The Hard Yacht Knots

Hummingbirds are used to migrating but not quite like the one in front of me. This particular Hummingbird has circumnavigated the globe three times. Adventure tour company Rubicon 3’s 60ft clipper may have been named after a bird famous for speeding from flower to flower, but she was built for those epic voyages around the world. 

Compared to the wild adventures she’s had in the past, our new eight-person crew won’t be asking much of the 23-year-old yacht as we sail from the tranquil Scottish tourist town of Oban to the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. As my fellow sailors and I will soon discover, however, Hummingbird will ask much of us, physically and mentally.

Until now, my image of yachting had been based on a fantasy of a languid sailing life somewhere like the Cote D’Azur, with me standing on deck gazing towards a peach sunset, a perspiring champagne glass in hand, a butler asking, sotto voce, if I’d like a top up. Before I’ve set foot on Hummingbird, I can see this experience will bear little resemblance to that daydream. 

The harbour just outside Oban is technically European, but there’s no mistaking it for one of those glamorous Mediterranean beauties. The Celtic drizzle is persistent, the coastline rough hewn and angry-looking. 

Hummingbird is not the most modern in the harbour, but as we soon learn from skipper Stuart Cook, this is no accident: “These boats were built to be labour intensive,” he says when asked if the yacht has an autohelm (similar to a plane’s autopilot). “There’s always a job for seven or eight people to be doing at any one time. If you had a boat that was more automated you’d end up being a passenger, rather than being an active crew member.”

Rubicon’s mission statement is ‘Sail, Train, Explore’ meaning they offer the chance to improve your seamanship, whether you’re a would-be captain looking to earn a specific sailing licence, or a total novice looking to learn a little about the ocean and perhaps yourself, too. Before any existential revisions, however, we have to get out of the marina. 

Creeping out into the Sound of Mull, our first stop will be Tobermory. It’s only 27 miles away as the gull flies but it’ll still take us almost six hours of sailing into a suboptimal wind. While we have some of the physics explained to us, the increasingly distant Scottish countryside offers a beautiful backdrop, with other sailboats framed by distant mountains and small whitecaps adding scenic, if unwanted, texture to the choppy ocean. 

Hummingbird requires constant attention in order for us to sail as close to the wind as we can without losing power. I listen closely as I am rotated in different crewing positions on board, from the helm to the sails to the winches and back again. 

In between active participation, there’s a chance to swap stories and enjoy more of the vast scenery. The hundreds of islands which seem to have splintered off the Scottish coast like shattered glass are so sparsely populated as to often appear uninhabited; the remote lighthouses so at one with the scenery as to look natural, rather than man-made.

The famously colourful harbour of Tobermory makes for a flamboyant contrast, its pastel buildings popping out across the sea like fireworks. With a population of 1,000, it is one of the largest towns in the Inner Hebrides, complete with hotels, a whisky distillery and even its own supermarket. Stuart reminds us that we likely won’t have access to such amenities in the coming ports and encourages us to take a walk around town.

The new crew of Hummingbird have come from far and wide for this experience: one couple from Germany, another from Switzerland, we other four drawn from different corners of the UK. Everyone has wildly different backgrounds, from mountaineers to school teachers, but we’re united by our love or at least curiosity of sailing.

The following morning, Stuart lays out some navigational maps for us, showing the plan to head north, albeit in quite an indirect path. The destination isn’t set in stone each day – we have to be flexible with the weather – but the plan is to ricochet between the small island of Muck and its fat neighbour, the community-owned, 100 percent renewables-powered Eigg.

The weather never fully gets on our side but we’re just about able to follow that route, finally sailing round to the east coast of Rum and the tiny port town of Kinloch. Rum may be the largest of the group known as the Small Isles but just 22 people live there.  

The next day we sail 12 hours across The Minch, the stretch of water which separates the Outer Hebrides from mainland Scotland, then continue up the east coast of the archipelago, stopping in the Isle of Scalpay, just off Harris. Bad weather holds us there for two days, but we’re able to visit the Harris Gin distillery in Tarbert before returning to Hummingbird to wait for better conditions. 

One more day of sailing north takes us to Stornoway which, with a population of 8,000, feels like a metropolis compared to what’s come before. Everyone takes the opportunity to resupply and re-energise before we depart for the Faroe Islands.

Despite having learned a lot over the week, to the less experienced in the team, this final leg of the journey still feels like a  heroic voyage of discovery. 

We take heart from the experience of our skipper, who has been sailing  since he was a boy, and from Hummingbird, which, after a few days at sea, now feels familiar. Stuart estimates the yacht has sailed at least 250,000 nautical miles already, but as such records aren’t kept, the true number could be as much as double that. To put these extraordinary distances in context, a round trip to the Moon would be around 415,200 nautical miles.  

When we leave land behind the next day, our progress is slow – better than treading water, but not by much. With winds unfavourable, we study weather charts and forecasts, hoping for a scintilla of good news. In any case, the journey is likely to last more than the projected 36 hours and so, with immediate effect, we start a three-man, three-hour rota system to sail us through the night. 

The sea is rough and sleep does not come easily; almost all of the new crew succumb to seasickness at some point. As we get further into the Atlantic, seabirds appear as though offering moral support. 

Fat fulmars take long, curious looks into our yacht, while battalions of guillemots shoot past with more urgent matters to attend to. Occasionally villainous skuas are spotted, on the lookout for whatever they can scavenge, but gannets seem a little more wary of us, staying high and distant from the sail.

Around midnight on that first day, I’m on deck when a small pod of dolphins start following Hummingbird, their silent silhouettes gliding in and out of the water, barely visible in the gloom. The following morning, we catch brief glimpses of minke whales, too.

If the encounters with cetaceans are thrilling, the sight of land is soothing. Almost exactly two days after leaving Scotland, the Faroe Islands are ahead of us. Sheltered by Suduroy, the southernmost of the Faroes, the ocean is finally flat calm and, improbably, the weather is fine. 

Lying almost exactly halfway between Britain and Iceland, the Faroe Islands are a Danish dependency, meaning that while they have their own flag, government and dialect, they still share history, and a currency, with Denmark. 

The Vikings who swarmed over these islands would have sailed a very similar path to us – scouring the Scottish Highlands and islands before taking the leap of faith out into the North Atlantic and, eventually, the New World.

Considering how close they are culturally and geographically to Scotland, the Faroes have a strange, mythic quality to them. We feel it before we’ve even set foot ashore: the forbidding Mordorian mountains and cliffs; the wooden houses with turfed roofs; hundreds, then thousands of seabirds in the air and on the water. 

Just 50,000 people live here, spread across 17 of the inhabited islands. Over the next few days we’ll explore beyond Suduory, but for now arriving to its colossal fjord feels something like sailing into a soothing hug. “Congratulations — it was a wee bit bumpy, but you made it,” says Stuart, pausing to allow us to laugh at his understatement. “You sailed all the way to the Faroes.”

A version of this piece was published in Culture Trip’s magazine in October 2019.

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