I’m not a sailor with an incredible amount of deep sea miles under my belt but I have done a few. Over the years and on several occasions I have been asked if I ever get scared way out at sea. The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes, I do. It hasn't happened often but there have been some scary times. However, whilst it is a perfectly understandable question, it’s not actually the right one! The right question is ‘Do you ever get scared when you are close to land’? The answer to that would be yes, many, many times! The truth is that when the conditions get rough you are far safer offshore, well away from the hard edges.
After six glorious weeks in the Faroe Islands, last Saturday morning at 2am we dropped the lines and pushed off from Tvøroyri. We picked our way out of the fjord, past the fish farms and into the blackness of a very dark night. Was that scary? No, not at all. It was beautiful. The night sky was crystal clear and while I don't know much about constellations, I do know the big old dipper when I see it and there it was, all seven stars shining brightly. I love spotting that thing wherever I am in the world. I used to stare at it from my Mum & Dad’s back garden so seeing it always makes me feel like I am at home even when, just as in this case, I am a very long way away indeed.
The clouds arrived in time to hide the rising sun but it was still a beautiful morning albeit tainted with a sadness that both Asha and I felt at leaving the Faroe Islands behind. The one thing that cheered us both up was knowing that we will be back!
Our trip back to UK land was uneventful. This is code for excellent! We did have quite a lot of thick fog but when you have a radar, this ceases to be a problem and is something you simply let the electronics deal with. You might be blind but the radar gives you vision.
We cruised south, further than we needed to but that was because there was quite a lot of wind forecasted and we wanted to be far enough south to be able to bear away and have it on the side of us rather than fighting our way into it. The strategy worked. We headed south for 100 miles and then turned and reached in a south-easterly direction for another 100 or so miles until we made landfall on Fair Isle. I said earlier that it was an uneventful passage but in order to be accurate, I should say that it was almost uneventful! A passage isn't over until you are safely tied up or anchored at your destination and after 199 miles of easy sailing, the last mile was very sketchy indeed. It went like this....
‘Asha, do you agree with me that we are going to follow this headland around and then go through that gap ahead’? ‘Yes I do’ was Asha’s reply to which I said
‘F*ck, I knew it looked tight on the chart but in real life, holy shit, that’s a small gap’!
It’s a well accepted fact that whilst the devil lives in hell, he has a holiday home in The Details and here we were in The Details and there he was waving his nasty, crooked little red finger right at us, the little prick! As we made our approach towards this narrow gap the visibility closed in, we had to put the radar on again and, just as sods law dictates, we had arrived at the precise time when the tide does a very strange thing. For a period of time it swirls and fizzes and makes the sea look like it has been pelted by a thousand boulders all at once. It was rough, there were rocks with white water all around us and quite honestly it was scary! I intend to write to Musto because whilst their full foul weather gear has served me really well, I want to know if they do a line of foul weather underpants because just as it is for anyone who attends a premature ejaculation clinic, it was touch and go down there for a while!!
After a few minutes we breathed a sigh of relief to be through the gap only to be confronted by another surprise! There was a huge barge and a massive tug in the harbour plus the Shetland Island ferry and between them they were taking up the entire harbour wall. We circled around and around minding the rocky patch ahead, the steep cliff to our side and the massive boulders behind us that the wind was trying to blow us on to. We contemplated lots of options, none of which were appealing, before I said to Asha ‘I just don’t know what to do’. After 36 hours and not much sleep, this was overload for my poor little piece of grey matter. Just then a guy appeared and told us we should go alongside the other jetty. The other jetty was made of concrete and had long legs with big gaps in between. Such a jetty is made for metal boats not shiny plastic ones. We carry a fender board which is a long wooden plank that goes outside of your fenders to bridge such gaps in such jetties and allows you to moor alongside. We hung this over the side and made our approach. The wind was now blowing pretty hard through the tiny harbour and was going to blow us on to the jetty. I realised that I had to sneak upwind and turn side on as close to the jetty as possible so the wind could blow us a short distance sideways and gently onto it. If I left a big gap, the wind would blow us at an increasing speed sideways until we hit the jetty too hard but if I didn’t leave enough of a gap, a big gust could blow us onto the end of it before we made it around! The last two sentences sum up the scenarios that you must go through whenever you are trying to moor a boat in close quarters. There are always many things to consider and being a pessimist can prevent surprises and keep you out of trouble because if something can go wrong in this kind of situation, it will!
The plan to sneak up worked and whilst I don’t think I could have done it any better, there is no such thing as gently when a strong wind is pushing a 12 tonne boat sideways onto a lump of concrete. We touched down to the loud bang of the fender board snapping like a match stick, sending wood splinters flying! The noise was really loud but its bark was worse than its bite because we landed on a fender that took the brunt of the impact.
We mucked about with fenders and lines as Altor surged up and down with the harbour swell and we tried desperately to keep her sides from the concrete. The easiest way to fend off a boat is to use your legs to push which is exactly what we did although I told Asha to ensure she didn’t get anything caught in the gap. We had just seen what happened to the fender board so concentration and care was essential!
After a period of struggle we got things under enough control to leave Altor and look for a replacement bit of wood to make a new fender board. The wind was due to blow very hard the next day and I was already very unhappy at the prospect of being bounced up against this horrible structure. This was a scary way to arrive in Fair Isle!
We walked ashore and the first person we met was the harbourmaster. He was the least welcoming harbourmaster I have ever met! I’m pretty laid back but sleep deprivation and a struggle to keep you boat safe can change that and Asha, well Asha is the guard dog of this operation! With this in mind the harbourmaster can consider himself lucky to be able to count all seven fingers and eleven toes after starting the conversation with ‘Why did you have to come to Fair Isle’?!!!!! Now, call me old fashioned but I think it’s customary to say hello, good afternoon, watcha cock, or something like that when starting a conversation. However, it turns out that fear caused this breakdown of communication. He was scared of us because of Covid! After what, in my opinion, is the very sensible approach of the Faroese people, it was painfully obvious that we had arrived back in the scare-mongered UK.
Fair’s fair though and Asha and I respect other people’s fear even if we don't feel it ourselves so I explained that we were heading south from the Faroe Islands and Fair Isle is where I deemed to be our safest destination considering the wind direction and weather forecasts.
‘So, this is you first port of call in the UK is it’?
‘Well you are meant to go to Shetland and check in there first’.........
Look, I’m not going to bore you with the entire script but basically this is where I think it’s all a complete load of bollocks. Forgive me for sounding high and mighty here but I am the captain on Altor of Down and it is my responsibility to ensure the safety of my vessel and consequently, the crew. I decide where I think it is safest for us to make landfall and I won’t be dictated to or pushed into a compromised decision because of a virus. Talking quite honestly, if the shit hits the fan on the boat out at sea, the virus is the least of our concerns. Besides, we were not going to be disrespectful and mix with the locals, we were going to keep ourselves to ourselves.
I will never put anything above the safety of the vessel and crew and I don’t care if this gets me into trouble because this is THE most important factor.
Right, with that off my chest and relative peace made with the harbour master, we returned to Altor and were greeted by the skipper of the tug who said ‘You can come alongside the tug rather than this horrible concrete jetty if you prefer’. After a shaky start in Fair Isle things were looking up. We took him up on his offer and within twenty minutes we were alongside his massive steel tug. It’s quite a bizarre turn of events when a sailing yacht wants to go alongside such a big steel thing with tyres hanging all around it but not only was it the best option, it was the only safe one!
That night we thrashed around on the lines as a swell rolled into the harbour and we didn't get very much sleep but we were safe and our neighbours were cool. Sleep would have to wait.
The next day we had to move from the tug because they were going to move the barge in order to load two cranes and a lorry which had been on the island installing a new water treatment works. I was a little worried about this because we would have to anchor in the tiny anchorage while the forecasted strong wind howled through until we could go back alongside the tug once their manoeuvres were done.
The next 8 hours at anchor were grim! We had 40 knots of wind battering the boat, a big patch of rocks ahead of us, a sheer cliff right next to us and huge boulders behind us which we would have been on in a flash had our anchor dragged. We had to put out as short a chain as possible so as not to be in the way of the tug operations and to stop us from hitting any of these very hard and very close objects but this is a double edged sword because the shorter the chain, the more likely you are to drag!
This was the tightest anchorage I have ever been in with no room and very gusty conditions. I spent the day staring at the chart plotter to see if we were moving and occasionally I would see the fenders flying horizontally next to the windows as the gusts ripped through. I was sweaty palmed and very stressed! It was a great relief when the tug skipper called us on the radio and said ‘We are done, you are free to come alongside again’. ‘Thank you very much indeed, we would love to’ I said.
Some days it never rains, it pours. Getting the anchor up in such close quarters is always tricky but when you step on the button to activate the anchor winch and nothing happens, the situation gets much worse. A quick fiddle with connections down below didn’t help and with light fading we had to complete this operation manually which means muscling 33 kg of anchor plus chain up and onto the front of the boat. Next problem, and one that could only happen on this day, was that the anchor was jammed under a rock! We pushed and pulled at it with the engine but after 15 minutes of becoming increasingly worried at how close we were to the rocks and the cliff I thought it was time to get the generator out and cut the chain with my angle grinder. However, one last period of sustained throttle finally pulled it free and with a surge of adrenalin I pulled the anchor onboard. We turned, half drifted and half shoulder barged onto the side of the tug in 35 knots of wind. Once again the fenders did their job and we were safe. Phew!!
The next day, Wednesday the 23rd, we took advantage of a weather window, cleared out and headed for Peterhead but more of that next time. My apologies for the length of this blog but there are two more things that I need to say.
1) Do I ever get scared at sea? Answer: Rarely. Do I ever get scare close to land? Yep and Fair Isle gave me plenty of those moments. Moments when I felt that Altor was too close to the ragged edge. It was far too close for comfort and this was all in place where I could have jumped off the boat and swam to land in about three minutes flat. It was a tiny harbour, very windy, full of hard bits and it was scary.
2) ‘Coastworker’ is the name of the tug and the three guys onboard were absolutely awesome. They could have ignored us but instead they went out of their way to help. If it wasn't for them our few days in Fair Isle would have been much harder and much worse. These were three very decent blokes who factored our and Altor’s safety into their busy and challenging job of moving a 1000 tonne barge in a space in which I was scared to move a 12 tonne boat! We have been lucky to encounter some special and kind people on this adventure and we found three such gents in Fair Isle’s North Haven! Thank you very much!
Closing in of Fair Isle
This is Fair Isle's North Haven and anchorage
Looking south from North Haven
The horrible concrete jetty that we first moored against with Altor alongside the tug in the background, the tug alongside the 1000 tonne barge and the ferry to the right of the picture. When the swell rolls in from the sea it gets lively in there!