Wildlife Galore

Sometimes I cannot  believe our luck . Take this week for instance. The weather has been warm and sunny and the seas have been flat: ideal for looking at sea life. Then the icing on the cake, which is that most of the sea life of the NE Atlantic has converged on the Southern coasts of Ireland so that our wonderful experience off Baltimore has just continued to get better and better. Presumably the conditions are just right for plankton who have little fishes “apon their backs to bite ‘em” and the little fishes have bigger fishes “and so ad infinitum” – or more importantly for us ad dolphins and whales galoreDSC_0038

In Dingle the harbour master reported that the evening we arrived he looked out of his living room window just up the coast to see a Humpback whale repeatedly breaching, and a passing whale watching boat advised us to go 5 miles West of the Blaskets if we wanted to see more . Off we went , but nary a Humpback did we see , only loads of dolphins and 6 Mincke whales. ONLY LOADSA DOLPHIN AND 6 MINCKE WHALES? How blasé can you get!

South of Dingle the dolphin share the prey with hundreds of gannets that plummet into the sea like guided missiles , but North of there the birdlife is predominantly shearwaters. Perhaps the prey species are smaller here. North of Galway there has been a fall off in activity , but we are hoping the action will move North to rejoin us as the water temperature rises.

Here is a taste of what we have been enjoying.

DSC_0022

DSC_0086

Caribbean Ireland

 

France has had almost constant rain and floods , the North sea has shivered under cold damp Northerly gales , but over here in Ireland it has been “shorts and tee shirt” temperatures and gentle winds , and as if that wasn’t enough the wildlife has been spectacular. From Fastnet round to Galway the sea has been a-splash with dolphins racing hither and thither as they gorge themselves on some sort of prey species or other. East of the Dingle peninsular they are accompanied in their feeding by large groups of Gannets plummeting into the sea all around , whilst North of there the birds tend to be Shearwaters, skittering along the surface and suggesting perhaps a smaller kind of prey providing the feast.
A humpback whale was sighted breaching repeatedly off Ventry , deep inside Dingle bay , and we were advised that we would be sure to see some if we ventured 5 miles West of the Blasket islands . Off we went in high excitement , but to no avail , at least as far as humpbacks were concerned. Nonetheless there was more or less constant dolphin activity and to our delight we passed no less than 6 Mincke whales loloping sedately south .
The gentle weather makes it much easier to see all these animals , but there is little doubt that the complex ocean ecosystem has shifted somehow to bring animals to this coast in numbers unprecedented in recent years. Let us hope it is a sign of a return of health to our seas.
This time last year we were dressed in 5 fleeces and the heater had been going flat out for days on end , but this year we have been seeking out shade and have turned the colour of deep mahogany. Nobody can believe their luck , least of all a young French cycle tourist whom we met in our favourite music pub in Dingle. He had been told it was going to rain tomorrow and was seeking a second opinion , thinking that as sailors we might be better informed . I was able to reassure him he had at least another week of stonking weather , and explained that in Ireland you could normally say “it would rain tomorrow “ and be right 95% of the time – but not this year!
In the real Caribbean , the sunshine is accompanied by good fresh winds – but hereabouts we get excited if it gets up to ten knots. Passage making has thus been relaxed and fairly slow , with most progress being made between 11 and 1800 under gentle sea breezes. We sail if it is 4 knots or over and can usually get up to hull speed when the breeze reaches 8 knots . Festina’s ability to make progress in these light airs has been a delight and we are probably using less diesel than last year despite using the engine more often , simply because the heater has remained resolutely inactive.
Our destination is the wonderful Clew bay and our friends the Blackwell’s on the NW coast but we are taking our cue from the weather and gently pottering along, marvelling at the wildlife and revisiting favourite haunts discovered on previous cruises.

A Grand Welcome to Ireland

Ireland did I hear you say ? I thought you were going up the North Sea to Shetland?

Ah , so did we until the forecast changed . What had looked like a week of westerly winds suddenly metamorphosed into Northerlies in the North seas and Easterlies in the Channel. That sounds like the perfect excuse to go to Ireland.

But what about Shetland ?

Well that depends !

On what ?

The weather of course. For now our course is to the west and first stop the Scillies.

ireland

Reader we ran all the way , first with the spinnaker , and as befits our elderly status , this was handed when the wind reached 20 knots. We went just as fast with 2 reefs and a poled out genny but with the not so subtle difference that Festina sailed herself whilst we took turns in snoozing below.The forecast was for 30 knots to the West of the Lizard , so , as befits our elderly etc we anchored for a tide in the entrance to Falmouth . After this the wind was far more gentle , and in fact died away just after we moored in St Marys harbour.

You don’t need an excuse to potter about the Scillies, but 2 calm sunny days provided one anyway. Out came the canoe and we headed off to the Western rocks to look for seals and puffins . Puffins were strangely absent but the seals were everywhere, wailing and arguing with each other and amiably following us around in large numbers.

ireland2

On the way back we explored the little island of Samson at its dazzling low water best and it was 2 very tired and sore canoeists who clambered back aboard that night ( we are both carrying shoulder injuries) , but nonetheless we were elated by our day communing with nature at its very best.

ireland3

The forecast was changing once more and we needed to get across the Irish sea before the winds turned into the NW . Luckily a weak NE airflow gave us a beam reach at hull speed in the flattest seas I can remember , and as we reached the Irish coast we were welcomed by the largest school of Common Dolphin I have ever seen in these waters . At any one time we would have 15 playing around the boat and yet wherever we looked there would be more jumping and splashing , so that I estimate the total number to be in the region of 50 animals.

ireland4

Eventually they left us , to be immediately replaced by 2 minke whales sedately rolling along , and soon after that the floppy fins of 1, 2, 3, no, 4 Basking sharks, the biggest of which was at least 15 feet long. Finally as the sun sank in the west, a small group of dolphins returned to escort us into Baltimore harbour.

ireland5

Now I call that a grand welcome to Ireland!

The Time Capsule brings us Home

We said goodbye to Mike and Louise in the charming southern Danish town of Svendborg, leaving them with their Danish friends whilst we threaded our way through the shallow waters and islands south of Fyn, prior to a dawn dash in rapidly increasing winds across to Kiel. It looked as if we needed to get South through the Kiel canal to be ready for a period of anticyclonic weather that was predicted to deliver a week of gentle easterlies which could help us home. It all seemed too good to be true , and in a sense it was . We got the Easterlies , but they were for 3 days only and certainly not gentle , making for fast but far from relaxing passage making. The longer term forecast was for the easterlies to be followed by a succession of westerly gales, so we made the decision to do the home run in one hit.
Passage making in the North Atlantic is a doddle compared with the North Sea, which has become phenomenally crowded. For once, leaving the Elbe and traversing the North German coast was easy, but once we had turned the corner out of German Bight into sea area Thames, the fun started. Every time we come this way there seems to be another couple of wind farms to avoid , a 50% increase in shipping , and just when you get to a (relatively ) uncrowded area , dozens of fishing boats materialise out of the ether and procede to play dodgems with each other right where you want to go. In previous passages this year I had been able to imagine ourselves following in the Vikings wake , but not here . Here we were definitely in the 21st century and life was BUSY!
Probably the busiest area of all is the Maas approach to Rotterdam where ships appear from all directions and flood in and out of Europort. We crossed this at midnight with both of us up to cope with the traffic, and all went well. Once safely to the South I handed over to Lynda, observing that there were a few fishing boats inshore of us, but we looked to be well clear and I wished her a peaceful watch. 20 minutes later I was awakened by a squawk of alarm. Presumably the fishermen were hoovering up a big shoal with the aid of their fish finders , but one of the fish thought this was far from fair ( I think I agree!) , and decided to lead his brethren on an escape attempt over to where “that British yacht” was trundling South. The result was that all ten of the fishing boats had done a hand break turn and had charged after the fish – straight for us. When I got on deck we were surrounded, and it would appear that the fishermen only had eyes for their fish finders as they were altering course in random kamikaze fashion , meaning we had to duck and weave to avoid being rammed . The whole situation was made even more hazardous by their numerous bright deck illuminations making it very hard to make out the navigation lights and thus their courses. Somehow we stayed clear, but soon were into the complex buoyage and shallows of the Belgian coast and another stream of traffic in and out of the Scheldt, so rest was scarcely an option. The Dover straits crossing by contrast seemed straightforward , and once in British coastal waters we heaved a sigh of relief , dropped the main and ran downwind sedately all night under a poled out genny, ticking off the headlands and catching up on sleep.
After 3 days at sea we were at Selsey Bill, once more under full sail and now within a few miles of home. The forecast suggested we still had just a few hours of our precious Easterly in hand , but we felt a general disinclination to finish the trip. Accordingly we shot through the entrance to Chichester harbour and dropped anchor at East Head, 75 hours out of Cuxhaven , and with the curiously symmetrical reading of 456.78 miles on the log! By coming straight home we had pushed ourselves at times and missed out on seeing friends in Holland and Kent , but there is no doubt that a week later, 456 miles upwind would have been much more of a slog .
48 hours at anchor in Chichester harbour allowed us to relax and begin to look back on what perhaps has been our easiest cruise ever. We didn’t have any definite plans or time constraints, and were thus to a large extent able to go where the winds blew us. Luckily for us they took us to some exciting, if rather cold, places and then came up trumps with a wonderful period of Indian summer weather for our meanderings around the Kattegat. I have a feeling that if you are prepared to wait, summer weather in the northern latitudes will eventually take you where you want to get to.
I suppose that’s how the Vikings planned their summer voyages too, as like us, they waited for favourable winds and made sure they were tucked up at home long before the winter storms. This year I have really enjoyed the sense of the boat being a kind of time capsule, offering us glimpses into the past of those incredible Northern voyagers.
The question is, where will it take us next year?

A British fleet in Copenhagen

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark

With Mike and Louise waiting for us in the Sound ( the narrows between Denmark and Sweden) , it was time to travel the 100 miles SE to meet them. The only problem was the wind which was firmly in the SE, 120 miles directly upwind! The solution was to stop for the night at the little sand island of Anholt, out in the middle of the Kattegat and therefore a fetch on port tack, wait overnight for the wind to swing into the SSW and so fetch into the Sound on starboard . All went to plan until 20 miles off, when the wind increased to a steady 30 knots some hours ahead of schedule. Despite tiny sails, Festina thrashed along like a scalded cat and once we had a lee from the N Sjaelland coast, the wind and waves fell away and we spent the night in the charming fishing village of Gillelele, some 10 miles from the entrance to the Sound.
Next day whilst poking around in a little fishing museum, there amongst the typical round bodied Danish fishing boats was a long slim Viking shaped faering from Norway, just like those we had been admiring from Faroe and Shetland to the Norwegian coast. I asked the curator how it came to be here and she told me that after Nelson destroyed the Danish fleet at Copenhagen ( er …. sorry for that guys!) the Danish king gave carte blanche for any small Danish craft to prey on British merchant shipping trying to pass through the Sound. This was a pretty high risk procedure, and although large fortunes were made by well equiped privateers (the curator at the wonderful Orlogsmuseum in Copenhagen told me prizes worth 200 million kroner were taken) the fishermen didn’t fare so well, and at the end of the war had very few boats left. With timber also scarce, they bought cheap second hand boats from Norway. Whilst these were fast , they were too unstable to do well at the net fishing that was used for the herring here in Denmark , as opposed to line fishing for cod in Norway for which they were better suited.
In Copenhagen I discovered an amusing sequel of this privateers war, which was that the successful “letter of marque” men were by and large fisherfolk and seamen , and thus from the lower classes. Nevertheless they flooded Copenhagen with their new riches and thoroughly put the noses of the establishment out of joint, who couldn’t stand these nouveau riche upstarts flaunting their wealth. Thus the king put an end to this guerrilla war, not because it was unsuccessful, but because its very success threatened to upset the old order!

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark

Next day we sailed to Helsingfors ( Anglicised to Elsinore and home to “Hamlets” castle) , and there were Mike and Louise at the end of their long Eastern Baltic trip.

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark
From Festina and Vela go to Denmark

We decided to join up for a few days, and our first move was to Copenhagen from where we took a train to Roskilde to see the amazing Viking ship museum. For me this was the culmination of what has gradually become a journey of Viking discovery, starting at the Viking city of Dublin , then sailing the Viking derived lugger at Stornaway, pouring over the Viking ships and rowing boats of Faeroe , visiting the Viking age stopover points of Shetland and Norway (and the ships and museums of Tonsberg and Oslo ), and finally this extraordinary place where the past is meticulously researched by building and voyaging in detailed replica Viking boats. I was in seventh heaven!

From Vikings at Roskilde

Festina and Vela were moored in Christianshavn , a canal in the middle of the city and just opposite the Orlogsmuseum – which houses ship builders models of the Danish navy from the 16th century to the present , and whose curator was happy to look up the action at Lyngor in 1812 when a British 64 gun ship Dictator entered the Norwegian skerries to sink a Danish frigate the Naiad. She was hiding amongst the islands , sure that no large ship could follow her and Dictator must have followed the course we took to get in there. If the captains description of his stunsail yards brushing the rock either side was probably a bit of hyperbole , it had been tight enough for Festina with an engine and GPS , so was undoubtedly an amazing piece of seamanship . The Danes / Norwegians were convinced a local pilot helped the Brits, and offered a huge reward for his capture, but nothing ever came of it.

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark

Well, after 3 days in the city of Copenhagen and a wonderful history fest, it’s time work our way South again and take the first fair weather for Holland and home. The swallows are gathering and presumably, like us, their eyes are glued to the weather forecast and that all important weather window. Until it comes, Festina and Vela are going to slowly island hop their way towards Kiel.

From Festina and Vela go to Denmark

Lets ROCK!

From Bohuslan

Geographically Southern Norway merges imperceptibly with the NW coast of Sweden ( known as Bohuslan), but there are several clues that you have crossed the border. Obviously the percentage of Swedish flags increase , whilst Norwegian boats diminish . Maybe the rocks are more pink and the archipelago is more extensive, but perhaps the most obvious difference is that here sailing boats sail everywhere, which sounds like a classic case of stating the bleedin’ obvious. But I mean everywhere ! The inner leads in the archipelago can get pretty tricky and narrow , and the narrow sounds where some of the fishing villages lie are crazily congested, but nothing daunts the Swedes and they take a pride in tacking and gybing through these places, missing rocks by inches and their willingness to tackle any situation under sail can at times make a crowded start line look like a walk in the park.
Needless to say we joined in with enthusiasm and until Gulholmen , the narrowest sound of them all , we were doing OK , but here the traffic got ridiculous . What made it worse was a big modern 41 footer flying a German flag coming up astern, whilst various slower boats were converging on the narrowest part from all directions. I should have furled the genoa and let him go through but the competitive instinct kicked in , the wind came ahead and I thought we could squeeze through ahead of him as he fell off to lee. He was pretty competitive too and the end result was that 4 boats somehow fitted into a space that should have taken 2 at most, and despite no incident occurring, we temporarily headed for the offshore route to mop our brows and relax a bit!

From Bohuslan

Squeezing into our night time stopping places can also be a bit nerve wracking, but we do this at ultra slow speed under engine, and once secured to the rocks we can relax and admire the stunning scenery. One reason it looks so good is the weather – hot and cloudless – and the evening sunshine brings out the colours of the rocks to perfection. We sail, even to windward, in shorts and tee shirts , and can scarcely believe our luck ( earlier in the summer we would have had about 8 layers on , plus gloves and scarves!). For two days the wind blew 20 knots from the East ( ie off the land ) sending us charging along in flat water at nearly 8 knots ,although after Gulholmen we did furl the genoa for the tricky bits. Latterly the winds have eased, but swing round to the West at midday under the influence of the sun , allowing us to trickle along in complete comfort, which is even nicer. We spent most of one day under kite , although that felt a bit dodgy when a German boat a few boat lengths away hit a rock with a horrid crashing sound. Mind you, he was the wrong side of a cardinal buoy, but seemed to carry on after a while looking none the worse for wear.

From Last day in the archipelago

Then came two days with practically no wind , so we have anchored up in a perfect little bay just South of Marstrand to await a bit more wind for our move South to Denmark , and hopefully a meeting with Mike and Louise, who are coming round the bottom of Sweden towards us .This is an awesome place , ( check out the map) and we are seeing it at its very best , but I suspect we have one more day of perfect weather and after that it will be time to start making tracks towards home.

From Last day in the archipelago

Norway turns up the Heat

From Svenner

Our progress along the South coast of Norway has been a gentle affair. When the the sea breeze has blown we have usually kept to seaward of the archipelago , but in between times we have pottered along the inner leads , marvelling at the myriad cabins that hide away in all the little sheltered bays . Apparently , about a third of all Norwegians own a coastal “cabin” , which is usually a misnomer as they are often substantial houses and most of them have their own little dock , complete with boat house , and of course , boat. The best ones now sell for millions and even renting them in the summer is much more expensive than an all in Carribean holiday. Many people live in a flat in a city , preferring to spend their time and money on a much bigger coastal “cabin”.

From S Norway and it gets warmer

One evening we left our rather exposed outer skerry anchorage and went in search of a more secure place for the night, deeper in to the archipelago. The place we ended up was a bay, protected by 2 small islands and within which were a collection of about 20 houses. The next morning a man of our age rowed out to us , and over a cup of coffee told us the history of the place. His great great grandfather had bought several islands in the area, and ran a business delivering iron ore from a mine on one of the islands to the city of Kragero , several miles to the west. Apparently these eastern islands were more expensive as in good summer weather the wind starts off in the east and by the end of the day has gone round to the west, so that his boats had a fair wind morning and evening, whilst his competitors to the west had to beat both ways! (We have used this sun driven breeze variation ever since!)
The house that he now owns was built by his grandfather, although I suspect it has been much extended in the interim. The fine dock was also built by his grandfather by gathering rocks from one of the nearby uninhabited islands in winter, and placed them on the ice where he wanted the dock to be. In the Spring thaw, the ice melted, and hey presto he had the basis of a wonderful little quay. It has now been further improved by many cubic metres of concrete and finished off with a layer of wood . Of the other 20 houses in the bay, all but one belong to his extended family, each one descended from the same man 5 generations before. Now his 3 daughters bring their families to stay , and so the next two generations have begun their association with the bay. It was all pretty idyllic, although it was interesting that when his daughters were young , they preferred spending their holidays in a small yacht touring the Baltic .
Part of the reason that it seems so wonderful is that summer has definitely arrived ( it might be less appealing in the cold and wet!). We have arrived in Tonsberg , just inside the Oslo fiord and rather than struggle the 60 miles up to Oslo in light airs we berthed the boat and took a bus into the capital. It also just so happens that on the quayside here are a collection of Viking era vessels , and a project to build another version of the Gokstad ship using traditional methods right alongside them. I have been encouraged to crawl all over them to my hearts content and am in seventh heaven.

From Vikings!

The weather forecast was originally for rain this weekend , but to our delight all that changed and we found ourselves in Oslo on a fine sunny day , with a blue sky and a sparkling breeze. As we crossed the Oslofiord on the ferry to the island home of the Viking ship museum , it could almost have been Sydney harbour , with boats absolutely everywhere , and in the middle of them all , our old friend the television ship steaming in, still with her hundreds of flag waving boats trailing in her wake. She too had ended up in Oslo at the end of her Norwegian summer voyage .
For us however, Sweden is just across the water and early indications are that we might have an Indian Summer to continue our summer idyll. Our fingers are firmly crossed.

Summer at Last!

Our plan on returning to the boat in Stavanger was to head round to the South Norwegian coast where , in summer , the temperatures are higher and the climate less windy. The continental high that sits over Russia and Poland in the summer tends to fend off Atlantic weather systems , at least that was the theory! In practice we had a few days of anchoring up and never even going on deck whilst the elements raged outside, but gradually as we have come east the temperatures have risen and the winds eased off, and the last week has seen us in tropical rig of shorts and tee-shirts. Even down here the locals say they have had a miserable summer until now, and whilst we bask in the sunshine, most of Norway is going back to work and missing it. I think the change is due to the jet stream moving back North to knock seven bells out of Shetland and Faeroe.

From Then Norway
From Risor

For the last few days we have been tied up to a rock in the skerries outside the pretty town of Risor, canoeing in to the wooden boat festival that takes place here every year. Norway is very proud of its maritime heritage, and of course before oil brought prosperity , much of the population lived and worked along its coastline and boats were perhaps the major form of transport as well as being workhorses for the fishing industry. They developed a particular form of sailing boat as a rescue craft and pilot boat named after its principle designer – Colin Archer – and there were 5 superb examples at the festival , including the very first , the eponymous “Colin Archer” .

From Risor

There were also 2 replica Viking ships present – fine looking craft – one of which was a copy of the Oseburg ship , (another copy of which ended up abandoned on Unst in Shetland , where Lynda and I once helped a shipwright re hang her rudder). The other was the Gaia , built by none other than the crazy Norwegian who had rowed into Lerwick whilst we were there, and sailed by him to America and back. She is fitted with an engine now, but in all other respects is absolutely authentic and a truly awesome machine. She makes just 3 knots under oars but under sail has been clocked at 17 knots and I would give my eye teeth to sail her in a good blow!

From Risor

In one of the exhibitors tents was a boat builder from just South of Bergen showing what looked to my eyes like a Shetland fourareen. In fact she was a bit narrower, more like the Faeroese rowing boats. The builder explained that his area of Norway had been building these boat for Shetland and Faeroe ( a bit wider for the sailing versions , a bit finer for the rowing boats ) since the 16th century , eventually sending them as a kit of parts long before Ikea had the idea of a flatpack! The boats have scarcely changed since Viking times other than to ship a stern rudder rather than a starboard hung steering oar ( the “steerboard!”) and are marvels of minimalist design, yet exquisite to look at.

From Then Norway

We seem to be going round the coast at the same speed as the Sjokurs , a ship that tours the coastline , scooting through the inner leads at a scary pace, small places and putting on a television programme about each area . It is enormously popular as everyone tunes in to see their friends featured on the programme, and wherever she goes the ship is followed by an armada of craft waving Norwegian flags and joining in a huge party wherever she stops. Norway may not be so dependant on these coastal communities for her wealth any more, but this programme ( and the beautifully maintained coastal houses and villages) shows how important they remain in the hearts of the nation.
We have about 50 more miles of archipelago wandering before we come to the mouth of the Oslo fjiord . Do we turn left and visit the capital , or turn right and wander down the Western Swedish archipelago to Denmark. As ever , I expect the weather will decide .

Norwegian Islands

Up to now all our longer passages have been swift but rough, but the trip to Norway promised at worst moderate seas and a fairly gentle following wind. The spinnaker was handed at dusk when the wind obligingly climbed to 15 knots, at which point we make nearly as good speed with a poled out genny and the boat can be left to herself. By 0400 the wind was down to 10 knots again so the kite went back up, Lynda was left in charge and I fell deeply asleep. 4 hours later a completely knackered Lynda woke me to say that it was blowing 20 knots, and could we please take the kite down so that she could relax. It was now my watch and so I readily agreed, thus ensuring a peaceful time and much muttering from Lynda about how I always leave her to cope with the kite and get the easy watches!

One noticeable feature of the last two passages has been the complete absence of cetaceans. There is a lot of oil prospecting activity in these waters, and both East and West of Shetland we had to alter course for sonar survey vessels towing 6 mile cables. I have read somewhere that the sonic pulses put out by these kind of surveys are likely to disorientate, if not actually permanently disable cetaceans who navigate in a sonar world. All the way up to the Hebrides we would be guaranteed to see some sort of whale or dolphin every day (and often several times a day) but up here in the land of oil we saw nothing. I can’t help feeling that there is a connection between these facts.

20 miles North of Stavanger is the island of Utsira, known to British sailors for the 2 shipping forecast areas of North and South Utsira which are named after it. South Utsira in particular always seems to have a gale blowing. Having set off a few days earlier than planned we had time to spare before our flight from Stavanger, so we decided to stop there and see why! The island popped up over the horizon looking like a set of jagged rocks , but as we got closer the spaces between them filled in to reveal a rather barren rocky landscape with a harbour at either end and a fertile little valley running the one and a half km across the middle between the two harbours. We chose the South harbour ( the wind was by now a fresh NW) and were astonished to see that the island supported about 200 very smart houses and a considerable permanent population despite being 10 miles by sea from the nearest large town of Haugesund. We decide to stay for a couple of days , not least because the sun shone all day for the first time in the two months since we had left the Hamble, allowing us to dry and air the boat , a job that was long overdue.

From Then Norway

15 miles further down the coast is the island of Kvitsoy ( in reality a little archipelago) , and once you have threaded your way into the midst of these islands you find yourself in the most perfect sheltered natural harbour you can imagine. 9 years ago we met Englishman John Cooper and his Norwegian wife Liv here and struck up a friendship, so it was with extreme pleasure that we looked forward to meeting them again in this marvellous place. Liv grew up on the island where her family had been pilots and fishermen for generations. Nowadays many of the houses are used as holiday homes, but the regular ferry service, some fertile agricultural ground and a degree of continuing fishing activity have kept it a vibrant and healthy community. Norway is obviously doing very well for itself despite the downturn in the oil based economy and the Coopers were justifiably proud of the way the state looks after Liv’s 92 year old mother even out here on an island out at sea.

Out here on Kvitsoy we are just a hop and a skip from Stavanger and our mid cruise break. Our meanderings so far this year have taken us to some memorably wild places and brought us in contact with fun people , and if it has been colder than would be ideal , modern clothing and our blessed heater have easily coped with it. Theoretically the second half of the trip will be far more civilised; it will be interesting to see which we enjoy most!

 

 

 

A Speed Date with Shetland

From And so to Shetland

The weather in these northern latitudes this summer may have been cold and sunless , but we won’t complain about the winds. Every time we want to do a longish passage, a few days wait has delivered us perfect windows of fair winds. Faeroe to Shetland was a case in point. The course is pretty much 180 nm SE. A near gale from the NE was perhaps a bit too sporting , but by waiting 24 hours the wind backed into the North giving us a broad reach for the first 12 hours before backing further into the NW to give us a very rolly run (the swell remained firmly in the NE) which was nevertheless infinitely more comfortable than bashing to windward.

After just over 24 hours we were back in the sheltered waters of Shetland and palpably relaxing. These two archipelagos have much in common, not least the extreme friendliness of their people. Both have magnificent scenery, but Shetland is somehow less intimidating. There are fierce currents in between both sets of islands, and races (or roosts) off the headlands, but those of Shetland are pussycats compared with their Faeroese cousins .There again the sounds and voes of Shetland have more room than those of Faeroe and consequently the winds are steadier and more stable. Finally, this was not our first visit to Shetland, and there is a satisfaction in revisiting well known places that I perhaps have not recognised before now. Whatever the reason, we slipped through the sound between Yell and Mainland and snuck into Burra Voe with real pleasure .

From And so to Shetland

Seemingly within minutes I was invited to row with the local rowing club ( OK , I invited myself , but nobody suggested I was too old this time!) and had a fun evening with them on Festina afterwards. Shetland was already beginning to weave its magic on us, just as it had on our last visit.

From And so to Shetland

One advantage that Faero does have is superb 3G mobile coverage, so accessing forecasts there is very easy. Not so in Shetland, so we slipped down to Lerwick to study the weather once more and decide where we would leave the boat for our now traditional mid cruise break. With friendly contacts in both Shetland and Stavanger, the choice boiled down to a second half exploration of Shetland and Orkney , and home via the East coast , or a shorter stay on Shetland , leave the boat in Stavanger and perhaps enjoy the warmer weather that the SE coast of Norway might offer. Once more the grib files made up our mind for us, offering us perfect winds for Stavanger in a week’s time . Flights were booked , and almost immediately we began to have doubts as our weather window began to narrow, leaving us much less time than we had intended to immerse ourselves in the delights of Shetland. It seems that we have still not learned the art of staying still long enough to really get under the skin of a place , but at least we were able to spend an entertaining evening with Tommy Allen and his wife , the wonderfully friendly couple who had , on our previous visit had lent us their car . Not only are they good fun, but an evening spent in the company of someone who actually lives in a place gives you more insight than weeks of being a tourist.

Lerwick was quite crowded but surprisingly we were the only British boat there. Two Swiss boats, a Canadian, several Germans and of course a number of Norwegians lined the quayside and prominent amongst them was a small rowing boat in which a 67 year old Norwegian with the magnificent name of Ragnar Thorseth had just rowed over from Bergen! The guy was obviously bonkers , and I couldn’t decide whether he disproved the Faeroese assertion that I was too old to row , or perhaps confirmed it ( “you must be mad if you want to row at that age!”). Probably both!

From And so to Shetland

On our last visit to Shetland we had anchored in the natural harbour behind the Lingness peninsular and had been treated to an evening of otter watching , so once our re-provisioning was done we set off to find them again. No otters this time, but seals galore, and next day, once the rain had cleared, we were off again for Unst, the most Northerly island , thinking we might have 3 or 4 days to explore . Sadly each forecast brought our weather window even further forward, so after 2 days we set off East bound for Norway. Perhaps next year we should set aside the whole summer in Shetland and Orkney.

A Day at the Races

From More Faeroes

The “capital “ of the Faeroes is Torshavn on the island of Streymoy, and our passage there from Sandoy was once more “interesting”. We set off in fog and light winds and this time successfully worked out our own tides which whisked us North round the rocky West coast ( not that we saw it!) and into the Sound between Sandoy and the more Northern islands. Here the visibility cleared to show the splendid scenery, and some sort of frontal system coming up fast from astern. At first it looked like we might reach the lee of Streymoy before it overtook us , but it was not to be and we hurriedly reefed right down in the overfalls off the point , doing 11 knots over the ground. Thereafter the wind was all over the place, going from three to 30 knots and we gratefully turned on the engine to get us into the harbour. The only problem was that we couldn’t see the harbour as fog was streaming over the valley to its west and completely obscuring it. We got in quite safely but decided that exploring the tight tidal passages between the Northern islands would probably require a lot of use of the engine, and as all the more northern islands are connected by tunnels and bridges, we might do our exploring using a car engine instead.

From Exploring Faeroe

Torshavn itself is very attractive, and the yacht moorings are right at the centre of the town. It is very similar to being tied up in a miniature version of Copenhagen with brightly painted old warehouses , and on the other side of the quay , old black wooden turf roofed buildings that date back to the 18th century. The surrounding islands are reached via a good modern infrastructure of roads and tunnels , and we have spent a very pleasant 3 days exploring the islands and their villages with their colourful “lego“ houses surrounding the older, turf-roofed traditional buildings , hiking up hills and round lakes and generally reacquainting ourselves with shore going muscles.

From Exploring Faeroe

Saturday found us in Fuglafiord, along with about 600 rowers and 60 or more brightly painted double ended Viking skiffs. There are 3 sizes; 6, 8 and 10 oared . Oarsemen ( or women ) sit side by side and pull relatively short , very narrow bladed square loomed oars attached to a thole pin with a rope. The children row a 500m course and the adults 1000m , and the stroke rate is high ( presumably because of the short thin oars ), especially over the final 100m. Most of the stroke is pulled by body movement , ending up nearly 60 degrees from the vertical and of course the best crews were as ever those that maintained their technique through to the end of the race despite the sprint finish.

From A day at the races

It was all very exciting, and the commentary is relayed on national radio so that everyone we spoke to knew about the event and who was winning. The commentators seemed to get most excited about the men’s crews, but from my perspective the best crew was the home ports women’s crew whose technique was immaculate. Seeing all those boats together was reminiscent of old pictures of the Grindadrap, or whale hunts , which were carried out in almost identical boats rowed in the same way.

From A day at the races

Ah , the whale hunt. It is inevitable that we come to that. Since recorded time the Faeroese have herded pods of pilot whales into dead ended fiords, and slaughtered them once they are beached. This is no longer done in rowing boats , but using the double ended motor boats .The carcasses are immediately butchered and shared out amongst the whole population, who cure it and eat it through the winter. Until fairly recently this was an absolutely necessary food supply, but times move on and recently pictures in the media of the killing amidst blood soaked water have enraged people around the world. There are two or three vessels from Sea Shepherd patrolling the islands, and at every headland we have come across crewmen watching for whales, presumably to alert the Sea Shepherd vessels so that they can interfere.
I completely accept the argument that this is a Faroese tradition , that the whale meat is their National dish, that being told to stop by a load of meat eating , city dwelling foreigners who probably don’t know their chicken legs were ever attached to a live animal, is completely counter- productive. Sea Shepherd is almost certainly hardening the attitude here. However, these animals are at the top of the food chain and contain sufficient levels of mercury and PCB’s that the local Medical Officer of Health has now advised against the human consumption of the whalemeat. Both sides produce scientific “evidence” to support their entrenched positions, but my reading and enquiries suggest that there is not enough reliable data to say one way or the other if the population can withstand this killing. My own view is that to completely wipe out a whole pod must inflict terrible losses on the genetic pool of this animal and there must be a compromise somewhere. On the other hand , compared with the biological destruction of sea beds by scallop dredging in British waters ,or the huge quantities of fish taken by the pelagic fishing industry, the environmental effect of the Grindadrap is minimal.
The Faeroes are a beautiful austere archipelago with welcoming people . They enjoy a brief summer interlude of pleasant weather which we have been privileged to share. After we have left they have to survive in a very inhospitable environment for the rest of the year. Perhaps that, more than anything else, explains their desire to harvest what they feel is theirs to get them through the winter. Wiser folk than Sea Shepherd are attempting to persuade them that the Pilot Whales could bring greater benefit by underpinning a whale watching industry , rather than by filling their larder with potentially dangerous food. I wish them all well.

The Knitting Rock

Our first proper day in the Faeroes was blessed with what a local lady jokingly referred to as “Faeroese sunshine” , ie it was pouring with rain! It would appear that in common with Scotland and much of Scandinavia the Spring and early summer has been particularly cold . One 90 year old said it was the worst she could remember but with good clothing and almost continuous use of the heater we can honestly say it hasn’t been a problem.

From The Faeroes

Walking in waterproofs certainly gets you hot and after a long explore on foot we came to the conclusion that this was a prosperous society , very friendly towards tourists , and totally orientated towards the sea in general , and fishing in particular. Dotted around the coastline each little village has a harbour of sorts , often big enough to take large seagoing ships. Within these are small boat harbours wherein are moored little double ended motorboats ranging from 18 to 30 feet and bearing a distinct lineage to the Viking ships of their ancestors. Amongst these were pulling boats of a slightly smaller size that could have come from the 12th century were it not for the rudder hung on the sternpost instead of the Viking steering oar on the “steerboard” side . It transpired that rowing these craft is the national sport , so with much excitement I made my way down to the local rowing club. I have managed to blag my way onto traditional rowing boats in most of the places we have visited , but here I was met with astonishment and the tactful (!) comment that in the Faeroes rowing is for the under 30’s, aka you are too old!
I think this is the first time someone has said this to me about anything , ( which just goes to show how you can fool yourself MOST of the time!) and my first reaction was to resent it . Further reflection produced the thought that if some old geezer from the Faeroes wandered up to Southampton football club and asked if there was a space in the local derby with Portsmouth , he might be met with the same amused incomprehension. Certainly the evening practice sessions were pretty athletic and I managed to be a spectator with reasonable good humour. Every Saturday thoughout the mid summer all the islands clubs meet at one venue after another for a regatta , and we hope to take one of these in during our stay.

From The Faeroes

The passage to Sandoy , the next inhabited island to the North , started out in perfect visibility allowing us to admire the astonishing cliffs and dramatic shapes of the little islands of Lille and Stora Dimon on the way. The rise and fall of tide is only 1 metre here , but the tidal streams are complex and fast ( up to 8 knots in places). We had taken the harbour masters advice on when to leave , and soon regretted it as we were too early for the passage through these islands , barely making way through the tide races under engine. Then came thick fog, which was not a huge issue given that we have radar , GPS and chart plotter, but without these it would have been fairly terrifying.
Sandoy is relatively low lying and so we thought it would be ideal for exploring by cycle , and it probably is for fit young things on full sized bikes ( is there an age theme developing here?). We found that “relatively low lying “ still meant a significant climb to the pass before the descent to the delightful villages on the East coast and I must have been working hard as I snapped my seat post! Not only too old but too fat as well. Exchanging posts with Lynda got us back on the road, but with rather bent legs the climb back was fairly hard work. The moist southerly breeze climbed the hill with us and although I am told the view is breathtaking, the fog enveloping us ensured we only saw a few metres of land either side , lots of sheep and even more rocks. It was probably just as well as we were breathing pretty hard even without the view.

From More Faeroes

What do you do in the winter on an island full of sheep, quite a lot of rocks and no daylight? Well in Sandoy the womenfolk knitted a cover for a rock . Not just any rock, but pretty much the largest one on the island. On a little path near a foggy cliff you come upon a signpost that says (in Faeroese) the “knitting rock”. Down the path, little pebbles ( covered in patterned wool ) lead you to ………… well I cannot describe it . Only a picture will do. Lynda and I both burst out laughing with sheer pleasure from the eccentric madness of it all. And yet somehow it is the perfect fit for this crazy little place stuck out in the  North Atlantic.

image

The Island of Sheep

By the time we got back from St Kilda , we had been out in the wilds for nearly 3 weeks , and even Lynda’s amazing catering was struggling , so after a brief foray to the Shiant islands to top up on puffin hours ( watching , not eating them you understand!) , we headed for the bright lights of Stornaway to restock. To some extent we needed to stop and think “where next” as well . Should we continue round the top to Orkney or perhaps go back South via the West coast of Ireland? As usual , it was the weather forecast that decided matters ; the wind was resolutely in the South or South East so that Ireland , and to a lesser extent Orkney , would be upwind. The Faeroes however would be downwind. It would have been criminal to waste it ,so after a few days to enjoy the delights of Stornaway, we set off North.

From The Faeroes

Why the Faeroes you might ask. Well previous exploration of Norway and Shetland gave us an introduction to the history of Viking summer voyaging in these Northern parts, and the Faeroes were the next stepping stone these intrepid sailors took on their way to Iceland , and probably America. Then again some 500 years before the Vikings , there is some evidence that Irish hermits sailed this way. An Irish monk called Diucl wrote in 825 AD “ Many other islands lie in the Northerly British ocean. One reaches them from the northerly isles of Britain by sailing directly for two days and two nights with full sail and a favourable wind the whole time……(Hmm, he obviously had the same forecast!)…… Most of these islands are small, they are separated by narrow channels , and for nearly a hundred years hermits lived there, coming from our land , Ireland , by boat.” As for St Brendan who called it the Island of Sheep , he used to return there every Easter ( which he celebrated in May, the start of the Northern sailing season.) Lastly the islands are populated by a race which by and large trace the male lines to Scandinavia , and the females to the Hebrides – that’s quite a trip to go on just for a date! Surely if that lot could manage it , so should we !
In the event we beat the monks time by a good 12 hours ( although other boats setting out with us took a full 2 monkish days ) courtesy of 18 hours of a good two reef breeze and the rest under spinnaker in brilliant sunshine and the warmest conditions since leaving Southampton. Yet Even with GPS we very nearly missed our landfall ( next stop Iceland?) as a strong cross current to the South of the island swept us to the west whilst the southerly wind piled up against the cliffs and condensed ,forming an invisibility blanket that kept us guessing where they were until we were within a mile or two. I seem to remember St Brendan had the same problem.

From More Faeroes

So now we are here , moored alongside a huge quay in Tvororyi, a town on the southern most island of Suderoy. Little brightly painted houses stretch either way along the shores of the fiord , and the bits of land we can see through the fog look most impressive . The locals are extremely friendly , but its time to turn in and find out more about this little Atlantic archipelago in the morning.

From The Faeroes

St Kilda

The west coast of Harris and Lewis ( one island really , but geographically divided by deep lochs and high uninhabited hills ) is rather more adventurous to explore than the East coast . In the latter the water is usually fairly flat , but the West coast is subject to the full Atlantic swell even in calm weather. We were faced with another few days of strong winds , so rather than stay in an area we were already familiar with , we headed North to East Loch Roag on the Atlantic coast , and specifically for the wonderful little natural harbour of Kirkibost where we carefully set two anchors and settled down to ride it out.

From On the West Coast of Lewis

This place had obviously once been fairly busy , with a substantial pier and plenty of newish buildings – nearly all standing empty! One boat still pots for lobsters out of here , but all other boats have been driven away. Apparently the price of lobster has stayed the same for ten years , whilst costs have of course increased. I have seldom seen such a thinly fished coast , but my guess is that it is a brutal place in the winter with boats on the East coast of the islands able to get out many more days a year.
Once the wind had released us we found it to be a spectacular cruising ground with the same wonderful combination of machair, mountains and wildlife that had so impressed us in Berneray, but on an altogether more rugged scale. One day on walking in the hills we came face to face with a Golden Eagle sitting on a rock cairn (I’m not sure who was most surprised , but whilst we gawped speechlessly he glided off to cruise effortlessly above an adjacent range of hills.) Similarly we were treated to the spectacle of a medium sized whale joining in a feeding frenzy with 30 gannets – it breeched showing a startlingly white underbelly, and we like to think it was our first Orca.
Another reason for being out here was to be in striking distance of St Kilda , sitting out there 50 miles to the west . Even now, with modern boats and forecasts, getting out there is quite a big deal. Ideally you need three days of settled weather, one to sail out there, one to explore and one to come back. You don’t want a westerly on the way out, or an Easterly on the way back , and as the anchorage is always subject to swell and getting ashore can be nigh on impossible if the swell is up , this has also to be taken into account.

From St Kilda

Our chance came on Midsummers day, bright and sunny but still very cold. The wind was light westerly but forecast to veer to the North and increase to 25 knots , and the swell was huge, although gentle enough out of soundings. Apparently the radar contractors on St Kilda had decided that it was the first possible day of the year to get a landing craft to deliver vital supplies to repair the facility , but she was unable to get ashore and had to head back the 50 miles to Harris with everything still on board.

From St Kilda

We got there after 12 hours of beating and dropped anchor in the iconic bay wondering what sort of night we were in for. Extremely rolly as it turned out and we were very dubious about landing, but towards midmorning the wind reduced and we had a good few hours wandering the settlement and the surrounding cliffs , marvelling at the stupendous scenery and even more at the tenacity of spirit that allowed men and women to exist here for hundreds of years in such isolation.

From St Kilda

Slowing Down

On previous visits to the Scottish west coast we have used the Small Isles as a jumping off point for the Outer Hebrides , or at least stopped there on the way back. Muck and Eigg are the closest to the mainland , and like Canna to the west they look inviting , all having at least some areas of low fertile land. Between them sit , or perhaps should I say brood , the high menacing peaks of Rum, usually covered in cloud , and altogether less “comfortable”, which is perhaps why we had never visited. There is a deep indent on the NE side , Loch Scresort and this year we decided to finally go there, beating out on the last of our Tobermory blow.

From Scotland

At the head of this loch lies Kinloch castle , an extraordinary Edwardian folly ,and several fine white houses , but despite these the whole place had a somewhat sombre feel. Until the 1950’s all these buildings , indeed the whole island ,served the family whose extravagant plaything it was , but latterly in an attempt to attract new blood a new croft has been established . Unfortunately, although I am far from expert in these things, it seemed to me that the land chosen for this croft was so exposed and poor that it will be very difficult for the tenants to succeed. In the island shop , the lady who served us was monosyllabic and avoided eye contact , and I got the distinct impression she had been crying. The resident Ranger was more friendly, and very enthusiastic about the ecology of the place, but even she bewailed the fact that it was difficult to attract people to the Island. Perhaps it is ridiculous to come to any conclusion after so short a stay , but it didn’t feel a very happy place.

At the back of my mind there was the possibility of a settled spell of weather allowing us a crack at St Kilda, so after only half a day exploring Rum we set out for the Western Isles. They were of course dead to windward , but depending on whether the wind backed or veered , I hoped that we should be able to make Barra in the South , or Loch Maddy in the middle of the chain before dusk. To our delight the wind backed and we were able to ease sheets for Loch Maddy , but after a few hours it died and then veered such that we were dead downwind of both. Canna was an hour to leeward and a distinctly more pleasant option than beating into the night. Besides which, the forecast for the next day was for a fresh SW wind which would take us to Loch Maddy with no effort at all. So , up went the kite and we moored in Canna’s glorious bay feeling somewhat foolish at having sailed for 6 hours , when the direct passage to Canna from Rum would have taken us 2!

It was a good lesson and we have taken it to heart. Since arriving at Loch Maddy after a fast comfortable reach , we have scarcely covered 10 miles a day, revisiting our favourite anchorage in the wild E coast of South Uist , the extraordinary landlocked Bagh a Bhioran , and spending the last 3 days moored off the island of Berneray .

From Bernaray and anchorages near Sound of Harris

This jewel of a place sits midway between the hills of Uist to the South and Harris to the North. Its west side is machair , low fertile sandy soil that this time of year is ablaze with myriad wildflowers and nesting birds, and the adjacent Atlantic coast is the longest whitest , wildest beach you can imagine . Surround this with turquoise shallows and aquamarine deeps beyond , add a background of purple and violet hills , fleck the sea with white horses and diving gannets and you have a scene that can hold its own with anywhere we have ever been.

From Bernaray and anchorages near Sound of Harris

It is still cold and windy, but the last two days have seen glorious sunshine such that flowers in the machair , unusually late this year , have been unfolding in front of our eyes. It is a magical place, but the wind is due to come in from the SE making the bay untenable, so we will move off in the morning, all of 4 miles to our next anchorage!