2018’s Meanderings, Part 2
So I left you having arrived in Stornoway and awaiting the arrival of my crew, Olly Epsom. So who is Olly? Well, after plan A unfortunately fell through, I put a post on a facebook page called Scottish Sailing and Cruising Club Crewfinder, explaining my goal for the summer (which was to get to Faroe and possibly Iceland), and I’d need someone for a reasonable period of time. I only got a couple of responses, but one was from Olly, who is also ex-RN and has his own boat on the Clyde. He was keen to do some longer passages and got in touch. Having had some bad experiences with sourcing crew online, I cautiously arranged to meet him in Glasgow for lunch, and I established that he most likely was not a serial killer. We agreed to meet on the 16th somewhere in the north-west of Scotland, most likely Stornoway.
So here I was meeting him off the ferry a few weeks later. The forecast until now had been looking fairly favourable for getting to Faroe, but as the weeekend progressed, this changed. There was another period of poor weather coming through, so we were going to be stuck in Stornoway for a couple of days. I had been to Stornoway before, but Olly hadn’t,
and I had never really explored the area at all, so we used the three days to have a look around. On the Sunday we had a walk around the grounds of Lews Castle. On the Monday the weather was awful and we had to move off the berth to allow another boat to come in inside us, as it was to be left attended only by the inexperienced wife of the couple for a week. I managed to put Meander back alongside again with a bit of difficulty, and unfortunately stern into the weather.
On the third day we got a bus and headed up to Ness at the very north of Lewis, to see Port of Ness, an interesting old harbour almost carved into the rock. It is little used these days, but a shoal-drafted boat might enjoy coming in to take the beach in settled conditions. From there we walked to Butt of Lewis lighthouse, and there met the lovely French couple we had befriended in Stornoway, Alain and Marie-Christine, who were owners of a nice Ovni 36. They had hired a car and offered to take us back to Stornoway, as the buses were fairly restrictive. We had spent the last couple of evenings in each others’ company as we had reciprocated invitations to drinks on board each others’ boats. Unfortunately we would part company from Stornoway, but I continued to receive updates from Alain by text as they headed south down the island chain.
On the 20th we were finally able to leave, but the wind was still not fair for Faroe, so I opted to head across to Kinlochbervie to keep our options open, and it would also give Olly a day sail to get the hang of the boat as well. We made a prompt start at 0745, with the promise of some decent wind and a good sail. At 0940 we were able to stop the engine after motorsailing for the first part, and made good progress for a while, but conditions were fairly squally so progress was sporadic, and we were unable to set as much sail as I’d have liked. At 1040 we started the engine again as progress was slow, and the rest of the day followed this pattern. This, coupled with the residual seas left over from the poor weather, meant that the boat’s motion was quite uncomfortable, and towards the end of the afternoon Olly unfortunately succumbed and had a couple of conversations with Huey over the side before we finally got to Kinlochbervie at 1745.
KLB, I may have mentioned before, is not the most exciting place in Scotland, but we were destined to remain here for a couple of nights, again to await a gap in the weather. Entertainment was provided on the first evening by the arrival of a large (52ft, it turned out) French yacht. The husband of the couple explained, as he tried to moor alongside the 38ft Bavaria ahead of us, that he had reserved the whole pontoon. I mentioned that this was generally not possible, but he disagreed, and in order to keep the peace and enable a somewhat more seamanlike berthing arrangement for him, I moved off my berth to let him alongside inside me. At this point the harbourmaster turned up and reinforced the fact that it was first come, first served, and checked that I was happy with the arrangement (I was). We were able to move to our own berth alongside the pontoon the following morning when another boat left. Then, in the afternoon, we went for a walk around the loch which lurks behind the hill behind the village, and which I never knew existed until I bought a map. At the end of the walk we went into the somewhat moribund hotel which used to serve the hundreds of fishing boats, and managed to prise a cup of coffee out of the reluctant landlady. On our return to the boat, we first popped in to see the harbourmaster, who was new in the post this year, and turned out to be ex-RN, so we had a long chat and paid our dues. As we arrived back onn the pontoon, our French neighbours of the previous night were butchering a salmon they had just caught in the harbour, and gave us a number of fillets.
It was becoming evident that we would not get a fair wind for Faroe in the next few days, and our window for getting there was closing (certainly if we wanted to do any exploring up there and get back again in the three weeks Olly was with me), so after some discussion, we decided to head for Orkney initially, still with the option of Faroe. So the following morning we set off at a civilised time and headed towards Cape Wrath. We motorsailed initially to get some searoom, with still fairly lively seas and a healthy NW’ly breeze. After a while we were able to stop the engine and sail (we had a reef tucked in the main, with the full mizzen and staysail set). At lunchtime we bore away round Cape Wrath and handed the mizzen, as the wind was dead astern and George would never be able to keep a course with it set. It was blowing a good force 5-6, now from the south of west, so we goosewinged and cracked along, with the odd big roll from the still large swell after the previous day’s wind. Unfortunately we made such good progress we were early for the tide into Hoy Sound. Anyone who knows Orkney knows that you do not mess with the tides there, and to enter Hoy Mouth against the tide and with wind against tide would have been foolish. I decided therefore that we would heave to about 8 miles off the mouth in open water, to sit out the tide and await a fair stream. This we did at 2130, and both of us were able to snatch a bit of rest before bore off once again at about 0130. Meander behaved very well whilst hove to, and whilst not motionless, she was comfortable whilst we waited. At 0230 we started the engine in the Hoy Sound and handed sail, getting alongside in Stromness Marina at 0300. I had considered anchoring until daylight, but in the darkness it was diffcult to identify the best spot which would not be in the way of the ferry, so after scoping out the marina I decided to go straight in.
After giving ourselves a couple of days in Stromness to rest, wait for weather (again) and for Olly to catch up with friends from when he worked there, we sailed again on the 25th to catch the afternoon tide out of Hoy Mouth. Faroe was now unfortunately out of the picture, so we were heading for Shetland, with Scalloway as the goal. The ebb was creating some confused seas off Hoy Mouth, although the roost was not in full flow fortunately, so it was a bit lumpy as we motored out to windward of the wave energy test area. Once we had enough offing, we were able to set the staysail and bear away. With a WxN’ly force 4 we were able to crack along at 6+ knots after we also set the jib. We were able to set the topsail later and with George on the helm we were able to lay Noup head even as the wind veered slightly. Unfortunately that was where the wind left us, and we had to start the engine and handed the headsails and topsail to motor on in now calm conditions.
At 2000 we set watches and Olly took the first 3 hours. It remained calm throughout the night, but in the morning there was a slight breeze from the SSW, so we set the topsail and ghoster and stopped the engine. We drifted at a fairly leisurely pace up the west side of Shetland, and mid-morning we were greeted by my friend Rory Goodlad, who had brought his family motor boat out from Quarff to meet us and take some photos. As midday approached we were in the south channel entrance into Scalloway harbour, and handed sail, and got alongside the excellent (and substantial) Scalloway boat club pontoon
at 1215. After getting some rest, we were then invited to join Rory and his girlfriend Ailish at home for dinner.
The following day was spent getting fuel, provisions and haircuts, and Rory very kindly drove us around to achieve this, then took us for a bit of a tour to the north of Mainland, and we lunched at the UK’s most northerly fish and chip shop! In the evening he and Ailish, together with Rory’s parents, were
invited to join us for a barbecue on board Meander. I thought I had bought too much food, despite knowing Rory’s healthy appetite. As it happens this is a trait shared by his family, so pretty much everything was polished off in pretty short order.
As we were now over halfway through Olly’s time on board, and I had to make allowances for the fact that we would need three days at least to get through the Caledonian canal (the logical way back to the west coast from the Northern Isles), It was time to start thinking about heading south once more, so at 0800 the next morning we slipped the berth and headed out to sea again, bound for Fair Isle. We motored through some patchy fog initially, but at 0900 the wind was starting to materialise, and we were able to sail with topsail and ghoster set. At 1500 we handed the ghoster and started the engine 5 miles from Fair Isle. After handing the remaining sails we headed into North Haven and got alongside the quay wall at 1630.
The original plan was to stay for 2 nights, but the wind was forecast to be better for continuing to the south the next day, with a bit more of a blow forecast for the following day, so slightly reluctantly we decided to stay just the one night and leave the follwoing morning. As result we squeezed in a walk on the island that evening, taking some good photos and
seeing most of what there was to see, winding up in the bar at the bird observatory, which looms over the harbour. Here we made the acquaintance of Jamie, a retired commercial diver who was a slightly boozy, but very amusing, raconteur, heading for a wedding in Shetland on his lovely Folkboat.
We daparted from Fair Isle at 0800 the following morning, first having to wake our Swedish neighbour who had rafted against us for the night. Once clear, we set all plain sail and set up on a broad reach in an ENE’ly Force 3, making good time down past Orkney and the Pentland Firth. The wind remained at around F3 for most of the passage, but was showing signs of increasing as the evening drew on. This was of slight concern to me, as the entrance to Wick becomes untenable in strong easterlies, and the pilot book states categorically that you should not enter in anything over an E’ly F4. As it happened, the wind veered a bit more into the SE as we approached, which made things slightly better for entering, but it was still fairly lumpy in the bay as we handed sail to motor in. We were fast alongside in the nearly empty marina by 0130.
I remember quite liking Wick last year when I visited, but somehow this time it felt more down-at-heel, despite Scottish and Southern Energy moving in to build their headquarters for the new Beatrice windfarm out in the Moray Firth. There is no doubt that the harbour is busy with transfer vessels, but the town has not noticeably experienced any boom yet. Olly works for SSE’s renewables section and actually had a hand in designing the windfarm, so we were able to visit the temporary control room (whilst they refurbish a row of harbourside buildings as their headquarters) and get a feeling of what the windfarm involves. On the Monday, it blew again, and we stayed put, went for walks, went shopping, and in the evening went to what must certainly be the most northerly French restaurant in the UK. We enjoyed an absolutely authentic and very tasty French meal, cooked by an absolutely authentic French chef.
We decided that we would take advantage of a momentary shift of the wind from the SE to the NW, and sail from Wick in the evening of the 1st July. Once it was evident that the wind had gone round, we left the berth and headed out at 1900. Setting a reefed main and staysail in the bay we then headed out in a force 5-6 from the WNW. After half an hour or so it was clear that the wind was not going to drop any time soon, so I put in the second reef before we set watches overnight. I tookk the first watch as I knew the wind would be easing by midnight. Indeed at 2315 we shook out the second reef before I turned in, and an hour later Olly set the mizzen, with the wind now down to F3-4. We set the jib on my next watch, but Olly later handed it to control the speed as we would otherwise arrive at the Chanonry narrows before the tide turned fair. As it turned out, this would not be a problem, because as we approached the mouth of the Cromarty Firth, the wind died completely, and at 0815 we had to start the engine. This got us through Chanonry at 1000, with the dolphins giving a very disappointing performance, and we were alongside in the sea lock at Clachnaharry at 1130. Having paid my (much higher than last year) licence fee for the canal, we locked through into Muirtown basin and went alongside in Seaport Marina to rest up for the night. Whilst I snoozed that afternoon, Olly caught the bus to Ullapool to retrieve his car and bring it back to Inverness.
The following morning we were underway and ready in time for the first bridge opening at 0930, annd entered the Muirtown locks. We soon established our routine for hanling the boat through the locks, and enjoyed the transit in scorching sunshine. Once through the first flight we were able to relax slightly as we transited the canal section through to Loch Ness. As we entered the Loch, there was no wind, but the further down we went, the more the wind built, and we were able to set main and staysail for a good run down to Fort Augustus. I had hoped that we might get up the flight of locks there before stopping for the night, but as we approached we were told that the swing bridge had jammed due to the high temperatures, and we would need to berth on the pontoons at the bottom. There was plenty of space, so we took our pick of the berths, got alongside and went to find a member of lock staff to find out the score for the next morning. I was brushed off very rudely by the lockkeeper we found (a fact about which I later complained formally to Scottish Canals), but got the jist that we had to wait for someone to come and see us in the morning. We then went up to look at the boats in the top basin, and found some interesting characters: there was a lady who was stand-up paddleboarding from Lands End to John O’Groats, and was therefore nearly there; there was also the boat flying the Tristan da Cunha flag – we chatted to the owner and it turned out that he visited Tristan regularly to carry out routine dental work on the islanders.
We were up smartly in the morning, ready for instructions, and waited. And waited… It was shortly before 1100 before someone came to see us. They told us that we had to wait for the first batch of vessels to come down first, as the basin at the top was full. First out was TS Royalist, on her way to Sunderland for the Tall Ships race, and we exchanged greetings on our way past, as we had by this time been summoned into the lock as they were going to cross us over with a group of downcoming boats. It was nice to see the captain and the bosun, both of whom I know, and they came up for a chat later as we went up the flight.
This was the last “up” flight, with just a couple of individual locks to go, so we made good progress and were able to anchor in Loch Oich for a spell and have a swim before finishing for the day at Laggan. Here we had a bar meal and a couple of pints at the Eagle barge.
Day 3 in the canal, and we set off in good time in the morning to get through to the basin at Corpach by early afternoon, and moored there to relax for the rest of the afternoon before Olly had to depart in the morning. We had a nice walk back up the canal and Neptune’s Staircase to look at some pretty boats which were moored up there, including a lovely Westernman pilot cutter.
This was Olly’s last day on Meander, and he departed on the early train to Fort William and then a bus onward to Inverness to pick up his car.