Ground-rush

In my life so far, I have completed only two parachute jumps. The first as a fund-raiser for a friend and the second the day after the first, because I had enjoyed it so much. They were static line jumps from two thousand feet high, involving the classic process of pushing out of an open light aircraft door, arms and legs akimbo, yelling (or screaming) - "One thousand, two thousand, three thousand..... check canopeeeee....!" These jumps took place in 1986 and so the mists of time have mellowed my memory of them since then. However, I do recall that I felt more fear during the second jump than I did the first. 

Analysing this now, I make the assumption that the first jump was one of pure excitement and because I had never jumped before, I really had no fearful expectations apart from the possibility that my parachute might malfunction. The rest of the experience was purely an adrenalin fuelled moment, which I had longed to complete ever since I was a young boy. I loved flying. I had been an Air Force Cadet at secondary school and I took any opportunity I could to fly in the ancient Chipmunk aircraft on summer camps and regular unit trips down to the nearest RAF airfield. I also gained my Glider Pilot wings before I passed my driving test, flying solo at the age of sixteen. My solo flight lasted just over sixty seconds and earned me the right to volunteer at the RAF Gliding School every Saturday, with solo flying at the end of the day, for two years after. My first solo glider flight is worthy of a separate story in itself.

So, by the time I found myself shuffling towards the gaping doorway in a Cessna aircraft, high above the quintessential rolling Herefordshire countryside, I was an avid aviator of sorts, who wondered what it would be like to hurl myself from an aircraft and drift down to earth under a silken canopy. I felt no fear, simply excited anticipation. The poor man who was sitting beside me on the cabin floor was weeping silently. Our relative perceptions of this mutual experience couldn't have been more different.

The first jump itself was everything I had hoped for. The complete exhilaration of sitting in the open doorway, my legs dangling with nothing below them until the ground far below and then the command, "Go!", followed by the few seconds of buffeting mayhem as the parachute snapped and cracked open and my body hanging motionless beneath the ochre canopy. These were the days before the 'square' canopies and the large round billowing mushroom above me spilled the air softly, just like the handkerchief parachutes I used to make for my plastic soldiers when I was a boy. What will remain with me in memorable crystal clarity for ever, is the silence. For the brief minute or so I was drifting earthwards, I was suspended in a solitudenous silence which, quite simply, took my breath away. It was one of those perfect moments of absolute awareness. It was probably the first time in my life where I was conscious of all that was occurring - around me, to me and for me.

Less than two minutes after leaving the plane, I neared the ground and seconds later, I saw the hardened grassy surface of the airfield rushing to meet me. With a thud which extorted an unbidden, "Ooft!" from my lungs, I hit the ground and I executed what I thought to be a worthy parachute roll. The air in the canopy dissipated and it collapsed in a whispering rustle beside me. My first ever parachute jump was complete and I was elated!

Imbued with confidence, back at the parachute club offices, I readily signed up for another jump the next day!

Twenty four hours later and once again I'm sitting on the cabin floor of the Cessna aircraft and this time there isn't a weeping man beside me. Instead, it's me who was feeling the nerves. With the naïve and excited anticipation no longer present, I was free to contemplate the possibilities of risk and failure. My stomach was tense and I was not enjoying the moment as much as I hoped I would. The moment of the jump arrived and instead of sheer exhilaration swamping my senses, I was agitated and matter of fact. I want the jump to be over. What I remember of that moment is fearing the landing. I looked forward to the moments of hanging silently beneath the billowing canopy but it was the final seconds and the rush to the ground which filled me with fear.

Needless to say, everything was fine and the jump was effortless and enjoyable. Even my landing was not as I had feared, though I do remember thumping onto the airfield as hard as the day before. 

Now, in the present day, I'm about to embark on my third major sea kayaking fundraising trip and I'm feeling the nerves. There is no longer first expedition naivety to mask my concerns and I am finding myself dwelling on aspects of my forthcoming journey which require particular attention because of possible hazards and the risks involved. Similarly too, I am worrying about my overall ability to pull this venture off - to succeed in its purpose. I worry that because I have been successful in past sea kayaking adventures, folks will have expectations of me doing so again and I have much to live up to. I realise that more than anything, I am expecting a lot of myself and it is actually myself who I don't want to disappoint. As the departure date for my journey draws closer, I am experiencing a sense of ground-rush, time concertinaing and the many important preparatory tasks rushing towards me. The memory of my parachute jumps thirty two years ago reveal themselves clearly in my mind and it is the memory of the ground-rush which I feared the most.

What I realise though, is to hold onto the recollection of that incredible moment hanging in space under the parachute canopy, alone and in awe of the world around me and below me, enveloped in peace and serenity. For it is this experience of solitude, alone on the vastness of the ocean, which fills me with this peace I crave in my life. This is why I return to these journeys in my sea kayak, time and again. The senses of fear and the ground-rush of anxiety then, are merely distractions which serve to heighten my preparedness to safely enjoy my oceanic solitude.

The moment I scrunch my kayak off the shore and into the sea on the 7th May, will be like the moment I'm dangled my legs out of the aircraft door for the second time all those years ago. All that awaits is the final push, and I'm away, encompassed in a world where anything is possible.

Gratitude

It's just a few weeks until I set off on my Three Peaks by Kayak adventure raising funds for Odyssey.

Any venture such as this requires top notch equipment to ensure my safety and the possibility of its success. I have received incredibly generous support from kayaking equipment providers and individuals over the past few years and I'm indebted to them for this. Without their generosity, it's doubtful that I'll have been able to resource myself adequately to undertake the journeys I have. 

I am always grateful for sponsorship and receiving much needed equipment. In return, I hope I offer useful publicity to the businesses and providers who help me. More than this, I like to think of any sponsorship arrangement as an ongoing partnership where I hope to continue to acknowledge their support long after my adventure has taken place. 

For the Three Peaks by Kayak, I am truly grateful to Alan Hinkes for agreeing to be the Patron for this particular adventure. We met during my 2015 journey around Scotland and it's an honour to have him on board. His mountaineering achievements are inspirational as is his continued work encouraging people to make the most the outdoors has to offer. 

I continue to be indebted to Sea Kayaking Scotland for 'Sahwira', my NDK Explorer sea kayak. She has served me faithfully through my 2015 journey, my Scottish Islands Peaks last year and innumerable trips in between. I think we've paddled over 3000 miles together since April 2015. 'Sahwira' by the way, means 'lifelong friend' in Shona, a Zimbabwean language.

Leonie of Art & Sea - Custom Vinyl Graphics is generously supporting me yet again this year, gifting me free graphics for new sponsors and sea slates for me to write essential notes & times on my deck. The graphics she provided for my 2015 trip are still looking excellent despite the wear and tear they have received.

An exciting new partnership has come into being with Gael Force Group who have generously provided me with an Icom hand held VHF radio. I am looking forward to our developing relationship over the coming years, especially since I worked for them way back in 2013.

Reed Chillcheater presented me with a spray-deck for my Islands Peaks challenge last year and this excellent piece of kit is now a firm favourite of mine.

YB Tracking sponsored my unit and tracking for my 2015 trip and assisted me in purchasing a YB unit with a donation of 100 credits for my Islands Peaks last year. I'll be using this again this year.

The buoyancy aid and kayaking trousers I use were provided by Kokatat for my 2015 trip and these are going strong.

My paddles too, from my 2015 trip, have many paddling miles left in them. They were sponsored by Celtic Paddles.

I still wear the three T-shirts given to me in 2015 by Gael8 Designs - they are old favourites.

And finally there is YOU - all of you who support me with warm words of encouragement, by making generous donations to my fundraising effort and for showing an interest in my mad cap ventures.

Thank you to everyone. Thank you! :)

Grumpy Old Man

Twitter is an online platform where I find myself being how I want to be when I want to be. It's a social media environment where I happily interact with hundreds of unseen followers and online friends. For many of my friends (my real life friends who I personally know), Twitter is an anathema to them. They do not understand the possibilities that Twitter can hold for meaningful, relevant and hugely enjoyable human interaction. I do not criticise them for their mistrust of this method of communication because we come from an age where friendships are borne out of face to face interaction. 

I joined Twitter in 2008, primarily to promote the Sea Glass jewellery I was making at the time. I quickly found myself immersed in the quick-fire style of communicating with the realisation that it was easy to express my thoughts and feelings openly and honestly to a wider world, who were generally open to these in a supportive and sympathetic way. I also discovered that we are inherently interested in each other. We are fascinated by the lives that others lead and equally, we gain much from the interest that others show in us. Well, this is true for me. 

I steer away from politics and matters of controversy on my Twitter timeline. I enjoy a wide following from folks with a wide range of view points and beliefs. While I don't agree with many, I respect the frames of reference that they have. I sometimes cringe when I read what some folks post and there have been times when my fingers have hovered over my keyboard as I tussle over whether to respond or not. I generally take a step back and do not wade into hotly contested debates, such as they are on Twitter. Only when I may have been probed by someone who has managed to press my buttons do I reply with a carefully balanced and hopefully reasonable response. I definitely steer clear of personal criticism. It's the point of view I hope I challenge.

My Twitter name is "LifeAfloat" and through my feed I share as much of my life living on a yacht in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull as I feel comfortable with. I focus on my sea kayaking exploits, generalities about life aboard, island life, simple living and of course sharing the beauty of my surroundings through countless photographs. Sometimes I may talk of concerns I have about the environment and the disconnect humanity has with Nature. I will rarely write about political matters only choosing to do so when I'm outraged by decisions to go to war or glaring political incompetence. 

Recently I've come to notice that my tweeting demeanour has taken on an air of a "Grumpy Old Man". This is both rather funny and rather alarming. Funny because I am becoming the grump I often joke about and alarming because in being grumpy, I lose perspective of the realities. The latter is a Tweeting position I do not want to adopt - at all. I hate to think that I've become what I find distasteful in Twitter - opinionated ranting.

I guess I'm simply expressing a personal point of view which I'm perfectly entitled to do. Somehow though, I feel that in tweeting a rant like post, I'm inviting people to align with me and join in with the ranting and the sense of indignation. I do not offer a solution and neither do I follow these tweets up with a reasoned explanation. I put them out there and sit back, initially with a sense of self-satisfaction and then a growing despair when my unjustified grumpiness dawns on me.

Below are two recent examples of grumpy tweets which I blurted out. It's interesting to note that they both garnered a fair response in 'likes', 'replies' and 'retweets'. These levels of responses are more normally reserved for my tweets where I've shared lovely photos

I seem to have touched a nerve with many folks with these tweets and certainly, most of the responses I received echoed my points of view. There were just a few who disagreed with me and offered a different way of looking at these matters. I was both pleased by the attention these tweets received and shocked that I could be so outspoken. In the grand scheme of things, what I wrote was neither earth shattering or of any great importance, so there really isn't much use in me worrying about this. However, I do worry that emboldened by the attention these types of Tweets receive, I might find myself increasingly Tweeting erratic judgemental ramblings and have some of my loyal followers shaking their heads in bemusement and sadness.

I certainly would if it were me!

The Three Peaks by Kayak

I'm useless at keeping an up to date blog. My best intentions to write regularly and share my thoughts with the wider world come to nought through a mixture of reasons, ranging from low self-confidence to good old fashioned procrastination. I should realise that setting myself the goal of writing regular contributions would not really work for me. I was a poor academic student who was always late with my assignments and essays, leaving writing them to the very last minute or worse, not at all. I became more adept at providing excuses than I did at writing!

This said though, I do enjoy writing and I think that when I do produce a piece, it reads pretty well and I'm pleased with it. I'm not sure why I find it difficult to fulfil my aspirations to write more and I hope that when I do come to understand my blocks, there'll be no stopping me! 

This blog entry is by way of support for my Three Peaks by Kayak challenge which I'm undertaking this May (2018). I'm raising funds for Odyssey, a small charity who provide outdoor courses for people who have been or are being treated for cancer. I have worked for them on a number of occasions and I believe their courses to be incredibly worthwhile. It is wonderful to be writing this entry and to not be covering the theme of my depression and mental health travails. Actually, when I come to think of it, one of the reasons I haven't contributed recently, is because I was tired of only thinking of writing about my low mood, my struggles with this and the more painful truth of fighting my desire to complete suicide. I simply did not want to keep rehashing my negative thoughts and feelings and sharing these with you. It's really lovely at long last to have hope and happiness surging through my veins again. 

My last blog entry was about my New Year plans and I'm pleased to say that I'm at least on my way to undertaking a significant one of these. The Three Peaks by Kayak has been on my list of adventures for nearly twenty five years, really, ever since I began sea kayaking. I had an attempt at completing this in 2009 but was unsuccessful due to poor weather. 2018 will be the year that I put this adventure goal to bed and once I have, I'll feel more able to attempt other plans which have been mulling around in my mind. 

One question I ask myself and I have been asked this by a few other folks too, is - does undertaking these big adventures have a negative impact on the state of my mental health? Without opening up about what I struggle with when I'm in the midst of my depression, I do know that I long to be connected with wildness through some kind of outdoor adventure. Connection to wildness provides me with solace even in the darkest depths of my depression. One aspect of my adventuring lifestyle which I have come to appreciate, is how to reintegrate myself to my life at home and a more 'regular' lifestyle after long and challenging but incredibly rewarding kayaking adventure. Of course having worked as an Outward Bound Instructor and a Therapeutic Wilderness Guide for many years, I ought to understand the important process of transferring ones self from a powerful life altering outdoor experience to the normality of everyday life. I now understand how challenging this can be! The suddenness of the end of a journey can have an incredible impact and for me, and I've struggled to adapt after living a life of wild freedom and solitude. 

Given that I'm now paying attention to this, I'm excited to be undertaking the Three Peaks by Kayak and considering future adventures. It's a continually evolving process of self-awareness which doesn't end because I'm over fifty years old. In fact, I think that I'm learning more about myself now than I ever did in my earlier years. It's as if my life has been leading me to this - the path of the solo adventurer. Despite the risk of future depressive episodes, I have permission to challenge myself so that I continue to grow. 

This kayaking journey then, is as much a personal odyssey as it is a fund raising venture for Odyssey. I look forward to sharing the emerging insights I encounter on the way, as well as the everyday awe and wonder I will enjoy as I traverse the British coastline. 

Thank you for your interest and support. 

2018

Nearly ten days into the New Year and I'm only now sharing my plans and aspirations for the twelve months ahead. Better late than never I suppose, so here goes.

I'm not a fan of loud and boisterous Hogmanay celebrations, preferring to see the year out with a small group of friends or family. I haven't reached the stage yet where I take myself off to bed to wake the next day to a new year. Neither do I sit gloomily in an armchair, clutching a dram with a curmudgeonly air, watching the clock for the midnight chimes. I enjoy the few hours leading up to the bells, where chatter and banter cheerfully ease me from one year to the next. There's always booze to enjoy and we make sure we have an array of tasty snacks on the go through the evening. It's a fun time in a 'fifty-plus years old' kind of way. 

The actual moment when the countdown begins and the bells chime is a movingly emotional juncture for me. My voice breaks and I feel tears welling in my eyes. This is the moment where I enter into a new contract with myself - to become the person I continually aspire to be. Invariably the year I am leaving will have been a mixed one, with challenges and triumphs in equal measure. There is no doubt that my struggle with depression will have played a big part during the year. The moment when the fireworks burst into the skies and people hug, kiss and wish each other every happiness, is the briefest of moments when the pains of the departing year are expunged and hope floods my senses. Amidst the tumult of bonhomie I look forwards, visualising myself embracing my life with vigour and positivity. After the celebration is over, it's always a pleasant experience drifting off to sleep in the wee hours of January 1st with sleepy dreams of exciting adventures on the horizon.

I do not call them resolutions but I do have a number of things I want to achieve in 2018. Like many folk I suppose, I begin the new year with high levels of motivation to tackle things I procrastinated over the year before. The challenge of course is keeping this motivation at a consistently high level to effect the changes and the learning I aspire to achieve. For many years I was a development trainer/coach and I'm an old hand at observing the process of initial enthusiasm slowly shifting towards lethargy and eventual disappointment. I understand what the usual contributing self-defeating factors towards this might be. I see these all too clearly in myself. In the opening hours of the year I resolve not to allow these factors to get the better of me - as they did the year before, and well, all the years before that.

As I always advised folks to do, I have chosen a manageable number of aspirations to work towards, rather than create a long and unwieldy list. I remember likening setting post-course goals to work towards akin to packing a rucksack for a wilderness expedition. Pack what is essential and not carry too many things to cut back on the weight. Where possible, share the load too. Trying to cram too much into the rucksack will leave it overladen, jumbled and impossible to find what is necessary because this'll be buried under non-essential stuff. Again, akin to many successful expeditions, it's essential to understand personal limitations and abilities, thus realising the likelihood of a realistically achievable outcome. I've found with my expeditions that they require purpose, something tangible, which makes them meaningful and provide me with the determination I require to see them through. The same is true with setting new year goals for myself - they need purpose, so that I'm purposeful in working towards achieving them. Finally, to bring the alliteration of the wilderness expedition to a close, it needs to be enjoyable, even if at times the sense of challenge may seem overwhelming.

The common sabotaging blocks in achieving my goals are my lack of self-belief, procrastination, not attending to immediate matters to address developing situations, becoming distracted, a poorly organised approach, and allowing a sense of failure determine whether I progress or not. Neither am I good at drawing on any learning from my achievements and successes, instead preferring to dwell on where I think I'm failing. It's ironic how aware of this process I am, yet allow it to play out time and again. 

This year's first aspiration is to not allow this to happen for 2018. I will nip any self-defeating behaviour in the bud and draw on inspiration from my recent kayaking and other adventurous successes. If I attend to this aspiration as the overarching goal, then the list which follows ought to be well within my reach. It all seems so very easy!

Here's the short list of what I want to achieve in 2018. In fact I will change this, it is the list of what I will achieve in 2018.

  • Kayak the Three Peaks.
  • Kayak to Muckle Flugga from Tobermory and back.
  • Complete writing "Strong Winds are Forecast", the book about my 2015 journey.
  • Establish a You Tube "LifeAfloat" channel and make at least two films a month for this.
  • Sail our yacht at least twice every month when the weather allows.
  • Become proficient in addressing and resolving electrical issues on the boat.
  • Make contact with all the important friends in my life.
  • Teach myself twelve Scottish folk tunes on my tin-whistle.
  • Watercolour painting at least once a month.

The list is self-explanatory and contains some demanding items to achieve. I can see which of these will require the greater attention to prevent procrastination and as I write this I'm aware of a my determination to not allow this to happen. Already I have pleasantly surprised myself by not succumbing to the temptations of avoidance and distraction when I had recently set myself the task to settle down to write. The feeling of achievement at the end of a successfully busy day is sufficient reward indeed. 

This blog entry outlines the contract I have set with myself and by sharing it here, I'm inviting you to play a role in the success of my new year aspirations, by checking in with me from time to time and holding me to account. For example it might be that you ask me to post a recording of me playing one of the tunes I have learned on my tin-whistle! However you  interact with me, I will accept your interest and support with gratitude.

So then, 2018 is under way and I'm looking forward to seeing how it unfolds. It's not a case of leaving this to chance because of course, I have the means to influence the outcomes I'm aspiring for. I sincerely hope that the same is true for you too and that this year is a wonderful one for you in so many ways.

Dear Reader - my warmest wishes to you for a happy and fulfilling 2018.

This Thing Called Depression

Yesterday I had my monthly appointment with the Psychiatrist who is responsible for my care. I like him and more importantly, I trust him. He is personable with an easy yet professional manner. He is a yacht owner too so we share yachting stories and he likes to tell me of his recent trips.  Amongst these short conversations we also speak of my clinical depression, how I'm doing with this, and checking how safe I am with myself. He is thorough in his assessment of my current situation and willingly offers suggestions for new approaches. This certainly was the case yesterday.

At the moment I'm locked in to a severe bout of depression which is not shifting in anyway shape or form. The medication I have been taking is simply not making a dent on my low mood or even imprinting any form of colour into my life. The upshot is a diagnosis that I'm struggling with 'treatment resistant' depression and if this cannot be overcome with medication alone, then other treatment courses will have to be attempted. 

My Psychiatrist has prescribed one last medication which he hopes will provide me with increased energy and thus motivation to turn my current lethargy around. However, there are risks attached to this medication (see my previous blog post) and it may not suit me. Hopefully this will not be the case and it will work the magic he thinks is possible. It's not a medication for depression per se but there is evidence that it works for people like me, who have been fighting a deeply stuck low mood. 

If this new medication does not work then I will be admitted to hospital for further assessment and possibly a referral to a specialist NHS unit for people with severe and enduring clinical depression. Apparently there are non-medication approaches which can be explored, some of these almost experimental. Thankfully it seems that I'll not be put through ECT again because this clearly did not work for me.

Bringing my session with him to a close yesterday, my Psychiatrist implored me not to give up hope, assuring me that we were nowhere near the end of the road and I was not going to be given up on. One of the struggles I'm dealing with at the moment is a strong sense of hopelessness, sometimes to the point where I believe there is no reason to continue fighting for my recovery. Associated with this, is the gnawing belief that I'm nothing but a burden to my family. I'm not sure if I was entirely mollified by his assurances that I will recover but I did leave the Health Centre with a little more hope than I had before.

I have started to take the new medication which is an adjunct to my current pill regimen. Time will tell if this will work or not. Sadly I will not be able to celebrate their success or deal with their failure with my Psychiatrist because he is moving on to new pastures. I will miss him for his professional and affable care, and the ease with which I'm able to communicate with him. 

Here's to HOPE.

Taking a Risk

I am an adventurous person and I'm used to evaluating and taking risks either in my sea kayak or in the mountains. I consider myself to be a person who seizes risk laden opportunities as they appear and I believe I'm fortunate that I do so. However, I have an opportunity before me which I consider to be risky and which I find myself feeling unusually wary of.

As many of you know I suffer from severe clinical depression. The psychiatrist responsible for my care has termed my depression as 'treatment resistant'. This is because despite many different interventions over the last year, my mood remains obstinately depressed, so much so that there are moments where I find myself staring into a dark abyss. I'm incredibly thankful for the treatment I am receiving from the medical profession here in Scotland and I do not expect them to solely work the miracle of cure for me. Rather, I view their care as a facilitative one where through my increased motivation and assistance from their prescribed medication and talking therapy, my depression lessens and my sense of well being increases.

Recently my mood has been incredibly low - worryingly so. Apart from my interactions on Twitter, I find myself paralysed with self-doubt preferring to hide here on the boat, away from my world, rarely venturing forth unless I'm certain I'll not bump into people I know. This time is not entirely wasted because I am writing and researching plans for adventures in 2018. However, I would prefer to be more outgoing and be as engaged with the Tobermory community as I used to be.

In response to this deep low and my seeming resistance to the treatment I am receiving, the psychiatrist has prescribed an additional medication for me to take alongside my existing anti-depressant. I won't say what this is because for some reason I don't want to make my medication details public. What I will say is that it is an uncommonly used intervention and is one not normally prescribed for depression cure. The hope is that this drug will shift the log jam I am experiencing in my tormented depressive thinking which leaves me inactive and paralysed by self-loathing. By all accounts, this drug when used for other people in a similarly stuck position as the one I am facing, has proved to be incredibly successful. It has been explained to me that in just about every case the patients had returned to full cognitively buoyant and rudely happy health. This for me is my Holy Grail!

Without much more persuasion I agreed to give this medication a try and this morning collected it from the pharmacist. (As an aside, we are incredibly fortunate here in Scotland to receive free prescriptions & medication.) On opening the box and reading the information my heart slumped - it was like a punch to my abdomen. I had expected there to be side effects to the drug because there always are with psychiatric medication. I had hoped that this being an 'add-on' to my current medication regime, this wouldn't be as worrisome. 

I personally find the side effects of medication difficult to cope with, especially those which affect my nervous system - increased agitation and insomnia. It's an anathema to me how these drugs actually cure the illness they are prescribed for, when it appears that the side effects exacerbate it. There have been many times in the past I have stopped taking a drug because the side effects were more difficult to cope with than my illness itself. 

Looking at the side effects for this drug I'm left wondering whether to go ahead and begin taking it or to stop right now and leave it well alone. I'm in a quandary. It has been explained to me that this may be the wonder drug to cure my depression, albeit an unconventional choice. I certainly want this to be true yet..., I see the list of side effects and I feel incredibly reluctant to take it.

In essence I'm faced with a risk of sorts, and it's a risk I'm having difficulty evaluating. It's not simply a case of giving the medication a try and maybe stopping if it's not working. It's a commitment to giving it a good long try, despite the difficulties I may find I have with it. I am genuinely fearful of the side effects. When I'm kayaking or mountaineering I face fear as a matter of course when I encounter outdoor risk after risk. Invariably I'm able to rationalise  any fear I may feel and use this to my advantage in making a decision to accept the risk. However in this instance, the sense of fear is getting the better of me and I find myself struggling to consider taking on the risk, even though it has been explained that the possible benefits far outweigh the perceived difficulties.

There are a few days yet for me to decide what path to take and I have the opportunity to meet with the psychiatrist in the coming week to discuss my choice in greater detail. This will be helpful because right now I find myself where I hate to be - paralysed by uncertainty.

Tragedy in the Valley - A Mountain Rescue Story

This is a distressing story and I advise caution while you read this. It is an account of my witnessing the death of a mountain rescue colleague. I am writing this as a cathartic piece and in no way intend this to be sensationalist in any way. For those who are beginning to know me, I hope it helps weave some detail into the rich tableaux of my life. 

Over the last few days a helicopter has been used to transport Salmon smolts from the freshwater hatchery on Loch Frisa to a waiting fish-farm service ship in Tobermory Bay. The operation is incredibly slick with the helicopter making the run to and from the ship every five minutes or so. The pilot is obviously a skilled and adept professional and I can't help but be impressed when watching him sweep low over the tree tops with a large container hung below, depositing it with accustomed ease onto the deck of the ship.

However, there is a darker psychological response when I watch and listen to the helicopter working away through the day. In particular it is the heavy clattering reverberations of the helicopter rotor blades which stir unsettled and deep memories which have led to post traumatic flashbacks and daytime terrors. You see, twenty years ago this last August (1997), I was present when a fellow rescuer lost his life during the course of a mountain rescue operation.

I was living and working in Chimanimani on Zimbabwe's eastern border with Mozambique. I was the Chief Instructor at Outward Bound Zimbabwe, an outdoor activity centre where we delivered personal development outdoor training programmes. The staff of the centre made up the core of the newly established Chimanimani Mountain Rescue team which was surprisingly active despite the remoteness of the Chimanimani Mountains National Park. On this occasion it was just after mid-morning when a vehicle arrived at the centre with a distressed woman named Stella. She told us how she and her partner Ulf, a German foreign aid worker, were hiking in the remote and trackless terrain of the Haroni River gorge. They had set up camp for the night on a ridge and Ulf had gone off into the dark in search of water. He did not return. Stella remained in the tent on her own and after searching for him at daybreak, decided to walk out of the valley to seek help. 

She could not point out on a map where she thought the camp was, but she told us she could remember the route into it. She also described the camp as being on a narrow ridge. We, being myself and my line manager Pete, decided to initiate a search straight away and requested Stella show us the way to their camp. She told us that she had left the tent and all their belongings in the hope that Ulf would have a place to return to. By early afternoon a small search party with ropes and mountaineering equipment had driven to the closest point we could reach before setting out through the thick jungle like bush up and over a high ridge and then following Stella down an increasingly narrow spur towards the deep valley floor of the Haroni River.

This is tough country and very few humans make their way into this section of the Haroni River which in effect has created a deep gorge in which thick and at times impenetrable rain forest has taken root. There are stories of old trading routes between the people of Zimbabwe and Mozambique that follow the spurs on either side of the gorge but these are quickly overgrown and easily lost. Anyone walking this area without local knowledge and certainly without a map, as it transpired the couple were doing, would soon find themselves disorientated and possibly lost. It seems as if this was the case for Ulf and Stella.

By late afternoon, a couple of hours before dusk was to settle in Stella brought us to their camp. I remember walking through the forest and seeing their tent and a surge of hope rushing through me as we arrived calling out Ulf's name and expecting him to emerge from the tent. Of course our hopes were dashed and the resulting silence weighed heavily on all of us. The tent was pitched in a small clearing on the ridge. A couple of metres away on one side an audible stream tumbled into a narrow chasm, too deep to make out the bottom. On the other side of the ridge there was incredibly steep ground but no stream.

Being in charge of the group I set to, giving folks search related tasks to fulfil. Tobias (Toby) and Shadreck, two brothers and instructors at Outward Bound, were tasked to search the upper reaches of the stream which flowed through a large thicket of impenetrable jungle. I searched down the ridge as far as I could reach before the thick forest of the Haroni Gorge proper prevented my progress. In the meantime Stella and Marion, another Outward Bound Instructor were to wait by the tent. Marion's presence was essential for calming Stella as we searched. We gave an hour for each search before coming together again and deciding on a new strategy.

As I feared would be the case, neither search proved fruitiful. The deep chasm and the sound of the stream disappearing into it was becoming increasingly ominous and I feared our search would lead us down there. When we came together we found Stella and Marion in an excited state. They claimed to have seen a shadowy figure ascending through the forest of the ridgeline opposite, on the other side of the chasm. We called and hollered but there was no response. If it had been Ulf, I was certain he would have responded since we were clearly visible and also incredibly vocal. Toby and Shadreck, visibly shaken, took me to one side and told me that while they had been searching the forest they happened on a three metre Forest Cobra, a deadly snake but not prone to attacking humans, preferring instead to escape into the undergrowth. They went on to tell me that in their local Shona custom, when coming across a Forest Cobra when searching for a person means that this is a message from the ancestors that the missing is deceased. They were adamant that this was true in this case. 

Stella was in high spirits despite there being no response from the elusive shadowy figure she and Marion had seen. Toby, Shadreck and I set about establishing a fixed rope and safety line so that one of us could abseil into the chasm and search down there. The three of us were now certain that this was where we would find Ulf and time was of the essence should he be badly injured. We had hand held VHF radios so we could communicate with each other. Toby volunteered to be the one to abseil in. He disappeared into the dark depths and it wasn't more than a few minutes before my radio crackled into life with his request for me to join him in the chasm. I set about abseiling in and on my way down I could see why Toby had called me to descend. In a shallow pool at the base of an forty metre waterfall was Ulf. It was evident that he was dead because he was face down in the water and the waterfall was pattering into his lightly clad back, beating a bizarre drumming tattoo onto his rigor mortised body. 

Nevertheless, after disengaging from the abseil rope, I waded into the pool calling his name and reaching out to give him a shake. He was cold and stiff to the touch and I could clearly see a massive contusion to the back of his skull where his hair was matted with blood. I gently rolled him in the water, his body bobbing to my touch, and looked him in the face. His eyes were open and sightless and his face wan and pale, devoid of expression. Because I had found him face down in the water I made the assumption that his death had been immediate and if not, if it was by drowning, then he would have been unconscious while this happened. I looked up at the waterfall above me and concluded he must have climbed down to the lip of the fall in the dark and slipped, hitting his head on his way down. It would have been an almost instant demise.

Toby was resolute but shaken, as was I. We respectfully discussed in low tones what our next steps should be. We did not have the resources to retrieve Ulf's body and anyway, it would soon be dark. The only option was to call for reinforcements and the equipment to deal with his corpse and evacuate him from the forest. However, the first task at hand was to inform Stella that we had found Ulf and this fell to me. Climbing out of the chasm was not an easy task. The walls were sheer and slippery so I had to rig prussiks with which to ascend the rope which being a climbing variety was stretchy and bounced with every move I made. I eased myself slowly upwards and out of the gorge to be met by an excited Stella who assumed that we had found Ulf alive but injured. I had barely enough time to regain my breath and unclip from the rope before informing her with as much solemn dignity I could muster that we had indeed found Ulf, but tragically he was dead. Whereupon she began wailing and keening in an alarming fashion, threatening to throw herself over the edge and into the chasm to join Ulf. Her distress was powerful and dreadfully moving and I could only reach out and attempt to hold her back. Thankfully Marion and Shadreck were able to prevent her from following through with her intent to join Ulf.

Toby appeared shortly after and we held a quick counsel, deciding what our strategy should be. Stella needed to be removed from the scene. Her lamentation continued and we were fearful she would make a dash for the gorge at any time. It was thus decided that Shadreck and I would remain with the tent while Toby and Marion guided Stella back to our vehicle and return to the Outward Bound centre. Once there they would discuss with Pete the plans for Ulf's retrieval and evacuation. Dusk was setting in and it was important that the three of them were under way and back to the truck before dark set in. Shadreck and I settled down to an uncomfortable night beside Ulf and Stella's tent. We could not bring ourselves to make use of the shelter and the comfort of their sleeping bags inside. Instead, we sat and chatted long into the night with the flames of a small camp fire flickering on the boughs of the forest trees around us. We avoided discussing the fact that Ulf was lying dead a few metres away down in the chasm on the edge of the pool where I had gently laid him. We eventually curled up in the thick underfloor of the forest and slept fitfully. I remember waking in the small hours to the crunching sound of steady footsteps and being alarmed by this. Shining my head torch out into the cloying dark I illuminated a magnificent Bush Buck which stood and gazed at me impassively before wandering off up ridge.

Early the next morning we managed to make contact with our base at the Outward Bound centre twenty kilometres away as the crow flies. Through the crackling radio reception I was able to determine that the Zimbabwe Airforce had been contacted and a helicopter carrying rescue personnel and the equipment required to retrieve Ulf's body would arrive at our location by midday. Shadreck and I settled in for a long morning waiting, lying back in the dappled sunshine and brushing the flies off our faces. We spent some time dismantling Ulf and Stella's tent and packing their belongings into their abandoned rucksacks. This felt very odd.

The Helicopter During it's First Approach on Arrival

A little later than promised the thudding sound of a helicopter broke the silence and before long a Vietnam War vintage Huey Bell clattered overhead and proceeded to circle our encampment. I had earlier scouted out a possible landing zone little way down the spur where I calculated a helicopter could hover and the rescue team members leap a few metres down to the ground. I had used this disembarkation process on a number of occasions when serving in mountain rescue teams in Britain. It is known as the hover jump. Unfortunately my communication with the pilot went unheeded and the helicopter slowly moved in above, the downdraught of the blades creating mayhem in the tree canopy about. The doors of the cabin were open and I could see Pete sitting alongside a police inspector with five Zimbabwe army commandos. Suddenly two black ropes were thrown from the cabin door and immediately began to flail in the fearsome downdraught. The ropes had not been weighted down. Despite this the commandos began abseiling from the helicopter to the ground about ten metres below them. One of the ropes became snagged and wrapped in the branches of a forest tree which was leaning out over the chasm where Ulf was lying. I could see that the soldier abseiling on the  rope was now stuck in the dip with no means of touching the ground to release himself from the abseil. The only solution was for me to climb the tree. lean out over the gorge and cut the rope which I duly set about doing. It was one of those bizarre moments in my life where I'm hanging out over a desperate drop, with a helicopter metres above my head and being severely buffeted by the downdraught. The soldier seeing my intention to cut the rope shouted at me in alarm not to do so. As it was I was able to untangle the rope and he made it to the ground and I climbed back down the tree. 

With the two ropes now secured by holding them it was easy for the remaining team members to join us and the rescue paraphernalia including a stretcher to be lowered down. I remember very clearly meeting Pete with a huge manly, steely gripped handshake, while around us the dirty and dusty mayhem caused by the helicopter downdraught created a sense of confusion. 

The helicopter flew off to land high on the mountain pastures of the Chimanimani Mountains and wait for us to retrieve Ulf from the chasm. One member of the army team set about felling trees to create a landing zone for the helicopter and the rest of us moved up the ridge to the point where we could establish a pulley and hoist system by which we could lift Ulf out of the gorge. Pete abseiled into the chasm with the stretcher and set about placing Ulf's body on this while I organised the anchors for the pulley system and getting the ropes ready. Once everything was in place we worked together to hoist Pete and Ulf on the stretcher out of the gorge. It was tiring and hot work but we made good time and before long we were reunited. It was dreadfully sad to see the body bag with Ulf's remains strapped to the stretcher, his right arm in rigour reaching skywards. 

Ulf's Body Lies on the Stretcher. The Soldier on the Right Will Lose His Life.

Pete and I set about clearing up the ropes and the equipment we had used while the rest of the team carried the stretcher and the packed away belongings of Ulf and Stella down to the newly created landing zone. Pete and I worked quickly because we could hear one of the soldiers calling up the helicopter on the radio and not long after this, the distinctive clatter and reverberation of the aircraft as it hove into view from over the mountains. We were out of sight of the landing zone and were unaware of what was being arranged down there. Everything packed into our rucksacks and the ropes neatly coiled we made out way through the trees to the new clearing, just large enough for the helicopter to make a landing. What struck us both immediately was the fact that the stretcher and all the gear was piled on the uphill side of the clearing. In fact it was a significant slope with a rock step to accentuate this. Both Pete and I were aghast because we realised that the embarkation of the helicopter would be made under the rotor blades from an uphill position. This was incredibly dangerous because of the risk of decapitation by the rotor blades. 

The helicopter was on it's final approach, a smoke canister had been ignited and thrown, and the soldiers with the policeman were lined alongside the stretcher ready to carry it onto the helicopter once it had landed. Pete attempted to dissuade the soldiers from proceeding with the landing so that we could rearrange ourselves on the downhill side of the slope but they would have none of it. Now that our role in the retrieval was complete, they were in command of the evacuation.

It all seemed to happen slowly and yet quickly at the same time. As the helicopter came in I was reminded of the countless images I had viewed on TV of the same models landing in war ravaged Vietnam amidst smoke and mayhem to collect American soldiers. It felt much the same now. The powerful reverberation of the rotor blades as the helicopter descended was tangible and I felt it run through my body, coursing my muscles while my fear infused my whole being. As it came in and landed the ground erupted in a shattering of loose stones and leaves, whipped up by the downdraught. The piled up kit was in danger of being blown to all quarters of the landing zone, so I threw myself over it to hold it down. I was then aware of the proximity of the rotor blades to the ground and their tips to us as a group. I could see that the clearance between the ground at the tips was no more than slightly above waist height. To embark we would have to just about crawl in on our hands and knees. I was terrified. 

In the doorway of the helicopter stood a helmeted loadmaster with a blackened visor. I could make out his lips moving as he spoke to the pilot on their intercom. Then he casually waved the stretcher party forward and aghast I watched them duck under the blades, doubled up almost so that their chins were touching their knees and carry Ulf towards the open door. I really don't know how they managed this without being struck. I remember clearly seeing the grey sweat stained grey shirt of the police inspector being plucked up by the rotor blades, almost as if they were toying with him. While this was happening I was yelling to Pete that someone was going to die.. and I was working out when it came to my turn to embark what I would do. In those split seconds I determined I would climb as close to edge of the gorge and work my way round to the front of the helicopter and hopefully avoid the worst of the blades in that way. I didn't consider refusing to embark.

All this happened in seconds. The stretcher with Ulf was hoisted into the dark cabin of the helicopter and the sergeant of the army group turned back to return to collect some of the piled up kit. He was doubled over as he made his way back and as he reached out to me to take hold of the rucksack I was proffering he lifted his head. His eyes met mine and then faster than an instant along with a distinctive metallic 'ting' he was gone! He had been hit by the rotor blade. What ensued was nothing short of farcical yet wholly tragic. I leaped back as did Pete and we attempted vainly to locate the injured man. He was hidden behind the rock step and all we could see were his violently twitching legs. One of the soldiers who had not made up the stretcher party simply ran away, disappearing into the surrounding forest. I looked across at the helicopter and saw the loadmaster talking to the pilot who was holding the craft steady with deft movements of the control stick and his foot pedals. The load master then waved the rest of us in in a manner which belied the situation. It seemed inconceivable but it appeared that we were to embark and we were going to depart without tending to the dead or injured soldier. Pete and I refused and there were a few long seconds where there was a stand off between us and the loadmaster who continued to wave us forward while we waved the helicopter away almost as if we were shooing crows off our lawn.

Eventually the loadmaster desisted and with that the helicopter pulled away and flew off down the valley and away over the far off ridgeline. Silence prevailed except for the moans and gasps emanating from the dreadfully injured soldier.  We rushed over to him to discover that half his helmet had disintegrated and with this much of the left side of his head. There was a gaping hole the size of a spread hand in his skull out of which oozed what was left of his brain matter. He was alive, his eyes were open and he was wailing but he was unconscious. I unpacked the largest field dressing I could find from my first aid kit but this barely covered a corner of the wound. I knelt beside him and desperately searched the depths of my wilderness medical training for some hope but I accepted that he was dying. Pete and I laid out a tarpaulin and gently lifted him onto this. With the other soldier who now had reappeared from hiding in the forest we carried the dying man down hill to a spot where we would wait for the return of the helicopter. I remained with him while the other two carried the rest of the kit down to the spot we should have been in the first place.

The dying soldier began to decorticate and I realised his end was near. I spoke to him in English hoping he might understand, letting him know he was with people who cared and we wished him peace. I could only say over and over again in my basic Shona - "Fambai zvakanaka shamwari "- go well my friend. I held his hand and put my other hand on his shoulder. This was to be the first time I had witnessed a human death so intimately and certainly one as violent as this. I was calm and resigned to what was happening for him. I cannot be certain when he died because the helicopter returned and we readied everything for embarkation. It arrived with its customary noise and mayhem and this time the pilot held the craft with the uphill skid on the ground and the other two metres off the ground. This was where we had to get aboard. 

With great difficulty the three of us left on the ground lifted the tarpaulin with the soldier on it so that it could be grabbed by the wide eyed occupants aboard the helicopter. As they grabbed the tarp and pulled him aboard an accumulation of matter and blood poured off the sheet and over Pete and myself. It was a gruesome moment. With the soldier's body aboard (because I think he died about then) we hoisted the remaining kit up and then clambered up onto the skid to climb into the cabin, except the cabin was an untidy mess of kit and two bodies. I held onto the doorway as the helicopter took off and banked out over the Haroni Gorge. I could see far below me the rapids of the river I had often dreamed of kayaking down one day and in a bizarre change of perception, I felt a buzz of excitement at standing on the skid of the helicopter as if flew out over the forest. For a brief few moments I was a Rambo like hero.

I did find my way into the cabin and climbed over the two dead mean as respectfully as I could and wedged myself into the corner of the quilted cabin by a window. The flight back to Chimanimani village was short and before long we were descending towards the parade ground of the police headquarters. As we came in a host of school children rushed out on the landing area and I felt for the first time the icy, screaming panic which would become a feature of my past trauma distress. I feared they were about to die in the same manner as the soldier. Thankfully this did not occur. Instead we landed almost gently and with reverence given the violence of the previous few hours and the helicopter shut down. Pete and I rushed off to the police ablutions to clean the worst of the blood and gore off of us before making our way back up to the throng and begin to make meaning of all that had occurred. There was an excited buzz and our adrenalin was reignited to flow freely as we recalled the moments of the dreadful event. This process was to occur again and again over the coming days and weeks as we recalled minute details as we recounted our stories ad nauseam. 

We returned to the Outward Bound centre where we placated family and friends because all they had heard was that a rescue team member had been killed but not who. That night despite my exhaustion I woke with a start at one o'clock and found myself strangely alert and fired up. The event was replaying itself in my mind in vivid clarity. In the days that followed, the immediate effect I noticed was my lack of tolerance for risk involving height. Where once I would wander around a cliff edge without seemingly a care, I now needed to be securely connected. Activities that I had once enjoyed like jumping off cliffs into river pools became moments of extreme fear for me. Later, through the years I found myself becoming fearful at the sound of helicopter blades to the point of paralysis if they were overhead. Time has eased this fear and now it is nothing more than an internal discomfort which I easily shake off. However, the memories of that dreadful occurrence remain with me as clear as day, so much so that unbidden I can hear the noise, feel the scattering mayhem and smell the blood. It is a story I keep to myself but one I have wanted to share so many times.

Postscript. A couple of months after the incident I had to attend an inquest of sorts held up at the Chimanimani police station. Here I met with Stella who had recovered from her ordeal and her loss of Ulf. It was lovely to see her and to wish her well because I hadn't had this chance until this moment. I often wonder about her and where her life has led her. I hope she is happy and well. 

 

My On-line Drop-In

I have wanted to post an entry to my blog for a few months now but have held back on the account of the current episode of clinical depression I am fighting. I did not want to write yet another bleak expose on my condition, no matter how cathartic this may be for me and informative it might be for others. Anyway, yesterday I was wandering along the coastal path with my mind wandering ahead of me as usual and it occurred to me that I do in fact have something I want to share. So here goes.

I am struggling with my depression and to be honest, there are times at the moment when I don't believe I will ever recover from this. Whenever I seem to make any steps towards the light of recovery so to speak, there is an insidious force within me which drags me back towards the self destructive belief that I am not worth anything - that there is no point in my making plans for a happy future. This is the gist of the destructive thinking with numerous negative amendments along similar lines. The outcomes of this range from a strong desire for suicide to my self-imposed alienation because of increased social anxiety. I keep myself to myself aboard our boat in the harbour and rarely venture into Tobermory town because of the possibility of meeting people I know. 

But here's a thing. If you follow me on Twitter (@LifeAfloat), then reading the above may come as a complete surprise. This is because out there on that social media platform I am highly visible and interactive with my regular tweets, sharing my photos and generally interacting with my followers. Anyone would assume that the manner I portray myself on Twitter, is the way in which I live my life, almost as an extrovert.

The reason why I am writing about this is because recently I decided to decline an invitation to partake in the AGM of a fund-raising committee I have belonged to since arriving in Tobermory a year ago. I know that some members of this committee follow me on Twitter and I feel guilty about declining the attendance of this very important meeting on the grounds of my depression and yet in the realm of Twitter I am apparently outgoing and carefree (or so it must seem). I have made the assumption that if I were my committee colleagues, I would be questioning my lack of attendance and overall commitment to the group when it is clear on Twitter nothing seems wrong with me.

I was pondering this as I walked along the shore path, the sounds of the nearby sea muted in my consciousness because I was concentrating on my dilemma. This is one of the attributes of my depression, it causes me to overthink and to wade deeper into the morass of my distorted view of my world and what my twisted perceptions of it are. Then, in a moment of clarity, I realised I could write about this and in my own way, explain why it is I can be outwardly connected on Twitter but struggle to connect with the people in 'real life' situations. 

In my early episodes of my clinical depression in the late 1990s, I was living in Windermere in the Lake District, England. I was alone and lived in a small one bedroom flat. I was unemployed and deeply depressed. During that eighteen month period I had three admissions to the psychiatric ward at the general hospital in Kendal. During the lucid times between these admissions I would attend, twice every week, a 'drop-in' facility in the village of Ambleside for local folks who were suffering severe and enduring mental health issues. This 'drop-in' was staffed by NHS psychiatric nurses and a couple of care assistants. For a few hours we would gather for coffees and teas, sandwiches and low key activities such as arts and crafts, presentations and maybe short walks if the weather was good. In any event, it was simply an opportunity for folks like myself who were finding life challenging because of their poor mental health, to come together and share each others company. It was good to get out of my flat and socialise.

I do not have access to a similar social facility here in Tobermory. However, I am fortunate to enjoy a sizeable following on the social media platform of Twitter, and even more fortunate to enjoy chatty and friendly relationships with a good many of my followers. Many of these folks have become good on-line friends.  I have been open about my mental health travails and I'm comfortable about being open when I am struggling with a severe bout of depression. I attempt not to labour my illness but I'm sure this may shine through with a few bleak postings. This means that there may be moments when I will withdraw from Twitter while I work through a particularly difficult patch or simply feel the need for some quiet. People understand and offer me their warm thoughts and good wishes. 

In many respects Twitter is my on-line 'drop-in' where I am able to interact in an open manner where I am accepted for who I am. It is an environment where I'm able to socialise without fear of judgement or a sense of having to put on a 'cheerful' outlook for the sake of doing so. Paradoxically, for such a huge visible arena (my followership is global), I feel quite at ease. I think this is because I can choose when to engage with Twitter and when to step back and keep myself to myself. I am able to be safe in my boat cabin while chatting with people who know me and respect my place in the world. If there are people who become new contacts, I do not worry because there is a perception of anonymity which adds to my sense of safety. 

This is why at the moment I am outgoing on Twitter and live a secluded life here in Tobermory. As I continue to recover I hold the hope that it will not be long before I begin to re-engage with the aspects of Tobermory community life which I hold dear to and I value.

Finally, thank you to my many Twitter friends and followers who continue to unwittingly provide the support I seek in my recovery. 

Cleaning Her Bottom!

There comes a time when a necessary chore can no longer be deferred and it's necessary to get the job done. One which had been weighing heavily over me for many weeks was the need to clean Anna Maria's hull - her bottom.

As a yacht owner for six years now, I'm well used to the annual task of ensuring the hull of our boat is clean from barnacles, weed and other marine hangers on. Up until now, I have had the boat lifted out of the sea on a cradle and then put on stands in a boat yard so I could complete this job at my leisure. This year however, I found myself in the situation of not being moored within a marina with easy access to a boat lift and a dedicated boat yard. Instead I would have to sail the yacht a good days distance away to the closest marina and have her lifted out there. This presented me with the problem of finding the time to do this. To effectively get everything done it would take me at least three days and this was if the weather was settled enough to do this.

The only feasible option for me was to dry Anna Maria out alongside the old drystone Fishermen's Pier here in Tobermory one day during a spring tide, work as hard as I could between the tides to clean her and paint her with anti-foul paint. It was likely too that the financial cost for this would be a substantial fraction of the hundreds of pounds I had been quoted by the marina to have her lifted out, washed and put on stands - even for just one day. I had seen other local boat owners follow this process here and it was really the most obvious solution. 

Why then did it take me so long before I eventually took the task in hand? Well, I had never dried a yacht out alongside a pier before, let alone cleaned her hull and painted her between tides. I was nervous of making a mistake, getting things wrong and at worst, causing our beloved home to topple away from the pier onto her side in the mud of the harbour. So I vacillated and every spring tide put off the moment of taking her in all the while guiltily noticing the accumulation of vibrant green weed sprouting from her hull. 

In the end, after seeing how encrusted the hull was with barnacles during a particularly rough day when the lively sea state showed off to all and sundry the very sorry state of Anna Maria's bottom that I decided on the next spring tide I would take her in and clean her. Well, in my head I made the decision...

Needless to say the spring tide arrived and it was with guilt ridden relief that I saw a local tour operator had taken the drying out berth to enable them to clean their boat which meant I couldn't get in. However, I had made a decision so I wandered across to the pier to chat to a local fisherman about the protocol for bringing non-fishing boats alongside. I had been told anecdotally that it was fine for people to dry their boats out so long as they vacated the berth at high water to allow fishing boats to return, but I wanted to make sure. I really didn't want to put a black mark against my name here in the harbour amongst the hardworking fishing community.

I discovered as I had been told, it was fine to bring our boat in so long as I cleared away as soon as I was afloat again - additionally making a donation for the upkeep of the pier. Armed with this reassuring permission I felt my confidence in bringing our yacht in soar to a new level.

Two days later at eight in the morning I slipped our mooring and motored slowly into the calm waters of the pier, effortlessly berthing alongside. I was secretly very pleased with how I managed this without fluffing things in a mad panic to secure the mooring lines or heaven forbid, thumping the boat into the stonework. Feeling very much a local, I waited with copious mugs of coffee for the tide to recede and our boat to lower gently onto the harbour floor. In my overconfidence I di not consider how I was to list (tilt) Anna Maria against the pier wall so that there was little chance of her toppling away and onto her side. I had assumed that by securing her with lines fore and aft, preventing her from surging back and forth and by tying both masts (she's a ketch) from high up to the pier, she would be safe. However I was shaken when a wisened fisherman sagely offered me advice about listing her and spoke to me about the importance of doing this properly. Thankfully he helped me do this by lending me two large tubs which I filled with water and placed amidships on the deck on the side closest to the pier. Their combined weight ensured the boat eventually lay at an assuring jaunty angle against the wall once she had gently taken the ground.

I watched the depth sounder carefully when the time came close for her to touch the sea bed but the actual moment was difficult to determine. I think I noticed she was aground when it was obvious she did not move when I pushed away from the wall. However there was a significant amount of water beneath her to still drain away and it was a good couple of hours before I began to think of getting under her hull to have a look. Eventually it occurred to me that because I had missed the apex of the spring tides, I might not have complete dryness beneath to work so I dressed myself in my sea kayaking dry trousers and climbed down the pier ladder to have a good look.

I was dismayed! her hull was swathed in barnacles and weed hung like emerald green dreadlocks from much of her bottom. It looked to me to be a mammoth job. With a heavy sigh I looked morosely at the small paint stripper I had in my hand, waded into the water up to my waist and set about scraping what barnacles and marine detritus I could reach without having to submerge myself. It was pleasing to note that little effort was required to remove the encrustations but I also noted that with a small paint stripper, it was going to be a long job. Undeterred I set forth at a vigorous rate of knots - pleasingly scraping strips of barnacles from the smooth hull. Every now and again I would stop this process to use a stiff floor brush to clean as best I could the areas I had laid bare. I worked hard. As the sea receded so I was able to reach more of the hull until eventually I was standing by the rudder at her stern. The section of hull alongside the pier wall was the most challenging to clean and I emerged from under here covered in sea food smelling crustaceans. I looked a sight! The propeller took an effort to rid it of its growth and the rudder stock was a difficulty too. Eventually though, with the sea beginning to creep back in I was confident that her bottom was clean and I was pleased.

I replaced the badly corroded pear shaped anode and with a one last once over with a hose, fresh water and a brush I emerged back onto the pier feeling a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction - yet - I had not painted her with anti-foul paint. The returning tide was too quick for me and the job of cleaning her had taken too long so this was a task I had to leave for another day, another spring tide.

Now began the long wait for the water to rise enough to float the yacht and I hung about in the sunshine, surrounded by tourists taking photos of the iconic colourful Tobermory buildings and drinking copious mugs of lemon and ginger tea. Eventually I noticed with satisfaction that Anna Maria shifted when I stepped aboard her and she was ready to leave her temporary berth and head back out into the bay to her mooring. Not before time too. The sunshine had now been replaced by heavy rain and standing about on the pier was no longer an enjoyable pastime. With panache I cast off her lines and deftly manouvered her away from the pier wall and into the deep water. It almost felt to me that she was now far more sprightly than she had been of late and was twitchier and far more responsive to the helm. I imagined too that she felt a satisfying glow below - her bottom now nice and clean!

A Fresh Start

8th May 2106! That was my last blog entry and what a lot of water has flowed under my bridge since then. I'm not certain where to begin, so I think I'll resort to a hasty summary of what has happened since that last post.

I ended up staying in hospital well into the summer and returned to our home in the marina on Loch Fyne. My recovery was well under way and it was wonderful to be home again but I still had a way to go before I could confidently say this bout of depression was at an end. It wasn't long before we were making plans for a move to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull as well as making ready for the arrival of our new yacht too. Karen had found a job in Tobermory which suited her down to the ground and the opportunities for work there for me were far greater than they were on the Cowal Peninsula. So, in August 2016 Karen moved to Mull and I waited for the new yacht to arrive which it did at the beginning of September. It was a momentous moment when along with a friend I cast off from Portavadie Marina to sail our Colvic 33 to Tobermory. Four days later our new home was safely berthed on the pontoons in Tobermory Harbour.

There followed a period of settling in where I took time to establish myself in the community and sadly continued to struggle with severe bouts of depression. Thankfully I was well supported by the community mental health nurse and the psychiatrist. Despite the periods of deep lowness I found myself enjoying my new surroundings. The Isle of Mull is a lovely island with so much to explore and enjoy. The walking is second to none and the coastline is one of the finest to explore in a sea kayak. As the winter deepened we hunkered down in our boat and safely rode out the passing winter storms.

The new yacht has transformed our live aboard life. She is twice the size of our previous yacht and is well appointed with two sleeping cabins, two heads, a shower, hot water system, a lovely saloon and an excellent galley. She is also a lovely boat to sail - seaworthy, which is ideal for us. The extra space has allowed us to live comfortably with a sense that we are definitely in our home and not in a small yacht.

 On our mooring in Tobermory Harbour.

On our mooring in Tobermory Harbour.

When the New Year arrived we found ourselves becoming accepted by the Tobermory community. I became involved with the local lifeboat fundraising committee and from this I was invited to become a Deputy Launching Authority for the Tobermory Lifeboat. An honour and a responsibility I'm proud to have taken on. In doing this I have found my social circle has widened to the point where I can't remember enjoying the company of so many friends for many years. It is a wonderful feeling to go about my business around the town and always be bumping into folks I know and who know me. Another important aspect for me is the fact that folks are interested in me and for the first time in a long, long while I feel acknowledged for who I am.

At the beginning of the summer I established a sea kayak guiding service in Tobermory with the generous assistance of Chris of Clearwater Paddling. Essentially I am working for him as a guide here on the Isle of Mull but without his generosity in agreeing to set up a Mull wing to his business, I would not be doing something I love - sea kayak guiding. So far the business is going well and there is a lot of interest. It is lovely to take people out and around Tobermory Bay, showing them the sights and sharing with them the joys of sea kayaking on the west coast of Scotland.

I am free of my deep depression at the moment and I look forward to the coming months with hope and excitement. There is a lot to be joyous about living here and there are many times when I pinch myself to make sure that I am where I am.

I look forward too to writing many more blog entries with a more upbeat tone to them.

Digging Deep - A Sea Kayaking Parable

A few days ago my wife took me to the beautiful wee beach at Kilmory on the Kintyre coast between Loch Sween and West Loch Tarbert. It feels like a secret idyll which involves a ten mile journey through some of the finest wooded and coastal landscape that Scotland has to offer. The lovely white sandy beach faces west with the panoply of the Islay and Jura skyline dominating the view across the breezily ruffled Sound of Jura. We had taken a picnic and we settled back to a wonderful few hours under the strengthening early summer sun. It was glorious.

Proaig Bothy

Looking across the ten miles to the Isle of Jura I was reminded of the day last year when I kayaked forty seven miles from Proaig Bothy on Islay via the lifeboat station at Port Askaig, back down the Sound of Islay into the Sound of Jura, across to the mainland and then northwards to Crinan. The day before I had kayaked forty five miles from the Mull of Kintyre to the bothy on Islay. These were to be the longest mileage days of my trip.

I had set off from the bothy at six in the morning and paddled against a gusty wind and the makings of a strong opposing tide. I hopped through the eddys along the shore delighting in the sculpted cliffs mottled with intriguing caves. At my passing, seals sloshed off the rocks into the sea and inquisitively trailed in my wake. Slipping neatly through the swirling tidal waters into Port Askaig I arrived alongside the lifeboat. After a quick scramble ashore to visit the lifeboat station I was soon afloat again keen to make the most of the eastward tide down the Sound of Islay.

With a strengthening following wind and a favourable tide it took me only an hour to paddle the eight miles to the tip of the island of Jura where I turned northwards into the Sound of Jura. Now, as I kayaked along the eastern coastline of the island the wind was on my port beam and as I emerged from the shelter of the various skerries I was almost bowled over by the gusts. The forecast was for strong winds reaching twenty five knots. What had been plain sailing now became something of a struggle, maintaining steady headway while coping with the forceful gusts. Reaching the Small Isles which guard Craighouse Bay I drew deep breaths while I rested and smiled at the antics of the Common Terns and the eponymous Oystercatchers. My plan was to kayak along the Jura coastline to the narrowest point of the Sound and find a camp spot. The next day I would hop across to the mainland and make my way along the north Kintyre coast to Crinan where our yacht, my home, was moored on the canal - and where my wife was waiting.

By the time I reached the open mouth of Lowlandman's Bay the strength of the wind was beginning to really dog me. I began to lose the will to continue and I debated with myself about pulling ashore at the earliest opportunity and calling it a day. There would be no shame in doing this especially while the conditions were like they were. From time to time fierce rain squalls would sweep down on me from the Paps on my left and make life pretty miserable. I plodded on - slow paddle stroke after another. By the time I reached Lagg four miles later, I was about done in and ready to stop.

Then, seemingly from nowhere the decision to make the six mile crossing to the mainland occurred. It was rash and possibly unwise given the strength of the wind but I went for it anyway. I had a desire to spend my night on the mainland with only a few remaining miles to complete before reaching home the next day. What followed was an exhilarating (if frightening) hour and a bit blast across the Sound of Jura to the safe haven of Keill Chapel harbour. The sea heaped up around me and surfed me along. From time to time the odd wave collapsed onto my stern deck and at times my spraydeck causing me to reach out in an urgent brace. I couldn't relax for a second wary of rogue waves which threatened to slap me over. It doesn't do to look behind when kayaking in a large following sea - it is ominously frightening! I made it safely across and breathed a huge sigh of relief when I was finally sitting in the calm waters of the harbour. I set about scanning the shore for a suitable place to camp but could only see watery bog fringing all around. I was worn out but there lay within me the desire to keep going. Looking out I saw the sea smashing itself furiously against the natural rock harbour walls. It seemed fearsome and I really didn't want to head back out into it. I sat still and pondered my situation.

I could camp here. I had camped in worse places. I could paddle further and stop at the next most suitable spot but this was likely to be five miles away. I could keep going all the way to Crinan and then I would be home. I tussled with these choices while around me the wind and the sea roared their advice - egging me onward.

Then it happened - I dug deep into my resources, executed a purposeful sweep with my left paddle blade and headed back out into the wild seas.

Within me the desire to reach home had strongly outweighed my weariness and my respect for the conditions. It was going to be a demanding few hours but I knew I had it within me to cope. I set off for Crinan, counting each mile as I completed them and realising that I was relishing this particular challenge. I was paddling along a lee shore so the conditions were incredibly rough. Despite this I made excellent progress and three hours and ten miles later I was pulling into the relative calmness of Crinan Bay, eventually landing on the slipway at nine in the evening. I unloaded the kayak and was enjoying a welcome glass of beer with my wife in the hotel bar by last orders!

I recalled all of this while sitting on the beach under the warm sun with the light glinting off the calm waters. Before me now, lies another challenge of sorts. I begin my series of ECT (Electro-convulsive Therapy) treatment for my depression and an extended stay in hospital. However I feel I have reached the end of my tether with hospital life and I am definitely ready to return home. It feels to me that I can't take much more of this - the confined space, communal living, regemented routines and being indoors instead of out. Yet the goal of recovering from my depression is extremely attractive and seems after such a long time (years in fact) to be within my reach. It's there if I can stay the course - if I will stay the course.

I'm sure you can see the link - all I have to do to achieve this is to dig deep, head onward and take my chance while I have it. The reward is plain to see.

"One Flew Over..." Life On a Psychiatric Ward

My Space                               Photo: Nick Ray

I clearly remember the first time I was admitted to a psychiatric ward. It was 1998 and I was in crisis with deep clinical depression, very thin and underweight. Then, as I walked onto the ward with the Community Psychiatric Nurse who had brought me in, I remember two emotions flooding my limbic system. The first was fear - a fear of the unknown, the fear of becoming mad, the fear of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest". As the loudly alarmed door to the ward closed behind me, the second emotion then enveloped me and this was by far the most useful one. The sensation of safety and the relief of no longer being totally at the mercy of my depression.

Eighteen years later and this is my fifth psychiatric admission. I wouldn't say that I'm now an old hand but I do know what to expect and the fear of the unknown - the fear of entering a world of madness from which I may never escape, has long since disappeared. It's an odd experience for me to feel a sense of normality in an environment where 'normal' is a concept which many folks here are struggling to determine. However being here does seem familiar and comforting. This comfort is largely due to the healthily warm therapeutic atmosphere created and embodied by the staff team. The ward is a safe environment where apart from physical and verbal violence, anything goes. Expressions of human emotion in all its guises are OK here which is a psychological release for many - like myself. In our society we filter how we express our core emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger and Sadness because we may harbour shame and reticence in doing so. Here on the ward, my tears of sadness are unapologetic. My anger is not extinguished but allowed to burn out naturally. My fear is not quashed but encouraged to be faced and somewhere amidst all these, there are increasing moments of pure joy which burst through the vacated chinks in the emotional armour I have created.

We are a transient, sometimes ragged band here on the ward. Each of us carries our own wounds and we require healing in individual ways. There are unwritten and unsaid laws of existence here. We do not delve into each others lives apart from asking where we live and what family we may have. Any other information which is offered up by a person is warmly received but even then we do not unpick at any loose threads of information for fear of unravelling more than either party has bargained for. We accept each other for who we are no matter what behavioural traits we exhibit. In a way, we are a model social community where each person is met with openness and trust and where no unfair judgement is meted out. Nevertheless tensions do arise and we can choose to interact less with folks we have little in common with.

There's an awareness too of the intimacy in how we live and share our lives on the ward. Sleeping space is shared four to a room, meal times are shared, there are two television rooms and a quiet room and the seating in the entrance hall is a favourite place for folks to hang out. Many on the ward are not allowed off the premises either at all, or unaccompanied. This means that for many of us we are living together 24/7. We learn the valuable lesson of tolerance very quickly and in doing so we accept we each have our personal foibles.

Routine is key to our happy existence here. Very quickly I slipped into being governed by the times for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In between these are set times for tea and coffee breaks. I soon identified what is important for me and I established a routine to meet my needs. I rise at six for my first coffee of the day and to watch the morning news. Often I will be the only person up (apart from the night staff) and I enjoy the calm and solitude. I enjoy the time between getting up and breakfast at eight because of the relative serenity around me. Our time on the ward is very much our own - we are not compelled into any activity though we are encouraged to participate in what is on offer. I enjoy the pottery sessions on a Thursday and the art and craft sessions on a Tuesday. Other than these two I entertain myself with reading (avidly) and teaching myself watercolour painting through the university of YouTube. Very rarely I will allow myself to sleep during the day and when I do it is a delicious luxury. Even more rarely I will sit and watch daytime television knowing how alluring "Homes Under the Hammer" can become after a while. You'll pleased to hear, I hope, that I avoid watching "Jeremy Kyle" at all costs! Dinner is at five in the evening. I find the time after this drags a little where I drift in and out of the television room or sit and read. I sometimes watch a film or programme on BBC iPlayer. After the tea break at eight I then begin to count the minutes to 10pm when I get my medication and a sleeping pill. I need this fast acting sleeper (as we call them) to knock me out before the snoring commences in the room I'm in. My three erstwhile companions are pretty loud and it's impossible for me to fall asleep if they tune up before I have dropped off.

So the routine of life here marches on. Days blend into each other and the weeks slide by just as effortlessly. It's certainly not an uncomfortable existence but neither is it one that I hope to continue indefinitely. It is serving its purpose. I feel safe, I feel cared for and importantly, I feel acknowledged. There is power to be gained from living in the moment - the power of now. I am healing - there is no doubt about this.

I think that in general society is far more aware and more accepting of mental health distress than it was when I first encountered the service nineteen years ago. The view of mental health hospital provision has moved way beyond the one portrayed by Jack Nicholson and his cohorts in the renowned 1975 film. I am confident of openly sharing my mental health experiences and not hiding them away for fear of judgement or shame. However I am less confident about making an admission of my mental health history when it comes to seeking employment and I find this very sad.

I am ready to leave hospital now. The routine has begun to grind and I am missing home terribly but I have to accept that I'm going to be here for a good few weeks more. My ECT treatment is due this Friday and so begins a new phase of treatment for my depression. I can put up with my life on the ward in the knowledge that I am tackling this weight I have carried with me. However I look out of the windows at the budding plants and trees longing for the freedom of the open seas and the cry of the Gulls above. It won't be long now.

The Inner Storms

My last post was in early February. Since the middle of that month I have been a patient in the wonderful care of the psychiatric ward in the Mid-Argyll Hospital. I have severe clinical depression, an affliction that has dogged me much of my adult life. This time though, this particular bout has been unusually tortuous and I have struggled at times to make sense of the world and my place in it. Suicide is a subject many of us find challenging to openly speak about which is why depression can be such an insidiously serious illness. For me, suicide is not a simple 'get out' clause, it is the seemingly obvious resolution to my inner turmoil. The struggle I have in believing that I have value to offer and I am valuable to the important people in my life. My desire for completing suicide offers me a sense of deep and timeless peace - a peace that I often struggle to find in my life.

Thankfully, despite the emotional anguish I experience, there is within me a strong desire to continue living. This is why in mid-February I was able to seek the assistance first from my GP and then the psychiatric team of the Mid-Argyll Hospital. The sense of safety I experienced once I was admitted to the ward was an overwhelming one. At the point of admission there was the usual tussle within myself to follow or not to follow the advice of the GP and the ward staff. However once I made the decision to accept admission, I was able to relax (somewhat) and allow the pent up emotional tensions within me to be slowly expunged. This process has not been straightforward nor particularly pleasant. I have time and again slumped to the depths of my soul and faced my demons head on, believing at times that these would ultimately triumph. These demons continue to combat me and my sense of self as a worthwhile individual is far from complete. My recovery from this depression is slow and tenuous to say the least.

In a few days time I begin a course of ECT (Electro-convulsive Therapy) in the hope that this approach will knock my depression on the head - pardon the pun. It is not known how many sessions I will require but it is generally thought that six to twelve are the normal amount. From all accounts I understand this to be a safe and effective approach to curing severe clinical depression with odd renewal sessions from time to time as required. For me, the prospect of no longer feeling and experiencing the deep emotional anguish I have been is of course hugely attractive. It means quite simply that I will be able to smile with the world again.

I am not ashamed of my depression though I do feel shame when I recall some of interactions with people while deeply depressed. I am happy to speak of my condition in the hope that it helps others who may be experiencing depression or living with a loved one who is. As I have always been told - it's good to talk.

The Storms

As I type a heavy gust has slammed into the starboard side of the boat and we violently heel to the port. Instinctively I lean my body to counter the sudden movement and quickly glance at my mug of Lemon and Ginger tea to check it isn't spilling. All is well.

Around me the noise crescendos with the halyards flogging on the mast and the wind howling through the rigging surrounding us. It's all discordantly tuneful and I'm used to it. The fierceness of the gust eases as quickly as it arrived and the boat rocks back to her upright position with a couple of slight wobbles before she settles. My body easily rides these subtle movements. A screaming whistle from far away tells me that another gust is on its way and seconds later we are thumped again by the invisible force of the powerful wind.

Storm Henry is now on his way north, dissipating as he trundles across the ocean towards the Arctic Circle. Before him Gertrude paid us a visit a few days earlier and before her it was Frank who dropped by. Frank was particularly devastating for much of the country and we were glad to see the back of him.

Our stormy visitors arrive uninvited but not unexpected. We see them girding their loins way out west in the Atlantic, their deepening low pressure and their isobars ferociously narrowing as they relentlessly trundle towards us. They turn away from landfall at the last minute almost as if ensuring that the maximum force of their accompanying gales will hammer our coastal landscapes. The rain they carry with them is mercilessly dumped in almost Biblical deluges which our natural watercourses cannot cope with. Each time we find ourselves hunkering down, battening the hatches and clearing up afterwards - like cleaning the living room after a particularly boisterous party.

These are natural events which it seems are becoming more prevalent. A consequence of the poor care of our planetary life systems. We are reaping what we have sowed and as such, really, we cannot complain. It is not a case of nature pitting herself against humanity or us fighting back to survive the wrath of her dark moods. It is a case of us living with the consequences of many generations of Human mismanagement of Nature's perfectly balanced and fragile life systems. Collectively we are responsible for the havoc that is wreaked each time our now named winter storms wander across the Atlantic to visit us. These storms are not malicious. They do not purposefully intend us harm. They exist with all their ferocity because somehow we have projected into them the greed and avarice of our species - our insatiable and unstoppable desire to devour the very planet that provides us with sustenance.

These storms are merely a reflection of our collective esurient nature.

In the meantime, I learn to prepare for their arrival by placing extra lines on the boat, checking all fastenings and stowing all loose items. As an individual of our species I live in a manner which I hope shows respect for our fragile life system but I know with a heavy heart that I am as responsible as we all are for the regular arrival of our uninvited fearsome winter visitors.

The Beginning

Every journey begins with a single step and so it's true with writing a blog. My intention is to write here as often as I can, sharing ideas, thoughts and feelings about my life on the boat, my sea kayaking adventures and my life in Scotland in general. I enjoy writing, particularly if I'm sharing matters that excite and interest me.

I'll write about just about anything that catches my attention but I'm sure the common theme will be my life as a sea kayaker and a yacht live-aboard. It feels exciting embarking on this blog because I cannot be certain about what lies ahead. Whatever transpires I hope I catch your attention too and in some way evoke a variety of responses to what I am sharing.