Passage 17, Stromness to Scrabster

This passage has had it’s fair share of issues and experiences. It is a distance of some 15 miles, yet it has taken me 5 elapsed days, 16 hours at sea and 71 miles covered. I never had a plan to go to Scrabster but that is where I have ended up, but it is a small advance on my overall journey!

So this passage note tells the whole story in sections:

Attempted passage from Stromness to Loch Bervie on the west coast

This comedy of mishaps is described in another blog, but to summarise, I set out in the early hours (4:45am) on the 19th May, the day after arriving, to make a break through Hoy Mouth as the tide slackened. I experienced two failures in quick succession (engine overheat and port rudder loose). I turned and sailed back onto my pontoon and 2 hours later was tied back up. An abortive effort. The up side was that I saw two Orca (killer) whales that were at least as large as my boat. Their dorsal fins were huge (2 meters I reckon) and they are shiny, smooth and jet black. Beautiful.

I had left after another boat had left for the same passage and he went too early and experienced very rough conditions. As it turned out that day was foul and windy and the 70 mile passage would have been extremely unsavoury, I was relieved not to have gone.

My time in the Orkneys

Day 1: After my failed attempt to leave I spent the morning fixing the rudder. Then went on a grand tour of archaeological sites on the west Orkney mainland on my bike. I saw ancient burial sites, big stones sticking out of the ground and an ancient stone little village (Scara Brae) all built/occupied around 3000BC. All very spectacular and you can look up the details of these sites for yourself. I took lots of photos for my Orkneys Photo Album. It was cloudy, windy and not spectacularly hot but at least no rain. 22 miles on the bike.

Day 2: Miserable day - wet, windy and cold. I stayed in the boat for most of the time fixing stuff up and, in particular, fixing my engine. I had found a brilliant local engineering firm and a highly affable engineer named Ralph (who ran said firm with a partner). Not only did Ralph order/supply the parts I needed but he also visited the boat several times to either deliver me stuff or test stuff on the engine. By the end of the day I had replaced the water pump impeller, changed the oil and filter, replaced the fan belt and thoroughly checked that the engine was now working without any problems. I even ran it under load for 1.5 hours to check all was well. I felt confident the engine was good to go (little did I know…)

Day 3: Busy day. In the morning I replaced the link on the starboard rudder (the same as the one that broke on the port rudder). Just as well, having gotten the old one out it too was cracked and ready for breaking. It is to my continued amazement that Beneteau saw fit to rely on a piece of rubberised plastic to link the rudders to the tiller. You’d think that for something so critical it would be metal. But no. Plastic. The plastic link has broken once before, a few years back and I had put it down to a one-off faulty link. Now I know better. They have a shelf life and I must include their replacement as a regular maintenance job. Replacing these was not easy. 7 hours work in total. The whole tiller/rudder assembly has to be dismantled.

The afternoon was spent walking/cycling on Hoy island. I caught a ferry at noon, cycled 6 miles and then walked 3.5 miles to the Old Man Of Hoy which is a HUGE rock stack which you’ve no doubt heard of. It was so windy up there that I had to crawl on my hands and knees to the cliff edge to a get a view (and a picture) of the complete stack. The first return ferry was at 4:30 and the ferryman said I’d find it difficult to do the round trip by then and that I should plan on catching the 6:30 ferry back. The bumf says to allow 3 hours just for the walk to the Old Man Of Hoy and back. Well, I did the ride and the walk in 2.5 hours and was back by 3:30 twiddling my thumbs for the 4:30 ferry. They always state ridiculously long turnaround times for these things to cater for toddlers and octogenarians alike. I did shift it, mind, though cycling against a F7 wind does somewhat take the edge off a downhill run. I hardly had to pedal to ascend same hill on the way back!

I now had a plan to leave Stromness at 1:00am the next day (Saturday, 23rd May) so I needed some sleep fast. But there were so many preparation jobs to do (refuel, rewater, discuss with Harbour Master, get provisions, eat (fish and chips) ,fix a work issue, do laundry etc) that I was only done by 10pm and so I got straight to bed and managed 2 hours sleep. Very busy day.

Attempted Passage from Stromness Lock Eriboll

Over the last 3 days I had been scouring the weather forecasts and tides to catch any opportunity to get going as soon as possible. And this passage was my only window. The boat was all fixed up and fully provisioned ready for a number of expected nights at anchor. Excited to enter a new phase of the venture.

I was off at the appointed hour and the exit through Hoy mouth went according to expectations. Being night time, I couldn’t really see much but I knew there was a big swell in the sea (4m waves). Swells are fine. It’s when they get choppy when it turns nasty. The wind had also reduced as expected but was strong enough to power me out of the Hoy mouth and onward across and along the north coast of Scotland. It was cold. Very cold. When is this coldness going to end? By the time light came I was half way over to the coast and I could fully appreciate the substantial waves I was sailing through. After 6 hours I turned to sail along the coast but the wind was dying and staying persistently westerly (it was due to go southerly) and so on went the motor.


I still had the tide with me so I was motoring with good speed for 2 hours. Half an hour of which I was joined by a group (school, pod?) of dolphins! It was incredible. There were 8 or 9 of them (one a toddler) and they were so obviously playing and enjoying themselves. Sometimes they would jump clean out of the water. Many times they swam and popped up so close to the boat I was worried they’d hit me and get hurt. I’m sure they knew what they were doing. They’d bounce around very close to my sides and bow putting on a wonderful show. They had white/grey tummies and you could see them turn upside down under the water too. Then, as suddenly as they appeared, they disappeared and never returned. It was a joyous 30 minutes.

Lifeboat called out!

Then the engine started squealing. I rushed down to turn it off. By now there was no wind and so I drifted. Now I was familiar with the squeal as it is what the fan belt announces when it is slipping. Solution: tighten the fan belt. Out with the tools, tighten it up. Restart engine in full confidence this quick fix would do it. Squeal! Hmm, not so easy. Ok, time to tell the coast guard I have an issue but that I expect to fix with a little more effort. Maybe I need to change the fan belt (again) or tighten it even more. I tried several combinations but the squealing would not go away. More chats with Coast guard.

My situation was not looking healthy. I was becalmed and had no engine so I was effectively unable to move.The tide would soon start to carry me back and possibly into the shore. Also a nasty weather front (which I would have avoided) was coming my way. I studied the engine yet again to try and understand what was going on and discovered something. The fan belt was slipping not because it was too loose but because one of the axels it was supposed to be turning was stuck solid. This was altogether a different matter and I immediately knew that I could not fix this. Some bearing had obviously failed.

So no wind, no motor and the tide was drifting me toward a rocky head where I could well end up. I could not anchor as it was too deep, though I could once I’d drifted into shallower waters. But then I’d be anchored off an exposed shore in soon-to-be windy conditions and with no prospect of getting help to fix the engine. The coastguard had previously confirmed that wind was probably many hours away.

This is a situation that now deserves help. Back to the coast guard to say that I am now in need assistance. They called the lifeboat and it came about an hour later from Scrabster to tow me back.

It is fair to say that I could have managed without the tow. Simply wait for the wind and, while waiting, if I get to within anchoring depth then anchor. Once the wind comes, sail to somewhere - probably Scrabster - and anchor off in the bay. But I wasn’t going to push it. The Coast guard/RNLI would be quite happy to get me at this juncture.

Meanwhile my wife had been watching my “See where I am page” and was getting highly distraught seeing my boat appear to jig about aimlessly in one spot. Eventually she called the coastguard in a state of significant distress. I’d been so busy trying to get things working and talking with the coastguard that it had not occurred to me that people might be watching and therefore wondering what was going on. Too much information can be a bad thing. It was quite understandable that my family was getting worried but I will now stress that whatever pattern the blue line makes it is for a reason and within a situation in which I have full control. I cannot have this blue line mean anything more that simply indicating (with less than certain accuracy) where the boat is. Otherwise it becomes a worry line.

Anyway, the lifeboat came, they threw me a line and I attached the towing bridle and off we went. Three hours of undoing all my lovely passage progress, going back and revisiting all the headlands I had passed. By 3:30pm we were in Scrabster and I was dumped at a pontoon. Naturally I thanked each and every person (5 in all) on the lifeboat (it was a large class B vessel) and had a good chat with them all. I also got a tour of the boat (of course!). They had 12 seats up top and 12 seats down below. It was big and beefy. Fun.


Abortive effort to skip the whole North coast on day 1 from Stromness resulted in a wait of 3 days for the right weather to make another attempt to leave. That attempt, more modest in its intentions to reach Loch Eriboll on the north coast resulted in being towed back to Scrabster by a lifeboat due to engine failure. The meantime was spend sight-seeing the Orkneys (lots of cycling/walking) and fixing/preparing boat.

Lessons learnt

Don’t be swayed by what others are doing. Morris set out too early for Loch Bervie and paid the price. Though I held my own on this point by leaving later, I was influenced to do the 70 mile passage because he was doing it. My capabilities/limits are not the same as others and I must judge my passages on what I want/can do and not on what other people are prepared to do.

I had always diagnosed previous squeals from the fan belt as a need to tighten it up (which always fixed the problem). I should have been more curious as to why this was happening regularly because I now suspect that the pump bearings have been on the out for a while and was getting harder and harder for the belt to turn it. Tightening the fan belt simply forced more pressure to turn the axle.

Inform family and friends that the pattern, presence or absence of the blue line on my “See where I am page” must not be used as an indicator of trouble and hence worry. I may have issues but they are just that, I work through them and resolve them.

Passage 18, Scrabster to Loch Ewe