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An Orkney Summer Cruise

By Sue Richards last modified Dec 29, 2008 07:17 PM

Published: 2008-12-29 19:17:25
Countries: United Kingdom

An Orkney Cruise – August 2008
Our thanks to Brian Black, of SY Caelan, who took the time to send this useful and interesting report to noonsite.

One of the main hazards to be treated with care when cruising Orkney, are the strong tidal currents that sweep through the sounds and channels of this charming island group. To any sailor familiar with Strangford Narrows, the roaring streams take you around the islands in grand and similar style, even if from time to time you meet a current going against you when you had expected it to be in your favour.

Our landfall on Orkney was memorable. We had anchored in Lough Erribol just round from Cape Wrath at the northwest corner of Scotland, to time our arrival at Hoy Sound on a rising tide. The passage plan was to work our way up the Inner Hebrides on the assumption that the prevailing winds from the south west that would help us on our way north would be against us on the homeward leg. So we would return from Orkney by way of the Caledonian Canal to get as much lee from those winds as possible, round the Mull of Kintyre and back to Strangford by early September. Unlike most of my previous cruises, the planning this time actually worked out splendidly.

Lough Erribol to Stromness Harbour
A big cross sea was running into the entrance of Lough Erribol as we departed making the first hour of the 45 mile passage rough and disturbed. Our course was 060o true with the wind fulfilling its forecast promise of around force 4-5 from the northeast. As the Scottish mainland dipped astern in a gentle Atlantic swell, we had the sea-cliffs of Hoy, at 350m the highest in Britain, to bear down on. This was the kind of sailing we had signed on for – clear skies, a good breeze and the anticipation of a new and challenging landfall. Closing with the coast, the famous rock pinnacle of the Old Man of Hoy soon stood clear. As a one-time climber back in 1966 I watched with trepidation while Chris Bonnington and his team made the first ascent and just recently it was done again in the scrutiny of the tv cameras making a hard climb look difficult. In fact, bearing in mind the crumbling Old Red Sandstone it’s made from, even setting foot on the thing today is nothing short of suicidal.

The crucial thing about Orkney is to work the tides which meant we needed the flood to carry us through the Sound of Hoy and into Stromness. Concentrated study of the pilot book gave us leading lines and exit points, all very helpful. But a quick eyeball on the state of the sea as we neared the sound told us everything – stay away from the overfalls. This also underlined the importance of getting the tides right, mistiming them could put 8 knots of current against you. A contrary wind of 10 – 15 knots had kicked up enough of a sea even on the flood to warn you off. But the overfalls were clearly defined and I put Caelan to the edge of the disturbed water where the sea-state was easier. Once into the sound, the sea flattened out and it was only a matter of careful pilotage to round the point and gain the sheltered waters of Stromness harbour. Warps secured in the delightful marina, cold beer poured and a tray of nibbles as a reward for the passage.

Stromness set the pattern for what was to become a typical Orkney welcome – friendly, helpful and full of advice. Visiting yachts elsewhere get the full range of receptions depending on where they fetch up. In crowded areas docking, anchoring or re-fuelling can be little more than formalities with no personal contact and finding shelter and supplies can be something of a challenge. But throughout our stay in Orkney we had nothing but gentle curiosity and good old fashioned sea-faring assistance. The first example of this came when the marina attendant handed over the Ports Handbook. It was full of information, but of real value was the bit at the back which gave tidal streams around the islands along with harbour plans, pontoons and the location of swinging moorings provided by the Islands Council.

As Ireland submerged beneath the wettest summer in years, we were enjoying fine weather with plenty of sunshine and acceptable winds. The depressions bringing misery to the homeland tracked south of us in Orkney, in fact looking to the southern horizon one could see the disturbed cloud associated with low pressure systems complete with wind and rain. Orkney is low lying and noted for the mildness of its climate although this can bring amazing variety of weather in the course of a single day featuring the occasional summer sea-mist or “haar”. The islands have big skies and a landscape that resonates with history. There are over 3000 archaeological sites that are known about and countless more emerge as wind and wave continuously erode the coastline. You walk past heritage everywhere across an ancient landscape where links with the past are all around. Pre-historic villages, burial chambers and stone circles abound. The land has been farmed since neolithic times and the field patterns which today form the basis of the islands’ agricultural economy, were established by those early farmers around five thousand years ago.

The following is crew member Bob Brown’s impression of Stromness:-

“For a small storm-swept town regarded as on the edge of nowhere, Stromness packs a big cultural punch. Its low stone houses, narrow winding streets and alleys, crowd around the harbour, and up the steep slope surrounding the bay. Intimate little doorways and dark little sash windows open into lanes that afford shelter in even the worst of weathers. The museum is a treasure trove of maritime history that reveals that, far from being isolated, Stromness and its Orcadian hinterland have seen some of the most historic, and tragic, ventures. Captain James Cook put in here to refill with water (the well is still there on the main street) and to stock up Endeavour with hardy Orkney mariners for his long passage – they were known to make great seamen. It is possible to guess that Stromness was the last British community he visited before eventually dying in a south sea island skirmish.

The same might also be said of Sir John Franklin in Erebus and Terror setting out in 1845 for his final and disastrous attempt to find the north-west passage. Again, it was Stromness people who may have been the last Europeans to see the expedition cast off from British shores, sailing unknowingly to a fate of extreme cold, shipwreck and starvation that most likely forced them into cannibalism in a doomed attempt to survive the arctic winter.”

Stromness to Rousay
Sadly the forecast for Sunday August 17th did not consider our well being. Due to time constraints, we had decided to skip Skapa |Flow and concentrate on the northern part of the islands instead. The first favourable tide for a passage from Stromness to Rousay coincided with an east/southeast wind predicted at force 7 but falling towards day’s end. As this leg would take us back out to sea, then round and into the northern sector of the Orkney Island group via the notorious Eynhallow Sound with its 7 knot tides and a potentially dodgy bit of pilotage around the Burger Rost, I let prudence prevail and awaited the next opportunity which would be towards 1700 that evening.

The wind abated and we slipped away heading west through Hoy Sound. Bob’s journal records the wisdom of the decision.

“It was a good move, and as the day progressed the howling wind and low scudding clouds settled and eased. At 1700 we eased Caelan out from her berth and into the sound, chopping against the short white-capped waves that showed brilliant against the dark grey-blue metallic of the waters. We left the low wedge-shaped island of Graemsay to port, behind it the massive, dark and cloudy slopes of Hoy (old Norse for ‘High’), with its defiant sandstone cliffs.

Racing clouds swirling over these enormous sandstone crags and stacks were sufficient warning for the conditions below – williwaws bounced down from the heights, sending spray and cat’s paws across the waters, screaming through the rigging, and threatening to put Caelan on to her beam ends. Great skuas, or bonxies, those voracious pirates of the seabird world, danced around us, bullying each other, or any other poor victim, for a good vomit of the latest meal. They got nothing from us, and as we turned north to run along the western coast of West Mainland they lost interest and instead we had a wonderful sail, close-hauled in the northeast wind, rattling along at 6-7 knots, in some of the clearest and most beautiful evening light that you could ask for.

Towards the north end of Mainland we rounded Marwick headland with its dark and sombre tower, a monument to Lord Kitchener’s death by drowning on a mined battleship in the First World War. Everywhere, you see reminders of the role these islands have played in world events. Shortly after, with the sun beginning to nudge the horizon, we rounded Brough Island and aimed for Eynhallow Sound.”

With strong tides in prospect, I generally revert to my Strangford experience and try to be at the crux points around slack water. So we plugged about 1-2 knots for the first part of the passage. This eased just as we reached the mouth of Hoy Sound giving way to a fair stream and a fresh sometimes strong southeasterly blow.

Bob records our approach to Eynhallow.

“This sound is no place to be when there is a west-going tide race and a strong westerly wind, as we were later to see on the gravestones of drowned Rousay islanders. For us however, conditions were exactly the opposite. As dusk began to settle into dark, we positively raced past Eynhallow Island, urged on by a 4-5 knot current, and watched for the conspicuous dyke on the Rousay slopes, visible even in the gloom. Here, we turned towards this landmark, avoiding the reef showing as a line of white breakers to our starboard. From there, it was a simple choice for Rousay Sound – to leave Wyre Island to starboard and take the shallower, more complex route, or to take Wyre to port, and creep round more easily round its northern end.”

It is undoubtedly wise to heed the warnings in the pilot book, but once again experience in Strangford Narrows gave us a sense of the water so despite the book’s slight preference for taking Wyre island to port, I decided to go to the other side but just in case, all eyes were on every navigational feature at our disposal - the chart plotter, the depth sounder, the binos and good old fashioned instinct. This sometimes works, it certainly did in this case and we were sipping good whiskey from a steady deck by 2300 to prepare us for a magnificent spaghetti bolognese of gourmet standard that was presented as a midnight snack before turning in.

We found out the following day that the little harbour at Trumland is fine for tying alongside at either of the outer walls, going inside would involve hassle with mooring lines and might not be deep enough anyway for a boat drawing 2 metres.

Rousay Island - Northern Orkneys

Bob’s journal again:-

“There is much to explore on the island, and the little harbour pub helped us contact a local taxi driver, a Derry man called Paddy (yes, it’s true) who gave us a complete circumnavigation of the island’s roads. It is a generally low lying, intensely farmed island, with two diminutive mountains in the centre. Life for farmers was much harsher in the past, and everywhere deserted crofts are tucked away in sheltered hollows, massive sandstone slates now collapsing into ruins – inside, you find old beer bottles, perhaps echoing a last farewell drink before emigration.

Everywhere in Orkney there are much more ancient ruins, and we visited a number of Neolithic sites or “Knowes” which are exceptionally well preserved, and are being exposed through erosion of coastal dunes and soils. It is a humbling experience to look down at a well organised building with stone walls, stone beds, dressers and other furnishings, and realised that some 5000 years ago they were almost as well equipped for the essentials of life as we are, with the sole exception perhaps of our ability to put things in writing.”

Rousay to Westray Island - West Orkney
Tuesday August 19 saw us heading for Westray, the westernmost island in the group. To get there I calculated on a southgoing tide to begin with then a fair tide up through several islands which open into the North Sound and our destination, Pierowall. Wrong ! A 3 knot current set us back as we threaded our way past Fairness Point and into the Sound of Faray which eventually opened to present Westray on the port hand around the time the tide turned in our favour. For me as skipper this was an interesting lesson in how to miscalculate the tides. Bob, forgiving as always, noted in his journal:-

“It is both a challenge and a delight, to play the tides that run between these islands. By hugging the Egilsay shore we avoided the worst and as our calculations had indicated, a mile or so later the current eased. As we gathered pace, the sun burst through and now holding a course of about 340° we hoisted sail, gave the engine a rest, and for the next few hours Carey helmed us past the tiny island of Red Holm and on past the Cliffs of Westray, to work our way past Papa Westray into the Pierowall Roads. If ever there was a good day’s sailing this had to be it!”

So a favourable breeze and a clear sky had us sailing into Pierowall, yet another Orcadian name to conjure with – “Pier” could relate to a local character but the “wall” bit is from the Norse “hofn” or haven which was in fact the old name for the place. The islands resonate with history and the archaeology that ranges from the stone age through Viking times to the last world war is an enduring memorial to violent struggle, treachery and changing alliances. Some of this is chronicled in the Orkneyinga Saga, translated from the Icelandic, which in brief and stark terms covers the slaughter that went on over a three hundred year period from the ninth century. Few characters come out of this well except for Magnus who, being a peace-loving sort of chap, interceded in a family dispute and had his head smashed in for his pains. He was later canonised and his bones complete with shattered skull were deposited in what became the cathedral named after him in Kirkwall. But history, as they say, is another story. Ours is a sailing yarn and so back to Pierowall.

Westray Island – Pierowall Harbour
Entrance to the harbour is straightforward to and if timed to coincide with the fishing boats landing their catch, can present opportunities for a fish supper. In our case, while Caelan was being made fast alongside, Carey was doing a deal with the local fish merchant.

“Within minutes the evening menu was sorted in terms of scampi, scallops and monkfish, all assembled into a banquet with cream, rice and bacon, washed down with wines that Eric had thoughtfully stowed in advance,” recalls Bob.

As penance for over-indulgence we went on a cycling expedition of the island for the next two days. Interesting though this was, perhaps the most enduring memories of this exertion were the bruised nether regions of the cyclists who all felt as though they were being clove in two by a special kind of Orkadian torture known as bicycle saddles.

Places of note are so numerous in these fascinating islands that to quote one out of hundreds is difficult. Noltland Castle outside Pierowall is a powerful pile connected to Mary Queen of Scots, more treachery and fatal folly. On the west side of the island is the Gentlemen’s Cave where local Jacobites escaped the English terror after Culloden. Bird cliffs, powerful rosts (races) visible from the safety of the land, Neolithic remains, scenes of bloody murder, all are there. I strongly recommend a bit of research before you go to work out what you want to see and do.

While nursing our delicate parts, we had many a dram with the harbour master, Tom, who had much to say about everything including the beautifully maintained fleet of racing skiffs known as “yoles’”. Yole racing is the stuff of Orcadian piracy and local score settling. These are elegant little clinker-built skiffs, about 5m length that formerly were the mainstay of inshore fishing, and must have kept many a family fed during times of poor harvest. Today they are Bermuda-rigged, and so lovingly maintained that even 120 year old craft still hold their own in a race. Thus, armed with suitable tinctures, accompanied by Tom’s acerbic commentary on the various skirmishes, we watched from the harbour walls as the crews battled it, and the evening settled in.

Papa Westray Island
Across Papa Sound is the island of Papa Westray where the daily flight connecting the two is shorter than the main runway at Heathrow. I turn once again to Bob’s journal entry.

“We took the lazy option, and nipped over on the ferry which takes about twenty minutes, arriving at a very small quay at the south end. Topography is similar to Westray, and it is difficult to get lost because there is only one main central road on the island. We walked most of it, with a background of increasing cloud, showers, and the raucous calls of greylag geese everywhere, to the extraordinary Knap Howe which is perhaps the best preserved of all the ruins we saw, and illustrated a farming community that must have been every bit as sophisticated as that seen on the island today, barring today’s technology.”

Heading South – Pierowall to Kirkwall
In contrast to previous seasons I decided this year to cruise short distances slowly. With two of my crew members due to depart in three days time, we began to move south for them to get the flight from Kirkwall. That left plenty of time for yet another attempt to get a handle on the tidal streams. We left Pierowall on Friday August 22 with the wind set in the northeast around force 3-4. We sailed when we could, used the engine when we had to for the 28 miles to Kirkwall. We went down the Sound of Eday, leaving that island to starboard, Sanday to port. Stronsay to port and Shapinsay to starboard had us entering Shapinsay Sound with the tide running hard against us ! That was definitely not what I’d planned so imagine my surprise when we discovered another boat which had left Pierowall behind us, tucked up in Kirkwall one hour ahead. They had taken a slightly different route , going to the other side of Shapinsay and carrying a fair tide all the way. As I mentioned earlier, you have to work the tides in Orkney.

Kirkwall and the end of the Cruise
Kirkwall, with a population of around 15,000 is the capital of the islands and a pleasant place it is too.

“The last few hours were not wasted,” recalls Bob. “ Kirkwall abounds in neat little shops and small streets, and the Cathedral tells much about the islands’ history and religion, and poor old St Magnus still lies there, nursing his head wound after some thousand years. Caelan’s crew carefully checked out a shop, bizarrely with prams in the window, giving the best deals on local malts and other mind-altering potions. And, after yet another gargantuan dinner, the only place to be seen was at the “Wriggly Sisters” where brilliant blues and folk were to be heard.”

It can be amazing how one’s attitude changes as circumstances alter. It was blowing hard with worse to come as we lay snug enough in Kirkwall at the end of the Orkney cruise. Eric and I were in a hurry to get home, across the notorious Pentland Firth, south and then southwest down the Moray Firth and into the Caledonian Canal. Bob and Carey had arranged to fly out. Twenty four hours previously we were all focused on the boat, now with a flight due Bob announced his concern about a bumpy flight. From those about to go to sea, there was little sympathy, in fact – none.