Helmsdale to Wick…

 

Waking to the sound of heavy rain doesn’t promise a great day and we’re still firmly stuck in the mud. But by 9 we are afloat and a watery sun is trying to burn off the early mist hanging low over the hills. The first of the fishing boats are getting ready to leave and soon we too are pushing out of the harbour and into a breathless day. We are sad to be leaving Helmsdale in some ways, as the little town grew on us over the last few days.

The coastline is dominated by cliffs and caves and fissures and even some waterfalls, with low cloud or mist a beautiful but chilly reminder that we are still among the earliest of the yachties to be venturing out.

The ever-present terns, gannets and guillemots with a few cormorants are joined briefly by a few seals, but the dolphins resolutely refuse to play.

Soon we are turning in for Wick and follow a fishing boat into a surprisingly lumpy harbour entrance…presumably the remnants of the recent easterlies which kept us in Helmsdale.

We have barely tied up when the harbour-master’s bother ambles down to meet us with keys and codes for the various gates and doors to loos and showers etc. he is soon joined by the owner of another elderly Moody and we chat on about the trip to Orkney. The message is always the same…get the tides right and it’s a doddle but….and then they frown. The harbour master himself is pleased to see us, even if he does chortle at his reference to us as ‘last of the summer wine’. He is very reassuring about the trip over and shows us in great detail the eddies and counter-currents which will get us to and through the Pentland firth in one piece. We decide that we will make the trip on Saturday assuming no SW winds.

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Helmsdale…longer than we expected.

 

Helmsdale grows on us strangely and has some odd quirks: the first being a favourite fish and chip shop of the novelist Barbara Cartland. It turns out that the previous proprietor saw her as something of a hero and the place still retains an overwhelming sense of pink Kitsch. There is nothing kitsch about the food however…a special fish tea consists of two enormous battered haddock with peas and a huge bowl of chips on the side. We struggle…including through the following night trying to digest vast amounts of batter and assorted carbs. The lads next to us manage this as well as a follow on of sticky toffee pudding. We imagine that they regard us effete southerners somewhat suspiciously…On a similar theme, we are slightly surprised that the (closed) hotel opposite the Bannockburn Arms was to have been the gay biker centre for touring NE Scotland. It would seem that many bikers come to do the North Coast 500 and that several may even be gay!

The Bannockburn Arms has some decent beer and we snigger like naughty schoolboys as we ask for another sheepshagger. Helmsdale also turns out to be a haven for escaping Londoners…the landlord is from Lewisham, a young man doing up his boat is from Beckenham and then to cap it all an old man (older than us) and his dog have lived in Maiden Newton.

We intended to sail on to Lybster, but the difficult entrance in Easterly winds, the lack of facilities and the offer from the Helmsdale harbourmaster of another night for free, convince us to spend a day at our leisure in Helmsdale. A bracing walk up the hill to the saltire flying proudly at the top…

…is followed by a meander along the river to a great little museum called Timespan, dedicated to all things herring. Paul is clearly entranced by muscular women smeared in herring guts and spends longer than strictly necessary describing them to Trish later that evening.

The following day is also less than helpful in terms of wind and we decide on a train ride to Thurso. The train ride turns out to be the highlight of the day and is a ride through peat bogs, salmon fishing rivers and more stags and their women than you would imagine. The only thing missing (for those of us old enough to remember) is Fife Robertson in a deerstalker and pipe. We take a bus out to as close to Dunnet Head as possible and walk out about halfway to the most northerly point in mainland UK (not John O’Groats).

The Orkneys, or more precisely Hoy on the left with just a mild seeming Pentland Firth in between. No sign of the Merry Men of Mey today!

A bus back leaves us with 2 hours in Thurso, which seems about 1 hour 55mins too long. The visitor centre however turns out to be a gem with a museum and gallery and a café with decent wifi (not to be sneered at in these parts). John starts early on the beer (Dark Island).

Back in Helmsdale, Paul cooks up a great Aloo Gobi and we decide on one last pint of (snigger) sheepshagger at the Bannockburn. It’s shut! The landlord looks at us through the window and ignores us. Sod ‘im. We go over slightly disgruntled to the Belgrave Arms…it’s a gem! Its friendly, there’s a real fire, some decent beer and some good company. A Ross County supporter turns out to be  great company and also knowledgeable about winds tides and the sea in general. In common with so many others we have met, his eyebrows knit at the mention of crossing the Pentland Firth. “Yee’ll not be messing with that…”

Our final night in Helmsdale solves some issues…the buoys which we had been seeking in vain on our way in, are residing in the yard of the harbour master’s office! The smoke alarm in the loos still pings. It will probably still be pinging in a year’s time… or whenever we next visit. We all agree that were we ever back this way we’ll come back to Helmsdale.

We finish the evening listening to Pink Floyd….what great memories.

Calm days and cliches….across the Moray Firth

Fresh coffee and an early tide
lift boat and crew, to the kind of morning
where breath and clichés hang.
The bonds to land and pontoons are loosened once more
And Heydays slips out into a calm
Sun-dappled Firth.
The last of the kelp glistens before sliding once more
beneath these cold northern waters.
And the magic of the moment is strong enough
or unfortunate enough
to suggest that a scientist can be lyrical…

A great day for dolphins we are told
And we scan the glassy sea
But the log tells its own tale
“Still no ***ing dolphins”.
Have Attenborough and Cousteau been lying all along
Fake dolphins…even in the mist!
The birds are real enough
but we’d make a twitcher cry
Iceland Gulls, Common Gulls and Kittiwakes?
Certainly a Fulmar grazing the waves and
bossing the Guillemots who dive away
from us as well.

The peaks of the Northern Highlands rise and beckon
from an indistinct and distant shore.
But the wind remains even more fickle
than a fast data link in Dorset.
It taunts us with a bit of easting
but scarcely creates ripples
while Lossiemouth fades into the morning haze.

More coffee…
brings the morning alive.
With a sudden burst of energy
we fill the sails and loose the engine.


It truly does feel alive.
And we are intrepid sailors gazing steely-eyed
into the cold bright north.


We ponder unkindly on past colleagues
Sat at desks
Daydreaming on a Monday morning.
As we close the shore we scan in vain
for buoys, or markers….


Or anything to reassure that our blinking technology
Is not just more
Fake information.
The river opens up against a rocky foreshore…
Fenders out, ropes ready, sails down and peace
Shattered again by the Thorneycroft.
But tranquillity soon returns to us
…and Helmsdale.

Footnote: We phoned the harbourmaster at Lossie to apologise for leaving without paying for the final night, but we get a quick call back to apologise for us having taken the bottom at low tide…and to have the last night on the house. They promise to dredge and hope we’ll come back!

Helmsdale is approaching only its 200th birthday as a town. It was created by the Duke of Sutherland as a place to bring those who he had cleared to make way for sheep and to provide a labour force for the emerging herring industry.

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His come-uppance arrived in the form of a murder plot gone wrong resulting in the death of his own family and the final delicious irony of a memorial sculpture to the clearances built on the ruins of his own castle. Ha!

At leisure in Lossie…

 

A creeping sense of toilets started to pervade the boat and Heydays is definitely less than fragrant (and nothing to do with curries). A longish saga cut fortunately short, involves repairs to the toilet diverter valve and plenty of Dettol in the bilges (and us). The dodgiest moment is when local people start arriving on their boats…no-one actually says ‘you English smell’, but Nicola has probably got a couple of converts.

Lossie takes on a completely different air on a sunny mothering Sunday and the beach and dunes are busy and the ice-cream shops (3 within 100m) even busier, with queues lasting into the evening.

A walk around town and the sea wall together with some pottering amounts to the most excitement for today and we spend the evening planning a sail across the Moray Firth to Helmsdale.

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Helmsdale is somewhere over there…

The tides are big at the moment and we go aground next to the pontoon at a jaunty angle, but it means we need to be quite precise about leaving here and arriving there.

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The day we went to Inverness

Morning in Lossie is bright and clear and Heydays is calm and restful in the early sun.

The fruit has been looking at us balefully for a few days now and we decide that we ought to eat some of it. Breakfast is a positively healthy affair given recent meals in which variations on haddock have played a significant part….smoked, fried, in bradies, in pies and with cream as skink.

The bus to Elgin is easy as it is a circular route… ‘ye canna gae wrong’. Except we do as we get on the bit that starts with a fascinating tour of the Lossiemouth council estates (never-ending pebble dash) followed by a tour of the Elgin estates…(more ~*@% pebble dash). Elgin itself has a kind of lost grandeur, but has become like so many towns, a mix of big chains (the only coffee is Starbucks or Costa) and poundlands.

Gordon (of India) imposes on the town, as does a (rather effete to our eyes) warrior with a sword….we have been unable to find out who he is or was.

The SNP are out in force and we wonder idly why they are there and yet no-one seems to be making the emotional case for the union…. It is also a town which provokes grumpy old men in to wondering why the bus station is on the exact opposite side of town to the rail station.

The train to Inverness was packed with a motley bunch of schoolgirl hen party, Saturday shoppers and teenagers out to impress….plus three elderly sassenachs. Paul resists the temptation to join three  schoolgirls in the loo! We stood all the way but were impressed with another old bloke in a black goth T shirt with ‘Sons of Arthritis – Inverness Chapter’ in big friendly letters.

Inverness has the feel of a bohemian city including an impressive Victorian market. Despite the odd juxtaposition of classical Victorian architecture jarring against heavy modernist concrete, we have an abiding and unanswered question…why does it manage to support so many barbers, Turkish Barbers and wet shaves? We wander off down the river and have lunch in the Waterside Arms on Egg Bap with potato scone for James, and Bacon Haggis and Potato scone for John and Paul.

The Ness is beautiful even though we can’t see the ‘plentiful salmon’. A dolphin breaks surface and we marvel at the  idea of not seeing a dolphin for hours at sea, and yet with the council estate behind us we see one swimming lazily up and down catching his lunch.

The view across the firth to the snow capped hills beyond is a magnificent backdrop to the city and we wend our way down the early stages of the canal before heading back.

We find ourselves in a rather artistic quarter with a fantastic old bookshop in the old Gaelic Kirk,

…a music venue called Iron Works which we sadly don’t have time to visit and a great pub and micro brewery called Black Isle Bar. It does great beer and great pizzas too and is packed. We ponder on the fact that we have seen too many empty soulless bars selling fizzy beer and peanuts and yet when someone does good nosh and good booze the punters will come.

Back in Elgin we miss the bus to Lossie and take a taxi instead.  Rum and a trio of Scottish cheese and chutney round off a perfect day. We even find some Orkadian fiddle to get our cultural juices flowing. The weather is set fair for a few days so our plans are to stay here one more day before heading ever more north towards Wick and our destiny with the Pentland Firth.

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Footnote. It wouldn’t be Paul if we didn’t round the evening off with some Grateful Dead…So Many Roads (to ease my soul)…the very last of Jerry Garcia…

Whitehills to Lossiemouth

 

Breakfast this morning on Whitehills Smokies from the local shop and smokery, with poached eggs on top. The Whitehills smokies are not quite as strong as the Arbroath smokies, but still have great flavour and set us up for the day.

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An ‘old boy’ in his old boat is going aground to dry out and antifoul and we offer to take lines etc. but he resolutely refuses all offers of help and soon has his boat balanced nicely on its single keel. He is a great example of an unhurried and easy approach to sailing which we can only hope to emulate (in our later years!!).

We say goodbye to Bertie and a memorable stay in the harbour which he runs on behalf of the community…what a great advert for real community ownership and action. We slide off the pontoon at noon and head out for Lossiemouth just 25 miles away to the west. With a forecast SW wind we are hoping for some decent sailing before rounding Scar Nose. Sadly the wind has too much west in it and we end up motoring gently along the coast accompanied by the ever present cormorants and terns. We are hoping for some dolphins or porpoises for company but none of them want to play with us at the moment sadly. We tick off the settlements along the way including Cullen with a stunning viaduct…

…and finally Scar Nose. The headland is a fantastic jumble of rocks with a great sweeping arch and some caves as well. It is distinctive from all directions…in broad daylight, but clearly not to be messed with in poor visibility or at night.

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No sooner are we past old Scar Nose than we are heading out across Spey Bay for Lossie at the far side, which is just a distant lump on the horizon. The wind stays resolutely on the nose and freshens to gusts of over 25kt. Heydays ploughs on through a short swell and chop more reminiscent of the solent than the North Sea. There is not another soul or boat in sight, and wrapped up in thermals and plenty of layers, we can relish the sharp wind and the feeling of real adventure in northern waters.

True to form, the wind freshens again as we are about to make our final approach to Lossiemouth. Fenders out on all sides and rope from every available cleat become redundant, as once inside the wind is zero and we are soon tied up on the visitors pontoon. Although we look less like intrepid sons of the sea and more like Last of the Summer Wine on tour…

The instructions for when the harbour office is shut tell us to collect keys and a welcome pack from the Steamboat Inn. This is clearly something of a chore and we set off with what some may say is indecent haste to the pub. It turns out to be somewhat lairy at 5.30 on Friday evening and we keep well clear of some ‘differences of opinion’ going on. So clear in fact that we go to another pub entirely….passing a stunning beach and dunes which we seemed to miss completely on the way in.

Our experience so far of Scottish pubs is a bit variable it has to be said. Real beer and even some live local music is escaping us at the moment, but an excellent Indian cheers everything up…and we’ve got some open wine on Heydays to finish off.

Footnote…the tumble dryer does not suggest particularly good value for more than a pair of knickers…

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Whitehills

 

The  berth on the end of the hammerhead rocked us gently through the night (although still no bedtime stories) and Thursday dawned bright and fresh. We had planned a leisurely breakfast before putting Heydays into the dry dock, but Bertie recommends us going aground sooner rather than later as the tide was ‘dull’. We thought that was a bit harsh until we realised that dull is a local word for close to neaps. We managed to get Heydays in position without any of the drama of the previous afternoon and hopefully improved our reputation in Bertie’s eyes at least. However a passing local caught us in the classic act of throwing a line successfully to the boat…only for the bitter end to also follow it!

While we wait for the ‘dull’ tide to recede, we take a walk round town and get seduced by the smoked haddock and cheese bradies (pasties if you’re Cornish) in Downies fish shop, which we have for lunch back on the boat.

The marina loan us the power washer and it takes less than an hour to have Heydays with a clean bottom. The fouling up here is certainly less than we have found in warmer waters. It is too cold to paint the antifoul at the moment and we will leave it for a warmer month. The rest of the afternoon is spent on a walk around Boyndie Bay almost to Banff. The light up here is stunning with big skies and sharp contrasts just demanding photos.

We watch a pair of cormorants drying off on a rock and slightly unkindly wait for a breaker to knock one off…oddly they see them coming!

Bertie fills us in on the local industry which is inevitably fish, but small harbours like Whitehills, which used to be able to sustain themselves and fish stocks by using boats for line fishing and seine netting, have seen their livelihoods destroyed by modern Trawlers landing 1000 tonnes at a time. Most of the local boats are now part-time only and the crews have other jobs…mostly servicing the rigs.

The log fire in the Seafield arms tempts us in once more but we refrain from too much booze as we think about the vertical and slippery iron ladder down the side of the dock to get back on Heydays. The chippy does a starter of kedgeree and rather unwisely we have a bowl each before our regular haddock chips and mushy peas. The waitress is slightly amused as we refuse syrup pudding to follow.

Heydays refloats at 8 and we are back on our berth with a glass of wine by 9.30.