Waiting for the storm

Waiting…. and then it comes!

I am anchored at the top of Loch Sheildaig, which is an extension of Loch Torridon. The sky has been deep blue all day and for the first time this summer I have been hot! The landscape round the loch has a magical quality to it, like one might expect to find in illustrations of fantasy adventure book by Tolkein. Huge rounded hills, great masses of rock, rise abruptly from a small strip of land by the water’s edge. At Sheildaig village a row of homely white houses are strung along the shore, utterly dwarfed by the hillside. Everywhere foreground hills overlap those behind which again overlap the misty ones in the far distance. A low finger of rock separates Loch Sheldaig from Upper Loch Torridon, so that as Coral passes at water level that low foreground and the higher background move past each other, revealing new perspectives moment by moment.

The hills–I learn from my geology book The Hidden Lndscape–are of an ancient sandstone that overlays the even more ancient Lewisian gneiss. At last I have learned where the phrase ‘Torridonean sandstone’, which is used a lot in my guidebooks, comes from: The Hidden Landscape tells me “the Torridonean sediments covered a Precambrian landscape floored by the Lewisian that was already ancient and eroded”. I am ever so slowly getting the hang of geological terms, wondering yet again why I did not learn any of this at school.

I am here partly because of the landscape, partly because I am seeking shelter and waiting…. while England is (I imagine) sweltering in sunshine, what the Met Office calls “a deep area of low pressure” is out in the North Atlantic near Iceland, and strong winds (gusting to Force 9) are forecast to sweep across the northwest tonight and tomorrow. I need to be in a secure anchorage on Wednesday to sit out the gale.

I spent last night in the upper loch but have moved. Partly because I was tired of the noise coming from a large fish farm in the middle of the loch; they really do industrialize an otherwise remote landscape. But I mainly moved to a bay where the sailing directions say offer good shelter and good holding for the anchor. And I am waiting. I can get hourly updates from the Met Office on my phone, but strangely enough, even now in the late afternoon there is little sign of a change of weather. The sky has been blue from horizon to horizon all day, apart from the clustering of fair weather cumulus around the tops of the hills. Now, when I look to the west, I can see what may be the high stratus clouds that would suggest a warm front is coming in and heralding the depression But the barometer remains high, even rising slightly through the day.

I have done what I can to prepare: I have made sure the anchor is well dug in, with plenty of chain; I have made sure there is nothing loose on the deck. But the sun still shines strongly, the wind is light, and so the waiting is a little surreal. Doubtless I will not think so in the middle of the night.

Wednesday morning

I was right. It wasn’t until about four in the morning that the strong winds came, gusting fiercely between the hills, throwing Coral one way then the other. I managed to keep dozing for a while, every now and the checking the transit I had noted–a telephone pole in line with the corner of the white house. The anchor seemed to be holding… and then around 5.30 I realized it wasn’t. The transit moved out of alignment, features on the shoreline began to move past each other. Coral was drifting sideways toward the middle of the loch.

After dragging warm clothes over pyjamas, I went on deck to sort things out. Once I got the anchor out of the water I found it had picked up an enormous bundle of weed, such I could hardly lift it even with the windlass. Once I had cleared this–lying on my belly with my arms over the bows pulling at stalks of slimy seaweed–I motored back into the bay and re-anchored. I tried with one anchor, then with two anchors, dragging out the huge cqr that I had never needed to use before from the bottom of the cockpit locker. Each time I hauled up the anchor–careful to wear rigger gloves and to pull with my legs rather than my back–I felt myself near the limit of my strength. Two or three times I reset the anchor, sometimes one, sometimes two. Nothing seemed to work, the big cqr seemed more of a nuisance than a help. Eventually I must have hit lucky and found a place on the bottom where there was no weed and some stiff mud. With extra scope from a rope anchor line shackled to the end of 30 metres of chain, we seemed not to be moving. All this was tough work, and each time I had to struggle with the anchor, a little voice in the back of my head said, “you can’t do this on your own”. And each time I found that, once I started, my head was clear, my body ready, and I did what is needed. The challenge was both alarming and satisfying.

Once settled, I sat in the cockpit and stared at my new transit–now lining the telephone pole with the second window on the house–as it moved this way then that, sometimes losing a sense of which way was which. In the gusts Coral was blown downwind of the transit so that I worried we were dragging again; but then in the lulls she moved back sedately into position.

In the lulls between the gusts, Coral lay still and the loch seemed quiet.There was a sudden stillness in our little bay, just the sound of the wind blowing the trees on the hillsides and the waves further out in the loch. Then, as if the wind was preparing itself, a noise started from afar, a kind of forewarning that another gust was on its way. When it came, it hit Coral with a wild shriek, shaking the rigging, heeling her over and blowing the bows round. I could not believe it would not pull the anchor out, or break the anchor line. But each time everything held and she swung back into line. Then another lull came.

Sometimes I found myself talking to the wind, saying, “That’s enough, please stop now”. Other times I tred to find a way to enjoy the wind, to be in tune with it, rather than fight it. If I tensed my body with each gust I was using energy I might need for real work. And of course the wind was just doing what it does, howling through the pressure difference between the low to the north and the high to the south.

Then the rain came: sheets of wetness blowing down the loch, soaking everything, reducing the visibility to a few hundred yards and forcing me into the cabin. But the rain was also a sign that the worse was over. Gradually the wind eased, the gusts faded away–not without a last few shrieks, but shorter, less intense. I found I had dozed off for a bit, and then, quite suddenly, it was calm, with even a few patches of blue sky.

That evening
The sea that was a turmoil of white water is now calm, stretching through the loch north west out to sea. The hills have reappeared from behind the low cloud, and once again give the place the appearance of an illustration from an adventure book. I am very tired and will go to bed early.


  1. anna gillespie says:

    Sleep well in your bunk Peter. Well done for weathering the storm. It’s interesting taking that metaphor back to its origin…. Love, Anna xxx

  2. Neil Spencer says:

    Hello Peter. Your student and friend Kirsti Norris told me about your blog. As a sailor myself I have checked it out from time to time. I really enjoyed the latest entry. You have captured the task and challenge of re-anchoring in a storm very well. Lots of tasty metaphors to explore in that one. Best wishes, Neil

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