Jonty Pearce explores the inlets and anchorages of the Shetland Isles, Fair Isle and Orkney
The magical Northern Isles. Jonty Pearce gets to grips with the Shetland Isles, Fair Isle and Orkney
Osoared majestically above ily swells joined the swirling currents as we traversed the narrow channel between Muckle Flugga and the most northerly point of the British Isles, Out Stack. Muckle Flugga’s iconic lighthouse us; the sea sucked and seethed incessantly against the towering rocks on either side while the seabirds wheeled overhead. This truly was a magical moment, and to properly highlight the occasion, we showboated round Out Stack to circumnavigate this magnificent symbolic outpost.
Scotland meets Scandinavia at the Shetland Isles. Closer to Norway than mainland Scotland, there is a distinctive Viking influence in this archipelago of a hundred islands; practically every place name stems from the Old Norse language. Traces of ancient inhabitation from the islands’ earliest Neolithic settlers onwards can be seen at wonderfully wellpreserved archaeological sites; Iron Age brochs, Pictish wheelhouses, and haunting standing stones join Viking ruins to give a visible history line of island occupation through the ages. Bare of trees, ruggedly handsome and boasting a unique landscape, this magical mist-wreathed land is fringed by a mix of hidden winding inlets, sparkling clean beaches and mighty clifftops.
The Orkneys lie 43 miles to the south-west from here, and only lonely Fair Isle separates the island groups that together are termed the Northern Isles. They share wideopen spaces, lots of wind, clean air, a lack of crowds, breathtaking scenery, wonderful wildlife and lots of archaeology, though each group has its own atmosphere and appearance. For instance, Orkney is considered a gentler, greener landscape to Shetland’s wildness. The weather can change quickly, with mist and fog affecting three summer days per month, while one gale a month can enliven high-season sailing. Orkney offers three marinas to Shetland’s four, and though the latter has 17 pontoon facilities scattered around its shores, a lack of depth and local use limit access for many visiting yachts. Anchorages abound, giving a good choice of shelter from all wind directions.
With such a wealth of riches on offer, a visit to the Northern Isles had always been on my bucket list, so when the Penguin Cruising Club organised a charter there, my wife Carol and I leapt at the chance. Certain considerations stood in our way: firstly, the islands are a whole day’s travel from our Midlands base. Secondly, we could only find one yacht for charter on Orkney and one on Shetland. Thirdly, the area is renowned for its fast-changing and challenging sailing conditions. Such obstacles are there to be overcome; travel was easily arranged, and our cruise organiser managed to agree that the Orkney yacht be delivered to Shetland for the start of the cruise while the Shetland boat would be returned by our crew at the end. The weather and seas were factors that would have to be met on the day. Thus, 14 ‘Penguins’ accumulated on the pontoon at Lerwick to provision and ready our two yachts for a passage to Out Skerries. Our initial plan had been to complete a circumnavigation of Shetland before exploring northern Orkney via Fair Isle; an initial trip south to Mousa and its famous broch had to be dropped due to a forecast of northerly winds that would hamper the following day’s passage. As it was, calm conditions enforced a motorsail from Lerwick to Out Skerries where we found a sheltered anchorage inside Northeast Mouth between Bruray and Grunay.
Fog delayed the morning’s departure to Balta until 1100, meaning we were too late to escape the increasingly lumpy northerly Force 6 that introduced the delights of seasickness to our crew. With two reefs in the main and only half the genoa unfurled, we had a trying time beating north, and were glad to drop anchor and enjoy a hot supper in the relative calm of Unst’s Balta Harbour after a nine-hour passage.
The weather and tides were carefully doublechecked for going ‘over the top’ the next day. Skaw Roost lies off the north-east tip of the Shetlands and has a formidable reputation; when a northwest wind combats a north-going current, breaking seas are common and an offing of three miles is
This land is fringed by a mix of hidden winding inlets, sparkling clean beaches, and mighty clifftops
recommended. We needn’t have worried. The tides and weather favoured us, and it was almost an anti-climax to have another day motorsailing.
I say almost, for who could fail to be thrilled by passing over the northern top of the British Isles? Camera shutters chattered as Muckle Flugga’s guanocovered rock added an olfactory contribution all of its own as we turned south-west towards Bluemull Sound between Unst and Yell. Once there, we hung a sharp right into Cullivoe’s rather industrial and seaweed-strewn harbour and finally managed to set the anchor.
After clearing the weed off the hook, our next destination was Papa Stour. The grey day was brightened by a pod of hunting orcas, and the northwesterly breeze swept us smoothly down to the east-facing Housa Voe before the correctly forecast strong northwesterly winds arrived; we stayed for two nights as a near gale passed. It was too blustery
to venture ashore until late afternoon, but we were rewarded with a glorious sunset after stretching our legs ashore.
The wind then backed to a southeasterly Force 6 as we undertook the tricky pilotage of the Sound of Papa before beating round the mainland to Vaila Sound and the shelter of Walls Harbour. After a cracking tacking battle, our two boats moored alongside at lunchtime to the sound of gusts singing in the rigging.
The bluster blew out overnight to be replaced by dense fog. We emerged mid-morning as it cleared, calling into Tresta Voe for lunch before sailing down to Scalloway Boating Club’s pontoon for beers, showers, provisions, water, fuel and a crew change.
Next afternoon, an easterly Force 4 wafted us down to Bigton Wick anchorage inside St Ninian’s Isle. The overnight swell rocked us to sleep before the challenge of Sumburgh Roost, the Hole and passage to Fair Isle.
Sumburgh Head is well known for fearsome spring tide against wind conditions and the Hole is renowned for difficult seas in bad weather. Again, we need not have worried. A flat calm sea and neap tides combined to make a snooze the most worthwhile occupation as we motorsailed peacefully over these notorious waters. Fair Isle’s northern lighthouse was soon in sight, and the leading line of the Stack of North Haven on a cloud-wreathed and atmospheric Sheep Rock drew us into the harbour for an alfresco lunch. The sun emerged for our walks ashore but
I had a nasty instinct of bad weather approaching that would endanger a planned second night. Sure enough, the evening forecast promised northwesterly gales, and North Haven emptied of yachts early next morning as if by magic. Running goose-winged in the southwesterly Force 4 to Pierowall was initially pleasant until our companions picked up a line which tethered them to the seabed mid-passage. As ever, the wind appeared much stronger when beating back after running; the gale was building. Fortunately, dropping the sails was enough to free our companion yacht, and we all continued on our way to Westray to
From gale to blazing sun, the weather was feast or famine
RIGHT: Many sailing clubs allow visiting yachts to use their pontoons
BELOW: Glorious sailing conditions are common but not guaranteed
ABOVE: The weather can change quickly RIGHT: A safe haven between Orkney and Shetland, Fair Isle is worth a visit in its own right
ABOVE: The Penguin Club organises various cruises for members every year