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A family sailing holiday in western Scotland

The coronavirus has turned the world on its head when it comes to family holidays or indeed travel of any kind. Now we are more mindful of issues such as health and hygiene, social distancing and santisation, than ever before. It is therefore perhaps quite natural that we see holidaymakers seeking isolation over city breaks, and staycations in preference to overseas travel, both trends that I think are likely to continue at least into the short term. So what does a family with teenage children do if they still have the urge to travel, to see new things and enjoy new experiences? For us, it was a sailing holiday in Scotland with Go West Sailing. It ticked so many boxes: beautiful scenery, enjoyment of the outdoors, isolation, something active to keep the kids busy and entertained, not to mention the opportunity for us all to learn new skills. We had also contacted a number of different sailing schools but felt Go West Sailing offered a more personal and tailored service than some of the larger operators, helping to guide us with the right holiday for us. Regular readers will already know that our two boys are experienced dinghy sailors, having competed in national and world championships in a variety of boats, but this is by no means a pre-requisite for a sailing holiday. As non-sailing parents, we too could get involved since, as an RYA accredited sailing school, Go West Sailing offer courses for all abilities that can be run in conjunction with more advanced courses. Myself and my wife signed up for the RYA Competent Crew course, along with our 14-year-old son since you have to be at least 16 years of age to do the next stage up. My oldest son, on the other hand, who turned 16 during lockdown, signed up for that next step: the RYA Day Skipper course. If you are completely new to sailing, I’d recommend setting your sights on Competent Crew. You can do this with no sailing experience whatsoever – all you really need is an open mind and to be up for the challenge! The Day Skipper course, on the other hand, does involve a deeper understanding and it’s strongly recommended that you do some theory work beforehand. What to expect from a family sailing holiday A sailing holiday of this type might not be everyone’s idea of luxury but, as I always say, luxury is different things to different people. If you’re going into it expecting all the creature comforts of a superyacht, then think again! If instead you are looking for an alternative kind of luxury – one where you can enjoy the freedom of the sea, learn a new skill, see amazing scenery and wildlife, and have an incredible family experience together, then this could be just the holiday for you. Our trip Go West Sailing operates out of Largs, a small North Ayrshire town about 30 minutes west of Glasgow. Situated in a picturesque location by the sheltered waters of the Firth of Clyde, this charming seaside town serves as an ideal base for exploring the west coast of Scotland, with its many islands and inland lochs. As we drove to the marina known as Largs Yacht Haven, with a few lengths of rope so we could practice our bowlines and sheet bends (we all tried to do at least a little bit of homework beforehand!), we looked forward to the adventure that lay ahead. On arrival, we met our skipper for the week, Tony Blenkinsop, a qualified RYA Yachtmaster Instructor with more than 30 years’ sailing experience, and were shown to the boat that was to be our home for the week ahead: a Beneteau Oceanis 393 called ‘Mistral’. Tony was great company and an excellent instructor, striking just the right balance of being patient with us and giving us the confidence we needed, yet at the same time pushing us to do the best we could within our very modest abilities. He never made us feel we were asking stupid questions, even though I’m sure that sometimes I probably was! Of course, safety came first but very soon we were being given the skills to read and use charts, as well as tips on how to go about planning a passage. Having spent the first night on the boat, we set sail out of Largs the next day, heading north from Great Cumbrae towards Holy Loch (just north of Dunoon) on the Cowal peninsula. Very quickly we began learning the basics of how to crew – how to leave a mooring, how to correctly load a winch, what to do when tacking and gybing, and so on, and were lucky enough to spot some porpoises in the process. Shortly afterwards a call came through on the radio from the Belfast Coastguard (which covers not just Northern Ireland, but also south-west Scotland and north-west England) to alert other boats in the area that a fishing vessel had pulled up some suspected ordnance (eg. a bomb) somewhere near Tarbert. We were twenty miles away, just about to enter Holy Loch (not deterred by the sight of a wreck!), but it was interesting to hear all the same. Of course, with a holiday of this nature, you never know what the weather will bring and so, sure enough, a storm came through the following day. We decided to stay in the shelter of the loch rather than press on, but had the option of just completely sitting it out and staying at our mooring or venturing out a short way into the loch to practice some man overboard exercises (with a buoy as the person, not one of us!). We opted for the latter and, although it was pretty miserable weather-wise, had no regrets! I would imagine also that it’s no bad thing to learn these skills in more challenging conditions that you might be more likely to encounter if ever facing this kind of scenario for real. Thankfully, the next day was far less wild and we could continue our journey which involved heading back on ourselves slightly before navigating the Kyles of Bute. This required some more careful planning as you can see from the chart. We enjoyed beautiful scenery along the way and passed these two painted rocks known as the Maids of Bute. Legend has it that these are two ladies who turned to stone when their fishermen husbands failed to return from a trip. The skipper of a pleasure steamer that operated in the area in the early 20th Century used to point them out but became so frustrated by passengers not appreciating that the rocks resembled two ladies on the hillside that he sent a deckhand to go and paint them. To this day, they are mysteriously re-painted every now and again to keep the tradition alive. We also enjoyed lovely views of a number of islands, including the ‘Sleeping Warrior’ of Arran (so called because the profile of the mountains looks like a soldier laid on his back) and Inchmarnoch where a monastery was established as early as the 7th century. Whilst passing these islands, we also heard a May Day call on the radio for a boat that we think we’d passed earlier in the afternoon. It was to the west of Great Cumbrae and, had we been nearer (it was two hours back for us by this time), we would have been obligated to attend but it was beyond our juridiction and two other vessels were reportedly on the scene. Thankfully, it turned out to be a false alarm but it certainly added to the day’s excitement! By the end of the passage we reached the naturally-sheltered and picturesque Tarbert Harbour. (There are several Tarberts in Scotland – this one is at East Loch Tarbert on Loch Fyne.) The marina upgraded its facilities in 2019 which meant we could enjoy a lovely, hot shower at the harbour’s modern facilities, after we’d had a short explore by running to Tarbert Castle and around the neighbouring Tarbert Forest. Tarbert established a fishing industry by the 1800s and nowadays enjoys an annual two-day seafood festival (postponed in 2020 of course) to celebrate the fish and shellfish from the crystal-clear waters of Loch Fyne. The following day we sailed back to Largs, still continuing to learn as we went along. For example, we learnt about ‘buoyage’ (in fact, I learnt that that was even a word!) – what different buoys and marks look like and what they each denote. We also learned how to anchor, giving those of us who felt brave (or stupid!) enough to jump in the very chilly waters the opportunity to do so. Over time we also gained an understanding instruments of the boat, although always knowing that these weren’t something to entirely rely upon. We also some plenty of marine and bird life, including dolphins and one seal that popped up briefly, posed with a big fish in its mouth, and then disappeared again, unfortunately not giving me enough time to capture the moment on my camera. Once back in Largs, we freshened up, treated ourselves to dinner at Scott’s at Largs Yacht Haven, and then ventured out once more for some night navigation. If I was to learn anything from this experience, it was that – at our level of ability – you don’t really want to find yourself in the situation if you can help it. The photograph below shows what it was like when we went out, when there was still a little bit of light, but it soon went much darker and everything became a whole lot more challenging. With reduced visibility, things looked very different – traffic lights on land could be mistaken as port and starboard markers and it was much harder to get a good sense of perspective. On the final day, we practiced a few of the skills we had learned during the week and, by the end of the course, we had covered a total of approximately 100 naturical miles. Our oldest son passed his RYA Day Skipper – the youngest person to have ever achieved this with Go West Sailing – and the rest of us achieved Competent Crew status, even if we did feel a little incompetent at times! It had been a thoroughly rewarding experience and one that we could really enjoy together as a family, and I hope this video gives a sense of that.
YouTube video
What does all this mean? Well, in theory, the RYA Day Skipper qualification means that my eldest son can safely charter a 30-45ft sail cruising yacht in familiar waters with the remainder of the family as crew. It tells charter companies that he has enough knowledge and practical experience to charter a boat safely and responsibly. So, next time we are in Scotland, or the Med, or the Caribbean or anywhere in the world… who knows what adventures lie ahead? Disclosure: Our trip was sponsored by Go West Sailing.

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson is Editor of A Luxury Travel Blog and has worked in the travel industry for more than 30 years. He is Winner of the Innovations in Travel ‘Best Travel Influencer’ Award from WIRED magazine. In addition to other awards, the blog has also been voted “one of the world’s best travel blogs” and “best for luxury” by The Telegraph.

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  1. Probably back in January you had grand plans for dipping your toes in far warmer waters for the summer of 2020 though I’ve got a hunch that in years to come it will be the sailing holiday that your boys talk of most and reminisce about. They will be proud of what they learnt and achieved. Who knows they may even be skills that they use to earn a living? I’ve got a friend who hires himself out as a skipper for super yachts around the world. Not a bad way to earn your crust.

    1. We didn’t have any concrete plans in place but were certainly thinking about some major overseas trips. And you’re right – I’m sure this is a holiday they will remember just as much (if not more). As for working in something sailing-related, my eldest is currently quite interested in marine engineering… so who knows?

  2. You should have more confidence in your oldest son. If he’s the youngest person to ever gain the qualification then he must be very capable. I sense a tone of hesitation in your words, “Well, in theory, the RYA Day Skipper qualification means that my eldest son can safely charter a 30-45ft sail cruising yacht.”

    I’d definitely want to give him the chance to try out his newly acquired skills. But sooner rather than later before he starts forgetting everything that he’s learned. Maybe you could charter a boat for a couple of days at half-term?

    1. I have every confidence in him but it does still feel quite a daunting prospect. I am sure you are right, though – it would help to do something sooner rather than later. He continues to dinghy sail at least twice a week (in fact, he is out out right now – for the third time this week – whilst I’m sitting in a sailing club catching up on comments and emails), so is definitely still keeping his hand in.

    2. Don’t sit in the sailing club, hire a dinghy and get out there, you will learn loads!
      (excited to be chartering on the west coast this summer! Can’t wait)

    3. I wish I could, Tim, but work beckons more often than not!

      I hope you have a great time chartering this Summer. Where are you going out from?

      We are doing the same again this Summer, with my eldest this time attempting his RYA Coastal Skipper qualification.

      We are all looking forward to it. Watch this space for another write-up/video when the time comes!

  3. Yet another argument for the benefits of slow travel. That West Coast of Scotland is magnificent. Taking your time to see the islands and the wildlife must have been an amazing experience. Although Covid has mainly had its downside it has also made us do things that we would normally have never considered, as this post shows 2020 hasn’t been all bad. I don’t suppose that becoming a qualified yacht skipper was one of your boy’s New Year Resolutions?

    1. No, I don’t think it was something that had crossed their mind but, when we mentioned that it was what we were planning to do, they were delighted. We were going to keep it secret from them and surprise them when we arrived but, with our eldest actually needing to do some studying on terra firma for a few weeks before, we decided that wasn’t really going to work. Now they’ve got the bug, I think they’ll want to do some of the other RYA qualifications. There is always so much more to learn.

  4. I’ve not been anywhere yet but if I were to travel, I think I’d go with those trends and aim for a UK ‘staycation’ somewhere a little more remote and secluded. I do think that eventually international travel will rebound and boom again once vaccines are available and we can safely say that this covid-19 is no longer a threat, but who knows when that will be. Hopefully that will be sooner rather than later. It’s also disappointing that the government aren’t doing any kind of airport testing, which might have helped the industry.

    It sounds like quite the adventure you all had! I like the idea of doing a sailing holiday as a novice and coming back actually having learned something. I wonder what that ‘suspected ordnance’ turned out to be in the end?

    1. I did try to Google it afterwards to see if I could find anything in the local news but had no luck. I would imagine some kind of old WWII relic – it’s surprising how much is out there. Last month, just near me in Cumbria, a little further south than where we were sailing, more than 100 unexploded Second World War items were found washed up on one section of the coast in just one day after a rough tide.

  5. Showed this to my teenagers, boy and girl, 15 & 13, who seemed interested. Their Mum less so but she usually goes along with the majority vote. I reckon that it would be good for a bit of family bonding.

    1. Definitely, Andy… go for it!! Give Go West Sailing a call and speak to Victoria – she will be only too happy to help, I’m sure. Kind regards, Paul

  6. What a lovely story. We’ve all had to change our plans this year. Your adventure is a great example of getting on and making the most of difficult circumstances.

    Well done to you and your family!

  7. I think this sort of trip is going to be bigger in the future. I’m hearing that people are getting tired of roasting themselves on a sun-lounger. People want to challenge themselves and to grow. When you’ve only got 20 or 25 days annual leave you want to really do something special with it, even better if you can come away with a certificate.

    1. I think you’re right, Mike. Times are changing and, with that, come changes in the industry. Of course, there will always be a place for beach holidays, but time is precious as you say, and this represents an opportunity to do something that’s that little bit different to the mainstream. That in itself is a luxury.

  8. What an amazing trip! It’s great to see the passion for travel alive in your family. It is a dream of mine having an adventure like that someday with my family, sailing through crystal clear waters and exploring the wonders of it. I also applaud of your amazing skills as a father, giving responsibility to your sons so that they can also feel what it’s like making your own adventures. I really love how you all work together and spend quality time even in the midst of the pandemic. It’s hard times and even if all of us are struggling, you still keep the spirit of adventure alive. Looking forward in hearing your future stories and journeys.

    1. Thank you – that’s very kind. It’s a difficult time. On the one hand, you want to be responsible and sensitive to the current situation but on the other hand you still want to live life and enjoy new experiences. With a little thinking ‘outside the box’, I think it’s still possible to do both.

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