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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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.