Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Shetland Islands

Jaime writes:

Well, here we are anchored in Hamar Voe next to the Ura Firth in the Shetland Isles. Fortunately there are many "Hamar Voes" (safe harbour in Old Norse) in the Shetlands and Orkneys as a gale is continuing to rage around us for the second day in a row. It's quite safe here as the name suggests, however we don't really want to leave the boat for any time. It's a strange feeling to put your faith in a metal chain attached to the seabed by a heavy hook about 35m away, but so far it seems to be working. In the meantime we have been reading and eating quite a lot. Our day is punctuated by the weather forecast broadcast by the coastguard every four hours and we were kind of hoping he would play us some nice music or tell us a joke rather than give us the bad news again. There is very little around here, the closest "civilisation" is a vegetarian restaurant five miles away, if you can call that civilisation. Anyway what on earth is such a restaurant doing here, I haven't seen an allotment since we arrived, however meat and seafood are in abundance. There is reportedly a seal sanctuary in the back garden (no mention of veggie plot), seems a bit suspect to me. We shall investigate once (and if) this weather ceases. Enough cabin fever induced rambling, how did we get here anyway?

Colin's plan was to leave at 4am for the 70 or so mile passage to Shetland from Westray in the Orkneys. We radioed the coastguard to let them know our plans in case we came into difficulties and left the harbour under sail. The wind was pretty fresh and delivered us almost to Scalloway on the western side of the Shetland archipelago. We were rarely out of sight of land and we could see Fair Isle and the precipitous cliffs of the Isle of Foula for most of the way. The light here is distinct, I can't say exactly what is different about it compared to other places, but it seems to have more clarity or brightness, the sky seems somehow closer. Normally, things look more beautiful and the colours more vibrant when I wear my sunglasses, however here the opposite is the case. The low sun illuminated the cliffs of the Shetland mainland and a number of blocks of rainbow coloured air appeared above the hills. Then they slowly melted back in to the bog whence they came while Great Skuas and Fulmars followed in our wake . I tried to imagine what early settlers would have experienced arriving in Shetland by sea, as from this distance little had changed over time. What kind of mystical land were we all approaching? We weaved our way between the islands that make Scalloway the protected harbour it is and tied up on the decrepit pontoon at the boat club. We raced inside, as it was approaching last orders, (if there is such a thing here) and had a enjoyable welcome drink, and then a couple more....

Arriving Shetland, early evening

Rainbows on arrival in Shetland

Colourful skyscape

Colin and Craig headed out the following morning and bought a large quantity of fish and shellfish for a very reasonable price and Craig cooked up a wonderful scallop dish and the best haddock he had ever cooked. We headed in to Lerwick for the day by bus which is the capital of Shetland. It is a very well kept town and there seems to be quite a lot of money around.
We spent the next few days sailing around the spectacular west and central coast of the mainland. This coastline has been battered unremorsefully by the Atlantic (like today) for thousands of years. The geology is very mixed up which leads to some pretty awesome rock formations if you like that kind of thing. I'm talking about giant grotesque stacks, massive sea caves with collapsed roofs running 500m back in to the land, and natural arches you could drive a double decker bus through. And all of these make perfect homes for the sea birds who nest here. We were lucky enough to see numerous baby fulmars.

Our second landfall in Shetland was Walls. We went there as they were having their yearly regatta. We thought it would be good fun and that we may also be able to crew on some on the racing boats. In the event, only three racing yachts were taking part and the main attraction was a salmon bin race. It was explained to us that you have a few drinks, get in to the square, not particularly buoyant box and row around a nearby island. ummm. Instead we took part in the relatively safe raffle in which we could win a paint roller. We didn't stick around for the results and headed off the following day to Papa Stour.

On route Scalloway to Walls - Foula in the distance

Unusual rock formations on the way to Walls

Papa Stour is an island off the west coast populated by 23 people who are always arguing according to the locals of Walls. This may have something with the fact that they are mostly there as part of a government repopulation programme, which involved enticing people there with the offer of a free croft and 5 sheep each. It is seen as a refuge from the rat race - oh yes and it is, no rats here. I don't know what we were expecting when we arrived in the bay called Hamna Voe, on the south side of Papa Stour, but it wasn't a set from Doctor Who. It was like landing on the moon. There were no bushes or trees, just a barren landscape strewn with boulders and rocks. Some derelict sheep corrals stood on the shore, simply rings of piled stones. The only signs of recent humans was the presence of sheep and the colourful flotsam and jetsam from far off fishing boats lining the shoreline. The strange Hitchcock-esque atmosphere was reinforced when Craig rowed to the beach from the mothership. He was attacked by a gang of well organised squawking Arctic Terns and by vicious pecking Great Skuas (aka Bonxies, which can kill sheep, apparently!).

Sheep enclosure on Papa Stour

Papa Stour anchorage

We returned to the land in force the following day with the added protection of an umbrella to explore the island. What Papa Stour lacks in vegetation, it makes up for in its startling geology, It is here where you can find some of the finest sea caves and cliffs in the world carved into the larva that makes the island. We took a dramatic walk to the western end of the island and back again, there were some signs of habitation in the distant past; four small two storied mills built of stone used to grind bere grain by monks and the remains of a stone track.

Papa Stour sea caves

West coast of Papa Stour

Returning by dinghy in the rain

Our sailing journey continued through Papa Sound to St. Magnus Bay (possibly created by an ancient meterorite) on the North Western Side of the Mainland. The weather was not kind and it continued to rain for the rest of the afternoon. This was a shame as we generally like to sail close to the shore to view the scenery. Around here this is often possible as the coast is usually steep-to; plunging straight down into the sea, but in this weather it's better just to get to where you're going. We sailed past Vementry and its World War One gunnery placements and tucked in behind a bay on the northern shore. We had great difficulty anchoring and tried on three occasions before we succeeded. There was lot of weed and strange animals on the bottom (see photo) and it shoaled very steeply which made it tricky to dig the anchor in with any confidence.

Latest 'Identify that weird sea-creature' competition!

It took us so long that Colin had managed to cook us a lovely dinner by the time we were secure. Night had fallen and we were relaxing with a glass of wine about to go to bed, when the wind decided to do a "180". Grhhh- unprintable language. Now, far from being in a nice secure anchorage we were now being blown towards the land and our anchor threatened to undig itself as it twisted around. This Southerly wind was completely unforecast. It was essentially a freak wind, that was not by any means suggested in the synoptic charts. We waited for an hour to see if it would go back to a Northerly, but it persisted. We had to clear out. It didn't make sense to head for an anchorage that was sheltered from the South as we were quite sure as soon as we had anchored the fickle wind would change its mind, so we had to head for somewhere more secure which turned out to be Aith and a couple of hours later we tied up to a reliable old pier. The following day after a good sleep we said our goodbyes to Colin who got a lift to the Lerwick ferry with a guy from the garage. I hope Colin had a good time with us, we certainly did. We did more sailing than usual because it is that much easier to organise things with an extra pair of hands. So if anyone would like to join us......let us know.

A couple of days in Aith and another trip to Lerwick saw us restocked, rewatered and smelling pleasant. We headed around the corner to Voe which is reportedly the "most Norwegian looking village" in Shetland. Hum, we think that the marketing people who write the brochure for Shetland are scraping the bottom of their superlative barrel with this one. As we don't know what a "Norwegian Village" looks like and cannot verify this claim we cannot tell you if this is the case. But it doesn't matter, the people in the pub were very friendly and they gave Craig a bag of live scallops. He had fun opening all 20 of them for the rest of the afternoon. They are funny creatures, they open up, showing their ugly filter feeding tentacles once submerged in water, if you poke them they spit water at you and snap shut! It is worth noting that Voe has a fantastic bakery which sells first class muffins.

Scallop processing

Armed with muffins, scallops and a mini roast beef we set sail to our present location. The weather was fine and the sun shone on the multicoloured sculptured granite cliffs of Muckle Roe, with the outline of the hills and cliffs in the distance it was quite a remarkable scene. We sailed slowly in to the sheltered anchorage and I had my first crack at anchoring (Craig normally does it). After three goes we set it fast and have been weather bound since. The aforementioned food has been devoured and we have run out of beer, wine and vodka, alas we are surviving on Gin & Tonics. Still, worse things happen at sea....

Three days later we were still weatherbound. So far we hadn't left the boat as we were worried about the anchor dragging in such strong winds. But we were starting to go crazy in such a small space and the anchor had held well so far, so we pumped the dingy up and went ashore. We hitched a ride to the near by town of Hillswick. It is here that the vegetarian cafe is that I mentioned rather flippantly earlier. It was in fact lovely. The menu looked pretty good, and curiously there are no prices on the menu. This is because you choose how much you would like to pay! All monies go to the upkeep of the animal santuary in the back garden (where the veggie plot is). We met Silver the resident seal sunbathing next to her pond and two, very cute baby common seals. The latter were in a shipping container in large plastic boxes. They stared up to us with big dark doey eyes. They have a childrens' paddling pool in which they are learning to swim and eat fish! The Hillswick Wildlife Sanctury was in the news when the Braer Oil Spill (1993) occured; they helped to rescue 37 seals and seven otters. The sanctury is part of Willing Workers On Organic Farms (WWOOF), so if you would like an interesting job for a while...

Hillswick village

We then headed off for a walk around Hillswick Ness. This is a roughly diamond shaped headland that has fabulous cliff scenery. The photos tell the story better than any words, but it really was spectacular.

Hillswick Ness looking Northwest

Hillswick Ness looking South

Hillswick Ness - The 'Drongs' in the distance

After a visit to the shop we hitched a ride back to the bay and felt a little saner. The following day the winds were forecast to ease somewhat so we prepared to sail or at least stick our nose out. With two reefs in the main and the number 3 jib (about a third smaller than our normal head sail and stronger) we headed out of the Ura Firth. The wind was still pretty strong and seastate was rough. We were sailing up and down waves four meters high. Neither of us were particularly happy about this so we turned tail, and sailed rather quickly back to our anchorage. We eventually left the following day, when the seastate had moderated. Incidentally when we hauled the anchor up a pipe fish was trapped in the chain links, and thrashed around on deck until we could catch it. We felt more confident having seen the previous days waves and had a cracking sail west to Eshaness. We gave the spectacular coast a wide berth as we were on a rock strewn lee shore and the wind was just shy of 30kts. The wind was building and this was confirmed by the coastguard who issued an "imminant gale warning". We only had a short distance to go and we were travelling fairly quickly so we weren't too worried. About an hour later we entered the narrow gap to Hamna Voe (Eshaness), and anchored in the sheltered bay. The gale kicked in, and we saw 42kts on the wind speed dial (about 50mph) at one point. It wasn't particularly comfortable and we didn't really sleep. To make things more interesting there was a windshift in the small hours that swung the boat around onto some rapidly shoaling ground. We tried to re-anchor in deeper water but after a while it dragged as it was quite weedy.Thank God for engines! We motored to the other side of the bay and felt our way, with our depth meter to a fishing pier,as there isn't a detailed chart of the area to tell us depths. Here we tied up to a sturdy creel fishing boat and in a much happier mood fell asleep.

The sun was shining the next day and the friendly man who ran the fishing boat gave Craig a rather large live lobster for free! What a difference a day makes!

Gift from a creel fisherman

We put the creature in a bucket of water and headed up the Braewick Cafe for "lunch with a view". You would be hard pressed to find a resturant with a better view than this one. It looks out east over the battered red granite shore with its stacks and a fantastic view of the Drongs that we had already seen from Hillswick. We wondered if people had watched us sailing past the previous day.

Craig cooked the lobster for dinner, it only just fit into our pot, which it wasn't very happy about. It tasted delightful, I think we should have it more often.

Lobster cooked

The fishermen went out in their sturdy boat in the morning and returned saying it was too rough, which was good enough for us, so we went for a walk instead. We headed up along the larva cliffs of Eshaness. The rock formations are unreal. As the sea was quite rough we got a fabulous show of the strength of the waves as they recoiled and exploded on exposed rocks, sending spume tens of metres high in to the air. Once again the photos tell the story better than words.

Breaking waves at the narrow entrance to Hamnavoe


Eshaness, towards the lighthouse

When we reached Eshaness lighthouse we hitched a lift back with some Spanish people. They had moved here from Madrid, bought an old house and they had been doing it up since October. They were so happy and full of energy.
That evening we decided that we would head back to mainland Scotland. The weather has been so poor for the last couple of weeks. We would love to sail around to the northern Islands of Unst and Yell, but we risk getting stuck here with bad weather and we are afterall a long way from home. So we will just have to come back again one day.

Monday, August 06, 2007


We ended up staying in Stromness a little longer than originally planned. Spent another noisy Thursday night enjoying the Ferry Inn's folk music session, and familiarised ourselves with local issues and attitudes. A combination of waiting for fair weather and tides saw us still tied up to a rusty old salvage boat until Monday July 9th when we finally set sail for the island of Rousay, to the north of mainland Orkney.

Approach to Stromness

Tied up to the salvage boat

Dinghy Racing at Stromness

For this passage we had to time our departure precisely in order to get into the Sound of Hoy at slack tide, and sail westwards out to sea just as the ebb tide began, before heading North up the western coast of mainland.

Sailing North, looking back to Hoy

The Atlantic Ocean meets Hoy Sound

We had a beautiful sunny day to begin with, and a gentle Southwesterly wind. Passage making in Orkney requires constant attention to strong tidal streams. We need to calculate what we call tidal gates, which are really just the periods of time that we need to be at certain places in order to negotiate particular channels with a fair tide. If you get the timing wrong you can find yourself pushing hard into an oncoming stream and making no way at all, worse still, at springs (full moon and new moon when tides are at their stongest) you can find yourself going backwards! For the passage to Rousay we identified two tidal gates. The first was Hoy Sound where only a few weeks earlier the sea had sadly claimed the life of a young man in a small boat. The second was Eynhallow Sound which is divided by the old monastic island of Eynhallow, with 'roosts' (tidal races) in shallow water on either side. We had to time our passage from Hoy Sound to Eynhallow precisely to the hour to make both of these gates otherwise we'd need to replot a course around to the north of Rousay, adding further complications. So despite the breeze being from the right direction, at only a few knots we weren't going to make way fast enough, so made the usual excuses about having to charge the batteries etc, and spent several hours under motor. We saw more spectacular cliffs, including those at Scara Brae and Yesnaby that we'd previously explored on foot. Having successfully negotiated a course through the shallows we sailed past the small Island of Wyre where stands the ruin of Scotland's oldest Viking castle (Cubby Roo circa 1150) and tied up at Rousay pier, setting the bicycles ashore. The next day we tied up to a visitor's bouy and went into the tiny harbour by dinghy to visit the pub then spent the remainder of the day exploring the south and west coasts by bike, under an atmospherically watery sky. The afternoon involved crawling into more chambered cairns (Traversoe Tuick, Blackhammer, Knowe of Yarso) and then on to the remarkably well preserved bronze age Midhowe broch and yet another stone age cairn - this one 23 metres long, and probably the largest in Orkney.

Midhowe Broch, Rousay

Midhowe Broch

Midhowe Broch

Midhowe Broch

With only about 200 inhabitants, this island has many more ancient ruins than modern buildings. The following day we sailed around to the eastern shore to the Bay of Ham where we tied up to a fish farm buoy and rowed ashore. We were told there was another ruined village worth seeing here, but aside from a standing stone we were unable to find it.

Bay of Ham

Another Standing Stone

After lunch we decided to press on and had some good wind again for a sail south to the island of Shapinsay. Near Balfour castle, the small harbour provided another visitors buoy which saved us anchoring yet again. We took the opportunity to have a meal ashore at the Smithy restaurant. Sampled a number of local seafood dishes, and being the only customers that evening, stayed quite late into the evening, drinking beers with the chef after the owner had gone home.

Balfour Castle

Balfour Harbour

A quick sail from Balfour around to Kirkwall the following morning, and a berth in the inner harbour, right in front of the main street in the town centre. Only a short hop to the Sailing Club where we were provided a key for their showers, and where we met some very friendly folk on our first evening.

Kirkwall Inner Harbour

I needed to borrow a torque wrench off someone in order to replace an oil seal on the crank shaft which had been leaking for a while. They were more than happy to help out, and one of the assistant harbourmasters even drove me around in his van the next day to a number of shops, trying to find the right allen bit I needed to reinstall the flywheel. Job completed without further complication, which was a relief. We'd seen a number of the fishing boats in the inner harbour bringing in loads of scallops so Jaime asked whether we could have some. The next day, one of the divers delivered a bag of 20 big scallops, freshly hand picked. I've never had better tasting, or fresher in my life. So, I just have to include a photo!

Very Fresh Scallops

On Saturday we went in to town and saw the Kirkwall City Pipe Band playing in the street outside St Magnus cathedral. Marching up and down they attracted a modest crowd, but with the sky bruising and rain approaching we decided on another evening at the sailing club.

Kirkwall City Pipe Band in action

We chatted to a couple of old hands from the mainland who told us much about sailing these waters. At closing time we were invited along to a party which was more or less a carry-on once all the pubs were kicking out. The Orcadian accent requires a careful use of the ear, but by this time of night I was having a hard time understanding them at all. We didn't stay long but on our way out we were handed bottles of home-brewed beer to take with us. The following morning I looked out about 11am to find what I thought was a tourist on the pontoon taking photos of our boat. But when I went out a bit later found that he was actually a police photographer. Earlier that morning a tourist had reported seeing a body floating in the water next to our boat. It turned out to be a local chap. The body bag was still on the pontoon and I was asked a few questions by the detectives who assumed he'd fallen in the previous night after having too much to drink. Drinking seems to be quite a strong part of the culture here, but they tell me this is nothing compared to the Shetlanders! We will see soon enough! We had arranged for shipmate Colin to join us again for a week or so. He arrived around lunchtime on Tuesday and we set off straight away, having filled up with water, oil, diesel, gas and petrol, and done the victualling during the morning. Jaime had already put together a passage plan for Kirkwall to Pierowall on the isle of Westray. Just out of Kirkwall harbour, then East through Shapinsay Sound and North up Stronsay Firth, keeping Stronsay to starboard. Once we were in the fast flowing Eday Sound we made our way into Calf Sound, a narrow channel between Eday and the Calf of Eday. Visibility had been quite poor, despite good wind for sailing. There is a small anchorage there in Carrick Bay just out of the main tidal stream where we picked up a bouy. Colin decided he'd love to see Carrick House, which was not far away, and so we paid it a visit. It is famous as being the place where John Gow, Orkney's most infamous pirate was captured before being hung in 1725. He was a really bad pirate. By this I mean he was really bad at being a pirate. He was so incompentant that after deciding to take up piracy, he only lasted six months and failed in most of his exploits. He had planned to raid Carrick House, but his ship ran aground and he spent so long in full view of the house that the owner had more than enough time to prepare a party to arrest him when he finally stepped ashore. Anyway, we ended up staying the night there, and sailing out into North Sound and up to Pierowall on Westray the next morning. Pierowall is a small collection of buildings placed in a semicircle around the bay and protected from all but Easterly winds by the smaller island, Papa Westray. The hotel is reputed to serve the best fish and chips in all of Orkney so we were bound to pay them a visit. Very good indeed. There is also a crab processing plant just near the harbour where we bought a small supply of cooked crustaceans. I spent a bit of time chatting to the harbourmaster who didn't seem to be very busy and had plenty to tell us about the area and the state of affairs in Orkney in general. He was part of some Orkney tourist board, and had travelled to the London Boat Show last year to promote Orkney as a sailing destination. However, so far this year, there don't seem to be that many more visitors. The next morning we planned to be up at the crack of dawn, or even a bit earlier, for the 70 mile passage up to Shetland.

Pierowall Harbour, Westray