“People Don’t Come Here For The Weather”, Ep. 209

The most logical place to cross to the Shetland Islands would have been Bergen. You could practically stick to one latitude setting to get there, it is so nearly directly West. But the other part of the logic was timing. We had friends to meet up with in Scotland, and although the midcoast of Norway is anointed with an unequal abundance of beautiful fjords and coastal islands, we had succeeded in piloting Sea Rose through that region near Bergen last summer. It was time to strike out into the blue for new lands.

Crossing from Kristiansund, Norway to Shetland, UK

We have an increasing crescendo of offshore passages planned for this year, and the roughly two day crossing involving both the Norwegian and North Seas would be a good warm up for us and for the boat. As much as you prepare for these offshore legs in advance, it’s important to get practical experience at the helm, at the winch, in the galley and elsewhere onboard (OK, yes, and in the head too!) while moving through a three dimensional, non-stable world.

We dropped our lines from Kristiansund in the morning, figuring that if the passage took longer than 48 hours, we would have all of the third day’s daylight to arrive and get settled. We made landfall in the middle of the night in Tortola, BVI’s many years ago, and the experience left me rattled and wary of ever doing that again.

Since we were not directly across from Shetland, but further north, our route took us along the coast for a considerable distance. This required us to pay close attention to shallows and other boats, but it also allowed us to receive cell signal for most of the first day. This was less a boon for checking Instagram than it was for getting an update from PredictWind at their evening model update. We had anticipated the first day to be largely windless and full of motoring, followed by a downwind sail for the second day. Most of the weather models forecasted very strong winds as we approached the northern tip of Shetland, combined with big seas. That was a major concern, as we each took our turn for a 3 hour watch motoring slowly, ever so gradually further from the coast. On my first watch, I was, as I can’t seem to avoid, busy multi-tasking in the absence of having sails to trim. I was still in the cockpit but not 100% attentive to my role as helmsman, buried in the chart-plotter doing something other than watching ahead. Suddenly, the most horrific thud and crunchy sound occurred. Like in a car driving over a telephone pole, the engine shuddered violently and slowed, as I went diving for the throttle. With the shifter in neutral, a moment of calm descended as I waited, staring at the water behind our stern for the 5 second delay before I could figure out what we had hit in the water. I guessed it had been a floating piece of lumber or a water logged tree trunk. Instead, a large orange buoy popped up to the surface. Fishermen and women typically lay two buoys on each end of their fishing line in these waters – one large bright orange buoy like the one we had hit and a smaller white buoy. These buoys are connected with a line typically at the surface of the water, which makes them very easy to catch in your propeller. If there is just one buoy and the line goes vertically down from the surface, it is harder to get caught on. But I was also clearly at fault for not keeping a close eye continuously ahead. Karen came rushing to the cockpit and we slowly put the engine in gear again. To my relief, the propeller turned without issue. I slowly increased the speed and turned in a few circles. I tried turning both ways with the rudder. Everything seemed to work pretty normally. We have had issues in the past with seaweed getting caught on the propeller, which makes itself noticeable by the increased vibration at cruising rpm’s. Now, perhaps because of the adrenaline and angst, it seemed like there may be slightly more vibration than normal, but it was hard to tell for sure. We pushed on at our customary 6 knots and hoped for the best. And, I put away all of my distractions and focussed 110% on the water ahead, feeling terrible for my mistake – for our boat, and for affecting the livelihood of a Norwegian fisherperson.

As we continued motoring with no wind, nightfall approached, requiring us to set a plan for overnight watches. We decide on 3 hour stints. I took the first one from 7:30-10:30pm while Karen went down for a nap. Then we continued with Karen on watch from 10:30pm to 1:30am, and I took over from 1:30-4:30am. By about 3am, the sun — which had set but had never really went away and instead emitted its glow across the northern horizon — came back up. By my next watch at 7:30am, the sun was fully up and to our pleasure, the wind was starting to come up as well, from astern at about 12-14 knots. We raised the Code 0 and set it out with the whisker pole, while putting the genoa on the other side for a wing-and-wing sail configuration. Everything worked fine until the wind started to ease slightly and Sea Rose, subjected to the large ocean swells, started to roll from side to side. Each time we rolled, the sails would collapse and then pop back open with a snap and violent shaking to the mast and rigging. Some of this is the reality of sailing downwind. But when it is constant, it can become worrisome. We tried a different plan, dousing both sails and raising the asymmetrical spinnaker. This sail is made for these lighter downwind situations. The sail worked great for about 30 minutes and then we started hearing a loud squeaking noise at the top of the mast. I laid down on the foredeck with binoculars to see if I could ascertain the squeek’s source. It seemed to be in sync with tension on the spinnaker halyard. I tighten the halyard, which helped for another 10 minutes, but then the sound reappeared. We decided to douse that sail as well. When it came down to the deck, I could see right away that there was chafing started on the halyard — there was an obvious shiny layer on the cover of the halyard where it had started to heat up. This can be a common problem when at sea where sails are set for long periods of time and the wear on the lines is focussed on one area for days on end. But this had only been for a short period. We’d have to add a trip up the mast on the task list to investigate further.

Wing and wing with the Code 0 (left) and genoa (right)
Sadly removing the Norwegian courtesy flag!
The sun’s glow at 1:30am

We resorted to just the genoa, set out with the whisker pole. The asymmetrical was giving us great speeds, but the genoa in light winds was only producing 3-4 knots of boat speed. We turned the engine on again to motor sail for awhile. Thankfully, the wind came back up in the afternoon and we could kill the engine. The afternoon also brought darkening clouds and bigger swells. We had a quick dinner and settled back into our second night at sea, with me taking the 7:30-10:30pm watch again. It started to get wild and wooly, and the autopilot had a hard time keeping a straight course as Sea Rose swung 20 degrees or more either side of our intended compass heading. I got a few hours of rest on my off watch, but it took everything in my power to get up out of a warm bunk at 1:30am for my next stint in the cockpit. Clouds fully obscured the sky and therefore any possibility of seeing a sunrise. Oil platforms, which there are plenty of throughout these North Sea waters, lit up the horizon to our south. We had intentionally took a more northerly course to avoid the largest concentration of platforms. You are required to stay clear of them by at least 500 meters, but in some of the oil fields, there are so many platforms, it can become tricky to navigate through them.

First sight of Shetland – the Flugga Muckle lighthouse

By now we were getting closer to the northern tip of the Shetland Islands. When I came back on watch at 7:30am, with land just 20 miles away, I could faintly see the silhouette of the coastline. What a relief! The winds were increasing and dark patches of rain clouds passed by us regularly, but knowing that we were close to our destination made it all much easier to endure. We sailed past the entertainingly named Flugga Muckle lighthouse that marked the northern extent of the Shetlands, and in fact, the UK. As we turned south in the lee of the island, I had expected the wind to ease. But instead it increased, and with much less swell, we were screaming along at 7-8 knots on flat water. As they say, ‘Coming in hot!’ Our planned destination, and the one we had given to the UK’s Border Force for clearing into the country, was the little marina of Collivoe. But as we got closer, it was obvious a counter current was going to make that destination difficult. We had read about how strong the currents are in between all of the islands of Shetland – up to 4-6 knots during full and new moons – which recorded plenty of advanced planning. We picked a protected anchorage in a delightful, empty little cove named Lunda Wick. The anchor set easily, sheep were grazing passively on green pasture despite the steady rain, and Karen and I rejoiced down below in the cabin with the heater on full bore! We had made it to Scotland!

Anchored at Lunda Wick at the end of the passage. Time for the quarantine flag.
The official stats – 295 nautical miles at an average of 5.9 knots

After a rest, we searched for a place for the night. Collivoe ended up being too narrow of a marina for us to maneuver. We tried anchoring in a harbor a few miles south, but stopped when we realized there was an underwater cable passing through the harbor right where we wanted to anchor. Finally, we found a spot off the southern tip of the island of Unst, we would be together with a dense concentration of fish farms. It seems that the Scots have picked up from their neighboring Norwegians the profit of farming for fish. We will have to get used to navigating around their rows of large circular fish pens.

In the morning, we took advantage of a fresh 20 knot breeze to sail 10 miles further south to the island of Fetlar. The only workable anchorage to get ashore by dinghy was facing the southeast, in the same direction as the swells from the North Sea. Despite the rolly conditions, we set our anchor and dinghied ashore at the tiny town of Houbie, in search of a neolithic standing stone structure. Instead, we slogged through a wet, boggy trail whose trace disappeared into a large field of thick tundra-type mossy, spongy ground cover, making it feel like you are walking in slow motion on the moon. No grand circle of tall stones appeared where they were supposed to be, perhaps explaining why Google Maps oddly labeled the open-air natural site ‘temporarily closed’.

Back at the boat, soaking wet and feeling somewhat defeated as we rustled up some dinner, we were suddenly delighted as the skies cleared to a glorious late evening of buoyant sunshine. These moments come about as often as a complementary pay raise from your boss so we repacked our hiking gear and dinghied off to shore. This time the timing was right. The nascent golden hour for photography turned into a mid-summer extended session of beauty as we followed narrow human – or perhaps sheep – paths along the coastal cliffs.

Hiking the coastline of Fetlar

In a typical Scottish tease, as soon as the sun set, dark clouds rolled in from the sea and drenched us as we found our way back to Houbie while the little remaining light faded away at 11:30pm. It may not be the land of midnight sun, but at this time of year, there’s a lot of daylight to work with.

Our ultimate destination was the main city of the Shetland Islands – Lerwick. But before giving ourselves away to such temptations of food, shopping, and the safety of a marina, we sailed onward to the island of Noss and the anchorage of Nesti Voe, a continuation of the uniquely charming string of place names. Noss, as it turns out, is a haven for bird life. Not the common seabird life that is a couple varieties of gull and some ducks, but a wide range of beautiful and majestic seabirds. As we rounded a cliff on the eastern shore, rising straight up over 200 meters from the white water below, the cry and screech of birdlife became deafening. Northern gannets – my new favorite bird with its half white, half black wings and slightly yellowish head – nested in the nooks and crannies of the cliff. Others wheeled above our heads in the hundreds, maybe thousands! The sheer density of gannets was shocking. On the sea surface, huge flocks of black and white guillemots – a member of the penguin family – scurried away from our bow and dove below the surface. The cacophony of bird life all around us was an out-of-this-world experience.

Skies full of gannets and other seabirds at Noss

At our anchorage at Nesti Voe, we were approached by a helpful park warden who provided us with an informative map of the walking paths on the island as a gift in exchange for heeding her warning not to wander into the interior where nesting birds were needing their peace. She confirmed that puffins also made residence on the island and pointed out the best viewing spot at Cradle Holm about a two hour hike away. We reached the location after a breathtaking walk along the coastline to discover a large, tall slab of rock separated from the main island by a 50 meter gap that dropped precipitously to the raging seas below. Across the gap, we spotted puffins, with their distinctive bright orange beaks, huddled together in a cliff nook, peacefully co-existing with row upon row of guillemots, standing tall on their two feet like miniature penguins next to row upon row of my beautiful gannets. The animal kingdom of the sea and sky unfolded before us in striking beauty and dimension. Slabs of rock as long as busses, having fallen off the cliff edge some time in the past, were scattered in the water below, causing the incoming swells to surge and jettison sea spray high up in the air. Puffins flew by beating their tiny wings in a hurry to find their nest while gannets took to the air on their six foot wingspan with more grace, riding the updrafts off the cliff edges. This was a fairy tale scene out of children’s nature storybook, one that you could not imagine – in its grand scale and rainbow of beauty – could actually exist in real life. The fading hour demanded our return. I can only hope that as I struggle through my final hours on this earth in some hope-starved nursing home, I can pull from my memory bank this imagine of arresting beauty with its message that nature is the best nurture.

Taking the beach for our hike around Noss
A pair of sheep care little as we hike the coastline of Noss
Cradle Holm on Noss

A few hours of motoring into strong headwinds brought us around the corner to the ‘big’ city of Lerwick, where we eagerly awaited meeting our new best friend, Davie, who ran a sailmaking operation (Sew Far North) and who promised to make our mainsail functional again. Lerwick is a popular spot for visiting boats – from our size to cruise ship size – and the harbors ‘Vessel Traffic Service’ on VHF 12 controls all movement in the area, much like an air traffic controller. They even tell you where to berth on the visitor pontoons. We dutifully headed to Victoria Pier as instructed only to find a full dock with boats already double rafted. They were all smaller boats than Sea Rose, and as crew came out of their cozy cabins on this wet and windy day to see what our intentions were, we puzzled our way through our options. We finally chose the longest boat in the mix, one from the Netherlands. The owner came on deck as we approached, telling us in defiant terms that we had ‘too much windage’. He insisted that we must remove our cockpit side panels. With only a few meters to our destination, we weren’t about to head back out. He reluctantly took our lines and hastily threw the tails back to me, not at all wanting to be told where to secure them. With all lines set, Karen – in the spirit of a hail mary pass – said ‘Hi, let’s start over again. How are you?!’ But some pissed off people can’t get over being pissed off, and he continued to belittle us as if we had no experience docking a boat. I pleaded, ‘hey, look, everything worked out, there is no boat damage and we will run extra lines ashore just to be sure it stays that way’, but his insults continued. It looked like I’d have a need to visualize the nature scene back on Noss sooner than I thought!

Ashore, we were inundated with crowds from three cruise ships and their crew members busily sheepherding their passengers into buses, sightseeing boats, or walking tours. I don’t describe this scene in any way to be disrespectful of the cruise industry and its customers; it was only the shock of transition from our previous week in rugged nature that made it challenging. It was hard not to get tangled up in the crowds of tour groups. At one point, we overheard a tour guide, with her charges all huddled in rain gear and backs to the gusts of wind, say ‘They don’t come here for the weather!’ Indeed, the attractions of nature abound here, but the gray skies and 50 degree Fahrenheit weather is not one of them.

Wet, cold weather in downtown Lerwick

Karen and I stayed for two days at Lerwick, renting a car for one of them to get out and see the island from the land side. Much of the picturesque west coast was out of reach for us in our short one week visit to Shetland by boat, but a car solved that conundrum in a flash – that is, once I remembered how to drive a manual, shifting with my left hand, sitting in the righthand seat, and driving on the left. Let’s just say it was not a bonding moment between husband and wife!

A pair of… you guessed it… Shetland ponies!
St Ninian’s Beach
The often-photographed colored houses at Smiddy Close in Scalloway
Neolithic remains in Jarlshof

With our new mainsail in hand, boat parts replenished and gift shopping complete, we shoved off from our raft up to make our way south to the Orkney Islands. Our Netherlands neighbor – perhaps finding Jesus, a good night’s sleep, or sleepless night with a one-night stand – found it within himself to say goodbye and to wish us a good voyage. Implied apology accepted!

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