“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.

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.

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