Stephen | Morrison: SY to LK

The 33ft sloop El Vigo departed Stornoway (SY) in the Outer Hebrides on the 23rd August, to take the artists Ian Stephen and Christine Morrison to Lerwick (LK) in Shetland. Ian was due to perform poems and stories at Shetland's Wordplay festival, and to work with several primary schools in the islands during September. Christine, a visual artist, has made several collaborative works with Stephen including Acts of Trust: a hand printed artists' book, as part of an education project which won the British Award for Storytelling Excellence in the multi-arts category.

Ian (www.ianstephen.co.uk) and Christine (www.christinemorrison.co.uk) each have their individual practices in the arts, but they work together collectively as Stephen | Morrison (www.stephenmorrison.org).

SY to LK: Sule Stack revisited

It’s not only the angle of the observed island, in relation to your bow or stern. The degrees off the wind at the time and so the point of sail you were on. Even if it’s the same vessel, the mood aboard her will not be the same. Not even if the crew is composed of the same individuals.

Sule Stack came shining from the blue in June 2007. I was skippering the 33ft sgoth Niseach an Sulaire en route to joining a flotilla of working craft in the Moray Firth. After months of working in a shed, open to the wind at one end, the vessel now had a buoyancy system, tested the night before crossing the Minch. The timbers were painted and oiled and a new tan sail was bent on to the sanded spars.

First we had a couple of weeks as the dipping lugsail craft in residence, at an international gathering of artists on Tanera Mor. My pal became a mate who knew the boat well – how to sail her and how to stow gear so it would not shift. Our crew, who linked the shoreside community with the visiting artists asked to join us, not bothered by being the only woman aboard a boat with an equal opportunities bucket.

One of the new crew judged the planned route northabout impossible and loudly stated that the Caledonian Canal was the only possible way. I reckoned on using our outboard from time to time to catch tidal gates but, with that, making a viable passage to Stromness. The rest trusted this judgement and the team stayed together.

sule 201

We made long tacks out into open water in light winds but fair weather. This sighting was our reward: an iconic shape as a visual reference, lifting us from the dial of a log and the figures to plot from navigation by GPS.

Landfall was made at Stromness and then we went on to sail across Scapa Flow and the Pentland Firth to join the flotilla. Friendships developed. The open vessel was my real home for a month or so.

I met the woman who was to become my wife aboard the sgoth an Sulaire. As a volunteer, I took 11 artists out in the labour-intensive lugsail boat, as a teambuilding trip in strong westerly breeze. The students and their tutor tacked and gybed the boat through the gap between Tavay Mor and Tavay Beg in Loch Erisort. I was caught by the determination of Christine Morrison, working the tack. And that was that.

The same woman put countless hours of energy and skill into repairs, paintwork and canvas fabrication for El Vigo. We hoped we might sail together and make work together, in response to sailing.

We departed Stornoway, bound for Lerwick with another Morrison friend to help, on the 23rd of August. The forecast wind was favourable but the isobars indicated that we would have to run the inboard motor from time to time to keep momentum. So it proved, with strong breeze and fair tide to to take us well clear of Cape Wrath and almost no breeze, in the stretch west of Orkney. This meant that fins of visiting dolphins were prominent, even at a distance.

Then visibility closed in, as promised. But not before a more grey Stack Skerry and then Sule Skerry itself, the place in the ballad, appeared off to port. I took some video, intrigued by the way an accidental rain spot on the lens became an indicator of the boat’s rise and fall. When the seas are long you don’t realise how steep they may be.

Then I woke Christine, before her watch was due, because I knew she would want to photograph this sight at this time. A comparison with the image I took in 2007.

sule 2013