The powerful Lerwick tug moved slowly in, cuddling a broken yacht like a Labrador with a pup, a reminder that any sea journey is never far from disaster. The morning was grey, the wind strong and gusting and rain followed as the front barged through to do battle in the North. Shetland looked as I had always imagined it, sternly, tempestuously imposing full of danger and tumult.
So Team A-Jay’s departure was delayed to allow the Fair Isle gale to blow itself out and the crew settled into ‘Saga Mode’ to make the preparations for sea, necessary as the skipper had suffered the occasional recent ‘stupid boy pike’ moments: little things like posting postcards without stamps, shopping without a wallet and forgetting what day it was. Still, at least I could remember where I had parked the boat and what the Second Mate was normally called.
Stromness Museum absorbed the crew, the second mate with rocks, the skipper with croft life and the location of the cafe, where the crew eventually repaired for essential sustenance. Back at the boat, a methodical engine check revealed Yanny the Yanmar had a thirst on and preparations concluded with the construction of a monumental stew. Outside the wind played the rigging and A-Jay danced the jig as rain provided the background. Inside, a healthy fug and diesel fumes kept the crew sleepily relaxed.
Next morning, Saturday 18th July Team A-Jay said farewell to new friends and headed out into a sloppy sea left over from the nights gale, riding on the back of big ocean daddies.
A broad reach in varying wind strengths, other white sails scattered across the Sound heading South; the second mate opined that A-Jay was a terrific craft …. though she could do with a wheel, 10 feet on the waterline and a cosy wheel house. The skipper took these disloyal comments on the chin, putting them down to the fact that the Second Mate had yet to unpack his slippers and it looked unlikely he ever would aboard this boat.
Life became exciting 40 miles East of the Orkneys, the waves building and the wind rising. It keens in the rigging in the high teens and whistles through gap teeth in the 20s when the ensign snaps noisily. At 23 knots the first reef went in, main sheet down the track, and at 28 knots the Second reef went in to the main and Genoa. A-Jay settled comfortably though it was a dark, cold, rip roaring night, big ocean daddies hissing frothily under the boat, or slamming hard against it in a mess of spray and cold water. Character building stuff, all part of growing up and being British thought the skipper.
Oil rigs appeared suddenly, lit up like Christmas trees in the distance, then disappeared – it did occur to the skipper that he might be hallucinating. Certainly both crew members finished this leg badly dehydrated.
Dawn began breaking some time after 0300, revealing a tumbling, unfriendly cold, grey and white wasteland; Team A-Jay ploughed on relentlessly, even if the skipper’s courage wobbled occasionally. 45 nautical miles off Wick the skipper rustled up porridge, fruit and builder’s tea.
Overnight the weather had pushed us East adding several hours to the trip. Destinations were still to be finally decided, but Banff became first choice. Gradually the wind dropped, sliding round through West to North so Yanni the Yanmar joined the party though we weren’t disappointed; we had sailed for 24 hours, much of it in bruising conditions and now it was time to claw back lost ground and get ashore.
The Wick headland was just visible and Team A-Jay passed close by the Captain oil installation, which relieved the grey monotonous morning. The skipper issued rations of monumental stew at lunchtime, which prostrated the Second mate who had the grace to comment on its delicious taste.
Fair Isle and Shetland had been rich in bird life, yet few seemed to be about in the Moray Firth as we crawled diagonally across the ugly grey surface, dozing and seeing very little, no land, few vessels.
The Banff harbour master advised that we would have insufficient water to enter the harbour so we continued West to Whitehills where Billy the harbour master greeted us, camera in hand, from the end of the breakwater and guided us into the tiny marina where incredibly we parked alongside another Sadler 290. Just too late to grab a meal ashore, we went for a pint and the single barman owner went home, to return a little later with ham and cheese rolls at no charge.
As ever in such tiny places, our arrival caused interest; our successful docking in the tiny space solicted vociferous praise and high fives from a couple on the quay and it wasn’t long before a chap arrived for a chat. Billie the harbour master was a top bloke who could not have been more helpful; I’ll do anything for you except pay your taxes, but I will consider it a personal failure if you leave with anything in your wallets, said Billy. You can call me anytime from 0700 to 2230! Sleep felled the crew early; a ‘Saga Admin day’ had been declared for the morrow. Slow ahead, or simply remain at anchor.
Needless to say, after a very wet night, the day was grey, gusty, unappealing.