Inverness to Orkney

Summer 2022
John Andrews
Wed 29 May 2013 08:29

Inverness to Orkney

At last a quiet moment to catch up with recording our journey round Orkney and Shetland. We are currently sitting in the tiny marina in Pierowall on the island of Westray and have decided to spend a few days here. To be honest, we are recovering from four days serious partying in Stromness where the Orkney Folk Festival was taking place. We have heard the most exhilarating, uplifting and moving music, from professional bands and from local, fantastically talented school children. Check out The Dirty Beggars, Basco and Boys of the Lough.  Even the Stromness British Legion Pipe Band was strangely moving. We arrived a few days early, one of the few yachts in Stromness, but were pleased to see that fellow RCC yacht Nademia was already tucked up there, also supplied with precious tickets for the festival. 

I will pick up our journey from when we set off from Inverness for our Northern Adventure to Orkney and Shetland. The tale of the passage from Gigha to Oban and through the Caledonian Canal will have to wait although this includes tales of the loss of the dinghy, the incident of the tick and above all the tale of the unremitting cold and wet.

We left the canal early on Saturday morning and took the boat round to the desolate, windswept Inverness Marina where we were to pick up our new crew – Bridget and Andrew Whitehouse – who were coming to Orkney with us to go to the Folk Festival in Stromness. We decided to head for Wick on the Sunday. All the intervening harbours looked dangerously shallow and unprotected. Fellow RCC boat, Nademia, who were on the same journey to the festival reported  that they had just managed to cross the bar into Helmsdale with minutes to spare and were gently settling into the mud. At 42 foot they are a little smaller than us and draw a little less and did not recommend that we follow her there.

Sunday morning was cold and wet and the wind was blowing from the North East, the worst possible direction. Luckily there was not much of it, force 2 to 3, so we resigned ourselves to motoring all the way. The visibility was very poor, down to only a few hundred yards at times. It lifted at midday, and we got the benefit of a watery sun, but the temperature was still very cold.

Our electronics continue to behave erratically. When first switched on, our chart plotter only picks up two satellites, not enough to give us an accurate fix, hence it randomly placing us in Iceland or Southern Chile which is not helpful. John eventually managed to fix it by resetting the whole thing but we have to run without instruments while all this is going on.

The other strange thing is that the ship’s compass seems to be out by more than just a few degrees. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that my tin of pins that was kept in the aft cabin over the winter has become magnetized. I found it with the lid pushed off and all the pins sticking up like iron filings. We are trying to work out what could have applied a magnetic force to them, and wondering if it has anything to do with the alteration in the compass. As we are going into very challenging waters we are not at all happy about this situation.

The arrival in Wick was easy enough, however. They have a lovely new marina with brand new shower block.  We were given an extremely friendly welcome by the harbourmaster who is also the engineer on theWick lifeboat.  His two young sons rushed down to the pontoon to take our lines while he ‘brushed up’ before he came down to welcome us. We were almost the only yacht in the marina. They had had a few boats the week before but we were among the first visitors this year. Wick is placing a lot of hope in the marina. The town was built up around the herring trade in the 19th century, but this of course has long gone. They now only have only 2 ‘white fishing’ boats left, and these spend long weeks out at sea. He reported that there is a lot of fish out there still, particularly cod, which is a relief to me as someone worried about the ethics of eating any fish at all. He said however, that they are still having to throw back tons of fish because they have exceeded their quota.  Hopefully the new arrangements will stop all this waste, but I suspect that there will be a whole new set of unintended consequences – we will have to wait and see.

We wandered around the town, which felt completely deserted, although to be fair this could be because it was Sunday. We ended up at the Weatherspoons pub, the Alexander Graham Bain, which had been recommended by the harbour master. This was a typical Weatherspoons ,located in a fabulous old building, very modern and very buzzy and quite unexpected.

The plan for Monday was to sail from Wick to Stromness through the Pentland Firth. We had sailed through the Pentland Firth some years ago, and had marveled at the strength of the tide that had swept us along at over 10 knots. We had therefore planned the crossing with some care, particularly as Andrew and Bridget were non-sailors. Andrews was however taking an interest in all things nautical, and John had explained to him the need, even the legal obligation to make a passage plan. We were unfortunately going to have to motor into the wind again but this was forecast to be light and we confidently expected to arrive in Stromness for a late lunch.  As we set off, however, we were alarmed to find the wind blowing at steady force 5. ‘This is going to be a life jackets on, washboards in job’ said John, ominously. Passage plan or not, the need for flexibility came to the fore. John went below to consult charts and tide tables and came up ten minutes later saying ‘ right, we’re going to Kirkwall!’. This had the bonus of being able to raise the sails rather than motor into a head wind all the way. The wind promptly dropped of course, but came up again later, so decision vindicated.  We now had to route ourselves round the skerries that lie at the eastern end of the Pentland Firth. The pilot books recommend leaving the skerries 6 miles to port  in order to guard against  the west going tide sucking us onto the skerries. It was a bit of a race to get there before the turn of the tide. We were however at neap tides or ‘a dull tide’ as the harbour master in Wick put it, and the skerries were skirted without incident. More alarming was the terrible visibility. At times this was down to only a hundred yards or so and we could hear the eerie sound of the fog horn coming we presumed from the light house on Duncansby Head.  On AIS we picked up a boat that was very near and seemed to be on a collision course. To be safe, we made a significant change of course. AIS showed the boat being only a hundred yards or so away from us but in the thick mist we could see absolutely nothing. We also had the radar switched on to pick up any other boat that might be in the area. As the day before, the sun eventually burned the mist off and we had a fabulous sail round to Kirkwall.

Again, there were very few visiting boats in Kirkwall. There was however and enormous three masted square rigger call Statsraad Lehmkuhl  moored on the outside wall of the marina. It was flying a Norwegian flag and was apparently in Kirkwall for a celebration of Norway’s constitution day. It seems links with Norway are still very strong here. The town was full of people who were obviously Norwegian, with their blond hair and blue eyes. It felt a bit like a Viking invasion.

Also in the marina was a beautiful old yacht called Overlord. This was owned by the Offshore Cruising Club and they were there to take a party of OCC members and guests on a cruise around Orkney and then up to Shetland and the Faroes. The yacht was originally part of a fleet of yachts built for training German officers and was taken in Kiel at the end of the war as part of war reparations. We were invited on board and were able to have a good look round. She is beautiful, but obviously is hard work to maintain, and no doubt to sail. The sails are hanked on and have to be raised by hand. No doubt we have become lazy with all our power winches, and roller furling, but all in all we are very happy with Suilven. We will be sailing the same waters in June, so hope that our paths will cross again.