Wednesday, 23 July 2014

All safe in Scrabster, very north of mainland Scotland

We intended to sail from Kinlochbervie on the mainland of Scotland, round the 'corner' of Cape Wrath and then straight to Stromness in the Orkney Islands, a distance of around 72 miles. The latest obtained forecast was for a gentle breeze from the SW which would help us, and the sea was slight to moderate. Though such a passage would be a long one, complicated by the necessity to reach the Pentland Firth tidal gate at a certain time, it all looked very benign.

We woke at 0530 ish, and left our berth at 0600 but had a nagging sense of worry because we could nor get a download of the shipping or inland shipping forecast and the DSC VHF calls to Stornaway coastguard were not answered. In short we had no reliable forecast. It transpired that Stornaway CG had declared an emergency as they had no comms, so we were eventually handled by Aberdeen coastguard instead.

Anyway, sailing being sailing, the forecast was completely different from reality. It quickly became apparent that the wind direction was not SE or S and so helpful, but instead was North while we were travelling North, then switched to East as soon as we turned Cape Wrath and headed East. At this point, the forecast slight sea state was actually, an angry moderate to rough sea, and the gentle breeze was really 25 to 30 knots of wind over tide. The effect was horrible, the boat surged forward off a wave then fell onto the next one, so someone for example in the saloon would be rising and falling by 6 or 7 feet every 5 seconds, for several hours. Extremely tiring, very frustrating. Sea sickness just around the corner.

Being a cautious sailor, I had identified two places of refuge, just in case. After discussion, we agreed that the sea state was much worse than forecast, the wind much higher, the forecast itself was not and could not be updated because of Stornaway's comms problems, and so we did not know if the conditions would get even worse. This was all on a famously bad stretch of long open sea where there is no safe refuge if you get it wrong. Finally, we were concerned that if, as we must, we met the tidal gateway on time, itself now a challenge as we were rapidly using up the extra contingency time embedded in the passage plan, the strong Easterly wind blowing over a very fast Pentland Firth tidal stream travelling  East would create a huge tumultuous sea near the Orkneys that would be impassible, and we would have to retreat to Scrabster, but then the tide would be against us. A grim scenario.

So, having rounded Cape Wrath, a feat in itself, we turned for Loch Eriboll, the only major inlet after Cape Wrath and had an idyllic and quiet lunch at anchor in stunning scenery. Then we left at 1400, to go back into the maelstrom, this time aiming for Scrabster and hugging the rocky coastline to gain some shelter where possible. The strategy worked well and after a reasonably comfortable passage if five more hours we are safely on a 'hanging' mooring , attached to the quayside in the fishing dock  of Scrabster. Very pleasant, and the friendly harbour people will check our lines through the night to ensure that we are not hanging as the tide falls or drifting as it rises. A good night sleep beckons.

Tomorrow, we shall try the Pentland firth race to go over to Stromness, Orkneys which is only 24 miles away, the most northerly part of our circumnavigation, hopefully leaving at 1400 to coincide with another tidal factor...subject to fog. 

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