When the end of the August comes and I haven’t caught a fish since 2014, the still water on a bonny Saturday evening is irresistable. I slip the boat into the water at Tingwall, and soon realise the steering has jammed on my main engine. So I pull the cord on the five horse reserve motor and twist the throttle. The peedie motor splutters and stalls, but after a few moments roars into life once again. It’s curious how we become attached not only to a boat, but also to an engine, which seems alive, and is companionable. I head for where the flood tide is moving powerfully.
August is the month for mackerel, taken by hand line on silvery flies from a deep hole west of the Wyre Bouy, or from the mid-point between the isles of Gairsay and Wyre and the harbour at Tingwall. It’s a thrill to see their white bellies as we haul them up from beneath the dinghy. On the line, mackerel is a proper game fish, fast and powerful. In the boat, they are trembling aluminium. On the plate – within an hour or so – they are the finest delicacy. Tuna of the North.
When I reach the fishing spot ten minutes later, things are strangely quiet. No birds call. The surface of the sea is unnaturally still. I drift southwards swiftly on the flood. The mackerel – usually aggressive, voracious and ubiquitous – are nowhere. After half an hour, because there are no fish, I decide to make my way back via a short scenic detour, and head for the Rendall shore below the farm of Queenamuckle.
Being alone on a quiet sea in the late evening at harvest time can be eerie; all that deep, dark mysteriousness beneath you. I gaze down into water the colour of used engine oil.
An outboard motor that seems a good companion becomes a cursed thing when it lets you down; the reserve motor gives up and refuses to re-start off the point at Queenamuckle. In my naïveté, I haven’t realised how incredibly powerful the tide is here. Immediately, I’m bearing down on stationary creel bouys at alarming speed, and I start to wonder where I might end up before I can get ashore. The back o Rendall? Shapinsay? Kirkwall? Or could tonight’s rampant spring tide carry me right through to the North Sea? It doesn’t bear thinking about. I’m close to panic as I lift the oars into the rowlocks.
I row as quickly as I can, concentrating on long, steady strokes. I can’t afford to miss one. Catching the surface on a back stroke might be enough to cost me the race. As I inch towards the shallows off the point, the bottom of the sea looms into view.
Rich brown acres of quivering kelp blades are being combed southwards in the tide, their movement and colour magnificent in the late evening light. This beauty would be hypnotic – sweet therapy to watch – if it weren’t for the alarming speed of the water. This is like trying to row upstream in a vast river.
Surely the tide will slacken in the shallow water? But no, even in four feet of water it rumbles on at about six knots. How can I beat this? Seaweed floating on the surface closer to the shore means I can’t get any further in without entangling the oars. I’m tiring, and starting to think this is a pretty serious situation, when I remember my father’s advice: if you’re ever in trouble, drop your anchor.
I ship the oars and lob the anchor over the bow. I watch the chain spill out with a rattle and see the anchor bite the bottom. The dinghy holds still, like a pony on a tether. OK, the worst that can happen now is I sit here and wait for the tide to turn. I rest, and try the motor again. Fickle friend, it starts immediately. I feel like a rat that has found its way out of a trap. The peedie motor pushes me safely out of the tide and round into the bay, before gradually slowing once again to silence…
… but now to row is an easy pleasure. A magnificent, golden harvest moon rises over Gairsay. The Governess of the Floods. The reason for the tide, and for the strength of the tide tonight. A selkie watches. A flock of waders flits near, and veers away. The night is still again. I call home: I’m OK. I’m gaan tae be late. I love you. I row for forty minutes. When the Tingwall Pier lights eventually wash over me, I’ve never been so glad to be back.