Sub-menu Navigation

Heavenly bodies

Sam Llewellyn on the heavenly bodies that give you a tow.

As all the world knows, the tides are caused by the moon. So in going against the tide you are going against the stars – all right, the heavenly bodies - in their courses; and when you are sailing with the tide those same heavenly bodies are giving you a tow. There are a few exceptions to this rule, like the Straits of Gibraltar, where the tides run in the usual manner along the shore, while the principal current runs west to east in the middle. But as mariners since Ulysses have found to their cost, it is wise do what the heavenly bodies tell you.

If you want to see a human struggling with remorseless Destiny, watch an impatient yacht skipper trying to tack out of an East Coast river against the flood. The boat makes terrific ground in the eddy on the inside of a bend, tacks, and surges out into midstream, where it is swept back, tacks, makes terrific ground in the eddy on the inside of the same bend, tacks, surges out into midstream; and so the long day wears on.

Mariners more respectful of the Heavens will have been watching from where they have been reclining in some nice long grass. In the intervals of sorrowful head-shaking, they will have been listening to the curlews and meditating on the meaning of life, or anyway having a picnic. They will step on to their boat an hour after high water and negotiate the river in two tide-assisted tacks, feeling they are wearing seven-league boots.

The situation is even more intense off the west coast of Scotland, where the islands of Islay, Jura, Scarba and Luing effectively dam up the tide as it whooshes up the northern end of the Irish Sea.

A dark fate may await anyone who, discovering he is late for a table in a restaurant, attempts to push tide through the Corryvreckan, the gut between Scarba and Jura. The spring flood in the Corryvreckan can run at eight and a half knots. This means that most yachts, motoring flat out agaainst the stream, will be going backwards. If there is any wind over the tide, the world will be thrashing up and down to an alarming extent. Factor in some overfalls, a handful of rocks and the third biggest whirlpool in the world, and alarm may turn to flat panic. Never mind being late for your table; you will be lucky if the wrath of the skies permits you to eat dinner ever again.

But if you wait, patience will have its reward. Nip through the Corryvreckan in a light easterly on the very last of the flood, and you will have the sensation of being towed along by the moon. Just before you reach the islands at the end, turn sharply to port. This will involve you in some psychedelic sliding around in eddies, as there is really no such thing as slack water here.

After a while you will find yourself sailing into a deep, currentless bay, floored with pale sand and roofed with a sky in which ravens and eagles are drifting.

There is a sort of holy calm in here. A Great Northern Diver is making its weird chuckling yodel. Behind it is another noise. It might be a sea monster clearing its throat. In fact it is the rumble of rips and overfalls as the ebb raves in the Corryvreckan. And if you listen closely as you make a cup of tea and prepare to wait out four hours of foul tide, you may hear behind that rumble the music of the spheres.

Find books for your course at the RYA Shop

eBooks in the cloud
Our handy guide shows the books & DVDs that go with your course!
Please select...