August 5, 2011 10:09 pm

Flying with a Sea Eagle

This summer one luxury yacht has left the usual cruising grounds of the Caribbean and Mediterranean to head to the wild west coast of Scotland
Sea Eagle of Shian III

Sea Eagle of Shian III by the island of Gometra, west of Mull

Yacht is a complex word. It can mean a motor vessel so big and ostentatious that the rest of us label it as vulgar, or a sailboat so small and uncompromising that it ought to be dismissed as a dinghy.

There’s a further complication: yachts are defined by their habitat. A yacht in the south of France is a gin palace; one in the Solent, an ocean racer. But how do you categorise yachts in the Caribbean or on the west coast of Scotland? More convoluted still, what do you call a yacht that has transferred from the Caribbean to Scotland? A rarity is the answer to that and, in the curious taxonomy of yachts, one that is pretty well unclassifiable.

Sea Eagle of Shian III is a 21m ocean-going sailing cruiser. She (she’s far too graceful to be called “it”) was bought by her Scottish owner last year in Italy, refitted and despatched to Antigua for a winter’s chartering. This spring she made the three-week Atlantic crossing to Scotland. And there she will remain for the summer. She has three double berths, a full-time crew of two and can be chartered for £2,000 a day.

I joined her in Oban for three days of sailing in the Hebrides, to experience the hybrid mix of wind-lashed life before the mast and cruise-ship luxury. Well, almost: it was actually much more exciting than that.

Sea Eagle, built in Finland in 1993, is a Swan 68. That’s the marine equivalent of a GT car, a Grand Tourer; sporty enough to go round corners very quickly but sufficiently powerful and comfortable to guzzle distances effortlessly. At least, that was what I decided, sitting in the open cockpit at anchor in Oban, slurping moules marinière from their shells. Sea Eagle was to have her own ideas. Happy enough to pamper her passengers at night, she became a cougar by day, irrepressible and uninhibited as soon as she felt the wind in her halyards.

But first there was lunch – plump mussels fresh from the tiny island of Easdale to our south, and a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Expectant guesthouses of dour grey stone and pointy gables lined the Oban shore. Seals swam in our lee; guillemots flitted across the surface of the water and the sun shone as if we were in Antigua.

Jon Fitzgerald, cook, skipper and himself a Scot, proposed we make a 95-mile circumnavigation of Mull. With Jon at the helm and co-skipper Tash Wright, another qualified yachtmaster, raising the anchor, we set sail. Rounding the tip of the island of Kerrera, we set a north-westerly course across the Firth of Lorn. Duart Castle, ancestral home of the Clan Maclean, its high stone walls gathered round it like a cloak, marked the start of the Sound of Mull.

Sailing a Swan 68 is a bit like putting to sea in an Aston Martin. For a start, it’s a head-turner. Yachties will bend their course to take a closer look; some actually call out. “Swan 68, eh?” they shout, with all the satisfaction of those who know their Swans. Sea Eagle is as much ocean racer as cruiser. Tie down the crockery and hitch up her spinnaker and she will compete at the whiff of a starting gun. Jon and Tash will be racing to St Lucia from the Canary Islands when the ship returns to her charter duties in the Caribbean in October. “It’s not the fastest yacht but for long-legged sea kindliness she’s second to none,” says Jon. “And she’s good-looking.”

Sleek and perfectly proportioned, the Swan 68 is one of those creatures that is handsome from any angle, from knifing prow to raked transom, from glossy hull to towering, 29m mast. She has what yachtsmen call RAF – row away factor – which means you are sorry to leave and, conversely, always happy to row back. If you don’t want to charter, you can pick up a used one for about £800,000.

I had boarded from the yacht’s tender, a miniature inflatable with an outboard motor in which Tash collected me from the Oban quay. As a dinghy, it looked more suitable for the beach than exchanging wakes with fishing boats and burly Caledonian MacBrayne ferries but it brought us to a ladder lowered against the gleaming, navy blue hull. The polish was as deep as on a Bentley’s bonnet. “It’s a devil to keep clean,” Tash said. “It shows every mark.”

On board, any surface close to horizontal – deck, seats, gunwales – was laid like marquetry with batons of weathered teak. Below deck it’s the same immaculately carpentered story, except here the walls are panelled in mahogany and the floors boarded in teak, inlaid with bands of pale holly. The effect is of pyjama stripes.

Scotland map

The saloon amidships is surprisingly roomy, thanks to the boat’s spreading waistline and 5.3m beam. On the port side of the saloon a square, varnished dining table will, at a pinch, seat eight. But that still leaves space to starboard for a computer station, a screen for DVDs and a small sofa. I settled on it momentarily with an Ordnance Survey map. “Can you move a minute?” asked Jon. “You’re sitting on the wine cellar.”

Bookshelves on either side contain a library of paperbacks, guide books and navigation manuals. If you tire of Ben Elton or Nick Hornby you can always plot a course around the Turkish coast or up the Firth of Clyde. More likely, in these waters, you’ll immerse yourself in Hamish Haswell-Smith’s exhaustive guide, The Scottish Islands. It has been called the Rosetta Stone of Scotland’s 162 islands and was so regularly consulted on this voyage that it became known simply as Hamish.

Forward of the saloon are two cabins with double beds, each of which has an en suite shower and loo, as does the yachty version of an owner’s suite toward the stern. Between this large cabin and the saloon are the galley – complete with dishwasher – and two cabins for the crew.

We tacked into a force three – what Beaufort calls a gentle breeze but enough to arouse Sea Eagle into leaning her huge sails at the wind and slicing into the sea. The jib thrashed as we altered course, violently whipping the jib sheets before their slack was taken up by Tash at the hydraulic winches. Tobermory slipped by to port; by evening we were off Mull’s north coast. Rhum and Eigg were silhouetted ahead, the Cuillin Hills of Skye visible between them. We could have been island-hopping in the Dodecanese, not the Hebrides. Lean hills, shrink-wrapped in tight green baize, were gilded in sunlight and daubed with shadow. White sand beaches flared along the shore like gashes of light. Homer’s “wine-dark sea” had come to the shipping forecast area of Malin.

At 8.45pm, I had my first gin and tonic. We passed Fladda and Lunga in the Treshnish Isles and at 10.10pm, still in daylight, dropped anchor in a slit of water dividing the islands of Ulva and Gometra. If it wasn’t for a stag posing brazenly against the skyline, and carrot soup and fillet steak for dinner, the names alone would have led me to think I was in an entirely foreign land.

On Sea Eagle you can combine sailing with sea kayaking and walking. You can set off on your own or be accompanied by a guide. Either way, you can take advantage of Scotland’s enlightened law that allows walkers an almost unrestricted right to roam in the countryside. I landed on Ulva with Stevie Christie, whose company, Wilderness Scotland, will provide trekking professionals as companions, knowledgeable not only about hill walking but also the lore of the islands and their wildlife. We walked in hot sunshine on stony tracks beneath hills deep in bracken and just turning purple with heather. A buzzard, hunting, wheeled above us making little mewing peeps. A wooden finger-post pointed to Acairsaid-Mhor, Big Harbour. All things are relative.

Back on the boat we made the short diversion to Staffa to view Fingal’s Cave and hum Mendelssohn. The island tilts like a dilapidated temple, its high cliffs falling dramatically in heavy pleats of basalt. The cave looks like a rip in the bottom right-hand corner. And then I took the helm.

We ran fast with an exhilarating wind through the infamous Torran Rocks, which Hamish describes as being scattered like dragons’ teeth. “They lurk menacingly just beneath the surface, occasionally showing themselves in a froth of white spittle,” he writes. I saw one snarling to starboard, the rest appeared innocuously on the electronic chart as little blue puddles.

Sea Eagle, as if rolling up her sleeves for the contest, shortened sail and lunged exultantly into the spray now exploding in sunshine over her bow. She dipped her rails to the sea, daring to tip at an angle so thrillingly steep it was hard to stand, even gripping the huge, three-metre diameter wheel. Sedate it was not. If this was cruising, then cruising is as complex a word as yacht.

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Details

Sea Eagle is available for charter through Wilderness Scotland (www.wildernessscotland.com/luxury) for £2,000 per day between May and September. The price is for up to six, including all meals, drinks and the two crew. For winter charters in the Caribbean, contact Stormbird (www.stormbird.co.uk). Peter Hughes flew from London to Glasgow with British Airways (www.ba.com), which operates 13 flights a day, returns from £77

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