Achieving the impossible, the Pentland Firth
Having read a fair bit about Cape Wrath, which describes it as the most desolate corner of mainland Britain, sailing around it wasn't at all as bad as we had been led to expect - and it was almost a walk in the park! But the Pentland Firth however was a totally different kettle of fish.
Tidal streams in the Pentland Firth, where the Atlantic meets the North Sea, meet a number of obstacles which can cause very strong and extremely violent eddies and races - 16 knots have been recorded. In calm conditions there can be heavy turbulence in the races, whilst in disturbed conditions, especially with wind over tide, the sea in the races can be extremely violent and very dangerous to small craft, causing them to become unmanageable. The most extensive and dangerous race in the Pentland Firth is the Merry Men of Mey, where the water is said to boil like a cauldron and waves can descend unpredictably from all directions.
I had secretly hoped that Jeremy would be crewing when the weather finally allowed us to make the passage, but it wasn't to be. Looking down from Duncansby Head,which is the most north-easterly point of mainland Britain, on the tumultuous seas beneath us on June 6th did nothing to quell my fears; fortunately I wasn't alone - we all looked down in horror at the impossible, seething tide race below us, and prayed for the weather to ease in our favour. We consulted Malcolm, the harbour-master at Wick (our intended landfall after the passage) who fortunately put us in touch with his brother, a local fisherman, who told us exactly when to go and where to steer to avoid the worst of what the tide-race could throw at us.
So it was with considerable trepidation, and multiple layers of thermals beneath our drysuits, that we left Scrabster on June 10th and headed for Dunnet Head with the wind as usual on the nose, but at least the eddies were in our favour and pulled us into the start of the tide which sped us on our way. The dreaded Merry Men of Mey were almost gentle and we headed for the firth itself with greater confidence, until Ludo asked me if I had seen the wall of breakers ahead of us. In all honesty I thought the breakers were too far out to affect us, but then I noticed that they went all the way to the foot of the massive cliffs, and there was no way of escaping this angry wall of water that lay directly in our path. I was gripped with a gut-wrenching feeling of impending doom, but when I looked across at Ludo it was clear that he was feeling much the same - which made me very much happier as it was obvious that we both appreciated the danger we were in.
As we approached the waves - each between two and three metres high - we braced ourselves for survival, making sure that we were hanging on to the boat as securely as possible - myself "hiking" but holding onto the shroud as well as to the underside of a thwart, and Ludo crouching in the stern, hands firmly clamped around the mainsheet and tiller.
For about 25 minutes we slammed into each steep-sided wave, before being showered by freezing Atlantic water as we plunged headlong down into its trough with bone-jarring shudders, straining every sinew of our bodies and every part of the boat's rig, before slamming into the next huge wave and repeating the torture, desperately hanging on for dear life and trying not to be catapulted out of the boat. It was without a doubt the most frightening experience I've ever had in a small boat, dwarfed by the continuous assault of the huge, cold, vicious waves.
And then suddenly we were safely through, considerably relieved, laughing and congratulating each other on achieving the impossible - sailing through the Pentland Firth in a 16ft open dinghy.
We rounded Duncansby Head and then had a really great sail down to Wick.
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would sail around the infamous Cape Wrath and Pentland Firth, let alone in a 16ft dinghy. I am immensely pleased to have done so with Ludo, but even more pleased that I will never have to go anywhere near the firth in a boat again!!!