Over twenty years ago I received an offer from Britain’s leading whale and dolphin researcher to become a reserve skipper on his annual survey in the western isles of Scotland. Wow, I thought, what an opportunity, and promptly seized it with both hands. Which only goes to show that you should always look before you leap, as I later found out that many wiser men had already turned the offer down – and by the end of the first fortnight, shell-shocked and absolutely on my knees with fatigue, I understood why.
Licking my wounds at home after such a baptism by fire, I had time to reflect on the strange turn my sailing career had taken. The easiest thing would have been to quit, but I couldn’t face that, and besides, as time passed the good parts (as always) rose to the surface and much of the bad faded away. I also realised that having a purpose to being out there made sense to me, and actually enhanced my enjoyment of cruising. And it gradually dawned on me that the tenacity needed to carry out such work was of great benefit to me in many other ways (not least as a skipper), which may well explain why I’m still banging my head against that particular brick wall all these years down the sea way.
Why do we do it?
It’s a strange sailing life, which consists of taking crews of keen volunteers and subjecting them to extremes they might never experience sailing conventionally. When the weather is good you work every hour you can until exhaustion sets in, knowing that the good conditions can’t last. And when it’s bad you bash through it making some poor soul seasick as you try to position the boat and yourselves to best advantage for the forecast improvement. And when it’s really bad you pace the floor and peer hopefully at every forecast hoping against hope for an unexpected improvement.
Your volunteers are of course looking forward to seeing lots of wonderful wildlife, whilst the survey pattern demands that you cover all areas, the majority of which prove not to be favourable for the wildlife you seek. Therefore your team are often disappointed, whilst you’re happy watching the patterns emerge over a period of years, secure in the knowledge that a negative result is just as valid as a positive one. Doesn’t seem to make sense? – I’m with you on this one in human terms, but trust me, in scientific terms it does.
It isn’t all bad
But when it goes well there’s nothing quite like it – over two weeks in the Hebrides this summer we lost only one day to the weather and endured only two days of soakings. Both our project and another we are involved with are going extremely well, the yacht we chartered was fine for the job and totally reliable, and only one of the crew took a pasting from the demon mal de mer – but bravely stuck it out.
And we recorded a most extraordinarily rich palette of marine life – six different whale and dolphin species, including orcas (only the second time in twenty years in these waters) and nearly a hundred basking sharks. With each successive encounter we swore it couldn’t get any better, only for the next to make us realise that we really had no concept of what ‘better’ is. The final encounter with a juvenile minke whale that approached us and played around our bows for nearly fifteen minutes provided the proverbial cherry on the cake that left us all smiling for the next twenty-four hours.
The calm conditions and almost constant northerly winds also allowed us to explore new anchorages normally off limits, as well as to visit many old favourites. Our crewmates were truly fantastic (as they have always tended to be), and stepped up to the mark every time we demanded more from them. And with Lou organising the logistics like a veteran Field Marshall, we all put on weight and stayed healthy and happy.
And it’s not just us
When John and Phyllis decided to put Morgan’s Cloud at the services of their Norwegian anthropologist friend last year for their voyage to Greenland, we were filled with admiration at their guts to take on such a demanding project. This was truly sailing as a military exercise, and it’s both a testament to their combined sailing and logistical skills, as well as their deep commitment to the people they hold in such regard in those remote communities, that they saw it through with such élan. They made it look easy, but we (of all people) had a very good idea of just how tough it must have been, and what extraordinary reserves of stamina and tenacity it would have taken, way beyond what we put up with – it made our usual travails look like a trip round the bay. But as I’m sure they would agree, ‘sailing with a purpose’ has its good points, especially when reviewed from a distance many months later, and with a stiff whisky to hand.
Naturally, we now can’t wait for next year’s survey while we bask in the afterglow of this yea’rs achievements, sure that it will be just as successful, despite all the evidence and bitter experience of many previous years to the contrary. And after twenty years I remain truly glad that I didn’t give up this strange but rewarding career at the first hurdle. The lessons I learned then from a non-sailing scientist have stood me in good stead time and time again out on the water, and at least some of the many hundreds of volunteers who have passed through the project over the years still speak to me, so it can’t be all bad, can it?
And I know that at least some of you out there have your own experiences in sailing beyond cruising – let us know your thoughts. Please leave a comment.