Former Harbours

5) The Urban Seaman

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Sleep. Sleep is the most difficult thing. It’s hard to sleep at an angle, it’s hard to sleep with bobbing waves, it’s hard to sleep when moored and the fenders squeak against the walls. Have lost at least a week’s sleep on this trip.

One night, lying there, the fender makes this rrrr rrrr squeaking sound. Something else makes a eghugh ewghugh sound. Occasionally there is a tring sound. Occasionally all the sounds trigger, one after another, in sync, in the rhythm from that 80s horror : Haysi Fantysee’s “John Wayne is Big Leggy” – “shotgun, gimme gimme, lowdown fun boy”.

I lie there all night with the song in my head, a special hell for 80s children.

St Monans was a bliss few days spent writing what you’ve been reading and trying to get a phone signal. It’s a lovely wee shy little village. We learn that opinion is divided in St Monans about Christopher Rush and that sailors used to wear the same clothes, unchanged, at sea for two weeks. They had rather fetching pink longjohns and I am desirous of a pair.

We lose another crail. This time we just can’t retrieve it, it’s stuck on something unmentionable down there in the water, and we have to leave it. We sail away from a buoy with “Hope” written on it, leaving it forever.

We bounce to Port Seton, a small working harbour. I like Port Seton alot, people come down to the harbour to eat their fish and chips, and it feels like it hasn’t been left for dead quite yet. We help a fisherman who’s been at sea all day get his mobile phone – he just can’t face climbing down a ladder to his boat again – and for our troubles he gives us a crab and some mackerel. As he’s talking to me, he unzips his fly, pulls out his cock and starts to piss on some crails, all the while chatting away. Leaving his fly unzipped, he asks me if I’ve had any other tricks off fishermen on my travels yet. I’m a stuttering gibbering English fool until I realise he’s talking about the crab he’s given me.

We have more repairs to do so decide on Granton as a place to spend the weekend and get some urban. Although we only make it as far as the chip shop. Granton has the most fucking amazing chip shop in the history of chip shops. It’s like a church. It not only sells fish suppers and haggis suppers and kebabs and pizzas – and doner pizzas, and all sorts of arrangements of them all, but also sells fags, alka seltzer, rennies, dog food and chocolate. They sell everything the drunk needs. It’s a drunkards paradise. The only thing it doesn’t sell is poppers, though that’s fine because the newsagent next door does, a tray of Liquid Gold next to the lighters and lighter fuel. Granton’s that type of place.

Drama while there is a van being totalled in the harbour – stolen license plates and all, and we spend a sleepy Sunday waiting for Epoxy to dry on the repairs on the boat and watching police, coastguards and retrieval vehicles attempting to pull the van out of the harbour before high tide. One of the locals tells us this isn’t a rare occurrance, and that last year a guy committed suicide in the harbour in a similar fashion. The man had been in the pub telling people he was going to do it, and when he drove off the edge into the harbour, a guy dived in after him to try and drag him out, only to see him lock the doors from inside as he swam towards the car. They’ve filled in most of the docks in Granton in order to build housing developments, it has an LA type vibe, bad land caused by cement of the living.

We head to Aberdour, a super friendly harbour and then to Inchcolm Island. I want to moor a night on a deserted island, but we are told by Dick Drummond, harbourmaster to the stars at Aberdour, that although the warden is absent, there is a sometimes a “female” who stays on the island. Intrigued, and a little scared by this prospect, we set sail.

Inchcolm turns out to be really fucking scary, not just because of this mythical “female” who stalks the isle at night.  Turns out, it’s really, really unpleasant being on a island with just gulls. Turns out, everywhere you turn there are dead ones, pecking ordered to death. Gulls are horrible, meathead fascists of the bird world. They are everywhere and it’s just as well I didn’t know about the black rats on the island. It’s not quite the pirate island paradise I was expecting.

The tide has turned by the time we get back to our kinda illegal mooring on the island and poor Hope is bobbing about like she’s in a moshpit. We have to move her to a safer berth and at one point, I’m literally holding onto Paul’s jacket who’s holding onto Hope as he’s shouting “I’m losing her I’m losing her I’m going in JIM I’M GOIN IN”. The safer berth is only just around a corner and not much better for bobbing. We get again maybe 2 hours sleep.

We have to skip early in the morning as we don’t know what time the tourist ferries start. Paul starts to put the sails up and, in a sleep deprived fog, misreads the numerous bits of string he has to negotiate for the sails and loses the halyard (the rope) to the top sail, which means the top sail is now out of action. He’s furious with himself and we head to LImekilns.

If Aberdour was friendly, Limekilns is like friendly ultra. They give us the keys to their boat club, don’t charge us mooring fees, and try and help us with the top sail by lending us a mast ladder, which proves fruitless but was very sweet of them. Limekilns is underused and there is no reason for this, it provides us with the best views and best welcome of the trip.

Aberdour have asked us to go back to them for their regatta. They are very persuasive in spite of the skipper of Hope being slightly dubious and my complete inability to talk sailing. Just after mooring up, a small boat follows us in. On deck in hiviz waterproofs and wearing his beanie like a South African tsotsi is Murdoch McGregor. We’ve heard about him from Limekilns, as they have been waiting for him to come home for a while now. Mr McGregor is a sprightly, devilishly handsome Samuel Beckett type at 74 and has just singlehandedly sailed round the Pentland Firth, which he describes as very Alton Towers. Murdoch tells us that when he was younger, he was given a part in a school play, but when it came to performing his lines, he froze. He looks me in the eyes and says, “because, it’s all about fear, you see”.

I know what he means. I feel at home at sea because I’m used to fear, I’m used to fear being a constant presence, fear-as-readybrek-glow. Being brought up in London, where the seals form gangs through lack of herring, I was taught to be scared at an early age, scared of older boys who would punch me, who would kick my dog. Scared of sitting on the tops of buses, scared of walking home without a drink in me, without that courage given by beer. I’ve been mugged and worse too many times to mention. Fear is a way of life.

If going to sea was an attempt – like other times, like when I became a stonemason, like when I stepped on stage first time – was an attempt to overcome this fear instilled in me at an early age, then it’s failed, it’s merely – and again – compounded in me how terrified I am of life. It’s not an easy admittance but it is one I’m used to by now. I didn’t come to sea for macho reasons, but being at sea has yet again made me realise I don’t have the skills nor the psychological stupidity it takes to be a man. I feel lesser, I turn to drink and am sad. I know why sailors drink now. It’s the only way you can sleep.

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Murdoch McGregor

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Murdoch McGregor, 74, 5 weeks at sea, singlehandedly sailing round the Pentland Firth.

Mr. McGregor, we salute you.

Limekilns

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The Forth Bridge

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Inchcolm Island

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Aberdour

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Granton

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Port Seton

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St Monans

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