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Cape Wrath - North Atlantic Ocean

Lisa and I are moored in Stromness, Orkney and want to sail over Cape Wrath to Stornoway in Outer Hebrides. The pilot book:” Great care must be taken in planning a passage round this major headland. It is totally exposed to N and W and frequently subject to very strong winds which build up a huge and dangerous sea in a very short time. Even in calm weather a large ocean swell is often present.”

We have through the web access to several weather forecasts and all of them have easterly winds in their forecasts; very favorable since we are heading to the west. All predict strong winds, rain and bad visibility. “Shipping Forecast”, the British weather service for commercial vessels, says rain and easterly winds between Beaufort 5 and 6 followed by cyclonic weak breezes. Bad weather in all reports and I toss the information in my head and search for new information but at last I decide to sail. The decisive factor is the wind from the east. When Lisa and I consider leaving harbor we have the following criteria in our decision making; safety, wind direction and comfort. Ketch Siri can stand heavy weather and we will now sail before the wind all the distance, 120 NM. I decide to trust “Shipping Forecast” and the wind predictions, it might not be comfortable but easterly winds are rare in these waters.

Lord Hornblower always sailed at High Water. We are the only ones to leave Stromness  harbor this morning. The others might not be heading westwards. Or are they wiser? Katabatic winds attack us from the 500 meter high island Hoy and foam flies over the green and grey waves. The falling tide gives us additional three knots. We have the engine running and the storm jib for stability. There is no possibility to return.

Yesterday there was a memorial service in Stromness, the falling tide had swept away a young fisherman anchored in Hoy Sound.  He was born and raised here on Mainland, the anchor was astern and the current had turned the boat over. He managed to fire a rocket but had disappeared when the rescue boat arrived. It was said in the harbor that he used to have a safety vest, but evidently not this time. Nobody could understand why he had the anchor astern against the current. We saw the funeral guests standing in their uncomfortable black suits and dresses outside the Royal Hotel after the service. Grave faces, cigarettes and pint glasses.

My thoughts of the boy who drowned just here and the hard wind increase my worries. Siri is a safe ship and carries this sea and wind easily but do I expose Lisa to the discomfort of rain and sea unnecessarily. Joseph Conrad, the Polish sea- captain who became a world famous author in English, writes in The Mirror of the Sea that a sense of uncertainty and tension is invaluable for a sailor. He observes the sea, the clouds and the wind to foresee the development of the weather. He watches and listens to his ship in order to be able to handle potential weaknesses before they turn into problems. And every day he sails with dead reckoning, i e without through observation defined position, his insecurity is increased As a modern amateur at sea I have an enormous information advantage over this classical professional sailor. I always know my position through GPS, I get weather forecast through radio and web, my engine helps me solve difficult situations. And I am anxious all the same.

-” Nice that we won’t sail that far, I guess we will make it in twenty hours. Orkney will give us lee for heavy sea. Do you want a cup of coffee?

The question from Lisa pulls me from my worries and I reply

-“Coffee? Yes please! There is a reserve harbor, Loch Eriboll, before Cape Wrath. If the weather deteriorates we moor there and wait out the weather. Now we go for Stornoway”

Half an hour later we shut the engine and unfurl the big genoa, 50 sq m. We make seven, eight knots helped by the current. We are alone in the damp mist and follow our normal routine as the tension eases. One is on watch at the wheel; the other one navigates below at the chart table and rests in the pilot berth. On the plotter we can see land towards the south but it is too far for our radar, its range is six miles and we sail seven miles from the coast.

At Cape Wrath the current turns and the sea becomes lumpy. We sail with good speed through water but with no speed over ground. The patient sailor waits for the turn of the tide but we are pragmatic seafarers and start the engine. We follow the advice from the pilot book and keep a passage distance to the cape of three to five miles. It is evening and we switch on the running lights but we cannot se the lighthouse. Here we are passing a cape that the Vikings gave its present name. Wrath is Old Norse and means turning point. Stevenson built the lighthouse in 1828 and we can neither see any vikings nor any light, only a wall of rain; disappointing. We turn southwards into North Minch in the direction of Rubha ar Triumpan to reach Stornoway. We enter as the name shows, the Gaelic, Celtic  cultural sphere. The wind dies and we furl the genoa. Suddenly the mist dissolves and the full moon shines through the torn clouds. Cape Wrath flashed astern and we see the lighthouse on Butt of Lewis towards the west.

The sound of the engine sends me to sleep and Lisa does not wake me up even when a school of dolphins visit us. She asks me to come up on deckwhen the light from Ruhba ar Triumpan reaches us through the mist and we head towards Stornoway in 270 degrees.

-“Stornoway Harbor, Stornoway Harbor, Stornoway Harbor, this is yacht Siri, this is yacht Siri, this is yacht Siri”

-“Yacht Siri, this is Stornoway harbor, Good Morning and welcome back, Skipper!”

-“Good morning sir. We will enter the harbor in half an hour. Where can we berth?”

-“You can lie by the pontoon in the inner harbor”

Safety and etiquette require that we report our arrival. This is a real harbor with commercial vessels, fishing boats and seagulls, the street names are in Gaelic and the harbor office responds to VHF calls. To berth by the pontoon is very comfortable, now at spring the tide is almost four meters.

The huge Atlantic seals raise the horse heads to greet us. Some forecasts predicted very strong winds; we did not get those, which was a relief. I was right, this time, to trust “the Shipping Forecast” and force 5, 6. Stornoway has some specialties for the gourmand: black pudding and kippers. When the shops open we get these. A real scotch breakfast consists of black pudding, bacon, kippers, sausages, egg, champignons, tomatoes and toast with marmalade. We are hungry after a night on the North Atlantic Ocean and I eat a full meal. Lisa is wiser; she skips the black pudding and the kippers. We think we deserve a nap and lie down in the owner’s cabin. Ketch Siri is safe in harbor.