“I have had a bellyful of bad weather and adverse conditions.” But the sights and the stops along the way as Jonathan Footerman heads down the west coast of his circumnavigation of the UK more than make up for it.
(Taken from the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of ‘A Different Tack’, my book about the trials of abandoning the office in later life to become a yachtsman.)
In my solo circumnavigation of the UK, my 21-foot mini-yacht Elektra had carried me from the Solent through the Dover Straits, up the East coast to Inverness, through the Caledonian Canal to the West coast of Scotland and down to the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde, where I had enjoyed a week’s rest at a friend’s house in Lochranza. The name means Lake of the Rowans, and a tree flaunted its berries in the garden, reminding me of one outside my apartment in West London. The European Mountain Ash, Sorbus Aucuparia, is to be seen all over the UK and seems to like the northern weather. But in full berry in the second half of July, it also reminded me that I needed to keep to a schedule if I wanted to beat the cold weather back to Portsmouth Harbour.
I was ready to cross the Irish Sea to the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland, only about 12 miles from the tip of the Mull of Kintyre. But a friend was in Largs on the mainland Ayrshire coast, and I decided to sail over for lunch and then make my way south towards Portpatrick in Dumfries and Galloway, a hop of about 22 miles from Bangor in the Belfast Lough. Largs is fun and it was no hardship, a resort with a nuclear power station to the South whose docks are visible from far away: approaching from the West around the southern tip of Bute, you point the bow at them to sail between the islands of Cumbrae and Wee Cumbrae into the buoyed channel to the town. Easy! Why bother to make a better plan than that on a bright and breezy day? I left Lochranza under sail, and was dancing along having a great time towards the tip of Bute when it finally dawned on me that since the tip was directly east of Lochranza, I ought not to be on a bearing of 40° however enjoyable the sailing. I had to gybe downwind for an hour to get back on course. I wonder if there is a lesson to be learned. Nah, can’t think of one.
They put me on the Little People’s pontoon (lighter gauge) at Largs, with boats with names like Ruppy Tuppy Puppy. There is an entire psychology of boat naming, Elektra no exception, but I recall a smart yacht I once saw called Betwixt. It is like a car fender sticker telling you ‘My other car is also a Rolls Royce!’: you know that the owner has another boat called Between.
Ailsa Craig lies about 11 miles south of Arran. It is a volcanic plug like the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, looking as though a giant had crouched over the mainland opposite but missed – quite easy to do as anyone will know who has ever used a Turkish-style toilet. At one point the island is said to have supported a population of fifty Catholic families although it is difficult to see where they could have lain down without rolling off. During a period of Jacobite unrest (in support of the Catholic James of Scotland against English rule, the setting of Sir Walter Scott novels like Rob Roy), they were all deported to somewhere in Saskatchewan (accounts differ), to prevent the Craig’s use as a base for rebellion or Spanish invasion. They must have been hardy seamen, and it seems unfair to have sent them somewhere land-locked; probably confused the name with Sassenach, meaning a Saxon or lowland Scot (or pejoratively an Englishman), and who knows what other similarities there may be between Celtic Scottish and Cree?
Ailsa Craig’s profile is known to any who have sailed the Clyde, world famous when I was born in 1953 since half the world’s merchant shipping had been built by the 50,000 employees of the Clyde shipyards. By the 1990s, through communist trade unionism, complacent management, misdirected Government interference, ill-advised subsidy, ill-timed withdrawal of subsidy, global recession and export of construction technology to Japan and Korea, fewer than 3,000 remained. It began Britain’s divorce proceedings from her maritime inheritance whose effects I witnessed throughout my trip; followed by a ‘decree nisi’ when most of her fishing rights were ceded to the European Community in the 1970s, devastating her East coast ports; declared absolute when the bell of US innovation, creating the standard container, tolled for stevedore-operated docks such as Liverpool through which 40% of world trade is thought to have passed at the start of the 20th century. Lyrically praised by writers from Daniel Defoe to Herman Melville, the last word on Liverpool was Malcolm McLean’s, US transport entrepreneur: that five shiploads of his containers could be unloaded at Felixstowe and the boxes driven to Liverpool faster than its stevedores could unload one cargo ship.
For my maladroit crouching giant, Girvan in South Ayrshire was the hole. It was also my destination, where I was to be locked in for 4 days by more of those south-westerlies. On an expedition to Ayr as a schoolboy in the Naval Cadets, my young uniform was prematurely aged in a scuffle with the locals, one of those meaningless territorial conflicts at the intersection of testosterone and alcohol. Ayrshire still enjoys its Chicago-like reputation for a no-nonsense outlook: not so much plain-speaking (the accent is one of the most incomprehensible in the UK) as grammar-free body-language. So Girvan can still claim to be unreconstructed in spirit as well as in brick, as a foray into the Gents room in the local pub demonstrated on a blackboard displaying the ‘joke of the day’:
A man asked a tattooist if he could do a picture of the most beautiful girl in the world.
“Sure, where do you want it?”
“On my wife’s face!”
So I asked the barman if there was a joke-of-the-day in the Ladies:
“Och nay! The lassies ha’e a mirror!”
There was a drama in the Auld Acquaintance cafe. An unwholesome-looking fellow and his girlfriend stole a mobile phone belonging to one of the very wholesome-looking ladies who run the place. It was a dead give-away. There is something ‘a wee bit squint’ about a tattooed, skinny, ragged lad with a nose and upper jaw recently bashed in, slouching up to the counter and ordering coffee instead of a pint in strangulated Ayrshire tones, a sort of “Eh, Jimmeh, gie us a laaateh!” Four policemen arrived, two of them exceptionally tall ‘bonny lads’ who cheered the ladies immensely just by being there, making the place feel like Lilliput. The phone was recovered with a bundle of others in a plastic bag under the roof of the bus stop shelter (the quick get-away), and the offenders caught. The episode entailed a great deal of rushing in and out of the café by the well-covered Scots ladies, precision motion that never jogged a customer or a table, from which BA air stewardesses could learn a thing or two; and it was a happy ending when a smiling bobby came back for his own forgotten phone.
Girvan is small, with a few pontoons but no marina (I had to raft up), and the port-a-cabin toilet facilities were closed for ‘redevelopment’. The equally small Portpatrick on the West coast of the Mull of Galloway is to be avoided in south-westerlies which bring a dangerous swell through the entrance, and I had no alternative but to wait for calmer seas, along with two Irish motor-sailors. The narrow North Channel, or Straits of Moyle, can be rough as the Atlantic tides washing around the top of Ireland squeeze through a shallow bottle-neck, cut along the middle by the deep Beaufort Dyke, 2 miles wide. The channel is famous for the deeds of the Scots-born Captain John Paul Jones fighting for the new US Navy in the War of Independence, who captured the English HMS Drake, and took her off to France. In 1953, the windstorm that devastated the North Sea coasts of Britain and Holland also sank the Princess Victoria in the Straits of Moyle, breaking open the rear doors of the early RO-RO ferry and drowning 133 people. Periodically, the authorities in Northern Ireland lobby for a bridge or tunnel crossing, but the Beaufort Dyke hikes up the cost to non-commercial levels. The mythological crossing is the Giant’s Causeway, built by the Irish hero Finn McCool from the Antrim coast to the Isle of Mull, but destroyed by the even bigger Scottish giant whom he terrified by pretending to be his own baby (perhaps Ailsa Craig was the outcome!)
The harbour master was a local historian and a fascinating talker for anyone with the time to listen. A quip about the wisdom of closing toilets put us on a sound footing about the town’s Clochemerle politics, and I learnt that Jacobite conflicts still play out across the river (I forget which side is which)—he cited a family member disowned for marrying a Catholic. In 1688, the birth of a son to King James II of England (VII of Scotland) created a Catholic line of succession that, in an era of enmity with Papist France, promulgated such alarm that protestant William of Orange was invited to invade, and did successfully. The effect was felt in America with the collapse of the unpopular Dominion of New England whose governor James had appointed, but it is bizarre that it endures to the present day in Ayrshire: until, that is, you remember the Catholics and Orange-men in Northern Ireland. Despite the lack of a tunnel, Girvan has long if not always honourable commercial relations with Ulster, especially Bangor. The HM told how that town lent a sum to Girvan at the end of the 19th century to build port facilities for a ferry that would bring visitors from the mainland. It was not spent as intended, although a train link to the South appeared, much favouring Girvan’s wealth but not Bangor’s. Records say the debt was never repaid, and the port never enlarged because the commercial interests of certain influential local families were served by their exclusivity over it. It remains small, history perhaps repeating in the decision not to build a marina, for example.
The HM’s best piece of Girvania was his claimed discovery as an exploring lad, of the real caves of the cannibal clan of Alexander ‘Sawney’ Bean, with the remains of old human bones. There are plenty of caves associated with the legend including a ‘reconstruction’ which you pay to visit. In the 15th century, Sawney and his vicious wife produced a clan of nearly 50 incestuous offspring who killed and fed on travellers in the area. Suspicion generally fell on the last inn where the traveller stayed, resulting in a dearth of public houses, to the general discontent. Found out and hunted down, the men were executed by cutting off hands, feet and genitalia, and the women burned. It resembles other noble and heroic Scottish legends like Christie-Cleek in the Grampians, the Cleek being a crook for dragging the traveller from his horse. But a twist in the tale’s tail is that Bean’s daughter Elspeth settled in Girvan where she planted the Hairy Tree. Later hanged from it, her moans can still be heard if you stand beneath it on a stormy night. This is another giveaway, too like the goblin MacArawns with pointed teeth and ears which live under the Galloway hills. One goblin daughter cursed the building of the Girvan church, bundling up unspeakable things up in the hair of a stolen child and planting them with ‘her water’, from which grew the Hairy Tree. The heads of any who cut its branches to build the church would soon be found hanging from it by the hair. It is a shame that like the Angel Moroni’s golden plates, nobody knows where the tree is any more. But does that mean the Bean story is false? Of course not, we are all believers! In any case, cannibalism would make a change from Haggis. But then what is Haggis? The locals say that it is a little creature which lives on the hill-sides with two legs shorter on one side to keep its balance. I would not say otherwise, except that in the High Savoy Alps where I spent a few years, children and unwary visitors may be sent on a hunt, La Chasse au Dahu. The Dahu has the same limb configuration as the Haggis, and it is hunted by creeping very quietly along the slopes and making little Dahu noises (“Dahu-dahu, dahu-dahu”). The creature turns around to investigate and tumbles down the slope. Personally, I never tasted one, but I had a certain weakness for Scottish mince, neaps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) which unfortunately I would soon leave behind me.
After four nights, any likely-looking weather window was going to be good enough, but the trip to Bangor was over 50 miles south-west into the wind, and I did not expect it to be an easy ride. At Dave’s suggestion, one of the motor-sailors, I set out two hours before them because they would overhaul me. Dave lives in Bangor and advised me how to get the best from the tides, and in his pleasantly soft-spoken lilt also counselled me to be careful where I walked in Belfast “… especially with my accent”. It was kind advice, involuntarily matching that famous Irish tip: ‘If I were going to Belfast, I would not start from here!’
I left into a light south-westerly head-wind with a 12-hour sail ahead of me. The wind had been in that quarter for long enough to raise a 5-foot swell which was not uncomfortable while the tide was also against me. But when the tide turned against the wind, the swell shortened and the remaining six hours of the journey were a relentless churn, with the frustration of a favourable tide hindering rather than helping progress. As the water grew shallow on the Irish side, the swell grew so short that the boat was crashing into it and my speed came right down to barely a knot. In the end, I had to zig-zag on the motor down the tide against the wind in order to make progress, with the sails out to assist. It was an unpleasant, wet journey despite the sun, and my email from Bangor makes the point: “I have had a bellyful of bad weather and adverse conditions.” The truth is that UK weather is not only unreliable from day to day, it can virtually skip a season. So what are you going to do, go home because you are disappointed? I never considered that option, prepared to wait for the opportunity to move on, but it was creeping into my reckoning that I might be forced to abandon by conditions too dangerous for a small boat, turning persistence into mere obstinacy. It affected the rest of my trip because I felt the need to get home rather than enjoy the fine West coast at leisure.
In the afternoon, the mainsheet block suddenly flew off the traveller and swung around above the cockpit with deadly force. It is a heavy block of pulleys through which a rope (mainsheet) controls the boom, and it is shackled to a ‘car’ or slider that moves along a transverse traveller rail at the back of the cockpit. A split ring had broken and allowed the pin to fall out of the shackle, but fortunately I had hold of the mainsheet at the time and was able to haul it in before it could brain me. I also managed to catch the pin before it went down the plug-hole, and reattached the assembly with a temporary piece of wire in place of the split ring. It is advisable to keep a loose hold on the mainsheet when under sail in variable winds in case of emergencies: if the wind suddenly increases and threatens to lay down the yacht, the mainsail can be rapidly de-powered by a sharp tug removing the rope from the jammer on the block and allowing it to run freely, releasing the boom. That will prevent the boat from ‘broaching’, which I had experienced on a course off Gibraltar. On a 21-foot Corribee, the mainsheet is within easy reach and I was fortunate to have it in my hand at the critical moment.
I was very happy to arrive in Bangor that evening. Just the mile or two of calm inside the Lough was euphoric. The only solution to rough seas is a much larger boat – and that is not what this trip was about. So choosing to set out in a Corribee is a case of put up (with) or shut up – not that I have shut up much about it. I never saw Dave pass me en route, and was out of VHF contact for most of the journey. But in the morning, he brought a grandchild on to the pontoons to say hello and see that I had managed all right, which was characteristically considerate of him. He had also found the crossing no fun, and thought to make sure I was all right. In fact I had a little sun-stroke—I had the symptoms—because the cloud cover had been thin and the UV coming through, but I was happy again. Bangor is a nice town with a good marina, I had enjoyed a shower after managing without at Girvan, and I had had a good breakfast. It does not take much more to make me happy.
Next week: Belfast, the Isle of Man, and down to Wales.