Sheevra’ing in Shetland

Jonathan, Pippa, Hugo and Elizabeth Wallis

(How we saw the green flash.)

This year was an even year which meant we turned left on leaving Blyth. Destination Muckle Flugga? We left at 1930 on 9th July and close reached up the coast until wind began to die when we were off Boulmer, so engine on and arrived off Newton at 2330 as the tide turned against us. Groped our way into Newton bay and anchored. Soon after the pitter patter of rain started. Up at 0500 to find flat sea , mist and drizzle, so took tide up the coast under motor. Passed through the Goldstone Channel and at 0700 enough wind to sail on a broad reach. Forecast was for a force 6-7 SE the following day and we didn’t fancy running into that through the night. South Easterly was no good for Stonehaven so we opted for Montrose. Arrived with a reefed genoa and motored up past Scurdie Ness through the river entrance against the ebb (2-3 knots when halfway between springs and neaps; pilot gives up to 8 knots at springs) to the pool, where we moored against the quay (not ideal for shiny topsides) and where the river current flows very fast under the hull. Log 68.9nm. The curry house we found and enjoyed 3 years ago had closed down so we switched to the Indian Cottage which was slightly lacking in atmosphere.

The high tide that night was sluicing past us at the quay with the lines creaking and groaning and the boat performing a peculiar dance. Out into the stream, hover there for a while, then dive back into the quay bow first , then start again. We tried to tighten the lines at 0200 and probably should have left then. Instead we left at 0600 with just 3 hours of favourable tide. The forecast was for SE going SW 5-7 occasionally 8 in the north, but offshore. Not ideal but we had studied GB Wind map on our laptop in the curry house and thought we could make Peterhead before the worst came through. There was in any case not a lot of enthusiasm for staying in Montrose which boasts a statue in the high street, labelled ‘Apprentice boy’ or some such appellation, but which looked uncannily like a young Gordon Brown. The wind outside was SE 4 quickly rising to 6 and we made excellent progress to Stonehaven and then Aberdeen under number 3 and one or two reefs as the wind varied.


Excellent progress

For a while it was sunny but as we crossed the large bay north of Aberdeen (site of Donald Trump’s planned ‘golf course’ development) a large black cloud caught us from behind. Torrential rain flattened the sea which hissed and steamed, the wind veered 90 degrees and then came blasting in at 28 knots. We gybed and made directly for Peterhead ending up hard on the wind for the entrance with the anemometer recording gusts of 34 plus knots. Our engine intake does not work when the boat is heavily heeled on port tack and the helpful HM let us enter under sail so that once inside we could tack and start the engine safely. We tied up in the marina in rapidly increasing wind and were glad to have done so.

That evening was the World Cup final, and J tried to find a pub that the Dutch sailors had gone to, but failed and wandered the backstreets of Peterhead looking forlornly for the orange crowd of supporters. Perhaps as well he didn’t find them given the outcome.

By midnight the wind had subsided and the forecast for the next 48 hours was good. We left at 0600 and by 1000 had a perfect force 3 on the beam. With full genoa we were cruising along at 6 knots, warm and sunny. Surely it couldn’t last? But it did until 2200, by which time we were level with Kirkwall. Darkness was enough to prevent reading of small print, but navigation lamps seemed barely necessary. We motored through what night there was. We were in the North! A large pod of white beaked dolphins spent 2 hours in company with Hugo and Pip through the night watch. Arriving off Sumburgh head at 0830 the wind (F3/4) came up from the North, on the nose, but we had a favourable tide and had a stupendous beat up the coast of Shetland.

Sumburgh Head

Sumburgh Head

Broch of Mousa

Broch of Mousa

Passing inside the Isle of Mousa we had a great view of the ‘best preserved Broch’ in the world, but unfortunately never had another chance to visit it. In Lerwick we tied up alongside a couple of Norwegian boats (most of the yachts in harbour were from Norway). Lerwick Boat Club is hospitable and has excellent showers and just opened laundry facilities. We used both and then ate at the Kveldsro House Hotel. Good cooking and smart though not hearty fare.

Lerwick Harbour

Lerwick Harbour

A large low pressure was arriving and threatened strong winds for the next few days. We had planned to sail round Muckle Flugga, the most Northerly point but it looked a little optimistic and so we hired a car and did it by land instead. Pip drove and as we reached the first ferry across the sound to Yell, she worried that the gas had been left on. There was nothing for it but to go back. An hour later she and Hugo returned. It had not been left on. Elizabeth and I had opted to get out wearing t-shirts and hoping for a nice cup of tea in the ferry terminal, but had found that the terminal consisted of a small wooden hut and a public convenience. We were now chilled to the bone. To make matters worse Pip and Hugo returned to see the next ferry just finishing loading and did a Colin Macrae job over the last mile of twisting coastal road, not even stopping for the waving Lulu and I who had to sprint to the ferry and jump aboard the lifting ramp.

We passed rapidly through the rather peaty Yell and took the next ferry to Unst across the Bluemull sound. Arriving at the North of Unst the sky cleared and we had a fabulous walk along the cliffs, almost having to pick our way through the puffin colonies so close were they, and gaining a tremendous view of MF amidst a haze of wheeling Gannets and screaming terns.

Muckle Flugga!

Muckle Flugga!

Contrary to the pilot books information, butane and propane are available in Lerwick, but a little way away. Needs a car/taxi or a delivery. Likewise the larger food outlets are a good walk from the small boat harbour.

That evening in Lerwick we tried out the Gurkha kitchen on North road (Nepalese cooking). Voted overwhelmingly the best meal of the trip by all. Strongly recommended. Pip has been humming the Nepalese hit parade ever since

The following day the depression had arrived with a vengeance and was forecast to sit on top of us for several days. After consulting the weather gods via the internet we opted to leave that afternoon for Sumburgh, rather than try the west or North coasts which looked a trifle exposed. The aim was to make Fair Isle the following day rather than be trapped in Lerwick for 4 days.

Leaving Lerwick before the bad weather set in

Leaving Lerwick before the bad weather set in

The beat to Sumburgh (23 miles) was rumbustious. Not all enjoyed it and the idea of the same again the following morning starting at 4am was firmly quashed.

We anchored in Grutness Voe which should have been sheltered and to a degree was, but a low swell came in from the North East at right angles to the South Easterly wind. As a result we rolled all night and none of the crew admitted to a moments sleep despite some fairly evident snoring.

The next day we tried first to anchor closer in but found the only rock in the bay, gently I am glad to say, but firmly. The rock was close to a large ‘mooring buoy’ which we later found was in fact a keeper pot for the local lobster fisherman. We retreated to our previous spot. A brisk walk on Sumburgh head saw the sun emerge which dried us out, and a profusion of seabirds soaring over the Sumburgh roost.


Puffin in the entrance to his burrow off Sumburgh Head

We booked for dinner at the Sumburgh Hotel. Not haute cuisine but very fair and good value. Another attempt to secure a more comfortable night by tying up at the small pier was also met with failure due to a nasty surge causing us to range uncomfortably against the piles protected only by an inadequate plank. In fact the wind shifted and the swell subsided making the night much more comfortable. At 2300 the wind was up to 25 knots plus and humming in the rigging. There were no other boats in the anchorage and plenty of swinging room so we let out nearly all our 60 metres chain in a depth of 6 metres at HW and did not budge an inch all night.

Grutness Voe

Anchored in Grutness Voe, airport in the background

The more general wind situation for the next day saw continuing forecasts of 5-7 from the South. We stayed put. In the morning we explored Jarlshof, a large Stone Age settlement, with Iron Age Pict houses on top, Viking longhouses and 13th century farmhouse sitting over that. Finally an 18th century Laird’s housed capped the site. In the afternoon, in search of another stone age excavation we took a wrong turn and walked out to the Ness of Burgh where we found a further profusion of seabirds and another large Stone Age building.

Ness of Burgh

Ness of Burgh

There were otters to see but we were too noisy. It was a chance walk of great beauty. That evening we tried out some new fish hooks that Doug Sharp had given us and promptly caught several Coley and a large codling which we ate for supper.

Sumburgh Head

Looking back at Sumburgh Head from the Ness

We had meant to go to Old Skatness, a recently excavated neolithic settlement and found it nearby the next morning. It looked grim in the rain and wind. ‘More ancient dry stone walling, who cares?’ was Hugo’s view. However the tour was guided by an archaeologist active on the dig, dressed in supposed Neolithic costume (cold on the knees). We went through the various building styles, the fad for alterations and loft conversions and so on. Altogether it was surprisingly good value.

On return to the boat at lunchtime the wind and sea appeared to have moderated and after three days in Grutness Voe we felt it was time to move. All started well in F4, on the nose of course, until we were 5 miles south on Sumburgh Head in an area called rather alarmingly ‘The Hole’. Here there were two wave trains, both approx 2m high, one from the south east, direction of the winds from the day before, and one from the south west, last night’s winds. The confused sea was most unpleasant.

Confused sea

Confused sea

We abandoned beating in the fading wind and motored grimly through the heaving morass reaching Fair Isle after 5 hours.

As we did the sun came out and we entered the North Haven, a blissful oasis of flat water, between impressive bird studded cliffs. Derek P had said it was a jewel, and he was right. Inside was the Good Shepherd, ferry to the Island, a large two-masted Norwegian barque called Loyal and four other yachts, Norwegian, Dutch, Australian and British. We tied up alongside the Dutch Vancouver 32 sailed single handed by a charming Dutch lady with whom we exchanged a Shetland pilot for a slab of very good Gouda cheese. The water in Fair Isle is of a clarity which in Blyth is only seen in a Gin bottle. Elizabeth was fascinated to watch eider ducklings swim underwater. Better than a nature film.

North Haven, Fair Isle

North Haven, Fair Isle. Anchored before moving alongside.

The following day dawned cloudless and we walked the length of the island , passing the village shop which had just sold its entire stock of bread and milk to the Norwegian barque. A modern day Viking raid. We made do with UHT and Shetland oatcakes. Samuel Johnson defined Oats as food for animals in England, or for people in Scotland. When in Rome …


Norwegian barque Loyal leaving North Haven, Fair Isle
with most of the islands stock of bread and milk.



We walked to the South Lighthouse past the crofts and the sweet smelling hay fields. The neatly painted light house has a plaque in memory of two lighthouse keepers wives and a child, killed in a bombing raid in the second world war. Presumably it was seen as a forward observation post guarding the seas between Orkney and Shetland.

Malcolm Head

Malcolm Head

J decided to walk up to Malcolm Head while the other three decided to lie in the sun. They should have come. From the top you look down on the transparent ocean and a huge pillar of rock topped with grass and spotted with fulmars and puffins. To the north the west coast cliffs were a dramatic sight.

We returned slowly to the boat for lunch where we moved to lie outside a newly arrived 40 ft French yacht, Tara, pale yellow and of cedar strip construction and with a lifting centreboard in front of the main keel. She was beautifully maintained and full of typically gallic quirkiness and clever ideas for the rig. We completed the Island tour with a trip to the North Lighthouse and returned to have drinks on board with some friends who were staying at the newly opened bird observatory. This also provided good showers (£5 for shower, soap and towel) and a basic evening meal (£10 by advanced booking, served at 1800, when you join all the other guests down long tables. These are mainly twitchers, the engineers from the quay, and the staff and warden). There is a bar open to 2300 and internet access available.

The mist came down that evening and at 0500, our planned leaving time, the new breakwater was barely visible. By 0700 it had improved to ½ mile and we left down the east coast bound for Kirkwall. J &P slipped the moorings without waking the other crew as we were sure they would not approve of the visibility. There was no wind all day until we had reached the Orkney islands through Sanday sound. After the rigours of wind, rock and peat in Shetland, the low fertile Orkney islands dappled in evening sunshine with the smell of the fields wafting out to us looked hugely inviting. We motor sailed in golden sunshine into Kirkwall. We tied up at 1800 in time for an excellent supper at the Kirkwall Hotel. The next day was rain and wind again so we hired a car and drove frantically from Neolithic site to Neolithic site. We were lucky to be on the first public tour of the Ness of Brodgar, a newly discovered find thought possibly to be a Neolithic temple between the Ring of Brodgar and the tomb of Maes Howe. See for details. Hugo said ‘more badly done dry stone walling’. He went down Minehowe with his mum which was entertaining. We found replacement bulbs for the port nav light in a chandlery in Kirkwall : at the top of the town in a housing area, quite a long walk if you don’t have a car and not easy to find.

Forecast for Thursday was good and we left having downloaded, at the hospitable Kirkwall Boat Club, the latest GRIB file to overlay weather onto our charts. This was the first year we have used these regularly and they are very useful, giving us local predictions of wind that seem to be astonishingly accurate for at least 48 hours. Really GB wind map on your chart plotter or PC. As we motor sailed past Deer Sound the engine overheat alarm sounded. Broken fan belt! Happily our chums at Amble had supplied us with a spare! 10 minutes later and we were on our way again. As we turned the corner the wind came up (rather chilly) from the North and we were able to sail.

There were some unsuccessful experiments with the cruising chute until we resorted to a boomed out jib and made good progress to Peterhead. As predicted the wind fell lighter in the early afternoon and we were obliged to motor again. Mid afternoon disaster struck. Jonathan’s hat, woven by Kirkwall’s finest blond haired Viking maidens and made with wool from the sheep flock of Thor himself was whisked from his head by a sharp gust of wind. The hat hovered momentarily in the air and time seemed to stand still, halted by the poignancy of the moment before the hat descended downwind into the sharp jaws of the hungry waves. Hugo was on the helm and with a firm grip he pushed the tiller over and grabbed the throttle. The muscles on his arm rippled in the low lying sun and as he turned his head up wind towards the vagrant hat his golden blond hair danced in the breeze and his cheek bones cut through the chilled air. His strong pure eyes searched the waves and they almost seemed to flatten before his gaze quickly revealing the hat. Before long it was recovered from the ocean. The whole incident was a testament to Hugo’s strength and skill at sea*. Sunset came in a clear sky as we rounded Rattray at 2100 in a calm sea. Hugo, Elizabeth and I watched as the last crescent of the sun dipped below the horizon, and there it was, the GREEN FLASH! I have looked for that all my life and have finally seen it.

Green Flash

North of Rattray just before the green flash

We pushed on overnight with no wind and no further excitements. Across the Firth of the Forth a large coastguard cutter seemed to be on interception course, coming up on AIS as ‘law enforcement vessel’, but having slowed passed quietly behind. The sight of children on mackerel lines must have reassured them that we were not drug smugglers. Finally the wind came up a few miles short of Lindisfarne, though on the nose of course, and we anchored up in company with Avocet, a smart looking Rustler 42 also going south. The sun shone, the seals sang and altogether it was a very satisfactory landfall.


A pod of dolphins welcomes Sheevra home to Blyth


Crew of Sheevra in Kirkwall Woolly Viking hats.

*Editors note. Textual analysis suggests that this passage was inserted at a later period and is of uncertain provenance.