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There is a wonderful old map in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh called ‘A Plan of Loch Sunart Became Famous By The Greatest National Improvement This Age Has Ever Produced’.
It was surveyed in 1733 by a William Bruce and dedicated to General William Wade.
Of particular interest is a section giving directions for sailing into Loch Sunart: ‘In sailing into L Sunart you first make the Pt of Ardslignish, betwixt six rocks seen at half ebb; the four west most called the Morven Stirks. In sight as you pass and on your Lardboard side the Pt of Glenmore, East is a large good anchoring bay in 16 ft. The passage through the lower narrows is betwixt two islands, Risga and Deer, where you are liable to three hazards, a rock partly seen att ebb close under the west end of the Deer or larboard side as you enter 2nd, a flatt on the SE end of the same I [island] within the narrows; a rock partly seen att half ebb close under the E end of ye starboard side of Rysk I [Island].’
Confused? So I am although I’m not even afloat let alone trying to anchor after nightfall or in fog.
Of course, charts have improved beyond recognition in the past two and a half centuries but I still enjoy seeing ‘white house conspicuous’ denoting a prominent building on the old and not so old Admiralty series. But just how much should we rely on paper or electronic route-finders?
I once tried to navigate a motor cruiser up to the head of Loch Tarbert on Jura. When I was in the channel where it is at its narrowest between Cruib and Eilean an Easbuig [Bishop’s Island], I was alarmed to see from my chart-plotter that I was quarter of a mile south of where I thought I was and, worse, half way up a hillside.
Realising that others must be experiencing similar embarrassing, not to say dangerous, situations I knew there had to be a solution.
Antares charts’ Boyd Holmes, former commodore of the Royal Highland Yacht Club (RHYC), told me sitting with his wife on their 45 ft yacht Blue Damsel anchored in Loch Teacuis on a perfect west highland evening in 2016: ‘You need to speak to Bob Bradfield, the man who invented them.’
After a degree in engineering and a career in the City, Bob retired in 2003, aged 50.
Nautical activities have dominated since including: a lead role in the repair of Gipsy Moth IV in New Zealand and sailing her from Cairns to Darwin; cruises on his own boat and with friends around the UK and NW Europe to Spitsbergen, the Antarctic, Chilean Patagonia, the Falklands, trans-Atlantic and on chartered boats in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Indian Ocean and New Zealand.
His Antares Charts project started in 2009 and has resulted in the publication of omore than 500 very large scale electronic charts of channels and anchorages on the West Coast of Scotland for which he has been awarded an MBE.
Named after the fifteenth brightest star in the night sky, Antares led six yachts belonging to members of the RHYC through several shallow channels into Loch Teacuis without any difficulty, a task hitherto involving a good deal of ‘will-we-or-won’t we’ and faffing about to anyone unfamiliar with the conditions.
Probably not since the commandos were training in the area during the Second World War, had so many vessels been seen in the loch at the same time.
Every season, the RHYC holds three on-the-water musters. In 2016, the first was in Loch Spelve and attracted nearly 40 boat owners, seven of whom decided to take advantage of the fine weather and set sail for Loch Teacuis the following day.
Their mission was twofold. Firstly, to reconnoitre the reputedly difficult entrance and, secondly, to investigate the possibility of using the loch for a future muster.
Commodore Boyd Holmes said: ‘Whilst many yachtsmen choose to avoid Loch Teacuis, its challenging entrances should no longer frighten the adventurous who enjoy exploring remote and interesting anchorages. The advice in the latest Clyde Cruising Club sailing directions, which reflect surveys undertaken by Antares Charts, is spot on and has really opened up this perfect gem on the West Coast to a wider audience of sailors. Entering the loch with Antares charts running with GPS on a computer or smartphone removes much of the anxiety previously felt by yachtsmen.’
As an unqualified enthusiast with limited resources, Bob told me that although he can’t produce a comprehensive set of charts to rigorous standards he has made it his mission in retirement to do what he can.
‘With some hydrographic surveying equipment and software, mostly from the bottom end of the professional market, we cherry-picked small areas to survey then published very large scale electronic charts from the findings. These can be viewed with a live GPS position on a tablet, smartphone, laptop or other device. A tablet in an inexpensive waterproof case makes a perfect complement to the main cockpit plotter when entering or navigating within these small, sheltered areas.
‘And if used with the right plotting software, my charts will work seamlessly with official UKHO charts. The beautiful, sandy Sanna Bay on the NW of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula illustrates the point about scale. The official chart is accurate but doesn’t show enough detail, whereas an Antares chart just covers the tricky final approach and helps you pick a spot to anchor.
‘In other cases, Loch Don for example, five miles west of Oban, not only is the official chart not to a sufficient scale but nor is it quite accurate, as many have found to their cost. Our chart will zoom in a lot further and shows the very deepest route over the bar, using additional half metre contours.
‘There are still many locations marked as ‘unsurveyed’ on the official charts of the West Coast including a ‘harbour’ (Acairseid an Rubha) we surveyed last season. It is a delightful little bay on the west of the Sleat Peninsula with a clear sandy bottom and ideal for a lunch stop in settled conditions. We also surveyed a number of beautiful anchorages on the SE coast of Lewis, where the best official chart is half the scale of the one I have described. And this year we hope to get to the west of the outer isles where, in some places, the best charts are at half this scale again.
We have a good relationship with the UK Hydrographic Office, which generally accepts our ‘notices’ informing it of uncharted or miss-placed rocks, wrecks and even the odd errant island. It does not, of course, vet or approve our charts, which we share with experienced navigators but only after they have confirmed they have understood their limitations and the manner in which they can be used and are prepared to accept all associated risks.’
For more information see www.antarescharts.co.uk