Strong winds and strong tides are the order of the day as Jonty Pearce sails from Fair Isle to Orkney

The sun warmed us as a gentle breeze ruffled the harbour of Scalloway on the west coast of Shetland. Our two boats were comfortably moored on the Scalloway Boating Club pontoon while we sought new supplies, said goodbye to three crew members, and welcomed replacements. My main task had been bodging up a replacement electric anchor windlass control, but once that was done I kept busy worrying about tidal calculations, forecasts, and passage plans for our crossing to Fair Isle and thence to Orkney.

Refuelling was not as simple as we had been told; I know it was a Saturday but the contact number for the on-call fuel berth led us a real paper chase. We finally manoeuvred into a tight dock where the helpful attendant was more used to dispensing 300 gallons than 10. After wriggling our way back out of the enclosed dock we were glad to be heading out into open water again to enjoy a cracking sail down to St Ninian’s Isle to anchor for the night before setting off the next day to Fair Isle. Despite the shelter, the swell swept round and we were lulled to sleep by the rhythmical swish of surf on the fine sand beach. We might have slept less deeply if we had known at the time that the yacht’s recently installed instruments read one metre less depth than we had been led to believe; when I investigated later in Kirkwall I discovered that the keel offset was set to 0.1m, rather than 1.0m plus the charterer’s grace of another half… It explained why we had been able to get closer to shore than or companions!

The sea area between Fair Isle and Sumburgh Head at the southern tip of Shetland is called The Hole. A two-mile offing of Fitful Head and Sumburgh Head to avoid the roost (tidal over falls) is advised. Luckily our passage was at neaps, with a calm sea and gentle winds, so we saw nothing of the horrendous sea state that can be encountered here. In fact our crossing to Fair Isle was something of an anticlimax, though the emerging shape of the island through the prevailing murk was a thrill. After carefully following the wonderful natural transit of the vertical face of Sheep Rock on the Stack of North Haven we entered the island’s only safe harbour to find three yachts already occupying the quay. The remaining pier space is taken when the island’s ferry, The Good Shepherd, is launched. Conditions in these parts can be so severe that this boat lives hauled up a railway track into a rock crevice… We found depth tied to the shore side of the pier. Just. It was here that a leadline revealed the difference between our two boat’s depth sounders.

We had a lovely day on Fair Isle walking, exploring, and revelling in bird sightings – Arctic Skua, Bonxies, Long Eared Owl, Puffins, terns – my day was only marred by two things. Firstly, my camera card failed, making me fear I’d lost all of my images. I’m glad to say that a month later and £156 lighter nearly all of them have been recovered. The second concern was a constant apprehension that despite the clear blue skies and blazing sun the weather was going to break into a strong northeasterly. Now, North Haven in Fair isle is not the place to be with such a wind, and when my instincts were shown correct by my smart phone’s GRIB file download and then later the shipping forecast the harbour started to empty quickly. We departed early the next morning; if all had gone to plan we would have been safe on Westray before the wind rose.

But always expect the unexpected; while our boat enjoyed an easy run, goose-winging part of the way, our companion preferred to motor-sail. Apart from creating a large disparity between our boat speeds, it all came to disaster when the VHF crackled into life with news that they had picked up a floating line and were tethered to the seabed between Fair Isle and Orkney. The skipper had been quick to disengage gear and was as confident as you can be that he had not wrapped the line round the prop, but the fact that he was moored by the stern with waves breaking into the cockpit gave me doubts. They left the mainsail up to make themselves more visible while we turned into what had now become a Force 6 on the nose. It was a clear demonstration of how yachtsmen can be misled by the ‘calm’ of a following wind with a 7.5-knot boat speed; the apparent wind speed increased by nearly double on our five mile return to the crippled yacht. Our powerful engine was man enough to push though the mounting waves, though spray aplenty came on board to compound the soaking I was getting from the sudden rainstorm. Typically, I had been seduced by the fine conditions and was not fully oilied up.

Wary of approaching too close with a floating line in the water, we gave what advice we could . A passing tug was made aware, but it was dropping the mainsail that did the trick; the boat swivelled round and was freed, and after an adequate clearance had been gained from the danger zone, the motor worked fine. We continued on our way; Catherine J sailing again and Reach North once more motor-sailing! Hey ho. Once they had created their desired angle to reach towards Westray they did finally sail, and we were both glad to moor up in Pierowall Marina with our bows to the forecast Force 8 Northwesterly that was on its way. We ended up there for three nights, with a peak recorded wind speed of 58 knots. When I later mentioned this to the Kirkwall Marina Harbourmaster he was not impressed – they leave their washing on the line up to 70 knots… Hardy folk.

The days were spent exploring Westray and Papa Westray; the inter-island ferries operate in anything less than a hurricane. The area is rich in Neolithic and Viking sites which made walking and exploring all the richer. Both crews got together for a communal feast at the Pierowall Hotel, but we were all glad to be on our way after our third night moored up. Typically, there was not enough wind to sail when we left, so we motored through the channels between the islands after careful tidal calculation to avoid the extreme streams that can race through the narrow gaps. A pod of Risso’s dolphin entranced us en route, but we now needed to find an anchorage secure in a southwesterly blow; cyclonic gales were the name of the game. An anchorage by the pier at Egilsay proved to be too close to the ferry access, so we crossed Gairsay Sound to moor in a fine looking anchorage between Gairsay and The Hen of Gairsay. We settled down, maybe foolhardily not setting an anchor watch because both of our boats dragged in the small hours. A third boat slightly further up was OK, but weed fouled our attempts, not helped by our picking up some old moorings. Unfortunately our anchor crew managed to operate the winch while the chain was still cleated off. The main anchor fuse blew, and we had to resort to lifting the anchor of a 42 foot yacht by hand in a Force 7.


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After this, lacking an electric anchor windlass in an area of poor holding (our companions had four attempts), I called it a day and proposed a diversion to our ultimate destination of Kirkwall Marina. All the sheltered berths were taken, but even with the Force 7 up our tail I managed to approach forwards down a alley of yachts with the engine nearly full astern to swing lightly into a secure berth. Our companions followed suit and rafted up to us before pulling up into the alongside berth.

And there we stayed for the duration, pressed against the pontoon by strong winds. If I’d tried to move I couldn’t, so we wandered round Kirkwall and enjoyed a hearty and well-earned breakfast. Our yacht was handed back safely, and Carol and I enjoyed a few days exploring Orkney before boarding our ferry back. We’d had a fantastic three weeks full of activity, events and new places. I’m determined to return for longer in our own boat. But when?