Saturday 12 September 2015


Bottlenose dolphin off Scotland. © Marine Connection
Before Pytheas set out from Massalia on his way to these northern waters in 320BC, I wonder if he made an offering at the temple of Apollo? I feel sure he would have appealed to Apollo for good fortune and safety on his journey as many sailors did. His name suggests a link as well: the Oracle of Delphi, the priestess of Apollo's temple, was called Pythia.

One of the main symbols of Apollo was the dolphin, because he changed himself into one in order to escape the island, Delos, where he was born (see here) and then leaped onto a boat and guided it to a safe harbour. So Greek sailors believed that dolphins swimming alongside a boat were bringing good will and wishing them safe passage. It's easy to understand why.

On our first sea trip this year in our new boat, Each Mara, from Inverness Marina to the mouth of the Caledonian Canal, we were accompanied by dolphins. It felt like a good omen, as my aim was to spend a lot of time aboard writing about Pytheas' travels. I was sure Pytheas would have been pleased!

Many times over the summer we encountered pods of dolphins in the Minch and the Inner Sound. It is invariably exciting to see them. Often they have come when the weather has been dire, after hours of rain, or when it has not windy enough to make good progress, or in rough seas. They never fail to lift our spirits as they surface with a friendly 'pff', and then course past the boat.

What do they think we are, in our slow-moving vessel? They play around the boat, racing past us, leaping across the bow, diving under the keel and surfacing with a head-turn and what seems like a wink. Sometimes we've seen a pod of dolphins passing and they have changed direction to come and investigate us, as if inviting us to join them on their journey.

They are humbling to encounter, because they move so much more swiftly than we do, with such utter grace and elegance. Plus of course, they need no oilies to withstand the wet and cold and they don't care at all if it rains!

And if they are, indeed, responsible for safety out there on the ocean, I'm very grateful to them for taking care of us. And if not, well, I'm still grateful to them just for being there.

[Thanks also to for use of the photo].

Saturday 5 September 2015

Weather forecasts

Image result for raincloud iconI am back onshore for a while, having spent a lot of the summer so far on board Each Mara, our trusty boat, exploring the shores, anchorages and seas of the Hebrides and the north west coast here. It has been great to become familiar with the 'lie of the land' from the perspective of someone traveling around by boat. Places that seem far apart from a road-user perspective are surprisingly close by sea (North Skye and Gairloch, for example). And vice versa (Gairloch and Poolewe). And a place that is a doddle to get to one day can be impossible to reach the next. A three-day struggle beating into a wind to get from A to B can be an easy morning's passage running with a good breeze behind you, a favourable tide and a reasonable sea. It all depends on the wind.

Hence weather forecasts are essential. Sharing long-term forecasts with other sailors and harbour users is a large part of our social interaction. Tuning into the inshore forecast on the VHF radio every three hours has become as much of a ritual as making tea. And attempting to download the more locally specific forecasts from the Met Office by mobile phone is a full-blown obsession. The inshore forecast is for a 24 hour period and for a large area, and, for example, if it says the wind will be 'variable 3-4' it doesn't give much of a clue as to whether B will be reachable from A, where the more specific forecasts for both A and B may at least let us know from which point of the compass the wind may be expected.

I would like to be able to say that I have spent the entirety of the past two months living an Iron Age lifestyle, out on the sea, and writing my novel set there. I have done a lot of that, but it has been intruded upon by certain features of 21st century life, none more so than weather forecasts.

Of course, in 320BC, Pytheas traveled without any forecasts at all, other than the finger-in-the-air guesses of local people, and although they had huge experience and knowledge of how to read the sky and the sea, they would have been going on guesswork and hope a lot of the time.

And we still are. The forecasts are unreliable, especially more than 48 hours ahead, and this summer I've been frustrated over and over again by making plans based on forecast winds that haven't happened, or staying put to avoid gales that haven't blown, or setting out to discover that the wind is far stronger than predicted and in an entirely different direction.

It's not that anyone's lying (I hope). It's just that the weather is inherently unpredictable, especially in a land- and sea-scape as complex as this one. And in a funny kind of way, frustrating though it might be on a day-to-day basis not to know what the wind will bring, I'm glad that we can't forecast it accurately. It's bigger than we are, certainly bigger and more complex than our models, and I'm strangely comforted to know that there is still chaos and mystery out there, beyond our control.