Layback in the Orkney Islands

Linda Lane Thornton

Andy and I decided on the Orkney Islands as our holiday destination for 2003 some time around Easter, and had spent several evenings discussing passage plans. During the summer we noticed that the wind direction seemed to change every 3-4 days. Consequently, we had two plans. Plan A was a direct route from Blyth to Kirkwall non stop, which would take us to the east of the Longstone reef, Rattray Head and Duncansby Head, making Copinsay our landfall. Plan B was to hop along the coast and Lindisfarne, Eyemouth, Stonehaven, Peterhead and Wick we considered as stopover ports. Once the requisite charts had arrived, we made passage plans to cover (we hoped!) all eventualities.

The week beginning 4 August was spent shopping, packing, checking and planning with many a visit to the Met Office website, so that 1830 on 8 August found me starting the engine. We had opted for plan A reasoning that there would be 2 days of south westerlies followed by a day of north westerlies then northerlies. We calculated 2.5 to 3 days sailing.
It was warm and sunny with a slight easterly breeze, so Andy set the full main and the number 1 genoa and we began to ghost northwards. By 2300, however, the wind had died away completely, so Andy handed the sails and set the autohelm whilst I went below in an attempt to snooze. The fog drew in shortly afterwards, and by 0300 his only companion was the sound of the Longstone foghorn.

Dolphins

White-beaked dolphins for company

“Linda! Come on deck! We’ve got company!” I shot out of the quarterberth trying to shake the sleep off, expecting something big, black and riveted. The ‘company’, however, was a whale which had surfaced so close to the boat that Andy could have reached out and touched it. We tentatively identified it as a pilot whale although on reflection it seemed much larger. The fog came and went as we motored on, but by 1000 the wind had shifted into the south and we were able to hoist the spinnaker – only to hand it seven hours later having put 49 miles on the log! Brilliant! So the engine went back on again and we took it in turns on watch through the night until the wind gradually veered into the north and increased to Force 3-4 – we were beating our way across the Moray Firth, pushing both wind and tide. The highlight of the day was a school of White-Beaked dolphins who spent half an hour playing around Layback’s bows, diving under the hull and popping up the other side.

Approaches to Kirkwall

Approaches to Kirkwall

What comes, goes and by 1600 on Sunday evening we were motoring again across a flat sea which continued for the next 14 hours. We picked up a forecast from Orkney Harbour Radio (which broadcasts weather information at 0915 and 1715 each day, breaking the day up into six-hour blocks), which promised little change in the next 24 hours. As the night grew darker I identified the lighthouses of Duncansby Head, Muckle Skerry and Copinsay and at dusk watched the sun set to the north of Duncansby Head, keeping my eyes wide open to see the green flash. Andy had the pleasure of seeing a magnificent sunset and the rising of the moon, plus several more schools of dolphins, which came and went as the evening went on. He woke me at 0400 on Monday to a glassy sea with the sun just beginning to rise, Copinsay to port, Auskerry to starboard and the Shapinsay Sound ahead. Our arrival was timed perfectly for the passage through The String, the narrow channel between Mainland Orkney and Shapinsay, where the tide runs at up to 6 knots and where overfalls can present a significant challenge in the wrong conditions. Wreaths of mist ebbed and flowed over the islands and inlets, making them disappear and then appear again, the half-light giving an eerie and ethereal atmosphere to the whole passage, the air scented with bog myrtle and the silence broken only by the chugging of the engine.

After a brief conversation with Orkney Harbour Radio, we tied up alongside a motor-yacht in Kirkwall Harbour and got breakfast on the go – it was 0600 on Monday morning. The passage had taken 60 hours and we had logged 293 miles.

Kirkwall Harbour

Kirkwall Harbour

In Kirkwall we met lots of people – the chap from the Harbour Master’s office who gave us a set of keys for the Orkney Sailing Club so that we could shower, the Harbour Master who showed us where visitors’ moorings had been laid, charged us £26 for a 14-day permit to use all of the harbours and official moorings in the Orkney Islands and gave us a copy of the Kirkwall tide tables; Duncan the police officer and lifeboat man who explained why the marina had not been finished in time, who lent us his own tidal atlas (even though we had one) and told us the best way to get through the Vasa Sound (“you can go so close to the cliff that you can put your hand on the wall, it’s that steep to!”) and to look out for awkwardly-positioned creels – like the one which fouled his propeller as he pushed the tide through the Eynhallow passage! Whilst Andy had a snooze and I went shopping. Another yacht tied up alongside us, Vegabond from Port Edgar, who was on her way to Pierowall before proceeding to either Fair Isle or Shetland. They were waiting for the tide to turn before going back through The String and we had a good natter.

Shapinsay

Shapinsay

I had a huge list of things I wanted to see in Kirkwall, having bought The Islands of Orkney by Liv Kjorsvik Schei before setting out and reading as much as I could beforehand. We explored Kirkwall on foot, visiting St Magnus’ Cathedral and the Highland Park distillery. Another excellent find was the local Orkney wine, brewed from natural ingredients such as gorse flowers, gooseberries, elderberries, strawberries and rhubarb. We bought a couple of bottles and found them to be of excellent quality and deceptively strong – they have quite a high alcohol content – but no hangovers the next day! Fortunately, the winery also offers a mail order service, so we can still get access to it.

On Tuesday, we decided to take a look at Shapinsay, the small island across The String from Mainland. As the wind had fallen very light we motored there, being chased into the circular bay by the Shapinsay ferry before picking up the substantial visitors’ mooring.

Shapinsay is generally low-lying so we stretched our legs and walked northwards across the island to take a look at Vasa Sound – the Westray ferry seemed to be travelling along the base of the cliffs and we could see the overfalls kicked up by the tide. Orkney Harbour Radio said that the following day would be blustery and showery, so we motored back to Kirkwall with the idea of hiring a car the following day to take a look at the prehistoric sites which Orkney has in abundance.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae

I found a hire car with the first telephone call which gave us the opportunity to see more of the largest island of the group. We visited the Bronze Age village of Skara Brae, the burial chamber at Maes Howe and were uplifted by the meaning of the runic carvings on the walls written thousands of years ago, as they said things like “Ragnar carved these runes with his axe!” and similar thought-provoking graffiti.

The sun shone brightly over the stones of the Ring of Brodgar, and Stromness too, was pleasantly sunny. We visited the Block Ships which were sunk in WW2, but were too late that day to visit the Cave of the Eagles.

The shipping forecast on Wednesday evening indicated that Thursday would be a good day to go to Pierowall on Westray, so Wednesday evening was spent doing more passage planning and working out tides etc. The wind was blowing north west 4-5 and we planned to go through Vasa Sound before the tide had picked up so much that it increased the overfalls – and indeed we shot through there like a cork out of a bottle – very brisk sailing indeed! Unfortunately we got a little too far offshore and ended up having to tack and run back to pass between Fers Ness on Eday and the Point of Scaraber on Faray. (Valuable lesson learned – the tidal streams in the Orkney Islands are very strong and we underestimated the tidal rate!) We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening beating up the Sound of Faray into biggish seas, before sailing past Papa Westray into the setting sun over Pierowall – visually stunning, but difficult to see where you were going! I made a couple of attempts to contact the Pier Master, got no reply but then found him standing on the pontoon waiting to take our lines.

Tom Rendall, the Pier Master, was born on Westray and had spent all of his life there, which is probably why he exuded such a timeless quality – a very relaxing man to have around. Having got quite damp on the way from Kirkwall, including having an enormous dollop of sea land on my head, I wanted to have a shower. Andy was equally anxious to have a pint and something to eat. “Don’t worry,” said Tom. “You go and have your shower and I’ll take you both to the Pierowall Hotel when you’re ready.” No more than ten minutes later, we were in Tom’s car and he pointed out things we might need on the way to the hotel – the bakery (“just knock on the door”), the place where we could hire bicycles, the shops and the times they opened, the boat where you could eat your fish and chips. He then bade us goodnight and we settled down to eat, drink and fall asleep at a ludicrously early hour!

Certainly the best way of seeing Westray is by bicycle – the hills are just steep enough to make you get off to admire the views! We hired a couple of bikes and had a splendid day cycling round the island, visiting the lighthouse at Noup Head and watching the ferries sail around the islands. On our second evening we ate at a renowned local restaurant, the Cleaton House Hotel, taking a taxi there and then staggering the four miles back to the boat by intermittent moonlight – one too many Red MacGregors, or was it the Skull Splitter, both fine Orkney beers!

Sunset

Sunset

The forecast of deteriorating weather towards the end of the week decided us to make our way back to Mainland, but this time making the passage through Lashy and Eday Sounds. The wind had switched into the south and so we reached from Westray to Lashy Sound and then beat our way down the between the islands of Eday and Sanday, and working with the tides in our favour. So much in our favour, indeed, that at one point we were clocking 11.2 mph over the ground, according to the GPS with 5 knots on the Log- it was like sailing down a river! We discussed spending the night at anchor in Deer Sound, but having gone in we decided that it wasn’t really very inspiring and so tacked up Shapinsay Sound and through The String once more. This time, however, we went through the passage between Car Ness on Mainland and Thieves Holm (which now has a quick flashing red light on it), a tiny islet about three cables offshore. Since the Shapinsay ferries went through it, Andy convinced me that we could get through it too. There is a wicked back eddy between Thieves Holm and the mainland that slows the forward momentum of the boat significantly. Although we had 5 knots on the log under engine, our speed over the ground was only 1 mph – again another valuable lesson learned.

The Shipping Forecast on Tuesday scuppered our plans to sail round to Stromness – a vigorous depression was forming west of Rockall and increased winds were forecast towards the end of the week, when we had planned to sail back. We decided that we needed to get the boat back at least to mainland Scotland – just in case. So it was with considerable regret that we sailed back through The String, intending to spend the night in Wick before heading south. Andy had wanted to coast-hop one way or the other, and this seemed to give us the opportunity we wanted.

By 2100 that evening in a rising wind, we realised that we would not make Wick in the daylight – a heavy swell had built up from the south west, the night was black as a bag and further reading of the cruising guide did nothing to reassure me. I voiced my concerns to Andy who reluctantly agreed with me and we turned Layback’s bow towards Rattray Head, much to my relief – I’m a wimp when it comes to entering strange harbours at night! It was a hard night’s sail, with the wind blowing a steady Force 6 from the south west, gusting 7 from time to time, dark, damp and dismal. We were taking the seas on the starboard quarter, but still shipped a few large ones – at one stage I looked down at the torch – which was under water as a huge sea had half-filled the cockpit – and hoped that it really was waterproof! Fortunately, visibility was good and Layback, with three reefs in the main and the small jib, eased her way across the seas with no real difficulty. The barometer dropped and then starting rising again, indicating the passage of the “vigorous low” from Cape Wrath towards Fair Isle. As the day grew lighter, the wind eased and we dropped the sails just outside Peterhead before motoring in and finding the marina man, Bruce, waiting to take our lines.

The 1754 Shipping Forecast showed us that we’d made the right decision – the forecast for Fair Isle was for west or north west Force 7 to Gale 8 with gusts of Severe Gale 9. It also confirmed that we should sail for Eyemouth that night, so we climbed into our berths at about 1800, rose again in time to hear the 0048 shipping forecast and by 0130 were on our way out of Peterhead. As the prevailing strong winds had been from the west, we were sailing over a relatively flat sea, which made whale watching – again they always appeared on Andy’s watch – an enjoyable activity, apart from realising that being downwind from a spouting whale is not a good idea – they have a tendency to acute halitosis! The swell got a little lumpy off the Firth of Forth, but as the wind had dropped and moved into the south, we started the engine to make it to Eyemouth before the pubs shut!

Eyemouth Harbour

Eyemouth Harbour

We spent a couple of smashing days in Eyemouth, but at 0545 on Friday morning, the inshore waters forecast gave south west or west 5 or 6 for Duncansby Head to Whitby, so we set off at 0615 in fine fettle for the last leg towards Blyth. We started off with a full main and the small jib, but by 0700 had put a the first reef in the main (after Andy had logged 9.28 knots). For the next hour or so the reef got shaken out, put back in and shaken out again as the wind came and went. Going through the Inner Farne channel we had two reefs in, the going was extremely lively and I continued my nagging to have another reef in the main. I was down below when Andy’s shout of “Yes!” made me shoot out on deck again – he’d managed 10.4 knots this time! I finally persuaded him that the third reef might be prudent! So the main was reefed down a lot more – except that 20 minutes later the wind had dropped significantly and he shook the reefs out again.

For the rest of the passage the wind stayed in the west at Force 4-5 – a flat sea off the land – the sun came out, the skies lost their cloud cover and Andy changed oilies for shorts. Newton-by-the-Sea, Dunstanburgh Castle, Craster, Alnmouth, Coquet Island and Amble all passed slowly as we made our way back until finally – at 1455 – we pulled into our pontoon berth in Blyth and switched the engine off. We had logged 693 miles.

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