Bill Mills' room

Bill Mills

Black Smoke In the Sunset

by  Bill Mills

We had sailed up the Firth of Clyde and into the Kyles of Bute where, late on a Friday evening in June with the sun still bright and warm, we anchored at Colintraive. There was one other yacht lying quietly to a hotel mooring. A few yachts could be seen sailing further up the Kyles. The hills of Bute were going into shadow on the west side while the hills on the east side shared our sunshine. It was a peaceful, ‘good to be alive’ place.

While finishing our alfresco meal in the cockpit, a large yacht arrived and anchored near us. As the yacht settled she swung round and ended up quite close. Her skipper saw the situation and called over- “Sorry about that. If you don’t mind we will have our meal and then shift over a bit. Our skipper had no hesitation in agreeing to the suggestion. We had met the boat before and knew that the skipper – a Commander in the Navy- his wife and two teenage sons were an enthusiastic and competent crew.

No sooner had they gone below to eat than a dinghy left the yacht on the mooring and headed over towards us. Pulling away heartily at the oars was a rotund man with a very red face, very white shirt and wide shorts topped by a spotless white floppy tennis hat.

The dinghy shot past our boat and alongside the new arrival. The rower shipped his oars and holding on to a guardrail, started knocking on the hull and calling out-“Hello- on board there!’ As soon as the skipper appeared on deck the dinghy man started to shouting –‘ I am a senior official of the local Cruising Club- do you realise that you have given this yacht a foul anchorage. They were here long before you and anchored at a proper distance from my boat.’

The errant skipper politely told him there was no need to bang and shout. He had already us that he would re-anchor as soon as their meal was finished. The dinghy man started to shout again about bad manners in anchoring when our skipper took a hand in the matter, telling him that we were quite happy with the situation and suggested he should return to his own boat. With bad grace the dinghy was angrily splashed away.

As the irate man climbed aboard his own yacht gesticulating widely and only stopped when his wife handed him a glass. Shortly afterwards the nearby yacht was moved giving us plenty of swinging room and peace and quiet returned.

But not for long.  An hour later loud engine noises were heard and looking for the source we saw an old converted ship’s lifeboat heading towards the anchorage. I wasn’t one of the better conversions. It really did look as if someone had stuck an oversized garden shed with a couple of cracked windows, onto the bright green hull. Large dense clouds of thick black smoke, belched a smoke screen from the exhaust of the terribly noisy, ancient, sick, diesel engine- possibly terminally ill from the sounds

and smells emitted from its bowels.

          As this craft (for want of a better word) designed to be imminently seaworthy and a saviour of those in peril on the deep angry seas, farted and laboured past, we were amazed to see the crew emerging through the sooty environment.

          The skipper, steering his vessel with a long thin tiller and keeping his course by peering round one corner of the garden shed and then the other. Difficult to believe but true: he had his trousers held up with bright green braces- and the legs rolled up to his knees. The sleeves of his shirt with broad green striped were rolled up over muscular, hairy arms. The shirt itself was half-in, half-out of the chest high trouser waistband. Bare legs disappeared into unlaced floppy black shoes. And literally, to cap it all, an off-white handkerchief knotted at the four corners to keep the sun off his pate.

          There was another man standing forward, almost a clone of the skipper. Two women, in bright floral dresses, one with a clashing apron round her bursting middle and holding a golfing umbrella aloft, sat on an old kitchen chair. The other very thin woman with a soot spotted, bright yellow dress, clutched a black cardigan across her sparse chest with one hand, while hanging on tightly to an old lop-sided striped deck chair.

          Children ran about yelling and screaming. How many, it was difficult to tell, as they were moving about so much.

          The ‘lifeboat’ skipper gave us a circular wave as he tried to go round outside us but miscalculated and had to dive between our neighbour and ourselves – just missing both of us. Then, the thumping, clanking mode of propulsion gave a most magnificent booming belch of jet black smoke and died. The two men vainly tried to restart the lifeless dinosaur. By sheer luck they got an old long-handled brush round a hotel mooring and tied a dubious piece of cordage onto the small pickup float.

          Unfortunately this put them in close proximity to the vessel of the ‘Senior Official’ of the local Cruising Club. Two spotless white clad figures sprang into view with glasses in hand and immediately started to shout across to the wretched skipper that he couldn’t stay as it was a hotel visitors mooring and they would have to leave and go somewhere else. The reply they received from the old wreck’s skipper was lengthy and the words used were not repeated and were unrepeatable.

          The two in white were aghast and suitably silenced and we saw them look at each other, pour themselves another drink and disappear below.

          Saturday proved the forecasters right in the fast moving depression that came through. All the boats stayed where they were, waiting for it to pass. Much activity could be seen around the mechanical monster on the old converted lifeboat.

          Sunday morning was a much improved day and we decided that we would venture away about midday. At 0930 while we were having a coffee and yarning, there was a knocking on the hull and voice called-‘ Any one up yet?’. When our skipper went on deck we heard that dreadful accented voice asking him if anyone would like to join his wife and him going to church. Our skipper declined. On rejoining us in the cabin he told us that ‘they’ were dressed in blazers, ties, grey flannels, yottie caps- and wellies!

          They never asked the Commander or the Lifeboaties if they wanted to go to church.

          Later we saw the churchgoers return and they started getting ready to leave the anchorage. Just then there was a bang from the old green lifeboat and the engine started to thump. Her crew cheered and the children ran about clapping their hands. With a lot of laughter and shouting they cast off from their ‘forbidden’ mooring

And started heading out into the Kyles, passing very close to the ‘Senior Official’ who screamed at them backed up by his wife.

          There was frantic movement on the lifeboat. Just as the grotty old green hull was about to scrape along the beautifully varnished hull of- ‘you know who’- there was the biggest bang yet heard. The engine erupted like a volcano, then burst into life and pulled the old boat clear, as black soot and goodness knows what else blotted out the varnished hull as the two on board held their noses. The air smelt of half burned diesel fumes, old socks and a touch of pigswill!.

          The crew of the maritime atrocity retrieved the cushions they were going to use as fenders and started singing, laughing and shouting at each other. The engine cleared and started working smoothly with hardly any smoke, as if it could go on for years.

          The happy sounds from the old green lifeboat got fainter as they motored away up the Kyles and we saw the other two standing looking at each other with their faces and lovely whites, polka-dotted with oily soot.

          Our neighbour slowly sailed past in the light breeze and the Commander called across-‘ Good for the old girl—but what a pair of twits!

         Bill Mills