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The Firth of Clyde

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Firth Clyde

THE FIRTH OF CLYDE is one of the largest areas of sheltered deep water in the British Isles, and as a result has been a major centre for recreational boating for well over a century. It is increasingly popular as a playground for local boat owners, as a destination for sailors cruising in their own yachts, and for those seeking a charter yacht holiday, or an intensive tuition course in the finer points of sailing.

Much pioneering cruising was done on Scotland’s West Coast, and the Clyde produced some hardy people who went exploring long before there were marinas, or even many harbours. To some extent they were following in the wake of the Viking invaders, who ruled the west coast for centuries before they were finally ousted at the Battle of Largs in 1263. Today the sailing visitor enjoys waters that are unchanged from those far-off days, although the shore facilities are very different!

A century-and-a-half ago the development of leisure sailing was just beginning, the Clyde’s designers and builders of yachts both large and small, sail and power, were soon producing handy craft, and before long were at the cutting edge of international competitive and cruising yacht construction, 2013 will herald the return of many of these beautiful classics to the Firth of Clyde for the Fife Regatta in late June.  Today, the emphasis is on participation, whether by owning a boat, chartering, taking a tuition course, or participating in one of the many competitive events that are hosted on the Clyde.

The Clyde’s long lochs penetrate far into the Highlands, whilst its outer reaches comprise a scatter of islands, each of different size and character. Arran is large and mountainous, Bute is smaller and more pastoral, whilst the small islands of Great and Little Cumbrae can be circumnavigated in an afternoon. The tiny Isle of Sanda, off the Mull of Kintyre, is unique. Its pub, the Byron Darnton, is busy with visiting sailors, even though the island has no permanent resident population.

The Clyde has ten large marinas with capacity for several thousand boats, a host of marine services to offer, a wonderfully scenic cruising area in which to enjoy being afloat, and many destinations, ranging from sheltered bays to busy fishing harbours, to visit. It is this shelter, a feature shared with the West Coast, which makes this part of Scotland so perfect for holiday sailing.

The main Clyde marinas for resident and charter craft are Troon, Ardrossan, Largs, Kip, Rhu, Holy Loch and James Watt Dock, whilst Fairlie Quay is particularly popular for winter storage and has developed as a centre for maintenance.  All are easily accessible by public transport, and the increase in low cost air travel has encouraged many yacht owners who live elsewhere to keep their yachts in Scottish marinas, where the availability and lower cost of berthing compared with England’s South Coast, ideally complements the superb cruising area so close by.  This convenient access is not only good for boat owners; charterers and sailors taking courses also find it easy to join their vessel. More recent marina developments are now well established at Portavadie in Loch Fyne and Port Bannatyne on the Isle of Bute.  Full details of the facilities offered by all of the marinas are given in the tabulated summary on pages 86-87 of this brochure.

The Clyde is more than just a convenient playground: it is also the perfect starting point for cruises to more distant places.  Visiting boats arriving from the south or Ireland may choose to visit the new marina at Stranraer, where shore side facilities have been upgraded as part of the EU funded Sail West project, before venturing further north into the Firth itself  The first  fully serviced marina on the Firth of Clyde can be found at Troon, from there a popular route is north west, through the beautiful Kyles of Bute to the Crinan Canal, and then to the Argyll Coast and Islands, Skye, and the Outer Hebrides.  Heading south west past Arran and round the Mull of Kintyre, perhaps calling at Sanda or Campbeltown, is a passage best undertaken in good weather. It leads to the southern Isles of Gigha, Islay and Jura, or alternatively across the North Channel to Rathlin Island, Ballycastle and Glenarm, all just a few miles away, all of which serve as a useful point from which to depart for either the west coast of Scotland or the northern coast of Ireland where facilities are also improving.  There are many less demanding passages within the Firth of Clyde. Indeed, one could sail every day for a week and not run out of new lochs and anchorages to explore.

This rich cruising ground has moderate tidal streams and ranges, well marked hazards, and apart from a few popular spots, relatively few other boats. The ‘harbour full’ sign has yet to reach Scottish waters!

One of the most popular destination harbours is Tarbert, where the fishing fleet has to some extent given way to visiting and resident yachts of all types and sizes, and where the recently upgraded pontoon berthing plus a recently opened chandlery and good shore facilities, bars and restaurants are an acknowledged attraction. It is a picturesque village where the remains of Tarbert Castle, which is illuminated at night, overlook the village. In 1325 Robert Bruce, realising the importance of the isthmus and the necessity to defend it, instructed work to repair and extend the existing castle which stood on the hill above Tarbert harbour. The castle and its perimeter wall are now only grass covered outlines, although two walls of the keep built by James IV still stand to their original height, dominating the entrance to the harbour and the town itself.

Flotilla visits are welcome to Tarbert, and it is a favourite with sailing clubs for musters and rallies. Berths can be reserved in advance.  The town also hosts the Clyde Cruising Club’s Scottish Series each spring.  This attracts upwards of a hundred competitive yachts from far and wide for a long weekend’s racing in the waters of Loch Fyne, where, although it has few hazards and gentle tides, the variable wind patterns offers the racing sailor great challenges.

A short distance across Loch Fyne from Tarbert is the new marina at Portavadie which has almost 250 berths and a full range of facilities. It is the perfect gateway to some of the best sailing waters in the world and provides a unique backdrop in which to enjoy and explore a variety of safe anchorages and walk ashore destinations, all within easy reach. The facilities building and the critically acclaimed restaurant and bar are in one of the finest marina buildings in Britain, and the marina also has a range of shorside accommodation available for those who wish to take some time out.  The deep water lagoon is protected by a breakwater and is accessible at all states of the tide. The marina will accommodate vessels up to 70ft loa (notice required for larger vessels) with no restriction on draft.

Other destinations with pontoon berthing are Campbeltown, Ardrishaig and Rothesay, plus a new facility at Girvan on the Ayrshire coast, part funded by the Sail West project. These towns are strategically placed for the cruising yachtsman. Campbeltown is close to the Mull of Kintyre, and a good port of call arriving from the south, whilst  Ardrishaig is the eastern terminus of the Crinan Canal.  Girvan lies midway between the harbours of Stranraer and Ayr, whilst Rothesay is a traditional favourite. It is the capital of the beautiful Isle of Bute, which the cruising sailor will enjoy exploring. The principal attraction of the island is Mount Stuart, the extravagant Italianate palazzo of the Bute family, which is open to the public most days. Information is available from Rothesay tourist office close to the harbour. There is also a regular bus service to the property.  A short distance north of Rothesay a new marina has been built at Port Bannatyne alongside the existing boatyard. 

In other places, like Lamlash in Arran, or in the Kyles of Bute, more traditional landing methods – anchoring and going ashore by dinghy – are usual. In many spots local hotels and communities have laid moorings for visitors, whilst smaller pontoon facilities have been installed to assist with landing a dinghy at some locations. These are sometimes free (for patrons), or a nominal charge may made.

Arran and the Kyles of Bute are two other major attractions on a cruise. Arran is often called 'Scotland in Miniature' as it has almost all the elements of the whole of Scotland: mountains, castles, beaches, golf courses, a brewery and whisky distilery, and a whole lot more. You can call at Brodick, Lamlash or Loch Ranza, and in each place you will find visitor moorings, plus a landing slip at Lamlash, and a fine new pontoon at Loch Ranza.

The Kyles of Bute is one of the prettiest open water passages in Britain. Its fiord-like channels, or kyles, wind between heather clad hills, past sleepy holiday villages, and through groups of islands, and every half mile or so there is an anchorage to stop for lunch or overnight.

Ashore the village pubs and restaurants are well known for their good food and characterful ambience. Here you will meet fellow sailors enjoying themselves, and locals with a tale to tell of past seafaring exploits and events.

Thinking of getting off the beaten track? The Clyde’s long lochs will take you deep into Scotland’s mountains. The scenery is magnificent, the sailing straightforward, and although there are around 5,000 boats on the Clyde, you will easily find a spot where you are the only one.

Loch Long is exactly what is says on the chart, but paradoxically Loch Fyne is much longer, at around 40 miles. Loch Long strikes deep into the highest mountains in southern Argyll, locally known as the Arrrochar Alps, and this offers a good opportunity to bag a “Munro”, the term for a mountain of over 3,000 feet. Loch Goil is a branch off Loch Long to the west, and has two attractive destinations – Carrick Castle near the mouth of the loch, and Lochgoilhead at its head.

Loch Fyne starts south of Tarbert, winds its way north past Ardrishaig, and then continues to places like Otter Ferry, Loch Gair, Crarae, Furnace, Strachur and Inverary. At the very head of the loch is the well known Oyster Bar, which provides visitor moorings for those intrepid sailors who make it all the way!

The last sea loch before entering the river Clyde is the Gare Loch. This was one of the first areas to embrace leisure boating in Scotland and is home to one of the oldest yacht clubs in Britain, the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club at Rhu. The marina at Rhu is also an ideal stopover to explore Scotland’s first national park and its breathtaking scenery.

Glasgow is hosting The Commenwealth Games from 23rd July – 3rd August 2014, this is the perfect excuse for the cruising sailor to venture up the Clyde to the centre of Glasgow. The Clyde, after years of decline is coming to life again, and there are potential stopping places on the way up the river at Bowling and Clydebank before reaching Glasgow Harbour. Here there are pontoons on either side of the river at the new BBC building; they are free to use, but should be booked in advance.

The pontoons are upstream of the opening Millennium Bridge. The pontoon on the north bank outside the Crowne Plaza Hotel can be booked by calling SECC and the new pontoon on the south bank at Plantation Quay can be booked by calling Glasgow City Council. For boats with an air draft of less than 5 metres wishing to go 1 mile further upstream to the city centre (* maximum clearance under the Bells Bridge, Clyde Arc and Tradeston footbridge at high tide) there are two more pontoons controlled by Glasgow City Council, at the Broomielaw and under George V Bridge.

All take visiting craft and all have security suitable for their City Centre locations. To request opening of the Bell’s and Millennium Bridges please call 0141 946 5186 at least 8 hours in advance or when booking a berth.

You can get lots of information on all aspects of sailing in the Firth of Clyde from the Clydeport Leisure Marine Guide, available free everywhere or to download from In particular, it deals with the passage up the river to Glasgow. Glasgow is a fascinating city to visit, packed with history, culture and entertainment events. Now you can see a great city and live in comfort on your own boat.

One of the benefits of being a tourist by boat in the Clyde area is the relative ease in visiting different places, which are often separated by tens of miles of road, or only linked by air or ferry. In a sailing or power boat these journeys are simple, and as a result very satisfying.  And when you are not sailing? This is a world class tourist area, with attractions ranging from archaeology and castles to distilleries and superb restaurants, so it is almost as interesting being ashore as it is fun being afloat.

Try it. You won’t be disappointed.

Whilst Scotland may be best known for the quality of its cruising waters, it also has an enviable reputation for hosting excellent racing and cruising events throughout the year.  These vary in size and competitiveness, but all share the common theme of superb sailing combined with sociable relaxation after the event itself.

The premier event of the year is the Scottish Series ( is recognised as one of the UK’s top yachting regattas and is the largest Scottish yachting event.  2014 will be the 40th anniversary of the event and competitors travel from around the world to compete in the only international standard competition for IRC yachts in Scotland.  The event also hosts courses for less competitive yachts and one design classes, at a time of the year perfect for honing performance for the summer season regattas. Whilst the event has historically been seen as being suitable for 'serious racers' the organisers are again promising restricted sail classes for 2014 as well as passage races which proved to be popular with families and less experienced crews. The regatta is based in the picturesque waters of Loch Fyne with the berthing and regatta centre located in the stunning natural harbour village of Tarbert on the Mull of Kintyre.  The event is organised by the Clyde Cruising Club ( and will take place between the 23rd and 26th May 2014.

The Firth of Clyde is also host to numerous other race events throughout the season, some of which are scheduled to encourage boats taking part in the Scottish Series to prolong their stay over three or four weekends.  For 2014 the Scottish Series is preceded by the Savills Kip Regatta over the weekend of the 10th-11th May, and is then followed by the Old Pulteney Mudhook IRC Scottish Championships between the 7th and 8th June at Kip Marina. The major end of season event is the Clydeport  Largs Regatta Week which runs from the 23rd  – 30th August. The larger yacht clubs also host their own series throughout the whole year, with local classes such as the Piper also being catered for, and the season ends with the Autumn Points Race Series hosted by Kip and Largs Marinas during September and October.   Full details are available from the Clyde Cruising Club or the Clyde Yacht Clubs Association ( who also have their own handicapping system for non IRC boats. 

Finally, Scotland also hosts a number of prestigious events for the dinghy and keelboat enthusiast.  Most of these are hosted by the Scottish Sailing Institute ( and are centred around Largs.