Sailing in Scotland for Advanced Beginners: RYA Day Skipper Course
It took me nearly ten years of living on a large island, and over five years of living close to the sea to be bitten by the sailing bug. Which eventually led me to Sailing in Scotland.
Why? I honestly think it was a combination of stupidity and not knowing when to stop working. Sailing in Scotland or a similarly scenic place on the British Isles always seemed an attractive proposition. Then one year, my friend and I went on a yoga holiday where every one seemed a hundred paces slower. I may not have stuck to the yoga or the raw vegan diet much since, but something certainly stuck. Happy on the water, and having enjoyed my first sailing course in Gibraltar, I started club racing. Then I looked to improve my skills a little closer to home.
So, bring on Sailing in Scotland. It’s beautiful, and not much can go wrong, weather-wise, in June, right?
Why do an RYA Day Skipper Course?
In the United Kingdom (and some of the Commonwealth), the Royal Yachting Association oversees sail training. They offer courses in both yacht and dinghy sailing. Although I did eventually learn to sail dinghies, one of my colleagues from the South Coast said when I tentatively explored sailing options “You don’t wanna sail a dinghy”.
At this stage, I had done a Competent Crew Course in Gibraltar the year before and had crewed on club races. Club races are great, but they tell you very little about pilotage and passage making. Whereas in a Competent Crew Course you learn to handle sails and basic skippering, the Day Skipper actually gets you to grips with skippering a private yacht and sail independently in coastal waters. It is usually recognized internationally and one of the requirements for chartering. I wanted to further my navigation skills and visit somewhere beautiful that is not accessible by car, so, given the expensive Scotland accommodation prices but relatively modest prices on a week’s course, I signed up!
We did our course with a sailing school near Oban. Not only is Oban accessible by train and car from Glasgow, but the scenery of the Inner Hebrides nearby is stunning.
Arrival in Oban for our Sailing in Scotland adventure
Oban is a fairly touristy small town, but is also a local administration centre and retains a lot of its charms. I’ve been there before – it’s pleasant base for Western Scotland. You can visit the distillery, take coastal walks of any length, play watersports, browse gift shops and eat at several nice restaurants. It does get full between Easter and mid-October, though, so pre-booking accommodation is wise.
We stayed in one of the many Bed&Breakfasts right by the sea to the North of the town centre. Ours was called Kilchrenan House and I can highly recommend it. Its one of many in beautiful Victorian mansions on the esplanade, it’s quiet but an easy 10-minute seaside stroll from town. The sea views are stupendous, and even our smaller room out the back really was lovingly decorated and charming.
We drove up from the Northeast of England and basically went to eat some very fresh seafood the minute we arrived. Yup, I don’t normally eat fish or seafood but make an exception when it comes fresh off a boat. The restaurant I repeatedly visit there is called Ee-Usk and is right by the harbour.
Other than that, Oban is a nice base for sailing, ferries to various Western Islands, and, if you like whisky, it has a distillery that does very good tours – and produces a fine Single Malt!
Sailing in Scotland, Day One
The next morning, I insisted on a swim to the nearest boy just outside the guesthouse and acquainted myself with the icy cold water, even in June. I better stay dry during this sailing trip! We drove to the sailing school, checked in and stashed our bags on the yachts and tried some waterproofs. Believe me, even in summer, you need them in Scotland. I have some basic rip-proof trousers, non-marking shoes and my own life vest, but when there’s an offer of water proofs, take it.
Our yacht was a fine modern mid-sized yacht, a 35 feet Jeanneau Sun Odyssey in good nick, with lazyjacks, steering wheel, and basically all the mod cons. Great for beginners but sailing purists might frown at these trappings of modern sailing.
We were at full capacity with five students and a teacher – us, two women about our age and an older guy. After getting acquainted, we swiftly set off in what can only be described as dead quiet, but we were at sea, and we were in beautiful surroundings! We motored up the sound between the mainland and Lismore Island, and into Loch Linnhe. It was so beautiful and peaceful, and not having to mind any sails we could leisurely sit on deck, chat and start acquainting ourselves with markers and the navigation.
Shortly after sunset, we anchored the yacht in a beautiful spot miles away from civilisation near Port Ramsay. In terms of location, Loch Linnhe was perhaps my favourite spot on the trip.
Sailing to Tobermory
The next morning at 6am, we set off for Tobermory Harbour on the Isle of Mull. Another whisky town! We had a nice breeze for a change. So we spent the entire day leisurely tacking down Loch Linnhe. Then up the Sound of Mull. You really just need two people to operate a modern yacht like ours, so the rest of our crew got comfy on deck and soaked up the sparse Scottisch rays.
We glid into Tobermory Marina in the early evening, having used only sail power in a fairly light breeze all day. The tide was getting low, to a bit of navigating throw low water was required to get us safely onto the pontoon, a nice shower and into the pub. We went to a restaurant at the farthest end of the bay, called Cafe Fish and pretty spectacular.
And of course, lets not forget the not-so-small distillery of Mull! It was already closed in the evening. Its 10-year old Tobermory is one of my favourite Single Malts. It used to be quote cheap, under 30 Euros, but has recently gone up in price. It’s fresh, citrus-like, almost cake-like, not peated and therefore very smooth.
After dinner and a little dram of local whisky in the pub, we walked back and appreciated the famous painted houses of Tobermory. They’re famous because they are the opening theme of some vintage British TV show, which I’ve never seen, but many Brits know and love the view. There isn’t much accommodation on Mull. Most visitors come on day trips by coach and ferry, making Tobermory really peaceful after the day trippers left.
From the Isle of Mull to Crinan Harbour (via Puilladobhrain)
Next morning, we had beautiful sun but no wind. So that nice Sound of Mull trip we had the day before, we had to motor is all back which was only half the fun, but a lot faster. Come lunchtime, we were already in shouting distance of Oban again, but turned south down the coast to the sheltered but very crowded Puilladobhrain Anchorage. There were a few boats already there, happy campers, but a crowd that I didn’t terribly appreciate.
After we heated up our lunch, we debated on whether to go out in the dinghy, check out the pub for whatever deep fried stuff on offer and walk to Clachan Bridge. But then I decided to stick my nose in the book to prepare for our night sail which all Day Skipper and above candidates would need to do. Then I went to sleep at about 4pm.
Our night sail
Around midnight, the alarm went off, it was reasonably dark, and our night sail adventure could begin! As in the day time, there was just a little wind, so our instructor decided, to our great dismay, that we must motor.
It would have been so amazing, just gliding quietly through the night, like the few boats that we passed. Light houses, signals and lit shapes turned up left, right and centre, things we would never notice during the day, And apart from thr hum of our diesel engine, it was so so quiet! We motored down the open coast, always in view of the mainland, then turned into a wide channel woth the the islands of Lung sand Scarba on starboard, and Luing on port side.
We navigated a few smaller islets, until we saw some faint lights in a sheltered bay – Crinan Harbour. This is where the Crinan Canal opens into the Irish Sea. It is only 14km long, but provides a navigable route between the Firth of Clyde and the North Sea, and was once part of an important shipping route for smaller steamships, so-called puffer boats, between Glasgow and the Western Isles.
We dumped anchor and went to bed. When we woke a bit later than usual around 9am, we nearly lost the anchor when trying to haul it in. An important lesson learnt, we moved on, back towards Oban.
Crinan Harbour to Loch Spelve through the Sound of Cuan
Being so close to Jura and the famous Gulf of Corryvreckan, I had asked early on whether we could jus sail past it to take a look. Not to navigate through it as a piece of teaching, but maybe our teacher could take us near there, and we could all take a look.
Sound of Cuan Passage
Once overnighted in Crinan Harbour, our teacher decided this is totally out of the question, but if I really wanted to see some strong tidal current, he suggested I skipper us through the Sound of Cuan, a few miles North. The Sound of Cuan is a narrow channel between the island of Luing and the mainland near Loch Melbert.
Maybe not quite Scylla and Charybdis, but it sounded reasonably scary, and not one to chicken out, I studied the charts and markers and took the wheel after an hour of motoring through choppy waters with no useable wind. Now the tidal stream itself reaches up to seven knots, so keen to ride that, we tried to arrive at a favourable time. Then it was all eyes on deck, while I steered us through the narrow sound. Surely, there was a bit of acceleration while going through it, and not running aground is the real art here, as it is really narrow in places, but an hour later, we were out and my navigational exam sort of passed.
We continued to motor, out onto the open sea again through some ugly squalls, helping me to my one and only bout of seasickness on the trip. All was calm again on the other side when we found a really wonderful quiet anchorage in a sea loch on the Isle of Mull. I think it was Loch Spelve. There was nothing around us, no villages, no other boats bar one small fishing boat. It was wonderful.
A peaceful afternoon on Loch Spelve
As it was just afternoon, we went on to go thorough some more mandatory Competent Crew training: rowing a dinghy! Also a great chance to take some photos of our yacht on the water. How we managed to eat with no civilisation nearby? Easy: freezer full of food comes as pretty much standard with a sailing course and is part of “victualling” i.e. you go to the freezer at base and chat what food you’d like to eat, then fill the freezer, and supplement your food store with some shopping if and when there are shops wherever you are going.
We had our fair share of curry, stew and pie while on the course. Most schools are very accustomed to vegetarians so no worries there, and I am certain they will also offer other dietary options relatively common in the UK, such as halal and vegan. We even cooked once or twice on the boat – the galley on most yachts in the 30-40 foot category is certainly big enough for two people.
After lunch we unpacked and inflated the dinghy and then went in groups of two, on a jolly little row.
And with that, we concluded our penultimate sailing day in Scotland.
You may wonder, do you never get bored when there is nothing around? No way! The scenery is so beautiful, and in June is stayed light until well into the night, so I often sat on deck, admiring all this beauty and chatting to my course mates. Bear in mind unless you know a lot of theory and are mile building for a higher qualification, you have a lot of coursework to catch up with.
Loch Spelve to Dunstaffnage
The next morning, we were greeted by gloomy drizzly weather and – you guess it – no wind! We motored on, and to provide some entertainment, our teacher decided to take us past the site of the first transatlantic telephone cable (TAT-1). It was inaugurated in 1956 and initially carried 36 telephone channels. And here are the remains of the site where the cable went in. I doubt the original cable is still used, but cable systems are still used widely between continents – except they are now fibreoptic and carry thousands of channels.
Sadly, the site is badly trashed and the buildings poorly preserved. We just sailed by although theoretically, you could possibly anchor and take a look.
We took a little break in the sheltered Oban Bay. We had put off “Man Over Board” maneuver until our last day. Perhaps not a smart idea, especially since the wind situation made sailing pretty much impossible – and we tried! So, motoring towards the fender mimicking the fallen “man” wasn’t as difficult as trying to rescue someone with the full sails on, something I had tried with variable success six months before in Gibraltar.
And with that, we pootled the last few miles back to Dunstaffnage, where we spent our last night on the yacht. Also, this rather fancy marina was great to stroll around the jetties and admire some nice shiny yachts.
We collected our new certificates, then set of leisurely for the drive back. Depending on which route we take back to Glasgow we usually either stop at Inveraray or Tyndrum. Both routes are very pretty, the Tyndrum one is a bit more forest-y and the Inveraray one slightly more dramatic.
We stopped at a really nice shop in Inveraray. I would love to give you the address, but I could not find it any more – perhaps it has moved. It was a converted barn full of finest fabric, mainly high-quality Scottisch Tweed. Since I never been to Harris, this was the places with the biggest selection of Harris Tweed at rather decent prices. I cannot remember how much exactly, but a bit less than the 40-50GBP you would be expected for a metre of the fine fabric. Also, so much choice!
Our Sailing Route
Here is our route for the five days. I have no idea how long the distance ist, but I presume less than 100 nautical miles. Not exactly a mile builder trip but beautiful varied coastal scenery, much of which you cannot access by car. View on Google Maps here.
Is Sailing in Scotland for you?
Compared to many places in the European Mediterranean, Scotland is a rather unlikely destination for a sailing holiday. Like in many coastal regions in the UK, many locals sail and have boats, and there is a small number of schools and charter businesses. The ones I have come across looked like reputable high-quality companies, and prices weren’t really much higher than the Med.
What really attracts me to Scotland is the beautiful scenery. So many places we visited are not accessible by car. Sailing is rather a niche sport, so it is quite easy to find berths even in high summer. And there are many sheltered anchorages in bays and sea lochs that are accessible for free.
Sailing courses tend to be RYA standard, so you will get a certificate at the end and be able to show a training record if you pursue sail training.
The real deal breaker, though, can be the weather. Even though we sailed in June, the weather was totally unpredictable with squalls, days of absolutely no wind and a good bit of rain. If you are willing to take this risk, then I really recommend Sailing in Scotland.
Which school for Sailing in Scotland?
The company we did our course with no longer offers sail training now.
Glencoe Outdoor Centre runs several RYA Courses a year out of Dunstaffnage (near Oban) at a cost of 600-650GBP for five days. They charter yachts from our old sailing school, so I am pretty positive the yachts will be in very good nick.
Oban Sea School runs courses nearly every months at a cost of 495GBP and their yacht is a Bruce Roberts 345 design which they apparantly built themselves. Looks cosier than the cookie cutter serial production yachts and I think I might keep that one in mind if and when I am going on to brush up my sailing skills and build miles. They also do a once-a year 10-day cruise to St Kilda on that boat. A dream of mine – think I might want to bookmark that for next year although there is sailing on the open sea (somewhat scary) and sailing past beautiful scenery along the coast.
Books on Sailing
The very best book when you learn to sail is the cheap-ish RYA Competent Crew. If you are very keen, consider getting the next one up the RYA Day Skipper Practical Course Notes. These two are the single most useful books on sailing – there are tons of other sailing books, but these two are the ones you need to learn sailing.
Don’t be put off by the kindergarten-like illustrations, didactically these are the best books. I also bought the RYA Day Skipper Handbook-Sail and the RYA Weather HAndboo*, but more out of personal interest.
For bucket-list type reading, I recommend Ultimate Sailing Adventures .
If you love pictures of beautiful classic yachts, take a look at Classic Sailing Yachts. This really is a book to look at unless you are a millionaire. The excellent Classic Classes is of a more practical nature and explains, well, the Classic UK and international classes that re still sailed. It’s useful if you want to learn more about what’s on the water, and offers some technical details as well.
Spinning a Yarn
For a crackin’ good read, A Voyage for Madmen, the excellently written tale of the first round the world yacht race will keep you occupied a night or two.
Of the protagomists of the book, the attitude of Bernard Moitessier seemed most attractive. Sailing in the lead, he decided to pull out of the race and enjoy Tahiti. His own account of the race is called The Long Way.
The saddest and most desperate figure, Donald Crowhurst, has been the subject of two movies recently. He sailed off in a plywood trimaran and made it as far as somewhere int he Atlantic Ocean, faking his progress convincingly, until he los this mind and disappeared. You can read his story in A Race too far and The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst.
The winner of that 1968 race was Robin Knox-Johnston, who wrote his own account of the race in A World of my Own. I’ve not read the last three, finding them too sad/not dramatic enough – but if you have, please let me know what you think of them!
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The Small Print
We sailed in Scotland in June 2013 and wrote this post in May 2020. I updated prices at the time of writing. I organised and paid for the trip myself. This post contains affiliate links to Booking.com. This means if you make a purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. More details are in my website Terms and Conditions.