The Storm Petrel Circumnavigation Leg 6

Rattray Head as you will rarely see it

Peterhead is a welcome shelter on the exposed coast of north east Scotland and lurking around the corner is a legendry danger spot – Rattray Head. It can be a devil with strong wind against tide, or even just with the tide we are told. So having settled nicely in to a very quiet Peterhead Marina with its modern facilities and helpful staff we wondered if we might spend some time there soaking up the local ambience.

At the back of the marina is a rather large and imposing building which one ventured to think might be a museum or some such place of interest but upon enquiry it transpired that this is no place for holiday visitors, rather more for prison visitors. ‘I wouldn’t go too near there, confided our friend in the marina, some pretty hard cases up there’.

So it was onwards and upwards, up the chart that is, so we re-fuelled under the bulbous bow of a service vessel moored by the fuel dock and prepared to leave. The crew of this monster were very friendly and wanted to know what we were up to, they spoke in foreign tongues. A hint of a Scandinavian accent perhaps? The presence of the oil and gas industry is never far away here, there are all manner of strange vessels, some with bluff bows, some with enormous loading decks and some with helicopter pads. There is also too the constant buzz of helicopters flying out to the rigs which are all out of sight to the east.

The coastline in these parts is not exciting so there really is not much to do when there is no wind and the motor is grinding away down below. So off we went turning northwards out of the harbour in very light airs and bright sunshine to face the prospect of Rattray Head. Well it came and went but one of the more observant of our crew commented that there appeared to be land over to starboard.

Well, according to our charts there appears to be no land for at least 250 miles over there so this required further investigation by your scribe who fancies himself as a pretty perceptive mariner in matters of seamanship and the like. Well this ‘land’ had a rather familiar look to it, especially as it seemed to be closing rather quicker than our speed over the ground.

There could only be one possible cause for this illusion, the mariner’s enemy - fog. Fog and Rattray Head, an interesting combination. So in rolled the fog, radar on and a watch on the plotter and the AIS. Although in a potentially dangerous place the sea state was good and we knew, or thought we knew, that we were out of the shipping lanes.

We pressed on in really very poor visibility, little to be seen other than our bow until we spotted a moving target on the radar and very close. We slowed down only to see a fishing vessel loom out of the fog not forty metres away with the crew bending over the catch, motoring ahead and apparently not having a clue that we were bearing down on them.

Disaster avoided we exchanged cheery waves and pressed on for another few hours in this gloom with only a hint of occasional sunshine to lift our spirits. One’s mind is drawn to what options mariners had in the days before radar and all our modern navigational aids and we gave grateful thanks to our trusty plotter, our radar and GPS which guided us in to Whitehills, a small harbour on the south coast of the Moray Firth. In fact the first solid object we saw for over six hours was the pierhead of Whitehills about fifty metres away. We ducked in, tied up and got out the whisky! A good navigation exercise and actually quite fun.

Whitehills had been recommended to us by Cairns, our HPO for Anstruther, so we were particularly pleased to be there having had our lines picked up by a friendly chap who explained to us all the local services, and in particular the location of the local hostelry. This Trust-held privately run harbour is a must if you sail these waters, its only achilles heel being its vulnerability to north winds as is all of this coastline.

A layday was called for as the sea had built up overnight from what must have been some storm in a far off place so walks and ice creams seemed a good option. We needed to move on as soon as possible as we had to get Chris home to prepare for the Lot Cruise and we had commitments at home which were beginning to loom large.

The 6th dawned rather troubled and we had been tossed around quite badly in the small harbour overnight so it did not look too encouraging. Your skipper was not however to be put off by the moaning, groaning and snoring from below so he wandered up to the harbour wall to see some rather ugly looking swell breaking on the rocks outside, just where we needed to go.

Well we all know that swells on lee shores are not only potentially dangerous but can also look worse than they seem. So the decision made, off with the lines and off to sea. The sea state predictably quietened two or three miles off shore (it would on reflection have been better to wait an hour before making the bacon sarnies), a breeze blew up enabling us to motor sail out to sea and towards our destination for this last leg of the cruise. We were entertained by the RAF live bombing over towards the shore and the seabirds excelled. This time we saw Great Skuas which we are told eat once a day by picking off an unfortunate gull which they proceed to drown, thereafter relieve it of its liver, leaving the rest to the fish. We hope you are not eating your dinner when you read this but that is how nature works at its most raw. The gannets are also such beautiful birds, swooping over us like some magical aircraft.

The Beatrice oil field passes to port, Wick appears on the horizon and the first part of our mission is accomplished. We have run 760 miles, motored unbelievably 110 hours and our trusty engine has not missed a beat. Home now to give our family some attention, the grass a mow and our dear readers a rest until we take off again to get to the Orkneys in July.

Tim Bizzey, 10.06.2013 | More from Tim Bizzey’s blog