The Firth of 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. 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.
Facilities on the Clyde
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.
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.
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.
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 shoreside 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 (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 on 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 distillery, and a whole lot more. You can call at Brodick, Lamlash or Lochranza, and in each place you will find visitor moorings, plus a landing slip at Lamlash, and a fine new pontoon at Lochranza.
The Kyles of Bute is one of the prettiest open water passages in Britain. Its fjord-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.
The Upper Firth
Glasgow hosted The Commonwealth Games from 23rd July – 3rd August 2014, giving the perfrect excuse for the largest flotilla ever seen on the Clyde. This spectacle showed that the Clyde 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. 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.