Port Edgar, Edinburgh

I awake at 0500 in the morning and lie for several minutes slowly waking up. There is a slight lapping of waves against the side of the boat next to my head, and momentarily I recall that I am actually lying below the water line. Overhead, I can hear the mewing of seagulls, and even the murmur of voices. I stumble out of bed and through the window see that there are already a couple of fishermen with their rods and gear on the outer sea wall. They must be keen, I think, as I boil the water for the first cup of tea for the day.

We cast off at 0600 on the dot with the First Mate at the helm, and head out past Downie Point with its large lump of rock almost separated from the mainland, and turn southwards. It is a damp and misty morning, with the cloud cover down low, and after a while we are not able to see the shoreline. I make sure that the radar and AIS are on so that we can see any other boats around us. No point in sailing blind.

Leaving Stonehaven in the mist, fog and drizzle.

The winds are dead on our nose and we are forced to motor. We had considered leaving the next day, a Friday, but we needed to be in Edinburgh by Thursday night to catch the sail-maker there the next day to replace the small tack loop at the bottom of our main sail before he closed for the weekend. The First Mate had noticed a small fray in the loop when we were putting the sail up, and although it was still safe enough to use for a while, we didn’t want to take the risk of it fraying further and causing a disaster. The loop attaches to a hook inside the mast to provide tension to the front, or luff, of the sail, and a sudden snapping might cause the sail to shoot upwards, making it difficult to retrieve. Better to be safe than sorry.

We plod on. Even the tidal current is against us at this point, so the going is heavy. Eventually the cloud clears and the sun appears. At least that cheers us up. Then, opposite Montrose, just off our bow we see a disturbance of the surface of the water and a group of gannets clearly occupied by something. Suddenly the unmistakable fin and bulk below it of a minke whale breaks the surface in a gentle curve and disappears again. We surmise that there is a school of sand eels or mackerel underneath and it is feeding. We strain our eyes to see if this awe-inspiring citizen of the depths surfaces again, but there is on sign. But even that short glimpse is uplifting.

The First Mate goes below where it is warmer and to listen to the radio. The coastline slips by on our starboard side. I am struck how normal it appears, so similar on the surface to previous coastlines we have sailed along, with the exception this year that the land is being ravaged by a deadly viral disease. People are dying, the country has been under lockdown, the economy has been brought to a standstill, but who would guess all this from looking at the land from the sea?

We feel safer out here, away from human contact and the potential to catch the virus from wayward sneezes and coughs. Yet I am reminded by the fate of some of the giant cruise ships at the start of the pandemic – once the virus had taken hold, there was more risk of catching it from others in their floating prisons with little chance of escape. In our case, we can stay away from it while out at sea, unless one of us has it already – although this is unlikely, as neither of us had shown symptoms during the three months of lockdown, and had taken every precaution since. However, we will always have to come in at some stage for water, food and fuel, and then the risk increases. But at least we have our masks and social distancing etiquette!

Our box of face-masks.

We pass Bell Rock Lighthouse off to our port side with the Tay Estuary on our starboard. The lighthouse is another of Robert Stephenson’s, of which we had seen several on our voyages around Scotland. When it was inhabited, communication with the land was by signals sent to and from a shore station in Arbroath, just north of the Tay Estuary. Nowadays, of course, the lighthouse is totally automated. Because of the difficulties involved in its construction – the workmen lived first in a ship anchored close to the rock and subsequently on a hut on stilts on the rock itself – it was included as one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. The number of ships it has saved is huge – before it was built, according to the records around six ships per year hit the almost submerged rock, whereas in the 200 years since it was built, only two ships have sunk.

Bell Rock Lighthouse.

Eventually we sail in close to the promontory of Fife Ness and enter the massive Firth of Forth. At its mouth it is so wide that the opposite shore is just a hazy blur on the horizon, and it will take another three hours before we reach Port Edgar Marina where we will berth for the night. Directly in front of us is the Island of May, formerly the site of a monastery, but now a nature reserve owned by Scottish Natural Heritage. Beyond that is Bass Rock, home to a gannet colony, which we make a mental note of seeing on our way south.

The Isle of May.

As we progress along the Fife coast, we pass small villages spilling down to the sea – quaint names such as Crail, Anstruther, Pittenweem, Earlsferry, Largo, Kinghorn, Burntisland that suggest a rich history that I must look up some time. Many are small fishing villages with their own harbours.

Passing Crail, Fife coast.

At last the three Forth bridges come into view. On our port side, we pass the island of Inchkeith, used in the past as a quarantine station for various diseases and also as a fortress to protect entry further up into the Forth as many of these Forth islands have been in their past. And the site of a lighthouse, built by – yes, you guessed it – Robert Stephenson. Then on the starboard side, a little bit further on is Inchcolm, Columba’s Island, with its impressive looking abbey.

Remains of Inchcolm Abbey.

As we approach the bridges, I suddenly have misgivings as to whether the mast will pass under them. From where we stand it seems that the top of the 20 m mast with its VHF aerial on top is going to collide. The situation is complicated further by a large cargo ship coming downstream and passing just under the bridge as we do, forcing us to steer to starboard where the bridge arch is lower than directly under the middle.

Competition for bridge space.

We slow down and are ready to throw the propeller into reverse if it looks like we can’t make it, while the First Mate stands at the bow to try and gauge the clearance, if any. We needn’t have worried, as we slide under with metres to spare. All a question of perspective. I guess we should have known that a marina wouldn’t have located itself on the far side of bridges that didn’t let sailing boats through!

We squeeze through with space to spare.

Just beyond the bridges we reach Port Edgar, find our allocated berth on the last pontoon, tie up, and finally relax. It’s been a long day.

Tied up in Port Edgar.

In the morning, I take the mainsail down, fold it up and load it into a trolley, and trundle it along the pontoons and up the steep ramp at the end. In the group of buildings at the end of the pier is an unprepossessing door with a sign next to it announcing the whereabouts of the Sail Doctor. On the door is notice saying that entry is prohibited due to covid-19 and to ring the bell and someone will come. This I duly do, and after a short wait, the door edges open and Chic the Sail Doctor appears.

The Sail Doctor’s clinic at Port Edgar.

I am always surprised how the picture one builds up in one’s mind through talking to people on the phone seldom matches the reality, for me at least. I had imagined Chic to be an older man, tall and somewhat rotund, with thick greying hair. I got the tall bit right, but the rest was completely wrong – Chic was young, thin, and no hair at all.

We discuss the frayed loop, and Chic agrees that it is better to get it fixed now before it causes any trouble. He says that he can have it replaced by lunchtime, so I leave it with him and return to the boat.

The tack loop starting to fray.

“Why don’t we go and get lunch somewhere?”, says the First Mate when I get back.

“Sounds a good idea”, I say. “There’s a place up near the chandler’s that would be handy. What about that?”

“I was thinking of somewhere in South Queensferry”, she replies. “I was recommended one there by the chap who grabbed our lines when we came in. It’s called Bottoms Up, or something like that. I always think that locals know the best places to go.”

We trudge into South Queensferry from the marina. Actually, it isn’t far, but we are peckish and it is hot, and we start to feel sticky. We walk the length of the small village, but there is no sign of anywhere called Bottoms Up, not even a public conveniences. Keeping a two metres distance, we stop and ask a woman on the street.

“No, I don’t know anywhere of that name here”, she says. “But there is quite a good place to eat called Down the Hatch at the marina that I can recommend.

Down the Hatch”, exclaims the First Mate. “That’s its name. I knew it was something to do with drinking. Oh no, we have just come from there.”

“May be that’s the one I suggested”, I say.

“I doubt it”, says the First Mate. “There are several there.”

We find a bakery we passed back along the street, buy a prawn baguette to share, and sit down on a seat overlooking the Firth of Forth and the iconic railway bridge. A train rattles over it, dwarfed by the giant girders glowing ochre in the sun. I idly wonder if any of my ex-colleagues are on it. Below us a group of cyclists in day-glo jackets wheel their bikes out to the end of a stone jetty and take in the view. It is stunning.

The Forth Railway Bridge.

Strangely, the seat we have chosen to sit on seems to be in the middle of the footpath rather than at the side. People pass by in front of us, but they are not able to maintain their 2 m social distance. I glower fiercely at each one as a potential source of the virus, but they just look away. Some seem to misinterpret my glower as a smile and smile back. I make a note to practice my glowering in front of the mirror tonight to make it fiercer, and instead stretch out my legs in front of me to make them go around the back of the seat. They just step over them. So much for social distancing.

Once back in the marina, we pass the restaurant that I had suggested. Sure enough, its name is Down the Hatch.

“It looks quite nice”, says the First Mate. “Let’s have lunch there tomorrow.” I keep quiet.

At least the sail is fixed. We trundle it back in the trolley and refit the sail. Everything seems to work perfectly.

The new tack loop attached to its hook inside the mast.

The next day, we arrive at Down the Hatch in time for lunch.

“Have you booked?”, says the girl at the entrance.

“No”, we say. “We thought that we could just turn up.”

“You need to download our app and use that to book”, she says in a way that suggests she can’t believe we don’t know that already. “It will tell you when we have spaces free.”

“What about food to take away?”, we say. “Your sign says you do that too.”

“You need to order your take-away through our app also”, says the girl. “It’s really easy.”

For some reason, neither of us has bought our phones with us, and we are not keen to walk all the way back to the boat to get them. We decide that Down the Hatch is one of the pleasures we are destined to forgo in this life. Perhaps in the next one.

Leaving Peterhead for Stonehaven

The fishing nets precariously attached somehow to the wall behind us as a decorative effect look as if they might fall down at any moment on top of us. I try to imagine ourselves struggling to free ourselves from the fine mesh and think that might be how a seal or dolphin feels if it gets trapped in fishermen’s nets.

Will we be caught?

We are in the Marine Hotel in Stonehaven for our evening meal. We have just sailed down from Peterhead with our friends Uli and Ian, and are relaxing in a pleasant post-sail lethargy discussing the day’s events. Much delayed, we had set sail on our summer voyage at long last, and they were keen to try their hand at a bit of sailing in the stretch from Peterhead to Stonehaven. They had joined us the night before, staying on board to sample the sailing experience to the full.

Planning the next day’s passage late into the evening.

We had set off at early in the morning at 0600, both to catch the high tide to avoid any depth problems with exiting the marina, and to catch the south-flowing tidal current that started later in the morning and which would carry us all the way down to Stonehaven, adding an extra knot or two to our speed.

Leaving Peterhead harbour.

And then something spooky.

“Peterhead Harbour Control, this is sailing vessel Ruby Tuesday. Request clearance to leave the marina and harbour”, I radio to the Harbour Control people. Peterhead is a busy commercial harbour serving the fishing and offshore industries, and there is a need for coordination of the many boats entering and leaving the harbour.

Ruby Tuesday, this is Harbour Control. When you get within a mile of the harbour, call us again, and we will direct you in”, they respond.

“Harbour Control, sorry, I wasn’t clear”, I say. “We are in the marina and are requesting permission to leave, not come in.”

There is a short delay. I think I can hear the scratching of heads.

Ruby Tuesday, apologies. There is another yacht Ruby Tuesday just north of here and we thought it was her calling. You have clearance to leave the harbour”.

Sure enough, we spot the second Ruby Tuesday on the AIS about five miles north of Peterhead. How much of a coincidence is that? We are aware of only two other Ruby Tuesdays in the whole of the UK beside ourselves, both in England, and one of them has to be passing Peterhead just as we are leaving it. Half-an-hour earlier or half-an-hour later and we probably would not have been aware of her.

Coincidences notwithstanding, it turned out to be a gorgeous day, bright and sunny, with a steady wind from the west and a smooth sea. At 0800 we were passing Slain’s Castle, the inspiration for Brad Stoker’s Dracula, where we decided it was time for breakfast. Over our toast and jam, fruit and yoghurt, and mugs of tea and coffee, we mused over the castle’s history. Apparently, Brad Stoker used to travel from Ireland to visit the Slains area and was there when he started to write Dracula. The story has it that an eight-sided hall in the castle inspired the octagonal Great Hall in the novel. Though set in Eastern Europe, I could see how the ruins of a castle on the bleak Aberdeenshire coastline could give rise to stories of vampires sucking their victims’ blood to gain strength. Momentarily I wondered if I could finish my yoghurt, but the feeling passed.

Slains Castle on the Aberdeenshire coastline (taken on a previous walk).

Further on, we reached the Balmedie windfarm array. Commissioned only in 2018, we had seen this several times from the land as we had driven up to Peterhead to prepare the boat, so it was interesting to see it from the sea and sail amongst the giant turbines dwarfing us. The array is particularly significant as Donald Trump opposed its construction as it interfered with his view of the North Sea from his golf club, but lost the appeal against the local authority. Good on them – at least it shows that the rich and powerful can’t have it all their own way all of the time. Scotland can benefit more from nearly 100 MW of renewable energy being generated than a few elites hitting a ball around the dunes. By all accounts the course is making a loss anyway.

Sailing through the Balmedie windfarm.

Just past Aberdeen, we decided to stop and drift in the current to have our lunch and enjoy the sun. just as we were making ourselves comfortable, the VHF comes to life.

Ruby Tuesday, Ruby Tuesday, this is A-Comms. We see you have slowed your speed and are within range of one of our ships engaged in underwater activities. Would you mind moving on to give it a 500 m berth?

We had seen the ship in question on the AIS, although we had had no idea what it was up to. We were probably already more than that distance away, but we didn’t argue and agreed to move further away for somewhere to have our lunch. We learned later that the ship was laying a cable out to one of the off-shore wind arrays further out to bring renewable energy back to the mainland.

A leisurely lunch drifting in the tidal current south of Aberdeen after being moved on.

Ian had brought his fishing rod with him, and decided to give it a go. It probably took him longer to tie his hooks and sinker on than it did to catch his first fish – within seconds of dropping the line overboard, five silvery mackerel were struggling on the end of it, three small ones and two larger ones. The smaller ones were freed and returned to the depths, while the largest were dispatched and filleted for a future dinner. Over went the line for a second time, and again within a minute or so, another five were hooked. Clearly we were above a school of the creatures, as is often the case in July of each year as they begin their migration northwards.

Trying for dinner.

We had arrived in Stonehaven just on high tide, and had no problems entering the harbour with our 2 m draft and tying up to the outside wall, leaving plenty of slack in the lines to allow for the 4 m tidal range. We didn’t fancy coming back from dinner at low tide to find Ruby Tuesday hanging halfway up the wall, or more likely, all the lines snapped with her floating around in the middle of the harbour!

Ruby Tuesday tied up in Stonehaven harbour.

The fishing nets on the wall behind us in the Marine Hotel have stayed put for the duration of our dinner, and we live for another day. Just as well, as I didn’t fancy the job of extricating ourselves if they had fallen down. We say our goodbyes to Ian and Uli, and they return home while we amble back to the boat.

Later that evening, the First Mate and I sit in the cockpit with a glass of wine and muse over the events of last several months. They had certainly not been the usual run-of-the-mill, to say the least.

First up was my toe operation. For a few years, I had been suffering from a painful toe joint, which had made if very difficult, if well-nigh impossible, to walk long distances. Luckily it could be fixed with a small operation to fuse the joint, although unfortunately it required six weeks on crutches to heal, and another six weeks to build up the muscles again. I was lucky to be able to have the operation scheduled for October with the recovery period from November to January, so that it didn’t impinge on our summer sailing plans. All went well, and I have to say that I quite enjoyed my enforced convalescence as I was able to catch up on reading and writing that I had been meaning to do for years. To match all that, the First Mate started on the process of having new teeth implants. Should we really be sailing in our state, I wondered?

Recovering from the toe operation.

The General Election was next. The slender hopes we had entertained of Brexit being cancelled were dashed as Johnson swept to power with an 80 seat majority. At a stroke our plans of sailing around Europe in Ruby Tuesday were just made significantly more difficult as the UK would now be classified as a third country and British citizens would be subject to the 90/180 rule – only permitted to stay in the EU for 90 days in any 180-day period. Even the boat would only be allowed to stay in Europe for 18 months without attracting VAT again which has been already paid in the UK when it was first purchased. A First World problem, I know, but what are the benefits that will outweigh these steps backward?

Still lots of uncertainty.

To cheer ourselves up, we had booked flights to the Canaries to soak up some sun and to use up Air Miles that would be lost otherwise. The First Mate had been keen to revisit La Gomera where she had spent some time in her younger days when it was the in place to be for German alternative life-stylers. So we had booked an apartment there, had hired a car, had met another couple who had similar interests, and had spent three weeks exploring the island, walking various paths within the rainforest national park covering the central part of the island and enjoying the sandy beaches tucked away at the base of precipitous cliffs. We even managed to squeeze in a day on the way back at the Santa Cruz Carnival, supposedly the largest outside Brazil.

Hiking in the wilds of La Gomera, Canary Islands.

Then came the coronavirus. In many ways, we were lucky, as we had a garden we could potter around in and sunbathe when the weather was good, and lots of paths near the house that we could go for long walks along, perfecting our social-distancing techniques by sidling along one side of the track when anyone approached from the opposite direction. We can now do passable imitations of crab walks. We did a few Zoom quizzes, kept in touch with family and friends by Skype, and did some cycle rides. The only limitation was not being able to get to Ruby Tuesday to do all the little jobs that needed doing on her.

Then the lifting of the restrictions began. Eventually we were allowed to travel to our choice of sports; in our case, sailing, although it was a few weeks before staying on board overnight was permitted. When that eventually happened in Scotland, most of the ports and harbours down the east coast of the UK were already open and receiving visitors, so we were finally able to plan our trip for real. We had decided to abandon going to Shetland and across to Norway and Sweden as had been our plan at one stage, and instead complete our circumnavigation of the UK then cross to France and work our way northwards towards the Baltic that way. But with coronavirus, quarantines, lockdowns and Brexit, who knows what might lie ahead?

Our wine glasses are now empty, and it has been a long day. We stumble downstairs and to sleep.

No wine left!