Out on the Ocean

There we were, out on the ocean, lilting and bouncing like the jig of the same name, quickly moving from high to low. Michael is skipper: deeply tanned face, hoop ring in one ear – a pirate look, without being too cliched about it. We’re in a RIB, a rigid bottom, inflatable around the rim, light and fast, easy to fall out of as it bumps and bounces along the waves. We’re seated astraddle, and I imagine this is how it must feel to ride one of those electronic rodeos. We’re told to hold tight as he lets rip leaving the harbour mouth. There is next to no wind on land, but I knew we’d feel it once we got to the tip of Ramore Head, so I’ve secured my baseball cap with a woollen scarf, wound double around my neck, then tied tight in a knot and tucked into my smock. Not a good look. I don’t care, there’s no one to see me but the gulls. The hat is for the sun, of which there is no sign.

Eighteen Skerries in all, he tells us, and he names some: Little and Big Carr, Otter Island, Winkle Island, Castle Island, Black Rock. We weave in and through; kittiwakes fly low alongside us. A couple of times he cuts the engine to point to a seal in the water watching us. A huge club head, something like a mastiff, throws us a disinterested look. The seals are much bigger that the little black ones I see swimming in Dunbar Harbour. There are dozens of them – fat, hairy, spotted – sumo-esque in size and gracelessness.

On our way back, someone points at a Mondrain that’s been painted onto the back of Ramore Head. You can only see it from out of the ocean, or if you were to scale the cliff face to stand on the rocks below and look up. From the sea, the cliffs looks sheer and dangerous. How could anyone get there to paint those rocks in blocks of colour? I know how they did it, because I climbed down there as a child, and it all comes back in a rush.

I’m finally allowed to go fishing. Up until now, the climb down the cliff has been said to be too much for me. I know I can do it. Dad and my brothers are wearing their fishing anoraks with little tears in the arms where they’ve been snagged by hooks, the synthetic stuffing pokes out like a wayward cloud. Eamon’s is dirtiest because he guts most fish. Afterwards, he rises his hands in the sea and wipes them down the front so that trails of dried in watered-down fish blood run in tracks on either side of the zip. He smells of those flakes we fed the goldfish before the cat got it.

The climb is hard. Dad lets go of my arms for the last seven-foot drop calling to Cormac to make sure to catch me. I’m not afraid. Later, when they’re casting and chatting and casting and watching, I wander off and fall and scrape my shin. I tell them I’m fine. I know I won’t be allowed to come again if I’m any bother.

‘Wash it in saltwater from that rock pool,’ Dad says. ‘It’ll sting at first, but it’ll do it good.’

Dad says something about there being fowl on the water. It sounds funny to me, and I expect to see chickens when I look out onto the swell. All I can see is gulls.

‘The last thing you want to do is snag a seagull,’ Dad says.

With that, Eamon snags one. Tackle is scarce and valuable. In an instant, Cormac has stripped down to his pants and dived in. I think it’s the most dramatic thing I have ever seen, and I am scared. Dad is laughing so I stop being scared.

‘He’s going to unhook her,’ Dad tells me. Thinking back, it must have happened before, it looks practiced. Eamon holds the line tight, Cormac treads water, grapples with a panicked gull, and retrieves his lure. I would love to tell you it was all about animal welfare, but it was all about the lure. A Crazy Prices plastic bag, weighted by a stone, lies on the rocks. It is yet to be filled with fish.

‘Give her a spin,’ Dad says, holding a rod out to me.

I know I don’t have to cast far; the water is deep and they’re as likely to bite close in as thirty yards out. Still, I want to cast as far as they do. I count to ten, let it sink, then clack the bar of the reel back over. I catch nothing, but that doesn’t matter, at least I didn’t lose a lure, at least I didn’t snag it in the weed as I wound it in – that’s the worst thing you can do.

We’re facing west, the sun is dropping, and boats are motoring back towards the harbour, flocks of gulls swooping and cawing behind them. At the stern of one, a man has begun to filet his catch. He throws the guts out from the back of the boat and the gulls jostle in the air like single women at a wedding trying to catch the bouquet.

Eamon shouts. ‘Glashan, I’m into the glashan.’ Cormac goats it over the rocks. In minutes he has caught a lythe. The fish are in. We’ll be there until dark. The Crazy Prices bag will not return empty.

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