Sibyl of Cumae’s circumnavigation of Britain

Sibyl of Cumae’s circumnavigation of Britain

by Cornelius van Rijckevorsel – 10/06/2020

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We took the Old girl for a spin

We had planned this trip to attend the Fife Regatta, sadly it was cancelled, but we set off regardless. Although Sibyl of Cumae is a Scottish boat, she is an unlikely candidate for an Atlantic cruise. She was built in 1902 by William Fife III as a day racer for the protected waters of the Clyde. We had prepared well, reconditioned the old Eberspächer and lots of warm clothes. We didn’t use the heating once. Via our friend Caroline I inherited Jon Castle’s, captain of the Rainbow Warrior, foul weather gear, very thick and warm, I did use those! We set off from our home port of Plymouth on the 15 th of June and had 3 days of very unpleasant weather, We sailed for Falmouth on the first day and visited the Int. 8 Metre Pinuccia on her mooring at St. Mawes. We met up with our old friend and fellow classic boat sailor Nick from Penlina. Both Benji and I sailed with him in the Golf de Morbihan.

The constant crew for the whole passage were Benji; Aric and me, with 2 places spare for changing crews. We also had my daughter Millie and her friend Cecily on board and they behaved very bravely under these conditions, both looked green. We sadly skipped the Scilly Islands as it would have meant more upwind sailing in big waves. As soon as we had the wind abeam, Sibyl behaved more evenhandedly, once we turned the corner at Lands End. We left our 2 young female crew members in Fishguard, Wales and sailed onwards, in the afternoon, for a breezy night in the Irish sea. Soon we were clocking 10, 11 and 12 knots arriving in Dublin the next morning at 03.30 hrs. Excited we had made it this far, we opened a bottle of wine on the visiting pontoon in the middle of the night, in Dun laoghaire, having radioed in phonetically. It felt as if the journey had now really begun. We were 3 days early, as there were strong northerlies forecast, to pick up my son Ignas, flying in from Amsterdam.

Lots of little repairs to do and nothing helps better to get a quick feel for a place, than having to look for spares for the boat. Quickly discarding the main chandlery and getting bits and bobs together elsewhere, even a car scrapyard. Aric became our phaffer in chief. We did sail out on the 3th day to look at the local regatta and Aric was invited on one of the competitors yachts to take part in the race, with ended in a collision on the start ling. As soon as Ignas arrived we were ready to get on with our trip. We left at 0800 in the morning and sailed up the Irish sea. Conditions were perfect for Sibyl. I kept in mind the shipwreck of the Oona in 1886 nearby. It also was the 20th year after Eric Tabarly was lost overboard in the Irish sea, sailing 100 year old Pen Duick to the Fife Regatta. Pen Duick too is a 36 Linear Rater, from 1898, 4 years senior to Sibyl.

We had a magical moment when all 4 of us had lunch on the fore deck, spinnaker up and automatically steered by our faithful Will-helm. Sun and a stable force 2-3, we realised how fortunate we were, just being at sea in such spectacular conditions. But of course it could not last and we had the kilo pot of peanut butter spill over the teak deck to remind us that perfection can only be attained temporarily. We sailed on to the top of Arran and anchored and stayed overnight in Lochranza. The main reason being that my son wanted to visit whisky distilleries. We duly did the tour and acquired a bottle for our friend Eddie Crawford who lives near Glasgow. He had ordered a gusher for the sink pump that leaked which we could not get hold of in Dublin. He also lent us his pilot guide for the Outer Hebrides which I didn’t manage to get in Plymouth. All the rest, charts and pilots were borrowed off the other Fife yacht in Plymouth, Sonata, thanks Paddy and Robin! So the bottle was for Eddie. Arran is beautiful and you can see it for miles because of its high mountains.

We came across a lovely Scottish Island Class yacht moored nearby. The old boy showing off a nicely faded red Balmoral tam o’shanter that made me jealous and looking for one in vain in Edinburgh later. We set off from Arran the next morning in a light breeze, catching up a modern yacht, but we had to put the motor in after a while, when the wind ran out. There was a small house  in a beautiful setting on the North coast of Arran, all by itself, ideal for my hermit aspirations. We motored into the Clyde, South of Great Cumbrea island, towards Fairlie, 116 years ago the birth place of our beloved boat and we planned a sail past the spot where the Fife yard used to be, nothing now remaining. There was a row of moored boats off the beach and Ignas and Benji went into the blow up dinghy to make photographs. I didn’t want other boats in the image, so we came closer into the shore and Aric even put the spinnaker up for just a minute, in very little wind. We could see the bottom and were in very shallow water. The pictures are beautiful, but we were nearly aground. We must have looked pretty stupid from land, but we just managed it all without making fools of ourselves. Sibyl was built on this shore, hence the triangular keel, mimicking the incline of the beach. It would have been ridiculous to have stranded her here, but we got away with it and nothing of that shows on the photograph.

On, northwards into the Clyde, where we had an appointment with Eddie, the gusher and a new crew member, Noud, flying in from the Netherlands the next day. We stayed over at Rhu Marina and someone was on the pontoon when we arrived. We thought he was the harbour master, but it turned out to be Eddie. We exchanged the whisky for the pilot guide and the gusher and proposed a drink. Eddie wanted to taste his new bottle, but couldn’t drink himself as he still had to drive home. A bit embarrassed we proceed to drink his bottle and ended up very drunk but having a great time, finishing in a fish and chips shop in Helensburgh.

Showers; water intake and topping up on electricity, the usual things we go to marinas for. Leaving the next morning, I had planned well our exit, which is always tricky with an offset prop and hardly any keel yet under the mast. Going astern she’ll always put her backside into the wind as soon as it catches the high mast. She is not a marina boat. Somehow the forward gear would not engage and we were going backwards into an other boat. Luckily the 3 guys on the aft deck managed to keep us from touching the boat behind us, but Benji lost his watch in the water and we snapped the flagpole. One piece was missing in the water and Benji and Aric went back into the marina in the dinghy to pick up the missing bit of wood, so we could glue everything back together.  We were unaware that Faslane was at the end of the Gare Loch and Eddie also pointed out Queen Victoria’s holiday home across the water, next to where the old McGruer boatyard used to be. I ignored that these yards were so close together, with Mylne’s yard on the Isle of Bute, just 10 miles away. It truly was the epicentre of boat building one hundred years ago. Sibyl lived here most of her life.

Sobered up the next day, we left for Greenock, across the Clyde to pick up Noud. We landed in an disused dock, Victoria harbour, just for an hour or so and got the lead line out to see if we were in trouble or not, but over 4 metres was well deep enough for a while. As Sibyl was first registered in Greenock we almost felt entitled to be there. Whilst waiting for Noud to arrive, the boys went for a big shop nearby and we set off in the afternoon for the Crinan Canal in a big W shape, via the Firth of Clyde,  the Kyles of Bute into loch Fyne, where we anchored for the night in Glac Mhor.

Up early to catch the first lock opening of the Crinan Canal.


At the sea lock, there was another boat waiting to get through the canal. After having paid for the passage we got our first step up. In the second lock this very beamy plastic yacht came racing in and banged in reverse once he was in, pushing on our fenders. We usually go dead slow mooring anywhere. After 3 or 4 times of the same story, we let them go in front and stopped for some early lunch. Much better this way. You can have a guided passage, but we just opened and closed our own lock gates. A lock master cycled all the way to assist the other people. There was enough water in the canal and we arrived in Crinan in the afternoon after a hot day working the locks. We stayed overnight in the inner basin. Crinan is very pretty, all works perfectly and the views are stunning across the loch to Duntrune Castle, almost like a manicured Japanese landscape. We had a couple of drinks and met Mike Johnston, who remembered Sibyl from the 1960’s. He did email me a write up of Sibyl’s journey to Denmark in the summer of 1958. A very different affair, with days spent wallowing in the North Sea in a storm and a 15 hours hove-to in too much wind; an near collision and a 4 day and nights hove-to in a storm on the way back. He writes that Sibyl was on her beam’s end.

We planned our entire passage with the wind predictions, which these days are pretty accurate. The weather kept being favourable for taking big steps.

Sailing out of Crinan, with a sideways glance into the Corryvreckan, we sailed on to Mull, where Ignas decided he would come after all to St Kilda with us, instead of flying home to Amsterdam. So we turned West and got to the Sound of Iona. We were advised to anchor in Tinker’s Hole, a tight anchorage, but all boats turn at the same time. There were some 6 other boats already anchored. We put ourselves in the middle of the wider part and the tide would either stream North or South. We went to bed after a nice meal. The next morning we had turned, but we were laying on the wind instead of the tide, an Easterly and less then 2 metres from the rocks, so we quickly got ready to leave. With quite some wind we sailed out of the Sound of Iona towards Tiree and Coll, going past the funnily shaped islands of Treshnish, Lunga and Staffa. Mendelssohn was duly mentioned, and Fingal’s cave, but we were on a mission and didn’t stop off. We passed between the islands with everything up and rapidly overtook a polyester cruising boat. On board was a professional photographer, Genevieve Leaper, who made some stunning photographs of our passage through the Sound of Gunna.

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Beautiful day and we got to Barra in the afternoon. Castle Bay is very pretty and well sheltered. That night there was a ceilidh organised in the local pub and we could hear the music over the water. The boys went investigating and it turned out to be their best evening of the year. My crew are hardened party goers, so this must have been very special. Apparently the whole pub went mad and they happily joined in. We did stay another night for the guys to emerge and we had a sedate day visiting the castle in the water. Rain initially and a  lot of wind that afternoon, we had to clear out of our anchorage because the ferry could not land and we were forced to use the pontoon for the night.

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St Kilda was beckoning, a big step, 80 miles in the open Atlantic. We left with a first reef in the main from Castletown, another boat following us out in the early hours of the morning, she was a modern classic, an Andre Hoek design and looked like a very powerful cruiser, she dropped behind and we saw her later back on St Kilda. For the last bit we had to put the motor in as the wind dropped. We got to Hirta, a well sheltered bay in West and South Westerly Winds. Apparently we were lucky, later people asked me if we were able to land. Yes, it was very calm and comfortable, we even swam. Thousands of puffins darkened the sky when I took the dingy out for a closer look at the interesting rocks on the South side of the ancient crater formation, with natural arches opening to the Ocean.

I had been wanting to go to St Kilda ever since I read Ian Rutherford’s book “At The Tiller” about his journey in 1937 in the Int. 6 metre Sheila, owned by my friend Lorna Rice, with a nice photograph of him sailing back to the Hebrides in a force 8, on a run, 2 open cockpits.


So we got there, it was a long way, but this was my destination. St Kilda is an island group that was inhabited for 3000 years until 1930. Bits look prehistoric. It is basically one arched street following the shoreline, a bit inland. There are ruins of houses and older stone huts; enclosures and dotted all over the valley stone constructions called cleits, small warehouses, all the way up to the top of the hills. The people used to survive on sea birds and they would sell their down to pay rent to the owner of the island, the Macleod family.

It is a world heritage site, but sadly the MOD plonked barracks right in the middle of it. There is a missile guiding system at the top of the hill and the splendour of the sight is tarnished by their activity. Land rovers, helicopters and heavy equipment going about noisily, building new barracks. At midnight it was still light enough to read a book outside and by 4 it was light again.

The next morning we went ashore for a good hike up the mountain and I am glad we took a crew photograph. At 14.30 hrs the shop opened for an hour and I wanted to be there to find an interesting souvenir. We were completely independent for food electricity and water, no internet and no phone signal. So I couldn’t contact my brother Peep for his birthday.