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 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
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!
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.
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).
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.
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…
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).
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.