Fog in the Southern Hebrides


We slid into the narrow bay and the anchor towed a stream of bubbles down to the white sand bottom. The sky was blue as a Madonna's robe; it was a perfect evening. First thing tomorrow we would sally forth and catch the flood along the south coast of Mull. The visibility was perfect, the breeze a whisper from the north. It would be easy, we thought, looking at the barometer, high as an elephant's eye. We went to bed under a sky full of stars, full of the sort of cockiness that the writers of Greek tragedies would have recognized as coming before a fall.

When we woke next morning there was a thick, wet feel to the cabin air. The stars had gone, and so had the sky. The boat was sitting in a little disc of grey water bounded on all sides by fog. We cooked breakfast, using the last eggs and the last bacon and the last bread, and washed it down with the last coffee. Sensibly, we should have sat tight and waited for the fog to clear. On the other hand, the ship's supplies consisted of half a packet of Rich Tea biscuits. We needed a shop, today, and there were no shops for twenty miles.

The anchorage is a beautiful one, but it is guarded by a fiendish splatter of rocks that stretches for miles offshore. They are moderately famous, these rocks, as it was on them that Davie Balfour was shipwrecked in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. The instruments of navigation on the boat consisted of a depth sounder, a compass and some paper charts: no GPS or plotters or AIS. There was, however, a solution.

There was a tiny breeze, and the flood was kicking in. We hauled up the mainsail, pulled up the anchor and unrolled the jib. The sails filled. The wake began to chuckle down the side, and the bowsprit probed the grey murk ahead. The numbers on the depth sounder flicked up and down: the bottom of the sea was marked on the chart with R for Rocks. Out we slid, heading south, laid off ten degrees to starboard to allow for the tide.

To port and starboard of our course the chart was pockmarked with rocks and shoals. Ahead, though, there was a clear exit. And beyond the exit, writhing like a serpent, was the twenty-metre contour. When we hit it, we would be in a position to turn left and steer 110º for a couple of miles in the hope of getting a glimpse of a north cardinal, after which we could alter course south-easterly into clear water.

The figures on the sounder flicked up. Nineteen, nineteen point five; then the low twenties. The contour. Pull the tiller towards the hip. The compass card swung, settled on 110º. Ears strained for the sound of engines. There was only the rustle of the wake and the crunch of swell on a rock somewhere down to port. The breeze was cool on the left cheek. Speed four knots. The minutes ticked by. After twenty we were scowling into the grey nothing, eyes aching. Twenty-five. Still no engines. Still no visibility.

Then the fog off the starboard bow suddenly darkened, became a black pillar with a yellow base topped with two triangles pointing at what would have been the sky if there had been a sky. The cardinal.

Ease the tiller down to port. The buoy slides past and fades into the grey astern. On we sailed, eating the last Rich Tea biscuits, into the wide firth. The fog thinned into haze. And at last there on the horizon were the rocky spines of the Garvellachs, and beyond them the supermarkets of the mainland.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly.