Nothing going on


We are trundling down the Inner Sound in a thick grey drizzle at three and a half knots, and hardly anything is happening. Somewhere beyond a thick curtain of wet murk are the sawtoothed Cuillin mountains and the red sandstone peaks of Torridon.

The breeze, what there is of it, is coming from dead astern, a mere breath on the back of the helm's wet neck. The helm stands at the wheel, keeping the genoa out one side - there is a pole - and the mainsail - there is a preventer - out the other. The crew are below, because the rain has that peculiarly saturating quality available only to Scots drizzle, and it will be a longish cruise, and nobody can say when it will stop for long enough to dry anything. 

Genoa collapses. Whisker pole clanks. Move the wheel. Genoa fills. Over to starboard gulls are diving at something. Something that becomes a big dark bird with a white tail, flapping heavily up from a rock with something in its talons. A sea eagle, one of Britain's two hundred and fifty.   

The heart beats faster. Then the binoculars are pearled with drizzle, and someone shouts up the companionway offering a cup of tea, but the helm goes for a slice of apple, because a BBC cameraman once told him that apple rubbed on the lens makes rain run straight off. The sea eagle sets its wings and soars off into the mist. The boat slides over the scarcely-rippled sea.

The rather oddly rippled sea. What is making the ripples is a pair of greenish-black backs, one the size of a young pig, the other small, rolling. It is a porpoise mother and child, proceeding nobody knows where, rolling and snorting alongside this strange object proceeding north through their home waters. The helm mentions it to the people below, but the cricket is on, and their warm dry heads are gathered over the radio. 

The drizzle abates, and the overcast lifts. A patch of watery blue shows to the northwest. Against the blue black crosses are moving, high, high, wheeling. One of the crosses stands on one wing, cartwheels and turns into an arrow, plunging into the sea. Another follows, and another and another, coming closer until they are not black crosses any more but great white birds with yellow heads and black wingtips, folded into missiles that arrow into the mirror of the water at fifty knots. A storm of gannets is always something to lift the heart, unless of course you are a mackerel. 

But the patch of blue is not big enough to make a pair of sailor's trousers, so it is a decoration, not an omen of better things. Beyond it the next raincloud is sweeping over the grey shield of the sea, trailing precipitation like a jellyfish trails its undercarriage. Against the cloud is a low, hard silhouette, a black line of pressure hull topped with a squat conning tower. A nuclear submarine on exercise. The helm turns his mind to the people living hugger-mugger in that windowless steel cigar, and turns it hastily away again. The curtain of rain sweeps in. The submarine disappears, dived or masked by drizzle, there is no way of telling which, to spread confusion among Her Majesty's enemies.  

Seven tons of boat trundle north at three and a half knots. A head comes up the companionway. 'Anything happening?' it says. 

'Nothing,' says the helm. 'Anyway, not much.' 

'Boring, sailing downwind,' says the head.

 'Hmm,' says the helm. Examining his conscience, he finds he does not agree.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly