Atlantic Swell

Anchored overnight at the top of West Loch Tarbert, the ketch Tecla lay still in the water. Fresh easterly winds funneled between the hills of Harris, rippling the flags and blowing cold, bracing air across the deck. But Tecla was close inshore, the fetch too short for the wind to produce more than a few ripples.

With the warming sun the wind gradually eased. After breakfast, with main and foresails hoisted, we crept westward down the loch. Well before reaching the open ocean, Tecla lifted her bow, imperceptibly at first, then a foot or so, then rising and falling in a regular rhythm. The skipper noticed it first, “Atlantic swell,” he commented, addressing no one in particular, or maybe offering a greeting to the wild ocean itself.

The Atlantic is never still. Even after weeks of quiet weather and mainly offshore winds, it pulsed with a long, smooth swell, the residue of long-past weather disturbances. The swell was almost too slight to be seen from deck level. There was no tossing about, not enough movement to rattle the dishes, just a quiet lift and drop. At each pitch the standing rigging creaked, the mainsheet tightened and eased, shadows moved a few inches across the deck, then returned.

The swell lifted Tecla’s eighty foot welded steel hull; two masts and eight spars, each the weight of a small tree; engine, anchors, sailing gear; fifteen people on board, their kit, food and water. All as if no more than a baby weight.

Before we reached the open Atlantic, the skipper called for a gybe as Tecla turned to port into the sheltered water between the mainland and the island of Taransay. After the sails had clattered across, in the shelter of the straight the pitching stopped; Tecla ghosted along over unruffled water. Now, the only evidence of the swell was the line of surf breaking regularly along the Corran Raah sandspit, startling white against the turquoise sea.