It might have been blowing enough to lift a toupee and raining hard enough to bring on the weeds, but I didn’t care; I was excited to be here. Reaching the Orkneys somehow seemed significant and now, 1,000 nautical miles after crossing the start line we had done it.
There is another reason, a family reason. My late uncle David flew out of Hatston, nearby, to his death over Norway in a Blackburn Skua in April 1940 aged just 21. Now here I am, determined to tread the same ground.
The plane is named after the Skua, the Great Skua being the chap who took possession of Team A-Jay as we entered Hoy Sound. It is described by the RSPB as an aggressive pirate of the seas, deliberately harassing other birds as large as Gannets – Puffins form part of their menu, which perhaps accounted for their nervousness at our approach with a Great Skua in tow.
Hatston was the first WW2 airfield built on Orkney and was operational before war broke out. It was commissioned as HMS Sparrowhawk and now lies under an industrial park. Nonetheless, to visit and to pace around the place was the aim.
Scrambled eggs on brown with bacon and black pudding with a soupçon of baked beans put me in mind of an incident in a previous life, when I became known for a fondness for this vegetable, and for riding a motorbike much to the disgust of a senior and no doubt wiser colleague. He declared disgustedly that baked beans were not an officer’s vegetable and proper officers certainly did not ride motorbikes! Thus began a lifelong affair with both.
Trevor joined Team A-Jay immediately upping the crew age to a combined total of 127 sprightly years and greatly enhancing the on board expertise. Smoked salmon with asparagus followed by beef olive slipped down well, accompanied by a glass or two of hair restorer as the crew caught up and solved most of the World’s more intractable problems before light’s out.
The ferry to Lyness on Hoy paused briefly at Flotta before landing at Lyness, which had been home to over 12,000 personnel in WW2. The museum brought those times to life and it was a moving moment to pause at the memorial to those who sailed on the Arctic convoys, which must have been awful.
Angie’s father was one of those brave souls.
The Ferry Inn proved the perfect venue for the detailed crew briefing necessary before any voyage. Next morning the crew set forth to Hatston on the X1 omnibus and found evidence of buildings that must have been there in 1939.
Although it was now an industrial
estate its roads were still named after the planes that flew from the Airfield and its station name, HMS Sparrowhawk lived on. Next to the burger van lay a memorial to the brave aircrew who flew from there in their mostly inadequate machinery, often to their deaths.
Dawn Star conveyed us out into Scapa Flow that afternoon up to a Churchill Barrier and on to the scene of the death of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed by U47 with the loss of 800 lives, including 100 boys.
Floating 8 metres above the wreck, its hulk clearly visible on the sonar was a moving experience. Seals came out to mark our route home highlighted in particular by a pair of Peregrine Falcons sitting majestically on the cliff top idly surveying the lesser birds busy below.
Fish and chips sharpened the minds for passage planning, Pierowall via Papa Sound en route to Fair Isle, that gloomy doyen of the shipping forecast.
0700 was time to go and for the rain to start and it wasn’t long before a reef went in and the mainsheet was dropped down the track as A-Jay tustled with Force 7 in Hoy Sound; turning North we were soon reaching at well over 7 knots powered by some big daddies. The local forecaster must have been sitting in his lounge looking out of the window and estimating – we added 10 knots to everything he said, which seemed about right.
The second mate, a generous sort, donated a little breakfast to the fish but remained sprightly, humour intact. A long line of evenly spaced Guillemots scurried neatly past: I wonder who decides which bird goes up front and which one flies “tail end Charlie “. Oh they will have a pecking order mused the Second Mate wisely…..
A-Jay motor sailed down Papa Sound passing the northern flank of Westray and by 1500 was tightly squeezed into a pontoon berth, 8 hours and 46 miles out.
A brisk walk to buy essentials from a Polish shop assistant was followed by a manly stew, which would have brought down a lion. Sadly for the skipper, the First Mate said real men don’t eat quiche, so that no longer forms part of ship’s stores.
Tomorrow Team A-Jay heads for Fair Isle then Shetlands before the gales arrive.
Gary, the harbour official, gave us a thorough briefing on the many joys of Westray: people here are so kind and, so keen to have you enjoy their homeland. Every driver who passes waves and smiles, for I sense that they have some respect for those who have voyaged so far.
Three trawlers came and went during the night and by morning fresh dressed crab and lobster were being loaded.
The Northern Orkneys are low lying and fell quickly out of sight, their last visible signs lazily spinning wind generators. Pewter sea and pewter sky: A-Jay like an iced cake on a slate plate covered with a smoked glass dome moved through the day, startling Puffins, company for Fulmars and Guillemots. The latter are a joy to watch; as you close their position they look left and right with increasing urgency until 10 metres off its “Dive! Dive! Dive!” Very occasionally one brave soul remains on the surface.
Fair Isle grew from a name in the shipping forecast to rocky reality and the skipper’s home-made soup went down a treat. The journey had none of the sailing drama of yesterday which suited the two old buffers aboard just fine. A-Jay just caught the vicious edge of the Rost of Keer, before following a Dutch dreadnought into North Haven, a delightful if tight spot. Rafting alongside a Canadian trans Atlantic couple, we paid our respects for an achievement far greater than ours.
The Second Mate had earlier reported a rare ‘sun sighting’ which held for the evening as the crew shared dinner. The Second Mate reckoned he would have strode out across the hills IF ONLY he had brought his walking boots – the Skipper would not have, even if he had.
0800 and 045° degrees for Stornaway visible in the distance. God delivered a morning of sunshine and peace on the 14th July and a tide that gave us 50° of leeway as we clawed out of the tight grip of Fair Isle under sail, bound for Sumburgh Head, the Southern tip of Shetland.
Sadly the wind left us for elsewhere so Team A-Jay powered North, assisted by the mainsail gently rolling to the lazy, long fetched Atlantic swell. A fine cockpit lunch followed ‘elevenses’ and immediately preceded a fine run by Team A-Jay down the Shetland East coast.
As in Ireland and occasionally Scotland, a rich bovine aroma blew off the land from the curvy green land, across the choppy sea to greet us.
By tea time we were docked in Lerwick and the skipper was whisked to Tesco by a friendly neighbour whilst the Second Mate did the real work.