Two previous attempts to paddle to the Treshnish Isles and Staffa off the west of the big island of Mull in western Scotland had failed. On the first, the weather forecast was so awful that we cancelled our ferry to Mull several days out. For the second go, we were committed to paddling in the area for a week, but winds kept up in the force five sort of level for part of every day and open crossings to islands with difficult landings weren't really on the programme.
Whitsun 2004 and the forecast was not looking great, with force eights in sea areas Rockall and Bailey - those winds might reach us during the weekend, and even if not, there was bound to be a significant swell. But this time we kept our nerve and resolve, and eight of us were boarding the "Clansman" soon after 7 am. The forty minute crossing and the drive on Mull's narrow winding roads were in glorious sunshine and we picked a put-in well down the north shore of Loch Tuath, opposite the gap between Ulva and Gometra. There was not much swell this far up the loch, but the sea got more interesting by the time we reached Rubh'an t-Suibhain.
Towards the end of the first crossing from Mull to Cairn na Burgh Beg
From here it is three and a half miles out to Cairn na Burgh Beg, with a bit of a dog leg at the end as it became more obvious that the tide was carrying us gently north. Round the north of this smaller island and into the sheltered gap, we landed for lunch on Cairn na Burgh Beg, visiting its ruined "castle" (barely more than a couple of walls of a small farmhouse) and high point at 35m with a fine view of the bigger islands of the group ahead of us to the SW.
Paddling down the exposed side of the Treshnish archipelago
Putting back on, we took the outside of the island and crossed the half mile gap to Fladda, against which the swell was now breaking impressively at about 11 second intervals. Between Fladda and Lunga there is a veritable archipelago of small islands and skerries with some sheltered passages and some impressive reef breaks. From the lee side of Sgeir a'Chaisteil we started following the mile long exposed side of Lunga, past an impressive and seabird-studded stack up which the breaking waves sent spray many metres in the air. We could now clearly see Dutchman's Cap (Bac Mhor), the distinctively shaped last main island to the SW, and as we crossed the mile and half gap, its 86m peak repeatedly disappeared behind the oncoming swell.
The meeting of swells round both sides of Dutchman's cap throws spray up to 20m into the air
As we got nearer, a very obvious loud crash with each wave became apparent, and a periodic light-coloured patch off the north tip of the island resolved into a cloud of spray from a spout shooting up to the plateau level of the island, perhaps 20m above the sea. Treating this with some respect, we paddled down the lee side of the island to the gap before Bac Beag, the last small island of the group. Here the swell from the exposed side broke over reefs, and a narrow channel failed to lead to a safe landing. Though the wind had now dropped off completely, the sky to the SW was darkening ominously, with lenticular clouds over the peaks on Mull itself. Weather was clearly set to deteriorate, so we revised our original scheme to backtrack and camp on Lunga and instead set off SE for the five and half mile crossing to Staffa, which would leave us much shorter crossings for the next day.
At the halfway point, the scenery off left was still bathed in sunshine, and the swell was glassy. But the blanket of dark cloud was rolling in overhead, and soon enough, the surface of the sea to our right darkened. This heralded the onset of the blow, switching almost instantly to force three. The ripples darkening the surface built to a chop with just the occasional white cap.
The glassy swell between the Treshnish and Staffa, just before the blow started
We had hoped to pass to the south of Staffa, but this end now had an onshore wind as well as the big swell, and it looked increasingly inadvisable, as one of our number was tiring. We headed in close to the western shore, inside a reef and below the tiered basalt cliffs. A steep bouldery beach would have offered a difficult landing, with no guarantee that we could breach the cliffs to reach a camping spot, and the risk that we would be unable to launch on the morrow, so we regrouped and headed round the north of the island, Eilean Dubh. Beyond the most westerly point at Meallan Fulann, the rain added to the sense of weather bearing down on us, but the sea state was a little more benign, and we picked out a rocky beach some way north of the jetty where the tourist boats land. By now we had paddled almost twenty miles, mostly in one push. It was late and the last tourist boats had gone home, leaving us the island to ourselves.
We quickly set up camp, and cooked a meal in another downpour, before a break cheered us up and we headed along the precarious causeway to the southern tip of the island and Fingal's cave. Here the swell was sending two metre walls of crashing foam through a narrow gut every eight seconds, and in the cave, all was confusion and heaving foam. An impressive sight - and one not to be approached from the water ! We were rewarded by a clearance from the west and another super western isles sunset over the silhouettes of the islands we had visited during the day. It wasn't until 10.30 that we got our fire going, and with everyone tired from the day's exertions, it was a little more subdued than a normal apres-paddle beach party, not to mention quite a lot briefer !
Sunday dawned dry and clear, but with the swell still running and a huge bank of cloud capping the wilderness coast of Mull above the cliffs. Knowing we had to be at the take-out and back across Mull in time for a lunchtime ferry on Monday, and unsure if the weather would hold even that long, we decided to camp Sunday night at the take-out and consider our options for a short day paddle.
But first we headed at a respectful distance to the south of the island, to see the entrance to Fingal's Cave and get some photos of the swell crashing into the cliffs. The day's first tourist boats were being tossed from side to side as the swell built over the offshore reefs and only the bravest ventured closer. Paddling in the rough is not the hard part - letting go of the paddle to take photos whilst going up and down several metres proves to be the most unnerving part of this game...
Fingal's Cave on the south end of Staffa, unapproachable in the swell
As we paddled back into the open water for the three mile crossing to Little Colonsay, the deeper water kept the swell down to a relaxing couple of metres, and a mixed sky suggested a sunshine with showers sort of a day. As we approached the west of Little Colonsay, spray from breaking waves washed the rocks. We headed towards the northern tip of the island where there were considerable reef breaks, but there seemed to be a clear gap between the island and a drying reef at Rubh' a'Bhogha Mhoir. We headed through this where, indeed, a clear channel offered a straightforward passage.
The reef to our right seemed to offer surf at a manageable size, and Clive turned back to head out through this. I followed at a distance. Clive paddled over a couple of big green waves, which headed towards me. The first broke well before I reached it, and the wall of foam was hardly a problem. The second closed ranks and converged, so I paddled hard to the left of where the converging waves were breaking in a high wall of water, again leaving a manageable wave I could break through, but enough to decide that I would not try to surf back in. Clive was now beyond the break and turning back towards me. There were no more waves approaching and I began to relax, thinking I too was beyond the break. Then suddenly, a green wave reared up ahead of me. I formed a vision of a two metre wall of water, with daylight shining through it and seaweed streaming upwards. I really hoped this one would break before I got to it, but knew I had to paddle hard at it whatever. In a couple of seconds my bow was through the wave, but it hadn't broken. although now the face was all but vertical. As the water hit me in the chest and broke over my head, I was pushed flat to the aft deck and I could feel the buoyancy of the bows lifting into the wave. Yep - I was going to get backlooped.
But suddenly the stern hit rock, with the boat almost vertical in the air. I was ejected backwards from the cockpit, breaking the backstrap in the process, and never got the chance to roll. This was unfortunate, as I was now a swimmer next to a loaded boat with a cockpit full of water, in a place where clearly the surf could do its worst with us. I quickly got to the seaward end of the boat and looked to see if another set was coming. But those were the three big waves, and we hastily got out of the surf zone before any more came in. Calmer water saw me restored to the cockpit and the boat mostly pumped out. But I was clearly still disorientated, as the lovely sheltered inlet I knew of for our lunch stop was now behind us, but I led on round the other side of the island to a less sheltered landing at Port an Roin, on the opposite side of the island's only building.
However, drama over, and restored to a semblance of dryness, we put back on and headed over to weave our way in and out of the small islands off the south coast of Ulva. Heading WNW again, along the rocky coast, the swell crashing into the shore made for exciting photography before we rounded the last headland into the sheltered channel between Ulva and Gometra.
Ann Jones paddling close to the rocks of Ulva in the clapotis
Here we ambled rather slowly, as the channel under the little bridge between the two islands is only passable at the top of the tide, and we were a little early yet. However, there proved to be just enough depth to sidle through between the rocks, and land for afternoon tea on the Lock Tuath side, on the shore of Gometra.
Evening sunlight for our relaxed crossing of Loch Tuath
Another party of kayakers passed through before we got back onto the water and made our final crossing in beautiful evening lighting back to Traigh na Cille and the track back to the road where we had left the cars. A brief session in small, benign surf rounded off our trip, and we quickly gathered an excellent supply of driftwood for our fire - one thing these exposed western coasts of Scotland are rarely short of.
Additional notes on weather, tides, and route.