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Orkney and the Fair Isle

I had been working for NHS Orkney since July 2006 on a temporary contract and staying in rented accommodation, so it made sense that when we brought Red Ruth to Kirkwall I should live aboard. Orkney offers some wonderful sailing opportunities with challenging tides up to 16kts in the Pentland Firth on the maximum spring tides. It can also offer some challenging weather. So the prospects looked good.

Our first long trip was a return passage from Kirkwall to Cromarty, about 100nms each way. Lorraine came up for a holiday and to make the return on Red Ruth, I suspect that she came to regret the decision!
We set off in late July in mist and with a persistent SE wind, which rarely dropped below 20kts and short steep chop. Once out of the String, for some reason I started to be seasick which persisted for the next 10 hours during which Lorraine had to master the helm.
By Tarbet Ness lighthouse she was so tired I had to take over and brought Red Ruth into Cromarty at 0200 hours. Its surprising how difficult it is to find and pick up a swing mooring in the dark! The return trip was flat calm and uneventful.
Our next significant trip was in September when Allan decided to accompany us from Kirkwall to Lerwick. Unfortunately the weather in that part of the world often intervenes, and with winds predicted to be 50kts off Sumburgh head we changed plans to go as far as Fair Isles.
So the first day was Kirkwall to Pierowall (we knew from past experience that the Pierowall Hotel has the best fish and chips in the UK, bar none), about 40nms. We departed Kirkwall on the ebb tide in mist and light winds.  Passing Shapinsay John and Sandra Rodwell waved at us with a white sheet, but we were unable to see them with the mist.
As we passed Eday to starboard the wind started to pick up from the SE and by the time we entered the sound of Faray we were at full speed with no reef, heading rapidly to Pierowall along the north coast of Westray.
Once in Pierowall we tied up on the pontoon, and not long after Catherine J was also tied up. Catherine J is an Elan 434, chartered on this occasion by the Phat Buoys, a group of 8 men.
We got into discussion with about plans and found we were all heading for Fair Isle, and of course 2 boats heading in the same direction is a race!
However, we decided to catch the tide at about 0600, but the Phat Buoys felt this was too early.
Dinner at the Pierowall Hotel was as good as expected.
As we left the harbour at 0630 the next morning we looked back and to our surprise we saw Catherine J departing about 20 minutes behind us, the race was on.
Our course was to take us around the south point of the island and with a stiff SE wind it became quite choppy as we went through the roost, whilst Lorraine was anxious we were too close to the rocks. As we came round and approached the narrow entrance to North Haven we saw Catherine J round the north point of the island, a good 30 minutes behind us.  I wouldn’t want to try to access North Haven in a NE wind but once in its well protected, although a little worrying is the ramp for hauling out the local ferry (the Good Shepherd) in foul weather.
No such problems for us as we tied up along side the new harbour wall, soon after Catherine J tied up in front of us. Once they had settled down it appeared that a number of the crew had been seasick and they had almost been knocked down twice. Proving again that whilst the Rustler may not be the fastest it certainly handles heavy weather far better and gets there sooner.
Lorraine and Allan decided to look for Fair Isle sweaters to no avail, whilst I looked at the bird observatory. This has now been replaced with a new building and provides facilities for visiting boats and crew.  The next day catching the tide we headed south past both the old and new lighthouses on North Ronaldsay heading into the Sound of Eday. A small finch like bird hitch-hiked a lift with us and after a number of attempts eventually made landfall. As we passed through the Sound the tide changed against us. We stood still for a few minutes even with the engine at full revs. Finally overcoming the tide we motored towards Whitehall on Stronsay. Radioing ahead to the harbour master brought no response. However as we passed the local vehicle ferry, the skipper shouted from the bridge that the harbour master was now trying to respond to us on channel 16. As we responded we were reprimanded by the Scapa VTS about using channel 16 for routine traffic.
The harbour master helped us tie up along side on the east side of the ferry pier. Refreshments at the end of pier hotel was most welcome. We also were given a very large round fender by the harbour master left behind by a previous visiting yacht, we still have it and its proven its worth.
The next day dawned clear, bright and wind free, so we decided to make passage along the east coast of Stronsay and rounding Auskerry into the Sound of Shapinsay. Once out of the lea of the land we came into the teeth of a F6 SE wind which proved hard work until we rounded Lamb Head and once round Auskerry we had a broad reach into and through the Sound of Shapinsay. It was exhilarating, finally tying up after 5 days in Kirkwall.
As the autumn progressed the weather deteriorated. Not good as I found out. The wind prevailed from the west and there is no protection in the marina. On two occasions I couldn’t get on board Red Ruth as she was blown off the pontoon despite extra mooring lines. Indeed I woke one morning to find that 2 new 20mm multiplait nylon mooring lines with compensators had torn apart!
That made up my mind to move Red Ruth to a more secure marina. By then there appeared to be a weather window during the Christmas week. So I organised crew and drew up the passage plan. As usual it didn’t go to plan and the crew called off, but if I was to get Red Ruth to the new Inverness marina I still had to go as planned, but single handed.
At 1145 on the 23rd of December 2008, I departed the marina with John and Sandra releasing the lines and waving me off. Sandra looked concerned, maybe she knew something I didn’t.
Out in the bay the wind was as predicted a F4 from the SW, and up went the main sail and then out came the yankee. I had a good broad reach through the String and out into Shapinsay Sound, using the tide to full benefit. However, the wind was building and by the time I was 5 miles off Copinsay the wind was up to 30kts still from the SW, with a 3-4 metre sea. Should I turn back or continue and hope that the weather forecast would come right?  It was proving hard work to control Red Ruth but I felt confident in her ability to cope with the weather. So I continued south.
I crossed the Pentland Firth a good 10 miles off the Skerries to avoid the tides and fishing pots. By 2000 hours I was off of Wick and the wind had died to just a faint zephyr. Motor on. Thereafter it was 20 minutes sleep every hour, then an hourly plot on the paper chart, a visual and radar chart, a quick bite to eat and then back to sleep. At 0900 on the 24th on a bright windfree and sharp morning I was tied up on a finger pontoon in Inverness marina, Lorraine had watched me coming in under the Kessock Bridge and helped me tie up. Red Ruth was to stay there until August 2010.
In July 2010 the Invergordon Boat Club held its annual Moray Firth Cruiser Race from Findhorn to Cromarty. I entered Red Ruth and she was given a handicap and entered into the fast cruiser section. Once again crewing proved to be difficult and eventually it came down to myself and a friend, Graham Sutherland. We had to be at the start line for 1200 hours, which meant leaving Inverness at 0800 for the 26nm trip.
The morning started grey and damp with a NE wind. By the time we rounded Chanonry Point the wind was up to 25kts and there was a short sharp chop. Both of us took stock, even Graham was feeling the effects of mal de mare. We decided to continue to Cromarty Bank Buoy and review. By then the sea state had settled to something more comfortable so we pressed on.
Eventually we arrived at the start line by 1115 hours and there was a restricted fleet, many having decided not to come out or had turned back. Even with a reefed main and no foresail we were making 4.5kts. We heard the 5 minute horn but could not see the committee boat as they had forgotten to bring the flag, they were disappearing below the wave peaks!
As usual we started at the back of the fleet, it helps to avoid collisions, but nearly ran down the committee boat. We soon overhauled the fleet and using the waypoints in the chart plotter made the first mark downwind, came round it to starboard onto a beam reach, pulling further away outstripping even the Topper Bull which reportedly had a top speed of 18kts. On to the next mark and then a beat up to the next mark and finally taking it to starboard onto a broad reach between the Sutors and then across the line finishing at 1500 hours and covering about 23 nms. Hard work but a great thrill.
Even more thrilling to find that we were first in class picking up the Commodore’s Cup. The first Cromarty boat to do so, done in style and with just the 2 of us on board. A real achievement and yet another demonstration of the Rustler pedigree. Apparently we had upset some of the other skippers who had expected to win by right!
The next trip was to be the passage to Falmouth and the real start to our dream.


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