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Jonty Pearce ex­plores the in­lets and an­chor­ages of the Shet­land Isles, Fair Isle and Orkney

Yachting Monthly - - CONTENTS - Words Jonty Pearce

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

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