Sunday 2nd April 2017 and the day dawns with rain and general drear. Alan and Ian on Cordula confirm a 13.00 departure from Wick with us and we have a late-ish brekky at Wetherspoons. Back on heydays and she is all ready by 12, with everything which can move properly stowed tied or lashed. We are in our wet weather gear…with thermals and lifelines at the ready…and we’re hot. The sun is out and the wind is almost non-existent…we’re strangely anxious, almost like waiting for the dentist. We’ve read so much about crossing the Pentland Firth with its ‘walls of water’ and other dire warnings, that despite the harbourmaster telling us we are set fair for not even getting our slippers wet, we still feel apprehensive.
Cordula is first away and we follow her out of Wick at around 3 hours before HW Dover. This gives us plenty of time to get off Duncansby head by the time the tide turns West. Following Cordula and Malcolm the Harbourmaster’s advice, we hug the coast (more or less the 20m depth contour) and pick up a much reduced southerly stream and in places a positive lift. Another small boat is not far behind and they shadow our course, remaining as just an outline in the early afternoon sun.
We get the genoa filling with a southerly breeze an soon Duncansby (and the end of Scotland) starts to make its presence felt. A couple on the cliff top stop and stare, presumably wondering why there are several middle-aged and even elderly men on small boats quite so close to them.
We are just off Duncansby itself by 3.15 which is around 90 minutes or so before the West going stream starts (and what is recommended in the various pilot guides). We radio Cordula, wondering whether we should hang around for a bit or anchor. But with light southerly winds they suggest pressing on (albeit slowly) to get as far towards Lowther Rock before the tide really turns West. Soon we can see John O’Groats and then Dunnet Head opening up to the West and the clear lights of Pentland and Muckle Skerries to the East.
The sea so far shows no sign of its infamous nature…just a few oddly flat circular patches surrounded by wavelets. Certainly nothing worse than our own Hurst Castle narrows…so far. We keep Lowther Rock firmly on the nose while all the time making sure that we are getting close to Muckle Skerries…but not too close. Gradually our easting reduces and within less than 15 minutes we are feeling the effects of the westerly stream. We keep heading for Lowther whilst keeping an eye first on Stroma and then on Swona to make sure we are not being swept on to them.
Halfway across we throw our empty Old Pulteney bottle into the sea. Not a mindless act of littering but it contains a message to a potential finder that we will reward them with a filled bottle of the same in return for a good story. It goes overboard with good wishes to the finder for a long and happy life.
With wind again filling the genoa, the northern tip of Swona starts to open up and we are making over 7kt over the ground. The worst is over…we didn’t get our slippers wet and we feel a strange mixture… of elation that we are now in Orkadian waters, gratitude that it was very easy and even an odd sense of almost anti-climax. Our companions divert into Sandwick Bay so that Ian can wave at his wife…their house is by the beach and she does indeed wave a tea towel enthusiastically…at us before realising she is waving at the wrong boat.
We still have the tide with us as we slide past Flotta at over 8kt and into Hoxa Sound. A fast cat is the only other boat we see as Scapa Flow itself opens up.
We are in flat calm now and the genoa is furled once more as we bask in an early evening sun gradually sinking over Hoy. The big rocky island dominates the landscape to the west, but everywhere else is big sky and now we start to think about the final approaches to Stromness itself.
The westerly stream out of Scapa Flow is making itself felt now and we edge north away from Graemsay to avoid being rushed past the entrance and spat out into the North Atlantic. We can see breakers across the sound and would rather not tangle with them at this stage in our voyage.
We tie up at the marina, thankful to be out of our sweaty gear, just as Cordula comes in alongside. John James and Paul have a group hug on the foredeck with a sense of a major milestone in the UK trip being reached…even if it wasn’t heroic in the end. We celebrate with a bottle (or two) of fizz inviting Alan, Ian and his wife on board as well.
Footnote: On the passage across the Pentland Firth…a number of factors we have thought about since…
- We did lots of reading and listening to locals and decided to go with the easiest winds we could…it ended up south or SW 2-3 and as close to neaps whilst still arriving in mostly daylight. This also meant however that we took our time getting to Wick and met some great people along the way and got to know NE Scotland just that little bit better.
- We erred on the side of caution by getting to Duncansby Head a bit earlier than planned. We were prepared to wait to cross, but with slight seas, decided to get some of the way over (making just 2.5 -3kt at times) before the west going tide started. With a stronger wind over south east going tide this may have been too uncomfortable. We were around half springs, but nearer springs a stronger current may have taken us too close to Muckle Skerries.
- We had great visibility and this, added to the electronic aids, reassured us that we were not being swept too far west.
- One final point….as Alan later remarked, you don’t treat the Firth as one body of water. There are complex and changing currents, counter-currents and eddies…expect the unexpected.
- …or maybe we just got lucky!