Sunday 21st July – Across the Pentland Firth to Wick
Our alarm went off at 0530 – not out of choice but the necessity of crossing the Pentland Firth to mainland Scotland when the tides are slack. The Pentland Firth has the strongest tides in the UK and we are crossing at spring tides when the tides are strongest. The pilot books make a lot of fuss about crossing this stretch of water and the charts show tidal streams of up to 9 knots. (Although Neolithic Man seems to have got across with his wives, animals, children, goods and chattels to settle the Orkneys!). We are a bit apprehensive as a result of all the warnings but have studied the tide tables and charts and done our calculations twice.
We set off from St. Margaret’s Hope (South Ronaldsay, Orkney) at 0615, setting two reefs as there is a brisk wind. We sail round South Ronaldsay and head south, keeping close to the land as we have opted to start in adverse tides at the end of the west going tide. The aim is to avoid the eddies and overfalls downstream of the various islands and rocks across the Pentland Firth, which are severe at full tidal flow. As we head out of the shelter of the Orkneys the tide dies away, getting ready to turn eastward. We opt to sail with the engine on as the wind is variable to ensure we get across the 5 miles or so of water to the mainland in the minimum time. In reality, the sea is calm and we have no trouble. The pilot books recommend that we keep at least a mile off Duncansby Head (the headland nearest to John O’Groats at the north-east corner of the mainland) but the sea is so flat that we can sail close to the Head to photograph it. As we pass the head the tide starts to set south and a few small overfalls appear but there is no problem.
The wind and south going tide settle in and we are soon sailing south at a good speed. The coast is rocky with sandstone cliffs and rock arches and sea caves clearly visible. We soon reach Noss Head, just north of Wick, where some uncharted overfalls appear but we sail on through and reach Wick at 10:45.
In common with many old harbours, Wick has used European and Scottish Government money to convert the inner harbour basin into a marina. These are usually located near the centre of town – in Wick’s case the harbour is across the Wick River from the original town centre. (We later find out that the town round the Harbour is Pulteneytown which is an early example of a planned, integrated industrial development – but more of that later.
Our neighbour on the next pontoon is a retired Belgian gentleman who has sailed his 26 ft. boat from Nieuwpoort to here with the intention of reaching the Orkneys. He asks us advice as we have just come the opposite way. We are surprised to find that he has just a rudimentary set of tide tables, a small scale chart for the whole of the north of Scotland and the Orkneys and a basic chart plotter. We discuss the passage planning with him, showing him our tidal atlases and pilot books and giving him our free book of information on the ports and tides on the Orkneys that we were given at Stromness. We wish him good luck.
On the other side is a 44 ft boat with three Norwegians on who sailed across here earlier this summer and went through the Caledonian Canal to Western Scotland. They were about to set sail for the 50 hour voyage back to Southern Norway and Oslo. We have met quite a lot of Scandinavians who have crossed the North Sea to visit Scotland, often not for the first time.
The fog comes down as we walk across the river to the town centre, where we locate the laundrette and a few shops. The Tourist Information is located in a clothing shop but there seems to be nothing on this particular Thursday. We walk back across the old bridge to Pulteneytown and come across the local heritage museum, which we decide to visit.
The museum is enthusiastically run by local retired people as far as we can see. We are introduced to the museum by a quick tour by one of the staff. We learn from her that Wick was once the largest herring fishing town in the UK, with 1100 fishing boats. There was an annual movement of fishermen and women up the east coast of the UK from East Anglia to the north of Scotland, following the fishing season – the men doing the fishing and the women doing the gutting, salting and packing into barrels. The women worked in threes, being on a basic wage plus piecework.
Our guide’s grandmother was a fish filleter: apparently the norm was to fillet 60 fish a minute, sorting them into three size grades as she went. The women bound their hands with old bandages to protect them so they could work faster. Our guide said she could never see how granny worked so fast or what she did: all she had was a little blade in a handle. The work force used to sharpen their blades as they walked to work in the morning on the stones of the bridge parapet.
The museum is a jumble of items collected together and housed in four old houses and a work yard. Out the back the steeply terraced garden has been beautifully cared for with flowers in profusion.
The museum is in the area known as Pulteneytown, named by the great engineer Thomas Telford in honour of his patron. Telford was commissioned to design a new integrated industrial area around the harbour at the end of the 18th Century as the fish trade developed. Telford had high standards and laid the area out with good quality housing for the workers, decent width streets and with workshops integrated in with the houses. The area took 20 years to build to Telford’s exacting standards. The workshops provided the support industries for the fishing trade – coopers, rope and sail makers, boat builders, fish smokeries etc. In its heyday this was a thriving area and at one point LS Lowry was commissioned to create paintings for publicity material for Wick.
The fish trade lasted until the early 1950’s, then died as the herrings disappeared from the seas. Pulteneytown languished and in common with so many other traditional areas in the country, started to get knocked down by the planners and replaced by uninspiring and rather shoddy housing, Happily, the local council has changed its stance and many of Telford’s streets and buildings have been preserved, often with modernised interiors but keeping the original exteriors.
These days the main fishing ports in this part of the world are Scrabster (Thurso), Frazerburgh and Peterhead. It has been surprising hard to find decent fresh fish but we are directed to a little fish shop up a long flight of steps where we buy some excellent Dover Sole which we enjoy baked in foil in the oven with a little pesto for our supper.
Day’s run: 24.0 nm
Total miles to date: 1429.5 nm
Engine hours: 3.2 hours
Total engine hours: 171.4 hours
Hours sailed: 4.5 Hours
Total hours sailed; 319.7 hours
Friday 26th July – Wick to Dornock Firth
We awake to thunder and lightning and it is still foggy! We take a leisurely breakfast and John gets a shower (or rather half a shower as the money runs out so they are not free after all!). The weather forecast is for the fog to lift so as it seems to be brightening up we decide to move south – Wick is a bit grey and depressing.
We leave harbour and it is reasonably clear for a while before the fog descends once more and the wind dies. We have heard of the North Sea har – mist that is due to warm moist air over cold sea – and now we are experiencing it. There is little wind so we decide to motor on, using our electronic navigation and the AIS to spot any ships. However, this is a much unfrequented area and we motor on in a bubble of visibility, keeping far enough off shore to avoid any problems. This should have been a lovely trip down past the hills of Caithness and Sutherland as we pass out of sea area Fair Isle into sea area Cromarty but sadly they are invisible. The only thing we come across all day is a yellow float with a flag on it – presumably a sea monitoring buoy. Even the few birds we see seem rather inactive, floating lazily on the water. (Maybe this is how sea birds exist for much of their time). We try using the auto helm but every so often it goes awry, steering us off course and necessitating manual intervention so we take over from “George”. Later we notice that the compass swings a bit strangely. There are some areas of the sea where magnetic rocks distort the earth’s magnetic field and although one is not marked on our chart there could well be a local anomaly. “George” steers using a magnetic flux gate compass so maybe he was not to blame – we shall try him with care in another area on a quiet day.
We decide to head for Portmohomack just inside the Dornoch Firth. Yvonne’s niece Tammy married Paul in a castle overlooking the Dornoch Firth some years ago and we remember the area as being a beauty spot. We just hope the fog will clear when we get more land locked.
Right on cue, the fog rolls away as we enter the Firth by Tarbert Ness and we sail along to Portmohomack in brightening sunshine and anchor off its sandy beach with a splendid view of the distant mountains. The village opposite our anchorage is decked out in flags ready for their carnival day – this is proper summer! We enjoy the view with G & T’s on deck whilst a lone bag pipe players plays cheerfully in the distance – this can only happen in Scotland and makes up for the rest of the day.
Day’s run: 41.9 nm
Total miles to date: 1471.4 nm
Engine hours: 7.2 hours
Total engine hours: 178.6 hours
Hours sailed: 8.0 Hours
Total hours sailed; 328.7 hours
Saturday 27th July – Portmohomack to Buckie
What a beautiful morning and the same stunning views as yesterday evening! We have breakfast on deck before setting off with the intention of getting to Whitehills, a small port on the shore of the Moray Firth half way between Inverness and Peterhead.
We set full sails and beat out of the Dornoch Firth and past the lighthouse on the end of Tarbert Ness before setting out on a long fetch towards the north coast of the old counties of Morayshire and Banff (now Aberdeenshire). As the day goes by the wind strengthens and the flat sea becomes confused with short waves from different directions, typical of a shallow sea. We decide to shorten our journey to Buckie. We reef down twice and the seas become rather rolling with steep waves that stop Sundart so we put the engine on to help the boat against the wind and waves. The easy start to the day has become hard work.
The entrance to Buckie, which is reported in Reeds Almanac to be a major fishing port with good facilities, is rather difficult to spot as it entered by turning round the end of the sea wall and does not open directly to the sea to protect the harbour from the waves so we use the Samsung tablet to help ensure we have the right point and harbour light.
Once in the harbour we call up the harbourmaster and are directed by the night watchman to moor against an old fishing boat. We climb up the vertical ladder up the harbour wall to find that Buckie is a rather run down fishing port with no real facilities for small craft. There is no shore power or water or any realistic way to refuel (as they only have equipment suitable for trawlers and larger ships). However, it is a safe haven for the night and the night watchman is friendly and helpful so we will review the situation in the morning. We use the facilities in the fish market then climb back down the ladder to make supper and retire for the night after a long day.
Day’s run: 41.6 nm
Total miles to date: 1513.0 nm
Engine hours: 2.9 hours
Total engine hours: 181.5 hours
Hours sailed: 6.0 Hours
Total hours sailed; 334.7 hours
Sunday 28th July – Buckie to Whitehills
We wake up to…rain again! The rest of the country seems to be basking in perpetual sun whilst we get the rubbish! John decides to fetch the Sunday papers and some essential shopping so dons full waterproofs, walking boots and back-pack and walks up the hill to the town centre where he finds a Co-op. (The Co-op seems to be the mainstay of many small towns and villages in Scotland). He stops at the harbour watchman en route to check the way and discovers that this harbour is nearly always quiet with little work for the fishermen or boat repairers which the watchman puts down to the location of the port (it being too far for fishing boats to come to unload up the Moray Firth, Frazerburgh, Peterhead and Scrabster being better located. They seem to have missed a trick by not catering for small boats, unlike other ports). John returns fully laden but looking like a drowned rat. The shopping has to be lowered on a rope onto the deck of the old fishing boat from the quay then moved across to Sundart alongside.
We had planned to wait here for Charles and Judith Saunders (who will be joining us on the 29th) but it is not really suitable. We study the weather forecast which sates that the wind will drop and rain abate in the middle of the day so we put away the stores, John dries out and we read the papers over a coffee.
In due course the weather brightens and the rain stops so we decide this is the window of opportunity to go 10 miles along the coast to Whitehills, where facilities are much better. We set off with 2 reefs, the wind then drops so we take out the reefs and put the engine on. 30 minutes later the wind changes direction and blows again but from behind us. For a while we make great progress but after a bit the waves and wind build up so we have the strenuous task of getting rid of the sails and motoring the last couple of miles under better control to Whitehills.
Whitehills is a small port with a narrow entrance. We have studied the charts and pilot books before leaving so we readily identify the entrance but had not realised how small it is. We tried to phone ahead to the harbourmaster to arrange our berth but with no joy so we will have to sort ourselves out. (We later discover that this normally extremely helpful gentleman was enjoying his ruby wedding celebration and was very apologetic for not having seen us in but he missed our phone and radio calls). There is a sharp 90 degree turn into the harbour which we negotiate but it is all rather exciting in the waves! Once in the harbour we have little room to manoeuvre as there are a lot of boats and no spare space on the visitors’ pontoon. We just manage to spin Sundart round in the space against the wind and moor up against a 36 ft Rival yacht (which is a solid boat and big enough for us to go against). It is all rather hectic but all is well and we are thankful to be in this snug little port that is clearly set up for small boats.
We decide to stay here tomorrow to have a break and text Charles to ask them to meet us here.
Day’s run: 13.5 nm
Total miles to date: 1526.5 nm
Engine hours: 1.7 hours
Total engine hours: 183.2 hours
Hours sailed: 3.0 Hours
Total hours sailed; 337.7 hours
Monday 29th July – A day in Whitehills
We awake to a lovely day – at last with sun and a light wind. Charles and Judith have travelled to Inverness on the sleeper train and text us to say they will be with us by midday.
Bertie the Harbour master introduces himself to us and apologises for not being around to receive us yesterday. We tell him that we will wait today for Charles and Judith; Bertie offers to fetch them from Elgin station half and hours drive away but by then they will already be ion the bus to here. Whitehills has a reputation for being a very welcoming harbour to yachtsmen and we can see why.
John catches up on some work before C & J arrive. When they do, we spend the time settling them in and doing routine jobs – watering and fuelling up etc. Charles has bought various spares with him that we have had sent to his home. Most replenish the spares stock but the new part for the wind gauge has to be fitted so after checking that it works Charles volunteers to be winched up the mast to fix it to the top. At last, we can measure the wind speed and direction accurately, which really helps with our sailing.
After a coffee we walk up the hill to the village to get essential supplies at the only shop around. On the way we find Downies – an excellent fish shop, and buy fish for one of Yvonne’s excellent fish pies for supper. (Curiously, despite visiting many fishing ports, it has proved hard to buy fresh fish as it often gets whisked off to market).
After supper we have a leisurely walk around the headland before returning to Sundart to plan our next stage of the trip to Peterhead and down the eastern coast of Scotland towards Edinburgh
A following wind and fair weather to you all.
Yvonne and John