Scrambled Eigg

A howling wind makes for an uncomfortable trip home for Sam Llewellyn

It was a couple of days after the equinox. We were sailing across the grey-blue Sea of the Hebrides, ghosting along in the faintest of breezes. To the north and west Eigg was a greenish whaleback crowned with a fin of rock, and the mountains of Rhum were wrapped in their usual dirty veils of cloud.

We had been out among the islands for ten days, anchoring in remote sea lochs, replenishing water from waterfalls, living on the bread we baked and the fish we caught. Now we were heading for home. Ahead lay the mainland and the rocky entrance to Arisaig.

Grey curtain

Next time I looked round, Rhum seemed to have disappeared, and the same went for Eigg and the hills of Skye. They had been replaced by a grey curtain, which was sweeping towards us. Where the curtain touched the water there was an unpleasant fizzing whiteness. I scrambled forward and put two reefs in the mainsail. As I was pulling down the last pennant, the squall hit.

The world turned grey and wet and roared. The boat heeled until water poured over the downhill side of the cockpit. Arisaig was three or four miles to the northeast. The tide was running north, which was where the wind was coming from, kicking up a short, steep sea.

The nose reared up until most of the forward half of the boat must have been out of the water, then came down again with a bang and an explosion of spray, hit the next wave, stopped dead. The spray came crashing aft. The boat got going again, slammed down again, stopped dead again. Water was running down my neck. It happened again, and again.

The tide was pushing us north at the same speed as the wind, most of a gale now, was blowing us south. We were effectively stationary. I crouched at the tiller and cursed the makers of boats, the makers of porous oilskins, and fate. A proverb was running through my mind: he who would go to sea for pleasure would allow himself to be waterboarded for a pastime. Words to that effect, anyway.

Crash of crockery

As I had the thought the boat bucked like a bronco, and I heard the merry crash of crockery hurdling the fiddles on the shelf and smashing on the cabin deck. I gave up. I tacked, and did not pull the jib over, so the jib stayed up to windward and the boat lay hove-to, effectively parked. The tide would slacken off soon. Until then, I would go below and clear up.

The cabin was behaving like a washing machine. I stuck my head out of the hatch from time to time (always keep a lookout, even when the face of the waters is as empty as your crockery shelf) and vowed never to go to sea again. I tried to make tea, failed, and ate two squares of chocolate.

At slack water, the motion eased. I came back into the cockpit and persuaded the boat to sail over a sea across which the wind was howling, but which had become appreciably flatter. The long peninsula of Lungha Mor, which protects the harbour entrance from the north, drew steadily closer.

Delightful when it stops

One last switchback of tide, and we were in its lee. I sailed into the smooth water, squelched onto the foredeck and dropped the anchor. It was still blowing hard, but the air felt warm. I clambered out of the oilskins and made a cup of tea and sat in the lee of the coachroof, watching with a sort of superior pity a boat hammering towards the harbour in explosions of spray. Sometimes, sailing is at its most delightful when it stops.

Sam Llewellyn, Editor The Marine Quarterly