Malt-whisky cruise proves spirited.

The days are very long in July at 58° north, though with 12 days to cover a mere 200 miles, long sailing days did not feature heavily. Instead, long evenings spent anchored in quiet contemplation of spiritually scenic surroundings while nosing a small glass of one of Scotland’s classic malt whiskies were the norm.

Once a year in July, 100 or so boats gather in Oban for the official start of a cruise that takes in three of Scotland’s most famous malt-whisky distilleries: Oban, Talisker and Lagavulin. Plus, for those seriously committed to sampling Scotland’s finest, there are a few others along the way. What this description fails to convey is that the route meanders through the islands off the west coast of Scotland, each of which provides its own unique version of this breathtakingly beautiful coastline. However, its loveliness belies a temperamental and unforgiving character that demands care if it is to be enjoyed safely.

For example, note this passage from the Clyde Cruising Club sailing directions: “The overfalls close to the 29m sounding are invariably the most awesome, with breaking crests and spume at their tops. In calm weather at springs the overfall can rise to a height of 4m, accompanied by a loud roaring noise. A heavy west swell can double its height. In extreme conditions the roar can continue for several hours, audible 6 miles distant. In quiet weather a well-found boat and experienced crew can chance a passage on the flood.”

“Chancing a passage” through the Gulf of Corryvrecken in the absence of local knowledge was rather more than most participants were willing to risk, so the longer route was the favored option. Other challenges included the entrance to Loch Moidart, which, were it not for its reputation for outstanding beauty, would deter any safety-minded boat crew. The entrance channel is a series of doglegs through visible and submerged rocks separated by little more than a boat’s width. The pilot book’s instructions to line up the solitary house with the first rock in the entrance was obviously written by someone who had not noticed that there were two houses; the first one to become visible is not the correct one, and the second (correct marker) is largely obscured by trees.

Once through the entrance, the Loch’s deep channel probes three miles into the surrounding mountains, opening onto an anchorage at the foot of a 14th century Scottish castle, as if the channel had led back in time rather than distance.

Though the weather can be boisterous, Scotland’s west coast is blessed with an abundance of sheltered anchorages. Despite the large number of boats taking part, there are more than enough anchorages to guarantee peace and tranquillity for all.

The three official distillery visits are the focus of the social side of the rally. Anchored in Loch Harport, 100 yachts sat at anchor quietly swinging, while 400 crew were anything but quietly swinging ashore at the Talisker distillery. Not knowing the steps of the Reels of Eight and other traditional Scottish dances did not excuse even the least agile crewmembers — who were well-fueled with malt whisky — from joining in the fun. A splendid meal of fresh local seafood kept energy levels up, and for those who were flagging nevertheless, hot soup and rolls appeared around midnight. Thankfully the organizers are more sober than the participants, so dinghies are left tied to yachts, while large RIBs whisk everyone back onboard.

The fun began in Oban. The entertainment for the opening night was a pipe band, which sensibly led the crews down to the town quay to bring proceedings to an end. Next morning a lone piper aboard the yacht Spray led the fleet out of the bay on the first leg of the cruise. Many, perhaps feeling a little frail after the previous evening’s excesses, opted for a mere 20-mile sail to the pretty town of Tobermory, home to the best fish-and-chips stall in the world and the Mishnish pub where poets gather and are heard reciting their poems to any willing listener.

Other high spots on the route are Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, the island of Rhum with a population of 25 and a castle, which you can explore in nearly original condition (you can even have dinner there). The abundance of wildlife is also a joy. A huge Minke whale surfaced near our boat, and seals and puffins were a common sight. Two week’s sailing this area on the Classic Malts Cruise gave us not just the opportunity to savor the bottled spirit of Scotland but also the true spirit of the Scottish isles.

Colleen Ryan and Brian Savage have been cruising around the world onboard their Sundeer 64 since 1994. They left Thailand in January 2003 and completed their nine-year circumnavigation in May.

By Ocean Navigator