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Sunday, July 26, 2010, in Tobermory, Scotland

 

Hi all. We’ve been a bit out of communication for a few days, but we’re back in Tobermory, on the island of Mull in the Western Isles. Last week, we were in the marina in Ardfern, awaiting the beginning of the Clyde Cruising Club’s Centenary Cruise. Nearly two hundred boats were there with us, ready to go.

This cruise, sponsored by the local sailing club, celebrates the hundredth anniversary of the organization. Thus all of the Cs in the name.

As instructed, we “dressed” the boat by putting up colorful flags on the forestay. A marina full of dressed sailboats presents a grand scene, so it’s understandable that we'll have to do that on several occasions during the cruise.

The action kicked off in a tent constructed for the occasion, and the half hour of ceremony introduced or thanked lots of the attendees, and announced the winners of a raffle that had been ongoing for several days. We were in the back, having secured one of the few tables that would be available for the dinner. Though the presenters at the podium seemed to understand that the microphone needed to point at a person’s mouth, they didn’t seem to realize that it also needed to be nearby. We heard virtually none of the acknowledgements of the people that we hadn't met yet.

We’d been wondering if the Clyde Cruising Club was really prepared for the hundred and seventy-six vessels – and their crew – that would start this flotilla. This would mean that somewhere upwards of five hundred hungry sailors would expect to be fed in this tent by a food stand that wasn���t much larger than a Starbucks counter. But Great Britain has been so instrumental in furthering the knowledge and capability of humankind, and ran the world for quite some time. I was confident.

I was wrong. The dinner was a fiasco. We held our table, waiting for the line to the food to diminish, but it kept growing. It snaked around the pavement in front of the food pavilion, although a snake would have clearer edges. This mass of people waiting for dinner wasn’t delineated as to which direction they were facing, where the line began and ended, or who was in line and who was visiting someone in line. We waited at our coveted table for nearly an hour, and then we made the plunge to wait in line. After quite some time, someone from the catering service invited us to jump the rest of the queue and take our dinners from an abbreviated steam table on the side, which we did.

Most of the other participants didn’t seem to mind waiting. Somebody told me “This is okay. Last time they did this sort of thing, they ran out of food.”

In time, a local band came and played traditional Scottish music, and dozens of couples took to the floor. Scottish dance looks a lot like square dancing, without the square. There���s a kind of promenade where the couple faces the same direction and walks forward a few steps and backward a few steps. There’s a step where you hook elbows and spin around, and then there’s the conventional positioning of a jitterbug, or waltz, or children doing their first box step. Each song seemed to have its own combination of these three steps, because anytime you’d look at the floor, all of the couples were doing the same step at the same time.

Occasionally, someone from the band would instruct the dancers on a new sequence of moves, with mixed success. Well before the band was set to stop, they introduced a new dance that involved three couples in a circle. The instruction was “each of you should take the hand of the person across from you.” I watched the couple in front of me. A woman took the hand of the man across from her, or three people away. So far, so good. Then the two pairs of people on the sides of her each took the hand of the person next to them. So wrong. Then somehow they were supposed to perform a kind of fission, and three of the people would join another group, and the other three would join some other displaced triad. Then they’d do this dance with the new group, divide, and find yet new partners. This was a mess. After this song, the dance floor was decidedly emptier.

Our first trip was to sail “in company” with the boats who chose to race to Tobermory. It was dry when we awoke, and began to rain just as we prepared to leave. Then it poured, and Art had to man the helm, soaking wet, to get us through the dozens of other boats that were leaving the same place and heading to the same destination. We had decent winds most of the day, and a rip-roaring sail in mid-day. Unfortunately, that moment of frenzy coincided perfectly with the time I was down below preparing lunch. So my efforts were divided between making sandwiches and wiping health salad off of the ceiling, where it had decided to fly. In the meantime, we were within the field of racers, who were sailing downwind, sometimes in brisk breezes, flying their multicolored spinnakers. Dozens of boats in colorful pursuit makes a postcard of a panorama, on a background of green, hilly moors dotted with fat sheep.

We’d been to Tobermory, but Dave and Patti hadn’t. We knew that the one dock that could accommodate us wouldn’t be available, and it wasn’t. We wondered if the one mooring that could hold us would be available, and it had three boats on it. Art motored to a place where he thought we could drop our anchor, but it was much too deep. We finally anchored in a cove that was fairly far from town, but was very protected and extremely empty, save one dolphin bobbing around and one well-fed seal who was observing us with interest.

The day became sunny and almost hot, and we took the dinghy into town for a walk along the harbor. The three boats on the mooring that we’d eyed had already been chased to another part of the harbor. We were all in long sleeves and jackets, but Patti overheard one Scottish tourist advise another not to buy chocolate. “It’ll be ruined. It’s too sticky a day for that,” he warned. There isn’t all that much to Tobermory, but we closed the loop on our comprehensive tour of the town by visiting the venerable pub Mishnish.

When we got back to the boat, it was becoming cloudy and cool, and looked like it might rain. By the time we began to eat dinner, the rain fell lightly on the decks above our heads. I don’t love walking around in the rain outdoors, but having it patter on your head while you’re snug in harbor and eating a hot meal, that’s almost like sitting by a roaring fire. And nobody wants a roaring fire on a boat.

Our task for the next day was what’s called a sunflower. The idea of this, well, stunt, is that many boats find a nice big anchorage and create a circle by anchoring on its circumference. This requires a good deal of coordination by the organizers and patience by the participants, and both were in abundance.

Arrivals began at noon and were to continue until 6:00 PM. We got to Loch Drumbuie (why does everything in Scotland sound like booze?) at about 12:15 and were escorted by two teens in a dinghy to a spot rafted to another cruise participant. They helped us with our lines and we maintained a conversation all day, as though we had found ourselves all on the same park bench.

You have to admire the planning. Somehow you need to forecast the widths of all of the boats in the sunflower and use (admittedly easy) geometry to establish the size of the circle before anyone even arrives. You need to establish a center point and run radial lines out for stability. Then you have to get four boats to agree to arrive first at the cardinal points (north, south, east, and west) and anchor with the amount of scope that will put the beam on the imaginary circumference. Then you have to hope that all of the boats that you’ve invited show up.

Then there are the factors of nature: the fact that some of the boats will be anchored the way they’re intended, pointing into the wind, and everyone else either backwards or side-to. You have to hope that nobody that isn’t in the sunflower decides to anchor in the designated area before your team arrives. And you have to hope that your calculations are very close to being right.

There is a little bit of leeway once you’ve decided that all the boats that plan to come have already arrived. We filled in the last holes in the circle by letting out a bit more anchor chain, making the circle a bit smaller, which also had the effect of splaying out the bows of the boats on the outside of the circle. Hence, the sunflower. Or, an amoeba. I’ll let you know if I ever see a photo of it.

It took six hours for the circle to form and about ten minutes for it to disassemble. The organizers had asked us to drop an anchor (not all of the boats needed to do this), so we decided that we could just stay there overnight. Another boat down the circle from us had made the same decision, and we were just a bit too close to each other. But we estimated that we really couldn’t hit, and we both stayed anchored, and stayed in contact.

The forecast for the next day wasn’t good, strong winds from the north. This would make the next leg of the trip northward very unpleasant (and not necessary for days) and would even make Tobermory harbor very choppy, if we could even get the one mooring that could hold us, which we couldn’t. So we decided to stay for the next day.

I knew that the forecast wasn’t good, but for most of the day, there was almost no wind in Loch Drumbuie. The VHF radio was alive with people returning mid-day from a failed attempt north against high and unpleasant winds, landing in Tobermory, and finding that even that harbor was choppy. At the end of the day, we did find the wind pick up where we were, and we got uncomfortably close to our neighbor. It took some time and more excitement than I would have liked, but we found another acceptable spot to drop our anchor in the large harbor, finally became convinced that the anchor would hold, and settled back down below.

In the meantime, this was apparently a mobile-free port. I’d get messages delivered on my BlackBerry in bursts about every half hour. Art’s masthead Internet antenna was finding nothing almost all of the time. We all watched a movie on DVD, ate popcorn, and read.

Early in the morning, the sun beat into the hatch above our berth. There was hardly a cloud to be seen, nor a breeze to be felt. All around us were the tufted green mountains sheltering the harbor. It was obvious that this day wouldn’t be anything like the day before, and I think that the outdoors looked a little smug about that. We hoisted up the anchor and were under way.

After a pleasant sail, we anchored in a harbor that ended in the village of Bunessan. This town has a hotel with a pub and a grocery store the size of a kid’s bedroom. But for people who have spent the last three days without going ashore, it was a metropolis. We had lunch in the pub, and boosted our dwindling pantry with vegetables and yogurt.

Bunessan is on the isle of Mull, just like Tobermory. Its name is from the Gaelic, meaning “the place at the bottom of the small waterfall.” It must be a very small waterfall.

The bus comes through the town at regular intervals, as do tour coaches and local drivers. Indeed, we had to pull ourselves off of the shoulderless road every few minutes to let some vehicle by. We shared this road with sheep, apparently, because sheep were grazing on the grasses that surely are covered by a spring tide, and wool decorated the roadside scrub like tinsel.

Like the other harbors in this area, there isn’t a lot of love for dinghies. We found a place to tie up temporarily, where the dinghy wouldn’t find itself swamped by tide or hanging over a dry spot. But the place we found was on the wrong side of a docked fishing boat, whose owner was none too happy to see our engine tap against his bow. I wasn’t delighted to climb up the dozen ladder rungs that would take me to the dock, either. But venison pie at the pub was calling.

The next two days were candidates for sailing north to the Hebrides, so remote that they might make where we were seem like a metropolis. But the weather forecast was for calm the first day and roaring winds behind us the second. And the strong overnight winds would be more comfortable in the harbor where we already were. So we decided to stay another day and let ourselves get blown northward on the next day.

A short bus ride from Bunessan would take us to a ferry and the island of Iona. Saint Columba is widely revered in Scotland as the Irish missionary who brought Christianity to the country in AD 563. He’s the first one to see the Loch Ness monster, presumably, in Inverness. He was granted land on Iona, where he built an abbey, which has been upgraded, added, and rebuilt. Now the site is a tourist site and a destination for religious pilgrimage.

The road around the island of Mull was apparently constructed for a single small vehicle to travel occasionally and never meet another car. This skinny thoroughfare, in practice, is under constant assault by SUVs, tour buses, and the local transit company. There are no shoulders, and the road climbs and descends the endless hills, sometimes teetering over banks. On our bus ride, we did have to stop once for another traveler, a Highland cow, with its shaggy brown coat and wispy cornrows dripping into its eyes, looking at us balefully as it traveled from one side of the road to the other.

The ferry took us to Iona and we entered the abbey grounds. A garden along the perimeter was overflowing with herbs, flowering plants, and even wiry zucchini and formidable globe artichokes. Across the fence were the omnipresent sheep and expanses of treeless land.

We learned in our tour that the island is now devoid of trees thanks to Saint Columba’s zeal in building his monastery. We were told that the graveyard held the remains of kings of Norway, Scotland, and Ireland, including Macbeth and the doomed Duncan, though none of the graves can be identified. Apparently all of the inscriptions wore away in the seventeenth century. Saint Columba’s body was buried there, but might or might not be somewhere else now.

There were lots of interesting old artifacts among the many restored or shamelessly new structures, though, especially in the tiny attached museum. I enjoyed inspecting the gravestones that are just too valuable to leave outdoors on graves. But all religious places require, well, a bit of faith. Our favorite display was a rock that had no distinguishable characteristics. On the descriptive card was a biblical passage that said that Saint Columba might have slept with a rock as a pillow. And then it said that this rock “was once believed to be” the rock on which the saint might or might not have slept. So this rock, discredited as it already was, and being a rock, for some reason was enclosed in a case, presumably to keep it from our curious fingers. The gravestones, the worse for wear for being outdoors, had not been thus protected. For me, this was all fine. The gravestones were intriguing, and I can see rocks that have no meaning in most places I go.

On the way back to the ferry, we had lunch in a charming hotel that overlooked the island of Mull across the water, and dawdled our way back to the boat in relentlessly sunny weather.

It was time to find our way north to the Outer Hebrides, and we had a good forecast for sailing. We left the anchorage very early in the morning, and sailed right away. Halfway through our voyage, we crept through a passage between two islands and were rewarded with the company of a dozen or so basking sharks. These animals are so named because they appear to be basking in the comparatively warm surface waters, although in my opinion, they’re in the wrong spot. They’re placid but big at 6-8 meters or 20-26 feet. All we could really see of them was the paddle-shaped dorsal fin and another, smaller fin at the back, making them a candidate for shark fin soup. It’s probably a good thing we didn’t see them yawn, though. The jaw is 3 feet (one meter) in diameter.

With nearly twenty knots of wind behind us, the seas didn’t bother us much. Anyone sailing the opposite direction would have had a decidedly unpleasant time. But even a following sea gets annoying after a long day, and both Dave and I were quite delighted when we reached our destination, an anchorage called Castlebay on the island of Barra in the Hebrides.

The reason for the name isn’t that there���s a castle overlooking the harbor, which is a common enough sight in Scotland. This one has a castle in the harbor (or, as Art observed, “What a nice moat.”) Historic Scotland describes Kisimul Castle as “the only significant surviving medieval castle in the Western Isles.”

This isn’t an area overflowing with marinas, or for that matter, floating docks to land a dinghy. With a steep tide, the lowest of the concrete steps that probably serve as the official dinghy landing are covered with water half of the time and slime the rest of the time. We cautiously pulled ourselves to the concrete pier and walked down the street to a café that appears to specialize in toffee. None of us had eaten anything of substance since early morning, so we all enjoyed a late lunch of Hebridean sandwiches, which were delicious but undistinguishable from the “salmon and some-sort-of-dairy” combination we’d seen all over Scotland. For a small village, there was a well-stocked supermarket, where we replenished the fresh produce onboard.

Officially, we should have gone around the corner to anchor in another bay in another place called Vatersay for the beach barbecue. Vatersay isn’t even a village; it’s a hamlet. We’d have to drag our dinghy onto the beach and keep pulling it ashore as the tide rose (or it would float away) while we enjoyed the barbecue. Most Scottish boats have a lightweight dinghy with a small engine and not much weight. Many of them have wheels installed on the back for the specific purpose of facilitating dockage right on the beach. Ours is powerful and heavy and has a steering pedestal that adds to the weight and its complexity. Or we could stay where we were, tie our dinghy to a ramp in Castlebay that was now empty (as all of our compatriots had left for Vatersay), and take a taxi to and from the barbecue. In the end, we opted for the taxi and were happy that we did.

It was planned that the event would begin at low tide and end before high tide. This was to allow people whose dinghies don’t weigh three hundred pounds to drag them onto the beach and leave them there while they enjoyed themselves ashore.

The barbecue itself was convivial. The whole town of Vatersay had been invited (a strategically wise move, and one that only involved the twenty houses in town). There were steaks, burgers, chicken, and grilled prawns, along with several sides, wine and soft drinks. Someone from a boat or possibly the town played bagpipes alongside an accordion. Kids were swimming in the freezing water, and dogs ran up the beach and down the beach and across the beach. Every so often as the tide came up, one dinghy or another that had once been on the beach began to float away. And moments after each dinghy escaped, young swimmers would race to retrieve it and re-tie it farther up the receding beach. In a few hours, the food was gone and so was most of the beach.

Another very early departure and we were on our way back to the bustle of the Western Isles, where at least we’d have slow Internet service again. The day was foggy and dreary, but the wind was moderate and from a fine direction, and didn’t let up until a few miles from Tobermory, back on the Isle of Mull. We picked up a mooring that was slightly undersized for us but available, and hoped that someone would leave the small part of the dock that we could use. They didn’t, so we settled in for the night.

The cruise will continue for the rest of this week, with two more scheduled events. We’re soggy, but doing fine. We miss you all.

Love, Karen (and Art)