Summer 2022
John Andrews
Thu 30 May 2013 06:56

Kirkwall to Stromness


Sailing in Orkney is not for the faint-hearted. The chart is littered with ‘Rosts’ and ‘Roosts’ and worrying whirpool signs and wavy lines indicating overfalls. The tides are vicious and at springs can reach over 10 knots in speed, impossible to make way against. We therefore had to plan the passage with care, picking up the ebb tide taking us from Kirkwall through the Eynhallow Sound, sailing round the West of Mainland and picking up the flood tide coming into Stromness.

The Clyde Cruising Club sailing directions are very precise. ‘The principal problem to be faced on this passage is the Burgar Rost in Euynhallow Sound where heavy overfalls occur on the west-going ebbtide, especially with wind against tide or when a westerly swell can increase the size of the overfalls. Leave Kirkwall on an ebb tide with sufficient time to arrive at Aiker Ness at the East end of Eynhallow Sound during the last two hours of the ebb at neaps and not earlier than the last hour at springs’.  It also gives suggestions as to where to anchor and wait if you arrive too early. We timed our passage to arrive just at the end of the ebb but arrived a little early and could see a wall of white water in front of us. We slowed right down and before our eyes the water calmed until John said, ‘right – we’re going for it’. Even though there was no ‘wall of white water’, the passage across the ‘Rost’ was very exciting, not dissimilar to a roller coaster ride. We were soon through however and able to carry on around the north west corner of Mainland. We were now in a brisk North Westerly breeze which would giv us a good angle to sail round the western edge of mainland, but was slightly worryingly taking us along a lee shore. We were making good progress motor-sailing when I suddenly noticed two buoys marking lobster pots bouncing along behind us. ‘What a lot of tide they are fighting’ was my immediate thought, followed almost immediately by the realization that we had caught the lobster pots and were dragging them behind us. ‘Oh my God’ said John as he cut the engine. The bows immediately blew down-wind, taking us towards the lee shore, which now seemed dangerously close. A poke around with the boat hook confirmed that we were firmly attached to the pots, but didn’t know how – were we caught by the keel or the skeg, or, worst case scenario, was the rope wrapped round the prop. We were all thinking through possible consequences. John thought he might have to don wet suit and go over board to cut us free.  I was going through the Mayday procedure in my head, our guests were wondering about launching the life raft – no engine so would smash against the rocks or inflate and launch the dinghy and engine – murderously difficult in these conditions. The only ray of hope was that the sound of the engine had not changed, so the chances were the rope was not round the propeller. John decided it was worth the risk of putting the engine briefly in reverse, and to our collective relief, we saw the buoys drop astern and we were free. We have obviously gone through the ‘learnings’ from this incident and one obvious one is keep a better lookout for lobster pots, but they are not easy to spot in any sea and to keep a keen look-out all the time is not easy. At night time you wouldn’t have a chance.  So the lesson is just that they are a risk and one needs to keep as good a lookout as you can.

We were able to carry on our way, under sail now, past the Kitchener memorial, past Skara Brae, the Neolithic village, past the tidal energy research station off the entrance to Stromness Sound. In the distance we could see the extraordinary stack known as the Old Man of Hoy. We picked up the east going tide as planned and saw our speed pick up to over 10 knots as we entered the narrow squeeze between Mainland and Graemsay. We started getting concerned that we would be swept right past the entrance to Stromness, but we clawed our way across the stream and out into the gentler waters on the other side. We arrived at the marina to find Nademia already safely tucked up. The harbour master instructed us to go onto the hammerhead which we did, but were dismayed later that night to be chased off by the survey ship which arrived in the dark, flashing lights at us and hooting its horn saying they were much bigger and heavier than us and we were in their space. We reluctantly re-moored, but established that in fact they were no longer or heavier than us, just more aggressive.

The next day was a full on gale. We hired a car to do a tour of the island, the only hire car left, and went over to see the Burgar Rost at full tide. It was awesome and completely impassable.


We did a tour of the iconic sites of Orkney,  the Italian Chapel created by Italian prisoners of war sent to Orkney to build the Churchill Barriers,



Skarra Brae, a 5000 year old Neolithic village


and the impressive ring of Brodgar, a complete circle of standing stones.


All this was done in gale force winds. I was nearly blown over at Skarra Brae. Although it made the sightseeing uncomfortable, it did feel very elemental and in keeping with these extraordinary ancient sites that we were visiting.

We had a few days before the start of the festival, so were able to get a good feel of Stromness which is a delightful town.








It has an excellent small museum which highlights amongst other things the links Stromness had with the Hudson Bay Company in Canada. It also features Stromness resident, Dr John Rae, who was an arctic explorer. Unlike other explorers of the time, he befriended the native Americans and was able to find the remains of the Franklin expedition that had perished looking for the final link in the North West Passage. He discovered that they had almost certainly resorted to cannibalism, a fact that was fiercely rejected by Franklin’s widow and the establishment, including Charles Dickens, and Dr Rae was never accorded the recognition he deserved.

The next day, we took a ferry over to Hoy and walked from Ratrick Bay up to the Old Man of Hoy where we got impressive views of the stack and of the hundreds of  fulmars that were nesting on the cliffs of Hoy. We then had a delightful walk along the old post track along a valley between two high hills, one of them the highest hill in Orkney.








The next  four days were taken up with some serious festival going. We had booked for concerts every evening and for late night concerts, keeping us up till about two o’clock every  night.

We took a break on the third night to join up with Alasdair and Caroline and their friends from Nademia, but that alas turned into another late night as well.

All the bands were marvelousl, but one group of musicians was particularly interesting,  the Cheechoo family, Cree Indians from Moose Factory on Hudson Bay, who played old tunes learned from the Orcadians who went out with the Hudson Bay Company in the 19th Century.

I threw caution to the winds and decided to play my violin in the Fiddler’s Rally, a concert for all comers, but in fact mainly groups from the various islands who get together to play traditional dance music, all ages from 8 to 80 represented.  It was tremendous fun, and once again I was  impressed by the talent that these small communities are able to nurture and develop.

Bridget and Andrew left us on Monday morning and we had a lazy day recovering from the excesses of the previous 4 days. The next task is to plot a course through the tides to Westray, our next port of call on our way North to Shetland.