South to southwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6 in the far northwest. This was the Hebridean sea area forecast which got me out of bed at 4 o’clock on Sunday morning and heading out to sea by 5am. There was a possibility of a force 7 higher up in the Fair Isles region but generally the forecast for the next three to four days had all the important letters and numbers in so it was time to go go go!
With the possibility of a force 7 not far to the north I took the precaution of putting one reef in the main and then I could roll out as much genoa as I liked in order to keep Fiesta happy and balanced. Right here I will save you the long drawn out story (only because one follows later) and summarise by saying that this was the best sail I have ever had on Fiesta! There you go, a big statement after four years of sailing her but an easy one because from start to finish it was perfect! Good speed, good wind strength, the right amount of sail up, no rain, no other boats, no rocks to watch out for, just 74 miles of clear, deep empty sea to play in.
About 40 miles out from Stornoway my DSC safety alarm went off on the radio. This was because a surprise weather change had popped up! Stornoway Coastguard issued a warning for a southwesterly gale 8 and it was expected ‘Soon’ which meant within 6 to 12 hours. Weather forecasting makes me laugh sometimes. The experts have got incredibly good at accurate forecasting and as I explained in my previous blog, I had been watching the weather very closely but once in a while a little brooding hard done by gale terrorist decides to stop hiding in the shadows, put his backpack on, run into the middle of the ‘business as usual weather system’, press his button and f*ck everything up! Fortunately, albeit a late one, there was a warning!
This surprise forecast had no influence over my plan. I was now too far from Stornoway to turn back so I had to accept what I had just heard and be prepared to ride it out in Loch Eriboll. I got to Cape Wrath and quite by surprise I felt a little emotional. I could see along the North Coast and also down the West Coast of Scotland and realised that this was a ‘goodbye’ to the West. I felt the occasion was special enough to justify an 11am whisky and I raised a glass of thanks and farewell to the West Coast and a ‘Hello’ to the North!
On arriving at Cape Wrath I was met with a stiff force 7 on the beam. I was able to roll some of the genoa away and sheet the main out more to spill the excessive wind and relax as Fiesta trucked along the new coastline at 8 to 10 knots relishing the fresh beam on wind and relatively flat sea in leu of the fact that the wind was blowing offshore and I was only about 2 miles out so there wasn’t enough room for the sea to build between me and the land. It was eerie going passed Cape Wrath. I got a sense of just how far north and how far from a safe harbour I was on this inhospitable jagged coast. I felt both satisfaction and trepidation.
74 miles and 11 hours after leaving Stornaway I was anchored right at the head of the desolate place that is Loch Eriboll. The wind was blowing pretty hard and although sheltered from the sea, there is not much shelter from the wind in Eriboll. There are huge mountains all around but a valley that runs into the head of the Loch means the wind has the perfect place to whistle through and give you a good going over. At about 8pm the wind dropped off and I thought there was a chance that the surprise gale that had been forecast may have just been and gone. Maybe it had been a gale but I couldn’t feel the full force of it as I came along getting some shelter from the coast from Cape Wrath and into this Loch. I made the most of the calm, launched Doris and took Max ashore for a well deserved walk.
Back onboard I had dinner, watched a film, checked the level of the whisky bottle, let plenty of anchor rode out and made sure the sails were stored away just in case that forecasted gale hadn’t actually blown through yet and was still lurking.
In the first few seconds of consciousness at 4am I was on autopilot fuelled by adrenalin brought on by fear. There was a really loud noise and I hadn’t consciously processed what it could be, I just knew that I needed to be upright, dressed and in a state of high alert. You know that horrible sound of the blood pumping in your ears when you are momentarily shocked and sh*t scared? Well that’s what I had. The noise I heard and was still hearing was the sound of the gale making it’s presence known on the mast, rigging, sail covers and anything else that could flap like crazy in the wind. It was a lot of different noises all at once and the wind hit really hard and seemingly without any prior build up! Someone had just turned the mother of all fans on and aimed it straight at Fiesta!
I didn’t go outside, I just tried to gather my thoughts and assess what was going on. We’ve all been there I think, it’s like waking up in a strange place and you can’t remember where you are and you just sit there saying to yourself ‘Come on cock sock, work it out’ but it seems to take forever for the brain to get up to the speed you need it to be working at.
I thought about the anchor and realised that whatever extra scope I had let out previously was now being tested. If I hadn’t got enough out or the seabed wasn’t good enough holding ground I would soon know about it.
When I picked my spot to anchor I headed for the part on the chart which showed the seabed with an ‘M’ for mud. Being an east coast sailor, I am a fan of anchoring in mud. Anchors like it too. Lots of thick mud to get their teeth into makes for good holding. I turned my attention to the drag queen. She hadn’t been to sleep and was dutifully keeping an eye on things and we weren’t moving. Phew!
I sat in the dark listening to the noise and watching the drag queen. I was looking forward to daylight but when daylight came it only served to show me how hard it was blowing out there! There were foamy streaks on the water and every now and again the wave crests would be blown off and the spray would cover the boat. I made my way on deck to check the anchor rode to make sure it was holding the cleat well and that it was not chafing itself on the bow roller under this huge amount of strain. I went back inside and felt that whilst it was certainly too windy for my liking, it wasn’t dangerous. However, right at that moment things went a bit turbo!
The sound of the wind through the rigging gives you a pretty good idea of what is going on. It had been making a low to medium howling sound but all of a sudden this changed to a fairly high whistling and then a very loud shrieking noise. This noise is frightening and the shrieking was accompanied by Fiesta vibrating, shaking and shuddering with this new wind strength.
The spray coming off the surface of the water was now continuous and was blowing past the boat in sheets and once this is happening you know things are getting serious. I guessed that we were now into severe gale 9 territory and made my way to the foredeck to try and get a wind reading. I saw a gust coming towards me on the water and in the go pro footage that I took you can see it too. The gust was 51.7 knots! A gale 8 starts at 34 knots. Oh F*CK! Is what I thought. I knew what this meant but I double checked with my ‘Weather at Sea’ book and yes, wind speed of 48 to 55 knots is a Stormforce 10!
Up to this point the dinghy which had been happily tied up sheltering behind Fiesta became airborne despite the fact that the engine was on the back of it! This happened several times but there was nothing I could do about it. There is no way that anyone can hang on to a rubber dinghy in 50 knots of wind and human nature tells you not to let go so there is a chance of being pulled over the side. I’ve seen it happen when a boat was trying to pick up a mooring buoy and someone went over the side because something made him steadfastly refuse to let go of the boathook he was holding onto the buoy with. The boat drifted off leaving him in the water still holding onto the buoy with the boathook!
Knowing that the only safe thing to do was to do nothing but watch, inevitably the wind got under it and lifted it quite high before flipping it over so it landed upside down. It was now much more stable on account of the fact that my lovely 6hp Yamaha engine was now fully immersed in salt water and was acting like a keel! I had my life jacket on and my harness too so I proceeded to tie various bits of rope to the parts of Doris that I could reach and winched it up onto it’s side. Once up on it’s side I could attach another rope to the side that was now in the water and winch that one in as I let the other lines go in order to right it. I watched as the salt water poured out of my poor engine and one oar became detached and floated away. The only plus side was that the dinghy was now full of salt water and wasn’t going to flip over again and I was able to lash it to the stern of the boat out of harms way. The last four sentences take less than 30 seconds to read but it took me 40 minutes to get Doris back upright and I was exhausted. It was a total fight using ropes and all my strength whilst being harnessed on and leaning over the back of Fiesta and at the same time keeping one eye on the telegraph poles on the mountain to make sure that we were not dragging the anchor. It blew HARD for four hours and we had many 50 knot plus gusts across the deck. It was very tense and I was scared, I don’t mind admitting that.
The first really big gust was accompanied by the much dreaded sound of the drag queen alarm. We moved about 10 feet and then stopped again. What I think happened here is that the first huge gust put a much increased load on the anchor and whilst it did drag ten feet, what it actually did was just dig itself harder and deeper into the mud and as we all know, harder and deeper is a good thing!
I started the engine to make sure that it was warm and ready to go in case we started dragging again but didn’t stop. However there would be little chance that I could control the boat, retrieve and reset the anchor in this wind. I had a spare anchor that was on deck and ready to deploy but my spare is not as big as my main one so if Fiesta dragged with the main one and I had to abandon it in it’s position, what chance was there for the smaller spare to hold? And anyway, realistically I do not believe that I would be able to make any headway against a 50 knot wind. With a water logged engine and only one oar, I no longer had the dinghy so all I could do was hope, pray and trust in the Rocna anchor. I had nearly 180 feet of anchor rode out and was anchored in about 18 feet of water. A 10-1 scope to depth ratio is serious storm anchoring tactics but I was in a serious storm situation so I was pleased I had let that much out.
After securing the dinghy there was nothing more I could do than just sit tight. I tried to read but couldn’t really concentrate as Fiesta shook, yawed, shuddered and groaned. The noise was horrible. After four hours of gusts into the stormforce category the wind settled to a gale 8 gusting severe gale 9. There were some short periods of relative calm, usually a minute or so when I thought it had blown itself out only for it to return with vengeance and in all the gale lasted until 4 o’clock the next morning when the whistling and shrieking stopped and was once again replaced by a low howl. At this point I went to sleep and didn’t wake until 9am.
Before I left home I remember saying to several people that if I thought I could do this trip and not find myself sh*t scared on a dark night in a loch trying to weather a gale at some point, I would be naive. So, here we are. It happened and it happened on the north coast in a loch where I couldn’t get any radio signal, vhf radio signal, navtex reception (for weather forecasts), mobile reception or internet so I was well and truly out of contact and on my own. Funny isn’t it that the north coast of Scotland delivered my best ever sail immediately followed by the most testing and scary conditions that I have ever had!
Rocna, Rocna, Rocna! Everyone should have a Rocna. F*ck it, even if you don’t have a boat, get one! You can anchor your house down in the next hurricane. The thing was awesome. For 24 hours the anchor rode resembled a tight rope. It creaked, strained and groaned where it was straining over the bow roller and onto the deck cleat but the Rocna didn’t lose it’s grip and in stormforce 10 conditions, that is very good indeed!
Without any external communication I had to rely on my trusty barometer to make a best guess about the weather. It’s funny how calm a force 7 can feel after 24 hours of gales so after taking 30 minutes to coax the anchor from it’s new home deep in the mud, I left Looh Eriboll under full genoa only and sailed the 43 miles east to Scrabster. The seas were big after the gale but they were big rollers with a lot of space between each wave which made for fast smooth sailing. With a force 7 hammering my back door combined with the downward slope of a big wave, Fiesta posted a new top speed of 14.5 knots! Awesome!!!
My average speed over the 43 miles was nearly 8 knots and I have this trip marked in my log as my second best ever sail on Fiesta!
By 17.15 on Tuesday I was tied up in Scrabster Harbour piecing together the tale of the tape for the last few exciting days!
I’ve got some work to do on the outboard engine to try and get it running again, my ensign pretty much got shredded and I need to get a new oar but if they are the only prices to pay following that kind of storm, you have to put that day down as a very good day indeed!
In the last 118 miles of sailing since leaving Stornoway I have only seen three other boats out there, all fisherman. So there you have it. The north coast of Scotland has produced my best two sails ever and my most frightening 24 hours ever at anchor. The peaks and troughs of a truly dramatic, stunning but desolate and exposed coastline.
Approaching and rounding Cape Wrath
Harsh but beautiful coastline on the way to Loch Eriboll
Hunkering down and keeping fingers crossed. It’s cruel that I had no dinghy to use to get the gold….
Sailing onwards to Scrabster with more dramatic coastline, the ensign looking a little worse for wear and the engine cover off to try and dry it out!
I will try and put the footage of the gale together soon but for now it’s onwards through the Pentland Firth.
Aching, weathered, battle sore but satisfied and relieved sailor out!