Patterns in the world

We left Stromness is a sharp south easterly wind, with a reef in the main and mizzen sails and a No. 2, smaller, jib. Sailed out through the sound of Hoy and turned north round the cardinal buoys up the west coast of the Orkney Mainland. There was plenty of wind to send Tecla, healing slightly, past the Bay of Skail, where we all visited Skara Brae yesterday round Marwick Head and Birsay, and into Eynhallow Sound between the Mainland and Rousay.

Both tide and wind were now against us, so we had to make a series of short tacks up the sound. We formed two teams, one of the foredeck managing the fore sails, another further aft with the running back stays. When the skipper called for a tack and brought the ship round into the wind, the team of the foredeck backed the staysail to push the bows through the wind. Then those of us on the back stays had haul in on the lazy stay, first with the main tackle and then to tighten really had with the jigger, which gives nine times purchase. As the mainsail crashed across—it is a huge piece of wood with massive blocks controlling the sheet tackle, we released the old active backstay, the foredeck crew set the foresails, and the ship gradually gathered way on the opposite tack. At times it seemed as if we were getting nowhere, simply crossing the same bit of sea time and again. We missed one tack, and lost way with the sails in irons. But then, quite quickly, the tide slackened, we were through the narrowest part, and sailing more freely.

Apart from the sailing, I have found myself fascinated by the patterns of land and sea. As we sailed up the coast, the wind blew the tops off the waves in white horses, which when meeting the bow wave of the ship rose up in a spurt of foam. In the tidal currents in the straights, patterns are formed on the surface of the water, complex shapes that arise and disappear in the tidal flow through the sounds. There are overfalls, where one stream meets another and tumbles over the top of it in a line of more of less permanent line of white for. There are swirling circles, with a oily smooth patch in the centre, maybe three meters across, surrounded by a ring of ripples. Whirlpools of various sizes, spin past the boat.

Then it struck me that the Old Man of Hoy is also such a pattern. The sheer cliffs are carved out by the force of the waves and wind over time, wearing away the sandstone, and somehow, maybe because the rock of the pillar left behind is a harder piece of rock; or maybe because of the pattern of forces caused wear in one spot and not in another. Not so long again, the Old Man and two legs, with an arch at the foot of the pillar, which is now gone. Whatever the cause, the Old Man and the cliffs are evidence of a natural pattern moving slowly in time.

And Tecla too, is part of that pattern. The skipper showed up the track we had made tacking through the sound, a zigzag that tightened as we passed through the narrowest part and the fastest current, easing out as we entered slower water. We could, of course, have turned on the engine and motored through in a straight line. But even though it was hard work for everyone, there is, even if unconscious, a great satisfaction is playing with the patter


  1. lovely to see you adventure while sitting in the early summer garden! A real treat

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