Two days later
The sound of the water caressing the bow drowned out the thrummm, thrummm, thrummm of the engine, leaving just the sky, the river and the land beyond. I hardly noticed when Swede began to steer towards the south as the river transitioned into the Firth of Clyde. Highlands to starboard, Lowlands to port, this son of Scotland was now surrounded by the width and breadth of Caledonian beauty, a breathtaking visual overload I had not experienced in over a century.
It didn’t take much to engage my wayback machine. My left leg dangled over the port side, my right leg over the starboard. I was a kid again, bow riding on our old, wooden fishing boat with my father at the helm.
Eventually, the cold, hard steel of the anchor chain under my butt became too uncomfortable so I stood up and made my way back to the cockpit, amid ship on this particular sailboat.
“Did you get it all figured out up there?” Swede asked.
“Not all of it,” I said, “but it was a good start.”
“Good,” said Swede, in that kind, gentle-father like tone of his. “I’m glad you’re back here. It’s time to shut down the stink pot and get to do’n what we do best.”
He turned the boat into the wind. One flick of a switch and electric motors began to whir, nylon lines moved through their winches and Poseidon’s Trident’s mainsail emerged. It happened fast, mere seconds to raise her sail high and secure the sheet. Now filled with a mild Celtic breeze, Poseidon’s Trident began to breathe, becoming the majestic creature her birthright demanded. Swede threw another switch, killing the artificial noise, leaving only the natural sound of a rising west wind and the water at the bow.
This was new to me. When we raised the main in 1849, it was quite an effort, not something one could do alone. It took all our strength; my father, brothers and me, working together, pulling hemp lines attached to oak hoops which surrounded a wooden mast. The hoops were attached to a canvas sail which allowed it to be raised to the mast’s peak by brute human effort. This seemed so easy, in comparison. The Genoa jib unfurled, we secured the sheet and headed towards the Kintyre Peninsula.
Over the next few hours, Swede put me through a crash course in modern sailing. I understood the timeless concepts: tacking, running with the wind, coming about, etc., but I knew nothing about all these modern gadgets. GPS seemed easy enough. It was just a modern map which moved as you did. And while I didn’t understand how radar worked, I just accepted that it did.
But learning to sail a 75 foot boat? By myself? That was a different story. One hand on the wheel meant I still had one hand and two feet to do the rest. There were foot switches for this thing and electric winches for that thing. You better learn it all and get it right because the wind can change direction at any moment. If it’s bad weather, high seas and gale force winds, knowing what you’re doing needs to be second nature. I was nowhere near ready. But Swede was a good teacher, very patient, and he was confident I would get up to speed, sooner rather than later.
“What’s our course?” I asked.
“We’ve got a couple of different options, short term, and we’ve got a few other choices for the longer trip,” said Swede. “Short term, if we sail all day, we get to Campbeltown by sundown. Stay the night. Set out early tomorrow for Islay. We should get there by the end of the day. OR, we sail through the night and get to Islay at dawn tomorrow. We can catch some sleep and still have time to stock up on provisions. I’m getting low on Scotch and I’d hate to run out. Terrible thing being out of Scotch. But the best single malt Scotch in the world is made on Islay. It’s worth it.”
“Let’s do it!” I said. “Sail through the night. The whisky awaits us.”
“Not so fast, laddie,” cautioned Swede. “Sailing through the night means you’ll have to take a shift at the helm by yourself. I don’t know if you’re ready for that yet.”
“Didn’t you say this yacht had an autopilot?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Swede. “But it’s not as simple as that. If something goes wrong, you need to have the skill and confidence to go manual.”
“You’re right,” I said. “But if there is a time to take a small risk, this is it. The forecast is for good weather and relatively calm seas. The way I see it, all I have to do is aim her northwest, engage the auto pilot and stay awake.”
“And if one of Her Majesty’s aircraft carriers is bearing down on your position late at night…?” said Swede, playing devil’s advocate.
“Then I’ll scream like hell, wake you up and run towards the liquor cabinet. You said you were ALMOST out of Scotch. Not yet, though, right?”
“A well thought out plan, laddie,” he said. “It’s settled. On to Islay.”
Swede set the autopilot and poured 2 glasses of Scotch.
“How do you like your Scotch? I prefer mine neat. If you like it with a lump or two of ice, I’m fine with that. People ought to enjoy their single malt how they like it, not to please some highbrow Scotch purist and his elitist rules. But I’ll give you a third option. If you like your Scotch chilled but don’t want to water it down, I can put this chilled stone in the bottom of the glass. It’s from a piece of green marble I picked up on a trip to Iona. Not the highest quality marble in the world, but I just liked how the green veins showed up haphazardly throughout the rock. I had a guy cut them to this size and polished up; had about 500 made for chilling drinks. I give them away as souvenirs.”
“I’ll do both,” I said, handing my glass to Swede. “Ice and pebble; rocks and stone. The ice to make it cold; the stone, well, it’s just so, so cool. I love it.
Now don’t throw me overboard,” I continued, “I know I’m doing what your sainted mother told you never to do. I like to chew the ice.”
“No, I won’t throw you over board,” said Swede. “It’s not time to feed the sharks yet.”
We both smiled and clinked our glasses together. Swede and I seemed to be hitting it off.
“I come from a very unpretentious family,” he continued, “Pretty loose bunch. I think it was my grandfather’s philosophy that guided me when I was young. When we went to visit during our summer holiday, he said, ‘Sven, I’ve only got two rules: Stay out of trouble and be home for dinner at 6 o’clock.’”
“That’s IT?” I asked, impressed by its simplicity.
“Yes; that was it. I thought, ‘I can do that!’ And I did; I was never a problem. I never got in trouble and was always on time. Two good life lessons.
My grandfather pretty much just let me be me. And now, as an old man, I appreciate that lesson. So, if you want to chew the ice, go ahead; I’ve got an icemaker in the galley. Chew to your heart’s content.”
I took a sip of the Scotch. Even watered down by the melted ice, the brown liquid bombarded my mouth with flavor, a strong, peaty, smoky taste. It was a bit too heavy for me.
“That’s Mhòine Maxwell, 10 year old, single malt Scotch. It’s not their best but it’s a good place to start,” said the teacher, launching into his lecture. “Islay Scotch is known worldwide for its peaty, smoky flavor. They use burning peat in the distilling process. Mhòine Maxwell is one of the heavier examples, I’m sure you can taste it.”
“Oh, yeah,” I exclaimed; “that’s for sure. I’m not so sure I like it though.”
That didn’t stop me from taking another sip... or 2… or 3. It was research.
“A lot of people don’t; it’s an acquired taste,” said Swede. “But there are so many options out there. Something for everybody.”
He took a taste, swirled it around his mouth and swallowed.
“Ahhh, a heavy taste at the end of a heavy day on the sea. Perfect. Tomorrow, we’ll pick up something lighter, Humelochan; it might suit your tastes a bit more.”
We left the mainland in our wake. Our engine muted, our sails and course set, we began the nighttime passage to Islay and her Agua Vitae, the water of life.
Thrummm… Thrummm… Thrummm; I was awakened by vibrations rather than sound. As we approached the narrowest point in the Sound of Islay, just a half mile wide at Port Askaig, Swede fired up the engine to bring us down the home stretch and into our destination, the Humelochan distillery on the east coast of the island. Unlike other Scottish distilleries, Humelochan was on the water, boasting its own dock. No need to moor the boat, no need to take a taxi to some remote inland glen, this distillery was heaven sent if all you wanted to do was get in, get the hooch and get out. And because he was so excited about getting to John O’ Groats, fast, that’s exactly what Swede wanted to do… Get in, stock up and go.
It’s funny how things don’t always work out as planned.
While we were still out at sea, Swede called ahead. He was a long-time customer and the distillery had all his information on file. His order would be waiting for us when we arrived. When I arose from my luxurious accommodations, well rested from my long slumber, Swede was on the phone again, finalizing the arrangements for our arrival.
“Of course I want to see you again,” he said, talking on his cell phone. “We had such a good time, last time. I think I laughed all night.”
There was a short pause. Obviously, he was listening to someone on the other end.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s a brand new boat; you’ve never seen her before. Much bigger than my last one. And I’d be glad to show her to you once I come back… (Pause)…I don’t know exactly when that will be. We’re on our way to John O’ Groats. I have a passenger who needs to get there, fast.”
“No, No, No,” I said, only hearing Swede’s side of the conversation. “Take your time; I’m in no rush. Don’t change plans because of me.”
Swede still listened to the voice on the other end of the phone. But he was a good sailor and he kept his eye on the marine traffic which seemed to get busier as the channel narrowed.
“Darl’n, I’m going to let you talk to Magnus. I’ve got to focus on the boat right now.
Here,” said Swede, handing me the phone, “talk to her.”
“OK,” I said, taking the phone from Swede, not quite knowing what I was going to say to this total stranger. “This is Magnus Cook. With whom do I have the pleasure of talking?”
“Oh,” said the voice, surprised at my politeness and American accent. “A proper gentleman ye are? And a Yank, too.”
“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “The Yank part is true. Gentleman? I’m not so sure.
What’s your name?” I asked.
“It’s Eilidh. (pronounced AY-lee) Eilidh MacEachern.
Have to get to John O’ Groats fast, do ye? No time to share a wee dram with a lonely island lassie?”
“I never said that. Swede’s the one all hell bent on getting up there quick. I, on the other hand, am not so impetuous. I prefer to take my time and smell the roses along the way. And you, my dear, from the sound of your sweet voice, sound like you’re a red, red rose.”
“Quoting Robbie Burns, can ye? Never met a Yank could do that,” she said.
I didn’t realize I quoted the National Poet of Scotland, Robert Burns. “Red, red rose” was just a phrase in my mind. But when Eilidh said his name, it all came back to me. I knew Burns. All romantically inclined young Scottish men memorized his poetry back in the early 1800’s and I still remembered the love song, at least a part of it.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I lit into the ancient poem, now spoken to a woman on a cell phone, a woman who, other than her name, I knew nothing about.
“O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like the melodie
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:”
I stopped there; no need to show off any more.
“Oh, my,” she exclaimed. “That’ll do, Yank, that’ll do.”
Swede navigated Poseidon’s Trident through the narrow passage near Port Askaig. We were minutes from the distillery. He motioned for me to give the phone back to him.
“So, darl’n,” he said, “We’ll be arriving in just a few minutes, but maybe we can get together on my way back through…”
Swede stopped. There was a long pause while he listened to what Eilidh said. As he listened, the look on his face changed. He wasn’t happy.
“Just a minute,” he said, putting his hand over the phone so she couldn’t hear what he was going to say. He looked at me and asked, “Did you tell her she could meet us at the dock and come aboard?”
“No,” I said, with a smile on my face. “Good idea, though.”
Swede did not look happy with my little joke, shaking his head as he talked again.
“Alright, you win,” he said, resigned to the new twist thrust upon him. “It’s just that my friend here is very persuasive and kind so, yes, you can meet us at the dock and we can have a dram or two before setting off. I think you two will hit it off, just fine. You look to be about the same age. I’m sure you’ll prefer each other’s company to that of an old geezer like me.”
He paused, then smiled and signed off. “OK, fine, we’re just coming out of Port Askaig now. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
The conversation, now over, I looked at Swede with a big grin on my face.
“I thought that went VERY well, don’t you?”
Swede smiled and said, “Laddie, you don’t know what you’ve just gotten yourself into. This lassie’s as bonnie as they come. I’ve known her since she was a little girl. Friends with her late father, I was. But now she’s all grown up and she’s world class. Smart, drop dead gorgeous, and likes to party. She can out drink most men. And now that all her dead daddy’s money is hers, she likes to spend it. I’m warning you, son, don’t go falling in love with her. I know you’ll be tempted. That’s why we’re only going to stay a few minutes. We’ve got more important things to do; don’t we?”
“Swede, you’re right. But it’s too late; I’m already in love. Smitten. Done. Toast. I can’t help myself, Swede; you’ll have to save me from myself!”
Swede just shook his head, knowing full well I was in over my head and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Kids,” he grunted, “what cha gonna do?”
We threw over our bumpers and tied up at the distillery’s dock. Standing there to greet us was Neal, a long-time employee, an old friend of Swede’s.
“Hello there, you skinny, old bastart,” he said, shaking Swede’s hand firmly. “I see the passage of time’s done you no favors.”
“Aye, ain’t it the truth,” said Swede. “But you look good for a honkin Weegie. Still molesting the children, are ye? I thought they’d have caught you by now.”
A big grin filled Swede’s face, knowing he one-upped his old friend.
“Aw, Swede,” said the portly dock hand. “Be nice now, or I’ll dump this box right overboard, I will.”
“Naw; no need for that. Just give it to Marcus and I’ll sign your bleed’n papers.
Have you seen Eilidh?” Swede asked. “We were supposed to meet her on the dock.”
“Aye,” said Neal, “she was here. She left this note and then she was off.”
“Uh-Oh,” said Swede, taking the note from Neal. “This can’t be good.”
“Read it,” I said. “What’s it say?”
Swede opened the note and began to read.
“Change of plans… I needed a bit more time so I’ll meet you at the dock at Glen Watt. It’s just 3 km further up the coast. I’ll see you in 45 minutes with a surprise. That 2016 winner I told you about. See ya! Luv ya! Eilidh.”
“What’s that about,” I asked.
“Damn,” said Swede, resigned to this short trip, knowing he couldn’t refuse. “Does that girl know how to push my buttons, or what?”
“That, she does,” said Neal. “She’s got you wrapped around her little finger, just like she did her dear old da, may he rest in peace.”
“Right you are, Neal, but it’s time to go; can’t keep the princess waiting now, can we?
Magnus; get the lines, will you?”
Swede started the engine and we shoved off. Not before he got off a parting shot.
“Now, Neal, no bugger’n the sheep. It’s bad for their wool.”
“Aw, be nice, you skinny bastart,” said the fat man. “Remember, I know where you live. I’ll go there and burn your house down.”
We were about to motor out of Neal’s hearing range so Swede had the opportunity to have the last word. He launched the final zinger…
“That’s fine,” said Swede, shouting across the water. “Go ahead; burn it down; I don’t need it any more. Just don’t flange me dog. She’s a nice dog; doesn’t deserve that.”
And he waved goodbye to Neal, smiling from ear to ear.