Blyth to Orkney on Aquila

Peter Nicholson

(original water colours by the author)

p nicholson

Peter Nicholson

Terry Taylor on ‘La Sympatia’, and myself on ‘Aquila’ sailed single handed, in ‘tandem’, to Holland in June ’97, and we decided we would do a similar cruise in 1998. Terry has to take his holiday to fit in with his work, and so he had to sail in June. Unfortunately, with my other commitments I was unable to join him. So, I eventually made plans to leave at the end of July, and sail up the coast to Port Edgar, from where Lesley and I would have a week sailing and sightseeing around the Forth before I set off North to Orkney.

After the usual, (for me), last minute rush to get the boat ready, victualled and fuelled, I was almost ready by Wednesday 22nd July. In the Yacht Club Bar I met Derek Parker, who had already made a similar passage, and asked if he would loan to me his Charts of the Orkneys; he promised that he would try to get them to me by Friday evening of 24th July.

Saturday 25th July

By Saturday morning I was prepared, and set off from the pontoons at 11.30; Ken cast off my lines and Dave Coussons sailed out on his boat, with me, into the bay. I headed North in a fresh Westerly, in good weather. The sailing was good and I had rigged my cockpit so that I needed to go below as little as possible – I had made a replacement washboard with a waterproof chart case, mounted towards its base and a new chart plotter G.P.S. mounted above. That first afternoon I didn’t use the autohelm – a new one replacing one that broke down last season – for I enjoyed the feel of the helm. As I approached Dunstanburgh I noticed a yacht coming up on my port quarter; as it gradually caught up I noticed someone waving from the cockpit. I was surprised and delighted when I recognised ‘Golden Otter’ and was touched and grateful when Derek dropped a roll of North East Scotland and Orkney Charts accurately into my cockpit whilst close hauled and single handed. Thanks again, Derek.

East of Lindisfarne, the wind died to 3 to 4 knots, and I switched the engine on and put the new autohelm to work; as the time was 2030 I decided to cook an evening meal, and set the cockpit for the overnight sail, putting food, soup and coffee into the cockpit locker, and setting some warm gear out. By 2330 I was off Eyemouth and the wind had picked up to 10 knots, so I put on warm gear, set the sails, switched the autohelm and engine off, and set course for St. Abbs under darkening skies. I love sailing alone on those cloudless and dark nights , picking up lights and landmarks, watching gulls glide like ghosts over the navigation lights, and hearing the creaming of the sea.

Sunday 26th July


Bass Rock gannets

By 0300 I was off Dunbar, and once more the wind died, so it was a good opportunity for some sustenance; on went the autohelm and engine, and in came the foresail. Hot soup and French bread! In the early light off Bass Rock a large flock of Gannets began diving nearby, seeking a fishy breakfast, and it was fascinating to watch them plummet from over 20 feet, with wings closing for an almost vertical plunge.

Also I enjoyed watching the pairs of Guillemots, mother and fledgling, with the youngster in juvenile plumage, swimming in unison, looking back, and then tipping forward and disappearing beneath the surface. I have always been fascinated by their skill at mastering two environments. It is a good thing that I sail alone, for I would appear even more eccentric if witnessed calling and attempting to imitate the birds – a sort of North East Dr. Dolittle.



By 1200 I was calling Port Edgar on the VHF, and was given a berth on a pontoon. I was surprised to see that part of the pontoon system had been removed, but was told that dredging was going to take place. I had mixed feelings over the proposed plans for a Mediterranean style Marina Village, to be built by Wimpey, even though it would involve a valuable injection of money in the Marina. After a three hour nap I walked into North Queensferry for a dinner and refreshments, and noticed posters put in several prominent places expressing the concern of some of the local people over the proposed developments.

Monday 27th July.

Lesley arrived by bus about 14.30 and we had a walk around Qeensferry, had a meal and settled on board the boat.

Tuesday 28th July.

The morning promised good weather for the rest of the day, and so we set sail mid-morning around Inchcolm, following close to the shore, then over to Meadulse Rocks to see the seals, and then around the Oxcars to Inchkeith, and back beneath the Bridges – the scaffolding and descaling of the old Rail Bridge made one glad to get clear in case a lump of rusty iron descended on the boat! During the week we sampled Italian, Chinese, Indian and Scottish Cuisine – thus saving Lesley from the Aquila galley!

Wednesday 29th July.

The early forecast threatened strong winds and showers so we decided to spend the day in the Capital, walking along the Royal Mile, visiting the castle and behaving as typical tourists.

Thursday 30th July.

With more wind and heavy showers forecast we decided to remain as landlubbers, and took a train to South Queensferry (free because there was no-one in the ticket office!) and walked, between the showers, to a tea-shop, and then over the Forth Road Bridge; almost achieved without getting wet – it was worth it for the view up the Forth.

Friday 31st July.

At lunch-time Lesley left me for home, and I spent the afternoon putting new hinges on the cockpit lockers, and generally preparing for the passage North.

Saturday 1st August.

By 0840 I was on my way East in light winds with the motor on; two hours later, off Kinghorn Ness, the wind began to pick up from the North-north West.

The wind increased gradually, and by the time I was just seaward of the North Carr Light, I decided to shorten sail. I headed to wind, put the autohelm on, and reefed the main around the boom. Back in the cockpit I picked up my course, re-set the autohelm, and started to reel the furling foresail, only to discover the line had come out of the reel, and was jammed. I put the engine on to keep her heading, climbed forward, and knelt at the bow, reeling by hand to clear the line; almost at the point of clearing I stretched my legs, and, as I steadied myself with a hand on the pulpit, an extra large wave made me pitch forward, trip over the stowed anchor, and do a header into the sea. My head hit something solid, and I kicked clear, to miss the prop.

Then it dawned – the boat on main, with the help of engine and autohelm, was heading north toward the Tay estuary, whilst I was freezing and about 2 miles North-East of the Headland, with no other sign of humanity than a distant view, between waves, of the Fifeness Coast Guard Station. I remembered my recent visit to Tynemouth Coast Guard Station, and pictured the duty staff with eyes concentrating on a computer monitor! No chance of swimming in that broken sea, and I could only hope that the remaining flow of tide north would sweep me in north of the head towards the rocky shore. The cold hurt my forehead, and the constant breaking of the waves made seeing and hearing difficult. After what seemed like an eternity I heard what sounded like an aircraft, but the sea in my eyes made it difficult to focus. Then I got a glimpse of an orange R.I.B., and I mistakenly took it for an Inshore Rescue Craft. It swung round in a half circle but I realised that my blue clothes would be almost impossible to see, and so waved somewhat wildly. The craft suddenly reappeared, and I was grabbed by two or three pairs of hands. After explaining what happened, the crew, who were returning towards Methil after a day’s diving, chased and caught my boat. Shivering and very stiff, I was helped aboard, but the crew refused to let me sail alone, and one joined me whilst the others followed, and took me to Abroath. I put my wet clothes in a poly-bag and struggled into dry ones.

We tied Aquila alongside a yacht in the outer harbour; I noticed its mast was stropped to a stanchion, and it was registered in Abroath. After tidying up I joined the divers for some hot food and a drink ashore. A phone message with a request for a friend to bring a Land Rover and the RIB trailer, and then they escorted me to the boat, and off they went. Then the sleep of exhaustion still with shivers! The next day I purchased some Lafroaig 16 year malt and arranged for a delivery to my new friends with a note of gratitude.

Sunday 2nd August

The next morning I got organised and sailed off at about 0800; I was unable to find the harbour master, and had to leave without paying. The wind was about F3 from the south-south-west, and the scenery beautiful, and I felt none the worse for the incident. I was amused when two small fish were swept up the cockpit drain, by the following sea. Gradually the wind increased up to 28-32 knots, and I decided to cut short my proposed passage to Peterhead – especially as the forecast was for Force 8 in late evening. I had already passed Stonehaven when the wind gauge showed 35 knots so I reefed and turned back for harbour. I was pleased to turn into the outer harbour, and circled looking for a good mooring – the crew of a Dutch steel ketch hailed me and I tied alongside to be greeted with a large glass of schnapps! The couple on board the ketch helped me to tie up, and then asked me aboard for a coffee and a large cream cake. That evening I went ashore for a meal and then turned in early.

Monday 3rd August.

The impressive Dunnottar Castle

The impressive Dunnottar Castle

The next morning I woke to find that the wind was howling and it was raining heavily. I had breakfast , put on my waterproofs and walked to the harbour office to pay for moorings. The harbour master was very pleasant, and he told me the weather would clear early afternoon. So I walked in the improving weather along the cliffs to an impressive castle. After I returned to the boat the sun came out and the wind dropped, so I started to make ready to leave for Peterhead, some 35 miles to the north, but then I developed an aversion to sailing, I think the after-effects of Sunday, so I tied up alongside a Folk-boat, and went ashore. There I met three yachtsmen from Holy Island, on a yacht called “Goosander,” and had a pleasant evening swapping yarns.




Tuesday 4th August.

The morning sun and the light west-south-west wind brought back all the enthusiasm, so, after an early breakfast, and a visit to the Supermarket, I set off north for Peterhead. The wind picked up to a 5/6, but the sailing was good, and I arrived at Peterhead at 1800, and called the harbour master. For such a busy fishing port, and oil terminal, I was surprised when the harbour master asked me if I was going to the Marina and if I had a gate key. When I informed him that I knew the position of the Marina but did not have a key he said he would ensure that there would be someone waiting with a key. After I had completed tying up, I noticed a yacht called “Rocking Horse” nearby – it turned out to be from Amble Marina, and I was pleased to join the owner and crew for a meal ashore. Later I saw Silver Apple – both these yachts were heading for the Caledonian Canal. I also met an elderly single-hander who chatted quietly about his travels. It is humbling to hear tales of sailing around the world, and of wild seas off the Falklands when all the excitement I had was my mishap off Fifeness. We had some fun as we tried to get a mobile phone he had purchased in Peterhead to work – we both tried to insert a code and install a charge card number without success; in the end he took it back and got another.

Wednesday 5th August.

After early wind from the East of about Force 6,( not forecast), and some heavy rain, late morning opened into some fine weather, with warm sun and light southerly winds. I set off at noon and headed north to pass Kinnairds Head and enjoyed the coastal scenery along the South Coast of the Moray Firth to Buckie. At 20.30 I decided that, as time was getting on, and the light fading, I would sail beyond West Muck, and clear the rocky shore. As the evening was fine and quiet, with only a light southerly breeze, I sailed in close to Port Gordon, and, over sand, dropped anchor, furled the sails, and had an excellent evening meal in the cockpit and under the stars.

Thursday 6th August.

After rising at 0500, I washed and breakfasted. The wind was West-North-West about 8 knots and I got under way even as I was finishing my breakfast. By 0700 the wind was up to 15 knots and for 3 hours I sailed, making good speed, then the wind dropped off – the lull lasted one hour and then picked up again. So, the motor was switched off, and off she sailed again. The wind fluctuated all day, but the weather was fair, and I sailed direct to Wick, arriving at 1900. Apart from the Beatrice Platform, and a support vessel, I had the day to myself. In the outer harbour, I saw a motor boat with fenders on both sides, so I decided to tie up and get some food. Just as I finished, a voice shouted down for me to go into the inner harbour. As I entered, a man on the jetty offered to take me alongside his yacht “Eliza”. The owner introduced himself as Peter Russel from Crammond – as soon as I had tied alongside he shouted, “Are yee ready for a wee dram?” What better finish to a day – incidentally, we finished off half a bottle of whisky!

Friday 7th August.

Anchorage east of Flotta

Anchorage east of Flotta

I had Breakfast at Bremner’s Harbour Cafe, and went to talk to the Harbour Master – also called Bremner. I found that the commonest names in Wick are Bremner and Sinclair. I was now excited at the prospect of reaching the Orkney Islands, so I checked the Pentland tides and reckoned that I needed to be off Duncansby Head at about 1600, so I prepared to leave Wick at 1330. Before I departed I visited the Heritage Centre which gives a graphic history of the hardships and trials of these hardy people, and of the great years of fishing before the stocks dwindled, when the whole harbour was fortressed with thousands of fish barrels, and the bay was jammed from shore to shore with craft. The late start gave me a little heading tide, then slack water, to arrive as the spring tide swept me through the Pentland south of the Skerries, and into the Outer Sound. I then used wind and engine north to Stanger Head, glad to leave the boiling waters that seemed to jostle the boat from side to side as she moved forward. I found a quiet anchorage on the east of Flotta, sheltered from the wind and with a fine view across Scappa Flow. Alan Brunton told me he saw Aquila on her anchor as he traveled along the shore that day.

I was only in the anchorage for an hour, when a local from Flotta appeared in a open motor craft and asked me to anchor just north of the Piper-Flotta Pipe Line; he came back and ferried me ashore for a beer and a very pleasant chat.

Saturday 8th August.

I left the anchorage after lunch and sailed up to Stromness, and tied alongside a fishing boat, on the south pier, and went ashore to speak to the Harbour Master; he was very friendly, and suggested a move to aft of the Lifeboat. I enjoyed a day looking around the town with its long and narrow cobbled main street, and steep side roads behind the harbour; I was amused to se that one such hilly side road was named the Kyber Pass! I was advised that I might get a seat on a bus to the Stone Circle; I was surprised when I got there at the numbers of visitors and cars. I moved on to the Italian Chapel – a pair of Nissan Huts uniquely converted into a beautiful church by Italian prisoners in the Second World War who were employed in building the Churchill Barriers, linking the islands east of Scappa, to prevent any U-boats from repeating an attack like the one which resulted in the sinking of the Battleship “Royal Oak.”

Sunday 9th August.

I used the westerly flow of the tide, after an early lunch and sailed, in a light North Westerly, through the Sound of Hoy; the island of Hoy is the only really hilly and cliffed island, and its rocky shore brought visions of what it might be like in an equinoctial storm. I sailed north to Brough Head, reaching there at 1530, with an amazing red and orange sky lighting up the water. I sailed with the help of the engine and the Plotter, and against the tide. Between Rousay and the Mainland I saw a stubby but large fin in the water near the boat, and a large black domed head appeared sending up a mist of fine spray. Later a fisherman called it a Black Fish, which I was told was a local name for a Pilot Whale. I motor sailed past Wyre and Ho, arriving at Kirkwall at 20.00; I was given permission to tie up to the East Pier of Kirkwall. I found a small cafe still open, (on a Sunday in Orkney!), had a coffee, and then had a late walk around the town, looking at the castle and square.

Monday 10th August.

I prepared to leave by 0700, to gain the tides push, on the sail back to Wick. The wind was North West 4-5, and the sky cloudy and showery. I sailed round Mull Head, and round Copinsay, clearing the Muckle Skerry by 1700. I kept well offshore to keep clear of the dropping tide, and overfalls, and got in to Wick at 2100. I lay alongside “Eliza” again, and returned the ‘Wee Nip’ with Peter after buying a bottle of Glen Morangie.

Tuesday 11th August.

I left Wick at 0500 and enjoyed a sunny morning with a light north-westerly; I sailed down the coast to look into Helmsdale. By 0900 the wind dropped and the fog rolled in, and visibility dropped to about 100m, I motored, with the radar reflector up, and my navigation lights on, hoping a trawler wouldn’t appear out of the gloom. By 1300 the fog cleared to give a lovely sunny afternoon with a light north west breeze. I could see storm clouds sliding from the shore and squally showers of rain and hail arrived, and the wind picked up. I switched on the engine, and cleared a submerged sand bar with a beacon and slowly approached the shore south of the old breakwater. Once in behind the breakwater I dropped anchor and cooked a good lunch. The afternoon brought squalls and rain, and even some hail and I put out a second anchor just for safe measure.

Wednesday 12th August.

I set off at 0600 and sailed in a light north-westerly, heading for Rattray Head. During the late morning the wind strengthened and by 1900 the quartering seas and strengthening wind sent the odd lump of sea across my shoulders and into the cockpit. By the time I reached Peterhead at 2100 the wind was Force 7 and I squeezed in past the Russian ‘Klondykers’, and was amused to hear the harbour master roasting them for not paying dues, and not showing lights. When I got in to the Marina I had a strong stern wind and a helping hand saved me from flying into the pontoon!

Thursday 13th August.

In the Marina I met Alan Brunton, from Amble , and set off before him to go down the coast to Stonehaven. With his much faster yacht, and crew of four, he got there well before me, and when I got there he was waiting to tie me alongside. We had a coffee, and went ashore for a meal. At about 2215 we were ushered out by one of Alan’s crew to be told that a rusty steel trawler had been cast adrift and had, with a Dutch Yacht tied alongside, slipped back onto Alan’s boat. On closer inspection we found that a Trawler was tied to the round end and was discharging fish to a truck. The trawler crew had thrown a plaited heavy line off the bollard, and dropped their own in its place. Alan shouted to the crew but they ignored us; so he took flashlight pictures of the boat and the truck. We heaved on the mooring rope and secured the old trawler; one of Allan’s crew rang on a mobile ‘phone for the Police. The trawler left in a hurry, and the truck crew of four approached us, one swinging a stevedore’s hook. Alan warned him not to be tempted to do anything stupid, and, with a sneer they drove off. The Police arrived, and eventually traced the trawler to Aberdeen, where the crew were arrested for unloading ‘black fish’ and for damaging property and not reporting to the Harbour Authorities. We were awakened at 5a.m. by the Police reporting the arrest.

Friday 14th August.

I was invited to join Alan and his crew for a superb breakfast and then they departed at 11 in the morning and I shifted mooring. After the loss of sleep I decided to stay in Stonehaven another day, hoping the trawler crew would not return for retribution. One of the local fishermen invited me aboard his boat for coffee, and explained that the local crews were dissociating themselves from the behaviour of the trawler crew.

Saturday 15th August.

The weather was poor all Saturday and Sunday, with winds F 6/7 and heavy rain. I made friends with a local yacht owner with a Westerly Centaur, and was invited to his Hotel for Sunday dinner. The fishermen and locals frequenting the harbour pubs and cafes were very friendly and several made a point of inviting me to join them for a chat; one presented me with a huge crab. As I didn’t have the facilities to cook it I passed it on to the nearby cafe owner. .

Sunday 16th August.

Another forgettable windy wet day but a splendid lunch in the Hotel overlooking the windswept bay. I became familiar with all the coffee-shops and cafes, running through the rain from one haven to the next.

Monday 17th August.

I left Stonehaven, after many farewells, and sailed at 1200 on a direct bearing for Blyth. The fresh Westerly strengthened and after two hours I put a reef in the sails. During the day the wind picked up and then dropped several times, but by 2200 I was off Bass Rock. The sailing was tiring, as I could not use the autohelm in the strength of wind; all that happened was that once the autohelm was unable to hold the heading, it took the boat through 360 degrees, and tried again to hold the course. By 0200 I was off Berwick and the wind finally died. Off the Outer Farne I furled the sails and switched on the engine; a screaming note told me that the belt had once again stretched. I spent half an hour adrift whilst I fitted a new belt, started the engine and headed south. I motored until I was off Newton, by when the wind picked up to a light westerly. I arrived back in Blyth at 1400, having covered the last 125 miles in one stretch, staying well offshore, sometimes over 25 miles off. I was surprised to find that I didn’t feel too tired on arrival, and was pleased that ‘Aquila’ seemed none the worse for the trip.

I have often been asked why I enjoy single-handed sailing – apart from the obvious answer that I can be a free agent and choose my timing and movements, it brings other benefits. On shore I am what I reflect – to a young man I’m an old man; to my family – an eccentric; the garden reflects a spasmodic and non-dedicated gardener. But at sea I have no one to blame if things go wrong; I can swear and shout if I loose a sheet or pick up a lobster pot. I can sing off-key and whistle to the gulls; I can muse all day when the weathers good, and ‘Yip’ with a mixture of adrenaline and fear when things nearly go sour. I can watch a distant light and wonder what the owner’s doing; and I can enjoy the company of welcoming strangers with a yarn when I’ve finished a day on the water.