Life’s a breeze: a sailing trip in Scotland’s Hebrides

It had been raining overnight but the sky had cleared and we were going. Early light on the wet decks. Big engine rumbling somewhere deep in the stern. The anchor chain wound up into its locker in the bow.

Adam Nicolson. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Chloe Gillatt, the cook, had made bacon sandwiches for everyone – lots of bacon, lots of ketchup. Cups of coffee on deck. And so we slipped out of the harbour on Canna, the most westerly of the Small Isles, Rum on the horizon to the east, the wide expanse of the Minch to the north, a good strong breeze coming up from the south-west and a whole day’s sailing ahead of us.

We were heading up the west coast of Skye, with the wind on the port quarter, the Hebrides gleaming and shimmering around us, half-cloud, half-sun, a shifting scene of misty grey, grey-green-blue and pure sky-blue in everything around us.

Hebrides map

Out of the lee of Canna and we raised the sails. Everyone dug in: James the skipper, James the mate, and all four of us paying guests. There were no winches on the boat and it was heavy hauling: first the big rusty red gaff mainsail, then the two headsails and finally a topsail, all sweated tight. But soon enough the sails were up, the engine was off and the big gaff cutter, 17 metres on deck with six metres of bowsprit beyond that, was heeling to the wind, surging to the north, the waters of the Minch streaming in through the scuppers and the big bluff bow making that repeated whoosh-whoosh into the swell – surely the most beautiful sound on earth.

 Canna harbour. Photograph: Alamy

Flocks of manx shearwaters dipped and rose on the seas around us. Puffins dived as our hull approached them. Midsummer guillemots and razorbills were shepherding their newly fledged young on their first few days out at sea. Gannets in from St Kilda swung across the Minch in search of fish. One gannet we passed sat fast asleep on the water, its head turned and tucked into the feathers on its back like a dog in its bed. There is nothing on Earth that can make me feel more instantly, physically happy than setting out like this on a big sailing boat that is starting to drive and live on the wind.

The Eda Frandsen, named after the wife of one of her owners, was built as a fishing boat in Denmark in 1938, larch boards on an oak frame. After landing her last haul of cod in 1989 she was brought over to the west coast of Scotland, where she was converted into a boat for sailing holidays: three crew, up to eight guests in ingeniously packed-in bunks, a big saloon down below and a tiny galley from which Chloe now produced an unending sequence of fresh and delicious meals: venison stews, pork belly with roast fennel, bowls of asparagus and samphire, and crab with mayonnaise (the crabs caught the night before in James the mate’s creels), and every afternoon unbeatable lemon cake, ginger cake, scones and cream.

Gannets and great black-backed gulls fly close to the waves. Photograph: Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

The boat spends her winters in Cornwall but in summer she is based in Mallaig, reachable by train and with the Hebrides on its doorstep. As a recipe it has it all: a rich wooden physicality; an easy and steady movement through the sea; a sense of complete security aboard; and an atmosphere among the crew that is warmer, more generous, more accommodating, more expert, more alive and more encouraging than on any boat I have ever known.

We were on board for six nights and it was a cavalcade of pleasures, up from Rum and Canna, to the uninhabited island of Ensay in the Sound of Harris, out into the Atlantic to the arctic terns and pure white sands of Taransay, before diving back into the Minch and across to the northern tip of Skye, sailing back down the Inner Sound to Kyle of Lochalsh and eventually to Mallaig.

A minke surfaces near the Isle of Eigg, inner Hebrides. Photograph: Alamy

The difference is this: on a boat like the Eda Frandsen, there is no need to go out and find the world. You are in the world, embedded in it, constantly exposed to it, watching as it reels past you as if it were a film on a spool. Day after day, minute after minute, feels like pure gift. And so when a pod of minke whales begins to breach around you, rising and blowing their cabbagey-fishy breath all over you, or a group of dolphin mothers, all with their two-foot-long calves alongside them, comes splashing at the bow a foot or two beneath you, the calves dancing and shimmering in response to every flicker-movement through the water their mothers make, it does not take much to think that this remains a marvel-filled world.

A six-night voyage in the Hebrides on the Eda Frandsen costs from £895pp, or three nights from £435, including meals, equipment and sailing instruction; 2018 trips mostly booked up, see voyages for 2019

Adam Nicolson is author of The Seabird’s Cry (William Collins, £9.99), winner of the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize for nature writing. To order a copy for £8.49 visit the guardian bookshop or call 0330 333 6846

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