“Lees a-helm” oops or is that “Helm’s a lee”?

Omer Tuzel (a Turkish diplomat)

After a long and tiring journey from Vienna I finally dumped my rucksack in the cockpit of Kiwi, a Moody 31, and joined my shipmates, Cath, Mick and Andrew. Last year I had taken the Competent Crew course with Largs Sailing School under the instruction of Quentin Mitchell, who had kindly invited me on this second leg of what I hoped would be the beginning of my association with the world of sailing. I had no previous sailing experience apart from the Comp. Crew course which had unfortunately turned out to be a week of motor cruising thanks to good old Zephyr having taken the week off. I was really looking forward, therefore, to the much praised Scottish weather with clear sunny skies and gentle breezes this time around! On board I also had the pleasure of meeting our able and patient (you once try teaching me the tidal rule of twelfths and you’ll know what `patience’ means) instructor, Tony Whittingham. By the way, whoever coined the phrase that handling a boat is like handling a woman didn’t know what he was talking about: it is far more difficult.

The next day dawned in Rothesay……. you’re right – miserable and rainy – as we set off up the Kyles and Kames for lunch. The dreaded moment came when Tony asked me to navigate to Tarbert. Now it’s fine if you’re doing this on the theoretical course, you draw nice lines on the chart connecting up your carefully plotted EPs and expect them to match reality – right? Wrong! We had a south-easterly blowing that afternoon and all my carefully prepared preplanning was literally thrown to the winds as we started tacking. The features for my three-point fixes were appearing and disappearing quicker than I could put them down on the chart and the resulting cocked-hats would have fitted an elephant’s head. Troubles never come singly, however, but in battalions. By the time we had rounded Ardlamont Point the wind had backed with the boat rolling and corkscrewing. My problems were thus somewhat compounded by what Tony termed “a bit of mal-de-mer” – that must have been the understatement of the year. I was pea – green and retching over the side. This naturally put an end to the navigation of yours truly. Believe me when I say no Pope ever kissed terra firma with such delight as I did upon finally putting into pretty little Tarbert. The sun accompanied us into the harbour making everything at once more cheerful. That evening we broke open Tony’s bottle of gin and enjoyed watching the sun set beyond the ruins of the castle. I was told that the castle has connections with Robert the Bruce, but then what hasn’t in Scotland?

Next day we woke to the splatter of rain on the coach roof. What better reason to stay below with a warm cup of coffee and do theoretical work? Oh no, not with Tony. So while everybody else was sitting snuggly in their boats we were doing bumps and runs picking up buoys. I seem to recall it was also on this fateful day that Tony tried, alas in vain, to explain to me the difference between a close reach, beam reach and broad reach. Why does sailing have to involve so many bloody terms, why can’t we “just do it” as the ad goes? We went to Loch Ranza and made a night passage back. For those not initiated the first night’s sail, especially if the weather is not particularly friendly, is indeed unique. The sea is not your friend yet; she is not something the inexperienced sailor is quite comfortable with; the sea feels sinister the waves seem bigger and more threatening and the boat more difficult to control.

Night navigation

Night navigation

That night with a south-westerly force 6 we shot northwards on a broad reach. There was a problem with the second reefing line whereby we had to turn Kiwi‘s head to the wind and creep onto the pitching deck to sort it all out. A few spectacular broaches with us ham-handed pilots at the tiller made the night truly memorable. We got to Tarbert in time for a quick drink at the pub. The next day we went north for anchoring practice in a romantic little cove (Glac Mor) – at Ardrishaig that night we were joined by two other boats chartered by the RNYC so we had a boisterous and merry gathering at the local pub. Inevitably the conversation centred on sailing and the exaggeration of our instructors about their sailing feats and prowess was only matched by the enormous quantity of ale that was downed.

The Firth of Clyde finally said goodbye to us with splendid weather. Before issuing us with our certificates Tony made us spin round and round the Lanby buoy outside Rothesay harbour yelling our orders like madmen. The afternoon provided us with yet another exhilarating passage – unfortunately our last – close hauled back to Largs in a force 6. That night with regret I was lulled into sleep for the last time with the mesmerising rat-a-tat of rigging on the masts.