Trundling down the kyle


The breeze has gone round to the northwest. We are trundling down the kyle, which is what they call a limb of the sea in these parts, lee side dug in, tearing a white vee from the dark-green sea. To port the hills rise, the bracken already going the colour of rusty iron. The year is on the turn, and if you use a little imagination you can smell ice in the breeze.

The kyle is broadening out now. A Norwegian ship loaded with cut sitka logs is coming up. Down with the helm to show him our port side, and he chugs on, carrying the industrial pinewoods of Scotland to their new home in the wood-pellet factories of Norway. Wave away the black plume from his funnel, and proceed.

A flight of ducks across the sea ahead: mergansers, looking with their quiffs as if they are off to play rockabilly among the moorings. How does a duck know where it is going? Brain the size of a lentil which does better work than a GPS with all its satellites. Not even NASA can build a duck.

We have slid out of the kyle and into open water. A black shadow of wind comes tearing towards us. At the beginning of the season it would have seemed a good idea to heave-to and take a reef. But we are properly in practice now. The cockpit sole tilts underfoot, and there is a slight pressure of acceleration in the knees as the hull does the magic surge and settles into the trough between the bow wave and the stern wave, at hull speed.

Ah, hull speed. 1.34 times the square root of the waterline length of the boat in feet. Ponder for a moment how to determine the square root of twenty-four in the head. Difficult. It is easier in metres, but the formula uses imperial measurements, not metric, and knots and sea miles and cables are imperial measurements themselves, a sea mile being one twenty-four thousandth of the diameter of the Earth at the equator. So metric measurement at sea is nonsense. Shake head at the vanity of human folly.

This movement produces a slight gap between collar and neck. The boat crunches into a wave. A packet of spray sails aft, and crashes into the gap and trickles down the spine. Calculations mathematical and philosophical vanish. The sea has turned an ugly black, and there are little white teeth of foam along the tops of the waves, and now we are, frankly, overpowered, and the wandering of the mind has distracted us from one of the Eternal Truths, viz. that if you think it might be time to put a reef in, it is time to put a reef in.

So it is set jib and mizzen, and let off mainsheet, and haul on the topping lift, and slack off some main halyard, and tack on the reefing hook, and haul down the clew, and harden up the halyard again, and back to the wheel to sheet in, the heart beating brisk and cheerful with the exercise. We are hurdling long seas in a hard wind, but the violence has gone out of the heel. Now we are tearing along, hull speed again, and the hills behind the next anchorage is climbing out of the horizon.

Lunch, then round the headland. We are in flat water, and there are the visitors' moorings, two boats to a dozen buoys this late in the season. Ease sheets. Douse the genoa. Glide up on the mooring, seven tons, how beautifully she does carry her way. Pennant on Samson post. Main and mizzen tumble into their lazyjacks. Down into the warm cabin. Cup of tea.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly