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.


  1. Nice one! x

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