OK, so I haven’t been around much recently. Like most people involved with schools, summer is the time to take off on holiday, lay back and relax, and watch the world go by. At this point in my life, this has become inextricably bound up with sailing off the west coast.
Travelling as the wind and tide dictates, watching the weather come in off the Atlantic and the changing light on the water, you see the land from the outside, a different, older face of Scotland. This is the road the Vikings took, and the lost stragglers of the Armada, the way of the Lords of the Isles, the main highway of the early settlers and traders, the lifeline for the isolated communities up and down the fringe of the land. It bustled with fishing fleets and small ferries and steam puffers plying their trade from the Clyde to the Summer Isles.
Now it’s left mostly to the tourists, and the trade is carried on the red and black liveried Cal-Mac ferries, the scatter of small fishing boats is outweighed by the cages of fish farms, and, far out in the Minch, the low-slung forms of tankers head for the northern terminal of Flotta, or beyond, their potential for environmental disaster a thin rust-clad steel wall away from actuality.
It’s still a wonderful place for wildlife.
Previous trips have brought contact with sea eagles, porpoises and whales, and great gatherings of basking sharks, sifting the waters north of Canna for plankton. Phosphorescent plankton danced in Loch Dunvegan, an underwater firework ballet glowing green under midnight skies. Gatherings of seals have watched us sweat on the halyards, or haul up the anchor from remote bays. There’s always something different to look forward to.
This year, our first encounter is the resident seal in Mallaig harbour, idly watching us load up the boat and refuel. It’s an Atlantic grey seal, the larger of the two species found regularly round our coasts, and it views us regally down the length of its long Roman nose.
The next couple of days see us heading out past Rum and Canna, across the Minch towards the Outer Hebridean islands, Uist, Benbecula and Barra. Porpoises slide past us, small and dark, and the ‘phooff!’ of their exhalations recalls one of their old local names – “puffin’ pigs”. They roll along as if they are wheels, with little splashing, and they don’t stay long. A small pod of common dolphins dashes past on their way to somewhere, slapping the water with their tails as if revelling in their speed and grace – and leave us trailing in their wake. Heading towards Castlebay on Barra, I’m at the wheel, holding 110 tonnes of ship with over 3000 square feet of sail on a course for the evening’s anchorage, when I notice a flock of birds away off to starboard. I squint against the light, and can just make out something large in the water, so I call it out to the rest of the crew. At this point it launches itself into the air – a minke whale, breaching. It drops back with a flurry of white water, and vanishes into the depths, as everyone rushes to the rail to try and see it.
The following day, as we head back towards Eigg from Barra, after a night of ceilidh music and dancing on the deck, (and there are a few sore heads this morning!) we spot a gathering of gannets. Plunge-diving in large numbers, they mark another shoal of fish, a bait-ball, and a magnet for predators, both above and below water.
Out of the grey water to starboard comes another pod of dolphins, around twelve of them, including one small calf. This group aren’t playing today, and head straight into the bait-ball, chasing the fish back and forth, until we can see the splashes as they leap clear of the water. More dolphins come from the port side, another fifteen or so, and five of them break off to join us, riding our bow wave for the next few minutes before turning back to join the feeding frenzy. It’s exhilarating to watch them sliding effortlessly from side to side of the bowsprit, a stream of bubbles rising from each blowhole as they come to the surface, the arched back and sharp fins cutting through the water. Dolphins are very sensual creatures and these are, in fact, indulging themselves in full-body pleasure; the pressure waves from our progress and the waves acting like a natural version of something bought in an Ann Summers shop. The skipper grins at me as we explain what’s happening to the others. “Dirty wee divvels!”
There are more seals, more porpoises, ravens and red deer, skuas and shearwaters, before the voyage is over for this year.
Sail Training Vessel ‘Leader’
(All photos courtesy of my brother!)