Chapter 10: Aug 18/20 Tarbert to Rock Ferry and Home

Tarbert is a busy little herring port and enjoys a salubrious climate. There is at least one palm tree there, growing in a garden below the ivy clad ruins of Bruce's Castle. It is here at Tarbert and not at Crinan that the canal should have been cut. I believe there was a project for it. There is only a mile of land lying in a low strath between East and West Loch Tarbert. In the days of Bruce they used to drag their boats over this narrow strip. Hence the name Tarbert (gaelic tairbeart) which means a bearing or carrying across. The navigation of East Loch Tarbert is a bit tricky; but if you watch the courses taken by the numerous drifters that come in and out, you will soon know on which hand you pass the various perches scattered promiscuously between the islets and rocks.

At 6.15 next morning, we put out again into Loch Fyne as the red sun was watching over the hills of Cowal. It was flat calm and the scene was charming, soothing and satisfying. Richly but not densely wooded shores with a background of most gracefully contoured hills reflecting the colours of the dawn. There was a quality of gentleness, of repose and refinement. No wonder that these attributes are the treasured possession of the inhabitants. They are born to them, just as the harsh plains of Brandenburg produced the Hun.

We were about a couple of miles north of Skipness, where basking sharks may often be seen with their huge black dorsal fins, like the sails of a Barbary Pirate or a Spanish buccaneer. They are only dangerous to encounter when in a playful mood, when they jump with sometimes fatal results to small boats in their vicinity. They do not feed on flesh; but swallow great draughts of plankton, that is jellyfish and floating organisms. I once saw dozens of these giant monsters, each thirty to forty feet long lying motionless on the water with their great black triangular fins and perhaps a suspicion of tail visible, while their bodies were submerged like lazy submarines. It was one of those calm, sunny, halcyonic summer afternoons and they simply basked. On another occasion we came so close to one of these somnolent leviathans that he woke up and nearly rammed us. We could see his huge red gullet, between his probably toothless jaws. But as a mariner in Tarbert once observed to me - "Man! there's nae harrm in them; they're as doceel as dogs."

From Skipness our course took us over to the Arran shore close enough to see the details of farms and houses. The slopes of the mountains were beautifully carpeted and several dazzling white falls crashed down from the high glens and ridges.

We were now in Kilbrennan Sound, but maintained an even keel over a slightly crinkled surface.

Now no one can maintain, support, undergo or submit to an indefinite watch. As far as I was concerned there was no compelling urge: so I relaxed. Indeed I had breakfast cooked by the resourceful Lordie. A bit of a dark horse; that Lordie - not so verdant!

When I resumed my observations, I had to revise my ideas; I had thought we were heading for Campbeltown on the Booster's business; but now from our course I surmised we were making for Loch Ryan. We were about five miles south of Pladda at the end of Arran and I had an almost complete horizon, save for the loom of Cantyre now rapidly vanishing. Booster is busy with the azimuth scanning the seas for a sight of Ailsa. Since the days of the historic Henry of Portugal, there has been no greater navigator than Booster. You could not separate him from charts and dividers and parallel rulers. And when indeed could his services be more in demand than now when we were forging ahead through charted seas with never a sight of land.

After weeks of coasting amid islands and inlets and shores of enchantment, it was almost a relief to have nothing to look at but sea. There was indeed an occasional guillemot with its attendant child who shyly dived when we came near, and just now a gaggle of gannets flew past, six of them in perfect formation, snow white with their long yellow beaks and cold greedy eyes. Doubtless you appreciate my delicate allusion that the solan are geese and therefore gaggle; but a 'guzzle' would be more appropriate for these scoffers of the deep.

It was a hazy day with only moderate visibility. As it lightened above, the sea was like a vast bowl of turtle soup into which had been emptied a jug of milk. It was smooth but not flat for a swell was coming up from the south west. Presently the sky was overcast with a dull leaden glow from a sun vainly trying to pierce the gloom. The surface now gleamed like polished pewter and the next moment as a light air brushed across it, it changed to roughened glass such as is put in office partitions to screen the manager from the public eye. But soon little freshlets began to come in rapid succession and far away on the horizon could be seen that long dark line which portends a stronger blow. Wavelets began to appear and a cool air stole into the deck house. The haze soon lifted: the sun came out, and at 1030 we saw Ailsa Cralg abeam to port a dozen miles away like a pale haystack in a golden yellow sea. It probably was: if it wasn't, it ought to have been.

The Skipper now called all hands and most politely invited them to say where they would like to go. At sea all roads lead to anywhere; all you have to do is to select on which particular bee line you propose to go. We all decided for the Isle of Man and left it to the Booster to find the way. The course took us close in to the Galloway Land. It was now clear all round and we could see the Mull of Cantyre almost abeam to starboard and further south the loom of Ireland. As we sank Ailsa Graig and forgot its bearing, we kept saying "Oh there it is"; but it wasn't: it was the False Craig, equally bold and conical, close inland from Bennane Head. At 1215 Corsewall Lighthouse was abeam to port some three miles away. The cornfields near Milleur Point made a brilliant splash of yellow against the dark blue banks of Glen App and Cairn Ryan. Indeed the sun lit up the pleasant slopes of the Galloway coast and painted them heather mixture like the Scotch plaidies they were. By now the wind had freshened spray was blowing off our bow wave and heavy swell and seas were pouring in through the Atlantic gate. Presently we passed Black Head and came abeam of Portpatrick in a pale green white crested sea, where the Booster made his last gesture to the Mariners of Scotland. He hoisted the ensign which so appropriately bears a red cross; and doubtless the coastguards and longshoremen of that remote and exposed outpost, where even now Atlantic breakers were crashing white upon the rocks, would recognise and cherish the salute.

We now began to pitch and plunge and ship green water, but held on steadily with the sea on the starboard bow. But when at 1430 we came abreast of Cammag Head which we passed at a distance of half a mile, we altered course to the south east for the Mull of Galloway and the seas came right abeam. For five miles we rolled and staggered under these fearsome cliffs which rise four hundred feet sheer from their base. It was about as wicked a lee shore as imagination could picture. Never more than half a mile and often less from that sheer rock face, indented deep with caves and festooned with massive boulders, with the seas pounding and crashing into fountains of creamy white surf on the iron bound marge, I may be pardoned for feeling a passing qualm. What would happen if the heart of 'Helen' ceased to beat and her engines were silenced? Such things have happened and may happen again.

Having got that off the chest we will get on a bit. After half an hour of intense disturbance of equilibrium, violent jerks and dislocations, wrenches and unseatments, carryings on and away and general iniquity, we cleared the Mull of Galloway and so bade farewell to Caledonia, characteristically, stern and wild to the end.

There is little more to be told. Four hours later we dropped anchor in Ramsey Bay which afforded fair shelter in the south westerly weather that still prevailed. The sun came out strong next day, but the stormy conditions did not abate. Preferring the sea on the shoulder we made for Anglesey instead of the Mersey and after nine hours of continuous pitch and toss and throwing our paraffin tank off its base; we found a very temporary lee in Moelfre Roads. It was quiet enough until about five in the morning, when a heavy slop came in from southeast and we rolled to and fro' like an angry mandarin, till no one could stand it any longer. A few hours later we entered the Mersey and if Mr. Masefield was watching, he would have said that "Helen" came

".....with a curl of bubbles at her lips,
Bright to her berth, the Sovereign of the Storm"

Postscript: Seas are never mountainous.

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