“All ye need to know”

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From the Shiant Islands I sailed Coral to Loch Seaforth and then on to the North Harbour at Scalpay. I arrived there on Sunday afternoon and, on taking the dinghy ashore, found the usual noticeboard telling the visitor of the local attractions, but in this case also asking that you ‘respect the Sabbath’. And indeed, the houses of the community, lying between the north and south harbours, seemed effused with a silence and respect, so that I felt out of place even to be walking around. But this is a prosperous and hard working community, as was evident with the fishermen on the quay waking me at half past four in the morning, clearly well rested and ready to get to the week’s work.

I was ambivalent about where to take my meandering next. Part of me was called to the southern islands of the Outer Hebrides, the Uists, but more to the far southern islands like Barra and Mingulay; another part was called back to Skye and to the northwest corner I had not explored. I was also feeling I had been away from home long enough, seen more than I could digest. And I felt I should be at home, since Elizabeth’s aged mother was in hospital with an uncertain prognosis. Slightly grumpy and a bit confused, I decided to allow the wind to make the decision for me.

It seemed more of a performance the usual, getting going that morning. Maybe it was the comparison with the six, or was it eight, young French people on the neighbouring boat, who had more hands to do the work than was needed and were soon sailing away. As I hauled the anchor chain in it spread a very black and sticky mud all over the foredeck, and I had to leave the anchor itself hanging while I found the deck brush and cleaned it off. Then the dinghy had to be hauled on board–I had left if afloat in case I needed to deal with a snagged anchor–and various rocks and reefs to negotiate. And once I had done all that, the mainsail up and was ready to start sailing, it was clear that what wind there was was very light, and I needed rig the inner forestay and hoist the big No.1 genoa rather than just unfurl the working genoa. I seemed to be constantly on the go from cockpit to foredeck and back again.

For a while, Coral sailed elegantly across the unusually smooth waters of the Little Minch, making well over three knots toward the northern end of Skye. After all the struggle of getting things going this was delightful. And the decision about destination seemed to be made for me. But then the speed dropped to three knots, then two, and after creeping along for half and hour or so, none at all. Let it be, I told myself, there is plenty of daylight, we are not unsafe or uncomfortable. And so I allowed Coral to just sit there, out in the middle of the sea. No longer engaged in trying to get Coral to sail, I started to look around me.

The day was pleasantly warm with the southerly wind. Loose cloud covered much of the sky, with the sun shining fitfully through the gaps. The wind was even more fitful, ruffles on the surface promising some action but fading into nothing very much. Ahead, Skye was a dark silhouette; behind, bright sunshine picked out the outcrops of gneiss on Harris. Fair weather cumulus, maybe holding a touch of rain, was rising over the mainland and all the islands, showing the line of the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Stornaway, the tops of the mountains. The sea was quiet, but with undulations on the surface, like a dimpled mirror, throwing shallow reflections this way and that. In the far distances north and south the horizon where sea met the sky was not a razor sharp line, as I have described in an earlier blog, but diffuse and uncertain. Sea and sky were both an exquisite silvery grey so closely matched in tone so that the one merged into the other.

Gary Snyder writes of the ‘sacred’ as that which takes on away from one’s little self into the wider whole. This sense of the sea merging into the sky, the sky into the sea, of being held between two lands, did just that for me. This was all it took to drop my disappointment that the wind had faded and my wider concerns about what I was up to, and for a few moments to open my heart to a simple sense of wonder, a kind of ordinary ecstasy.

If I have learned anything in three long seasons of sailing ‘on the western edge’, of pilgrimage in search of a different kind of relation to the earth on which we live, it is that these sacred moments arise, often quite spontaneously and unexpectedly. And at these moments, ego concerns drop away and the boundary between self and world becomes as diffuse and uncertain as that horizon between sea and sky. The challenge, the creative opportunity, is quite simply to be open to these moments when they arise. If we can catch 10%, then maybe we are doing well.

That is what I now know, and, to add Keat’s insight to Snyder’s, maybe that really is ‘all ye need to know’.

However, and in case all this may seem to be too sweet and lovely, the rest of the day did not go so well. I did need to get somewhere by nightfall, and so I determined to motor on to Loch Dunvegan on northwest Skye. But I allowed myself to be deceived by the charming quality of the day, I didn’t do my pilotage calculations carefully, it was further than it seemed and the tide turned against me round the headlands. Silly and definitely unseamanlike, I ended up pushing for hours against the tide round a headland and anchoring very tired and cross with myself. I am sure the world around me still carried that sacred quality, but I became too wrapped up in my irritation and disappointment to notice.

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Comments

  1. How I’ve been enjoying these last few posts (especially). There is a quality of absorption and humility about them that I love. They also make me feel I am back there in Scotland.

    I can certainly relate to the experience of letting go to the moment then paying for it by pushing against the tide – Steve and I seem to do that so often and I suppose we should know better by now! Then again, if we had been more ‘sensible’ we would have missed so much.

    I’ve been enjoying your reflections on pilgrimage too and I find them drifting through my mind while I’m walking and sailing here. In the summer, we see so many tourists and I’ve been challenging myself about my visits to Wales and Scotland, wondering if there is any difference. Of course I don’t know much about the people who come here on holiday but I often feel they have come to ‘get’ something from the place. I wonder if they think about what they leave behind. One thing I’ve noticed about experiencing a place deeply is that I not only bring it home with me but leave a part of myself behind. On some level or other, I feel part of me is still wandering along the shore of the loch at Kylesmorar, chatting with the otter, the moist air on my face. There is another part of me walking in the Rhinog mountains and another at sea near Belle Isle.

    I think I told you that I’ve been reading Rachel Carson’s book ‘The Sea Around Us’. That has been making me think of you too – especially in the way she talks about rocks and tides. I also love what she says at the end of the first chapter:
    ‘Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage. He could not physically re-enter the sea as the seals and whales had done. But over centuries, with all the skill and ingenuity and reasoning powers of his mind, he has sought to explore and investigate even its most remote parts, so that he might re-enter it mentally and imaginatively….And yet he has returned to his mother sea only on her own terms.’

    Mx

  2. Melanie says:

    As Melanie as just said, we know only too well how you felt.
    You ended the blog unhappily, I hope you soon opened the drinks cabinet, prepared yourself that well deserved G&T and set about cooking in that lovely boat of yours!
    I’m sure it wouldn’t have been long before you looked back and thought it was worth it anyway…
    I’ve been looking forward to catching up with your latest, so decided to sit in the garden to be with nature too.
    It sometimes surprises me just how ‘unnatural’ living in the middle of the New Forest can be at times.
    Planes overhead, cyclists along our unmade up road, even the Archers bleating through the open kitchen window are all distractions, it’s a relief when all this is removed by a natural force – the effects of the wind blowing the the trees, causing the leaves to rustle crisply and then softly, completely drowns out all of the man made clutter.
    I imagine you’ll find it strange at first, to adapt to your life as a land lubber and you’ll look back wistfully on all of these days.
    Keep it up, and we’re all looking forward to your latest stories…!
    Best wishes,

    Steve R.

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