“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.

Tourist or Pilgrim?

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I have been challenged to articulate more clearly the difference between the pilgrim and the tourist.

I think I articulated some of the yearning that I see as part of pilgrimage in my last blog: There is something about the mountains and rocks of northwest Scotland, seen from the sea, which pulled me strongly. I wanted, at least for a while, to bathe in their presence (‘dwell’, that good Heideggerian word, also comes to mind). I had the same kind of feeling with the mountains of Connemara rising out of the bogland last year. The mountains resonate with a sense of eternity, and evoke that good deep ecology maxim, “thinking like a mountain’.

I had a truly wonderful night in Loch Awe. The water was deep and calm, rising to a very high spring tide late in the evening. The seals lay on the rocks looking at me from time to time until the high water drove them away. In the far distance the Quinage ridge showed its different faces with the changing light. Late in the evening, the evening sunlight lit up the rocks so that they shone a deep gold, finally leaving black sillouettes against the twilight sky.

Next morning I left for Stornaway, 30 miles west across the North Minch. The wind was disappointingly patchy, despite the forecast. I arrived in heavy rain with poor visibility, got a bit lost at the entrance because I couldn’t see the markers but soon settled on a pontoon in the marina. Everything was soaked, the rain had even penetrated right through my waterproof trousers.

The following day, after dropping off two bags at the laundry I picked up a little hire car and made my way to the west coast. I wanted to see the Atlantic, I wanted to see the standing stones at Callanish, I wanted to see the golden sands at Uig. And so I did!

Elizabeth and I have always visited stone circles when we can, especially since were were introduced to the Merry Maidens near the tip of Cornwall. These circles carry a reminder, both physically and spiritually, of the ancient ways of being on these islands. We have participated in moving ceremonies at stone circles where we feel we have touched the Earth in a special way. Yet stone circles, especially the famous ones like Stonehenge and Averbury, are also magnets for tourism, so that any sense of the numinous buried, just as in an over-visited cathedral.

I found the Callanish stones particularly strange. The pictures I had seen showed tall, gaunt stones standing lonely against the sky, and I imagined them as being in a wild and remote place. Actually, they are set almost in the middle of a Hebridean settlement, modern houses of no particular beauty straggling across the landscape.

My visit was definitely a tourist experience. Go and see the stones, and marvel at them in a rather superficial way. Take some pictures. If you are with family, take pictures of your family against stone background. Otherwise, try not to get strangers into your pictures, try to take pictures that make the stones look appropriately lonely and wild. Wonder, again rather superficially, why they were put there. Then go to visitor centre for coffee and rather dry cake, wander round the shop and decide there is nothing you could possibly want to buy. Return to car and drive on to next place. This kind of visit doesn’t honour the old stones and it doesn’t honour oneself.

That is a slight exaggeration. I did spend time touching some of the stones, taking in the crystalline qualities of the gneiss rock; I did visit the other two, smaller, circles nearby and spend some quiet time. But there was nothing in the experience that ‘caught me’, and so I moved on, driving my tiny Nissan car like a rolling skate along the single track roads. I drove to the end of Great Bernera–done that; I drove to the Uig Sands–done that!

What I did see, and what I don’t think one would get a sense of without actually being there, was the extraordinary quality of this island, especially of the mountains rising in the south. I am tempted to use the term ‘bleak’ to describe them, but that feels to pejorative; ‘forbidding’ might be a better word–and indeed they do lie across between Lewis and Harris to the south traditionally preventing contact between the two communities. And yet, when I picked up a fragment to take home with me, I was delighted to see the contrasting bands of pink, grey, and white, and the glistening golden glow of embedded mica or quartz.

On the way back, just as I was fretting about too much driving, needing a cup of tea, feeling that my visit had left a sour taste in my mouth, I was struck by the enormous difference between such fragile, short-term, almost pathetic human sentiments and the immense endurance of these rocks, among the oldest anywhere in the world. I had to pull off the road and scribble something in my notebook in case I lost that fleeting insight–again, maybe, into a sense of eternity.

So it was a funny day. I was really pleased with myself when I got back to Stornaway and picked up my two bags of clean laundry.

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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.

Wet morning off Eigg

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A slight swell from the south east sets Coral pitching, gently at first, then more violently as her own rhythm entrains with the waves: halliards rattle a bit, crockery moving uneasily in its racks. Then the entrainment fades and the movement is quieter again. All through the morning this sequence repeats: now more energetic, with the winch handle knocking as it moves with each pitch; now the waves splash up as the stern smacks into the water; now the movement slows and it is quiet again.

Around Coral the rocks are emerging with the dropping tide, their columnar basalt structure showing clearly, the weed that was floating on the surface now lying flattened on the tops. The swell moves past Coral and breaks ever so gently on the rockfaces, sending out the hollow sound of breaking water.

Behind that there is that silence again, the silence through which each pinprick of rain landing on the sprayhood seems to stand out distinctly; in which the twittering of shorebirds and (of course) the cry of the oystercatchers are distinct entities to themselves.

It is still very wet, but now the clouds have lifted somewhat and some individual cloud shapes can be seen. The horizon is clear, and I can see a yacht well out in the sound, although the mainland is obscured. Toward the land the new ferry pier makes its mark, I can’t make out any detail, but the strong horizontal line is marked by thin vertical slashes of lights and masts, with the wide sloping slipway running down to the water. Houses, a bit of roadway, then the wilder, rougher hillside of Eigg.

Steve has gone off on his own to explore the caves and buy some milk. I am on my own for a few hours. After the companionable discussions over first cups of tea and what to have for breakfast (boiled egg, baked beans, pitta bread and orange juice) my attention moves out to the more than human world around me. This process of writing itself feels like a kind of conversation in the world.

Maybe it also gives the reader something about a dull, damp morning, anchored off Eigg. I might say, “what a horrid day”; or I might take the opportunity to look more closely.

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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!

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.

Meandering

me at helmLast year, sailing round Ireland to Scotland, I set out a series of objectives. My plan was first to sail down the Channel and across the Celtic Sea to County Cork and on past Kerry and Clare to Galway; after exploring Galway Bay and the coast of Connemara, I would set off round the northwest coast, past Erris Head and Bloody Foreland and across to Scotland. For each leg I worked out an approximate number of days sailing, and identified places to stay along the way.

In the event, with persistent fresh northerly winds, it took far longer to reach Galway that I expected. More difficult weather made the last leg to Scotland hard work. I rushed past places I wanted to explore and appreciate. I alarmed my crew and got very tired.

My original plan for this year was equally ambitious: I would sail from Oban up the west coast, around the north of Scotland, through the Pentland Firth and return to the west coast via the Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen. But as I studied the charts, I realized this if I did this I would again rush past places where I might want to linger. I realized that heroic objectives are not necessary.

So I have began to explore a different metaphor for this year’s journey, that of meandering. A meandering river winds through the countryside, its changing course guided by its own internal dynamics and in response to the land through which it flows. The river does, of course, flow with a sense of direction, meandering always down toward the sea; but its course may take it in great loops away from this destination.

The word meander is used metaphorically to refer to suggest leisurely wandering over an irregular or winding course. ‘Wandering’ generally means to go without fixed purpose or goal, or to go by an indirect route. ‘Meandering’ implies an inclination rather than a goal. Just as a river follows a meandering course toward the sea, so a human wandering may have some sense of a direction and purpose, but does not allow that does not dominate their choices. Meandering suggests rather an emphasis on spontaneity and choice in the moment, influenced by circumstances and opportunities – in my case the wind and the tides – and by one’s own inclinations in the moment.

But a river does not meander all the time. Meandering is a response to particular environmental conditions: a relatively wide valley, soft soil, a gentle incline. Where it flows over hard rocks, the river may be forced into ravines, tumble through rapids or over falls. And in similar fashion, the meandering pilgrim will at times need to reach a temporary destination, a safe anchorage in bad weather or a town where stores can be replenished. And yet, maybe in the longer term all rivers meander, as can be seen by the way the Colorado River now meanders along the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which it cut through the rock. Wikipedia tells us that “… this process of making meanders seems to be a self-intensifying process … in which greater curvature results in more erosion of the bank, which results in greater curvature ….” So maybe all life is best seen as a meandering, and the plans we set out are no more than entertaining fictions.

As a river meanders it leaves behind it a record of its history – often an extensive fertile flood plain, layers of deposits, occasional oxbow lakes. A sailing yacht leaves a wake behind that is very soon disappears into the ocean. As a pilgrim sailor I can leave another kind of record – in the stories I can tell, the meaning I can fathom from my journeying.

So this year my intention is to wander away from Dunstaffnage, where Coral has spend the winter, and meander up the west coast of Scotland, exploring the islands as I go. My meandering will have a certain inclination – toward Cape Wrath and the Outer Hebrides, toward the wilder rather than the more urbanised. But I might end up just slowly ambling round the Isle of Skye.

Just as I was washing the dishes

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The day began early, as I was woken around 3.00am by the disturbed movement of the boat. We were anchored in the bay in the Sound of Aran, sheltered in all directions except the southeast. The wind had crept round overnight as was blowing rather wildly up the sound. While Coal was secure on her anchor, she was blown down on her anchor chain close a reef off Calf Island. After our long sail from Broadhaven across Donegal Bay the previous day, I had promised Susi and Dave a quiet day, so I felt guilty waking them at 7.00.

“This is neither comfortable nor very safe,” I told them as I handed them their cups of tea, “We need to move into Burtonport.”

Burtonport is a fishing harbour that is reached through a narrow but well-lit and well-marked channel. I showed Dave and Susi on the chart where I was planning to go and where the marks were, and once the anchor was up we set off across the windy bay, spray flying every where. It was not easy to identify the marks, and later Dave told me he had been confused by my instructions, but nevertheless we found our way safely into and along the channel and with the help of a local boatman tied up awkwardly alongside the fishing pier. These piers are not designed for yachts, and we had to dangle fenders sideways to keep Coral away from the metal piles and run long lines fore and aft as springs to accommodate the dropping tide.

While I was left on board, filling up the water tank and topping up the diesel, Dave and Susi went for a long walk to find the supermarket. The long walk clearly involved a long talk, as when they came back and we reviewed our plans for the rest of our passage, it became clear that for many reasons they didn’t want to continue. After a difficult conversation with a lot of heartsearching we agreed, I think mutually and amicably, that it would be best if they caught the bus from Burtonport back to the UK, while I continued on my own.

Since I didn’t want to spend a night alongside the pier I set off as soon as they had disembarked, back down the channel (already familiar) and across the bay. The forecast was that the wind would veer west later that afternoon and overnight, so the anchorage would now be snug. As I started across the bay, the wind blew up yet again, still mainly southerly, bringing hard rain into my face. Was I mistaken in believing that the anchorage would be out of the wind? As I was about half way across and beginning to make out the landmarks on Aran, the rain suddenly hammered down, the wind increased and in a matter of minutes moved, almost flipped round, from southwest to nearly northwest. As I entered the anchorage the water was relatively calm, the wind offshore; it wet and windy but still safe and snug. Even through it carried on raining hard, soon I was securely anchored.

Now I was on my own, I felt it would be good to make a fresh start. So after tidying the cabin and putting away the boots and lifejackets the Susi and Dave had used, I stripped off, washed and shaved, and put on clean clothes. I went through my charts and set waypoints for the next leg of the journey. Elizabeth called, and we had a long conversation full of the intimate mutuality of 50 years of relationship. I then created quite ritual of making myself potato cakes, boiling up the potatoes with carrot and parsnip, mashing them up with fried onion and the frying the cakes in butter. Outside the rain stopped, the wind dropped back to nothing at all.

I was just washing the dishes after my supper, stowing everything in its place, when I was startled and arrested as the sky in the northwest over the hills of Aran suddenly–in a matter of seconds–turned bright orange. The brightness enveloped the land and sea in a warm glow. It felt as if this complicated day was being given a blessing.

With thanks to Susi and Dave for their companionship so far.

Not Going Sailing

synopsis

Shipping Forecast – Issued: 0405 UTC Thu 9 May

Wind: Southwest 5 to 7, increasing gale 8 or severe gale 9 for a time.
Sea state: Rough or very rough, becoming high for a time in west.
Weather: Rain or showers.
Visibility: Good, occasionally poor.

Today we intended to set out down the Channel bound for the Scillies and the west coast of Ireland. I was going to meet Steve—my crew for this leg of the voyage—on the Plymouth train at Westbury yesterday afternoon; we would settle into Coral overnight and set off this morning. But since early in the week the weather has deteriorated. The high pressure that brought such a lovely spring weekend has dropped south, a deepening area of low pressure is running along the top of it, so the westerly wind is intensified as it is squeezed between the high and the low. The map provided by Met Office with the Shipping Forecast shows two thirds of Great Britain surrounded by red shading, indicating gale force winds or more. The seas will not be just “rough” but “very rough, becoming high.” “High” is so unusual I have to look it up, and find it refers to wave heights of six to nine metres.  I remember Coral is only nine meters long.

Looking ahead, it seems that fresh to strong westerlies will persist into next week, which will make progress westwards hard work even when the gale passes. So rather than sailing down the Channel I am doing normal things at home: I went to my writing group last night; mended a bit of fence this morning until I got soaked in a heavy shower; and re-read parts of a book I have been asked to review.

In weather like this I can wind myself up, irritated at the interruption to my plans, wonder whether I really want to go to sea at all. I can make the interruption feel like a catastrophe. But there is something truly important about being stopped in one’s tracks by natural forces. It reminds us that we humans are not the masters of this planet, that while by working with the grain of the world we can accomplish wonders, forcing contrarily is not just uncomfortable but foolish and downright dangerous. I remember again Gary Snyder’s comment about things that take us out of our little selves into the wider whole as being sacred .

So rather that wind myself up I find a way to bow to the inevitable, even find a moment to appreciate the teaching the gales are bringing. I know from experience that I have to wait, that in time the weather will be more favourable. Patience is what is needed, patience, respect and careful judgement about when it is safe and sensible to sail.

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