Cast your bread upon the waters

A nice fish tea for four.

As a boy nearly every summer holiday was spent staying with either my maternal or paternal grandparents. My mother’s parents lived in a small village on the North west coast of Scotland. My father’s were from a crofting community in the same area. My maternal grandfather was in his 70s but still a very active outdoorsman. He had lived most of his life as fisherman, crofter and gamekeeper. A crofter is a small scale tenant farmer. I think when I knew him he had retired from gamekeeping but he still continued to hunt, trap and fish. 

For a child coming from the city of Glasgow it was exciting following along with him in some of these activities. Especially fishing. One of the highlights was when he went night fishing in the nearby salmon river. What an experience as we would travel out with his motorbike and spend about 2 hours fishing from midnight till 2am. As a former gamekeeper he had the right from the landowner to fish the river for his lifetime. I didn’t fish with him, the rods were too big. Also working a fast flowing river in pitch dark was a bit much for a little lad. Holding the net, the possibility of disturbing a poacher and being awake at an unheard of hour was excitement enough. If a salmon or sea trout was above a certain weight he would hand in part or all of it to the current gamekeeper. It seemed to be a kind of agreement with the landowner. 

Granda (right) with a 36lb salmon (16kg) in 1937 (several decades before my time!!)

Though not fishing on the river I did get to fly fish in the lochs (loch is Scottish word for a lake). These dotted the whole area. Granda taught me how to cast and tie on flies. The ‘blue zulu’ was my favourite fly. Also had to learn the not so pleasant task of gutting any fish caught. He also showed how to tickle brown trout, I guess a lost art nowadays. To catch a trout in a burn (Scots name for a small stream) is quite a trick. Putting your hand in the water you wiggle your fingers and somehow mesmerise the fish to come near your hand. Then lightning quick close your hand and grab it! I never caught anything that way. 

Granda would also teach patience, necessary for any fisherman. If I cast and a fish rose to the fly but didn’t hook I would get excited. Stubbornly I would keep casting to the same patch of water. His instructions in such circumstances were always the same. “Cast 3 times, if they don’t bite move on to another area”. He knew what he was talking about as sometimes he would catch 40-50 brown trout in just a few hours. Maybe I’d catch 4 or 5. Such abundance of fish are not there nowadays. Living in a village where people depended on one another there was a strong sense of responsibility to the community. Whenever he caught more than the family could eat, whether from the sea or loch, it would be shared with neighbours. This was the norm. 

The routine preparing for sea fishing involved some effort. We would go to the shore and pick mussels. He would show me how to shell them raw with a knife. This was tricky with small hands as you needed to extract the mussel without cutting it. Then he’d teach how to put the shelled mussels on several dozen hooks as bait for line fishing. Strange nowadays that mussels are a delicacy for humans and not for fish! Again as with freshwater loch fishing there was an abundance of fish. Sometimes you could catch 80-100. Also a great variety which could include haddock, whiting, cod, pollack, saithe (coalfish) and flounder. In August when mackerel shoals were around you could catch very many of them. On occasions even a conger eel or a skate. Since these days throughout adulthood I have spent many times with my father carrying on this tradition. Times have changed though. Catching such riches from the sea just a few hundred metres from shore are not common today. Probably caused by decades of large scale seabed trawling near coastal shores.

Do I still fish nowadays? Maybe on average once a year and only fly fishing in the same place. For many years it’s nearly always been the same ritual. I go to a remote loch about an hour’s hiking from the roadside. Granda had shown me how to find it. He showed how to find the direction too this ‘hidden’ loch from the rock patterns on the horizon. He didn’t seem to use a compass in the hills or moors. Of course he knew the area inside out. There were many lochs but not all had fish. ‘Granda’s loch’ always had fish. He also revealed which areas around the loch to fish and where it was a waste of time. That knowledge of where to find it and where to fish I have kept mainly to myself. Am not divulging the loch’s name! 

In all my years of visits I never met anyone else on the loch though a few times others have accompanied me. Except for one occasion which I mention later. My routine is usually the following. A one hour walk each way to the loch with about 2 hours enjoyable fishing. Careful to only fish those spots granda told me all those years ago. I think I have always come back with something (a fisherman would say that!). The whole experience can be meditative, hopeful and refreshing. Perhaps explains why fishing is popular with so many. 

For each cast of the fly on a particular patch of water you are expectant of a bite. If it doesn’t work after 3 casts you move on to another patch of water which you think looks good. Occasionally there would be the drama of a fish on the line. Always exciting. Put small ones back in the water to live another day. In between savouring the quietness and solitude giving space to think. 

The one occasion when someone else was fishing was a surprise to me and think also to him. It almost felt an affront, an invasion of privacy. How dare anyone think they could fish what had become in my mind ‘my’ loch! It turned out he was a local and I knew him. He was a bit older than me and from the village I had spent childhood holidays. He also knew my grandfather. As we chatted I was encouraged as he spoke warmly of granda. In fact he said he had taught him all he knew about fishing! It seemed granda had more than one disciple when it came to fishing. It did look like he had learnt well as his bag was full of fish.

“Cast your bread upon the waters for you shall find it after many days”

Ecclesiastes chapter 11 verse 1.

The above verse is a picture to me of patience, hope, expectations of a bright future and generosity towards others. Looking back granda demonstrated these traits to a little boy though I didn’t know it at the time. I am grateful to him, to parents and other such mentors in life.

Nothing to Lose

Captain Scott, at rest after day’s adventure. **

The spring /summer of 1973 was for me a transition period between finishing school and starting studies at Glasgow university. With time on my hands I applied for and was fortunate to get a 26 day scholarship to join the adventure sail training vessel ‘Captain Scott’. Purpose built in 1971 in Buckie, Scotland it was a 380 ton three masted top gallant schooner. 52m long and 30m high she was the largest sailing vessel flying the British flag at the time. The ship was staffed by a variety of experienced sailors. This included officers from the UK’s army, navy and air force. 

Later in life I spent some 10 years associated with another vessel, the engine powered MV Logos. The Captain Scott, however, was a sailing ship, though it did have diesel motors as back up if needed. The time I spent on board has been my only experience using sails before or since. However the time was intense and a crash course in the basics of sailing with the wind. The primary job of the professional crew was to take us raw recruits and shape us into an effective team who could operate the schooner. 

As trainees we were from a variety of backgrounds. One cohort came from the services themselves. People recommended by officers for possible promotion. Another group were folk from industry or business, again maybe being assessed for management potential. The third group were school leaver types such as myself who had got a scholarship. We were younger than the rest and didn’t have a lot at stake. The others potentially had career prospects on the line. Everyone’s time on board would be assessed by a simple pass or fail. No other form of grading. These simple two possibilities heightened the tension for those hoping for promotion or CV enhancement. Being classed as a failure is not a great bargaining chip when wanting that job as a manager or possible officer material. Also for those sent by their employer they may not have chosen to engage in three and a half weeks of arduous mental and physical activity in cramped quarters. For me it had been a free choice. Although I enjoyed it immensely there were still challenges I had to face.

Captain Scott was ran as a kind of naval version of ‘Outward Bound’. Discipline, endurance and the ability to work together were important to its ethos. I suppose it was designed to make men of boys. Named after the Antarctic explorer Richard Scott there was a figurehead of him on the bow. The vessel’s home port was the little village of Plockton, Wester Ross on the north west coast of Scotland. I made my way there and joined along with a new batch of trainees.

As I recall there was 42 of us joining what was the 15th such course since its inception in 1971. We were split up into 3 watches of 14. Over the coming days we would be moulded into a team sailing round a number of islands on Scotland’s west coast. There was also an expeditions officer who organised forays into the mountains that surround the rugged and largely remote coastline. For some brought up mainly in the city this region of the UK would be very different from what they were used to. Both my parents come from the NW Scotland. As a result I had spent many holidays in a similar area nearby so was familiar with the terrain and coast.

Our route from Plockton 21st May – 16th June 1973

Certainly the discipline was tough. Lieutenant Commander Victor Clark’s initial lecture was no doubt to stamp his authority on this his new crew. He did make an impression by telling us he was allowed to keelhaul those who did not follow orders. Then proceeded to show how you go about it! Thankfully he did not use actual people to demonstrate! He did command respect. With several dozen sails and a myriad of ropes all with a specific purpose there was a lot to instil in us.

Commander Clark had a long and very distinguished wartime, naval and Admiralty career. At the time he was nearing 50 years at sea. Amongst many adventures upon his retirement from the navy he spent 6 years on a 48,000-mile voyage sailing round the world in a 9 ton yacht. It included nearly a year shipwrecked on Palmerston Island, a coral atoll in the Cook Islands. One highlight of the course was him showing slides and relating stories of his odyssey. 

The Captain Scott and its ethos became a reality through Commander Clark’s vision and determination. With Kurt Kahn (founder of Gordonstoun School) he enlisted Prince Philip’s aid in finding sponsorship. I (and I suspect hundreds of other young men starting out in life) am thankful for his leadership in making it all happen.

His 2nd World War exploits and sailing mishaps didn’t shorten his life and he lived till he was 97. Mariner and adventurer this vicar’s son had another side to him. His naval obituary says he was sustained in 1941 by Christian’s quotation in John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ “When thou passest through the Waters I will be with thee; and through the Rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” (Isaiah 43 verse 2).

Ropes everywhere**

The training wasn’t all at sea and the final ‘test’ was a 3 day traverse over remote Scottish hills where we were to survive without coming in contact with civilisation of any kind, not even roads. At the end we met up again with the vessel at another place. In small groups shadowed by the expeditions leader it was a welcome break from being on board.

In order to function safely there were many rules to follow. A course failure could come from disobeying one of them. One of these was no smoking or drinking during the entire course. This wasn’t an issue for me but for those who were regular smokers it was a huge discipline. An infringement meant failure. I was amazed at the vigour and detective work from officers when a cigarette end was found in the heads (toilets). This threat of failure led to resentment with some. Indeed one guy’s anger led to what could have been tragic consequences. He dropped a heavy metal sailing needle from a great height, narrowly missing one of the officers. Another officer had his canoe holed. It was rumoured to be the same guy who had done it.  

We trainees all slept together dormitory style in the mid-section. Port and starboard bunks lining the hull and tables for eating in the middle. Waking up procedure was the bosun entering and sharply blowing his whistle. From then we had 30 seconds to be on deck naked where you were hosed down with salt water from a powerful fire hose. If you flinched or were late on deck you had to stand still before the hose an extra long time. There can be few more effective ways of being fully alert from slumber in under a minute. This routine was OK at sea. However I recall us once being on deck anchored in Tobermory Bay (Isle of Mull). We were being duly hosed down when the early morning mist lifted to have a full view of Tobermory waterfront. I have often wondered what anyone in the harbour would have thought of a couple of dozen naked figures on deck. 

As stated we crew were in 3 watches. I think it was 8 hours on, 16 off or maybe at sea 4 on and 8 off. Some activities were done either as a game or in competition. A 3 masted schooner has many sails. The captain could, for instance, ask all 3 watches to select a hurricane sail from the claustrophobic depths of the keel locker. Each watch had to fight the other off. I do not like closed, confined spaces and found it hard. Caving is not something I have ever wanted to do. There were also mundane things such as tying knots, mending sails and scrubbing deck.

Another game would be races from bow to stern where your feet should not touch the deck. Involved making use of the extensive rigging. Going aloft to reef the sails was difficult initially. Grateful that we were clipped on most of time. Getting over my feelings of vertigo I eventually became more accustomed to the height.

Getting over vertigo!**

Life under a large sailing ship is from a bygone age. All 3 watches, not just the one on duty sometimes had to get up whether daytime or middle of night if captain decided we needed to radically change direction by adjusting or adding sails. The entire crew was usually needed to hoist or lower. She could sail at 18 knots in a stiff breeze. There is something absolutely thrilling being aloft and suspended over the open water when moving at speed. Being with people who had immense experience of sailing meant this unique vessel’s potential was realised.

I did it – ‘conducted myself in a seamanlike manner’!

As I wrote this post I googled what I could find about the ship. Amazed to discover there is a 23 minute film about the Captain Scott and the training course. I do not feature in it as it was done in 1972, a year before my time on board. If interested you can see it here. It captures the atmosphere well. The 1970s style fashions on display are also interesting!

POSTSCRIPT – The Trust that ran the Captain Scott operated these courses from 1971-77. Thereafter it was sold and became based in Oman. Renamed ‘Shabab Oman’ it has until recent years operated as a sail training ship for the Omani navy.

** All photos except my certificate are by kind courtesy of Bruce Mike Roberts (course 23). Sadly I don’t have any I took. Can’t even recall if I had a camera!

Do You Have Life Insurance?

“The Big Picture”, by Elisabeth Grant**

In other blogs I relate my flying experience with the Royal Air Force Special Reserves for 2 years 1973-75 (Kicked Out of The Nest and Come in Number 6!). During that time I loved the romance of getting on my modest little Honda 50cc motorbike and riding the 6 or so miles to Glasgow Airport. This was where the squadron was based. One day I arrived to be greeted by my flying instructor with “Do you have life insurance?”. As an 18/19 year old it was not anything I had given any thought to and replied in the negative. ‘Good’, he said, ‘we are going to do spins today’. Now as part of aerobatic training we had to practice inducing spins and usually did maybe 4 or so ‘spins’. It is a procedure that puts the aircraft completely out of control. You are basically falling out of the sky with each ‘spin’ losing several hundred feet in height. Thankfully the Bulldog T Mk 1 was a training aircraft and was designed to get out of them but we had to learn the procedure. The Flight Lieutenant said today we were going to try as many spins as possible, maybe 8 or more. Inherently risky as we would come out of spin very close to ground. I guess that explained his earlier question to me. 

Off we went. We climbed to the maximum height possible for this small single engine plane, about 10,000 feet. Then we flew straight and level but shut the throttle. This meant our forward speed was slowing. The aim was to reach stall point which as I recall was about 60 knots. As we approached this speed in order to maintain our height I had to have a steeper inclination (attitude). The breaking up of airflow over the wings causes the plane to shudder. This is the telltale sign the plane was about to stall i.e. lose lift. Just as that happens I pull the stick fully back and put-on full right rudder. The plane then is induced into a nose dive spin, falling at a tremendous rate. It was extremely disorienting and the sky needed to be clear. The only way to gauge how many times you had turned was by counting each time the sun flashed across your eyes. Cannot remember how many turns we actually did on that occasion. I do remember the traumatic regaining of control of the aircraft. Stick fully forward and full left rudder. She would then come out of the spin. However the disconcerting thing then was that having the stick fully forward meant we came out of the spin perpendicular to the rapidly approaching ground below. It was then a blood draining pull back on the stick to come out of the dive, only applying full power when nose crossed the horizon. It’s not for the faint hearted and glad I always did this with an instructor.

I was cleared to do solo other aerobatic manoeuvres like barrel rolls, stall turns, steep turns and loops. Loops were great fun when you would line up the plane’s nose with a straight line ground feature such as a road or motorway. Then dive at full power to 140 knots and pull hard up on the stick to go up and over. A good loop meant that the nose would return to the same point you had started with. I also liked doing a half loop and then doing a 180 degree roll at top of loop. It’s a handy way to go in the opposite direction!

The local flying area, Loch Lomond area and the Trossachs.

A lot of the training involved practicing emergency procedures. One such was a fire or engine failure where I practiced forced landings. Some instructors took delight in pulling the throttle back just after take off at less than 500 feet. For a few seconds as the plane was descending you then had to verbalise to instructor where and how you would land. Runway was not an option at that height as couldn’t turn. Could only hope it never happened for real as other choices are very limited beside a busy airport. Once satisfied he would then tell you to return to full power. From my notes I see it was always being drummed into you that flying was 90% looking out of the cockpit, not at instruments

Most of the time though engine failures were practiced at considerable height and I was cleared to practice this solo. One such time I shut the throttle at several thousand feet. I had to gauge the rough wind direction on the ground. Then find a longish looking clear field I could land into the wind. Make sure there’s no pylons or other such structures nearby. Once committed to your landing spot do not change on way down! Easier said than done when you are looking at fields maybe a few miles away and other, seemingly better options, start to appear. 

All seemed well. I was gently gliding down in a slow spiral and at about 2,000 feet working out just where I would turn for final approach to my chosen field. The idea was to descend to a few hundred feet and then full throttle again. On final approach with field ahead I then applied full throttle. Nothing happened, instead the engine started to cough and splutter. For a moment I thought this was going to be a real emergency landing and it didn’t look very pleasant. With probably only a few seconds before impact the engine kicked back in. What had happened? I had neglected a key check on way down. Clear the engine every thousand feet on descent. Being so caught up on other procedures I had forgotten the fact the engine needed caring for. The fuel/ air mixture is very different at 10,000 feet than at ground level. I can’t remember if I reported this near accident. Suspect not as it would not have looked good. A chastening experience and ever thankful that the engine fired up.

My scrappy flying notes from this time. Hope it was not indicative of my flying!

Another engine failure procedure is to practice glide landings onto runway. Again I was permitted to do this solo. On the downwind leg of runway I ease back the throttle before making an early turn into the final approach. The difference from a much shallower powered approach is that it feels as if you are almost looking down at the runway, not along it. The attitude is very steep and quite disorienting height-wise. Normal landings you were told to flare (round out just before landing by lifting nose) when you ‘feel the grass around your ears’. On a glide the steepness means that the flare needs to be got just right. Too early and you would loose lift and drop to the ground (stall). Pull up too late and you would ram into the ground. This time I flared much too soon, stalled and dropped the last 30 feet or so onto the runway. I violently bounced 3 times before regaining control. Still I had landed(!). My main thought naively was that the control tower had not seen. No word was said to me initially but this time be sure my sins would find me out.The squadron engineer reported that the g meter*** had recorded 8g. Was fortunate that I hadn’t knocked myself out. Wing rivets had popped and the plane would be out of service for a week or so, all because of me. From my notes it seems my fault was not to practice glide landings in a very strong headwind. My guess is flaring is then even more difficult to judge.

You might think that the flying instructors were a steely, cool bunch of pilots. Indeed they were accomplished, one had done a tour as a Red Arrows**** pilot. However instructing me could frighten even them. On one occasion I was first learning glide landings with an instructor. So focussed on what I had to do that I didn’t hear my instructors repeated, increasingly frantic order for him to take the control stick. We sat tandem with each of us having a control stick. He later said I was rigidly holding it and not moving. For a time he couldn’t wrest control until I snapped out of what was a kind of frozen fear. 

Most of the above manoeuvres were inherently dangerous and required quick thinking. Mixing this with my lack of skill and experience did result in errors or omissions on my part. Thankful that these did not lead to accidents. You the reader are probably thankful I never became a commercial pilot! Did other trainee pilots make similar mistakes or have near misses? I don’t know as the macho atmosphere of an aircrew mess did not lend itself to admitting any mistakes. My guess is instructors had a few stories to tell but they weren’t saying. Despite my giving perhaps an accident prone impression it was anything but. Safety was drilled into everything. It was a highly disciplined training environment in which those learning were being equipped. Better to learn to feel the fear, cope with stress and make decisions quickly with no regrets. Backing that ethos with a tough little aircraft that could take a lot of abuse I think made for the best form of equipping.

Looking at the bigger picture of my life I have made mistakes. Sometimes I hide them, sometimes I am found out. I make errors of judgement, regret things and occasionally feel I have crash landed. All too often I am focussed on the instrument panel of daily routines and feelings. Neglecting to care regularly for the engine of my life has led to spiritual and physical exhaustion. I fail to look out of the cockpit of my own little world at the bigger picture outside. I need direction, orientation and encouragement. 

Do I have life insurance? Well, a document assuring me of provision for loved ones in event of some accident befalling me is one thing. Having someone always sitting tandem and guiding me through this wonderful and puzzling life is another.

Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me’.

John 14 verse 6 (NIVUK)

** See Instagram @elisabethgrant.art

*** A g-meter measures the amount of acceleration or deceleration (-ve) force. Someone experiencing 2g would feel twice their weight due to gravity.

**** Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team

A Tale of Riches to Rags

Satellite map of Nauru

For a couple of months towards the end of 1979 I was priviledged to visit a number of islands in the South Pacific. They were not tourist or luxury liner visits. Most of the time I stayed with locals. My work was representing the ship MV Logos and making advance preparations for the vessel to visit these far flung outposts of our world. If interested I describe the type of work I was engaged in in my posts City of Many Faces or I see men like trees walking! Here I am recalling a visit to a tiny island nation in the vast Pacific.

Location of the Repunlic of Nauru

Visiting Nauru was unintentional. Myself and a colleague were flying from Fiji to Honiara, Solomon Islands on Nauru’s national airline, Air Nauru. We had been encouraged by the cheap tickets on offer. However didn’t realise it would be expensive for us time-wise. Nauru was meant to be just a stopover but the airline had no plane available for our ongoing flight. It didn’t appear any other airline went there. They willingly put us up for 2 days in the island’s only hotel. We discovered most people in the hotel were also stranded for similar reasons as ourselves. Being put up by the airline was apparently a regular occurrence. Hard to imagine such happening with today’s airlines. Perversely I wondered if cheap air tickets and flight cancellations were a way of getting visitors to this remote place not on a normal tourist route. For a small place it boasts quite a few interesting and rather sad facts**.

The airline it seems could afford such generosity. The reason was Nauru was full of the world’s purest quality rock phosphate, used in fertilisers. The population had became very wealthy selling mining rights to big companies. At one time Nauru citizens were the richest per capita in the world. My visit was during the boom times. There were no taxes and the government gave everybody a stipend. The population then was 4,000 (now nearly 11,000). It is the world’s smallest independent island nation. Air Nauru then had 4 Boeing aircraft in its fleet. One aircraft per thousand inhabitants! Even the milk was flown in. Sounds idyllic? Not really as there was no incentive to get jobs, start businesses or diversify its economy. 

Roughly oval shaped and about 6 km long and 4km wide Nauru has a main road round it’s perimeter. My recollection was of local teens racing round and round this looped road in expensive motorbikes. The interior of the island was where the mining occurred. I remember the bioluminescence of the waves at night, their sparkling a wonder to behold. Seeing the coral reef that surrounded the entire island was a constant reminder that a great and deep ocean was just out there. The moonlike standing limestone structures gave a kind of haunting beauty. Standing on a small, fairly flat island in the vast Pacific I felt vulnerable and exposed. It’s nearest neighbour is Banabi island 300km to the east. Yes Nauru had a beauty to it and I could understand why it was once called Pleasant island.

The tragedy of Nauru is that strip mining scarred 80% of the country’s entire surface leaving it a wasteland and the people clinging to the remaining habitable areas on the coast. Added to that was the phosphate runoff poisoning the ground waters with cadmium. When there was no more phosphate left to mine this single source of wealth disappeared. The people subsequently have become poor. Riches to rags. The government did win reparations from Australia for the environmental degradation it suffered. In a controversial development in recent years they have been getting income from Australia by serving as a detention centre for asylum seekers. A recent proposed project, currently of unknown impact on the environment, is deep sea mining of seabed metal nodules. There are also a number of dubious money making schemes.

“I wish we’d never discovered that phosphate…When I was a boy, it was so beautiful… Now I see what has happened here, and I want to cry.”

Rev Aingimea, Nauru Congregational Church, speaking to New York Times 10 Mar 1995.

We eventually did get on our onward flight to Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Accommodation there was very different! We stayed in the convent of an Anglican women’s order. My colleague Jean as a woman had no problem in living in the community. For me the solution was the nuns putting me in an outhouse on a hill. However I could eat at mealtimes with the community. Breakfasts were silent which was fine. Meals when you could talk were often mundane. At other times discussing what the call of God might mean. I was impressed by the energy of the leading sister. The peace of the night would be punctuated by the sound of her battering away on a manual typewriter. 

In a few weeks time the world’s attention will turn to my home city of Glasgow. It is about to host the UN COP26 conference on climate change and the environment. Matters of global concern will be discussed with many voices and opinions. Nauru is literally a drop in the ocean of both the world’s population and land area. Insignificant as it might seem it’s tragic story represents the story of many communities and nations today. Places that suffer from a toxic mixture of greed, environmental degradation and humanity’s ongoing hunger for resources.

** See, for example, “11 amazing facts about Nauru…