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Battling the elements

Can wind and rain really dampen Sam Llewellyn's enthusiasm?

It was the wind that woke me. It had been blowing all night, but this was a new kind of gust. It shrieked in the shrouds and made the boat shudder on the end of the anchor chain. The Coastguard forecast spoke of winds force four and five, southerly. I relaxed slightly.

The view from the deck was of a long creek with green marsh stretching away on both sides. A thick drizzle was hazing the loch entrance half a mile away. Ben Nevis was out there somewhere, but on a morning like this there was as much chance of seeing the Flying Dutchman as a mountain.

Hoist the mainsail. The wind was not living up to the threat of the early gust, but hey, put in a reef anyway. Put in two. Up came the anchor, black with the mud that had nailed us to the spot all night. A curlew yodelled. The mainsail cracked full. Away we went, unrolling some jib.

Outside the entrance, the seas came loping in from the south. The plan was to ride some fair tide down to a tidal gate that would wash us through a narrow cut and into more sheltered waters. The bow went up, then down, crunch. The boat heeled, and white water roared down the side deck. A flurry of rain. The land had disappeared behind a grey veil of water vapour.

Packets of spray

On we hammered. The ebb was running hard, and the wind was blowing across it, so the waves were tall and steep and close together. Packets of spray floated aft. The passage plan was to steer southeast till we sighted the land, then tack, which would take us down the coast hard on the wind, assisted by the tide.

A drip of water found its way into the oilskins. An hour passed. It rained steadily. A small brook was running in at the collar of the oilskins and finding its way downhill. This was the moment to raise the morale by singing, except that the Coastguard seemed to have underestimated the breeze, and opening the mouth got it full of water, propelled by a breeze that was now certainly force six. Ahead, though, there is a faint, dark shadow. Land.

Wall of rain

Time to tack. We were making our course now. But the waves are getting bigger, shed-sized lumps of water slapping the bow off the true line. The land had entirely disappeared. In fact everything had disappeared, and we were hammering along in a circle of sea about a hundred yards across, walled by grey rain. It would not do to meet one of the coasters that trundle up and down here. I was cold, wet to the skin, and the gusts were getting alarming, digging the lee rail into the sea. Why did I ever take up this sailing racket?

Onward into the murk, shivering and making a firm decision to sell the boat and take up stamp collecting. The horizon, such as it was, darkened with what might be land but was actually wishful thinking. A slow hour ground by. Then there was a real shadow on the horizon, and I blinked away salt, and the murk writhed and moved aside, revealing the grey bulk of the island and the mainland and the channel between them, exactly as per passage plan.

And then shelter

I was suddenly bathed with relief as well as seawater. A heart-stopping roll across waves that had grown from the size of sheds to the size of houses. Hard a-port to round the beetling headland on which the waves were slamming white water twenty feet into the air. Then into shelter, smooth water and wind moderated. Pick up a buoy, creep stiffly below. I made tea, hot as hell and much sweeter, and climbed into dry clothes. Warmth spread through the cabin. Outside, the big seas thundered on the black cliffs. Stamp collecting? Waste of time. Terrific stuff, this sailing.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly

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