I lie on the foredeck in the sun, listening to the sound of the bow slicing through the water and looking up to the top of the mast where the sails billow out in graceful curves, marvelling at the unseen power of the air filling them. The First Mate is at the helm, keeping an eye out for the dreaded lobster pot buoys. The wind is slight and from the southwest, directly from behind. We are ‘goose-winging’ to catch as much wind as possible, the genoa poled out to one side, and the mainsail out to the other, with a ‘preventer’ attached to stop it from accidentally gybing. We are making about four knots in a six knot wind, which is not too bad, I suppose.
We had left Lochboisdale after lunch with the idea of making some progress northwards and finding a sheltered anchorage on the way where we could sit out the strong south-westerly winds that are forecast for tomorrow and possibly the next day. On the charts, Loch Skipport looked a good place.
Off to our port side, we see the peaks of Ben Mohr, Ben Choradail and Hecla rising out of the haze. Loch Skipport is just beyond Hecla somewhere.
“Look, look”, calls out the First Mate suddenly, pointing to something off our port quarter. At first, there seems to be nothing, but then I see the unmistakable dorsal and tail fins of a basking shark circling around the stern. I rush to grab the camera, but as usual, it is too late. The fins disappear and we don’t see them again. We think about turning around to see if we can spot it again, but decide to carry on.
We enter Loch Skipport, heading for the upper reaches of the loch where there is supposed to be a good anchorage behind the imposing bulk of Hecla, ‘serrated’ in Old Norse, sheltered from south-westerlies. We round a small island and find that our anchorage is occupied by a large fish farm, with no space to drop the anchor without running the risk of swinging into the cages. Our Sailing Directions must be out of date.
We turn around and go back to another anchorage we saw on the way in, Caolas Mohr. There the holding is good, and we relax for the evening sipping our glasses of wine, watching the sun go down and absorbing the tranquillity. A gannet plunges like an arrow into the water, and appears bobbing on the surface a few moments later, looking around to regain its bearings. We can’t see if it has caught a fish or not. A heron flies over in long graceful strokes, heading for the shore where it lands, folds its wings away, and begins looking for food in the newly exposed seaweed. A flock of seagulls appear and wheel and dive on the up-currents and downdrafts.
Youthful memories come back of sitting on a tractor ploughing a field during my summer holidays. Behind, on the freshly turned furrows of soil, seagulls gather to pick out juicy earthworms and other soil inhabitants as they are exposed. Even over the roar of the engine I can hear their piercing cries. I have just read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach, which tells the story of a seagull who becomes fed up with day-to-day seagull activities of looking for food and squabbling with other seagulls, and decides to perfect his flying, his passion in life. He practises and practises and eventually gets very good, flying at tremendous speeds and to extreme altitudes. However, it comes at a cost – he is ostracised by the seagull community and has to leave. One day he flies higher and higher and finds other seagulls whose aim is to take their flying to even higher levels. He realises that he now has the freedom to be his true self, which makes him very happy for a while, but eventually he feels that he can’t be complete unless he passes on his expertise and skill to others. He returns to his seagull community and gathers together a group of other outcasts who also want to fly.
It is a simple little story, but it was one of those books that all your friends had read, and I had had to too. In my impressionable youth, I had found it quite inspiring – doing what one wanted to do in life and not following the crowd. Recently I re-read it, including a previously unpublished fourth part that Bach had added to it since the original version. It is 400 years after Jonathan had returned to the flock, and although the current seagulls pay lip service to his teachings, it is more through ritual rather than putting them into practice. One seagull, Anthony, sees the futility of it all, and decides to kill himself by flying at top speed into the sea. Just at the last moment, he is saved by Jonathan himself, flying alongside him. Obvious biblical overtones, and I am not sure it adds a lot to the story over the original.
The seagulls continue to wheel on the updrafts below Hecla. I look at each one to see if there is a Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the making. Perhaps there is, but it is not obvious. Only time will tell.
“Why are you looking so intensely at those seagulls?”, says the First Mate.
“Just seeing if any stand out from the crowd”, I say.
She looks sympathetically at me. He’s losing it, she thinks. “I think that it must be time for dinner”, she says. “Here, you can peel the potatoes.”
The high winds come in the night. We are awoken by the noise of the halyards beating against the mast, so I stumble outside and tie them to the pulpit at the bow instead. It is quieter at least, but the howling of the wind through the shrouds still keeps us awake.
The morning dawns overcast. At least the anchor seems to have held. Behind us, Hecla is wreathed in cloud. It reminds me of Lord of the Flies. It is easy to imagine that the gods are angry with the mortals down below. I wonder what we have done wrong to deserve this.
The wind continues for two days. We read and catch up on emails. Amazingly, we are able to pick up a 4G signal, even in this remote place. At one point, we see two walkers silhouetted on a ridge below Hecla. Otherwise, we are the only humans in this isolated place. Or the world, for all we know. In the afternoon, wild ponies come down to the shore to graze the lush grass. They are the well-known Eriskay ponies, but are also common on South Uist. It seems that they almost went extinct in the 1970s, but are now recovering. In the past, their tolerance to harsh conditions was key to the crofters in the area being also able to survive through subsistence agriculture.
After two days of winds, we become a little bored. I amuse myself by going downstairs and slowly counting the number of bananas that the First Mate bought in Lochboisdale. There are three. An hour later, I go down and count them again. There are still three. That evening I rearrange them and count them again. Still three. I am amazed at how I can while away a whole afternoon with simple pleasures.
In the evening, we see a sea-eagle, the first of our trip. It flies overhead, surprisingly harried by two seagulls. With the sea-eagle being the largest bird in the British Isles, I am surprised that the seagulls want to take it on. Strength in numbers, I suppose. Or perhaps one of the seagulls was a Jonathan?
In the morning, I have one banana for breakfast. Now there are only two left.