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Commentary & Opinion

David Nightingale: Sailing

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Sea storm by Eduard Hildebrandt,1852

Waves were curling behind us, some higher than our little boat. Although the night was black, we could just make out the ominous white tops, as they advanced towards the stern. In the sudden storm we were being pushed away from the land we had just camped on, pushed into the Atlantic. Every time we feared a wave might break and swamp us Ken managed to steer slightly broadside, so that we only rocked violently from side to side before resuming our terrifying drive forward.

By what must have been midnight – there was no light to read a watch – the three of us were soaked, bailing frantically with our single cooking pot, and warning Ken, whose back was to the sea, of especially threatening waves that might end us.

Our future had turned grim. Four days earlier we had left Scotland’s wide river Clyde in beautiful June weather and made it, via the Crinan Canal, into the Atlantic. We were three science undergraduates, short of money, relaxing after the year’s final exams, and hoping for some gentle island-hopping.

We had camped near the canal’s final lock, and set sail again after breakfast. The weather had become even more beautiful; warm sun, blue skies – but the sea was flat and there was no wind. In the afternoon a tepid breeze just changed our mainsail from drooping like a handkerchief on a clothes line into something that fluttered and bulged. Our plans had always been to head for Scotland’s big island of Mull, after which we had hoped we might reach Iona – Iona being an island of peace on the west of Mull, with wild flowers, warm beaches, kittiwakes, cormorants, and an old Abbey dating from the 9th century.

By evening we had just reached the south coast of Mull, by a combination of sailing and rowing. We had set up camp in a little inlet and slept well. The following day, yet again windless, we had walked into the village of LochBuie to the one and only post office telephone (this was long before cell phones!). Thus our pilot-and-boat-owner Ken learned from his mother that he had passed the finals, earning his honors degree in Mathematics.

About 7 p.m., and still daylight, a welcome wind had begun to develop. Making a quick decision we rapidly packed up our tent and set sail. At that latitude in June it was daylight from about 4 in the morning to 11 at night, and with such a fresh wind we would be able to reach the end of Mull and thus Iona before sunset.

Along the south coast of Mull, making good westerly progress, we noticed a white flag on the coast.

But the wind, coming off the coast, was strengthening too much, and soon it was delivering such force that we were unable to choose any direction except into the Atlantic. Following Ken’s terse instructions, Gordon and I, novices, first cleated the mainsail, and then, in gale force blasts, lowered it completely. The sea was churning wildly and our little boat flew on under jib only. The coastline was quickly beyond swimming distance.

We had neither life jackets nor outboard. The front of Ken’s boat was decked in for only about 4’, under which were stowed ropes, food and clothing, and a small bottle of Scotch.

I have on occasion re-imagined what flashed through my mind then: upturned boat, 3 dead bodies, far out to sea.

There was no other shipping, no lights around – except for one pinpoint, which Ken said might be Ireland, 70 or 80 miles ahead.

It turned out ultimately to be the very distant lighthouse of Colonsay, an island between Scotland and Ireland.

By 3 in the morning, after 18 miles of terrifying struggle, we stumbled up the harbor’s iron step ladder.

We didn’t dare attempt the return to the Scottish mainland for at least two days – and I’ve never made it to Iona.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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