Jonathan Footerman continues his journey sailing ’round the UK solo in a mini-yacht.
Author’s Note: Taken from the tenth and eleventh chapters of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman. We are running an entire series of Jonathan’s work. This is part 7. Part 1 of Jonathan’s journey can be found here.
Born in 1953, I remember the London ‘pea-souper’ fogs which set the scene for Dickens or for Holmes mysteries. They evaporated with the coal fires and steam that fed them. On my single-handed circumnavigation of the UK in a mini-yacht, I had travelled from Portsmouth Harbour on the South coast to Newcastle in Northeast England, and only met fog in the Humber estuary. Now as I sailed from Newcastle on the way to Scotland, the inspiration for the band Lindisfarne to sing of the ‘Fog on the Tyne’ was nowhere to be seen, departed with the smoke-laden industry of England’s yesterday.
The port of Blyth, 20 miles from Newcastle, also grew from the export of coal and is one of the last to continue it. Its piers of massive English oak have resisted the elements for decades but are rotting slowly, and there is a green-painted pathway on sure footing to land. With apologies, the 2-mile walk to town is not worth it, but the Royal Northumberland Yacht Club is welcoming, on an old wooden coaster in the marina. While I enjoyed a beer, they lent me a pilot book to read about my next destination 30 miles on. It was the village of Low Newton near the ruins of a castle built by the Earl of Lancaster in conflict with King Edward II in the early 14th century, fiercely contested in the ‘Wars of the Roses’. The bay beyond the headland is protected by submerged rocks, more exciting than Amble, the nearby harbour much visited by yachts bound for Lindisfarne. The pilot read:
Enter between rocks covered at high water along a bearing that aligns the roof ridges of the houses on the west side of the village square; when the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle sit above the highest hump in the rocks to port, south of the bay, turn 90 ° to port to tuck into the most sheltered part.
Not to be tried in the fog then. On a sunny day, a westerly force 3 took me there, wide of Coquet Island at Amble, for once without a lee shore (if the shore is on the lee, the wind is taking the boat towards danger). Rarely do the ingredients of an ideal day’s sailing come together: I only started the motor to manoeuvre into the haven at 7 p.m., the rocks visible at half tide, in time to make supper. A stormy sky rolled over the land but never broke to rain, and the evening was an idyll, only three other yachts anchored nearby. The water was alive with small fry, and terns were diving as I ate, squawking like brain-heads in Mars Attacks. I sat out until a family of Gadwall ducks crossed the flat water to their roost, and the lights of the village began to blink out.
The morning brought another fine day, but the wind went somewhere else and I made slow progress past the Norman walls of Bamburgh Castle inside the Farne Islands, which suited me well. The islands are a bird reserve and I watched with binoculars. They fish in the shallows near the shore and arrow back low over the water to feed the chicks on the protected cliff roosts, dodging the rigging at the last moment. The islands are famous for puffins, but there are also black and white guillemots and razorbills which prefer to dive out of the way of boats than take to the air. Ubiquitous gannets, unmistakable at any distance, sweep fast and low over the water in air-force formations on broad, black-tipped wings, armed with powerful blue bills, banking after the leader like Messerschmitts. I had planned to visit the monastery on Lindisfarne but I continued on past. The cathedral sky was far too attractive. How could I tread the stones of fourteen hundred years of the pious with the sweep of the sea, the Northumberland coast and the sunshine beckoning me? After much struggle through bad seas, it felt like blasphemy to reject the gift of a beautiful day on the water. I’ll visit Holy Island when the fog floats over from the Tyne.
The entrance to Eyemouth is 15 metres wide, but its height and length deceive the eye and it seems a squeeze. The bay is bordered by brown cliffs and rocks. A cardinal buoy marks the approach, and every boat in or out of the harbour passes within 50 metres of it. In startling complacency, a shell-fisherman placed lobster-pots around it, each signalled by a float the size of a soccer ball. Even the most fluorescent of these will pick up a coating of dirt and turn invisible. They were attached by two metres of rope to ‘dan-buoys’, flag-poles pushed through cork floats, but this wise fisherman had chosen the colour dark blue to identify his flags, invisible against the sea or cliffs. By the time I arrived it was after 6:30 p.m. and overcast. Looking out for the entrance and any leading buoys, I never saw the traps. Yachtsmen look out for pot-markers because when they are run over, something like this happens: a connecting rope slipped under Elektra’s keel and lodged in the gap in front of the skeg (the rudder support); the dan-buoy was dragged under and the pole turned sideways against the hull, preventing it being drawn through the gap; the boat was now tethered to the pot which is anchored by steel cable. I could not get off, and it was too late to raise the harbour master by VHF or telephone. I waved over a fisherman as he emerged from harbour and he tried unsuccessfully to drag Elektra off. Eventually, he picked up the thick rope and with powerful hands each worth two of mine, cut through it with a sharp knife. Sorry about that.
Eyemouth is definitely Scotland; you can tell from the Harbour Master. We had a natter about the Hammer of the Scots and the Declaration of Arbroath, and William Wallace, and whether the Australian did justice to him in the film. He confided that he would cheerfully have ‘walloped’ the nearest Yorkshire-man when he came out, and I observed that according to the studios, Wallace seduced King Edward’s wife. “Aye; but ah think it wa’ a liberty.” Doubtless; and she probably did not look like a delicious Sophie Marceau either, but did we care?
The port is built in granite, and very clean. It has combined its working fleet with a welcome for yachts by placing some pontoons along the walls. I found a stylish restaurant, Oblo’s, where old yachties could drink and eat well, served by pretty young people. But the waitresses did not enjoy as much attention as a pair of grey seals in the harbour. Tourists line the quays to watch them. Perhaps the seals like the clear, still water through which crabs are visible scurrying about the bottom. Or like beautiful people everywhere, perhaps they just enjoy the tribute of being looked at.
With a 10 metre minimum charge, the port cost me the same as a far bigger boat. In a similar unidentified port, I queued to register in front of an elderly, kindly German. The HM said that we might pro-rata the rate to something more reasonable, so I kept my pen in my pocket as a registration form might embarrass him when the cash box did not tally. Of course, the cash would need adjusting later over a glass of whisky, but that was not my affair. My nudge-and-wink manner failed to alert the German who had his eyes on the blanks, and thought he’d save a little time: “I must fill one form, no?” he volunteered as the HM was about to cash up. The HM picked one up, looked it up and down in a pantomime of myopic confusion and mumbled about not understanding paperwork. The German looked challenged by procedural laxity, and I cut in before the pitch was queered: “I am happy to leave all that sort of thing in your hands,” and I left before matters took a costly turn. An indulgent manner may conceal an auditor’s eye for the rules, a Calvinist outlook and a Swiss attitude towards neighbours’ rectitude.
The East Lothian coast to the Firth of Forth is rock-strewn, with dark granite cliffs, tiny bays and fishing ports where the breakwaters are inadequate protection for fragile yachts. North Sea storms can be deadly: a disaster of 1881 when 129 fishermen died is commemorated in the Eyemouth museum. But the weather had brightened again as I set off on a 20-mile hop to Dunbar, the port of attack if I went into the Forth river towards Edinburgh. I was heading northwest expecting a cool force 3 (up to 12 MPH) from Scandinavia to starboard, but the Norse wind God Njord, reputedly without malice, started snorting. The gunwales on the port side were soon dipping into the water as Elektra made 5 knots. I dropped a reef into the sails which stood her up again but she was still making four knots against a knot of current on a choppy sea. I was getting wet but enjoying it in the sunshine, and less than half an hour later I put in the second reef on both sails with no loss of speed. Pretty soon I was considering using the third reef, and the right time to do it is when it occurs to you that you might have to. But I was not far off now and decided to hold her on a racing heel until I arrived, when the fun had to stop. Those rocks looked positively eager to welcome a novice pretending not to be.
Rumour has it that an admiral anxious not to be shown up by his aggravatingly competent young lieutenant, would send in the marines to do something about an awkward rock. “Good practice exercise, hrrmph.” The coastline rises to sheer reddish cliffs at Dunbar and the entrance is a narrow gap, invisible until the line of sight is straight through. You sail gingerly into the midst of rocks which would certainly not outlast the admiral’s visit, and repeatedly ask yourself in his words: “Where is the d****d entrance?” The cliffs are topped by castle ruins colonised by kittiwakes, ready to drop bits of crumbling red masonry on yachts that have survived the in-shore hazards. It is excellent. Most of the port dries, which did not matter to certain fin-keelers who did not sleep aboard. The HM put me in a deep spot, but there were no heavy ropes along that part of the wall and it was difficult to hold Elektra against it. I tied a loop from the mast to the ladder in case she touched bottom, but had to get up twice in the night to adjust it. In any case, I only slept as much as the kittiwake colony would allow. They should be called ‘keepawakes’. One of them starts off, and the chorus joins in one after another, crescendoing to a cacophony. It dies away for a minute or two of quiet, until another soloist opens up. The town celebrates John Muir, an American naturalist who lived there, and if Valentin Znoba’s statue is fair, he may be to blame for those darned kittiwakes!
The ‘springs’ and ‘neaps’ alternate every two weeks, when the moon aligns with the sun augmenting the tide pull, or is at right-angles to it reducing the tide. The jib was hard to pull out and had not loosened up. We were at springs, and the 5 metre tidal range allowed me to pull the top of the mast towards the quay at low tide, for inspection. Horrors! The furler is an alloy tube which turns on plastic bushes on the forestay to roll up the jib, but the top bushes had disappeared and the end was lying on the wire. I could not correct that without dropping the mast to replace parts, and decided to continue, taking care. I had rigging for a cruising chute but thankfully conditions had not suited its deployment. The block at the masthead was twisted and weakened; so the chute would have to remain in its bag. Most horrifying was the absence of the pin in the shackle attaching the head of the jib to its halyard (up-haul rope). It was wide open. The attachments were held in the U of the shackle only by tension preventing them from slipping over its wider ends. I fixed that with some shock cord before the tide came back up. If there is an area on a yacht that you cannot look at and inspect, Sod’s law gleefully ensures that it will bite you somewhere else you cannot look at.
Dunbar is a fine town. The old laird’s manor house at the end of the high street was modified by Robert Adam so that its frontage is now its back. It faces the green where a modern leisure complex is a few steps from the port, and I was able to get some exercise in the swimming pool, a shower, and some Scottish ‘stovies’ in the cafeteria. In the evening I introduced myself to Cullen Skink, a thick cream of smoked haddock soup. Very nourishing: I can still taste it! The town is on a promontory, and despite heavy stone architecture it has an airy atmosphere. I thought its theme was to be beef as I walked past the Black Angus pub. But no, it was the Black Agnes, a fearsome lady named for her Romany appearance who in quieter times would have organised the village fair (and woe betide non-participants). Her castle was besieged in the 1350s by Scottish nobles understanding loyalty in terms of English financial incentives, but she fired up the inhabitants to defend themselves. I liked Dunbar where people do not deal with one another with the briskness of the city, and the habit of talking and laughing too loudly is out of place. I liked the time for appreciation, in contrast with cities where a meal ends with the death of conversation because it has become too tiresome to compete with the noise.
A smart boat I encountered at Eyemouth, sailed by two couples, all doctors, came into Dunbar the next day. When I walked over, they were tying lines end to end to reach the mooring bollards on the quay, ignoring knotted bits of cord tied to the ladder, covered in seaweed. They were ‘slime lines’ by which heavy ropes could be picked up. The ropes are tied off at the bollards a long boat length further down the quay and droop in a curve to the sea-bed near the ladder, where they can be lifted and tied to the bow and stern, holding the boat to the wall far more effectively than the light lines that yachts carry. It is tempting to suggest that the GPs were too fastidious to touch them, whereas surgeons would relish getting their hands into gunk. But they had simply not seen them before, and I showed them how to secure the boat without sending the wives up the ladder. I enjoyed a lovely dinner on board their yacht, and if they read this, I hope they will forgive my mischief-making.
Next week: to the Highlands and Inverness.