First Sail on the West Coast

Date published: 01 September 2019

Robin and Samantha King set out from Hartlepool in their 1972 Westerly Renown, intent on giving her a ‘proper sea trial’ before cruising further afield. Their plans changed abruptly when their 45-year-old Volvo diesel engine threw in the towel.

The waves in the Corran Narrows were neither as high, nor as steep, nor as unexpected as the ones in the Moray Firth. The latter sent our yacht Kasandra rearing up like prancing pony, kicked the SOG to 0 knots and exposed parts of the keel ‘only her mother should see,’ as our friend Dave had quipped over the VHF.  Dave had done it all before, but we were having our first taste of the weird and wonderful web of currents, flows, tides, falls, whirlpools and eddies that make the West Coast of Scotland the magical cruising ground that it is.

Back home in the safe, deep waters of North East England, the only navigational expertise necessary is to match your choice of direction with that of the tide.  You can choose up or down. Get it wrong and expect no worse penalty than arriving last to the pub.

Here in the Corran narrows we were being introduced to water with a mind of its own. We stared in awe at the dancing wavelets ahead and waited with keen interest to see what might happen when the currents causing them got a hold of our rudder.  The tide, pushing South, was at odds with 25 knots of head wind. The result was, shall we say, uncomfortable.

If our 1972 MD2B kept banging away beneath our feet, all would be well. A big ‘if’. Daily therapy sessions had nursed it this far, but we knew the time had come to stage a major intervention or risk losing the big end forever. It had alternately binged and thrown up oil for a week.

Suddenly, we heard a noise like a steel-beaked woodpecker at work below us. Brrrrr-ipppp. BRrrrrrrrr.  We locked eyes for a second.

“Did you hear that?”


“Pity. I was hoping it was just me.”

The oil pressure hovered indecisively above zero as the wind and our anxieties, built up.  Hundreds of miles from home, we needed to get somewhere with access to hardstanding, cranes, engineers and expertise.  At first glance Oban Marina, situated on an island with no roads seemed an unlikely solution.

We checked the chart. Another four hours or so to go. Was it worth the risk? We radioed Dave. “You will find what you need at Oban” he insisted resolutely from the comfort of his much larger, much newer vessel.  We gritted our teeth and continued on course for Kerrera.

Let me tell you, we spent the whole passage listening to each and every beat of that engine. When we could hear it over the howling wind and our own thumping hearts, that is.

In the lee of Kerrera’s topography we could once again hear ourselves think and ten minutes later we were welcomed by the reception staff at Oban Marina. Sailors themselves, they recognised the nervous laughter and wild eyes of humans adjusting to the new possibility of living beyond a watery grave.  They listened to our problems, recommended a number of options and we booked to stay for the weekend.

Twenty-four hours later we had formulated a plan and talked it through personally with the operations manager. The new engine would arrive three weeks after ordering. The yard could lift us when we liked. We could book as much or as little of the engineer’s time as we needed. How would we like to lift the old engine out? What did we want to do with the old one? Everything was possible. Whatever suited us, they could do. What a relief. Of course, this meant we would be staying on the island for quite a while.

We went for a walk over the island with the dog. In one trip we saw an otter, two seals and three buzzards. The latter were hunting island rabbits on the wing (incidentally, hunting rabbits on Kerrera is not difficult work - I had to watch where I put my feet for fear of treading on them or hoofing them over the hedges).

We ate out that night. The marina’s Waypoint restaurant is a log cabin with spectacular views of Oban Bay. Having just a dozen tables or so, and almost exclusively serving the visiting berth holders, it has a very special feel. As the evening sun struck the township of Oban, I cut into perfectly cooked beef that had been reared not 1000 yards from the plate.  The beer was cold and the company excellent. It was one of those perfect moments in life when you want for nothing. “You know,” I said to Sam, “when Dave told us we would find what we needed on Kerrera, he was absolutely right.”

Robin King

Oban Marina