Was this the pilgrimage?

Bertraghboy Bay

I have been back at home a while now, going through my notes, audio recordings, pictures and, of course, my memories. This had led me to re-live experiences “on the western edge” that felt particularly significant at the time, yet had faded into the background. Revisiting these moments has brought them back into sharper focus…

There was that wet and windy day in Bertraghboy Bay, Connemara. It had been raining since I woke up. The pattering of rain on the deck just above my head was punctuated by the abrupt plops of larger drops falling from the furled mainsail. The noise of the wind in the rigging rose and fell, little crescendos and diminuendos as squalls came and went. In the stronger gusts the pattering on the deck became a loud rattle, and the anchor chain clanked as Coral swung round. Looking out, I could see water pouring down the windows and collecting in little pools before running along the sidedecks and streaming down the drainholes.

The previous day had been a long tiring sail up the coast, spent mainly on my feet in the cockpit. I had arrived late at Roundstone only to discover the anchorage was uncomfortable in the freshening southerly wind. So, rather late in the evening, I had brought Coral round better shelter in Bertrachboy Bay. But today I didn’t have to do anything and I really didn’t want to do anything.  I was just hanging out in the cabin doing odd jobs, listening to the rain and reading Tim Robinson’s fascinating book, Connemara: A little Gaelic kingdom.

From time to time I stood at the bottom of the companionway and looked onto the circumference of wet bleakness.  In the cockpit, the rain was gradually filling the washing up bowl I left out with last night’s dirty dishes. The ensign flew soggily from the backstay. Raindrops hung brightly from the safety rails, then dropped to the deck. Round Coral the dark greeny blue of the bay was dappled with the splash-marks of raindrops. High grey cloud covered the sky, heavier rain clouds blowing across below. When the rain slackened, the far shore appeared as a dark, scarcely green curve between water and sky, but the Connemara Mountains beyond remained hidden. But soon squalls returned and all I could make out was the nearby fish-farm, a circular black framework skeletal against the water.

All morning the rain persisted. In the afternoon the wind blew up to near gale force and veered westerly. It howled through the rigging and set the halliards drumming against the mast. The sky lightened in the south and west with thinner cloud and streaks of blue. All this I interpreted as signs of the cold front coming through. I watched the clouds racing across the sky, expecting the wind soon to blow itself out. But no, I saw that Coral was slowly drifting and realized that with the wind-shift the anchor was no longer holding firm. I got to work on the windlass hauling up the chain and anchor made heavy by mud and weed dredged up from the seabed. I took the opportunity to find a more sheltered spot on the northern shore. After carefully setting the anchor and making sure all was secure, I retired, rather wet and windblown, to the cabin.

Around teatime the wind finally dropped and through the early evening the sky cleared, the wind dropped to practically nothing and a deep sense of calm settled across the bay. I sat outside with my supper looking at the mountains, purply grey in the evening light. A straight line of cloud cut across the taller peaks and rose above them in curly cumulus, grey underneath and white above. Between the mountains and me lay the poor boulder-strewn farmland of Connemara. The low evening sun caught on some facets of the mountains while leaving others to lurk darkly in shadow. But to my right the cone of Cashel Hill remained in full sunshine, grass green with grey outcrops of granite welling out from underneath. Everything was so bright, with different shades of green and complex layers of curves in the hills, curve upon curve, and an odd little bunch of trees clustered round a house.

As I finished my supper, I realized how the breathtaking beauty of my surroundings – the clear air, the quiet rippling of the bay interspersed with the little shrieks of terns fishing nearby, the expansive view of water and mountains – had gradually permeated my awareness. It was high water of a big spring tide and the bay was full to the brim, lapping at the grassland all the way round. Maybe the fullness of the tide had filled me with a sense of the presence of the world around me.

I sat there thinking, “Maybe this is the pilgrimage. Maybe the point of coming this long way was wait through the rain and wind all day and now to sit here looking at the mountains of Connemara in this quietness, watching the way the clouds hang around the tops of the mountains.”

I am finding the word “grace” is helpful in describing these experiences of wonder at the world. Moments of grace cannot be willed, they arrive unbidden and arrest one’s attention. But of course that whole long, slow day watching the weather had created the conditions in which that moment could occur.

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Journey’s end

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I sailed on from Lussa Bay in the afternoon, pushing up the Sound of Jura against the last of the tide so as to pass through the Sound of Luing with a favourable stream. I am not sure if I got the timings right, there is a lot for a newcomer to learn about how the tides work around the Western Isles.There was a rather fickle westerly wind that one moment drove Coral along at over 5 knots and the next would suddenly change direction or fade away. I was reminded of learning to sail a dinghy in Loch Earne, where the wind was channelled through the gullies between the surrounding peaks and shifting direction suddenly to catch you unawares, and like as not tip you in the (very cold) water. Yet I was also reminded of sailing in the Morbihan in southern Brittany, where tidal streams are so strong that they partly create their own wind as they carry the boat forward.

Past the top of the Sound of Jura I passed the entrance to the notorious Gulf of Corryvreckan (pictured), well known for its dangerously fierce tides and whirlpools. It is said that George Orwell, when he lived on Jura, would come to the cliffs and gaze down at its chaotic wildness. But I passed at slack water and watched a yacht sailing through quite calm waters. Clearly you need to pick your moment.

The tide carried me fast through the Sound of Luing, water swirling Coral around as we rushed past the Fladda lighthouse. There were many places to stop–indeed, all the way from Clifden there have been places I would have liked to linger–but by this time I was tired and just wanted to get to Oban, so I pushed on picking up a buoy early evening.

The following day I took Coral a few miles round to Dunstaffnage Marina, where Coral is to stay over the winter Harbourmaster Twig Olsen and his team were welcoming, and I spent the afternoon tidying things away and taking off the sails and running rigging in preparation for lifting out–a busy and tiring few hours mostly in heavy rain. Sometime pilgrimage is just about doing the practical things that are needed

And so this morning I left her on the pontoon and got my taxi to the rail station. I am writing on the Cross Country train, still just in Scotland, but moving fast home to the West Country. I think I am writing mainly for myself, to mark this important point of closure. It has been a long trip, well over 1,000 miles. Much of it great, much challenging, some bits horrible, others awesome. That is the way it is

Lussa Bay, Jura

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After two nights at Craighouse at the southern end of Jura, I left as soon as it was light to catch the last of the tide northward up the Sound of Jura. When the tide turned against me, I took Coral into Lussa Bay, tiny, south facing, twelve miles or so north from Craighouse,and tucked Coral in between two rocky peninsulas out of the tide. A lone cormorant stood sentinel at the tip of the rocks. Low cloud had descended full of dampness and sometimes light rain. The ensign hung soggily from the backstay. Through the mist the greens and greys and browns of the land were subdued–a sharp green scrub, russet brown bracken, punctuated by almost black windblown trees; rocks dark and wet at the waterline, lighter above. At the head of the bay a house stands amid a cluster of mature trees, a bridge over a stream, and what appears to be a cultivated field.

As I turned off the engine and its mechanical grumble and the churn of the propeller that had been in my ears for two hours stopped, I was struck by the silence. But after sitting still for a while, my ears accustomed themselves to the subtle watery sounds that are around me. In the background was the burbling of the tidal stream running past the little headland, light but solid. Then a deeper, hollow percussion of wavelets hitting against the rocks. And above those noises a faint patter on the deck and sprayhood comes and goes with the fine rain that envelops the bay, punctuated by the thud of little drops falling from the boom and sail. Coral herself lies nearly still, rocking ever so gently from side to side, occasional creaks coming from the engine as it cools down.

As I stand in the companionway out of the rain looking across the bay, a harsh bird calls. I look around and see a raven landing on therocks, inky black feathers penetrating the rain mist and standing out strongly against the grey of the rocky shore. I thought I saw something moving in the water. Could it be an otter? But after searching the surface carefully there is no further sign.

I came into this bay for the purely practical purpose of waiting out the tide. But I am enchanted. I have spend an hour or more watching and listening and trying to find the right words. The silence of the bay has silenced my mind and I am absorbed by just being here.

Going with, and against, the tide

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Sunday I crossed from Lough Swilly to Islay and was re-introduced to the challenges of serious tidal races–tides on the western coast of Ireland are not funnelled into narrow passes and so streams tend to be mild. Not so on the north coast or around the Western Isles of Scotland.

The wind had continued through most of Saturday, accompanied by heavy rain. Since Coral was lying to the tide and across the wind the rain wanted to blow down the companionway, so I had to shut everything up and stay below, waiting for the heaving around to stop. Then quite suddenly on Saturday afternoon there was a lull, one more heavy squall, and the quiet. The wind dropped, the rain fell back to a dribble then petered out, and slowly the sky cleared. Waves were still rolling down the Lough and coming round the headland to slop Coral around, but no longer were the tops blown off by the wind. But I was surprised to learn from Shipping Forecast that with little wind the seas tomorrow would be “moderate, becoming slight.” As I was bit fed up with staring at the same transit lines to make sure Coral wasn’t moving, I decided that if a favourable forecast was repeated in the early morning, I would leave to cross to Islay. It was.

I set off just after six in the early morning gloom, motoring toward Malin Head, watching the clouds over the hillside gradually clear, hanging around wispily in the gullies as the sun rose behind them. Malin Head can be a difficult headland, particularly when the wind blows against a big swell. The tides are complex in the Sound off the head, running between the Inishtrahull island and the mainland, and through the Gavan Islands. I had poured over the tidal diagrams in the pilot book as I attempted to get the pattern into my head, so I was pleased that I had got the timing just right, and was carried along east and north by a current of around four knots. It is a great feeling to catch the tide right and be carried fast where you want to go!

Once through the sound I set a course for Islay, now 35 miles north and east. With little wind I kept the engine running to complement the sails and had a lovely sail in sunshine and quiet seas through the day, making much better time than I expected.

But I was so busy being pleased with myself for getting the tides round Malin right, and so much enjoying the sunshine and Coral’s canter through the waves, that I forgot to think hard enough about the tides at the other end, around the Oa of Islay. I had worked out that they would turn north in the early evening. I was arriving late afternoon. It was springs and close the the equinox.

As we got closer to the Oa–which is a spectacular cliff formation up to 200 metres high–I realised that for all her cantering through the water, Coral was making little progress forward–six knots through the water but only three over the ground. “Too close to the headland,” I decided, and changed course to pass more offshore. But I had sadly underestimated the strength of the stream, which not only held Coral back but took her westward toward the shoreline and into the strongest current.

The sea showed all the signs of a tidal race: short, sharp waves; some tumbling over each other in whitecaps; patches of eerily calm where the water swelled up from deep below; undercurrents that seized Coral but the keel and swung her so off course, then lurched her back in the other direction. I knew races like this from north Brittany. What to do? I could retreat out to sea and wait for the tide to change, and would have done so in heavy weather. But in these calm conditions I could continue to make headway.

With the engine running at maximum revs, and the sails now able to take advantage of a freshening breeze from the east, I got Coral sailing at nearly eight knots through the water. But as I watched the coast, we were only creeping round. Slowly the coastline changed: distant headlands disappeared behind nearer ones; the coast head slowly unfolded. At times the GPS showed us we were only making two knots over the ground. But bit by bit, we made it through. The sharp white column of the lighthouse at Port Ellen came into view; the stream slacked, and it was no trouble to pick up the leading line and then the buoys that mark the entrance to the harbour.

Of course, I should have known. Of course, I should have checked my calculations. Of course, the pleasant weather after the gales lulled me into complacency. There has to be a bit a mea culpa in this account. I should have known better. Going faster can mess up your passage plan as much as going slower. But the shift from managing the Atlantic swell on the west coast of Ireland to these inter-island tidal races is extreme. It is not one you can just think about, it needs to be experienced directly. It is as if the sea was telling me, “This is what it is like around here,” offering a lesson that I need to heed as I continue north.

Windy

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Out at sea the winds are near gale force from the north and northeast. Coral and I are holed up again, anchored in a just-sheltered bay in the beautiful Lough Swilly, a few miles west of Malin Head on the north Irish coast.

Yesterday I had a really lovely sail from Aranmore, with interesting bits of close pilotage between islands and mainly calm passages past Bloody Foreland and Horn Head with the rather spectacular Tory Island in the distance. Bloody Foreland has a profile I think is unique among headlands, a long slope down from the peak of Bloody Hill to sea level, where a small, almost inconsequential lightbeacon, marks the end, although reefs extend out to sea. The name comes, not from some historical massacre, but from the much-admired pink hue that the sunset gives to the granite rocks. Tory Island sits askew on the horizon, a chunk of rock thrown up by ancient geological forces at an angle to the sea. As we ambled along the coast I enjoyed watching a flock of gannets hurtling from on high as they dived for fish; fulmars, with their particular stiff-winged flight, chasing each other low over the sea, disappearing in the troughs between waves; and terns with long and slender wings flying delicately as if not wanting to disturb the air around them too much.

I arrived in Lough Swilly yesterday evening before the evening forecast and in good time to make plans for the following day. I examined the charts and the tide times, and decided that the best course would be to sail straight across to Port Ellen on Islay–a long trip but do-able in the fresh north to northwest winds I was expecting. When I checked the shipping forecast at Met Eireann and the UK Met Office before I turned in I became more cautious. Maybe the winds would be more than fresh. And when I checked again at six in the morning it was clear I had to change my plans. A depression was winding itself up and hanging around over the Irish Sea, and near gale-force northeasterly winds were forecast.

The anchorage at Portsalon had been fine overnight, but as the winds veered from northwest and started blowing into the entrance to the Lough, it was clearly going to be untenable, so I moved across to the eastern side where the high rocky promontory of Dunree Head provides shelter from the wind and the immediate impact of the waves. But it doesn’t stop the swell rolling around the corner. Coral swings this way then that, sometime lying to the stream, sometimes to the wind, rocking and pitching. We are safe here, but not very comfortable. If the wind backs northwesterly tomorrow I may have to move back to Portsalon.

It is easy to think I should be doing something. The obvious choice is to motor the ten miles up the Lough to the marina there. But it looks horrible, all concrete breakwaters set in mudflats; and anyway, I hate the prospect of taking Coral single-handed into a marina in high winds.

No, I have to just sit it out. There is nowhere else more sheltered. This is part of sailing, part of being on the edge and so part of why I am here. The Atlantic ocean and its weather systems is doing its thing, and I am obliged to join on its terms. This is, I believe, the kind of humility we all have to learn if we are to live successfully on the planet (I think this is true but I am not sure how to say it without sounding moralistic; and maybe it is OK to be moralistic).

So I am stuck in Lough Swilly for a day or two. I would rather be stuck here than stuck in the 120 car pile up on the Sheppey bridge (today’s Guardian). And looking outside, the world is still beautiful: the evening sunlight throws the cliffs into relief, big fluffy cumulus are chasing across a bright blue sky. I can even enjoy the sight of waves breaking across the Lough beyond the headland, and the restless water around me. Guillemots are swimming around the boat, calling to each other; and, treat of the day, this morning two ravens flew acrobatically along the cliff face just at the moment I was there to see them.

Just as I was washing the dishes

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The day began early, as I was woken around 3.00am by the disturbed movement of the boat. We were anchored in the bay in the Sound of Aran, sheltered in all directions except the southeast. The wind had crept round overnight as was blowing rather wildly up the sound. While Coal was secure on her anchor, she was blown down on her anchor chain close a reef off Calf Island. After our long sail from Broadhaven across Donegal Bay the previous day, I had promised Susi and Dave a quiet day, so I felt guilty waking them at 7.00.

“This is neither comfortable nor very safe,” I told them as I handed them their cups of tea, “We need to move into Burtonport.”

Burtonport is a fishing harbour that is reached through a narrow but well-lit and well-marked channel. I showed Dave and Susi on the chart where I was planning to go and where the marks were, and once the anchor was up we set off across the windy bay, spray flying every where. It was not easy to identify the marks, and later Dave told me he had been confused by my instructions, but nevertheless we found our way safely into and along the channel and with the help of a local boatman tied up awkwardly alongside the fishing pier. These piers are not designed for yachts, and we had to dangle fenders sideways to keep Coral away from the metal piles and run long lines fore and aft as springs to accommodate the dropping tide.

While I was left on board, filling up the water tank and topping up the diesel, Dave and Susi went for a long walk to find the supermarket. The long walk clearly involved a long talk, as when they came back and we reviewed our plans for the rest of our passage, it became clear that for many reasons they didn’t want to continue. After a difficult conversation with a lot of heartsearching we agreed, I think mutually and amicably, that it would be best if they caught the bus from Burtonport back to the UK, while I continued on my own.

Since I didn’t want to spend a night alongside the pier I set off as soon as they had disembarked, back down the channel (already familiar) and across the bay. The forecast was that the wind would veer west later that afternoon and overnight, so the anchorage would now be snug. As I started across the bay, the wind blew up yet again, still mainly southerly, bringing hard rain into my face. Was I mistaken in believing that the anchorage would be out of the wind? As I was about half way across and beginning to make out the landmarks on Aran, the rain suddenly hammered down, the wind increased and in a matter of minutes moved, almost flipped round, from southwest to nearly northwest. As I entered the anchorage the water was relatively calm, the wind offshore; it wet and windy but still safe and snug. Even through it carried on raining hard, soon I was securely anchored.

Now I was on my own, I felt it would be good to make a fresh start. So after tidying the cabin and putting away the boots and lifejackets the Susi and Dave had used, I stripped off, washed and shaved, and put on clean clothes. I went through my charts and set waypoints for the next leg of the journey. Elizabeth called, and we had a long conversation full of the intimate mutuality of 50 years of relationship. I then created quite ritual of making myself potato cakes, boiling up the potatoes with carrot and parsnip, mashing them up with fried onion and the frying the cakes in butter. Outside the rain stopped, the wind dropped back to nothing at all.

I was just washing the dishes after my supper, stowing everything in its place, when I was startled and arrested as the sky in the northwest over the hills of Aran suddenly–in a matter of seconds–turned bright orange. The brightness enveloped the land and sea in a warm glow. It felt as if this complicated day was being given a blessing.

With thanks to Susi and Dave for their companionship so far.

Strong winds and big seas

We are having a windbound day in Coral, anchored in Broad Haven, just east of Erris Head on the northwest corner of Ireland. Strong winds today are forecast to touch gale force, so while it would be possible to launch on the next leg across Donegal Bay to Aranmore, it would be both uncomfortable and silly.

We probably had our fill of strong winds and rough seas yesterday as we sailed round the coast from Blacksod Bay. For the first couple of hours we had to tack out from the bay in fresh winds directly into the Atlantic swell. As each wave rolled toward us it appeared as a hillside, wavelets rippling down its steep face.Well reefed down, Coral made good progress, climbing each wave in turn, seeming to pause on the crest, then surfing down the other side. With Aries holding an exact course on the wind, the three of us sat side by side on the windward seat of the cockpit, looking down past our feet at water swirling along the lee rail. While this was tough sailing, it was also deeply pleasurable. We laughed together as we exclaimed at the size of the waves, as we pointed out how the changing sunlight picked out the streams tumbling down from the summit of Slievermore on Achill Island. Our third long tack took us past Turduvillaun, the last of the rocky islands at the southern end of the Mullet Peninsula. This was the first time Susi and Dave had seen heavy seas from a boat, and they watched in some awe as the swell rolled up the rock and broke over it, fountains of dazzling white seawater rising high in the air then running down the rockface in temporary waterfalls, soon to be inundated by arrival of the next wave.

Once round the headland we were able to bear away northwards up the channel between the Inishkea islands and the mainland. Now, with the wind on the beam and the island sheltering the sound from the extremes of the swell, Coral, even with her mainsail reefed down and flattened, raced along on a more even keel. We could relax, think about making coffee and realize it was already lunchtime. Cup-a-soup and warmed pitta bread were more than enough to keep us going, and our spirits remained high.

The passage between last group of islands and the coast narrows and is set about each side by underwater reefs. Pilotage depends on accurately identifying islands and rocks from the pilot book descriptions. But it was not easy to distinguish one low island from the next, so for a few moments I had an anxious time. Was that Inishgloria ahead, or had we already past it? Were we clear of the reef jutting out from the mainland? Dave helmed while I checked and re-checked the pilot book. I realized we were through the gap when we crossed through a layer of foam streaking clear across the passage, just as the pilot book told us.

But after the relative shelter of the inner passage we were suddenly exposed to the full force of the Atlantic swell. But it was not regular as it had been earlier in the day. The waves felt chaotic, bunched up in peaks and troughs. With Annagh Head in front of us, we hauled in the sails to bring Coral close-hauled in order to weather it. But with rough seas shaking the wind out of the closely reefed sail, she didn’t have the power to muscle through. She faltered and dropped to leeward, far closer to the rocks and foam of the headland that was comfortable, rocks that looked particularly jagged covered in foam the looked particularly fierce and bright.

“Time for a judicious use of engine,” I said. Was I trying to sound calmer than I really was? We were all three holding on tight to stop us being thrown around the cockpit, and getting to the engine controls was itself a challenge. Coral lurched as I reached for the throttle, throwing me across the cockpit. Susi grabbed at me, telling me later that she had feared I was going overboard. But the engine did its business, powering us through the water at five knots, quite sufficient to clear the head, give enough sea room to round the enormous mass of Eagle Rock rising sharply out of the water a mile or so along the coast.

Coral crashed into the waves, nothing elegant about her progress. The engine roared under our feet, and an unfamiliar whine came from the propellor as it thrashed through solid water one moment, foam the next. Sharp peaked waves towered around us, lurching Coral viciously this way then that, each side deck under water in turn. Between the peaks the sea opened into deep and dark troughs, eerily calm at the bottom, that we could peer down into. One wave seemed to pick the whole boat high in the air and drop her directly into a trough, where she landed with a crash, the rigging shuddering, the hull throwing sheets of water high on both sides. There was a clattering from the cabin as crockery was thrown around in its racks; Susi looked anxiously down the companionway, but nothing seemed to be broken, just a tin of drinking chocolate flying out of the locker. But even in these severe conditions, never once did Coral feel at serious risk, never once ploughing into a wave or allowing one to actually break over the deck, but rather lifting bow or stern buoyantly to each challenge as it came. Was it scary? Well, scary enough for Susi to reach for her lifejacket, although Dave seemed happy enough to watch the waves and exclaim at their size. I was just relieved that the steps we took to keep moving safely were sufficient. “Thank goodness for an engine that starts!” we agreed.

Once we were clear of Eagle Rock we turned north and east. The seas quietened somewhat and with the wind on the quarter we turned off the engine and ran for the shelter of Broad Haven Bay. “Where have you come from?” asked a fisherman on the quay side where we landed in our dinghy. I said something about the rough water. “Ah,” he said, “It can be very rough around Eagle Rock in a northwesterly wind.

Now, sitting in the shelter of Broad Haven with Coral riding at her anchor and the wind roaring around us, I wonder what I want to take from this experience. An immediate thought is, how much more violent can the sea get? We recorded 27 knots on our wind indicator, scarcely into Force 7. What is it like in storm force winds twice that speed, given that the force of the wind increases at least geometrically with velocity? This leads me to wonder at the ingenuity with which we humans develop technology to adventure into the wildness of the world, from the design of Coral’s hull to her solid marine diesel to the Gore-Tex of our waterproofs. In what contexts, I wonder, is this ingenuity appropriate and in which does is it destructive? And along with this I hold an admiration for my crew, for both Susi and Dave are new to sailing, and despite their lack of experience remained calm and responsive.

But really what I am left with is an image in my mind of steep sharp waves, water flying everywhere, the crash of the hull and the shuddering of the rigging along with the knowledge that, alarming though it all was, everything was going to be OK. I am not really sure how to write that.

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