Alan and I took the train on Wednesday morning from Edinburgh and arrived in Largs at lunch time. I had spent the previous fortnight preparing ‘Jess’, for our annual trip. With passage plans made, routes plotted, diesel and water tanks full, dinghy inflated, outboard serviced and provisions and gear stowed away we were ready to set off as soon as we arrived at the marina.
In previous years we had sailed up Loch Fyne to Ardrishaig and taken the canal to Crinan but this year we decided to be a bit more adventurous and head around the Mull of Kintyre and spend a few days in Northern Ireland before heading north toward the Isle of Mull and, hopefully, our most northerly destination at Salen on Loch Sunart.
Our first stop was to be at Lochranza, just a short sail from Largs, before heading round the north of Arran and down Kilbrennan Sound to Campbeltown. The moorings at Lochranza can be a bit bouncy when the ferry is coming or going but apart from that they are good, well-spaced, sheltered and fortunately the ferries stop around 6:00 pm. There’s a transit pontoon where you can leave you dinghy for a visit to the hotel. Alan was born on Arran and we usually make a trip to the hotel where we enjoy a few of their exclusive Arran Malt. However, with an early start the next day we decided to stay on board and drink port instead!
The next morning it was a bit of a slog around Arran toward Carradale but eventually the wind veered from a SW to the west and at 23 knots we started to make good progress south to Campbeltown. The facilities at the small marina are excellent with a great welcome from the Harbour Master and we decided to spend two nights here taking in a couple of visits and a meal at the Royal Hotel, a trip to the Springbank Distillery and waiting the extra day for better tide times before making the trip across the North Channel to Glenarm in Northern Ireland.
There’s much written about rounding the Mull of Kintyre and crossing the North Channel and it has a deserved reputation for the fierce tidal streams, particularly when wind is against tide. But, with careful planning, favourable conditions and using the tidal stream to your advantage it can be less daunting, perhaps even enjoyable. We left Campbeltown in little wind and ended up motoring most of the way to Glenarm. There was a swell of around 2.5 metres but the distance between wave peaks was such that we just gently sailed over them, unlike the Clyde where the distance is very much shorter and you find yourself bashing through the sea in a most uncomfortable way. I think we must have got our timings slightly wrong as we ended up having the tide against us for much longer than we anticipated. The wind never really helped us either, but eventually we arrived at Glenarm marina.
Glenarm is a wonderful little place, good facilities at very reasonable prices which include a free laundry! There’s not a great deal to the village, a small shop and a couple of pubs, which are next door to each other, with a great welcome from landlord and locals. Neither of the pubs serves food, however, you can order a takeaway from the Chinese Restaurant in nearby Cairnlough and have it delivered to the Coast Road Inn where they will provide crockery and cutlery for you to eat it there! Whilst there isn’t much in the village it’s still worth wandering round taking in the wonderful architecture and talking to the locals you’ll find that it has had an interesting past. There’s an 18th century castle which has extensive woodland walks, a walled garden, gift shop and a tea-room which is well worth visiting.
We had already planned to spend one night in Bangor further down the coast with the possibility of spending the next in Belfast. We had a chat with the Harbour Master at Glenarm and some local worthies, who seemed to be a permanent feature in his office, on the merits of sailing to the marina in Belfast. Taking heed of what they said, we decided that since we wanted to spend a day sightseeing in Belfast, two nights in Bangor and a train journey to Belfast would make best use of our time as it would take an additional couple of hours to motor from Bangor to Belfast. We left Glenarm the next day, just before midday and with a favourable wind and tide we had a great run down the Antrim coast and covered the 23 miles in just less than four hours. There are loads of great places to eat and drink in Bangor and I would recommend ‘The Rabbit Rooms’, particularly on a Monday when mussels are half price and it’s right next to the marina.
The station at Bangor is about a fifteen minute walk from the marina and the train was very cheap at £6 for the return journey. It takes around twenty-five minutes to get to the Titanic Quarter in Belfast and a short walk from the station takes you to The Titanic Experience. We arrived fairly early in the morning, which was just as well as by lunchtime the whole area was extremely busy. The Titanic Quarter is impressive; the exhibition building is in the shape of a star and built to the same height as the Titanic’s bow, standing next to the building and looking up really gives an idea of just how big it was. Nearby, there’s the SS Nomadic which was a tender for the White Star Line and is the only White Star Line vessel in existence today – you can buy a combined ticket for this and the Titanic Experience. Belfast Harbour Marina, also in the Titanic Quarter, was smaller than I expected and perhaps a mile or so from the city centre. I’m not convinced that the ten mile trip up the River Lagan would be worth it unless you wanted to spend a few days exploring Belfast. We were told by the Harbour Master at Glenarm that if we were to go to Belfast, not to tie up on the pontoon closest to the walkway. Apparently it has been known for locals to lob things over the railing towards the boats tied up there. We took an open top bus tour of the city which was absolutely fantastic and I would recommend it to anyone visiting. The tour took us through all the areas associated with the troubles of the 70s, Falls Road, Shankhill Road, Crumlin Road Jail and the Peace Wall. It was a little sad to see that the gates on the wall are still closed from 7:00 pm until 7:00 am, but heartening to read some of the messages on the Peace Wall.
We took the train back to Bangor and spent the evening wandering around the wee town. Earlier, I had visited the well-stocked chandlery and bought some rope to replace worn rope on some of the fenders. I spent part of the evening making very poor attempts at splicing loops and I have to say, I’m too embarrassed to post any photographs of them. The last two splices were in fact bowlines.
Our final destination in Northern Ireland was to be Ballycastle but we decided to split the journey by once more stopping off at Glenarm.
We left Glenarm for Ballycastle the wind was gusting 28 to 34 knots from NW and with the tide was against it was a bit like a washing machine at times. But, heading a little further out we had a great sail up the coast averaging well over six knots most of the way. It was all pretty uneventful really, well that was until we reached Ballycastle marina. I always choose to berth port side if I can and we saw the berth that suited us. However, the Harbour Master directed us to another, also port side, but with the wind blowing very strongly off the pontoon. Alan was on the helm and the wind caught the back of the boat just as I was stepping off onto the pontoon which suddenly wasn't there and I ended up in the marina. Fortunately, the Harbour Master and another boat owner were quickly there to drag me out. I can tell you this; it is not easy and extremely tiring trying to swim/drag yourself to a pontoon ladder when you are laden down with wet clothes and a life-jacket round your head. I was absolutely fine, just suffered from the indignity of being hauled out and a large bruise on my left elbow. However, it was reassuring to know that the life-jackets are in perfect working order. Of course it was the helmsman's fault and little did he know that he would be supplying the drink for the rest of the trip. The Harbour Master threatened me with a £100 fine for swimming in the marina.
There are a few places to eat and get a drink near Ballycastle marina including a pizza place a fish and chip shop and the Marine Hotel has a restaurant and there are three pubs. There’s a SPAR shop, two ice-cream parlours a couple of cafes and also an ATM. We found “The Anglers Arms” next to the marina has traditional music on most nights. It’s well worth taking the walk up the hill to the main part of the town where you will find a greater selection of bars and restaurants, shops, supermarkets and a museum.
We left Ballycastle heading back to Scotland at 9:00 am the following morning to catch the tide on what was the first really wet day of our trip so far. Leaving the marina the visibility was poor, the wind gusty and the sea lumpy. The tidal streams around Rathlin Island and Fair Head are all over the place but heading east towards Kintyre it soon settles down and once we were well clear to the east of Macdonnell Race we steered NE toward the Sound of Jura. We had a great sail across the North Channel and with a good blaw behind us, the tide helping and a bit of surfing we were at times doing over 10 knots; the theoretical maximum speed of my boat is just under 7.5 knots! There were a few squally rain showers with wind speeds gusting at F8, but all in all it was a very pleasant and exciting crossing. We were wet when we left but we arrived at Arminish Bay on Gigha at 3:30 pm in glorious sunshine.
We absolutely loved Northern Ireland; it's a great place with really friendly, helpful people. The sailing was exciting and sometimes a bit challenging. The facilities we used were fantastic and the scenery around the Antrim Coast is beautiful. The towns and villages we visited are lovely, full of interesting history and things to see and do. It was the first time I had been to Belfast and I wouldn’t hesitate to return to explore more of the city. Tomorrow we are heading north through the Sound of Jura to Ardfern or continuing north through the Sound of Luing for Craobh Haven but tonight we spend on the beautiful wee island of Gigha with a meal at the Gigha Hotel washed down with a pint or two of local brew and perhaps a couple of malt whisky chasers.