The sun is about to rise over the Kyles of Bute, and the breeze, almost imperceptible a few minutes ago, has started to strengthen. Small waves, barely discernible in the gloom, are betrayed by white horses glimmering in the pale, watery light which heralds a fresh, new morning on the Secret Coast.
The black water turns steely grey as the day slowly dawns. A wave of sunlight rolls down the hillside to the west and, crashing over the boulder-strewn shore, shatters into a tessellation of golden shards on the ruffled water beyond. Shimmering in a fractured but insistent dance, it creeps eastward over the northernmost tip of Bute, falling gently on the surreally painted rocks which gaze wistfully out toward Loch Riddon.
On deck, blinking into the new day, I blow onto my coffee and watch as the steam coils away from me like the early morning mist, made ragged by the stiffening breeze, as it swirls in tight circles across the surface of the kyles, before evaporating in the strengthening sunlight.
The whir of the windlass snaps me back to the moment, like the rattling chain as the anchor’s weighed home.
It’s time to set sail.
Colintraive drifts gently away to stern, whilst the small ferry breaks away from the slip to start its short crossing to Rhubodach. It ploughs across the East Kyle, an echo of the days when Bute's drovers would swim their cattle to the mainland on their journey to market.
Like breadcrumbs in the woods, green and red buoys bob on the water, marking safe passage through the Burnt Islands.
As herring gulls wheel through the lightening sky above us, and cormorants perch on the shore, their black wings spread to welcome the new day, a pair of common seals slide from the rocks of Eilean Mòr, and disappear beneath the surface. A slick, grey head breaks cover a few metres to port, and joins us for a moment, gliding on the current, as we pass through the narrows, snatching glimpses of the ruined fort partially hidden under a twisted knot of brambles which crown Eilean Buidhe.
As we head due west, our new friend loses interest and dives once more into the dark water, his thoughts turning to breakfast.
Beating down the West Kyle now, every tack reveals something new to discover.
The steep sided forest of spruce, fir and oak, tumbling to the waters edge.
The treeless, scrubby, wilderness of Bute, a world away from the abundance of green on the other side of the water.
The quiet shelter of Caladh harbour, kept safe in a tight embrace between Eilean Dubh and the shore, whilst the little white beacons stand guard. Twin sentinels holding strong against the outside world.
Endless mounds of rhododendron clamber over each other, softening the landscape into a dreamlike haze of pink until, with the slap of a luffing sail, the rocky outcrop of Rhubaan Point slips by to starboard, and Tighnabruaich glides into view.
Below the tree-lined hillside, graceful Victorian villas bask in the morning light and roll their perfect lawns out toward the waters edge, where palms trees rustle gently in the breeze as they wave us by.
Later today, Waverley will dock at the elegant old pier, smoke rising from her funnels and water streaming from her great paddles, as her passengers disembark to explore the village. For us, though, the land will have to wait for another day, as we pass close by Kames, watching small dinghies launch from the tank slip, ready to enjoy their own day out on the water.
The trees, clinging tightly to the shore, are punctuated by tall spikes of bold, pink foxgloves, as the long, low, roof of Carry Farm comes into view. A blade of red on white, slashing through the green.
Hebridean sheep lift their inquisitive black heads from the grass to peer curiously into the sun as we make our way by.
Past the point.
Past the flotilla of small boats racing out from the sailing school.
Past Blindman’s Bay and Ardlamont House, where murderous secrets echo behind the Georgian grandeur.
Toward the tip of the peninsula.
The end of the world.
At Ardlamont Point, where the West Kyle joins Inchmarnock Water, and Cowal falls away to stern, the view opens up into a wide expanse of blue. The water, deep navy, brushed with silver by the wind, is fringed by Bute, Inchmarnock and Kintyre, and, to the south, erupting from the flat horizon and reaching up for the soft white clouds which scud across the great arc of powder blue sky, the jagged, wild outline of Arran.
Rounding the point, with Arran's mountains to port, and Ardlamont Bay racing by to starboard, a blue-grey back breaches the surface in a spray of diamonds. The curved dorsal fin gleams in the summer sun before rolling back under the waves to dance around the bow.
Together, we reach Ostel Bay, its distant beach and shallow water studded with bathers, families and dog walkers. A coil of smoke rises from a campfire whilst, to the east of the bay, the abandoned railway track, strewn with seaweed, curves gracefully over the rocky shore, on its mysterious journey from the dense woodland to the waters edge.
The dolphin breaks off to investigate further and, with the faintest trace of woodsmoke spicing the salty air, we keep going.
The shore hardens as we head further west, soft sand giving way to great slabs of dalradian schist. Sea pinks hug the rock closely, their brightly coloured flowers lightly bobbing over a carpet of golden lichen, whilst retreating waves leave a thin crust of silver-grey salt to dry out under the afternoon sun.
At the islet of Sgat Beag, the rocky shoreline falls away to reveal Ascog Bay and, beyond it, the low humps of Eilean Aoidhe rise gently from the sea. We take the narrow channel between the mainland and Sgat Mòr, where the little beacon stands like a monument to the vessels which have foundered in these waters.
A reminder of the fragile, fickle friendship we keep with the sea.
The headland of Low Stillaig glides by and I think of all the boats which have passed under the watchful gaze of the neolithic stones standing proud on the hillside. Countless lives sailing by, each with a story to tell.
As we pass the marina at Portavadie, the sound of halyards clattering in the breeze fades rapidly away to stern. The infinity pool flashes by to starboard, its occupants taking things at a more leisurely pace, soaking up the sun whilst they take in the views over the water. They watch as we cross over the wake of the Tarbert ferry, cutting its path across the loch, our hull climbing a hillock of sea before coming down hard with a slap.
The hard waters edge softens once more, to reveal a crescent of pale sand, fringed with thick, emerald bracken and ancient, oak woodland, the abandoned village of Glenan watching serenely from its hilltop as our white sail, trimmed to the wind, races past the shallow, turquoise water of the bay and heads out to the middle of the loch.
As the wind presses us on, past the lone pine of Buck Sound, we ride on long, low arcs of ivory spray, glinting like silver blades in the sun, as the forefoot slices through the waves.
Like a hound racing home, there’s a bone in her teeth.
I turn back and look out over the transom and its fluttering ensign. The arrow straight wake spreads out from the stern in an ever widening fan, a reflection of the tails of the oystercatchers flying overhead. It reaches far across the loch, making pebbles dance, clatter and roll where it laps against the shore in the slowly fading light.
Dashing due north now, the churning water hisses at the bow. Kilfinan Bay and the stubby monument at MacEwen Castle flash by to starboard, as the familiar green beacon of Oitir Spit comes into view.
A kilometre and a half of shingle beach reaching halfway across the loch.
An outstretched arm beckoning us home for the night.
As we moor safely in Otter Bay, the wind drops and the sky catches fire. The still surface of Loch Fyne reflects a crimson blaze, broken only by black ripples as a small tender is rowed away from the pontoon.
The flames are extinguished as the sun drops below the hills and, to stern, the sky fades from shimmering gold to palest blue.
Later, once the sky above me and the sea below have turned to black, I lie on deck, the water lapping quietly and rhythmically against the hull, and the mast drawing graceful arcs against a canopy of stars.
I feel the sun, long since set over Kintyre, still gently glowing on my face.
I smell salt on my skin.
My eyes slowly close as memories of the day sail through my dreams, ready for what adventures tomorrow might bring.
Reproduced with kind permission of The Secret Diary (www.secretdiaryargyll.com).
The Secret Regatta will run from 6th until 20th June 2020. For more details, please click here.