The Journey Begins
September 16th, 2011 - Back home
It has been six days since Lisa picked me up from SEATAC - Seattle Tacoma airport - and I am slowly making the transition from sea traveler to land dweller - limiting my visiting time with friends and others so as not to get overwhelmed with all the changes that are part of coming home from a long trip.
What struck me so immediately as Lisa and I walked around our house the morning after we got home was the density of bushes, flowers, grasses and trees - big trees. Sometime it takes going away to really see what is in your own backyard - or front yard as it was. Northern Scotland is a land of winds and, at times, really harsh growing conditions hence the almost total lack of trees or shrubs. Coming home to the smells of the woods and the autumn dry grasses in our little meadow was lovely - smells that I had completely forgotten about for the last three months.
For the last two days, I have been chain sawing a big maple tree that had to be taken down for fear of it crashing into our home during the winter winds that have reached 60 mph at times. Running a chain saw and pulling the logs out with a tractor are so different than pulling on the oars of an ocean rowing boat….. Which is the real Chris and what world do I really inhabit? It feels very odd - and at the same time, very good - to suddenly be back in my pre-trip world. Someone asked what it feels like… It feels safe, easy, predictable and good - and quite complicated. The singular focus of tide, wind and current have been replaced with lining up jobs, driving a van at 50 mph, answering the phone - for that matter just hearing the phone ring - and hearing myself talk so much more than while I was on the trip. The silence has been replaced by the chatter of a busy society - everyone coming and going at a pace that seems, at times, noisy and hurried.
It will take weeks, maybe longer, for me to fully integrate back into my "other life". And that's fine. I want to transition slowly so I don't forget how precious the time of this journey is. A part of me is still over in Scotland - memories of new friends come rushing back as I tell Lisa about the places and times of the last three months. I want her to see and hear all the magic. And as time goes on, some of the stress and drama as well - it is all part of the trip. As Lisa and I take an evening walk up our dead end road I think of all the Scottish friends I have made during this past summer. I want them to be there with us as Rex goes crashing through the brush in search of some suddenly interesting smell or maybe a deer as it bounds off through the fir trees. I want to share with my Scottish friends the meals that they shared with me, stand in our driveway and look up at 6,000 foot Klahhane Ridge, introduce them to all of our friends here in Port Angeles. Maybe if they were here, I could actually believe that I really did row from mainland Scotland to Shetland and back…..
Northern Reach is tucked into the rafters of a stone barn just east of Ullapool. When the time is right, Lisa and I will begin talking about next year. Right now it feels good just to recoup a bit - take a much needed break and just try to put the trip into some kind of perspective. I don't know if "understand" is the right word, but I need to look at the trip from some distance before I can really appreciate its scope. I'll go through the photos, sit in the early mornings and write what it feels like to build a boat and plan a rowing trip that I knew nothing about, and then attempt to write what it felt like to get to that point where hundreds or maybe thousands of folks are following the journey that reaches a point where there is no option other than to turn away from the original goal and simple try to get back to the safety of land.
The trip was a difficult one - not the most extreme that I have done - but in some ways more difficult. And how is that? The trip was very complex on a psychological level as well as a physical level. The frequent delays due to wind and sea conditions, the inability to build momentum of sequential days, the near constant lack of sun, and the eventual decision to abandon the original goal all had their affects. I learned a great deal on this trip. I learned how to row an ocean rowing boat on the North Sea and the North Atlantic. The original goal is still out there - Faeroe and Iceland haven't gone anywhere - but in some ways the journey is already complete - at least this first half. I have come home to a loving and secure woman whom I love. I have also come home to a place and community that I love. What more could an adventurer ask for?
Thank you all for following along on this amazing journey. And a huge thank you to all of the Scottish people who extended a hand of welcome to "the man in the wee orange boat". - "It's a canoe is it?"
PS. Look for the final photos of the trip in the In Scotland album.
September 2nd, 2011 - The end of the voyage
These are hard words to write but,,, the trip is over - at least for this year. I made it to Ullapool yesterday Sept 1st, just in front of another weather system that is supposed to bring gusts up to 30 knots. I'm really happy to have the boat tied up along side the sailing club's rescue boat.
The last two days of the trip were about as perfect as any two days could be. After taking care of my flight arrangements down to Heathrow, I caught the Ullapool to Lochiver bus on Thursday morning and happend to ask the driver if there was a bus that went to Drunbeg - close to where I had left the boat. I wish I had gotten the bus driver's name because she was one of those people in this world that just goes about her life and job with a smile and a way of making life easier for others. When I asked her about a bus, she told me there wasn't one until later that evening - which would have meant I either walked the ten miles or hopefully hitched a ride along the single track, windy and hilly road in the rain and arriving with soaked gear that would then have to be stowed away. This driver was doing a special run with her boss on board - I suppose to show him the actual route that she took this very full size bus....anyway - she asked him if it was ok if I rode along and they would drop me within a half mile of the boat! Her boss agreed without any hesitation, and we were off.
I tell you this brief non-rowing story because this is what makes solo travel possible - the small and not so small favors that perfect strangers have offered me. And what do I have to offer in return but a web site address that they can at least look at and see the trip as a whole and know they helped out this American who is out exploring their beautiful country. There have been countless times when this kind of thing has happened during the last three months. It is heart warming, humbling, and such a contrast to the world that we are presented via the media. The world is a beautiful place filled with beautiful people who just want to connect with others.
So I left Culkain where I had pulled the boat out of the water for my overnight trip into Ullapool to arrange the flight home. I came around Stoer Point, past the Old Man of Stoer and then around the last headland of the trip and into the Summer Isles, which lead into Loch Broom and Ullapool. Two days of flat water rowing and sunshine to boot! Coming into Loch Broom yesterday afternoon was quite surreal - the purple heather on the hillsides almost glowing in the afternoon sun, cloud shadows racing across the rocks and meadows and not a ripple on the water. What a wonderful non-threatening way to finish what has been a really tough trip.
Having been in Ullapool just three days earlier, I knew where the local sailing club moorings were. I tied the boat to the rescue inflatable and just kind of melted... ITS DONE, I'm really in Ullapool and I'm safe and I don't have to worry any more. I don't have to worry about the tide tomorrow or the winds or how much food is in the boat and whether or not I have the right map out of the rear compartment for the next thirty miles. None of that matters.... I THINK I'LL GO AND HAVE FISH AND CHIPS TONIGHT.
As soon as I had made the plans for dinner, the local rowing club came alongside with their beautiful club built traditional boat. I met Topher, the primary builder of the boat, who invited me to dinner with he and his wife Jan - as long as we could bring my oars so he could really inspect them and take some measurements. I've never seen anyone so intensely interested in OARS...... AND I loved IT!!
So here I am in Topher and Jan's home. Topher is teaching math in the local school and Jan has the day to look after her two nieces, me, and two backpackers who are supposed to be showing up later this afternoon.
I met Brian Wilson when I was here the other day--- Brian is a craftsman, carpenter, drystone builder and a sea paddler. He paddled around Ireland and wrote Dances With Waves. He and his wife also are in the process of finishing a strawbale house further up the loch...... talk about having lots in common. I'll head up the loch later this afternoon or tomorrow and have a nice relaxed visit with the Wilson family.
I have to say that I'm very ready and happy for the trip to be done. I am exhausted mentally as well as physically. It will take weeks to really process the past three months and then to try and contact all of the folks and to thank them for their individual help, which was offered so freely and willingly. Right now, my job is to try and relax - to come down off that edge of being "on" 24 hours a day. The boat needs cleaning up and then prepping for storage this winter. And I need some rest. And then...I'm homeward bound to Lisa!!! AND REX.
August 30th, 2011 - From Thurso to Ullapool
I left Scrabster/Thurso about ten days ago - as soon as the winds allowed me to move west. The north coast of Scotland is absolutely beautiful - much higher than Orkney and Shetland - with the exception of the west coast of Hoy. Lots of caves, arches, and stunning rock formations to keep me company as I approached Cape Wrath. The forecast wasn't great for getting around the Cape - but I decided to give it a go anyway.
The approach is tricky because there isn't any place to pull out for the last 8 miles if the Atlantic swell is rolling in. I got all the way out to the Cape - stuck the bow of the boat around the corner and got blasted back by big breaking seas and a 15 knot wind - not conditions to look forward to rowing ten miles into.... I retreated and started back toward Durness where I had started the day. On the way back I stopped and spoke with a lobster fisherman who told me that that day - last Thursday - was going to be my only chance for a week to get around the Cape, as high winds were predicted...... what to do???? I turned back again toward the Cape. By the time I got there, the winds had calmed and the swell was no longer breaking.... Do I go??? Do I stay??? I decided to take the fisherman's advice.... Three hours later I was in the shelter of the islands off of Kinlockbervie. A very long day, but thrilled to have the Cape behind me.
Once among the islands, the stress of the last two and half months really fell away. Beautiful calm water. High distant mountains. Flowering heather on all the little islets. And strong even pulls on both oars--- YES!!
I left Kinlockbervie four days ago and headed for a small village called Badcall -- what a name. A perfect little harbor that was well protected from the predicted northwesterly winds. The next morning there wasn't a breath of the dreaded winds that everyone had been warning me about ... what's happening now??? I set off for Oldany Island on Sat morning -- rowing by 6:30am and watching the clouds racing over the mountains and eventually blocking out the sun. The sea had that glassy black look - no wind yet but that kind of feeling that just tells you it's coming - and in a big way.
I got to within a quarter mile of Oldany Island when the winds hit. They came on fast and strong, kicking the sea up fast. I tucked into a little cove with a tiny stone house at the top of the beach and a super tiny wooden fisherman's shed a little further inland. Unlocked. Home sweet home for the oncoming storm. That was all three or four days ago - the storm struck hard and kept me stormbound for three days - barely able to leave the tiny shed. I learned this morning that the winds went up to 50 knots. The noise of the wind and the crashing seas was terrifying. Laying on the floor in the sleeping bag, I could feel the shed lifting and vibrating as the gust slammed into it. It was a blessing to have found that shed - and another blessing to finally have the winds die down enough for me to get off the island and onto the mainland. The only loss to the storm is a broken oar and the broken rudder... I really expected much worse.
I am now in Ullapool - a two mile walk and two buses. I'm here just for a few hours to get a flight arranged down to Heathrow on Sept 8th.
Its only 38 miles from where the boat is to Ullapool. There is a high-pressure system moving in so maybe in three days time, I'll be back here with the boat and arranging to have it stored.
There is always so much more to say but, as always, my computer time at the library is limited. Hopefully I'll find another computer before I head to the airport.
August 19th, 2011 - Crossing Pentland Firth
Sorry it's been so long since I sent an update....
I was in Stromness for three days waiting for the winds to die down before heading off. I wanted to try and row the west side of Hoy on the way south since I had rowed the east side going north. I'm really glad I waited for the weather - it would have been a shame not to see the dramatic cliffs, caves, waterfalls and sea stacks. Of course the problem with the west side of Hoy is that there isn't any safe place of refuge if the winds turn the wrong way. As it was, the winds were out of the south east - pretty much on the bow and slowing the boat down quite a bit. I kept note of the various lobster buoys as I passed them just in case I had to tie off and sit out the winds. Going all the way back to Stromness was not an option because once the ebb tide starts, there is no way to row against it back up Hoy Sound to Stromness - the complications of wind and tide have been with me since day one.
The west side of Hoy is absolutely stunning - 600 foot vertical walls of red, tan, brown and yellow sandstone. I had always wanted to see The Old Man of Hoy and I wasn't disappointed in its majesty.
Every day has its challenges and that day certainly did as well. I came around Torr Head at the bottom of Hoy and hit a strong counter tide running against me... had to anchor inside a reef and wait until morning to finish getting into Aith Hope.
I visited the Long Hope Life Boat museum and learned of the tragedy of 1969 when eight local men were lost at sea as they took the life boat out to rescue the crew of a stricken freighter in a force 9 gale - over 50 knots of wind out on the Pentland Firth. This body of water has a reputation unlike any in the world - over 12 knots of current on Spring Tides - wind against tide turns the sea into a world of terror no matter the size of the vessel.
I called Clair (short for Sinclair) Calder over on the mainland and had a long conversation with him to confirm my thoughts on making the crossing from Aith Hope to Thurso. Clair has spent his entire life right here on the Pentland and knows the waters better than most. We agreed that I should leave Aith Hope at 3pm for the 12-mile crossing to Thurso.
The crossing went beautifully - not even a hint of The Merry Men of Mey - a notorious band of standing waves that run across the entire width of the firth. If you time the tide right, and go as fast as you can, you can slip past with out hardly taking on a drop of water. The crossing to Dunnet Head took me exactly an hour and forty minutes of very hard pulling on the oars. As long as the water was flat, I was making the best time that I could. I had the GPS on the entire time so I would know if I got caught in a mid crossing eddy. My highest speed as I closed Dunnet Head was 8.3 knots.... a very happy rower. Clare met me at the pier as I pulled in... a fine, almost 83 year young gentleman.
I will stay here in Thurso for two days - restocking the boat and getting some errands finished up. I'll then head off for Cape Wrath and then head south if the winds allow. Time is running out quickly as my flight home from Heathrow is on September ninth. It's ironic that this last week has been the best week on the entire trip - sun wise. Oh what a difference the warmth and brightness makes. Oh well, that's just the way it is....
I'll try to send photos later today or tomorrow.
August 13th, 2011 - On my way back to Scotland
The northern winds that have slowed me down all the way from Thurso to north Shetland have finally quite - now that I have decided to head south - of course. The south winds that I could have used all the way north, have now developed and have been on the bow, slowing or stopping me completely as I head south.
The plan at the moment is to back track all the way to Thurso - recrossing the Pentland Firth and heading west across the top of Scotland, around Cape Wrath and then south to a point where I can cross over to The Hebrides. It is way too late in the non-existent summer to attempt a crossing to Faeroe this year. My tentative plan is to leave the boat in the Hebrides and come back again next spring and give it another try - possibly with some sort of a sail or perhaps a parasail. Many of the folks I have spoken to have said that April or May seems now to be the stable months of the year.... It is too early right at this moment to really know what I will do next spring - but at least I will have the boat in a good position if I do decide to make a second attempt.
I had a brief visit with Davie and Fiona Flett as I came through Kirkwall two days ago. Davie was one of the Orkney men who, with another team from Shetland, rowed a six man Shetland boat to Faeroe. They had their share of very rough water - 12 foot waves that forced them to accept a tow from the support vessel for 18 miles. When they arrived in Faeroe the fog was so thick they couldn't see the pier until they were right up to it.
Davie told me of a Norwegian crew who had attempted to sail a replica of a Viking Long Boat from Norway to Shetland last week. They got to within 50 miles of Shetland when a large wave broke over the boat. The crew triggered their EPIRB and abandoned the boat as it was breaking up. The Shetland Coast Guard Helicopter winched all six men to safety.
There have been so many stories of wind related mishaps this summer - another reminder that this was not the summer for me to attempt the Faeroe crossing.
So here I am back in Stromness after retracing my route of a month ago. Yesterday was a good example of how unstable the weather continues to be. I had left Kirkwall knowing that the winds would be too strong for me to risk going around the west side of Shetland's Mainland. I made it safely to Thingwall, anchored next to the ferry pier and called it a day. Friday morning I left Thingwall with a slight breeze pushing me along. By the time I reached Birsay Brough the winds had shifted to the southeast - offshore - and were climbing steadily. Within an hour of anchoring off the beach, the winds were holding at 25 knots and gusting to over 30.
This morning I gambled on leaving the shelter of the beach and attempting to row at least down to Skara Brae - the forecast was for force 4 to 5 southerlies (16 to 20 knots). I don't know what happened to the winds but they never got anywhere near the forecasted speeds - thankfully. I decided to get as close to the cliffs as possible and try for Stromness as long as the winds allowed. I made it into the harbor just as the winds started piling up the white caps. If the weather calms down tomorrow, I'll head down the west side of Hoy and try to cross the Pentland Firth. With the tides at Spring Tides right now, I'll make the decision to cross or not from the safety of the south side of Hoy. Wind, visibility, tides and sea conditions have to be just right or it's a no go.
I've made flight reservations for September 8th out of Heathrow... That means I have less than three weeks get over to the Hebrides. The problem - this entire summer - has been the nearly constant low-pressure systems that keep sweeping over Orkney and Shetland. We'll see what happens during the next couple of weeks weather wise.
July 31st, 2011 - Once again in Lerwick
Hello everyone--- I am once again in Lerwick - this time with my boat as I have made the decision to postpone the Faeroe/Iceland crossing. Al gave a brief account of what transpired. I will now fill in a few of the blanks....
My plan was to row out to the Clare Oil platform, which is about 40 miles offshore. There was supposed to be a SE wind to give me a boost but for some reason, it never developed. The winds going out were very minimal - though the sea was quite lumpy. After ten hours, I came within about four miles of the rig and set out the sea anchor at 9:30pm on Thursday evening. There was a fair bit of swell running already and Northern Reach doesn't sit very quietly - she is so light that any sea movement at all sets her rocking. I was already feeling a bit queasy and was tired - sleep was impossible because I was getting rolled constantly one side to the next. Hours went by - no sleep - very tired. And seasick. Weak. Wind increasing all the time out of the SW - 15 to 20 knots - very lumpy sea running against a north swell. Must have dozed off at some point because I woke to the sound of a ship's engine - dull thoughts going through my mind, too weak to get up and look. "Ships engine - I don't care." And then suddenly wide-awake and thinking "I'm getting run down!" Threw the hatch open and looked up at an oil supply ship towering over me..... the Ocean West..... I grabbed the VHF and made contact...... "Someone spotted you out here and we just came over to make sure everything was all right."
I'm sure it must have looked rather strange - a tiny orange boat hanging on a sea anchor and getting tossed about..... I thanked them profusely, let them know that I would be leaving in the morning and heading back to Shetland if the winds shifted, as they were predicted to do, to the west. The rest of the night crawled by - no more sleep, no food thank you very much and increasingly sloppy sea.
I called Dave Wheeler at 7am to ask what the winds were supposed to do? He asked that I call back in ten minutes...... ten minutes later he had a reply that gave me hope... "It looks like what you've got right now Chris is an occluded front. You might have a bit of rain and SW winds until around mid-day. The wind should veer to the west by noon and then hold there until around mid-night when they'll go SE."
I sat for another five hours in the SW winds, north swell and SW wind waves. Sixteen hours on the sea anchor. At 12:30 I looked out the porthole and saw the compass had swung to the WEST. My ticket to safety. This is why I wanted Dave to be my weather man---- he predicted the swing in the winds to within a half hour. More importantly, he gave me something to hang onto when it was looking rather grim. Thank you Dave!
It took exactly 8 hours to get into the protection of Yell Sound. Northern Reach handled the big following seas absolutely brilliantly. The average wave height was probably around 6 feet with a fair number of the larger sets coming in from behind at well over 8 to 10 feet. Jan Sanidison of Baltasound had made me some of her special high energy bars for the Faeroe crossing. I had been saving them just for the crossing and was so happy to have them at hand when I needed them. While I was sea sick, I knew that I had to nibble on something or I wouldn't have any calories in my system when I started the row back to sheltered waters. Jan, I am so grateful to you for those bars... they got me back!
I landed at Feterland Point on the northern tip of the main island. Called Lisa to let her know I was ok, then called Dave Wheeler to ask him to call the Shetland coastguard and let them know I was back. As an after thought - and through the molasses slow thoughts of exhaustion, I personally called the coast guard and asked that they call the Faeroe cost guard and let them know the crossing was off. Then I was out.
Now here I am back at Garry and Michele Sandison's house trying to update everyone who has been following the trip.
I have decided to postpone the crossing..... the winds are too unstable. At times, the winds will change direction within 8 or 10 hours.... what this does, is make the seas very confused so that even if the winds are favorable, the seas can be terribly choppy.
So, I have another plan that Lisa and I will be talking about in the next day or so.
I want to thank Andrew and Linsay Nesbit of Cullivoe - and indeed all of the people I met in Cullivoe during my almost two weeks of waiting for the winds to come right. I think I must have met just about everyone in the village. And I felt so very welcomed. So THANK YOU to all of you....
More later as the new plan develops.
July 29th, 2011 - Chris returned to Yell!
Chris left Yell Island on July 28th in an attempt to cross over to the Faeroe Islands (370 miles). After about 10 hours of rowing he was 40 miles off shore when the wind shifted to the west and the sea conditions progressively deteriorated. It became impossible for him to make any progress against the headwind and the increasingly large waves on top of an unusually large southwesterly swell. He deployed the sea anchor and prepared for the night, but the boat was getting tossed about so violently that it was impossible for him to sleep or to get any rest. Next morning he listened to the updated weather forecast and it didn't sound good: the strong westerly wind was going to continue, and the ocean swell will become even larger.
Since it was impossible for him to make any progress into a strong headwind and large seas, he made the decision to return to Shetland, while it was still feasible for him to do so. That was a very difficult decision for him to make, but under the circumstances, that was the only sensible thing to do. This morning he reached Yell Island, exhausted after many hours of rowing and seasickness, and called on his satellite phone to let us know that he was anchored safely in a cove on the north side of Yell.
He will send us a detailed report in a few days, as soon as he had a chance to rest and recover from his exhaustion.
July 26th, 2011 - Tomorrow I will be on my way to the Faeroes!
The winds tomorrow morning will be out of the SE at 5 to 10 knots. I will leave Cullivoe at 9am with a strong ebb tide pushing me out to sea along with the winds. Wed has to be a big day, mileage wise, because the winds will shift for Thurs into the northwest and west for about 6 hours. After Thursday, the winds should swing into the south and soutwest. This may well be the break I have been waiting for.
I have a fair bit of work this evening to ready the boat for the crossing. Keep me in your thoughts please. This is far more than a solo journey. More later from the Faeroes!!!
July 22nd, 2011 - A birthday wish
I walked up to Andrew and Linsay's house this morning - a ten-minute walk from the tiny marina. The winds are still out of the north and are supposed to reach 30 knots, climbing to over 30 for Saturday and Sunday, then dropping but shifting to the west - the worst possible direction for me. So here I sit until at least Wed and more than likely - later than that. Everyday, I look down the last half mile of Bluemull Sound and wonder if it will ever calm down.
Every trip that I have been on has had weather problems - that's just part of the deal. As I sat in the boat the other evening I was remembering the violent lightening storms on the Mississippi, the same thing off Fishguard Wales, the fog off Nova Scotia and the fierce winds on the New Zealand trip. And of course the wind storm on Iceland's south coast. These winds may be different in that they aren't particularly high - except for this next three days. It's the direction that is the problem. I just have to believe that it will come around to the southeast.
Despite the many offers to stay with folks here in Cullivoe, I've elected to stay in the boat every night. It's odd, but somehow the confines of the forward compartment are freeing. I like the tight space and everything lives where I can find it in a few seconds.
Kristian Cooper took me to the west side of Shetland's mainland for a day of sea kayaking--- I'll try and send those photos within the next few days.
I just remembered that today is my birthday! Yea!! My birthday wish is for the winds to........ GO AWAY.
I'm off for a walk down near the entrance of Bluemull Sound. That's it for now, Chris
July 19th, 2011 - Waiting for the SE winds in Cullivoe
Three days of south east winds were tempting to start the crossing to Faeroe, but it was only three days and not the four or five that I really needed. The worst thing I could have done was to act on impatience rather than experience. The sea has her own moods and doesn't bend to the needs of individuals.
I've met Andrew and Linsay Nisbet here in Cullivoe who have welcomed me into their home and have allowed me access to their computer - as well as shower.... Andrew pulled up the weather charts for the next week which confirm what Dave Wheeler on Fair Isle told me over the phone--- SE winds shifting to NW briefly and then to N and holding for at least five days. The winds around Faeroe will be building to 30 plus knots. Obviously the decision not to go was correct.
So here I am in Cullivoe and although I have my sights set on the crossing, I couldn't be in a better place than this small wonderful village. For the past three days there has been a festival down at the pier - music, dancing, food, and friendly folks. The festival is an annual gathering of the village with the added theme of the Tall Ships this year. Unfortunately, these north winds that have stopped me, have also waylaid the plans of the Tall Ships to gather here in Cullivoe - the winds and visibility being the problem. Despite the disappointment, the villagers haven't let it dampen their party spirits.
So much has happened in the last few days... I met John Roberts down on the pier who volunteered to take me out over the island to see the Gloup Memorial - a tribute, sad that it is - to the tragic event of 1881 when a July storm of hurricane force winds drove the entire small boat fishing fleet off shore. These boats were similar to the one that Duncan Sandison built and are in the photo album. The result of the storm was that five boats were lost - most of the boats family owned with brothers, uncles and fathers on board. Families lost their entire men folk to the sea. Gone. The memorial stands overlooking the voe, where all the boats would have been pulled up above high tide right below the tiny stone homes. The boats are gone. A few house ruins still stand against the skyline and of course the stone fencerows are still there like veins running across the folds of the hills. Its is a lonely, lovely place. Tragic in its awful history. Beautiful in it's natural wonder.
John is the skipper of one of the supply ships that services the off shore oil platforms. The vessel he captains is 75 meters long, 10,000 horsepower, has a crew of 12 and is at sea for 28 days at a time. He loves his work of 20 years and is rightfully proud of his ship. His work is varied - pushing the tankers up to the platform to take on the oil, standing by with a portable recompression chamber on board when ever there are divers in the water, making the ten hour run to Scrabster with core samples from the bottom, or using the massive crane on board to hook onto the 90 kilo anchor links of the platform during maintenance cycles. While the rains slashed the windshield of the car, John told me of his job, showed me photos of the offshore rigs and told me of life at sea - a fascinating insight into what lies beyond the horizon.
I have had a lot of time to sit and read, think about the crossing that lies in front of me, and try to put into perspective how this cold windy summer is affecting me and the trip. Summer is slipping by and still the winds blow. Will they come around to the south as they historically do? Or the southeast? And if they do not? The questions are my companions when the skies begins to brighten at 4am. They are part of every hour of the day no matter what it is I am filling my day with. I look toward the open sea and think of Faeroe.... It lies way out there beyond the massive swells that break white when the winds oppose the ebbing tide that runs at 5 knots through Bluemull Sound. Mine is a small boat, seaworthy and well designed I believe - but still a small boat on a very large ocean. I was introduced to a group visiting Cullivoe and who were going out for a paddle on board the Spirit Dancer - a 40-foot Canadian canoe invited to the celebrations. The woman said something that was so true - and something that my heart knows so very well but never needed to put into words. When this group learned of the upcoming crossing, this lady said something to the effect that being ten miles or one hundred miles offshore was really the same thing - the sea is the same..... She was absolutely correct. And this is something I am so keenly aware of every time I pull out from the safety of land and into the open water. A change comes over me immediately. There is no room for ego or complacency. There is only the sea and the respect it demands and deserves. I will not overplay or over dramatize the offshore portions of this trip. But I will hold it very prudently in my mind and not treat it with anything but the focus it needs.
So here I am in the safety of a good harbor and under the care of good Shetland folk. It looks like there is a chance a high-pressure system may move over Shetland beginning the first part of next week. If it does, then I may get the east or southeast winds that I need.
As I write this, Patrick Winterton and two others are somewhere out on the North Sea paddling toward Bergen Norway. It is the second night of their massive crossing. I can not get them off my mind and can only pray that they are safe and progressing under sail or paddle. Be well my friend Patrick, and we will share our stories another time.
NOTE: A little update on my friend Patrick Winterton.. I have not spoken with him but have seen a Shetland Times article on the web about their trip.... They decided to turn back after getting offshore about 25 miles. Once again it was the wind that forced them back.... these northerlies are persistant and dangerous. I think it was a very wise and I am sure a difficult decision to make. I am just happy to hear that they are safe.
July 16th, 2011 - Rowing to Muckle Flugga
Two days ago I rowed to the very northern tip of Unst to a point called Muckle Flugga. I had a southerly wind to help me get up there and then of course had to battle it getting back to Baltasound where I had started the day. On the way back I had to come around a point that the locals had warned me about... sure enough it was pretty rough. I had the tide and wind against me plus the combination of the tide hitting a cliff and conflicting with the main tide - standing waves, all very closely packed and steep. The boat didn't have time to rise up between the peaks and three waves came on board uninvited - just about filled the middle rowing compartment making it a slow crawl past the cliff face. It was another good test of the boat - there was never any indication that she would go over - and indeed she became more stable with the added weight of the water. Off shore waters won't be as tricky regarding these points where the tide is confused with restrictions so I feel confident as I get ready to head for Faeroe.
I am now in Cullivoe on the northwest tip of Yell. There is a festival this weekend and in through Tuesday so while the winds have returned to the northeast, I have a beautiful village and harbor to enjoy. There are going to two bands here - the best bands from Orkney and Shetland - traditional fiddle music. There were also going to be several tall ships but it looks like the weather has forced them to cancel. It will still be a great festival and a safe place to wait out the winds until they swing around again. I'll phone Dave Wheeler later today and get the latest updated forecast.
July 13th, 2011 - In Baltasound
I am currently in Baltasound, which is about half way up the east side of Unst - the northern most Shetland Isle. I am visiting Duncan and Jan Sandison - Duncan met me down at the marina just as I rowed in - he had watched as I rowed in front of his house. Duncan was the primary energy behind organizing and finding traditional old rowing boats that the Shetland fishermen are famous for. He took me over to Haroldsvick where the boat haven/museum is and then gave me a guided tour and explanation of each of the boats that are displayed. Some of these boats were built in the late 1800's and were left to rot before Duncan found them, repaired or rebuilt them and then put them on display in the museum
To back up a bit.... I stopped in Lunna Voe for two days and met Tony, the owner of Lunna House. Lunna House was the operational center for The Shetland Bus - the base for running arms, radios and agents from Shetland over to Norway during WWII. Norwegian fishermen made the crossing in the dark of winter and frequently during storms, when visibility was near zero so that the German airforce could not find and bomb them. Over the course of the operation, five boats were lost with some 43 men. Walking into the kitchen, which is very much the same as it was in 1941, was really quite a memorable experience for me. To imagine the Norwegian fishermen coming in from the crossing, cold and wet and finding a warm room and good food awaiting them must have been very welcoming. The thing that I could just not understand was how in the world did these men could even find the tiny voe (inlet) time and time again. This was long before radar. All the coastal lights would have been extinguished due to the war effort. I have seen much of the coastline of Shetland and know that it must have been almost impossible to distinguish one headland from another. An amazing story indeed.
My plans have changed a little bit as a result of a post diner meeting with Duncan, Jan and their daughter Penny. I had originally planned on leaving from the old fishing station down on the mainland, as it was a sheltered beach with a safe anchorage. After looking at the map and talking with everyone, we have decided that it will be better to leave from the very northern tip of Yell Island. There is a small harbor in Culli Voe with a shop quite close by. The importance of that is, if the weather doesn't cooperate, I can resupply the food that I will have eaten while waiting.
The winds have really been quite an issue - not just for me. Everyone is quite tired of these northern winds that just will not quit. They aren't strong - just around 10 to 15 knots - but strong enough to stop the glide in the boat. I checked the speed this morning with the GPS and it was 3.6 against the wind, down from 4.6, which is significant on a four-day crossing.
The winds are supposed to shift to the south tomorrow and then shift back to the north for another couple of days.... time and tide will determine when I get started. My plan for tomorrow is to row up to Mukle Flugga, the northern most point of Unst. The cliffs are supposed to be very dramatic and filled with gannets, puffins and fulmars.
I have to say that this trip has been so wonderful despite the winds. I love living on board Northern Reach - its warm, cozy and simple. And I absolutely love being out to sea - the birds, the work of pulling on the oars. At the end of the day, I find an anchorage in some sheltered cove, fix my diner and then sit in the forward compartment and fill out my journal. I suppose from a distance, it may appear to be a lonely existence but that could not be further from my experience. Every day on the water, I am learning something - the wave patterns teaching me how the boat responds, the tides - and they are significant - are also teaching me a lot. I am also learning to constantly monitor my body and the strain of the rowing. I've purposefully kept the daily mileage fairly low so as not to get injured - it would be so easy to strain a back or shoulder muscle or develop tendonitis. The other day I was rowing in a soaking rain and my gloves were slipping on the oar handles. I strained my wrist trying to grip the oar too tightly. I've since sanded all the varnish off the handles to improve the grip--- something I should have done months ago during the preparations for the trip. But, oh well, live and learn.....
I hadn't been able to use the charger for the iPod because it was too short and did not make contact with the point at the bottom of the cigarette charger. I had just accepted that I wouldn't have music for the crossings.... and then I had a brainstorm. It must have been all my visits to these neolithic ruins.... I carved the plastic collar off the charger and then ground it down flat with a beach stone. And whallah, it now charges. It's the little things in life that are so satisfying.
I will try to send some photos before leaving for Faeroes. It's always a matter of finding someone with a computer that I can sit in front of for a while. Until then, all the best to everyone. Chris
July 8th, 2011 - Events in Lerwick
I've had several electricians look at the solar panel problem and it seems they all have arrived at the same conclusion - the panel was designed to trickle charge a battery - not to charge a GPS unit (for example) straight from the panel. So... Andy - a local electrician - came down and had a look at the panel - testing voltage, AMPs, milliamps-- you name it, Andy tested it. What he came up with was the suggestion that I buy a sealed 12-volt battery and connect the solar panel to it.
While Andy was testing the panel, Garry Sandison walked up and asked if he could take a few photos... Garry keeps his boat in a voe (a natural cleft in the coastline) and had seen me coming in two nights earlier. After Andy had sorted out the panel, Garry took me home to meet his family - his wife Michele, the three boys - Sean, Steven and Frankie. And the three girls Kristissi, Jodie and Carla. After a nice hot shower I had dinner with Garry and Michele and so started the next link to getting the panel fixed. It turns out that Sean is an electrician and he volunteered to come down after work - a forty-minute drive - and install the battery and regulator pack. We went to the local supermarket and bought a water tight tupperware container that Sean then fitted out to hold all the wiring and the battery and regulator. He worked out of the back of his car - every detail done to perfection so the finished product looked like something you would buy straight off the shelf. Ten o'clock last night, he finally closed his tool box, jumped into his car and headed down the road for the 40 minute drive home. This is the kind of unselfish generosity I am constantly running into. It seems that almost every day I run into someone who just wants to help me - diner, laundry, a shower, diagnosing the solar panel problem or just inviting me on board their yacht to hear my story and to share theirs.
Another problem solver of the solar panel has been Mel from Port Angeles. Through multiple emails zipping across cyber space, Mel had sorted out the issue of the battery, as well as making the suggestion of running the panel lengthwise on the forward cabin so that the curve of the boat didn't shield the panel from the direct sun. All this help has now gotten me a power source that I can rely upon with confidence. When the time is right, I can move off-shore knowing I can use my IPOD, the VHF and the Sat Phone without worry.
My plan is to leave Lerwick in the morning, moving north towards Yell and Uist. I'll probably take two or three days, exploring as I go, before turning west and heading out to the outer coast. Tam - a local sea kayaker and another new friend who took me in for a evening of diner, laundry and a clean bed - showed me on the map a place to sit and wait for the right winds to begin the Faeroe crossing. The spot is at the very top of Northmavine Island right next to the old lighthouse. It is protected from any wind and swell and is a couple of miles from the nearest road. "The only people out there are walkers on the footpath." Perfect.
So that's it once again. I'm never sure when or where I'll have internet access again but as soon as I do, I'll send another update. Cheers for now, Chris
Shetland News article: Lone rower sets sight on Iceland.
July 5th, 2011 - Arrived in Lerwick
After five days, I finally got a break from the north winds and the big swell out of the North Sea. My Fair Isle visit was coming to an end. As I was leaving, I had stopped to say farewell to Sheila and Jim, a couple I had met who were on the island participating in the grand opening of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory. Sheila did all of the art work in the center which is absolutely fantastic - linoleum mosaics that make you just want to reach out and touch the work to see if it is tile. Words do nothing to describe the bird and cliff scenes she has created.... anyway, back to my story. I bid them farewell and then hustled back to prepare the boat for the 21-mile crossing - planning on leaving the island at 5:30 and arriving at the far side sometime around 11pm. There was still a large swell booming in against the sea wall and I was more than a little nervous once again. Dave Wheeler came down and shot some photos of the boat just before I took the first stroke. I looked up to see Sheila waving and walking fast towards the old sea ramp. She had run up to the center and together with Chris, the lead chef, had made up a rower's dinner for me - fruit, oat cakes, roast beef sandwiches, a sweet dessert and a little box of apple juice! I was almost in tears as she gave it a toss with the waves washing up towards her feet on the ramp. What a fantastic farewell gift to start the crossing. If you are reading this Jim and Sheila, THANK YOU! And we will meet again I assure you.
The crossing went quite well - rough for the first two miles as the strong ebb tide was against the wind and the swell. Northern Reach handled it like she seems to always do - powers up and over the big ones throwing water to the side and then sliding down into the following trough. Its dramatic, noisy, a little wet at times and kind of crazy in the tidal races where the oars are reaching for water that sometimes just isn't there. Once out of the race, the gannets and skua's circled for hours escorting me over half way across. Puffins are everywhere. Fulmars sweep low and come up from astern to check me out. The wind dropped after about four hours and I knew I was one of the luckiest men alive on this planet. This is how I had imagined the trip might be - long hours at sea with the company of the birds and my thoughts as I make my way to the next landing.
The sun sets here right around 10:30 but there is still almost two hours of dusk. All was well until I was almost beneath the lighthouse on the far side. Jimmy - the former ferry skipper on Fair Isle had warned me of The Roost - the tide race off the tip of Sumburgh Head, which has a very bad reputation. Everyone knows about The Roost. In theory, I should have had everything going for me as I slipped beneath the lighthouse... the trouble was I didn't know about the counter current right up against the cliffs. I was right on the edge of the roost and was getting a bit battered around so headed closer in to the cliffs. There was a fairly big swell booming in against the cliffs and the roost on the outside and this horrible current that slowed the boat to less than a knot. Very little light left to read the water, impulse overload with the noise of The Roost off shore and the swell meeting the cliffs head on. After six hours of working pretty hard to get where I was, it was one of those times where you just dig in a little deeper and do what you have to do - put the emotions aside and get to work - another time I will have to put it all down on paper in the detail that it deserves. Suffice to say, I was really happy to finally find the ferry pier - no red and green lights to guide me in, the heavy swell breaking on the outer rocks and the rumble of what was left of the swell on the beach - I set out the anchor and turned in at 1am after finishing off the last of Sheila and Chris's dinner package.
So here I am in Lerwick - the boat is tied to the yacht pier and all is well - except for the darn solar panel. The light is on when I have the correct adapter inserted for whatever unit I am attempting to charge but the batteries never register any change in their depleted status. Before leaving Thurso the panel tested fine - 16 amps with a voltmeter. If anyone reading this has some idea as to what I should check,,,, can you please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lerwick is the last major port of call to stock the boat for the Faeroe crossing. My plan to get the panel sorted out, buy lots of groceries, then move north and position myself on the west coast of Shetland where I can be set for the big day of starting the Faeroe leg. Dave Wheeler is going to be my weatherman. I won't leave Shetland until he feels that I've got a good chance at tail winds. Apparently, southeast or even true east winds are not that uncommon in the summer months here. These are the winds that I'll wait for. I feel like I am ready for the crossing. The boat is more than living up to what I had hoped it would. I'm feeling strong, quietly confident and mentally calm. It's the perfect combination of energies for the crossing.
July 3rd, 2011 - Getting ready to leave Fair Isle.
I was up until almost mid-night last night listening to island musicians helping to celebrate the opening of the new bird observatory. The Fair Isle Bird Observatory is world famous and there are people from all over Scotland here to witness the efforts and investment in the center. The grandest part of the evening for me was when four generations of the Thompson family gathered with guitars, fiddles and one accordion and let loose with a flurry of Shetland tunes. Old Stewart - mid 80's and right down to his lovely great granddaughter of about 16 years - it brought a tear to me eye for sure to sit on the floor and watch something of such extraordinary beauty. A crew from a visiting Swedish yacht bought me a beer and raised a toast to my success. It is deeply moving to feel so cared for on this tiny and warm island.
The island is 6 km long by 3 km wide with one narrow road running down the center. Sheep wander free over much of the land and I was greeted by two wiggling Australian Shepards as I walked up to Dave and Jane's house this morning. I guess the dogs know when it's time to herd the sheep and when to just leave them to their grazing.
Just down the road is the wreckage of a World War II German Heinkel weather observation plane shot down by the RAF during the war. The pilot crash-landed the damaged plane and three of the five crewmembers survived. Two different boats were sent to pick up the downed fliers and both wound up on the rocks.... these waters are treacherous indeed.
The north winds are finally shifting a bit to the NE and dieing out just a bit as well. Dave has been feeding me weather information and teaching me how to read the weather charts with their lows and highs and isobars curving over and around the charts. I am a slow learner but am gradually beginning to understand the relationship of all this information. Thankfully, it is Dave and not me who does the actual interpretation and who will reduce it to a level that I will understand when I ring him for the latest update.
If all goes well, I will leave Fair Isle this afternoon heading for Sumburgh Head 21 miles to the north east on a compass bearing of 32 degrees. I'll let the last two hours of the ebb pull me out to the west, and then ride the incoming flood tide back to the east and hopefully around the southern tip of Shetland and into sheltered water. There has been a two meter northeast swell running out of the northeast so that may slow me down a bit.... an even steady pull on the oars is the key.
That's it from Fair Isle. I will leave this beautiful tiny island with a bit of sadness.... that is always the way of the traveler. We make friends and then we bid them farewell in the hopes our paths will someday cross again.
I am basically waiting for the deep blue to move more to the east which will give me favorable conditions for the crossing to Shetland. Dave told me this morning that South east winds are one of their common summer winds!! That is what I was hoping for and what I would need to help push me westward towards Faeroe.
June 30th, 2011 - Landed on Fair Isle.
I left the northern Orkney island of North Ronaldsay yesterday morning at 3:50am. I had been looking at North Ronaldsay for many months trying to figure out how to anchor the boat as near to the northern tip as possible so as to minimize any extra miles on an already potentially tricky crossing. The worry of course was what if the winds came up, the anchor drags and I either wind up on the rocks or washed out to open water - all the demons of doubt surface when one doesn't or can't have all the immediate information of real time..... To back track a wee bit - I arrived in the harbour of North Ronaldsay at 9;30 the previous evening, had my dinner and then spontaneously decided to up anchor and simply row to the northern tip and have a look at the challenge of anchoring.... a little over an hour and I arrived at the base of the lighthouse to find a designated buoy - brilliant yellow - with red lettering saying VISTING YACHTS!! Suddenly I was not a rowing boat but rather, a visiting yacht. I had just eliminated a five-mile additional row for the next morning.
Yesterday morning - Monday - I set off at 3:50 with plenty of light, no winds, a quite lumpy sea due to the tidal race off the tip of N. Ronaldsay and the first hint of a glorious sunrise. I will readily admit to a bit of nervousness setting off across the tidal streams. I had studied the tidal atlas until I had almost worn the pages out - you either get it right, or you stay in one spot for a very long time until the tide shifts...... I had just over five hours to make the 23-mile crossing before the tides would be against me.
I pushed hard for the first two hours and then backed off to a more sustainable pace. 6-foot swells out of the southern west were overtaking and then harmlessly rolling under me. A marvelous open water crossing. I checked the GPS for a bearing to my waypoint that Tommy Cook and I had entered so many weeks ago, then looked over my shoulder at the low hump of Fair Isle. Compass and GPS were in agreement and the 6-hour crossing started.
There is so much that goes on in my mind during these crossings, either in a sea kayak or - now - in a rowboat... I let my mind wander when it needs to and then bring it back to the present, checking in subconsciously all of the time as waves over take me, gannets sweep overhead or I remember to drink, put more sun screen on or have another half of a snickers bar dipped in a great dollop of cream cheese. I'm really working on eating a lot fat for that slow burn of energy.
I saw three Storm Petrels - the first I have ever seen on any of my trips...
The approach to Fair Isle seemed to take forever but finally the land took on more and more details, the gannets began to circle overhead and I began to relax a bit. It took another hour and a half to slowly make my way around to the north side of the island where the harbour is. Just about 8 hours from start to finish - I was exhausted as I didn't dare stop and loose the tide.
Right off the bat, I met some folks who were wonderful in letting me tie up Northern Reach to the small boats moored on the end of the pier. Several boats from Sweden were in the harbour and the owners of one offered my the use of their folding bikes whenever I should like to tour the island.
Today (Tuesday) I walked up to Dave and Jane's house - "you'll know the house, its the only yellow house on the island." I had emailed Dave many months ago asking if he could help me with the weather information I will need for the two long crossings...... amazing to knock on the door and finally meet this man who is really going to be a critical element in my planning the crossings. Dave went over the next three day's weather with me and showed me the meteorological charts with the highs and lows arranged over the vastness of the open Atlantic all the way over to the Iberian Penninsula - it all affects the weather of the North Sea. It looks like I may stay here on Fair Isle for at least two days - possibly more if the winds kick up a bit.
I spent the rest of the day with Dave and Matte who own a small croft - six goats that they milk and make cheese. They have both been world travelers and we all swapped stories of where we had been and what traveling in really all about - its the people, the inner journey and the magic that just seems to happen when you don't plan everything out to the last detail. Dave and I then spent a couple of hours bringing in the mown hay that will feed the goats and the cow this winter. Matte asked If I would be interested in building two compost bins for them tomorrow in exchange for lunch and dinner....... a done deal.
There are 70 year round residents on Fair Isle - a stunningly beautiful place on a day the likes of today - brilliant sunshine, a 15 mps sea breeze. It squite easy to imagine living here...
I met a fellow named Jimmy last night on the pier - he was the skipper of the Good Shepard, the island ferry - for many years. Later I was told by a visiting yachtsman that Jimmy is the man to talk to about making the crossing over to Shetland.... that's my task tomorrow - local knowledge is the best kind.
When folks see my boat, they always ask where I've come from and then, where it is that I am going. I hesitate because it sounds absurd to say "Iceland". Yes that is where I hope to get to, but maybe it is just my being superstitious or.... I don't know..... where I am going is just as far as the next day's crossing.... and only when the winds and tides allow. The sea is the master - I am the visitor.
So for now, I am here on Fair Isle and will stay here until the winds, tides and local information suggests that it is time to leave. I have made some good friends here, my boat is secure, and it is truly as beautiful as I had imagined it might be. And when the time is right, I will row away with the promise of coming back
As an important side note---- As I am rowing, my mind wanders to everyone who is behind me on this adventure... I will take the risk and type your names simply because you are with me in spirt and much more-- LISA, AL-ED and LINDA, KEN BIRDWELL, HOWARD, DAVE AND ANN, PATTI- BILL- CALEB and SARHA - and so many more. I think what I should have done is to have had everyone who is part of the journey to have written their names on the aft cabin so I could think about each of you during the long hours of being on the sea. And now there are other names to add--- and this is the magic of traveling--- I have all of you to thank and to think of as the swells roll up from astern, lift and pass beneath me.
June 27th, 2011 - Waiting for the south wind
I am on Stomnay Island for one night and will leave first thing tomorrow, as the winds are supposed to be southerly - the first time in weeks apparently. The folks who I am staying with for the moment say that all winter, the winds were out of the south, its only been the last three weeks that they have been blowing out of the north. Everyone seems to think they are about to change to the prevailing southwesterlies.... that would be great! I am only one day - distance wise - from setting off for Fair Isle, but will not go if the winds are anything but southerly. Its going to be tricky just getting the tides right - never mind dealing with the wrong wind. Unfortunately, the forecast isn't good after the next two days - If I'm lucky I may just get a break on Wednesday.
June 25th, 2011 - Exploring Orkney Islands
I'm writing this from a new friend's home - he is one of six men from Kirkwall who is planning on rowing an open yawl from Shetland to Faeroe as soon as these north winds swing back to southwest.
In answer to your earlier questions - once I crossed over to Orkney, I headed up the east side of Hoy in order to avoid the strong tides along the west cliffs. What I've been doing is anchoring the boat in shallow water just off shore and rather than setting up the tent, just living on board. It gets a little cramped, but I'm slowly working into a system and routine whereby nothing gets unpacked until something else is packed and put away - its the only way to live in a six and a half foot by 30 inch space.
I rowed into Stromness and stayed for two days due to the north winds that everyone says are very atypical. From there it was a 13 mile row along continuous cliffs to Skara Brae - an amazing 5,000 year old ruins very well preserved due to the sands that have covered them since 1858.
From Skara Brae it was another 13 or so miles along the cliffs again with no options for bail outs - except turning and running with the winds if they got too strong. I gambled and decided to row against the tide rather than give the winds a chance later in the day. There is an island two thirds of the way along the cliff that is connected to the mainland at low water - which is exactly what it was as I came up to it. The tide was running strong against me, the winds were up around 15 knots and the boat just crawled along. Very large breaking seas - somewhere around 8 footers. It was a fantastic test for the boat - as well as for me in terms of staying calm and just doing what I know how to do - staying focused. The lighthouse seemed to just stay in one place for a very long time as the boat was tossed about. The boat really amazes me - despite quite big water - she stays very dry. I only had to pump her out twice and that was only because I didn't like the water lapping over my ankles.
Rowing in these tidal races with the winds kicking things up is really very different than rowing in open ocean. The tidal races push the waves into steep walls of collapsing white foam. I was quite happy to finally make my way into sheltered water over the top of the Mainland.
I arrived in Kirkwall yesterday and met Dave who is planning on rowing - with three teams of six - from Shetland to Faeroe. They've been ready to go for several weeks now and, like me, have been delayed - or stopped - by these winds. They will be rowing a traditional yawl - an open wood row boat that was used for inshore fishing during the last century. It was such a lift to my spirits to learn that someone else will be out there doing the very same route as me.
I am planning on spending the next few days working my way north between the islands of Shapinsay, Egilsay, Eday and Sanday - arriving in North Ronaldsay where I'll stay until the winds are right for the crossing over to Fair Isle. This is what I have to take into consideration: The tides, even at neap tides are enough to slow my progress by as much as a knot an hour. We are now at neap tides - the moon being just about a quarter full. By the time I get to North Ronaldsay, we will be at Spring Tides - a new moon. That means the tidal current between Ronaldsay and Fair Island will be running at close to 4 knots.... If the winds are calm I'll go and just figure how best to ride, first, the ebb and then, the flood, to bring me in line with Fair Isle. Its a 22 mile crossing so getting it right would be really nice.
In the mean time, I'll spend one more day here in Kirkwall, exploring the Viking era cathedral and stocking the boat with lots of food. It may be quite some time before I'll be near another computer, so stay tuned....
June 21st, 2011 - Crossing Pentland Firth
This may be cut short as I am running on over time at the Stomness library internet. Here is a brief update on the trip: My boat finally arrived in Thurso on June 16th - just as the east winds started blowing. I had three days of loading the boat, checking to make certain everything was in order, catching up on sleep and then.. more waiting as the winds were too strong to attempt a crossing of the Pentland Firth. I met up with Ken Nicol and Mark and Kim Clemmenson ( I do hope I have your last name correct Mark and Kim).. all from the local paddling club. I also picked up the stove fuel and flares that Rowland Woolven had sent up to Ken.
I left Thurso at 6am on the 19th just at the full bottom of the tide. I had checked with the local Royal National Lifeboat Institute as well as the harbormaster and a lobster fisherman for the best time to attempt the crossing. I met Danny Burns who was camped right behind where my boat was temporarily waiting to be launched. Danny is from near Stirling and comes up every year to fish. He took me on a drive to Dunnet Head - the furthest northern point of Scotland and a great place to look out on towards the Orkneys.
The Pentland is one of the fastest flowing tidal streams in the world and if you get it wrong - it can be nasty, simply frustrating or much worse. There have been countless rescues performed by the RNLI - and in fact one just two days ago when a sailing couple lost all electrical power and with no wind at all and getting set towards the cliffs - they called for a tow - the correct thing to do for certain.
My crossing went quite well, at least for the first 2 hours. Even with the boat loaded with food, water and all of the gear that I've been hauling around for the last two weeks - I was still able to maintain 4.7 - 5.3 knots!! I was super happy to arrive beneath Dunnet Head in a little over an hour. Quite a stunning morning row as I had puffins all around me, several gannets, razorbills, skuas and my old friends the fulmars.
Leaving the headland was a bit nerve racking as I knew the tide was just begining to turn and unfortunately the wind was as well. The first hour of the crossing went smoothly as I kept a constant watch on the GPS speed so I would know how long to anticipate the crossing. I am very new to this GPS world but have to say it is absolutely fantastic to keep track of speed, compass bearing in less than perfect visibility and know exactly how far it still is to my next waypoint. Thank you Sam and Martha!
Visibility was limited due to a light mist - I could at times see the far side but then nothing.... Saw two ships west bound but they were way out in front of me and no worry of collision. A little over an hour into the crossing, my speed dropped steadily from 5 knots to 1.5. There was a nasty bit of confused sea and the boat was going up, down, sideways, forward just a little and getting knocked around quite a bit. I was obviously in a massive eddy. I shifted course several times to try and find the flooding tide but each time my speed would drop further - nothing to do but return to my original heading and plod along..... very tiring but a good test for the boat as well as for me. Very few things always go perfectly on the sea - its just a matter of doing the best with what you've got sometimes.
I finally broke out of the confused water and my speed went from 1.7 to 6.3 knots - and then to 7.8 as I turned and ran with the full flood along the bottom of Hoy Island. Yea!!
My first night I anchored just to the east of Longhope in the shallows off the beach - dropped my anchor and paid out enough line so my boat would be floating at low water. Twenty-four miles for my first day - right at 5 hours. This was a good test in terms of what I can expect if I'm lucky with calm seas on the bigger crossings. I am quite certain that my target of 40 miles is realistic as long the seas are calm. I'll row here in the Orkneys for another ten days and gradually increase my fitness.
I am presently in Stromness - a beautiful little village. Skera Brae - the 5,000 year old ruins in only few miles up the road - or a few miles around the coast by boat. If the winds stay calm, I'll row over tomorrow morning and spend a fair bit of the day exploring. I'm a bit sore from three days of steady rowing but that's to be expected. Two days off to explore is a good way to ease into the trip.
On my way here to the library I saw a yard full of kayaks. On the way back to the boat, I'll stop and introduce myself and see if I can use their computer to send photos. Every one I've met so far have been super friendly.
June 19th, 2011 - Departure!!!
The following message was received from a gentleman in Scotland: "Chris started his adventure at 0550h (UK time) on 19th June 2011 from Scrabster Harbour near Thurso, Caithness. A couple of pictures of him departing are attached. Regards Ken Nicol".
June 14th, 2011 - a change in plans
I've been on the phone and computer all day trying to arrange the trucking for the boat. It is all finally working out.... I do not have to go into Glasgow tomorrow... the boat will be loaded on the truck in the morning and I will hopefully meet up with it in Thurso tomorrow afternoon or Thursday, morning. I'll have one or two days waiting for the weather, loading the boat with water and food and mounting the solar panel and then I am off for the Orkney Islands - almost can't believe the trip is finally getting started. I'll be in touch once I get things sorted out in Thurso.
June 14th, 2011 - still in Stirling
It looks like I will finally see my boat tomorrow morning! The ship has been in Grangemouth since Friday but had to wait until yesterday (Monday) to be unloaded. The boat will hopefully clear customs today and be sent to the shipping company's warehouse in Glasgow. That means I have to make my way into Glasgow tomorrow morning by train, find the bus that will take me as close as possible to the industrial center (which should be interesting) then get a cab to take me the final leg. I've spoken with a fellow from the trucking company and he assures me there is no problem having a truck meet me at the warehouse and getting the boat up north. It all sounds good over the phone but I can well imagine things not going quite as smoothly in real life....
I've decided to start the trip from Thurso, which is about thirty miles west of John O Groats. This is where the trucking outfit is home based. It is also where Roland Wollven has sent fuel for the stove, and emergency flares. Thurso is a good sized town with a good grocery store and hardware store for my last minute "to do" list. Patrick has shown me his kayaking route over to the Orkney Islands and how he left from Thurso and rode the Pentland tides at an angle to get in behind Hoy Island. I think it's a better plan than shooting straight over from John O Groats.
A problem has developed with the solar panel - all of a sudden it will not charge the camera battery. I'm heading into Stirling this morning to find an electronics shop and have them test the panel and leads to see what's wrong. There is always something...
I went out on the River Forth yesterday with Patrick to test his kayak sailing rig. His crossing from Shetland to Norway is just about the same distance as my crossing from Faeroe to Iceland. The huge difference is that I have the forward compartment for sleeping and as a safety pod in the event of extreme conditions. Patrick's team will rely on the sailing rigs in the event of one of them becoming incapacitated by injury or seasickness. The sailing rig can move the boat at about 3-4 knots in moderate conditions. Watching Patrick prepare for the team's crossing is interesting in that I can see myself in his decisions and processes of going through all the safety issues. He tried rolling the kayak first with the sail folded on the forward deck - no problem. He then rolled the boat with the sail up and again didn't have any problem. The last test was rolling over as he was underway at about three knots. The rigs seem to be a little light in their construction but if they are carefully used, Patrick thinks they have a place on the trip.
My plan at this point is to meet up with Patrick and his team in Lerwick, Shetland on July 16th. I will move northward with them for about thirty miles, camp, and then do another twenty miles east with them to the last island before they head off on July 19th for Bergen Norway. We are planning on staying in touch through the Shetland Coastguard. I'll be anxious to hear how the crossing goes for them.
Tomorrw is a big day for me. I dread lugging all the gear through the bus and train terminals but I am really ready to get the trip rolling. Hopefully I will be able to send one more update to Al before I leave Thurso. Stay tuned...
PS. I just got back from town - good news on the solar panel - it's still putting out 18 volts.... I learned that the panel will not charge a completely discharged battery - especialy if it is not an original panasonic battery but rather a cheap copy of one.... live and learn, I bought two spare "knock off" batteries before leaving the states and will now buy a genuine panasonic one. Just knowing the problem is part of the solution.
June 8th - I've arrived in Scotland!
Three flights, one bus, a train and a cab finally got me to Patrick Winterton's house in Stirling. I found the key where he told me to look, let myself in, left a note on his door that I was asleep on his couch and then collapsed. Three hours of sleep out of 28 hours of travel finally caught up with me. I woke up when I heard Patrick arriving home from a training paddle on the local canal.
Patrick is a former Olympic x-country skier - 1988 Calgary Olympics. We hit it off immediately as he and I have a lot in common in terms of previous kayak trips. In fact, his paddle from the Hebrides to Faeroe in 2009 - which he had written about in Sea Kayaker magazine - is how I had first heard of him. I had emailed him and asked for his help in logistics - can I sleep on your floor while I await the arrival of my boat? Patrick is right now working on a laptop across the kitchen table from me - he is planning on kayaking across the North Sea - Lerwick (Shetland Island) to Bergen Norway - about 250 miles. The trip will commemorate the combined efforts of both the Norwegian and the Scottish resistance effort during the second world war known as the "Shetland Bus"- the code name for the operation which used Norwegian fishing boats to smuggle war supplies from Scotland. It is an amazingly heroic story of seamanship, horrible winter sea conditions and the bravery of men at sea doing what was necessary in a time of war. Patrick and two other paddlers want to cross these same waters and draw attention to the historical importance of the effort, which helped liberate Norway from German occupation. The crossing is huge - three nights and four days in the boats - if everything goes right. At this moment, he is trying to do what I have been doing for the last month - tying together all the loose ends and making sure all the pieces will come together on the final day of launching. It may just work out that I'll be in Lerwick on July 15th for his teams departure. I've shown him photos of my boat and told him how the forward sleeping cabin has an inch of foam and that I can stretch out and sleep like a real human being. Jealousy is a hard thing to hide when you're thinking of having to sleep half sitting up for three nights on the North Sea. His website will be up in another week (www.kayaksonshetlandbus.com).
There has been a major delay for me in that the container, which my boat is in, is still in Belgium. I called the UK shipping agent yesterday and learned that the boat will not arrive here in Grangemouth until June 15-17. That means I will be at least two weeks later getting on the water than I had originally planned. That translates into my weather window shrinking even before the trip gets started. There is absolutely nothing I can do about it but sit and wait - and hope that the summer weather up north will cooperate. The important thing is not to get upset about it but rather, stay positive and focused while I'm waiting. I can be training with Patrick on the canal, using his mountain bike to get some aerobic exercise, and keeping in touch with both the US and the UK shipping agents. Its frustrating but... enough said about that.
There is a chance that Patrick may tow the boat north for me if it fits with his schedule. We'll see how that shakes out once I get a firm date on the boat delivery. These large trips are all about managing the unexpected - paying close attention to the breaking waves that are a real threat and letting all the other noisy ones roll past without getting psyched out by them. This latest delay is all part of the training.