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