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.



  1. Jane Shemilt says:

    Hi Peter, My immediate thought on reading this blog and just talking into consideration your closing sentences (though I enjoyed it all); is that there are many reasons for writing: Oneaim is self expression( or not exactly that, see your blog) but revealing inner thoughts and experiences, and then there is the aim of  bringing readers with you;these two may sometimes be exclusive.Of course write as you wish,we(your writing buddies..awful word  think of something better, reminds me of american high school classmates) can only tell you what helps us stay with you. You may have to decide which or what you want.As we all do.Writng this  out makes it  seem pretty basic but this seems to be the dilemma with which you are tussling,similarly with    most writers I suspect.


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