Miles logged: 40
Total miles logged: 1,251
Days since leaving Fleetwood: 45
Days at sea: 27
The aim today was to pass around the north-east corner of Great Britain, by rounding Duncansby Head and Dunnet Head and passing through the Inner Channel of the Pentland Firth.
Dunnet Head is the most northerly point of mainland Britain. I have calculated that the distance by great circle from the southern-most point, which we passed a few weeks ago, to this most northerly point passed today is 525 nautical miles. That is about 604 statute (land) miles.
It was a gorgeous, warm, sunny morning in Wick with a light breeze. We stocked up with fresh food to last a few days then set out after lunch. Interestingly, on leaving Wick Harbour I was required to perform the only ‘All Ships’ broadcast that I have ever had to make. The form at Wick is to send an ‘All Ships’ message on Channel 14 when about to leave in order to warn other vessels who should, in theory, be listening on that channel. There is no harbour control as such. Given that there are two blind right-angle turns between the marina and sea I was glad that we didn’t meet anything coming the other way.
At sea the conditions were, predictably, fine with little wind. It was just about possible to fill the genoa for the first hour or so but after that it was an entirely engine-powered passage. It was exciting to approach Duncansby Head, one of our milestones, after which we would begin to head west rather than north. It is also a popular place for visitors and many were atop the cliffs enjoying the view. We had expected a fair tide for the entire passage but have learned by experience on this trip that the official tidal stream atlases are really designed for shipping, and the stream information they offer is for passages of over three miles from the coast. We, unless advised to the contrary in the pilot book or almanac, tend to sail much closer in, so that we can have a good look at the coast as we sail by. The headlands, including this one, are often ‘clean’, so we can sail very close indeed to them. Close in, there are frequently eddies caused by the headlands and sometimes within bays, and these affect the waters close to the shore. So we were not surprised that the expected stream did not materialise from Wick as we headed towards Duncansby Head. But as we neared Duncansby the effect of the headland on the tidal stream became obvious and we sped up rapidly, from 5 kts over the ground to 8 or 9 in the space of a few minutes. At the headland itself we fell back to just over 6 kts. We were able to get close in and had a superb view of the cliffs and birds. It was our third ‘corner’ on our list which now includes Land’s End, North Foreland and Duncansby Head.
It is after Duncansby Head that one enters the dreaded Pentland Firth. We had done our research but in the light winds, and having arrived at the right time, it was clear that what lay ahead would be nothing like the tormented seas and fearsome tidal streams for which the area is so famed. We set a course for the beacon at the south end of the island of Stroma, bearing to port when near, in order to pass close by the rocks at St John’s Point. We had a good few of John O’Groats as we settled into the Inner Passage. It is between St John’s Point and the cliffs on the nearby Orkney island of Hoy that the Merry Men of May form. This is an extensive area of very disturbed sea with dangerous standing waves, but we had read that it clears from the south as the ebb wears on so chose to pass as far south as we could. Fortunately the Merry Men were not out today but there was some turbulence and we certainly felt the impact of the tide rushing through the Inner Sound; we attained ground speeds in excess of ten knots for several minutes.
We were making excellent progress and clearly had been fortunate to make the passage in ideal weather, so we began to consider taking full advantage of the conditions to push on beyond Scrabster. Loch Eriboll, where there are excellent anchorages, was too far so I consulted the chart and found a sandy bay, Sandside Bay, and we decided to make for that. It would mean that our next passage would be around ten miles shorter, and ten miles is good to have in hand should the conditions change.
Next, on this most interesting of passages, came Dunnet Head and again we came in close. This, the most northerly point on the British mainland, is much higher and more impressive than Duncansby Head. Glancing northwards we could make out cliffs on Orkney which looked even more massive. We could see Scrabster at the western end of Thurso Bay but we had decided to continue westwards and the remainder of the leg to Sandside Bay was straightforward. We passed the decommissioned Dounreay nuclear facility by which time an evening breeze of some 12 knots had arisen. We could have sailed then but with just a short distance to go to our anchorage we motored on. In any event, sailing would have been an uncomfortable dead run.
At Sandside we were disappointed to find more swell than is ideal for an evening and night aboard but the holding was good and the views pleasant. By breakfast there was less swell, less wind and much scorching sun. I breakfasted in the cockpit, admiring the scenery and reflecting on the fact that I was in these conditions on the north coast of Scotland. Mike rowed over for a chat mid-morning and we decided to depart westwards at 1400, by which time we could expect a favourable tide. The plan is to anchor in Loch Eriboll tonight then to round Cape Wrath the following day.
Although the batteries were well charged after yesterday’s passage I tested my petrol generator at Sandside and it works well for charging Bubble’s batteries. It is not powerful enough to run her water-heater (I tried, and it caused the generator to stop) so if on anchor for an extended period I could have hot showers only by running the main engine. But for what I bought it for the generator seems ideal.
Before we sailed from Wick I was absolutely delighted to be able to fulfil another of my lifelong ambitions which was to travel from Wick to Thurso on on the most northerly and remote tentacle of our national rail network. It was a picturesque route though nowhere near as breathtaking as the west highland lines. Thurso is the most northerly station on the network and Georgemas Junction, between Wick and Thurso, is the most northerly junction. There was no return service without a long wait so I returned to Wick by bus. The bus was cheaper than the train, but much less fun.
There is some video footage of the passage through the Pentland Firth here. I apologise for confusing in my commentary the island of Stroma which we passed with the Welsh island of Skomer.