Outer Banks: The Wild Whisky Coast

Offering downwind wingfoiling tours of the wild west coast of Scotland would, you'd think, be challenging enough to most as a new business venture. Not for the team behind Scot Ocean Sports though… They wanted a tall ship involved too.

Words: Patrick Winterton
Photos: Andy Corbe

Besides the rain and the midges, the west coast of Scotland is famed for its dramatic scenery, castles and some of the world’s finest whisky. As far as water sports go, you will see the occasional glistening sail on the horizon and groups of hardy wild swimmers who enter the water white and come out pink. With the exception of Tiree, ‘the windy isle’, the sight of kites above the beaches has all but gone, replaced by the more versatile wing. Launching anywhere that allows them to take advantage of the wind and the swell that funnels up the sea lochs or between islands. Given wind over tide conditions, you can time your runs in minutes, not seconds. Wing foiling has found a new ‘doonwinda’ mecca.

Six is a crowd in these parts so it was an achievement to get twelve riders gathered on the pontoon in Oban, a town last in the news when some bright spark pressed ‘ignite all’ and got through a thirty-minute firework display in under thirty seconds. The attraction on this occasion was not the lingering smell of phosphorus but a Brigantine square rigger, the ‘Lady of Avenel’, and the prospect of a week’s downwind wing foiling around the Inner Hebrides. The ship was to be our mobile hub and home for the week, positioning itself somewhere close to the start of the following day's ride. All we needed was for sufficient wind to come from each angle of the compass in equal measure, so we ended up close to where we started. What could possibly go wrong?

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A new venture means a steep learning curve, for everyone. Lesson one was that no one reads the joining instructions, not even the large print. “IT’S A BOAT, there’s limited space”. The first three to arrive had enough kit to sink the boat and certainly enough foils to make the cargo more valuable than the vessel. The skipper, Stefan Fritz, just smiled and calmly asked, “how many are coming?”. The second was that gauging someone's foiling ability from a form is impossible. What we did know is that we had men and women, a forty-year age gap, Irish, Dutch, English, Scottish, and two things in common: wide-eyed excitement and contagious enthusiasm.

Launching wing, board, and rider from any ship is tricky but a square rigger must top the difficulty list. One at a time and four helpers hoisting, holding, pumping, jumping. Stefan predicted a two-hour operation to launch nine riders. We beat that by a full hour but the process wasn’t helped by the fact that most eyes were on Rob Sayer slicing the waves up on his AXIS ART999. Strange how things slow down in the presence of greatness!

We had all but the beginners on the waters of Bloody Bay, myself out front as pace setter, Andy Corbe bringing up the rear on the jet ski and ‘The Lady’ straight lining it under bare poles. “It will be like herding cats” a friend had predicted. More like cats being chased by hounds. Here was lesson three: give everyone a radio. We’re all too wrapped up in our own riding for a buddy system to work. A couple of minutes going different directions on different waves and your buddy is now a long lost friend in the sea spray. After a six kilometer run down the coast of Mull to Ballemory’s Tobermory, we had the riders dialed. We still had everyone and hadn’t added any crimson to the waters of the bay. Some had already done enough damage to the knees and elbows of their wetsuits and were scooped up to recover in the luxury of the Lady’s lounge. The rest went north, across the sound of Mull to the skerries that guard the entrance to Loch Sunart and kick up steep, super clean lines. Mix in the autumn colors, imposing cliffs, rainbows, sun’s rays penetrating the storm clouds and you have a scene worthy of the opening shots of any feature film. To top it off, the run finished going through the narrows into the calm paradise of Loch na Droma Buidhe. An ideal venue for the beginners to strut their stuff. I couldn’t help thinking we should quit while we were ahead. The smiles and chat told us that ‘that’ was the perfect day.

On day two a select few rounded Ardnamurchan Point. Exposed to the SW winds, the Atlantic swell and a massive tide race, this is where the sea does a big, ugly, unpredictable dance. Survive the headland and the swell regains some sort of order to give a good ride up the north side of the peninsular. Most achieved this. One didn’t and the jet ski with sled was called into action in testing conditions. Let’s just say we won’t be going anywhere in future without it and certainly won’t consider using a rib, of any size, in those conditions.

The following day we rounded the headland again after the wind had dropped. Everyone bar the skipper high up in the rigging as we passed the sun-bathed lighthouse on one side and a Norwegian submarine on the other. Even those of us lucky enough to live here were silenced by the sheer beauty of this coastline. We didn’t see much of it on the next downwinder. Twenty kilometers up Loch Linnhe with front after front changing wind and visibility as they came through. Ensis, CORE, Ozone wings all visible one minute, none the next. Again the radios were essential and the positioning of the ship to relay info is critical. Again the count ‘in’ matched the count ‘out’ and the chef had an easy job to please the riders, whose limits were being pushed pretty much daily.

Throughout the six-day trip we had four class downwinders, the same number of static sessions, all but one a first for wing foiling, and ended up riding north into Oban harbour, the wind deserting us a mere four hundred meters from our original point of departure.

What an adventure. The result of a chance meeting between a wing foiler and the owner of a square rigger who concluded their vessels were best when going downwind. Within 24 hours a plan had been hatched, a deal done, problems had become challenges and Scot Ocean Sports born. The power of like minds. Thanks Stefan. Your calmness, belief and enthusiasm is an example to us all.    

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