Sail away
Oh, come sail away with me

Islands in the stream
That is what we are
No one in-between
How can we be wrong
Sail away with me to another world
And we rely on each other, ah-ah
From one lover to another, ah-ah
Barry Gibb / Maurice Ernest Gibb / Robin Hugh Gibb

We pointed the prow east and headed away from Menorca, a setting sun biding its farewell as we surged forward. The winds were light but a favourable direction and we felt confident setting out on our predicted 36 hour crossing. Gales were predicted for later tomorrow so we wanted to get well ahead of them. The skipper went below to catch some rest before his watch and I had Stravaigin all to myself. We’re getting on fine, this big lady and me, I know J is glad his girls are getting along better now. I understand her more now and can handle her, most of the time. She still likes to show me her power now and then though, it scares me but I’m learning how to control her. She is strong but I’m coming to realise, so am I. As the light of the day faded I was enchanted as the stars gradually gleamed through the evening sky, the seas so calm at times the planet Venus was reflected back up at me in a watery glow. No moon tonight so far but the gaining light of the stars blinking over me, a canopy of twinkles, was enough for me to see clearly without the need for a torch. At night we use a red light in the cabin and have red light on our headtorches so as not to disturb our night vision. It is amazing how much you can see at night unaided.

The Milky Way arched over us as we sailed along and I gazed up at it for ages, distracted only by a shooting star then a satellite passing over. How clever we humans are, at times, to invent such things that are taken for granted now, I was glad of this little robot flying through the stratosphere pinging back my position to me and giving me a location on this planet when I want it. The dark blue silk of the sky was a backdrop for blinking aircraft making their way from north to south, at one point their navigation lights were reflected on the surface of my ocean, it was so still.

I recalled another magical starry night, high in the Himalayas, when I couldn’t sleep in the teahouse we were camped at and crept out into the freezing night so as not to disturb the slumbering hikers, lying like sardines one next to the other. I sat on a low stone wall and tried to take it all in, the silvery snow capped peaks, the graphite grey of glaciers in the deep night and then the stars. More stars than I have ever seen before or since, the night sky encrusted like a jeweller’s cloth of velvet folded open to reveal diamonds of every size and shape, sparkling and glinting, shining and blinking. And I cried. I’m not sure why, it was just so incredibly beautiful. My emotions couldn’t contain it, I felt part of it, privileged and humbled by being a small human sitting alone in a stony field on the roof of the world. I had little ambitions as a wee girl growing up in Glasgow, apart from to be a mum, all I wanted was babies, anything else was a bonus. Oh and I guess a fellow had to be part of the picture too! But as I grew I came to love and yearn for high places, due to the exceptional childhood my parents had afforded me. Some of my earliest memories are of lying on a wooden platform in a mountain bothy, tucked up in my down bag, the smell of damp wool, leather climbing boots and Erinmore tobacco drifting up from the social space below and hearing the deep voices of climbers and walkers sharing tales of the day by the fire and sipping Drambuie from a hip flask. And days of clambering up stony paths, my small rucsac on my back with my favourite doll ‘s head peaking out the top ( well she had to see what was going on too!), stopping to drink from the clear waters of the burn and snacking on oatcakes with raspberry jam, always raspberry jam. I didn’t recall how may mountains I climbed with my father, their names and locations were irrelevant, but the memories were logged as Quality Mountain Days, important, cherished. I still have scars on my knees where I stumbled on boulders or grazed them as I climbed up the rock faces. Looking down on the world when we reached he summit, I felt special and part of the wild landscape and that feeling had always remained. It is a pity my father did not live to know I became a mountain leader and guide, following his passion for wild places. I bet he’d never guess also that I took to the seas like him, though my vessel is a lot smaller than the huge cargo ships and tankers he travelled the world in. I am a lot like in him in many ways and I am sure my slightly crazy spontaneity came from him. I remember when I was young, still at primary school, just as I was getting ready for bed one January, moonlit night he said,

“Come on Mary Ellen (one of his many crazy pet names for me) we’re going skiing!”

I never questioned these mad jaunts, so an hour later I found myself bundled up in woollens, my wooden cross-country skis strapped to my feet, the bindings adapted from his old telemark ones, flip flipping as I pushed along, following his trails in the crisp, freshly laid snow, sliding our way along the foot slopes of the Campsies. I remember the stars that night as we sat on a steel cold rock and him telling me the names of some. The Plough, Orion, his belt and Sirius, his dog. He knew so much and I wished I’d listened to him more and remembered everything he taught me. I loved the part he wrote in his journal when I was around three years old, he had made a wooden chair that he strapped to his back and would take me off up a local hill like Ben Lomond or The Cobbler ..,

“ Wee Eilid is a delight to take out on walks, she marvels at all the tiny things and stops to bend down and watch black shiny beetles scamper across her path and insists on “rescuing” any slugs lying on the path in case they get squashed!”

He would buy me books, World of Wonder series or something like that and I would pour over them at night: Mountains, The Oceans and The Human Body.

I loved the Mountain one and delighted in the pictures of the Alpes, The Pyrenees, The Andes and especially The Himalayas, I never imagined I would be on those peaks one day. The Ocean one fascinated me too but I do remember the middle pages were of the deep sea and the creatures that inhabited these black domains. I was terrified of them, the fish that were just a head with rows of jagged teeth, illuminating the dark with phosphorescence, bony skinny skeletons and huge eyes. I used to hold those pages together with my fingers and turn them quickly so I couldn’t see them! Perhaps those scary creatures were slowly winding their way over 2,000m below me right now! And The Human Body, I loved that one, the muscles and bones, the make up of the eye and the funny names for the wee bones of the ear, but my favourite  was the pages showing how new humans were formed. The growing embryo from wee tadpole and seed, joining to become a kidney bean, then a weird salamander thing and finally a tiny baby growing bigger and chubbier each month. I couldn’t believe that my body had the capacity to do this. And it did, five times resulting in three perfect baby boys, still the greatest wonder to me. We think we are so clever as humans to invent metal things that fly round the earth or that dive to the bottom of the ocean to shine light in the darkest chasms but the real wonder is how we can make new human beings, it all goes on inside us women for nine months as we go about us daily business.

These urges to just go outside, into the wild, have been there all along and still remain with me. When we were first married and living in Inveraray I recall sliding back into bed on a sunny Sunday early morning and J sleepily reaching over to caress me, then slightly perplexed saying,

“You’re roasting!”

“I just ran up Dun na Cuaiche”

“What! Why?”

“Well I woke up early, it was sunny and I felt like it”

“You’re mad!”

Maybe, but I reveal in being out and up there when no one else is, seeing the deer grazing warily in the corries, the mists clearing as the warmth of the day burns them off.

I see it in my sons too. Phoning my middle son one Sunday evening recently and enquiring after his weekend he nonchalantly told me,

“Well it was a sunny day, Maria was working so I ran the Anoach Eagach yesterday and today I went and ran the Carn Mhor Dearg arête as well”

Hmm, like mother like son.

The wind ruffled the surface and I could feel Stravaigin heel over. I checked the auto helm so I could put her back on the right heading if I had to take over, I checked the wind speed and it was building. The direction was changing too and soon the head sail was flapping and our speed was falling as we tried to stay on course. I took charge and furled the headsail, tightening up the main sail, started the engine and settled us down on a more direct course. I glanced down below and J was curled up dozing, I felt pleased that he trusted me to trim the sails and look after her properly.

Some time after he appeared, smile on his face and we shared a hot chocolate before I went for my sleep. We decided on two hours on and three hours off, through the night, though J was happy to do a bit longer. I nestled down, curled in at the side of the bunk as she was quite heeled over now, the wind strengthening. I lay for ages but couldn’t sleep. Maybe I was too “on” to dip into real sleep. I rested though but all too soon it was 1am and my watch again. She was really going now, seven knots and surging through the waves, a good wind direction too, a beam reach. The swell was building a bit too but I still felt confident. It was cooler now so for the first time since leaving Ireland I had to put on a fleece jacket and went through the watch routine of looking out all around and checking the AIS for ships or other boats. Only a tanker seven miles off and another yacht who was running parallel to us but in the opposite direction were sighted. I was pleased to recognise the yacht was showing the wrong coloured lights as he had his steaming and navigation lights on together giving confusing messages.

The winds really were blowing now and started gusting to 28knots at times. A white flash filled the sky startling me – lightning! I had heard horror stories of lightning at sea and ships being struck with bad results. A tall tower of storm clouds were gaining on us and the sky was darkening. Again, flashes of electric white, then out of nowhere, pelting rain and a surge in the winds.

“Darling, I need you!” I shouted over the din of the wind, down below into the red cabin. “Eh, there’s lightning and I’m worried!”

“Put the hand held instruments in the oven” he stated as he came up and took the helm, while I pulled out the water proofs.

“Its fine babe” he said reassuringly “It’s only a storm squall”

“Ok”  I said gingerly, while clinging onto the sides, soaked by the rain, my life lines reassuringly clipped on the hand rails.

The stars had crept quickly back under their midnight blue blankets, the sky now a roof of darkness, pale cumulus nimbus clouds baring down on us.

Thankfully the squall didn’t last long though, soon the rain stopped, the clouds lightened but the winds stayed. I sat up with J for a while then went below to try to sleep. No good, I gave up at 5am and came up again and we shared porridge for breakfast as we vainly tried to make out land ahead, convincing ourselves we could see it.

The swell had built after the storm surge and the waves had heightened too, most from the same direction but occasionally a rogue one hit us and sent the boat in an unpleasant bounce. And the waves were breaking on the tops, foam surging down the face of them, spray hitting us occasionally. J took the helm as the auto pilot was not managing to keep her steady enough. The troughs in the swell seemed so far down then rising over the tops we surfed down the back of the waves, time and time again. Water poured along the gunnels, a large wave broke into the cockpit, soaking J up to his knees. We were well reefed in and she was handling well but I found it disconcerting. If I felt scared though I only need glance at the skipper, he was in his element, smiling and confident, controlling her with the large leather bound wheel, oh well must be ok! Luckily as I had patched up I had no sickness but fear kept me alert, charged.

Three hours we powered through the waves, J at the helm looking more and more weary though as the hours went on. Daylight had revealed land finally, Sardinia, but it never seemed to get any closer. I was braced in the cockpit, my back against the seat, my feet on the side of the central table, rise and fall, rise and fall. I only allowed myself to look round the side of the spray canopy to see ahead and the distant shape of the island slowly becoming more discernible. Looking round too often was frustrating as it didn’t seem to change.

Gradually though it did transform, the colours became apparent, pink stone cliffs, green hillsides, the surface of the seas in a haze of spray and breaking waves. We could see the headland now and a lighthouse on the summit. The cliffs were enormous. We had thought of going into an area near Neptune’s Grotto as there was a special anchorage there but it was quite tricky in most conditions and would be impossible in these.

Any port in a storm.

I’m not going to the original place we talked about” stated the captain. “I’m going to the big bay round from it, its nearer.”

“That’s fine!” I yelled over the noise of the waves.

Bit by bit we crept closer and slowly edged our way past the towering cliffs and finally into the lee of the land, becoming sheltered from the swell and waves.

Oh the peace, the calm, the sanctuary! The boat levelled, the sails loosened, and we calmly flowed into a sheltered bay, passing a beige, round, medieval lookout tower.

Hills and tree covered slopes all around us. It was beautiful and safe.

I lowered the anchor into the tranquil, turquoise waters of the bay, tidied away the night’s debris and put a pizza in the oven. And poured a rather large rum and ginger beer! We had been awake now for 36 hours but the actual crossing had been faster than we’d thought due to the strong winds and we had arrived late afternoon.

Welcome to Sardinia! Saluti!” We toasted each other. A good team. After eating our fill, we pulled the sheet over us and fell into an exhausted but satisfied sleep. Exploring could wait until tomorrow.

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