Passage 16, Wick to Stromness

This was the biggy. Going across the Pentland Firth. Just in case you don't know this bit of water between the Orkneys and mainland Scotland is treacherous due to the very strong currents. At Springs (when the tides are at their largest), they reach 12 knots. Strong currents cause very dangerous seas and I heard that only a few months ago a not insubstantial service boat went down with all hands in these waters.

I was going across at Springs! Now, so long as you time it EXACTLY right (and the winds are quiet), you're absolutely fine. The night before I had asked the deputy Harbour Master about my passage plan to Scrabster which involves going through the Firth and he thought it should be fine. The next Morning, Malcolm the head Harbour Master came in and said that conditions were not good around Scrabster and advised against it. He suggested Stromness. His arguments were very convincing. So Stromness it was.

I had to get to Duncansby Head between 12:00 and 12:15 to make the leap across the Firth at slack water. Leaving at 9:30am they thought I should have plenty of time and I had much advice as to how best to navigate to Duncansby Head.

But it meant going against the tide to start with and, with no wind, I was motoring and making agonisingly slow progress. This was nerve wracking as if I got there late, I'd just have to turn tail and come all the way back again. Just before I was giving up all hope, there came a tiny bit of wind (ahead of me) but was enough, with full sails, to eek out another 1/2 a knot while at the same time the tide came my way. I had the engine going at full throttle and was willing the boat to get there. Soon I reached 7 knots and I calculated that, yes, I would make it! Maybe a little early even so I throttled back a tad.

Then suddenly, the tide changed again and I was back down to 3 or 4 knots. Disaster. I thought about what the Harbour Master had said and I guessed I was too far out and that nearer in I would get more of a favourable tidal "backwash". I spent some precious minutes heading more into shore to see if that was the case. I think it must have been as I picked up a bit more speed - enough to get me to the head by 12:10. Phew, that was the most tense 2 hour motoring I've ever had!

Still with full throttle I then headed directly North and crossed the dreaded Firth. An hour or two earlier or later and I would be swept away into oblivion!

At slack water and with practically no wind, the firth was calm and I got across in an hour with no drama. Very relieved!

I still had to navigate carefully through the Islands into Scapa Flow and onward into Stromness. Once tied up I punched the air with relief and satisfaction at having crossed this fearsome place.

I was now at my most northerly. From now on it's South!


I tense and nerve-wracking all-motor passage crossing the Pentland Firth. 37 miles covered in 7 hours.

Passage 17, Stromness to Scrabster