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Sunday, August 1, 2010, in Ardfern, Scotland

 

Hi everyone. Well, our Centenary Cruise is over and we’re back where we started, in Ardfern. Last week, we were at the midpoint of our cruise, on a mooring in Tobermory, hoping that a spot would open up at the dock.

We woke up early, and Art saw a spot on the head of the dock, so we scrambled in. By the time we got there, someone was already docked. I begged them to let us raft to no avail (and the dockmaster frowns on rafting, anyway, I learned later). Luckily for us, the neighboring boat inside the pontoon took pity on us. They told the small boat in the spot that was our last hope that they’d be leaving soon and that the small boat could then take their spot, freeing the T-head for us. Within a half hour, that�����s what happened, and we were finally tied to a dock (and electricity) for the first time in more than a week. We decided to do laundry.

Our boat lined three loads of laundry in the queue, and we got our first machine within an hour. But the cycles were long, and the dryers were slow. It took me four hours and nearly a dozen pound coins to get the job done for my one load. By the time I was finished babysitting the task, the afternoon was half over. Fortunately, this was now my third visit to Tobermory, a place you can take in inside of two hours. In between laundry visits, we had lunch, I did a grocery store run, and managed to get some tasks done onboard as well.

There hadn’t been many opportunities to go out to dinner in the areas we’d been, and we closed the loop on visiting every place in town by having dinner at a fish restaurant overlooking the harbor from the second floor of the ferry dock, the Tobermory equivalent of a penthouse view.

The next day, we left early in a promising wind forecast and sailed nearly the entire distance back to Oban. It rained a good deal of the day, making it a very soggy journey for our compatriots who travel sans Karen’s cover. Our only sacrifices were visibility through the dodger and an unwelcome paucity of basking sharks.

We arrived in Oban and found the T-head similarly unavailable, but the marina, who was expecting us, and the American sailboat, who was leaving the next morning, collaborated to get us squared away on a proper dock soon after we arrived. The next morning, the American sailboat left and we were nestled against the dock. Within minutes, the two training sailboats that called this dock home were back in their spaces and we were the third boat out. Minutes after that, there were two more vessels outside of us.

The marina isn’t in Oban proper; it’s on a nearly uninhabited island nearby called Kerrera. Every hour, a small ferry boat takes marina people to the town, and then returns again with a new batch of people. So planning to go to town isn’t just a step off of the dock.

By now, we’d been in Oban Marina for several days when we’d first arrived on the west coast, and we’d visited Oban town by bus on two occasions. There wasn’t much new to discover. This didn’t keep us from taking the ferry to town and wandering the shopping streets. Dave had his first opportunity to try haggis in a luncheonette-type place that’s probably as genuine as it gets.

We spent the next day in town in Oban the way the locals do: no sightseeing, just visiting the supermarket, eating ice cream, and window-shopping, enhanced by a seafood and pasta lunch overlooking the harbor on a sparkly and almost warm day.

We’d been invited, as part of our cruise, to a mussel dinner sponsored by the Royal Highlands Yacht Club. This, like the beach barbecue, had been a logistical conundrum for us, because we didn’t think there would be facilities ashore to tie our dinghy safely (we were wrong about this, although we were happy with the way the evening worked out.) Then we learned that someone on the cruise had chartered a powerboat that seated 12 people, and we could buy our portion of the vessel and be whisked to Loch Spelve, an empty bay where the event would take place.

The little boat was comfortable and fast, and within 30 minutes from Oban we were deposited on a floating dock normally used for mussel farming by Inverlussa Mussel Farm. In fact, the floats supporting the mussel farm took up a large chunk of the harbor.

The dinner was a charity event to support one of the lifeboats all over the UK that exist entirely on the generosity of donations. There were four choices for mussels, billed as Chinese (black bean sauce and sweet and sour sauce) and European (spicy cream, and marinière). The mussels were served in nondescript brown boxes about the volume of a rice bowl. The way to eat mussels without utensils is a little tricky, but very eco-sensitive. You have to find a mussel to designate as your fork and slurp up its contents. Now you have an empty mussel shell that you use essentially as a pliers to wrest the meat out of the remaining critters. Being that we were in a mussel farm, kind of an industrial bay, someone had kindly put out many laundry baskets lined with bags, and you could dump all of the shells that were no longer dinner and no longer pliers into the bin. Then you could go back for another go at the mussel pots. There were large baskets of bread for sopping up the sauces and napkins to handle the unsopped sauce that landed on your fingers.

The Chinese mussels were made by a local chef, and the black bean version was my favorite. I’m embarrassed to say that of our group, I’m the most qualified to evaluate this, because I tried three of the four types before I finally went under.

Soon before we were to go back to Oban, the midges came out. I haven’t talked about midges before, but we’ve been expecting them. They’re nasty little bugs. They swarm around your face. They bite you mercilessly. And unlike mosquitoes, they’re so small that they don’t give you the satisfaction of swatting them to a flat, bloody pulp.

We’d been warned. But then the midges never showed up all season. People told us that the populations were down, due to the cold winter. I thought that it might have something to do with the cold and rain that, even for Scotland, might be a little intense. And there they were, scattering the crowd and driving many of the participants back to the solace of their anchored boats.

We had the whole day to spend in town the next day, and we found a restaurant we hadn’t tried before. In the evening, the final cruise banquet was held in the marina where we were: no ferries, no dinghy, no taxis. But we did have to crawl over the two training sailboats to find our way to the pontoon and land.

There had been about half a dozen events on the cruise, and I’d been wary after the first dinner was so disorganized. But every other event – and most of them were harder to plan than the first dinner had been – was perfectly run. The sunflower of anchored boats was on time and resulted in a reasonably round object. The picnic on the beach and the mussel dinner outdoors were remarkably well-ordered, with nearly instant food service and just the right amount of structure for a bunch of sailors on holiday.

The final dinner was a more complicated event, and was barraged by rainy weather, but it proceeded just as the program had stated. It began with a taste of single-malt Scotch from Oban Distillery (there are as many single-malts in the Highlands as there are versions of moonshine in Appalachia.) We clustered inside a winter boat shed and sipped the Scotch in plastic tumblers. Many of the attendees were in jacket-and-tie (our boat clothes generally pass the test of wearability after being stored in a ball on the floor of the locker). Several other men were in kilts, as was one boy whose kilts were accessorized with the traditional woolen knee socks and very untraditional hiking boots. Art indicated his plaid shirt to me and said, “See? The Skupinsky clan.”

The rain decreased to a drizzle, and many of the partiers made their way back outside. Soon, we were all called inside the shed for a few formalities, trophies for the winners of the boat race to Tobermory on the first day of the cruise, and plaques for the leaders of the invited cruising clubs from the region, and from America. We went outside again, and people began to make their way to the adjacent shed where dinner was to be served, only to be held back.

A bagpipe band then assembled in the boatyard and played some tunes, including the omnipresent “My Bonnie Lassie”. When their program had finished, they marched in the direction of the harbor, and indeed into the sea, up the side of a barge that left Kerrera and took the pipe band back to their city.

Finally, they let us into the shed for dinner. Long tables had been set with dozens of settings each. The sides of the shed were draped with colorful spinnakers that have been retired from sailing service. There was a side buffet. Each place setting had a chilled serving of shellfish in a creamy sauce, and every four seats shared a basket of bread. Could they manage to serve the first and last diners in a timeframe less than three hours?

Indeed they did. There were service tables festooned with food that each supported several tables. Each service table had a server, who scrambled to keep the plates filled with portions. Each table was called separately to go up to the buffet, so that a long line never developed. And the menu was mostly cold or smoked seafood, which worked very well.

When it got dark, and that doesn’t happen until well after ten in Scotland at this time of year, there was a fireworks display. We decided that the view from our boat, which was rafted well into the harbor and away from land, would be excellent. I liked the idea of being under the protection of Karen’s cover, away from the rain and the evening chill. I’m not the only one on board who was happy to get into a cozier venue for the fireworks.

Considering that this was just a private display, it lasted quite a long time and boasted a variety of colors and explosions. I’d say that it competed favorably with any fireworks I’ve seen in recent memory, and was an ideal way to cap the evening and the whole cruise.

The next morning was rainy and dreary, and this was departure day for Dave and Patti. Art and Dave managed to get their luggage to the small ferry to Oban after crawling across the two training boats. By the time Patti and Dave were headed to the mainland, we untied ourselves from the training sailboat and motored away from Oban.

It was a short motor to an anchorage that would get us in the general direction of Ardfern, where we’ll be having some work done and meeting new crew. But it was rainy, and I’m starting to think that summer in Scotland isn’t all that summery.

The anchorage Art chose is called Puilladobhrain, and we weren’t the only sailboat that had discovered it. In fact, Art was reading a Yachting Magazine he’d picked up in Oban, and was thumbing through an article called “40 Great Anchorages in Britain”, when he realized that the title photo of the article was the exact scene we were overlooking. To add to our experience, a rainbow came up after the rain stopped, and seemed to stretch from one end of the world to the other.

We’ve just arrived in Ardfern to get some work done on the boat and to retrieve our nephews from Oban. We promise; we’ll return them in the same condition we get them.

Love, Karen (and Art)