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Scottish highlights: Summer fun sailing in Orkney

Updated: Oct 31, 2021

In our series that hears from people who love Scotland, Wendy Bowen reveals how she enjoys sailing, especially around her home islands of Orkney. Wendy is the head teacher at Papdale Primary School in Kirkwall, the main island town. She shares her adventures aboard the yacht, Privateer, with husband David Bowen.

Wendy writes: In Orkney, the sea dictates and becomes part of your every day life. I write this while sitting cosily and snugly in a tiny cottage perched on the seashore. Outside, the wind howls and the waves crash against the shore, a stone's throw from where I am.

I am storm bound on the Northern Isle of Sanday and I cannot return to mainland Orkney because the ferries are not running due to the weather.

The summer sea seems a distant fond memory, but I know that, in time, the wind will subdue and the sea will calm – and I will soon be once more upon the water.

The much-fabled Pentland Firth lies between Orkney and the Scottish mainland. It is a treacherous stretch of water, which is home to the great Swelkie Whirlpool and the Men of Mey.

Seven tides meet here and sailors around the world quail at the conditions they meet here, which can at times be as dangerous as rounding the notorious Cape Horn in South Africa. Tragically, many sailors have not left these waters.

Fortunately, once past the Pentand Firth the water in and around Orkney, while always to be respected, provides a beautiful environment to sail in. You must never be complacent in these waters because tides and currents are key to sailing here.

However, if you are prepared to do your homework the coastline offers beauty and sanctuary.

The beautiful island of Sanday, Orkney. Credit: Peter Amsden

A summer of happy sailing

Blocking out the storm, I transport myself to the long days of summer. I can hear the fizz of the water as the boat cuts through the calm water and, above me, the sails are gleaming white.

Alongside the yacht, rafts of puffins lazily paddle and we can see their coloured beaks as the boat streams by.

As we sail between the tiny islands of Eday and Faray, the sun is beginning to set on the western horizon and paints the sky golden red. Due to our latitude, we will continue to have a few more hours of daylight.

Another yacht is already anchored for the night in the little inlet at Eday – and, so, onwards we travel.

Islands and sea on an evening sail

Pierowall in Westray is our goal. This is not a long sail from Kirkwall, but tonight it feels as if we are the only sailors on the sea.

We see the water lazily laps the shores. The creak of the boat and the odd tap tapping of a loose sheet is all that breaks the silence. It is easy to hold the helm steady.

I daydream of those who populated Faray, this now deserted isle. It is 0.5 nautical miles wide at the widest part and 2.3 nautical miles long, we see a few silhouetted houses.

Later we enter the harbour at Pierowall. This harbour has long provided a natural shelter to vessels, and now is home to a small fishing fleet. Our solitude is broken. The marina is full! (Although, there are no more that five yachts!)

We raft along side yachts that have travelled from Norway, France and the Netherlands and the sea that divides us brings us together as anchorage drinks are shared and tall tales of the sea told. Strangers become new friends.

Where else would anyone want to be? When the nights lengthen and the seas calm, I know that when I slip the mooring lines my yacht will soon find herself drawn back to the magical North Isles for a taste of adventure, tranquillity and friendship.

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