Chapter 11 – The Northern Isles
“The freedom that comes with travelling solo is something I cherish. I am my own boss,
it is down to me whether I stay or whether I go, whether I live or die. It’s that simple.”
The retired lifeboat coxswain had advised me to leave at high water, which would give me two and a half hours of flood tide before it went slack briefly then turned, and by that time I should be across the Firth and the ebb should carry me north up the west coast of Hoy. That way I would avoid going into the narrow part of the Firth and the worst of the tide races. It was a simple plan and it worked a treat! The weather forecast was spot on – the northwesterly had gone and a light southerly had flattened the sea nicely so that even when I had left the shelter of ThursoBay the sea was remarkably calm. KC had turned up with more hot pies before I left so with warm food inside me I was feeling strong and crossed to Tor Ness in exactly three hours as expected. I had been entertained by lots of birdlife during the crossing including one razorbill who I swear was chasing me blowing raspberries! Bizarre! I watched at close quarters the aerial combat between an arctic skua and a kittiwake, the kittiwake using me as a dog would use his master’s legs when being chased by another larger dog. The skua’s pursuit was relentless however and when it was joined by another AND a great skua the kittiwake had to give in and regurgitated its catch, the skuas catching it before it hit the sea. Just imagine living on a diet of regurgitated fish – disgusting!
Having taken a short break on the beach just east of Tor Ness lighthouse during which the tide turned bang on time, I headed north up the west coast of Hoy, the second largest and by far the hilliest of the Orkney Islands. Having seen its formidable cliffs from across the Firth I knew that it was a fairly inhospitable shore but I was unprepared for the beauty and sheer scale of the red sandstone cliffs. Weathered and freshly exposed rocks of various hues of pink and red with hints of green and brown towered above me. The sun came out with perfect timing as I approached the tallest sea stack in the British Isles, the 137m Old Man of Hoy which is absolutely breathtaking stood on a lava platform which protects its base from the pounding waves. The vertical face of St John’s Head was soon to be scaled by a team of climbers who intended to spend three days on the assault giving some idea of the scale of these spectacular 351m cliffs. The unusual colours of the rocks, bathed in bright, warm sunshine made the west coast of Hoy as beautiful as any I had seen.
Stromness was my intended destination for the day but with the weather set fair and with favourable tide for a few more hours I could not resist pushing on. A shame really as I had wanted to visit Stromness and learn more about its history as a sea port and whaling station. I reconciled that I would take some time out on my way back down south to do the tourist thing. The tide runs at up to ten knots in Hoy Sound and as I left Hoy behind me I could see a thin ribbon of disturbed water and standing waves in mid channel, clearly defined on an otherwise glassy sea. I had expected much worse and after fifteen minutes of fast paddling, angling the C-Trek to make the most of the momentum of the swell, I ferry-glided across the Sound to a wide expanse of beach where I was greeted by several local people who had ‘seen me on the telly’. After a quick bite to eat and posing for a photographs (one of which ended up in the Orcadian newspaper) I was off again, up the west coat of mainland Orkney. Again the line of cliffs stretched unbroken for miles and I was grateful that the swell was small and the backwash minimal. The only possible landing was in the Bay of Skaill where the Neolithic village of Skara Brae dating back 5,000 years was exposed in 1850 when a storm removed the sand dune revealing the tiny well-preserved houses and pathways.
I was now aiming to get to Saviskaill Bay on Rousay – a total distance of some 45 miles for the day but as I rounded Brough Head a stiff breeze lifted from the south east and the sky turned dark and menacing. I had to work hard past the sheer cliffs of Costa Head on Mainland and Sacquoy Head on Rousay and it was gone 8.00pm by the time I headed into the bay. I had been paddling for eleven hours; it had been a really good day with wonderful scenery but now I was exhausted. Just as I started to feel a tad miserable I passed a low honeycomb cliff dotted with the fat black and white bodies of puffins. As I passed beneath one ledge that had three of the smart little chaps perched in a row, their bright orange feet hooked over the edge of the rock, one of the birds with perfect timing and commendable accuracy spun around, squatted and spurted a jet of milky-white faeces over the front of my kayak! You cannot take life too seriously once you have been crapped on by a puffin. SaviskaillBay looked rather unpromising as I headed in but I found my spot tucked right in the corner and raced to get the tent up before the rain came down and soaked everything. I managed to wake Linda who had gone to bed at 8.30pm after another hard day at school and having only got a monosyllabic response to “How was your day?” I let her go back to sleep promising to ring her in the morning.
It was Saturday 17th July 2004 and I knew that at 39 I was getting a bit old for birthdays but I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit sorry for myself when I woke at 5.30am as usual to listen to the shipping forecast only to hear rain lashing the flysheet. I treated myself to a lie in until 7am when I fought like karate kid with the midges which had emerged from the nearby marsh in swarms as soon as the rain stopped. Linda sang me “Happy Birthday” down the phone and then I was into my wet kit and paddling hard to ward off the shivers. It seemed like a short day on the map; a quick nip around Westray and Papa Westray then over to North Ronaldsay. The south easterly wind was still there from the night before which mostly helped me across to Noup Head, another impenetrable cliff fortress with a vigilant lighthouse stood to attention above the parapet. It was nice to receive a friendly wave from a birdwatcher as I passed by three hundred feet below. The RSPB reserve is second only in numbers of breeding sea birds to that of St Kilda and the acrid stench of ammonia was quite overpowering as I dodged the guano raining down from the whitewashed cliffs. I headed into Bay of Noup for a comfort break and was gutted to discover I had lost my YAK fleece beanie hat as I rode the small surf onto the soft sand of the beach at Grobust. Oh well, it had never felt quite the same since I had rung it out only to find a squashed slug inside!
The tide was picking up speed as I passed Bow Head and the numerous skerries from which the mournful wailing of Grey seals could be heard, and I was reminded of Brian Wilson’s discussion about seals (or selkies) having the souls of drowned sailors. When they look at you with their big, dark, sorrowful eyes it is easy to think that they are trying to tell you something. Whilst they soon take fright if you get too close their desire to communicate with you soon overcomes any instinct for flight and they swim ever closer. I would dearly love to spend weeks watching and filming seals from a kayak. I am certain it would make a wonderful wildlife documentary and I bet the seals would soon accept your presence and allow you to get really close. There was quite a tide race running off Mull Head but as usual, by edging as close as I dare to where the swell thudded against the cliff I missed the worst of it and I turned south into North Sound. I anxiously and rather naively looked east for any sign of North Ronaldsay but the island is so low-lying it remained hidden, submerged below the horizon. Visibility was poor which probably prevented me from seeing the lighthouse on North Ronaldsay, the tallest land-built lighthouse tower in the British Isles. Indeed I could barely make out the island of Sanday and with the considerable tide flowing through North Sound I thought discretion was the better part of valour and decided to work my way south towards the southern end of Papa Westray before making a crossing. I disturbed a large flock of eider duck as I hugged the shore to avoid the tide and was embarrassed to see that an equally large group of birdwatchers had been admiring the birds through their binoculars. I waved in apology and hurried past. Once I thought I had cleared the worst of the tide I started heading east for Sanday which slowly emerged from the sea and mist. As I looked south I could see islands of Orkney spread far and wide. I had been surprised at the scale of the Orkney Islands; they actually cover a vast sea area riddled with channels and sounds with strong tides and even stronger winds and it is thus no wonder that Orkney men are reputed to be amongst the best seamen to sail the oceans. It must be virtually impossible to live on any of the Orkney Islands and not spend at least some of your time messing about in small boats. Mind you I have also heard it said that Orkney men are farmers first and fishermen second whereas the converse is true about Shetlanders. I am sure that a bit of whisky has been drunk debating that one!
The crossing to Sanday seemed to take an age and as the low shoreline eventually became more defined I sensed that I had been fighting tide on the way across. This was confirmed as I neared a set of reefs which seemed to be deflecting the tide into my path. Three hours after leaving Papa Westray I landed on Sanday completely shattered but I still had to cross and go around the west side of North Ronaldsay if I was to be in position, ready to make the big crossing to Fair Isle the following day. It took a fair degree of will power to get back in the kayak and make yet another crossing, across more tide under an increasingly dark grey sky. Thankfully I could at least see North Ronaldsay now through the increasing murk it was a quick crossing as the tide swung towards the northwest. As I arrived off the low cliffs of North Ronaldsay, rising less than ten metres above sea level it seemed that very little prevented large storm waves from washing right over the little island. The ocean was in a benign mood that evening however and two gorgeously tiny porpoises came over as if to welcome me to their island. There were all sorts of eddies spinning in all directions around the north end of the island and I did my usual trick of paddling inside it all. I passed the impressive lighthouse and the equally tall but far less attractive radio/microwave transmission tower which pointed north east directly at Fair Isle and Shetland. I could just see Fair Isle, no more than the faintest smudge on the horizon – it seemed an awfully long way away.
I landed in Linklet Bay just inside of Dennis Head, a perfect jump off point for the crossing to Fair Isle, although the prospect of it held little attraction for me. I was well outside my comfort zone now, further north than I had ever been before and about to begin the most critical phase of the whole expedition. The perilous waters between Orkney and Shetland where the AtalnticOcean and the North Sea clash present a serious challenge to much larger vessels than mine and I was intending to cross alone. The RNLI had asked me to consider using a support boat for the crossing to and from the Northern Isles and I had actually managed to find someone prepared to make the slow crossing with me to Shetland in an old converted lifeboat but because I was running behind schedule the owner had decided he couldn’t wait any longer and had gone on holiday. It was fair enough but it left me burdened by a weight of responsibility. There were many who thought that to make such a crossing solo and unsupported was irresponsible and I knew they would be watching my every move, ready to judge. But as a police firearms officer I was used to making difficult decisions infront of a critical audience and I knew I had the strength of character to make the right call.
The famous seaweed eating sheep scattered as I heaved my kayak onto my shoulder and bore the heavy load up onto the thin grass. I had my tent up as the rain that had been threatening to engulf me all afternoon finally arrived and once home had been established I went to find freshwater and a phone – there was no mobile phone signal again despite being in the shadow of a huge array of satellite dishes pointing north.
I walked up the track in the now heavy rain to a traditionally built cottage with huge flagstones weighing several tons fused together to form the roof. Scrapped cars littered the front garden and a border collie chained to a stake in the ground yapped and whined in excitement as I approached the front door. I did wonder who I was about to meet and it just goes to show you should never go on first impressions because I happened to meet a truly lovely family. Martin Gray has a wonderful sounding job chaperoning tourists on wildlife cruises to the Arctic and Antarctic and Evelyn is a full time mum with three young boys and an even younger baby daughter to look after. With Martin away for several weeks at a time this must present quite a challenge to both of them. The fact that Martin’s daughter didn’t recognise him when he returned from his last trip had rather taken the edge off an otherwise perfect job. Martin filled my water bag for me and Evelyn insisted I join them for dinner which was already on the table. I felt like I was taking food out of the children’s mouth but they wouldn’t accept my protestations and heaped food onto my plate. Chilli-con-carne and fresh veg was just what my body needed. I shamelessly managed to drop into the conversation the fact that it was my birthday and I was given a huge bar of chocolate as a present (I had eaten the lot before I’d left the island the following morning!) Martin and I studied the weather forecast on the internet which looked promising for the crossing to Fair Isle with Force 4 to 5 tail winds. We chatted about polar bears and South Georgia, which Martin had visited on several occasions and knew well. It was fascinating to hear about their life on this, the most northerly and most remote of the Orkney Islands. Evelyn is from the island originally and seemed well accustomed to the isolation. Thomas, at eight years old the eldest of the four kids is passionate about his rugby but since they are the only family with children on the island he has no-one his age to play with. Thankfully the heavily subsidised flights to Orkney mainland mean he is able to fly to Kirkwall every Saturday to play rugby, the taxi from the airport costing more than the flight!
I had a very enjoyable evening and had completely forgotten the fact that I was spending my birthday miles away from home. Of course when I rang Linda that night the homesickness came rushing back and a wave of emotion swept over me leaving me feeling rather pathetic and in need of chocolate!
I left Dennis Head, North Ronaldsay bang on time at 7am. I had calculated that I needed to try and cross both the race off Dennis Head and the Rost of Keels off the southern point of Fair Isle as close to slack water as I could. The tide runs either north west or south east between the Orkneys and Shetland so I would be crossing the flow, never really having it with me or against me. Checking my transits against the track on my SILVA Multi-Navigator GPS, I let North Ronaldsay sink quickly beneath the waves behind me. It seemed there was little tide effect and I made good progress with a following wind pushing me along at a steady five knots. The seas started to build however as I left the shelter of the Orkney Islands and after a couple of hours I was surfing down some fairly large waves, the westerly swell meeting the wind waves blown up from the North Sea by the southerly wind producing a confused cross sea that was becoming increasing difficult to handle. As a result of an interview I had done on BBC Radio Orkney, Westray Sailing Club had very kindly offered to step in at the last minute and provide safety cover as far as Fair Isle but they were at a regatta and not available until the following day. With such a favourable forecast I had decided to go for it on my own and now as the seas increased in size and started the break across my decks I started to question the wisdom of that decision. Despite the rough conditions I was fine and started to play a little game to keep myself amused seeing how fast I could go when surfing a wave according to my GPS. It takes a bit of practice to set yourself up for the surf ride then remember to look at the right digits on your GPS, taking your eye off where you are going to study the digital display as you hurtle down the face of a ten foot wave. I only got the occasional really good run, but recorded a top speed of 19 kilometres per hour (kph). As the waves passed by and the bow of the C-Trek was left pointing at the sky my speed would drop to as little as 5kph and it was difficult to maintain any sort of paddling rhythm. I knew I was making good progress though as the SILVA Multi-Navigator counted down the kilometres to go. I do find its simply designed screen, with large arrows telling you which way to head to keep you on track, ever so easy to use and particularly when it is lumpy and difficult to paddle accurately on a bearing using the deck compass. The C-Trek handled the waves admirably and my newly improved, nuclear powered rudder (thanks to KC) was working perfectly.
I could already see the cliffs leading up to the aerial tower on Ward Hill, the highest point on Fair Isle. I had seen aerial photographs of Fair Isle so I knew it was fairly steep-to with big cliffs on all sides and only two potential landing places at either end of the island. My plan was to avoid the Rost of Keels by aiming high and approaching the island from the west, rather than from the south. I then planned to paddle around the north of the island and into North Haven, the most sheltered anchorage where I was told there was a nice beach to land a kayak. The closer I got to the cliffs of Malcolm’s Head the worse the seas became and because I was also now fighting the tide running south down the west side of the island I had to work really hard to get into the slack water amongst the skerries where atrocious clapotis made it difficult to spend too long admiring the knife-edge ridges straddled by colonies of gannets.
Once I had worked my way around to the north side of the island however the seas calmed dramatically and I could relax and enjoy the spectacle of the Stacks of Skroo, rocky crags topped with an icing of my favourite birds. There is no more wonderful a sight than seeing a gannet launch itself off the rock above you and seeing the sunlight turn its outstretched wings translucent white as it swoops in a graceful curving dive passing just feet above your head. There is no malice in the way they do this, in fact they are remarkably placid birds and that is probably why they are such easy targets for the bonxies or great skuas who torment them into giving up their food. With nature calling I continued around the island, passing beneath Skroo lighthouse and into the tranquil waters of North Haven where I did indeed find a perfect beach of soft sand next to the small harbour which is home to the “MV Good Shepherd”, the island’s mail boat.
Fair Isle is one of Britain’s most successful remote island communities and has led the way in areas such as eco-tourism and wind power. The population of the island is stable at around 70 with traditional crafting being supplemented by such diverse activities as boat building and knitting – Fair Isle knitwear is world famous for its quality and has been worn in the past by expeditions to the polar-regions and Everest. After World War II Fair Isle was purchased by George Waterston, OBE (1911-1980), who co-funded the Bird Observatory which is now internationally renowned for its research into bird migration (birds are trapped, then ringed and measured before being released) and the resident sea bird colonies. Fair Isle lies at the intersection of several migration flightpaths and large numbers of the more common species are recorded as well as some interesting rarities. I headed up to the Bird Observatory in the hope that I might find some lunch. The Lodge was busy with visitors and I was too late for the set menu but they took pity on me and rustled up some hot food from leftovers which was delicious anyway. Apparently Deryk Shaw, the head warden had seen me pass by whilst ringing gannets up on the cliffs. He very generously said I could stay free of charge. By the time I had settled into my room there was just over an hour before dinner so I took a hasty walk down to the south end of the island, some ominously dark grey shower clouds split in two by the island’s hills, produced glorious light conditions and I snapped away with my camera.
It being the Sabbath the island’s only shop was closed and there was very little activity on the island other than walkers with obligatory sticks to ward off attacks by bonxies. I saw a rather menacing shower cloud approaching across the sea and this one looked like it might engulf the island. I started running back to the Lodge but didn’t make it in time. The Heavens opened and I promptly got soaked along with several others who were heading back for supper. I was ‘interviewed’ by the guests during dinner and the lady that had organised the trip took it upon herself to try and get everyone to part with their cash for my charities. Anne raised £40 for me, which was fantastic. A very good hill and marathon runner she understood what my trip was about without having to ask and made sure I had a second helping of dinner. It was Rebecca Nason, assistant warden’s 30th birthday and the staff produced a huge black forest gateau. I think I had five helpings!
I spent the evening chatting, answering emails and looking at my message board. One of the guests was a Belgian school teacher who was on Fair Isle to study and take photographs of the birds. He gave me a further £20 towards the expedition and offered to be up on the cliffs in the morning to take some photographs of me as I left. He was as good as his word.
I couldn’t believe my luck as the southerly wind persisted and I was away at 6.00am the following morning to make the best of the tide. I saw the Belgian photographer high up on Skroo cliff. The sun was dazzlingly bright so hopefully he got some good shots. I was even more concerned about this crossing than that to Fair Isle because I would be approaching Sumburgh Head at the southern tip of Shetland and the notorious Sumburgh Rost. Again my plan was to pass westwards of the Head and make landfall on QuendaleBeach. It was pretty much a carbon copy of the crossing to Fair Isle; the wind was still from the south and as once I left the protection of the steep-to island the Atlantic swell combined once again with the wind-waves of the North Sea to produce a confusion of peaks and troughs. The wind pushed me along nicely though and I recorded a new top speed of 20.3kph on one sustained surf ride – that’s about 10 knots! The waves steepened considerably as I approached the Shetland coast and the tide started to do its thing. A bit of sustained effort though and I was across the worst and bouncing through the backwash from Fitful Head as I made my way into the wide expanse of Quendale Bay. I had arrived on Shetland and the sense of satisfaction and relief was tremendous and only marginally spoilt but the prospect of having to make the return crossing in approximately a weeks time.
The Shetland Islands are ‘inset islands’ in that they lie so far north that on most maps of the U.K. they are shown in a box in the top right hand corner. This has subtly affected our conception of them and they are much further away than most people suppose. To put them in context: they closer to the Arctic Circle than they are to London; as far north as Anchorage in Alaska; and more foreign, more distinct than any other islands in the British Isles. A skinny archipelago of islands dividing the northern oceans, there are more than a hundred of them but only 17 are inhabited. It had turned into lovely day despite the stiff breeze and I fell asleep in the sun waiting for a reporter from BBC Radio Shetland to find his way to me. There had been considerable interest from the Shetland media about my trip; I was of course the first person to include Shetland in a circumnavigation of the U.K. and I think people were genuinely amazed that anyone could consider paddling a kayak across such treacherous waters. I was not the first to have made the crossing however as Shetland is a popular sea-kayaking destination and I knew there was a strong local paddling community but strangely I had received very little contact from paddlers on the islands. Perhaps they had been sceptical that I would make it that far? I needn’t have worried though because by the time I had negotiated Fitful Head against the tide and worked my way up to Meal Beach at Hamnavoe I had text messages from several people who had heard that I had arrived on the islands and who wanted to come down and see me. Having finished a very successful day on a remarkably tropical looking beach I received a succession of visitors whilst I cooked my dinner and it was great to meet them all. Englishman but resident Shetlander Dave Phillips, member of HM Coastguard and their sea kayaking liaison officer came to see me as well and his support, help and advice throughout my time paddling around Shetland was fantastic. Dave is a keen diver and leaves the sea kayaking to his wife Jules. Unfortunately I spent so long chatting to everyone that I boiled my pasta into oblivion but I was so hungry I ate it anyway!
Another big day was in store with a crossing out to Foula, inconveniently placed twenty miles west of Shetland mainland. I had passed north of the 60degrees parallel and was now at the same latitude as southern Greenland. Foula is one of Britain’s most remote inhabited islands but unlike St Kilda, Foula has remained inhabited despite similar harsh living conditions. Foula’s cliffs rival St Kilda’s for the honour of Britain’s highest and as I paddled beneath them, the mist which now shrouded the island was torn open by the 1200ft peaks sending shafts of sunlight down to illuminate the gannet encrusted crags. The quality of light, the isolation, the sense of danger in such a wild place, produced in me a feeling of being somewhere I shouldn’t, that I was witnessing something forbidden and that I was intruding into an ethereal world of gigantic proportions. To give you some idea of scale, the cliffs of da Kame are as tall as a Manhattan skyscraper and far more beautiful. I felt miniscule in comparison and quite vulnerable despite the benign conditions.
Paddling around the north of the island I couldn’t find anywhere safe to land my kayak safely on the rocky shore and concerned that the freshening south easterly wind and poor visibility might cause me to become stuck on the island I decided to head straight back towards the mainland and Papa Stour, an intriguing island just a mile off the mainland shore. What followed was an extraordinarily difficult crossing, my body and mind in such a fatigued state that I made a basic navigational error, not giving sufficient allowance for the effect of the wind, pushing me northwards. Had the mist not lifted at a very timely moment I would almost certainly have missed Papa Stour and been left with a much longer and very anxious paddle to find land. As it was, the mist lifted revealing the mainland and Papa Stour in such a way that I was left thanking the heavenly deity that once again had looked after me when I had needed it most. As I closed on the red sandstone cliffs of Papa Stour I had to angle my kayak across the tide race threatening to sweep me north onto the rocks of Ve Skerries. The amber light had been on for most of the crossing and by the time I had sprinted across the tide race and reached the sanctuary of the magnificent natural arches of Fogla Skerry I was well into the red zone. Completely shattered I knew I would have to stop at the first opportunity. The sureal natural lighting produced by the mist as I padled in amongst the church-like arches of Fogla Skerry added to the strange sense of having arrived on a holy island (Papa meaning priest).
As I paddled around the north of the island I saw a grey seal wearing a flamboyant frilly necklace of green polypropylene net. Looking rather like an Elizabethan ‘dandy’ it would have been comical had it not meant a certain and slow death from starvation for the poor seal. As I paddled into the shelter of Housa Voe I knew I had reached my limit. I was physically and emotionally exhausted and barely had the energy to unload my kayak and carry it and my kit up the beach. As I did so I could see a man watching me from a nearby croft. I walked over to ask for permission to camp on his land. I needn’t have worried as I was made to feel extremely welcome by Andrew and Sabina Holt-Brook run a rehabilitation centre for drug addicts and alcoholics. Not only did they let me camp in the same field that Shetland Canoe Club have their annual summer camp, they also fed me and over dinner I described my ‘religious’ experience on the crossing to their island. As devout Christians themselves they were not at all surprised and just smiled knowingly. It was all very strange and quite unnerving for me. Had I just witnessed the power of God or was it just by chance that the mist had cleared to show me the way to safety?
Andrew proudly showed me one of his prize possessions, a large chunk of the doomed catamaran Team Phillips. Pete Goss is one of my heroes, someone whose exploits both as a sailor and as a man I have found truly inspirational. His team designed and built the 120foot, 70foot wide catamaran in Totnes, Devon for ‘The Race’ in 2000, a round the world challenge with no class rules and Team Phillips was going to be the biggest, fastest and most high-tech sailing boat on the planet. Tragically for Pete and everyone concerned the project was beset with problems and had to be abandoned on the way to the start of the race when she broke up in 70 knot winds and 10m-high waves. 40foot of the original 120ft hull was eventually salvaged from the sea off Iceland but Andrew found a large section washed up on the west side of Papa Stour. He used a tractor to drag it to his croft where it makes surely one of the most unusual (and expensive) garden seats in the world!
It rained hard and the wind blew fiercely through the night but that wasn’t why I slept so badly. I lay sweating and shivering at the same time, my head throbbing and my body aching and I knew that I would be taking a rest day. I had managed to avoid any illness up to now and it was a sure sign of over exertion. I dozed most of the day, lethargy over-ruling my desire to get my diary up to date. Again the Holt-Brook’s invited me to dinner and I found out more about the drug and alcohol rehabilitation service they provide. Their current clients, Kevin and Alex seemed to have responded well to being on such a beautiful island under the care and guidance of Sabina and Andrew. The strength of Sabina and Andrew’s faith and their commitment to doing something positive with some of society’s most challenging individuals has left a lasting impression on me.
Feeling much better after a day’s rest I was ready for a short day to Aith where my next box of supplies was waiting for me at the lifeboat station. Before leaving Papa Stour I felt compelled to visit the famous and spectacular Kirstan Hole where the roof of a cave has partially collapsed to form a gloup. Even in the grey gloom of a misty morning the quality of light penetrating the dark waters was astonishing and again left me with a sense of having been close to something or someone very special with an energy too powerful to describe yet so tenuous it could not overcome my own cyniscism. Maybe one day I would find it?
The south easterly wind had slackened considerably but was sufficient to make it a hard slog past the intricate network of islands and voes that make this area of Shetland a sea kayaker’s heaven. I arrived at Aith by midday to be greeted by Kevin Henry, mechanic of the Aith lifeboat who did everything he could to assist and make me feel welcome. Perhaps best of all I was able to use their laundry facilities to wash my stinking clothes and sleeping bag which even I had started to find intolerably smelly!
I also met Luke Bullough, coxswain of the lifeboat and member of the full-time crew. Luke was born in Malawi and had lived a fascinating life travelling all over the world working as marine biologist. He had spent several seasons in Antarctica working for the British Antarctic Survey and had also visited South Georgia on several occasions. I was fascinated and kept up the interrogation most of the afternoon. Luke and his wife Lynn invited me for dinner – how could I refuse the offer of a chicken curry?
The following morning Luke escorted me down the voe in his immaculately kept yacht Alcyone and when it was finally time to say “Cheerio” I paddled off feeling quite sad that I was once again moving on having just met someone who I knew, had we lived closer to each other, would be a good mate. It is the major drawback to a trip of this nature that you encounter people and places that you really like, only to leave after too short a time to get to know them properly.
After a misty start it turned into a beautiful day and with a gentle following breeze I had one of my most enjoyable days, paddling up the west coast of Muckle Roe and Mainland, admiring the tremendous diversity of geology that makes up this stunning coastline. As I followed the line of sheer cliffs that forms a headland called The Shepherd I met Trevor Riches and John Butt, out for a day paddle from Ronas Voe. It was Trevor’s 67th birthday and he was handling the back wash from the reef-lined cliffs like a youngster. Both paddling well travelled Nordkapp sea kayaks fitted with rudders; it was clear these guys had a wealth of experience between them and they were generous in their encouragement for my Challenge.
I could go on about Shetland’s west coast but you should go and see it for yourself – pink granite sculpted into the finest stacks and arches you will find anywhere, smooth black lava as pristine now as when it first solidified, cooled by some prehistoric sea. The scenery is well worth the gamble you will inevitably take with the weather during a Shetland summer and with such a complex coastline it would be easy to find somewhere sheltered whatever the weather.
I was making the big push to put me within striking distance of Muckle Flugga, the most northerly point of the British Isles and the single most significant turning point of the whole expedition. Having crossed Ronas Voe and left the round bulk of Ronas Hill (at 1475 feet the highest point on the islands) to the south, I headed into the gap between Uyea and the mainland to see if it was navigable. Dave Phillips had told me how there was a narrow isthmus of sand linking the two and sure enough my way was blocked by a five metre wide ridge of fine sand with crashing waves on one side and perfectly smooth sea on the other. I was tempted to portage the kayak over the ridge to avoid the bouncy paddle around the outside of the island, and save myself a bit of energy and time. So did I portage or go around? What do you think?
Inside the small island of Gruney with its line of stacks running north and across Yell Sound, the miles were beginning to tell and I was thankful that sea conditions were smooth and the wind, all the time threatening to increase from the south east, remained light, giving me a gentle push north. Yell seemed a rather unremarkable island when viewed from the west and the monotonous line of cliffs finally came to an end as I rounded North Neaps where I had been warned to expect difficult conditions. The tide was against me but with the almost complete lack of swell I had no trouble finding a line through the skerries thus avoiding the worst of the opposing current. At long last I pulled onto BreckonBeach, another fine crescent of soft sand at the northern tip of Yell. It was 8pm and I was shattered after yet another eleven hour day but I was now within a morning’s paddle of the top. I had a message on my mobile from Steve Broadhurst, the island’s only policeman. Steve had been following my progress and together with his colleague Darren, the only policeman on the island of Unst and thus Britain’s most northerly copper, they came down to see me. Both lads were English and having joined Northern Constabulary had been posted to the islands with their young families and were thankfully enjoying the experience, really making the most the opportunity. It was great to see them and hear about policing on Britain’s northern frontier. It was late by the time I had eaten and turned in. I knew the forecast for my trip around Muckle Flugga was marginal and I had a restless night’s sleep thinking about the day to come.
Gusts of wind shook the tent as I listened to the early morning shipping forecast. South or south west 5 to 6 was not an ideal but to be honest it would have taken a full blown gale to stop me now that I was so close. Mind you as I headed across to Unst, and the swell grew in size as it felt the tide running up the west coast of the island, I did start to wonder if I had made the right decision. There had been less than a foot of surf rolling gently onto BreckonBeach which had convinced me the swell had all but gone. I was so wrong! Now that I was approaching the high cliffs of Herma Ness the swell was alarmingly steep with the occasional crest collapsing in an avalanche of tumbling white froth. Adrenalin was squirting into my blood-stream; my muscles tensed, my breathing became ragged and all my senses were on full alert. It was a life-defining moment for me; paddling alone around the northern extremity of the British Isles and I would probably have been disappointed if it had been flat calm. I could not get close to the whitewashed cliffs of Herma Ness due to the swell but the gannets were all around me, thousands of them, being harried by hordes of bonxies working in gangs to rob them of their catch. Puffins littered the sea, bobbing to the surface from the dark depths, only to see me and panic, diving once more after leaving a milky white cloud of faeces or flapping madly and bouncing across the waves in a comical attempt to get airborne. The noise, the smell, the visual spectacle added yet more drama to the occasion. I could see the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga now and the line of dragon’s teeth reefs, gleaming pearly white, that snarled in the swirling cauldron of breaking seas and tide race. I was being lured to within reach of those gnashing fangs by the subtle sweep of tide and I resisted its pull, heading north until I was due west of the light before finally relenting and heading into the calm waters on the other side. The rock upon which the lighthouse has been constructed (another miracle of human endeavour) is not actually the most northerly point; another rather unimpressive lump of rock, un-named on my map sits another fifty metres or so further north so I made sure I left this to my right as well.
And then it was all over, the swell had gone, the tide swirled haphazardly towards the next headland and it started to rain. With no-one there to share the moment it was hard not to feel a sense of anti-climax as I paddled inshore for a rest. There was no fanfare, no crowd to applaud my heroics, just a few seagulls laughing at the funny man in the strange yellow boat. None of that mattered however. I had reached a major milestone in my journey and somehow I knew that my life would never quite be the same again. Sure, I had a long way to go but I had made it this far, through some pretty tough times and I felt confident that no matter what happened I would ‘find my way home’.
I had been warned about the severe tide race of Skaw Roost off the north east corner of Unst but by following Kestor’s advice (a kiwi living in Shetland and one of the local paddlers I had met at Hamnavoe), I sneaked inside of Holm of Skaw and missed the worst by shooting the small tidal rapid, managing to avoid all the partially submerged rocks. If I had ever been under the illusion that the east coast (the down hill stretch as people jovially kept reminding me) was going to be easy then the first few miles of the east coast of Unst, after Lamba Ness soon put me straight. The southerly wind that had been so favourable for heading up the west coast was now bang on the nose and I struggled to make any headway, the C-Trek shuddering as it slammed into the short, steep chop, spray stinging my face and eyes and persuading me it was time for some lunch. I sat in the rain on a soggy grass bank, chewing my cold food thinking about just how far I had to go just to reach the mainland of Scotland where hopefully I would be seeing Linda. I had to use that as my motivation, the sooner I got south the sooner I would see her smile, feel the warmth of her body and smell her sweet, soft skin. My heart ached at the thought of her and brought me close to tears. I was pushing myself hard, not just physically but mentally as well and I knew I was treading a fine line between sanity and emotional collapse. Time to get moving, inertia was my enemy and I would never give in.
I had left the Atlantic Ocean behind me and entered the North Sea, notorious for steep choppy swell and cool weather. I battled a headwind for a few more hours before calling it a day at Mu Ness, on the south east corner of Unst where I would be ready to cross to Fetlar the following day. I pitched my tent in the walled garden of an old abandoned croft, beneath the gaze of the celtic warriors who had once guarded the castle that overlooks the bay. I walked up the hill to an eclectic collection of more modern dwellings where I met Mary Peterson, MBE and her husband James who kindly gave me some water and made time for a chat. Indeed Mary had been making time to chat to visitors to Mu Ness Castle for 40years, hence her MBE and photographs of her receiving her honour from the Queen at BuckinghamPalace were proudly displayed on the wall of the sitting room. They had been following my progress on the radio and had wondered if I might stop by. It was lovely to meet them and Mary continues to be a great ambassador for the Shetland island of Unst. Did you know that the map of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ was based on the outline of Unst?
It was time to thank my guardian angel again. The wind had veered from the south to the northwest as if by request and was strong enough to send me scuttling across to Strandburgh Ness, the north east corner of Fetlar where the North Sea has carved into the cliffs that defend the island’s rolling hills and fertile soils from the winter storms. Fetlar is rich in wildlife including some rare bird species such as the red-necked phalarope and whimbrel which breed on the island in significant numbers. I saw all the usual cliff dwellers and had close encounters with numerous grey seals hauled out on the exposed seaweed covered rocks or bottling happily in the calm waters. I hugged the shore to stay out of the wind until I reached the southern tip of the island where I had to make the decision to head directly for Out Skerries, just visible ten miles to the south east or take the much longer route via Yell, Mainland and Whalsay to reach the three island group situated rather inconveniently to the east, stuck out into the North Sea. With such a favourable wind the decision was made for me and by taking the direct route I was stoked that I would be gaining back another day on my schedule. It was a long crossing with enough West in the wind to make steering troublesome and surf rides impossible but even so I made good progress and rounded the Skerries lighthouse on the uninhabited island of Grunay, and headed into the shelter of Bod Voe in time for lunch.
As I sat on the rocky shore with the hood up on my Kalyx cag to keep warm, Willie Anderson, a local fisherman brought his grand children down to see me. He had heard about me on the radio and seen the article in the Shetland Times. His wife had spotted me coming into the voe and told him to invite me up to the house for roast dinner. It was extremely kind of them but in my dripping wet kit I had to refuse, especially if I was going to make it back to Mainland Shetland by the end of the day. We chatted for a while and discussed the state of the island’s fishing industry which, like everywhere else in Shetland was going through some difficult times. He was just about to go to sea on his son’s boat which was due in shortly. They are restricted to fishing for just fifteen days in the month and whilst he understood the need for conservation he was adamant that the inequality and injustice of the current system did not satisfy the environmentalists, the fishing industry or the consumer. He accepted that fisherman had been greedy in the past; that the days of crews taking home £400 a week and skippers paying off their boats in three seasons were gone but he was still able to find fish and was confident that fishing would remain an important part of the Out Skerries economy. The recent collapse of fish farming had dealt a cruel blow to the islands whose community fish farm had been shut down leaving another chap who also came down to see me unemployed. He remained optimistic though that the industry would recover in time and he was determined to keep his family on the islands. The school has five children of various ages in attendance and the resilience of a community of fewer than 80 individuals remains undiminished.
Out Skerries is known as ‘the friendly islands’ and I was certainly made to feel very welcome. Yet again I was sorry to be leaving so soon but took away a feeling that whatever the world economy throws at the islanders, they will meet it with a dignified stoicism that will enable them to survive. As I paddled down to the Point of Mioness, the southern tip of Housay, I saw a yacht moored in a very strange place. I stopped to chat with the well-spoken gentleman on board who explained that the area is known as the Dregging Geos and beneath us lay the wreck of the Dutch East Indiaman, De Liefde which sank in the 18th century laden with treasure. It is possible to find silver coins jammed in rock crevasses and the owner of the yacht was underwater as we spoke, diving the wreck for which he owned the salvage rights. It seemed odd to me that any mortal human being can claim ownership of something that has been lost beneath the ocean waves. Surely if any one can claim ‘ownership’ it is Davy Jones and which sensible seafarer would wish to argue with him?
I crossed the tide that flooded south east through the scattered islands between Out Skerries and Whalsay, and the sun finally came out after a day of gloom as I found sheltered waters down the south coast of Whalsay. I by-passed the busy commercial fishing port of Symbister, home port of Shetland’s huge pelagic trawlers, some of the largest in Europe. I had been in contact with John Johnson, a reporter for the BBC in Shetland and had made arrangements to do an interview that evening. Choosing a suitable venue that we could both find and easily get to, kept me entertained for the last hour or so of my journey as I headed across to Mainland, eventually meeting up with him in South Nesting Bay near the village of Skellister. John took a lot of time and trouble to get the shots he wanted and I made the usual hash of the interview but he seemed happy with it and I am grateful to him for taking the time to meet me, especially on a Sunday evening when I am sure he had much better things to be doing.
After the interview I pitched my tent and hung my kayaking clothes out to dry on a barbed wire fence and ate dinner overlooking the North Sea as I planned a short next day; a quick trip around Bressay including the Isle of Noss, then into Lerwick where I had more supplies waiting for me at the lifeboat station. I still had loads left from my pick-up at Aith but my next collection point was not until Aberdeen, at least two weeks away. It was the first time during the expedition that my food planning had gone a little bit awry but I guess it was better to have too much food than too little.
The following day the wind had died to a gentle murmur but the day was overcast and cold. You can keep your Shetland summer; it makes a Cornish summer seem tropical! A couple of hours saw me approaching the jagged ridge of the Isle of Noss, a nature reserve famous for its sheer cliffs festooned with breeding seabirds, and as I paddled beneath them a tornado of a thousand gannets circled above me, watching my every move. A tourist boat had anchored right against the cliff where the young gannets were waiting impatiently for their parents to return. I was alarmed to see hundreds of vacant nests and several dead adult gannets lying face down in the water or being torn apart by hungry Great Skuas on the rocks at the foot of the cliffs, the bloody flesh hanging from their hooked beaks. What was killing them and why the empty nests? Lack of food? I resolved to find out.
Heading north seemed to be the wrong thing to be doing as I paddled up Bressay Sound to the bustling Small Boat Harbour which is home to the Lerwick lifeboat. I was only in the town for a few hours and only saw the immediate vicinity of the harbour, reluctant to leave my kayak unattended on the visitor’s pontoon for too long but I formed the impression that this was a vibrant, busy town and it had quite a different feel to it than the rest of the islands. Quite by chance I bumped into Dave Phillips who was on his way to a course at the Coastguard Station. He was good value as always; helpful and humorous in equal measure. I collected my stores from the lifeboat station, the ‘Hon. Sec.’ and mechanic having been contacted by Dave on my behalf. I apologised for the fact that my stay was to be extremely short but explained about the need to find somewhere quiet to camp. I had also been formulating a cunning plan. The forecast was looking favourable for a crossing to Fair Isle the following day. To make that possible I would need to get down to Sumburgh Head that night. It was a good twenty miles and would mean a late finish but it meant I would gain another day and if I made the crossing it would put me one step closer to Linda. It had turned into a pleasant afternoon and the last thing I wanted to do was get back into my wet kit and back in the kayak. What I really needed was a couple of days rest but the forecast for later in the week was looking grim with a south easterly flow setting set in around the Scandinavian High that everyone had been talking about. A south easterly wind was the last thing I needed and I felt pressured to make the crossings back to Orkney and the Scottish mainland as quickly as I could. I had arranged to do an interview with a reporter from the Shetland Times at 4.30pm and once we had finished and he had taken some photos of me posing with the lifeboat in the background, I headed off south once more, unknowingly ecorted by two very large bull grey seals according to Dave Phillips who was watching me from the Coastguard Station.
I had favourable tide but a slight headwind and soon got into a focused rhythm, churning out the miles. As I cut inside the uninhabited island of Mousa, with the most perfect example of a broch I have ever seen, I saw a sea kayaker paddling rapidly across the Sound to intersect my path. It was Kestor, the kiwi paddler who had said he would like to join me for a stretch. He understood the solo issue so had clearly decided to go out for a paddle and just ‘happen’ to bump into me. It was great to see him and he set a strong pace, determined not to delay me in getting to my destination. He understood what I was about and just what a trip like mine entailed and he was full of encouragement. He is my kind of paddler, a little bit ‘on the edge’ and he was clearly extremely fit. After half an hour of paddling and chatting we had covered quite a bit of ground and it was time to say goodbye. Kestor would have had a tough paddle back to his car against the tide. It was a lovely gesture by him to have taken the trouble to come out and join me like that. He had turned what would have been a mind-numbing slog into an enjoyable evening’s paddle and I am grateful to him for that.
I reached Grutness as the evening drew to a close and just about managed to get the tent up and some food inside me before darkness fell. I would have little sleep bcause to get the best of the tide I would need to be away by 6am which meant being up by 5. No rest for the wicked!
It rained heavily in the night sufficient to wake me from a deep sleep brought about by extreme tiredness. My head was thick when I woke at 5am for the shipping forecast and one look outside convinced me that the hard work of the previous evening had been in vain. It was blowing hard from the south west and visibility was less than a mile. The shipping forecast confirmed a south westerly up to a six but gave the promise of lighter winds from the northwest and improved visibility later in the day. I had a short debate with myself as to whether I should head off anyway. To delay would mean missing the benefit of the tidal stream but Fair Isle is a small target and has a lot of tidal current circulating its forbidding cliffs and skerries. Whilst I would be using my GPS, what if it stopped working? Would I be able to find Fair Isle in such poor visibility? As I debated I took a walk over to the west side of Sumburgh Head – it did little to help me make up my mind – the sea was by no means rough and the wind was perhaps only a F4. On my way back to the tent the local farmer stopped by to say “Hi”. He had read about me in the paper and offered to give me a ride up to the lighthouse on Sumburgh Head so that I could take a look at the Sumburgh Roost. The notorious tide race sets to the west for eight hours and can produce some terrible seas. Unfortunately we could not even see the sea due to the fog which had enveloped the headland. The farmer, a big man with more than a little bit of Viking about him was very knowledgeable about the lighthouse and the sea birds that nested on the cliffs of the headland. He stated that the ledges should be teeming with guillemots but they had failed to breed and the cliffs were largely empty save for a few puffins which were soon due to be headed offshore. It was a further clue to the plight of the gannets on the Isle of Noss and the number of vacant nests I had witnessed. As we descended back down the narrow road from the lighthouse the sky was lifting, the sun penetrating the white mist and the wind had dropped and swung to the northwest. This must be the clearance that was forecast. My spirits soared as I knew I could now make the crossing to Fair Isle after all. As the farmer dropped me back at my tent we shook hands; his giant mitt making mine feel childlike in comparison. He was such a nice chap, genuine and sincere as he wished me a safe voyage.
The MV Good Shepherd, the Fair Isle mail boat and passenger ferry was due in at 10.30 am so I decided to wait and speak to the skipper to find out what conditions were like in the channel. In the meantime I packed away my gear in readiness, thinking positive. When she arrived I walked over and met the skipper and crew who had been following my progress since leaving the island just over a week ago. They thought I was brave and mad in equal measure and the skipper was reluctant to give me much advice – he said he didn’t mind giving advice to skippers of 50 foot yachts but wasn’t sure about the seaworthiness or capabilities of a kayak. Unless you have some experience of sea kayaking it is very easy to assume that they are inherently dangerous. I’d like to think that the fact that I have got this far proves otherwise but I understood his reluctance and didn’t push the issue. He said that it didn’t really matter when I left now as the tide would be against me for the rest of the day and advised me to head south or even south east out of Grutness to avoid the Roost. It was fascinating watching them load the supplies for the island’s store into a metal crate ready for loading. It was clear that the island’s consumers have just about every modern convenience product available to them if they so desire.
With my Silva Multi Navigator GPS pointing the way I set off at 11.00 am following a German schooner out of the small bay. I overtook her whilst she headed into the wind to set her sails and the race to Fair Isle was on! I headed south by east as advised, keeping well off from the cliffs of Sumburgh Head with the lighthouse now clear of mist and looking fine in the hazy sunshine. The schooner took a more southerly route and we both soon got swept into the Roost which had few broken waves, just big rollers over which the bow of the C-Trek rose easily. I maintained my heading until clear of the biggest waves and then keeping a close eye on the GPS headed for where I thought Fair Isle should be, its hill tops still obscured by the haze. The schooner slowly passed me to the west, her twin sails full of the north westerly breeze but I was also making good speed, my GPS showing a steady five knots.
The day was turning into a cracker and I once again thanked my guardian angel for providing such perfect conditions. The MV Good Shepherd had been due to leave Grutness half an hour behind me and in the calm conditions I thought it likely we would see each other during the crossing. Sure enough I heard the steady throb of her diesel engine as she approached and passed me, rolling quite significantly in the gentle swell. Whoever was at the helm gave me a “Toot-toot” of the ship’s whistle. I waved back and one of the crew did a little dance for me on the bridge – I think it must have been the ‘Fair Isle Fling’. The twenty or so passengers also waved enthusiastically as they rolled on towards Fair Isle, now a smudge on the horizon to the south west. Conditions just got better and better for me as the day went on and the north westerly breeze dropped away, leaving the German schooner struggling to maintain her lead. Slowly but surely I drew level and then left her behind and because I had resisted the tidal set to the west around Sumburgh Head I had a better line into North Haven, the same small harbour on Fair Isle that I had left some two weeks previously. I beat the yacht in by half an hour! As I paddled in a yoal (a traditional clinker built fishing boat) propelled by an outboard with three fellas on board came buzzing over to see me and they congratulated me on completing the crossing. As I pulled onto the beach another islander was there waiting with his family, camera ready to record the moment. The word had obviously spread throughout the island during my time up in Shetland and several folk had come down to see ‘the mad kayaking policeman’.
I felt fine after an easy five hour crossing and again made my way up to the Bird Observatory to see if they had space for me. I was in time for dinner and welcomed back like a regular. It was Deryk Shaw, the Head Warden’s birthday and we all went to a surprise birthday party organised for him at the village hall. It was a good chance to meet some more of the islanders and I spent time chatting to one of the part-time crew of the MV Good Shepherd, a young good looking man who is also a boat builder of some repute, designing and building traditional yoals to order for customers around the world. In his late twenties, this chap, dressed in lumberjack shirt and jeans with long wild blonde hair and strong Shetland accent was extremely eloquent and well educated, speaking with authority about how the islanders have developed their own economy and work collectively for the benefit of all. The sense of pride in their community was apparent but not in your face and as an obvious ‘outsider’ you were made to feel welcome.
Rebecca Nason is the Assistant Warden at the Observatory with specific responsibility for sea bird monitoring. She is also a successful bird photographer and has had several of her photographs on the front covers of bird magazines. I quizzed her about the fact that some sea birds on islands I had visited have failed to breed and she confirmed that several species had failed on Fair Isle. The obvious explanation is the lack of sandeels due to over-harvesting in the 1980’s which left stocks severely depleted.
Richard Harrington, from the Marine Conservation Society explained the issue to me in an email:
“It seems that a lack of sandeels is causing some big reductions in the number of seabirds breeding on the North East British coasts. Sandeel fishing (for fishmeal to feed to farmed salmon and livestock) has been blamed (though in places where it has been stopped for this year the situation is still bad), as has global warming and related current shifts. This is the second bad year in a row (and worse than last year). MCS is worried about the impact on seabirds, but also on other fish that eat sandeel – cod etc. We’ve always maintained that the sandeel fishery is unsustainable. We’re bringing out a new website – www.fishonline.org – to influence consumers as to what fish to eat. The fishery for sandeel is closed for this year now, so you shouldn’t come across anyone trawling for them”.
Sea birds are a good ‘barometer’ for the health of our oceans and it is only through the hard graft of people like Rebecca and her colleagues at the Bird Observatory that we have sufficient data to make informed judgments on just what damage we are doing to our planet.
Hollie Shaw again refused to accept payment for my stay and I am grateful for the support. If you get the chance to visit Fair Isle then do so, you will find a warm welcome on a stunning gem of an island that is remote but not isolated.
With another marginal forecast for the following day, the decision to ‘go for it’ was not an easy one. The wind was forecast to build from the south east and again visibility was poor. The same chap that took my photograph when I arrived on Fair Isle is also the forecaster on the North Isles Weather website (www.northisles-weather.co.uk), which is recognised as the most reliable source of weather information for the region. He was confident visibility would improve during the crossing and that the wind was likely to increase and the visibility become much worse after today as the Scandinavian High became established and pushed south easterly winds across the North Sea. So I departed on time at 6.00 am and paddled down the east coast of Fair Isle through the natural 100m long tunnel in Sheep Rock and down to South Haven where I took the chance for a quick comfort break before the long crossing to North Ronaldsay. With about a mile of visibility I was grateful for my GPS to guide me across the tide running south east past the lighthouse and I got settled into an all-day-rhythm grinding out the miles to the south west. I knew I was unlikely to see North Ronaldsay until I was almost upon it because it is so low lying and once Fair Isle had receded into the haar there was nothing to look at. Even the sea birds were absent and it was perhaps the most tedious crossing of all with only a passing Danish registered tanker to break up the monotony as it suddenly appeared through the haze and then disappeared as quickly, heading west at considerable speed. I kept a sharp lookout as I crossed the shipping lanes but saw no other vessels, just hearing the drone of the occasional aircraft flying overhead or the mechanical hum of an invisible ship, hidden beneath the horizon.
At last, with 16 km to go there was a break in the mist and I caught a glimpse of the twin towers of the tall North Ronaldsay lighthouse and the even higher communications mast. The mist thickened once more and they were gone, not to be seen again until I was virtually within touching distance of the island. With approximately 5km to go it was clear that I was making little headway on the course suggested by my GPS. The tide had turned and was ebbing hard to the northwest. My GPS was telling me to paddle at such an acute angle to it that I was making little headway against the two knot current, my speed over the ground down to less than one knot. I was on a tidal treadmill! I could hear the fog horn sounding reassuringly to my right and by largely ignoring my GPS and keeping the sound of the fog horn to my right I headed across the tide to where I hoped I would find an eddy close to the shore. Suddenly my speed was back up to four knots and I was making progress again. Even though I could hear it and see where I needed to go on my GPS it was still a relief to see the rocky shoreline dotted with seaweed eating sheep appear out of the mist.
I had completed the last long crossing in my excursion around the Northern Isles and I was rather happy to find that North Ronaldsay was still where it should have been and had not been washed away. The low-lying island felt even more overwhelmed by the elements in the thick fog and it felt good to pitch the tent on solid ground. I had time that afternoon to make a few phone calls. The media were screaming to get hold of me and I had six more messages on my mobile since leaving Fair Isle. I spoke to Linda who had departed Exeter that morning and was on her way up to rendezvous with me. By the end of the day she had driven as far as Kinross in Scotland and suddenly the pressure was on for me to get to Orkney Mainland the next day.
I woke to a strong south easterly and thick fog. It was the last thing I needed. I cursed my luck, desperate to get to Orkney Mainland that day to see Linda and my dog Handel. In knew I would have had my work cut out in perfect conditions and in this wind it was going to be nigh on impossible. Never say never though and I headed across North Ronaldsay Sound with grim determination. This three mile wide channel is notorious for its fast tides and shallow waters and with wind against tide conditions it lived up to its reputation, waves breaking over the C-Trek which took it all in its stride. Its anxious passenger unwilling to admit defeat, together we made it across to Sanday whose normally golden yellow sands looked pale and desolate in the cold grey haar.
I saw very little of Sanday, fighting the wind and chop to work my way south to round Start Point then south west to Tres Ness where I once more paddled out into the murk towards Stronsay. Without the benefit of GPS I was having to guess the effect of wind and tide and was pleased to see the lighthouse of Huip Ness appear right on the button. The day was slipping away from me however and by the time I had negotiated the horribly confused seas off Lamb Head and paddled into the sheltered waters of Bay of Holland I knew I had to admit defeat; I was not going to make it to Orkney Mainland that day. I rang Linda who was sat at Scrabster waiting for the ferry to Stromness. I couldn’t believe that just seven miles of water would separate us that night yet there was no way I could reach her. I went to bed frustrated and determined to make it across the next day ‘Come Hell or high water’.
The visibility remained poor but the wind had dropped away to a gentle three and I was away by 6am, heading south west to Mull Head on Orkney Mainland. Again with no way point I was guessing the tide and by the way the south easterly swell was behaving I knew that the tide was flooding hard into the North Sea through Auskerry Sound. I kept the dark smudge of Auskerry well to the east but when Mull Head finally appeared I knew I was being carried eastwards at quite some speed. I rode the tide race off Mull Head and worked like a demon to reach the Mainland shore. I rang Linda; she was dutifully waiting for me in Deer Sound as we had arranged but I knew I would be silly to waste this tide so headed out again, for the small island of Copinsay with its lighthouse and sea cliffs unsure if the buildings I could see on its western flank were inhabited. Certainly the fields looked as if they had been cut for hay so I was unwilling to take a chance. I began to appreciate the strength of the tides that run around Orkney as I bounced through the tide race north of the island and paddled down the line of cliffs that defend the east side of the island from the ravages of the North Sea. The cliffs were white with the guano of thousands of sea birds but the nests were largely empty, with just a few fulmars gliding silently through the air that just a few weeks ago would have been filled with the squawks and squeaks of guillemots and razorbills. A few puffins swam beneath the cliffs but it was an eerie experience to paddle past this abandoned bird city. Had the birds successfully bred and dispersed out to sea or had they like others, tried and failed to breed at all?
My eagerness to see Linda kept me pushing on without a break. We had arranged a new RV point at Burwick on South Ronaldsay, linked to Mainland Orkney by a series of causeways built on the Churchill Barriers constructed to protect the British Fleet anchored in Scapa Flow during the Second World War. Of course I was excited about the prospect of seeing Linda (and Handel) but I was also very tired and needed to keep my focus as I negotiated the significant tide race and overfalls off Old Head. The short traverse to Brough Ness was a sobering reminder of the power of the tide through the Pentland Firth with the tide seemingly flowing in all directions at once and I knew I would need some time to get my head around this next obstacle. I had made it to the southern tip of Orkney, ready for a crossing to the Scottish mainland by the time I finally took a much needed break.
As I paddled into Burwick and approached its rocky shore I could see Linda with Handel who was barking excitedly at nothing at all. Her smile was just about the only thing that was familiar about her – her hair was longer and she seemed to be so much slimmer – she looked fantastic and my heart skipped like a teenager. I shall not embarrass her by going on but you can rest assured it was wonderful to see her looking so well and I was suddenly a very happy man. We drove to Kirkwall to a formal campsite (with showers and a laundry!) and spent a very pleasant afternoon and evening getting to know each other again!
A proper rest day at last! So what did we do, well go for a run of course! The day started grey and misty but by the time we’d had a look around Kirkwall, I had got my hair cut and we had driven to Stromness it had turned into a nice day. I had a look around the museum (which had an exhibition dedicated to John Rae whom I had read about recently) whilst Linda looked after Handel and then we headed over to Skara Brae where we went for a run along the cliffs in stunning sunshine to Yesnaby. A solid Atlantic swell was pounding the reefs and cliffs and I was pleased that Linda was able to get a taste of some of the scenery that I had been lucky enough to paddle past.
It was August 1st and it seemed like my feet had hardly touched solid ground before we were driving back down to Burwick, leaving Kirkwall at 5.30am so that I could be away by 6.30am to catch the tide. My cunning plan was to allow the last hour of the west going tide running through the Pentland Firth to carry me towards Stroma, and then use the east going tide to take me past Duncansby Head and then southwards, down the east coast of the Scottish mainland. It was simple plan that I was confident would work but I needed good visibility for the crossing to see exactly what the tide was doing and to avoid the large shipping that still uses the Firth. It had not been promising when we left Kirkwall and sure enough when we arrived at Burwick visibility was less than 100metres. I knew it would be foolhardy to cross such a dangerous piece of water in such conditions and I had to quell my desire to get back to the mainland and listen to reason. I apologised to Linda for the unnecessarily early start and we went for a walk to Old Head, getting close to some Common Seals basking on a pebble beach and even closer to some heifers who thought Handel was very interesting.
I discussed my options with the Coastguard at Aberdeen who were helpful as always and had pretty much resigned myself to another day’s delay when the visibility started to improve significantly. There was still the option to catch the evening tide which would mean departing at 6pm at the earliest. Linda would need to catch the afternoon ferry back to Scabster (stupidly I had not realised there was a much more convenient crossing with Pentland Ferries from St Margaret’s Hope to Gills Bay) so she ended up having to race across to Stromness leaving me praying that the visibility would not close in again. I spent the afternoon napping and chatting to Hamish, a local man who was in the process of renovating a lovely wooden boat that used to service the lighthouse on Pentland Skerries. I soon formed the impression that what Hamish didn’t know about the waters around Orkney probably wasn’t worth knowing having fished the Firth for twenty or more years before taking up commercial diving, salvaging the numerous wrecks of the north and west coast of Scotland for their precious cargoes. He agreed with my strategy for crossing the Firth and it was reassuring to talk it through with him.
I left at 5.45pm, and as soon as I left the shelter of the small bay at Burwick, I was flung westwards by the tide pouring through the Firth, emptying the North Sea into the Atlantic. I headed south, allowing the tide to carry me towards Stroma, still invisible in the mist. It was cold and grey and the further across I went the more the south easterly breeze disturbed the surface of the Firth, kicking up a chop that had me drenched and feeling quite chilled despite working hard. The speed of the tide was evidenced by the angle that the John O’Groats ferry had to take to maintain its heading. At least it showed I was on the right track and the sound of the fog horn on the Pentland Skerries was slowly replaced by the one on Stroma. If there was any slack in the tide it was not apparent to me; north of Stroma the tide was ebbing west, by the time I was on the south side of the island the tide was flooding east. Now the wind and tide were in opposition and the sea became a mess of broken water; no large waves just a confusion of whitecaps that sent the kayak slewing from left to right as I tried to maintain my southerly heading. As the motley assortment of buildings that is John O’Groats appeared through the mist so the tide race that goes by the name of ‘The Boars of Duncansby’ started to roar. A fishing boat I had seen leaving Burwick just before me had dropped its cargo of shellfish destined for the Spanish markets and was now making its way back to the islands. We exchanged waves – at least Hamish would now know that I had made it across okay. Working hard to keep warm and make sure I was well inshore before the tide swept me past Duncansby Head I took the Boars of Duncansby side on and after a few good soakings as the C-Trek ploughed through the wind driven waves I was into the calm water in the small bay west of the headland upon which the lighthouse stood as vigilant as ever protecting the entrance to the North Sea.