Welcome to the Maunie of Ardwall blog

This is the blog of Maunie of Ardwall. After a six-year adventure sailing from Dartmouth to Australia, we are now back in Britain.

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Westray, Stronsay, meeting another Vancouver and waiting for weather (again).

Our final day on Westray was still relentlessly windy but, once the overnight fog (known as haar in these parts) had cleared, we had bright sunshine – perfect for a long hike up to the NE corner of the island to bag another lighthouse. But first we called in at Hume Sweet Hume, a successful designer knitwear business where we chatted to the owner and then enjoyed a delicious pizza lunch at the new café, Saintear. Noup Head light, another Stephenson design, is perched precariously close to a sheer cliff face that is home to thousands of nesting seabirds.

Lighthouse facts – the tower is 24m high but the light is 79m above sea level, Built in 1898, it was the first light in Scotland to use the concept of floating the rotating lens on a bath of mercury. It was automated in 1964 and the lighthouse keepers’ cottages were demolished shortly afterwards.

Di giving Graham palpitations - it looks as though she's a lot closer to the edge than she was!

During our island hikes we also came across this little stone-built structure on the edge of one of the beaches.

At first we assumed that it was very old but it appears to have been constructed recently with an excellent purpose:

Inside there's a bbq basket and even a bag of kindling!

The SE winds were forecast to continue for several days and the outlook for Sunday night was for them to increase to Force 6-7. The otherwise excellent little harbour and marina in Pierowell was open to wind-driven waves from that direction so we decided to get out while we could and sail the 23 miles over to Stronsay. Of course, the wind was on our nose, so we tacked (zig-zagging toward our destination) the whole way and it was a reasonably challenging sail, with some fierce tides to contend with at the end.

The red track was our route into Westray, the black track is the passage to Stronsay

Whitehall harbour is well sheltered in SE winds

The departure turned out to be a good decision because we found perfect shelter in Whitehall Harbour, alongside the substantial stone pier. Amazingly, we found that a boat already there was another Vancouver. Maude is a Vancouver 34, built the same year as Maunie, and owned by Adele and Martin whom we’d met last year at the owners’ association annual dinner in Bristol! With a much-needed easing of the wind the following day, we were able to fly the drone to get some photos of the two boats together.

The evening after Maude left (for Kirkwall – they are heading the way we came, towards the Outer Hebrides), the wind calmed completely for a few hours to give us a wonderful sunset.

A calm sunset, before the next batch of wind

Stronsay is an interesting island – it’s very flat (the highest point is only 43m above sea level) so wind is a pretty constant feature. The land is obviously very fertile, so beef and sheep farming are the main activities here. The sleepy little village of Whitehall has a small shop, a café and a hotel. The hotel was bought by the community in May but is struggling to get going, (familiar challenges of staffing and skills availability) so hasn’t been open while we’ve been here.

 Only the larger-than-average stone houses on the waterfront hint at the island’s previous prosperity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries this was the epicentre of Orkney’s thriving herring fishing industry. When the herring season came each year, the island would have over 4000 people working on landing, gutting and salting the ‘silver darlings’ which were packed into barrels and shipped all around Europe. 

A ship loaded with barrels of Stronsay herring, c 1924

Whitehall village, at its peak, had 40 pubs and the old Stronsay Hotel boasted the longest bar north of Inverness! The boom collapsed in the 1930’s as over-fishing destroyed the once-huge stocks of fish and, with it, Stronsay’s prosperity came to an end.

Today the island is home to only about 320 people and Whitehall has a slightly dejected feel about it. However, there’s obviously a lot of effort being put in to keep the place alive and funding has been sought to try to widen its appeal to visitors (though we suspect some residents aren’t that keen on encouraging incomers!). We were amazed to find that there are four excellent electric bikes available to borrow, free of charge, so yesterday we took two of them to go and explore. We were very thankful of the battery assistance as the brisk SE’ly wind had returned with a vengeance and were able to see some of the superb coastline features.

The amazing arch at the Vat of Kirbister 

Nesting Kittiwakes

We’ll be here for one more day. The wind is forecast to ease a little tomorrow, so we’ll sail east and south down to the Churchill Barriers on South Ronaldsay, ready to cross the Pentland Firth on Friday. Spot-on tidal planning will be vital for the 30 mile passage to Wick as the Pentland Firth is probably the most tidal stretch of water in Britain, with currents running at up to 12 knots if you cross it at spring tide. We will, naturally, be crossing at spring tide so our traverse of the 6-mile-wide scary bit will be timed to coincide with the least current. We’ll let you know how it goes!


Saturday, 25 June 2022

Weaving between the islands in Orkney


With the strong winds finally abated, we could leave Stromness and head out to explore some of the other islands in the archipelago - and there are plenty to choose from!

Our first target was the capital of Orkney, Kirkwall which is just 17 miles from Stomness by road but considerably longer by sea. We'd chatted to some locals who all cautioned against 'doing a west-about' - leaving the way we came, out of Hoy Mouth and northwards up the western side of the island that's called, slightly confusingly, Mainland. Apparently, after a few days of strong westerlies, the sea state would be very uncomfortable. Instead, we planned an 'east-about', sailing down through Scapa Flow and out around Lother Rock at the southern tip of South Ronaldsay. 

Once again, the pesky tides needed to he given a good looking at and we decided that the timing of leaving Stromness on a favourable tide and passing Lother Rock at slack water (rather than at 6 knot of tide that runs there at the wrong moments) would be tricky. Instead, we'd make an overnight stop at Longhope thereby converting a 17 mile road trip into a two-day voyage - it's a good job we aren't in a hurry. 

The sail to Longhope was interesting in that we passed through Gutter Sound, a place where 103 years before, to the very day, the interned German naval fleet of 34 destroyers and 5 battleships, were scuttled by their crews. With protracted negotiations between the Allies still going on, the Germans feared that at least some of their ships would be given to the French so decided that sinking them would be a better course of action!

Brisk winds and rain prevented us from dinghying ashore at Longhope, unfortunately, which was a shame as the 19th Century Martello tower and the WW2 defence battery looked like interesting places to visit. However, the following morning we had perfect conditions for rounding South Ronaldsay and then took a two-hour break to wait for tide in East Weddel Sound.

The excellent anchorage lies just to the east on one of the Churchill Barriers, built (largely by Italian POWs) to block access to the east side of Scapa Flow after a daring night time raid by a U-boat in 1939 succeeded in sneaking past block-ships sunk in the sounds. U47 scraped through, after being briefly snagged on cables strung between the blockships, and torpedoed the battleship HMS Royal Oak as she slept at anchor. The mighty ship's ammunition hold exploded and the ship capsized in only 15 minutes with the loss of over 800 of her crew.

The little island to the north of us, Lamb Holm, is where the Italian POW's built the famous Italian Church, using two Nissen huts and some very clever concrete work and amazing artwork.

Moving onto Kirkwall, we had another couple of days of windy weather (this is definitely a theme!) and, while it was great to be able to use a laundrette, shop at a large Tesco and eat at a good Italian restaurant, we were surprised at how neither of us really liked the place. Just too many people, especially when the flags were rigged:

The flags, of course, were there to welcome the thousands of passengers on the cruise ship Costa Fortuna (really!) who poured into the town to fill the cafes and tourist shops. We certainly can't blame the Orcadians for wanting to attract cruise liners - and they will have over 150 of them calling in this year between May and September - and the jewellery and art shops that line the streets do great business from them but we were glad to leave!

Finally, we had a lovely day for sailing! Blue sky and a favourable wind allowed us to fly the Parasailor for the three hour passage up to Pierowall in Westray.

It was another passage that required careful tide planning as it took us through narrow sounds between islands and past a huge new tidal energy turbine but we were delighted to find space in the tiny Westray Marina.

The 17-berth pontoon sits in the little fishing harbour across the bay from the village and we had a great hike out to the coastline to the north-west

A fine selection of anchors

The calm marina on the first evening

The beach walk got us both trying some arty photos:

'Where did he go?' by Graham

'Swirling sea' by Graham

'Beached' by Dianne

'Tangles' by Dianne

Unfortunately the weather is playing with us again! First of all dense fog, which prevented us from leaving this morning, and now a Force 5-6 wind.

A foggy start this morning

The Westray harbour

The good news is that the wind has now blown the fog away and we have sunshine! Time for more hiking!

Sunday, 19 June 2022

To the Mainland - and a bumpy arrival in Orkney


Tidal race in Orkney

Two nights of anchorages on the mainland were a brief interlude between our island explorations of Lewis and Orkney. Not that the mainland stop-overs delivered any kind of facilities or civilisation - there's not a lot of that kind of thing around the north-west tip of Scotland!

The first anchorage was in Loch Laxford, a remote spot that's famous for being the base of John Ridgway's adventure training centre.

Our track into the anchorage

The Ridgway Adventure centre at Ardmore. The famous Bowman ketch English Rose VI is on the bank.

One of the reasons we were keen to visit Loch Laxford was that it was here that our friends Colin and Ana first met as instructors at the centre. Colin went on to work on English Rose VI to prepare her for the 1977-78 Whitbread Round the World Race. He was asked to join the crew on the yacht, which was branded as Debenhams for the race and was featured in an ITV documentary called Round the World with Ridgway. Colin probably isn't going to thank us for having found a YouTube version of the film, but it's here and we enjoyed him looking totally unenthusiastic during John Ridgway's safety briefing at 6 minutes, 20 seconds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNlDKlUjl3U

From Loch Laxford, our next challenge was the rounding of Cape Wrath and the north west tip of the mainland. In the event, we had good wind and sea conditions and then a lively sail along the north coast.

Goose-winged towards Cape Wrath

Rounding the Cape and looking east

We decided to enjoy a stopover in Loch Eriboll rather than making the longer passage to Orkney in one go, and we liked the look of a little natural harbour called Rispond Bay. When the sun peeked out briefly that evening, it was absolutely beautiful and Di was delighted to, at last, spot a sea otter scampering along the rocks next to us.

Clear water and a sandy bottom, though the various moorings and lobster pots prevented us from anchoring closer in.

There's a drying arm of the bay with a small stone quay used by local fishermen

Dramatic skies

The early-morning departure (not quite early enough, it would transpire) for Orkney gave us enough wind to sail for an hour before the breeze fizzled out and we had to motor. We had great views of a sea stack on the eastern side of Loch Eriboll and of the famous Old Man of Hoy as we approached Orkney.

Old Man of Hoy

Even in calm weather the relentless swell pounding the cliffs creates a mini haze along the waterline

The cliffs are important seabird nesting sites

Our entry into the Orkney islands was via Hoy Mouth where tides run fast, creating standing waves (where the wavy patterns are shown in the photo below) and, in strong onshore winds, it can be a very dangerous place to be at the wrong stage of tide.

Unfortunately for us, the light winds and slower than expected east-going current on the crossing meant that we arrived about 30 minutes later than planned. The ebb tide had already just begun and we had to motor very hard to get in through the narrows before it reached its full 8 knot flow (which would have been faster than we can motor!) and the tidal waves developed. We were very pleased to get into the tidy little marina in Stromness and the anchor beer tasted especially good! It was a useful if salutary lesson on the power of Orkney tidal streams - it's no wonder that the place is 
now the UK centre for tidal electricity generation!

Stromness Marina

Had there been any wind, the conditions in Hoy Mouth would have been very uncomfortable. The following day, with the beginning of near-gale conditions (oh, yes, again!) we walked out to look across the entrance, just as the ferry from Scrabster arrived.

The powerful ferry doing about 18 knots against the 7 knot ebb tide

Standing waves developing in the narrows

As the ebb current develops, the whole sound is a mass of white water

The RNLI lifeboat launched as we watched

We are getting to know the little town of Stromness pretty well as, once again, we are gale-bound. 

Yesterday's conditions

We have good shelter in the marina but the wind and rain whistling through the rigging is a bit wearing. Graham has inducted several unoccupied yachts into The Dishonourable Fellowship of the Hairy String - tying flapping, tinging ropes away from their metal masts where the wind was causing a cacophonous ringing that drives you mad. He uses the grottiest bits of string or rope available and uses lots of difficult-to-undo knots, just to make the point!

The town itself has some interesting buildings, an unusual flag-stoned road that snakes between them and some fascinating glimpses of historic events of significance.

A traditional Orkney Yole at acnhor

Limited views and no on-street parking

Michael Palin has written a fascinating book called Eribus that charts the story of the Franklin expedition; thoroughly recommended,

The wind is forecast to drop tonight (at last!) but the sea-state in Hoy Mouth will remain unpleasant for a couple of days, according to the locals, so we plan to do an 'east-about', as they are known here. This will involve sailing out through the southern entrance of Scapa Flow and then up the east coast of South Ronaldsay and around to the main port of Kirkwall (the excellent Highland Park distillery has to be visited again!); if conditions allow, we'll then sail north up to the island of Westray. 

Finally, we have been hearing how trying the heatwave conditions have been back home. By contrast, Dianne is wearing the latest Orkney summer fashion: