Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea

SeascapesI am delighted to have received my copy of Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea, a book edited by Mike Brown and Barbara Humberstone exploring ‘different perspectives of being with the sea’, in which I have a chapter.

This book aimed primarily at an academic market. The editors use words like ‘autoethnography’ and ‘embodiment’ to frame it. But it seems nevertheless that it would appeal to non-academic readers. I am particularly looking forward to reading my friend Robbie Nichols account of explorations in his sea kayak. (Although its price at over $100 will put a lot of people off. Who pays this kind of price for a book? If you are an academic maybe your can get your University library to buy it!).

My chapter is in many ways a companion to Spindrift and part of my explorations ‘on the western edge’,  in that it explores issues of sustainability through eco-literature. I call it Sailing with Gregory Bateson in tribute to that great systems thinker and polymath, a man who has so influenced the way I think. Much of the chapter tells of a passage through the Chenal du Four – the tidal passage on the northwest corner of France that leads from the English Channel down to the Rade de Brest – how the tide turns against us and I chose to stop sailing and push through with the engine.

The whole sensation of moving through the water had changed: we were forcing our way into the wind rather than working with it. A mechanical wake of water stirred up by the propeller streamed out astern; the bows crashed directly into and through the waves rather than riding obliquely over them. No longer balanced against the wind, Coral sat level in the water yet pitched up and down as if irritated by the waves. And instead of the slap of the waves, the hum of the rigging, and the wind in our ears, the steady roar and vibration of the twin cylinder diesel engine under our feet, running at almost maximum power, dominated everything.

I use this story to illustrate the argument Bateson develops in his paper Conscious Purpose vs Nature: how as we humans pursue our purposes, drawing on fossil fuels and advanced technology, we cut through the complex cycles of mutual influence that balance natural ecosystems. In this case it is just me and my little diesel engine, but writ large on the planet this is devastating: it leads to degraded ecosystems, species loss, climate change.

It also makes the world and our experience of it less beautiful and at times even ugly. In his later life Bateson explored a theme he first developed in his early anthropological studies, linking the aesthetic and the beautiful in nature and in human art with the possibility of enlightened ways of being.

Creative activity and appreciation of art is a means of recovering grace, the reintegration of the “diverse parts of the mind” – especially those we (maybe wrongly) call the conscious and the unconscious. And he increasingly began to link these two themes, suggesting that aesthetic engagement is an essential part of a path toward ecological wisdom, for the appreciation of the systemic quality of the natural world is primarily an aesthetic, rather than an intellectual experience.

I have drawn on this notion of grace a bit more in an article that will come out soon in the magazine EarthLines. The appreciation of the systemic quality of the natural world is primarily an aesthetic, rather than an intellectual experience. Aesthetic engagement – through all the arts, and also through just getting out in wonder – is an essential part of a path toward a sustainable human presence on Earth.

Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea. Embodied Narratives and Fluid Geographies, edited by Mike Brown and Barbara Humberstone, London: Ashgate, 2015. http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781472424358

EarthLines: www.earthlines.org.uk

Being at home

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I am pleased to be home. I have been back nearly four weeks now, although it feels much longer. It is good to be back with Elizabeth, to feel again the intimate contentment of body to body, skin against skin; and to be more directly present with the challenges presented as her mother recovers slowly from a fall – we have just spend nearly a week hopefully settling her back in her home. Our house and neighbourhood feel homely and welcoming. And it is wonderful to reacquaint myself with the garden and the orchard, to see the growth on the fruit trees, to harvest the late raspberries, plums and early apples.

I have plunged myself into jobs that have been waiting for my return. First, I tackled the meadow grass under the trees in the Orchard. It should have been cut in early August when it was still standing proud; the torrents brought by the storm Bertha knocked some of it flat, making it more difficult to cut. Three fine sunny days allowed me to scythe it and wheel the cuttings down to the lady who keeps horses in the field below the Crescent. Now that is done, I can turn my attention to the sash windows that need repair and painting before the winter sets in. In contrast to these physical jobs I work at my computer putting the final touches to a book chapter and some articles, while wondering whether I am getting clear about the shape of my next book.

Yet every now and then I feel a pang of nostalgia. No longer can I look out across the open sea to where the world curves away at the horizon, or to where the sea crashes against rocks or laps gently on a sandy shoreline; even living on top of a hill, my outlook is constrained by trees and houses. No longer am I mainly in the open, with the wind moving around me; the air indoors often feels unnaturally still, and even in the garden I am relatively sheltered. No longer am I responding to Coral’s continual movement on the waves as she aligns herself to wind and tide; the house at times feels unnervingly immobile; the car unnaturally smooth. I miss the immediacy of life on board, even my concerns about weather, sea state, whether the anchor will hold. I miss finding my way on the seaways, discovering new places to visit, experiencing the words in the sailing directions unfold into the reality of a sound or a loch, so that the passage quickly becomes familiar and so easier to navigate on a second visit. I miss the fundamental sense of self-reliance, knowing that there is no one else who will chose the right course between the rocks, gybe or reef the mainsail safely in strong winds, and make sure everything is in proper in order.

The everyday creeps up and covers over the primal experience of the world. Much of my experience becomes secondhand, protected from the wild and increasingly mediated by computer screens. The urgency of self-reliance in a wilder world fades into the soft comforts of my favourite armchair.

Settled back in that armchair I watched a TV programme about the puffins on the Shiant Islands. Full of the memories of my stay there, I was keen to see it. It was a well-crafted programme enthusiastically presented by the engaging Miranda Krestovnikoff. The pictures were beautiful, and on the screen I could see the puffins close up, much more clearly than when I visited. Yet as I watched, I felt myself having to cling onto my own original more visceral experience – entering the lagoon through the tidal rip between the islands; seeing the sea surface littered with puffins; hearing the unstoppable croaking and crooning from the nests; watching the birds, beaks full of sand eels, flying on their little wings, often seeming they might crash into Coral’s mast, only swerving past only at the last moment. Above all I want to hold onto the puffins particular appearance, smart and self-important, with their peculiar way of swimming away while looking back over their shoulders, as if to say, “Goodness me, why can’t people leave us alone”.

I stayed at the islands overnight. Even though the weather was quiet, in the open anchorage Coral moved around uneasily. The holding is said to be poor, shingle and loose boulders, so I set the anchor carefully and made sure I knew how to leave the anchorage in the dark should I need to. And I watched the light fade through the long Highland evening with a sense of being on an edge: I was quite safe, but that safety was delicate and fragile. The birds were still active when I turned into my bunk, and busy again as I awoke in the morning.

It is sometimes said that we humans have so thoroughly colonized the Earth that there are no truly wild places left. And yet unmediated experiences of the more-than-human world are still available if we are open to them. It is this naked sense of the world that takes us out of our little selves into the wider whole. As Nietzsche put it, “All the regulations of mankind are turned to the end that the intense sensation of life is lost in continual distraction”.

“All ye need to know”

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From the Shiant Islands I sailed Coral to Loch Seaforth and then on to the North Harbour at Scalpay. I arrived there on Sunday afternoon and, on taking the dinghy ashore, found the usual noticeboard telling the visitor of the local attractions, but in this case also asking that you ‘respect the Sabbath’. And indeed, the houses of the community, lying between the north and south harbours, seemed effused with a silence and respect, so that I felt out of place even to be walking around. But this is a prosperous and hard working community, as was evident with the fishermen on the quay waking me at half past four in the morning, clearly well rested and ready to get to the week’s work.

I was ambivalent about where to take my meandering next. Part of me was called to the southern islands of the Outer Hebrides, the Uists, but more to the far southern islands like Barra and Mingulay; another part was called back to Skye and to the northwest corner I had not explored. I was also feeling I had been away from home long enough, seen more than I could digest. And I felt I should be at home, since Elizabeth’s aged mother was in hospital with an uncertain prognosis. Slightly grumpy and a bit confused, I decided to allow the wind to make the decision for me.

It seemed more of a performance the usual, getting going that morning. Maybe it was the comparison with the six, or was it eight, young French people on the neighbouring boat, who had more hands to do the work than was needed and were soon sailing away. As I hauled the anchor chain in it spread a very black and sticky mud all over the foredeck, and I had to leave the anchor itself hanging while I found the deck brush and cleaned it off. Then the dinghy had to be hauled on board–I had left if afloat in case I needed to deal with a snagged anchor–and various rocks and reefs to negotiate. And once I had done all that, the mainsail up and was ready to start sailing, it was clear that what wind there was was very light, and I needed rig the inner forestay and hoist the big No.1 genoa rather than just unfurl the working genoa. I seemed to be constantly on the go from cockpit to foredeck and back again.

For a while, Coral sailed elegantly across the unusually smooth waters of the Little Minch, making well over three knots toward the northern end of Skye. After all the struggle of getting things going this was delightful. And the decision about destination seemed to be made for me. But then the speed dropped to three knots, then two, and after creeping along for half and hour or so, none at all. Let it be, I told myself, there is plenty of daylight, we are not unsafe or uncomfortable. And so I allowed Coral to just sit there, out in the middle of the sea. No longer engaged in trying to get Coral to sail, I started to look around me.

The day was pleasantly warm with the southerly wind. Loose cloud covered much of the sky, with the sun shining fitfully through the gaps. The wind was even more fitful, ruffles on the surface promising some action but fading into nothing very much. Ahead, Skye was a dark silhouette; behind, bright sunshine picked out the outcrops of gneiss on Harris. Fair weather cumulus, maybe holding a touch of rain, was rising over the mainland and all the islands, showing the line of the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Stornaway, the tops of the mountains. The sea was quiet, but with undulations on the surface, like a dimpled mirror, throwing shallow reflections this way and that. In the far distances north and south the horizon where sea met the sky was not a razor sharp line, as I have described in an earlier blog, but diffuse and uncertain. Sea and sky were both an exquisite silvery grey so closely matched in tone so that the one merged into the other.

Gary Snyder writes of the ‘sacred’ as that which takes on away from one’s little self into the wider whole. This sense of the sea merging into the sky, the sky into the sea, of being held between two lands, did just that for me. This was all it took to drop my disappointment that the wind had faded and my wider concerns about what I was up to, and for a few moments to open my heart to a simple sense of wonder, a kind of ordinary ecstasy.

If I have learned anything in three long seasons of sailing ‘on the western edge’, of pilgrimage in search of a different kind of relation to the earth on which we live, it is that these sacred moments arise, often quite spontaneously and unexpectedly. And at these moments, ego concerns drop away and the boundary between self and world becomes as diffuse and uncertain as that horizon between sea and sky. The challenge, the creative opportunity, is quite simply to be open to these moments when they arise. If we can catch 10%, then maybe we are doing well.

That is what I now know, and, to add Keat’s insight to Snyder’s, maybe that really is ‘all ye need to know’.

However, and in case all this may seem to be too sweet and lovely, the rest of the day did not go so well. I did need to get somewhere by nightfall, and so I determined to motor on to Loch Dunvegan on northwest Skye. But I allowed myself to be deceived by the charming quality of the day, I didn’t do my pilotage calculations carefully, it was further than it seemed and the tide turned against me round the headlands. Silly and definitely unseamanlike, I ended up pushing for hours against the tide round a headland and anchoring very tired and cross with myself. I am sure the world around me still carried that sacred quality, but I became too wrapped up in my irritation and disappointment to notice.

Sundown

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Sundown

Nine thirty in the evening I put aside my book and come on deck. The sun is just going down behind the peak of the island to the northwest, throwing a rich golden light onto the sandstone rocks that circle the anchorage. In the dark shadow below a heron stands motionless, poised to strike.

In the opposite direction the three-quarter moon is rising into a just-blue sky over the line of mountains on the mainland. The low sun highlights the ridges and casts the valleys into shadow, giving the mountains a dimensionality and body even though they are in the far distance.

The sky is clear apart from a few wisps of dark cloud over the peaks. The sea reaches calm all the way to the mainland shore, its tiny ripples casting a repeating pattern of dark shadows across the surface. The tide is falling, revealing the reefs at the entrance to this pool and uncovering the pale yellow coral beach, where an oystercatcher is hunting along the water’s edge.

A few gulls cry harshly; there is a twittering of land birds from the shore. The flag halliard rattles lightly against the backstay. Otherwise silence.

Night is coming, and yet at this time of year and at this latitude it will be scarcely dark, especially now with the near-full moon high in the sky.

And in the time it has taken me to scribble in my notebook and then type out these words, the sun has disappeared, the distant mountains seem to be in a greater light, the moon has risen higher and is more clearly defined in a darkening sky.

I am here on my own, floating on the sea as I have done nearly every night since late May. All that connects Coral to the sea bottom is 30 metres of chain. I am not far from the human world, but have few human distractions away from this closing of the day.

Waiting for the storm

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Waiting…. and then it comes!

I am anchored at the top of Loch Sheildaig, which is an extension of Loch Torridon. The sky has been deep blue all day and for the first time this summer I have been hot! The landscape round the loch has a magical quality to it, like one might expect to find in illustrations of fantasy adventure book by Tolkein. Huge rounded hills, great masses of rock, rise abruptly from a small strip of land by the water’s edge. At Sheildaig village a row of homely white houses are strung along the shore, utterly dwarfed by the hillside. Everywhere foreground hills overlap those behind which again overlap the misty ones in the far distance. A low finger of rock separates Loch Sheldaig from Upper Loch Torridon, so that as Coral passes at water level that low foreground and the higher background move past each other, revealing new perspectives moment by moment.

The hills–I learn from my geology book The Hidden Lndscape–are of an ancient sandstone that overlays the even more ancient Lewisian gneiss. At last I have learned where the phrase ‘Torridonean sandstone’, which is used a lot in my guidebooks, comes from: The Hidden Landscape tells me “the Torridonean sediments covered a Precambrian landscape floored by the Lewisian that was already ancient and eroded”. I am ever so slowly getting the hang of geological terms, wondering yet again why I did not learn any of this at school.

I am here partly because of the landscape, partly because I am seeking shelter and waiting…. while England is (I imagine) sweltering in sunshine, what the Met Office calls “a deep area of low pressure” is out in the North Atlantic near Iceland, and strong winds (gusting to Force 9) are forecast to sweep across the northwest tonight and tomorrow. I need to be in a secure anchorage on Wednesday to sit out the gale.

I spent last night in the upper loch but have moved. Partly because I was tired of the noise coming from a large fish farm in the middle of the loch; they really do industrialize an otherwise remote landscape. But I mainly moved to a bay where the sailing directions say offer good shelter and good holding for the anchor. And I am waiting. I can get hourly updates from the Met Office on my phone, but strangely enough, even now in the late afternoon there is little sign of a change of weather. The sky has been blue from horizon to horizon all day, apart from the clustering of fair weather cumulus around the tops of the hills. Now, when I look to the west, I can see what may be the high stratus clouds that would suggest a warm front is coming in and heralding the depression But the barometer remains high, even rising slightly through the day.

I have done what I can to prepare: I have made sure the anchor is well dug in, with plenty of chain; I have made sure there is nothing loose on the deck. But the sun still shines strongly, the wind is light, and so the waiting is a little surreal. Doubtless I will not think so in the middle of the night.

Wednesday morning

I was right. It wasn’t until about four in the morning that the strong winds came, gusting fiercely between the hills, throwing Coral one way then the other. I managed to keep dozing for a while, every now and the checking the transit I had noted–a telephone pole in line with the corner of the white house. The anchor seemed to be holding… and then around 5.30 I realized it wasn’t. The transit moved out of alignment, features on the shoreline began to move past each other. Coral was drifting sideways toward the middle of the loch.

After dragging warm clothes over pyjamas, I went on deck to sort things out. Once I got the anchor out of the water I found it had picked up an enormous bundle of weed, such I could hardly lift it even with the windlass. Once I had cleared this–lying on my belly with my arms over the bows pulling at stalks of slimy seaweed–I motored back into the bay and re-anchored. I tried with one anchor, then with two anchors, dragging out the huge cqr that I had never needed to use before from the bottom of the cockpit locker. Each time I hauled up the anchor–careful to wear rigger gloves and to pull with my legs rather than my back–I felt myself near the limit of my strength. Two or three times I reset the anchor, sometimes one, sometimes two. Nothing seemed to work, the big cqr seemed more of a nuisance than a help. Eventually I must have hit lucky and found a place on the bottom where there was no weed and some stiff mud. With extra scope from a rope anchor line shackled to the end of 30 metres of chain, we seemed not to be moving. All this was tough work, and each time I had to struggle with the anchor, a little voice in the back of my head said, “you can’t do this on your own”. And each time I found that, once I started, my head was clear, my body ready, and I did what is needed. The challenge was both alarming and satisfying.

Once settled, I sat in the cockpit and stared at my new transit–now lining the telephone pole with the second window on the house–as it moved this way then that, sometimes losing a sense of which way was which. In the gusts Coral was blown downwind of the transit so that I worried we were dragging again; but then in the lulls she moved back sedately into position.

In the lulls between the gusts, Coral lay still and the loch seemed quiet.There was a sudden stillness in our little bay, just the sound of the wind blowing the trees on the hillsides and the waves further out in the loch. Then, as if the wind was preparing itself, a noise started from afar, a kind of forewarning that another gust was on its way. When it came, it hit Coral with a wild shriek, shaking the rigging, heeling her over and blowing the bows round. I could not believe it would not pull the anchor out, or break the anchor line. But each time everything held and she swung back into line. Then another lull came.

Sometimes I found myself talking to the wind, saying, “That’s enough, please stop now”. Other times I tred to find a way to enjoy the wind, to be in tune with it, rather than fight it. If I tensed my body with each gust I was using energy I might need for real work. And of course the wind was just doing what it does, howling through the pressure difference between the low to the north and the high to the south.

Then the rain came: sheets of wetness blowing down the loch, soaking everything, reducing the visibility to a few hundred yards and forcing me into the cabin. But the rain was also a sign that the worse was over. Gradually the wind eased, the gusts faded away–not without a last few shrieks, but shorter, less intense. I found I had dozed off for a bit, and then, quite suddenly, it was calm, with even a few patches of blue sky.

That evening
The sea that was a turmoil of white water is now calm, stretching through the loch north west out to sea. The hills have reappeared from behind the low cloud, and once again give the place the appearance of an illustration from an adventure book. I am very tired and will go to bed early.

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.

Loch Scavaig again

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“Aye, and to think I have to spend an hour and a half every day just sitting here,” said the boatman with a laugh, gesturing at the scenery in Loch Scavaig in response to our greeting as we tied the dinghy to the steps.

The weather forecast had offered ‘sunny intervals’ but it was dull and overcast as we left the anchorage at Loch Scresort on Rum that morning. With Steve now on board I was revisiting the Small Ises again and having the benefit of a second look. We had spent the previous day with Trudi, the Ranger on Rum, walking into the interior in search of eagles. Unfortunately the clouds had descended, and we got cold and wet in the penetrating light rain and, as Trudi told us, eagles don’t like flying in the rain and cloud. So we decided to cruise around the sound between Rum and Skye in the hope that we might catch sight of eagles from the sea, and maybe dolphins and minke whales as well.

As we cleared the island and picked up the northwesterly breeze the cloud hung low over Rum and gathered ominously over the Cuillin. As we hauled in the sheets and set off toward Skye, a patch of blue sky developed on the horizon and for the next hour or so expanded, so that in time both the mountains of Rum and the Cuillin were clear of cloud, standing sharply against the sky. As we passed the north side of Rum Steve pointed high in the sky: unmistakably an eagle flying down the valley and out of the sound. We followed it for just a few moments until it was lost it in the high cloud.

Then the light shifted again. Clouds gathered, the mountains of Rum covered, and the Cuillin turned into a dark and brooding mass. We tacked back over toward Rum and beyond to Canna, enjoying the sailing and the wildlife: maybe there had been no encounter with a pod of dolphins but we did see some in the distance, lots of guillemots and shearwater, a puffin and a skua.

Toward lunchtime we turned back toward Skye and made our way north of the flat island of Soay into the anchorage at Lock Scavaig. On our way in Steve was sure he saw a whale breeching in the outer loch, and of course we passed close by the seals basking on the rocks, including one or two babies still covered in fur. Now at high water neaps it felt there was much more room to anchor close to the waterfall and well clear of the rocks. Just as we settled, Steve followed a large bird with white markings across the huge rockface to the south and east of the anchorage–surely a sea eagle. So we felt well content with our wildlife watching.

After lunch in the cockpit we motored ashore for our brief and friendly encounter with the boatman, and walked past the rapids that drain the freshwater Loch Coruisk into the sea. “Cross the stepping stones for the best view of the loch,” the boatman advised us, so we clambered over the rough crossing until we came to a small shingle beach from where we could see over the water toward the jagged mountains at the far end. We sat separately for a while in the deep silence until the midges drove us to move. I walked over to where he was sitting; he looked up and simply said, “This is it, isn’t it?”

Loch Coruisk

Loch Scavaig

IMG_2752High pressure and light winds make it possible, almost obligatory, to visit Loch Scavaig, a celebrated dramatic anchorage. From Sandaig Bay, where I spent the night, it was a quick reach across to the Point of Sleat, then a long beat to windward, at first with a fresh wind, but as I approached the Cuillins from the south the wind dropped and I set the big No.1 genoa for the last few tacks. With a dry northerly wind, there were no clouds on the mountains of Rum nor on the Cuillin. From a distance I could see little white dots, the sails of yachts, creeping along the bottom of the towering rock faces. The mountains themselves are dark, occasionally lit with fragments of sunshine.

The entrance to the anchorage is rock-strewn and requires care to identify the features that guide you in. It is low water springs, so nothing looks at all like the description in the Sailing Directions; what should be islands are attached to the land, and rocks that are usually hidden rise clear out of the water. Slowly and carefully I made my way as directed, finally passing the tip of the last island, leaving that rock that is usually underwater to port, into the pool and with some difficulty anchored Coral securely.

The anchorage is surrounded on three sides by mountains, rising directly from the shore in terraces; the fourth side is sheltered by a rocky island. Opposite the entrance is a waterfall, falling past boulders down a crack in the cliff; in places the water tumbles over the rock face, in others buries itself being fallen debris face. The air is filled with the soft sound of tumbling water–more than a trickle, less than a downpour. Behind the waterfall I catch sight of a line of jagged peaks that must be Meall na Cuillice, while to the east, behind the rock climbers’ boffy, rises what appears to me as much more lumpy rock, curiously patterned with fissures and gullies. I think it rises to Squrr na Stri (and I am not sure if the names really matter, but they did seem to want to be included).

My geology book, The Hidden Landscape, tells me that these rocks are gabbro, “black or darkly green with crystals as coarse as granite, but dominated by rather dark minerals.” These are ignatius rocks that poured out of volcanos and have resisted weathering ever since. It is a dark, brooding place, made ever more so by the gusts of wind that, even in calm conditions like today, suddenly channel without warning down through the gullies, blow patterns of disturbed water across the anchorage, and swing the yachts around on their anchor chains.

For even though this place is remote, in a sense truly wild, it is also strangely busy. Six yachts have visited, four appear to be staying the night; several tourist launches have come and gone, dropping off passengers at the metal landing stage, and collecting those that are waiting. And a party of young rock climbers are making themselves at home in the bothy; I watch them collecting driftwood and now can see blue smoke rising from their fire.

Early evening, having decided Coral was safe, and feeling happier now the tide had risen and there seemed more space between the rocks, I took the dinghy ashore and walked to the freshwater Loch Coruisk. Surrounded by huge boulders, their crystalline structure easier to see close up, the loch’s still water reflects the darkness of the mountains; a burn tumbles from it south end down the rock face into the sea.

I don’t quite know what to make of this place. It is spectacular, dramatic, sublime rather than picturesque. And yet I feel that its being-for-itself, its sense of its own presence, is overshadowed by the use we humans have put it to as a tourist and recreation destination. I am reminded of my experience of the Blaskett Islands off the west coast of Ireland. When I first visited them in April four years ago I experienced them as astonishing and overawing; I wrote in Spindrift that “these islands have an integrity of their own beyond the grasp of human comprehension”. But when I visited again last year, in the high holiday season, they were busy with visitors whose presence seemed to overshadow that sense of integrity. I am also reminded of the controversies surrounding the large numbers of people who now climb Mount Everest. What happens to the sacredness of a place when it becomes a destination?

It is clearly ridiculous and snobby to want to have the place to myself; and it is clearly contradictory to rely on the well-researched directions in the Sailing Directions but nevertheless expect unadulterated wildness. I have no answers, but the puzzle perturbs me.

Early next morning when I step out into the cockpit everything is completely still. It is high tide, the pool is full to the brim. The yachts’ anchor chains hang vertically into undisturbed water; their flags flop listlessly. The water surface reflects the rock faces that rise steeply all around. As I look up I see that the sun is just catching the peaks, and clouds drift almost imperceptibly across the sky. The sound of the waterfall fills the air, save for the occasional call of an oystercatcher–those birds seem determined you know of their presence. Then a noise somewhere between a cough and a sneeze alerts me, and I scan the surface for signs of a seal. There are none for a while until I notice a pattern of concentric ripples on the surface, and through my binoculars see the smooth head, black eyes, and whiskers just above the surface.

A figure wearing a bright red top emerges from the bothy–the tiny dot of red both complementing and contradicting the natural greens, browns and greys. My attention is drawn to the other bright human artefacts–a couple of buoys and the life-ring by the landing stage. Smoke rises momentarily from the fireplace near the bothy, then vanishes.

Somehow the busy-ness of yesterday evening has retreated, and the place seems to be asserting its own identity again; or is it that I am more open to it? Then the neighbouring yacht starts its engine and gets its anchor up, the crew on the bows calling instructions back to the skipper and making quite a fuss about getting all the mud of the chain. We exchange greetings as the pass Coral and as the leave through the narrow entrance an orange RIB enters and drops off more walkers or climbers at the landing stage. The human day has begun.

And this blog posting was going to end there, but on the way out I passed a dozen or more seals lying around on the flat top of the rock called Sgeir Doigich. Ahead of Coral two or three more seals were swimming around: they dived under the water when they saw her coming in a lazy, almost slow motion, downward arc. One might say that they all thought the loch still belonged to them.

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Sailing North

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I spent a couple of day on Ulva, off the west coast of Mull, walking, resting and watching eagles. Ulva is a lovely island but tinged with human sadness, as this was one of the places where there was a truly brutal clearance of the crofters, and signs of their life here remain, including a beautiful and substantial church designed by the celebrated Thomas Telford.

After a night in Craigaig Bay, a remote anchorage among rocks and islets right underneath where the eagles are said to rest (and one glided overhead just as the evening closed) I had to move on rather abruptly: gusty winds from the east plucked the anchor from its holding. For half an hour or so I was busy retrieving the anchor, avoiding rocks, heaving the dinghy on board and securing it, and piloting safely into the deep waters of Loch an Neal. But once I was safe and had got my breath back, I realised that the conditions were excellent for moving north, so I set course for Ardnamurchan Point and beyond. After a wet night at Arisaig, still with a fresh wind but in wonderful sunshine, I decided to take a long route on to the fishing port of Mallaig by going round the island of Eigg.

Eigg is one of the ‘small isles’–Muck, Rum, Eigg and Carna–none of which are actually particularly small. I sailed between Muck and Eigg, turned north between Eigg and Rum, anchored for lunch in a sandy bay, and continued on to Mallaig by evening. This must have been among the most beautiful sailing days in my experience: Fresh wind, calm seas, glorious scenery: the cliffs of Eigg, the mountains of Rum, the Cuillin on Skye in the distance, with wonderfully changing cloud patterns as the day warmed up and clouds gathered around the peaks.

This is picturesque scenery in the fullest sense of that word: It has been written about, painted, photographed, been the context of historical horrors and heroism, and so it feels quite difficult to take it in afresh, for itself, so to speak. Whatever I write feels cliched. And yet surely our human ability to appreciate such spectacular beauty is also part of the way “wilderness treats me as a human being”.

Just to make sure I wasn’t complacent, late that afternoon as I approached Mallaig, dark clouds from the south brought winds gusting round the mountains. After a struggle to keep Coral into the wind while I got the sails down, the port entrance was closed to allow a ferry passage through. I was relieved to find the visitors buoys unoccupied and easy to moor to, and enjoyed a really good fish and chips in the pub that evening.

I do like to gaze at the Cuillins
I do like to sail on the Minch
But I got very cross
At the ferry boat’s wash
And now I just want fish and chips!

Leaving

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My bags are packed. I have been up to the Polling Station and voted Green. Put out the recycling. Walked up to look at the garden and the orchard. This afternoon I go up to London and tomorrow on to Scotland. My plan is to spend until mid-August exploring the west coast and the islands, on what I am increasingly willing to call a sailing pilgrimage.

I feel sad at leaving home. This place has been the centre of my life for nearly 40 years, and carries a deep sense of familiarity. And it is strange to leave at this time of year, when everything is bursting forth, changing, developing. As I walk up the footpath I notice that the May, which last week was at is peak of glory, covering the fields in ‘bling’, as Elizabeth put it, is now beginning to fade. The white petals fall as a light snowfall, dropping slowly through the air and littering the paths. In the orchard, the blossom is over and the fruit is formed on the trees and bushes, growing larger and taking on colour day by day. Maybe it is the flower meadow in the orchard I will miss most. Through the winter and early spring we kept the grass cut to stop it swamping the flowers. While the grass was still short there was a sprinkling of cowslips; now it is longer, the yellow rattle is flowering and the black eyed daisies in bud; I know that through the summer different species will dominate in a glorious sequence, and that I will miss it.

So I leave things behind and look forward rather anxiously to the adventure in the Scottish islands. What will I do with myself, alone for much of the time, for weeks on end? why am I doing this? Is there going to be a book to write out of this pilgrimage to follow Spindrift? Will I have anything new to say? Sarah B says go and be a shaman first, and through that I will find what to write… but I am not very sure what that means. People I speak to seem impressed that I will be away on my own for that long.

I have to remember what that I am attempting to rise to the challenge of finding a different sense of identity as a human being. A different story of who we are. It sounds completely over the top to say this or write it down, but that seems to me to be part of the challenge of our times.In Spindrift I took from Thomas Berry the importance of developing a conversation with the world; I used the koan “Wilderness treats me like a human being”. More recently I was taken by an old quote from Alan Watts “We need to become vividly aware of our ecology, or our interdependence and virtual identity with other forms a life…” “Vividly” seems a very apt word.

But I must remember my own way of putting in a tweet: “In these terrible times it is comforting to know that there is a great work to be done, changing the way we modern human see ourselves”. That is what it is about. And that is why I am leaving the comfort and familiarity of home and facing the anxiety of being alone at sea.

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