“Dolphins!” came the shout from Skipper Nikki Alford at the bow of Bessie Ellen. We were whipping along at a nifty 7.6 knots – a cracking pace for this beautiful Cornish ketch as she sliced through the Hebridean waves like scissors through silk on her merry way to Canna. Dolphins were in sight, and not just a few. Hundreds!
The sun is out, it is day 3 of my first (and by no means last) tall ship adventure, fulfilling my childhood dream of sailing the seas on an historic ship. The wind has toasted my cheeks red, the salty sea air is bone cold, my clunky million layers make me feel like the Michelin man and I’m wearing the Mountain Warehouse equivalent of a tea cosy on my head. I reluctantly had to put my sea bands on on day two because – guess what folks – I ain’t no pirate. (yet). But I am as happy as a seagull with chips. On crack.
Bessie Ellen is a 114 foot long, traditional Cornish wooden trading ketch originally built in Plymouth in 1904. Lovingly restored with painstaking attention to detail and craftsmanship by its skipper, the inspirational Nikki, she now sails all year round – in Scotland and Cornwall over summer, the Canaries and beyond in the winter months. She is a seductive beauty and the very image of all romantic dreams of seafaring escapism. I board on the 18th May – excited and buoyant – with 11 other ship nuts, lovers of the sea, or just curious adventurers, looking for something different.
We are from all walks of life – from the older Extinction Rebellion-ist couple to the single go-getter like me in their 30s, the old-handers on their 10th trip and the newbies like me getting giddy over reef knots and wet weather gear.
In our first hour on board, as ice-breaking patter is exchanged, we hoist our sails: mizzen, main, stay, inner jib, outer jib, fly – tall ship mantra poetry. We learn to make fast and coil ropes and sheets, get our safety brief, realise the wind is non-existent and the sea flat as a pancake and take the sails down and pack them away – a second lesson right there. One hour in and I want to jack in my day job and run away to sea. And we’ve barely left Oban harbour!
After whisky macs and rum and gingers on deck in the early evening mist, we huddle in the warm glow of lanterns, around the below-deck’s communal tables, with our hobbit-like bunks – each with it’s own pretty curtains for privacy and ridiculously comfy bedding – dotted around the main area. We’re here for the low down on our next six days’ passage, the likely weather, what wildlife we will encounter. Island names are rattled off like an exotic tongue – Rùm, Canna, Muck, Eigg, Staffa, The Dutchman’s Cap, Iona, Mull, Coll, Ulva, Gometra… it’s a lullaby to bask in as the waves gently sway us. All the while in the background Pete, Olly, Owain and Alex – our super crew – bustle about laying the tables, setting out wines and beers, tidying the deck and making ready our first (of MANY) sumptuous and indulgent meals on board: oysters (local, obvs), venison, celeriac mash, roast everything, apple pudding, cream. We subsequently learn that over the course of our 6 day voyage, 28.5 packs of butter are used. This is the James Martin school of sailing gastronomy. I mean, who wants a green-juice spa retreat, when you can have this?!
Back to day three. The dolphins surround us like a rabble of jumpy sea puppies, swarming on all sides of the ship as they playfully swoop and splash through the waves, chasing each other under the bowsprit and challenging us in a speed contest. I’ve never seen one dolphin let alone multiple pods – their smooth backs shining under a beaming sun as they dash in and out of the sea spray.
Olly – whose other talents include mustering dreamy cakes, fresh bread and sinfully good homemade sorbets from a galley kitchen the size of a teacup – is also our on-board paddleboarding guru and wild swimmer. So it is no surprise that as soon as our dolphin posse arrive, he is hopping overboard to paddle out with them. Cue a series of hilarious snapshots. The paddleboard overturns, out goes the rescue dinghy. The rescue dinghy punctures. Olly then has to pump the dinghy alive as it shuttles back to the ship, looking like a carrot-topped coyote from the Hanna Barbera cartoons furiously trying to blow up Roadrunner with an ACME dynamite pump. All the while the dolphins continue their mad dance through the waves. Could I be happier? I don’t even know – I am delirious with mad-lady grinning by this point and as high as Digby from Trainspotting on sea air and life.
On the southern tip of Skye, sailing past Soay and into Loch Scavaig, we find our anchor for our fourth night – the Black Cuillins peaks fiercely defending the isle like coal and smoke–coated icebergs. The lobster-red sun is dipping behind the crags, signaling our safe haven. Here, under a candy-coloured sky, the water tranquil and frequented only by plump happy seals and the odd tiny fishing boat, we drop anchor and head ashore for an evening stroll. This is Mordor, overseen by the great eye of Sauron – although in this case more a protective force, radiating sheer wild beauty.
I swim in freshwater Loch Coruisk with fellow ship nut Kathrin, with whom I have especially bonded on this trip. The water is placid, icy, refreshing and delicious. The mountains surrounding us whispering laments. That evening, back on Bessie Ellen, I – accompanied by a ragtag of fellow travellers – sing a bastardised version of the Skye Boat Song, knock back a dram and scatter my Dad’s ashes overboard. Four years after his passing. For a fleeting moment I wish he were here. He would be so proud, he would have loved to sail this same sea. I am grateful in that second for every single moment of my life, for everything achieved and everything yet to come.
Our days pass simultaneously as slowly as dripping treacle and as fast as light. Suns rise and we are out on deck, bellies filled with bacon, eggs, eggy bread, piping hot coffee, steaming porridge and fresh rye loaves. We hoist sails, get our course for the day and take turns on watch – steering Bessie Ellen to our next exploration point. We play tag against other ships, exchange life stories or simply marvel at the Hebrides’ quiet beauty as we sail past jutting rocky outcrops and staggeringly beautiful islands. We send the boys out in the dinghy with a bucket to collect lobsters and crabs from Sandy – a trusty fisherman spotted off the coast of Muck. We feast on lobster salad at lunch and a rich, creamy bisque under a balmy, wind-whippy sun. We drink tea as the ship lists and rolls pleasantly past Ardnamurchan. We anchor in coves and whizz ashore to marvel at Iona’s great abbey, Lunga’s comical puffins and chattering razorbills, Gometra’s “art gallery” – a craggy bothy standing sturdy and proud on this empty, wind-swept island crammed with seagull skulls, shell mobiles and watercolours by an anonymous visiting nomad.
Alex, Owain and Olly answer our millions of questions and indulge us in navigation tips, climbing the rigging, repeated rescuing of us when we get waylaid exploring on shore, crazy anecdotes and endless good humour. Pete, a font of too many Dad jokes and a mine of historical and sea-faring knowledge surprises us each and every meal with yet more gourmet treats.
We swim in the morning, plopping off the side of the ship into freezing crystal waters, hangovers to the fore (well, mine at least), dreams still swirling in our brains. We swim in the evenings either in pebbly coves or seaweedy waves. Time on deck is marked by the movement of the sun, and calls of “dolphins!”, “minke whales!”, “lunch!”, “jibe!”
Nights are cosy, hunkered down around a gastronomic feast, the air filled with mariner’s stories, anecdotes and jokes and swapped snippets of life, wine-induced giggles and silly games, belly laughs and then tranquil, happy silences on deck as the stars hum above us.
The final night arrives and I can barely remember the day I came on board. It’s like aeons have gone by and I’ve rewritten the life plan. I make a mental list of what I need to do to get back on board as soon as humanly possible, before tucking into yet another terrific dinner of Melanzane Parmigiana (a Pete speciality), far too much wine and a tot of Cornish-made Rathlee rum – a barrel of which is on deck “maturing” in her whisky casks as she is rolled across the oceans on a six month voyage to bring her a unique flavour.
We do a “pub quiz” recapping our escapades on board and revelling in the lifetime’s worth of stories we’ve amassed even in such a short time. We have strolled all over Kerrera, our final stop on land before arriving back in Oban – marvelling at the endless seascapes from the lonely turret of Castle Gylen and the graceful bulk of Bessie Ellen as she sails around the headland to meet us on the other side of the island.
A sail on Bessie Ellen is no mere holiday. No mere thrill seek. It is a moment of spirit-filling, unadulterated happiness and zen suspended in time. Palms raw from pulling ropes, skin stinging from spiky salt air, hands numb from steering in Scottish spring time and adrenaline pumping with joy at every glance across the waves. It is the childhood fantasy, a real life that continues to go on, lived by adventurers, whilst you are back at your office desk questioning it all. It is me, booking my next passage barely three days after arriving home, dazed, sea-leggy and grinning like Wallace and Gromit drowning in Wensleydale (looking like it too, as I promptly reinstate my gym membership and hurl myself into the sea for mad swimming dashes).
Don’t wait around for someone else to tell you about it, go and make your own voyage. Sails can be booked on Bessie Ellen via Venturesail Holidays (set up by Nikki) with early bird discounts currently available for early 2020 trips!