Welcome Back

Monday July 9th 2018

Start putting together the perfect day and sunshine has to come high on the list. Yes, the sun is shining – just a few high clouds but they’re mostly on the horizon. In this patch of the Atlantic it is a day of blue skies.

Blue skies and blue seas – that deep blue you only get with deep water and here, just south of the Hebrides Terrace Seamount, the seabed is over 2000 metres beneath the keel.

And progress is on the list too – the feeling that the destination is getting closer all the time. This is where the singlehanded sailor has the advantage: He can change the destination.

Yesterday the destination was causing trouble: The whole point of coming to Scotland had been to take part in the Rival Round Rockall Rally. It is 50 years since the first Rival yacht was launched and the owners’ association had the idea of marking the event by taking a number of these tough, seaworthy boats to that desolate lump of granite 200 miles out in the Atlantic which gave its name to a whole sea area of the Shipping Forecast: Rockall.

In fact, only three made it to the jumping-off point in Castlebay on the Isle of Barra – and one of them saw Rockall as only a part of their “big picture” which was to circumnavigate the Outer Hebrides. This meant starting with a 25-mile detour.

There was also a plan to land two people on the rock. After all, landing on Rockall is about as common as landing on the Moon. Clearly this was going to be quite an operation. It would take hours.

None of which seemed to fit in with my own “Big Picture”. For me, Rockall was just a turning point to get a good angle to the prevailing winds going down the Atlantic where I was due to meet the family in the Azores. I had 24 days to do 1,500 miles – so no time to waste. Certainly, no fuel to waste motoring into the wind and tide for the detour when there was a perfectly good short cut between the islands. I told the other boats I would see them on the other side.

I never did. Half way to Rockall, there was still no sign of them. Then the wind died and backed to the West. The other hundred miles might take another two days – meanwhile the other boats were loaded with fuel (one had an extra 50 litres lashed on deck). They would turn on their engines just as soon as the speed started dropping. By the time I got there the historic ascent of Rockall would history.

That was when the chart for the Atlantic came out. The Azorean island of Sao Miguel lay 1330 miles away on a bearing of 2200. Let’s just try an experiment – see what course we can lay: Lift the chain off the self-steering, put the helm up, trim on the other tack. Not too close, she’ll have to look after herself… Now, what course does the compass give us? Hey, 2230 – almost a straight line to the Air BnB Tamsin booked in Ponta Delgada.

So it was that sunset found me standing in the companionway with a can of Green King IPA (cool from the beer locker in the bilges) watching the windvane tracking us into Irish waters when there was a sigh close by.

It was a sound so familiar – a reminder of a life which is returning in almost every detail. And there, just off the quarter, so close as to be practically within reach, were two pilot whales surfacing – as they always seem to – so close together that they might have been joined at the hip.

Within five minutes, there were a dozen of them spread out astern, in two’s and three’s – their blunt, jet-black heads breaking out of the white crests, the air filled with their explosive sighs. One group of four curled again and again, pressed together so closely they appeared as one. They couldn’t have needed to breathe that often. I think they wanted to look at me.

When had I seen this before? When was the last time I was alone in a boat embarking on an ocean crossing? I worked it out – 27 years ago. And yet everything was the same – as if no time had passed at all – as if these were the same friends come to check up on me as they might periodically just to see all is well.

“Hello!” I called out to them. “Hello again!” Silly, really…

And then something peculiar happened. One of the whales broke away from the others. That was odd, to see one swimming alone. Then suddenly it leapt right out of the out of the water – not high in the air like a dolphin or doing a somersault or anything. But it did turn right over on its back. I could see its pectoral fins quite clearly as it splashed back into the water.

Again and again, this one whale performed its manoeuvre immediately astern while the others continued to rise and fall on either side. It might be fanciful but was there some sort of communication going on here?  Because there are more accounts of whales and dolphins appearing to communicate with sailors than you can imagine.

In which case, I like to think that what this one was saying was, “Welcome back”?

And, yes, it’s great to be back.