The End

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Well, here she is: not sailing the Minch, not riding to anchor, but tucked up in Dunstaffnage Marina at the end of the voyage. Phoebe, who joined me for the last week, and I were very lucky to get onto the mooring before the worst of the tail end of Bertha hit Scotland.

I met Phoebe on Sunday evening at Mallaig and together we took Coral back to Dunstaffnage near Oban where the voyage began in May. Highlights of the week were an exhilarating sail down to and past Ardnamuchan point; seals, jumping fish, porpoises; and above all two close sightings of white tailed eagle in Loch Sunart. Phoebe and I scarcely knew each other, and so had to negotiate space and mutuality within the narrow confines of Coral’s cabin and cockpit. I think we did this well. We talked about sailing and travel and illustrated children’s books (Phoebe is about to start a Masters in illustration). And while we didn’t rush, the focus of the week for me was getting Coral back to Dunstaffnage. We motored the last leg from Loch Aline to Dunstaffnage in pouring rain, and moored Coral safely alongside a pontoon.

So now the voyage is over, although the pilgrimage continues. I have been away a long time, too long in many ways, and although I am sure that as the weeks and months pass I will get a more balanced perspective, just now I really want to get home.

What stays in my mind? It is too early to be definitive, but forefront in my mind is my greater understanding and appreciation of the rocks which form this part of the British Isles; I realize more clearly that while we tend to see rocks and mountains as fixed structures in our world, that they are always themselves in process. The ecological phrase “Thinking like a mountain” does not mean that nothing changes but that the whole of creation is in process. Another important theme is my deeper appreciation of the silence of the world that underlies its noisiness. And I have been blessed with a few occasions when the boundary between me and the wider world has seemed permeable, even if momentarily. Not that much, maybe. Or from another perspective, a very great deal.

For the moment, I rest with feelings of sadness that this, probably my last voyage in Coral, is over. And of relief that I can now go home, that I no longer have to worry about the wind and the weather, whether the anchor is holding, and whether I have enough fresh milk for tea in the morning.

With thanks to everyone who has followed our adventures, ‘liked’ and ‘retweeted’ the blog announcements; to Steve and Phoebe for their companionship; and to Elizabeth for so gracefully accepting my absence from home at a difficult time.

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When the self disappears

After a day at anchor in Loch Torridon in strong and gusting winds, watching that the anchor was holding, the weather moderated enough for me to get a good sleep. The following morning with winds were still very fresh, but the inshore forecast said the sea would be slight to moderate. I decided to continue north to toward Ullapool, knowing I could stop at Gairloch if it were too rough.

Out of the Loch I turned north, setting the preventer on the double-reefed main and goosewinging the genoa so that Aries could steer Coral on a quartering reach. We blew fast but not uncomfortably up the coast, on a course that would pass well clear of the headland Rubha Reidh as is advised by the sailing directions. I made myself coffee, then soup and a chunk of bread for lunch, after which we were clear of the headland and it was time to gybe round on a reach into outer Loch Broom. I started the routine of getting Coral ready for the turn: rolling in the genoa; then, with lifejacket on and harness attached, going forward to lower and stow the spinnaker boom and take the preventer off the main boom. It was only when back in the cockpit I looked astern at the following sea. The waves seemed bigger, the troughs between them deeper, than I had expected. For a moment I hesitated. Could I really do this on my own? The grey-green surface of the approaching wave looked cold, relentless and implacable, a small hillside of water, then another, then another. I just watched the waves for a few short seconds and my moment of fearfulness dropped away. Now, in recollection, I could describe this as a moment of direct meeting, when I was in the presence of this rolling sea with no thoughts and so self-concern, just present. And by watching the waves roll toward Coral’s stern, I must have tuned myself to their rhythm. Without conscious decision the moment of action arrived. I hauled the mainsail right in and held it firm, then leaned against the tiller with my thigh and held it upwind. Coral’s stern came round through the waves, the mainsail, restrained by the tight sheet, flipped safely through its short arc, and I then gradually paid it out so Coral settled onto the opposite tack. I unfurled the genoa again and, after peering into the murky distance and comparing what I could see with what was shown on the chart, set a course to pass to the south of Priest Island.

I had thought that once around Rubha Reidh I would be sheltered by the land. And indeed, the water was somewhat calmer, but the wind was if anything more difficult. It blew down Loch Ewe, and gusted uncomfortably as it came off the land. The waves were smaller, but the surface of the water was increasing covered in whitecaps. Even with a double reefed main and half the genoa rolled in, Coral was overpowered. I couldn’t believe it for a while, but a third reef was needed–I hadn’t reefed down so much since that gale in Biscay. I let the main out so the wind was no longer filling it, climbed up onto the coach roof, and quite quickly lowered the halliard, hooked up the third cringle at the tack, winched in the green reefing line, and finally hardened the halliard. After all my prevarication, it was really quite easy and straightforward and Coral, with just a tiny flat triangle of mainsail, sailed through the gusts much more comfortably.

Several days, even weeks, later, with a draft of this writing on the iPad, I am reading David Hinton’s book Hunger Mountain, which attempts to articulate the wisdom and perspective of the ancient Chinese poets and sages. Hinton discussed the term wu-wei, the notion being absent or self-less while acting, so that “Whatever I do, I act from that source and with the rhythm of the Cosmos”. And while I don’t want to get into absurd and unsustainable claims of selflessness, it does seem to me that at both the moment of the gybe, and through the routine of reefing the main, I was sufficiently tuned to the boat and the wind and the sea that the action was accomplished with an elegance that was not just of my own making. One might say, to draw on another key idea from the Chinese sages, that is had some quality of tzu-jan, suchness about it.

Of course, it is not only in moments of challenge that the sense of self as a “transcendent spirit centre”, as Hinton puts it, disappears. I wrote in another blog of moments when “ego concerns drop away and the boundary between self and world becomes as diffuse and uncertain as that horizon between sea and sky. Such ‘sacred’ moments take one away from one’s little self into the wider whole. And in contrast, I am equally able to allow ego concerns to dominate, as when I am depressed, lonely and uncomfortable, or grumpy that the weather doesn’t suit my plans, but nevertheless insist on pursuing them.

My writing buddies continually remind me to place myself into my stories so that the reader can join me in my travels and to some extent identify with me. They want me to write about my deeper motivations and my feelings about the journey. And I understand the point them make. But as my inquiry sometimes leads me to those places where, to a greater or lesser extent, “I” am no longer the centre of experience, I do wonder how, and whether, to follow their advice.

 

Hinton, D. (2012). Hunger Mountain: A field guide to Mind and Landscape. Boston & London: Shambhala.

It’s always physical

Strong winds were forecast, so when I awoke early in the rather bleak anchorage just south of Applecross and saw conditions were still moderate, I set out immediately. A few tacks took me round the western edge of the Crowlin Islands, from where I could comfortably sail under the Skye bridge on a reach: I found it exhilarating to shoot the concrete arch with a strong tide adding to Coral’s speed through the water. But there is little shelter from westerly winds in Kyle Akin or Loch Alsh, so I carried on downwind to where Loch Alsh forks into Loch Long and Loch Duich. On the southern shore, right on the corner, is Tontaig, a small bay formed as a full half circle with a small islet in the middle, steep-too round the shore, surrounded by woodland. I remembered we had stopped there many years ago on a family cruise: Matthew had tried persistently to get the dinghy close enough to heron on the shore to get a good photo; and Ben and I had taken the dinghy on a wet and murky evening right across the loch to the village of Dornie to phone Kate for his A-level results.

The space between the shore and the islet is narrow, but deep, providing room to anchor safely, and the wooded shores provide good shelter from the west to northwesterly winds. It is a lovely setting, with the trees rising up the hillsides, Eileean Donnan Castle half a mile across the loch and the mountains rising behind. But the tide sets up a circular motion round the bay, so a long keel boat like Coral doesn’t lie comfortably to the wind, but veers between wind and tide: sometimes she lay across the wind; sometimes the tide pushed her stern to windward; sometimes she veered off toward the islet; and sometimes seemed to make a compete circuit round her anchor chain. Mostly, I decided she was quite safe, but I couldn’t quite relax until late that evening, when the wind died right back and all became quiet and settled.

Next morning, I decided to catch the early tide south through Kyle Akin. The weather was now calm,although a fine rain was penetrating everything and visibility was poor. With the engine running I started to haul up the anchor, soon realizing I needed to use the windlass as it was stuck firmly in the mud. Even with the windlass it was heavy work. “Surely it is out of the mud by now!” I said to myself. When I looked over the bows, there was the anchor, just above the water line, with an enormous ball of kelp wrapped round it, caught up by all the twisting and turning through the night. I had to set Coral on a safe course away from the shore before I could work the weed clear with the boat hook and to stow the anchor safely on board.

I am writing all this detail–which will be commonplace to a sailor and maybe rather incomprehensible to a landlubber–because this has been my experience for the past three months. Life on board a boat is a constant attention to the physical conditions: the immediate wind, tide, depth, rain, sun; the pattern of the weather as it changes; finding shelter and making sure the anchor is holding; thinking through each day’s passage, making sure conditions are suitable and working out alternatives should conditions change. Then there is Coral herself and her equipment: ropes and sails are taken out and put away daily, and need attention for wear and tear; the dinghy is pumped up, launched and retrieved; oil levels in engine and outboard must be checked; petrol, diesel and water and other consumables must be replenished. And finally, there are my own physical needs for clean and dry clothes (it didn’t help that I allowed my best pair of sailing trousers to get blown overboard at Rum), food, drink, rest, and above all not to hurt myself. Only rarely, as in my three days on a pontoon in Stornaway, have I not been thinking about all these practical matters.

So while I may not be in wilderness, I have certainly been on a physical edge quite different from my normal urban life, where the investments of civilization including solid stone walls, comfortable chairs, electricity and hot running water, insulate me from the physicality of existence. It may seem obvious, now that I write it down, but I have lived on this ‘edge’ for months at a time. When I get home, I imagine people will ask questions like, “Did you have a wonderful time?” What should I reply? Yet this physicality is not all negative: while there may be a worry as to whether the anchor will hold, there is also the delight in working Coral to windward.

I think this also means that in the back of my mind I am always looking for somewhere homely. After leaving the bay at Loch Duich I passed smoothly through Kyle Akin between Skye and the mainland, where the tides run at up to eight knots. From the southern end of the Kyle I could easily make out the lighthouse marking Ornsay harbour on the Skye side of the Sound of Sleat where I was headed. “I just I have time for coffee before I get there,” I thought to myself, and at that very moment the wind blew up briskly against the ebbing tide, setting up sharp little whitecaps that slowed Coral right down. It was an hour before I was in the lee of the land. Then the details of the bay became clear: the green shallow hills with wooded slopes, the network of fields coming down to the shore, and as I rounded the marker at the corner of the island, the little cluster of white buildings around the pier. All of this gave me a strong feeling of homeliness, almost a physical letting go of tension. My immediate thought was, “I shall stay here and rest for a few days”.

This feeling of homeliness feels like a significant contrast to the edgy-ness I described earlier. This latter doesn’t go away completely–there was no visitors’ buoy as promised in the sailing directions, I have had to set the anchor and worry about the depth of water–but it is background rather than foreground. Other places have carried the same homely feeling, most notably the village of Sheildag in Loch Torridon, with its single row of low white cottages underneath the towering bulk of the ancient sandstone hill behind. Homeliness seems to hold a balance between the wild edge and the civilized convenience: towns like Mallaig and Stornaway don’t have it, nor do wild and wonderful anchorages like Loch Awe or Tanera Beg in the Summer Isles. Part of the poignancy of the deserted village on Isay is that it would once have carried the same quality of homeliness for the people who lived there.

I am not entirely sure what to make of these musings, but as I read through what I have written I realize that many of the classics of nature writing are about both the relationship of home and the wild. Wendell Berry is a farmer who writes about generations of living with the land; Gary Snyder’s later writing is grounded in the Californian mountains where he lives; and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac is about the restoration of a run down farm. More recently, Kathleen Jamie, who can be caustic about those who idealise wild places, has a domestic as well as wild dimension to her writing.

And in the event, the attractive while buildings by the pier at Oronsay turned out to be a rather upmarket hotel and restaurant, full of Audis and BMWs in the carpark. I could buy expensive Scottish Woolens or special single malt whiskey, but not milk. So not homely at all.

Whose Western Edge?

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There is always a cliched poignancy about a deserted and ruined village. Here on the island of Isay in the entrance to Loch Dunvegan, maybe eighteen roofless remains of cottages and blackhouses line the shore each side of a landing beach. Large stones have been neatly assembled into substantial walls up to eighteen inches thick, creating a living space about eight metres long by three across, with rounded corners at each end. I found myself marveling at the solidity of the construction, gazing in fascination inside and wondering how a family would have lived in such a space. And then I felt rather heartless as it came home to me that this had been home for that family, who would have loved and laughed and fought and struggled here. I have similar feeling when I see pictures of wrecked houses in war zones, Sarajevo, Grozny, Syria, Gaza: deep sympathy alongside a curiosity, “Is that how they live?” I felt even more heartless as I took a picturesque shot of the heather growing in the walls with my iPhone.

There is a convenient landing beach by the old houses, and another one further south near the bigger ‘laird’s house’. Each one has a crude stone pier or breakwater leading out into the shallows, no more than a line of heavy stones, which would have given the fishing boats some protection from any fetch coming round the headland. The shoreline is heavy with seaweed which threatened to tangle up in the propeller of my outboard, but I thought I could detect a clear path through the weed to the beach just by the breakwater. Was this my imagination? And if there was a path, is it a leftover from the times when this was a busy fishing community, or is it maintained today by the visits of local boats?

Hamish Haswell-Smith’s book on Scottish Islands gives a potted history. Dastardly deeds were committed in the laird’s house in the 16th century; Dr Johnson visited in 1773 and was offered the island as a gift, so long as he lived there for three months each year. But the history really belongs to the families who lived in the street of now-ruined houses who, as on so many of these Scottish islands, prospered when times were good and starved when times were bad.

As Adam Nicholson points out in his book about the Shiant Islands, not so long ago the sea was the main path of communication and transport. Islands were not ‘remote’, they were always on a path to somewhere else as well as destinations in their own right. This was not the ‘western edge’ of a European land civilisation but rather at the heart of a society based on the seaways running from Iceland and Scandinavia in the north, through Wales and Ireland, the Cornish Peninsular, Brittany, Galicia and the straights of Gibraltar. If eighteen or more families lived here in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, this must have been in its way a prosperous fishing community, only cleared out when the herring were fished out and a modernising and finance-driven economy made sheep farming more profitable to those who supposedly owned the land (reading the history of land ownership in Scotland I am inclined to take seriously the maxim ‘property in theft’; not that it is any better in England).

My visit raises the question (which has to some extent haunted me through the whole of this voyage) “whose western edge?”

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