Greetings from Peterhead, just north of Aberdeen. This has been a wild and wonderful month - certainly the most challenging yet. Our planning has been dominated, not to say completely overwhelmed, by weather considerations, as an unrelenting series of depressions has swept across north and west Scotland for the whole of August. Despite these difficulties, we have notched up a few milestones - the most easterly and most northerly points of this voyage, and significant changes in direction from north west courses almost all the way from Bristol, first to the east and finally to the south. We have visited some awesome and remote places and - as we have progressed around from west to east - encountered Scottish accents changing from soft and gentle in the Hebrides, to lilting in Orkney, to incomprehensible here!Greetings from Peterhead, just north of Aberdeen. This has been a wild and wonderful month - certainly the most challenging yet. Our planning has been dominated, not to say completely overwhelmed, by weather considerations, as an unrelenting series of depressions has swept across north and west Scotland for the whole of August. Despite these difficulties, we have notched up a few milestones - the most easterly and most northerly points of this voyage, and significant changes in direction from north west courses almost all the way from Bristol, first to the east and finally to the south. We have visited some awesome and remote places and - as we have progressed around from west to east - encountered Scottish accents changing from soft and gentle in the Hebrides, to lilting in Orkney, to incomprehensible here!
The first 10 days of the month were effectively a continuation of the previous month's 'holiday' phase, but in deteriorating weather conditions. We left Kyle of Lochalsh, passing under the Skye Bridge on a real wet-sunday of a Sunday in 'moist' conditions which could romantically be described as beautiful, in a misty and mysterious Celtic sort of way, with clouds drifting around, exposing and hiding the peaks all around. However, this gradually disintegrated in the face of lashing rain and 25 knots on the nose as we approached the more complicated part of the trip, manoeuvring ourselves between the islands of Scalpay and Raasay and into the Sound of Raasay, and then northwards towards our destination of Portree, the main town of Skye. We wondered whether this weather was some sort of divine punishment for sailing on a Sunday - given views on observance of the Sabbath in these parts. As we approached Ben Tianaveig, the black and brooding presence jutting out just before Portree, the wind suddenly stopped altogether - and then just as suddenly started up again - very spooky. However, as we came round into Portree after this black and grey passage, it was as if the colour had suddenly been turned on, as the cheery pastel coloured buildings around the harbour came into view. The rain stopped and sun came out - all more welcoming than we could have thought possible.
We didn't have half enough time in Skye staying only a couple of days. We spent one of these exploring as much of the hinterland as possible by public bus, mainly on the Trotternish Peninsular, with a stop off to climb to the pinnacles of the Old Man of Storr - the most dramatic in the spectacular Jurassic landscape of escarpmented hills. A scenic landscape - more populated than we had expected, with whitewashed houses scattered around the countryside rather than in village clusters. As we rounded the far north of Skye we had our first sight of the Outer Hebridean Islands - a range of mountains on the horizon 20 miles across the sea in misty shades of blue, luring us across towards them. We would have spent longer in Skye but for ominous weather forecasts forcing our decision to move on towards Stornoway while the going was good, because Julia had a flight booked from there to travel south in a few days time. However, we did make time for a night in a famously beautiful anchorage on the island of Rona just 10 miles from Portree. It was certainly beautiful - and very crowded - and overlooked by a herd of magnificent highland cattle. We left early the next morning and enjoyed a fast and furious passage of 36 miles, right at the top end of the force 5-7 forecast. However, with the wind behind us and in sunshine - though boisterous, it felt quite exhilarating - and it was good both for the boat and ourselves to be tested in heavier conditions after the rather cushy short and sheltered passages we had enjoyed over the previous month.
Our landfall on the island of Lewis was off the hamlet of Lemreway at the mouth of Loch Shell. This consisted of a pier and a few houses scattered around the surrounding hillsides - very bleak - especially in the degenerating squally weather. The houses seemed to be keeping strangely aloof from each other where you would think they might want to huddle together for comfort. This remote and strange spot marked the most westerly point of our voyage, which we celebrated, musing over the bleak little 'village' and how different the inhabitants' lives must be from ours - wondering if they have a reading group!
The following day we moved on another 17 miles into Stornoway - 'capital' of the Outer Hebrides, towards the north of the island of Lewis. The town appeared at first rather industrial as we approached, but as we came further in more appealing - in a sturdy 'workmanlike' way - with quite a number of fishing boats and associated fishery services. The town, though not large, with only around 8,000 inhabitants, has its own identity and purpose, providing for the population of the Outer Hebrides at large. The harbour and town are overlooked from across the water by a splendid Victorian stately home in the romantic style of a Scottish castle - Castle Lews and its spacious grounds. It turned out that we had arrived at a very opportune time, with the two day Lewis Carnival and Tattoo Hebrides due that weekend. The town was buzzing with activity including a continental market. We hadn't expected to be eating tartiflette in Stornoway.
We duly went off to the Tattoo which took place in the grounds of Lews Castle - a fantastic location with the castle providing a magnificent backdrop at one end of the sloping field, and the harbour at the other. The display, lasting 4 hours, included 9 pipe bands- ranging from the very grandly dressed Lewis Pipe Band to smaller local Hebridean bands, to visitors from the Isle of Skye and North America. The opening march past of these massed bands led by the 9 drum majors was a stirring sight - and sound. Through the evening each band took its turn, interspersed by displays from various local groups - a very heart-warming celebration of the Hebridean people. After the firework finale, we immediately moved on to the Arts Centre for a Gaelic rock concert which we enjoyed particularly for its demonstration of the great love and pride the Hebridean people have for their beautiful islands.
We got to see a fair amount of the hinterland of Lewis, North and South Harris - the most northerly group of Outer Hebrides on one day's travelling on public buses and another day with a hire car. The scenery is awesomely beautiful. Treeless, barren, boggy and craggy, we have never seen terrain so wet - or so remote. There are literally hundreds of lochs - both sea and freshwater and it would be hard to say whether there is more land or water. Curiously the 'islands' of Lewis and Harris are in fact all one island, the boundary between Lewis and North Harris running about 9 miles between sea lochs indenting from east and west. The bus to the south of South Harris wound its way spectacularly down the eastern side of South Harris - along the 'Golden Road' - so called apparently because it cost so much to build. We walked the 4 miles along the southernmost tip of South Harris with heart-breakingly beautiful views of the islands to the south across the Sound of Harris - Berneray, the Uists and Benbecula, before returning back on the west coast alongside some staggeringly beautiful - and empty - white beaches. Our day with the car - in spectacularly wet weather - was spent visiting a number of sites on Lewis, the highlights being the 'Black House Village' - a settlement of low dry stone built dwellings with thick thatched roofs originating from the 1800/1900s and only finally vacated in 1974, and the Standing Stones of Callanish - around 50 standing stones in circles and an avenue - erected 3,000-4,000 years ago - older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids.
While Julia was away, Chris dealt with a niggling problem with the engine starter motor which was very occasionally refusing to work. While Chris was always able to hot wire the engine to start it, it was obviously rather a concern. He managed to find an excellent mechanic with the right contacts to get the problem sorted and all has been well since then. It is great that we've been able to sort out such problems that were only to be expected on this shake-down cruise, in such out of the way places and meeting such helpful and interesting characters.
While in Stornoway we decided to pay a visit to the Coastguard station there. There are 18 of these stations dotted around the coast, together covering the entire coast of the British Isles to co-ordinate maritime rescue services. We had already passed through areas Swansea, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Liverpool and Clyde before reaching the Stornoway area. As recommended, we have been reporting in all the longer passages of this voyage on departure and arrival. They regularly broadcast local forecasts and other information for shipping on the VHF radio and generally keep an eye on all shipping movements in their area. The team were very welcoming and keen to answer our questions as we looked around their operations room. They reassured us that they never mind being contacted for information and indeed, they are unfailingly polite and helpful when we do call them. They explained that the only resource actually under their direct command is the rescue helicopter and were obviously extremely proud of it, using it whenever possible. They also described their relationship with the RNLI lifeboats which they direct to rescue operations, but do not command. Following this visit, Chris was treated to a personal tour of the local lifeboat, as it turned out that the engineer who had helped with the starter motor was a member of the lifeboat crew. This was a Tamar Class - the largest type currently in use around the coast, and has been called out 29 times in the past year. Their perspective on rescue operations was that the Coastguard makes too much use of the helicopter, sometimes in inappropriate situations. The lifeboat crew are obviously very eager to be called out and feel they can often be more effective. Comforting to think of these rescue services almost vying with each other to rescue us - should the need arise!
We were in Stornoway for two whole weeks - by far the longest time anywhere. This was partly because Julia had to be away from the boat for 5 days, but then because of adverse weather forecasts. As our planned date of departure was put back day after day, we suffered something of a crisis of confidence, wondering if we would ever get away, what other alternatives we had, and whether we were really enjoying the continuing prospect of a series of anxious dashes from port to port between gales - a pattern which looked set to continue. The forecasts were (and are) prone to change significantly so we would go to bed thinking either that we would definitely be setting off the following morning, or definitely staying, only to find on waking, that the situation had changed, causing a complete re-think. We were finding it difficult to decide what conditions were acceptable and what not from the range of generally adverse conditions. The fact that this next passage was a longish one rounding Cape Wrath - with a fearsome reputation for dreadful weather - didn't help. However, after several days of on/off psyching ourselves up, the day finally came. We slipped out of Stornoway just before 6am and, though expecting sailable wind, spent the morning motoring towards the menacing cape - quite ironic after all the strong wind warnings. Cape Wrath (Norse for 'turning point') appeared on the horizon at around 11.30, a little wind piped up and we enjoyed a good motor-sail towards our turning point, keeping a prudent distance off. As we reached a point exactly due north of Cape Wrath and were congratulating ourselves on having done it and looking forward to a good sail 15 miles along the northern coast to our planned anchorage, the wind having imperceptibly increased to 20 knots, then piped up very quickly indeed to 30 knots on the beam, giving us a very boisterous but fast trip into Loch Eriboll. A significant 72 miles - and restoration of confidence.
Rispond Bay just into the mouth of Loch Eriboll was a special and beautiful place. We spent a day there in brilliant sunshine - and strong winds. But we didn't care as we went ashore for a walk in this awesome and remote area.
The following day we set off again, along the north coast of Scotland - feeling quite intrepid in this remote and unvisited area - with alternative destinations of Scrabster on the mainland, or Stromness in Orkney. The coast was as rugged and unforgiving as one might imagine it to be, with apparently random types of rock formation ranging from sharp pinnacles and stacks, to flat and square islets. At lunchtime, the forecast for the rest of the day looked good for Stromness, so just about opposite Dounereay, we set a more northerly course - for the last time during this voyage. The timing for entry into Stromness is problematic because of the exceptionally strong tides that run through the Sound of Hoy between the Atlantic and Scapa Flow. This was exacerbated by the fact that it just happened to be the strongest springs of the year on that very day! We did all the calculations to predict the timing of slack water, which was feasible to reach, sailing as we were - not very fast in a slightly lumpy sea. It was a lovely day and we had views of almost the whole north coast, right back to Cape Wrath to the west, Dunnet Head (the most northerly point on the mainland) to the east and the island of Hoy to the northeast - so we were feeling very happy. However, suddenly discovering that our mobile phones were working (!) we decided to call up Stromness Harbour for local knowledge to confirm our tidal calculation. To our surprise, their time was an hour and a half earlier than ours. Since this was not a timing to get wrong, we reluctantly put the engine on to increase speed and arrived off the Old Man of Hoy in plenty of time.
However, when we started through the Sound it was obvious, from the tumultuous overfalls, that we were too early and so had to turn back and hang around uneasily for an hour. Even then, we encountered significant overfalls before arriving safely into Stromness (our most northerly point - so another celebration). We could only assume that the time we had been given was for low water, rather than slack water - not necessarily the same thing. Another 57 miles on our way.
We loved Orkney, although only there for four days. Stromness - the second largest town in Orkney with a population of around 2,000 - was a little gem of a place - busy harbour in the inlet of Hamnavoe (Heavenly Bay) flanked by quaintly elegant little grey stone buildings dating from the 18th century when the town had its heyday. The paved main street winds its way through the town, widening out from time to time into mini squares, with alleys going off each side, up the hillside and down to the harbour - many houses having their own little pier - a legacy from its merchant history. There is an exceptionally good gallery with notable works of British 20th century art. We spent a day on local buses seeing further afield, finding a low-lying undulating agricultural countryside - in complete contrast to the Hebrides. There are a number of very ancient sites throughout the islands of Orkney - we saw the enormous Standing Stones of Stenness, a Bronze Age burial mound and the Ring of Brodgar - a circle of standing stones dating from 2,000-2,500BC. Top site is the Neolithic village of Skara Brae - a group of stone dwellings situated right on the Atlantic coast. We were fascinated by the stone 'furniture' - beds, dressers, hearths of these ancient homes. We also went to visit the Italian Chapel - a church lovingly and most beautifully created out of two Nissen huts by Italian prisoners of war. This was touching in so many ways - the devotion and craftsmanship of the prisoners, the support they received, and the ongoing friendship forged between Orkney and the former Italian prisoners.
During our time in Stromness, a subtext to our sightseeing was the imminent arrival of Hurricane Bill. Its northern edge caught us unfortunately on the day for our passage through Scapa Flow - which we had been anticipating greatly - not just as our first southerly passage, but more because of its resonant naval history. Scapa Flow is a tremendous natural harbour of 120 square miles, surrounded by 7 of the Orkney islands, with two main entrances - The Sound of Hoy and the Sound of Hoxa in the south. It contains vast numbers of sunken wrecks - in 1917 HMS Vanguard blew up with the loss of over 800 crew, in 1919 the German High Seas Fleet, comprising 74 ships was anchored in Scapa Flow, interned by the British pending the ongoing armistice talks. Owing, it seems, to a misunderstanding as to how the talks were going, Admiral Reuter, in charge of the fleet, gave orders for the whole fleet to be scuttled. A number of these ships are still at the bottom - a mecca for divers. In 1939 HMS Royal Oak was hit while at anchor, by a torpedo from a U boat which had sneaked into Scapa Flow from one of the eastern entrances. The Churchill Barriers - causeways between four of the eastern islands (the project on which the Italian prisoners was engaged) closed up these entrances. Since the 1970s, the island of Flotta in the south, has been the oil terminal for Piper and Claymore fields. However, though only 19 miles, this passage was hard going, as we tacked back and forth into very strong headwinds in showery rain - conditions rather overwhelming our sense of history - before we arrived gratefully to anchor off the village of St Margaret's Hope - a mini-Stromness of grey stone buildings just inside the south east of Scapa Flow.
We would like to have gone ashore the following day, but the forecast suggested we move on south the next day before several days of gales. Regretfully therefore we left Orkney on a sunny day, leaving Scapa Flow through the Sound of Hoxa. The Pentland Firth between Orkney and mainland Scotland is a really really scary tidal gate, with dire warnings in the pilot book advising on conditions it is essential to avoid: springs, wind over force 4, swell, wind against tide, and fog. Given the conditions we have experienced all this month, that seemed a tall order - still, it was nearly neaps and there was no fog - though a new gale warning for 'later' was announced by Shetland Coastguard after we had set off. 'Later' means in 12 hours time so we pressed on. After 11 miles, we anchored briefly to await slack water in Aith Hope - a bay with a lifeboat station - conveniently placed to rescue us should the need arise! In the event, for the rest of the passage, the wind dropped off more or less completely and we ended up motoring the 27 miles of very benign conditions around Duncansby Head - the north east tip of mainland UK - and into Wick. The east coast - so another momentous turning point to celebrate!
On our first foray ashore, in a howling gale the following day, Wick appeared dismal and bleak - cold grey buildings without any obvious charm. Evidently quite a depressed area, it was not improved by the greyness of the day and the chill wind blowing through it. We found the Tourist Info office, located in a men's outfitters, upstairs in the kilt department! Things improved the next day and we were particularly impressed by the museum - a fantastic labour of love and a wonderful representation of the history of the town giving us a whole new and more positive take on the place. Wick was, in its heyday in around 1860, the largest herring port (purpose built by Telford) in Europe, and probably the world, with well over 1,000 boats based there. We saw less than half a dozen, and sadly, no one seems to have any idea what is to happen now in this remote little town.
Our last passage of the month - 79 miles across the Moray Firth - was something of an epic. The first half was a tremendous sail on a beam reach, averaging speeds between 6.5 and 7 knots through the water, plus a good tide. Starting off rather boisterously, the sea and wind very gradually began to die off until - just as we reached the landmark of 1,000 miles for this voyage - it dropped altogether. Motoring in very benign conditions and having done so well up until then, we decided to press on a further 20 miles to Peterhead, rather than to our original destination of Fraserborough. Not a good idea as it turned out, as wind from the south gradually kicked in, steadily increasing until for the final 2 hours we were motoring hard with great difficulty into 35 knots, wondering whether we would ever make it. A miserable end to what had been a fantastic sail. It was truly wonderful to get into the huge port of Peterhead - locally known as the Port of Refuge - and also by us!
So here we are on the east coast, on the final leg of our voyage. Neither of us are at all familiar with this side of the country, so we're looking forward to checking it out. However, yet again we find ourselves currently waiting for a weather window for the next leg. Would it be too much to hope for an Indian Summer of sailable winds, rather than constantly trying to make progress ahead of the next gale? Wish us luck.
Julia and Chris