Sailing 'Round Scotland

First Person Report by the Professor:

I love to visit Scotland. Rural Scotsmen are as friendly as Irishmen.And the land is remarkably uncrowded--more like British Columbia than Great Britain. This year, I joined "The Chairman" and his son, Hugh, aboard their 36-foot sloop "Dragon" on a leg of their multi-summer transAtlantic cruise--a 200-mile voyage from Stornoway, on Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, to Kirkwall, on Orkney island, just beyond the northern tip of the Scottish mainland.

The Chairman is a skilled yachtsman as well as a brilliant entrepreneur and electronics consultant. Hugh is a Brown-educated sailing instructor. Last summer, just the two of them sailed from Long Island to Ireland. I am a sailor of some disrepute. In the 1980s, my 28-foot sloop "Little Skiff" suffered two major mishaps that each required Coast Guard intervention. Aboard the Dragon, all I had to do was stay out of the way of The Chairman and Hugh! There really was no need for wife Kathy to say Hail Marys.

Getting to Stornoway was tricky. First a British Airways flight from JFK to Heathrow. Among a crowd of passengers who resembled students heading for a bar, I was relatively old and well dressed, and the agent upgraded me from Steerage to Second Class on the 100%-full flight! The seat was commodious, but the kid next to me gyrated to a Discman all night, and kept me awake with his inadvertent pokes and kicks. From Heathrow, the next stop was Edinburgh. As we approached, the sun was shining brightly, and I was excited to see the QE2 moored in the Firth of Forth, just east of the spectacular railway bridge.

At Edinburgh, I boarded a small twin-prop Saab to Stornoway. At the gate, each passenger was handed a warning notice that inclement weather probably would prevent the plane from landing at Stornoway, and BA would refund the fare but would not pay for accommodations. The approach to Lewis Island was spectacular. Whitecaps in the ocean. Outlines of crofts on the green, rain-soaked fields. Pondering the bad weather, and contemplating the voyage, I felt like one of the Space Cowboys--an old guy with grey hair pretending to be a sailor! The Saab landed smoothly, despite low cloud cover and heavy rain. At the tiny terminal, I was met by a smiling Hugh, who had arrived earlier in the day, but whose luggage had missed a connection and arrived on my flight.

Stornoway was a crew change point for the Dragon. The next morning, two young cousins would fly home to Long Island, and Sir Martin would return to his estate south of London. For dinner, Hugh found a surprisingly sophisticated hotel, with excellent drinks and food. Sir Martin and The Chairman sparred over the bill. The Chairman was victorious, having bribed the waitress to take his Visa card in advance--and to admonish Sir Martin that his MasterCard was invalid on Lewis Island.

I slept well after the long trek and the wonderful dinner, even though the Dragon was jammed with six crewmen, and everyone (but me?) was snoring. As a dilettantish sailor, comfortable in my berth aboard a vessel sailed by two accomplished yachtsmen--one of whom was sleeping on the floor--I thought about the role of the propaganda officer in Das Boot, who had his own berth, but didn't have the claims to seamanship and bravery of the sweat-stained crewmen.

After a day of successfully navigating treacherous waters, The Chairman relaxes with an Irish ale in the plush cabin of the Dragon.

Stornoway seems like the end of the world. Cold, foggy, rainy, with real fishermen. The Dragon was tied up at the commercial fishing dock, next to two recreational boats from the Faroe Islands. Faroese yachtsmen must be exceptionally dedicated. The Faroes are 250 miles from the nearest land! So even a casual cruise requires days in treacherous seas! One of the Faroe-flagged boats was a steel-hulled sloop with a kerosene stove, manned by a handsome 50-ish grey-haired male and a cute young blonde. The two claimed to be father and daughter. They were delightful, humorous, cosmopolitan. The other Faroese vessel--a crude wooden 1957 fishing boat with a tiny sail--was manned by two scruffy 50-ish males who drank continuously. The more outspoken of the two--a dentist who didn't seem to give a damn about fixing teeth--railed against the deficiencies of American society: guns, violence, capital punishment, opposition to abortions, meaningless lives. I told him that whenever I visit foreign countries, I always feel better about America. (Not completely true--but I too can be a provocateur!) The dentist asked us whether we felt freer than fishermen!

The Stornoway museum displays artifacts from an astonishing military accident in December 1919. An "armored yacht" (a private vessel impressed into military service during the Great War?), bringing home returning veterans, hit a rock and sank in Stornoway harbor, drowning 200 men! For such a small town, this must have been a disaster of immense proportions.

Returning from an onshore hike, Hugh puts his hand on the galley stove even before he removes his backpack

Hugh and I bought as much provisions as we could carry at the local Safeway. Young women in the store eyed Hugh covetously. Little did they know what an interesting bachelor was in their midst! What would it mean to a single female on a remote Scottish isle to run off with a Scottish-American ocean-going yachtsman who is tall, athletic, dashing, and has an Ivy League degree--and can cook?! We heard some elderly women speaking Scots Gaelic; unlike Irish Gaelic, it didn't sound like Hebrew.

The Chairman assigned me to the relatively commodious forecastle of the Dragon, and Hugh cooked three delicious hot meals each day. The wonderful way I was accommodated reminded me of an Army recruiting sergeant promising "Three hots and a cot!"

We set sail toward the Scottish mainland amidst the usual cold, rain, and fog. Unfortunately, we faced a strong headwind much of the time, and we were forced to motor most of the way. Although the Dragon has a tiller--rare for a sailboat longer than 25 feet--it also has an electronic autopilot, which seemed especially incongruous with the traditional wooden tiller. The Chairman was religious in adhering to his course. He used a GPS to plot our progress on the charts, and he repeatedly input course corrections on the little keyboard that controlled the autopilot. In an environment with high winds, strong tidal currents, heavy shipping, and a coastline of submerged rocks, I could comprehend the imperative to navigate accurately.

I failed to spot a large tanker that was approaching astern. It was not on a collision course, but my failure to see the danger made its mark. Next time a tanker emerged from the fog, I detected it before Hugh and The Chairman...and I developed a pain in my neck from looking backward in the cold and wet! In rain and fog, tankers are difficult to spot, and Hugh surmised that the light-colored Dragon must be almost invisible to other vessels in such weather. Aside from keeping a good watch, our greatest safeguard against being run down by a tanker was a large radar reflector hung from a spreader. The Dragon itself has no radar, because The Chairman feels that it's more important to keep an accurate watch, and he feels that radar can actually be dangerous, because inexperienced sailors sometimes suffer collisions while distracted by the radar screen, pondering the odd blip, and not seeing the tanker or whatever.

At night, we entered a fiord-like loch that includes a survival school for corporate managers. An acquaintance of The Chairman once worked at the school, and he had given The Chairman a package to hand deliver to the owner...who proved to be absent, having himself set sail in the other direction to cross the ocean to Cape Cod. After the survival school, we saw no further humans in the loch. Hugh and I rowed ashore and climbed some small mountains. The sheep seemed surprised to see us. There was a strange variety of sheep with long snouts that resembled dogs. It was the Fourth of July, but we had no one but ourselves with whom to celebrate. The Chairman and Hugh are patriotic, the former born in England, the latter in Scotland, and each a naturalized American. We sat down for our evening libations, and they played a Woody GuthrieCD, "This land is your land, this land is my land...." And, of course, the Dragon flew a large American yacht ensign.

Next day, we sailed around Cape Wrath, an aptly-named head with exceptionally strong tides and sheer cliffs. The charts carried bold warnings to Avoid This Area. We also sailed through a Royal Navy submarine training area...but we saw nothing other than all sorts of varieties of sea birds and the occasional tanker. At night, we anchored in a thinly-populated loch. Hugh and I again rowed ashore. There were a few houses, but no visible humans.

The Professor poses on the summit of a crag, high above the Dragon at anchor in a tidal loch.

We reached Orkney the next evening, but we caught a violent outbound tide, such that the Dragon was motoring more than 6 knots against the water, but less than 3 knots relative the ground. We dropped anchor in another relatively unpopulated spot, but it was very cold, and we stayed below, with all of the hatches buttoned down, and with two candles, an open engine-access hatch, and our own body heat. It was cozy!

In the morning, we motored into Kirkwall. The small marina was jammed with pleasure boats from several countries. The dockmaster was as courteous and accommodating as could be. He even offered us the key to the showers--but we were in a hurry to visit the incredibly well preserved Viking village, a waterfront cluster of stone-age houses replete with stone beds, fireplaces, tables, cubbies, etc., all of which was preserved for centuries under sand--until a huge storm in 1850 washed away the sand and exposed the ancient structures...too good to call "ruins."

After the Viking village, I rushed to Kirkwall Airport, and I actually hadn't bathed since leaving Long Island! (Longest gap between showers since I was in the field in Bavaria with the Fourth Cavalry.) No one at the airport seemed to be in a rush, however. The airport personnel were explaining that weather conditions would preclude flying at Kirkwall--probably for a couple of days! The workers were calm and courteous. The travelers seemed good-humored and unsurprised. What followed was an amazing trek to Glasgow, involving a bus to the ferry to John O'Groats, then another bus south to Inverness, then a bus-like van to Glasgow. We arrived after midnight and were accommodated at BA expense at a decent PostHouse hotel at the airport. Portions of the drive were utterly spectacular. Either the Scots were themselves unclean, or they were courteous enough to ignore my odor: everyone was friendly.

During the trip down to Glasgow, Kathy made a last-ditch effort to expedite my return, so that I would be able to get home in time for a small coming-home dinner. Lacking a mobile phone, I asked the bus attendant if I could use her phone, and she cheerfully handed it to me, explaining that it was the bus company's phone. When she debarked at Inverness, she neither asked me to return the phone nor did she tell the driver that I had it. The Scots I've met are indeed wonderful!

Amazingly, I did make it home on time...Kathy picked me up at JFK and we drove directly to dinner. Kathy seemed delighted to see me after she had spent seven nights sleeping with Molly, our Welsh Springer Spaniel. Yet, two nights later, she abandoned our master bedroom and repaired to the guest room...because of my snoring! I'll have to plan another solo vacation.

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