Log of Summer Cruise in Stella Peacock 1983

Log of Summer Cruise in Stella Peacock 1983

The plan of cruising the Orkneys and Shetland in Peacock had germinated the previous autumn, had taken root by Christmas and had blossomed during the spring. Charts were borrowed and bought, sailing directions, guide books, maps and almanacs obtained, crews and transport scheduled and the boat prepared, stowed, fuelled and watered, ready for the off, with myself, Susan, Katie (6) and Peter (3) on board.

Kate Peter

Kate and Peter

It was intended to take about 5 or 6 days to Kirkwall, then cruise the Orkneys for another week or so ending up in Lerwick where the family would depart, and a new crew arrive, then round the Shetlands and home; a total of about four weeks. An optimistic ambition, no doubt, but all cruising plans covering any distance have to have a fair measure of both optimism and ambition if they are to success. Although one builds in several enforced ‘rest’ days, you really, at heart, expect the wind to be perpetually kind the sea smooth, the tide to serve, and the sun to shine.

Blyth to Kirkwall

We arrived on board, with the family in the early evening of Saturday 27th July, hopefully settling the children down in a gentle familiar routine, then off after dawn with a fair tide north. The thick fog which had persisted all day made this increasingly unlikely as the forecast promised more of the same, so with Sunday cancelled we settled down to await the right weather. Strong northerlies followed on Monday, blowing a full gale with very heavy rain on Monday evening through into the night and still howling on the Tuesday morning. Entertaining the children was hard work; playing on a cold wet beach, cold wet parks and shopping in Blyth in torrential rain. On top of this, despite constant attention the foredeck leaked through into the children’s ‘fun’ bunk.

By Tuesday morning we sought a change, and still having the car, took the children’s wet sleeping bags ashore to be dried, and went to Newcastle for the afternoon. It was splendid visiting the Keep, except, by this time, contrary to the forecast, the sky was blue, the sun beamed down and the wind tailed right off.

Returning to Blyth in the early evening it was idyllic. We left the piers under power at first light at 0400 on the Wednesday. There was a large northerly swell and no wind, which was unfortunate as the engine, after threatening several times gave up for good about 1 mile south of Newbiggin. The fault was electrical, and I attended to the problem only to find that hanging upside down in the bilge was a little upsetting so I joined Susan in a dose of seasickness, heartily endorsed by both children when they awoke. Efforts at sailing were thwarted by the almost total absence of steerage way and a northerly running tide for another 6 hours, as we tried to return to Blyth.

Miraculously I was able to restart the engine off the Sow and Pigs to allow Peacock to re-enter (with a fair tide) Blyth Piers at 1230. Not the most auspicious start to a cruise; was this a punishment for my hubris?

A hectic afternoon, a new coil fitted, all the time lying alongside the catwalk with the mainsail still set, and a second attempt, leaving the piers just after 1600, again in a flat calm, under power, and with the promise of a full ebb. The swell had reduced to more kindly proportions and in a fine evening Coquet Island was passed in 3½ hours, and Seahouses as it got dark at 2200.

I was alone on deck by this time, Susan getting some sleep before relieving me on the night watch, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself up through the Inner Farne Sound, sitting in the hatchway and tweaking the autohelm occasionally as Peacock moved from sector to sector of the lights. Quite a dark night, but the Plough Buoy appeared close by at 2333.

Three quarters of an hour after this the wind filled in from the WNW and as it promised to freshen I changed down to the No.1 jib and eventually had to wake Sue to help reef, finally turning in at 0200. I suddenly found myself very tired; it had been a long day. I awoke two hours later with the boat really banging around, and looking out saw that it was first light and we were about 10 miles NE of St. Abbs Head, with a large ship inspecting us far too closely!

A second reef was set and a change down to the No. 2 jib. Sue went off watch as the morning got steadily lighter and more miserable as the wind freshened and steady rain set in. Down to storm jib soon and with a Force 6 pushing us well over, and a big fetch out of the Forth, it was far from Peacock’s ideal conditions, and the children in the focs’l were being bounced around and constantly dripped on.

When Sue came on again at 0800, the wind was slightly eased, the rain had stopped, the temperature had shot up about 500 degrees, and things looked a lot brighter, with the hills north of the Tay visible. Surprisingly the children had survived, although Peter was soon, but briefly, sick again!

Stella Peacock

Stella Peacock alongside Moshulu at Stonehaven

I went down for a nap at 12 only to wake to the VHF Forecast from Stonehaven Radio promising southerly gales soon. The 1355 Shipping Forecast confirmed this and as the wind was now very light we fired up the engine and closed the coast at Gourdon, then rock-hopped passed Todhead and fine coastal scenery, investigated Catterline, and entered Stonehaven at 1820 to lie alongside Moshulu in the outer harbour. They had cruised through the Caledonian Canal and around Cape Wrath, visited the Orkneys and now were making south. John Hankinson and Gilbert Powell entertained us to a gin on board, during which I had trouble propping my eyelids up, so we had an early night.

The weather, as anticipated was hard from the south the next day, but sunny and pleasant with shopping and a visit to the bank in the morning (so soon?), following which Sue took the children up to the play area at the far end of the beach while I fuelled and watered the boat. Stonehaven is a pleasant harbour with a small fishing fleet and the Robert Gordon Institute of Technology Sea Safety Base which is most helpful. The main part of the town is half a mile away and has a good range of shops.

The following morning, the forecasts were slightly more promising, so we cleared the harbour at 1215 with a south westerly 5/6, really sending us along. We had visions of a fast passage up to Fraserburgh (50 m) and then perhaps straight across to Wick or Orkney. Within 2 hours however, and well short of Girdle Ness we had started the engine as the wind had tailed off and actually backed into the North East, very light. Very ominous black thunder­clouds closed from the east, and we were actually able to sail again being battered by hailstones although surprisingly the wind never rose above a Force 2/3 (SE). Huge rainbows and spectacular Cumulonimbus clouds were displayed as the storm departed back out to sea. Off Cruden Bay we were startled to see large fish jumping clear out of the water, straight up, like salmon, except it became obvious that they were well over a mile away. Do you see salmon this far off? It became apparent as we closed that they were porpoises, 5 or 6 of them and they played around us for a long while.

Shortly after at 1915 the lightening wind ensured the engine again and with a fair tide we watched the sun go down off Buchan Ness and passed Rattray Head at 2200 as the tide began to turn again against us, setting a course for Wick (332° (M)). By mid-night Kinnaird Head was abeam, 3 miles distant and a freshening westerly allowed us to start sailing. The shipping forecast and the coastal waters forecast gave conflicting reports, and the more ominous of them was threatening NW 6/7. We ploughed on for another hour or so but with the wind freshening and veering, and Wick still 45 miles away, I woke Sue and we decided to go back to Fraserburgh. Running back there we were put about to avoid a ship coming east out of the Moray Firth. They certainly never saw us. There was a surprisingly strong easterly set of tide here as well which carried us well down towards Cairnbulg when entering Fraserburgh Bay.

We entered the harbour at 0330. When I reported to the Harbour Watchman in his hut, he was unaware of our entry and suggested that we should have used our VHF to call him. The entrance to the docks are narrow and as it is a busy fishing port, boats can be entering and leaving at all hours. The harbour staff at Fraserburgh are most helpful and the eastern part of the South Harbour where yachts secure is comfortable although we had to turn the boat around to prevent a strong, cold, north westerly which blew up during the following day, from blowing down the hatch. The town of Fraserburgh is close by the harbour, but a three day stay is perhaps taxing its attractions. Although there is a fine beach east of the town with amusements and even a miniature railway, the biting northerly gale and roaring surf, detracted from its amenity. Likewise there is a limit to the number of varied walks around the harbour area and up to Kinnaird Head in the battering wind, and frequent icy showers. Other yachts too were stuck, mainly foreign: Dutch, German, Norwegian and Swedish. One British yacht, a retiral from the Round Britain Race arrived from Inverness with a very sick and sorry looking crew. They were ashore and up to the pub before they had even secured properly!

How glad we were not to have persevered across the Moray Firth. We may just have got away with it, …. but? English morning papers, by the way, arrive at about 1100; half an hour later than Stonehaven. By the Tuesday afternoon the situation, and the forecasts looked more hopeful, and at midnight lightish southeasters were promised.

On Wednesday, motoring out, we cleared the piers and streamed the log at 0743. After half an hour a light SSEasterly was fresh enough to sail, and very soon we were running, with boomed out genoa at over 5 knots. A very large swell was left, over which Peacock swooped with the course set for Copinsay some 70M away. We had a fine run, clocking over 6 knots, for several hours, and for two hours on end, 6.8 knots! The sky was blue and the progress exhilarating. We had our first sighting of the Great Skuas, these spectacular powerful predators which dominate the bird life in the Northern Isles.

The Buchan shore finally dropped out of sight by 1200 when we were some 24miles off, the Binn of Cullen being about the last hill to disappear. I estimated that we had about two hours at the most before we should pick up the Paps of Caithness and the other hills on that side, but this we singularly failed to do. By 1700 hours with the wind slowly beginning to go lighter I actually altered course slightly to the west to counteract any tendency to have sailed eastwards of our course as we gybed down-wind, but still no land. Just before 2000 with the wind very light I took an RDF fix on Swilkie Pt. Stroma and North Ronaldsay, which put us approximately 5 miles due east of the Pentland Skerries, only 1 mile from our EP. The wind was steadily veering into the south west and within 5 minutes of the fix, clearly 5 miles away the unmistakable twin towers of the Skerries came into view. Amazing! Great humps of Orkney Islands followed, then Dunscanby Head as the haze/mist, the presence of which we had not appreciated, blew away. It must have been quite coastal as we had enjoyed long views of fishing boats and shipping all the way over. We fired up the engine and headed for Copinsay, 12M away, which soon came into view.

It had been a long day, Susan had read dozens (she claimed hundreds) of stories to the children, who while below would express a preference for being in the cockpit, so on with clothing and harnesses, but once they were there the preference naturally changed for being below etc., etc.

The children were put to bed and we had to do some planning. The problem was that we were really a tide sooner than anticipated. The final ten miles into the Bay of Kirkwall through Shapinsay Sound and the String has strong tides, up to 4knots at Springs, and I calculated that we had a fair tide until about 2230, then foul until nearly 1500. Our ETA at Copinsay, where the tides begin to matter was 2230!

Not daunted by such minor considerations we decided to give it a try so with a very light westerly we motored on, past Copinsay, the Horse of Copinsay, then Mull Head and still little sign of tide, until just short of Rerwick Head and on the edge of the sectored light of Helliar Holm which leads through the String, the engine failed. It took the best part of an hour to sort it out. I discovered that the head of one of the pair of contact breakers was badly worn. A little work with the pliers improved the situation. Meanwhile Susan was endeavouring to beat Peacock against a headwind which barely gave steerage way, trying to find slack water against the shore. It was a dark night and distance judging was very difficult as the height of the headland was not indicated. This is where U.S. Maps are useful, but we had left ours at home. While I worked below Sue managed to pick up an eddy which actually took us west of the point, well out of the white sector of course!

It is worth considering what it must have been like last century navigating around here, the main approach to Kirkwall, Auskerry Light was the first to be built in 1866, Helliar Holm in 1893 and Copinsay not completed until 1915. The first two have been automatic since 1961 and 1967 respectively, and it is to be hoped that the current trend for ‘de-lighting’ the coast, as at St. Mary’s and Spurn Head will not occur here.

Kirkwall Harbour

Kirkwall Harbour

With the engine going again we entered the strongest part of the tide, against us at about 3 knots, and despite the lack of wind there were swirls and disturbances in the water off Helliar Holm. Back bearings on the light took us clear of Thieves Holm to the west, not without a deal of anxiety as the engine began misfiring very badly and losing power. I had visions of us being carried back through the String. Peacock backfired and coughed down the Bay of Kirkwall with the Radar installation on Wideford Hill glowing eerily in the low cloud. We finally secured in Kirkwall Harbour alongside an MFV converted for diving, the Bon Accord, at 0300 and turned in, thankfully, as the eastern sky began to lighten. We had covered the 100 miles or so from Fraserburgh in 19½ hours , so despite our final problems we still had an average better than 5 knots to Copinsay the average was 5¾ knots; a brisk breeze from the right direction makes it very easy.

It was now the Thursday morning and as the crew change was scheduled for the weekend we realised that we had best stay in Kirkwall, in any case there was now another gale warning out, this time from the SE or south.

In the morning we moved alongside a German Yacht the Stella Maris which had arrived from Stornaway, taking 3 days over it with appalling weather. They too had hoped for Shetland. As we explained to Peter that we weren’t going to make Shetland he put his head down on the seat and sobbed. One of the Germans commiserated, “We feel like that too”, he said.

Big Tree

Big Tree in Main Street, Kirkwall

St Magnus Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral

Nevermind, Kirkwall is a delightful place to be stuck. Secure and comfortable, visitors are made very welcome by the harbourmaster and at the sailing club where there are showers and a bar. The town is extremely attractive and has a real feeling of being a capital. The Cathedral of St. Magnus is built by the same masons as Durham and in the same Romanesque style. Although on a smaller scale, it is splendid. The Orcadians are very welcoming and sociable and their islands most attractive. It is often quoted that the Orcadians are farmers with boats, and the land is very rich pasture, given over to beef cattle, very green and lush with only the tops of the low rounded remaining heathland, which in many cases is being reclaimed. Only the Island of Hoy is ‘high land’. On the Friday we booked on a guided tour by minibus (Susan was determined to see something of the Orkneys before she had to leave the boat). David Lee runs ‘Go-Orkney’ excursions from Kirkwall and Stromness. He is an ex-RSPD warden and most interesting about all aspects of the islands.

Yesnaby Cliffs

Yesnaby Cliffs

We visited the spectacular cliffs at Yesnaby on the west coast. The views extended right along to Cape Wrath on the mainland, and we examined fossils and rare examples of the Scottish primrose. It was interesting that the prevailing fierce westerly wind, not only is unencouraging to the growth of trees, but batters the west coast with such a force that spray has washed all the top soil from the top of the cliffs for a long distance back from the edge. There is a remarkable postcard showing Yesnaby cliffs in a winter gale.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae

Ring of Brodgar

Ring of Brodgar

The next stop was at the Bay of Skaill to visit the prehistoric village of Skara Brae which is quite astonishing and fascinating. There is actually an anchorage in the Bay of Skaill despite its westerly aspect, with a couple of small fishing boats lying to moorings. Then on to the grand Ring of Brodgar which lies between Locks Stenness and Harray in a splendid situation. Loch Stenness is slightly brackish due to an inflow of saltwater at spring tides. Never mind trying to appreciate the efforts of the Neolithic people who raised these stones , we know that the stones are really giants who were having a party and carried away by their conviviality forgot to notice that dawn was breaking. One or two managed to stagger away, notably as far as Stenness, but they too were turned into stone by the rising sun. If you disbelieve this, show me any giants still with us.

At Maeshowe is the famous chambered cairn, later broken into by Vikings who left much runic grafitti.

Susan and the children left very early on Saturday to catch the ferry from Stromness. I cleaned the boat, shopped and fuelled, just finishing as Quent and Darrell arrived mid afternoon. I was unable to obtain new points for the engine, and on telephoning I found that Dolphin Engines were on a fortnight’s annual leave!I hoped, however, that the repairs would work.

Kirkwall was very busy as it was Orkney Show Day and the town was graced by the presence of the Queen Mother who I was able to view leaving the Cathedral.

Kirkwall to Kirkwall, including the Shetland Isles

Stronsay Harbour

Whitehall Harbour, Stronsay

We cleared Kirkwall late afternoon with a south easterly force 3 /4 and with a fair tide out through the String we had a fine fast sail through Auskerry Sound, round Lamb Head (with its Broch) and into Whitehall Harbour on Stronsay by 2100, having averaged 6½ knots .

On entering Papa Sound we were astonished to see a large Dutch dredger working. We later found that it was operating 24 hours a day for 3 weeks. And we thought it was a natural harbour! We secured alongside the small pier and had a look ashore. The houses in the main street are large and date from the turn of the century when Stronsay was the local herring boom town.

The Syllinger arrived from Kirkwall. This passenger boat was called the Scillonian in its last station and had been brought up to Orkney by a local businessman to compete with the local shipping company. As well as various excursions it ran a regular service, Kirkwall – Westray – Scalloway, and was well patronised. We took its lines on the pier and an amazingly inebriated crowd from the Orkney Show came ashore, many going into the pub. We followed. It is a very friendly homely place although there are a lot of ‘outsiders’. The island of Sanday has- a colony of anarchists, notably Stuart Christie who was jailed for causing explosions in Spain in the 1960s.

The forecast (Marineline) was good, S-SE 4/5 and settled, and this was confirmed by the shipping forecast at 0033, so we were up for the 0555 and straight off on a fine morning. We were getting a spell of weather caused by depressions tracking well south of us, giving appalling weather in Northern England.

Fair Isle approaches

Fair Isle approaches, Sheep Rock on the right of picture

We roared away at 6 knots, along the south coast of Sanday and leaving Orkney at Start Point, set a course for Fair Isle some 26 miles away. Soon a little hump appeared which rapidly grew bigger. Fair Isle is a splendid island, over 700 feet high and as we sailed up to it we could pick out the white painted crofts on the more populated southern end. There are dangerous races or Rosts off each end of the island but the tides were slack and the weather kind. The number of wrecks on Fair Isle testify that it is not always so. The most famous wreck was probably El Gran Grifon wrecked on the way home to Spain from the Armada. Lighthouses were built in 1892 and 1893 which must have helped. As with Orkney it must have been very difficult even in recent times. There are now 22 lighthouses in Shetland mostly on the east coast and around Sullom Voe, while the west is badly lit, with only one major and four minor lighthouses. There are still major islands unlit such as Foula and Papa Stour.

Fair Isle North Haven

Fair Isle North Haven, the best anchorage on Fair Isle

The first lighthouse was that of Sumburgh Head in 1821 and several lights were built to serve increased naval traffic during the Crimean War. Those of Out Skerries, Muckle Flugga and Bressay were all built between 1852 and 1858. Fair Isle is best known (apart from its sweaters) for its bird life, with over 330 species recorded. It is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and there is a popular observatory. We had planned with settled weather to land here in the North Haven and spend the afternoon and evening ashore, then sail overnight up to Foula, where landing is very difficult, for the early morning. The 1355 forecast, as we sailed past the spectacular Sheep Rock, changed this, with a deep depression moving up from SW England and causing havoc with the Fastnet fleet and due over northern Scotland by 0700 the following morning, causing E or NE gales. Neither Fair Isle nor Foula was going to be the place to be so we left Skroo Head to run up to Hamnavoe or Scalloway with a steadily lightening wind. Sumburgh Head is only 21 miles away and the great block of high land behind Fitful Head, nearly 1000 feet high was clearly seen, with a capping of fair weather cumulus.

Scalloway Harbour

Scalloway Harbour

We sailed with spinnaker up past Fitful Head and along the rugged west coast and began to be a little anxious as to our destination. Hamnavoe would be no problem as it was lit, but not the skerries and islands between it and Scalloway. However we made the beginning of the entrance by 2200 with just enough light to get orientated and an exciting last two miles between the islands, trying to judge distances from black shapes. Is it a low island close, or a high one well away? Oddly the final stretch into Scalloway is lit and buoyed and we secured at the Fish Quay by 2230, having logged 85 miles in 16 hours.

Just in time for a beer at the nearby ‘Fishermans Arms’ we turned in as it began to rain and blow only to be woken by a fishing boat knocking us as it took otter boards on board by dragging them across the quay until they fell into the water, thenwinching them on board. The noise was spectacular.

One benefit of arriving at a strange place in the dark is the pleasure of seeing where you are in the morning. Scalloway is the second town of Shetland, although its population of only 1000 indicates the rural nature of the islands. Once the capital of Shetland until upstaged by Lerwick, it is still a thriving fishing port and Blackness Pier where we lay has been much extended recently.

We breakfasted and showered in the tiny R.N.M.D.S.F. served by an immense but very cheerful girl and then set off to explore the town. The studio of Mr. Williamson, Photographer, and his very eccentric ‘Shetland Views’ is well worth a visit. He has a still intact studio which must be all of 70 years old complete with painted pillars on the backcloth. On a cottage wall opposite is a stone plaque erected in 1910 with a diagram of the earth and the moon and a discourse on tidal theory. It refutes the usual ‘German’ notion that the moon causes tides, ‘German Theories controverted’ ‘Germans are not the Favoured of Heaven’. The argument fades out “… to balance Att’n flood there is no …” Scalloway is quite pleasing, if of limited attraction, we shopped and noted the ‘Shetland Bus’ slipway. Originally the ‘Bus’ operated from Lunna on the East Coast, but moved here for the better facilities. There are 3 pubs, and Darrell was very loudly accosted by a drunk (long before the sun was over the yardarm) enquiring if he had any cigarettes!

We noticed at Scalloway a ‘foreign’ character to the place, reinforced as we sailed round Shetland. Quent thought it reminded him of the Faeroes. He also claimed that the natives of the town are known as Scallywags.

Despite a bad forecast as the depression was tracking east of Shetland, it was now fine and settled so we sailed off at 1530, out through the Middle and North Channel and when we cleared began to motor as the wind went light. The cliff scenery first noted the previous day was very fine and exceptionally spectacular with huge stacks, geos, cliffs and inlets. We were making for Vaila Sound which we entered to anchor near its head at 1930. Our exploration was done with a defective echo sounder (flat battery) and was a little shallow at times!

Vaila Sound is one of the fine natural harbours/which are numerous, and at its head is the village of South Walls. We had been told that there was a British Legion Club here and we tramped around the shore in the rain to no avail. There is a new sailing club which was not open. A scattered crofting community, there was a large new school with an immense swimming pool. Is this the fruits of the North Sea Oil Revenues?

It blew in the night, but the morning was fine with a 4/5 southerly. We beat out and had a fine view of Foula. The weekly ferry to Foula leaves from Walls and it is only some 15 miles. The small sectored light at the entrance to Vaila Sound is typical of the minor lights, its range is only 5/6 miles. We passed more spectacular cliff scenery, typical of the whole of the West Coast and sailed into the Sound of Papa between Papa Stour and the Mainland. Here we saw our first other yacht. The West Coast of Shetland is not a popular cruising ground, the Admiralty Pilot and the Clyde Cruising Club’s book make exciting reading, but in the right weather and preferably at smaller tides there are no real problems. All the main headlands and Sounds between the Islands have tidal problems. Ve Skerries, outside Papa Stour is notorious. This was the scene of the famous shipwreck of the Aberdeen Trawler Ben Doran in 1930. The nearest lifeboat was at Stromness 120 miles away and got there too late. A buoy was placed there and it was decided that Shetland should have its own lifeboats. The Aith Lifeboat rescued the Aberdeen trawler Juniper in the same area in 1967 and the Elenor Viking, again from Aberdeen, in 1977. To avoid this area passage through the Sound of Papa is recommended, although this is not without hazard with submerged rocks and fast tides.

Housa Voe

Housa Voe

We secured alongside the steamer pier in Houssa Voe on the east side of Papa Stour and walked ashore through green fields with well kept stock to the Post Office. The Post Office is really a roll-top desk in a tiny room used as a shop, although there is a red telephone box outside. The post mistress was English and the banns were posted for her daughter’s wedding the following Saturday. She explained that for the event the population of the island would treble from its usual 35 or so! Some Shetlanders know Papa Stour (Papa is a common name and means Priest) as the ‘Hippy Isle’ from the 1960s although most have left since then. It is most attractive at Houssa Voe , a fine anchorage, the island is fertile and there are spectacular and extensive caves on the western side.

Vaila Sound

Vaila Sound

These we did not have time to visit as we were off north across St. Magnus Bay with a fresh southerly and bright sunshine. We roared up to and passed Esha Ness a great rock bound headland, inside Muckle Ossa, Uyea Island and then eastward to the Ramna Stacks which lie off the northern tip of the mainland at the Point of Fethaland. Our minds were blown by the extraordinary cliff scenery of the past days and the stacks did not disappoint us. The weather had changed, it was raining and the wind was lightening as we cut inside them (the Pilots and the Chart were a little vague as to whether this was sound policy). Jagged pinnacles stood up against a purple sky as supertankers passed by into Yell Sound on the way to and from Sullom Voe.

Ramna Stacks

Ramna Stacks

We motored down the Sound into Burra Voe (the ‘village’ is called North Roe) and anchored with the last of the light at 2200. There is virtually no settlement and probably no facilities there.

The forecast the following morning was not too encouraging, SW going NE 4/5, later 6/7, not good for this which was to be our greatest day, that on which we would be Britain’s most northerly men as we rounded Muckle Flugga. We need not, however, have worried as very shortly we were in a motoring situation as the sea went glassy and the sun got brighter. The North End of Yell, Gloup Holm, another difficult headland, was passed with no difficulty and at last we could see the long awaited goal as the two great hills on the North of Unst gave way to cliffs and the offlying stacks of Muckle Flugga.

We prepared ourselves by a ritual cleansing and toilet. Quent cut his toenails with his Swiss Army knife (his possession of which had become a bit of a bore). It was brilliant weather. Quent, after each hard sailing/climbing/caving trip announces that next year it would be a villa holiday with topless nymphs reading poetry. I got a photograph of him lounging on deck, shirt off and reading. We were treated to a splendid display from accompanying dolphins, visible up to 30-40 feet down in the clear water, and nearing the Stacks to an amazing aerial display re-enacting the Battle of Britain with gannets verses Bonxies. The gannets are very numerous and based on the huge gannetry at Hermaness, surprising as the gannet only began nesting in 1914. The Bonxies or Great Skuas also have a remarkable history. Due to persecution they were virtually extinct at the beginning of the century. They have made a remarkable recovery and have spread all over Shetland and the north coasts of Scotland, to the regret of many people as they are a cruel bird, killing many smaller species such as kittiwakes by sitting on their backs and forcing their heads under water until they drown. We had first come across the Bonxies in any number as we crossed the Moray Firth. Here off Muckle Flugga gangs of them were attacking the gannets, harassing them and actually grabbing their wings and wheeling them out of the air into the water to steal their latest meal.

Muckle Fluga

Muckle Fluga Light House

So we reached our furthest north, not actually Muckle Flugga, but the Out Stack, half a mile further north east. It is possible to pass both between Muckle Flugga and Unst and between it and Out Stack, but after coming all this way … The Stacks make a fitting northern tip of Britain, pleasant enough on a fine summers day, but at 60°51’N the winter dark and its associated weather must be appalling in this place where the Atlantic meets the North/Norwegian Sea. It is as far north as Sogne Fiord in Norway, Anchorage in Alaska and Julianehaab in Greenland.

Out Stack

Rounding Out Stack

Such a situation deserved a libation to celebrate such an easy rounding and our being the most northerly men in Britain. Quent broached the best whisky and large tots were poured; it would be all downhill from now on.

We were late on the tide and had some five more miles before we were clear of the Skaw Rost off the Holm of Skaw. We tried a little sailing against a fitful southeasterly but it was insufficient and we motored hard against a strong opposing tide round Lamba Ness and passed the cliffs of the Nev into Baltasound by its narrow north entrance to anchor off Sandessons Pier at 1525 in 4 metres, in brilliantly clear water and a sandy bottom.

Balta Sound

Baltasound

This side of the Unst is low lying and pastoral, with white shell sand beaches. It is a populous centre due largely to the presence of the RAF Radar Station on Saxa Vord. Saxa and Herman were two giants who lived on each of the two northerly hills named after them and were a terrible nuisance until persuaded to swim after a cooperative mermaid who lured them off into the summer ‘dim’ in the direction of the North Pole. We met RAF personnel ashore; they either loved or loathed the posting. The day was the first and only day of summer that they had had! Because of the base there is a large supermarket and an equally large if incongruous ‘pub’. There is a civil airfield on the south side of the Sound, often used as an alternative to Sumburgh which suffers more fog.

I was disappointed that the northerly outpost was not wilder. Sandessons ship Talc used in the making of roofing felt from their pier and it has a rather industrial atmosphere. A Fraserburgh fishing boat called in for repairs in the evening, lay to the pier, which is too rough for yachts, and the crew in their inevitable inebriation late that night grossly overloaded us with fish. In return we attended to their lines to prevent them inadvertently drifting away.

The forecast the following morning was not good. A depression was slow moving over Scotland with easterly gales prophesied; it was raining heavily with poor visibility. We turned in again until things looked better. By mid-morning it was brighter and with a good breeze and full sail cleared the Sound and beat south and passed between Unst and Fetlar, having to put in two reefs and change down jibs (twice), and as soon as this was done then naturally the wind went light and we had problems beating out of Colgrave Sound, between Fetlar and Yell against a strong tide. This necessitated a short period with the engine. Entry in log ‘Sweyn complained that due to poor victualling policy we have run out of beer’. I was known as Sweyn Breastrope, a figure from Shetland folklore who was believed to commune with trolls. Perhaps there was a hint in this that I didn’t communicate with the crew.

Whalsay

Whalsay

We had a pleasant, though increasingly cold and grey sail inside Linga Sound and down to Whalsay, to secure at Symbister Pier at 1715 having logged 32 miles. Whalsay is a most prosperous looking place with a very foreign atmosphere, reputably it is the wealthiest in Shetland due to its being the main fishing base. There is no pub but virtually all the 1000 or so inhabitants are members of the Boat Club, where although it was quiet, we were given a warm welcome. The natives are very broad, even by Shetland standards. We heard one of the bar staff talk of ‘peerie uns’ in reference to children. Peerie means small. Beside the harbour is a unique 16th Century Hanseatic trading booth. The stone slabs of the roof were pegged and the original wooden windlass restored.

Hanseatic Trading booth

Hanseatic Trading booth

We cleared the next morning with a surprisingly strong easterly with appropriate sea, and just carried full sail, roaring along in moderate visibility of about two miles into an area of sea which must be a nightmare during the dark winter. It is studded with rocks with interesting names, Muckle Fladdicap, Muckla Billen, Litla Billen, The Sneckan, and Soldian Rock, all of which dry between 6 and 20 feet. One passes between them. The visibility improved somewhat and we picked up the North Shore of Bressay with a glimpse of the massive cliffs of Noss Head on the east side, the famous bird reserve. Entering Bressay Sound we saw our first Russian Klondyker. The oil developments north of Lerwick are extensive and the harbour busy, but the Small Boat Harbour where yachts secure is sheltered, quiet and right in the town centre, as it was the original steamer pier before Ro-Ro days.

Lerwick Harbour

Lerwick Harbour

Shetland Model

Shetland Model

The town is interesting with a narrow stone flagged main street, and prosperous. This prosperity due to the oil boom has resulted in beer at 94pa pint so we quickly went to the Lerwick Boat Club to shower. I had several contacts here as I had sailed in the Up Helly’aa Dim Riv Longship during the Newcastle 900 Celebrations, and all the crew are Boat Club members. We were made very welcome, especially as it was the Annual Inter Club Regatta where all the Islands Clubs send a team of ‘Shetland Models’ so fleets of 40/50 boats race. These ‘Models’ are all slightly different, reflected in their handicaps, but are all ‘double-enders’ indicative of their traditional origins in the sixerns (six oars) and fourerns (four oars). Racing is very keen, but the season short. Hospitality was tremendous. The clubhouse is new, and cost upwards of £200,000, overlooking Bressay Sound.

Racing in Bressay Sound

Racing in Bressay Sound, Klondykers on the course

Members were very cross with the harbourmaster for allowing 8 or 9 Klondykers to anchor in the Sound during the Regatta especially as he was a member of the Club. It’s comforting to know that politics are the same everywhere. Andy Johnston, Club Commodore, organised repairs and ran me to get camping gaz and we had a session rebuilding the main hatch slides and storing ship. The evening spent at the Club was excellent and we were given histories of the Club and a burgee. We left, reluctantly, the following lunchtime, a Saturday, under power with a very light wind and hazy sunshine, hoisting the L.B.C. burgee along with the Shoreline and RYA flags. No doubt it is bad etiquette to fly two burgees, but we thought it only good manners. There was much waving as we passed the Dim Riv on the moorings and the Clubhouse.

Dim Riv

Dim Riv at Lerwick

There were several yachts in Lerwick, nearly all foreign. It is nearer to Bergen than to Aberdeen. All afternoon boats came ashore from the Klondykers, Russians, Poles, Bulgarians and Rumanians, many with villainous Balkan moustaches.

Anchorage off Mousa

Anchorage off Mousa

Our destination was Mousa, some nine miles down the coast, where we anchored and walked half a mile or so along the shore to see the finest preserved Broch in Europe. Looking, from a distance like a Burslem Pottery Kiln, it is some 42 feet high and a hollow dry stone shell with double walls.

Broch  of Mousa

Broch of Mousa, the finest in Europe

Walls of the Broch

Walls of the Broch, all dry stone

Linking the walls are flags which form a series of narrow low galleries. There is a stair-case inside the walls to the top, and torches are provided. It is estimated to be some 2000 years old, its purpose is not clear, but it is a splendid building.

The island is uninhabited but day trips are run from Sandwick on the mainland shores. Motoring-south we suffered engine failure, necessitating Darrell applying himself to a further point modification and we secured alongside the Pier in Grutness Voe seven miles further on at 1840. This is the pier used by the ‘Good Shepherd’, the Fair Isle mail boat on its twice weekly (summer) runs. The Voe is open to the northeast and is adjacent to the runway of Sumburgh airport; the Pilot Book cautions against aircraft noise, but we couldn’t recall one flight the whole time we lay there.

Grutness Voe

Grutness Voe

Jarlshof

Jarlshof

It is a good place to visit the Jarlshof which is a splendid remain dating, with continuous habitation, from the Stone Age. It has a Broch, Viking settlement and a medieval farm. Making sense of the ruins was not easy as the plan of the site was barely visible through the museum windows. If you visit during the day, and pay, it might be easier. The Sumburgh Hotel was visited for a bar meal, but it was full of drunks, so we were back early on board.

We faced the next day with trepidation. The sea area we were going to cross is notoriously one of the worst in Britain. Off Sumburgh Head is the Famous Rost. In good weather, when running, it stretches out some 4/5 miles, in bad weather, with Spring Tides and opposing gales and swell it can cover the whole of the ‘Hole’, the area between Sumburgh and Fair Isle, or even all the way to Orkney. It was a real comfort to know that we had tides ‘out the top’ of Springs and an unsettled forecast. The evening shipping forecast was SE 4/5 perhaps as much as Force 7 but this was for a large sea area, Marineline only claimed a 4/5.

Pierowall Harbour

Pierowall Harbour, Westray

To catch the tide going west (ebb) we beat out at 0400, barely light, with a SE by S Force 3 and visibility about 5 miles. The wind quickly freshened and we had two reefs and No2 jib. The original plan had been to land on Fair Isle on the way over, but this was quickly abandoned and a course was set reaching directly to North Ronaldsay. Between 1000 and 1100, still with the ebb (i.e. wind and tide together) we had an impression of gloom surmounted by thicker cloud above which was probably Fair Isle some 4 or 5 miles to the South east. The tide was now turning and the wind again increased to a Force 6, than a 7 necessitated the storm jib. The seas increased and when about 10 miles from North Ronaldsay there were sustained periods of Force 8. By this time the tide was flooding strongly, at its peak about 3 knots, so the seas were spectacular and although Peacock behaved beautifully we were concerned to the hammering she was getting so the main was taken off for nearly two hours. We continued to reach along at about 3 knots, the seas didn’t diminish but we were a lot more comfortable. By 1540 the wind had eased somewhat and the main was set again. We had some anxiety as to our exact position due to the need to avoid the Rost which would definitely be running east of Dennis Head. The visibility was only about 2 miles, judged from a trawler which smashed its way south most spectacularly. We used the RDF beacon on North Ronaldsay which was so near it nearly blasted my ears off and our landfall was perfect. Once in the lee of the Islands and flat water and the wind only Force 6 we thought ourselves in paradise. Rounding the Horn and thinking you’re home must be a similar feeling. We sailed very fast across the North Sound, losing sight of the Islands for some 11/12 miles. There are still strong tides in this area, and not a lot of information available on them. A shoal in the middle, Runabrake, was noted in passing by the very confused sea on it. With another sail change Darrell was actually lying swimming underwater on the foredeck, and we were pleased to make another good landfall right in the middle of Pierowall Sound, south of Papa Westray. We shot the last three miles into Pierowall Harbour, (we logged 15 miles in 2 hours) the engine started first time, Quent and Darrell being amazed at my confidence in it and secured alongside at 1900. We had logged 58 miles. What a sail! We lay in the harbour with the rigging whistling, a scend working in, and a grey, rainy evening. We treated our­selves to large tots before supper. Well done ‘Peacock’! The Shipping Forecast had made the gale official.

After a meal we set out to walk the mile or so to the pub, but the typical Orcadian hospitality afforded us a lift half way. There was a roaring fire and Darrell, who had been submerged, steamed generously. The landlord was most welcoming and arranged a lift back for us, although he was still serving, and we declined an offer from him for his wife to do any washing we needed. Perhaps this was just as well. The following lunchtime we observed his wife in action, and it was clear who wore the trousers.

The next day was grey and damp, we walked up to Noltland Castle and then to the pub for a beer, where the landlord gave us some tomatoes then ran us back to the boat.

The passage from Westray to Kirkwall needs to be carefully timed to catch a tidal gate across the Westray Firth so we planned to set off at 1600. A few minutes before this time thick fog descended. The Syllinger arrived from Scalloway via Papa Westray and the fog cleared to about a mile and slowly rolled further back. The Syllinger left for Kirkwall. We did not know it but this was its last trip, the company had gone bankrupt.

Just before 1700 with the visibility about 4/5 miles we left Pierowall, under power, but as we passed through the Sound of Farray the visibility rapidly deteriorated, so after a brief look around Fersness we retreated, with no more than 50 yards visibility to anchor in Fersness Bay. We couldn’t see the shore but heard both sheep and cows. The fog cleared before midnight.

We were off at 0730 the following morning with a poor forecast as a depression was moving ‘rather quickly’ to Fair Isle 980 mb due tomorrow morning, gale warnings imminent to the west and a Force 9 for Cromarty and Forth. Log entry “However we cross Westray Firth in quiet and pleasant weather. It is a real treat to see the green islands around us. Began sailing after Gait Skerry and put in a short tack at Vasa Skerry with big tidal whirlies. The log records, “Passed schooner Te Vega anchored off Kirkwall. Tied up 1030. Kept lookout for lawyers appearing with writ to nail to mast. Sweyn adopts false nose and whiskers”. Quent’s references are probably due to a very minor collision I had with a fishing boat when sailing out of Kirkwall 10 days previously. Was it only 10 days ago? 337 miles.

Shortly after our arrival, despite bright sunshine in Kirkwall the Northern Isles were again shrouded in fog.

Kirkwall to Blyth

Horse of Copinsay

Horse of Copinsay, now a Nature Reserve dedicated to the memory of James Fisher, the naturalist

Kirkwall was just as delightful as ever, and with the current gale warning, we had no conscience about staying the night, but the urge to leave was strong the next day. The forecast was moderating so we cleared at 1020 with a north westerly Force 6. This promised a roaring trip, perhaps an epic, but shortly after leaving the String we were changing up foresails and shaking out reefs. We still did well past Mull Head and Copinsay until about 2 miles further on the wind steadily lightened and by 1640, becalmed, we were under power. Fortunately this only lasted an hour or so and then we picked up a steady south westerly which gave us a fine night sail across the Moray Firth on a clear, but dark night. The lights of the Moray shore were visible before Wick was dropped, and the Beryl oilfield dominated. There was a surprising amount of shipping, and amazingly we appeared to be very attractive to it, particularly as the masthead tricolour was not working and we showed no stern light!

Rattray Head was passed on a clear sunny morning at 0850, with the log reading only 78 miles since Kirkwall, with nothing obviously wrong, it is under-reading by between 25-30%, something we suspected for a while.

The forecast was for SW 4-6 locally 7 and off Buchan Ness we reefed and changed down foresails, only to shake them out 3 hours later as the backing wind went light in Aberdeen Bay, and we were soon becalmed. The motor ran for two hours, then failed, with the old points problem and as it was reluctant to cooperate this time we had to beat into Stonehaven with a very light SW.

We passed right through a series of buoys off the harbour indicating the location of a new sewer pipe. A raft works on it during the day, but retreats to the shelter of the harbour at night.

We had 3 nights in Stonehaven which stretches its attractions somewhat. We showered in the RGIT premises, got the bus to Catterline (it doesn’t look the finest harbour on the coast) and walked back by a cliff path which didn’t exist except on the map, visiting the splendid, spectacular and interesting ruins of Dunnotter Castle on the way. Jim Anderson with Humoresque from the RFYC arrived and joined us.

The forecasts were for S-SW gales which blew occasionally, but for the most part didn’t, and our increasing frustrations resulted in our leaving on the Sunday at 1630 in company with Humoresque. She was making for Arbroath, but we laid a course straight for Holy Island.

The weather was now going NW (Forecast 5-7 locally 8 for a time, then backing SW 5-6). At 0033 Bell Rock reported NW5. We had rather more than this in the early evening, actually taking the main off for a short while, but it was a grand wild sail through the dark and by 0700 we were past Seahouses and the wind lightening. The log was only 68M from Stonehaven instead of 80M or so; the error is persisting, but our average over the ground was close on 6 knots.

The lightening wind ensured that the engine was used for the last two miles or so into Blyth, the exhaust burning ahole in the washing-up bowl which had been stowed on it.

There was time for a beer in the bar and the family arrived. The Cruise had taken 27 days, and 900 miles had been sailed.

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