Murphy´s law and a boat full of shit

We have waited some time to share this story with you. All sailors know Murphy´s law, although maybe not everyone by its name. It basically says that if something can go wrong, it will. The question then is not if things go wrong but rather what or when. If you ever followed another cruising blog, you have probably heard the stories of how things break at the worst possible times, how the weather prognosis never is correct, that there is always too little or too much wind and so on. Although the blue water cruising life at this time and place of the year can be a little rough, the beginning of this week was something never experienced before.

Let me give you some background. After finally managing to continue south from Gigha island and cross the north channel to Northern Ireland, we had made one stop in Glenarm and one stop in Bangor outside Belfast. The shipping forecast (sea weather) that we always check out either by VHF or the internet showed gale warnings once again in the Irish sea, but with a gap this Monday. Since it was supposed to be northeasterly winds, we took a shot and aimed south instead of heading into Belfast. Before going out of the Belfast bay we needed to pass a narrow passage between the mainland and some small islands. We knew the tides could be strong and cause waves but after consulting the local marina owners we were confident since we would have the wind in our back. The problem was though, we didn´t. The wind was almost by the nose and that meant we dipped our nose in the water as we confronted the increasing waves. It still felt alright, but the bow was drenched in water several times and at one point we both reacted on the force with which the bow crashed into the water. Jens went up to check if it made some damage once it calmed down a bit and we then realized that one of our chains between the bowsprit and the hull had broken. This is not the end of the world, but to make sure nothing else would break we rolled in the genua, thus decreasing the forces on the bowsprit.

When the islands were passed the rough sea calmed down so I went down to fetch a snack. Before my mind had made sense of the information I could tell there was a weird smell. Then I could see there were water on the floor. And I realized what the smell was. It was the smell of poo. How come there was so much water in the boat!?! Walking a bit further I could now see that the toilet was flooded and that it had leaked out not only in the forepeak but all the way to the galley (kitchen) floor. YUCK!

I told Jens what I had found and he quickly realized what had happened. When the waves crashed into our bow, it had poured into the anchor box (the hatch had broken) where we have the ventilation for our toilet going out. As there became too much water in the anchor box, it found its way down the air ventilation hose into the toilet, flooding the composting compartment of the toilet and out through the seat into the boat. Literally, our boat was full of shit (blended with large amounts of salt water and peat moss).

Realizing that the yucky salt water went all the way up to the floor (meaning it had filled the bilge), we now decided to try and enter the closest marina we had just passed by. Calling them up on the VHF, they told us that we were welcome, but that we could not enter until high tide, which was four hours later. But, we could enter the fishing harbour next door. So we did. The only problem was that it was full of bouys and there wasn’t any mooring available for us to tie up and start cleaning up the boat. So we decided to head out again and go back into the bay to Belfast. We hoped that is would be the best place nearby where we could have access to both harbour facilities and spare parts.

A couple of hours later we were tied up and safe in the marina. We were not eager to begin the cleanup, but there wasn’t that many hours left of daylight so after removing the carpets, toilet, and flooring for me to rinse outside, Jens started the tedious work of removing all the salt water by hand. At least 30 ten litre buckets of water were removed from the bilge! While it was an awful work to do the most worrying part for us was that we did not know what damage it had done to our battery bank, which was also soaked in water. Luckily we had marine classed lithium batteries which are far better protected against water than normal lead acid batteries but still, would they have survived such a treatment?

After working hard until the evening, all the water was finally removed and everything rinsed. We were exhausted. The day after I cleaned the floor once more with soap while Jens went across town to buy a new and stronger chain for the bowsprit.

The same time we arrived at the marina, so did the catamaran “Water Dog” with a Canadian family onboard. They cheered us on through the hardships and invited us to share dinner with them the day after.  Gavin and his wife have sailed all the way through Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland together with their three children during the summer. They since passed the Faroe islands and Orkney before going through Scotland and the Caledonial canal just a week before us. It was great to get a break from the work with the boat. There is a friendly and helpful atmosphere here in the harbour and we already got to know several boat owners who have their boats here on a permanent basis.

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Our view from the Abercorn basin – Titanic Belfast

Since then, we have been in contact with the supplier of the batteries and toilet to discuss the damage and get spare parts. We also contacted the insurance company to report that we might need their help. We have been walking around the outskirts of Belfast to find some spares, but the fan to the toilet and spares for the batteries has to be shipped here. After all the troubles, we took a day off to walk around in the centre of Belfast, looking at the beautiful buildings, cruising through a Christmas market and doing some shopping.

But today, we got the verdict from the battery supplier. Based on their recommendation, we opened up the casing of the batteries and they were much more severely damaged than we had thought. They need to be completely replaced. Since they are the most expensive thing on the whole boat, our faith now lies in the hands of the insurance company. Without batteries, we can’t go anywhere. We are stuck in Belfast until we can get this sorted.

We try to stay hopeful, but tonight we will stay in the boat and forget our troubles with some good food and a movie. Maybe even a whisky  🙂

– Petra

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West Scotland – where the tides are changing (and so are we)

Leaving the canal, we were back to the challenging life at sea. Cruising through the locks and the canal in chilly weather was rather peaceful, even though it was hard to keep the toes and hands warm. But as soon as we got out of the canal, the challenges with timing tidal streams and winds begun again. We were starting to learn how the tides work already in Shetland and the east coast, but here on the west coast of Britain the tides are even more profound.

Before we left Corpach, Jens went to the coast guard office and asked about the tides and if there was some specific area to be concerned about. That´s when we first heard of Corran Narrows, 8 Nm southwest of Corpach. The narrowest part is less than 180 meters wide, and that makes the tidal streams very strong. Approximately every six hour the tide change direction and when that happens there is about one hour of slack water where there are no streams. This is the tricky part for sailors like us that often want to sail for more than six hours, no matter how you twist and turn the stream is always against you at some point.

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Leaving Corpach and the snowy mountains behind

 

DAY 1

We knew the tidal streams were against us but since we needed to wait for the canal office to open and let us out the last lock. However, we hoped at least to avoid the strongest streams which occurred around noon. So we left Corpach 9.30 and tried to sail as fast as we could to the narrows, but the little wind we had was at our nose and we arrived in the worst possible timing. But of course, we still wanted to have a go – with sails and motor it should be possible, right? No. Of course they have a line ferry at the narrowest part that we needed to keep clear of, but once we managed to do that the troubles begun (see picture below, point 1) . With the tide against us and the wind still by the nose we started to zigzag across the bay. First with the motor on half speed, and then as it begun to narrow we used almost full power. Jens was at the helm, working his ass off to try to sail as efficiently as possible, while I was navigating and making sure we wouldn´t run aground. Each time we made a tack, I could see how we were sliding backwards, and before it was time to turn again we had only gained a few meters in the direction we wanted (2). When it felt like we were almost through, we actually didn’t go anything forward, just backwards.

We were beaten by the tide.

Now there wasn’t any harbor close by, so while we turned around on some fast downwind sailing we had to make a plan B. We had seen some buoys as we passed by earlier just before the narrow, and decided to try and throw a rope against the big yellow buoy (3) that Jens guessed was meant for larger ships waiting. On the second try, we managed to get a rope around it and Jens was busy tying up the rope when I saw the ferry going straight in our direction, getting too close for comfort. I shouted at Jens – I think we might have to get loose; the ferry’s coming straight at us!  One of the guys at the ferry started to wave his arms in a cross and we dropped the rope as they came closer. We couldn´t really hear what they were screaming at us, so we called them up at the radio.

Turns out that was their mooring buoy used when the ferry was done for the day. They told us that the grey buoys further down were courtesy buoys and we decided to moor there until the tide streams changed direction (4). We had four hours of rest before we made the second try at Corran Narrows.

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The track from our “progress” in Navionics. 1. Entering the narrows with the wind and tide against us. 2. In the narrowest part our sails and engine does not help us get forward. 3. We get a rope around the top of the yellow buoy. 4. We tie up to the grey buoy instead and await the tide to change. 5. We have gone through the narrow but the weather have changed for the worse and we head back to point 4 to stay the night.

The second try to go through the tide was in our favour. It was getting dark but we had no problem to get through Corran Narrows. Just after getting through we realized that the wind had picked up a little more than we anticipated. While it was not any danger in proceeding, it was a little uneasy tacking in the strong wind with the waves slamming against the bow in the dark (5). It also meant that we weren´t making so much progress. It was not worth it.

We were beaten by the wind.

So, once again we went back to the grey buoy and tied up the boat for the night (4). This time a dinghy came up to us, and once we were settled the man handed us the rope we had been forced to leave at the yellow buoy – it was one of the men from the ferry that picked it up for us (we couldn’t find it when we passed the buoy the second time). We cooked up some dinner and spent the evening cuddled up in the sofa watching TV-series.

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New day, new opportunities!?

 

DAY 2

Finally, we could not only pass Corran Narrows but also continue southwest from there. With the wind against us we still weren’t making much progress so we didn’t expect to get far. But in the end, we got a better angle at the wind and managed to get all the way to Craobh Marina just before dark. The sailing to Craobh was not without challenges either. With the tidal streams against us on some parts and wind by the nose most of the time we were making very slow progress. It is a bit challenging realizing that you are sailing in a little more than 1 knot and still be motivated 😉

As the wind picked up and we got a better angle, we got up to 5-7 knots and passed by Dunstaffnage where we had intended to stay for the night. As we were passing some narrow parts where islands came close to the mainland, such as the Sound of Luing, we could tell that the tides were strong. Zooming in at the chart we read: “Strong tidal streams. Streams setting through the gulf of Corryvreckan are very dangerous.” This time we had the tides with us, and it was a weird feeling to cruise by in 10 knots with very little wind in the sails. You can also see the fast streams by the look of the water. In these places small waves appear that are rather steep, but parts of the sea are also completely blank. We also did see a couple of swirls in the water, you definitely don’t want to pass those, since they do a pretty good job in changing the direction of the boat.

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“Boiling” water and flat patches in the strong streams entering Sound of Luing

 

Croabh marina had a small shop and a restaurant/pub next door. We spent the evening trying out their ales and using their WIFI. It was rather pricey to stay the night, so we decided to continue to Ardfern marina on the other side of the headland.

DAY 3

What were we thinking sailing in the Great Britain in November? That was the question on our minds as the rain poured down outside. My next question was to Jens – Are you sure we should leave the warm comfort of the marina to sail in this weather? Jens decided that I should stay inside and “not get wet” while he sailed around the headland to the next marina. So, I served him cookies and called Ardfern marina while Jens got so soaked that the water dripped from the gloves (this is one of the reasons why it is so hard to keep the boat dry inside). We arrived a few hours later just as it became dark, and woke up to another rainy day.

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These rainy days we have started to hang up a tarp over night in an effort to keep the boat dry, as you can see it can accumulate quite a lot of water…

 

We spent one more day in Ardfern as the wind was still southwesterly, and managed to dry up the boat, take a walk in the village, do some grocery shopping and buy a connector so Jens could finish the installation of the VHF radio. The weather forecast was not looking good. The winds were getting stronger, and it looked like we would have to stay in shelter for most of the week. We decided to leave for Gigha island as soon as the tides were in our favour, which was the next morning at 6 o´clock.

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Big full moon means even stronger tides

DAY 5

Jens took the first watch, and it was rather messy water and wind the first hours of the day. Still, we managed to cruise up to 7 knots and by the time I came up and served breakfast we had already went one third of the leg to Gigha. We were feeling ambitious, and started to discuss that we should change our route and straight go to Ireland at once? After lunch, it felt nice to steer in sunshine for once. But the calm weather changed quickly, the wind picked up again and since we had the wind by our nose we had to bounce up and down the waves trying not to drift too close to the island. Jens were feeling a bit seasick, and I was getting frustrated that we made so little progress, the waves were getting bigger and decreased our speed every time they hit the bow. Since neither of us was at our best moods, and the prognosis said that the wind would pick up to at least 13 m/s in a few hours (with gusts up to 17 m/s), we decided to go back to the original plan and go around the island to the harbour on the east side.

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After the boat was tied up to the pier we took a walk up to the hotel to pay for the mooring and have a pint before taking the boat out to the buoy to spend the night. It might have been one of the longest nights in my life, trying to sleep with all the noises from the heavy wind, the ropes, the pouring rain and all the stuff inside the boat we hadn´t packed good enough. But the harbour is still rather protected from wind and waves, and we will stay here until the wind decrease to a reasonable speed again.

Keep your fingers crossed that we can leave soon!

– Petra

 

Caledonial Canal – when autumn became winter

When we left Fair Isle, we got the recommendation to avoid Pentland Firth and head towards the Caledonial Canal instead. The Caledonial canal links Scotland east and west coasts, avoiding the difficult passage around the north of Scotland mainland and through the Pentland Firth. Our first port in Scotland mainland was Wick, which will be remembered for the many rainbows caused by a constant switching between sun and showers. We called the canal office and made sure that we would be able to go through the canal before we continued south. On our way to the canal, we made a short stop in Lossiemouth and Inverness Marina. The seals and otters guided us, but we did have some challenges entering Inverness firth since we were sailing straight through a shooting range at sea outside Fort George and didn’t manage to reach someone by the VHF to know when it was safe to pass. After several calls to the Royal Navy and the Coast Guard we finally knew it was safe. But then the tidal streams made the journey at least five hours longer than anticipated…

 

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Wick harbour, Inverness firth and our lock keeper friends at Muirtown
When the VHF stopped working (wouldn’t charge), we asked the lock keepers at Muirtown for help to find a shop that could help us. You need the VHF to call ahead for each lock or swing bridge so they can open it in time. They let us charge the handheld VHF at their office while we looked for a shop that could help us troubleshoot, but there was no place near with technicians available. In the end the lock keepers actually switched the charger with us so we could continue “- It´s easier for us than for you to get it replaced”. THANK YOU! If that isn´t service mindset we don´t know what is.

 

Then we were ready to leave Inverness and continue through the canal. The 60 mile (96 km) Caledonial Canal runs between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and was built in 1804-22. The engineer on this huge project was Thomas Telford, who later inspired and advised Count von Platen on how to build Göta Kanal in Sweden a few years later. We felt right at home 😉

The second day we continued through the locks to Dochgarroch, where we stayed to enjoy the forest and work on installing the stationary VHF-radio that we brought with us from Sweden. As it was getting quite cold, we preferred staying in harbours (or lock transit jetty) where we could get electricity to put on the heating fan at night and charge the batteries.

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Autumn leaves in Dochgarroch

Then it was time to cross the famous Loch Ness, where thousands of tourists each year try to spot Nessie. It is 35 km long and up to 250 metres deep; actually deeper than the North Sea! This is one of the reasons there can be large waves here, but the loch was calm when we passed by, getting ahead with both sails and engine.

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Urquhart Castle and a trimaran we passed by at Loch Ness

 

We heard that there was a nice forest trail on the south side of the lake, and stopped at Foyers before lunch to take a hike up to the waterfall. Walking across the river and up the mountain, we could enjoy the autumn colours much better than from the water.

 

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Foyers river

We were amazed by the view as we climbed higher. You could see far across the mountains and we were reminded of how much we love hiking in the forest.

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Foyers forest trail close to Loch Ness

We finally got up to the waterfall and enjoyed the scenery before we continued the hike down the mountain to our boat and sailed on. We really recommend a stop at Foyers if you visit Loch Ness!

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Foyers waterfall

We stopped for the night in Fort Augustus, a cute but rather touristy town. As the weather was getting colder, they promised minus degrees in the morning and then heave rain all day after that – we decided to stay one extra day and finish the work started with mounting the stationary VHF-radio, our FM radio and some charging outlets. In the end, it actually didn´t rain at all that day, but we did get some work done and it was nice to have a warm boat before we continued. A series of locks and swing bridges takes you to the next lake, Loch Oich, which is narrow and pretty. After a short passage of canal we then got out to Loch Lochy, and here it was really clear that the mountains grew higher the further west we came.

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Loch Oich
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Loch Lochy, where the mountains grew tall and we met a British and a Norwegian yacht

It was a rather cold day, we put on all the clothes we had and enjoyed the few moments of sunshine. We stopped for the night in Gairlochy, where it felt like we really had sailed to an alpine environment. We could even see a mountain where they seemed to have a ski resort! Pretty good timing since we had seen on Facebook how all our friends enjoyed (?) the snowfall in Sweden.

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Entering the night harbour in Gairlochy with the winter hat on

Then it was time for our last day at the canal. This day was all sunshine and we enjoyed it a lot, Jens even took the opportunity to play some tunes on his flute. In the last part of the canal you are passing through “Neptunes staircase”, a series of eight locks in a row, through the small city Banavie and then reach the end of the canal in Corpach, our final harbour in the Caledonial Canal.

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Last part of the canal offered sun and flute concert!

After this sunny day and as we reached the end of the canal, we can recommend anyone wanting to visit the Caledonial Canal to consider planning it for the autumn, especially if you are going by boat. At the most we met three boats in one day, we were always alone in the locks and got maximum help and attention from the lock keepers. I have a hard time imagining that there would be a nicer view of the “Great Glens” in the summer time, as the colourful leaves and snowy mountains created great contrasts.

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Our final harbour in Corpach, Scotlands highest mountain Ben nevis in the background

After one week with almost no sailing, it was time to head out and face the tides again. Let´s just say we have a lot to learn about planning our routes according to the tides.. But more about that the next time!

– Petra

Why are we still on Fair Isle?

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There are two things that can get people to stay at Fair Isle:

  1. The magnificent nature and its people
  2. The weather

We thought that we came for the nature, but let’s just say there are other reasons we stayed this long, and that we didn’t mind doing that 🙂

PART ONE: THE NATURE AND ITS PEOPLE

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Fair isle is a small island that lies just between Shetland and Orkney. In many ways, it´s a mini version of Shetland with its dramatic cliffs, friendly people and grass landscapes where the sheep wander up and down the hills. The first few days of our stay we were lucky to have sunny weather and had time to explore the surroundings.

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Hiking through sun and showers

There are only about 60 people living on Fair Isle, they mostly live on the southern part of the island where there also is a small school, a town hall, a grocery shop and two churches.

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View of Fair Isle, you can see our boat to the right and the Bird Observatory to the left

Just above the pier (which also is the guest harbour), lies the Bird Observatory which also serves as a hotel and has a small pub. Many bird watchers come here every season to look at the rare migratory birds that are seldom seen in mainland Scotland. The Bird Observatory was also a great place for us to hang out when the weather was cold and rainy – to take a shower, grab a beer or use their WIFI. The staff is very engaged and friendly, and there is a real sense of community here.

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Taking advantage of the hospitality at the Bird Observatory

It is easy to miss friends and family when travelling like we do, when all you have is your partner. When you stay only a day or two in each place, it is not enough to make friends. In Fair Isle, we were lucky to get stuck and meet some great people. The port authority in Leirwick gave us a number to a guy called Kenny, that we could call when we arrived. As we got closer to Fair isle the first night it was pitch black, then all of a sudden we saw some strong light appear. As we approached the pier, there was a man showing us where to moor – that was Kenny! He had gone down to the pier to turn on the lights for us and that made mooring so much easier. It turned out that Kenny was one of the guys working on the Fair Isle ferry “The Good Shepard”, that goes back and forth to Shetland mainland once a week. The ferry carries all the inhabitants need to live here, everything from food to packages, a car or two or even some cows (!).

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Kenny in the bow of the Good Shepard as it docks next to us

A couple of days after, when we had tried leaving Fair Isle but turned back since the wind was not in our favour and getting stronger, it was time for the ferry to come back from its weekly round. We found ourselves in the middle of the village as all the islanders came down to the pier with their cars to pick up the load. We went out to chat with some more people, and also met Kenny’s wife, Sue. When we told them that we would probably stay the whole week because of the gale force winds, they invited us to come by for dinner one night and we weren’t shy to accept their invitation. During last week we had the pleasure of sharing dinner with this wonderful couple twice at their house on the south end. We discussed all the small things in life and the big questions of the world and Kenny gave us a little tour of the island. Thank you for Kenny and Sue for showing us what island life is all about and sharing some laughs with us!

PART TWO: THE WEATHER

Coming from the lake Mälaren and the east coast of Sweden one quickly realize that sailing conditions are vastly different here. The Gulf stream passes just outside so there are always currents to take into account. I do not know how it adds up, but somehow they always seem to take you the wrong way and this time is no exception. The stream goes north and we want to go south. Just when you thought you had figured out the streams, then the tides come into play. The tides do not just push your boat up and down in the harbor, they also create currents. Strong currents. On our way south we need to pass the Orkney Islands and between the southernmost island and the mainland of Scotland is the Pentland Firth. When talking to the local coast guard we learned that they often hear that Pentland Firth is not regarded the most dangerous place to sail in the world, but very well the second. They have measured tidal currents up to 16 knots in the firth. Furthermore, it is jammed in right between the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea making the sea extra rough. Just last year there was a big cargo ship carrying cement that went under and was never found. Sailing pilots say that the best time to sail in these waters are around midsummer since the wind is calmer then. During winter there are force 7 (14-17m/s) or stronger winds in average 15 days per month. A factor that is easy to forget is that as the temperature drops the density of the air increases and thus also the power.

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The water turned white as the gale force winds hit Fair Isle

Before leaving we want all these elements in our favor and therefore lots of time is spent looking at tidal current charts, tide tables, weather forecasts and harbor pilots to find a safe passage south. Before leaving we will also give the local coast guard a call to discuss our plans and to make sure there is nothing we have missed. If you are to sail these waters, I can highly recommend getting in touch with the local coast guard on either VHF or phone as they have lots of useful information. I was surprised to find out that there is always someone to talk to 24/7 and they actually encourage you to get in touch. Ever since we came to Shetland we have left “routine traffic messages” with the coast guard for every stretch of sailing we have done. Such a message contains your planned route, estimated time of arrival, significant details about your vessel and contact information so they know what to look for and where, in case we do not arrive as planned. For us if feels good with that little extra level of safety.

Another big difference between Sweden and sailing around here is that there is always help available. Bigger and medium sized ports are easily called on the VHF where a nice person will answer and guide you right. But even the small harbours always have a harbor master that you can get in touch with prior to your arrival and make sure there is a suitable spot available. And, the harbours are always open! Since we are a bit late in the season, actually very late, all pontoons have been removed and we are instead moored right at the pier as the only yacht. To avoid getting smashed into the pier by tides and swell they have borrowed us gigantic fenders, very nice. It works nicely but getting on and off can be difficult since the difference in water level is about 2 meters. High tide is definitely preferred 🙂

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Fair Isle pier

So, why are we still on Fair Isle? Well actually, we´re not. After seven days on Fair Isle we found a window where the weather would be in our favor and we have arrived to Wick on the Scottish mainland, after an 80Nm sail south which took us 15 hours. Now it’s time to plan our way south through the UK!

 

– Jens & Petra