Thursday, September 06, 2007

Shetland to Loch Inver

It has been a few weeks since the last blog entry, and quite a few nautical miles have passed under the keel since we were stuck in Hamnavoe. Having listened to repetitive reports of strong winds and gales being reported all over the northern isles, we decided we had to make our way south or we'd be stuck in Shetland until next summer!

Tuesday August 7th looked like a good day to make a break for it and we intended on sailing to the island of Foula, southwest of Shetland mainland, with towering cliffs on one side, sloping down slowly to sealevel on the other, visible for many miles out to sea. It is known as the most isolated populated island in the British Isles and until the early 19th century, the population of several hundred still spoke the old Norse language. Even today the small number of remaining inhabitants still cling steadfastly to the old Julian calendar. According to Hamish Haswell-Smith's remarkable book on Scottish Islands, Foula also has a unique subspecies of field mouse "a charming little creature with big feet" and its own variety of carnivorous sheep which strangely enough have recently been seen feeding off young arctic terns and skua nestlings! There is only one tiny bay which provides any kind of shelter. Even the mail boat which goes out each week from there is lifted out on a crane every time it returns due to the regular heavy swell.

As we left Hamnavoe and sailed out through the narrow channel between violently breaking waves, it still looked like Foula might be achievable as a jumping off point for the west coast of Scotland. The wind was a Southeasterly, due to drop from force 5 to variable force 3 or 4. However, after four hours at sea with a heavy swell continuing to build, we decided Foula would be too dangerous. Swell from any easterly wind makes it unapproachable. So we decided to sail southeast along the mainland to Skelda Voe instead, where our sailing directions suggested there was a pier and new pontoons to tie up to. This was about another 25 nautical miles, and with headwinds and a sharp choppy sea our progress was uncomfortable, wet, and slow. As it turned out, Skeld was a good choice. New pontoons are provided with not only the luxury of shorepower and fresh water, but also showers, toilets, a diesel pump, and quite possibly the friendliest managers you could imagine. They were down there in the rain at 8:30pm helping us tie up, offering fuel and advice, and even the services of reiki therapy, if we so desired. At that time, sleep was our highest priority. We did however have time for a drink with the crew of the Swedish boat, 'Jenna Blå' - Jesper, Ann and baby Leo, who we had last seen at Aith when we rafted up to them at the pier in the middle of the night after almost dragging anchor, several weeks earlier. They are on their way south too.

Early morning in Skeld

The next day the manager's wife took all of us in her four wheel drive to go food shopping, and stopped at a cafe and art gallery for lunch. Very civilised! That evening we had a barbecue with the Swedes, and dined aboard their boat. We enjoyed their company and talked about our experiences in the local sailing areas.

Not exactly my idea of a barbie, but...

Next morning we were both planning to leave at 6am, bound for the Scottish mainland, a passage we expected to take at least a day and a half. They were still undecided about whether to go the same way as us, Southwest via Cape Wrath and down the Western Isles, or to head Southeast past Fair Isle, then east of Orkney and down to Inverness and the Caledonian Canal. The forecast was for Southeasterly winds, so we were surprised to see them head off Southeast towards Inverness under motor as we steered for Cape Wrath. We left Skeld early as planned and had mirror-like calm seas with an escort of dolphins and even a few spells of sunshine at last. At moments like these you can so easily forget about the crap weather and choppy seastate two days before.

Dolphins escort us out of Skelda Voe

Jaime tries to speak to more dolphins several hours later

Dolphins through reflected sky

We hoped Jenna Blå had a safe passage down to the Moray Firth as they would be beating into strengthening winds all the way. And strengthen they certainly did! We were on a heading of 230 degrees from Skeld, some 140 nautical miles all the way to Cape Wrath. The ships log records that for the first six hours the wind steadily built from almost nothing to a force 4. No problem there, however, from about midday to 6am the next morning, it didn't drop below force 5, including a number of hours at force 7 and 8 (officially described as 'gale force' for those unfamiliar with the shipping forecast!). Not exactly what we had planned for our longest and most distant offshore passage to date, but the boat kept us safe, and we managed to keep her on course with reduced sail, all through the night in crashing waves and powerful gusts. Much of the time we were reduced to several reefs in the mainsail and the foresail safely rolled away. For safety, our lifejacket harnesses were clipped on permanently while either of us were in the cockpit. White handflares were at the ready in case they were needed to signal our presence to any vessels that may not see our navigation lights, and we had the radar on for early warnings of other traffic, of which we saw only one pelagic fishing boat. We maintained hourly shifts at the helm, and when off-shift concentrated on the navigation and trying to get warm and dry below, away from the continual dousing of seawater. We were fortunate to have some stars in the sky and to have a reasonably short period of darkness, still being so far north. Regular radio contact with Stornaway Coastguard to report our position and check latest weather updates also gave some comfort. I imagine doing this kind of passage single-handed must be a terribly lonely affair.

By 0500UT we were 10 miles North of Cape Wrath. The dawn filled in the dark picture of the coast, adding a coastline to what had for hours been just a slow flashing light from the lighthouse, seen through the compass sight. With dawn, the wind had backed to a gentle southwesterly of only force 2 or 3. This headland has a fearsome reputation for rough seas, and we'd planned to give it a wide berth of at least 5 miles, however on approach, it looked fairly settled and so we re-drew our passage to save time, and passed it within about two miles instead. For those who may be interested: Waves get bigger, the longer they are subjected to wind. The wave height can be roughly estimated based on the 'fetch' (distance they have travelled) and the wind strength and time. The prolonged southeasterly meant that in the open sea, they would be much bigger, however the waves in the area immediately northwest of the cape had very little fetch as the wind was blowing off the land. Since Cape Wrath is completely exposed to the Atlantic, the same conditions for wind blowing from the west would have created a very different scenario. And as expected, as we rounded the cape, the seastate became calm, so calm in fact that for the last few hours, the sun came out and we sailed under motor. Jaime slept, and I dried out some clothes on the cockpit seats, while listening to Radio 4 on the portable radio, and enjoyed the sight of trees again and new mountainous landscapes as we approached our destination port, Kinlochbervie.

This was until recently a very busy fishing port, but the trade there has died, so the massive loading terminal and docks, although only recently constructed, remain eerily empty. After rafting up alongside a shiny brand-new Swedish yacht on the pontoon, hanging out our cleanest looking fenders, we approached the Fishermen's Mission for showers, but they close early on Fridays. Just a strong smell of chip fat in the tiny eatery and a few youngsters playing pool. We managed to get showers at the harbour office, and walked up the hill to the hotel for a well-earned beverage (or it may have been two), despite the sun being not quite over the yard-arm! Finally we were back on the British mainland. I'm really glad we made it down when we did because gale warnings continue to be given regularly for the Faroes and Fair Isle shipping areas since then. We really may have been there until next year!

Tied up in Kinlochbervie at last

Leaving Loch Bervie

After a days rest in Kinlochbervie we started making our way down the coast planning short daily passages of only 20 or 30 miles and trying to see as much as possible while making good progress South. We sailed out of Loch Bervie on the ebb tide, and downwind on a gentle Northeasterly breeze past many small islands and exposed rocks, to Handa, which is a designated bird sanctuary. We enjoyed beautiful sunshine as we sailed through the shallow waters of Handa Sound where visitors take little boat trips out to the white sandy beach on the island. It was very tempting to drop the anchor and row ashore for a picnic lunch, but our plan involved making good use of tidal streams in these light winds, and so we decided to eat aboard instead, and sailed on into Eddrachillis Bay. We navigated our way through the Badcall Islands and down Loch a' Chàirn Bhàin, under the bridge and into the bay by the village of Kylesku where we anchored in the late afternoon. I'd bought some tasty looking Scottish sirloin steaks in Kinlochbervie, but found myself short of creme fraiche for the sauce they so obviously deserved. Never mind. A quick row in the dinghy, tying up to the slipway in front of the hotel, found me enjoying a local ale in the small public bar of the restaurant which I was told is the subject of much acclaim by food critics. A calculated yet offhand mention of my predicament was taken up by the everso friendly barman who immediately summoned the chef to prepare for me two servings of his delicious green peppercorn sauce, sealed up in a container suitable for transport by dinghy back to our little ship. Problem solved, I finished my pint and couldn't wait to return to Jaime to present her with the spoils of my hunting.

Approaching Kylesku

The next morning we hoisted our sails at dawn and drifted out again to sea. This time as we sailed out of the loch to more exposed seas the wind was stronger, and from the Southwest. Not too bad, as our passage to Lochinver would involve two long tacks: a close reach west to the Point of Stour, another headland that is known to cause tidal races, and then Southeast past Rubha Rodha into Loch Inver. As we came into sight of the tall pinnacle of rock known as the Old Man of Stour, it became obvious that the seastate was going to be uncomfortable. We headed out to sea as far as possible before tacking around, but the waves were so choppy that the boats expected speed of over 6 knots in such a wind was reduced to less than 3 over ground as we were tossed up and down, with sails flogging helplessly as the boat pitched every time we luffed up to take a wave. So sadly it was time again to roll away the headsail and put the engine on in order to maintain boat speed and get into the relatively protected waters of Loch Inver. This is still an uncomforable way to sail, but at least we were making some progress. It was during this time that I found myself again the subject of the attentions of a great skua, or bonxie as it is known in Shetland. After my earlier experience of this species on Papa Stour, I was very wary, and tried to show no fear as I watched it from the corner of my eye, gliding expertly in the strong wind behind the boat to within several metres of me, turning its head constantly as though tracking its prey. I was convinced it was moving in for an attack but I managed to fend it off several times by shouting and waving at it threateningly with an oar, much to Jaime's amusement.

My evil nemesis returns!

Four hours of rain and seaspray later, during which I remained on the helm and Jaime stayed dry below, we arrived at Lochinver and tied up to the pontoon near the busy piers where pelagic fishing boats from as far away as Spain pull in to swap crews and deliver their catches. Strong wind warnings had been issued by the coastguard with gales expected over the next few days so we tied up to the leeward side of the pontoon using about eight mooring lines, stowed as much deck equipment as possible below to reduce windage, including removing the rolling genoa, and lowering the boom to deck level. Here we were to remain for 5 days, but I'll let Jaime tell you all about that in the next update.