre of Glasgow. The Science Centre staff open the foot bridge across the Clyde for you and the pontoon is on the south side of the river, electricity and water are provided and it is completely free so long as you book with the Glasgow CC. The Waverley, the last seagoing paddle steamer is berthed on the other side of the foot bridge and the Tall Ship Museum is moored a short distance down stream on the north side of the river. It is a fantastic city to sail into with a top notch pontoon location. Day 62 aboard.

After a terrific short break in Glasgow they headed south down the River Clyde and the Firth of Clyde to Troon where Freebird was going to stay for two weeks whilst they want back to Liverpool and Jonty delivered RY Bloodhound back to Leith.

They returned to Freebird on 1st September and they had promised some friends in Northern Ireland who were away on holiday when they visited Bangor going north that they would return on our trip south. They slipped Troon and made the 44 nm passage to Loch Ryan and Stranraer Marina, though the marina is at the far end of Loch Ryan the sail down the Loch is very pleasant. The following morning they set sail for Bangor some 39 nm away. The Royal Ulster Yacht Club were returning from a race to Portpatrick which our friends were on. They all married up at Bangor Marina that night for champagne and a drop of the ‘black stuff’ again!

They spent three days in Bangor catching up and revisiting old haunts. Peter and Joanna took us to The Royal Ulster Yacht Club for dinner. The RUYC sits on the headland and its Victorian red brick club house dominates the surrounding area. The Club is 150 years old this year and was the base for Sir Thomas Lipton’s five America Cup Challenges all raced under the RUYC burgee. The Club is steeped in history and it was a real pleasure to dine there, the Dining Room has a panoramic views across Belfast Lough and to Scotland, on a clear day.

As they had taken Freebird into the centre of Glasgow it was only right that they should sail into the heart of Belfast to the newly opened Belfast City Marina. It is only a short sail down the Lough but once into the City it is fascinating. Belfast is still a working port but the planners have combined the docks with tourist attractions along the quayside, the biggest is the Titanic Museum built on the original slip way where Titanic was built; the corners of the building are full size replicas of the Titanic’s bow and tower above you. The BBC Last Night of the Proms was also on, with the stage actually on the Titanic Slipway. With the city centre just across the foot bridge the marina is in a perfect position for a short break in Belfast, they stayed three days but it was time to move on and head for home. Day 76.

Sunrise over Port St. Mary
Sunrise over Port St. Mary

From Belfast they called into Bangor for one last time and then headed out through Donagadee Sound and pointed Freebird towards Calf Sound at the bottom tip of the Isle of Man. What a great sail they had and they arrived at Calf Sound at slack water and slipped into Port St Mary where they picked up a visitor’s mooring. When they arrived it was a beautiful day, by 2200 there was a ‘raging’ gale outside which persisted all night, a few ‘peeks’ through the forepeak hatch during the night to check they were still attached to the mooring, otherwise it was a rocking and rolling night. The morning brought a beautiful sunrise and they set sail for Deganwy in Wales. They flew across the Irish Sea with the wind on the quarter, the welsh coast was shrouded in a heat haze until they were only two miles off. They arrived far too early to get up the river to Deganwy so ‘mooched’ around Puffin Island and Conwy Bay until they could pilotage up the river. Day 77.

Day 78 aboard Freebird and they woke to another beautiful day in Wales, the sun was breaking out and it promised to be another scorching September day. They slipped our berth an hour before high water and made our way down the River Conwy and out around Great Ormes Head towards Q1 rather than the Rock Channel as they were on springs. There was a lot of wind farm support vessel activity and as they entered the Limit of the Port of Liverpool with Burbo Wind Farm Extension on our starboard side the fog closed in from nowhere and visibility was reduced at times to less that a cable. They made our way cautiously towards Q1 talking on the VHF to Mersey Radio and the vessels which were converging on Q1 at low water. They hugged the starboard side of the channel and once past the ‘Crosby’ Buoy the fog lifted and they sailed down the Mersey towards Liverpool Marina. They arrived at Pluckington Cardinal at 1900 and worked our way towards the lock gates and dropped the anchor in 4 metres of water and waited for the lock gates to open at 2050. Spot on time the bridge went up, the gates opened and they motored into the lock that Freebird had left in May four months previously.

So after 1283 nautical miles, 78 days aboard, 50 marinas, harbours, moorings or anchorages, no breakages and no ‘midges’ they arrived back at our home port, Liverpool. They secured Freebird on her berth and walked the short distance home. The summer sailing season was over and what a great summer they had. Next year’s adventure is to Ireland, South Wales, the north coast of Devon and Cornwall, round Land’s End to the Isles of Scilly and then to the West Country - can't wait.

by Jonty Clews

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