Award-winning filmmakers and sailing authors, Paul and Sheryl Shard, have been cruising internationally since 1989. Sail-World Cruising has featured many of their adventures. Here is part one of yet another, courtesy of Canadian Yachting.
The Muckle Flugga light at 60º 51'N 0º53'W marks the most northern point of the United Kingdom. Our quest to reach it aboard our Southerly 49 sailboat, Distant Shores II, took us through some of the United Kingdom's most remote and charming island groups, the Orkney and Shetland Isles.
These island groups lie off the north coast of the Scottish mainland; although both are territories of Scotland, the people seem to identify more strongly with their Nordic roots. For centuries, Viking kings ruled the islands — which are only a short sailing distance across the North Sea from Norway. Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands, is a mere 195 nm to the Marstein light at 60º 8'N 5º 4.5'E on the west coast of Norway. The Marstein light marks the entrance to the fjord leading into the major Norwegian port of Bergen.
Fishing and seafaring are important and honoured livelihoods in the islands so there is much 'back-and-forthness' that encourages cultural exchange between Orkney, Shetland, and Norway. During World War II, the Shetland Bus was established — a special operations boat-based link between Shetland and German-occupied Norway that moved people and supplies under the cover of darkness and in conditions of poor visibility and foul weather across the North Sea. To this day, the bond the Shetland Bus created remains strong.
We began our cruise of the Orkney and Shetland archipelagos in mid-June following an east-to-west transit of Scotland's Caledonian Canal from Fort William to Inverness. On June 17, we raised anchor in a misty sunrise at the anchorage in Kessock Road, near Inverness, to sail north up the last stretch of Scotland's east coast timing our departure for favourable tides and a safe crossing of the Pentland Firth.
The Pentland Firth is a notorious strait separating the Orkney archipelago from the mainland of Scotland and has some of the strongest and fastest tides in the world. Speeds of 16 knots or 30 km/hr have been recorded, which is fast enough to waterski! In normal high tide and current conditions six and eight knots can be expected as well as 'roosts,' which occur when the tide brings water in and meets waves coming from the other side forming massive standing waves. At maximum tide and current, the shoal-strewn Pentland Firth is generally not the place you want to be in a sailboat. We were blessed with light-wind conditions and a pleasant sail across the strait to reach the Orkney Isles on calm seas.
Orkney is an archipelago of 70 or so low-lying islands located about 10 nm north of the Scottish mainland; it has been home to mankind since about 4,000 B.C. Of the 70 islands, only 20 are inhabited, and most of the 20,000 people live on the largest island called Mainland where Orkney's two main towns, Kirkwall and Stromness, are located as well as the large natural harbour of Skapa Flow. The islands played an important part in the development of Canada's history since Stromness was a major recruiting and supply base for the Hudson's Bay Company. If you sail out into the Atlantic Ocean from Stromness, the next stop is Canada.
A great aspect of cruising in this region is that you are so far north that you have lasting daylight in the summer months. This means you can cover a lot of ground between sunrise and sunset — especially if you ride the tides. Plenty of daylight remained at 19:30 on June 17 when, after a passage of 98 nm, we reached our first anchorage in Orkney at East Weddel Sound in Holm Sound between Mainland and Burray just outside the huge natural harbour of Skapa Flow.
We were the only boat floating in the anchorage. Surrounding us were World War II blockships — purposely sunk to prevent German U-boats, which could hold up to a hundred naval ships, from entering the harbour. On shore, concrete gun emplacements stand out against vibrant green fields. In both World Wars, Skapa Flow was the main base for the British Royal Navy. However on October 14, 1939, a U-47 slipped through and sank the World War I-era battleship, HMS Royal Oak. As a result, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the construction of a series of causeways to completely block the eastern approaches to Skapa Flow. The Churchill Barriers now provide road access from Mainland to Burray and South Ronaldsay, and still block all ship traffic into the harbour. But they make this cove on the outside a secure and interesting anchorage. Before the sun set we launched the dinghy and went to take a look at the wrecks.
One of the most significant events in naval history at Skapa Flow occurred here in World War I when the German fleet purposefully sank their own ships. At the end of the First World War the entire fleet was interned here while peace negotiations were underway. The German admiral, fearing that either hostility might recommence or the entire fleet would be given to the Allies, decided to scupper the fleet and had 74 ships sunk in the harbour at Skapa Flow. A huge salvage operation took place after the scuttling of the German High Seas fleet in 1919 but seven warships and four destroyers still lie on the bottom and have become popular dive sites. Novice divers can enjoy exploring the blockship wrecks in the Holm Sound anchorage which is shallower than the deep water of the main harbour.
The summer season is short in this part of the world and our strategy was to get north as quickly as possible and then work our way south. Rather than exploring Orkney now, we decided to shoot north up to Shetland, make the jump to Norway, and then cruise Orkney and Shetland thoroughly and in a relaxed fashion on our way south travelling with, rather than against, the season.
On June 19, we set sail for Fair Isle in the Shetland archipelago. Once again we had light winds but enough for a pleasant sail. We dressed in full foul weather gear all summer due to the temperature. If it's suntanning you’re after, this is not the cruising ground for you!
Fair Isle is the most southerly of the Shetland Islands and lies almost 30 miles north-east of Orkney and about 25 miles south-west of Shetland’s Mainland, making it the most remote island in the United Kingdom and a breeding ground for many species of birds. You may have heard of Fair Isle sweaters which have traditional patterns and are produced by the islanders from the fine Fair Isle sheep's wool.
We made landfall at South Light and it's at this end of Fair Isle that most of the 70 islanders live. Fair Isle's most distinctive landmark is Sheep Rock. At 100 metres tall, it gets its name from the days when grazing lands were scarce and islanders used to haul sheep up to graze there. We passed this magnificent landmark to arrive at the small harbour at North Haven. The island's ferry, called The Good Shepherd, is docked here. Although there's a small airstrip, The Good Shepherd is the main link to the outside world.
Fair Isle is just three miles long and 1.5 miles wide. Since 1954, the island has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland, ensuring that the special eco-system of Fair Isle is protected. An abundance of wildflowers colour the harsh landscape here and you'll also find a profusion of lichen rarely seen in less pristine environments.
We came here to learn more about seabirds, especially puffins, who breed in the cliffs of Fair Isle during the spring and summer months. There has been a permanent bird observatory on Fair Isle since 1948 due to the number and variety of birds that migrate and breed here throughout the year. The observatory lodge near the harbour provides most of the visitor accommodation on the island and free guided walks are offered by the rangers. Visiting sailors can make reservations at the restaurant there and participate in the activities. Wearing our new Fair Isle hats, we went out with Ranger Carrie at 10 o'clock at night with enough daylight to see and learn about the hundreds of puffins, gannets and 'bonxies' that breed here in the spring and summer months.
As we talk, puffins come and go from their burrows in the cliffs at our feet. We learn that like most sea birds they actually spend the winter out at sea and then come to land for their breeding season from early April to the end of July. When the breeding season ends, the puffins leave with their young to go back out to sea. Nobody knows exactly where they go, but apparently they're quite keen to come back to their original breeding ground and return to the same site year after year. Through a careful tagging procedure, which visitors can participate in, the rangers can see which birds have survived the previous winter. If you're interested in seeing seabirds, they're pretty much guaranteed here from late April through to the end of July.
The northern part of Fair Isle is rocky moorland so it is used as common grazing land for the islanders' sheep. The southern part of Fair Isle offers more shelter, the land flatter and more arable — hence the reason why the majority of the 70 islanders live here where there are two churches, a small shop, a post office and a schoolhouse. Most of the islanders live on crofts. Crofting is a form of land tenure where small-scale or self-sufficient food production is carried out. Due to the severity of the environment here, most crofters on Fair Isle farm sheep for meat and wool. Many islanders are involved in craftwork activities related to the fine wool produced here — spinning and knitting goods using the traditional Fair Isle patterns. Click here
to see more images from their journey. Award-winning filmmakers and sailing authors, Paul and Sheryl Shard, have been cruising internationally since 1989. They are the hosts of the sailing adventure TV series, Distant Shores, which airs weekdays across Canada on Travel and Escape Channel and includes episodes on their cruise of Orkney and Shetland.
They are regular contributors to Canadian Yachting magazine, Canada's premiere source for compelling boating lifestyle experiences, travel destinations, boat reviews, tips on gear, marine events and breaking news for sailors and power boaters. Enjoyed by readers in digital, online and print formats six times yearly.