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Force eight later

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Sam Llewellyn recalls an exhilarating sail in Scotland.

It is cold and still out there, but a hot red fire is burning in the cabin stove. The mind goes back to an anchorage in Scotland one evening after a week of cruising a 21-foot open yawl in company with some Cornish Shrimpers.

The sky had clouded over, and the Stornoway Coastguard forecast had a darkness to its tone, like ancient voices prophesying war. The word was force five and six, increasing gale force eight later. That night I lay on the bottomboards and heard first the rain and then the wind drumming on the canvas of the tent. Next morning, as I rolled up the tent and stuffed the sleeping bag into its waterproof barrel, dark shadows of breeze came snaking across the water. I put a reef in the mainsail. Across the anchorage the Shrimpers were doing the same.

The sails went up. The anchor came in. I held the jib aback till the mainsail filled, then sheeted it home. The boat seemed to jump forward, the tiller coming alive under my hand. I hauled in the mizzen until she was balanced and squinted at the chart. The wind blew hard and steady on my right cheek as I eased the tiller away, aiming at the gap between the low green humps of McCormick’s Isles, home of hermits.

The tide was running hard under the lee bow. Past the island of Danna the wind was blowing off high, wooded land, so it fluttered and fell. The reefs came out. The Shrimpers had fallen far astern. I eased out into the tide, picking up speed. The wind was filling in from the northeast, just free. I considered the words of Stokey Woodall, deep-sea guru: if you think it might be time to put a reef in, it’s time to put a reef in. Not this time, Stokey –

A puff hit. A really good puff this time, long and strong. It was the kind of puff that would have made you spill wind, if you had not been out for a week already in an open boat, getting a proper sense of what was hard driving and what was foolishness. I held my course, and the wake hissed, and she started to make the long, steady moan that means she is properly dug in and going well.

Then we were in overfalls, shovelling water over the bow. Over to port were the grim black cliffs on either side of the Corryvreckan with its rips and its gigantic whirlpool. It was important not to get swept down that wicked channel and into the Great Race. But there were more immediate difficulties, such as the frazzled shadow of another gust coming through, and thoughts of potential mischiefs were displaced by the actual need to keep the boat upright and the sails trimmed.

Five hundred strokes of the grossly inadequate pump, and out went the water in the bilges. We were beyond the overfalls now, storming past the grisly lump of Scarba, picking off squat white lighthouses on low black rocks one by one, hard puffs coming through, blasting the boat forward as the gannets came hammering down from the sky.

Then the water went smooth, and a little tug was towing a giant fish cage, and clouds the colour of coal smoke were trailing in from the north. In we glided to the safe bay at Ardinamar, past the green perch and the red perch, and rounded up into the glassy wind-shadow behind the hill, and dropped the anchor.

Another shovelful of coal for the stove, and it will be time for tea.

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly

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