It was a longing for a change after completing my PhD which made it seem like a good idea to help crew for a yacht sailing around the West Coast of Scotland. My brother had been unable to go, so it was suggested I go in his place with three other crew members.
Besides, my brother's friend, the captain, was that rare beast, an intellectual who was also devastatingly practical. Saturnine and intense, I knew he received friendly postcards from Candia McWilliam while also going deep-sea trawling in his spare time. My experience of sailing up to that point had been limited to a small wooden sailing dinghy on a loch and this was the first time I had ventured out to sea.
We moored off the islands, sailed all day and tiredness became an aspect of the body rather than the mind. The unparalleled beauty of Western Scotland became even more vivid when approached from water. Never had I felt, while going up and down waves the size of small mountains, so free from humdrum anxieties. Everything becomes about the present on a boat. It is non-negotiable. And even in calmer waters, it is impossible to worry about anything landlocked when tying knots and keeping everything shipshape.
I learnt a lot during those initial days. I learnt that the shipping forecast actually meant something and was not just random poetry recited for insomniacs. That filling in the shipping log involved precise descriptions of the weather and tidal systems. I also developed an unspoken crush on the captain. An unspoken crush which, in spite of his surprising susceptibility to seasickness, gently burgeoned.
And then disaster struck. We were planning to moor for the night off the small island of Eriskay, which had inspired Whisky Galore!. To reach the natural harbour of the island, we had to sail through a narrow channel of hidden rocks. The rocks were close to the surface because of the low tide. I was put in charge of the depth reader. This is a modern version of a plumb line and meant reading out to the captain how deep the water is in numbers of metres.
From below deck, I could see through the open hatch the careful concentration of the captain as he steered the boat cautiously through the channel. As I began reading out the numbers – 28, 26, 32 every few seconds – I saw a look of impatience cross his face. Was I reading the numbers out too often? Feeling foolish, I stopped. Suddenly the depth reader read eight. "Eight!" I shouted. At the same moment there was a loud grinding sound and the boat shuddered to a violent stop.
There was a disconcerting silence as we realised we had hit a rock. The captain tried to steer the boat off the rock but it was wedged firm. To make matters worse, the boat, although undamaged, was beginning to severely list to one side. There was no alternative but to abandon ship. Our captain, confirming my respect while compounding my guilt, decided to remain on board.
Sheepishly I climbed into the dinghy with the rest of the crew and we rowed silently to shore. We walked over to a small hotel on the other side of the island and as we entered the bar, a few locals looked around at us with a mixture of friendliness and contempt. "You're the ones from the boat that's gone aground?" one of them asked, rhetorically.
I wondered how the news had reached the other side of the island so fast. And then we spotted, through the hotel window, the mast of the ship sticking up above a distant low-lying hill. The mast was moving towards the horizon like a sundial moving south. As we slowly drank our pints we watched as the mast finally disappeared from sight. All was lost, I thought bitterly. And it was ALL MY FAULT. I had cared too much about the captain's good opinion of me; I should have just carried on shouting out the readings.
The rest of the crew, loyal as ever, refused to apportion blame. Well, in my hearing, anyway. And after a few hours of drinking had passed, we watched as slowly and inexorably, the mast rose up again. The tide was coming in and gradually lifting the boat off the rocks. Once the mast was vertical again we left the hotel and returned to the boat. I couldn't meet the captain's eyes and for the rest of the trip the incident was not mentioned.
After disembarking, I never, perhaps understandably, saw the captain again. But I often think of that depth reader and how, because of his one impatient look, I had stopped reading the numbers out for a few seconds. And I wonder now whether we would have hit the rocks anyway, because by then it might have been too late.
'Burnt Island' by Alice Thompson is published by Salt, £8.99 paperbackReuse content