Stornoway to Stromness

The plan was to sail across to the nearest part of Scotland and drop in on the Ridgeways in Loch Laxford. Honest. But over lunch in the bar of the 'Caley' in Stornaway we had realised that this was likely to mean arriving in the middle of the night - especially if we had another round - so we thought it would be rather nifty to sail on till dawn, round Cape Wrath and put into the first port on Scotland's Northern coast, Loch Eriboll.

So that was what we were thinking of when we set off in the late afternoon sun and tacked along the south coast of the Eye Peninsula to Abba's tune of 'So long, see you honey' played for us by Isles Radio. Some of the tacking was necessary in order to avoid the fishing vessels who were plying their trade there, and some occurred because Frank and Voltair couldn't agree which way to go. Frank knew where he wanted to go, but somehow Voltair was just not getting the message. Eventually however, we settled down into a steady five knot close-hauled course more or less due East, which was not exactly the direction that we wanted, but Robin said that maybe the wind would shift during the night - and the others muttered that that was not what was forecast.

In the early hours of the morning as we approached mainland Scotland, some miles south of Loch Laxford, the wind dropped to 10 knots and we furled the genoa and set course directly up wind with Perkins and George doing their best for us. Thus it was that Robin came on watch at 7 in the morning to the magnificent sight of the cliffs of Cape Wrath towering over little Voltair as John took us through the in-shore passage. He pointed out the only hazard, the Duslic Rock over four cables away to port and started to take photographs of the Cape. After a while Robin peered out of the windscreen, thinking to look back on the Duslic safely past, only to find the rock a few yards away and closing on us sideways, and fast. A ninety degree change of course and a previously unheard of bust of speed from Perkins, put us quickly out of harm's way but woke the rest of the crew - and prompted the dyslexic essay question.. "Tidal sets around headlands can have strong impacts on the course of vessels. Duslic".

With the tide now decidedly helpful rather than harmful, we zipped along the North coast and thought. "Why stop at Loch Eribol, why not the Kyle of Tongue for breakfast?"

And so it proved. We rounded up between the two Rabbit Islands and anchored off a small sandy beach, disturbing the morning siesta of the pair of basking seals, who rolled down the beach and swam out to have a look at us.

The menu for 'Breakfast' took the somewhat unconventional form of roast chicken, but it was being enjoyed at the somewaht unconventional hour of 12 noon. This meal was under way when the ever-watchful crew observed that the depth reading was now zero and the boat was facing the opposite way to how it was when we anchored. The wind had shifted to the SE and we now hanging onto our anchor altogether too close to the shore.

Now, on the other side of the Kyle, there was a tiny harbout offering ideal protection from winds of this direction, so we motored across to find it. The only problem was that, while the pilot book said the entrance was difficult to find and helpfully provided a sketch plan, the combined pickled brains of the entire crew could not match the plan with any visible part of the coast line. In the end we chose the least improbable gap between the rocks and gingerly sneaked into a pleasant tiny harbour with just enough room to swing a cat. But Voltair is not a cat. So we took the opportunity to practise our new found skills in double anchoring - this time without the use of a dinghy. Thus snugged down, lunch was finished, but we clearly could not stay the night, so plan 3(b) option 21 was activated and we set off for Scrabster, the nasty-sounding port universally used as the point of departure for crossing the Pentland Firth.

As we sailed along, we amused ourselves by reading up on the myriad dangers of this interesting bit of sea. The Merry Men of Mey were to be avoided at all times, the inner race was only passable between 09:15 and 09:30 the following day. There were tidal sets set up to send yachts onto each of a dozen rocks at the drop of a hat. We were all looking forward to the challenge when a new forecast came through - NE force 7. Well, that meant riding out the half gale in Scrabster ....or going on to the West Coast of Orkney that very afternoon. No sooner considered than done. A new course was set - a nice reach just right for the spinnaker, which was unearthed from Robin's bunk and heaved on deck. This immediately caused a 40 degree change of wind direction so that we couldn't use it! The spinnaker was tied up again in its bag, the vessel set on a close reach and the new target destination of Stromness dialled into the GPS. The sail across was brisk. The strenghthening wind giving us over 6 knots most of the time - and the tide doing ... well now that was an intersesting question.

We were equipped with various charts, almanacs and pilots. These provided useful information on tidal streams in some places in our general vicinity, some with times relative to HW Ullapool, others relative to Aberdeen, or Dover, or Wick, or Inverness. Soon our log book was festooned with calculations and the charts with roughly pencilled arrows. All that seemed to emerge from this was that the tides were very important, and that we hadn't got a clue as to which way they were going to be flowing by the time we got to any particular place that we might get to if the tides permitted. Now this was relevant because the tide in the sound of Hoy, part of the current route, moves eastwards at 8.5 knots at Springs (it's Springs) and it would be being opposed by a 20 to 25 knot wind, so if we hit it at full bore it could be very disturbed. So timing was all, and that depended on knowing how much help or hindrance the tides would give us on our approach. As it turned out, the tides left us pretty much to our own devices and so we attempted the sound just after half tide on the flood, when it should be running at its fastest. All crew donned their extreme weather gear, safetly harnesses were dug out of cupboards and checked over, lifejackets were issued all round, and the portable VHF was brought up on deck just in case.

And then we sailed down the sound with it scarcely even rippling! It added at most a couple of knots to our speed as we swung a left out of the stream into Stromness harbour. We felt as if we had dressed for dinner only to be served a dripping sandwich.

"Ah, you just made it in time", said the pair of old sea dogs off Nasseem II who took our lines as we came alongside the outermost finger of the new Marina at around 11 pm . We thought they were referring to the deteriorating weather, but it turned out later they meant the folk festival.

After the mandatory whisky and late supper - a delicious dish of lightly fried prawns in an entrancing sauce - we went to bed some hundred miles from the destination we had planned before entering the bar in Stornoway..

Ah well, that's sailing.

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