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On an epic sailing trip aboard the 60ft clipper Hummingbird, from the remote Scottish town of Oban to the Faroe Islands, travel writer Jamie Lafferty meets a crew of curious adventurers, choppy waters and the North Atlantic’s wildlife.
Hummingbirds are used to migrating, but not quite like the one in front of me. This Hummingbird has circumnavigated the globe three times. Adventure tour company Rubicon 3’s 60ft clipper may have been named after a bird famous for speeding from flower to flower, but it was built for epic voyages around the world.
The 23-year-old yacht has been put through its paces on some wild adventures over the years, so our eight-person crew won’t be asking much of it as we sail from the tranquil Scottish tourist town of Oban to the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. As my fellow sailors and I will soon discover, however, Hummingbird will ask much of us, physically and mentally.
Until now, my image of yachting had been based on a fantasy of a languid sailing life somewhere like the Côte D’Azur, with me standing on deck gazing towards a peach sunset, a perspiring champagne glass in hand, a butler asking, sotto voce, if I’d like a top-up. Before I even set foot on Hummingbird, I can see this experience will bear little resemblance to that one.
The harbour just outside Oban is European, but there’s no mistaking it for one of those glamorous Mediterranean beauties. The Celtic drizzle is persistent, the coastline rough hewn and angry-looking.
While one of the largest vessels here, our yacht is not the most modern in the harbour, but, as we soon learn from skipper Stuart Cook, this is no accident:
“These boats were built to be labour intensive,” he says, when asked if the yacht has an autohelm (similar to a plane’s autopilot). “There’s always a job for seven or eight people to be doing at any one time. If you had a boat that was more automated you’d end up being a passenger, rather than being an active crew member.”
Rubicon’s mission statement is “Sail, Train, Explore”, meaning it offers the chance to progress whether you’re a would-be captain looking to earn a specific sailing licence, or a total novice looking to learn a little about the ocean and perhaps yourself, too. Before any existential revelations, however, we have to get out of the marina.
Creeping out into the Sound of Mull, our first stop will be Tobermory. It’s only 27 miles away as the gull flies, but it’ll still take us almost six hours of sailing into a suboptimal wind. While we have some of the physics explained to us, the increasingly remote Scottish countryside offers a beautiful backdrop, with other sailboats framed by distant mountains and small whitecaps giving texture to the choppy ocean.
Hummingbird requires constant attention in order for us to sail as close to the wind as we can without losing power. I listen closely as I am rotated in different crewing positions onboard, from the helm to the sails to the winches and back again.
In between tasks, there’s a chance to swap stories and enjoy more of the vast scenery. The hundreds of islands that seem to have splintered off the Scottish coast like shattered glass are so sparsely populated as to often appear uninhabited; the remote lighthouses so at one with the scenery as to look natural, rather than built.
The famously colourful harbour of Tobermory (the setting for charming UK children’s programme Balamory) makes for a flamboyant contrast, its pastel buildings popping out across the sea like fireworks. With a population of 1,000, it is one of the largest towns in the Inner Hebrides, complete with hotels, a whisky distillery and its own supermarket. Stuart reminds us that we likely won’t have access to such amenities in the coming ports and encourages us to take a walk around town.
The new crew of Hummingbird have come from far and wide for this experience: one couple from Germany, another from Switzerland, we other four drawn from different corners of the UK. Everyone has wildly different backgrounds, from mountaineers to school teachers, but we’re united by our curiosity for or love of sailing.
The following morning, Stuart lays out some navigational maps for us, showing the plan to head north, albeit in quite an indirect path. The destination isn’t set in stone each day – we have to be flexible with the weather – but the plan is to ricochet between the small island of Muck and its neighbour Eigg, which is powered by a community-owned, 100 percent renewable-energy electric company.
The weather never fully gets on side for us but we’re able to follow that route, finally sailing round to the east coast of Rùm and the tiny port town of Kinloch. Rùm may be the largest of the group known as the Small Isles, but only about 22 people live there.
The next day we sail 12 hours across The Minch, the stretch of water that separates the Outer Hebrides from mainland Scotland, then continue up the east coast of the archipelago, stopping in the Isle of Scalpay, just off Harris. Bad weather holds us there for two days, but we’re able to visit the Harris Gin distillery in Tarbert before returning to Hummingbird to wait for better conditions.
One more day of sailing north takes us to Stornoway, which with a population of around 8,000 feels like a metropolis compared with what’s come before. Everyone takes the opportunity to resupply and re-energise before we depart for the Faroe Islands. Despite having learned a lot over the week, to the less experienced in the team this final leg still feels like a heroic voyage of discovery. We take heart from the experience of our skipper, who has been sailing since he was a boy, and from Hummingbird, which, after a few days at sea, feels familiar.
Stuart estimates the yacht has sailed at least 250,000 nautical miles already, but as such records aren’t kept, the true number could be as much as double that. To put these extraordinary distances in context, a round trip to the moon would be 415,200 nautical miles.
When we leave land behind the next day, our progress is slow – better than treading water, but not by much. With winds unfavourable, we study weather charts and forecasts, hoping for good news. In any case, the journey is likely to last longer than the projected 36 hours, and so, with immediate effect, we start a three-man, three-hour rota system to sail us through the night.
The sea is rough and sleep does not come easily; almost all of the new crew succumb to seasickness at some point. As we get further into the Atlantic, seabirds appear as though offering moral support.
Fat fulmars take long, curious looks into our yacht, while battalions of guillemots shoot past with more urgent matters to attend to. Occasionally, villainous skuas are spotted, on the lookout for whatever they can scavenge, but gannets seem a little more wary of us, staying high and distant from the sail.
Around midnight on that first day, I’m on deck when a small pod of dolphins start following Hummingbird, their silent silhouettes gliding in and out of the water, barely visible in the gloom. The following morning, we catch brief glimpses of minke whales too.
If the encounters with cetaceans are thrilling, the sight of land feels more like a relief. Two days after leaving Scotland, the Faroe Islands is ahead of us. Sheltered by Suðuroy, the southernmost island, the ocean is finally flat calm and, improbably, the weather is fine.
Lying almost exactly halfway between Norway and Iceland, the Faroe Islands is a Danish dependency; while it has its own flag, government and dialect, it still shares a currency and history with Denmark.
The Vikings who swarmed over these islands would have sailed a very similar path to ours – scouring the Scottish Highlands before taking the leap of faith out into the North Atlantic and, eventually, the New World.
Considering how close they are culturally and geographically to Scotland, the islands have a strange, mythic quality to them. We feel it before we’ve even set foot ashore: the forbidding mountains and cliffs, redolent of Mordor; the wooden houses with turfed roofs; hundreds then thousands of seabirds in the air and on the water.
Just 50,000 people live here, spread across the 17 inhabited islands. Over the next few days we’ll explore beyond Suðuroy, but for now arriving at its colossal fjord of Vágsfjørður feels something like sailing into a soothing hug. “Congratulations – it was a wee bit bumpy, but you made it,” says Stuart, pausing to allow us to laugh at his understatement. “You sailed all the way to the Faroes.”
This story appears in Issue 4 of Culture Trip magazine: Art in the City.