• SAILING THE HEBRIDES

    Tall ship Bessie Ellen under sail off the coast of Jura in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland
  • SAILING THE HEBRIDES

    Tall ship Bessie Ellen under sail off the coast of Jura in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland

SAILING THE HEBRIDES ON TALL SHIP BESSIE ELLEN

Our love of the Hebridean islands has seen us visit time and again, exploring on foot, by bike, on camping road trips, and on bus and ferry island hopping escapades. Recently we added a new mode of transport to that list – a tall ship! We spent a week aboard Bessie Ellen, sailing 193 miles around the Inner Hebrides and experiencing them from an entirely different perspective. The islands, off the west coast of Scotland, proved as captivating as always, but it was the character of the boat and the outstanding food and hospitality, along with Bracken the salty sea dog, that really made this sailing adventure one of our most memorable trips to date.

WATCH OUR BESSIE ELLEN FILM

Watch the behind the scenes version of our Bessie Ellen sailing adventure on Instagram stories

Watch the behind the scenes
version of our Bessie Ellen
hebridean sailing adventure
on Instagram stories 

A WEEK ON BESSIE ELLEN

We boarded the magnificent 120-year-old vessel on a sunny afternoon in Oban, quickly doing the rounds and saying hello to our ten fellow guests before promptly being put to work on deck. Because, well, when the wind is blowing there’s no time to stand around and chat, you’ve gotta hoist the sails and get moving!

A man in wet weather gear coiling a large rope on traditional tall ship Bessie Ellen

Guests and crew tying ropes Guests haul up the mainsail on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland
Two guests haul on a rope aboard Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

Guests haul up the mainsail on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

Our group was made up of complete sailing novices, a few who’d been on active sailing holidays in the past, and another few with decades of experience on a variety of smaller sail boats. Ages ranged from 25 to perhaps 80-something (Michael wouldn’t let on!), with the majority of guests being in their sixties, although we would’ve guessed ten years younger. Our crew was made up of skipper and owner Nikki, along with Chief Mate Owen and deckhands Josh and Hazel. And let’s not forget Bracken, a 3-year-old Border Terrier-Jack Russel mix and Bessie’s chief dolphin sniffer.

Border Terrier-Jack Russel called Bracken sits on the knee of Bessie Ellen crew member Owen while going ashore on the tender

Bessie Ellen crew member securing the mainsail
Bessie Ellen crew tightening the sails

Bessie Ellen Chief Mate Owen holds down a sail with a strong grip

With sails up and the wind propelling us northwest through the Sound of Mull, Nikki outlined her plan for the week. We’d explore Staffa, Lunga, Gometra, and Iona. But in the face of poor weather the plan was thrown overboard by Day 2, in favour of sailing more sheltered seas to the southwest, to Colonsay, Oronsay, and Jura. We’d been excited to visit Fingal’s Cave on Staffa and the puffins on Lunga, but by the time we were sailing towards Colonsay on Day 3, we’d realised the trip wasn’t so much about the destinations visited, rather the experience on board this historic beauty (and the food. The trip was definitely about the food. But we’ll get to that later).

Two guests look at the map and discuss the route on deck on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

A laminated sea chart showing the Inner Hebrides near Oban
Three guests enjoy a moment of peace on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

A guest lies on the deck reading on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

A traditional West Country trading ketch built in Plymouth in 1904, Bessie worked as a cargo boat in England and Denmark until the 1970s, before spending a thirty year stint hauled up in a Danish boatyard. Having been captivated by two photos she’d seen of Bessie in her early twenties, Nikki finally took the plunge on her 30th birthday and has been her proud owner and skipper for the last 23 years.

Details of the foresails on tall ship Bessie Ellen

Deatails of block and ropes on tall ship Bessie Ellen

A view of the bowsprit on tall ship Bessie Ellen

These days Bessie largely transports passengers instead of cargo, her hull having been lovingly restored and repurposed into a cosy and characterful saloon with bunk berths running along either side. Svendborg, the port where Nikki found Bessie, and Forsøget, her name when she sailed under the Danish flag, adorn the beam at the far end of the saloon, a constant reminder of her history. The wood of the hull cradling you in your berth is (amazingly!) original, but as Andy (and no doubt plenty of guests before him) found out, that isn’t a shelf on the top bunk (“That’s the ship’s construction,” said Nikki) and the gap next to it falls straight down into Bessie’s belly, so, best not to put your glasses there…

A view of the saloon from a guest bunk on tall ship Bessie Ellen

The saloon on tall ship Bessie Ellen, used for sleeping, eating and socialising
Framed pictures on the saloon wall on tall ship Bessie Ellen

A man sitting in the saloon on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

Nikki’s passion for Bessie is infectious and she had us all getting stuck in, learning the ropes (literally!) and being in charge at the helm. A job that I found particularly nerve-wracking considering I don’t even know how to drive a car, but one that Del found very relaxing (navigating narrow channels aside).

Skipper Nikki and dog Bracken sit at the helm on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

A guest sitting at the helm on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland
A crew member and guest laughing at the helm on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

Crew sitting on the aft cabin with the dog sleeping next to them and a guest standing at the helm

Skipper and guests gather sround the helm on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

A view from behind the helm towards the front of the ship on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

A guest sits at the helm on an overcast day on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

From the moment we left Oban, commands were flying around deck faster than our brains could process, but after a few days we felt like we had somewhat of an idea of what ‘Sheet in the main!’, ‘Stand by for tacking!’, ‘Easy on the halyard!’ and all manner of other new nautical phrases meant, and what we should be doing to put them into action. It felt very rewarding to be combining travel and an outdoors experience with actively learning a new skill. It also occurred to us multiple times each day just how much maritime lingo had permeated our everyday speech, with us constantly exclaiming, “So THAT’S where ‘I don’t like the cut of your jib’ comes from!”, or “AHA, sheets like ‘He’s three sheets to the wind!’”. It felt like we were suddenly privy to some secret language, and that was very satisfying.

  • A view from the bowsprit of tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland
  • A view from the bowsprit of tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

Nikki’s fantastic knowledge of the Hebrides ensured our evolving itinerary included visits to plenty of amazing spots. Our shore visits via dinghy to Colonsay, Oronsay, and Easdale (places we’d either never heard of or never considered visiting before) were absolute highlights. On Oronsay Nikki promised us an experience ‘like Iona, but with less people’, and as it turned out this meant zero people and an incredible 14th century priory all to ourselves. We picnicked on the beach and swam in the chilly turquoise bay, watching cows meander along the shore and arctic terns swoop above us.

A woman taking a dip in the shallow waters at the beach on Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides

Beautiful curved white sand beach on Oronsay's west coast

A person walks along a track between two stone walls on Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides

A stone carved grave slab inside the Priors House of Oronsay Priory

The 14th century priory on Oronsay

Bessie Ellen at anchor off the coast of Oronsay while sailing the hebrides

There was more swimming to be had on Easdale, the smallest permanently inhabited island in the Inner Hebrides and once the centre of the Scottish slate industry. We had our pick of about seven scenic ‘pools’ dotted around the tiny island, opting for the former quarry with its towering walls and deep slate bottom.

The tiny island of Easdale in the Inner Hebrides, seen water level while approaching in the dinghy

People going for a dip in one of Easdale's 'swimming pools'

One of many picturesque whitewashed cottages on Easdale, one of the smallest inhabited islands in the Inner Hebrides

Evening visits to the local pub happened far more frequently than we were expecting, sampling local beers and gins on Mull, Colonsay, Jura, and Kerrera. And when we anchored somewhere more remote, sundowners on deck and a singsong with Joe (resident guitarist for the week) provided the perfect evening entertainment.

Evening sun lighting up Bessie Ellen's stern, highlighting the tall ship's name

Bottles of beers on deck at sunset

Two guests chat on deck at sunset on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland
Passengers getting into the dinghy and heading back to the ship after a visit to Tobermory, while sailing the hebrides on Bessie Ellen

A man drinks a gin and tonic on deck at sunset on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

Daytime entertainment was provided by Bracken. Fun could be had with all sorts of objects on deck, like a bucket of water (perfect for tossing vigorously from side to side), a squeezy tennis ball (he could play fetch all day), a freshly caught fish (a fearsome foe to be barked at and cavorted with), and a drone upon take-off or landing (a noisy invader that he must protect the crew and passengers from).

Ship's dog Bracken hunts under ropes on deck for a stray fish

Freshly caught fish in a bucket onboard tall ship Bessie Ellen

Ship's dog Bracken eyes a fish on deck

His keen sense of smell alerted us to the presence of dolphins long before our peepers could spot them, with a large pod of bottlenose dolphins playing around Bessie’s bow being the wildlife highlight of the trip. Bracken may be a seafaring pup, but he still loves a good long walk, ensuring there was no shortage of shore visits to reacquaint ourselves with our land legs once or twice a day. Stick throwing was optional, but definitely expected. And when (if) he eventually tired out, Bracken made the best at-the-helm companion, dosing in his basket wrapped in the ‘communal gilet’, occasionally roused from slumber by the whiff of a seagull.

Ship's dog Bracken eyes up a tennis ball on deck

Ship's dog Bracken watching the horizon while sitting on Bessie Ellen's aft cabin
Bottlenose dolphins in the Sound of Mull, seen from Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

A woman grins while holding ship's dog Bracken on Bessie Ellen's dinghy

Now, let’s talk about the food. Because a trip on Bessie isn’t just about the sailing. It is a full-on gastronomical adventure at sea. In fact, the food was so sensational that had all Bessie’s sails been destroyed and we were forced to spend a week at Oban North Pier, I’d still rate the holiday 5 stars for the food alone.

We were treated to an elaborate spread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus elevenses and fourses WITH A FRESHLY BAKED CAKE every.single.day. Sometimes two cakes. Breakfast included endless pots of tea and coffee, homemade bread and preserves, fresh fruit, muesli, and a rotation of eggs, bacon or black pudding. Elevenses and lunch were always served on deck (weather permitting!). The extensive cheese board – featuring all-time favourites like manchego, gouda, ash-coated goats cheese and comte – and assorted artisanal breads would have sufficed, yet every day I found myself piling my plate high with the accompanying fish pie, quiche, mackerel or pasta because it was just too good to turn down.

Salads, quiches and array of delicious food is arranged on top of the aft cabin on a sunny day on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

A massive hunk of delicious cheese sitting on the table in Bessie Ellen's saloon
Quiche, cake, bread and cured meats in Bessie Ellen's saloon, ready to go up on deck for lunch

By the time fourses rolled around I was usually still recovering from my overindulgent lunch, but it was impossible to say no to a cake that had been delighting my olfactory system with heavenly wafts since morning. And when I learned that leftovers were summarily tossed overboard, I dutifully consumed seconds, thirds, and sometimes even fourths. After all, it was a tragedy to make such delectable delights of homebaking – including such moreish cake creations as chocolate and guinness, coffee and walnut, and apple and cinnamon – walk the plank.

Bessie Ellen crew prepare scones with generous helpings of cream and jam

A strawberry cheesecake on the table
A man cuts an apple and cinnamon cake on board tallship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides

A carrot cake sits alongside the usual coffee and tea setup on the deck of tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides

Dinner was always an extra special treat to look forward to, and if you wanted a sneak preview of what was on the menu for the following day, all you had to do was check the bucket on deck. Here you’d find a defrosting hunk of Aberdeen Angus beef, or enormous sides of salmon sourced from a ‘fabulous fishmonger’. Failing that, you could peek over Nikki’s shoulder and see what tasty concoction she was perusing in her recipe book. Because as you may recall, there is no ‘cook’ in the crew list, and (as if a skipper doesn’t have enough to do!) it’s Nikki we had to thank for all the freshly baked bread, cakes, and sumptuous bistro-style food served onboard Bessie.

Sumptuous Scottish salmon in the saloon at dinnertime on tall ship Bessie Ellen

A defrosting hunk of Aberdeen Angus sits in a bucket on the deck of tall ship Bessie Ellen

A man fills a plate full of Balmoral Chicken and cabbage in the saloon at dinnertime

Her parsley and lemon salmon is in the top two salmon dishes I’ve ever tasted (the other being our beloved Chef Jang’s sake and nori infused salmon sashimi). The creamy vermouth sauce accompanying the Balmoral Chicken was out-of-this-world rich and deeply satisfying. And the final night’s supper of perfectly cooked beef with mushroom sauce and exactly-the-right-texture mash, well, I ate that largely with my eyes closed, savouring every morsel. In the words of fellow guest Solène (a Parisian living in London for the past year), “This week’s food has been the best I’ve had since I’ve been in this country”, and (despite being from this country) I think I’d have to agree.

SKIPPERED SAILING HOLIDAYS ON BESSIE ELLEN

Bessie Ellen offers skippered sailing holidays between April and September each year. Itineraries range from short 4 day tasters to 10 – 14 day trips. Her sailing schedule changes year-to-year, but she usually sails around Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides, and sometimes further afield to Spain and France. In 2024 she will embark on a Round Britain Tour to celebrate her 120th birthday. You can view her sailing schedule and book a trip via VentureSail. Discounts are available for repeat VentureSail guests, and for young sailors up to 25 years old.

You don’t need any experience to join the majority of trips on Bessie, and although it’s not compulsory, you’ll definitely be encouraged to get involved on deck, learning as you go.

Looking down on two guests at the bow from the ship's mainmast on tal ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides

A top down view of tall ship Bessie Ellen from the air

A view of the ship's aft from the mainmast on tall ship Bessie Ellen

Nikki and the crew are very accommodating when it comes to specific dietary requirements. On our trip they were creating their regular meals along with vegetarian, no onion/no garlic, and gluten free options.

There are no private cabins on Bessie. You’ll sleep in a bunk-bed style berth in the saloon area, each with a privacy curtain and bedside light. All bedding is provided, but you’ll need your own towel. As there are up to 12 people sleeping in here, it’s best to pack some ear plugs! There is plenty of room to store your bag under the benches next to the berths.

  • A water level view of tall ship Bessie Ellen under sail
  • A water level view of tall ship Bessie Ellen under sail

There are two bathrooms on board, including a larger one with an electric flushing toilet, and a smaller one with a mechanical flushing toilet (predominantly used by the crew, but available for guests too.) You can have a hot shower in both bathrooms, using the water sparingly.

Electronic devices can be charged whenever the generator is on, usually for a few hours in the morning and evening. It’s a good idea to have a power bank with you for charging during the day.

The Paps of Jura seen from the deck of tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides
Guests returning to the Bessie Ellen after a shore visit on Jura while sailing the hebrides

Tall ship Bessie Ellen at anchor off the coast of Jura while sailing the hebrides

Coiled ropes and bold life rings on tall ship Bessie Ellen
Skipper Nikki looking through the viewfinder and checking the way ahead

There is an honesty bar available on board each evening with a selection of beer, wine, and gin. You just tally your drinks as you go and settle up your bill in cash at the end. Prices are very reasonable. You’re also welcome to bring your own bottle of whisky or such like for sharing on board.

It’s best to have extra cash with you for tipping the crew at the end.

A view from the bowsprit of tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides in Scotland

Two people climbing the rigging for a view from the mainmast on tall ship Bessie Ellen while sailing the hebrides

A photographer stands on Bessie Ellen's bowsprit to take some shots while sailing the hebrides

There is a guitar and a small accordion for guests to play on board. Feel free to bring your own small instrument too.

VentureSail will provide you with a suggested kit list when booking. Generally speaking, it’s best to pack light and bring comfortable ‘outdoor clothing’ including warm layers, sturdy shoes for shore visits, gloves for handling the ropes, and sun protection. You shouldn’t need any specialist gear. Heavy duty wet weather gear can be provided on board if necessary.

THANKS FOR READING!

If you’ve found this guide helpful, please consider leaving us a small tip.
Your support is greatly appreciated and helps cover the costs of running this blog.

Cheers!

Kim and Del Hogg

THANKS FOR READING!

If you’ve found this guide helpful, please consider leaving us
a small tip.

Your support is greatly appreciated and helps cover the costs of running this blog.

Cheers!

Kim and Del Hogg


SEE MORE FROM SCOTLAND

On an afternoon of bright light and deep shadow, a hiking couple stand on the rocky summit of Sgurr na Stri (one of the best hikes on Skye) overlooking the length of Loch Coruisk as it lies cradled amongst the sharp peaks of the Black Cuillin
Tall ship Bessie Ellen under sail off the coast of Jura in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland
A person in a long mustard coloured coat and black hat looking out towards the sea from a viewpoint above Loch Skipport on South Uist, with the Isle of Skye seen faintly on the horizon
A yacht in the bay at Vatersay with pastel sunset skies and the silhouette of the Isle of Rum in the background
One of the two famous stacks of St Kilda, Stac Lee rises from the sea as birds swarm around and the tourist boat MV Cuma offloads kayakers below
A walker on the old military road among the dramatic mountain scenery of the Lairigmor, a real highlight of the West Highland Way
A view of Buachaille Etive Mor on the West Highland Way
A tent set up with expansive views of the surrounding hills near Ba Bridge on Rannoch Moor, this hiker found the perfect spot while camping the West Highland Way
A person stands on the wide expanse of Tresness Beach on Sanday
An impressive view of the Old Man of Hoy from the south, showing the towering stack detatched from the rugged red cliffs of the island's west coast
Standing stones set in a large circle, known as the Ring of Brodgar, one of Orkney's most iconic sites and Scotland's largest stone circle
A person walks along the unspoiled beach of the Tresness Peninsula on Sanday
Two surfers walk across the sand in the afternoon sun at Ceannabeinne Beach, not far from Durness on the North Coast 500 route.
An abandoned boat wreck on the Isle of Mull.
Peanmeanach Bothy on the Ardnish Peninsula in February
Culross: Scotland's Best Preserved 17th century town
On an afternoon of bright light and deep shadow, a hiking couple stand on the rocky summit of Sgurr na Stri (one of the best hikes on Skye) overlooking the length of Loch Coruisk as it lies cradled amongst the sharp peaks of the Black Cuillin
Tall ship Bessie Ellen under sail off the coast of Jura in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland
A person in a long mustard coloured coat and black hat looking out towards the sea from a viewpoint above Loch Skipport on South Uist, with the Isle of Skye seen faintly on the horizon
A yacht in the bay at Vatersay with pastel sunset skies and the silhouette of the Isle of Rum in the background
One of the two famous stacks of St Kilda, Stac Lee rises from the sea as birds swarm around and the tourist boat MV Cuma offloads kayakers below
A walker on the old military road among the dramatic mountain scenery of the Lairigmor, a real highlight of the West Highland Way
A view of Buachaille Etive Mor on the West Highland Way
A tent set up with expansive views of the surrounding hills near Ba Bridge on Rannoch Moor, this hiker found the perfect spot while camping the West Highland Way
A person stands on the wide expanse of Tresness Beach on Sanday
An impressive view of the Old Man of Hoy from the south, showing the towering stack detatched from the rugged red cliffs of the island's west coast
Standing stones set in a large circle, known as the Ring of Brodgar, one of Orkney's most iconic sites and Scotland's largest stone circle
A person walks along the unspoiled beach of the Tresness Peninsula on Sanday
Two surfers walk across the sand in the afternoon sun at Ceannabeinne Beach, not far from Durness on the North Coast 500 route.
An abandoned boat wreck on the Isle of Mull.
Peanmeanach Bothy on the Ardnish Peninsula in February
Culross: Scotland's Best Preserved 17th century town

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Sailing The Hebrides On Tall Ship Bessie Ellen
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