It was the moment the Royal racing yacht Bloodhound, past winner of the elite Fastnet Challenge Cup, met her match.
We were flying up the Lynn of Morvern off the west coast of Scotland, her mainsail filling in a stiff breeze, when half a dozen “competitors” turned up. At first they were off our stern, then they were streaking effortlessly past us to cavort in our bow wave.
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Cruising past misty mountains and sea lochs in a classic wooden sailing boat, in the company of dolphins riding the waves for the fun of it, is as good as sailing gets. “This boat was a Formula One racer in her day, but there’s no keeping up with that lot,” skipper Steve Judkins admitted.
For most of the year, the 63ft yawl, owned by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in the Sixties, is on display alongside Britannia in Edinburgh as part of the Royal Sailing Exhibition. For a couple of months each summer, she is available to the public for day sailings out of Oban, gateway to some of the finest and most scenic sailing areas in Britain.
Photo: GAVIN BELL
Our cruise begins with a safety briefing, bacon rolls and an invitation to take the helm and help work the sails as soon as we are at sea. Captain Judkins and his crew are unpaid volunteers, most of them ex-Royal Navy men who served on Britannia, and who sail on Bloodhound for the love of it.
“First time I saw her, I fell in love with her,” says deckhand Rob McAuley. “Every time I come to her it’s like kissing your wife in the morning.” This, inevitably, provokes a humorous response from his crewmates.
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But we understand his enthusiasm. The 1936 yacht is more of a greyhound than a bloodhound, a sleek, graceful racer of finely crafted oak with teak decks, resplendent in her royal livery of navy blue with gold trim. Above us, her pedigree is displayed in the bungee of the Royal Highland Yacht Club, fluttering from the mainmast.
The Duke raced her during Cowes Week, and the Prince of Wales and Princess Royal acquired their sailing skills on summer cruises along the Scottish west coast. More recently, the Princess was on board when Bloodhound logged her record speed of 11.4 knots off the Isle of Skye.
In the absence of royalty on our day trip, informality and high spirits prevail as we head north west towards the Sound of Mull, past the dark battlements of Duart Castle, ancestral home of Clan Maclean.
As we sail into the lee of the Isle of Mull, the sea quietens and we cruise sedately through absurdly romantic scenery. Sunshine transforms a lead-grey sea into a tapestry of sparkling silver. Colours and contours return to the land; clusters of white cottages are dwarfed by shaggy green hills and glens wreathed in mist.
Rounding north of Lismore Island, we sight the stark profile of Castle Stalker on a tidal islet, which achieved stardom in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, before a lunch of soup and sandwiches is served in the surprisingly spacious lounge, with room enough for the eight guests on board and chef Neil dishing out memories of serving on Britannia.
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He recalls being on “pirate watch”, armed with a Browning 9mm pistol, as Britannia sailed through the Strait of Malacca, and wondering why he was there: “It seemed a bit pointless. Since the Queen was on board, we were being escorted by a type 42 destroyer.”
Most of the passengers have sailing experience, but Jason Whiting, an engineer from Harrogate, and his sister Esther Ruth Elliott, an actress, are exceptions. Neither has been on a sailing boat before and this trip is a birthday present from Jason to his sister.
“It’s magical,” he enthuses. “Being allowed to take the helm is quite an honour, really. A photograph of me on the helm is going on the wall. I’ll treasure it.”
Heading south again, we heel over in an exhilarating rush of wind and water. A couple of the women stumble on deck, prompting deckhand Geoff “Bagsy” Baker to call out: “Neil, do you always have women falling at your feet like that?”
Welshman Bagsy is a bit of a joker. Approaching Oban, he shouts: “Whales, off the port bow,” and we rush to spot them. At least it sounded like whales. Until he said: “Wales, due south, a lovely country.” The old ones, as a crewmate remarks, are the best.
At the time I am on the helm, riding the waves the way I learnt while pootling about the Firth of Clyde on an old wooden sloop. Bloodhound, as the Duke observed, is easy to handle, cresting swells like a thoroughbred steeplechaser.
Our skipper seems content with my steering, and says: “Right helmsman, take us home.” I feel a rush of pride and happiness. I feel like royalty.