Tag: hebrides

My week on ZUZA

Puffin in Scotland

It is with a flutter of nervous excitement that I walk from Oban train station to Zuza, a double-hulled purpose built adventure vessel that is to be my home for the next week. Having never sailed before I am not too sure what to expect but skipper Helen and her all female crew greet me with a warm welcome, helping me on board and showing me to my very comfortable cabin before introducing me to my fellow passengers.

Making the most of the warm light, we set sail mid afternoon, down past Easdale Island and through the spectacular Cuan Sound, which reminds me of a narrow street except the tall buildings are dramatically high cliffs and whirlpools swirl where a road would run. I am surprised to see seals lazily bobbing about in this ever-moving water but Helen explains that they are a frequent sight here.

After a spot of beachcombing on Seil Island, we climb back on board and I am surprised to find how hungry I am, my tummy grumbling as delicious smells entice me back below deck. As we all tuck into the freshly prepared meal I find that the food far surpasses my expectations and I make a mental note to let go of any preconceived notions I clearly have.  The crew then take care of all the washing up, leaving us to sit back and relax, whiling away the evening with wine and good chat, getting to know each other a little more. Some were single travellers like me, and many were just pairs of friends seeking a unique adventure together. We bedded down for the night at a decent time, satisfied and excited for the week ahead.

Nave anchorage.jpg

The next morning we set sail for Gigha, stopping en route to visit some of the islands dotted along the way. On our return journey to the yacht we were incredibly fortunate to spot Minke whales, bottlenose dolphins and seals, Helen was also pleasantly taken aback at this sight and hopeful that we would be able to get a closer view once we were back at sea. I felt like a kid at Christmas at this prospect, my love of marine wildlife has been with me since I was little and I couldn’t believe I might be so lucky as to see a Minke in close quarters, and in the UK! Once back on board we set off towards Gigha where we were indeed treated to a closer viewing of these incredible mammals. A hushed silence fell as we marvelled at these huge giants effortlessly gliding through the water. This was a wonderful experience and is a moment that will stay with me forever.

Continuing on I decided to try my hand on the helm and see how it felt to ‘control’ this fast yacht. I had initially been nervous but under Helen’s capable tuition, I soon discovered it was in fact completely exhilarating and actually made me fall a little for Zuza. On she raced to Gigha where we were greeted with sweeping sandy bays, crystal clear waters and a lush botanical garden. We idled away the rest of the day beachcombing and meandering, soaking up the warm sun – we had been forewarned that the weather tomorrow may not be so summery – such is sailing in the Hebrides! Waking the next morning to thick fog we took our time over breakfast, enjoying the stillness that always arrives with such weather before setting off to Jura where the weather lifted, rewarding our efforts with a breath taking sunset which I enjoyed with a gin and tonic in hand.

Jura 2.jpg

From Jura we made for Oransay, through the incredibly narrow sound of Isla where we spotted stags silhouetted on the high mountains, to Nave Island. The plan had been to go ashore and stretch legs but on anchoring we noticed that the beach was completely covered in seals and Helen was itching to snorkel with them. We set off in the dinghy and watched her slip into the water and swim about with these sea dogs before making for land and exploring this now derelict island.

Seals nave.jpg

By now I had almost lost sense of what day it was, thoroughly enjoying the simplicity of boat life – waking, eating and then journeying where the weather allowed. Our next day was spent exploring Colonsay, which has a magic of it’s own. I learn that there are no cars on the island, bikes are the preferred form of transport, and that the local bookshop can be opened by anyone who visits the post office to request the key. They are then free to browse at leisure and pay honestly for anything they wish to keep. The remoteness and lack of humanisation in this part of the world makes it very easy to feel like you have stepped back in time, completely detached from the modern world when in fact, we were only ever a few hours way.

Departing Coronsay with a sigh, Zuza effortlessly sails through the Strait of Coryveckan, notorious we are told for its strong tidal currents, standing waves and the third largest whirlpool in the world. With my mind focused on the potentially precarious waters ahead, I am astounded to hear the crew cry Minke whales once again. Fizzing with excitement I remind myself I must move carefully around to the other side of the deck to watch these whales. When another crew member spies a basking shark, almost in disbelief, there is a hush that falls amongst us all as we sit quietly, admiring the sights on display. Even Helen is amazed at our luck but explains that this is one of the many reasons Scotland continues to lure her back year after year. As the whales move away we continue on for Croabh Haven marina, our mooring for the night and home to Princess Anne’s boat – well, if it’s good enough for royalty…

For our final evening Helen has organised a real treat for us all on Kerrera Island in a simple, no frills shed where we are treated to huge, freshly caught and prepared seafood platters which we eagerly tuck into whilst watching the sky fade to black over Oban.

As a busy individual, I had forgotten what it was like to be truly calm – but not in a ‘crashed out next to the pool’ kind of way. This was a different calm; a more mindful, tranquil calm. Our days were comprised of optional tasks like setting the sails and helming, mixed in with exploring little islands, and swimming off white sandy beaches. Each day held such rewards, and life outside of Zuza now seemed irrelevant. Feeling her race along the white-topped waves, doing what she was designed to is as peaceful as it is exhilarating.As we docked back in Oban I was filled with sadness. We all said our heartfelt goodbyes and emails were exchanged before going our separate ways. As the train wound its way through those spectacular views once more, I couldn’t help but wish I’d stayed longer. So, I turned my 3G on for the first time in a week and booked my next voyage, there and then. See you next year Helen and Zuza!

Sailing around the Isle of Skye

Hiker on the Isle of Skye

Skye

Featured in many poems and folk songs (which you might get to know during your time on board), Skye is the largest island in the Hebrides and arguably one of the most beautiful. The Cullin Ridge constitutes the backbone of the island; 12 km of dramatic peaks and troughs that only the most experienced outdoor enthusiasts should attempt to traverse. There is however, plenty more (slightly more relaxed) exploring to be done, from Viking ruins to sections of rocky coastal walking.

On that topic, Skye’s coastline, much like Mull’s, is peninsula-based and is large enough to have quite different levels of precipitation from one end to the other, making sure that there will be a sheltered anchorage somewhere close. There is always something to see from the water too, so grab a pair of binoculars when you take a break from rope-work. Wildlife is rife here, and many native maritime invertebrate species are critical to other local fauna, which include salmon and sea otters, among other bird-life.

Skye is home around 10% of the 100,000 or so island inhabitants in Scotland, making it one of the more populous islands. Crofters still work the land here, an ancient way of living which is no longer as profitable as working for tertiary industry, hence the rapid decline in croft numbers– yet a bold few still persevere. However, ancient fishing trade continues to thrive and is based in Portree, Skye’s main port. Your skipper might decide to pick up something delicious for dinner, fresh off the boats that come in each day.

Skye is one of those places where words simply don’t do it justice. You must visit, on, before or after your sailing adventure. 

Skye Old Man of Storr

The Lure of Scotland

The Isle of Skye

Helen Walker and her love of the Scottish Isles.

At VentureSail Holidays we pride ourselves on offering experiential holidays on board classic ships and adventure vessels in remote and often lesser-travelled locations. Each vessel is skippered by a passionate individual, all of whom hold a strong affinity for the locations in which they sail, often hand picking ‘secret’ spots along the way to share with guests. And ex-marine research vessel Zuza is no exception, her  crew has Helen Walker at the helm and here she explains why she returns to the Scottish western isles year after year.

“Having sailed all over the world, I can say with conviction that the west coast of Scotland is where my heart lies. Each departure from Oban offers so many diverse opportunities to explore this stunning part of the UK. In total, there are 790 islands in Scotland and each one varies in culture, language, music and whisky. These islands are home to some of the finest distilleries in the world, producing malt and peak whiskies, many dating back hundreds of years, and we offer some specialist whisky tours – which always make for a popular voyage!

However, it is often the spectacular wildlife which leaves me spellbound. In a single day we can experience otters, basking sharks, various dolphin species and world class bird life. The Shiant Islands and St. Kilda boast colonies of tens of thousands of gannets, puffins, fulmars, guillemots and more. Just a short cruise from Oban, continues Helen, lie the Treshnish islands where guests are often able to sit and observe puffins in very close quarters, watching their comical movements as they go about their day to day life. A voyage to Rum proffers Manx shearwaters whilst keen eyes will invariably spot the magnificent golden and white tailed eagles. Our crew are some what of enthusiasts and will generally be found perched on the deck, binoculars in hand!

Minke whales in the Hebrides

It’s not just the fantastic wildlife that continues to lure Zuza and her crew back, the breath taking scenery never ceases to amaze. Mountainous green peaks cascade into the ocean, lush green islands are dotted in the ocean, each fringed by white sandy beaches; dramatic rock formations, that appear to have been sculpted by hand, rise up from seemingly nowhere whilst huge sea lochs enable guests to step ashore and follow trails along some of the most wild and extraordinary scenery in Europe. And as the days draw to a close with picturesque sunsets, eyes are drawn heavenwards to the dark skies, scattered with starts and occasionally the dancing iridescence of the Northern Lights.

granite stacks in the Hebrides

If the smaller more accessible islands have captured Helen’s heart, then is it the far flung volcanic St. Kilda archipelago that has latched onto her soul. Shrouded in mystery and legend, the isles lie approximately 40 miles from North Uist, and are the most westerly archipelago in the Hebrides. Serving as a World Heritage Site, they have lain uninhabited since 1930 and the remains of human civilisation, which dates back more than 2,000, can still be seen today. The impossibly breath taking scenery boasts some of the highest cliffs in Europe, perched somewhat precariously on which are large colonies of rare and endangered bird species – nearly one million seabirds are thought to be present at the height of the breeding season. Their isolation, naturally gives the islands a vulnerable feel, with the Atlantic swell crashing on the shores and historic remains nodding to what once was. These storm swept islands are a powerful reminder of just how small we, as humans are, and visiting here them is a particularly humbling experience for me.

human inhabitation remains on St Kilda

Due to their remoteness, the St. Kilda isles can be tricky to visit yet Zuza has been custom built using the latest modern materials that modern technology can offer and this means she is able to take guests to precisely these remote destinations, day after day. And this is one of the many reasons I so enjoy being her skipper, concludes Helen. The comfort she offers whether under sail or motor combines comfortable living with fast sailing and that is so satisfying [as a skipper]. As a qualified sailing teacher, I am always on hand to offer some big yacht sailing experience and Zuza is perfect for those wishing to learn. She really embraces my passion for sailing alongside the knowledge that my guests are safe and comfortable. I am able to share some of my favourite spots on each voyage, delighting in the wonder and awe on their faces. The weather always has the final say but my aim is to be flexible and plan the day together with my guests each morning. For me, there really is no place like western Scotland, the magic, mystery, scenery and wildlife are never lost on me and as each season draws to a close I feel the longing for the next one to begin.

Hebridean Insight: The Small Isles

Collectively known as the Small Isles, this pretty little archipelago plays host to a vast amount of wildlife – and each island in this collection is very different from the next. Just 153 people live on these islands and transport links are tenuous, making them quite isolated. They’re perfect territory for boat exploration; many of our cruises will show you around by water and you’ll also be able to explore on foot.

Rum

Rum is the largest of the Small Isles, which should make it a Medium Isle, but that doesn’t quite have the same ring. Rum is 40 square miles in area, and conceals the main village of Kinloch to the east, where just over 30 people reside and a small primary school educates the handful of island children.

The rest of the island is uninhabited by humans but a huge population of red deer are free to roam, studied intensely by field ecologists in various areas of academia. Watch out for them (the deer, not the field ecologists) and the wandering wild goats and ponies too.

red Deer scotland small isles

Eigg

One of Eigg’s greatest qualities is its eco-friendliness: it generates all of its power from reusable sources and has a traffic light system of power usage, so its 105 inhabitants know when the reusable power is at its most abundant (think windy days or blazing sunshine) and when its at its most scarce.

This clean energy powers a microbrewery, producing 7 distinct ales and lagers, and a restaurant, bar and several craft shops – quite remarkable for an island of relatively small inhabitancy and stature. It’s just 12 miles square.

Historically, Eigg has been tossed and tumbled through the hands of various clans, religious sects, invaders and wealthy landlords – relics from these eras including churches and chapels can still be found dotted all over the island. Eigg’s tumulus history makes for some fascinating reading. At present, Eigg belongs to its own heritage trust, but political murmurings still cause the occasional tremor, as natives feel they are unfairly treated in comparison to the friends and family of the trustees.

Muck

Muck is the baby in the family of the Small Isles. It’s just 2.2 square miles; less than the distance from the Houses of Parliament to the British Museum! She’s famous for her porpoises and seals – even the name ‘muck’ is derived from ‘mouch,’ meaning ‘swine’. The ancient word for porpoise was ‘mereswine,’ so the island was likely to have been named after its first maritime inhabitants – a rarity in terms of ancient place names, which normally derive from geographic features.

Muck has a permanent population of 27 people, and has several holiday cottages and a hotel. It’s the only inhabited island without a post box.

Seals in the hebrides

Canna

Canna’s population could easily double if a couple of small tourist boats arrived on the island at once; she’s home to just 18 people! Being mile across and 4 miles wide means Canna is long and thin, which makes for an amazing coastline habitat for a plethora of wild birds, including peregrine falcons and merlins. Rare butterflies reside inland, which benefits from relatively little human footfall.

Canna harbours some of the best-preserved Bronze Age relics such as huts, walls and pottery – a perfect place for archaeology lovers to engage in some of their own detective work.

She’s linked by land to the isle of Sanday, which is walkable when the tide permits. 

 

The Hebrides: Mull, Iona, Staffa and Jura

Puffins on Staffa

We mention plenty of island names in our voyage descriptions and blogs, but what is each hebridian island really like? Who lives there? How big is it? How do culture, language and history combine to produce such differences island to island?

This guide will give you a rough idea of the individual character of each of the larger islands surrounding Mull – but you’ll have to visit them all yourself to experience the true Scottish magic that surrounds them. It’s a feeling that’s hard to replicate in words.

Mull

Many of our VentureSail voyages explore Mull and her surrounding smaller islands, and for good reason: she’s really rather beautiful. Mull is just a short passage from Oban and relatively large – 338 square miles inhabited permanently by just under 3,000 people. The island has an undulating coastline; 300 miles of rocky moorland peninsulae make for stunning coastal views and fantastic wildlife spotting. Sandy beaches and dramatic rock formations add further interest to Mull’s rich geography. Additionally, her epicentre hosts several large peaks, the highest of which is a very climbable munro, at over 900 meters high.

Mull’s patchwork history has been woven through centuries of invasion by everyone from the Vikings to the Irish. Bitterly fought over by rival Scottish clans throughout the 12th – 16th centauries, home to legendary shipwrecks and used a WWII naval base, Mull’s history is deep and varied – and discoverable for yourself at the Mull Museum.

The brightly coloured fishing port of Tobermory is Mull’s capital, made famous by the UK children’s TV programme ‘Balamory’ in the early 2000s. Tobermory boasts a distillery (this goes unmentioned in ‘Balamory’, perhaps unsurprisingly) and several bars and restaurants, in addition to a theatre and cinema. Guests on our VentureSail cruises often get the opportunity to explore this enchanting town, as the harbour provides a sheltered anchorage at the start of the sound of Mull.

Mull at Dusk

Iona

The name ‘Iona’ has Gaelic connotations meaning ‘blessed’ and this sandy little island has retained its deep spiritual feeling, perhaps due to its far-reaching religious history – Iona’s famous Abbey dates back to 563AD, making it one of the oldest places of worship in the UK.

Iona itself is tiny, lying like a little pebble next to the great boulder of Mull. She’s just a mile wide and four across, making a half day of exploration wholly doable, unless you’d rather relax on the wide sweeping beaches, or search for elusive green serpentine stones among the shoreline.

She’s home to just 125 permanent residents and in the summer it’s hard to see why that’s so – what with her cloudless skies and sparkling sea – but Iona is exposed and windswept during the harsh Scottish winters. But worry not – our voyages are seasonal, and we aim for the good weather in the summer so you can experience Iona’s beauty at its very finest. 

Bessie Ellen on Iona

 

Staffa

Puffins are perhaps the friendliest of all seabirds, and the sea cliffs of Staffa and the surrounding Treshnish Isles are rammed with them during the breeding season. These little guys get up close and personal when you visit them, making for some awesome photo opportunities. Watch out for other seabirds such as kittiwakes and shags too.

Staffa’s rock formation looks like a very well made soufflé – it just pops vertically up, with very straight walls and a nice, rounded top. Unlike a soufflé, however, Staffa is entirely volcanic. The different rates of cooling of the rock make for incredible pillars, caves and stacks, explorable in the dinghies all of our ships possess.

Staffa is completely uninhabited, even by grazing livestock, which makes way for local flora such as wildflowers to thrive.

Staffa from Bessie Ellen

Jura

George Orwell finished writing ‘1984’ in isolation on the Isle of Jura, in a cottage that still stands in a remote location to the north. Legend has it that he and his adopted son nearly died on a rowing trip, after being trapped in the famous whirlpool at the northern tip. The whirlpool is still just as dangerous today, but our skippers know the tides and times to avoid it!

Besides being a literary pilgrimage for dystopia fans, Jura also offers a distillery, producing the famous Jura Single Malt, and a small settlement called Craighouse on the western coast where you’ll find a hotel and a few shops.

In terms of size and geography, she’s a relatively large island at 142 square miles but very sparsely populated thanks to the enormous area covered by peat bogs. Jura is mountainous, defined by the three ‘paps’ – peaks that all reach well over 2,300 feet and are formed of quartzite, contributing to their jagged appearance. They’ll be the first things you spot from the water when you sail there.

Like many hebredian islands, culture, music and language are celebrated here too. Jura hosts a music festival every September, which celebrates traditional Scottish song and poetry, attracting visitors from around the globe.

Life as the Skipper of Zuza

Helen Walker is the skipper of Zuza, heading up an all-female crew as they sail the South African yacht around Scotland. Here’s what she has to say about life on board this fabulous vessel…

Why I like skippering Zuza

Zuza is a modern boat, custom built using the latest materials modern technology can offer – this makes her unique; truly one of a kind! One of the many reasons I so enjoy being her skipper is the comfort she offers whether under sail or motor. She combines comfortable living and fast sailing so that she can take you to remote destinations day after day, and as a skipper this is really satisfying. It embraces my passion for sailing alongside the knowledge that my guests are safe and comfortable. Zuza is also able to reach particularly remote destinations that other vessels her size can’t, thanks to her bilge keel design, and the 2 powerful engines enabling superb manoeuvrability. Wind and power: the perfect combination!

A bit about me

My love of all things sailing started in my teenage years, when I discovered sailing dinghies in the Lake District… I was hooked! A yacht sailing holiday in the Balearic islands led to me taking my day skipper ticket and volunteering with the Ocean Youth Trust. This enabled me to log sea miles and learn on the job from a multitude of highly skilled and diverse skippers on lots of different sailing boats. My first professional role at sea was as a flotilla skipper on the beautiful Dalmatian coast in Croatia. The next 20 years saw me in a variety of skipper roles from Brixham trawlers in Devon to the round-the-world challenge boats. I qualified as a yacht master instructor in 2003, enjoying the challenges in this role hugely and working my way up to cruising instructor trainer.

One of Zuza’s many perks is that she caters for all experience levels of sailing – whether you’re a complete novice looking to learn or a seasoned sailor wanting a new experience. However, if you simply want a holiday on a lovely comfortable yacht with stunning scenery, food and company, my crew work hard to anticipate your every need and make you want to visit Scotland Zuza-style year after year.

What makes Zuza comfortable

Another really unique aspect of Zuza is the completely enclosed cockpit with its 360 degree windows, so no matter what the weather, you’re right in the hot seat warm and dry. This is where the helm is, so you are welcome to steer Zuza and learn about all the navigation or simply sit back with tea and cake and watch the world go by.

Unlike most modern yachts, Zuza has sturdy hand rails around the entire deck providing easy walking, and lots of places to sit comfortably while wildlife spotting. If you fancy a swim, there’s a diving platform which is also used for boarding outer tender for daily shore excursions. Three steps downstairs brings you to our large saloon where breakfast and dinner are served – lunch depends on the day! The saloon also has wrap around windows and large hatches, and a servery where you can help yourself to fruit and biscuits and drinks. On the saloon level, Zuza has two ensuite cabins, where you can lay in your double bed with the hatch open watching the stars at night or dolphins during the day. Down another three steps is a corridor past the engine room and washing machine (which are enclosed completely) to two twin cabins (which can easily be adapted to become singles) and another toilet with a shower.

zuza-double-cabin

What to expect when booking a holiday on board Zuza

I endeavour to plan a comfortable voyage visiting new places everyday, of course the weather has the final say but my aim is to deliver the itinerary you have booked as weather permits. I like to be flexible, and we’ll have weather forecasts each morning, so over breakfast we can plan the day together. You may have a desire to go somewhere nearby and I will do my best to make this happen, likewise feel free to make contact with VentureSail prior to the voyage to discuss.

A typical day onboard Zuza
Breakfast is usually served at 8am, with cereals, toast, porridge, fresh fruit, and yoghurt followed by a cooked option. This is also where the plan for the day is discussed, along with the latest weather forecast.
We’ll have lunch whilst sailing, and it varies but you can guarantee there’s always lots of it! Soup and homemade bread, cold meats, salad, quiche, baked potatoes are just some of the options. Some days may be a packed lunch as we are ashore walking or just sitting on a golden sandy beach, followed by an afternoon tea of cake or scones with tea and coffee if underway.

Dinner is served between 1900 and 2000 and usually at anchor, having returned from a shore excursion to a hearty meal of local produce perfectly cooked by our onboard chef. A dessert or deluxe cheeseboard with drinks and coffee while we talk about our day winds up another VentureSail experience.

Zuza-saloon area-guests

Why I love the west coast of Scotland
After sailing in so many seas around the world I can honestly say the west coast of Scotland is where my heart is! Sailing from Oban offers so many diverse options to explore this stunning corner of the planet. There are 790 islands in Scotland which vary in culture, language, music and, of course, whisky! The wildlife here is spectacular and a photographers dream. A single day can bring otters, many species of dolphins, basking sharks and as for birds… there’s no place like the Shiant islands or St. Kilda for colonies of tens of thousands gannets, puffins, fulmars, guillemots and more. Just a short cruise from Oban takes you to the Treshnish islands, which is the place to get up close to puffins, or to Rum where the Manx shearwaters breed. One of the greatest, almost guaranteed sightings is that of golden and white tailed eagles – first mate Sarah is a bit of a fanatic and will be on deck spotting most of the time!
Outer Hebrides