Insanity on the Sea
This excerpt is from the last chapter of “Trailing Sky Six Feathers: One Man’s Journey With His Muse.” This memoir is a bit like Indiana Jones meets the Buddha in a Celestine Prophecy adventure across four centuries of my consciousness. This blog brings up memories of insane voyages in the North Atlantic from thirty years ago.
The journey back across the Sound of Barra, the stretch of sea separating Eriskay from Barra, was uneventful. As I started to navigate down the east coast of Barra, the storm and fog took on a mind of its own. It very quickly blew up to gale force winds and the rolling black fog made visibility difficult. It was impossible to return to Eriskay and there was no place to shelter on the east coast of the island. Then I noticed houses bordering the coastline with every light on – and that gave me navigation marks to get back to Castlebay. I knew only too well the fierce sea conditions in The Minch, the stretch of water that separated the islands from the mainland of Scotland. I stayed inshore to the east coast of the island as much as possible. That had its own dangers as the force of the storm was much more powerful than my twenty-five horsepower engine. Gale force winds swept the ocean swells to break over the prow of my boat, sending sharp spray into my face. Striking like pellets from a shotgun. I shielded my face with one arm to better see the wave upon wave of huge swells coming right at the boat. I manoeuvred An Dhoran so she was at an angle to the waves and could crest over the swells rather than be battered to pieces from the storm. My son used the boat hook to fend off the dinghy from smashing into the stern of the boat as the following swells would throw An Dhoran down into the trough of the swell and up over the next menacing wave.
Disaster loomed from every option that was available to my mind. Then I felt myself entering into a terrible, cold silence. That territory became fully occupied, as I stood braced at the wheel of this small craft. There was no mind there, nothing that was calculating and measuring. Just instinct was there – an intuitive awareness of danger in this moment, then danger in the next moment. Navigation was from house light to the next house light on the shoreline. The instinctive reactions sheltered the boat from the fury of the gale force driven sea. The navigation was just far enough away from the inshore spurs of rock that jutted out like razors from the eastern side of Barra. The no mind mariner at the wheel stood quietly humming the 23rd Psalm, allowing a powerful intuitive knowledge to take over.
I took An Dhoran through a narrow gap in an offshore rock spur, catching a swell as it crested through the gap; spinning the wheel hard to port to avoid the ragged edge of another rock ledge; swiftly spinning the wheel to starboard to find a more sheltered stretch of sea to get this boat home. Yet I did not have that knowledge. I certainly did not have that skill. This was not something I had learned from Master Mariner Callum McAuley. It was way beyond my capabilities – until that moment when my mind did not operate, simply resting in a terrible silence. There was no fear, no elation – just a seamless connection to a furious sea that could destroy us all, as it relentlessly pounded the wooden frame of An Dhoran. The passengers were very alarmed by these conditions and huddled inside the cabin to avoid the crashing waves. I had the tourists sit inside for weight at the front end of the boat as the sea smashed the creaking clinker boards. The extra ballast saved the timbers of our vessel from being split open. Our slow progress down the east coastline of Barra continued under a mantle of desperate prayer. The brightly lit houses on the shoreline held my attention, while something else took over the wheel. Later, as we limped slowly into the sheltered harbour of Castlebay after dark, Gaisma, the mother of my children and then wife, was there to gather Iain and take him home. She had monitored the progress of the voyage through phone calls from households that had spotted our small vessel. The last call that we were rounding the tip of Barra brought her to the dock at Castlebay harbour with blankets for my son and a fierce glare at me. We were not on good terms. The passengers disembarked with great relief.
I moored An Dhoran at her berth in the bay next to the Castle. The wind was dropping and the fog began to clear. Callum and I rowed to shore in the dinghy and then with ropes pulled it back to its mooring place. It sat there gently bobbing across from the Post Office and the small boat pier. Callum had been totally silent throughout the journey from Eriskay, which was most unlike him. He had been watching me. And praying. Callum McAuley, Master Mariner, said to me in a shaky voice:
“Ian boy, I don’t know how the hell you did that. In all my years I have never seen anything like it.”
“Callum, I don’t know about that either,” I replied in a hoarse, bewildered whisper.
“THAT” became even more penetrating, as next day the news reported that the storm had taken down a sixty foot trawler in the middle of The Minch. It had spared my small boat. With the money from the passengers in my pocket, I beckoned to Callum to come with me.
“Callum, you’re coming with me to the Castlebay Bar.”
Callum shook his head and reminded me that he had been banned from the bar for twenty years now.
“Not tonight,” I grimly said.
I remember that he looked at me with a touch of both fear and amazement. We walked up the hill to the Castlebay Bar. Callum was reluctant to step inside. As soon as he did, Roddy the bartender came over to throw him out.
“Roddy, he’s with me tonight.” I said. There was something steely in my voice that immediately caught Roddy’s attention. He paused for a moment as he had already heard about our journey from Eriskay. News travels fast on the island. He looked from Callum to me and then reluctantly nodded his consent. Callum was quickly surrounded by some of his seafaring friends eager to hear him tell the story. I greeted his pals, who delighted in this rare occasion, then walked over to the bar and placed two ten pound notes on the counter. They were the sum total of my earnings from a day of insanity on the sea.
“Roddy, this will cover Callum and me tonight.”
Roddy was now grinning from ear to ear:
“We’ll not be taking your money, Ian. Everyone is relieved you made it back safely from Eriskay. There’s already a line of whisky shots for you and Callum from your friends here – and that includes two from me.”
Indeed there was – a long row of full whisky glasses.
Callum told and retold the story of the day’s journey on An Dhoran – over and over again, each time more elaborate than the previous telling. I did not listen, still reverberating from the terrible cold silence and desperate intensity of the experience. My hands shook as I picked up the first glass of whisky, yet my mind was very still and cold. I scarcely heard the tales Callum spun that night, the cold silence told me it was not I who brought the boat home safely. At closing time, I thanked Roddy for allowing Callum his night of storytelling and walked over to the table where he was taking the voyage into the mythological realm, which perhaps is where it belongs. Callum still had a full glass of whisky in front of him.
“Time to go Callum, maybe you don’t need that final shot.”
“Indeed I do” he replied with as much dignity as he could muster: “I could be dead tomorrow, so there’s no point in leaving it sitting here – is there now.” He downed it and I helped him out of his chair and walked him home to the small cottage in Leidag he shared with his sister Morag. He was singing and fell over a few times, stopping to tell me the story of the voyage as though I did not know the details of it. I eventually delivered him to his cottage and coaxed him into his comfortable armchair where he promptly fell asleep.
I walked home to Dunard, my home in Barra, overlooking the bay and the Sound of Vatersay. I sat on the steps awhile and could see the Castle and the islands to the south – shrouded by a soft light from the quarter moon in a clear sky. It was calm and peaceful. Nothing like the day encountered on the sea. I had thawed a little from the dreadful cold silence. Sitting on the steps of my house, I went over in my mind this day on the sea that could have ended up in disaster and loss of life. The reflections yielded ugly truths I had buried.
I thought of the long line of whiskies on the bar – two of them from Roddy the bartender. An acknowledgement and celebration of our returning home from the furious sea in one piece. The truth was that there was nothing to celebrate. A rebuke was needed for my recklessness in endangering the lives of others, including my first born son. I could take no credit for bringing An Dhoran home to rest safely in Castlebay harbour. I thought of the sea we had encountered as a piercing, dirty grey – the color of dying. It was the hue of an angry sea that could make corpses of us all. I also saw very clearly that I was not in the right place internally, or location wise or in the right relationship. I had obscured this true confession to myself with blind recklessness. But the shrouds fell away that evening and for an instant I could see clearly just what I had allowed myself to become.
I was no heroic captain at the wheel, just stupid, reckless and displaced. On board I did not have radar or radio and knew instinctively that I must put an end to my madness on the sea and sell this beautiful boat. This was not my domain in life. This island was not where I was to be. The stressful drain on time and energy to travel back and forth between Canada and the Isle of Barra was debilitating. It robbed me of my life purpose and left me with zero life force energy to be available for the work I was destined to touch. I paid little attention to global events, merely surviving ‘midst the misery and suffering of being so totally misplaced. Pretending to know the culture and be an advocate of all things Highland in Scotland. But this was not me – it was just a front that could not even save a failing marriage. So down I went into a graceless oblivion of alcohol and depression, as I neglected global, spiritual and ecological issues. The latter was the domain where I belonged. As I thought about this day of insanity on the sea, I could still hear the screech of the gale force wind and feel the sea and dark fog parading their multiple dangers. There seemed to be nothing moving in my heart or mind while I stood braced at the wheel of An Dhoran, wincing from the harsh ocean spray impacting my face. The eerie sound of everything being a dirty grey color stayed with me as a toll from the sea, announcing my death if I did not change course. Though I was numbed, a window opened in my mind for a singular insight to face me. I fully realized that something much deeper than the furious storm had suddenly taken over my being.