Gale force winds, rough seas and seven days spent almost entirely within the confines of the 72 foot ketch, Alba Venturer, set the scene for the West Coast Challenge Sailing Expedition 2015. Eleven cadets from across the UK together with two adult staff joined the OYT Scotland crew to sail out of Oban for a 225 nautical mile voyage visiting the islands of Mull, Barra and Coll before returning to their mainland port.
Without any previous experience of sailing such a large and impressive vessel the novice crew got to work under the guidance of the experienced OYT sea staff and soon began, quite literally, to learn the ropes and all the other tasks necessary for managing and sailing the classy ketch in the challenging waters around the Western Isles of Scotland.
After the initial surge of sailing from Oban on the first day in good conditions ‘Venturer’ became storm-bound in the harbour at Tobermorray as Force 9 gales moved in from the southwest. Safe in the sheltered bay, and with time on their hands, the cadets took the opportunity to work towards their RYA Competent Crew Certificate. As the storms eased the following day and the vessel headed out to sea all that was left to do to gain their qualification was to show that their practical skills could match their theory. And this they did with aplomb – each achieving their sought after qualification by the end of the voyage!
At the end of a full day of sailing the team arrived in Castle Bay on the island of Barra. A worthy achievement on any voyage but this time there was an added dimension. Cdt Sgt Jessica Doherty from 317 (Failsworth and Newton Heath) Sqn had visited this remote spot many times before. Her mother hails from the island and many of her family remain including her uncle, the coxswain of the Barra lifeboat and RNLI Bronze Medal holder, Donald MacLeod MBE, who gave the cadets a personal tour of the lifeboat and a chance to properly appreciate the support and reassurance provided to seafarers by the local crew.
As ‘Venturer’ set out the next day to complete her voyage a present was delivered to the boat from Jessica’s grandmother – a tin of freshly baked scones! Much appreciated by all on-board the gesture signified the friendship and welcome shown by the local community during the fleeting visit.
Favourable conditions for the rest of the voyage meant long days of fine sailing with various sightings of Dolphin, Basking Shark and a Minke Whale. With a full set of billowing sails ‘Venturer’ even attracted a compliment over the radio from the bridge of a passing Scandinavian ship. The once novice cadet crew were now rightly proud of their work!
Often the question is asked, “What are Air Cadets doing on a sailing expedition. But to those of us in the know it’s simple, ‘Venture, Adventure’ and best described by the comments of the cadets themselves…
CWO Jessica Grainger from 2487 (Easingwold) Squadron said ‘As we settled down in our comfy beds (the night before the voyage) we were all imagining what the week would have in store for us as none of us had experienced anything like this before.’
Cdt Flt Sgt Emma Thompson, 2008 (Bawtry) Squadron said, ‘Friday really saw the team’s efforts come to fruition as one team were able to put a reef in the mizzen without any guidance from the sea staff’.
Cdt Flt Sgt Andrew Mabbutt, 422 (Corby) Squadron added ‘Friday was easily the best day of the trip… We were an efficient enough team to truly appreciate the environment that we were in’.
And summing up the expedition Pilot Officer Charlotte Hughes said ‘Despite the weather at the beginning of the week the team managed to sail a very respectable 225 nautical miles. The cadets on board were a real credit to the Corps and were all true ambassadors for the Air Cadet Organisation. All cadets put in incredible amounts of effort at all times, showing exceptional teamwork and determination.’
Expedition Leader Sqn Ldr Mike Blakey said, ‘This is another great example of the attitude and character shown by our outstanding cadets. Many thanks to our supporters who helped to make the voyage happen including the Ulysses Trust, the RAF Charitable Trust, Ocean Youth Trust Scotland, their sea staff and volunteer crews.”
Report and photos by: Sqn Ldr Mike Blakey MBE, HQAC.