Jonathan Footerman continues his quest to circumnavigate the UK in a mini-yacht, passing by Bass Rock and scooting into the Scottish harbours of Lossiemouth, Arbroath, and Stonehaven.
Twenty-five years before embarking on a solo circumnavigation of the UK in a mini-yacht, I spent a year in Edinburgh. Now I was tied up in Dunbar near the mouth of the Firth of Forth, planning the leg to Inverness but tempted to sail into the Forth to re-visit the capital and take a photograph of the Forth Bridge, from underneath. Into the Firth was a day’s sail with another back out on the north side, where shelter is a problem for a fin-keeler. The Anstruther harbour master told me that fin-keeled boats were expressly forbidden on their pontoons due to the risk of damage at low tide; yes, even one as small as mine—Elektra only draws a metre. It seemed a lot of trouble for a helping of the Edinburgh natives’ infamous cold shoulder, so I have no photograph.
Sailing north took me across the Firth to the rocky coast of Fife. Crail, just north of the mouth, is a pretty little harbour beloved of artists, but with very little room—regretfully, I skipped it. St. Andrews is less developed than expected from its high-profile University and golf course: a rocky ridge unfriendly to keel-boats protrudes at the base of the breakwater, and the muddy outer harbour is exposed to the East wind. Tayport has a few yacht pontoons but is a 15-mile detour, and the commercial port of Montrose makes little effort beyond anchorage for yachts. Without entering the Tay or the Forth, yachtsmen will find no marina for 120 miles from Eyemouth at the English border to Peterhead at the northeast point of the Grampian highlands. Fortunately, I like a port wall.
June had seen severe weather, high winds and dead calms, and I felt uneasy about conditions to come. I motored for Arbroath on a day too calm for a sail, passing the volcanic plug of the Bass Rock on my left, now bereft of saintly hermits and whitened by the largest gannet colony in the world. I was complacent about my speed and reached Arbroath just as the lock master closed the gate. He caught sight of me and kindly lifted it again. Two more minutes and he would have gone, and I would have been searching for an anchorage. Strolling later around the sleeping town, I saw lights in a church. It had been converted to cafe use. A passer-by told me of plans to convert another to a wine bar. I feel more comfortable when re-use as a concert hall or community centre is consistent with church architecture, but when it comes to wine, I concede that the blessed variety does not cut the mustard beside a good Côte du Rhône.
Arbroath is the home of the ‘smokey’. One yachtsman complained bitterly to me that he had come especially to buy one, but it was a ‘nasty, chewy, fishy thing’. I wondered aloud if you were supposed to cook it. “Oh I don’t think so!” Traditionally it is a hot-smoked haddock, and is served hot. For those who would like to know, there is ordinary smoked haddock (often stained yellow and packed in plastic with a knob of butter), and then there is the real thing which has never been near food dye. Chalk and cheese. If you are lucky enough to get one uncompromised by mass production, it has a wonderfully complex, succulent flavour–warmed up. I only stayed a night in Arbroath, but in the next port of Stonehaven, the ladies of a little cafe in a shed by the sea served me the breakfast that made Arbroath famous. Unappetising, it was a pallid bit of wet white fish with a wet white poached egg on top, in a little puddle of watery ooze on a bit of white work-a-day porcelain. Absolute bliss! Food for the gods! I have eaten the best lobsters that Boston can provide, mountains of crab in Maryland, the finest corn bread in the boon docks, and roast duck that is the certified speciality of the Tour d’Argent in Paris. But a perfect, soft-poached, richly flavoured farm egg on a piece of haddock smoked by people who know what they are doing is simply incomparable.
I should also mention a fish and chip shop in Stonehaven which claims the invention of the deep-fried Mars bar. It is a chocolate-covered fudge and soft toffee confection, and their genius was to dip it in batter and fry it in deep oil. In a country that tops the list for coronary disease, they know their clientele. So much for haddock!
Back in Arbroath, a weather front was moving in which could block me in port for days. I decided to make Stonehaven before it arrived, still in a dead calm, and left at 5:30 p.m. for a 35-mile trip having called the HM for a late arrival. An unnecessary precaution (you simply raft up to another yacht if there is no space), Elektra was small enough to squeeze into a space by a ladder where a larger yacht could not, providing the HM made sure that the adjacent boats moored economically. I made good time, but it was a strange journey in the evening quiet, the water mirror-like, reflections of the sky folding and stretching over the long, slow roll of the swell. The sea was choc-a-bloc with medusas, jelly-fish by the billion, barely an inch of water around each one for as far as I could see into the clear depths and along the coast. Some had fluorescent rings in them, blue, green or pink, and they were at most two or three inches across, a fraction of the size of those I remember with pain from childhood. Fluorescence belongs in deep water and I cannot imagine what brought them up—perhaps nitrates in fertiliser run-off—but it was a fascinating sight. Looking up, I poised to dodge the grey dome of a pot marker, but it suddenly flipped and vanished. I don’t know much about grey seal anatomy, but I hope that those delicate parts not covered by fur are immune to medusa stings.
It was Walpurgis Night for wildlife as I found myself moving through an endless flock of guillemots, each with a single chick, at 10 metre intervals in a 300-metre band along the coast. They would watch as the boat drew alongside, flicking their heads from side to side, catch sight of me in the cockpit and dive. Occasionally the prow would pass between mother and chick and there would be an awful clamour. But there were no predators about, and I imagine that conditions were perfect to bring their young down from the cliffs for the first time, after the predatory gulls had gone to roost; doubtless an annual occurrence which I was lucky to see.
When the weather came in overnight, Elektra was bashed about in the Stonehaven outer harbour, and I looked for a solution with the softly-spoken HM in the morning. He combined his role with another, training youngsters in boat maintenance in a well-organised boat-house on the quay, and we stood watching four tiny heads huddling in the rafters: not the trainees, but some swallow chicks. He had the sort of varnished wooden boat that is a job for life, and was the man to advise on maintenance, lending me a grease gun for one of my winches. The disadvantage of port walls is that they rarely have shore power for yachts: riding up and down creates difficulties with wires. My battery had not been on charge since Eyemouth, so I hauled it up the wall with a spare line (I ought to have used one of the fishermen’s hoists visible in the photograph) and the HM put it on charge. I like places where problems can be resolved without fuss. Marinas operate under the pervasive mantra of procedure: no need for knowledgeable staff, permits for subcontractors, ifs and buts about what may be done at the pontoon, and so on. I hope that ports like Stonehaven endure.
As the weather brightened, children came down to play on the sand of the inner harbour, while their older brothers dared one-another to leap off the sea-wall. It was time to move on. The wind that kept me in Stonehaven was still blowing stiffly from behind when I set off, but this time I got it right, the jib filling well with the mainsail reefed. I gybed (like tacking) down wind for 40 miles, staying off a dead run, making 7 knots with the current as the wind rose to force 5 (20+ MPH). I left at 9 a.m. and was tied up in the Peterhead marina by 4 p.m. The south-westerly had raised a swell over a few days and it was hard work on the tiller, but I was getting better at it, wearing the right gear and staying warm. The storm arrived overnight with 50 MPH winds, and I stayed in the cabin until the afternoon, listening to the hiss of the angling rain and the slap of a badly-secured halyard against the mast.
Peterhead bay is enclosed by breakwaters like Dover. Built in the same granite as the others in Angus and Aberdeenshire, it is a no-fuss working port. At the marina end of the beach, a pretty garden marks out the office, like a country station when station-masters took pride in the railways, before unions changed their perspective. At the port end live some of the largest, least timid rabbits I have ever seen: not only the people here have Viking blood. As I came in, Alastair was waiting to take my lines, roaring “Where’s my chart?” I met him in Dover where he lent me one for the Thames crossing, but I could not keep up with his larger boat. We teamed up for the trip through the locks of the Caledonian Canal, where I would get a master-class in locks from an expert yachtsman.
Mainland Britain lies less than its own length from the Arctic Circle where the sun will not set for at least one day per year. The Gulf stream flows up from Mexico and warms the climate deceptively: these are northerly latitudes, and the weather is not to be trusted. Currents run at double the speed of my boat around Cape Wrath, the north-west corner of Scotland, and there is barely a port on the north coast, so that a yacht leaving Wick in the East to sail around the top may have to stay at sea for many days, and it must be set up for it with provisions and water on board. Particularly, it must have a ‘sea-berth’ for the solo sailor where he can rest fully clothed, ready to get to the cockpit in seconds if his proximity alarm goes off: and that requires a radar system. Elektra had neither. With it, the single-hander can snatch sleep in intervals between clocked alarms that allow him to keep a look-out; ill-equipped, he may be lucky enough to anchor and rest in calm weather, but he can be in great trouble if his luck changes, and it probably will. The solution is the Caledonian Canal, which runs to Fort William on the west coast through a series of lochs and canal links beginning with Loch Ness. We simply had to follow the Moray Firth to the sea-lock at Inverness.
I had bought a seven-day any-municipal-port ticket to enjoy the Moray coast which is full of coves and bays, but the persistent storms spoiled it. The wind veered west in the Firth, worse than useless on the bow, and stormy. We had to use the interludes to motor as far as possible towards Inverness, stopping in Whitehills and Lossiemouth private marinas. There were other yachts waiting to set off into the Moray Firth, but I had to let them go without me when a malfunctioning cash machine swallowed my card. The sea was calm as I left two hours later and I ignored the advice of the HM to go very wide around Rattray Head, the north-eastern cape. A broken-up, shallow bottom creates dangerous overfalls (currents) well wide of the head, but the detour would add two or three miles. I was in the midst on disturbed water when the wind died and I had to start the motor, but it reappeared a little chillier on the bow as I rounded the cape.
Three hours took me to Troup Head just as the tide turned in my favour but against the wind, raising an unpleasant chop. The bow began to crash into each wave as it dived off the one before, killing the speed. I was too close in, the shallows making it much worse, and with the speed down to just over a knot, I was beginning to lose steering way and control. I turned north-west to clear the point and pulled out the sails to get extra speed close-hauled into the westerly. I ought to have turned directly north to get out of there, but I wanted to make Whitehills before the weather came back and laboured on north-west to clear the head. I was almost around it when the wind shot up to a force 5, and the boat heeled over sharply. I hove to by turning across the wind, reversing the jib to push backwards against the mainsail, so that I could reef the main with the boat standing up. But the wind whipped the jib and threw a self-tightening loop into the sheet (the controlling rope) around the winch. Now I was in trouble, unable to release the jib to sail out of the hove-to position, with the current gradually pushing me towards the head about 150 metres away. The way to deal with this is to tie a second line onto the sheet with a rolling hitch and pass it through a block to the other winch, to release the tension. I would have to set all that up before I hit the rocks, and never having done it before, it seemed a bad time to try. With both feet against the winch, at some risk to my fingers, I managed to haul the sheet over the top of the winch, flopping back onto the cockpit floor as the boat spun around; then jumped up, grabbed the tiller and sailed back on my tracks away from the head. I would not have had the strength with a larger sail. A few seconds later, the wind dropped back to the gentle breeze as quickly as it had come up. I turned north and gave the head a wide berth, but caught the advance end of the approaching gale in the last hour and had to bash my way slowly to the marina.
Whitehills has a small marina, two pubs, one shop and a post office. Arriving hours after the others who thought I had stopped at an earlier port, I got an explanation from the locals in the pub. The west side of Troup Head can funnel the wind into a narrow air-stream. Sailing too close in, I hit the air-stream as I came up to the point. Going back on my tracks, I soon left it again. Sailing a few hundred metres further out, I would barely have noticed it. A foolish mistake.
On the way to Lossiemouth, Alastair took a photograph of Elektra with a double-reefed mainsail, which he kindly allowed me to use. We were greeted by a flight from the RAF base nearby, complete with AWACs, too great an honour for such a little boat. It is an airy and agreeable town where we had to remain for 3 nights, but I was losing fitness for lack of aerobic exercise (Alastair remarked that I looked tired) and I was glad of the rest and the walking. It is another once-substantial port in which the task of the HM is changing to the management of yacht facilities. For people who have often come from a background of military logistics or the coastguard, it can only be disheartening.
It is also a bit disheartening to set out in the rain as we did for Inverness. My hourly log reads: Motoring, rain; Drizzle; Drizzle; Rain stopped, glassy; Sudden squall on nose; Squall, chop; More squalls at Fort George; In harbour. So it was obviously a nice trip. However, just after we passed under the Kessock Bridge at Inverness, we were greeted by a pair of bottle-nose dolphins who live there, porpoising around the boat. It is very welcoming when they do that, like getting a hug from the hotel receptionist.
Next episode: Lochs and locks of fun in the Caledonian Canal.