The biggest day yet in a ‘daunting sea passage’ sort of way had arrived. We were to go around the top of Scotland via the feared and very much ‘only attempt in ideal conditions’ Pentland Firth, found on the top right hand corner of Britain, to be eventually confronted by the appropriately named Cape Wrath to be rounded on the left hand corner of Britain.
Since the fateful night that we had decided to do this trip back in the autumn of 2018 , I had been tracking the coastal and inshore forecasts for this stretch. For sea states I had never seen ‘smooth’, I had only seen on a couple of occasions ‘slight’, they were usually ‘moderate to rough’ or ‘rough to very rough’ or simply ‘high’. I know it’s probably an exaggeration but for nigh on six months I had gone to sleep thinking about the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath and woke up thinking about the Pentland Firth and Cape Wrath.
The day had at long last arrived.
First we had to buy some provisions for a few days just in case we got holed up in somewhere called Loch Eriboll, the only ‘port in a storm’ in case of need near the Cape Wrath end. The only problem was there were literally no shops, pubs or basic civilisation of any kind, we would have to anchor and fend for ourselves until the weather allowed us to round Cape Wrath.
I asked a local boat owner where the nearest shop was, he recommended Tescos out of town, which I wouldn’t be able to walk to, but that wouldn’t be a problem because he would drive me there, wait and then drive me back again. Nigel would have been keen to attempt this on his scooter but was still in the land of nod. I accepted the very kind offer from this wonderful 87 year old Scottish gentleman. His boat was a rugged locally built 20 foot single engined wheel house fishing boat, some 45 years old and looking in fine fettle. I told him that we we were just about to go around the top and he confirmed that he thought it was a good day for it. I was pleased that this man of considerable local experience confirmed my own view.
Having completed the shopping trip it was time for an even more fastidious check of the engines, which were also in fine fettle. Then a coffee from the Nespresso machine which was approximately 3 feet from Nigel’s snoring head, it did the trick and woke him from his deep slumber. Time to get up.
I asked Nigel to ask the Harbour Master (on his way to the shower block) where the diesel pump was? Plus his opinion re going through the Pentland Firth today. This was recommended by my elderly Scottish friend, the Harbour Master was a man of considerable local reputation. On his return Nigel informs me that diesel isn’t available for pleasure craft as the pump is too heavy duty , i.e. designed for big trawler type boats, we’d have to call in to Scrabster, 20 miles or so west of (having survived) the Pentland Firth.
Nigel had told the Harbour Master about our plan and as in Peterhead was pleased for our berthing fee to be a donation instead. Thank you very much Wick Marina. He would also call by and give the course to steer through the dreaded Firth so as to ensure that I would miss all of the nastiest bits.
This he did, and I’m very please to say, confirming all of my own plans and thoughts re this dreaded passage. We had to get to Duncansby Head though by 11.30am to catch the most favourable tidal situation for the eight mile transit. We left without further delay.
The sea state was slight and on our beam as we cruised up to the very top right hand corner of Great Britain. We were told to cut in close to Duncansby Head as we turned left with the sea state now gently following us, keep close in shore for a few miles until we should turn to the north west, south of Stroma island, to avoid the worst effects of the fearsome tidal race know as the MERRY (yes that’s MERRY) Men of Mey and the rocks themselves i.e. the Men of Mey.
The Pentland Firth is a stretch of sea between Dunnet Head, Caithness, (Britain’s most northerly point) and Duncansby Head (top left hand corner) and the Orkney islands. It’s approximately eight miles by five miles and has its own scary sections in all published almanacs, pilot guides and has been written about by every sailor of renown that has ever existed. All of the written advice is very much for the benefit of over optimistic pleasure boaters but particularly ‘rag and stick’ sailors who might find themselves going backwards at seven knots in a 12 knot tide if they arrive at the wrong time, without any control and where their usually underpowered engines will have zero effect, culminating in them being delivered onto the Men of Mey. Not a good idea.
On this day and in a motor boat with twin 220 HP engines we scooted across what was a perfectly flat sea disturbed by miniature ripples in the ‘race’ part, I have had many a worse moment going into or out of Portsmouth harbour on a spring tide ebb. I had spent countless hours thinking of nothing else, what a very pleasant anti climax this was.
Onward to Scrabster to refuel the boat, we phoned ahead. The Harbour Master informs us that the fuel quay doesn’t open on Sunday, but he might be able to get the attendant to turn up if we give him 30 minutes notice. We will have to pay cash however because there was no facility for card payments on Sundays.
We arrive in the basin at low tide where the fuel pump is, 20 feet up a nasty barnacled harbour wall, I could see the lovely navy gel coat finish on Start Me Up being scraped right off. With loads of extra fenders deployed we come along side. Gregor the Polish fuel attendant says that I have to scale the ladder to fill in a form before he can give me the fuel dispenser, 20 feet up a ladder or wait for high tide? Not an option we have to get round Cape Wrath and so up I go, Nigel was very concerned for me but even more concerned for himself if I had a heart attack let go and landed on him!!
I need about £300 worth but only had £100 cash, Gregor would take me to a bank in nearby Thurso to get the cash I needed. Whilst driving me to Thurso and back Gregor took the opportunity to let me know what he thought about Brexit, he wasn’t pleased about it.
We get back and I descend the ladder (even more frightening) Gregor lets down the incredibly heavy fuel dispenser at the end of a 3″ wide hose. It had the strangest trigger which controlled the flow, it took ages and was exhausting. back up the ladder to pay for the fuel, back down the ladder (I’m getting better at it) and on we go.
I had allowed a total of five hours to get from Wick on the east coast of Scotland to Kinlochbervie, 15 miles south of Cape Wrath on the west cost of Scotland, this so as to have the best tidal conditions and sea states on both sides. We had wasted an hour on the unplanned stop for fuel in Scrabster. Hopefully the sea sea Gods would continue to smile on us 40 miles further west when we round Cape Wrath.