Tall ship sailing adventures off the west coast of Scotland

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I joined the Lady of Avenel for a week of tall ship sailing adventures around the Inner Hebrides archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland

This summer I joined the tall ship Lady of Avenel to sail around the Inner Hebrides archipelago. When the sails were furled we put kayaks and paddleboards overboard and headed for land, exploring wild beaches, craggy coves and traditional fishing villages en route.

Unhindered by ferry schedules, busy roads or hiking trails we could access some of the most remote scenery in Scotland; scenery that only the sea has passage to. The unique approach to tall ship sailing adventures provided by the Lady of Avenel combines traditional sailing with outdoor activities.

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Atlas & Boots The Lady of Avenel combines traditional sailing with outdoor activities

The Lady of Avenel is a 102ft Brigantine square-rigger tall ship, skippered by the affable Stefan Fritz. Stefan came to the UK from Germany as a young man to study. He fell in love with Scotland and sailing, and never left. He founded his company focusing on tall ship sailing adventures after purchasing the Lady of Avenel.

“I bought a solution and then went out to find a problem,” Stefan tells me one evening halfway up the main mast. “We’re different to most sail training, because we combine traditional sailing with outdoor activities such as paddleboarding, sea kayaking, wild swimming – even paragliding!”

Atlas & Boots Exploring remote beaches by paddleboard and kayak

It’s certainly a different approach. I found myself aboard because I was keen to gain some tall ship sailing experience this summer. I expected long, monotonous days at sea keeping watch. Instead, I found myself exploring remote beaches, natural caves and ancient crofts via paddleboard and kayak while simultaneously learning the ropes of a tall ship.

I joined a tour that was taking a group of eight standup paddleboarders from London-based Active360 around the Inner Hebrides, one of Stefan’s favourite haunts. I hadn’t much paddleboard experience but the group took me under their wing and there was also a sea kayak available on the ship which I used regularly.

Stefan is keen to stress to his guests that the ship is their home for the week and they can get involved in as much of the sailing process as they like. If guests want to pull on ropes and ascend the mast, they can. Likewise, they are welcome to laze on the top deck and watch the Scottish scenery float by.

“Think of us like a floating hotel for your basecamp,” he explains to the group over a welcome cup of tea.

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Ascending the main mast is optional, but highly recommended!

The days fast slip into a comfortable routine. After a hearty breakfast Stefan would suggest a few options and let the group decide on what they wanted to do. This usually involved putting the paddleboards overboard and exploring the beautiful Scottish coast for the morning.

We tended to return to the ship in time for an equally hearty late lunch before setting sail to our anchorage for the night. In the evening over dinner, there was a debrief where a basic plan was made for the next day. Eat, paddle, eat, sail, eat, sleep. Repeat.

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Anchored in idyllic lochs watching the sun set over a serene seascape

Most evenings we anchored in quiet, calm and idyllic lochs and spent the evening on the ship watching the sun set over a serene seascape. Sometimes there was the opportunity to go ashore and visit a pub or a restaurant or take a walk along a trail.

There were also opportunities to stop by some of the region’s more conventional tourist spots. We visited the sacred monastery of Iona, the natural caves of Staffa, the ancient croft at Ulva and the picturesque fishing town of Tobermory where the children’s TV series Balamory was filmed.

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Atlas & Boots The island of Iona with its sacred monastery

I was keen to pick up some more sailing skills. I had completed some basic dinghy training in the past but still harbour hare-brained dreams of sailing across the Atlantic. As Stefan had mentioned, guests can get involved in the sailing of the ship as much as they wish. As such whenever we moved the ship I went on deck and tried to make myself useful.

We had the square sails up on several occasions and twice journeyed under full sail with all but the inner jibs flying. There was plenty of opportunity to get involved in sail setting, rope work and helming (steering). The crew were always on hand and happy to talk about their lives on board or show you how to use instruments or tie knots and the like.

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Under full sail during a wet but windy day

It was first time I had really used paddleboards and the Sea of the Hebrides is a far cry from the resorts where I’d paddled before. The group were of mixed abilities, and experience wasn’t necessary. On some days I made use of the ship’s sea kayak in which I was far more comfortable.

The advantage of paddleboards is that you can see so much more standing up than sitting down in a kayak. It’s easier to see beneath the surface and feels calmer than kayaking – a bit like walking on water. However, I found keeping my balance harder than most others in the group, particularly in choppier water. I was told that would come with experience.

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Atlas & Boots The first mate explains how to set square sails

The scenery in the region is some of the finest in Scotland and is dotted with medieval castles, deserted beaches with only seals for company, and traditional fishing villages that have stood for millennia. Our itinerary was not dictated by tour operators or ferry schedules; we could spend as much or as little time as we liked at our destinations.

Our visit to the tiny island of Staffa with its distinctive hexagonal columns and the magnificent Fingal’s Cave was a real highlight. After paddling around the caves, we moored our boards and explored the island by foot. As we sat and ate our picnic lunch in peace above the cliffs, smugly watching boatloads of tourists being ferried away, we had the entire island almost to ourselves.

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Atlas & Boots As we sat and ate our picnic lunch we had the entire island almost to ourselves

That day, as we entered the water on our boards, Stefan called down to us: “Just take a moment to appreciate where you are and what you’re doing. You’re on a paddleboard, next to a tall ship off the west coast of Scotland. What more could you want?” He winked at us.

Looking back at the ship across the open sea, with the island of Staffa up ahead and the Atlantic Ocean stretching out to my left, I suddenly felt very small and so very free. I took a deep breath and dug my paddle into the water. What else could I possibly want?

The route

We roughly followed the below itinerary, but as mentioned, the ship and the route really are in the hands of the guests.

Day 1: Meet at Oban, embark ship, sail to Loch Spelve
Day 2: Paddleboard Loch Spelve and Loch Uisg, meet ship, sail to Lochbuie
Day 3: Sail to near the Sound of Iona, paddleboard into sound, visit Iona, sail to Loch Scridain
Day 4: Sail to Staffa, explore Staffa via paddleboard, sail to Sound of Ulva, hike around the area
Day 5: Paddleboard around Sound of Ulva, lunch at The Boathouse, sail to Tobermory, dinner on shore
Day 6: Sail to Loch Sunart, paddleboard along the sound, return to ship and relax
Day 7: Sail to Oban, paddleboard into harbor, disembark ship

Tall ship sailing adventures: The Essentials

What: Six nights, seven days of tall ship sailing adventures aboard the square-rigger Lady of Avenel.

Where: I joined the Lady of Avenel at Oban, a small fishing town on Scotland’s west coast. There are plenty of hotels available in town to suit all budgets.

Life on board the Lady of Avenel was far more comfortable than I expected. The ship can sleep up to 12 guests sharing two-berth cabins, which are warm, comfortable and include mains electricity and even a small sink.

The mess deck was cozy and comfortable with space to sit around two large tables. There was a small wood burner if needed along with plenty of sailing books, maps and charts to give that real old-world charm to the experience.

Meal times were a real surprise. The food was absolutely delicious and plentiful beyond belief with meals usually consisting of three courses. Throughout the day, tea, coffee and treats such as homemade cookies or cakes were available and packed lunches were provided for longer paddling days.

When: The best time to visit Scotland for tall ship sailing adventures and other outdoor activities is during the summer months of June, July and August. However, this is also high season and coincides with school holidays from the end of July through August.

Even though this is – in theory – the summer, the weather in Scotland at any time of year is at best, unpredictable. The summer days are generally milder or warmer than any other time of the year and most importantly offer long hours of daylight – often lingering until 9pm or later.

The shoulder seasons, particularly the months of May and September, can be as mild as summer, so are also good times to visit. October and April are hard to predict!

Winter days, from November through March, are short with tough weather. Only hardened winter mountaineers and skiers venture into the hills and rarely anyone is seen out on the seas apart from local fishermen.

How: The Lady of Avenel runs a range of tall ship sailing adventures. Options include sea kayaking, paddleboarding, wild swimming, mountain walking, father and sons sail training, whisky tours, as well as passage cruises. For 2018 there are even musical themed Sessions and Sail trips planned. The six night/seven day paddleboarding experience costs £1,295 including all food, accommodation, equipment and coaching.

The latest schedules are available on the website but perhaps the best way is to contact Stefan directly (stefan@heritage-marine.com) or via their office (office@sfships.com) for the latest sailings and options available.

I drove up to Oban from the south of England, camping overnight en route but there are bus, rail and air options available. There are two free long-stay car parks in Oban at Longsdale Car Park and Lochavullin Car Park. Both are a 15-minute walk from the town centre.

The Caledonian Sleeper runs six days a week, Sunday to Friday, from London to Glasgow where you can change for trains to Oban. Use Scotrail to book tickets.

Megabus provides coaches from London to Oban and Citylink from other destinations.

Glasgow is the nearest large airport to Oban, approximately 142km (90mi) away. Book via skyscanner.net for the best prices.

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