seasick

We drive round the head of the loch to the harbour to see our friend’s new boat. It’s a dull afternoon and the imminent dusk presses in on us. The water is calm and grey and smooth and, as I climb down the pier ladder and stroll onto the afterdeck, I realise how much I miss being on it. I’ve been dimly aware of this lately, but as I look out over to the pontoon where I used to live, I feel it acutely: I’m seasick again, only this time not from the sea but for it.

It’s funny how the subtler senses work. When l lived in Canada, by the end of the long snow and ice-bound winters I would crave greenness. It was like a thirst: a need for deep draughts of green, a desire that needed slaking. You’d think my longing for the sea would be a thirst too but it’s more like a hunger, as if I’m not dry but hollow. Even hunger doesn’t capture it fully though. What I feel now is not an appetite to be satiated – not a craving, not an onward desire – but an awareness of absence. To draw an analogy with the boat I’m standing on, whose fuel tanks have recently been rebuilt, I have an emptiness which wants to be filled.

It’s not that I’m not nourished living on land. I love my caravan and appreciate its greater space and comfort, and its relative stability now the autumn gales are coming in. Living on the water was less comfortable, more restless and raw, and I need to live ashore now. With the various damages from my head injury a year ago not yet resolved, I’m too sensitive to motion to spend another winter aboard. Yet I can’t help feeling insulated, cut off from a primal source. I miss the water and the life of it: the seals and otters, the sea and shore birds, and the sailors and fishermen I used to reliably encounter on the docks. And I find it strange that the view from my window is no longer linked to the phases of the moon. I still tear out the tide table from the Ullapool News and pin it up in the kitchen but without the living presence of the tide I feel disconnected from it, and from something more fundamental – as if I’m not just out of tide but out of time.

Most of all, I miss the dynamism; the sense, however subtle, of being always in motion. Even on a calm sea, stillness aboard a boat is not the same as stillness on land – something that becomes immediately obvious if the keel even briefly touches the seabed. However static you appear to be, you’re still in a fluid medium, you’re still supported. In contrast, I am now held up by a sheet of plywood and a few breezeblocks. I am (literally, since we had to raise the caravan a few feet to get a downfall for the sewage pipe) high and dry. I enjoy the resulting vista – I can see across the loch and glimpse Suilven and Cul Mor through the trees – but I feel unsettled. I’m not sure if I feel ungrounded or too grounded. And so I begin to do what I always did before I took to the sea: I seek the shore.

4th November 2021
Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland

afloat

This is where I am at home. And, after all these years of absence and homesickness, it’s not on the land of Scotland at all. It’s on this sea loch.

It struck me a few days ago when I was out in the tender on one of my wee rowings-about. It was a bit choppy and I was pulling towards my usual pausing place midway between the harbour headland and the loch’s southern shore – where I’m in the habit of drawing in the oars and laying my head back on the bow – when it occurred to me that, out here in the middle of the loch, I felt perfectly at home.

I’ve felt at home many times in this harbour. I enjoy the marginal position of being aboard – tethered between the mountains (Suilven, Canisp and Quinag) and the Minch, and between the evolving dock community and the local life of the village – and, being most at ease on edges, I’ve attributed some of my intermittent sensations of being at home to that. I’ve also attributed much of it to being on the boat itself; this boat which has held so much of my life these last nine years. Sailing in it, living in it, sleeping in it, its familiar fibreglass hull has become a cocoon, a container, not just for myself but for the skipper whose presence is soaked into every inch of it; a reliable and sea-kindly vessel bearing us onward together.

I’m sitting aboard the boat as I write this on a long still summer evening. The sun has just set and the northern sky is a thin lemon yellow and the sandstone faces of the mountains in the east glow pinkishly in the last of the light. The air is utterly clear and the water in the loch is black-green, pink and yellow, glossy and almost mirror-flat. I feel at home right now, perched in the companionway, poised between these worlds of water, sky, mountains and folk, but the realisation I had out on the loch in the tender is more powerful. It means that my ability to feel at home here, to feel a sense – however slender – of belonging, does not depend on a particular boat or a particular location or particular company. It depends on me being afloat.

It’s time to find my own craft.

Loch Inver, Assynt, Scotland
9th July 2021

going backwards

“It’s going backwards!” he cries in confusion. “It’s going backwards!” I try to walk him a wee bit closer but he’s not having it. I suggest we run towards it as goes out then run away from it as it comes in again but he’s not convinced. I’m surprised by his reticence as I thought he’d be keen to go for a wee paddle. Usually he loves water of all kinds – puddles, ponds, baths, burns – and generally delights in making as much of a splash as he can. Admittedly, the sea is a very different prospect to these more contained bodies of water but it’s not as if he hasn’t been to the coast before. Just a few days ago we were on the pebble beach at Ardmair and he was completely unperturbed, merrily pitching pebbles into the sea and eagerly trying to clamber over the last seaweed-covered stones to get closer. We had to hold him back to stop him going in. I’d have thought the sea here would, if anything, be less daunting. Compared to the open sweep of Ardmair, this beach – just north of Achmelvich – is sheltered, enclosed on each side by long rocky headlands with the distant horizon safely contained between them, and the water is clear as glass.

It’s not the water itself that’s unnerving him though – it’s the motion. When we were at Ardmair it was low tide and the sea sat slack and quiet on the stones. There was a bit of a breeze and the water rippled briskly as it received our ineptly skimmed pebbles but there were no real waves. The waves today are small – wavelets really, rolling gently over the pale shell sand at our feet – but there’s an energy to them, and their pronounced back-and-forth movement is evidently unsettling him. We try to explain it to him to put him at ease, telling him how the wind makes the waves and pushes them onto the shore, and about the tide itself and its approach and retreat, but at two-and-a-half he isn’t interested in the abstract. He’s absorbed utterly by what’s in front of him: this line of liquid mysteriously drawing away from him then all of a sudden returning. “It’s going white!” he exclaims as one wave rushes closer and spreads out at our feet in a wide lacy froth.

He clearly doesn’t want to go in so I pick him up and hold him on my hip and reassure him that we’ll just watch. And as we do, standing here quietly together, it strikes me more than ever how much this motion of the sea is like breathing. It seems animated, washing forward in exhalation then sucking back in, its rhythm measured yet capricious, like a great creature breathing. Maybe that’s what he feels too. Or maybe he has no idea of it at all and is simply sensibly wary of something whose nature and action he cannot fathom. I watch him watching, innocent and intent, and it strikes me too how moved I am to be here with him, on this sand in front of this water, witnessing him have this primary and elemental encounter.

I’ve always felt the seashore to be powerful. “A place of revelation,” for the Irish poets of old*; a place of alteration. No matter how familiar the shore has become to me over the years, it’s the one place I can always be freshened, the one place I am reliably renewed. But seeing him meet the sea like this with his young spirit and young eyes stirs something else in me, movements that I too cannot fathom but which rouse in me a profound tenderness… for him? for water? for this endless turning over? I don’t know. And anyway, that’s an abstraction again and this beach is anything but that. It’s “sand!” It’s “waves!” It’s froth and awe – and fun.

I give him a mischievous giggle and, still holding him, run in.

* From the Imacallam in dá Thuarad (Colloquy of the Two Sages, twelfth century Irish manuscript)

Vestey beach, Achmelvich, Assynt, Scotland
19th May 2021

no evidence

I scamper off the boat as the white veil sweeps closer, racing ahead of it for the shelter of the woods. It follows behind me like a predatory net curtain, a finely woven mesh of raindrops, whose hem touches down just as I reach the trees. I stand in close to them, watching the rain drumming on the docks and decks and listening to it pelt the fledging birch leaves above me. Within a few minutes it passes and I continue on my walk. When I get back, half an hour or so later, I notice a couple of damp patches in the cockpit and am momentarily confused. It is a confusing day, right enough – one of those squally Scottish spring days: one minute sunshine, the next minute showers, each chasing away the other with fresh abandon as it makes the world anew.

Nonetheless, I wonder how I could forget the rain. I remind myself that my short-term memory isn’t yet fully restored and put it down to that. But then I wonder why I would remember. The sea level is not noticeably higher (at least not from rainfall) and, with the rain having drained from the boat through its various scuppers, the decks are mainly dry. There is no evidence of the rain having passed over. Unlike on land, there are no lingering puddles, no boggy ground, no high rivers or flooding. It’s the same with the wind. It blows and bounces us around endlessly without leaving any markers at all: no uprooted trees, no fallen roof tiles, no scattered outdoor possessions. While the wind can leave waves behind it in the open ocean, in the short fetch of this sea loch, even whitecaps quickly subside. This is one of the differences between living on land and living on the sea. On the sea, the seasons come and go – throughout the day, throughout the year – and the only traces are in our minds.

Lochinver harbour, Assynt, Scotland
4th May 2021

Arriving in Suðuroy on a Sunday morning in June

It was in a world of fair-weather fog…

Forty-four hours of blank horizons and seasickness and suddenly, unannounced, we’re here. We sail slowly up the shelterered waters of the fjord. Cold fog blows over the sheeny surface. A kittiwake arcs over us and a couple of terns pick deftly at the sea to port. The fog rises, showing the hems of steep green hills, then settles back down. A pair of great northern divers, big dark birds, sit placidly in the sea ahead.

We tie up to a tyre-lined dock and step ashore. The town is pale-streeted and quiet except for the intermittent tolling of bells. We walk the length of the town, exchanging smiles with the odd passer-by, then come back to the boat to make a cup of tea. The customs officer steps aboard, apologising for coming late due to being at church. He asks us if we have any contraband then immediately answers for us, “of course you don’t,” laughs heartily, and welcomes us to the Faroes.

“We like it here already,” we tell him truthfully. And we set off once more to explore this island behind the fog, unable to shake the uncanny feeling that we’ve sailed out of time and have arrived in an earliness of some kind; as a native poet might put it, that we’re somehow here

with the whole unspoiled world
that God had made in the first days.

(Christian Matras)

silhouette of metal sculpture of rowing boat with three rowers and a coxon, mounted above a rock in mist

Vágur, Suðuroy, Føroyar / Faroe
16th June 2019

moorings

It’s always leaving, that’s what this sailing life is. It’s making a fresh friend and then casting off the lines that tie you and drifting away into the dawn.

I love so much, that’s my problem. I moor myself readily to each new dock in each new harbour, my heartstrings and dock lines pulling tight in the wind. And then we’re off again, your unattachable heart merrily seeking the next temporary destination while I’m still trying to undo the knots I’ve looped myself ashore with. And it’s not just people I grow fond of: the rounded hills at the mouth of the loch across the sound, the sudden misted glows in the sky behind the boat yard, the night-time curve of the village lights around Marine Road… And that grey-cloaked heron croaking by each eve, and the wee rock pipit flitting from deck to deck in the mornings, and the eiders which are always paddling about, calling to each other in incessant gulps and gargles.

So now, at the end of another winter’s berthage, I’m brimming over like this bay at this high tide. I used to be a solitaire, but there’s something about these groups when you find them – the friendly marina crew, the happy gang of harbour staff, the quick communities of sailors sharing docks and drams – all these sea friends and shore friends; all this coming and going in my heart.

Port Bannatyne marina, Bute, Argyll, Scotland
11th April 2018

North Sea crossing

Still shellshocked, seashocked, windstruck, hullshaken. Still lolling, rolling, rocking. Still rippling swells rising in my eyes, tipping in my ears. Still dizzy, a bit faint, the ground not entirely steadied. Still stiff, my muscles taut from pressing my back into the swinging berth, trying to hold myself there, trying to stay still. But even ashore there’s still no stillness. Even ashore there’s no rest.

Måløy, Norway to Lerwick, Shetland
21st July 2017

circle

6.30 pm, 66°13’13″N. An Arctic tern wings past the sun, which is high in the west above a row of bunched fluffy grey clouds. A broad platinum path blazes to the horizon beneath it. The east wind is getting colder and the mountains behind it increasingly snow-covered: an unending panorama of tiny pointed peaks, uplifting and continually startling to look at. Ahead loom the Træna islands, steep bumps growing ominously; one island a single jagged fang, almost frightening to look at.

9.35 pm, 66°28’54″N. The wind has picked up to about fifteen knots and we’re flying along at well over six. Up, up we go, over the surface of the rounded world, the minutes of latitude rushing by our hull.

9.45 pm, 66°30’0″N. We’re looking into the Arctic now, past the sharp teeth of Træna, towards distant ranges of snowy peaks, whipped like icing on a Christmas cake. A slight yellow glow warms their north-west-facing hollows as the sun slowly gravitates across the sky; as we ride north to greet it.

10.08 pm, 66°33’02″N. I sit with the handheld GPS and watch the numbers tick upwards.

10.14pm, 66°33’48″N. We have crossed the Arctic Circle! The sun lies behind a bank of grey cloud in the north-west with small scraps of cloud below it outlined in livid gold. A patch of rainbow hangs in front of the mountains to the east, the sharp peaks beyond all softened by the sun’s rosy-tinged touch. Ahead, above the northern horizon, a clear band of sky stretches like a luminous yellow promise. We sail on towards it.

foredeck and mainmast of boat on cold sea with pale yellow light on the far horizon ahead

Norwegian Sea
8th June 2017