At the stroke of eight bells, the First Mate slips the lines and we motor slowly out of Port Edgar marina, under the two eastern-most bridges, then set the autopilot on a course of 70°T. The wind is from the west, behind us, and before long, we have the sails out and are making a good speed heading along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. At least the wind is in our favour today.
We eventually pass the town of North Berwick, its church spires and house roofs catching the early morning sun. Further on looms the imposing bulk of Bass Rock. From where we are, it looks as if it is covered in white flowers, but as we get closer, we begin to pick out the individual spots of white and see that they are gannets, tens of thousands of them. The rock is a volcanic plug dating from Carboniferous times around 300 million years ago, and today is famous for its giant gannet colony with around 150,000 of the birds taking up every conceivable space.
We decide to take a loop out of our planned route to get a closer look. As we get closer, the sea suddenly becomes choppier and the wind rises to a fierce prolonged gust of 25 knots, almost as though it is warning us off. Ruby Tuesday heels violently, and we quickly take in the sails and start the motor instead. And if the gust is not enough, a sudden intense rain squall engulfs us and drenches us before we are able to get the side panels of the cockpit tent down. Then, as we begin to turn away, everything equally as suddenly stops and the sun begins to peak out again. If I was a superstitious type, I might think we have angered the gods by approaching too close to a sacred sanctuary.
I recall a great story I had read at some stage about Bass Rock. Back in the late 1600s, four captured Jacobite officers were imprisoned in the castle on the Rock when it was used as a jail. One day when a supply ship arrived, all of the garrison of the castle had to go down to the landing to help unload a difficult cargo. With no-one in the castle, the prisoners took it over, and wouldn’t let any of the jailers back in, who had to leave with the supply boat to go back to the mainland, leaving the Jacobite officers in total control of the Rock. Their sympathisers on the mainland and in France heard what had happened, and kept them secretly supplied with food, water and arms for several years, and because of the Rock’s natural defences, they were able to beat off any attacks. The whole thing became a bit of an embarrassment to the government, who, with all the to-ings and fro-ings, had no idea of how many people were on the Rock. In the end, the Jacobites negotiated very favourable terms of surrender, escaped to France, and became local heroes.
We sail on. The wind is very variable, sometimes a good strong beam reach pushing us along at 7-8 knots, other times down to a couple of knots only so we have to start the engine to make any progress. We still have quite a way to go to Eyemouth and need to get there before the tide gets too low for our 2 m draft to enter the harbour.
Eventually we reach the cardinal buoy marking a group of submerged rocks just outside Eyemouth harbour and furl the sails. As instructed when I had called in the morning, I call the harbour-master on Channel 11 of the VHF to let him know that we would like to enter the harbour. There is no answer. We wait for five minutes and call again. Silence. When we had called him earlier, he had told us that they are dredging the harbour in the evenings and that we should contact them on the radio once we had arrived when we would be given further instructions on how and when to enter the harbour. But with no-one answering, what should we do? Just push on in and hope for the best?
Then suddenly there is a voice.
“Ruby Tuesday, this is Neville the dredger operator”, it says. “The harbourmaster has probably gone home for the night now. We have started dredging, but just come straight in. You should be able to squeeze past us somehow.”
It seems a bit tricky, but we decide to give it a go. We find the two leading lines that guide us past the treacherous Hurkar rocks at the harbour entrance to the start of a narrow high-walled channel which we learn later is aptly named the Canyon. Once through there, we see the dredger in front of us, almost blocking the way. Luckily, the channel widens slightly at that point, and we are able to squeeze gingerly around it and into the upper part of the harbour where we see the pontoons at which visiting boats are able to tie up.
The bad news is that there don’t appear to be any spare berths for us. Two yachts that we had seen entering the harbour about half an hour before us are safely tied up, taking up all of the pontoon that we could have had if we had been a little bit earlier. The only option that we have is to raft up – that is, to tie up alongside a boat that is already there, which means clambering across it if we want to go ashore. But where?
A youthful sailor with a ponytail emerges from one of the boats and offers to check if we can raft up next to one of the other boats tied up at the pontoon. In the meantime, we execute the delicate manoeuvre of turning around in mid-river without hitting anything on either side. We somehow manage more by luck than good management, and drift downstream again to where the boats are moored.
“None of the other boats want you to raft up alongside them”, says the Ponytailed Sailor, with an American accent. “ They say they are heading off early in the morning, but I am not sure I believe them. Anyway, you can tie up alongside me if you like, even if it is three deep. I am not going anywhere in the next couple of days, and the other boat isn’t either – the owner died a couple of months ago. Here, give me your lines.”
He grabs our line from the bow and makes it fast to a cleat on his own boat, then rushes back and grabs our stern line that I am holding. The two boats roll alongside one another momentarily, but there are enough fenders on both to prevent any damage. We also tie the two boats together amidships and string a further couple of lines from our bow and stern directly to cleats on the pontoon. With all that, Ruby Tuesday isn’t going anywhere.
We sit on the foredecks of our respective boats and chat in the last warmth of the fading sun. The Ponytailed Sailor’s name is David and his boat is his home. He did once have a house, but he sold it and bought the boat. He has two cats for company – one young and ginger, the other old and black. He has just spent the winter in it in Eyemouth because of the lockdown and is getting itchy to move on northwards now that it has lifted.
“I was once a production engineer, you know”, he tells us. “I worked for a company making electronic widgets, but I just couldn’t stand manipulating people to make more money for the company.”
“What do you mean?”, I ask.
“My job was to go around and look for ways to increase the productivity of staff. I was good at my job, introduced lots of changes, and was rewarded by the company well as their profits increased. And do you know the oddest thing – the employees themselves liked the changes I made because it often made their jobs more enjoyable even though they were more productive.”
“Sounds like a win-win situation though”, I say. “But what did you do then?”
“Well, I left shortly after”, he says. “Watching people age prematurely due to the changes that I made, knowing that mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters would have less time together because of me – is truly a burden I wish I didn’t have – and to this day it weighs heavily upon on my soul.”
“I decided then that the whole of society stinks, that it is all based around manipulating people to make more money for other people that already have enough. Who wants to live in a society like that? So I sold my house, bought the boat, and travel around where I wish, staying where I like for as long as I like. I live sustainably, and opt out of the rat race as much as I can – my two cats keep me company. I love it.”
I am reminded of Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, but I have to admit I have a lot sympathy with him. There does seem to something wrong with the way the world works at the moment. And although we haven’t sold our house, his lifestyle is not all that different from our own during the summer months.
“But how would you change society to make it better?” I ask.
“Well, stop having people making things that other people don’t really need, for a start”, says David. “And educate people to stop buying rubbish.”
“But who decides what people need and don’t need, and what is rubbish and not rubbish?”, I say. “Even with your lifestyle, you will still need things from time to time – when your sails wear out, you will need new ones; if your engine gives trouble, you will need spare parts; you need pet food to feed your cats. And what would all those newly unemployed people that used to make things people didn’t need do for a living instead?”
“I know, I know. All good questions”, he says. “I have to admit that I don’t really know. All I know is that things can’t go on as they are.”
I always enjoy these sorts of conversations, but I have had similar before. We all know that things have to change, but no-one knows quite what system should replace it. We all like our mod-cons, our boats, our cars, our entertainment, our electronic gadgets, our warm and comfortable homes, our healthy and diverse food, our freedom to choose, whatever. We ourselves are no different. But all these require a system behind them to produce them. And not all of us have the resources to opt out completely. The ultimate dilemma.
In the morning, the two boats we saw coming in the day before us have gone, and we move Ruby Tuesday to their space on the pontoon. At least now we don’t have to clamber across two boats to get ashore.
Later the First Mate catches the bus back home as she has a dentist appointment, so I am left to my own devices for a couple of days. She takes plenty of masks with her, and is under strict instructions from me to make sure she sits next to no-one in the bus.
On the way to the bus stop, we come across a bronze statue of one Willie Spears. It seems that back in the nineteenth century, the fishermen used to have to pay a tithe of 10% of their catch to the local Church of Scotland. Naturally, they resented this as they wanted to spend the money instead on upgrading the harbour to make it safer. The local minister, however, was having none of this. The dispute rumbled on for several years, until one day one of the fishermen, Willie Spears, had had enough. He organised a peaceful demonstration of 4000 folk in one of the neighbouring villages, with the upshot that the minister backed down and agreed to the tithe being bought out for a total of £2000. Tragically it was too late to improve the harbour, as a few years later in 1881 there was a fierce storm when most of the fisherman were out fishing, and 129 trying to get back in died in front of their distraught families when their boats hit the Hurkar rocks at the entrance to the harbour, the same ones we had passed on the way in. Only the few that stayed out at sea survived. A poignant reminder of its dangers.
Later that day, I walk up to the Harbour Office to pay our mooring fees. The harbourmaster tells me he is new and still finding his way. He needs to go and check the fee rules to see if we are eligible for any discounts, and lo-and-behold, we are – 25% off the third day. Somehow we get into a conversation about Brexit. He is all for it.
“We need to stimulate British agriculture and stop buying all our food from overseas”, he says. “Things have got out of control in the last few years.”
He has a point, but we only produce around half of what we eat at the moment. I think of the fruit salad I had for breakfast this morning, and wonder whether the banana, kiwi fruit, and orange would grow in the UK. I suppose the grapes, plums and apple do already. But the mango and papaya in the yoghurt I liberally dolloped on top wouldn’t. I suspect our diet might not be as diverse if we were to rely entirely on domestic agriculture, but perhaps that is the price to pay for the free, independent and self-sufficient Britain that the country wants.