Goddess Freya’s Orkney Cruise 1979

The boat and her crew


The author

Goddess Freya is a Folkboat, 25′ LOA, 7′.2 Beam and 4′ Draft. Long keeled and with the legendary sea-kindliness of her class, she seemed a good boat for the trip, even if the absence of both a self-draining cockpit or a reliable auxiliary motor added to the hazards of longer sea passages. Her accommodation is cramped by modern standards, although it does not present undue discomfort for a crew mentally and physically prepared for camping out in the wet. The auxiliary is a Petter diesel, single cylinder and air cooled driving a small variable pitch propeller. Its installation was completed only weeks before the cruise, and its only sea-trial had been a trip from the moorings around the Bell Buoy in Blyth Bay.  At best the motor would give Goddess Freya a little over four knots, but the noise and clatter below meant that power would not be an acceptable alternative to sail for passage making on this trip.

She is a boat that handles well under sail. Light on the helm and without vices, she has proved herself capable of fast and comfortable passages given good conditions. In addition to the mainsail with roller reefing she carries an overlapping genoa (No. 1), a working jib (No. 2), and a small jib (No. 3). There is also a storm jib and a spinnaker. Unlike the traditional Folkboat she is mast-head rigged. The extra sail area forward of the mast gives her an edge in light airs, and also down wind. But she is essentially a cruising boat. The 1979 season was an active one for her. In May she competed in a race to Granton. In June she raced to Holy Island and later cruised to Boulmer, Newton and Seahouses.


Quentin Mitchell at 6 knots

The decision to cruise in the Orkney Islands was taken quite casually in the bar on board HY Tyne a week before departure. Quentin Mitchell and I had made a tentative arrangement for a summer cruise together, without actually deciding upon a cruising ground. Quentin is much more experienced than me, but paradoxically he was the one to be “under instruction” on this trip, which would count as his Course of Practical Instruction afloat leading to the RYA’s Yachtmaster Certificate. As a very recently qualified Practical Instructor for Yachtmaster Courses, I could sign the piece of paper Quentin required to go forward for the Yachtmaster’s Final Oral Examination.

The decision taken, Quentin laid in stores and I visited John Lilley and Gillie in North Shields for charts (a complete list of charts carried is given in Appendix A) and a Tidal Atlas. The tidal atlas is a must for the Orkneys where Spring rates can exceed 10 knots. As usual Lilley and Gillie were more than helpful, and I discovered they stock the Clyde Cruising Club’s Sailing Directions for the North and North East Coasts of Scotland and for the Orkneys themselves. These proved invaluable. I already had Admiralty Tide Tables and an up-to-date Reid’s Almanac and Quentin was able to supply a well-thumbed copy of Admiralty Sailing Directions and an ancient chart of the Orkneys which came in useful. Both hands reported on board shortly after closing time on Saturday 4th August, and over a last can of beer we made notes of tides and distances for our passage North.

Passage to Peterhead: 5th-6th August

At 0625 the Shipping Forecast promised South Westerlies, Force 4 to 5, locally 6, becoming Southerly. An hour and a half later we were underway in company with a visiting Contessa 28 from the Humber which had spent the night alongside us on the trot. It was overcast and showery, and the wind a light Southerly. At the Sow and Pigs buoy both boats set spinnakers. The wind proved unsettled in direction necessitating several gybes. These are a complicated procedure. Quite apart from handling the spinnaker pole itself, and re-adjusting the uphaul and the downhaul, we found it necessary to set a main boom vang, or preventer, on each gybe and a barber-hauler for the spinnaker sheet, to prevent overmuch wind spilling out of the shoulders of the sail. By noon we were off Coquet Island and the wind filled in to a respectable Southerly Force 3. At this the Contessa, which had been drawing away, handed her spinnaker and Goddess Freya surged past her at six knots. The Contessa was soon lost to view astern. Holy Island was reached at 1630 and as we passed we came within hail of the Pollards on Ladybird motor-sailing into the haven. A favourable wind and fair tide for the North easily stilled such temptation as we felt to spend the night in good company in the Holy Island pubs, and leaving the Plough Reef Beacon to starboard, Quentin shaped a course from Emmanuel Head to the headland just south of Eyemouth which my metric chart calls “Gunsgreen Point”, but which Quentin, a fathoms chart man to the core, insists on calling “Whapness”.

The Point was reached at 2040 and the waters from there to St. Abbs head were littered with small open fishing boats lying to nets across the tide, fishing, so they told us, for cod. We needed a gybe to clear these nets and made an offing to stay clear. A small coaster, which Quentin noticed was called Hetty Mitchell reduced speed to let us pass ahead of her, but she would have done well to heed the reason for our alteration of course, because she too came close to fouling the fishing nets and had to alter course to seaward. Off St. Abbs Head, light was fading and the wind had risen well into Force 4, so we handed the spinnaker, which we had carried all day, and in its place, goose-winged the genoa on the spinnaker pole.

The penalty was the loss of only half a knot, but an increase in directional stability that more than compensated in terms of speed over the ground. Quentin rigged the radar reflector, for although visibility was good and we carry navigation lights, the Firth of Forth is a busy place for shipping and the job is much easier in daylight. A watch-keeping system was established on fairly flexible lines. The man below got two hours to sleep, counting not from when he was relieved but from when he had finished such tasks as writing up the log, plotting a fix, or making a “brew”. It worked well, although it was usually necessary to continue the regime until midday to overcome fatigue. Opinions on watch-keeping systems always seem to differ, but I find three hours on watch alone about my limit at night. Any longer and my eyelids begin to shut involuntarily.

I took the watch from midnight to 0300 The wind had increased to Southerly Force 5. The seas were building up and Goddess Freya careered before them in great surging rushes. Our rhumb line course from St. Abbs Head to Scurdie Ness at Montrose took us well to the East of the Bell Rock, and by the time of my second watch at 0600 the Bell Rock Light House had fallen below the horizon, Scurdie Ness was in view and we altered course up the coast past Stonehaven and Aberdeen. By now the seas were getting larger, and the log was recording 8 or 9 knots at times, as Goddess Freya surfed down wave faces in a flurry of spray while the tiller trembled in the helmsman’s hand. Off Girdle Ness at 0930 we decided enough was enough and handed the genoa, setting the No. 2 and taking two reefs in the main. No doubt we should have done it sooner. The wind was now Force 6 and towards Peterhead the size of the seas increased still further, to about 12’ from trough to crest most of which were breaking. A coaster laboured Southward showing her bulbous bow one minute and half her propellor the next. Occasionally water broke on Goddess Freya‘s deck, but none entered the cockpit. With the tide ebbing and the wind still increasing, and bearing in mind the advice in the RNYC’s Sailing Directions to stay at least five miles off Rattray Head in bad conditions, we decided to put into Peterhead and await an improvement in the weather. The seas were very confused as we entered the Harbour of Refuge, where in calmer waters I started the motor. It ran for three minutes and then stopped. Nothing would induce it to re-start so the entry to the Fish Dock took place under sail with the best part of gale astern – somewhat to the surprise of a trawler’s crew, as they emerged at speed from the blind entrance of the Dock.

Inside we rounded up and moored between two trawlers, only to be instructed by the Habour Master to move into the inner dock. So we sailed again, under the lifting bridge, where we saw a yacht’s mast above the quay. Investigation revealed Swedman with Jim and Marion Bryan. We were so busy exchanging greetings that I misjudged my turn into the quay, resulting in some cosmetic damage to Goddess Freya‘s stemhead fitting. Yachtmaster Instructors do make mistakes.

The passage had taken 29 hours – at a little over 5.7 knots average – splendid sailing for a 25’ boat. We were well pleased, and celebrated with an excellent Scottish High Tea at the Waverley Hotel, followed by pints ashore with Jim and Marion. After a largely undisturbed night, I decided to devote the day to repair of the engine. The trouble seemed to lie in an inadequate fuel supply, but my heavy handed investigation of this tore the tap out of the tank, which then had to be dismantled and taken for repair. This was skilfully executed at Northern Marine Engineers Ltd. on the quayside, and within three hours I had the tank re-installed and the engine running sweetly.

We gained a good impression of Peterhead, even if the oil floating in the inner harbour did foul our warps. The people were friendly. In addition we were invited on board MFV Salamis which was lying ahead of us on the quay. Her wheel-house was crammed with instruments which would show the depth and distance of a shoal of fish, and by means of a chromographic display the size and species as well. Apparently different species give a distinctive echo which the equipment can distinguish. No wonder the North Sea is being fished out and the size of the catches is dropping. We also saw over the engine room which was well-oiled and deafening. Some of the fishermen were well-oiled too, and cans of beer were much in evidence in the galley. In a way it’s re-assuring that despite all the sophisticated modern gadgetry Scottish fishermen still prepare for sea in the traditional manner.

Peterhead to Kirkwall: 7th, 8th, 9th August

Departure from Peterhead took place under newly restored power at 1700 on Tuesday 7th and once again we turned Goddess Freya Northwards, this time in very light airs. The sea off Rattray Head was millpond calm, and we motored into Strathbeg Bay intending to anchor for the night, or at least until there was wind. Just as we were preparing to drop anchor a light WNW breeze sprang up and we beat into it against a foul tide past Kinnaird’s Head and on to Troup Head before turning North once more at day break on Wednesday. Goddess Freya ploughed on steadily on port tack, under working jib and full main in a NW Force 4. The sea sparkled in the sunshine, and land disappeared astern. The only slight panic came when a leeward cap shroud swung loose when the bottle-screw unfastened itself. The bottle-screws had been taped in place, but this obviously wasn’t sufficient and I wired them all as an insurance against them unwinding under their own steam again. By 1400 the wind left us and we spent a hot, sunny afternoon drifting aimlessly. A school of porpoises visited us and played in plunging patterns all around before making off to the SW. I attempted to photograph them but the shutter of my camera jammed, so inspired with the confidence of a few cans of beer, I opened the camera on the chart table to seek out the source of the trouble. Alas, the poor thing was solid with rust and quite past repair having led a largely nautical existence for the past seven years or more. At 1600 a fix was obtained from the Bin of Cullin, the Paps of Caithness and the radio beacon on Kinnaird’s Head. At 2200 a second fix on the Light Houses at Noss Head, Duncansby Head, and the Pentland Skerries, confirmed the EP and shortly later we raised Copinsay Light House, our first sight of the Orkneys. We steered all night, watch and watch about, upon this light, but progress was slow in the light airs prevailing. At day-break it became obvious that we had missed the morning ebb through Shapinsay Sound, so we tacked inshore to find an anchorage and await the afternoon tide.

Goddess Freya ghosted along in light airs, on a beautifully clear and sunny morning. This land of the Vikings lay stretched low and green before us with the higher ground of Mainland Orkney and the mountains of Hoy blue and hazy in the distance across Scapa Flow. In view of the fact that we had time to kill, I decided to embark upon Man Overboard techniques for Quentin’s Practical. Some people think there is an approved RYA method, but this is not the case. Anything will do so long as it is effective, and reasonably safe. When my generation learnt to sail we were taught to gybe in order to bring the boat back head to wind and pick up the man to windward. There is no doubt that the old method is quick – if it works at all. But there are risks involved. A gybe in strong winds and heavy seas may carry something away. It is also disorientating, and could lead to loss of visual contact with the man overboard. For these reasons the reach away/reach back method is preferable. As soon as the man goes overboard a life-belt is thrown to him, and the boat is set on a beam reach on whichever tack she finds herself. A member of the crew is detailed to point to the man overboard. As soon as one is in control of the situation, the boat can be tacked or gybed, depending on conditions, and beam reached back on the other tack to the man-overboard, preferably under main-sail only. She can then be stopped, nearly head to wind, to bring the man into a position alongside the cockpit where he can be made fast and hauled aboard.

I much prefer to collect the man overboard from the lee-side. It is much easier to judge, there is less danger of hitting him, freeboard is likely to be less, and the danger of making leeway and running over him is not likely with a long keeled boat although it may be different with a fin keeler. When he is picked up the boat is virtually head to wind and once he is secured if the mainsail is dropped there isn’t much leeway at all. This system is not as fast as the gybe back, but it is much more deliberate and minimises errors. Moreover, it gives the crew on board time to get organised. They could, for example, stream a floating line with a bowline in the end of it. If they miss the man at the first attempt they can circle round him and pick up the line. He can then be drawn into the side of the boat. We discussed these matters and tried out both gybe-back and reaching methods of recovery, as we slowly closed the land. Of course, in the light airs prevailing and with the Folkboat’s low freeboard, recovering the “man” (in fact a fender with a bucket tied to it) was comparatively easy.

We decided to anchor in East Weddell Sound. It used to lead to two passes into Scapa Flow; Kirk Sound to the North of the small island of Lamb Holm and Holm Sound to the South. Blockships were scuttled in both passes during the First World War, but they did not prevent the German submarine U-47 under the command of Guenther Priem making one of the most daring raids of the Second World War. On a moonless night in October 1940, U-47, on the surface, crept past the blockships in Kirk Sound at the top of a spring tide, and let go four torpedoes at HMS Royal Oak, lying at anchor in the Flow. Royal Oak sank in less than 15 minutes and 884 lives were lost. The wreck is now a War Grave. U-47 escaped the way she had come.

As a result the Sounds were permanently blocked by concrete barriers – the so-called Churchill Barriers. Lamb Holm has another claim to fame. Italian PoWs interred there during the second world war built a highly decorated Chapel from a couple of Nissan huts so they would have a place of worship. The PoWs also worked on building the barriers. Whilst one may regret the necessity for the barriers, they have provided yachtsmen with anchorages sheltered in all weathers and the little bay in Holm Sound where Goddess Freya briefly stayed can be recommended unreservedly.

At midday we weighed anchor and proceeded towards Copinsay Pass which leads to Shapinsay Sound and Kirkwall. Before we had sailed a mile the wind failed. Once again the engine refused to start, the problem being traced to a blockage in the fuel line. Nevertheless the tide carried Goddess Freya at three knots through the Pass and when the wind returned as a NW Force 3 we made excellent progress under full sail. The passage turned into a beat through the String but we made light work of it with a lee-bowing tide of over four knots. As Kirkwall Bay opened up we caught first sight of our immediate destination; this far northern city, roofs and windows caught by the setting sun, and dominated by the bold outline of St. Magnus’ Cathedral.

We made the harbour under a scrap of mainsail, but still had very little room in which to round up alongside Errant, a biggish ketch, based in the Shetlands. It was 1930 on Thursday 9th August and the passage from Peterhead had taken 50 hours, an average sailing speed of less than three knots. The Orkney Sailing Club lies on the harbour front, and its members, in particular Bruce Gorrie, made their visitors welcome, after we had restored a degree of cleanliness in the Club Showers. The Club sails dinghies, including a class of Albacores, a boat I used to sail, with large fleets competing during the long evenings of the summer months.

We were the fifty-third yacht to visit Kirkwall that summer, but many of those had come in from Shetland just the week before for a regatta. The following day found me once again tackling the engine problem. A Calor Gas warehouse produced a suitable brass tap, and I filed a short piece of copper tubing to fit within it in order to draw fuel from a point above the bottom of the tank. A washer was fashioned from PVC tubing and the whole reassembled. All the while there was a constant flow of advice and assistance from a succession of visitors, including the Piermaster, a Customs man and a fellow Folkboat fanatic, who just happened to be passing.


St Magnus Cathedral

Persistence was rewarded by an equally constant flow of fuel, and the engine spluttered into life. Having given “one hand for the boat”, we felt justified in taking a sight-seeing trip ashore. St. Magnus’ Cathedral is built of red sand-stone and resembles Durham Cathedral. It was begun in 1137 and many of the stone masons who worked upon it had previously worked at Durham. Like Durham it houses the bones of a Saint. Magnus Erlendson was murdered by the followers of his cousin Hakon Paulson to bring about the end of their joint tenure of the Earldom of Orkney. The two Earls fell out and a meeting of reconciliation was arranged between them on the Island of Egilsay. Hakon broke his word and came to the meeting with an armed force of his retainers who slew Magnus with “the great stroke of an axe”, as the saga puts it.

Largely through the manner of his dying – he was struck down as he knelt in prayer – Magnus became a martyr, and Hakon built the Cathedral that carries his name. On our return to the harbour we found that a merchant­man of perhaps 2,000 tons, the Hoxa Sound was lying alongside the quay and we had a scramble across her decks to regain Goddess Freya. In doing so we crossed the foredeck of Maguerite alongside whom we were now lying and were immediately invited on board for a wee dram by her owner, David Richards. The log-book records that after this we had a meal at the Ayre Hotel, and attended a folknight at the Royal Hotel, as well as visiting the Orkney Sailing Club for a few pints, but I must confess my memory of these events became progressively less reliable as the night’s drinking wore on.

hoxa sound

Alongside in Kirkwall Harbour

We had decided to sail next morning, Saturday 11th August. The tide served at 0430 , but we did not surface until 1000 , so we had a further opportunity to walk around Kirkwall and visit any bars which we had happened to miss while we waited for the tide to become favourable again. I purchased a new camera to replace the one I had condemned in the Moray Firth and having taken a number of snap-shots we finally got away on the afternoon tide.

Kirkwall to Westray: 11th August

Quentin planned this passage as part of his practical. He had two possible destinations – Wyre and Egilsay, with Westray in reserve. We made such good progress on a broad reach up Kirkwall Bay and into Wide Firth with a SE Force 2 and the tide under us, that we soon put the nearer of our possible destinations out of mind and went for Westray. As we passed Vasa Point we felt the full force of the tide, which twisted and turned the boat in its eddies, making it very difficult to steer close-hauled after the wind backed Easterly. That problem soon disappeared however as the wind died to nothing and we started the engine to motor across the tide as the shore of Eday, then Faray and its off-lying island of Ruskholm flashed past our bow. Fortunately, the wind picked up and we managed to dodge the main NW tidal stream by heading through Weather Ness Sound, and shooting through the Pass as though on an escalator.


Through Weather Ness Sound

Two hours later we made fast alongside the steamer pier at Pierowall on Westray, but not before we had given ourselves a fright off Skelwick Skerry, where bottom tangle appeared even though we were 7 cables off. A bearing of 280°T on Gill Point Light clears the Skerry – at night the light is sectored. Quentin brought Goddess Freya alongside the pier under sail, and the log-book records (in his own hand writing) that it was “skilfully done”. The pier-master came on board and gave his opinion that we had sufficient water where we lay, a fact which Quentin confirmed from Admiralty Tide Tables.

We were just thinking of a tinned spaghetti bolognaise for supper when the crew of MFV Guide Me donated two fresh mackerel. They were delicious fried in butter. Later we went ashore to the Pierowall Hotel. The locals were hospitable and I noticed their manner of talking was much more distinctive than we had heard in the bars of Kirkwall. George MacKay Brown, the Orkney poet and novelist describes it as a “grave, mild, wundering speech” whereas to me it is reminiscent of Scandinavia and betrays the islanders’ Viking ancestry. Two young lads gave us a lift back to Goddess Freya in their car. We invited them on board and over a night-cap we discussed the island life with them. They expressed some satisfaction with their prospects. True there was little work apart from fishing and fish canning. But there was social security which paid for drink and petrol for their untaxed and uninsured car.

After they had gone I checked the depth, and persuaded myself that Quentin’s calculations were correct and we would only ground right at the bottom of the tide. The next thing I remember is falling out of my bunk onto the cabin sole. Goddess Freya was hard aground, two hours before low water! Already heeled past the point of no return, all we could do was pump the bilge dry, wedge the battery so that the acid could not spill, and retire once more to our sleeping bags. In the cold light of dawn I re-worked our tidal calculations. The figures were correct but somewhere a decimal point had slipped and instead of 3.4 feet at low water, there would be only 0.34 feet – about four inches!

Luckily only our pride was damaged. When the tide returned, Goddess Freya lifted gently, her side-decking barely half-covered. She very soon returned to an angle at which the swing of her gimballed stove permitted us to make a brew, and by mid-morning we were entertaining guests again. Dr. David Judson is Westray’s only medical practitioner, but as he explained he has many other functions – vet and inspector of carcases at the local abattoir. We talked of island life, of the five island “religions”, one of which turned out to be the pub, and of the proposals for uranium mining in the Orkneys. Before he left he asked if we would like to visit him and his family that evening. I promptly accepted, on the by now essential condition that we were permitted the run of his bathroom before we entered his parlour. Medical men are usually more sympathetic to the human frame in a state of cleanliness, and my condition was readily accepted.


Rackwick Bay

We spent the day wondering around Westray in the wind and rain. We visited Noltland Castle, a grim red-granite fortress overlooking Pierowall Bay, and described in the guide book as having been built for Mary Queen of Scots. From the battlements we could see Westray’s Atlantic seabord, and we walked over to Rackwick Bay to watch the large swell crashing on beaches of white sand. A very large number of low dry-stone walls ran down to the beach. We learnt later that these were used for drying seaweed, washed ashore. The dried seaweed was used as bedding for cattle, as fuel and even as a roofing material before the advent of corrugated iron.

The other noticeable feature of these beaches was the large number of wrecks of vintage cars. Cars are only ever imported into Westray. They quickly rot in the salt-laden atmosphere when eventually they are dumped at one or other end of the island’s five miles of road. It is obvious that the population of these outlying islands is declining. More than half the farmsteads are abandoned, and even in centres of population there are usually the remains of houses demolished by wind and weather, after the owners had moved on. There seemed to be more gravestones in the church yards than living inhabitants but we may have gained the wrong impression by visiting only one of the islanders’ five places of worship.

Westray – Sanday – Stronsay: 13th August

While lying alongside MFV Guide Me (6 feet at LW) we made plans for our next passage. From Westray one can either head westabout and visit Stromness, returning via Scapa Flow and the Pentland Firth. Alternatively one can explore the Eastern islands. We laid plans for both contingencies including some tentatively passage planning for Fair Isle, should the wind prove favourable. Fair Isle has two anchorages: North Haven and South Haven. The Clyde Cruising Club sailing directions recommend the North Haven on account of the better holding ground. As fate would have it Monday 13th August was misty with light SE winds and we decided not to visit Fair Isle. Had we done so Fair Isle’s North Haven would undoubtedly have been Goddess Freya‘s last anchorage, and maybe ours too. We motored through the mist back past Skelwick Skerries and then sailed until we sighted Red Head, an enormous cliff on the North end of Eday. The mist closed in on us again as we turned on dead reckoning for a tide assisted passage through Calf Sound, (the spring rate is 6 knots).

calf sound

Entering Calf Sound

The Calf of Eday appeared out of the mist to port, and then glimpses of the island of Eday itself. Through the narrows past Carrick House the pace of the tide quickened and we shot through this seal filled sound and out into the slower waters of Eday Sound itself. The log-book records:-

v. poor vis. minor overfalls thro’ Spur Ness. rain .

In fact, we heard the overfalls before we saw them, and when we did see the white water ahead, there was a mad dash for the chart, to make doubly sure that there was enough water for us. Once that anxiety was removed, I grabbed my camera, but we were through the worst of it so quickly that I didn’t have time to take a photograph. On that account we called the overfalls “minor”.

The tide punched us out into Sanday Sound. We had no direct information as to its rate, the sailing directions merely state it is “slight”. I laid off a course for Kettletoft Bay making no allowance for tide, and when we sighted land, it was not the land we expected it to be. There was a radio mast on a headland, but our chart was last corrected in 1910 (one of Quentin’s collection) and didn’t show it. So we had to make an assumption and then test it. The assumption we made was that the tide had pushed us to the East of our track. We turned West and followed the coast, visibility having improved to half a mile, but soon discovered that our heading made it impossible that we were to the East of our destination.

So we turned East and very soon in improving visibility picked out the pier in Kettletoft Bay. The rain was now very heavy and when we got ashore it seemed an inviting prospect to “dry out” in the local hotel. Sanday is fairly heavily populated for an Orkney island. Apart from fishing and agriculture (there is a special breed of island sheep that lives exclusively on seaweed), there is an electronics plant and an anarchist printing press. Our visit was a short one and after a liquid lunch and an inspection of second-hand books for sale in the Post Office we departed for Stronsay.

The rain had stopped and the wind was now fresh North Westerly. Visibility was good -we could actually see our destination on the other side on the Sound which made a change from groping about in the murk. As we approached Stronsay we picked up the first buoy of the channel into Whitehall Bay (it marks a reef called Quiabow). I turned on the radio and we heard the end of a gale warning for our sea-area, Fair Isle. I made a note in the log-book and we turned our attention to the tricky business of coming alongside the Pier under sail.


Alongside Whitehall pier, Stronsay

Quentin actually volunteered for this one. We rounded up and dropped all sail and as Goddess Freya paid off Quentin put her close enough to the Quay for me, by a bold leap ashore, to be able to check her way with a sternline. Once stopped we turned her round head to wind, so that we could prepare supper without the cooker blowing out. We started making plans for the next passage. If we were to visit Stromness this would be our last chance. The tide served from 0400 BST and our intended route lay to the South of Eday then through Westray Firth into the Atlantic, then south to Stromness.

It would certainly be a long passage and we did not expect to be in to Stromness before 2200 BST, so we planned for an early night. The best laid plans … gang aft a’gley for we found ourselves fraternising with the French crew of an Arpege called Adzurki lying stern seawards on the pier wall astern of us. They had come from La Rochelle, had been to Bergen and were planning to visit St. Kilda on the way home via the West of Ireland.

We tried to explain to them the joys of cruising, but they all claimed to prefer spending their holidays at sea making long passages. We turned in at 2300 hrs and I set the alarm for the 0015 shipping forecast. Needless to say we slept through it. At 0400 I wakened naturally. It was still dark and when I emerged on deck it was windy: ENE 5. This might make for a fast passage but on the other hand we hadn’t heard the full shipping forecast since 0625 the previous day; except for a gale warning between programmes.

I turned in again and re-set the alarm for 0615 We both woke up and I switched the radio on again for the forecast. I never heard a word of it, but next time I woke it was for the eight o’clock news where reports were coming in of trouble for the competitors in the Fastnet Race. We were now experiencing a full NE gale. I pencilled in an amendment to my copy of the CCC Sailing Directions which say, “Gales do not normally blow during these months but if they do they may be expected from any direction except E or NE” The log-book records:

Put out more warps and springs. Adzurki having an uncomfortable time stern to the waves. We are snug but cannot get ashore easily as we cannot pull up to our ladder. We think of the Fastnet competitors. The Met. Office forecast storm Force 10 SW for them.

The crew of Adzurki took our lines for us. The most essential was a spring with which we held Goddess Freya sufficiently off the pier wall so that the waves breaking onto the end of the pier tended to push her off rather than on. We did what we could to prevent chafe. In fact although lying on the windward side of the pier the scend from Papa Stronsay was less than a mile and the waves not more than 3-4 feet high. Even so Goddess Freya‘s bow pitched under once or twice, and the kettle wouldn’t stay on the cooker.

What price Fair Isle North Haven, open to the North East? As the morning wore on the wind dropped until we had a warm, still and incredibly clear day – the centre of the depression was then just south of Aberdeen. The crews of the other yachts in the harbour came aboard for coffee and wee drams, and to swop experiences of gales past and present.

The most incredible escape recounted was that of Charles Butterworth whose 2½ ton Hillyard was pitchpoled in a Southerly gale west of the Orkneys. They lost their mast. A tin of metallic pink primer burst and covered the cabin and crew, who added to the chaos by half asphyxiating himself by letting off a smoke flare in the cabin. They were rescued by a Norwegian freighter which plucked them off the yacht over her stern and delivered two metallic pink bodies to the Fishermen’s Mission in Liverpool.


Whitehall, Stronsay

On the one o’clock news there was a lot of information about the Fastnet boats. Challenge wasn’t mentioned and we didn’t know the name of the boat Jimmy Swanston was sailing. We heard of the rescue of Griffin‘s crew. Griffin was alongside at the National Sailing Centre at Cowes when I had been there and she looked extremely tough and well-fitted out. How could she have foundered? At the Stronsay Hotel we saw television pictures of the Fastnet boats.

In course of conversation with the locals Quentin discovered that there were the remains of a Pictish Brogh on Lamb Head and we decided to pay it a visit. It was a longish walk but we were given a lift by car most of the way there. The brogh was a series of circular stone chambers built for purposes of defence. Some of the roofs had collapsed leaving depressions in the ground, but it was possible to gain access to other chambers. Quentin, as befits a potholer, led the way and we both crawled through the interlinked passages. The lintels for the chambers are very low, and must have been easily defensible. However, counter-attack by the defenders must have been equally impossible and my guess is that this brogh would probably have been a hiding place for women and children, rather like the keep of a Norman castle, while the defenders fought behind earthworks and the like.

MapWhile we sat in the sun drying the mud off our oilskins, Charles Butterworth with his wife Daphne and their young son appeared, and we persuaded them to go underground. Then we set off once again to walk back to Whitehall Village. Amazingly enough a very battered old car was driven over the field towards us and out stepped two islanders who had been drinking at the hotel at lunch-time (and ever since) and had overheard our conversation.

They obviously thought we were keen on broghs and took us to see an unexcavated one on a farm called The Crook. We understood the elder of the two, Wully, to say he was on board the MFV Salamis in Peterhead. The younger man, Marty, was quite incomprehensible, due more to the quantities of lager he had consumed, than the difficulties of following the island speech. On the way back the car started misfiring and Wully pulled into the island’s garage. Whether the car received any attention was hard to tell, for everyone, garage hands, proprietor and Wully and Marty were soon engaged in a shooting match with a .22 air-rifle. The targets were 10p coins balanced on the garage door as well as the more pointy bits of the generously proportioned anatomy of pinups torn from Playboy magazine. Good shots were rewarded by a cheer of appreciation and a tot of whisky. The sport continued for an hour or more.

We were hoping for a meal before the hotel re-opened, yet we were anxious not to offend our self-appointed hosts. At length we suggested we ought to be getting back, seemingly without any response, until suddenly we were back on the road again. About 1900 the wind blew up from the North West. Very soon it was Force 9 or above. Goddess Freya was now in the lee of the pier and apart from rolling in the squalls, quite comfortable. The only problem was quantities of gravel being blown off the pier on to the decks and coach roof. As the tide dropped the rolling became less severe and we turned in after another good night in the hotel.

Stronsay to Wick and Lybster: 15th-16th August

By the morning of Wednesday 15th August the forecast coincided with the actual conditions, Westerly 3. Not too good for a passage West to Stromness, but ideal for heading South. So we let wind and weather make the decision for us and departed at 0720, skirting Papa Stronsay and passing close under the spectacular cliffs of Lamb Head and the remains of the Pictish Brogh. By 1030 Copinsay, our landfall in the Orkneys, was abeam, but shortly afterwards the wind headed us and as the afternoon wore on we were pounding heavily into a head sea. We shortened sail to reduce strain on boat and gear, and in the process I got a wetting on the fore-deck. We passed Duncansby Head at 1900 but did not reach Noss Head until 2130.

Hopes of reaching Wick before closing time began to recede, and as darkness fell we still had eight miles to go against a foul tide. Quentin and I got completely at cross purposes over the entrance to Wick. The Sailing Directions describe leading lights but these were discontinued in April 1979 and replaced with a Flashing White, red, green, 3 secs, sectored light, as shown on Chart 1462. I didn’t realise there was any discrepancy, but Quentin, having looked up the Sailing Directions but not the Chart, obviously thought I was trying to trick him into using the wrong light. Wick Bay was very dark and we were relieved when we saw the South Pier outlined against the street lights.

The wind funnelled through the piers first one way and then another so it proved impossible to tack through as I intended. We touched bottom as I turned for a second attempt and were fortunate that a group of chip-eating locals took a line and hauled us into the dock at great speed. So we entered Wick and made fast at 0015 both very much fatigued. We were awoken at 0800 by the harbourmaster in company with David Richard, the owner of Marguerite whom we had last seen in Kirkwall. It seemed he had some business to attend to in Wick. We offered him coffee, but we weren’t really in a fit state to receive visitors, as the remains of the previous night’s hastily taken meal testified, and he declined.

We explored Wick in the morning and bought a newspaper which reported that Challenge had survived the Fastnet gale. I obtained a gallon of diesel fuel from the fishermen’s store, and at 1500 we left Wick under power bound for Lybster. The log-book records:


Entering Lybster Harbour

Lumpy sea with vicious holes to fall in.

but after three hours we had the Light House on the pier end at Lybster in view and ran in under headsail through a very narrow entrance, rounded up and warped into a berth in the inner harbour. What a delightful place! A steep sided ravine runs down to a small but perfectly protected harbour, with a basin in the inner harbour where we were able to lie afloat. The Bay View Hotel at the top of the cliff offered excellent cheap food, warmth and somewhere to sit out of the rain. A warm front was passing and we had rain almost continuously while we were there. This delayed any decision to depart because there was very little wind and we had no great desire to drift at sea in the rain.

Lybster to Montrose: 17th-19th August

Lybster Harbour

Lybster Harbour

Around 1300 on Friday 17th August, the weather began to clear and we put to sea at 1430.  Our rhumb line course took us close to the Beatrice Oil Field, but we saw nothing in poor visibility. It was very cold, and although we were making reasonable progress in a lumpy sea, I decided to warm things up by simulating myself falling over board, in order truly to test Quentin’s capacity for quick and resourceful action. Although he was in the cabin when I uttered a strangled cry, he picked up at the first attempt the fender I had dropped, and cursed me roundly for making the exercise too life-like.

All through the night we steered 140°C on the port tack, and by dawn had Rattray Head abeam – almost back in home waters! Visibility closed in still further as we passed Peterhead and we lost all sight of the land. I shaped a course for the Aberdeen Fairway Buoy which we found in visibility of less than 70 yards. But we decided it was too risky to make for the harbour because of the constant movement of oil rig support vessels, often at great speed. We plugged on South in what was now thick fog.

At 1800 we decided to make for Stonehaven and eased our way inshore under power. The shore appeared but we couldn’t identify anything. We followed the cliffs south, but then looming out of the fog was a cliff across our path. I swung the helm down but to seaward our passage was barred by fishing nets on poles, which in our anxiety to keep the cliff in view I had not seen. I went astern, but the engine stalled. In such circumstances one deploys an anchor which one has ready on the foredeck. We had and we did. I restarted the engine and we headed back out to sea.

There was really no chance of a safe land-fall in such conditions. So we spent our second night at sea since leaving Lybster hove-to in fog somewhere south east of Tod Head. We were wearing life-jackets and had flares to hand in the cockpit. I spent my first off-watch re-lashing the mainsail slides. The lashings, particularly along the boom were chafing through with the continual slatting. Just before midnight Quentin woke me because he could hear engines. As a precaution I took a white flare out of its plastic cover. The engine noise was very difficult to trace but after a minute or two it drew ahead and vanished into the murk.

At dawn the visibility had improved to 100 yards. I drew some lines on the chart, made some guesses and announced that a course of 240°C would take us into Montrose. We held that course for two and a half hours, I was watching the echo sounder which showed the bottom was slowly shoaling as expected. Periodically I asked Quentin if he could see anything: the answer always being, “No”.  I began to feel lost. Then I realised Quentin was steering 250°C. After some round oaths from me he apologised but pointed out that he had been steering on a Light House – Scurdie Ness – for the past twenty minutes without telling me! Forty minutes later we were tied up alongside Foxglove in the Wet Dock at Montrose.

Having spent the last two nights in oilskins we both felt a pressing need for hygiene ashore. This was achieved by slipping 50p into the top pocket of a waitress at the Corner Hotel, who found us a shower-room, where one after the other we were transformed from men of the sea, to human beings fit for polite society. Lunch-time was spent in the Corner Hotel, the afternoon asleep on board Goddess Freya, evening, back at the Corner Hotel until midnight when we left by a back door and locked out of Montrose to head South once more.

Montrose to St. Andrews: 20th August

Alongside at St Andrews

Alongside at St Andrews

The shipping forecast at 0625 warned of SW gales later so we decided not to cross the Forth immediately but rather put into St. Andrews where we arrived at 1300 The wind, which up to then had been a light southerly, gave some vicious blasts as we closed the pier-end, and Quentin, on the fore-deck had a struggle with the genoa. We creamed into the harbour under main only and stopped alongside a fishing boat as if we had performed that manoeuvre a dozen times before. At the Harbour Master’s direction we lay in the Inner Basin alongside the wall.

The RNYC’s Sailing Directions are rather dismissive of St. Andrews but we were impressed by the charm and safety of the harbour and the ancient university town itself. The only thing lacking is a launderette. We spent a day and a half at St. Andrews while the gale established itself and then blew out. On the evening of the first day we went to the Byre Theatre. Quentin visited Crail and Anstruther by bus while I did some reading in the University Library. On the evening of the second day we met up with the crew of a Trapper 700, also gale bound and went with them to see the latest James Bond film. Afterwards we had fish suppers while they negotiated a tow out by Goddess Freya, a reversal of roles if ever there was one.

Homeward Bound

The pier at St Andrews

The pier at St Andrews

By 0030 on the 22nd August there was sufficient water for us to leave and, with the Trapper in tow, we departed St. Andrews. The wind was SW 4 to 5 and after blowing out the genoa off May Island, we had a storming passage back to Blyth – 97 Nautical Miles at 5.6 knots. When we reached Blyth Piers the patent log recorded 698.5 Miles for the trip so we diverted into Blyth Bay and added the 1.5 miles needed for 700 up in further man-overboard practice. To be accurate the cruise did not end just then because after some much needed washing of clothes and sail repairs the same crew headed North again for August Bank Holiday Weekend at Holy Island.

Quentin passed his Practical, and subsequently he qualified as a Yachtmaster. In eighteen days we had spent seven nights at sea, eight if our late arrival into Wick is included. I think we proved the cruising potential of the Folkboat, if it required any further proof, although our passages in the tide-torn Orkneys would have been less nerve wracking if we had had a more reliable and powerful motor.

It also demonstrated the value of properly corrected Admiralty charts and harbour plans. On at least two occasions, at Pierowall and at Wick, we found that the characteristics of harbour entrance lights had been altered only months before our visit, yet the staff at Lilley & Gillie had provided us with accurate and up-to-date information. We should have liked to visit more places. We lost a day for each of the three gales, and some time for calms. But one of the pleasures of cruising is letting wind and weather make decisions for you.

Appendix A List of Charts

2182b North Sea – Central Sheet
2182c North Sea – Northern Sheet
156 Farne Islands to River Tyne
1407 Berwick to Aberdeen
115 Moray Firth
190 Montrose to Fife Ness
210 Newburgh to Montrose
213 Fraserburgh to Newburgh
2179 Orkney Islands – Southern Sheet
2180 Orkney Islands – Northern Sheet
2584 Approaches to Kirkwall
2622 Plans in the Orkney and Shetland Islands
1462 Harbours on the North & East Coasts of Scotland

One Response

  1. Doug says:

    Good reading.
    Thank you.