Paradise Lost

By Paul McNeill
 
Exploring the Northern half of the Outer Hebrides –
the West coasts of Harris and Lewis 
 
 Take a good look at the chart of the Sound of Harris. It evokes one of two very different responses. Fight or flight. To get the best out of the northern half of the Outer Hebrides I would suggest that you need to fight it. Whether you choose the Cope Passage or Stanton Channel the key is perfect preparation of your pilotage. Good visibility for your first passage would also be very useful!
 
 The GPS on Westbound Adventurer has served me well for several years giving accuracy to within the length of the yacht. It has only let me down one occasion and on that occasion I was at the west end of the Sound of Harris having made a 8 hour nocturnal dash from St.Kilda. The Lat/Lon figures froze on the GPS screen and my immediate reaction was that we must be stemming the tide. 30 seconds later the digits on the screen scrambled at the speed of a satellite and transported us to various parts of the southern hemisphere! I rushed on deck with thoughts of palm trees and colourful cocktails to be confronted with the grey reality of Scotch Mist! The mist was just about to obscure the many islets and reefs which must be visually identified for safe pilotage of this sound. It was down with the hook until the Scotch Mist cleared. One hour later the GPS sorted itself out and confirmed what we already knew…WE ARE HERE! Technology is wonderful when it works but if we use it as our sole means of navigation we will end up in trouble sooner or later.
 
 If you choose to avoid a passage of this sound there is still much quality cruising on the east coast of Harris and Lewis. Many days could be spent exploring the numerous natural harbours from Rodel to East Loch Tarbert on Harris and from the lengthy arms of Loch Seaforth to Stornoway on Lewis. Don’t expect any shoreside facilities outwith Tarbert and Stornoway. One of my own favourites is Loch Scadaby on Harris with its dramatic narrow entrance opening up a well hidden pool where you need to do careful tidal height calculations to avoid touching the bottom at low water. Be prepared for a surprise when you depart this sheltered loch. The weather can hit you very suddenly. If you are crossing over to the Outer Hebrides from Skye or just making your way along the east coast of Lewis the Shiant Isles are worth a visit in settled weather.
 
paradiselost1
 
There are several places on the west of Harris and Lewis which could be described as Paradise Lost. There are a number of reasons why I think they will remain lost to all but a very few cruising yachtsmen.

•The courage required to pilot the Sound of Harris, even in settled conditions.
•The time and distance involved in going over the top of the Butt of Lewis.
•The anxiety of being caught out on the west side of the Outer Hebrides if the weather deteriorates.
 
For those who can overcome the above problems the rewards are great. The silver sands of Lewis and Harris are equal to those of Barra and Uist but they possess the added attraction of some pockets of shelter which the west coasts of Barra and Uist do not offer. When I say shelter I am not talking about any shoreside facilities but a few carefully chosen spots from which to escape a slight or moderate Atlantic swell. On the west coast of Harris there are 2 areas worthy of exploration. The first area is only 2 or 3 hours from the west end of the Sound of Harris. Toe Head and Taransay offer anchorages off spectacular beaches. A series of inlets along from West Loch Tarbert offer anchorages in small sea lochs. Travel a little further north and you will find another series of little pockets of shelter depending on the wind direction.
 
The largest and most amazing lost paradise is the great sea loch on the west coast of Lewis divided into East and West Loch Roag then subdivided into numerous inner sea lochs then upper inner sea lochs then those hidden places which you might want to explore in the dinghy. A full exploration of East and West Loch Roag could occupy a week or two. There are 2 passages between these great sea lochs. The outer passage will often take you into an Atlantic swell unless the weather has been very settled. There is a magical inner passage from Bernera Harbour which looks impossible on the chart…but try it on a rising tide on your first passage, slow ahead…watch your sounder….and you will be pleasantly surprised.
 
To visit the Callanish Standing Stones by sea is to recreate a passage made by our ancestors several millennia ago. You can drop the hook within sight of the Stones and reflect on the meaning of time (or anything else worthy of reflection). Do a 360 scan of the horizon and mentally remove the odd telegraph pole or occasional building and there you have it…as it was…as it is….and as it might always be? There is a local bus service to cover the 20 miles to Stornoway for supplies or crew changes by ferry or perhaps even by plane. Water can be taken on at a few places in East and West Loch Roag but inland journeys are required for fuel. This is an area for the self sufficient yachtsman.
 
Some yachtsmen kill time in Loch Maddy (North Uist) or in various parts of the sound of Harris while waiting for that weather window for a visit to the elusive Atlantic Islands of St.Kilda, The Flannans or The Monachs. Perhaps Loch Roag would be a more comfortable waiting room? On the other hand we need settled weather to get to Loch Roag so why spend time inside Loch Roag when we could be making passage to St.Kilda? For a variety of different reasons, I believe Loch Roag will remain entirely unspoilt, a lost Hebridean paradise and that is surely no bad thing?