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Saving the Snark

Background: Jane and Derek Wilkinson owned Snark, a Kelt 9m GRP sloop, from 1988 to 2002, sailing on the east and west coasts of Scotland. The date of this misadventure was 20th July 1999. Michael Booth sailed Salutation, a 45 foot steel sloop, with three crew.

We were on passage from Arisaig, just north of Ardnamurchan Point, to Carbost in Loch Harport on Skye. On a rather grey but dry day, we were motorsailing in a light SW wind to make some progress. It's a fairly long passage, about 45 miles, so we didn't want to go too slowly. With around eight miles to go, we turned the corner towards Loch Harport at Rubha nan Clach. Heading towards Ardtreck Point at about 5 knots, we struck rocks just submerged ˝ mile south of the east end of Oronsay Island. This was about three hours after high tide and the level fell quickly leaving us stranded. We tried the usual manoeuvres - took the mainsail down as quickly as possible; attempted to lift the swinging keel but it was jammed; swung the boom out with a weight (me) on it to reduce draft; running the engine astern but that made some funny noises.

As the tide fell, the yacht leaned about 15° to port, towards the rocks. That's when the ominous creaking noises began and we started to feel unsafe so we issued a Mayday on the VHF. Oban Coastguard (sadly missed now) responded quickly, soon followed by Mike Booth on the yacht Salutation who told us that they were half an hour behind us and would be with us in ten minutes. We noticed the logical inconsistency but didn't feel inclined to point it out at that moment. We just felt hugely reassured that friends with lots of sailing experience and in a big and powerful boat were not far away.

Advised by the coastguard, we donned lifejackets. These were the bulky sort with lots of foam inside and the opportunity to add air by mouth if necessary. Such mundane details of the lifejackets will later become significant. For a few minutes we dithered, certain we should be doing things but entirely unsure what. After a bit, we decided to pack a couple of bags with valuable items in case we had to abandon.

Soon after, Salutation came near. They kept a shrewd distance away for obvious reasons but started to give sensible advice. Number one, put an anchor out to windward. So I inflated the dinghy and dragged it round to the bows from where we put the anchor, cable and then me into it. Another seemingly trivial point whose significance will not be apparent until later is that I got into the dinghy off the bow, as that's where I and the dinghy were and I easily could. At this stage a local work boat arrived. They took the anchor from me and set it well out, saving my rowing.

Salutation took charge again, in the nicest possible way, suggesting that Snark wasn't going anywhere for quite some time so we should transfer to Salutation to recuperate and plan our next move. It's at this stage in the tale that two points previously pointed out become significant, not to say nearly fatal for Jane. I was still in the dinghy and returned to the bow where I took the two bags of valuables from Jane. She then tried to clamber down into the dinghy from the bow but she was wearing that bulky lifejacket and the tide had fallen considerably since I took to the dinghy by that route. Fortunately for our dignity, but it makes telling the story more difficult, no photos exist of the next phase. As Jane slid under the guardrail to descend what's now more than two metres to the dinghy, her lifejacket jammed between the guardrail and the gunwale. So she was uncomfortably, virtually hanging in the “death by …” execution sense, suspended above the dinghy. I tried to assist from the dinghy. But to be any help at all I had to stand up so there was the unsurprising consequence – the dinghy capsized putting me and two bags of our carefully selected valuables into the water while leaving Jane still hanging from the guardrail by her lifejacket. As I retrieved my wet self, the dinghy and one sodden bag, the work boat came to the rescue for a second time. They positioned themselves under Jane, prised her hands off the toerail and eased her into the water before lifting her into their boat. It's still not clear why the intermediate wet stage was required but in the overall scheme, it doesn't seem too significant. I transferred to the workboat, we retrieved the second soaking bag and were taken onboard Salutation. At this stage, a Coastguard RIB arrived and we explained what had happened and that we were going to return as the tide flooded in the evening.

During all these goings-on, a number of yachts went by, all en route to Carbost where we had been heading for the second rendezvous of the Classic Malts Cruise which is an annual tour of three coastal malt whisky distilleries, Oban, Talisker (at Carbost) and Lagavullin on Islay. If we hadn't been quite preoccupied, we would have been deeply embarrassed to be grounded so prominently while these (mostly new) acquaintances passed by.

Meanwhile Salutation motored abut 2 miles into Port nan Long where they anchored, dried us off and fed us spaghetti bolognaise. About 8pm, we set off back to the scene of disaster. Salutation anchored upwind of the stranded Snark. The wind by then was NW about force 4-5 and forecast to increase further. I returned aboard Snark with Brian, crew from Salutation, with a very heavy tow rope. Salutation anchored about 50m upwind of Snark. We fastened the tow rope to a fore and aft bridle on Snark then waited a few minutes for the tide to rise. At that stage, we hadn't decided how we would know when to start trying to get her off but it soon became clear – Snark made two large rolls in the swell on the rising tide and Salutation took up on her anchor cable, dragging Snark sideways directly into deep water. We were supposed to be in touch by VHF but everybody responded instinctively to the big rolls without any formal communications.

In hindsight, we noticed we hadn't considered that there might well be a very big hole in Snark – what would we have done then? But there wasn't so we raised Snark's anchor then tied alongside Salutation to be towed to Carbost. We had damaged the rudder coming off the rock so we couldn't be towed behind as we had no steering.

We spent the best part of a week anchored at Carbost, joining in the festivities of the Classic Malts and suffering a number of ribald comments. We were very sad when the rest of the fleet left us, heading south to Islay to complete the Cruise. We spent a while working out what to do for the best but in the end we settled for road transport to Ardfern Yacht Centre for repairs

. As luck would have it, Skye's biggest mobile crane lives at Carbost so it wasn't very difficult to arrange a lift out. Road transport took us across the Skye Bridge, the only time I have made use of it.

By the time we reached Ardfern, the yard had closed for the night so we parked and headed for the Galley of Lorne Hotel for an early night; it had been a long and tiring day at the end of a stressful week. About ten minutes after we got to bed, there was a loud knock on the door and a Yorkshire rendition of “Snark, Snark, Snark, this is Salutation. Over…” So we had to get up again and tell our saviours the latest twists of the tale over a glass as they had walked two or three miles over from their berth at Craobh Haven marina.

The following morning we went back to the boatyard to find out what was what. A quick expert look around showed an area about 2 metres by 1 of scrunched fibreglass. It hadn't failed completely but it had all the rigidity of a sponge. The rudder stock was bent about 30 degrees. The propeller was mangled and loose on the shaft. Repairs took about 6 months to complete. There was a delay starting as the Insurers were not happy with the first estimate – not unreasonable as the bill was a large fraction of the insured value. All was back in order in time for the start of the 2000 season, and Snark was fully serviceable again though we were a bit more cautious if the depth fell below 20m.

Apart from allowing readers the vicarious pleasure of our misfortune, there would be little point in telling this if we didn't try to learn a thing or two from this calamity. There was an obvious failure of navigation but what did we do so wrong to get into that mess? As is often the way, there were several contributing causes.

  • We had entered Loch Harport only once before, a year previously, but it had seemed very straightforward so I was not meticulous in planning the passage.
  • We habitually used the echo sounder shallow alarm set to 5m as a general safety device. The alarm didn't sound even after we had grounded; the rock was a vertical face coming up from about 8m down. It would have been more helpful to set the alarm at 10m or more, which would have been consistent with staying in the intended channel.
  • In large part, this was GPS assisted grounding. We had installed a GPS for the first time that season. From Arisaig to Carbost wasn't all on any single chart that I owned so the easiest way to find the course was to use a waypoint. I found one for Loch Bracadale in the Almanac. We were past the entrance to Loch Harport before I noticed so we turned in towards Carbost well north of the intended track. This is what took us onto the rocks but only because I didn't reassess where we were and where we were going after we went too far north towards a poorly chosen waypoint.
Chartlet, Mouth of Loch Harport
Loading the anchor into the dinghy
Postscript. Mike Booth was awarded the Ferrier Seamanship Trophy for his actions to save Snark and her crew. His version of this tale was told in Practical Boat Owner, January 2002, titled “Malt on the Rocks.” Mike died in 2003.