Sunday, 27 June 2010

Heading west

We left Edinburgh a week ago on Wednesday evening, bound for Inverness. We had a lovely sail out of the Forth, with a cool send-off from another club boat who crossed our path an hour or so out to say bon voyage. Wind died out around North Berwick and we motored on up the coast through the night and the next day, which was hot and sunny, almost Mediterranean conditions. After a patch of fog we passed Peterhead about 2100 on Thursday, still motoring, hardly a breath. We had set off early in the hope of avoiding some heavy and unfavourable weather and things were looking good.

We passed out of the heavy shipping area and I went down for some kip as we neared Rattray Head. I woke up again as the vessel began plunging into heavy seas and found a very different scene had developed rapidly, with a stiff and rising northwesterly blowing against the strong tidal current at Rattray Head. The forecast was for worse to come and there are no harbours along that Moray coast that can be safely entered with onshore winds so it only took a few minutes to decide that we had to turn back and run for Peterhead. So we turned the ship around and high-tailed it, now with the 3 knots of current against us. It was 0100 by the time we made our way inside the great breakwaters at Peterhead and by this time the wind was howling there as well. The marina there is a harbour within a harbour and is very well protected. Although the wind whistles right through, no swell finds its way in.

We slept late Friday, then sat it out below decks while the gale howled above. Come Saturday the wind was still roaring and it was cold with it so we opted to hop on a bus back to Edinburgh. On leaving Peterhead, I had on a t-shirt, jumper, fleece and windproof. By the time we got off the bus in Edinburgh, I was down to the t-shirt. Leaving the boat in Peterhead would have given our schedule a severe knock and there would be no guarantee the weather would be any more suitable for Rattray Head the next weekend. The forecast was very good for midweek though, so I decided to take the week off and, solo or with another crew (as Sonja couldn't take the time off), complete the passage to Inverness.

At the harbour on Sunday, we bumped into one of the newer members of the club, a young teacher who happened to be out of a job for the moment - the ideal candidate! He was amenable, so the two of us set off by bus for Peterhead on Monday lunchtime. All was calm on arrival at Peterhead and we set our departure for 0900 Tuesday morning. Imagine my disgust at waking to thick fog! Visibility half a mile or less. I was determined to push on and thanks to GPS + radar the fog could be coped with, even if it doesn't make for pleasant conditions. Another boat, from the Royal Tay Yacht Club, hoping to make the same passage tagged along with us as they didn't have the benefit of a radar set.

Off we went and motored on through the pretty much flat calm and zero visibility. The next four hours motoring through the fog were uneventful. I saw a few ships on the radar but nothing passed us closer than a mile off and of course we saw nothing at all save the Royal Tay boat keeping station with us. Things picked up once we rounded the corner and made our way into the Moray Firth, with a little breeze springing up behind us and the fog finally clearing. The engine was silenced and we managed about 3 hours' sailing before the wind packed in again and we motored the final hour or so into Whitehills. Very nice wee harbour and village, great stop.

Whitehills marina (photo: K Maclachlan)

Whitehills (photo: K Maclachlan)

Fun visit on board from the harbour cat, who made a very thorough inspection of the boat before settling on my lap. The next morning the harbour master said the cat was his intelligence agent, and had been checking us out.

'Intelligence' visit from a Pinkerton doppelgaenger who thoroughly inspected the boat.

Harbour cat enjoying some stroking (photo: K Maclachlan)

That day, Wednesday, dawned fair but unfortunately windless and we motored out of the harbour at 0845 onto a glassy sea where we spotted a couple of dolphins cruising past apparently after their breakfast. It was a leisurely motor as far as Lossiemouth (25 nautical miles, 5 hours), with plenty cups of tea and a nice lunch followed by coffee and a couple squares of chocolate. Keil (my crew) had just finished the washing up after lunch when a lovely sailing breeze of 12 knots filled in - on the nose. Even though the wind was coming from exactly where we wanted to go it was too much to resist after all the motoring so we upped sails and downed engine and sailed on joyfully, just not directly towards our destination.

I already knew at that point that we wouldn't be likely to make the Inverness Firth that day as originally intended, but the question remained how close we could get and where we would end up. There are a couple of points on the approach to Inverness where you have to get the tide right - the Chanonry and Kessock Narrows - and I had already worked out the tide times for the next day and a half but as the wind continued to freshen I took a closer look at the chart for potential bolt holes around the Moray Firth where we could tuck into if things started getting out of hand. The options are limited but sufficient and I had several possibilities in mind as we bashed on through the afternoon and into the evening, slowly ticking off the miles to windward and edging ever closer to Inverness. The skipper of another yacht that we met later in Inverness told me he'd recorded wind speeds up to 43 kts in the Firth that afternoon, but that must have been an exceptional gust. Nevertheless, it was fairly brisk.

The Moray Firth (photo: K Maclachlan)

I settled on the Cromarty Firth as our best bet to get out of the weather, get some sleep and have a good start on our push for Inverness the next morning. We whizzed in between the high headlands bracketing that remote, beautiful, sheltered and strangely industrial spot at about 2200. By 2300 we were anchored comfortably off the village of Cromarty and heating a tin of Irish stew for a late dinner with a couple slices of crisp bread. We turned in at midnight and I slept until 0300 when a shift in the wind and/or tide woke me and I looked up on deck to see all was well. It was already quite light and after looking things over I slid back into my bunk but couldn't really sleep any more for thinking of the forecast which indicated strong westerlies coming in that afternoon. I rested until 0400 and then started preparing to get under way again.

My bustling around the boat woke the crew at about 0430 and a somewhat hollow-eyed (not that I looked any better, I'm sure) Keil joined me in time to get the boat moving again at 0445. We were surrounded by feeding dolphins at the mouth of the Cromarty as we raised the mainsail (purely for stability) and motored on into the 12-16 kt headwind. No beating (tacking to windward) this time. Tide, time and the presence of the hazardous Riff Bank in the increasingly confined waters at the pointy end of the Firth mitigated against it.

We plugged on manfully, caught the tide and finally shot under the Kessock Bridge and up to the entrance of the Caledonian Canal at 0900. As always, there were numerous spots along the way which would have merited further investigation - given the time! It was a pair of tired and happy mariners who tied up at Seaport Marina in Inverness an hour or so later. We stowed ship, went ashore for showers and then off to the Clachnaharry Inn for an excellent lunch washed down with a couple of excellent pints.
Keil caught the bus back to Edinburgh and I tidied, aired the boat and slept while waiting for Sonja and Martin to arrive that evening for the journey through the Caledonian Canal.

Clachnaharry Sea Loch (photo: K Maclachlan)

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