To the Sea Again

I must go down to the sea again,
To the lonely sea and the sky

“Sea Fever” – John Masefield

What can I say?  Today we were going on a cruise.  Yes!  Actually on a vessel, on the sea, sleeping on board. A cruise!  The first one since November 2019, and the first one since the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic.  To say we were excited is a massive understatement.  😊

We left the house at 7.30am for the 5½ hour drive to Oban, Scotland, where we were due to board the Glen Tarsan, later this afternoon.  This would be a cruise like no other.  For a start, the Glen Tarsan is a converted Scottish fishing trawler, one of four sister vessels belonging to The Majestic Line, and only carries a maximum of 11 passengers and four crew.  She would be our home for the next six nights.

The Glen Tarsan featured, in 2016, in the TV programme Cruising with Jane McDonald, and having seen the boat (yes, we are actually allowed to call her a “boat”) during this very entertaining episode, and reading all about it on the Majestic Line’s web site, we knew we were in for a treat.

As we headed north-west in the car at a rapid rate, the traffic was fairly light, with not many lorries on the road. The weather hadn’t quite decided what it was going to do yet, and varied between grey cloud, brief showers of rain and, later on, cumulus clouds with the sun breaking through.  Over the top of it all was a persistent, chilly breeze.

After a couple of hours, we stopped at the motorway services for a leg-stretch, a hot drink and a snack before continuing on our way.  The closer we got to Oban, the more picturesque the scenery became, with trees and hills and lochs and lovely little boutique hotels, shops and houses.  What a beautiful part of the British Isles Scotland is!  Why hadn’t we holidayed here more often?  😊

Eventually the dual carriageway became winding roads as we passed the scenic Loch Lomond and the hills gradually became mountains.  The road meandered alongside the loch and the greenery seemed to become greener.  We could hear the sea calling to us as we travelled through towns and villages with names that rolled off the tongue, like Crianlarich, Tyndrum and – finally – Oban.

As the car slowly made its way into Oban we looked for somewhere to park so we could get our bearings.  We had a good two hours before boarding time, so we eagerly made our way to the North Pier to catch a glimpse of the four Majestic Line vessels, which the MarineTraffic app told us were lined up waiting for their happy passengers.

With joyful anticipation, we feasted our eyes on the Glen Tarsan like a parched desert traveller sighting an oasis.  It was really happening.  After 18 long months, we were finally going on a cruise.  😊

Although the sun was peeping out from the big cumulus clouds, a brisk breeze was blowing, bringing with it the salty tang of fresh fish, and the sea smells of rope and tar.

Once we found a spot in the long-term car park, we left our luggage in the boot and made our way to the Corryvreckan, the Wetherspoon’s pub on the harbour.  We had intended, on a personal recommendation, to visit the Oban Inn, but as we passed it looked very busy, all the tables outside full of “rule of 6” groups enjoying the (rare!) sunshine.

We enjoyed a sandwich each and a couple of pints in the Corryvreckan, then returned to the car, retrieved our bags and coats and suitcases, and trundled them along to the landing pier towards the four Majestic Line vessels; the Glen Shiel, Glen Etive, Glen Tarsan and the Glen Massan.  On arrival our engineer, Steve, whisked our bags away, loaded them onto a trolley, and beckoned us to follow him.  There were no queues, no check-in, no being issued with a cruise-card, no passport checks.  It was up the gangplank and onto the Glen Tarsan, her glinting windows and polished wooden hull gleaming mellowly in the afternoon sun.  We had arrived and, absurdly, I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat.

As our bo’sun Max took our bags to load into our cabin, we waited in the saloon with five other passengers as we were handed a chilled glass of prosecco by our smiling chef Mags.  In fact, the Glen Tarsan has a crew of four:  Dave the skipper, Steve the engineer, Max the bo’sun and Mags the chef.

We were also privileged that the owner of the Majestic Line vessels, Ken Grant, came on board to welcome us personally, as this week is the first time since last year that the Glen Tarsan has been able to sail.  Ken also has a day job as an epidemiologist, serendipitous indeed when a worldwide pandemic is raging.  😊

We each enjoyed another glass of prosecco, taking it out onto the rear deck for the “sailaway party” of exactly seven passengers.  😊  The vessel carries a maximum of 11, but due to the increase in Covid-19 cases in some parts of Scotland (particularly Glasgow) some passengers had had to cancel as their area had gone into Tier 3.

Everyone was excited and smiley and happy to be back on board again, as we had all experienced the disappointment of cancelled holidays, on land and at sea, during the last year; we were all in the same boat, so to speak.

We wandered all around the ship – sorry – boat and gazed at the sunlight dancing and glittering on water, with the picturesque mountainous backdrop, lovely little dwellings dotted here and there among the gorgeous scenery.  As the Glen Tarsan glided across the bay, she towed behind her the dinghy that would serve as our tender, or “liberty boat”.

At this point Max appeared, and told us our cabin was ready.  We have been allocated Cabin #1 on the main deck; in fact, it was the very same cabin that Jane McDonald was in when she made the programme mentioned previously.  There was no spacious balcony or flat-screen TV or big dressing table and mirror; instead we had a very comfortable-looking bed with crisp clean sheets, a duvet and a Harris Tweed blanket and cushions on it; the bed head was immediately below the window.  There was a nice-sized ensuite bathroom with a shower cubicle, a minuscule wardrobe, but plenty of coat-hooks all around the cabin walls to hang stuff.  There was a mirror on the wall and a couple of prints of sailing ships.  It all looked lovely and cosy and very nautical.  😊

After travelling all day and the excitement of being back on the waves we decided to have an afternoon power-nap, so we set the timer to go off in an hour’s time, and settled down.  The rumbling of the Glen Tarsan’s engines soon lulled us to sleep; in fact, it was one of those ever-present sounds that you don’t even notice until it stops.

After waking and getting freshened up, we made our way once more to the saloon and made small talk with the other passengers and all introduced ourselves:  Bob, Cheryl, Derek, Chris and Helen as well as Trevor and me.  😊

We noticed the pitch of the engine change and wind down altogether, before the clanking of the anchor chain that signalled that this was to be the Glen Tarsan’s anchorage for the evening.  A quick look at the vessel’s chart showed that we were in Loch Melfort in Fearnach Bay.

Dinner was served at 7.30pm and was a foodie’s idea of heaven.  As we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink we partook of some fresh prawns and trout caviar canapés, before being served a delicious main course of freshly-roasted halibut served on a bed of cauliflower mash and spinach, followed by a poem of a lemon tart with fresh cream and strawberries.  The chef, Mags, must have been worried lest we grow faint with hunger, because this was followed by a cheese board consisting of Stilton, a French soft-cheese and apple-smoked mature Cheddar, accompanied by grapes and biscuits.  All of this was washed down with house wine and mint-infused water, served by our attentive bo’sun Max.  😊

As the sun disappeared behind the mountain and dusk descended, we sat there in a gentle post-prandial euphoria, enjoying more wine and chatting and laughing with the other passengers and crew members, and listening to their amusing tales.  Already this was proving to be a cruise unlike any we’d experienced.

As darkness fell over the sea beyond our window, and lights started twinkling in the little distant dwellings, one by one each passenger made his or her excuses and retired to their cabins, until Trevor and I were the only ones remaining, as well as skipper Dave.

As we were in Scotland, we decided we’d have a “wee dram” for a nightcap, and we each enjoyed a Springbank malt whisky; Trevor had his neat (the only thing you put in a whisky is another whisky!) while I had a touch of ginger ale in mine as I am not really a whisky drinker.

Then, around 11.00pm (early for us!) we returned to cabin #1 and settled down for the night in our cosy, quiet cabin.  We slept very, very well.

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