Orkney re-visited

Linda Lane Thornton

It is a truth universally acknowledged that yachties possessing a wish to cruise to Orkney must be in want of fair weather. We’d been very lucky in 2003 and had spent some time wondering whether it was too much to think that we’d get good weather two years running when others had not been so fortunate. We had planned all sorts of journeys, taking in Orkney, Shetland, Norway and had even considered the Faeroe Islands in one of our wilder fantasies. We’d got the charts and cruising guides, had made various passage plans, and were ready (I hoped!) for all eventualities, including absolutely dire weather, in which case we’d head for Newcastle Airport.

31 July

Andy navigating

Andy navigating

The first morning started grey and misty, possibly the result of too many glasses of Lindisfarne wine to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary the night before, Andy making the comment that he would have got away with less time if he’d bumped me off! So instead of the early start – Andy in his enthusiasm had set the alarm for 0500! – we finally left Blyth at 0800 under engine as what little wind there was came straight out of the north. Apart from a 20 minute gap in the Inner Farne Channel, when we hopefully raised both main and genoa, we motored all the way to Eyemouth. The highlight of the day was watching mother and baby white-beaked dolphins playing around and under the boat, but we were visited by other dolphins during the day – mostly white-beaked dolphins, but one species of which I was unsure.

Entering Eyemouth was quite interesting. The grey, drizzly day had turned into a lovely, calm evening and the harbourmaster directed us to the new pontoon. Having never ventured that far up the harbour before, Andy shouted across that we drew 2.0 metres thinking this would give us some spare water, as we actually draw 1.8 metres, and were assured that there was plenty of water now that the harbour had been dredged. Andy throttled back as we motored gently up the harbour, and then came to an equally gentle halt as we ran aground and discovered that 0 metres on the depth gauge really meant 0! We were about 2 metres from a motor cruiser tied alongside, and with a combination of tugging at warps and chugging of engine we slid forward into a hole and were afloat again, tying up alongside a Dutch yacht.

1 August

Low water at 1000 found us aground, but in a more fortunate position that the yacht ahead which was well listed to starboard. There were evidently dredging ripples on the bottom of the harbour and we were lucky to be in one of the holes. Again it was misty with little wind, and as we didn’t plan to leave until the afternoon anyway, we filled up with diesel, had a general tidy up and listened to the foghorn while Andy inspected our autohelm which had become noisy and had started playing up. We had sent it of for repair to Raymarine before the trip and it worked adequately for about the first 4 hours from Blyth to Eyemouth. On inspection he found that some screws retaining the motor had not been tightened properly and had started rubbing against the plastic cogs, which would account for the noise that it had been making. He also found some white, acidic-smelling grease on one of the circuit boards which, when removed, allowed the autohelm to work properly again. It also left the tracks where the grease had been very clean: very suspicious!

We left Eyemouth at 1210, just after I’d caught the shipping forecast, and started what we hoped would be a single passage to Lerwick, as Shetland was our aim for the this cruise, provided the weather was kind to us. Again there was little wind, so we motored northwards, enjoying close looks at puffins, razorbills, guillemots, gannets and the myriad other seabirds which inhabit the North Sea. We passed the Arklow Ranger, a regular visitor to Blyth, as it came out of the Forth. Through the course of the day and night the weather remained calm, cool and overcast – not an auspicious beginning, but I remained optimistic.

2 August

I was awakened at 0400 by a lot of banging and crashing, and got up to find that Andy, in a burst of enthusiasm following the arrival of the merest hint of a southerly breeze, had hoisted the spinnaker. This was too much fun to miss for anything as mundane as sleep, so I joined him on deck and for about four hours we played with it as the wind gradually increased. After that time, with the increasing wind, it became a little boisterous so we dropped it – very efficiently, I thought, in a controlled fashion, calm and dignified, and not like scramble that sometimes ensues when we’ve left it too long to take down.

We continued under main and genoa, but as the wind continued to increase we gradually reefed down. As it got dark, the wave height increased, white caps became more prevalent and the gentle zephyr turned into a south-easterly force 6, until Layback was surfing down the waves. After a particularly exhilarating surf of 11.1 knots – the fastest Layback has done since we bought her – we decided to reef right down. At about 1400 we decided that Lerwick was perhaps just a bit too far, and I was getting tired – Andy pointed out that we were on holiday and this was beginning to look like hard work. In addition, the lee of the Orkney Islands seemed very attractive as there was no sign of the wind lessening – in fact it was increasing and backing more into the east. I acknowledged that our plans had been a bit too ambitious, especially as we had only two weeks leave and would have to save at least four days to get back.

3 August

The night turned into a wild ride down wind in very lumpy seas as the wind increased to force 7 with the occasional gust of 8. Most of the seas came predictably onto the starboard quarter, but occasionally a rogue would come from another direction – you could hear these coming, but it was so dark that you couldn’t see them – and anyway, who would want to look back and get a faceful of North Sea? At 0340 we altered course towards North Ronaldsay, butting our way across the North Sound, and finally mooring alongside the Pierrowall pontoon at 0800, having made our entrance dramatically and sliding sideways into a gap on the pontoon. The Piermaster, Tom Rendall, there to greet us and take our lines as he had the year before.

I love Westray for its air of serenity – and we also managed to replenish Andy’s supply of socks and underpants which had somehow not found their way into the holdall. I offered him some of mine, but he was afraid that he’d get run over and have to explain his exotic underwear to a paramedic! The day was spent peacefully pottering about, chatting with other visiting yachties, who had been kept in Pierrowall by the weather for the last 3 days; four were heading for Shetland and one for Norway. I met a fellow member of the Ocean Cruising Club, so we discussed the goings-on therein, where they’d been, where they were going and the usual yachtie chat. We visited the gallery and saw the stained glass window that was destined for the community centre – the designs had been done by the Westray schoolchildren, and the final one chosen by the community. The window itself was being executed by a local craftsman, again with the help of the children. Later we had an excellent meal in the Pierrowall Hotel – the fish chowder is gorgeous! – washed down with a couple of pints of Red MacGregor, as I’d decided to put my usual teetotalness on hold for a couple of weeks!

4 August

Having spent the morning in planning our passage to Stromness, checking and re-checking waypoints, courses, distances etc, we left Pierrowall at about 1230 in visibility of about 1 km. The visibility came and went, and we sailed gently from waypoint to waypoint. Wetherness Sound was interesting as we could just make out the rocks either on one side or the other, but never both at the same time. We caught the tail of the race across the north end of Rousay, but apart from that had an excellent sail, the biggest disappointment being that we saw very little of the north coast of Mainland, just the odd glimpse of crags and surf, and we were unable to fulfil one of our ambitions – to anchor in the Bay of Skaill to visit Skara Brae again. Ah well – next time perhaps.

We’d planned our passage carefully to arrive at Hoy Sound at slack water, but I was a bit concerned to come across an east cardinal mark that wasn’t on the chart. However, it was dutifully left to starboard and then we turned east to go through the Sound – almost flat water with barely any indication of the turbulence that can occur when wind and tide are in opposition. We got out of the way of the ferry Hamnavoe, and were a bit amused to note that a Danish yacht, which had kept a couple of hundred metres behind us all the way through Hoy Sound in the fog, suddenly put on a burst of speed as we passed the port hand buoy which marks the entrance to Stromness and overtook us – perhaps they didn’t know about the new marina!

Stromness Marina is very good – although it will be better once there are showers and toilets available; at present you have to use the visitor centre. The pontoons are light and narrow and you have to thread your warps through hoops rather than just throw them around cleats, but apart from that the marina is very sheltered – much more so than the one at Kirkwall, which has been beset by difficulties, mostly due to the wide entrance facing north!

5-10 August

Although we’d wanted to get into Scapa Flow and spend some time at anchor in the little coves and bays, with their gloriously coloured seaweed, the weather was against us. Whilst 5 August was glorious – we went again to Skara Brae and Skaill House and walked from there back to Stromness – 6-7 August were thick fog, and 8-10 August gave us easterlies force 6-7 – so we spent the time getting to know more of the history, geography, geology and archaeology of Orkney, always a worthwhile pursuit which leaves me with a thirst for knowing more; I have to face it that if I live to be a hundred I’ll never learn all I want to know! We visited Maes Howe again (which can be viewed on the internet in December, if you want to get a glimpse of the sun striking the back of the chamber), spent more time in St Magnus’ Cathedral, and took a long bus ride to the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay where, because the tomb is in private hands, we able to handle some of the tools which had been found in the tomb. We even made a quick foray out into Hoy Sound again, only to find that visibility dropped from 1 km to about 20 metres in just over 10 minutes, leaving us groping our way back into Stromness using the depth gauge to guide us in.

In addition to this, I think Stromness is a super place to while away a few days. The museum is terrific – an eclectic mix of history, geology, ornithology and folklore – and has the advantage of being opposite the former home of one of its more famous sons. If you really want to explore the spirit of Orkney, read George Mackay Brown’s An Orkney Tapestry, while if you just want a jolly good read, try Beside the Ocean of Time or Magnus.

Another advantage of spending some time in port is that you get to know your neighbours; Speedwell, a Nicholson 35 from Largs, whose owners live in Alnwick, and Perriwinkle, whose Dutch owners later appeared in Blyth and with both of whom we had some splendid chats. Derek and Ailee from Speedwell attracted our attention in particular, because they had bought their yacht in Turkey, and spent a couple of years refitting her and bringing her back to the UK. She was lovely and my idea of a real cruising boat, with teak-laid decks, lots of softly-shining wood down below, and no cleats or winches just where you want to park your bottom!

11 August

We suddenly realised that we were running out of time and needed to be making our way south again, so we got up early this morning, having received a favourable forecast, had motored out of Stromness. The wind was very light and from the east, so we hoisted the sails and drifted gently into Scapa Flow, having bacon butties for breakfast on the way. We wanted to go to Waukmill Bay, which we had visited earlier, and were delighted to surprise a baby seal which was apparently sleeping on the surface and which was obviously alarmed as we sailed past – its eyes nearly popped out of its head! Waukmill Bay would be an ideal anchorage in the right conditions, but the conditions were not right, so after lurking for a bit we headed south to pass between Cava and Fara, meeting a bevy of ferries on the way.

We sailed up Long Hope and then rounded up into the wind to drop the anchor for lunch whilst waiting for the tide to take us around past Cannick Head. We revisited our passage plans, checking again the time we needed to be at Aith Hope to catch the most favourable tide across the Pentland First and to avoid the overfalls that can occur at mid-tide.

Whilst it was a little lumpy going through Cannick Sound, the water was very smooth along the south coast of Hoy, and it seemed a bit odd to be sailing no more that 50 metres off the cliffs in 70 metres of water! Although our speed on the log was quite low, we were moving at a much faster pace across the ground and when Aith Hope was reached at the appointed time we gybed and turned south to cross the Pentland Firth. The theory was that we would catch the last of the ebb along the south coast of Hoy, and then the first of the flood to cross the Firth. As we sailed south towards Swona, I kept waiting for the flood to pick up, but the island stuck firmly ahead. After some time I said to Andy that I thought we were going to have to put a tack in to clear the island and watched to see if the island was beginning to slide to the west. Eventually it did, but we still ran into some light overfalls off the east of Swona, and enjoyed some equally bumpy overfalls off Duncansby Head. At 1700 Andy made a note in the log Gave Linda a Penguin, presumably a reward for being on the helm so that I was the one that got wet when the overfalls decided to come on board!

Although it was still blowing easterly, we gave Wick Harbour a call and got permission to go in. We entered with a big following sea and turned left very quickly to enter the harbour, tying up alongside the former ice house, to which berth we had been directed. We were tidying up when a couple with two children appeared on top of the harbour wall and the lady asked if her son could come aboard. We invited them all on board for a cup of tea, and chatted for about an hour. They were from Germany and the boy, about 13 years old, had been to a summer school to improve his English. The whole family was now having a quick tour of Scotland before heading home. The lad had a good look around, asking a great many questions and demanding to know the English names of such things as compass, depth sounder, warps, sheets and halliards, so a good time was had by all until the little girl, who did not speak any English, began to get restless and they left.

12 August

Another early start, just after the shipping forecast gave us E or SE backing NE 4 or 5, moderate with fog patches. For the rest of the day the fog came and went with visibility going from a couple of kilometres to less than 200 metres. On one occasion, a fully rigged sailing ship appeared out of the fog, like a ghostly Marie Celeste, and then disappeared, presumably for one of the ports to the south of the Moray Firth or even Inverness. Finally at 1700 we sighted land, which we identified as Kinnaird Head – well, we really identified Fraserburgh, but Kinnaird Head sounds more exotic! We continued south, passing between two lurking tugs off Rattray Head, and then into Peterhead for the night.

13 August

The forecast gave N 5-6 with rain at times, and it was damp and drizzly as we left Peterhead. As it was only blowing about force 2, we hoisted the spinnaker and had a couple of hours rolling as the wind strength increased. When the apparent wind reach the upper end of 4, and with an increasing sea state, we dropped the spinnaker, again with consummate smoothness and control (!), and put one reef in the main, putting another one in an hour later as the wind had increased to the promised force 6. It turned out to be a cracking afternoon crossing the Forth estuary, with brilliant blue skies, the waves a mass of foaming billows against an almost indigo sea. The wave height gradually increased to about three metres, at times towering over the stern or leaving what seemed like a gaping hole under the bow – very exciting! By 2200, however, we reluctantly decided that perhaps Eyemouth wasn’t a good idea, given that it was still blowing force 6 with huge following seas from the north. We didn’t want to get there to find that the entrance was untenable, so we turned slightly to port to shape a course for the Inner Farne Channel, having the lights of both St Abb’s Head and the Longstone as our guides.

14 August

As we approached the Goldstone, the wind began to drop and we ended up motoring through the channel, then passing Newton-by-the-Sea at 0600 in very light airs as the wind backed from north east to west to south west, so that we arrived back in Blyth in the same conditions as we had started – motoring in a flat calm! We’d logged 683 miles and while we hadn’t achieved our objective of reaching Shetland, we’d done everything else we’d wanted to do – Hoy Sound, Stromness, Skara Brae, Maes Howe, the Tomb of the Eagles, Waukmill Bay, Long Hope, the Pentland Firth and Wick – and at least Andy’s thirst for Red MacGregor had been slaked.