Sailing to Islay

I thought it was time to describe the experience of sailing to Islay on the CalMac service from Kennacraig. We are now into the summer timetables, which means that it’s possible to leave home at a normal time in the morning to catch a ferry to Port Ellen, albeit that it doesn’t arrive until noon. There is still the option of the 0700 sailing, but that means arriving at Kennacraig by 0615 for marshalling if travelling by car. Kennacriag ferry terminal is stuck onto the edge of a small island in West Loch Tarbert, which runs inland several miles from the Sound of Jura. As a consequence of its location, it can be very exposed in the winter gales. The normal ferry service is provided by the Hebridean Isles, a medium-size ferry of reasonable comfort. The summer alternatives are being run by the Isle of Arran, which is a little smaller, but to my mind, noisier and smellier than its big sister. The highlight of the morning crossing, particularly the early sailing, is the cheap cooked breakfast. Meals on the ferries are very reasonably priced compared to the cross-channel ferries.
It takes about half an hour to sail down West Loch Tarbert, which is lined with tree-clad hills interspersed with small farms, the occasional cottage and a few private slips for small boats. There is a commercial pier at the head of the loch, so the odd fishing boat also passes en route to the fishing grounds. The colours of the hills and woods here are constantly changing with the seasons, and the recent spring colours have been as astonishing as might be expected in the autumn.
On leaving West Loch Tarbert the ship sails to the north of Gigha and then heads west down the Sound of Jura towards Port Ellen. The coast of Islay from here is rugged and uninviting, with many rocks, reefs and small islands offshore. In time, the distilleries of Ardbeg and Lagavullin appear to starboard, both painted white and with their names in huge black letters facing out to sea. Laphroaig is hidden by a small island and, by the time that it comes into view, the others are themselves hidden from sight. By this time the ferry is turning in towards Port Ellen and passing the square lighthouse that guards Kilnaughton Bay. Port Ellen reveals itself as a classic Hebridean village of small terraces of white-painted low houses on the green slopes running down to the port itself. The pier is much more business-like, with a great, grey grain silo dominating the landing. Further to the west is the relatively-huge structure of the maltings, which being once the Port Ellen distillery, now concentrates on producing nearly all the malt used by the island’s seven distilleries. This is a very small harbour for the ferries, which steam in relentlessly towards the rocky shore before spinning on their axes to reverse up to the pier to unload us and load the waiting cars and lorries.
It’s a two-and-a-half hour crossing to Islay, and arrival in Port Ellen can be a very welcome experience if there are strong southerly or westerly gales blowing. By contrast, most of the crossings I have made have been in calm seas and glorious sunshine, but that does involve a bit of forward planning and the assiduous use of the Atlantic pressure charts.
Enough for now. I’ll write another day about sailing home from Port Askaig and perhaps even the ferry to Jura, which can be a real test of a man’s resolve to get to that remote island.


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