Catching the changing winds in the west

Everyone's dreams are different, but for many the themes cohere. Take sailing; symbolising freedom, entrusting yourself to nature, rocked by a womb-like sea, transported by the winds of chance.

Add the drama and beauty of wild shore-scapes, angelic food, exotic birds and animals in the air and sea, and the dream takes wing.

This, at least, is the promise of a yachting cruise on Scotland's West Coast on the 65ft, 12 berth Corryvreckan.

Reality brings, if not exactly a nightmare, certainly a touch of pain: hauling ropes in sharp winds as hailstones dance on the deck; sitting anchored in pitching seas all day waiting for a storm to subside. But then, real sailing, with real sails and high winds is never easy, though it can often exhilarate.

What the Corryvreckan manages to do is keep the proportion of bliss and toil in a stimulating balance.

It left Oban on a Saturday afternoon as captain Doogie Lindsay and his wife familiarised the passengers with sails, winches, cleats and knots. A stiff breeze took the boat to Loch Spelvie on Mull, a quiet inlet, mottled with bird-life, the shore a wet chestnut with seaweed and rock pools.

Dougie and Mary have chartered on the West Coast for over 20 years in a succession of boats. This model, custom-built last year in Holland, is the height of luxury yachting: three bathrooms with showers, a wide saloon, easily seating all 12 on board, well-stocked book shelves, cassette collection and drinks cabinet.

Weather permitting, each day includes a walk on shore. This too helps modulate the week - one day the party toured an ancient priory on the tiny island of Oronsay; another trip was to Tobermory, another to scale some hills overlooking Loch Tarbet on Jura, with stags bellowing on every horizon.

Several among the crew were clearly spellbound, even before they came on board. They had a Scottish yachting holiday in mind as something to do before they died. Almost like a last wish.

There was also a sprinkling of naturalists, whose binoculars detected porpoises at play, seals basking on rocks or bobbing across our bows, kittywakes flashing past, shags and cormorants diving alongside and herons paddling in the shallow water. There was even an otter, a live eel wriggling in its teeth as it swam to shore.

With so many years experience of these waters, Dougie has a fertile store of battles, ship-wrecks, myths and memories. The name Corryvreckan itself comes from a lethal neck of water between the islands of Scarba and Jura where the Viking prince Breachan moored his boat in order to win a local maiden's heart.

The first night he tied up with horse hair, but fierce winds broke him loose. A second night he lashed his craft to shore with hemp, but met with no more fortune than before. At last he tried to brave the tempest using a line spun from pure damsels' hair. He perished, poor fool, and was hauled to the shore by his faithful dog, the story concludes.

On this voyage, the Corryvreckan didn't try its luck on this rip-tidal namesake; the winds were wrong and took us further west. This adaptability to prevailing weather is a charming part of the cruise: it's a mystery tour even to the captain, who decides the day's itinerary each morning. But this means you can't be sure to pitch up at any favourite spot during the week.

The season runs from April to October, and fair-weather sailors would be advised to opt for mid-season slots. Dougie reckons to lose no more than three or four days a year to bad weather, generally in early or late weeks.

Our trip in late September included a storm-stayed day. A force eight to nine gale was crashing in from the north-west, so we hid behind a lump of Mull until it spent itself. One smaller yacht had ripped its sails and lost its engine, so we listened smugly to radio messages from the crew as they tried to tie themselves on to a hulking Brixham trawler anchored nearby.

Then another trawler began to drag its anchor and head for a small yacht. It was all highly dramatic, while we sat round drinking gin and tonic and stuffing ourselves with the obligatory three-course meal.

Being on such a recently built, high-performance boat is a kick in itself, rather like driving a new Maserati along deserted roads. It's not officially a racer, but can top ten knots in a good wind. And it's clean, smartly upholstered, with roomy bunks and hot showers.

Dougie combines absolute competence (RYA Yachtmasters Offshore Captaincy certificate) with a rich seafaring history: he's crossed the North Sea, the Atlantic and sailed through the Caribbean besides criss-crossing the West Coast.

Mary has a sideline as a singer/songwriter, trained as a cook under a Cordon Bleu teacher and repairs china in the winter. "I spend my whole summer creating meals which are immediately destroyed, so I like to mend things instead," she says.

The marriage thrives despite being so physically close all year, because "we don't want to do each other's jobs," they say.

It means there is a real sense of family on board, everyone helping out and working as a team.

Best of all, though, is the feeling of elation as the Corryvreckan powers down the Sound of Mull in a force five or six, rushing waves pushing and lifting yet faster, brilliant sunshine dancing on the sea. High curves of land surge by, spray refreshes the face, birds call high above the mast and you think, "this is it, this is what the dream was like, this is sailing".