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Mysteries of the sea

BirdYachting journalist Sam Llewellyn on how sad it is if we, as boaters, ignore the natural world.

We were somewhere out of sight of land in the Western Approaches. A heavy swell was rolling in from the west, with waves charging up it from the south. The effect was rough black pyramids in motion. The boat was heeled twenty degrees, battering along under working jib and two reefs in the main.

The birds had fallen astern with the land: waders first, then cormorants, then gulls and stiff-winged fulmars. We were down to the odd lost-looking gannet and entering the world of the shearwaters, the Northern Hemisphere’s answer to the albatross.

Face to face with the natural world

Then suddenly something was fluttering in a trough. It was a tiny black bird with a blotch of white, pittering its feet in the water in the hopeless manner of an old lady trying to eat soup with chopsticks.

It was a stormy petrel, astonishingly frail. I wondered aloud how it had got there. 

Henry the skipper rolled a bleary eye up from the chart plotter. ‘It’s a bird,’ he said. ‘It flew.’ He went back to the plotter, which was telling him all he wanted to know. Later he would watch Master and Commander on the DVD. 

Henry’s is certainly a point of view. It protects its owner from unnerving parallels between the fragility of a stormy petrel and the flimsiness of aluminium and fibreglass in the face of thundering hills of Atlantic. But it leaves out the important fact that screens or no screens, cruising puts sailors face to face with the mysteries of the natural world.  

Moving with the rhythms of nature

The boats most of us sail have a maximum speed of under ten knots. Tides can run at anything up to six knots, so it is crazy not to work them. To work the tides is to be mysteriously towed by the moon.

Then there is navigation. Most regard the sextant as an awkwardly-shaped paperweight. The palaver of bringing the sun down to the horizon is too much effort, they say.

The same goes for setting the sextant and pointing it down the azimuth until a little winking glim with an ancient Arabic name swims into the mirrors and makes one part of a three-point bearing in the heavens. Well, a sextant may seem primitive. But in the unlikely event of your getting a space yacht, you could use the simple mysteries of the sextant to navigate the interplanetary gulfs by natural means, long after GPS signals have faded into the background radio natter of the home planet.  

Of course we will use GPS while it is around, and keep up the DR plot when we remember, and check our position by other means whenever possible. But it seems positively ungrateful to ignore the natural world - particularly at this time of year, when it is behaving in a way that would make David Attenborough’s eyes water.

There is no telly

We are heading for Skomer soon, an island off the extreme western tip of South Wales. There are two anchorages, one for use when the wind contains any south, the other when the wind contains any north.

The idea is to clatter through the tide-rips and races that ensure the island’s privacy, and drop an anchor in the more sheltered of the anchorages, and stand by to duck as guillemots and shearwaters and puffins hurtle past in their thousands, insanely tame.

Sooner or later someone will say they want to watch the cricket or unblock the head. I will tell them there is no telly, and to use a bucket, and to forget the gadgetry and consider deeper questions. 

Like, for instance, how does a puffin get the ninth sandeel across its beak without dropping the first eight? The tides and the stars, the petrels and the puffins are part of the Great Mysteries of the Sea. Faced with these, the GPS is frankly no help at all.

BLACK FISH, Sam Llewellyn’s new sea thriller, is available from 

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