Today we sailed about forty miles from Wick, in the far north of Scotland, to Stromness, in the Orkney Islands.
[Editors Note: We quickly learned, soon after this post, that the “Orkneys” is no more of a place name than are “the New Zealands” or “the Indonesias.” It’s “Orkney,” a place we would grow to love above many others.]
It was a great sail, though very challenging.
The Pentland Firth, which separates Scotland and the Orkneys [there is it again!], can be a nasty stretch of water. Currents flow up to 12 knots across the passage at the flood tides, creating very nasty, breaking seas, even with no wind. There is no sustained period of slack tide, and the stream builds up quickly after a very brief pause. And slack tide appears at different parts of the Firth at different times, such that there is no way to pass through it all without having to deal with the current. One source that we consulted notes that “with smooth water and a commanding breeze, the Firth is divested of its dangers, but when a swell is opposed to the tidal stream, a sea is raised which can scarcely be imagined by those who have never experienced it; and, if, at the same time, the wind is light and with the stream, a sailing vessel becomes unmanageable.” This certainly caught our attention. Leander only does about 6 or 7 knots, so it was important that we sussed the tide and wind correctly.
We picked a day when the wind was moderate and favorable. Our sums told us that we needed first to travel 12 miles north to arrive one mile east of Duncansby Head at 11:30, or “one hour after slack water Dover.” And so we left Wick at 9:15 a.m. As we turned north, it looked like we might be in trouble, as the boat was only doing four knots against the current. And the seas were not all calm, as fifteen knots from aft was working against a strong current moving against us. We moved away from the coast, supposing that as we passed a huge open bay to the west, the current would let up. It did, and we finally began to pick up speed. And as we continued, the current died, and then, quite quickly, began to move with us. Soon we were doing nine knots, and now actually needed to slow, so as to not arrive too early. In the end, we arrived exactly when and where we were supposed to — one mile east of Ducansby Head at slack water Dover + 1.
The current was insignificant as we first came into open water, and we moved north along our course at about seven knots. About half way across, however, it really kicked, flowing at five or six knots across our path. We needed to sail way off course, close to two small islands called the Pentland Skerries, and then work with the sideways current to get between the headland of South Ronaldsay and the rocky island of Swona. But to make it work, we had to point the boat in a direction that was well off course, and let the stream push us, crab-like, through the opening. It was really disconcerting to be steering the boat not only AT the rocks we were trying to avoid, but actually at a point well inside of them, and keep reminding ourselves that the current would take us clear. As we approached the rocks at the bottom of South Ronaldsay, the water became increasingly turbulent, and a counter-currents grabbed Leander. For a brief moment, the new current turned the boat in a direction that put us in trouble. Thumpity thump thump thump! But the current subsided, and we corrected course a short time later, and then passed safely through.
The Orkneys are really beautiful. Flat farmland, mostly, with headlands here and there, punctuated by farmhouses, lighthouses, and pillboxes left from WWII, when the British fleet used Scarpa Flow as its base. I went for a run tonight, up slight hills that provide views of the farmland, with cows and sheep about, and slate farmhouses silhouetted against the sky.
The weather is OK. Alexander continues to get great use out of a woolen tiger hat that Joanne gave him earlier this year, and which we thought would be put away for the season. It’s summer time, but a night most folks are in scally caps or hoodies. The days are pleasant.
We timed our arrival to Stromness just right, at the start of “Shopping Week,” a summer festival with music and dance and games every day and night. It is wonderfully local in nature. Today we saw a donut-eating contest for kids, saw the Shopping Week Queen arrive by antique horse-drawn carriage, went to a kids park for a picnic, and, at night, watched an intra-island soccer match between Stromness and Kirkwall. Stromness won in a 1-0 upset.
Out walking, we met a couple with their young son. They invited us over for tea, and we stayed for hours. It was heavenly, as Alexander went up stairs and played with their kids, and we got to enjoy quiet time and adult conversation. That is sorely missed, as Alexander is a challenge to keep entertained on the boat.
The Robertson name is everywhere — on shops and businesses, commemorative plaques, and in rows of names in the phone book.
One of the reasons that we are here is because Paul’s DNA traces to Orkney. There sure are enough Robertsons here to make that a reasonable possibility.