Bill Mills' room

Bill Mills

Safe – but only for that day

by  Bill Mills

When we left Gigha only a few wisps of cotton made widely spaced dots against the blue summer sky.  If there was any wind we couldn’t feel it and neither could the flat calm sea.  The sails remained all sad and droopy.  Nevertheless, we decided to be purists and, regardless of time, would sail to Craighouse on Jura using our light weather skills and not tempted to use the demon diesel.  We heeled the boat over as far as we could to try and throw some shape into the sails.  We even cheated now and again by skulling the rudder.

          We didn’t even waft past the small islands at the north end of Gigha.  We only managed to insinuate movement so slow that we got to know individual seals basking on the hot rocks.  In fact, we were in their company so long that we felt we were among friends and offered them a coffee.  We drew the line at a dram : there were too many of them.

          After about four hours the tide turned and as so often happens, a bit of wind stirred – not much – more of a wheeze than a breeze but enough to rack the log up to two knots including help from the tide. We arrived off Craighouse in the late afternoon and prepared to anchor not too far from the pier.  With the heavy fields of kelp about we played safe and bent on the fishermans anchor as main holding and used the CQR with a warp down from the forefoot as secondary holding.

A curry was prepared and having it nearly ready, left it to mature and rowed ashore to have a libation at the hotel.  Arriving there we were disappointed to find the big door firmly shut.  As it was about 1730 we thought they were a bit late in opening.  By 1745 and then 1800 and several attacks on the door, still no sign of life.

          A big red BMW showing Belgium plates, had been sitting outside almost as long as we had.  A young couple left the car and came over and asked us if it was normal for the bar to take so long to open.  They were as thirsty and disappointed as we were.  Must have been about 1815 when, after a heavy concerted ScotBelg assault on the door and its hinges, it was thrown open with a thud to display a very fierce and aggravated looking hotelier.  When the slightly chastened ScotBelg raiders said  “Good evening”  He did not answer and snorted away back inside the hotel.

                   The four of us were at the bar and had ordered drinks from a nice looking girl who didn’t look happy either.  Mine host hove-to alongside her, with his big back to us and in a loud Highland lilt said “ Haff you noticed Flora- that some people make an awful fuss if you are a wee bit late in opening- but they neffer complain when you don’t call  -“ TIME!”  till well into the next day?”

          We had to stand and wait for a considerable time before the two behind the bar asked us what we wanted to drink.  By prior agreement with the Belgiums I ordered up four Glen Morangies. 

Our choice didn’t seem to please the big man behind the bar –“Have you tried the ’Chura ‘malt?” he asked.  I said  “No –we might try it later.”  As I picked up the tray with our drinks I could hear heavy breathing behind me as I walked over to our table.  I felt heat on the back of my neck as well.

          After enjoying our Glen Morangies we all agreed to try the Jura malt.  It was the Belgium’s call and we noticed that when he asked for Jura malt the big man positively beamed at him and it was also noticed that the Jura drams were larger than the Glen Morangies.-.

          The four of us chatted for a while.  They were on their honeymoon and were enjoying their holiday and seemed to be interested in what we were doing.  As we had the curry to finalise and an early start to catch the tide through the Sound of Islay, Duncan and I decided one more and then back to the boat.

          Duncan went up to get the round.  The now smiling big man asked him if we had enjoyed the Jura malt.  Duncan also smiled “Yes it was quite pleasant –but we will have four Glen Morangies to finish off. Please.”  No more words were spoken but the face behind the bar became more of a puce colour and a deep breath was taken.  Oh!- and the drams were back to the smaller version.

          ‘He’ had been speaking to some local customers as we left and said  “Thank you – good night.”  The silence was so acute you would have thought there wasn’t anyone near the bar. 

But as we closed the door behind us there was a positive rumble of loud voices with one much louder than the others.  We had no doubt that the Four Glen Morangies were the topic of conversation.

          We left the Belgiums and rowed the dinghy back to the boat, had our curry in which I had used some of those wee sweet, spring turnips –delicious, especially with a glass each of banana wine.  Well! We were on holiday weren’t we?

          Getting up at 0300 had compensations.  The moon was a silvery three-quarters in an almost cloud free, blue-black sky, making the shore buildings, the pier, the trees—everything – sharply outlined silhouettes.  The wind was from the southwest and hardly a force 3 so we motored out of the Small Isles and down well past Brosdale Island and over towards McArthurs Head before turning with safety up into the Sound of Islay.  It was coming out of neaps so we had a fair bit of tide running with us and within the hour Port Ascaig was on the port quarter and the Sound was starting to open out again.

          Another hour and we were clear of Rubha a Mhail.  Got the sails up, choked the engine and set course for Skalasaig on Colonsay.  But it was not to be.  The wind steadily swung round until it was almost due east , making Skalasaig a no-go area and giving Duncan and I thoughts about the weather pattern.

          We decided to head northwards up to Loch Spelve in Mull.  The sun started to dodge behind the clouds giving long shadows across the sea.                    

After a while I turned to Duncan – “Those clouds seem to be getting quite dark – I wonder if there is something coming up weather wise that isn’t on the forecast, and tied up with that swing in the wind direction?.”  Duncan looked up at the sky – then at me and didn’t say anything.

          We were well up the coast of Mull as sunset approached and I again mentioned to Duncan that the sky was looking quite dark and the clouds a little ominous.  My friend looked at me quizzically, as if he thought I was kidding him – then  “Bill –if you would take those bloody sunglasses off everything would look a lot brighter.”  The man was right.  I had had my shades on since early morning and had forgotten about them.

          As we closed Loch Spelve and sailed into the lee of the land we started up the diesel to motor in.  After fifteen minutes the reliable SAAB stopped.  Checks showed that there was a lack of diesel in the tank.  With using the engine as little as possible, we had not bothered to count up the actual hours that had been run.  Ah well – plenty of spare fuel.  The big Jerry can was lifted onto the side deck and poured through two filters into the tank.

          The engine refused to run.  Air-locked.  Out with the manual and prepared to follow the instructions to clear fault.  Duncan stayed on the tiller as I was reckoned to be more mechanically minded.  I looked for screwdriver, pliers etc.  I found two screwdrivers with chewed bits and a pair of pliers that were well past their sell-by date.

  When sailing on the boat, normally the skipper carried out any repairs and had just appeared with the necessary tools in his hand,

          Duncan called down to me in the cabin  “Going to bring her round with the last of this breeze and head for Oban.”  My reply was interspaced with four letter words describing the medical condition of the tools that I was trying to work with.  I kept on looking for other tools that I was sure I had seen on board.  I got really annoyed, trying to unscrew screws on the fuel line without damaging the heads.  At last I was so mad I started chucking the really bad tools out of the cabin with Duncan ducking his head to one side as something went flying past his ear into the sea.

          Then, tucked away in a corner, I found a slightly better screwdriver.  Very carefully I worked away and at last had the relief of seeing bubbles turn into flowing diesel – twice.  I called to Duncan to turn the engine – and away she went.  We brought the head round and headed back for Loch Spelve.  With the higher latitude we were getting the benefit of the longer twilight so we could see to dodge the spit and make sure we were clear of the drying reef off the north shore and then into the widening loch.

          We anchored in the northwest corner at 2300.  There were no fish farms then.  We reckoned we deserved a couple of drams while the Hungarian Goulash was simmering to readiness and the Basmati rice was sitting waiting to be popped into boiling water when the last 25 minutes had arrived. 

In anticipation of the meal we opened a nice bottle of Elderberry wine that my next door neighbour had donated. 

          It had been a long old day and we were very tired when we had our last wee nip.  From the depths of his bunk I vaguely remember Duncan muttering something about not realising that I had such a temper and that my aim was dangerous.

          The following morning we inflated the dinghy and rowed across to a little corner where we knew that there was a small waterfall.  It came pouring down from about ten feet and if you could stand the temperature, let you experience the greatest wake-up, invigorating shower.

          Back at the boat we changed into our walking boots.  Before rowing ashore again, we dug out a bottle of white wine and put it into a bucket that was lowered over the side and into the water. Ashore again at the top end of the loch we started the stiff walk up one of the high hills that almost surround Loch Spelve.

An hour and a half later we thankfully reached the top, pulled our shirts off and lay down on the springy grass and let the hot sun dry the sweat off our wet bodies.

We dozed for a while,  then I heard Duncan say “ There’s another yacht coming in.”  I looked down at the loch and saw a red hulled yacht getting ready to anchor, perhaps 300 yards from our boat.  After anchoring we watched the two dots that were the crew, get their dinghy off the fore deck, inflate it and get it over the side.

With the dinghy in the water they climbed in and started rowing towards our boat.  When they arrived alongside we saw one of them lean over towards our bucket.  Duncan and I stood up and started yelling at the top of our voices, telling those two guys to leave our goddamn etc wine alone!  However- after they had removed the bottle of wine from the bucket it was held aloft and waved about over their heads and then returned to the bucket.  Duncan and I scuttled down the heather slopes, into the dinghy and back to our boat as quickly as we could – just in case they changed their mind.

          That night we had quite a convivial get-together with the other crew...

          We left Loch Spelve and sailed over to Oban as we wanted to get the boat all shipshape for the owner’s arrival the following day .We went alongside a 40ft fishing boat with a big open deck aft  Duncan, in bare feet, stepped onto the gunwale of the fishing boat and jumped down onto the deck with a mooring warp.  As his feet hit the deck he collapsed with a yell of pain.  Turned out that the skipper had an artificial leg and the deck had been treated with a very rough and sharp surface to give him a good grip on the deck.  For Duncan it had been like jumping onto a bed of nails.

          The following day the owners arrived.  After the usual friendly greetings and the two of us being complimented on the condition of the boat – Duncan told the story about the air-locked engine and exaggerated my actions – ducking and weaving about as he told

them about tools whizzing past his head while my language was told to be incredible.

          Having laughed for a while, the two owners looked at each other and one said –“ But what about the bagpipe box?”  Duncan and I looked at them as if they were speaking Andromadean and asked  “What do you mean – the bagpipe box?”

          “For God’s sake - surely you both knew about the bagpipe box?”

          Both owners went into the cabin and called for us to follow.  They lifted the cushion off the pilot berth and said  “Look.”  I looked and saw what I had seen before when I had been trying to find decent tools, the black top of one of the water tanks.

With indecent slowness, a hand was laid on top of the black surface and lo and behold the lid of a bagpipe box was opened to display a shining set of practically any tool you might need..

I am not a tall person but after that I felt positively minute.