Busy Day

It was a promising start to the day. I woke after a peaceful night at anchor in Sandaig Bay off the Sound of Sleat to blue sky and quite gentle northerly winds. Since I had to wait for the tide to turn before I could pass through the narrow Kyle Rhea between Skye and the mainland, I spent the morning on domestic chores. I stripped off and washed from head to foot, including all the intimate places that need special attention–I am always proud that I can do a full body wash in two inches of water in a small bowl. Then I shaved my month old beard–it was quite respectable, but very grey, and made me look like my father in a way I found disturbing. I washed some socks and pinned them to the guard rail to dry. And generally tidied the cabin.

After lunch I hauled up the anchor and continued north. I was pleased to find I had got the calculations right so I entered Kyle Rhea just as the tide was turning, and carried the tide on through the Kyle of Localsh and under the Skye bridge. And then things got a bit challenging.

Out in the wider waters of the Inner Sound the north wind was sharper and colder, and now was blowing against the tide I had used so favourably. It had also backed from northeast to north and so was dead on the nose for the course I had planned round the north of Longay and Scalpay to an anchorage in the south of the Sound of Raasay. Biggish waves were rolling toward Coral, and I realized how lucky I had been with the calm waters of the trip so far.

I could have turned back, but of course, I didn’t. It was a bit of a scramble in the rough waters to set Coral as close to the wind as she would go, but with Aries looking after the steering we charged into the waves at around 5 knots while I hunkered down under the sprayhood. A quick tack north took us clear of Longay, and maybe clear of the reefs beyond: should I carry on, put in another tack if I needed, and leave them to leeward, or reach downwind past the green buoy and leave them to windward? I decided to take the shorter route, past the green buoy.

I had avoided reefing while closehauled in order to keep as much power through the waves as possible. As soon as I turned off the wind and we hurtled toward the buoy at over 7 knots, I realized we would be messing about close to a lee shore with too much sail up. Wrong decision, maybe, but too late now. Aries couldn’t cope, so I took over and steered as cleanly as I could toward the buoy. We cleared it successfully, then again had a bit of a scramble, with the rocks rather close, to get Coral back on the wind and sailing more stably. Am I frightened at such moments? I confess my heart was in my mouth for a second or two as Coral surged toward the rocks rather than clawing away from them; but it is later, in the middle of the night, that the “what ifs?” really arise! At the moment of action one is too busy.

But the day was by no means over. I reached the shelter of the southern end of the Sound of Raasay and tried a couple of places to anchor, both of which were unsatisfactory–still too exposed and uncomfortable–so I had the anchor up and down twice. The two lochs nearby didn’t seem very good alternatives so I decided to press on north the extra three miles to the shelter of Portree.

Three miles didn’t seem very much, really, even into the wind. But the Sound is completely open to the north, and not only had the wind increased but it was sending rollers down the sound, some of which were breaking. With the engine at full revs we moved forward well enough, but pitching quite spectacularly. Many of the waves Coral was able to shoulder aside with just a bit of spray. But the bigger ones seem to come in pairs: the first would lift her bows high in the air, so she came crashing down into the next one. Sometimes she hit it foursquare, sending huge sheets of spray to each side; other times she seemed to plough into the second wave, so that a mass of solid spray would hurtle over the deck, onto and over the sprayhood. The cockpit sole was awash with water, the sprayhood started leaking, the crockery was crashing around in its racks below so I was sure that everything would be broken. Yet on and on we went, wave after unrelenting wave until we could turn into the wide entrance of the inlet which leads to Portree harbour–although, of course, this meant turning across the waves, setting Coral rolling as well as pitching. All this time I stood in the cockpit looking over the sprayhood, watching each wave and watching Coral’s response. My face was covered in salt, my glasses thick with spray, but I didn’t feel it right to crouch in the cockpit while she was doing all this hard work. It was then I noticed how cold my face was without a beard!

Then the sudden bliss of calm water, the visitors’ moorings under the wooded promontory on the north side of the harbour well out of the wind, the long pick up line that was easy to catch with the boathook, and the substantial mooring line that I could just drop over the cleat.

And then it all seemed worth it: the world had offered a series of challenges and Coral and I had risen to them. My arms ached, my shoulders were stiff, my neck seemed to have a crick in it; and I was so very tired. And while there were mistakes along the way, and while others might have made different choices, I was pleased to be in a truly sheltered place for the night.

Inch Kenneth

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Mood swings. I am upset and furious that the outboard doesn’t work again, but then pleased with myself when I see how to mend the broken rowlock on the dinghy. Tired and grumpy, I wonder again what on earth I am doing here all on my own. One of the challenges is to keep in mind that, just because it is a great privilege to be away like this, I do not have to be happy, or enjoying myself, or certainly not having transcendental experiences ALL THE TIME. Getting tired and grumpy is part of being human and so part of the human pilgrimage.

I have moved north to an interesting anchorage, set between Inch Kenneth, which is a low and grassy island, and the huge cliffs at the entrance Loch na Keal on the west coast of Mull. The island is sedimentary rock (“triassic conglomerates and limestone outcrops broken down to give good soil”, according to the book Scottish Islands); while the cliffs on Mull are volcanic in origin, Triassic basalt weathered into terraces.

Between these two, the hard and the friable, is this sheltered anchorage, quite a large pool, although guarded by reefs that make entry challenging (especially with an inaccurate hand bearing compass!)

Anchor down, I look toward the cliffs and the three tiny white cottages that lie by the road along the shore. Three white rectangles, in some ways quite insignificant, but in other ways a testament to human abilities to create living space in the most unlikely places.

I decided to stay put for a day, to do nothing. I need to take time to settle into this pilgrimage now I am really into it. I don’t have to justify myself by ‘going somewhere’ or by having wonderful experiences I can blog about. Take it gently, John Crook used to say about solo retreats. So I allowed myself to wake late and have a leisurely morning–strip off for full body wash, breakfast, wash up and tidy, half hour formal meditation. Then I rowed ashore and explored the grassy island, enjoying the wildflowers and the views–for a moment I thought I saw a pair of eagles, but realized that they were (only!) ravens.

Thursday was wet and windy, I saw no point in getting wet and uncomfortable, so I stayed another day. I meditated longer, opening myself to the cliffs. With the rain spitting and fresher winds rocking the boat concentration is difficult, to say nothing of the stream of my thoughts demanding attention. But I do get glimpses of a time scale at the limits of human imagination. These cliffs, according to my book, are geologically quite recent. Sequential volcanic eruptions laid down the layers that over time have eroded into terraces stepping down the hillsides. These rocks have been here since before humans evolved. And yet those little cottages and houses look so permanent, so part of the scene. My sense of impatience at wanting to be getting along, wanting to do something, while these cliffs just stay present. “Thinking like a mountain”, indeed!

“Wilderness treats me like a human being”. So goes the koan. This meditation gives me a sense of our human impatience, our restlessness, our wanting things to be the way we want them to be. And the mountains and the weather just keep doing their thing, Meandering is just that, going with what is. I had intended to move, but I will stay here until the rain stops.

I do have thoughts about quitting, about saying this is all to uncomfortable, too challenging. I occasional have a sense of such loneliness that I can imagine how a person might go quite crazy. The pilgrimage is a confrontation with the self, with the skin encapsulated ego, with the project-driven and achievement-oriented modern human. Every project that comes to mind is a diversion from the challenges of the moment: Let’s go further up the Loch, let’s go to Tiree, let’s make sure we see an eagle by going on a nature tour, let’s get the outboard fixed…. But if needed I could stay here a week with all the food and water available.

So the engagement with the larger world, even in a few minutes of meditation on the cliffs, or with the cliffs, puts the self into a perspective, helps quieten the thrusting ego.

I am also writing haiku that I am sharing with my friend David

Eocine basalt cliffs
pattering rain on sprayhood
one modern man

Fresh Nor’easterlies
cold hard rain
I wait

I am finding there is a discipline in writing haiku that is itself meditative. Haiku (forget the five/seven/five format) I take as a distillation of a moment, removing all that is not essential in an intimate focusing. It is a little like a koan in reverse: instead of having to crack the koan, one has to crack the present experience into haiku.

By staying here these couple of days I have been able to really attend to these basalt cliffs: watching them through the day as the sun moves from shadowing them in the morning to lighting their peaks with orange in the evening; noticing the details of the streams tumbling down and glimmering where the light catches the falling water; seeing the contrast between the cottages and farm buildings at the foot and the enormity of their 200-300 metres drop; understanding their origin by reading the geology book. I have also been developing a sense of time: these rocks are geologically quite young, yet they were here long before human evolution can be said to have begun, have weathered and reduced in size.

All this attention provides me with a tiny sense of intimacy, of being in place rather than of watching scenery.

Ouch!

keel

“How did it go?” asked Melanie a couple of weeks after I got home from the last leg of my summer voyage.  Melanie is a longstanding writing buddy and sailor whose partner, Steve, had come with me on the first leg. “Fine, on the whole,” I replied, and continued, after a hesitant pause, “Although you’d better tell Steve that without his help I hit a rock.” Melanie opened her eyes wide in a horror, “What!” she exclaimed, “But there isn’t a hint of that in any of your blogs!

So maybe it is time to confront my embarrassment and ‘fess up.’

In the gray dimness just before dawn I dropped the lines on the mooring buoy off Craighouse on Jura and steered Coral out of the bay. The green and red navigation lights that mark the channel between Goat Island and the reefs to starboard flashed reassuringly. Once clear of the island I turned Coral north up the Sound of Jura, intent on catching the last quarter or so of the flooding tide north toward Oban. I had it all worked out: the tide times, the landmarks, the alternative anchorages along the coast.

With little wind and a flat sea, I adjusted the engine to push Coral along at around five knots, set the Autohelm and, after checking the course would take us clear of the coast, went below for a few moments.  As I stepped back up the companionway I was almost jerked off my feet by a massive crash. Coral dipped her bows and came shuddering to a halt, mast and rigging clattering violently. For a moment of utter confusion, I had no idea what had happened. And then I realized: Coral had hit something. But what?

I quickly recovered myself, leaping into the cockpit and putting the engine into neutral. Looking around, I could see two, maybe three fishing buoys lurking on the dark water, presumably marking lobster pots set in the thriving ecosystem around an underwater rock. Coral had motored right into it.

I rushed around looking for leaks. For a few moments I pumped frantically on the bilge pump. No water came up. I looked into the deep sump inside the keel where water collects. There were just the normal few inches in the bottom. I looked in the anchor chain locker, under the cabin sole, in the cockpit lockers, wherever I could get a sight of the naked hull. No water was flowing in, there was no sign of damage. Back on deck I went forward and peered over the bows, where Coral’s sharp prow curved down into the water. Nothing was untoward there. Then, to be sure, I stripped and reassembled the bilge pump to check for obstructions that might stop it working and pumped again. Clearly Coral was not taking in water. Looking around on the surface of the sea, I could see no debris that might have floated away from serious damage. Finally, I checked the tiller and was reassured that it moved smoothly from side to side.

I was hot, sweaty, shaken. With the immediate emergency over, I steered round the submerged hazard carefully, set Coral on her course again and went below to check the charts. Ah, there it was, Goat Rock, awash at chart datum, although rather obscured on the chart by a mass of soundings.  But when I pulled out the larger scale chart of the Craighouse area, I could see that it clearly marked; and it was noted as a hazard in the pilot book, too. I had motored right over the top of it, although with the rise of tide it must have caught the keel toward the bottom.

Now was the time for recriminations. “What an idiot,” I thought, “not to check more carefully.” I was furious with myself and also felt a cold sense of dread as I considered what might have happened had I put a hole in the hull, or ripped off the rudder. Was I too tired, after ten long days sailing in windy weather, so that I no longer had good attention? On top of recriminations came embarrassment. What would others think – Elizabeth, friends and family, other sailing people – about such a silly mistake? Could I keep the mishap secret? Or should I write about it in my blog? Hot feelings of shame rose in my cheeks, overlaying my earlier cold sense of dread.

Coral was now motoring along smoothly as if nothing had happened. Every now and then I checked the water level in the sump: it remained low. I could only carry on and see what damage I had done once she was lifted out of the water at Oban. Gradually I relaxed and began to enjoy myself again.  I stopped in Lussa Bay toward the north end of Jura when the tide turned against me, and picked up the first of the next flood to take Coral north past the Gulf of Corryvrecken, through the Sound of Luing, to Oban.

The following day, with Coral moored on a pontoon at Dunstaffnage Marina just north of Oban, I went through all the arrangements for lifting her out and overwintering with Twig Olsen, the Harbourmaster. I seemed to forget to tell him about the collision with the rock until the end of our conversation. When I did, he looked concerned. “That’s not good,” he said, “We’ll have a look when we lift her out.” As it turned out, the damage was bad enough, although could have been a lot worse: a job for the shipwright to repair the underlying laminate with glass cloth and epoxy resin.

It took me a while to write draft this blog following Melanie’s prompting. It has taken me even longer to finish and post it.  Why is this? Of course, it is partly my embarrassment at my own foolishness.  But more than this, I think I was searching for a meaning of the incident for my journey ‘on the western edge’; I wanted to place it in the context of my ecological pilgrimage.

Stories of pilgrimage from medieval times are full of challenge: ‘A cold coming we had of it… such a long journey,’ Eliot has one of the Magi say in his poem. Apart from the sheer length of the journey, pilgrims were exposure to the elements, lost their way in mountains and forests, and experienced fraud, robbery, shipwreck. Accounts from modern pilgrims who, at their best, step out of the illusion of safety that is everyday life, can be equally dramatic.

Environmental activists Karsten and Allison Heuer followed a herd of porcupine caribou in their yearly migration across northern Yukon and Alaska to the contested Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and calving grounds. Academic Shoshannah Ganz argues that this five-month journey can be seen as a pilgrimage not only for the humans but also for the caribou, engaged as they are in an ancient and instinctual movement that is now under threat from oil drilling. And for both humans and animals the journey is hazardous, as Heuer points out:

Four mountain ranges, hundreds of passes, dozens of rivers, countless grizzly bears, wolves, mosquitoes, and Arctic storms – those were the risks, that was the real story.

 A major threat to the Heuers was the grizzly bears. Starving, having just woken from their winter sleep, the bears following the caribou in a desperate hunt for food. Humans might be easier pickings. I met a young man a while ago whose face was scarred and eyesight damaged after an encounter with a hungry polar bear near Spitzbergen; a young boy in his party was killed. As Allison protested,

 “Karst, this is crazy. We’re following the caribou to the calving grounds with a bunch of hungry grizzly bears!”

‘Liminal experience – experience outside the normal frame of reference – means no safety net,’ writes Jennifer Westwood in her book on modern pilgrimage. So what is the place of dramatic and dangerous events like this on a pilgrimage? It is easy to see them as the inevitable consequences of adventuring in lonely places, or to dismiss them as foolish errors and sheer incompetence: the Heuers should have known about grizzlies, just as I should have seen the rock on the chart. But in the context of pilgrimage they also carry some teaching. They seem to be sent to test the pilgrim in some manner, and the individual’s worthiness is measured against their ability to respond.

The first lesson is that the world, beyond and beneath human perceptions and conceptions, is an irrefutable real reality. The pilgrim may start out with a whole range of hopes, fears and expectations, but the encounter with the world will reveal its is-ness. Whatever idealist or social constructionist or anthropocentric worldviews we hold will be challenged.  Boswell famously tells of a conversation with Samuel Johnson:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – “I refute it thus.”

Rocks are hard, grizzly bears are fierce and hungry and once we get past our flashy technology we humans, just like the bears, are entirely dependent on the continued existence of the thin layer of liveable space that surrounds Planet Earth. We will crash into the facticity of climate change, the degradation of ecosystems, the loss of other species just as surely as I crashed into the rock.

So the second lesson for the traveller as pilgrim is that one must be alert for the signs that warn of hazards – those that are obvious but more importantly those that are hidden. As wilderness guides and spiritual teachers continually ask, “Are you awake?” I was awake to the more distant challenges of the day’s journey but asleep to immediate hazards. And the answer for modern humans, as we ignore the seriousness of the environmental crisis, must be, “No, we are sleepwalking into calamity.”

The third lesson is, “Can you respond?” do you have the skill, resources and presence of mind to summon up appropriate action in the face of emergency? And can you act without making the problem worse? I responded effectively enough in assessing the damage, but I do wonder what I would have done had Coral started sinking into the cold waters of the Sound of Jura.

In some ways pilgrimage seems to be about relearning life’s fundamental lessons. My friend Malcolm Parlett writes that responding fully to situations is the ‘heart of human living’. But while we humans appear to be well-designed for responding to emergency-style challenges – such as hitting the rock – he wonders how can we learn to respond to situations of greater complexity, which have a longer time span, where the evidence is less clear cut, and where there are extreme consequences if our choices are the wrong ones?

Gary Snyder reminds us that ‘The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife,’ that the baby hare ‘gets maybe one free chance to run across a meadow without looking up.’ The wilderness pilgrimage not only takes us along that knife edge. It may also draw our attention to the precipice on which we all are teetering.

References

Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. (1791). Quote retrieved from http://www.samueljohnson.com/refutati.html
Ganz, Shoshannah. “‘A Living, Breathing, Pulsing Web’: Being Caribou as Canadian Ecological Pilgrimage.” Synaesthesia 1, No. 2 (2009): 51-59.
Heuer, K. (2006). Being caribou: Five months on foot with an arctic herd. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart.
Parlett, Malcolm. Growing up Humanity: Revolutionary Change and Personal Integration, in preparation.
Snyder, Gary. ‘The Etiquette of Freedom.’ In The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990.
Westwood, Jennifer. Sacred Journeys: Paths for the New Pilgrim. London: Gaia Books, 1977, p. 88.

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