There are two things that can get people to stay at Fair Isle:
- The magnificent nature and its people
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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 (!).
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.
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 🙂
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