Posted by Alan
Sunset over Mull from north end of Luing
With summer waning (wow, where did it go to? I must have blinked!), it was time to grab a camping trip before we ran out of season. Fortunately a friend had suggested a weekend trip around the Isle of Luing which is a small island located about 16 miles south of the west of Scotland tourist mecca, Oban.
After stopping off to camp on Friday night in the very pleasantly located and well equipped Gallanachmore Farm campground (just a mile or two south of Oban), we set off early on the Saturday to arrive at Ellenabeich on Seil (near Easdale) at about 8 am.
The trip was coincidental with spring tides, and this part of the west of Scotland is renowned for being an epicentre of significant tidal flows which continuously ebb and flow their way around the many islands at rates topping 8 knots in places. As a result, good tidal planning was a necessity unless we wanted to find ourselves visiting somewhere completely different from that intended!
By starting early we planned to catch the tail end of the ebb tide down from Easdale towards Luing, which also involves crossing the highly tidal Cuan Sound, the west of which is an area known for significant turbulence under certain wind and tide conditions.
Heading towards Cuan Sound
When we looked on Friday, the forecast had been for F2 winds from the south for most of the weekend but, as we unpacked our cars and readied our kayaks and camping gear, glances to the south revealed quite a few white caps between us and Cuan Sound. An anemometer reading showed 13 mph winds (gusting to 20 mph) from SW.
We eased out of Easdale Sound and headed south, quickly encountering the south-westerly wind on the last of the ebb tide which kicked up some nice chop for us to plough into as we approached Cuan Sound.
Cuan Sound is a narrow gap (200m) between the south end of Seil and the north end of Luing, and the Sound is rarely not in motion. Indeed, it is inactive for only one hour in every 6 or so and even then it shows evidence of moving water. At peak flow, it hits 7 knots in either direction. A ferry crosses the Sound to service the local communities on Luing.
Entering Cuan Sound
As we rounded the corner in an active sea into the Sound, the north end of Luing provided shelter from the prevailing southwesterly winds and the sea state lessened. The flow was due to reduce too, but was still running east when we arrived. We targeted a bay on the northern coast of the island and ferry glided over the Sound towards it.
I then did a quick weather check by phoning home to “Weather Station Pam” whilst trying to avoid being sucked back into the flow out of the bay. During this act of juggling the phone, phone bag and paddle, I nearly dropped the phone but somehow didn’t. The outer waterproof phone bag took a swim, however, and was soaking for the rest of the trip. Just as well I double bag the mobile!
Weather Station Pam revealed that 13 mph gusting to 25 mph southerlies were now appearing in the forecast and that they would eventually die out as the day progressed. This was a change from the previous forecast we had of F3-F4 SW later in the day. It looked like it had blown up a bit earlier than expected.
It was interesting to note the extreme lack of mobile reception in this part of the world. I frequently experienced signal dropout, and the maximum signal I had all weekend was a single ‘notch’, obtained while standing on a hillside! The learning to take from this is that, if you are kayaking in this area, it may not be a good idea to rely on just your mobile phone for emergencies. A VHF radio (which I also carry) is useful, but it is only a line-of-site device and can potentially be limited with all the hills around. There also wasn’t a whole lot of shipping in the vicinity to radio to if required. So it did raise the valid question of what else should I be carrying for emergency communication around here? A PLB? An EPIRB?
We had intended heading down the west of Luing first then coming up the eastern side to complete the circumnavigation, but the conditions between Easdale and the Cuan Sound coupled with the wind forecast for the earlier afternoon made the option to head down the eastern side first seem more appealing.
Narrows at island of Torsa
We proceeded eastwards and the conditions calmed as we turned to explore the narrows between the islands of Torsa and Luing, which are, indeed, quite narrow – 15 feet in places and shallow, and hence are not navigable in much other than a kayak. After heading through, the views opened out to the eastern side of Luing as well as to the mainland, and south to the island of Shuna.
An hour or so later, we arrived at the small and rather picturesque hamlet of Toberonochy. As you arrive in Toberonochy you are immediately reminded of the heritage of the islands in this area as you are surrounded by slate.
A lot of the islands in this locale are referred to as the ‘Slate Islands’ , which relates to their previous historical importance within the slate industry. This includes Easdale, Seil, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua. Slate, as you are probably aware, is used for roofing on buildings, and Easdale was the main hub for the industry for the best part of 3 centuries. In its heyday, slate from this part of the world roofed buildings such as Glasgow University, Glasgow Cathedral, Iona Abbey and was even exported as far away as Canada before business came to a halt in the 1950s as different and cheaper roofing methods became the norm.
Toberonochy harbour had a pier made of slate, and a surrounding beach of crushed slate, as could be found on other parts of the island. There was an old fishing vessel ‘Crystal Waters’, lying in ruin at the harbour which, even although not relating to slate, added to the historical character of the place.
After having a very relaxed lunch break and enjoying some sun rays and ever increasing blue skies, we reluctantly departed and headed further south.
The coastline at the bottom of Luing is rather unremarkable, mainly grassy hills with the odd small pocket of trees breaking the horizon. The breeze we were paddling into was the only sign of what lay round the end of the island.
Rounding the south end of Luing
We gradually approached the south of the island and, as we rounded it, the views over to north Jura and Scarba opened out. We could see the tide race off the south end of Luing in action, and passed though the tip of it. For the next few kilometres, we had a south-westerly F3/4 wind giving us some beam waves and the sea was once again quite lively. The sun was out, the views were stunning and we all had smiles on our faces as we headed north. During a very brief break at a small inlet, the winds suddenly dropped by a couple of levels and the seas calmed down. I was amazed at how quickly weather can change!
We headed north up Luing at a good few licks, greatly assisted by the flood tide (sometimes whizzing along at 4-5 knots), and soon arrived in Luing’s main village, Cullipool, which as chance would have it is also home to the island’s only shop. With the sun now blazing down on us, we used the opportunity to buy a few chilled drinks and ices and enjoy the sights.
Leaving Cullipool, we resumed a northerly passage and, as it was getting late, we resolved to find somewhere to set up our camp.
Dave spotted a likely campsite on the north end of the island just a couple of kilometres from Cuan Sound, but with some breaking surf onto yet another slate beach. He selflessly went in and scoped it out before signalling to us all to go in. The surf wasn’t big, but it was there and the beach was very steep with slate so it made for a nervy landing.
Elevated view of camp spot on north end of Luing
After we were all off the water, kayaks unpacked, tents pitched and bellies filled, we were treated to a lovely sunset stretching out to the west over the Garvellachs and the Isle of Mull. We watched the sun roll down until it dropped over the horizon and gradually turned the sky an array of pastel hues. All this whilst listening to the gentle crash of waves over the beach – what a pleasant end to a fantastic day!
We left our camp at about 11 am the following morning with a slightly awkward surf launch (teamwork was required!) and headed back north, once again keeping a careful eye on the tidal timing to take in Cuan Sound in order to complete the circumnavigation. We then made our way north along Seil’s coastline which had some nice gentle, breaking swell to play in for a while.
Pastel Hues over the Garvellachs, Mull and beyond
Strangely, for a few minutes the Coastguard helicopter appeared and flew over us before setting off elsewhere. Maybe they were looking for someone? Or maybe they were just admiring the wonderful kayaking scene below them.
One other highlight for me was that I used a new Greenland paddle for the entire trip – one that I had made myself. More on that later, but I was very pleased that I had done this and was happy with the performance of the stick. There is something very satisfying about using something you have made yourself for propulsion!
Using my self made Greenland stick
Arriving back in Easdale Sound I decided to do a couple of rolls, not for any applause, but mainly because I’d never rolled a fully laden sea kayak before. I especially wanted to try those well rehearsed Greenland rolls we have been working on for so long! I firstly used a side scull recovery, then did a full reverse sweep. Both rolls worked well, but the main difference with the laden kayak was the greater inertia of the kayak as it rotated in the water. Indeed I had to do a little extra pry just to get the kayak to fully turn round before doing the actual recovery sweep and pry. I’m just glad that it worked with a full load, and this just adds to the importance of practising rolls in real life scenarios. I maybe need to try rolling it loaded in some chop next!
Sunset from north Luing looking west
We all arrived back on shore at Ellenabeich with enough time to spare for a late lunch , which concluded an extremely pleasant weekend trip in superlative scenery and excellent company.