Sailing and kayaking on a three-month solo voyage around Iceland, the Faroes, Shetland and Scotland, Ed Martin knows the ruthless whims and flippant betrayal the weather can unleash all too well. From electrical storms to zero visibility, he shares his account of a passage from Shetland to Ardmore that sheds more than a little light on the naming of Cape Wrath.
I still have a choice. I can stay or I can go.
In calm weather I take my time. When a storm blows in I roll over and go back to sleep. It is these marginal conditions which really test me.
From the safety and comfort of my warm bunk I build up a picture of the weather outside Sherpa’s cosy cabin. The mooring lines snatch at the wooden jetty and the tiller squeaks rhythmically in the cockpit. The wind is humming in the rigging and I can hear the staccato slapping of halyards. A sharp steady patter of raindrops is drumming on the deck and through the oval Perspex windows, the grey gloom of dawn creeps in.
Employing an old trick, I decide to behave as if I am going to leave but give myself permission to abandon the idea if it doesn’t feel right. I act the part and get up, stow my bedding and light the stove. The heady scent of methylated spirits fills the air whilst the aluminium kettle rumbles its way to a slow boil. I pull on rubber boots over my favourite woollen socks, fill the coffee pot, slide the hatch open and poke my head out into the murky morning light.
It is 4am and I have only slept for a few short hours. I stayed up late packing equipment, stowing the three sections of my kayak and preparing Sherpa to go to sea. It is less than 24 hours since I completed a solo circumnavigation of the Shetland Islands by sea kayak, and, after ten days and 250 miles, my aching body is demanding more rest. I have been dreaming of a day off but if I don’t leave now, I will be storm-bound for a week.
“After ten days and 250 miles, my aching body is demanding more rest. I have been dreaming of a day off but if I don’t leave now, I will be storm-bound for a week.”
I drop a knob of butter into my steaming bowl of porridge. Watching it melt, I sprinkle it with seasalt and sip impatiently at my scalding mug of strong black coffee. It is blowing outside and more strong winds are forecast, but the wind direction should make for a fast and direct passage back to mainland Scotland.
As I am alone, there is no group discussion, no crew briefing and no clear moment of decision. After breakfast I just keep moving; pulling up the hood of my jacket, I go up on deck and flake out the headsail sheets, the tricing line and the reefing pennants. Then I slip the mooring lines and Sherpa and I are away.
The dread of departure is instantly relieved as we charge away from Scalloway under shortened sails, through the narrow channel between the grassy holms and the flashing red and green channel markers. Now I am wide awake and as we reach open water, I adjust the self-steering and trim the sheets to take us south-west towards Cape Wrath.
Behind us the sun rises, briefly warming a thin band of sky over the islands before disappearing into low cloud cover. The wind is now a stiff Force 5 and the waves are streaked with tumbling white foam; the green sea bright against the greying sky, and to the west, the faint silhouette of the Isle of Foula appears slowly like a ghost.
When Sherpa is sailing fast, the motion is positive and rhythmic. The sound of the sea rushing past her hull plays sweetly into the cabin, whilst a purposeful chorus of creaks confirms that all is well on deck. I sit in the hatchway and brush my teeth. This is my chance to get some more sleep. I check our heading and position, scan the horizon for ships, then set an alarm for 30 minutes before stretching out under a blanket on my bunk.
I wake up suddenly. For a moment, I don’t know where I am. Everything has changed. We have stopped, the boat is wallowing and I can hear the slatting of the sails. The sky has darkened, rain is now hammering on the deck and a flash of sheet lightening is quickly followed by a peel of thunder.
I have sailed nearly 2,000 miles since I left Falmouth, Cornwall, three months ago. And I have paddled over 400 miles in my kayak, during my attempt to circumnavigate Iceland – a journey I was forced to abandon due to persistent bad weather – and on this most recent lap of Shetland. I am more in tune to the sea than I have ever been, but right now I am frightened. Visibility has been reduced to zero and the electrical storm is now directly overhead. Crouching in the hatchway, I try not touch any metal and hope that we have the good fortune to not get run down by a passing ship.
“I am more in tune to the sea than I have ever been, but right now I am frightened. Visibility has been reduced to zero and the electrical storm is now directly overhead.”
Having come to trust the colourful confidence of the animated weather app on my phone, I had timed our departure not only to benefit from the westbound tidal current, but also to miss these thunderstorms. Unfortunately, this kind of volatile weather is unpredictable; flying above the relentless march of modern technology, it plays by its own rules. While I curse the forecasts, I can forgive their inaccuracy. Although strong winds and big seas are physically challenging, this low visibility and lightening exposes a psychological vulnerability, rendering me anxious and agitated.
The intensity of the rain is creating a mist above the surface of the water and the tiller jerks angrily as Sherpa rolls over the rounded swell. I draw some small comfort from the company of a lone Fulmar sitting nonchalantly on the water beside the boat. Like me, it needs the wind to continue its journey.
Eventually the leaden skies lighten and our horizon expands hopefully once more. A light but variable breeze fills in and, as the thunder rumbles away to the north, I work quickly to get Sherpa moving again. The mechanical self-steering follows the wind, so I must make adjustments to accommodate every wind shift; this work keeps me busy all afternoon.
As the day wears on, I try to catch up on some sleep but the wind is constantly changing in strength and direction, and the work needed to keep Sherpa moving fast in the right direction is relentless. I am tired. As the sun sets, I snack on oatcakes and cheese, then a few restorative squares of chocolate and a cup of tea.
Night falls. For a while, conditions feel stable. Sherpa is moving well and familiar constellations shine brightly through the gaps in the clouds. I see the lights of two passing ships several miles to the north, and am confident that, for now, we have this patch of sea to ourselves. So I take the opportunity to snatch some sleep, dozing in 20 minute spells between quick scans of the horizon.
At two in the morning, thunderclouds rumble over the horizon and this time they bring very strong winds. As we cross Stormy Bank the sea is sharpened into a chaos of menacing hollow waves, and the self-steering struggles to cope as Sherpa surfs wildly downwind. I crawl up to the mast and work quickly to reduce sail, whilst lightening flashes overhead and the rain lashes my face. Sheets of spray curl up over the bow as we furrow through the waves; icy threads of water trickle down my neck.
“As we cross Stormy Bank the sea is sharpened into a chaos of menacing hollow waves, and the self-steering struggles to cope as Sherpa surfs wildly downwind."
The motion of the boat is violent as we tear through the turbulent water. I check our heading, re-trim the sails and retreat to the shelter of the hatchway, pausing to watch this cinematic spectacle play out.
By dawn the wind has moderated and I’m back on deck to get more sail up. The Scottish coastline is a few miles off our port side and in the distance, blinking confidently from the clifftop at Cape Wrath, stands a tall white lighthouse. It is only five miles away, but it’s now slack water – soon the eastbound flood tide will gather momentum and hold us back.
The opposing wind and current create fierce short and punchy waves in the shallow water off the Cape. Although we’re sailing fast through the water, it takes hours to get round against the formidable strength of the tide. Time slows down. I am tired, but have to remain focused to coax Sherpa clear of the treacherous Duslic Rock and into the weaker streams directly under cliffs of this iconic headland. Fulmars circle the boat whilst busy squads of Razorbills and Puffins hurry to and from their ledges and burrows.
Beyond Cape Wrath, in the lee of the land, the sea is calm, the wind light and a favourable eddy nudges us gently south. Our destination is another 15 miles away, but finally I can afford to relax. It’s calm enough to light the heater and I spend some time cleaning up the damp messy cabin whilst it slowly warms. Putting on some music, I make a pot of coffee and cook up a mountain of buttery scrambled eggs.
It takes a few hours to creep along the coast in the dying breeze. The golden sand of the empty beaches at Sandwood Bay pops against the grey sky and Sherpa draws a broad “V” in the calm water in her wake. I wash up in a bucket of sea water as we pass inside of the islet of Am Baig, and approaching the entrance to Loch Laxford, I finally drop the sails and start the engine.
After 32 hours at sea, I steer Sherpa through a narrow channel into the fortress-like shelter of the sea loch at Ardmore, select my spot, and finally drop anchor. At first she seems unsure but then she drifts back, the anchor bites and she settles, lying sweetly to the breeze. I go below, slide the hatch across behind me and crawl into my sleeping bag, feeling exhausted but thoroughly satisfied.