Elaine Bunting heads for a rendezvous in Ardfern, a tiny hamlet on Loch Craignish on the west coast of Scotland, to meet up with the Princess Royal and her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence aboard their private yacht
As in any good intrigue, the rendezvous was remote and the instructions brief: wait at the chandlery at Ardfern Yacht Centre, inside if wet, outside if dry. Here I would be met by Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence, or a policeman.
Ardfern is a tiny, remote hamlet on Loch Craignish on the west coast of Scotland, set in a wild landscape of raw splendour. It is where the Vice Admiral and Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal keep their Rustler 44, Ballochbuie, and where I was invited to meet them, an event unheard of in their 21 years of sailing here.
Strictly speaking, a rendezvous is unnecessary in Ardfern. “Ah, you’ll be the journalist and the photographer,” a local man observed the minute we arrived. The plainclothes policemen stood out as conspicuously as we did. Villagers appeared oblivious, but being a member of the Royal Family is like having in-built AIS. “They are on board with the rigger”, “They’ve gone up for a coffee at the Crafty Kitchen.”
Sir Tim’s impending arrival was duly noted and pointed out before we met. After introductions he led me and photographer Paul Wyeth down to where Ballochbuie was berthed. As we walked down the pontoon, he chatted cordially about the Dorus Mor, the fierce tidal gate at the entrance to Loch Craignish that he and the Princess were intending to pass later that day at the start of a week’s cruise among the islands.
Sir Tim and Princess Anne are mad keen sailors and loyal Rustler owners. Their previous boat was a Rustler 36, Blue Doublet, which they kept in Ardfern for 20 years and sailed every summer. Ballochbuie was launched in 2012 from Rustler’s family-owned yard in Falmouth. That year was a busy one as Princess Anne is president of the British Olympic Committee and was a member of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, but when it was over they sailed their new yacht north. “It was our wind-down after the Olympics,” says Sir Tim.
In any year, free time is scarce. Princess Anne is famously hard-working, with an oppressive-sounding timetable of public duties: over 600 engagements a year, often three a day. Sailing holidays have, however, been sacrosanct, usually a week in early summer and perhaps two weeks later in the year when they explore further north or to the Outer Hebrides. Click here to see some of their favourite places in Scotland.
“It’s always been a bit of a negotiation. We decided a long time ago to do it in blocks and therefore it was worth keeping the boat somewhere it was nice to sail. It was much more sensible to pick a time slot to get away and keep it in Scotland, but we can only do that twice a year to any real extent,” says Princess Anne.
Their sailing sounds very traditional. Blue Doublet had few modern luxuries, not even an electronic chartplotter, and was anything but palatial. Sir Tim says he wasn’t able to stand up below and this was one of the reasons they began to think about a larger boat. “We wanted a bit more space,” he explains. “It was getting more difficult to live in,” agrees Princess Anne.
“There are lots of 44ft size boats and we had a great choice. We were hugely impressed with the build standards of Rustler,” says Sir Tim. “They are built to look after their occupants. They’re solid and they’re safe.
“We looked originally at the Rustler 42, but then someone came along and had the same idea we had, which is when you are down below you can’t see out. He asked if they could make a version of the Rustler 42 that was high enough up so that you could see out and this ended up being the Rustler 44. It’s ideally suited to the west coast of Scotland: when it’s cold or blowing hard and difficult to sit out you can still enjoy the beautiful views and watch the sunsets or the otters swimming past from the upper saloon. This boat seemed perfect for us and we’ve been very pleased with her.”
The extra size of the new yacht has taken some getting used to. “Having a bit more power and, for me, I’d never sailed with anything other than a tiller, so learning to sail with a wheel was really quite difficult – I was never very good with a wheel,” says Princess Anne. “With a wheel it’s much more difficult to find where that balance is. So it was quite a steep learning curve before I thought: ‘That’s OK, we’ve got to have a wheel’.”
The other big decision, they say, was about whether or not to have in-mast furling. Blue Doublet was slab reefed. They chose a furling mainsail system but, says Princess Anne: “There was a very long debate on that. And the jury is still out.”
They also opted for a cutter rig. “We had a cutter rig on Blue Doublet as well, but because it wasn’t designed like that it didn’t work as well as we would have liked,” says Sir Tim.
“You couldn’t use them together; tacking was tricky,” says Princess Anne. “But this is designed to be a cutter rig and sails nicely. We are still finding our way with the boat and we have sailed with it cutter-rigged several times and we managed OK, though we’ve got to practise a bit more.”
Their new boat has electric winches, which Princess Anne says is: “a trade off with having bigger sails. They give you a bit more scope to control, and we thought we might be running out of puff,” she laughs.
“The other modern device we’ve allowed ourselves is a bow thruster, which certainly makes my life a bit easier,” says Sir Tim. “Put it this way: when we arrived at the boat she was facing bows in and we knew that the wind would be blowing in so we took her out, spun her round and backed her in which, with a bow thruster, was no problem at all.”
So who does which jobs aboard the boat?
“I’m the foredeck hand, if that’s what you mean,” laughs Princess Anne.
The name of the yacht, Ballochbuie, that has woodland associations. “It’s the name of a piece of ancient Caledonian forest on the west end of the Balmoral estate, which we’ve always loved,” explains Sir Tim. “It’s a beautiful part of Scotland and it just seemed like a very nice link between a boat that we love and a piece of Scotland we love.”