Friday, 30 March 2012

cc -2536 Chapter Last: Spring Morning

It is the stillest of spring mornings.
I rise with the dawn and make Peccadillo ready to sail, delectable pottering with ropes and bolts, and the rolling pontoon casts my sleepy tread into a dancing gait, weaves me into the history of Scottish sailors. Oh what fine company.

Me and my Peccadillo and the morning. Perhaps one of the things I miss most about Africa is the predictability of dawn and dusk. Here I chase the dawn through the summer and wait for it all winter. That makes this dawn run in spring all the more precious. A blackbird finishes one particularly long song with the distinct trill of a mobile phone… and I laugh. What of it? It just is. For just this precious moment I sidestep the tragedy and soak myself in the morning.

The engine shouts into life, shattering the morning with a rude objection to waking, but quickly settles to a happy mumble that syncopates the other morning sounds. We cut loose at last, me and my sleeping crew…. me and my Peccadillo and the canal as still as glass. The sun slips red shafts through the trees to pierce the vestiges of mist and light the gorse to impossible gold. The chill and still beauty… oh this Scotland takes my breath away ever and again. I hear the birds above the boat-beat and in my wake the canal threads away like a thick strong plait of young girl’s hair. Peccadillo glides effortless across the surface of the canal and of time, unfolding one magical curve after another.

What of yesterday? What of tomorrow? What conceivable success could compare to the dawn kindling on the Kingfisher’s breast? What of heaven and hell and the striving between? What possible angst should distract me from this moment where everything is just exactly as it should be… and I am.

Here and now.


Thursday, 29 March 2012

cc -50: St Patrick’s Day Steelworks

Jimmy makes it happen
What a week of it… Peccadillo’s bow structure (now what could the seafaring term be for that… there’s bound to be a word for “the-dismatlable-steelpipe-structure-fitted-to-the-bow-of-a-canalboat-going-to-sea”) is finally taking shape after some to and fro design between Jimmy and me. As the day dawned for the steelwork to be done, Jimmy had a solid enclosure planned, a single fixed unit that would have to be cut off, be lifted by several strong people and that would completely block access to the bows while in situ. He is bent on protecting me from the ultimate storm at sea and it took some grim determination on my part to swerve the design to something assemblable that could be removed by me, on my own, and stored while on canal transit.
Brian tickles clouds

 Dialogue spiced up with the unfortunate appearance of a sundry lurking boatman who took it upon himself, in the middle of this critical debate with Jimmy, to interject with some inane anecdote about some other seafarer who got into bother out on the open sea… and did I know that you get some big waves out there?

Now what is it about us women… a genetic disposition towards courtesy in these face of such unsolicited advice? There is no question that it would not have been proffered to a man standing in my position… a total stranger to him… I could have been skipper with 20years experience on the Waverley for all this man knew. But no, it was assumed that by dint of my gender that I knew nothing of the tidal treachery… that I embark willy nilly on a journey of patent silliness.

Valiant attempts to ignore this intrusion on our pressing design negotiation finally evaporated when Jimmy, whose advice I respect second to none and who, I know, respects my knowledge and experience, succumbed to the man-to-man oh-what-a-daft-lassie quips.
Who are you anyway? I barked (only discover I had actually met him last year). Oh but it was delicious to abandon myself to the discourtesy of it! A lifetime of tiptoeing around the egos of unsolicited advice, criticism, interest or anecdotal anaesthesia! You know what I mean ladies? The two of them stood there blinking till eventually, I confess, I said sorry – but we need to get on with this and it’s ME who’s gonna be out to sea with this baby so I have to be comfortable with it.
Right, said Jimmy, you’re the gaffer and I’m the contractor from here on. Part of the same gene then sapped my confidence and left a cool wind of agoraphobic uncertainty whistling around my head.

This is to be an interesting aspect of the voyage to be sure. When we went to the Tall Ships in July the world of boaters were split quite distinctly into two groups:
- those that were heartily delighted to see you out there boating, whatever the vessel
- those who felt at liberty to make disparaging remarks or faces at the idea of taking a canal boat out there (despite knowing nothing of planned boatwork or skipper experience)

Cathy & Lynne
Back in Bowling unruly texts were coming thick and fast from the Dunoon boys who Billy had rallied at 0630 for their arduous journey to Bowling. It being St Patrick’s day they all sported Louis Walsh masks and were still marginally drunk from a relentless Friday night. Billy was goading me into bossy reprimands by demanding Irish Whisky on arrival, but Jimmy had been clear there was no drink to be mixed with welding gear so bacon rolls it was and several hundred Caprisuns that had been left by the Yomego crew. No sooner had the last mouthful of bacon disappeared than they all leapt to their feet and dropped their trousers to don overalls. I was heartily impressed after their mischief, to be presented with four pairs of thinly clad buttocks and just so much enthusiasm… let’s hear it for the boys!

Richie, Brian, Kev, Billy, Steve & Swans
Jimmy immediately set Billy to hack sawing chain links in half while ferry Kev tackled the bows with gusto. It should be said that a few hours on this turned to gutso as he fed the fish over the stern, but you’d never have known he was feeling that bad. Stevo and Brian grappled each new task with such efficient alacrity that the list was dwindling fast. The gorgeous Lynne arrived and saw to the interior,  and Cathy arrived at last so the catering breathed a sigh of relief.

And Billy was still cutting chain. He had decided that this task had in fact been invented by Jimmy to get him out the way… that his questionable technical skills had somehow been divined. To try and reassure him this was not the case I showed him where the half links were to be welded astern for safety lines… and I gave him a serious job to do: check the batteries for water. After several taps to my shoulder saying he couldn’t get the tops off and much ribbing for his inadequacy I suddenly remembered… ahem… that it was actually a dry cell battery I’d bought at Wilsons in Rutherglen… I haven’t told him yet.

The day was glorious and all was soon well underway. Jimmy, despite apparent acquiescence to my design performed his usual boat-building magic and before long a fine profile began to appear. Then the day was over. The sun set ominously red over lock 38 and I shuddered for the thousandth time to think how Cathy fell in there… pitch dark… the middle of the night… how … hmmm I still cannot write that.

And then it was dark. I lay under the new ribs, the beautiful new bars of the bows and saw two bright, bright stars, one above the other… that’s Venus and Jupiter below said Gerry Loose, his boat next door. Next door? Next moor? Next pontoon? Venus so bright! And Peccadillo happy to be so well attended again.


Saturday, 10 March 2012

cc –0 (Fiction?): Auchinswally

This blog is an experiment in voice and testing of the waters before compiling screeds of writing (your comments are soooo welcome). Here’s a very different voice… the culmination of a fiction-writing course where, for Allan McMunnigalls magical enthusiasm, I failed to actually invent anything. Is it conceited to say that I find life so full and fascinating that anything I conjure up just seems pale and silly by comparison? Or is it that no-one actually writes fiction? That all of it is just stories stolen from our own or others lives...  names changed?
Well I haven’t changed names yet… just blurred time and place a little… let’s see if the Auchinstarry crew are reading the blog!


 There’s a bitch going on between boaters. When Peccadillo drifted into the marina this afternoon we got the usual warm greeting from one and all… a day like today, everyone was out on their boats, painting and fixing. Big Davie yelled unintelligibly from Mytho, Floyd barking fit to burst. Hippy Billy waved gently from the Dutch Barge and even from across the basin I could see how tired he was looking. How’s the baby? I yelled, frantically scouring my boat-infested brain for a name… Aaron? Ah fuck no that wasn’t it… anyway I hoped he hadn’t heard the mistake but he gave me the thumbs up, so baby was ok. Good good. Their two babies are the first to be born on the canal since it re-opened.
Watch where you’re going you fuckin’ old whore of a boatwoman!
Joe! Ya fat prick, how the fuck are you?
Hingin’ well your Beviness, who’s that you’ve got on board?
70th birthday party – and suddenly I was hoping they were safely tucked indoors, not listening to this ripe banter. 

G’day called aussie Tony, wafting carefully along the pontoon, hands bent up at the wrists like a tottering, hungover bear. Ahoy Billy Bonny Barge! I yelled at the red boat, but some other fat, bespectacled old fecker stuck his head out of the scabby little floater… well hello, he leered, who are you, he was ogling my tits something ridiculous and fuck me, was that a little lick of the lips? Bleugh! Who the fuck are you, more to the point… where’s Billy? Bought the boat off him didn’t I… will you come on over later? Fuck off. Arsehole, if I could’ve spat I would’ve.
There's Alison... I waved over the pervy fucker’s roof. We hardly ever see her these days and word's out she's gonna sell. My only ally in the boating business, let down again and again by the  poWers that Be and shafted by certain charity boats... she's the wise one; I'm a fool to carry on. She would take the hirers out as far as Wyndford, 2 miles away to make sure they knew the ropes before she set them adrift. Not like the poor buggers who hired out of the Falkirk Wheel who, as their introduction to boating, had Hamish bark orders and threats at them before shoving them into the Jubilee Lock to assault the Falkirk Wheel. Time and again I saw the terror in blokes eyes as they came past Peccadillo. Passing a boat is like a time line of story: kids&dog playing in the bows… mammy smiling and waving from the kitchen sink… and then the dad at the tiller… no wave… knuckles white on the tiller, left hand scrabbling for the throttle down at his knees, boat bucking and yawing in my bow wave, eyes fixed straight ahead…. maybe a curt nod… but no fun for him, seriously.
Lynne and I were shattered by the time we finished cleaning up the boat, getting the woodstove set just in case the party ended up back at Peccadillo. It often did ‘cos she has the biggest space being a wide beam. We went in search of a coffee to find out what the evening’s swally plan was. Saturday at Auchinstarry? Auchinswally! But all the cheery wavers had disappeared… no boatwork happening and it was as if everyone had shut up and left. I’d never seen anything like it and went chapping the door on Fiona ‘cos Wee Davie and Maureen had to be there; they were always here. Sure enough they were, and we were cordially invited in for a coffee.
Big Davie’s huntin’ Wee Davie here for something he said to Big Colin.
There it was. Boats go affa slow on the canal but the gossip flies faster than mobile phone signals… no secrets here. Apart from old pervy baws on the Bonny Barge… clearly no-one’s speaking to him.
What did he say?
Asked Big Colin ‘what’s that big arsehole up to now?’
That’s it?
Uh huh. ‘What’s that stupid big arsehole up to now?’
Stupid big arsehole’?… well that’s a bit different. Why the fuck did he say that?
Och he was just messing about…
Big Davie, Wee Davie, Colins and Joes… and Johns. It’s a small bag of boys' names we’ve got on the canal.

So when we finally came down the pontoons for the swally tonight things were getting off to a real slow start. Only action we could see was on Joe’s gin palace, Safia. Fancy name for a canal boat… but it isn’t a canal boat; it belongs on the Clyde or Loch Lomond, and Joe bought it off a pal whose wife was in chook for stabbing him while he slept in front of the telly. Whoa but a beauty indoors (the boat – not the stabbing wife). All split level floors and booze cabinets. Yes man said Joe, over the moon to be flashing it off to folk at last. He’s had it on the hard-standing in his lorry yard for the longest time ‘cos he wasn’t sure it would actually fit under bridges on the canal.
There were just the five of us for a while and there was something fuckin’ funny going on. Wee Davie acting real weird, holding onto Safia’s wheel saying over and over I’m the Skipper! Seems he’d driven Safia through from Kirkie in the morning and getting to grips with the twin screw had pure gone to his head.
Suddenly Tony appeared through the canvas flap, the pontoons still deserted and silent behind him. G’day, g’day, how ya doin’? Joe and I started singing before Tony even had a chance. With his usual macho aplomb he held forward his bottle of Bushmills, whipped off the lid and ceremoniously crushed it before tossing it into the canal. Champion drinker our Tony, bottle and glass. That’s what you walk around with at Auchinswally. Unless it’s a can. Tony’s eyes are hunting for Lynne, stunning, tall, boyish and blonde Lynne. He clocks her on the upper deck where she’s playing with the throttle at the other steering station… shit how posh can one boat be. Lynne’s well taken with this boat, singing Hawaii – five- oh or something, taking photos of herself at the wheel to send to her girlfriend in Aberdeen.
Someone pulls out a fine cig and I’m over the moon. Really don’t like to drink like I used to with the boaters… need to take care of that old liver now. But smoke? Shit I miss a fag, a bit of the old puff and blow over a natter or when you finally cast off on a glassy canal with a happy crew of clients on board… man alive, I miss that ciggie like a lover. But you don’t smoke when you’ve survived cancer. It just seems like the biggest possible “fuck you” to that magical luck.
We’re sitting on the prow sucking on that old cig, me, Tony, Lynne, and the stars are falling right down on us, beautiful. Tony’s snatching it through his teeth and holding it like a Polynesian pearl diver… always out to impress… the maddest smoker, the most whisky, the oldest malt… and you’ve gotta love it. He’s doing some weird thing where he’s stretching his arm forward, flexing his muscles and watching them bounce… he’s a big boy. He’s turning on the charm with Lynne and I whisper in his other ear – You’re onto plums boyo… but he keeps at it.
Suddenly the engine’s roar into life, there’s diesel smoke everywhere and Wee Davie shouts I’m the skipper! Like Shaun-of-theDead people suddenly start appearing from all the lightless boats. They’re streaming along the pontoon and slipping in through the canvas with a Hi Joe and a Hey Davie and Ok Maureen, and they’re creeping onto the deck with their bottles and cans, deep in quiet, cagey conversation, pretending they’ve been there all night… embarrassed at having shied away for the sake of not taking sides in the Barney of the Davies. Lynne suddenly turns round from her star contemplation to find 10 people on the deck behind her… her eyes go wide with and she says where the fuck did all these people come from??!!! And the look on her face sends me into a giggling fit, tears streaming, so that when the boat surges out of it’s mooring in the dark, the wind cools my wet face like the kiss of a sweet woman.
Davie drives into the bank and Joe takes the helm to sort out the mess. Soon we’re off into the dark with a roar and a shout, and all is as it should be… everyone’s there, Tony, flexing his muscles, Joe’s shouting Yes man, Bernie starting up her reedy singsong. Big Colin with the tuggable ears, quiet as always with his benign, quiet smile clutches his can of Tennents. Maureen’s telling stories through her nose and one of the John’s getting a ribbing about his recent bottie op. The other John’s giving me a row ‘cos he’s had a written warning from BW after the last midnight sail when I shoved the throttle over on his boat to fly past the sleeping Chrissie on her big blue barge.

Out on Dullatur bog they cut the engines and the sheep on the bank hear a lull as we all soak in the dark stars… and a shout goes up…
I’m the Skipper!
The End

A Footnote for Floyd
Davie's dog Floyd died this Christmas... beloved chap, character of note, the canal will not be the same without that barking roar, the only volume that ever matched our Davie himself.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

cc –63 Bridge Over the Atlantic

We’re checked in to the Loch Melfort Hotel, replete with boating banter. I’ve accosted unsuspecting sailors up and down the coast, all of them startled by this bizarre woman bearing down, hailing them from bridge, boatyard and harbour wall… breathless with excitement saying “tell me about these waters!” But what a haul of gems, pearls of local knowledge,
The five scuba-suited scallop catchers in Oban said “Yeah, use Kerrera, it’s well sheltered from the tides.” That’s Ardentrive Bay, just across from Oban… just listen to these names… Dunstaffnage Marina north of Oban. Here I found a warm welcome and an ocean of advice from a one-handed Lancashire man; come through Clachan Bridge at the slack of the high tide, but watch your air draft. ("The Bridge over the Atlantic" as it’s known was originally designed by Thomas Telford, and built between 1792 and 1793 by engineer Robert Mylne.) Get through and weigh anchor till the tides are right to come to Oban. I was sincerely hoping Peccadillo could get through the bridge; saves us many miles of scary open seas west of Easdale.
How long to Fort William from Dunstaffnage? I ask… 8 hours… not really any tides to worry about once you clear the Lonin Sands. What are the Lonin Sands? Did he actually say the Lismore Sound? I’ll check it out in when my book arrives… “The Isle of Mull and Adjacent Coasts” by Martin Lawrence… £20 and I haven’t told Cathy yet but sounds just the business for the journey. This was recommended by the owner of Silky who I found under an inflatable tender at the Bridge Over the Atlantic. Thundering over the great arch with camera in hand… “Excuse me!… have you sailed through here?”
Turns out the air draft won’t be an issue but the passage is a tricky one indeed. Twisty turny to the south of the bridge said the owner of Silky, and there’s a shoal patch (shallow patch is it?) to the north. You see small fishing boats coming through but even they are very careful; you can see they’re very definitely steering around obstacles. It would be a bit of an adventure I would think.
Bit of an adventure indeed… only later do I listen back on his words and think how understated he was altogether…

After a boggy foray along the banks I just can’t see where the Dunsaffnage boater meant we should weigh anchor. Hmmmmm methinks half tide, a neap not a spring, will give Peccadillo enough clearance and a couple of hours of north bound tide beyond to find a mooring spot, but I shall see what Mr Lawrence says.
Any other advice I ask the Silky sailor, approaching here from Crinan? Are there any other bits of coast where you’ve thought “I wish someone had told me about that.”
You could get to Balvicar from Crinan in a few hours. Of course there are a few fierce tidal gates about here… there’s Cruan Sound, Corryvreckan and the Grey Dogs but the only one you’ll have to contend with on your route is the Doris Mor.
My stomach turns to water at this casual catalogue of terror and I remember wondering at a strange band of dark blue it was I could see through the hotel telescope this morning. From Loch Melfort Hotel you can gaze across the ends of Shuna, Luing, Scarba and Islay, raising your eyes but a fraction to see the Paps of Jura if the day is clear enough. The water east of Luing was a still grey between the wintry browns of the islands, but there, on the edge of the scope’s magnification was what looked like a standing wall of rough blue… made me rub my eyes.

Watching the sun rise from the hotel I just can’t get close enough to the view… the colours before my eyes change faster than I can scan from left to right. I feel I need to dive in if I’m to be able to feel it completely… dive in and keep swimming… never stop. But even then, as reflected sky or tide-tugged seaweed brushed my cheek, I would be missing some other miracle just the other side of Shuna, or beyond the tip of Luing, or up there on the pale Paps of Jura.

I am exhilarated and terrified. So lucky and so afraid. Afraid of doing this. There is only one thing that frightens me more than doing it…

… and would be…

… not to do it.