Baker Prize – 6 days to go …

Seagull by Ian Stephen – Highly commended 2011
Robbie said he knew I was into sailing boats but I’d have to make do with
mechanical propulsion when I came to visit him. I said that a Seagull engine was
ethnic enough, at least it wasn’t a Suzuki. Then I remembered his guitar was a
He lived pretty close to that guitar. You had to make an appointment to get
into the toilet in the flat we shared. It was in a square box set right between his
room and mine, neutral territory. The extractor fan used to make a big noise but
hadn’t worked for a while and the acoustics were good. He might have
disconnected it.
When you did get to hear him play, it could be just about anything. Robbie
alternated between chords to accompany the Shetland fiddle; contemporary jazz
and a few acoustic versions of rock riffs. One of his heroes was Peerie Willie, the
Shetlander who finger-picked all that lot together, maybe with some bluegrass.
And got away with it.
Robbie was also good enough to get away with it. But he could cope with
a lot of things because he could adapt. Eat any food. Play Country and Western
in some zinc shack he’d been driven to on a Friday. No choice when the motor
stopped for you and someone who was needing a guitarist came knocking at the
My sleeping bag was stretched out somewhere in his Da’s house. At the
heart of a scheme in Lerwick which was the double of another pebble-dashed
one I knew well, on another island. In both towns, the council housing was back a
good way from the harbour and up a slope. Maybe the site of the Lerwck one had
been a cornfield too. Not that we’re short of decent arable land in the outer Isles,
you understand.
I wouldn’t have minded being in the hollowfill cocoon, right then. His father
had lodged a wee protest. You can’t go hauling that boy out to sea now, after
he’s been on that P and O boat for fourteen hours. Robbie said he could, the
forecast wasn’t that great for the rest of the week so we’d have to grab our
He knew I was keen to get out in a Shetland skiff. Shetland Model, they
called them, here. Makes them sound like toys but they’ve a name as seaboats.
More of a rowing boat you can sail, compared to the beamy, load-carrying boats
of Orkney and Lewis.
The keel of the Shetland Model runs the full length of the hull thus
presenting sufficient area of timber against drift. That would be oak and then
there would be the lighter larch of the first broad plank. The Shetlanders would
shift their weight to keep her well down in the water. They fair crowded on sail, to
race them so one man was there with a shovel, bailing all the time. The out and
out racers would have some extra keel . That would help them keep a course
close to the wind.
Robbie’s father had never sailed this one. Even those who did sail might
have a Seagull stashed away under an oilskin for when they just went fishing. I
held the door of the shed open and Robbie carried the beast out. This one had a
square cylinder and even had a clutch. It was a sixties into seventies model – like
Robbie’s other main influences, Clapton and Jimi. As he said to me quietly, once,
in that Aberdeen flat, you don’t write off Hendrix’ music just because it’s dated or
because of the guy’s life and death. Where would that leave Samuel Taylor
Coleridge? I couldn’t argue with that.
He’d liked The Ancient Mariner, rediscovering the thing after it had been
murdered at school, the Anderson High. It was the open-endedness that hit him,
the way you couldn’t fit it all into this moral framework it was pretending to
illustrate. Maybe that’s why it had provoked so many good illustrators and maybe
more to come. We traded studies in our better moments. I was doing a Literature
module that year – reflections on the French Revolution and all that. They say
that man can’t live on history alone. Robbie swapped basic Navigation for
Literature. Not basic enough, sometimes. He had to get the star-sights in there.
Capella and the like. Only high-sounding names to me.
A bearing and a distance. A vector. A line carrying both magnitude and
direction. But there was a couple of wee complexities.
OK tell me more about Variation and Deviation. They sounded quite sexy.
Calculating first for the difference between the True North and the way the
compass would point, varying slightly year by year. Then the compensation for
the vessel’s own magnetic field, on a given bearing.
Our flat was cheap but we had to pay the price of that. I’d seen his advert.
He’d grabbed the chance to rent it from another Shetlander, who’d got a job back
home. It was just off Market Street. Walking distance from the Nautical College.
Fish-lorries passed under our window at any hour. With certain winds we got the
stale smoke from up the road – the place with the sign we wanted to liberate and
install in the flat.
Robbie was soft-spoken, for a Viking. Younger than me but used to being
attended to by stewards and so on. I taught him a few survival skills. There was
the cheese-sauce livened up with some leek and Stilton. A basic garam masala
prepared in small quantities, for freshness. He was too easy to lead. I shouldn’t
have got away with it for so long.
The hint of his other side came when I saw him cruise up and down with
the other half-dozen regulars of the early-morning session at the Bon Accord
Baths. His fair hair looked even thinner, plastered wet and still not much sign of a
beard. But a bow-wave coming off him as he swam miles, propelled by a steady
breaststroke. All these swimmers, navigating on lines of black tiles along the
blue. They passed each other as courteously as ships following the secure rules
of their roads.
He phoned me before I left Lewis. Yes the trip was still on. But there was
something up. I’d get the story when I got there. Robbie wasn’t a guy to give
away much on the phone. I’d to bear with him but it was time I saw his home
Robbie wouldn’t let me carry the Seagull from the shed beside the
running-mooring. That would have been the usual thing. One guy would pull in
the boat and the other get the engine down. I know how to carry it, I said, the
gearbox end held below the level of the fuel tank. He let me take the oars and
that was about it. Anchor, warp, spare fuel, spare plug and spanner. No
lifejackets, no flares.
The sky didn’t look too good to me. There were a couple of old guys
yarning by the boats, leaning against the archetypal harbour rail. No you’re not
going out today, boys, not far anyhow. Robbie told them he’d just a few pots out.
He’d to recover them before the sea got up.
Well if dees set on going it’ll have to be da sooth way.
Robbie grinned. Aye.
The trim of this boat was important. He sat me on the forward thwart then
pulled her out clear of all the moorings. Then dropped oars and pumped fuel
through the engine. It fired, second pull, on its bracket of bent galvanised bar.
This was bolted to the stern-post, where the rudder would have been hung.
I sat as directed. The Shetland model seemed amazingly narrow and the seas
were building up. It took them well, punching in. She’s good in a following sea
too, Robbie shouted, over the motor. You won’t ship a green one in this.
That was about as much as we could say, over the engine. That type
vents directly to the grey air above the shifting water level. Water coolant gushed
out in a healthy jet. The rich fuel mixture was smoking, even in this breeze.
He throttled back a bit and it was quieter or maybe I was just getting used to it. I
asked if it was a ten to one mix.
Robbie nodded.
You get a wee kit now, I started, to convert the carb to take twenty-five to
Shit, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
Ten to one sounds fine to me, Robbie shouted above the exhaust. Keeps
it smooth on short runs. Around the pots.
I noted the direction of buoyage as we passed a cylindrical port-hand
buoy. It was across from a yard. Just like the Arnish buoy at Approaches to
Norscot, Robbie said. A lot that used to throw fishing gear out here were
working in there, now. Lucky for him. Otherwise there would be no lobsters left
for us. One for the fuel, one for the table. Did ah ken the Norscot recipe for
kippers? On the night shift, you wrap them in newspapers. Shove them behind a
radiator at the start of the shift. Dig them out at the meal break. That’s it.
He throttled back up. I saw the seas were getting longer. Less breaking
waves. Had to be deeper water.
He signalled me to move to the middle. He was wanting to keep the prop
down so it would bite more. I realised that I wasn’t too happy. I’d been out in a lot
worse seas but there was something about the situation. Not being in control.
Bare islands were close now. Could just as easily have been the entrance
to Loch Erisort. Skuas dodged in the airways above our heaving boat. That rain’ll
keep the wind down. Just a bit.
I came close to mutiny at the narrows. Robbie cut the engine.
My gear is in the lee of that lot. It’ll be no bother to haul. We can get through with
the tide like this but it’s safer just to pull.
Without thinking, I took up one of the narrow-bladed oars as he took the
other. In the short swell, I missed one stroke. It’s easier if there’s only one guy
pulling, he said and took over my oar. I went forward to look for nasty stuff. It was
worse when you had nothing to do with guiding the boat through. I swallowed
It was like a lagoon, through these narrows. He’d known it would be, of
course, in this wind. I hauled the gear while Robbie handled the boat. That thrill
of gambling with traps is the same everywhere. A few crabs just big enough to be
worth boiling up. Two indigo snapping shapes, but just under the limit. And one
decent lobster. I found the rubber bands in the fish box and doubled them round
the claws then placed it in the other end of that box, with an old oilskin separating
it from the crabs.
Robbie then motioned me to go forward while he stowed the six or so
pots, with their ropes and buoys placed inside, to avoid tangles. When he was
happy that the boat was back in trim, we were back on the go, him on the stern
thwart. He told me then, he wasn’t going back to Aberdeen.
He’d heard so many local versions of his own story, it was getting kind of
difficult to explain the real one. He’d heard he’d failed his last ticket. He’d jumped
ship in the Pacific, over a woman he was involved with. She was older than him
of course but he didn’t know if she was Polynesian or not. Then there was the
younger woman theory: Unst, Walls or Yell versions. Met when he was playing
music on one of those islands.
Let’s just say the ticket he did have, would do him for any North Sea job
he wanted and he’d be back home for the two weeks off. He’d probably not get
sponsored to carry on if there wasn’t anything in it for the company, but so what.
He wasn’t so sure of the ring of Captain Sinclair anyway. Too many of them
round here.
Sure enough, in front of our window in Aberdeen, the lines had been
getting longer and thicker. Converted trawlers, built high to be reborn as supplyships.
Painted in new liveries. Between that boom coming and the Lerwick
connections, he’d be OK.
More important to him right now, to keep the music going, the two weeks
at home. He was lucky. His father wasn’t the sort to pressurise him and he was
glad of the company in the house.
He still didn’t give me the tiller on the way back. I knew for sure then that
I’d tried to steer him more than enough in the recent past. You think you know
someone but maybe part of the person you think you’re seeing is only your own
Maybe it’s difficult to really get to know anyone. For all the animated
dialogue and shared meals. It takes more time maybe to be aware of what’s
Take the Shetland model, broad-planked for strength with lightness but
also for speed of build. Primarily a beach boat, held by a bare minimum of sawn
frames. Double-ended and narrow in the beam. Light and strong. Like boats in
Faroes and Fair Isle. But something particular. And this one that Robbie’s father
had once got built for him might have had more flare here or there, than
specified. The cut of the larch. The way it grew. The way it bent.
Even if everything was scrupulously done to templates, it must have had
additions or subtractions over the years. An eye-bolt added or galvanised pins for
the oars to replace worn iron ones. An anchor permamently aboard but carried in
a slightly different position every trip.
All becoming factors of the vessel’s own individual nature. Its own
resultant deviation, valid for the time it had its effect. Causing a swing east or
west of the magnetic bearing.
So to be really aware of how that vessel was behaving, you couldn’t trust
any swinging needle. You had to know the present state of its own magnetic