Hiltgund

Passage from Aldeburgh to Craobh Haven

May 20 - May 26, 2001

Roger's Journal


Crew aboard:

John Bourke, Roger MacMorran, Antony Perring & Chris Perring
(plus visitations from Gilly MacMorran)


ADVANCE WARNING!!

This story is about a sailing trip that myself and 3 others made in May of 2001. It is now November 2002 and, having foolishly offered to write an account of our little wet jape, and with 18 months of dying brain cells on my part, I am sitting here in a cold smelly office in Moscow on a cold grey pre-winter day with skies filled with snow, and I really don't know where to begin……..??

My first concern is how offended my 3 fellow travellers are likely to be if I tell the truth. I am going to write about 2 people whom I met for the first time at the start of this escapade, and my Brother-In-Law who invited me in the first place and from whom I am seeking an equivalent invitation in the future. I shall therefore remain subtle and reasoned, meaning that most of what you are going to read is factually, complete and utter nonsense. I would also note that I asked Gilly to copy the logbook notes as a reminder for me of the details of the trip which she failed to do, and so I have no choice but to make it all up. I take solace in the knowledge that nobody will ever read it bar the four participants who know it all already, Gilly who wants to know if John really didn't smoke one cigarette during the whole week, and our splendid Mothers who will surely enjoy reading a little story about those hardy sons and their adventurous lives upon the high seas.

Please understand that 18 months on, this is nothing but a chore; it's Saturday afternoon, Moscow is hot, a colleague leaves tomorrow after 5 years here, and I'm going to drink lots of beer in 3 hours, so I'll be brief and to the point……..if that's possible from a Marmora child!!



A WEEK AT SEA

by Roger Marmora


This is a story about four men in a boat. It is a story about their splendid, unusual, drunken, eager, occasionally hair-raising and most of all smelly week's adventure together on the high seas. It is a story about John, Chris, Antony (Ant from now on) and myself, namely Roger. It is also a story about a beautiful boat called 'Hiltgund'.

Moscow to Aldeburgh on a rusting Aeroflot hulk and a £130 taxi to finish is not one's idea of how to start an adventure. I arrived in Aldeburgh full of excitement and a rash helping of fear, as I embarked (sic) upon a voyage into the complete unknown. Let me get one thing straight from the start - I am NOT a sailor. My life has been fuelled by a great passion for mountains, big hard lumpy things which feel ever-so-solid underfoot, and from which you can run when it gets a bit scary, as I am known to do. Suddenly I found myself volunteering to spend a week with my sailing-mad Brother-in-Law (John) and two unknowns (Chris & Ant), out in the deep open North Sea, where underfoot it is decidedly soft, wet and rather deep. I was a long way from convincing myself that what I was doing was the right choice. Suddenly a week in the Mountains of Scotland with lots of midges, beer and rain seemed a refreshingly good idea.

And that's where Aldeburgh saved me. Maybe the Scottish Mountain thing wasn't on offer, but the beer option certainly was. An indefinable place, I had heard more about this strange little world from sister Gilly than I care to mention. Wine, boats, sea and 2 days of wandering about like a holidaying sloth were just the 'unwind' I required. Grand preparation. Particular highlights include:
- sharing a bed with John for the first time - now I understand everything Gilly
- Peter's 7am waking call with a whisky measure which left me wondering why he just didn't give me the bottle
- John's intriguing decision to have his hair cut 2 hours before we were due to leave at 5am, and which still appeared to have been a great mistake 7 days later on arrival near Oban.


It was therefore a minor miracle that despite those things and many many more, we managed (with heaving stomach, searing heads and bubbling bowels) to find ourselves standing at a fog-bound slipway at 5am on a cold east coast Sunday morning, feeling like shit and wanting to die.

Nosh and beer were loaded by the ton and the size of John's hold-all (actually a spare bed) had us all concerned as to which one of us is not going to go!! We putt-putted our way through the fog bound basin between proud silent masts and waved a subdued goodbye to Peter as he peered scornfully at us from the pier.

Based on the vague possibility that somebody other than the 4 participants to this story may dare to read this drivel, I feel a need to quickly summarise the reason for this trip. John and Chris together had leased a boat from Peter in Aldeburgh and wanted it based on the West Coast of Scotland. 'Hiltgund', even to my untrained eye, is simply a beautiful craft. She was built in Keil in Northern Germany in 1937 and was used as a training boat for the German Navy. Of course, however she came to be is irrelevant. We were the ones standing upon her splendid decks, and for all of us it was a privilege.

The planned destination and eventual 'home from home' for Hiltgund is tucked away amongst the glorious islands and coastline around Seil and Luing a few miles north of my old haunt and favourite island of Jura. From Aldeburgh on the Suffolk Coast one's decision to turn a sharp left or right upon hitting The North Sea is not actually straightforward. From the river mouth, it is almost exactly the same distance to go south as it is to go north. But north it was…….how could we miss the opportunity for a night out in Inverness!!!

Despite the state of heads and general malfunction, it was a beautiful silent morning. Hiltgund slipped her way down the river on a classic 'east coast morn'. The haar was still thick, causing things to 'loom' out at us from nowhere, and everything was completely still. In this gloomy atmosphere, and with little to comment on so far, it seemed a good idea to ground Hiltgund!! Not an hour from Aldeburgh and clearly this quiet trip down the river was in need of something to remember, bar the spinning head. We waited and waited for the tide. Casual waves to passers-by were politely enacted, desperately trying to give the impression that all was intended. Finally a little chap appeared in his fishing boat to lend a hand and after numerous attempts, we slipped free of the thick mud.

The mouth of the Alde was my first experience of actually having to do something on a boat that involves the use of the brain. My previous experience of sailing was singular. Two years previously, my (then) girlfriend's sailing mad family had dragged me to a Lake in North Wales on probably the windiest Wales weekend of the last 10,000 years!! Being terrified in a 'topper' will cause enormous merriment to all you water-winged anoraks, but as I sped along all alone, looking behind me with neck strained at the ever-diminishing speck that was where I should be going, I remember feeling that I was not entirely in control of the proceedings. The brain did not engage.

And suddenly here I am on a boat approximately 4 billion times as big, and I'm looking at charts and depths and I'm searching for flags on the shore and 'sailors cottages' (what the hell does one of them look like??) and there's this splendid gadget which tells us if we are going to hit the river bed and which is actually only designed to cause enormous amounts of undue stress and concern to stop you relaxing and actually enjoying yourself when there is no risk whatsoever, and starboard and port are still terms which require considerable discussion with oneself before coming to a conclusion as to what they actually mean, and a rope is suddenly called a sheet!! How stupid did I feel…??

I remember once being with a friend on a horrible stormy winter day on the Cairngorm Plateau. Things were not good and it we needed to get to lower ground as a matter of urgency. I was busy with map pondering where we were while my friend wandered barely a few yards to take a leak; and I'll never forget that feeling as he trudged back to me and I wondered how I was going to tell him that I'd just let the wind whisk our only map from my fingers and it was in all likelihood now wrapping itself around some old grannies head as she walked down the High Street in Granton-on-Spey. That's how stupid I felt on Hiltgund. Our first little navigational challenge was soon behind us and we took a wide berth as Hiltgund passed from the narrows and shallows of the river mouth into the great open expanse of the North Sea. We were at last on our way.

My experience in small confined spaces with other members of the male species is restricted to tents on barren mountain spots where one always has the option of storming off for 'a breath of fresh air (but it's -40!! Are you mad..?) after you have suffered one fart in the face too many, or when the breakfast that you were promised 3 hours ago simply never appears!! Whilst the smell issue is not one for discussion, we had with us somebody who ensured that breakfast always appeared.

Chris's culinary skills, despite the obvious need for rudimentary sailing skills and a seaman's head which I presumed one of them to have, were simply the most important thing on the boat. Never has it been made more clear to me that food is what makes the man tick!! Not only was he willing to provide cooking services in what are somewhat onerous conditions, but hewas clearly determined to prove that no rough ride or limited space and lack of utensils was going to stop him making the finest food imaginable!! And so it was with eyes aghast that Chris appeared from the cabin in the early afternoon on that first day as we wandered our way up the backbone of England's East Coast, with oozing sausage sandwiches, eggs, bacon and steaming cups of coffee. Maybe this week wouldn't be quite so bad…..?? The hangover cure had arrived and things were definitely getting better. John on the other hand was only just getting into the grips of his internal hell, and it became quite clear that our illustrious Captain would not be himself for a good while to come.

Our passage kept us close to the coastline and under bright blue skies we passed Aldeburgh. A contingent had appeared upon the sea-front and for the first time I saw beyond my lack of experience and managed a brief warm feeling about our week to come as hands furiously waved their best wishes from the shore. With those best wishes were surely hopes of wind, for we were chuttering along on reliable diesel as the flags barely offered a flutter. This I seemed quite content with but the sailing three-some with whom I was present, clearly sought the opportunity to pull ropes (sorry - sheets!!) and shout odd words at each and enjoy some natural propulsion. For me, being on the boat in itself was quite thrilling enough, and I was still getting used to the motion and feeling of being on a tiny moving island surrounded by lots of wet stuff.

We passed Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth which looked and probably are disgusting, and onwards towards that great smooth curve of coastline so distinctive on any map where Norfolk arches it's way round towards the Wash. I have an image in my mind of the East Coast of England which is of something exceedingly flat, featureless and rather haunting. We had already passed sinister looking MoD properties with bizarre and odd and secretive looking concrete structures which were surely full of spooky things that nobody should know about and managed by white coated people with sloping foreheads and grotesque green pointy teeth!!

The act of sailing such a vessel as Hiltgund requires certain fundamental tasks to be carried out by all aboard. John and Chris had gone through a number of things with me back in Aldeburgh which gave me an initial understanding, but in all honesty, I was in an entirely new world. Watches (not on the wrist), navigational charts, safety lines, GPS's, hourly logs - for me all these things were a novelty and it was great to learn something new completely from scratch. Loving maps as I do, I could happily have stared at the navigation charts forever. Watches were a straightforward affair, two people at a time remaining responsible for navigation, keeping the log and generally ensuring that all is well. On the hour and every hour, a record of the progress would be plotted on the chart, and the course ahead considered. I was not aware that the sea is so full of ….. stuff. Lighthouses, towers, green lights, red lights, weird box looking things - it is an architectural treasure hunt with all sorts of shapes appearing on the horizon. As ever, all of these things had meanings and were detailed on the charts. Slowly I realised that we were actually taking part in a mammoth orienteering exercise at sea, slowly picking off the points and choosing the ones ahead at random.

As mad as this may sound, even steering Hiltgund was a challenge for me. The beautiful S curves which I carved through the sea were novel for perhaps 5 minutes but we had far enough to go as it was, without my adding considerable mileage because I couldn't keep the boat straight. The casual remarks such as "Rog - where the f*** are we going??" assured me that straight ahead at sea is not straight ahead on land. I likened it to reversing with a trailer and the more I concentrated the more we seemed to be heading for Paris. As all experts say in that condescending manner - "you'll get it eventually - it's just a feel thing!!" .

The day wore on and at last the wind picked up and the putt-putt of the engine was gladly put to rest. How wonderful it was to suddenly hear that thick empty silence. As a complete novice, the raising of sails is a strange and intriguing exercise. My brain is probably too simple and therefore does not understand why you DO call a rope a sheet. Everywhere else, it's a rope, and anyway, it's not a sheet. It is a rope. Surely, if anything is going to be called a sheet, it should be the sails, but no - they are called things like Genoa's (obviously!!) and Spinnakers. Phew!! Starboard and Port were still causing me troubles enough, without all this 'Alice in Wonderland' nonsense.

We got the sails up and soon found ourselves skipping along at 6 knots, a happy jolly speed on water, which of course on land would make you feel you were going backwards. I was already learning that life slows down beautifully when at sea.

INTERMISSION - based on present progress, it would appear that I am writing volume 1 of 12.

I hadn't expected oil rigs. We had curved our way around the long northern arch of Norfolk and were on what appeared to be a straight line for somewhere near Aberdeen. We were pulling further and further from land as the Lincolnshire hips made way for the slim waistline of the Yorkshire coast. And now, with the sun shining on lands far to our west and Chris and Ant snoozing below, John and I found ourselves wandering through a silver black world lit by the great hulking shapes of the oil platforms. The fountain of light they produced reflected on a black oily sea that appeared thicker than it's daytime equivalent. We watched and talked and drank tea. I smoked and John thought about smoking. I liked sailing at night. A platform was being towed to some distant world and for a slightly anxious 30 minutes, we pondered whether we were about to be engulfed and needed a quick left. Soon the lights were shimmering in the far distance behind us and the still grey warmth of dawn crept into the sky from the east.

I was amazed at how easily I slept onboard Hiltgund. Nestling into a small cosy space is not something new to me. Years of squeezing a space between drunken climbers on a packed bothy floor at 5am had taught me that one needs almost no space to find good quality sleep. Add to this factor, a gentle oozing motion that drifts through you without warning, and repeats again and again, and to me you have the ideal ingredients for quality zzzz's. Getting up at 4am in the midst of that grand peace to sit out in the cold, steer a boat and stare at the sea is another thing entirely and after 7 days it had not become any easier.

The morning that crept out from deep beneath the horizon was a stunning affair but utterly frustrating for any sailor. We sliced our way through a still sea beneath clear sheets of deep blue and an already sticky hot sun. John's hangover had somehow crept into day 2 and was still clinging to his salted brain. He wrapped himself up in the sail and entered into a happy coma at the bow. His moans and groans of disdain as we yelled at him to wake up were soon replaced by wonder as we were entertained by a group of porpoises dancing their way around, alongside and under the boat, speeding along at the bow almost in touching distance of our stretched fingers. In a moment of unbelievable luck, I took that 'never to forget' photo as 3 of our friends leapt from the beneath the waves in unison. I will never be so lucky again with the camera.

I am looking through my photos as a reminder of our trip and I have just found a picture of an exceedingly hungover Dr Bourke later on that same day, sitting at the tiller, lips splodged randomly with bright white sun-cream, his 3am Aldeburgh haircut making him look about 5, a pair of shades hugging his head and held together by what looked like a pair of turquoise panties, and reading a splendid looking novel entitled, perhaps aptly:

"The Shipkiller"……..!!!!!!!!…..….and I had chosen to come on board with this lunatic!! Oh dear…….

Life on board a boat wandering through the seas on a burning hot day really is a bastard!! Which part of the deck should I lie on, when should we open our first beer, I wonder when I'll see another cloud. Even the sea-nerds with me surely saw that this weather was worth enjoying for a few hours, even if it meant putt-putting along on diesel.

I have never been to Whitby. Until that very day, I could not imagine that this would ever change. Stuck out on an empty East Yorkshire coastline like some forgotten piece of blue tack that will never be taken off the wall, Whitby is a classic east coast seaside town, nestled into a steep rocky coastline, swirling with fog and sun at the same time . One presumes it makes it's way in the world with bucket loads of ice-cream, coach parties for the clinically dead and a very useful tank filled with diesel hiding under the pier which was our sole reason for the visit. We passed underneath the grand but somewhat ludicrous stone entrance monument. This seemed to suggest that we were entering one of the world's great harbours and not a small and utterly irrelevant little town miles and miles from anywhere on the east coast of England.

Soon there were shouts and waves from those big guys with huge hands, sullen eyes and navy boiler suits, who you always see in harbours wandering about all day doing less than even the people who are looking at them. A man in a tie appeared - the harbour master one presumes - and soon diesel was flooding our tanks. For me it was fun and novel simply to arrive somewhere from the sea, and to enjoy those nosy stares from above that I am so much better used to giving than receiving.

It's funny - the things you remember. I climbed the ladder on the pier and suddenly - WOW - hundreds of old folks wandering about, postcard shops everywhere, that 'sad and empty' feeling that all these places seem to have. I think it was probably just a bit strange being back on land, even after only 2 days at sea. We took advantage of bins and normal sized toilets, and felt obliged to contribute to the oozing ice cream economy. Goodbye forever Whitby.

I remember the second evening like a moment just passed. Chris, in a particular effort to encourage the end of John's hangover, made a meal for us all that I would have paid significant amounts of hard cash for on land!! He surpassed himself beyond all description. Lamb chops and a sauce that seemed like all the tastes from across the globe, stared up from the plate at me amongst a sea (ahem!!) of vegetables. A quick look to the right and I am staring into the great empty North Sea from inside a little boat. Something wasn't right. An easy equivalent for me would be for me to find myself eating the same meal on a lofty peak high above an empty highland glen, oodles of miles from anywhere. NO NO NO - it just won't ever ever happen. So please believe me - this was an exceedingly pleasant and odd experience. Perhaps I had cunningly allowed myself to believe that this whole sailing lark was all going to be a lot worse than it in fact would be………? Time would tell.

Another night passed without incident. The night sea is in some ways more alive, as if your other 5 instincts become more sensitive as the sight fails before you. Long revealing discussions (nothing to tell Gilly - sorry) and even longer endless gazes across the water passed us by as we downed endless cups of tea and smoked unnecessary amounts of cigarettes.

Having never met Chris and Ant prior to this trip, there was a healthy dose on intrigue as to how we would get along. I can't imagine many people would choose to get stuck on a small wooden island for a week with 2 people whom they do not know. Ant almost immediately endeared himself to me by his honest and frank disclosure that although he was a non-smoker, he would be stealing and smoking all my cigarettes for the duration of the trip with NO contribution whatsoever from himself. Chris meanwhile had already stamped his name upon my will, well ahead of all my known children, thanks to his stunning culinary escapades.

We were a healthily varied bunch. John, be it the Irish in him or just his blood, gives off a sort of 'who cares' approach without compromising that boring old word ……safety. I suspect John actually cares an awful lot but would rather only have to do it on the oddest occasion when there's not a newspaper to read. Chris and Ant are different animals completely; both have a happy boy-ish enthusiasm straight from 'Swallows and Amazons', and the bino's and charts are never far from their gaze. I felt quite assured that if we were veering into the path of danger, Ant and Chris would be vying to claim that they had spotted it first. Whether they'd resolve it once we got there is another matter. This mixture of healthy English concern and apparent Irish nonchalance seemed to strike a good balance I felt; things never got too serious and military, and yet we weren't going to allow ourselves to walk straight into the jaws of doom without a level of calculation….??? I, on the other hand, was the willing and eager amateur, happy to help and assist where possible, but relying heavily on that long held view of mine which concludes that whatever part of hell you find yourself in, you eventually leave and everything turns out all right………

Our third day at sea saw us a say a farewell to the English coastline as we entered Scottish waters. I suppose I should get all patriotic and say heart felt things about 'coming home' and 'knowing where you belong' blah blah, but of course these things very rarely happen and it continued to be a bit bloody marvellous just being at sea, in a lovely boat, under tropical skies. With 15 months now having passed, the memory fades and one coastline becomes another. Nothing particularly dramatic comes to mind of this day, which I'm sure in itself this tells its own story. We were all having a lovely time.

Sleep, books, beer and gossip by the tiller, random productions of food by whoever took the want, long mindless gazes out to sea - in fact there are large chunks of time which absolutely elude me, and apart from being a reflection on my general mental state, I am sure that they confirm how utterly relaxed I became on that beautiful boat. As a non-sailor, I could not even imagine the idea of being on a boat for 7 days, and of course as a Macmorran, the thought did occur to me that I would go slightly crazy stuck in such a confined space for such a long time. BUT, what really shook me, was the absolute absence of time. The hours skipped by at a pace I had never known - not fast or slow but just different. Time became utterly irrelevant. I think that's the difference.

I suppose I did feel a creeping of nostalgia as we slipped our way up the Aberdeenshire coast. Here I was in the middle of that big sheet of empty blue nothing that I had stared at ten billion times from the age of zilch while wandering along Aberdeen beach. There in the hazy green soup was the great lighthouse at Girdle Ness; YES - the one we visited probably 4 billion times and yet still never managed to get inside. "But why's it closed Dad!!!" Further north and the beach at Balmedie where we'd have lunch at the Udney Arms before playing in the dunes until one of us cried and we all journeyed home, during which Caroline would puke on the dashboard. (I'm at that low point where I've lost all will and so am making up nonsensical family stories).

Back to reality.

Emptying the bowels in Hiltgund I found an endearing and relentless challenge. I think my problem arose from the fact that I was required to do more than simply sit there and let nature………etc. No, I had to keep doors open with feet (if I wanted any light) and think about pumps and all sorts of things; this is an entirely new experience for me. The one room in the house where I am allowed to think even less than I normally do is the loo. Here on Hiltgund, it seemed to be exactly the opposite. Taking a quick leak at the stern was of course a darn sight easier, but it required a natural balance that you either learn over years, or simply have to do without. An entangled arm amongst the stays would ensure that you didn't fall in the sea, however the problem with this was that you became a bit like a horizontal weeble, swinging about on the stay and ensuring that you would certainly piddle gloriously down your leg. I piddled down my leg a lot.

Sailing through the night around the big bulbous head of Grampian at Peterhead is a bit like entering into the set of 'Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind' or 'ET'. Again, passing through an area of such intense maritime engineering meant that we had calls to all sorts of chaps, all with a happy Aiberdeen twang which was fine to hear. The booming lights at St Fergus beamed across at us, and suddenly I was in boyhood dreams, imagining heading in to port on a black dinghy to plant the bombs that would save the world ………….????

One great pleasure of course was that feeling after doing the 2-4am shift, when the sleeping bag feels like a 4 poster and you actually don't want to go to sleep for a few minutes so you can enjoy this simple pleasure for a moment.

The morning of day 4 was another splendid scene, the north coast of Grampian rising in blue folds behind it into the hills towards Maud. I made a point of keeping a look out for Pennan, that little heaven made famous by Local Hero and a simple red telkephone box. Distant jets from Lossiemouth could be seen playing cat and mouse under the thick blue sheen of the day. All was good.

But alas, once more we needed a Whitby. We had probably motored 80-90% of the way at this point and so once more we had to touch soil (!) to replenish the engine's thirst. And what a fabulous stop it was. We crept into Lossiemouth harbour at about 11am, barely a sound to be heard, and not a breath of wind in the air. Joe, the harbourmaster, appeared on his bike and I still remember his hunched wave from his bike as he sent us in the right direction. Before we knew it, we were wheeling trolleys and pondering whether to use their toilets and get a decent wash. About half an hour later, life had reached a new high. We sat outside the harbour bar, cold pints singing in their glasses, wondering to ourselves why this moment seemed to be so good. I don't really know why I remember this so well, and why it made me feel so happy. Everything was just perfect. The sky was blue and sun was hot, we were drinking cold beer, none of had a care in the world and the next thing we would do would be to get back in the boat and carry on sailing. Shit. This has to stop. There was something also very pleasing for me in arriving in Scotland (first time we'd touched Scottish soil) on a boat. Strangely satisfying….??

Chris and Ant fell madly in love with the sands in the Moray Forth. Having passed the redundant oil yards at Findhorn, and the silent military gaze of Fort George, we headed for Kessock and the flat sandy shallows that looked so - well…..flat, on the charts. Suddenly, as if I had been transported to another time entirely, I was part of a great military operation - Trafalgar relived perhaps. One yard to port, slow to a crawl, another sharp gaze through the bino's, a run to the bow for a closer look - once more I felt a bit like a 2 year old at the World Chess Championships - full of interest but completely bemused as to what is going on. One thing I felt sure of was this - safe hands were around me, and if any two brothers on the planet were going to ensure that we avoided 'touching cloth', it was these chaps.

Sailing under the Kessock Bridge was in every respect like passing beneath the entrance gates into a new world. Ignoring just for one second (if I can), the frenzied excitement we all felt at the prospect of a crazy night on the tiles in Inverness, we were also leaving the salty swirling sea behind us that had carried us for the last 500 miles. We would now be entertained by canal life, fresh water, mountainous views, crazy shopkeepers and even crazier lock keepers!!

But of course first we had to relish, anticipate and embrace the night life of Inverness first. We toasted the warm night sky with gins, draped ourselves in the least crumpled and smelly garments that we could find, and shaved the dirt from our skin. Beware Inverness - we have arrived.

Of course a night on the tiles in Inverness can't really get going until you have umm, err, ahhhh………….found Inverness!!! The basin where we had moored was deep in an industrial estate that had looked really quite close to town as we sailed to shore. Suddenly it seemed as if we had in fact stopped off on Mars. At last we found a taxi driver, which in itself was an education and intriguing re-introduction to our fellow man. Communication with any fellow members of the human race would have been a novelty, but considering the Inverness breed of this species and the fact that they all sound as if they are talking out of their nostrils, made even these first moments of the evening rip-roaring entertainment!!!! Bless him.

We sauntered along the river and walked into the first pub we came to with a stride in the step and a thick dry thirst. In about 19 seconds or so, it was with a great gusto that those heels had about turned and marched straight back out of the door, heads shaking at the sheer awfulness (??) of the place. Ahaaa - this might not be quite what we had expected..? We chose to find food PDQ and managed to book a table in a sort-of-OK looking place next to a pub where we popped into for a few beers before eating. WOW - we had returned to 1987; jacket sleeves were up at the elbows, lemon cotton slip-on's treaded the glossy tiled floor, cheesy music from hell (Foreigner I think) belted out songs sung by men with long wigs, and cool pink 80's neon softly caressed the walls. Where had this town been!!!!!!

In the restaurant where they were having a 'how many people can we get in a phone box' competition, it started to dawn on us that something really was not right. People's voices seemed that bit louder, tones that would normally drift beyond you were jamming in your ears like needles under the fingernails and suddenly it came to the four of us that we had in fact been transported to a rather unpleasant Dennis Potter nightmare moment, where all is not as it seems. The fact that the floor beneath my feet was heaving up and down like a bucking bronco, making me grip the arms of my chair as if gravity was about to desert us, did not diminish the general sense of things being really a bit weird.

We took leave of these twisted moments and a particularly irritating Swedish man and returned to the Miami-Vice set for something slightly less bizarre where we could ponder what had been a decidedly odd couple of hours. Of course, you cannot exclude your involvement from any experience of which you are a part. Considering how we had spent the four previous days - alone together, out at sea, oblivious of time, free of uninvited human irritation - it was perhaps not a complete surprise that we experienced a slight sense of claustrophobia when crammed into a loud and buzzing eatery. But no - I don't accept that it was entirely a reflection on our state of minds. Inverness is a strange place, and I refuse to give up an opportunity to highlight this point. There's just something not right about the place. I imagine a strange green gassy cloud passing over it unnoticed one early Sunday morning many years ago - and hey presto - the people of Inverness waken up oblivious a few hours later, as if nothing has changed ……….oh dear………how wrong they are!!!! Whether or not the Invernessians (??) have in fact been turned odd by aliens or not, it is definitely an odd and indefinable place.

We left this world behind and returned to Hiltgund to reconvene with the gin, restore some order in our lives, and - it's after midnight - to celebrate my 30th Birthday!! And so a completely different night commenced, significantly more civilised and enjoyable. Soaked in gin at 2am, four silly men huddled around the tiller of a beautiful sailing boat, deep in the blackness of an industrial estate in Inverness, telling juvenile toilet related jokes, singing Happy Birthday at the tops of our voices - how ordinary can you get. One of us - I fail to remember who it was - decided at about 3am that it was time to start eating again, and I now remember that late night soiree for one reason - cheese. Death by Brie.

A slow start, as one would expect, and yet again we suffered the wrath of clear warm skies and an open happy sun. We watched in that hungover state which would allow you to watch a worm fast asleep for hours on end, as a crane at the pier lifted a rather heavy looking boat onto another heavier looking boat. This is not interesting, but it does remind me of how utterly gormless I (are you with me here or not guys..?) I become when I am hungover. If I am lucky enough to be able to fix my attention on one particular point for a significant period of time without any sort of distraction whatsoever, then my life becomes astonishingly and immeasurably easier. Staring at a manhole or a TV aerial for example, would be just fine, but this is of course somewhat concerning to those that can see you do this; and so if you can find some simple and slow event upon which to fix your gaze that is still of minor interest, then all the better. And what better than a big crane lifting something incredibly slowly. It made a bad start to the day just that little bit easier….!!

And so as my 31st year began, we tootled out of the river basin and headed for the entrance to the Caledonian Canal. You - the reader - are saved a pretty awful fate at this moment. My usual approach would now be to bore you senseless with the top 400 most interesting facts about the Caledonian Canal. It would appear however to be a welcome gap on my limited encyclopaedia and so you are saved this fate……….suffice to say, that's it's a jolly handy channel of water that some fine chaps decided to cut in the mid to late 19th century to save people the additional 300 or so miles it takes to sail around the north coast of Scotland. This is a handy fact, however it is hard not to consider the advantages of it not being available - we would most definitely NOT have stopped for a night out in Inverness had we required to take this longer route!!!

We wandered around the open waters west of the Kessock Bridge for half an hour not really knowing what we were doing, during which my kind, warm and loving Brother in Law got bored and so decided to cheer himself up by throwing my only towel far away into the sea!! Hangovers are strange things. We moored at the entrance basin to wait for the sea-lock to be opened. I like canals. For me, I associate them with Victorian Engineering and that crazy industrial time when it seemed that any mad, cripplingly expensive and logistically impossible Project was by that very description, an exceedingly good idea. I mean - let's build a hotel on the top of Ben Nevis. Please somebody - I challenge you to imagine anything more sensible!! Yes, canals are good hearty things.

I was, it has to be said, a tad surprised to find out that these hearty happy things are rather expensive. I tend to associate taking a boat down a slice of water with visions of freedom and a release from all monetary concerns, and certainly not the handing over of significant wads of cash. What I did like was the fact that the cost was based on the length of your boat which, by all accounts, the chap seemed to assess with a nod and a glance. That's the way to do business.

The simple experience of standing on a boat as it rises slowly as if on an enormous elevator, is rather intriguing. Actually - that's the other reason I like canals. They involve you in the basic laws of nature demonstrated in clear and beautifully simple ways. Water pressure, buoyancy, gravity; the canal lock is the perfect lesson for the technically inane (I'm top of the tree) to demonstrate these basic laws of nature. I will never forget at University watching utterly dumbfounded as Mel Adams, our Engineering lecturer, went through the complete calculation of Banuli's (apologies for spelling) equation, a means of demonstrating the rise or fall in pressure in a pipe when the pipe changes diameter. Jolly interesting. I promise you not - this guy went round the blackboard 4 times - for one equation!! No - boats going up and down are the sort of clear image I need to understand such things.

We rose like exulted Kings though the first lock and motored off down the narrow ribbon of glassy canal. It was strange to be limited by 2 bushy banks after the open expanses of the deep blue sea all around. We passed through another 2 locks and decided to take a proper stop at the boat club by the railway bridge to make use of the showers and shops. Ant and I went off to the shop by the level crossing , anticipating with a relish all the nonsense that we would buy. May I just make a point here - and I would like to know if I am alone on this one. How do we spend so much money in newsagents. Two papers, some rolls, a nerdy climbing mag, some gum, 2 camera films and a bar of chocolate - "that will be £457.26 please!!!!". Where does all the money go - I will never understand. Anyway, Ant and I were minding our own business when we heard this cackle of laughter and mad shrieking cries of glee. Welcome to the maddest shopkeeper in the world. Sadly, my memory fails me now but we talked about her for a long time afterwards. She was absolutely off her little happy head. I remember her at one point offering to sell us her shop and in return her taking Hiltgund in some sort of part exchange, which I think may have been a serious offer. Perhaps this only confirms what I was saying about Inverness the previous night - if my gassy cloud theory is true, she certainly got a healthy dose!!

Motoring down any old canal is, in terms of excitement, a rather sedentary experience, but there was something beautifully simple and civilised about it. Of course, like all activities which are considered proper and civilised, everybody is just so bloody friendly as to make you want to puke. River manners seemed to have lost all sense of perspective. We befriended a happy Norwegian chap for an hour or so at the basin which lead us to believe we were ultra safety conscious when he told us that he was basically heading back for Norway and seemed not to have even a map to find his way home. Friendliness on the canal seemed to die somewhat during one particular moment, and that was when 2 boats were together in the one lock. An exceedingly odd crowd - bald heads and lots of military clothing if I remember rightly - joined us in their boat in one of the locks and all etiquette seemed to vanish in a flash as their boat seemed to take a direct line for us. Men stood facing each other on decks, large wooden spiky poles in hand, ready to do battle should THAT boat even come close to touching THIS boat!!

Now - I do not want to slam those that play in the boaty world. Secondly, I do understand that boats do not come cheap, and like in all things where there is lots of money involved, people's patience, ability to be nice and general standard of behaviour can truly evaporate around them. And so I must air my honest opinion that in some respects, sailors really are a bunch of slightly nerdy drama queens. Any excuse - and I repeat; I understand that lots of money is involved - to raise the voice, jump up and down and basically have a complete benny is grabbed with all available gusto. And it's also dawned on me with time, that it is in fact BECAUSE of the money involved that people behave in this way.

Watch the faces and reaction etc etc of a sailing mad captain at news that one of his crew has just popped overboard and is presently floating towards Rotterdam. Calm, benign, considerate perhaps - but that level head, which we all need around us at those times of stress and uncertainty, will dominate. Now take some old brass fitting that hasn't been available in any UK boat yard since 1592 and which you still - incredibly - have on your boat in good working order - chuck it overboard, settle for 5 minutes to ponder how you will actually pass on this news, and watch in complete wonder as the reaction ignites the powder keg and the lid comes off every last proverbial hatch in the Captain's Brain. I hate to conclude this but it is quite clear. For boaty people, their boats are far more important than the people whom they let set foot on it. Now that I have burned those thin bridges that held together the small chance of me sailing with these guys ever again, let me be apologise humbly if I have caused any offence. In defence, please consider that I compare all of the above with a disaster on a mountain which is a far more straightforward occasion of course. One is only concerned with his or her own safety and that of any companions. There is no need to expend outrageous levels of energy trying to save the mountain as well. Thank God.

We tootled off southwards and were soon welcomed by steeper hillsides and the dark wide waters of Loch Ness stretching out like open arms to greet us. Considering the mysterious history of the place, there was something jolly satisfying about sailing the full length of Loch Ness. We employed a sailing technique called 'goose winging' in which both the main sail and front sail (genoa) are stretched, one to either side and at right angles to the hull, to capture the full wind coming from the rear. This seemed eminently sensible to me and had me pondering quietly to myself why we hadn't been doing it since we left Aldeburgh!! I didn't dare ask!! I remember that on one of our night watches in the North Sea, John did actually try and explain to me how a sail works, and why a boat goes in one direction while the wind happens to be firing on all cylinders in a completely different direction. Did I understand……….???

The series of photographs from this day seem to suggest that the sun and sky were providing tropical conditions. My grinning face is smeared from ear to ear in white sun-block which a blind pensioner obviously applied while I slept. Coco the clown had nothing on me.

And so we finally arrived in Fort Augustus. Gilly was due to meet us for the evening and had quietly admitted to me that she was going to try and convince John that a hotel was a better option for husband and wife, rather than a small smelly shoe box of a boat also occupied by 3 even smellier men. She'd be lucky! With no sign of her arrival, we gathered our things and made headway for the pub, at which point Chris issued a comment that forever I shall be indebted to him for. I, or should I call myself 'Rog ala Coco the Clown' had of course completely forgotten that my face looked like a cross between a bright red strawberry and the white lines running down the middle of a road. In only a few moments I would walk into a pub and confirm to all patrons that I was in fact a complete arse. But no - Chris saved my world and suffered the wrath of the others by casually questioning whether I really wanted to be going out looking like this…..even in Fort Augustus. Thank you once again Chris.

Gilly arrived and the night soared by to another time completely. All I actually remember is Gilly, myself and Ant standing at the entrance to the canal at approximately 5am watching the sunrise, while Ant spouted like a town crier to the hills why he wanted to give up bloody life in bloody London and come to live in this bloody heavenly spot. Ant's other great plan was to sleep on deck and cunningly keep himself warm using that famed implement for keeping oneself cosy - you guessed it - a copy of the Sunday Telegraph!! Surprise was not the reaction when after 10 minutes he crawled inside muttering drunkenly about such a 'bloody stupid idea………'.

For me, the shock of an unexpected wake up is as equally desirable as being flattened by a steam roller, which is exactly how I felt about 7 minutes after I finally went to sleep for the night when the chap in charge of the locks yelled at us to get up with the warning that if we didn't go through the 4 locks now, we'd be stuck in Fort Augustus all day. Oh dear - still pissed, no sleep, got to get dressed, engage brain - it's going to be a bad day!! This deeply unpleasant experience caused many odd and amusing reactions from us all, particularly that from my Sister who stormed from the boat, weekend bag in hand, and marched off down the canal path, stopping only once to glare back at us all and shout indefatigably and red faced, "Fuck off - I am going to find somewhere civilised". This was even funnier of course because about 3 seconds after shouting this, she must have remembered that Chris would soon be making breakfast; and so with tail between legs, she sheepishly returned to enjoy bacon sarnies.

We ventured up the 4 locks - all movements as slow and as gentle as possible - and stopped at the basin for a chill-out and goodbye to Gilly. Four men once again free of the female scourge!!

The last point is of particular relevance. A few miles further on, as we all enjoyed a warm silent day sliding our way along the canal - exactly what we all needed - John and myself found ourselves at the bow, staring at nothing and talking typical nonsense. The conversation must have turned to farming and the rather dubious subject of whether, in reality, people do in fact have sex with sheep. This may be weird, and it may be funny, but that's just blokes and their mindless brains. Unfortunately however, my alcohol soaked brain didn't seem to engage and soon I found myself seriously pondering such a possibility, considering the pros and cons in a logical and serious manner. My conclusion, which I offered to John in a serious and considered manner, was that if I had no choice, but options were available to me, I would choose a goat to have sex with rather than a sheep because a goat has more character. In an instant my big burly Brother-in-law was a gibbering wreck upon the deck - palpitations etc etc - leaving me stuck in that odd tiny space in the mind between awareness of reality and a complete lack of comprehension as to what I had just said. Soon I was back to my senses though and began to take cognisance of what had just spilled from my mouth, by which time the word had spread and even Hiltgund was quietly laughing to herself!! I will simply never ever live that down.

The journey from Fort Augustus to Fort William was perhaps the most relaxing passage of the whole voyage, a lazy irrelevant day where nothing seemed to happen and time chose to march at an even slower pace, as we glided past ruined castles, waterfalls and under the prow of big towering peaks. Heaven. It was particularly enjoyable for me as we were approaching a world I know very well. Suddenly I was filled with thoughts of my time in Fort William, big days on the Ben, canadian canoeing around the lochs, wild adventures into the unknown, endless pedalling around Lochaber, rucsac bulging.

The day was a dry, warm and cloudy affair, but Fort William was clearly aware of our impending arrival and knew not to disappoint; and so, as we dropped slowly and mechanically down the 12 steps of Neptune's Staircase towards the Corpach Basin, the heavens opened and in a matter of moments, we were piss wet through in a way that only the west coast can offer!!! Welcome to Fort William. Such a welcome was no great surprise to us, but the Lochaber Tourist board will surely want a word with the lock keeper (if there is such a thing) who, jolly as a beaming berry, listed in an endless series of worsening tales, the reasons why Fort William was in fact a complete dump and not worth one wasted moment of one's time. Once again, welcome to Fort William!!

As is so often the case in Lochaber, the taps in the sky were off in an instant and blue skies returned as we secured ourselves at the basin, just inside the sea-lock entrance into Loch Eil. I had called ahead and so Libby appeared for a quick hello and a gin, filling me with news of Jason and Canada. Other slightly more dubious company appeared, eye-ing Hiltgund with intrigue and wonder all at once. We all had a quick scrub and said our goodbyes to Libby, before wandering back up the canal to the Moorings at Banavie for a few beers and some pub grub, the previous nights memory and that mornings hell enough to ensure we were all in bed at a terribly sensible time.

We woke on the last day of the voyage to a classic Fort William day, cloud hovering just above the eyebrows and a light but relentless rain drifting through the skies. I called Ben and he assured me of his wave from the town as we passed by the seafront and headed down Loch Linnie.

And suddenly I can't quite believe that I have been on this boat and been in the company of John, Ant and Chris for 7 days. Leaving Aldeburgh seemed like another world away. I had left those shores convinced that this would be one of the longest weeks of my life, and suddenly, in what seemed a lightning flash, I was pondering the end of our trip.

The dark choppy waters of Linnie started to brighten as we squeezed our way through Corran, and headed for the Firth of Lorn where it suddenly became another fine sunny day. We met the CalMac Ferry almost head on as it powered it's way out of the Sound of Mull, and after much pondering, chose to march on across it's bows which we happily missed by a few hundred yards!!! We earned our happy hoots from the Captain of the big black brute.

The final destination of Craobh Haven is nestled deep in the complicated and shattered coastline that stretches south of Oban to Crinan and beyond. These waters are peppered by endless islets and islands, all separated by dull and terrifying waters all at once. My previous adventures on Jura and Scarba had given me a passion for this unknown and little visited part of the west coast. Munro mania has been a great catalyst to many people discovering a Scotland that they did not know to exist, however such treasures as this territory demonstrate that we have enough empty space to ensure that there's enough room for everybody. And long may the secrets remain………??

We slipped passed Kerrera and Seil and made for the Sound of Luing which stretches between the island of that name and Easdale, famed for its slate quarries. A few miles out to sea, the low lying ghost island of Belnahua painted it's oddly shaped silhouette against the carbon silver blue sky. After 2 days and what seemed a lifetime of relaxation on a canal, we were back in odd and unknown waters, and as John called them, the lumpy bits (land) were big, very hard and far closer than we had been used to. It was with a slightly vexed brow that I headed into the fast flowing narrows at the wheel, casual and concerned all at the same time.

Suddenly we are in a very different world. The boat lunges for the channel and spins through the waters - in an instant we seem to be far far closer to the big lumpy bits than we were 3 seconds ago. Gladly for all, John jumps to it and takes the wheel from my novice's hands. We toil through the tidal race, slip into calmer waters but it's a tight line between the shallows. Brows are furrowed and we search painstakingly for every marker. Tension suddenly fills the air.

A few moments later we are all munching on sandwiches and soaking up the sun once more. We skirt around Shuna or Torsa (can't remember) and keep a clear distance from the shores. The tension of the earlier few moments hasn't entirely escaped us. Finally we round a headland and cross the bay, searching for the entrance to the marina. We find it easily and slip between great mountains of quarried rock into a sheltered world of wooden piers, sails and masts. The mooring is not hard to find and soon ropes are tied, the sails are down and Hiltgund is settling into her new home, far far away from Aldeburgh and the Norfolk coast. We enjoy a cold beer and sit on the boat under a dark blue crystal sky, soaking up the moment that I never imagined would occur. There is something slightly subdued about us, as there so often is when something comes to an end, but the moment is not spoilt and I feel a warm and contented glow. I can barely believe that I have travelled from Norfolk to Argyll in a wooden boat which is only 44 feet long.

Chris skips up the mast to collect the receiver, Ant and I fetch bags and sort kit, while John sorts things with the marina. Suddenly Gilly appears from nowhere with car, ready to grab John and myself and take us to our next port of call, for which we are already late. We say quick and rushed goodbyes to the Perring Brothers who are staying on for a few days, and zip zip zip - in an instant, it is all over. Suddenly I am hurtling around in the back of a car as Gilly drives towards Oban like a nutter! John, not having smoked for the entire week, sits back and sighs. I reach for the paper. Back to reality.


The End

(added to website - 08/01/04)

Link to Hiltgund passage photos - page 2 - (Moray Firth - Muirtown Locks)

Link to Hiltgund passage photos - page 3 (Muirtown Locks - Fort Augustus)

Link to Hiltgund passage photos - page 4 (Fort Augustus - Fort William)

Link to Hiltgund passage photos - page 5 (Fort William - Croabh Haven)

Link to passage journal by Roger Macmorran


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