Advertisement

Wintering Aboard in the Scottish Highlands

Longing for some extended time amid the hills and history of the Inner Hebrides, this family of six settles into a winter berth at the Oban Marina.

March 3, 2021
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email
looking down into Oban Marina
A hike through Kerrera’s hills offered a nice view of Oban Marina. Maggie Hirt

My liveaboard family of six finally docked. We pulled off our Irish sailing dubarrys, slipped into our knee-high wellies, and stepped off the boat onto the floating pontoon at Oban Marina to stretch our legs after having crossed the North Atlantic and up the Irish Sea.

When I put on my Wellies, my sea body became a land body again. I walked through the boatyard and trudged through the muddy paths, and my sailing soul was filled with the piece of land my heart needed. Floating offshore aboard Selkie is the life we have chosen, but this land, this place, the family of Oban Marina and the Isle of Kerrera was a home we had chosen for winter.

“I never want to leave here,” said my 10-year-old daughter, Lily, four months in, as we walked the puddle-filled path past the baby pigs. Just beyond the boatyard, a visit to any new puppy, either on Ardentrive Farm or Balliemore Farm, was frequent.

Advertisement

“Really?” I asked. After our first week here, and after the first couple of initial explorations, Lily had been ready to move on like a true cruising sailor. Now there was a different atmosphere about her, an epiphany. She had found a new home, a place where people will remember her, a place her heart will always yearn to return, and a place she loved to wander and risk thistle and thorn to bramble-pick. This home is called the Isle of Kerrera.

Our family—including my husband, Nick, and our four children: Tristan, 12, Lily, 10, Mara, 6, and Rory, 3—crossed the Atlantic from the Caribbean on our 49-foot Westerly, Selkie, with the ARC Europe rally in May 2018. We’d started our liveaboard life nearly a year earlier, in June 2017 in the British Virgin Islands, and enjoyed cruising the Caribbean. We sailed as far north as Anegada and as far south as Grenada, but we canceled our plans to circumnavigate and decided to take a shortcut to where we truly wanted to be: Scotland. With the hospitality of the ARC, we enjoyed mingling with other cruisers in Tortola while preparing for the rally start. Once underway, however, we quickly came to realize that even though you’re sailing in company, you are still by yourself at sea.

But we did it: We crossed an ocean—something I was very apprehensive to do. We split from the ARC, which was heading to Lagos, Portugal, and went north, landed in Cork, Ireland, then finally reached Gigha, Scotland, in August.

Advertisement
making snow angels at Oban Marina
Lily, Rory and Mara Hirt enjoyed the snow outside Oban Marina’s Waypoint restaurant. Maggie Hirt

We wanted a place to call home, and online, Nick discovered Oban Marina’s discount for a six-month winter stay. We had been to Oban before on a seven-day, six-castle tour in 2015; and we had cruised the Caledonian Canal with LeBoat, and rented an RV on the Isle of Skye in 2016. We knew we loved the waterfront of Oban, but Kerrera, where Oban Marina is actually located, is a small island just across the Sound of Kerrera from Oban with fewer than 50 full-time residents. It is nestled on the northeast in a protected bay vulnerable only to an east wind. We would live on this tiny, hardly inhabited island (about 4.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide) and take a ferry to and from Oban for provisions and fresh seafood. We had changed our parallel from 12 degrees to 56, and our meridian from 65 degrees west to 5.

I don’t know if others would like something so secluded, but immediately, as cruisers, we were welcomed, and especially so when we shared our plan to stay.

“What’s it like here in the winter?” I asked Robin, the marina manager.

Advertisement

“It’s like being caught inside a washing machine,” he replied.

Fantastic, I thought sarcastically. This will be an interesting winter.

But we loved the countryside of Scotland so much, we would have endured anything to stay. The open air, the hillsides of the highlands, the mountains on the horizon, the endless water in every direction, the hairy cows, the sheep, the brisk and fresh air, the damp and fertile soil, the heather, the smell of peat, the seal colonies—all of it. And even if it meant living inside a washing machine.

Advertisement
painting the bottom of a boat
Selkie got a fresh coat of bottom paint during a spring haul out. Maggie Hirt

So, in September 2018, Oban Marina became our line-tied, cleat-knotted home.

Being a full-time mom, home-school teacher and chef on Selkie, I enjoyed the time I took out the trash at night. I know it sounds silly, but in the dark after dinner, I often ventured alone. The errand took but a minute, and then I was free to look at the night lights of the Oban coast: the fishing boats, the ferries, McCaig’s Tower and its forever-changing light displays. The air was crisp and clean; the water (every once in a while) gently bobbed the docks. If the clouds cleared, an unforgettable moon and set of constellations blessed my soul with the experience and a sense of mystic. Sometimes I brought my phone for music and danced on the empty docks. Other times I brought my son and we messed about. Mostly, though, I went out into the quiet and thought of those with whom I wish I could have shared this experience.

During a sunny day, the most pleasurable walk was the one to Hutcheson’s Monument. David Hutcheson was a ship owner who took people to and from Oban to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. His services later became Caledonian MacBrayne, which today is a major ferry line that brings visitors and locals to 22 islands on the west coast. Or for a true walk, a hiker can wander all the way to the south of the island where the ruins of Gylen Castle, dating back to 1582, stand next to a tea shop. My boys preferred to stay near the marina to throw rocks by the waterside, and have a wee bit of swordplay with our boat hooks.

family photo near the marina
The Hirt family gathered for a family photo during a hike to Kerrera’s Hutcheson’s Monument. Maggie Hirt

The Waypoint, the seasonal restaurant at Oban Marina, was delicious and cozy, with an unforgettable view. Since we arrived in fall, we got to enjoy quite a few dinners there. Sam, the manager of the bar, would dance with our children during dinner, and the chefs were grateful to hear compliments in the nearby kitchen. In winter Waypoint shut down and became a clubhouse for the few people still left around. I enjoyed doing aerobics, dancing with my kids or homeschooling within its doors. On Fridays it opened for the locals. Either Sam or Robin minded the bar. Bill, a mariner living on the hard, always sat to the left and encouraged all to imbibe. Gary and Catherine, the owners, were usually there. David and Karen would show up with one of their dogs from Ardentrive Farm and, at times, Gill and Tim would come with their boys, or Donald wandered in from the north. At Waypoint, everyone knew each other so well that a big cheer was shouted for any arrival. Kids played with Lego bricks on the floor, and the adults shared stories about past adventures and future plans, but most of all, we enjoyed each other’s company.

In October, the Oban Marina family threw my daughter her 10th birthday party. On Halloween, or Samhain, there were not many houses to trick-or-treat at, but we were invited into homes for cocktails and chocolates, and because we were invited in, it was one of the best Halloweens we have ever had. We even thoroughly enjoyed tromping through the wet, muddy paths in our Wellies. Lily, in her zombie-prom-queen dress, hid about the boatyard jumping out and scaring us.

In November, Oban had a Winter Festival, which reminded me of a Dickensian village. The streets were lined with beautiful open shops, and there were craft sales, carnival rides, a Santa parade, tree lightings and fireworks. On the day of America’s Thanksgiving—obviously not celebrated in Scotland—everyone was quite interested in what I was going to cook on the boat, and my husband and I (with little Rory) took a sunset dinghy ride around the entire Isle of Kerrera. It was breathtaking.

kids running on a dock
Lily, Rory and Mara stretched their legs on a dock walk. Maggie Hirt

At Christmas we had an amazing potluck dinner at the Waypoint. I made a sweet potato casserole, and Sam and Robin cooked a turkey. Afterward there was chaotic and fun karaoke. Everyone was nice enough to let my girls start it off with sailing songs. Gary and David were pros. By the end of the night, even I was screaming into the microphone. After the Christmas party, the sun came out for a beautiful day, and the Waypoint held a children’s Santa party. Tim served mulled wine for the adults who were hurting from the night before, and Santa, played by Donald, handed out a toy for every child who attended. It was a perfect weekend.

Fireworks were seen from Kerrera to Oban on New Year’s Eve, and we had front-row seats.

Despite the merriment, though, we knew winter had set in. “Another storm is coming. Double-check your lines,” was often repeated as another huge wind event came spiraling in off the North Atlantic. It was like living inside the tornado that takes Dorothy over the rainbow. But if you could endure the rigging whining in the wind, the water slapping the hull, and the dock lines stretching, squeaking and pulling, you truly were living in a brightly colorful, magical land of adventure.

Every week it seemed that a storm blew through, and we got used to it as one would a weekend. Each one became a two-day family holiday aboard. We would hang tight, listen to Selkie get yanked back and forth, cook a giant pot of spicy chili in the galley, get busy with home-school work or explore another mechanical endeavor in need of improvement. When the storm settled and everything was still, we could hear distant highland cattle moo, folks laughing, dogs barking and an announcement of the CalMac ferry coming across the bay.

Christmas time on a boat
Christmas time in the Highlands aboard Selkie was memorable. Maggie Hirt

In spring our family rented the nearby cottage, referred to as the boathouse, while Selkie was hauled at the yard. I walked to the Waypoint through the mud in my new knee-high fancy red boots. I knew I didn’t care about their appearance; I cared about the present countryside. It was high tide. I could not reach the Waypoint from the cottage without walking way around, but the stroll in the dark with my headlamp was why I was there, to sink my feet in the soil, walk the cliff, hear the lines flapping from boats on the hard, and dodge the puddles to go see some friends along way

A winter in Kerrera is for sailors who love highlands and the rolling hills, and who feel the wind and water in their soul. Our family highly recommends a short or long stay. Slàinte mhath, as the Scottish like to toast. Cheers.

At press time, Maggie Hirt and her family were sailing Selkie back to the Caribbean with the ARC+. Follow along with the family’s adventures at sealongingselkie.net.

Advertisement

More Destinations

Advertisement